(Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The ecstasy of sanctimony

In defence of Dominic Cummings, by his neighbour

A terrifying, tree-shaking shriek of rage erupted as the egg-splattered car carrying Dominic Cummings halted outside his house on Monday evening. The journalistic inquisition to which Cummings had just voluntarily subjected himself had done nothing to diminish the fury of the people who had travelled long distances to yell in his face that he had been wrong to make a long journey. Inside the building they besieged was Cumming’s four-year-old son who had recently spent a night in a hospital. They had no compunctions about terrorising him: he was collateral damage in a morality play. Nor were they deterred by the knowledge that Cummings was privately mourning the death of his beloved uncle: his grief was worthy only of contempt. What confronted Cummings was not a cluster of selfless citizens defying social-distancing rules to illustrate his own failure to uphold the lockdown regulations. It was a mob on the hunt for what Philip Roth called the “ecstasy of sanctimony”. And its menacing presence on Cummings’s doorstep demonstrated that, for all his misjudgements, he was very far from exaggerating when he said that he had evacuated his family to Durham partly out of fear that his London home might be attacked. 

A day before the prime minister announced a UK-wide lockdown, a report in the Sunday Times had succeeded in creating the impression that Cummings was an unfeeling psychopath who had championed “herd immunity” even if that meant immolating the elderly. 

Now, the media that helped make Cummings the target of the public’s wrath faults him for seeking to protect his family from it. It demands his decapitation to pacify the public outrage it incites. The third item on Monday’s BBC News at 10 attributed “Whitley Bay’s busiest day during lockdown” to “Dominic Cummings’s visit to the North East”, which had apparently made it “harder to enforce the rules”. We are being warned that the entire British public will shed their common sense and place themselves in grave danger if Cummings is not punished by Boris Johnson. The only way for the prime minister to avert mass suicide is to perform ritual slaughter. Cummings disrespected ordinary people by flouting the rules. The British media infantilises them. 

Commentators who spent years trying to overturn Brexit are now the most energetic wielders of pitchforks against the “elitism” of Cummings

Cummings, it is true, is unhealthily powerful. It is true also that he is being devoured by the passions he once so recklessly provoked. These truths exist alongside another truth: the hounding of Cummings is not remotely tantamount to holding power to account. It is an act of self-valorisation by what is possibly the most solipsistic journalistic community in the world. It could devote itself to exposing the staggering failure of the government to prepare Britain for the coronavirus after the contagion reached Europe. But it would rather claim a scalp and call it victory. Infinitely more urgent stories—from the fall of Hong Kong to the implosion of the economy—have been tossed aside to keep this worthless theatre going. Cummings is an especially big prize because he refuses to pay obeisance to the omniscience of the media. If anything, his achievement is to have revealed the intellectual emptiness of the media. It is not a coincidence that commentators who spent the past four years trying to overturn the result of the Brexit referendum are now the most energetic wielders of torches and pitchforks against the “elitism” of Cummings. Nor is it surprising that those who cavil at every opportunity about the perils of Little-Englandism are in this moment immersed in the worst kind of navel-gazing. To all who love Britain, this is a tragic sight.

One needn’t sympathise with Cumming’s politics—or even agree with his actions—to recognise the insincerity of his tormentors. “Regardless of whose fault it is,” one journalist asked Cummings at the Downing Street press conference, “why shouldn’t you resign?” Indeed! How could an individual conceivably protest his innocence—how could he continue to repose faith in his own memory and sanity and version of events—when the British media in its all-knowing wisdom had decreed that he has sinned? It would be so much easier to play the part scripted for him—to say sorry and to slink away into oblivion. It’s infuriating that he won’t. This is a squalid little drama, and the most contemptible thing about it is that it is being staged as a tribute to the “sacrifice” of the British people. 

For them, there is right and there is wrong. Between the two—that interstice where human life messily unspools—there can be nothing

Cummings chose to violate the rules he helped frame when he drove his family away from what he considered to be an unsafe location. Millions of others obeyed his rules and stayed put despite mounting personal tragedies out of selflessness or because they had no choice. And yet those who cite the latter to rationalise their abuse of the former are not honouring national or individual sacrifice. They are participating in what Roth in The Human Stain called “piety binge”. They are so totally conditioned by the certainty of their correctness that they cannot countenance the “anarchy of the train of events, the uncertainties, the mishaps, the disunity, the shocking irregularities that define human affairs”. For them, there is right and there is wrong. Between the two—that interstice where human life messily unspools—there can be nothing. “The people of Islington South & Finsbury can always be relied on to say it as it is,” Emily Thornberry tweeted gleefully in reaction to a video of a vicious mob heckling Cummings as he walked alone to his home on Monday. It was like a “struggle meetings” in Mao’s China, where the proletariat was encouraged to draw solace from tying up and upbraiding women and men identified as their oppressors. That simplification of life and history was the prelude to a full-blown campaign of terror. Whatever your view of  Cummings, or of any other figure who has become a target of the mob’s passion, be wary of feeding its mood. One day, as Cummings’s own trajectory shows, it may turn against you. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover