It always surprises me

It always surprises, and depresses, me how often people suppose that the lengths to which a person is prepared to go in support of a cause is some kind of evidence of the moral rectitude of the cause itself. This supposition is an incitement to invincible self-righteousness, itself one of the two emotions that can last a lifetime and will never let you down – the other being resentment.

We have now become accustomed to sights such as that of the young woman at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris affixing red material to the surface, undefended by glass, of Monet’s most beautiful and tender painting, Les Coquelicots (Poppies), painted in 1873. This shows two women with their children walking through a sloping field full of poppies, such as are still to be seen in the fields of France at the right time of year. They are akin in France to cherry blossoms are to Japan.

The young woman who fixed the material to the painting then turned round, took off her jacket and exposed her T-shirt, with the legend “4 degrees [of global warming] Hell”. Then she stood by her handiwork with an expression of ineffable self-satisfaction – a facial expression that is now all too familiar among those who vandalise paintings and statues in the name of a supposedly good cause.

She belonged to a group of semi-professional protesters called Riposte Alimentaire – Food Riposte, whose self-description is as follows:

Food Riposte is a French campaign of civil resistance which aims

to win an ecological and social victory by the putting in place of

a social security system of sustainable food supply.

Victories, of course, are usually won over enemies. Who is the enemy in this case? The answer is clear if only implicit: everything that exists.

I doubt that the protester in the Musée d’Orsay would have thought much about what conditions were like for many, perhaps most, people in 1873, only two years after the Paris Commune. Life expectancy, for example, was about forty years lower than now; the slightest illness could be fatal, without any hope of cure; domestic tasks were of an arduousness scarcely imaginable to us; many people went poorly clothed and genuinely hungry. And yet Monet was still able to paint a kind of visual hymn to the beauty of life.

The certainty of the young woman’s ideas was disturbing. In the early 1970s, we were afraid of the earth’s cooling (quite recently, the Lancet, not a journal known for its questioning of modern orthodoxies, published a paper claiming that 17 times as many people died of exceptional cold as of exceptional heat, no doubt a questionable figure, but one rarely referred to in the general press).

At that time there were confident predictions, too, that there would soon be famines, and that it was too late to avert them. In the next few years hundreds of millions of people would die of starvation and nothing could be done to save them. There was even the slight insinuation that nothing should be done to save them, for they were permanently surplus to the world’s ability to feed them, and if they were saved, it would only be for them to die of famine a little later.

As we now know, the world’s principal nutritional problem is obesity rather than famine (not that famine could never return). The world’s population since the 1970s has doubled in size in more senses than one: but, of course, just because past apocalyptic visions have not come true so far does not mean that the next such vision will not. Mankind, after all, will be wiped out sooner or later, and I can’t help feeling that people like the one who stuck cloth on the Monet wouldn’t be altogether sorry or disappointed, especially if they were there to see the wiping out so that they could say, “I told you so”. As the British comedian and comic writer, Spike Milligan, wanted to have inscribed on his tombstone, “I told you I was ill”.

What the throwers of soup at, slashers of, and stickers of cloth to paintings lack in mental power, they make up for in strength of conviction. What do they suppose that the practical result of their activities will be? Galleries will have to protect their exhibits more carefully, and disallow close approach of the public, which will also have to be searched more thoroughly on entry as if they were boarding an aircraft. And once such precautions have been instituted, it is unlikely that they will be rescinded quickly. It is harder to make a regulation than to abrogate it.

In aggregate, then, the amount of inconvenience and even misery caused by incidents such as the latest one will be considerable, and all for actions whose connection with their supposed end is non-existent. Will China cease the production that must pollute the atmosphere just because some humourless person sticks cloth to a painting? The very idea is beyond ludicrous.

We often wonder how fanatical Islamists can do what they do, such as blowing up ancient statues of Buddha in Afghanistan or the ruins of Palmyra in Syria. Savages, we think; and we also like to think that, as the title of Sinclair Lewis’s novel has it, it couldn’t happen here.

But it could, and increasingly it does. There are lots of little fanaticisms, as well as some large ones, in our societies, only too eager to destroy in the name of good, or virtue, or justice, or equality. And who can be against any of those things?

The one thing that the fanatics do not concern themselves with is civilization. They have been taught to regard the very concept of civilization with irony, and as suspect, because (of course) the great achievements of the past were built in conditions of injustice, inequality and so forth. Thus, they are tainted by their origins, and therefore of no moral value.

We now have the Taliban of climate change, and of several other causes, in our midst. Between the Mullahs of Afghanistan and the stickers of cloth on masterpieces there is an underlying resemblance, exteriors notwithstanding. Nor should we ever forget that it is delightful to destroy and difficult to create. The one is easy and the other difficult. Never mind climate change; vandalism is fun.

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One Response

  1. Activism gives their life a sense of purpose — a sense of meaning.

    The state has essentially oligopolized and monopilized everything; big chains operate predominately in economic zones, which not only provide tax breaks and other incentives, but, in many countries, it comes with its owns set of labor laws. They have an unfair competitive advantage, courtesy of the state.

    When the state intervenes, it helps MNC’s centralize power and places millions of mom and pop stores out of business. It also provides kickbacks for politicians because to operate in an economic zone one needs permits. And if you want your application to move off someone’s desk, then you simply have to pay.

    The current western model resembles Nazi Germany. The Nazi’s gave subsidies to companies, tax breaks, and other government investment to those who played ball. Indeed, the only difference between Hitler and Stalin economically was that Hitler controlled the means of investment, not the means of production.

    But centralizing investment is the same thing as centralizing production, because the government has the capability of canceling credit to anyone who doesn’t play by the rules. It still has full control over the economic system, just from a different angle.

    In summary, these uneducated activists don’t understand that it’s the state — not capitalism — that’s the problem.

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