The National Theatre, and Austerity | Henry George

It is irritating to see how often half-truth and outright lies are given credence by supposedly serious people and the institutions they inhabit. The number of times over recent years that private and public institutions have given support to narratives that are simply untrue is now almost uncountable. Whether it is businesses compensating for embodying vulture capitalism by promoting social justice causes, or public institutions making up for people in their past having been the flawed, historically contingent humans they were by doing the same, adherence to fashionable causes is now taken for granted.

Last week the National Theatre jumped onto the woke bandwagon, proclaiming its credentials as part of the aware group, thereby proving its moral stature. The logic of intersectionality means that the more identity boxes that can be crossed off in any new endeavour, the better. This time, the venue announced that it was pleased to be putting on a play, All of Us, by disabled comic and socialist activist Francesca Martinez. This play apparently deals with the theme of the struggle to survive for those who don’t fit in modern Britain.

The National Theatre released a tweet announcing the run of this new play, with the quote “Austerity has caused the death of over 130,000 human beings in Britain.” This was taken from Francesca Martinez’s appearance on BBC Question Time in June last year. She had spoken out, according to the National Theatre Twitter account, presumably for all those not lucky enough to have the platform of the BBC Question Time audience, as well as many readers and comedy audiences.

Is what she said actually true? Is the Conservative party directly responsible for the deaths of 130,000 people? The answer is speculative to say the least. As both Channel 4 and Fullfact show, the figure of 120,000 comes from a BMJ Open study in 2017 that ties a rise in unnecessary deaths to cuts in health and welfare spending. As Christopher Snowdon writes, it cannot really be proven one way or another, and it “cannot be called a lie because it is impossible to disprove, but it would be a lie to call it a fact because it cannot be proven.” We don’t really know, and to act as if we do for certain in accordance with a political narrative is an act of disingenuous rhetoric that borders on propaganda.

Propaganda is not too far off the mark given Martinez’s activism for Jeremy Corbyn and his allies. Corbyn’s support for disabled people makes the fact that she is a Corbynite of the highest order unsurprising. On the other hand, if you’re disabled in one of the regimes he supports, like Iran or Venezuela, or happen to have a learning disability in Gaza that attracts the attention of his friends in Hamas, well that’s your bad luck isn’t it? Now, be quiet while Jeremy’s fighting for your anti-imperialist regime against the oppressive imperial West. From this, one might get the impression that Corbyn’s support for disabled people does not rise much above shallow political expediency. Martinez’s support for Corbyn allies like anti-Semite Chris Williamson and terror sympathiser Salma Yaqoob follows a similar pattern, as part of the great struggle against the fascist Tory right at home and the forces of Western imperialism abroad. As we can see, these self-proclaimed internationalists become surprisingly provincial when necessary to protect their narrative.

This narrative, couched in half-truths and distorted facts, is inherently divisive. It’s not unusual for places like the National Theatre to run events, plays or exhibitions that have a political message. The problem is that an identitarian activist posture is now adopted by large parts of the world of art and culture that appeals to almost no-one. This is communicated in a hectoring, lecturing tone that demands that the bigoted, ignorant, morally indecent public notice whatever the cause is and atone for their sins by learning the error of their ways from more enlightened, creative people who bless them with their clarity of moral insight born of accident of birth.

The placement of the deaths from austerity at the beginning of the tweet strongly implies agreement with the moral impulse, if not the substance of the claim that Martinez made. Despite protestations, The National Theatre has given its institutional imprimatur to what is really speculation, but which in the hands of a socialist activist is made specious by its political usage. Institutions like the National Theatre are, ideally, meant to provide a space for people to come together for a purpose, to participate in and enjoy together pieces of art.

As Claes Ryn argues, works of art shape our view of the world, allowing people to discern both the reality and potential of our human condition. Art speaks directly to individuals. And yet “The reader of a superior novel does not feel alone but is, on the contrary, intuitively aware of other possible readers in the very moment of reading.” Artistic works provide a path to meaning. This “meaning is intensely personal” while not being a source of isolation. Art is an icon, that points beyond itself, allowing us to reach the universality of the good, true and beautiful from our particularities of history and culture. Art is therefore “meaningful precisely because it links unique individuality with universal humanity.” This synthesis of universality and particularity affirms us in joy and consoles us in sorrow.

Taking a position in our culture war as the National Theatre has done hacks through the bonds that still remain between us, severing us from these resources of sustenance for our higher humanity. Those not possessed of the immutable identities of those like Martinez are left alienated from these sources of meaning and from each other, unable to participate in the common life enabled by places like the National Theatre.

This not only applies to those who do not share Martinez’s disabled reality, but also to those like myself who happen to have a disability and agree with Martinez on precisely nothing politically. For her, being disabled is a means to making a political statement, a political statement the National Theatre validated. All must conform to the inevitable left-wing slant of these statements, or else engage in treachery towards the struggle against the enemy. For those not wholly defined by identitarian characteristics and who dissent from this worldview, the assumption of agreement is profoundly irritating and speaks to a condescension that lies behind a mask of apparent compassion.

Is it not too much to ask that our cultural institutions, which are meant to provide a public space for a coming together in common purpose, refrain from this sort of thing? It seems that this is so, and we are left with even fewer points of common contact with which to remind ourselves of our shared, flawed humanity.


Photo by The Mirabel Foundation on Flickr.

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