27 August 2013
In the early years of Thatcher I remember a conversation with a triumphant right-winger (a self-described bastard) in which he snorted with disdain about ‘people who care.’ I knew what he meant and I still do. On the one hand there is the whole caring industry, always seeking out new ways in which we must care; on the other hand there is the bloated welfare state with all its injustices and ineffectiveness.
Personally, being hyper-empathetic (or so I am told (critically)), I do a lot of caring, but I distrust any attempt to institutionalise the impulse, either by civil servants or the cast of Woman’s Hour. Yet, having drifted leftward, I can no longer tolerate triumphant right-wingers (aka bastards). That neo-con/neo-lib, anti-conservative generation has been proved wrong about everything of significance – primarily, wars and equality. They have some good points about welfare spending, but they have no right to make them because they persist in failing to condemn or act upon the financial industry’s multiple crime waves.
The first caring dilemma was caught, as it so often was, in the greatest of all sitcoms, Frasier, with a slogan for the Golden Acres rest home – ‘We care, so you don’t have to’. Turning caring into either an industry or a government programme runs the risk of relieving us all of the burden of mutual concern. In sending grandad to a nursing home, we are caring as much or more for ourselves than we are for him.
The second dilemma is abstraction. Can we care in the abstract – for all people – or do we need specific subjects? The first is a requirement of Christianity, the second of a certain type of realism. I am with the first because I agree with Dostoyevksy – ‘Man, man, one cannot live quite without pity’ – but I sympathise with the second, even though I have less and less patience with people who claim to be realists.
These thoughts came while listening to, you guessed it, Woman’s Hour in which, as usual, various people were demanding we care about certain other people. This sort of thing is as much of a contemporary luxury as designer luggage – I am writing this at Heathrow – and, often, as absurd. We were being asked to care about people who were suffering nothing more than the normal vicissitudes of the human condition, or, as they would now be called, ‘first world problems’. But, obviously, some vicissitudes can be soothed by people who care, so presumably they should be, assuming at least some cost-benefit analysis is involved and, assuming further, that the soothing did not do more harm than good – by, for example, encouraging the victims of said vicissitudes not to help themselves.
Of course, we now know of every, as it were, vicissitudee so we are subject to constant demands to make up our minds about whether we care. This may be a good thing. There need to be voices saying we should care to ensure that we don’t cease to care at all. I am, at this moment, caring about Syria because I suspect that whatever happens next will be even worse than what is happening now – the usual outcome when Tony Blair is keen to start shooting. I believe, in short, that the voices of those who demand we care are civilised voices. The demands may be annoying, impractical and absurd, but sometimes they aren’t. They belong in the marketplace of ideas. The anti-caring bastards had their chance and they blew it. They now don’t have a leg to stand on. Perhaps they need a carer.