Whenever I arrive in San Francisco I wonder to what extent the denizens of the city realise that they are taking part in a petri-dish experiment demonstrating the bitter consequences of far-left politics. The pleasant location and weather are layered over by generations of local political inducements to indigence, street-dwelling and every form of addiction. It feels as the world might after a real financial crash. Well-off residents live away from the centre or in high-rise blocks, while the streets below are largely populated by zombies, straggling around day and night, howling at the pavement and cursing the moon, amid the dense city smog of marijuana. It is a whole society in need of an “intervention”.
Looking for respite I head to the famous City Lights bookstore, which through being a home of the Beat poets has at least some tenuous connection with civilisation. Strangely, the contents of the shop only exacerbate the sense of atomisation. Even more than in most American bookstores the stock is divided according to particular identities. So there is a gay section, a black section, a “radical” politics section, and so on. I find a book called Against Equality, which turns out to be an essay collection by “radical” LGBTQI (add at will) writers opposing same-sex marriage. One essay begins: “I’m a feminist, a Taoist, a sadomasochist, a femme, a nerd, a transperson, a Jew, and a tattooed lady. I’m a certified Post Traumatic Stress Disorder survivor. I’ve got piercings in body parts I wasn’t born with.” And so on and so on. Here is the logical endpoint of social breakdown: everybody so busy cataloguing and categorising themselves and their “issues” that they hardly bother to find out anything interesting in the rest of the world. I locate a book on Montaigne (in the “Europe” section) and scarper, wondering how he would have started an essay in the San Francisco style.
As it happens, in my luggage I have Michael Coren’s new book, Epiphany: A Christian’s change of heart and mind over same-sex marriage. I know Michael a little from appearing on his punchy talk-show on Canada’s sadly now-defunct Sun network. Behind the pugnacious televisual façade is a deeply thoughtful and learned man. Now he has added to one of my favourite branches of literature: accounts by people explaining how and why they have changed their minds on a subject. What is most moving is that the book makes at least as strong an argument for Christianity as it does for an acceptance of gay marriage, and demonstrates what Christian love should look like. I am fairly sure the book would not be stocked at City Lights, but if it were which category would it be under?
While I am there, Donald Trump secures the Republican nomination. I decide that one of the ways in which I will save time this year is by ceasing to read predictions. I know of almost no pollster, prophet or pundit who expected this. Indeed, for months I have heard, read and watched them all explain how impossible this eventuality would be. As I land back in Britain, the Chancellor, George Osborne, is trying to terrify the public by pretending that he knows what Britain’s GDP will be in 2030 in the event of Brexit, as opposed to the GDP of the country that same year if Britain stays in the EU. This from a man who cannot predict the financial state of the next three months accurately.
Although we may be no good at predictions, it would be nice if our societies were able ever so slightly to improve our remembrance of the past. Our inability to do so at least brings some amusements.
Last month, one BBC headline involved a story about Gerry Adams. It reported an Adams outrage which had been followed by an immediate apology. Could it be that the Sinn Fein president had apologised for the murder of mother-of-ten Jean McConville and others torn from their families, tortured, shot in the head and their corpses then “disappeared”? Or the thousands killed and maimed in other IRA atrocities? No such luck.
Adams had been watching the film Django Unchained and unwisely chose to tweet a remark comparing black slaves in 1800s America with residents of Ballymurphy in 1971. Alas, in the process the newly self-defined “human rights activist” unwisely used the N word. In a heartbeat the language police on social media descended. Before long, a whole generation of social justice warriors seemed to have discovered that Adams was not a nice man. Perhaps sensing that he had done something really wrong this time, a press conference and formal apology from Adams for the use of the N word came within hours. I cannot take much comfort from this. Perhaps in an age of virtual outrage only virtual crimes seem real.