From today’s Observer
Just before he died, Kingsley Amis wrote that two dismal groups fought over the use of English: the berks and the wankers. Berks were permissive types who rejected all rules. “Careless, coarse, crass [and] gross … they speak in a slipshod way with dropped ‘Hs’, intruded glottal stops and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them, the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.”
By contrast, wankers were authoritarians who wanted to impose every possible restriction on speakers and writers. “Prissy, fussy, priggish [and] prim … they speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially ‘Hs’. Left to them, the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.”
His distinction applies as well to arguments about public health as English usage.
When confronted with a possible epidemic, the berks declare that no authority has the right to stop them doing their own thing. After medical officers warned that a flu pandemic may force us to change our behaviour, they dismissed them as scaremongers.
Anything still goes and all those who say otherwise are spreading alarm in order to justify their lavish salaries. A typical berkian stance was to denounce warnings to avoid Central America as hysterical overkill and claim that the World Health Organisation, British doctors and EU officials were initiating a panic to increase their funding and importance.
Conversely, wankers do not accuse the authorities of alarmism, but revile them for not being alarmist enough. They want tighter controls and ever-greater vigilance. The “precautionary principle”, which dominates modern societies, tells governments to reverse the normal burden of proof and treat any potential harm as guilty until proven innocent.
The media, campaign groups and the public use precaution to require the building of extraordinary defences, even when the cure is worse than the disease or there is no disease to cure in the first place. Thus Andrew Wakefield, the most disastrously influential wanker of our time, called for the withdrawal of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine because his study found a risk that it may be linked to autism. When the government refused because no one else could reproduce his results, he accused ministers of being responsible for “the loss of an unknown number of children”.
The excesses committed in the name of precautionary principle – not just the MMR madness, but the millennium bug panic and the genetically modified food delirium – have given the berks all the best tunes for years.
Will the flu pandemic provide them with another chance to crow?
The 1976 swine flu outbreak, known in the US as the “epidemic that never was”, provides them with a hopeful precedent. It began at Fort Dix army base and President Gerald Ford responded by ordering the immunisation of millions of Americans. Far from helping Ford in an election year, the public health campaign only increased the post-Watergate suspicion of government. The alleged epidemic claimed just one life. Meanwhile, hundreds reacted against the vaccine and contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder that attacks the body’s immune system and produces paralysis in the worst case.
I spoke to Anthony Finkelstein, professor of software systems engineering at University College London, who was one of the few computer specialists to speak out about the tens of billions wasted on protecting IT systems against the phantom menace of the millennium bug. He said then that three criteria needed to be met for a panic to take hold: the public must be confronted with a threat it does not understand, which applied to Y2K bug in 1999 and applies now to the prospect of the first influenza pandemic since 1957; the media must be ready to go wild, which we did then, are doing now and always will do in future; and finally, there must be a vested interest promoting a scare, which certainly describes the commission-hungry software engineers of 1999.
“We are very poor at assessing risk,” he told me, “very poor at understanding complex systems, very poor at pulling out signals from the background noise.” His pessimism chimes with the conclusions of Philip Alcabes, of the Yale School of Nursing. His forthcoming book Dread is a study of how fantasy fuels fears of epidemics. “Once, health officials were supposed to defend against obvious outbreaks. They had to take explicit action to control the spread of infection.” Now citizens enjoying longer and safer lives than ever before, want officials to “divine in advance what may hurt them and take evasive action” against biological attacks that never come or diseases that have yet to appear. Like clairvoyants, the authorities “are supposed to foresee, as though with crystal ball in hand”.
Yet neither Alcabes nor Finkelstein denies that there are emergencies and I suspect that they both would agree that it is as much a rich-world luxury for comfortable people to pretend that there are no risks as it is for their nervous neighbours to demand that the government protect them from every conceivable risk. More to the point, today’s health officials worrying about a possible flu epidemic do not appear to me to be remotely like the 1990s’ software engineers or supporters of Andrew Wakefield.
In a week when the Brown premiership looked as if it would be wheeled to the mortuary, the health secretary and chief medical officer showed that they at least were not dead yet. They waited for evidence before pronouncing and emphasised that the flu virus may be mild. True, we have an expensive emergency programme in place for a pandemic, but I cannot see how sceptics can condemn it as an overreaction when lethal influenza pandemics are a historical fact rather than a fanciful possibility. Maybe we will be lucky and escape this time, but one will hit Britain eventually.
Even the curmudgeonly Amis accepted that there was a middle way between being a permissive berk or authoritarian wanker. “Most speakers try to pursue a course between the slipshod and the punctilious,” he concluded with uncharacteristic good grace. “And this is healthy for them and the language.”