Spring is springing, and with it the quotidian miracle of new life on many fronts, not least in the fifteen centimetres of unpromising dirt that hems one side of our house block. Hard by the corrugated iron fence that daily prevents violence by separating me from my neighbours has sproinged into existence a minor forest of tiny nectarine trees. Once you know what they are, they are as winningly adorable as any vulnerable young creature. A delightful sight – and also the first evidence that these tired eyes have ever seen that the stone in stone fruit has any purpose other than to break mammalian teeth or, if well aimed, the equanimity and goodwill of other children.
The companion of my joys and sorrows will not, I trust, mind overmuch me saying that she is not customarily given to whimsy. Perhaps it is yet another magical effect of spring, then, that caused the thought to enter into her head of attempting to sell some of the seedlings to passers-by. We have a house well situated for such an enterprise, occupying the closest block to the local school, past whose portal hundreds of parents must drag their offspring ten times a week. It is partly for that reason that, in honour of Lyle Shelton, a large rainbow flag has, for the last few weeks, fluttered, if periodically a bit soggily, out front. In keeping with the developing theme, therefore, my occasionally better half hit upon an advertising strategy that consisted of a small, A-frame blackboard promising to enrich the life of Willunga’s more progressive gardeners by supplying them with “gender-neutral nectarine trees”.
The ensuing conversation recalled to my mind an essay I wrote in second-year biochemistry, in which I discussed the sometimes intricate mechanisms employed by plants to avoid the catastrophe of self-fertilisation. The human taboo on incestuous couplings has, it is said, its deep rationale in avoiding the reinforcement of dangerous recessive genes in the offspring of close relatives. How much more pressing a need, therefore, must be felt by plants which, frequently bearing both male and female sex organs, must worry not just about outrunning their brothers but also getting knocked up by themselves, conceivably without even noticing, I assure you, officer.
I could recall, from those balmy, cannabis-saturated days of my undergraduacy, that not all plants face this difficulty, as some are true sexual heteromorphs. Whether that is the case for stone fruit I was eager to learn, and I hied me accordingly to the nearest available internet. What I learned was that one should never, under any circumstances, google “tree sex”, if one hopes to retain a sunny disposition and a freedom from uncontrollable Parkinsonesque twitching.
I am old enough to remember a world when the internet was new and, ipso facto, also a time when it was possible to be optimistic about its societal effects. With the coming of the net, it seemed, people might truly now speak peace unto other people, and the strident shout of nations become the convivial chatter of multitudes. That the result of all of this truth would be justice and the global triumph of democracy was, if not inevitable, at least plausible.
That it hasn’t turned out that way is, of course, regrettable, if fascinating. The emergence of the new media landscape (drink!) as an information battleground (drink!) over which evanescent psyops manipulators flit like malevolent spectres looks set fair to provide the voters of the near term future with quite a few problems, and not a few opportunities for employment, but in a sense ‘twas ever thus. Propaganda is as old as Babylon, and horseshit as old as the horse. We will find a way to navigate the sewers, even if we don’t yet know quite what the next generation of buckets and shovels will look like.
But optimistic as I am on that front, I am assailed by a more general anxiety, and the cause of that is not fake news (drink!) but the pure, unadulterated truth. For we do, in truth, now all speak, one to many and many to one. But to listen to that conversation for any time at all is to learn that a very large number of people are evil, stupid, malicious, hateful, ignorant and antisocial or, as Thomas Hobbes might have put it if he had lived in this hour (and could write as good as what I am able to), solitary, puerile, nasty, brutish and fraught.
The greater threat to democracy may not, in the end, be Vladimir Putin’s patsies convincing each other that Hilary Clinton ran a child prostitution ring out of a pizza joint. That the wicked will believe others capable of wickedness, however bizarre, is to be expected, and democracies have accommodated the foolish since the Ancient Greeks. But it is not clear to me that democracies can survive without democrats. Government by the people requires a minimum number of people who understand the stakes, who are familiar with history, alert to tyranny’s seduction, people wedded to notions such as the rule of law, of due process, of the supremacy of Parliament and the separation of powers, of a mature and considered government acting after deliberation and with the consent of the governed, respectful of tradition but hopeful of progress, accountable to an electorate of engaged citizens. Such people are made, not born, by other democrats, and a mighty pile of them is needed to preserve the critical mass from which a polity, as opposed to a mob, is formed.
The risk presented by the internet is that we will, in sufficient numbers, decide that we have indeed heard the voice of the people and, frankly, being turned into cat food’s too good for them. That we’re not prepared to die in a ditch for the likes of the Comments Section. That in fact, the sooner they’re rendered into something we can spray on our lawns from a pump pack, the better. Democracy may die in the full light of day.
We didn’t sell any nectarine seedlings, either.