A Deficit in Humanity
I have spent the last two days arguing; with friends, with people in the pub, with nameless hecklers in assorted online fora, acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter. Arguing about the deficit, the debt, the cuts, the best strategy for recovery. Increasingly, I have felt the debate, though important, is inorganic and devoid of sense. Don’t get me wrong – I score more points than I have scored against me. My theories have been sound and well-researched. But I still cannot shake the feeling that we are all sitting around an operating table, where a patient is bleeding from a gunshot to the head, and we are arguing about what size and shape the sticky plaster ought to be; whether it should be placed fast or slow; whether it ought to be applied square-on or diagonally.
And all the while, I have this idea buzzing around my occipital lobe. Planted there by a programme I saw a few days ago – don’t even remember where. It involved an anthropologist explaining one of the theories about when in the last hundred millennia, we started being “us”. We started being human. And since one of the startling things that makes us human is the capacity for abstract thought, the scientist in question submitted that the evidence was Art.
No other animal looks at a combination of shapes and colours and recognises the depiction of something else, he argued. No animal gazes at clouds and sees an elephant; an old man with a stick; a naked girl. Information tucked away.
Then came the cuts from the Arts Council yesterday and things started to migrate from occipital regions to frontal. And I thought about those cuts that the ACE – credit where credit is due – tried to mete out in a reasonable and transparent manner. Those cuts that, anyone in the Arts knows, are the tip of the iceberg, as subsidies from local councils also begin to disappear. So, I thought about other cuts and what is really at stake. And I knew.
The patient on the table is not our Economy. The patient is our Humanity.
We look at neolithic depictions of stick men chasing mammoth, crudely decorated pottery and ancient musical instruments and we feel instinctively a kinship; a belonging to the same species; a pride. And there are other things, too. The first woman that looked at her baby, born with a gammy leg, and thought “No. I will not leave him behind.” – she made us more human. The first parents that noticed their son had an aptitude for science and sacrificed everything, so that he could be educated and go on to invent the wheel or the blender; or be a poet – they made us more human.
These are the things at the dark heart of the cuts. Beyond political arguments, beyond economic arguments, beyond petty House of Commons arguments, there are arguments about right and wrong. About whether we continue to evolve, continue to do the things which make us more human, or start to go backwards. As Larkin put it: “Our children will not know it’s a different country. All we can hope to leave them now is money.”
The NHS, the Arts Council, free Higher Education for all, housing for all, freedom and safety – they are the state-enshrined expressions of the things that make us Homo Sapiens. Against all this, the Homo Economicus: a cold, narrowly self-interested individual, that never gets ill, never gets depressed, never loses a parent to cancer, never enjoys Bach or the Rolling Stones. He is always perfectly informed. He always makes the smart choice for maximizing the benefit to himself.
So, this is not a right-versus-left fight, nor a rich-versus-poor fight. It is a fight between the man we aspire to be and the man we are.
When universities are allowed to put their fees up to £9k and government pumps money to technical colleges and apprenticeships, the message is clear: the rich make good scientists; the poor make good plumbers. When Arts funding is slashed in rural areas, the message is clear: Somerset could never produce a Frida Kahlo or a Salvador Dali. When the NHS is privatised – and make no mistake, it is being privatised – the message is clear: the old, the sick and the broken have nothing to offer.
Wealth creation is a myth. There is ultimately only so much land, only so much fuel, only so much water. So, I ask the homines economici among you, who might read this, to think. To reflect. To assess what practical difference it makes in your life having a property of 30 rooms instead of four; having a portfolio that could sustain you in comfort to the ripe old age of 3,000; having so much more of our limited resources that others have to go without Art, Education, Health or Dignity.
And when you do that, please put down your weapons and come join us, so we can continue to evolve. To become more, not less, human.