I still remember finishing William Golding’s Lord of the Flies way back in university and being profoundly shaken by its narrative.
The title of the novel itself is a reference to Beelzebub or the Devil and it is a story of a group of boys between 6 and 15 who get stranded on what appears to be an idyllic island without any grown-up supervision. As if to illustrate the devilish metaphor, the boys get dirtier and filthier as their savagery, their innate impulse towards immorality, become more manifest.
What the book posits is stark and ugly: at best, there is but a thin veneer of civilisation over society and it takes very little for it to be stripped away to reveal humanity’s dark, and possibly real, face.
With Covid-19 unleashed all over the world, people are adjusting to a new normal that is honestly terrifying. The other night I watched the news on television only to see a clip that chilled me. It showed a long line of people waiting outside a store in Los Angeles.
They, men and women both, were waiting to buy guns. The US newscaster on CNN seemed just resigned and not shocked. It was like people were expecting some breakdown in law and order: a possible fraying of society that gave them the right to arm themselves to be, as the Scouts say, “prepared.”
It seemed to portend Lord of the Flies all over again.
If any nation should know better, it’s the US. One shoe-bomb was all it took for shoes to be security-screened at airports but thousands of shootings later, the US continues to fervently preach the rights of its citizens to bear arms. You’d think that would at least come with the right of its citizens not to get shot.
The United States used to lead the world. It no longer does thanks to a dangerously incompetent President in a seemingly rudderless nation. China is the real surprise today. It is ahead of the crisis and is providing both leadership and aid to the rest of the world.
While it does the right thing, Mr Trump flails about looking for others to blame. To add insult to injury, he stokes xenophobia at home and abroad by insisting that the pandemic is caused by a “Chinese” virus.
Doesn’t that qualify as hate speech?
It seems unreal coming from a US President and the so-called Leader of the Free World. Truth be told, he barely qualifies to run a small asylum. Or perhaps we should be charitable and remember Bonaparte: “Never ascribe to malice what can adequately be explained by incompetence.” In Mr Trump’s case, it took him almost four years to industriously work his way towards near-total ineptitude.
Maybe it’s the little things that should hearten us.
Like my daughter telling me that the neighbours in her apartment block in Amsterdam had formed a WhatsApp chat group among themselves to look after the needs of an elderly man who lived by himself. The city is now in lockdown.
Like a Sikh gurdwara in Subang Jaya offering free food delivery to people down on their luck. And a temple in Australia offering the same. Like the countless people all over the world helping the sick, the elderly and the needy. Like the courageous healthcare professionals working around the clock to keep the wolf away from our door.
It’s these innumerable courtesies that help keep “kind” in humankind.
And God bless the humourists for keeping things in perspective. A friend sent me a photo yesterday. It showed a beaming Jho Low. The caption read: Be like Jho. Practice social distancing!