Spirit of our Time

Our local mini-supermarkets, of which we are blessed with half a dozen or so within a short walk, are each adopting different systems for queue management during these times of enforced social distancing. My favourite is the line of blue dots on the pavement outside Sainsbury’s, carefully measured out and aligned to provide a standing spot for each queuing customer exactly 2 metres from the next and unwittingly providing a slalom course for kids on skateboards. In general, the system is obvious but of course there are people with selective cognisance systems who will, for one reason or another, fail to understand how the concept works. The sense of purpose the security guard at the store has now aquired is palpable. Previously almost totally bored – and frankly, who can blame him – he is now one of our unsung coronavirus frontline workers, diligently keeping track of the ins and outs whilst being also mindful of his day job of tracking our local shoplifters.

Whilst on my little blue dot yesterday, it struck me how quickly we’ve become watchers and judges of others’ behaviours, particularly now we’ve got a nice clear set of rules we can apply. No longer are we too worried about who the muggers and bandits might be. It’s just so much easier to spot the two metre violator or the non-essential dog walker. This could easily turn out badly. I have read, probably in a hyperbolic article but one that may have an element of truth, that a police force in England is recruiting local curtain twitchers to report movements of citizens to and and from the shops and local beauty spots if they believe their amblings to be non essential. It seems the first summons has in fact been issued by a police force for this ‘offence’. Please correct me quickly if this is fake news.

If you grew up in East Germany you would recognise what is going on here. The two moderators of social behaviours, the law and the zeitgeist, are being interwined and conjoined to create a set of apparent police powers which do not in fact exist unless we choose to allow them to exist. I do not believe there is a police power to stop anyone going for a walk, but I do believe they would like us to believe that there is. We choose not to because we are all doing our bit, because this is the spirit of the time.

Two forms of policing took place in East Germany. There was of course the community policeman, the ABV – Abschnitsbevollmachtiger- one of the ‘Vopo’ Volkspolizei who generally knew what was going on in town and nicked the local drunks and horse rustlers. Everyone knew who this was. There was a great deal of give and take between the locals and the Vopos with little debts owed to each other and late repayment rewarded with flat tyres on the Trabby in the morning. This opens up the possibility of bribery, of course.

On the other hand, there were the snitches. The ABV was being watched. So was almost everyone. They were being watched by each other. These snitches were organised by the stasi – the Staatssicherheitsdienst – who were responsible for state security. This was an organisation which policed thoughts and attitudes. The job of the stasi curtain twitchers was to help the stasi to exploit what people wanted to achieve, or what they wanted to hide. Supersnitches at the top of the local pyramid scheme weren’t obvious, their mission in life to use psycho-bait to trap people. This didn’t allow room for bribery, only fear and mistrust between citizens as they wondered which of their drinking buddies was recording boasts of indiscretions in the pub and reporting these to the state.

It can happen and did happen. This is Britain, of course, so it couldn’t happen here. I want the police to police the law, and I know this opens up the possibility of bribery and corruption. I do not want them to police the zeitgeist, because with that comes the certainty of fear, resentment and suspicion.

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