Natural Justice.

Natural justice isn’t something we spend a lot of time thinking about. Years ago when I was working on the roofs with Kenny Smith, he got paid more money than me. Let’s say he got £65 and I got £50 per week.  He was a roofer and time-served, could measure the roof out and bang down tiles quicker than a labourer. I accepted he should get more than me, which isn’t the same as liking it. We travelled together on the train and came home together, but one week I asked him how much expenses he got.

I can’t remember how much more Kenny got, but let’s say he said he got six quid more than me. I thought it was a mistake and when I asked the boss, he’d sort it.

The boss didn’t sort it, but he sorted me. Kenny was a tradesman. I was nothing. I could like it or lump it.

We’re going through the phony war with coronavirus. It’s something that happens in faraway places like China, then European countries and places a bit closer to home. We hear about people we know ‘self-isolating’ and laugh about it. Perhaps we’re more worried about whether Celtic or Liverpool should be awarded the league title. The idea of natural justice comes into these arguments. Partisanship and different biases dictating what position you take.   

Those most skilled in the use of rhetoric know the best position to take is to claim the moral high ground. In the biography of Lyndon Johnson, for example, United States Senators such as Richard Russell urged other Southern Senators to moderate their language (for public consumption) and talk about civil rights and  reframe arguments about hating niggers and willing to start another race war before they’d give equal voting rights, equal rights in employment, housing and education. Russell promoted the idea of separate but equal. Claiming the moral high ground makes you look senatorial, while name calling—niggers this and niggers that—makes you sound moronic.

A timeline of the moron’s moron in the Whitehouse gaffes and ad-libs about the corona virus goes unseen or is largely ignored by his supporters who continue to believe he is doing a good job as President, while his detractors highlight not who he is, but what he is.

Ally Mc Coist can claim the moral high ground with his claim that, of course, Celtic should be elected champions, but only after they have played the remaining eight league games. Otherwise they would be given something they have not earned.

We don’t like giving people something they have not earned, unless of course, they’re billionaires like Richard Branson.

The Johnson government has until now had a pretty good run in their handling of the coronavirus. No gaffes, no outright lies, like Trump. The Tory government advices British citizens largely to self-isolate and wash your hands, which is good advice based on the current data. The next stage is shutdown. We’ve already begun that slow progress with schools shutting next week. Police and army clearing the roads and streets and a pass needed to travel.

 Chemist shops in Dalmuir, for example, are also busy as people stock up on prescription medicines creating a backlog and longer waiting times. Now we’re getting to the nitty-gritty with supermarket shelves clearing. My advice based on a dystopian novel I began to write years ago (but abandoned, like so many others) was don’t begin to panic buy until others begin to panic buy. I noticed the shelves in Asda are clear of most tins as people stock up. My thoughts weren’t how many more tins of beans I could squeeze into my rucksack, but what would happen to the foodbanks?

All of that stuff we don’t really care about because it’s not us, hits us. You can’t eat money. The vast majority of folk that start their day in debt and finish their day in even more debt (the working class) are separate but equal. People that rely on foodbanks have nowhere to go. An economic model based on the assumption that charity for the poor is a good thing, has quickly pulled the ladder up as wages go unpaid and business such a local pubs in Dalmuir go out of business, schools shut and nobody can offer childcare (while nurseries try to claim money for a service they haven’t provided—good luck with that). The sham of sickness pay coming under the Universal Credit government umbrella and  taking four to six weeks to process suddenly hits a lot of people hard, especially when they queue lengthens and they can’t get somebody to talk to on the phone. You find out the hard way that some people are expected to live on less than £100 per week and pay for everything else at the same time. Those people you looked down on have now become you. Usually that sort of thing doesn’t happen until you’ve got cancer or some other major illness and divisions of class and gender, for example, largely disappear.

