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All for Nought

In her last Christmas message of the decade, the Queen Elizabeth II began by saying:

Each year that passes seems to have its own character. Some leave us with a feeling of satisfaction, others are best forgotten. 2009 was a difficult year for many, in particular those facing the continuing effects of the economic downturn.

The Queen should know. She has given the summary of every year since 1952, with just the one exception. If anybody is in position to objectively scrutinize the vicissitudes of time, it is the immutable Elizabeth II. Her reign is in its fifty-eigth year, she lived through World War Two, and she is the head of a church. Her broadcasts began on radio; now they are on YouTube. In her time Elizabeth has been the Queen of thirty-two separate nations. In 1952 she was the queen of seven independent countries and is currently the monarch of sixteen states. The numbers went up and then down as the British Empire died and spawned newly-independent countries, whilst half of those countries later walked the road to republicanism. Across all those nations, she has had a hundred and fifty Prime Ministers. On a personal level, she bore three sons and a daughter over the space of sixteen years. Elizabeth has seen all four children marry, three divorce and two remarry. Each of her four children has blessed her with two grandchildren. If anyone is qualified to talk about the travail of time, it is the Queen. If she says that some years are best forgotten, then she should know. And if some years are best forgotten, is it not fair to extend that idea to a period of several sequential years, and suggest there might be some decades that are best forgotten?

It is not in keeping with the zeitgeist to find fault with now. We may face problems, and there may be dissatisfactions, but the fault is never with the present moment. Problems may be rooted in the past, or in a lack of progress, or there may be troubles ahead, or there may be a minority to blame for our ills, but overriding every difficulty there is a cosy consensus that we, the great majority, are good. We are fine, and there has never been a better time than now. But if all is well with us, then how do we explain a year to forget. And what was 2009 apart from the natural conclusion to a decade of disappointment. From 9-11, through the tangential response of the second Iraq War, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, political scandals and the failure of the climate change conference in Copenhagen, the noughties were a decade to forget.

What went wrong with the start of the 21st Century? One source of discomfort comes from our own aspirations. Aspiration is easy. It is realization that is hard. The higher the bar, the likelier we are to fall short. In the 1940’s the prevailing aspiration was to defeat totalitarian dictators – except in Russia. The 1960’s were a period of liberation – the start of a process to overcome barriers that society erected for itself. In the 1980’s and 1990’s the barriers were coming down literally, first with the fall of the Berlin Wall and then with the fall of the Soviet Union. Mandela was released from prison. Miscarriages of justice were overturned, like those suffered by the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six. Communism was dying in most countries, whilst a concern for the Green agenda was on the rise. In 1985, Live Aid raised money to ease the famine in Ethiopia. The world was getting freer, richer and safer, and the inevitable exceptions helped to prove the rule.

Whence come the highest mountains? I once asked. Then I learned that they came out of the sea. The evidence is written in their rocks and in the walls of their peaks. It is out of the deepest depth that the highest must come to its height.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Did we reach the highest heights in the noughties, the decade whose very name told a story of indecision and derision? Comfort breeds self-satisfaction. Self-satisfaction breeds complacency. Complacency is a downhill slide. If mountains rise from the sea, it follows that they return to the sea also. Across the world, wanton, selfish and aimless destruction has come to dominate our thoughts. One source of destruction is the nebulous forces of ‘international terrorism’, as much the creation of the war on terror as it is its justification. At the other end of the spectrum from the isolated lunatics who want to end their meaningless lives with a big bang are the overwhelming majority of worker ants, slowly nibbling away at our environment, with no clear thought about the consequences. By ants, I mean all of us, who all contribute to climate change whilst mostly pointing fingers at others in preference to looking to ourselves.

The inheritance of the nineties was squandered in the noughties. Mandela’s truth and reconciliation gave way to dithering about Mugabe’s inversion of racism and killing of democracy on South Africa’s doorstep. The Russians retreated from the chaos of a real democracy to the guided democracy where Putin is either on the throne, sitting behind the throne, deciding who sits on the throne, or is in charge of anything to do with the throne, including how (and if) pretenders to the throne are reported in the ‘free’ press. Meanwhile, the world’s greatest autocrats were rewarded for the economic prosperity of their hardworking and under-rewarded people, and not punished for their continued and unrepentant oppression of them. Their reward was the Beijing Olympics, whose impressive construction program and execution served to show that the world would gladly bury freedom and democracy so long as it was laid to rest in a luxurious coffin.

