It was the blood-soaked sock and trainer that did it for me.
Perhaps it’s because my own son is close to the now-dead boy’s age, but the video of a man weeping over the body of his 16 year old son, and stroking his head, in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol devastated me.
I knew it would be bad when we are first shown the sock and the shoe, bright shiny scarlet on the tiled floor. I knew it would be bad. But that bad? A man howling and cradling his dead son’s head?
My mind immediately goes to my own son and our trip into Hoops Heaven in Perth city just on a week ago, where he bought his latest pair of basketball shoes. He saves his pocket money and seems to purchase more pairs than he probably needs, although his feet keep growing out of every shoe we buy him long before the shoes themselves are worn out.
I watch my boy as he grows. As he leaps in the house to touch the ceiling, the imaginary crowd cheering his even more imaginary slam dunk. His lithe brown shirtless body angling up and tipping the plasterboard, oblivious to my grunts of annoyance at the array of grubby fingerprints he leaves on the pristine white. Just six months ago it was to touch the top of my office’s tall glass door, too high for me to bother wiping off the whorls. Six months before that the lintel of his bedroom door. I wonder what his reach will be in six months time?
And then I see that video, that bright, stained sneaker and hear that deep, chesty weeping, and something clutches my heart. There will be no more leaping for this boy. Only weeping for his father. That sound, that sound! That awful sound!
I’m not linking the video here, goodness knows you can find it if you want. I can’t even bring myself to share the still shot of that shocking shoe. The video also shows a doctor writing a note to place on a small body – a 23 day old baby – so that those involved in any future burial – and there may be no one to conduct that burial for some time – knows the child’s details.
Or perhaps it’s the deep, almost manic terror and exhaustion on the face of the nurse in the maternity ward as she leans against a wall, her face scrunched up to stop her screams as the rapid noise of bombardment is heard outside. Or the rows of bodies lined up, their feet on display, with the sheets covering them dappled red.
Or even the desperate looks on the faces of the desperate people as they bunker down for another long, fearful night in one of the few safe spaces still available to them.
Ah, “safe spaces”. Remember those? They were supposed to be the places that well-heeled, well-educated, fabulously wealthy Western students at elite universities required when an idea that they viewed as “violent” came onto their campuses. Safe spaces were the places where those on one side of the culture war could happily live without having to be bombarded with, well, with ideas from the other side.
You see, once upon a time in the minds of so many young, eager elites in the West, ideas, – verbal opinions that did not match what we thought life was supposed to be like -, were the most violent aggressions that could be imposed upon victims.
So violent were these ideas, or so the narrative in Critical-Theory-Land goes, that the only way to get rid of verbal violence was to use physical violence. Anything to create a safe space for a victim. Physical violence was the new game in town. Anything to stop verbal violence. Actual violence wasn’t actually violence because it was stamping out the real violence in our culture, the violence of ideas that I don’t like.
But that was all so February 2022. And now here we are half-way through March.The war in Ukraine has, I hope, blown the sheer self-indulgence of that idea out of the water. Like a shell landing in that safe space. Not an actual shell. Actual shells are, it seems, the reserve of the poorly-heeled, poorly educated, and actual poor of the world in far off Ukraine.
And doesn’t it just seem like five minutes ago that all our young hip and happening types were turning their noses up at democracy? I mean, like, what has democracy ever done for us? Ok Boomer and all that. Democracy, it turns out, had had its day. Nobody wanted it. We didn’t know what would replace it, but it was bound to be rainbow coloured and safe. Nobody would be missing democracy. Nobody that is, except those who were suddenly experiencing the loss of it.
I do hope that what is happening in Ukraine is shocking us out of all that nonsense. I do hope that what is happening in Ukraine is a poke in the eye to the excesses of those who have rubbished Western ideals to the point that now, rather embarrassingly, they’re being left behind as the West starts to figure out what it actually stands for again.
And that’s not to excuse many of the things in the West that are wrong. Let’s not mistake the West for Christianity. But let’s not deny either – as so many of our elites have done – that the Christian framework has presented us with one of the most liveable cultures on the planet – ever.
