If ever there were a phrase that lost an election, it must have been Mrs. Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”—a phrase with which, at the time, she was well-pleased. In three words, she made plain what she really thought of tens of millions of her fellow-citizens who, alas for her, were also voters.
In these highly polarised times, the reasoning of politicians (who, after all, reflect the population from which they are drawn) is as follows:
- Whoever is not for me is against me;
- I am a very good person;
- Therefore, those who are against me are very bad people.
This is a mental or moral pathology not confined to any one political tendency, though perhaps it is greatest at the moment on the Left, with its propensity to moral grandiosity.
It is rarely that we learn from other people’s mistakes or experience, and President Macron of France, who faces an election shortly, seems to have shown a disdain of Hillary-Clintonian proportion for that part of the French population that has refused vaccination against COVID-19. In an interview with Le Parisien—using a vulgar term hardly in keeping with the dignity of his office—he said that he would like to make the life of the unvaccinated very difficult, and indeed was going to do so “right to the end.” He also said “When my freedom threatens that of others, I become irresponsible. An irresponsible person is no longer a citizen.”
It is possible, I suppose, that the president estimated that his evident irritation with, and disdain for, the unvaccinated would go down well with the vaccinated, many of whom, however, were initially reluctant to take the vaccine but were successfully badgered into compliance by the restrictions placed upon the non-compliant. But it is the unvaccinated who are greatly over-represented among those hospitalised in the nth wave of COVID—they are 20% of the population and 80% of the serious cases in hospital—and who can therefore be said to have selfishly brought their disease on themselves by their own stubbornness, to the detriment of the rest of society.
Macron probably employed his vulgar expression to persuade his countrymen that, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, he was really one of them, that he was in fact a man of the people: in which case he unwittingly demonstrated what he thought the people were like—namely, vulgar. A month before, in a television interview, he had confided to the world that he had learned to like, or to love, the French—surely a very peculiar confession on the part of an elected head of state.
What was his attitude to the French before he learnt to love them? Indifference? Hatred? Contempt? He made it sound as if liking them had been a particularly difficult thing for him to do and that he had taken lessons in it. He was like a Sun King who had discovered far into his reign that, after all, the common people were not as bad as he had feared, never having met any of them before.
It is possible that the president was not acting from political calculation at all, but rather let slip his real feelings about his refractory compatriots to whom he would like to deny the name of ‘citizen,’ it being—in his own estimation—his prerogative to decide who qualified as citizen and who did not. He revealed that did not consider himself a humble servitor of the people who must take them as he finds them but rather their overlord and moral preceptor who may withdraw their citizenship if they fail to meet his high expectations of them.
If responsible behaviour were the criterion or precondition of citizenship, no state would have many citizens, at least not for long. Many of us would fluctuate between citizenship and non-citizenship as we were responsible and irresponsible by turns. Which of us looking back on our lives can say that he has never behaved in an irresponsibly way such as to impose costs, or potential costs, on others? Most of us get away with our irresponsible behaviour most of the time, as most drunken drivers get home safely and as most unvaccinated people do not end up in intensive care from COVID-19. But irresponsibility is irresponsibility regardless of the outcome in every case.
How far would President Macron take his principle? Are smokers responsible citizens? Surely not. Disregarding the argument put forward by some health economists that they actually save the state money first by paying heavy taxes on their habit and then by dying earlier than they otherwise would, which I believe to be a minority view, smokers impose costs on others by way of the numerous diseases and illnesses to which they make themselves susceptible and which require expensive treatment. Are smokers to be denied citizenship (and treatment of their diseases) because they are irresponsible?
What would the world be like if everyone behaved responsibly all the time? At the least, it would be very dull. It is not that we want people to behave irresponsibly all the time, and indeed every individual act of irresponsibility might well be regrettable or reprehensible. But irresponsibility is a little like suffering: each individual instance of it is to be deplored and, if possible, avoided or alleviated; but suffering and irresponsibility as such are necessary features of the human affective and behavioural repertoire. And just as Durkheim suggested that society needed a leavening of criminals to bind the law-abiding citizenry together, so it needs a leavening of irresponsibility. (Durkheim wisely refrained from saying precisely how many criminals or how much criminality were needed to fulfil their function of binding society together. My impression is that, at the moment, we have more than enough to do this.)
In Macron’s world, someone or some authority would have to decide what constituted responsible or irresponsible behaviour. “Drink responsibly,” say the labels on the bottles of alcoholic drinks in England, and “The abuse of alcohol is dangerous to health, consume in moderation,” say advertisements for alcoholic drinks in France. (They might as well add: ‘Alcohol in excess can make you drunk’.) But what is responsible drinking or drinking in moderation? The official guidelines change constantly, though mostly in one direction only—that of total abstinence—although it has also sometimes been found that non-drinkers have a reduced life expectancy by comparison with ‘light’ or ‘moderate’ drinkers, an observation which might lead to the conclusion that non-drinkers ought, in the name of civic responsibility, be forced to drink, by the insertion of a nasogastric tube if necessary. (That do I long to see, as Lord Byron said in respect of what he called “Africa’s first dance of freedom.”)
Actually, health is the last great hope of totalitarians—for who can be opposed to health or against anything that will promote it? Since the continuation of life is the precondition of everything else that we desire, it follows that the preservation of health must take precedence over every other consideration. Moreover, there are health consequences of any human activity whatsoever because health, according to the World Health Organization, is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of infirmity or disease.”
Any deviation from a continuous and permanent state of perfect happiness and fulfilment, then, is a matter of concern to the health authorities. It is also a matter of concern to the politicians in power because, according to the Ottawa Declaration signed (appropriately enough in 1984) by representatives of practically every country in the world, health is a fundamental human right and politicians must nowadays claim to be jealous of our rights. Thus, do complete physical, mental, and social well-being become the goal that it is the function of politicians to reach on our behalf—even at the cost of little temporary inconveniences such as the closing down of much of the economy, the destruction of social life, and indebtedness of world war proportions that will weigh like a nightmare on the minds of future generations (as Marx said history does on ours). Health is to the political class what money is to bankers: an inexhaustible source legitimation of their exercise of power.
Perhaps we get the political class, if not that we deserve exactly, at least that reflects us in some way. Very few people nowadays believe with conviction that any other life exists but the one we have, whose preservation accordingly increases in importance. Even a single life lost when it could have been saved operates powerfully on our imaginations: it could have been us! Something must be done, even at the cost of limiting our own freedom.
For the record, I am not against vaccination and have taken up the offer of three vaccinations—not because of the threat of social exclusion but because it seemed to me the reasonable thing to do. I know a few opponents of vaccination and their arguments (when they have any) seem to me intellectually frivolous. (One must humbly bear in mind, however, that the last chapter on the pandemic has not yet been written.)
I have a neighbour in England who is a perfect fit, demographically and medically, for a COVID death, but who stubbornly refuses to take the vaccine on what seem to me the most whimsical grounds. I don’t discuss it with him—there is no point—but secretly it irritates me. Yet it has never occurred to me that his foolishness means that he is any the less of a citizen. If we are not free to be foolish, we are not free to be anything—and our attachment to freedom is measured by what we tolerate in others, not by what we demand for ourselves.