Western democracies lost their way, and their mandate to preach an agenda that is pro-rights and anti-corruption to the rest of the world. There was a glut of politicians who linked power to wealth in a cycle of seediness: Chirac, Berlusconi, Cheney and even Tony Blair, though the latter had the sense to let his wife do the dodgy deals whilst he was in office, and only spent his time in office laying the groundwork for his future fortune. As his Director of Public Prosecutions told us recently, Blair was a sycophant and that sycophancy has paid off with a string of lucrative deals since. Whether Iraq had WMDs that could strike Britain in forty-five minutes was seemingly unimportant, per the leader’s own report. The objective was bigger than questions about whose lives were at risk and whose lives would be put at risk. The stage was the UN and that most corrupted of all ideas, international law. Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition permanently scarred the features of so-called liberal democracies. Away from the public’s gaze, the real action was found in the flow of money between business and state. An oil tanker was renamed ‘Altair Voyager’ because its old name, ‘Condoleezza Rice’ made some connections too obvious. Ms Rice got a promotion after foolish former General Colin Powell wasted his enormous credibility by proving to the UN that Iraq must have been hiding WMDs (and that was just the intelligence he was allowed to show…) Powell outlived his usefulness soon after. During the noughties, the real leaders of the West were afloat, their feet not touching the ground. They were carried away by a stream of money, a stream that promised to carry them to all their personal and public ambitions. Whilst private ambitions may have been realized, the public ones were not. On the contrary, the deregulation of business and banks proved only that money is always available for a pliable politician, no matter what the price paid by the public. The petty greed of Britain’s Members of Parliament only served to show how far the rot had gone.

The cynicism of the politicians needed to keep pace with that of celebrity. Divorced of talent, the greatest source of fame became fame itself. Non-entities competed to outdo each other on ‘reality’ shows, in the hope of securing riches to follow. Damien Hirst proved that the ‘Young British Artist’ scene was a victory for marketing over art-making, as he turned his idealess dross into a printing machine for money. The public voted for ‘ordinary’ people to be their next stars, living vicariously through their success and failing to see any irony in this circle of self-realization where ordinariness begets fame and fame is its own justification. Bono became more like Bore-o with his endless offering of solutions to the world’s ills, all whilst merrily socializing with the very elite who must be most at fault if anything is wrong. Whilst giving out lots of advice without being asked for, Bono was careful to listen to his tax advisers and effectively become a tax exile from his home nation, even though the Irishman was already benefiting from one of the most generous tax regimes for rich music stars like himself. His countryman Bob Geldof showed that fame fuels vanity more often than it feeds the poor, by reimagining the glory of Live Aid as the pointless publicity exercise that was Live 8. Live 8, for those who forget, was going to persuade the G8 nations to “make poverty history”. At date of writing, poverty is not history, though Live 8 proved a great boost to the sales of the musicians who took part – bands like U2, for example.

At the very start of 2000, I was like many in London waiting by the Thames for the fireworks spectacular to herald the arrival of the new year. A ‘river of fire’ was promised. What we got was the synchronized setting off of wimpish sparklers at regular intervals down the length of the river. It was a disappointment, only to be followed by a long walk home. In hindsight, it set the tone for the decade that was to follow. Indeed, the Chairman of the business that had been paid – by taxpayer’s money – to put on that dismal show went on the media to confirm that it had been, in his opinion, a great success. But then, the Chairman of that business was none other than Bob Geldof. It was fitting that the decade ended in similar disappointment. Even whilst the world’s population is long past the point where they doubt the reality of climate change, the world’s leaders are unable to do anything substantial about it. They all flew to Copenhagen, mostly in private jets. So many went, that the country ran out of limousines to drive around all these world leaders, none of whom were willing to carpool, and the Danes had to resort to driving in more gas-guzzling cars from Germany and Sweden. After a lot of hot air was expelled at the event, the conclusion was bugger all. Which says everything about where saving the planet fits into the big scheme of priorities. The world’s leaders live now, and unlike the Queen they do not intend to stay in charge for another fifty or sixty years, if they even live that long. That makes global warming somebody else’s problem – the problem of somebody who will need to take tough decisions long after the current elite has reaped the rewards of our current profligacy. Yet in the end, the leaders worry more about their power and privilege than anything else, and will do nothing to risk losing that. If they do not prioritize climate change, it is because their minions do not prioritize it either. Desmond Tutu summed up the confusion of the event when he said:

