Connectedness: why Pete was right and Maggie was wrong

UnknownA couple of events have set my mind going this week about the connectedness of things. The first was the death of singer, songwriter, banjo-player, activist and all-around outstanding human, Pete Seeger. My dad’s family were acquainted with him through the New York folk scene and through certain political affiliations for which Pete famously found himself on the wrong side of Senator McCarthy in the 1950s. So growing up listening to his records, part of me felt like I was listening to the voice of an uncle.

For me, his death feels like the loss of a direct connection to so many ideals that were and still may be good about America: acceptance, tolerance, peace, local action, community, and genuine interest in other people, whether they be friends or strangers. It is not true that these ideals are dead or dying, but certainly they seem to be less dominant in our media, in our conversations and in our ways of going about life than their opposites: suspicion, ignorance, environmental irresponsibility and looking after number one. And it’s not just America. Here too. Love her or hate her, very many people in Britain (yes, even in Scotland though a lot of idealists would deny it) have wholesale swallowed Thatcher’s message that there is no such thing as society. She was, is, and will always be wrong on that one.

The other thing that got me thinking about all of this was a seminar I attended yesterday about the most effective social policies to improve public health. It was given by John Frank, the respected Canadian professor of public health, currently working at Edinburgh University. Slide after slide of statistics and research from across Europe and North America demonstrating the connections between social inequality, poverty and isolation and poor physical and/or mental health. Facts, not hypotheses. Dry stuff, you may think. But as he spoke, it occurred to me: this is the scientific evidence to prove that Pete Seeger was right and Maggie the Milksnatcher was wrong. A folk song translated into social policy: look after children, help your neighbours, spread the wealth, accept that we do have entitlements (to a home, to warmth, to food, to education, to healthcare, to the protection of law, to freedom of thought and speech) before we have obligations, and we are all better off.

So I’m thinking about how all of these things are connected: how we treat each other, how we relate to other people and to our communities and our environment, and how we feel in body and mind. And I’m thinking how glad I am that old Pete outlived old Maggie, and that his view of the world will outlive hers. It has to.