“There is no such thing as society.”
Those words were used for years against the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, not least by her opponents in the British Labour Party, including an articulate up-and-coming Labourite named Tony Blair.
The Iron Lady gave the interview to a women’s magazine in 1987, and ever since, her remark has been used to suggest a hard-heartedness to the poor. Her friendly but judicious biographer Charles Moore, in his new third and final volume of her life, argues that she was not rejecting the social ties that bind communities.
“There is a living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves … prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate,” Thatcher said in an unpublished part of the infamous interview.
“Her metaphor of the tapestry showed how she felt people were intertwined with each other,” Moore says.
Perhaps, but for Labour spokesmen it provided a generation’s worth of arguments that cutting “the dole” or other benefits was a rejection of society’s obligations to the unfortunate.
Is there such a thing as society, when one is confined to one’s home by a faceless but relentless virus threat? Does the current crisis lead people to see the need for more common action by government, especially given the profound differences between the sacrifices made by workers and executives, and by the sweeping nature of executive orders in Louisiana and in other states?
By their nature, emergency powers such as those exercised by Gov. John Bel Edwards are temporary. But the image of the strong executive acting in a crisis has so far seemed to make him more popular, particularly given his narrow reelection last fall.
Even President Donald Trump, whose reaction to coronavirus was stutter steps and hugely incorrect predictions, has seen higher approval ratings lately.
In a larger sense of — yes — society’s expectations, is coronavirus an important change beyond 2020?
Louisiana's history, marked by more than its share of disasters, provides some guides. An obvious one is Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where the poor performance of President George W. Bush’s administration was a national embarrassment.
But earlier, author John Barry’s account of the flood of 1927 made a powerful argument that society’s expectations of reactions to national disasters were changed by that tragedy. A future president, Herbert Hoover, marshaled resources to aid victims of what might have been perceived before then as a terrible but local catastrophe.
Hoover had also been in charge of relief for Belgians starving in the Great War ending in 1918. His actions in the Mississippi River valley may have laid higher expectations on government, leading to the Depression-era activism of Huey P. Long and Franklin D. Roosevelt, author of the New Deal that changed America in the 1930s
Congress, despite last-minute ideological struggles between the parties, has rushed to throw money at the coronavirus crisis. That is a sign that today's Capitol is more Huey’s world — and FDR’s — than what Labour said of Thatcher, that she had a creed of selfish individualism.
Thatcher herself, in another part of the infamous interview, said that the rules and obligations of community apply to everyone unless “you live totally isolated and alone like Diogenes in the tub.” She referred to the Cynic philosopher who chose to live in a barrel, ostentatiously showing himself superior to the baser appetites of humanity.
We do not so live by choice in these days at home. Still, many of us count upon government action to help. We expect Washington and Baton Rouge to fight the virus directly. We also want the feds to pump huge amounts of borrowed money into the national economy — even directly into our households' economies.
It is too early for historical projections, but it is out of crisis that precedent is born, and a rise of empathy might have profound consequences for society — as Thatcher might say, whatever that is.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.