In one of the most striking chapters of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov Grushenka tells Alexei a story, a parable of redemption:
Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’
It is a story grounded in a philosophy of the world rather different from those prevalent on social media today, a case of one good deed being sufficient to offer an opportunity for salvation, regardless of all else, rather than one bad deed or mistake being sufficient to warrant damnation, regardless of all else, as in the ideologies of the new sectarians of cancel culture.
For the latter audience the Prime Minister has, on multiple occasions, done more than enough to warrant damnation, but he does, I think, have a good claim to an onion in the way that he handled vaccine procurement decisions. The same might also be said of Sir Patrick Vallance, whose contribution to the establishment of the vaccine task force may have been indispensable.
By this singular decision-making process, many lives have been saved and many serious illnesses prevented, and one interpretation of recent movements in the opinion polls is that the old philosophy still has a considerable following in the imaginations of a large section of the public.
However, Grushenka’s story does not end with God’s judgment, it goes on:
“The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ He began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.”
The moral of the tale now is that the vaccine episode offers only an opportunity for redemption, which can itself be cancelled by subsequent bad conduct. Empathy offered must be reciprocated, in the manner of Grushenka and Alexei in Dostoevsky’s novel. In contrast, the peasant woman reverts to type and thereby condemns herself.
So the question is: will Boris revert to type, or has he learned something important from the vaccine procurement exercise? Will the empathy implicit in the Prime Minister’s instruction to Kate Bingham – “Stop people dying” – persist, or will what is to come be yet another illustration of the occupational mental disease of the powerful – hubris, the great destroyer of empathy.
In the Covid period, hubris has been the ever-present mentality in the development of those policies labelled as ‘non-pharmacological interventions’ (NPIs), a euphemism for politically repressive social policies. These have been mega-scale social experiments conducted without recourse to the normal methods of policy making – e.g. regulatory policy impact assessments are nowhere to be seen – and with apparent indifference to the sufferings they have caused, in many different ways, to millions.
Even now, with the onion lowered, the hubris continues. The Chief Medical Officer sees visions of 30,000 dead if the old ways are not maintained. Using a different metaphor, ‘the vaccines are not a get out of jail card’ says he, but that is precisely what they are for those who would play the card, a means of liberating a whole population from oppressive, harmful restrictions. It is understandable that a jailor might not be entirely happy about the emptying of his jail, but the rest of us should be able to see that that sentiment likely rests heavily on self-interest.
The hopes of those suffering most depend heavily now on being pulled from their troubles by Boris’s onion, at the fastest possible speed. Will he let them, or will he kick them away, letting them linger a while yet in the lake of fire?
First published by Reaction, 10 March 2021