Yet so often even the mention of Christianity has been embarrassment to those who think themselves to have moved past such primitive ideas. Hence when the EU celebrated its sixtieth anniversary a few years back, it raved on about the wonderful cultural foundations of the continent, without ever mentioning its Christian foundations. Wonder if the EU will get another sixty years? Not, I would suggest, without a gospel resurgence.
You see, by “liveable”, I don’t mean “Hey I like those drapes!” or some other vestige of consumer lifestyle, but liveable in the “We’re not being slaughtered at a wholesale rate” way. Tyranny has been checked, despite what the Professor of Cultural Studies at Syracuse may say. Yes, yes, of course, rave on about the Graeco-Roman foundations of our intellectual discourses, but Rome wasn’t all toga parties. Life was nasty, brutal and short, for many people. Christianity put the brakes on that. The bloody games of the Colosseum were not shut down because Romans became too intellectual to stomach them.
And now? Now there’s a great big meaning hole in the centre of the West. A meaning hole that allowed English Premier League clubs to grow fabulously wealthy, all the while turning a blind eye to how the oligarch who pays the bills got his money in the first place. Bread and circuses have been the order of the day. Turns out we scored an own-goal with that one. Chelsea may once again turn out to simply be a fashionable suburb in London with a football team that bounces up and down the lower divisions. Mind you, when my club Arsenal has Emirates plastered all over their stadium, you have to wonder, What price success?
But know there’s a meaning hole in the centre of the West when the president of the free world offers the Ukrainian leader a helicopter trip to safety, only to be rebuffed. Why was he rebuffed? Because there’s something beyond equality for transgender athletes in sports that seems more important right now. And lest you think I’m being churlish, that free world president’s recent State of the Union address covered both topics – Ukraine and trans rights in sports – with equal gravity.
And that meaning hole has sucked in the generations of the West who should be preparing themselves for what will seem to be much darker and rougher decades ahead. The moral and intellectual fat has been pared back to the bone. But take note, the education system has not failed at this point. It has done its job spectacularly.
My daughter comes home astounded from university that her peers were super-impressed by what to her was a bread-and-butter discussion around the source of morality. “Deep!” they say, as if they’ve only just thought about what makes morality moral. Which of course, they have.
If shallow virtue is the soup du jour, then any little bit of pushback is going to impress them. Impress them or scare them off to the safe spaces in which transgressive ideas are starved of oxygen. There they will sit, sucking the last vestiges of Ventolin from late modernity’s self-centred and self-affirming intelligentsia, wondering why they are so amaemic.
When it comes to a moral centre, the West is a lost cause looking to find one. And it’s not been from want of trying. It thought that it had found it in globalisation, and free trade. It thought it had identified the real problem: a victim-led rights-based agenda to enable you to flourish as a human, or whatever sentient being with which you wish to identify.
The West, especially in Europe, is finding to its great cost that not believing in “something” as opposed to “anything” isn’t a multilateral game. When the hard Left in Europe failed to usher in unilateral disarmament, it took the next best course, unilateral deconstruction. When you don’t believe in anything beyond the need for reliable cheap gas from a tyrant, you’re always going to be shocked to discover others will die – and will almost certainly kill – for what they believe in.
Two years ago I wrote that the COVID pandemic would be a mini-apocalyptic event: it would reveal what was really driving us, what we truly valued and what we believed in. It would pull back the curtain and give us a glimpse on what gives us meaning. And it surely did.
And now? Now that we have an actual maxi-full-blown apocalyptic event on our hands? The curtain has been torn asunder. And we are left standing there, scrambling to pick up the fragmented pieces of a meaning framework that in our hubris we had tossed away.
Yet even with all that being said, it boils down to this for me: a blood soaked sock and trainer, with the sound of a weeping father in the background.
And I determine to go home, to hug my son, and to shoot hoops – not guns – with him, and all to the echoing staccato of kookaburras in the eucalypts on an early autumn evening in far away Australia. Not oblivious to violence, it is Noongar land after all, and not without a wayward sense of meaning, but grateful nonetheless for a space as safe as this.