Or was that 2020?

Sometimes it’s difficult to disentangle 2021 and 2020, the ‘Pandemic Years’, in the same way that 1939-1945 became conflated as the ‘War Years’. Like the two world wars, much of our pre-pandemic way of life is lost forever. Some will be lamented but not all, for example, many celebrate a partial reprieve from the stress of the daily commute on packed public transport, among other things. And although, like prolonged post-war prosperity, it may take a while to appreciate what has been gained, some unexpected benefits have already emerged, starting with revolutionary new vaccines and treatments for illnesses that have blighted humankind since it first crawled out of the swamp and some who never got around to crawling out or otherwise prefer to remain swamp bound.

Speaking of swamp dwellers, the pandemic seemed to be the perfect time for despots and would be despots to throw their weight about. With Trump, the reptile-in-chief, taking the lead, so many rigged elections and military coups ensured that it was hard to keep count: Myanmar, Guinea, Sudan, Belarus; the list goes on. In fact, anyone trying to keep count, or try to tell the world of what is really happening is liable to find themselves locked up for a very long time. Truth continued to be re-defined. The Chinese government saw the ideal opportunity to close its borders and claim it was top dog in managing pandemics that brought the chaotic West to a standstill, conveniently ignoring that the virus probably came from them in the first place, and throwing a hissy fit at any sensible efforts to establish whether it did or did not – which lead most people to conclude that it almost certainly did. And woe betide anyone who dares say otherwise, or indeed say anything the Chinese government doesn’t like, as Hong Kongers are painfully finding out.

Repeating its 1973 Vietnam trick, America pulled off an ignoble exit from Afghanistan, yet again demonstrating to friend and foe alike that it cannot last the distance and providing a handy update on how long its staying power in fact is and, thus, how long it takes a motivated guerrilla army to defeat the world’s most potent military force. China, Russia and Iran, among others, took note. Speaking of allies letting you down, from the comfort of your EU living room, you could enjoy the spectacle of Scott Morrison, Australia’s haplessly incompetent prime minister, selling his countrymen down the river again, by expensively walking away from a contract for a fleet of French submarines in favour of a fleet of British-American ones. With unquestioning obsequiousness, he did what Boris told him to by not inviting the French to bid for the new submarines, thereby ensuring that the French could not win again, and thus ruin Boris’ chances of a desperately needed post-Brexit win. Until then, known as ScoMo, he earned the sobriquet SlowMo: Boris’ perfect, big, slow-moving target.

And while we’re still on the subject of swamps and reneging on contracts, Britain is at it again. Minutes after crowing that Brexit was finally ‘done’, Frosty the No Man, Britain’s unelected bureaucrat and Lord of Brexit, took it on himself to decide that we now have to (yet again) go through all that tortuous negotiating over fish, sausages and Ireland because, well, he seems to have lost the first time. Like any over-entitled brat, he responded by demanding the rules be changed so that he wins. Brexit was bound to entertain; unless you are caught up in it. And entertaining it is turning out to be. With two weeks left to go until we discard 2021, is Boris finding out the hard way that a cabinet chosen for its “loyalty” rather than any talent is bound to crack and melt as soon as it comes face to face with the harsh glare of electoral defeat? With neither talent nor, as it turns out loyalty, Frosty may not be leading, but emulating his boss by tempering his personal integrity by circumstance. About a century ago, a columnist for the Daily Express called JB Morton, popularly known as Beachcomber, wrote of a fictional poet who, no matter how much he tortured the English language, could not force it to reveal its true meaning. As apt today as ever.

So, just as its now received wisdom that democracy is under threat, language is taking a battering too, to the extent that you wonder if the general idea of increasingly garbled language is to drown out free speech by making it unintelligible. It turns out you don’t need poets to torture a language. And not just a language: spare a thought for those ‘locked down’. Being treated and talked about like an item of furniture that needs to be bolted to the floor, lest it starts moving about, either of its own volition, or the volition of a scurrilous villain, cannot have been fun. How relieved those souls must be to have their shackles removed! And how tricky it must have been to be stuck to the floor while perpetually on the move as you worked ‘from’ home? Forever on the way to some unspecified destination rather than at home or at work; where you might actually have got some work done.

But wait. Are these not mainly questions of preposition? Being ‘locked down’ and ‘from’ home at the same time seems to be a mainly anglophone phenomenon and might go some way to explaining why anglophone countries tend to be so much less productive than their continental European peers, who demonstrate unambiguously that you can reduce close contact and risk of infection without being taken for a piece of furniture. The French say ‘confiné’ and ‘télétravail’, confined and working remotely respectively. The Italians say ‘in isolamento’ and ‘telelavoro’; the Spanish, ‘confinamiento’ and ‘teletrabajo’, while the Germans adopted ‘der Lockdown’ and ‘Homeoffice’ more or less directly from English. Mostly much less ambiguous, not to mention tortuous, than the bolted to the floor anglophones, stuck in Sisyphean motion as they hopelessly try to get some work done while clinging to the handrail in the Tube on the way from home to somewhere or other.

2021 brought other mind bending and meaningless phrases, not to mention confused thinking. Given the ink and megabytes given over to ‘cancel culture’, you could be forgiven for thinking that the phrase actually means something. But read enough of the spilled ink and listen as you may to the megabytes of MP3s and MP4s, and meaning is persistently elusive, leaving you with the uneasy feeling that something is missing; like when an app suddenly disappears from the home page of your phone and you can’t quite put your finger on (sorry!) what it is that’s not there anymore. Verbs were not spared. ‘Woke’, normally understood as the past tense of ‘to wake’, became an adjective. As far as anyone can tell, it is now used to describe anything that reactionaries, rednecks, assorted conspiracy theory adherents and swamp dwellers would consider unacceptable. Does it make you want to ask what was wrong with ‘enlightened’?

New words do not make old ideas new, but some can make you cringe. And usually succeed in obscuring clarity of thought and critical analysis. 2022 will, alas, probably be thought of as another ‘pandemic’ year. Some of us will be grateful if it at least returns some clarity of thinking and expression.

Featured image by Canva.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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