The true nature of a nightmare is not that terrible things happen. They do but that isn’t at the core of the nightmarish. It’s that they are received as normal. There’s a disconnect between our fear and the lack of alarm. We’re being chased by a murderer with knives and no one seems to care. The end of the world is upon us and people act like nothing is happening. The monster smashes down the door and dinner is served. The ship is sinking, so shall we put the deck chairs here, like this, or in a crescent.
So when we say we live in nightmarish times, this is what comes to my mind.
Terrible things have happened in the past, but there has – or at least seems to have been – an appropriate level of alarm. A response of some kind. The most terrifying thing about the Trump presidency has been the institution of the new normal around him. How he stands with world leaders, attends summits, meets monarchs, is deferred to by a press corps he openly despises. And then there’s the spread of hate-mongers. Katie Hopkins – an atrocity shaped like a woman – appeared on an Israeli current affairs program billed as a ‘filmmaker and journalist’ when she is in fact neither. And then there’s populism. In Italy, Matteo Salvini is not only criminalizing humanitarian actions, criminalizing in effect the political expression of kindness, but squadristi are also roaming the streets of Rome. Fintan O’Toole quite rightly warns: ‘Forget “post-fascist” – what we are living with is pre-fascism.’
These are my nightmares: the crumbling of democratic norms, the promotion of hateful rhetoric, the inaction on climate change and a slide towards authoritarianism. And meanwhile the must active opposition seems to be coming from late night talk show hosts armed with the invincible weapons of cutting irony.
But of course other people have other nightmares and these nightmares are not as valid as my nightmares. You see, another quality that defines our nightmarish reality is that nightmares don’t actually exist. They are dreams – as Scrooge tells the ghost – the result of indigestion: ‘There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are.’ The nightmare begins when you begin to take our nightmares as literal facts. So instead of dealing with immigration, you deal with people’s fears of immigration. The former can be done but requires some hard thinking: the latter is almost impossible. It’s like promising to get rid of once and for all of existentialist angst. The nightmare merchants of conspiracy theory have run wild also and so a third of the French population believe that vaccinations are unsafe. So we could close our borders and pull our duvets tight under our chins as our children start crying in the next room.
So whose nightmare is real? As Philip K. Dick once said reality is what is still there, even when you stop believing in it. My panic should take into account that I’m not alone in worrying about the permafrost melting. Far from it. Finally, climate change is being taken seriously by large numbers of people and national governments – Canada and Ireland only this week – are beginning to implement far more ambitious policies to deal with it. Likewise, Brexit is the Pyrrhic victory of anti-EU populism. The best argument against the Anti-Vax movement is proving to be measles. With our children once more in danger of a life-threatening disease, the right to hold a factually incorrect opinion is proving less than fundamental.
The indifference is over; the game is afoot. Liberalism and progressive