Them has become us. Let’s claim the moral high ground. I deserve much more than they do—(fill in your reasoning here and apply for the next space on the defunct Jeremy Kyle show). It’s survival of the fittest.  As supermarket shelves clear and we fight over toilet rolls and steal hand wash from hospitals, we’re in the like it or lump it school and the harsh lesson I was taught as a teenager. Imagine, for a minute, you’re an immigrant, waiting to gain entry to another country. That’s not difficult for me as a writer. Perhaps it’s too much of a stretch of your imagination. Well imagine your mum or dad, being turned away from the hospital, as doctors and nurses practice triage on life support as they are doing in parts of Italy. Imagine your child dying? Or your child motherless? These are no longer storylines for would-be writers. These are the harsh realities of who lives and who dies. Who claims the moral high ground on the best of the terrible choices available?

Ask yourself is that fair?

Natural justice isn’t about legality, but morality. It’s about exposing lies and making the best of bad choices. The coronavirus has exposed the fault lines in our society. The lie of trickle-down economics that takes money from the poor and gives it to rich billionaires like Branson or Trump.  Let’s hope it changes it for the better in the same way the Beveridge Report changed post-war Britain. I’m pessimistic, but I’m still alive, so there’s hope. But if I needed intensive care and there was somebody younger than me that needed urgent healthcare and they had children, I’d like to think it is only right and proper they get first dibs, no matter how much, or how little money they had. That’s my version of natural justice. That was the kind of idea we had when we set up the National Health Service. But it also extends beyond healthcare, to life in general and how we organise our society. Natural justice demands much more of our society. Ironically, the coronavirus is a practice run for when global warming begins to bite.  

Marilynne Robinson (2004) Gilead

Gilead was winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  I’m sure I’ve read it before. And I keep picking it up and re-reading bits because I don’t know where I left off reading. It’s a story in which nothing much happens but life. A dying man writing a letter to his young son, who’s is young enough to be his great-grandson. It’s 1956 and the narrator is pondering whether he should vote for Eisenhower. And in recalling how his life didn’t amount to much more than a bushel of corn – American history, prior to the Civil War springs into life. The bloom of wisdom is on every page. This is a book you could read backwards, sideways or upside down and it would still make sense.

‘I, John Ames, was born on the Year of Our Lord 1880, in the state of Kansas, the son of John Ames and Martha Turner Ames, grandson of John Ames and Margaret Todd Ames. At this writing I have lived seventy-six years, seventy-four of them here in Gilead, Iowa, excepting study at the college and seminary.’

He’s the preacher son of a preacher son of a preacher son. His view of life is thereby constricted or heightened. ‘One benefit of a religious vocation is it helps you concentrate.’

His grandfather, for example, was a kind of living saint, who carried a gun and fought against slavery in the Civil War.

‘When someone remarked in his hearing that he’d lost an eye in the Civil War, he said, “I prefer to remember that I’d kept one”.   

Jesus was more real to his grandfather that his own son or grandson.

‘My grandfather told me about a vision he’d had when he was still living in Maine, not yet sixteen. He’d fallen asleep at the fire, worn out from a day helping his father pull out stumps. Someone touched him on the shoulder, and when he looked up, there was the Lord, holding out His arms to him, which were bound in chains. My grandfather said, ‘Those irons had rankled right down to His bones.”’

That’s why his grandfather became an abolitionist, not because Jesus told him to, but because Jesus showed him to. His grandson lacks that certainty and that fire. He burnt the best sermon he reckoned he ever wrote not because it wasn’t true, but because it might have offended some people and that might have been no good. His grandfather carried a gun and had no truck with not offending people, if God made that call.

Gilead’s narrator, as a kindness, does not speak about God’s wrath in the aftermath of the Spanish flu.

‘People don’t talk much about Spanish influenza, but that was a terrible thing, and it struck just at the time of the Great War, just when they were getting involved in it. It killed the soldiers by the thousands, healthy men in the prime of life, and then it spread to the rest of the population. It was like a war, it really was. One funeral after another, right here in Iowa. We lost so many of the people and we got off lightly. People came to the church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit far from each other as they could. There was talk of the Germans had caused it with some sort of secret weapon, and I think people wanted to believe that…

The parents of these young soldiers would come and ask me how the Lord would allow such a thing.’

Reading that now, with its fake news and resonance of what is happening now, but with the much less virulent coronavirus it would make you think Robinson had a hotline to God. Great writers always sound as if they do and Marilynne Robinson doesn’t need to preach the point. She’s a writer of words that hymn in harmony. Read on.