Staying at home doesn’t make us heroes

I don’t particularly like the constant war analogies used about fighting coronavirus. However, when someone like Matt Hancock conjures up the Blitz spirit, urging us to pull together ‘in one gigantic national effort’, I think of that cliched question: ‘What did you do in the war, Daddy?’ Forget the sexism, what will our answer be to future generations? The fact is that millions of us will have to reply: ‘I did nothing, I stayed at home.’ That raises a real dilemma of lockdown society: are we being socialised into concluding that passivity is a positive virtue, argues Claire Fox in The Spectator.

In the 1915 war recruitment poster “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?”, designed to shame people to enlist, a daughter poses the question to her father sitting in an armchair, while her brother plays with toy soldiers. The propaganda may have been crudely guilt-inducing, but historically, heroes don’t earn plaudits for sitting out any call to arms on the sofa.  You don’t need to be a fan of wars or militarism to note that heroic action – whether being prepared to be jailed as conscientious objector or putting your life on the line by joining the Resistance – creates a sense of meaning when society faces a huge challenge.  Facing the Covid-19 enemy, what meaning will we derive from being told we’re brave for doing nothing?

This is not an argument against lockdown. I have mixed views on its efficacy, but am prepared to consent to its temporary demands as a necessary evil. However, I am arguing that we shouldn’t celebrate lockdown society, and I have a warning: we need to be careful of the cultural conclusions we draw in responding to any major crisis. Another iconic war poster illustrates the point. 

Rosie the Riveter symbolised the heroic quality to being actively engaged beyond hearth and home. The drafting of women to work in factories and on farms as part of the war effort may have initially had a coercive element, but many relished that – at last – they were making a positive, practical contribution beyond the confines of the home. It gave millions of women a new taste of freedom. Here was a chance to acquire new skills, to be treated as equals in the workplace.

Hence a wartime mobilisation became a collective experience of playing a socially useful role in the public sphere.  Its cultural and political reverberations shaped social change in the decades that followed, sowing the seeds of the women’s liberation movement. In contrast, the present ‘war’ against a virus is social segregation; we are demobilised back into the private sphere, freedoms restricted, our skills left to go to seed, our work ethic damped down. When we ask, what can we do to help, we are told to stay put, do nothing, watch Netflix. In such circumstances, it is difficult not to become lethargically alienated from taking responsibility for the fate of society. Is there a danger that our role as active citizens will become side-lined as a consequence?

Read the full article here.