A Reply to David McGrogan

3 January 2021  /  Updated 7 March 2021

by Guy de la Bédoyère

David McGrogan’s judgement about the the failed strategy of lockdown sceptics and the failure to address emotion is absolutely correct – for the most part, but he’s missed something out. What I’m most surprised by is that he’s surprised. I’ve been an active supporter of this website from the start, but I will freely admit that from the outset I thought we were probably making a futile gesture – sorry Toby – though it was one worth making, nonetheless.

There is nothing new or special about the phenomenon David describes. We don’t live in an age that is any more emotional than any other time. The French historian and political theorist Georges Sorel (1847–1922) was quite convinced that emotion and myth were the driving forces behind human action. He said a man

must have in himself some source of conviction which must dominate his whole consciousness, and act before the calculations of reflection have to enter his mind.

Sorel added

we do nothing great without the help of warmly-coloured and clearly defended images, which absorb the whole of our attention.

In short, human beings are primarily driven by the forces of irrationalism and emotion. They always have been, from the ancient Egyptians exulting in the theatre of pharaonic rituals to the visceral response felt by most Britons of a certain age when they hear the Merlin engine of a Spitfire thundering overhead. Both experiences were, and still are, defined by myth and the warm glow of righteous belonging.

Strikes and demonstrations, whatever their beef, are about breaking out of the humdrum everyday tedium, the chance to stand beside a brazier warmed by the fire and righteous zeal, or hurl abuse at a policeman, or topple a statue.

Brexit was fought with emotions, on both sides, and defined by myths. Rational arguments, whatever form they might have taken, had and still have no currency. Leave or Remain – both were myths but Leave got the emotion right.

So it has been with Covid. The last year has been a convulsion of triggered emotions, the chance to participate in a mass ritual of self-flagellating righteousness and zealous enthusiasm, the opportunity to share in the endless mythologizing of heroes, villains, and victims. To cheer on the crusading saints in the NHS, to be seen to suffer oneself and do without, to share in the pain, to exult in the excitement of action and participation in an epic tale of Homeric intensity.

It is exactly the same for Piers Corbyn and his own counter-army of anti-lockdown disciples. Their marches and protests, difficult though it might be to believe, serve the same purpose for the participants. Exciting days on the streets of London, tussles with the police, the endorsement of a fine and arrest. The chance to be hero – just for one day.

Sorel understood that the collective emotions of the masses were the key to action. It is remarkable how successful a cabal of our Government ministers and scientists have been in harnessing that force, though in an unprecedented way. Or is it?

In truth, the Covid nightmare has only revealed to us that we are as human beings have always been since time immemorial – driven by myth, inspired by action, and immune to rational thought. Data has been deliberately massaged, manipulated, selectively disseminated to have an emotional impact. Journalists in whole legions have been caught up in an endless cycle of vicarious participation in the cavalcade of emotion.

I’m not sure that talking about all the devastating consequences of lockdowns will have the effect David would like it to have, however many heartstrings are tugged in the process. The human tragedy is all too real but in an extraordinary way it’s only served to amplify the moral and heroic intensity of being in the middle of a disaster. Being a victim of the fallout can be for some the validation of personal sacrifice, membership, and an endorsement.

Whether a person is hiding at home, working in a hospital and cursing the public, or protesting about wearing a mask, each is – perhaps for the first time in their lives – at last in possession of feeling truly alive, the peaceful mediocrity of the past set to one side in favour of living dangerously.

The only difference about our era is the desperate need to present every position as rational, considered, and substantiated. Hence the mantra of one camp, “we’re following the science”. The anti-lockdown marchers are equally convinced by the rationale behind their actions.

Nothing could sum the idea up better than this comment by a French scholar called Pierre Rouanet almost sixty years ago:

the morals of heroism are based on a blind belief in the superior ethical worth of a cause and in the almost religious loyalty elicited by the latter. When reason intervenes, heroism becomes a calculation of alternatives rather than an unqualified devotion to a transcending reality.1

That’s precisely why there is no transcending reality to Covid any longer, and maybe there never was. While the disease pervades every corner of our society remorselessly and unilaterally, forever beyond our control, we are each acting out parts in what has become the great emotional drama of our era, and which will in time become as mythologized as Brexit, the Battle of Britain, the Great Plague of 1665, and even the Trojan War – if it hasn’t already.

I’m afraid our efforts to be a rational voice in the hurricane were always going to be a struggle, but at least we have been heroes of a sort – haven’t we?

1 Pierre Rouanet (1964), ‘Irrationalism and Myth in Georges Sorel’, The Review of Politics vol. 26 no. 1 (January 1964), 45–69. You can read it here.