Earlier this year – lockdown three: no sign of spring – I travelled to an airport to try to be good. Dogged for months by the sense of my own uselessness, and having wept with relief and accumulated sorrow when the first Covid-19 vaccine was approved, I’d joined an organisation training volunteers to deliver vaccinations, and so arrived at a desolate Stansted shortly after dawn. Here I sat in the basement of a hotel fallen almost out of use, and in the company of a hundred strangers – though alone and masked in a square of carpet marked out with black tape – learned how to treat fainting fits, panic attacks and anaphylactic shock. In our number were a circus performer, a firefighter, a consultant of some kind; and having been starved of unfamiliar faces for so long we were all, I think, happy to be there (putting a woman in the recovery position I apologised for what seemed a shocking intimacy; but she said what a pleasure it was, after all that time, to be touched). Then we attached sponges to our upper arms, and learned how to insert the needle at 45 degrees, stretching the skin to avoid a bleed; how to depress the plunger, and then remove the needle without doing ourselves a mischief. Then, observed by the nurse, who’d hurried out of retirement to train us, we demonstrated our prowess, were awarded a certificate, and went home to await deployment.
I did this, as I say, because I wanted to be good. I am conscious that as a statement this is at best not very chic, and at worst vaultingly hubristic – but I am conscious, too, that here I am the rule, not the exception. Everywhere, it seems to me, efforts to be good have been visible – children chalking hopscotch on the pavements to coax troubled adults out to play; mosques and chapels distributing comfort and food – so that I come to believe we have a tendency to reach after goodness, as if we were all at sea and navigating, by whatever stars and instruments we favour, to a pilot light that’s shining in the dock.
What is goodness, anyway? Knowledge is virtue, says Socrates, and in that case the virtuous citizen must apply herself to the latest charts of vaccination, infection, hospitalisation and death, and act accordingly. But this in the end is hopeless, since facts nest within facts, contradicting themselves at every turn: it is like dismantling a Russian doll, but never coming to a solid centre (meanwhile, as we scrutinise the charts, those with learning disabilities, their lives as miraculous and particular and full of value as any, die of Covid at six times the rate of the general population; and disaster capitalists make their capital on the many disasters). Mostly – because I never did walk far from my childhood theology – I think of goodness as almost but not quite abstract, existing separately from ourselves. An object to be moved towards: compelling us, in fact, with something like grace.
But there is no impulse or virtue so straightforward it cannot be complicated and compromised by human nature, and the problem of how to be good in a pandemic grows more troublesome, not less. The responsibility of individual and collective goodness – which is always there but in the last 18 months has become very nearly intolerable – has found its symbol: a cloth mask covering the face and mouth, securely fastened with straps. Not for centuries, in secular western societies at least, has there been so visible a means of indicating goodness or the lack of it – it is the pilgrim’s scallop shell or the mark of Cain, according to your lights – so it was perhaps inevitable that when masks became a matter not of legislation but of personal responsibility and virtue, the long-brewed storm broke.
I greeted this news, I confess, according to my disposition, which tends towards the sunny, and is not much troubled about my own safety: my first quick thought was of how gratefully I’d consign every mask I possess to the bin. Then swiftly, on social media and in private messages, I saw that with this impulse I’d excommunicated myself from the fellowship of the good. Those I loved and admired were more or less united in contempt: only the most selfish, they said, the most careless and malignant, would consider taking off their mask. My sense of self was, perhaps rightly, shaken. I’d tried so hard to be good, but that counted for nothing: after all, I was a bad woman, because that was my nature.
So I wonder if our capacity for goodness, where these months of the pandemic are concerned, is determined in large part by our dispositions: a man by nature risk-averse and prone to worry will probably remain masked a good while yet, and so be marked as good; the optimist and pragmatist might queue with joy for entry, at last, into a club, and be marked down as spiteful, stupid and wicked. Perhaps true virtue consists of acting for the good of others against one’s disposition – for that anxious man, for example, to put on his nitrile gloves, and marshal the public to their vaccines. In that case, I think I am not one ounce better than I ought to be.
We have seized on the mask as a moral and practical good because it is so available, so visible, and of a benefit out of all proportion to effort. Against the corruption and venality with which we are governed the mask represents an act of individual and common good. But the difficult fact is this: we have always been vectors for harm. We cannot move from chair to chair without altering the world, and every contact leaves a trace. The women who won’t shift from her quarters until Covid is of no more consequence than a mild cold must nonetheless eat, will probably use a mobile phone, must bathe in hot water. Who brings her food? What fossil fuels poison the air when she puts the kettle on? Whose child laboured in a cobalt mine to supply the minerals necessary for her phone? Covid is not the deadliest of the threats she represents, and possibly not even the most urgent – but it is new, and the means to mitigate the threat are almost no trouble at all. Still: set her caution against her other evils and she may well be weighed in the balances. Wash your hands for 20 seconds as often as you like, but you’ll never get that damned spot out: your fingerprints are all over the Earth.
