Let us be angry, and not fearful

A culture of anger can help us to regain control over our lives. A culture of fear sends us striving pointlessly for a risk-free life

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It's not exactly surprising that the government chose this weekend to leak the news of its multi-million pound compensation package for those affected by variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. After all, by the end of this week, the long-awaited report on political mishandling of the BSE crisis will be out for all to see, fuelling the flames of people's discontent. For once, the Government is trying to sidestep accusations of being arrogant and out of touch, by trying to douse down the fury that has been voiced by the media and interest groups.

It's not exactly surprising that the government chose this weekend to leak the news of its multi-million pound compensation package for those affected by variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. After all, by the end of this week, the long-awaited report on political mishandling of the BSE crisis will be out for all to see, fuelling the flames of people's discontent. For once, the Government is trying to sidestep accusations of being arrogant and out of touch, by trying to douse down the fury that has been voiced by the media and interest groups.

In doing so, the Government has tried to read the mood of the country - and has got it right. The mood is one of fear and one of anger. As far as BSE goes, the fear never seems to go away. It seeps from the pronouncements of experts, from conversations in butchers' shops and supermarkets, from interviews with politicians and farmers and doctors. Anything can make the fear rise up again.

Just last week, professor Harriet Kimbell, a government advisor on BSE, hit the front pages after she disclosed that she had laid down the law to her teenage sons in France this summer. "I told them not to eat beef. They were upset." Suddenly, the little bavette or chunky cote de boeuf that thousands of British holidaymakers had consumed on their summer holiday in the Dordogne started to loom large in their minds.

And then, a couple of days later, came the news that batches of polio vaccine were being withdrawn after it had been discovered that calf serum had been used as a growth medium. Panic again on all sides, from the typical woman interviewed in a typical newspaper - "All my daughters have had this vaccine, and so a question mark hangs over them all. It's extremely worrying. It's a terrible situation" - to the commentators who decided that the vaccine could have "infected an indefinite number of millions of people", and who called for "a shakeout of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food".

Are these waves of panic wholly rational? Sure, we don't yet know how long the incubation period for CJD might be, and so we don't know how many as yet undiagnosed cases might be about to erupt. But we can say that 14 people died of variant CJD in the first six months of this year. Fourteen - a tragedy for each family. But you could compare it with, say, the 15,000 people who died of lung cancer in Britain in the same period. In France, the death toll from variant CJD so far amounts to two. Does that make your steak in a Paris restaurant look a little more tasty again, in retrospect?

If these fears are not always entirely rational, that doesn't stop them affecting people deeply. And they certainly don't stop with BSE. No other generation has so eagerly subjected itself to such a rollercoaster of scares. There are health scares, above all, from fear of the sun to fear of sex to fear of over-the-counter cold cures (which were implicated last week in a higher risk of strokes); but there are also all those others, from fear of crime to fear of transport disasters.

It seems as if the longer we live and the safer our lives are, the more we tremble, the more we shake. Any report of any kind of disaster - even one with incalculably tiny risks - seems to spawn a flurry of desperate anxiety. A little girl is killed, and everyone's children are kept at home. A rail accident kills four passengers, and rail travel is deemed a "lottery". An aircraft crashes, and all the planes like it are grounded. Ask not for whom the front page speaks, it speaks for thee.

An interesting little book published this week, The Tyranny of Health, by Michael Fitzpatrick, a GP who practises in Hackney in London, argues that health scares have now "acquired a virtually continuous presence in the life of society, coexisting with an unprecedented level of free-floating anxiety about health".

He says that the patients whom he sees in his east London clinic can be divided between the actually ill, who still get a poor deal from the overstretched NHS, and the deluge of the worried well - the middle-class young people who are shaking in their shoes at the prospect of, say, contracting CJD from beef or getting thrombosis from being on the Pill - and who insist on endless screenings, appointments and reassurances, no matter how healthy they are.

Yet for the worried well, life has never been so safe. We live longer than ever before, our food is safer, crime is falling, our trains and roads are no more dangerous than in previous generations. But still fears are hyped, so we give up uncooked eggs one year, beef the next, we don't let our children play in the streets, and we call up the helplines to find out if we've been given a vaccine that almost certainly poses no real risk to our health.

What lies behind these surges of anxiety? It's interesting to note that the public and the media tend to alight on scares that can be fed not just with fear, but also with fury. What most have in common is that they are fed and watered by our dissatisfaction with "them", a faceless establishment that seems to direct our lives and over which we have absolutely no control.

This is, surely, part of what lies behind the vigour of the BSE scare. Even if the risks involved in eating beef in France or of having had a polio vaccine are incalculably small, the point is that people feel that they have been hoodwinked. Although thousands will happily light up their Marlboro Lights, laughing in the face of well-known big risks, a tiny risk of a mysterious new disease becomes so compelling partly because it seems to emanate from the depths of a callous, faceless establishment.

As the BSE-CJD report will no doubt confirm, secrecy, dilatoriness and inefficiency ruled. And that simply confirms what most people now feel about politicians - they have the right to affect our lives without the responsibility to be honest with us. It isn't hard, then, for the public to believe that "they" would rather let us die of a horrible new disease than put themselves to any trouble.

This fury with the establishment also came to the fore after the Hatfield disaster. As commentator after commentator argued, rail travel remains the safest way to get about in Britain. But that didn't stop anyone trying to increase our fear and anger. Rail travel is "not as safe as it should be", all agreed.

This fear is based not so much on the real risks of death, but again by the presence of a huge faceless establishment that is already the target of our anger: the rail companies. We hate them for that long and freezing evening we spent without a cup of coffee on Doncaster station, waiting for the London train, and the lack of any decent compensation after it arrived two hours late. We hate them for that filthy ride to Weymouth when half the passengers had to sit in the aisles. We hate them so much that we do believe that they would let us die, quite happily, in pursuit of profits.

But perhaps we should be more alert to the way these scares affect us. There is a thin line between a culture of fear and a culture of anger. A culture of anger can help us to regain control over our lives, helping us to call bureaucracies to account when they are sloppy and secretive, and to stand up for our rights.

But a culture of fear sends us striving pointlessly for a risk-free existence, exaggerates the dangers inherent in everyday life, and only reinforces that sense of loss of control. Which culture will prevail? It's our choice.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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