In early November, I went to bed for a month. I have a pre-disposition to clinical depression, although nowadays it is something I usually manage successfully, lovingly packing my citalopram tablets into every handbag like a diabetic who’s careful with her insulin. Winters are often hard, and this autumn there had been a few stresses among my friends and family. But, first and foremost, I was in a state of political despair.
I am not the only person, by a long shot, who was left despondent by the world in 2016. Unlike most of my friends in the arts and media, I wasn’t floored by the vote of the British people to leave the EU: I had friends heavily involved in campaigns on both sides, and while I have a bourgeois aversion to self-administered economic shocks, it is hard to shed tears for a corrupt bureaucracy.
The murder of Jo Cox MP, a week earlier, felt like more of a seismic shift. With Jo’s death, we became a nation that kills our representatives – not, as when Ian Gow was killed by the IRA in 1990, by an organised insurgency, claiming allegiance to a foreign identity – but by a bubble of anger, the decentralisation of hate. For every woman who works and writes in the public eye, the reports of Thomas Mair’s online activity looked like something that had crawled out of our inboxes and our Twitter mentions, out of the morass of rape threats and hacking attempts, and picked up a gun.
Other people will have different reasons for finding it hard to go on last year. For some, the massacre of 50 people at a gay club in Orlando revived their worst memories of vulnerability; for others, the images of Raqqa are burned into the brain.
For me, November marked the crash. In Syria, Russian rockets blasted into the last remains of Aleppo, a city whose citizens I have spent three years working with, crying with, futilely trying to help. In the US, the land in which I spent my formative college years, reports swirled that Russian hackers had helped propel a demagogue into the White House, a man whose traffic in hatred is matched only by his intellectual instability. It seems this is Putin’s world. We just live in it.
If you’ve read to this point, I’m not sure if my litany of despair has done you much good. Perhaps it’s made you angry. Anger can be useful, channelled into action; it can also lead to more destruction. The German theorist Fritz Stern has laid much of the blame for Nazi success on the depressive inertia of nation’s most prominent cultural philosophers – conservative Jonahs whose loud lamentations for the decline of German creativity only generated self-loathing, rather than renaissance. His 1961 book, The Politics of Cultural Despair, makes uncomfortable reading in 2017. Despair is not always helpful.
It can be particularly dangerous among instinctive conservatives like myself. You don’t have to be a typical leftie to be appalled by Trump: not-so-secretly, I’m convinced that John McCain would have done a better job had he, not Obama, won the White House in 2008. The apparently inexorable reach of Vladimir Putin’s arm depresses me because, for my sins, I still believe that the old Cold War axis, “the West”, offers something unique and essential to the world. Or it used to.
The problem with conservatives, even liberal conservatives, is we don’t believe in progress. So, like Stern’s culpable German philosophers, we’re better at criticising our nations than rebuilding them. Conservative nostalgia is an easy pathway to passivity. It makes us bad activists – successful conservative campaigns, like that to exit the EU, are actually run by utopian libertarians.
So what is helpful? What’s the cure for political depression? For one thing, liberal conservatives are going to have to borrow from some of the left’s irrepressible optimism. But if my last few months of lethargy and dark doctors’ waiting rooms have taught me anything, it’s that all those in search of a cure for our current political malaise could do well to look at recent advances in the mental health ward. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, or CBT, is today’s wonder cure – but what does it actually entail, and can it save a country as well as it can a person?
CBT is all about breaking unhelpful mental patterns. It’s also about the art of the possible. Under pressure at work? Find one request you can reasonably make of your boss. Determined to run a marathon to feel better about being obese? Start by using the stairs instead of a lift.
In politics, focusing on the big picture can often seem overwhelming. The future is bleak; there are a lot of battles that the forces of liberalism seem unlikely to win. When I think of Trump in the White House, Erdogan imprisoning critics in Turkey, martial law in the Philippines – I could continue – I curl up and go back to bed. When I think about the two refugee friends who I’ve got coming to stay next week, I scurry up and start readying the bed linen.
Looking to 2017 isn’t easy. One of the hardest aspects, for all of us, will be the recalibration of who we seek as allies. Defeating fascism means that right-liberals, like me, might have to stop quibbling over the size of capital gains tax with our leftist friends if we’re to all get along together at the marches. But I’m beating depression one small step at a time. Our best hope in our battle with political despair is to try the same medicine.
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