2005: No ‘Annus Horribilis’ for humanity
Why use the Asian tsunami as the defining image of life this year?
As the year draws to an end, the short-lived holiday spirit can barely disguise a powerful atmosphere of doom and gloom about everything from the weather to the war in Iraq. Everywhere it seems, the Asian tsunami has been remembered as the defining image of life in 2005 – an image of vulnerable humanity besieged, at the mercy of the elements and barely clinging to the rock.
In the UK, the Queen’s annual Christmas broadcast seemed to capture the overall tone surprisingly well. Her message was summed up by The Times of London as an ‘Annus horribilis for humanity’ (drawing on a phrase she famously used to describe her personal worst year in the 1990s).
Having listed the ‘loss and suffering’ brought by the year’s big natural disasters – the tsunami, New Orleans, the earthquake in Pakistan and India – the Queen got to the truly topical point of her message. ‘As if these disasters were not bad enough’, she noted, ‘I have sometimes thought that humanity seemed to have turned in on itself with wars, civil disturbances and acts of brutal terrorism.’
Other end-of-year messages have had a similarly downbeat theme. As Brendan O’Neill examines elsewhere on spiked today, the Pope’s first Christmas sermon not only talked about the new threats posed by terrorism, pandemics and environmental destruction, but declared that ‘The men and women in our technical age risk becoming victims of their own intellectual and technical achievements’ (see An unholy marriage, by Brendan O’Neill). Other, more secular commentators have tended to echo these sentiments, with the general rule being that the more radical the pundit, the more doom-laden and defeatist their message.
Anybody following all of this might be forgiven for thinking that humanity had decided to commit collective suicide – or perhaps that we should consider so doing. Even when it comes to presenting the positive side of the year’s experience, the best that most commentators can offer is the orchestrated outpouring of charitable donations for the tsunami victims. That display of public compassion was indeed impressive (even though as we noted at the time it was tainted by the official insistence that compassion today be conspicuous, compulsory and competitive). But in today’s atmosphere, the ‘positive’ coverage of the tsunami’s aftermath leaves us at best with the image of humanity as, in the argot of victim culture, ‘survivors’ – which tends to mean little more than victims who have had some therapeutic input.
None of this ‘annus horribilis for humanity’ nonsense bears much relation to reality. The Pope’s dreaded ‘intellectual and technical achievements’ of our society have continued to move things forward so that many millions of people around the world are living longer, healthier and wealthier lives than ever before. Indeed, the most serious risk is that the cautious, anxious mindset of the age is holding things back too much, wasting the opportunities for more substantial life-altering advances in everything from medical science to information technology or transport.
As for the Queen’s fears about humanity having ‘turned in on itself’ with wars, civil disturbances and brutal terrorism, perhaps the old dear (and the many who have endorsed her message) ought to try to keep up with the news a bit more. If anything there are fewer major wars – and fewer casualties – today than in the recent past, and no prospect of the sort of global conflict that was a hallmark of the twentieth century through the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War era. It is a similar story with acts of violence defined as terrorism, despite a few high-profile incidents such as the summer’s London bombings.
And while natural disasters have certainly dominated many news headlines in 2005, there is no reason to assume that such an unprecedented tragedy as the Asian tsunami spells future doom for humanity. Indeed, the main lesson to be drawn from the tsunami and the earthquake on the subcontinent should surely be about the need to apply ‘our own intellectual and technical achievements’ to building more advanced infrastructures that can offer people in these regions better protection against natural disasters. The additional lesson from something like the New Orleans floods might be not to believe all the anti-human horror stories about mass murder, rape and degradation that threaten to overwhelm us today.
The grim messages at the end of 2005 say rather more about our society’s self-perception than about the real world we live in. Far from an Annus Horribilis for humanity, this has been perhaps an Annus Miserabilis, in which everything is interpreted through a prism of doom and gloom. To judge by current discussions, the prospects for next year might seem worse than ever, caught as we apparently are between the threats of terrorism, global warming, avian flu pandemics, whatever.
The underlying message in all of this is about the loss of faith in our own humanity, and our ability to act together to shape the world we live in. The one note that seemed out-of-step in the Queen’s speech was her expression of Christian faith, something that in the past at least gave people in the West a sense of the future, however misguided. Now we have lost faith not only in God, but in humanity. Uncertain of any real meaning or purpose in life, many are now unusually prone to seeing themselves as vulnerable victims rather than active agents of their destiny.
One striking side-effect of this is that, unable to ascribe a real sense of purpose to humanity, many will try to find meaning in every arbitrary or accidental incident that befalls us. Thus it is with all the efforts to turn the tsunami into a metaphor for life in 2005, often by linking it somehow through extreme weather to global warming and man’s alleged desecration of the environment. One Channel 4 documentary, tellingly entitled The Year the Earth Went Wild, even tried to tie the tsunami in with the little tornado which hit Birmingham, England, this year, predicting future urban devastation in the UK. The irrational spirit of the age suggests that these disasters are somehow nature’s revenge on human hubris, and that we should be more humble.
At spiked, we would like to suggest that the opposite lesson be drawn from the experience of life in 2005. What we need is not more humility, but a greater sense of our own humanity and its potential, in a spirit of forward-looking boldness. We are not interested in wide-eyed, Panglossian optimism, which is just as unrealistic as the doom-mongering pessimism. What we need is a sense of humanity’s problem-solving potential, if it has a sense of purpose and a history-making project to pursue.
In her Christmas message, the Queen concluded that ‘This last year has shown us that this world is not always an easy or safe place to live in, but it is the only place we have’. Well, up to a point ma’am. It is good to recognise that we should live in the real world as it is, rather than the fantasy worlds in which many observers seem to believe. But let us also recognise that there is no place for fatalism, and that we could change our only world to make life richer still if we so choose.
In wishing all of our readers a happy new year, we look forward to 2006 as one which humanity has the potential to make the best year to be alive since…well, since 2005.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.