This is not to say that we should simply abdicate – toss away the mask, fill our homes with plastic – only to warn against resting easy in our own virtue, assuming malignancy and folly on the part of others. Recently, it has seemed to me that nothing said or done is personal: it is all abstract, representational, showing the colours of a fixed character and tribe. So a man, once wrong, is wrong for ever. He cannot apologise and alter, since that would be nothing but hypocrisy, and he must remain always beyond redemption. This assumption of bad faith has poisoned the public discourse, and caused such deep entrenchment of opposed positions that nobody can hope to see the land. A trench is a comfortable place when the battle’s on, bolstered about by those assuring us of our virtue, and agreeing the unseen enemy is incomprehensibly wicked – certainly I prefer it myself. To take a wider view – to sit, as they say, up on a high horse – is troubling, because here we see the territory, and not the map. From such a vantage we may find our own motives are ignoble, or our position not as wise as we thought, and are available to be shot at from all points. This is a position demanding a kind of subtlety that risks endearing you to nobody – yes, you may say, it is deplorable to protect the economy above lives, but then again a severe and lasting depression may be counted not in pounds and pence, but in vertiginous rises in homelessness, drug dependence, sickness and suicide. Certainly, this is not the flu, but there may come a time when it is something like it; yes, we have to learn to live with it, and there is no life without the risk of death, but living with it may consist of universal basic income, and affordable housing, and so on. Who’d risk expulsion from the trench with these slow negotiations? I blame no one for preferring the sandbags.
Anger is the virtuous response to the sight of a government absenting itself from its sole duty: to govern
I think virtue contains anger – in fact, I think it must. Identifying goodness requires standing witness to its absence, and this is useful: the pilot light is brighter in the dark, and you’re more inclined to find it. Last year, reflecting on the nature of risk, I conceived of the government as faithless priests. But I was mistaken. It is not that they are faithless, it is that they preach one religion and practise one running absolutely counter to it: the priest is wearing a crucifix, but it’s hanging upside down. The public must act for the good of others, they say, and meanwhile sever aid to the destitute, contemplate prison ships for asylum seekers, give austerity another turn of the screw. Naturally the scientist who breaks lockdown to see his lover must resign, says the minister breaking lockdown to see his lover. Naturally the prime minister need not isolate when instructed – but no, he will isolate after all, and we should forget what was said hours before. No principle is fixed, save that of power retained at all costs, even if that cost is totted up in the public registries of death, and it is all a question of prevailing winds – so like the weathervane in Barnard Castle’s market square: they can swivel.
So anger is the virtuous response to the sight of a government absenting itself from its sole duty – that is: to govern – and burdening a bewildered and grieving population with personal responsibility for this disease. It is the only fit response to the racist abuse that stained social media like filthy water in the days following a football match, and to the defacement of a mural to Marcus Rashford, a virtuous man. Goodness, of course, was visible even – especially – there. Children sent love notes to the black footballers who were mocked and abused, and a woman began to cover the defaced Rashford mural with paper hearts, and in due course was joined by hundreds: but the racist spite and the loving children do not cancel each other out. Each remains, undiminished, regarding the other across a fault, and the tectonic plates are drifting apart. Insisting on goodness – on its availability, and its necessity – doesn’t demand thinking at all times the best of the worst. That would be folly, and a variety of foolishness most available to those least in danger. It is more the case that without the idea of the good, I think we would fall into despair. WEB Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk, wrote: “If somewhere in the chaos of things there dwells Eternal Good, pitiful yet masterful, then anon … the prisoned shall go free.”
In April, I was summoned at last to the mass vaccination centre in the town where I live, and where I had myself been vaccinated early, being vulnerable to the disease. Walking there, in the volunteer’s T-shirt that gave me such pride, I began to doubt my motives. Was I really only trying to be good? Was it in reality that I’d been bored and restless, and wanted the sight and the company of strangers? It occurred to me horribly that perhaps I had thought it might make me more worthy of love. And it had cost me little – I had the time to do it, and the resources; I am by nature gregarious, possessed of a cast iron stomach and no nerves whatsoever. Perhaps the motive didn’t matter, only the outcome, and that was goodness enough.
Is it the work of a fool and an optimist to cast about for some lasting good, arriving in the wake of this disaster?
That first day was, I think, among the happiest of my life. Those were the early weeks of the vaccination programme, when it was mostly elderly people who queued in what had once been the food court of a shopping mall, and it moved me desperately to see frail women – their skin, I should tell you, quite remarkably resistant to the needle – dressed in silk blouses, and jackets fastened with a brooch, for all the world as if it were Easter, and they were going on down to the cathedral: death’s sting deferred, if not for ever, by the needle’s prick. The questions of my motives became inconsequential: nothing mattered but the common good.
Is it the work of a fool and an optimist to cast about for some lasting good, arriving in the wake of this disaster? I’d like to think the long arc of history bends towards justice, but often I think there’s no arc at all, not least since our conceptions of justice are, mercifully, not fixed. Rather, I see a series of upward and downward shifts, as if the whole Earth were hooked up to a cardiogram, and showing its trace. Still, even weak movements are signs of life, and in their manifesto Marx and Engels wrote: “Man’s consciousness changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence.” Our material existence changed, and became abruptly burdened with the need to be urgently and visibly good – well then: come the revolution, and let it be distinguished by virtue of both individual and state.
Lately I’ve been reading “Autumn Journal”, the long poem written by Louis MacNeice as Europe convulsed towards the second world war. He closes not with the bleak knowledge of storm clouds rolling noisily in, but with a prayer for “a possible land … where both heart and brain can understand / The movements of our fellows.” Is that land possible? I hope so. I believe we can be good: I’ve seen it.