An American acquaintance, Steve, came to visit me a few months ago. One day, he told me that it was crazy the way the UK gives all its money away to the EU. Taken aback by this insertion into what had been a conversation about Indian restaurants, I asked him how much the UK gives to the EU. He didn't know. As it happens, neither did I, although I did guess it was unlikely to be all of the UK's money.
Later that evening, I looked it up and found that the UK's net annual contribution to the EU is £6.55 billion, or less than half of the UK's foreign aid budget. Steve didn't believe this on the grounds that it came from the BBC which, as the state broadcaster, is required to say what the government tells it to say.
Now Steve moved on to the National Health Service, or as he called it, 'socialist medicine'. Once again, he had scant acquaintance with the facts. If life expectancy and infant mortality may be used as at indices, then the NHS is doing rather well. For example, in 2018 the average US life expectancy was 78.7 years, while in the UK it was 80.96 years. In 2014, the US infant mortality rate was 5.8 per 1,000, while in the UK it was 3.9 per 1,000.
Undaunted, Steve persisted. Ah but, he said, it costs lots and we Brits get the hell taxed out of us to pay for it. Once again we called upon the internet, there to discover that per head of population the UK spends about half as much on health as the US. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of that relatively low spend, Steve was genuinely terrified at the prospect of being treated by the NHS if while here he were to be, say, hit by a car. Exploration of that fear revealed that he believed treatment by the NHS to be compulsory.
These examples are the tip of an iceberg. Others of Steve's beliefs included that the Queen makes laws and that Catholics in Northern Ireland are not allowed to vote. I might add that he asked me how big the Scottish army is.
Ignorance is no fault in itself. I am ignorant about many American things, such as its health and education systems, states' rights and presidential powers. But wilful ignorance is a fault. Steve cannot be excused on the grounds that he is incapable of learning the things he wants to talk about. That he is capable also of keeping his mouth shut over matters about which he knows nothing, is obvious just from talking to him for five minutes. You don't have to know he was once a university professor. He has read 'Team of Rivals' from cover to cover rather than, like me, winging it from Daniel Day Lewis's film. He is articulate, too. He is charming and good company. There is no artifice about him. People take to him, children especially.
I am unable to explain with any certainty why Steve has elected to part company with the age of reason. But I can make a guess as to how. That he is American is irrelevant. His absurd assertions represent a current collective feature of a number of Western democracies, and the UK is no exception. If anything, it is a leader. It goes like this: never mind the facts, I have made up my mind already. Steve has come to believe that if something goes on inside his head it must be true. His thinking stops at received wisdom, or that which enters the ear shortly afterwards to be emitted from the mouth without having been laundered through any thought processes. He is suffering from a combination of solipsism and the ad hominem, otherwise known as the inability to entertain an idea without believing it. In his current state he would make a first-rate conspiracy theorist.
But is this so unusual? Nothing in life is discrete. It is all a continuum. For example, although not a Labour supporter, I cannot hear a bad word about Clement Attlee. He gave me everything. In a single parliament he and his government utterly transformed the country for the better. What they
created was so strong and right that even Thatcher didn't touch its essential welfare elements in any substantial way. If somebody were now to show me evidence that Attlee was on the take, I might well be inclined to call it fake news. Insofar as I am different from Steve, it is in terms of our positions on the continuum, although these positions are some considerable distance apart.
The most worrying thing about the spread of Steve's condition is that he and his fellow conspiracy theorists, or rather, those who feed them, seem to have got their hands on the levers of power. I sometimes fear impending doom, the ship headed for the rocks, a sly buffoon at the helm, the rest of the crew in the stateroom, fawning over the owner, a comedy Tory. But I am comforted by the thought that each generation believes its times more pressing than all preceding times, that all generations are convinced that their difficulties are unparalleled. I hope I am right in that.