From the end of my street I can see Samson and Goliath, the iconic yellow cranes which straddle the shipyards and dominate Belfast’s skyline. My father’s first job was in these shipyards. I had a summer job there delivering guided tours. Maritime history’s a compulsory topic in every Northern Irish school because the most famous ship in the world was built in Belfast. More than a century later, we’re still obsessed.
Belfast now has a world class museum catering to what we call Titanoraks. There are Titanic murals painted on walls throughout the city and a Thai restaurant called — you’ve guessed it — Thaitanic. We have books, plays, movies and coachloads of, mostly American, tourists arriving daily to see where it all began. As I pointed out in my last novel, The Fire Starters, Belfast’s story still feels tied up in “that sunken boat, which holds the whole city captive from the ocean floor. There are no future boats,” here because after the iceberg, confidence waned. The Titanic’s demise marked the beginning of the shipyard’s decline.
Yet we’re furiously proud of what others might call, a failure. It’s a very Northern Irish way of thinking. (Until recently there was a mural in my neighbourhood celebrating a football match where we scored a single goal against England. It might’ve been impressive if we’d actually won). When it comes to the Titanic, the Northern Irish aren’t just proud. We are defensive. Mention the word Titanic in Belfast and somebody will invariably fire back, “she was alright when she left here.” True as this may be — and I haven’t the guts to disagree — every time I hear this quip, I find myself thinking about culpability. Why are people so quick to insist the fault doesn’t lie with them?
We expect this kind of behaviour in children. Shirking responsibility is a sign of immaturity. Yet these days adults are just as guilty. It’s apparent in the smallest and most pedestrian moments: drivers trying to talk their way out of parking tickets, friends insisting they’re not the source of the latest gossip when it’s painfully obvious they are. It’s equally present in bigger arenas. When things go wrong politically, socially or culturally we’re quick to pass the buck. It wasn’t us. It was them, we say. Or we blame the people in power. Or indulge in crazy conspiracy theories. The American writer, DL Mayfield, claims, “people believe conspiracy theories because it is psychologically easier to believe a singular and unlikely narrative rather than engage in a hard and complicated reality where your own long-term participation is needed.”
I have to agree. I’ve noted this tendency in myself. I believe that I’m right, progressive and enlightened. I’m part of the solution rather than the problem. I didn’t contribute to the car crash we’re currently living through. I’m naïve enough to think the world would be a better place, if everyone was more like me. When things go wrong — and 2020’s rarely been right — my first thought is never, what have I done? It’s always, who can I blame for this mess?
Much of this is learned behaviour. It is often modelled from the top down. Covid-19 has offered us all a masterclass in passing the buck. I can’t speak for your politicians, though I suspect most of us are in the same boat here, (and the boat in question is looking more like the Titanic with every passing week). The UK’s politicians have failed abysmally in every aspect of their Pandemic response. Comparative to the population the UK’s death rate has been amongst the highest in the world. Our economy’s foundering. The Arts are decimated. The education system’s in a shambles. Even Marks and Spencer’s is struggling. (For ordinary British folks this is on a par with encountering the four horsemen of the Apocalypse).
For the last six months, Boris Johnson and his cronies have back tracked, u-turned and avoided the difficult questions, whilst their wilful complacency and poor judgment brought the UK to its knee. At no point during this fiasco, even when the evidence made their culpability painfully clear, have they apologised for the mistakes they’ve made. There seems to be a belief, widespread amongst those currently in power, that it is weak to admit fallibility. If you fail, it’s better to point the blame at everybody/somebody/anybody else.
Perhaps I’m the only one who thinks like this, but I’d prefer leaders who are self-aware enough to admit when they’ve failed, the sort of people who know the limits of their capability and aren’t scared to ask for expert and timely assistance. Thank goodness for New Zealand PM Jacinta Arden who consistently and regularly models what it means to truly lead. I dream of leaders humble and assured enough to admit that a situation like Covid-19 does not occur in a vacuum. Yes, the virus may have originated with a bat in a faraway country, but it would be naïve to pin the blame on this bat, or Wuhan Province, or even China. This is a worldwide pandemic. Every country’s felt the implications, socially and economically. Every country must play its part in the global recovery. What’s more, I’d argue, that every country, particularly those in the West, is guilty of contributing to the mess.
Six months in its pretty evident that nepotism, greed and rampant capitalism have exacerbated the problems raised by Covid-19. Let me extend the boat metaphor — yes, we are all sailing through the same choppy waters but we certainly aren’t all weathering the Covid storm in the same boat. Some people are crowded into flimsy dinghies. Others are cruising in luxury yachts. Covid-19 has magnified the gulf between those who have and those who have not, both within my country and internationally. For us, in the UK, this isn’t someone else’s fault. It’s an endemic issue aggravated by a series of privileged Tory governments who appear to have had no understanding of the lives of underprivileged and disaffected people within our communities and beyond.
Whilst our leaders remain adamant that their policies aren’t to blame and deny all responsibility, it will prove almost impossible to effectively address the huge problems within our society. You can’t recover from a crisis until you admit that something’s gone wrong. And if the problem’s inherent within each of us, this will require significant soul searching, not just on a political level. Each of us must acknowledge the part we’ve played, however small.
The writer, George Saunders says, “we have met the enemy and he is us, yes, yes, but the fact that we have recognized ourselves as the enemy indicates we still have the ability to rise up and whip our own ass, so to speak.” I, as always, agree with Saunders. I’ve spent much of the Pandemic reassessing my own attitudes and found myself failing. I’ve grown far too comfortable with my nice lifestyle. I don’t have the kind of active interest in what life’s like for other, less privileged, people which might lead to sacrifice, engagement or societal change. As a writer who visited book festivals in twenty five different countries last year, I can’t seriously claim to care about the climate crisis. Nor, does reading Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, make me a Black Lives Matter ally. In all these areas I admit I’m basically a sideliner with privileges and prejudices I need to address. But like Saunders says, admitting your culpability’s only the beginning. The world needs people who understand their failings and yet refuse to let themselves off the hook. No matter how pathetic our contribution is, we must all work towards healing and transformation. The world literally depends on it.
I’ve spent the Pandemic thinking about what it means to be a flawed and culpable white, middle-class writer, writing while the world seemingly self destructs. What can I say that hasn’t already been better said? How can I ensure I’m not adding to the problem or shifting blame to someone else? I’ve settled upon three small practices, stolen from other wiser writers, that I’m going to try to do, in the hope that my words might help.
Firstly, I’d like to be a braver writer, setting aside the desire to please my readers, avoid critique or even drum up decent sales. In 1957 Albert Camus wrote, “the time of irresponsible artists is over,” and his words have never felt more prescient. “The freedom of art is not worth much when its only purpose is to assure the artist’s comfort,” he continues, calling artists to create dangerously, provoking and interrogating the status quo even if this doesn’t make them popular.
Secondly, I’m going to take Valeria Luiselli’s lead and tell stories people may not want to hear but really need to, for “the only way to grant any justice — were that even possible — is by hearing and recording these stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I hope to follow the example of murdered Northern Irish journalist Lyra McKee who adamantly and continuously advocated for ongoing engagement with people who see the world differently. In conversation we see the worth in others. In listening we learn how to empathise. In spending significant, awkward, slow time together we realise we’re not always right.
The world’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Who knows what the future will bring? There’s very little we can be certain about. However, I do believe that change and recovery can’t begin in earnest unless both our leaders and we, as individuals, acknowledge we’ve contributed to this mess. The future, if we’re to have a future at all, begins with realising we are both the problem and the solution.
Jan Carson © text, 2020
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