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A Deficit in Humanity

March 31, 2011

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.

Frida Kahlo - The Love Embrace

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.

33 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2011 8:24 pm

    Fab article but I have to ask, what was the program?

  2. Cloning Pandas permalink
    March 31, 2011 8:30 pm

    Wow. Excellent post, love the thinking.

  3. Keir permalink
    March 31, 2011 9:28 pm

    Nice post, if a little depressing to think that the damage being dealt is potentially profound.

    I saw the programme; it was Horizon: The Day We Learned To Think.

  4. Superbass100 permalink
    March 31, 2011 10:29 pm

    Thanks for another well written and thought provoking post

  5. March 31, 2011 11:55 pm

    Wow. Excellent as always.

  6. Ian Shuttleworth permalink
    April 1, 2011 3:24 am

    Thank you for this.

  7. Clear Voice permalink
    April 1, 2011 8:17 am

    I couldn’t agree more. Everything I was brought up to value is being de-valued. I think it was Thatcher who legitimised greed and made it socially acceptable to be pushy and self-promoting, but since that time one is thought a fool if one is not obsessively selfish. Impoverished artists, stay-at-home-mothers, voluntary sector and health professionals (as distinct from the BS “look-at-me-oh” dilettantes) no longer command any respect. In a society where people are judged only by their economic contribution, there will soon be no place for people like me.

    Interesting piece on R4 Thought for the Day about the Holy Fool. I think I’ll become a hermit!

  8. Jim Darrah permalink
    April 1, 2011 9:19 am

    Shame it wasn’t called “The day we learned to remember” 🙂

    You’ve got to get this stuff into the mainstream media fella. The masses are being convinced into believing this American’esque, each man can be a millionaire, etc. even though the majority of them will end up being the fuel to millionaires and billionaires’ fires.

    Keep up the good work!

  9. Dave Ratchford permalink
    April 1, 2011 12:02 pm

    Hmmmm… of course you realise this is so good I now have to subscribe to you. No pressure, but I expect this excellence to continue.

  10. Jonnyhotrod permalink
    April 1, 2011 2:27 pm

    I haven’t finished reading it yet but, in line with current economic policy making, I’m not going to let that stop me taking an immutable view of the gunshot victim. Although I don’t know him, or anything of his background, it strikes me that we should just dump the body somewhere, and agree to pretend this whole sorry thing never happened.


  11. April 1, 2011 4:10 pm

    nice one, thank you for articulating my sentiments i was trying to work out myself.

    love the choice of the Frida Kahlo pic too. Very appropriate and speaks volumes.

    I just posted my limited 2 penneth’s worth: The Personal is Universal on

  12. April 1, 2011 5:26 pm

    Extremely interesting perspective that supports the well written piece above from a very unlikely source!

  13. Arthur Mugatroyd permalink
    April 1, 2011 11:28 pm

    Lord Tebbit has obviously gone mad.

    It is the duty of the Conservative and Unionist Party to offer the cherries of the public service to their friends and backers in the corporate world to make more profits.

    Maybe it is time for the Liberal Conservative government to abolish the minimum wage and then some of the artists could be employed by various large corporation at below poverty wages to create objets d’art for sale at grossly inflated prices.

    Remember, no pain, no gain, and artists work best when they are starving.

  14. Stephen permalink
    April 2, 2011 5:38 am

    It’s only two days since you started feeling different and odd, suggest you turn off Al Jazerra and go back to celebrity, cookery and chat shows on ITV. Conform or else.

  15. loftspace permalink
    April 2, 2011 6:17 am

    An elegiac article, it sums up what the man on the street is thinking, but unable to express. The human cost of the cuts.

  16. Jennie permalink
    April 3, 2011 1:31 pm

    Fantastic post. So true, and not only for the UK. Spreading this to my friends in Sweden…

  17. Neil permalink
    April 3, 2011 9:31 pm

    Great article. Reminded me of a recent Johann Hari post in the Indy regarding the squeezed middle:-

    • April 3, 2011 9:59 pm

      Praise indeed. I am a fan.

    • Jonnyhotrod permalink
      April 4, 2011 9:08 am

      That is an excellent article – have shared about the place, cheers…

  18. josefine permalink
    April 8, 2011 12:02 am

    really a very good piece, thanks.

    although i found it rather ironic that the larkin poem quoted was a bit of a right-wing horror-verse about bringing troops home. gotta watch that larkin! i’m a bit sad for liking him sometimes. “what will survive of us is love.” (not heritable estates!)

    • April 8, 2011 12:05 am

      I really don’t mind right-wingers with integrity. I can engage with them, discuss stuff, disagree on everything except the central belief that political involvement is better than ignorance and apathy.

  19. April 13, 2011 5:23 am

    that was a great blog post. I will definitely be stopping back to this site soon.

  20. October 7, 2011 7:54 pm

    I read this again and I will read it again and again. Beautifully articulated!! Thank you …..again


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