Monday, 21 June 2021

Those who knew the live structure

The compact world of my youth has receded into a past from which it can only be dug up in bits by the assiduous relic-hunter; and its smallest fragments begin to be worth collecting and putting together before the last of those who knew the live structure are swept away with it.

Edith Wharton - A Backward Glance (1934)

It is surprising how profoundly we are constrained by the fact that we cannot go back to an earlier situation or set of circumstances. We cannot unsay a hasty remark, rebuild a neglected friendship, revisit the career we should have chosen, fully correct a poor education and so on and so on.

We may be able to patch, mend and partially correct many things but we are never able to go back to that point in time where it first went wrong. The mistake, the fork in the road, the dubious decision, the neglect of something we should never have neglected. We cannot even go back to how things were yesterday – not exactly. We certainly cannot go back to how things were a year ago, ten years ago, a lifetime ago.

Yet although this inescapable constraint is an obvious feature of daily life, although it tells us over and over again to be guided by the past rather than imaginary futures – in spite of all that we find ourselves enmeshed in the most absurd political fantasies. Which of course makes things even worse – we can’t go back to where those fantasies gained a foothold.

We constantly forget the do nothing option, or do whatever is necessary and no more. Instead we flounder around in a political environment where being seen to do something is the basic rationale, the basic driver of all major political movements. Consult the UK coronavirus debacle as an example.

Yet a sceptical, stay with what works approach is the only way to mitigate our inability to go back to where we first messed things up. We have to foresee the potential for messing things up. It’s a balance, but not a difficult balance, merely a case of paying political attention to the do nothing and do as little as possible options.

Take just one example of many – mass immigration. The do nothing option was no mass immigration. Simple. Now there is no going back to a world with no integration problems. Now we can’t even acknowledge it as a major blunder.

Soon the do nothing immigration option will be forgotten. A past where better decisions could have been taken will be forgotten as time moves on until the last of those who knew the live structure are swept away with it.


Sam Vega said...

"We cannot... revisit the career we should have chosen..."

My fantasies about being a government scientific advisor are pretty well-developed, to be honest. It must be particularly bitter-sweet for you.

Andy5759 said...

It amazes me that when informed of a potential problem the first things politicians ask is "What shall we do?". I wonder if there is a department in Whitehall listening out for people saying "The government should do something about it".

Sackerson said...

Colonel Brighton:
Look, sir, we can't just do nothing.

General Allenby:
Why not? It's usually best.

- 'Lawrence of Arabia' 1962

A K Haart said...

Sam - crikey no. More nightmare than fantasy for me.

Andy - the media must take much of the blame - it's so easy to point the finger at government for almost anything, however trivial. The stories almost write themselves.

Sackers - yes, doing nothing appears to have been more generally plausible than it is now.