Santa Fe School Shooting: Does Gun Control Gridlock Undermine Conservative Pro-Life Claims?

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Could a more expansive view of liberty and pro-life advocacy countenance more gun control restrictions than conservatives are traditionally willing to concede?

Satirical news site The Onion has taken to republishing the same weary article each time that a mass shooting incident rips a deadly path through schools and communities, extinguishing innocent lives while politicians and activists strike poses rather than forging an overdue compromise addressing gun violence.

The article has already appeared numerous times in 2018, most recently today in the aftermath of a deadly shooting in which ten people were killed and ten more injured at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas.

‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens“, reads the headline:

In the hours following a violent rampage in Florida in which a lone attacker killed 17 individuals and seriously injured over a dozen others, citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Wednesday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place. “This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said Indiana resident Harold Turner, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations. “It’s a shame, but what can we do? There really wasn’t anything that was going to keep this individual from snapping and killing a lot of people if that’s what they really wanted.” At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”

The increasingly regular reposting of the article only serves to underline its point.

One cannot help but agree with The Onion’s sense of frustration. Nobody can realistically expect any feasible political or policy action to snuff out gun violence of any kind (mass shooting or otherwise) within a short timeframe such as that between the recent Parkland school shooting in Florida and yesterday’s carnage in Santa Fe, Texas. But within a functional democratic country, leaders should at least be able to point toward concrete signs of planning and action. As things stand, there are no such encouraging signs.

Many Democrats would rather engage in silly performative stunts like loaded televised town-hall meetings or congressional sit-ins – the latter particularly risible, with legislators behaving like immature students, effectively petitioning themselves to do their own jobs – than even consider conservative proposals for reducing mass shootings, like the hiring of more armed security officers. Meanwhile, Republicans tend to put far too much faith in last-line-of-defence security measures and consistently thwart the kind of upstream policy solutions which might better tackle mental illness before it manifests in violence, under the banner of their disingenuous commitment to “fiscal responsibility”.

Meanwhile, in this time of pronounced political tribalism, both sides see themselves as victims. The thoughts and prayers for victims of mass shooting incidents are no doubt all very sincere, but it usually takes only a matter of hours for the public discourse to revert to a screaming match as both sides try to label themselves as vicarious victims and their opponents as oppressors. Many conservatives spent the entire Obama presidency hysterically convincing themselves that the government was coming for their guns, making themselves even more partisan in the process, while Democratic and allied leftist organisations increasingly use rhetoric better suited for describing malevolent terrorists to denounce conservatives who simply want to tackle gun crime in a different way. The governor of Connecticut and others have likened the National Rifle Association to a terrorist organisation, for example.

The net result of all this public posturing and cowardly refusal of politicians of both sides to lead (rather than follow) their most strident activists is another deadly school shooting – and the depressing re-emergence of that Onion news article – reliably taking place every couple of months.

To my mind, the fundamental question – as I previously laid out following the Parkland shooting – is this: to what extent should American society allow the defence of an increasingly abstract principle (the right for the citizenry to heavily arm themselves as a safeguard against government tyranny) to take priority over defending very real and non-abstract innocent citizens, often children, from being killed in mass casualty shooting events.

The longstanding political gridlock in America has thus far allowed the abstract defence of liberty to win a total victory by default. But at some point we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to accept this outcome in perpetuity – not least because lax gun controls repeatedly fail to safeguard against government incursions on individual liberty. An armed citizenry did not give the federal government a moment’s pause for thought as Washington D.C. created a vast and largely unaccountable system of domestic surveillance or abused the Constitution to seize ever more power for the centre, let alone successfully dissuaded government from pursuing such illiberal policies. Neither have states with loose gun restrictions successfully prevented their police forces from becoming ever-more militarised and aggressive. So given that loose gun controls have not prevented vast and likely irrevocable encroachments on individual liberty thus far, is conservative faith in a maximalist interpretation of the Second Amendment misplaced?

