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The politics of unknowing

I went to my barber today. Inevitably, we talked about Covid. She expressed her fear, that current restrictions may become permanent, and we could lose our personal liberties for ever. The Prisma’s Memoirs. October 2020.


Steve Latham


It was, she felt, an opportunity, which the state is taking advantage of, to control us even more, as legal limits on our gatherings and movements are added to hi-tech surveillance.

It is indeed a danger: freedoms lost, for understandable reasons (to combat a global pandemic) may remain longterm after their original purpose is over.

I have just heard that London, where I live, has been put into Tier 2, of the government’s new Coronavirus system.

Many are up-in-arms about this. But I am glad I am not in charge. Much as I dislike Prime Minister Johnson, for being an opportunistic chancer, he has not got an easy job.

The ‘science’, which everyone says they are following, turns out to be not so uniform, as various ‘experts’ emerge who have opposing views.

Then there is the dilemma of whether we impose harsh constraints, to combat the virus, but at the cost of the economy.

It is ironic that Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, has announced his support for a strict ‘circuit breaker’, of national lockdown for two-weeks, to hold back the rising wave of Covid.

It is Boris, strangely, who is defending business, in order of course to protect profits, but also people’s jobs and livelihoods.

The usual party political battlelines have become increasingly irrelevant.

Ideologies do not count for much against the factualities of a pandemic.

Instead, politicians have to respond to technical, detailed, findings, of scientists, none of which are amenable to political principles, leading us instead to the realm of politics as pragmatics.

What policy will hold back the spread of the virus, and which laboratory will discover the vaccine? These are the critical questions facing governments throughout the world.

Left and Right are increasingly less meaningful as political categories. Sure, conservatives will be a little less generous, and radicals slightly more.

But the same quandaries confront them all. We have to get used to less certainty, not only in our individual lives, but in those who rule us.

Nobody knows what to do. That can sound very frightening. Or, it can be extremely freeing, because it enables to us enter into our destiny, through making choices, as in existentialism.

Following Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Gabriel Marcel: when we encounter a crisis situation, we are forced to decide what we will do. Business-as-usual will not cut it.

In spirituality, there was a famous mediaeval book, “The Cloud of Unknowing”, which described the increasingly uncertain feeling as we progress upwards, into God’s presence.

He is there, but words are unable to express the mystery of his presence. This is part of the tradition of ‘Apophatic Spirituality’, the ‘Negative Way’: relinquishing certainty for trust.

With Covid too, we enter into a cloud of unknowing, an apophatic politics, learning to trust and hope in the darkness.

(Photos: Pixabay)



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