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Paul Vallely: In the midst of chaos, listen for hope

25 January 2019

The temptation to despair of the world should be resisted, says Paul Valley


The President of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa

The President of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa

BAD news from Zimbabwe. Soldiers and police have reacted violently to protests on the street, after the new government doubled the price of oil. We have been here before, of course, with this combination of extreme economic incompetence and brutally repressive behaviour. But then the functionaries of the new government are the same individuals as served Robert Mugabe for the previous 38 years. A snake can shed its skin, but it remains a snake, as the African proverb has it.

Yet the West cannot look with superiority on the place that we used to call “the dark continent”. The wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, the United States, currently has a government shut down by self-inflicted political paralysis. Here, in Britain, our Prime Minister has just suffered the biggest defeat in parliamentary history, and yet stumbles on, as if in some parallel universe, reoffering tweaked versions of the deal that has been so soundly rejected. A second referendum, she claims, would risk social cohesion, as if we have any at present anyway.

Can it be a coincidence that there is political chaos in so many places? And we have not even mentioned the new demagogue President in Brazil, or the perils to peace from politicians in the Middle East, Russia, Korea, and China.

All my life, I have cherished the notion that, despite occasional setbacks, there is a basic progress in the history of humankind. Now, the niggling thought occurs that perhaps history is circular rather than linear. Maybe Hobbes was right, and anarchic conflict is integral to human existence — something that it was easy to forget throughout the past half a century of peace and prosperity, which could now turn out to have been a happy anomaly.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Trump and Brexit, they have been a salutary reminder that, even in the affluent West, there are swaths of discontented alienated people who have been left behind by the benefits of globalisation. Careless elites in Britain, Europe, and the Americas — as in Africa — are now paying the price of having neglected that fact.

The result feels as much a spiritual crisis as a political or economic one. In the face of the morning news, it is easy to succumb to a numb despair. Despair, I recall from my schoolboy Catholic catechism, is one of the manifestations of “the sin which cannot be forgiven”, to which Jesus refers in Matthew 12.31. Other expressions of it, I recall, included presumption, impenitence, and obstinacy. I wonder whether Theresa May had an Anglican version.

The problem with despair is that it locks us into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This morning, I was just about to switch off the relentless news on Radio 4 to escape to Petroc Trelawny’s world of delight and creativity on Radio 3. But, just then, the indefatigable Fergal Keane came on talking about the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Dr Abiy Ahmed, who has released political prisoners, created an ethnically balanced government, and opened the country up to the investment that will bring growth.

The good news is out there, but you have to listen for it.

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