This is the hardest blog post I have written yet. I had started out aiming to write about the re-emergence of tyranny in the context of the COVID19 crisis but I was ambushed by events, specifically by the brutal and intentional murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white policeman in Minneapolis, aided and abetted, as they say, by 3 other policemen. The sheer and, unadulterated brutality of the action, viewed several million times over by the whole world followed by the initial pause by the authorities before the arrest of the murderer and the belated action, on the others left me stunned, first into silence, then anger and then profound shame as a human being.
The Coronavirus had itself, not merely infiltrated our bodies but our minds too. It had shown up the fissure lines in the body politic as well as in the social psyche. Who would have thought that mere chemistry, for that is what a virus is, could have cleaved to the oppressed with such devastation, and tenacity, sparing the privileged? Or, that the privileged, recognising the murderous bias of the virus, could have capitalised upon it, ignoring the needs and safety of the vulnerable and marginalised. Hence the mounting and incalculable deaths of immigrants, minorities, the elderly, and the so-called people with pre-existing conditions.
I had myself fallen ill with COVID19, and fearing the possibility of dying from it, taking account of the already well-established heightened risk in ethnic minorities such as myself, by early March 2020, had prepared for the worst. Over 90% of deaths in doctors in the UK occurred in ethnic minorities, and there has hardly been any word crediting this fact from this government, Boris Johnson’s regime. If anything, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary went as far as to say no one can be sure where these healthcare professionals caught the virus from. This was hardly the climate in which to die. I would rather live than be praised as ‘much loved’ or some such superficial words. Thankfully, I am still here to tell the tale.
The point is, COVID19 has insidiously undermined the inner life of everyone but expressly the inner life, the certitude of going to work and surviving, and never counting the cost, of doctors and other healthcare professionals. I had given a talk to paediatric trainees in the week before lockdown and had focused, as ever, on Chekhov, exploring the role of doctors in epidemics and in general, and in doing so, exploring and risks attendant on our varying roles. I had emphasised the fact that among only a few other professions, doctors wake up every morning, aiming to do good and not expecting anything back in return. But, given what had happened in China and also Italy, with this new pandemic, that we may lose our lives too and many have.
In ‘King Pest’ Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) wrote
At the epoch of this eventful tale, and periodically, for many years before and after, all England, but more especially the metropolis, resounded with the fearful cry of ‘Plague!’ The city was in a great measure depopulated – and in those horrible regions, in the vicinity of the Thames, where, amid the dark, narrow, and filthy lanes and alleys, the Demon of Disease was supposed to have had his nativity, Awe, Terror, and Superstition were alone to be found stalking abroad.
This context, of a depopulated city, recalls our own time except for the obvious contemporary wealth of the West. My last visit to London, before the lockdown was in early March, before my own illness. I had looked round, as with fresh eyes, and had wondered when the city would next be as it was- busy, thriving with people, with the din and rush of vehicles as mood music. The lockdown exposed the architecture of all the great metropolises, London, Paris, Milan, Madrid, in their grandeur, the marble and granite exteriors, the red baked bricks and the painted balustrades, all the external appurtenances, in the fulsome sun of Spring or the pearly sheen of streetlight but without the human traffic. For me, the enduring spectacle will be of Andrea Bocelli standing in front of the Duomo in Milan, a fragile and vulnerable blind man, singing unaccompanied and alone, yet forceful and strong.
Like our own time too, Poe’s story tells of lockdown and also of breaches of lockdown under penalty of death.
By the authority of the King […] districts were placed under ban, and all persons forbidden, under pain of death, to intrude upon [the streets’] dismal solitude. Yet neither the mandate of the monarch, nor the huge barriers erected at the entrances of the streets, nor the prospect of that loathsome death which, with almost absolute certainty, overwhelmed the wretch whom no peril could deter from adventure […]
In our time, to be fair, only the one man, the symbolic singular man, Dominic Cummings, the rule maker and rule breaker was undeterred from his adventure, a 500-mile gallivanting to the family estate and back because he was minded to and his instincts were right and proper and approved of by ‘King Pest’ himself! Where in Poe’s tale, the rule breaking was furtive and conducted in prohibited districts, the depredation, this time was brazen and, unapologetic, even flagrant. But this perverse interlude was itself a foretaste of much worse to come.
In the ongoing furore about Dominic Cummings, I was reminded (as if I am not always reminded of Cicero) of Cicero’s (103 BC- 46 BC) speech, Pro Marcello. Cicero, had not spoken in public for 6 years and unusually for him, this was an impromptu speech delivered in Caesar’s presence. It is a masterly study in how to speak truth to power, utilising all the rhetorical power of irony, of double-edged praise, of courage and modesty in the same breath, and finally of threat veiled in submission. It is a speech too that today speaks to us as we totter towards tyranny, towards despotism. We have the Great Leader from across the waters, who our own ‘King Pest’ worships and admires, even emulates, call for his own people to be shot by the army. Call for the capital city of the Land of the Free to be turned to a battle space.
We have seen how, like a demagogue, the Great Leader had his military, or should I say his militia, shoot rubber bullets and tear gas at a peaceful protest in front of the White House, so that he could walk down with his coterie of courtiers and stop in front of an Anglican/Episcopalian church, bible back to front and upside down, for a photo opportunity. This, merely to signal his membership of a ruinous group of tyrants -Hitler and Saddam Hussein who held up Holy Books, I suppose to claim the divine right to rule. All this, in the context of the greatest calamity to befall his country ever- over 100,000 avoidable deaths from COVID19, an economy even worse than the Great Depression and, more people out of work than is imaginable, 36 million and counting. That is not even starting to look at the ensuing tragedy and calamity of the George Floyd affair.
In 2016, I stopped in a layby to listen to the Great Leader’s inaugural speech and the weird choice of word, “carnage” that he chose to use to describe the state of America. Carnage, what a precise term for the state of America today, after 3 and a half years of the Great Leader.
In Pro Marcello Cicero was speaking to Caesar (100 BC-44 BC), the Caesar who had more or less usurped the Senate’s powers, Caesar the Emperor, the vainglorious individual whose grandeur destroyed more than it built. And this was just a few months before his death on the Ides of March. But it is Cicero’s advice to Caesar, to take account of history, that I want to draw attention to, for it is advice that our ‘King Pest’, too might want to think about but that I think would be lost on the Great Leader since he is not a reading or thinking man.
Among those yet to be born, there will be great differences of opinion, as there have been among us. Some will praise your achievements to the skies, while others will find something missing – and that the most essential thing of all – unless you now proceed to extinguish the flame of civil war by the rescue of your country, and thereby prove to the former to have been the result of fate, but the latter the result of policy. Submit, therefore, to the judgment of those who, many centuries from now, will judge you, and may well do so with less partiality than we do: for they will judge you without passion and without self-interest on the one hand, and without envy and without malice on the other. And even if some mistakenly believe you will be beyond caring about all that when the time comes, you are surely not at this time beyond caring whether you are, in truth, a man whose fame will never be obscured by oblivion.
This plague has shown the calibre of leaders world-wide, the true worth of their wisdom and integrity, particularly integrity. It has revealed what we most feared, that we, the populace at large, are unimportant in the grand scheme of things, at least insofar as our ‘King Pest’ is concerned. That, a man whose intrinsic value is indistinguishable from that of any of us, Dominic Cummings, has more value in the eyes of ‘King Pest’ than the 60,000 already dead. Strangely, that ‘King Pest’ is willing to expose his own underbelly, his weakness, for all to see, in order to save, someone whose intellect or morality is not exceptional. It is the incomprehensibility of the King’s judgment, the arbitrariness of his desire to rub everyone’s face in it, that signals that tyranny is here. The arbitrary use of force and power to shield the underserving crony, the inability to act to protect anyone who is not a close ally, and the contempt reserved for everyone who is not one of us, especially for those who abide by the rules. This approach, even manifesto, is amplified several times over across the pond by the Great Leader.
I want to end with Cicero pointing out to Caesar that it is morally correct actions that determine a leader’s greatness not his conquests and, in our times, not his superficial successes at mere parlour games and intrigue. Referencing Caesar is not arbitrary. He, it was, whose actions undermined the Republic, consigned the Senate into servitude, and opened the way to tyranny.
You have subdued nations barbaric in ferocity, innumerable in population, unlimited in territory, and abounding in every kind of resource: but things you conquered were in their nature and situation amenable to conquest. After all, no power is so strong that it cannot be weakened and broken by steel and force. But to conquer one’s own temper, to check one’s anger, to show moderation towards the conquered, to take a fallen enemy pre-eminent in birth, character, and virtue, and not merely raise him up, but actually enhance his former standing – that is the act of someone whom I would not rank with the greatest of men, but would judge akin to a god […]
Our ‘King Pest’ is no Caesar or Churchill (even though he would like to be Churchill) and he is very definitely no Cicero. But there is time yet for him to rise above his base instincts, to “vanquish himself” as Cicero would say and act with wisdom and in the general interest, that is, for the greater good. As for the racist Great Leader, he has more or less used up all his time. He has also used up all credit. A man who skulks in a bunker and then shoots at his citizens in order to clear space for himself to be seen to be brave. A man who erects a steel fence to surround the White House, thinking that he is keeping his citizens out when in reality he is merely imprisoning himself. Such a man is not worthy of our thoughts, our energies, for he has already forfeited his humanity. He has no reserve of morality for us to appeal to.
My fear is that tyranny Is already installed in our precincts.
Photos by Jan Oyebode