Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The dangers of not caring

I love it. I hate it.
It moves me. It inspires me. It pains me. It angers me.

And, as you know only too well, I don't shut up about it.

Of course I know few care about politics as much as I do. But I avoid people who don't care at all. I don't want their friendship, I don't want their time. And that's not because I am an intellectual snob (ok, maybe a little) but because of two fundamental and interconnected beliefs I hold: 1. politics is everything and 2. only fools fail to care about what doesn't immediately concern them. Because only a fool feels sheltered from bad things happening elsewhere or to other people.

Let me explain.
There are people who think that politics equal elections and tax reform, parties and prime minister's question time. Of course all this is politics but everything else is politics too. Nobody is outside it. School curricula, bus routes, pub opening times are all political and not just because they are regulated by law, policy and institutional practice. Whether you can buy fags in the supermarket, enjoy a late-night pint, adopt a child, sign your child out of school, buy a house with a partner, have a duvet day and take your boss to HR for being a bully boils down to politics. Politicians may not be involved but policy, principle, communal action and public negotiation are involved and that makes all of this political. You call it what you like. It is politics to me. If it entails the ordering of public life, the negotiation of social interactions and the matching of realities to ideas then it is political. So everything is political and politics is everything.

On the second issue. Well. I've already said that I believe that the ability for reflection, abstraction and compassion is what singles humans out from the rest of the animal kingdom. We can see the significance of things that don't directly affect us. We are capable of caring for and about things taking place outside our own backyard. Some times we choose not to care. But we still have the ability.

Well, when it comes to choosing my friends, an ability and propensity to care is something of a clincher.

So it has come as a huge shock to me, how many of my own friends in Greece don't care.
They do.
But they don't.
They care about the civil war in Sri Lanka being over and civilian deaths in Pakistan proliferating. They care about Darfur and the fact that Palestine is still not at peace. They care about Guantanamo Bay. They care about the British MPs' expenses scandals. They care both about the what and about the why. And they care about the implications of all that they care about.
But try talking to them about Greek politics and they talk to you about Sakis and the Eurovision.

Yes they know things on the political front are bad. They know. A boy standing trial only yesterday for wearing green shoes, a man being attacked by a flower pot (the police find ever more creative ways of dismissing injuries suffered during interrogation or arrest) and parliament being shut for 5 months so it doesn't get in the way, yes they know all these things and they know how bad they are. And they know why they are bad. But they don't want to talk about it. Or do anything about it.
And why not?
Because they are tired. And bored. And feel they've seen it all before. Which I guess they have to a certain extent. But that makes it worse, not better.

But because people are jaded and care less; because they don't expect anything good from their politicians; because corruption and ineffectiveness surprise no-one, these have become the baseline that politicians work from.
When expectations are below zero it's almost impossible to truly disappoint. So politics is no longer about ideas, policy or persuasion, it's not even about compromise and image management. The voters expect nothing between elections so the politicians deliver nothing between elections. Instead they focus on the game at hand – securing power, getting pay-offs, getting re-elected.

Politics has become a binary game of election/non-election for those playing it: did I get in? Doesn't' matter how many votes I got or how I got them, I'm in. Is my party in power? Forget about protest voting, the narrowness or margins and political intimidation. Forget about mandates and policy promises. Forget about pressing problems. Did we get in?
Yes/no, black/white – binary.
Only politics is not binary. It is convoluted and multi-faceted, complicated and multi-layered, nuanced and always capable of as many possible endings as there are people on this earth. So politics, the activity of negotiating public life, only works if we care enough to acknowledge its complexity and seek compromise.
Our politicians don't – they've gone binary.
And more and more people don't – they are as tired as their prime minister it seems.

So what are we left with?
An ever-plummeting benchmark of acceptability: it takes more and more to shock us so there's forever more the politicians can get away with before we will go 'hold on a minute buster'.

First I thought all the scandals would do it.
Then I thought the runaway police and colluding judicial system would do it.
Finally I thought closing down parliament would get people on their feet.
But no.
People are blasé, tired, bored.
They expect little so when they get little they are not surprised.
A pretty sweet deal if you are a politician I guess.
But for the rest of us it's a pretty dangerous place to be, a dangerous thing to have given away, a slippery slope without crash barriers.

Because if you were a politician and you did get away with all this, wouldn't you find yourself wondering what else you can get away with?