As little merit as the prime minister believes comparisons between the UK and other countries have at the moment, it’s pretty difficult to ignore the similarities we share with another flailing nation: the United States.
From comparably moronic responses to the pandemic, to similar stakes in systemic discrimination, we can, at times, appear near mirror images of each other, our respective nations’ hubris one step closer to destroying us all by the day.
The more the ill-preparedness of the leaders we do have is made clear, though, the louder our voices seem to have become. So, with that in mind, I’d rather not focus on the people who’ve made a bad situation hellish right now. What I want to talk about are the ways in which we can seize this moment for ourselves and keep vital conversations going.
What inspired this spate of optimism, you may wonder. I’m not sure I have any other way of describing it than being honest; I’ve been reminded of the merits of hope. Watching Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” on Netflix a couple of days ago, a documentary beautifully shot and directed by Nadia Hallgren, it was hard not to be.
Back when Ms Michelle Obama graced the Southbank Centre for the first part of her “Becoming” book tour in December 2018, the great danger out there was Trump. Yet even after half a term of his chaotic leadership — and in the UK at the time, Brexit and Theresa May — the former first lady’s audiences both here and abroad seemed galvanised once more after hearing her inspiring reminders that “going backwards doesn’t mean the progress wasn’t real”. As if, after years of being mired in doom, the very prospect of change had been green-lit by Michelle Obama herself. In the documentary, that inspiration-rousing spirit is just as strong, whatever your personal view of her politics (or her aversion to discussing them).
“If we can open up a little more to each other and share our stories, our real stories, that’s what breaks down barriers. But in order to do that, you have to believe your story has value,” she says, at one point in the film.
I believe that’s a fact more of us are waking up to now. Particularly those of us who are invariably on the vulnerable side of the equation, the ones used to being offered up as collateral damage at the first sign of trouble. The great danger out there may be bigger now, so big that it may fundamentally change how we socialise forever. At times like these, we need to talk to each other.
When the disproportionate deaths of Bame people from COVID-19 became public knowledge in the UK, it was the voices of that community that rallied against the compulsion to shift the discussion back towards scientific racism, going to great efforts to share information publicly and among ourselves when it became clear the government wouldn’t.
In the US, when Ahmaud Arbery — the 25-year-old black man who was shot and killed while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia, by a white man and his son — became known to the masses, it was because of similar efforts from the people that his name and that crime were known worldwide, leading to arrests a shocking 74 days after he was shot. When Taser-happy police in the UK began to abuse their powers under lockdown, it was, as it always is, the voices of ordinary people, activists and experts alike who refused to let up.
And when the needs of migrants, women facing domestic violence, homeless people, newly unemployed practitioners, teachers and others became more desperate by the day, it was the people who spoke up and made themselves heard, proving time and again that we are much stronger than we’ve been led to believe.
In the absence of political leadership — even with it — we’ve always had ourselves. It’s why, in one of the more difficult to parse scenes in Becoming, Ms Obama becomes so incensed by the lower turnout of black voters in the 2016 US election. Though the lower numbers are true, and her frustration is worth interrogating, one thing was clear: even to this awe-inspiring woman, people’s power, both in silence and action, was palpable.
They say globalisation is dead; in social terms, it’s never seemed more alive. We are switched on with each other, all over the world, all of the time. The same cultural exchange between the UK and the US that initially made us feel, symbolically at least, like the arrival of the Obamas was our victory too, can continue in this pandemic. It doesn’t have to stop solely because of the physical distance between us. Many of us are going through the same things; many more of us could teach each other important lessons.
Whether it’s forging discussions between workers and trade unions; live panels dedicated to re-imagining entire industries; advising communities about their rights; or discussions between artists, such as the recent one between Becoming director, Nadia Hallgren and a dozen other creative women in the UK, our activists, community figures and neighbours are quietly chipping away at the moulds many of us have been forced to stick to.
It may be naive to fixate on hope at a time like this. But though I’ve not always bought into the idea, as the former first lady says in Becoming, that these countries are “good, people are good”, numerous examples of idiocy in both countries aside, it really does feel a little more believable now.