They marched in Berlin and the wall fell. We marched in Cape Town and apartheid fell. We marched in Copenhagen and we are going to get a real deal!

I do not know the South African archbishop personally, but I am pretty sure he does not live in Copenhagen. People who lived in Berlin wanted to see their relatives the other side of the wall. They were opposed by the interests of a small number who had put the wall in their way. When Berliners stood together in great enough numbers, they could not be opposed. People who lived in South Africa wanted to vote, and wanted to vote for candidates with the same colour skin as themselves. Their rights were denied to preserve the interest of a small number. When South Africans stood together in great enough numbers, they could not be opposed. Who stands against saving the Earth? A small minority, but that is irrelevant. It is not the minority that stand opposed to the wishes of the majority that matters here. It is the majority that stand opposed to their own objectives that matters here. How can Tutu justify flying across the world to tell people what they know already? He can because he sees global climate change in the same way as apartheid or the Berlin Wall, as products of a system that favours the freedom of a few over the freedom of the many. Climate change is the opposite problem; it is caused by favouring the freedom of the many, where too many can justify their own behaviour to themselves even whilst they kill the planet with a death by a thousand cuts, or more appropriately a death by a thousand (self-)indulgences. It neatly epitomizes the failure and self-satisfaction of the noughties. With no convenient bogeyman to overcome, we leave ourselves powerless to act even when we know we should.

The noughties were about now. The decade represented waste in all its forms. For the sake of now, we wasted physical resources, and people, and time, and opportunities. Why work when you can borrow? Why wait when you can have what you want now? If we care for the future, we have to stop thinking of now, and start thinking of something more. We must unlearn what we were taught in the noughties. In the noughties, aspiration was justification and execution was irrelevant. The pinnacle of its central conceit – that how much we care is more important than what we do – was climbed by the Nobel committee when they awarded the 2009 Peace Prize to Obama. That prize was given to Obama for what he is going to do, not what he has accomplished already. The Nobel committee has shown themselves to be like too many of the rest of us. They are too quick to be enthralled by popularity. But popularity is transitory. Real worth is measured by constancy. We can only change the world now if that moment extends into a lifetime.

Politicians concerned with their own popularity and power cannot be consistently relied upon to make the world a better place, not least because they fear to tell us the truths we might not like to hear. It takes a leader to do what they think is right, at the price of risking unpopularity, and that is why many of the world’s ‘leaders’ do not deserve that description. It also takes a leader to do what is right because it is right, not because the cameras are there to document it. And a leader is somebody who leads for a lifetime, whether in the limelight or away from it. When a leader says a year is best forgotten, they speak of a worldview that cannot be encapsulated in twelve short months. They measure the now with reference to the past and future, can be patient whilst treasuring their time and doing the small but important things. The Queen does so; reportedly she travels on ordinary trains not just to cut costs and preserve the environment, but because it gives her more time to do her work. What a wonderful example for all of us. Without political influence, the Queen has still played her part in leading the way. Her example shows that the route to a better world is not found in this present moment but through the accumulation of moments into a lifetime of steadfast purpose. We can be true to ourselves as individuals, and strive to make the world better, even whilst the role we are asked to play and world around us changes. Her heritage will last in the world around us, even if the recognition is not long remembered and even if we all end up as republicans. As the Queen hinted, 2009 was a year best forgotten. 2009 summed up a decade that came to nought. For everyone who lived through the noughties, the onus is on all of us to find more purpose in the decade to come.

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