Democracy Café

Meeting of the Democracy Café via Zoom on 10 October 2020

We started with the intriguing question ‘was it wrong to wish ill of the President of the USA, Donald Trump?’  Trump has recently tested positive for the Covid-19 virus and spent some time in hospital.

It would be fair to say that everyone was in a quandary with this question since while no one would wish ill of anyone, Trump’s actions in relation to the pandemic, particularly his many statements about not wearing a mask, and also his treatment of Julian Assange led one to believe we would be a lot better off without him.

It was an example of the ends justifying the means.  It was pointed out however that Trump represented the views of many millions of Americans – witness the packed out rallies and vast crowds wherever he went.  He stirred visceral emotions which would remain even if he was no more.  Grayson Perry’s recent programme was referred to and how he found it difficult to find people who were in the middle in America and not extreme right or left.

In America there is a rising movement of far right people with violent intentions.  We were reminded of this following a series of R4 programmes about the Oklahoma bombings and Timothy McVeigh.  It was suggested that members of these groups might react violently if Trump loses the election next month.

The question was posed: ‘what if Adolf Hitler had been assassinated in 1939?’  What would have the course of history looked like?  Both arguments (POTUS or Hitler) assumed that by removing one man, the problem would be solved.  What if they were replaced by someone worse?  In any event, we were left with very difficult moral arguments.  We were reminded that this very day was the World Day Against the Death Penalty.  So wishing someone dead didn’t feel right.

The concept of virtue ethics was raised and the idea of intrinsic morality.

The discussion moved onto the whole issue of how it was that Trump was able (or ‘allow’ someone said) to say the things he does.  He seems to destroy any notion of truth.  Some find it funny but his lies are not challenged.  There are Republicans who are uneasy it was noted.  Whatever the result of the election, the country will remain deeply divided.

This session ended with a kind of lament about both the UK and America – why can we not have evidence based government?  Why indeed.

The second half of the debate moved on to discuss a related topic namely the role of science in decision making.  The government has frequently claimed to be ‘following the science’ in its handling of the pandemic yet they seemed to misunderstand what science was about.  Science can only ever give a best guess about what the truth was at any given moment.  This is subject to constant refinement and revision as new evidence emerged.  Science should inform government decision making but it cannot be slavishly followed.

It was felt that we were not told or reminded of previous epidemics.  A number had occurred and various responses tried.  Some had serious effects whereas others had not become as serious as was once believed SARS for example.  It was not always clear that lessons were being learned.  We were reminded that so-called ‘Spanish ‘flu’ (which actually started in Kansas) was of the H1N1 type the same as Covid-19.

The point was made that the government were in a kind of ideological bind.  On the one hand they were believers in small government, the superiority of the private sector, low taxes and minimal state intervention but on the other – to deal with the pandemic – they were being forced to act like a socialist government with massive intervention and high levels of state control.  This ideological split might be making it difficult for them to decide on what to do hence the abrupt changes in policy.

There were arguments looking at costs and benefits of different approaches of not following lockdown.  If one weighed up the costs and took into account the hidden cost to those in isolation for example, then lockdown does not seem such a good idea.

Finally, we noted the changing attitudes to risk which in a way have become unrealistic.  Once upon a time we used to accept a level of risk as a normal part of life.  In recent decades we have become progressively risk averse and more and more laws and regulations have been passed to contain them.  It was however impossible to be perfectly risk averse.

Altogether, an interesting debate about how government governs with some ideas about why it fails to do so, spectacularly so in both America and the UK.

Peter Curbishley

Relevant books:

  • The Good Ancestor, 2020, Roman Krznaric, WH Allen
  • Plagues and Peoples, 1976, William H McNeill, PBS
  • The Rules of Contagion, 2020, Adam Kucharski, Profile Books

Update 12 October. An article discussing this topic was in Psychology Today