One can certainly argue that a maximalist interpretation of the Second Amendment still serves as a final insurance policy, but its efficacy is weakened to the point of uselessness by previous concessions to authoritarian government, many of them (including the more draconian provisions of the PATRIOT Act) enthusiastically cheered on by the very same people who cite suspicion of the federal government as sufficient reason to scupper any measures limiting civilian ownership of higher powered weaponry. Putting one’s thumbs on both sides of the scale like this – tolerating an intrusive government while citing the danger of big government as a justification for thwarting gun control – begins to look suspiciously like hypocrisy.

A new article by James Mumford for The American Conservative draws out another interesting hypocrisy in the conservative case against gun control – the conflict with conservatism’s pro-life position. In his piece, Mumford essentially argues that the right to life currently takes second place to defending the present interpretation of the Second Amendment:

Some time later I came across an online comment by a conservative chap talking about the sanctity of life. I was impressed. “So basically [it’s] a life vs. liberty debate. We already recognize in everyday life the fact that human life has more fundamental value than freedom.” Absolutely. I totally agreed. And the chap’s recognition of the essential trade-off was refreshingly realistic. What will it take to prevent another Newtown? Law-abiding gunowners, often in rural areas, sacrificing their freedom to own assault weapons because they realize that “human life has more fundamental value than freedom.” The chap must have been imagining the six-year olds at Sandy Hook cowering behind their teacher when Adam Lanza blasted into their classroom. The blogger was issuing a rallying call. We’ll do what it takes. We’ll give up what we have to. We’ll stop that from happening again.

But again, I’m so thick. I thought he was talking about a high-school massacre. In fact, he was talking about abortion!

[..] Presumably, those who own guns for self-defense wouldn’t accept the claim that they rank freedom over life. They would say the freedom to own guns is precisely a freedom to defend life, their own and other people’s. Yet are more lives saved than lost by people having such easy access to lethal weapons?

This is the rub. There is certainly a risk of government tyranny which must be mitigated against so far as possible, including through remedies such as the Second Amendment. But certain mitigations also come with a cost attached – in this case, a cost which is growing and growing, the ledger filled in with blood red ink. What price are we currently paying for each incremental degree of protection from tyranny? Is the insurance policy starting to cost more than is justified by the catastrophic event it is designed to cover? Should we not at least be open to having this discussion?

Mumford concludes:

[..] no possible reading of the Second Amendment can possibly excuse the fundamental hypocrisy here. Just because you’re free to do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Conservatives like me who care deeply about family values typically forego their freedom to sleep around.

Plus, a right is never absolute anyway. In 2008 Justice Scalia, writing the majority opinion in Heller, recognized that even the individual rights reading allows for a raft of gun-control measures—prohibitions on carrying weapons in public, extension of background checks, etc., etc. So there’s a lot for consistent pro-lifers to be campaigning for with as much vigor as they’re trying to defund Planned Parenthood.

Mass shootings by monsters armed with AR-15s, like the one in San Bernardino last December, constitute a fraction of gun violence in America. That’s the final argument I’ve heard bandied about a lot. But again it seems weird. For why should it matter that it’s a fraction of gun violence? Don’t fractions matter? Doesn’t a pro-lifer believe that “he who saves one life saves the world entire”?

This is by no means to argue for the repeal of the Second Amendment or the abolition of all gun rights. It is simply an argument for conservatives to take a more expansive view of the pro-life case than the current laser focus on their preferred pet issue of abortion, and to at least entertain the possibility that a new balance might be struck between safeguarding liberty – perhaps more proactively, rather than lazily relying on the nuclear option of armed insurrection – and defending life.

It may well be the case, following such a conversation, that conservatives decide that the balance between liberty and life is already correctly struck and that no changes are needed – though I find this to be increasingly implausible. But a conversation needs to take place, and conservatives increasingly need to be able to justify their stance given the fact that large-scale school massacres do not take place with this regularity anywhere else on Earth.

For conservatives to maintain the moral high ground, the principle worth defending at such a terrible, ongoing cost must be both incredibly valuable and consistently defended on all fronts over a long period of time. I do not believe that most mainstream conservatives can demonstrate this track record or appear willing to publicly make this argument, and to the extent that conservatives are unwilling to fully defend their own position on gun control, their position cannot command full public respect.

 

Update: Another thoughtful reflection on the pro-life / pro-gun (potential) dichotomy here, by an Evangelical preacher.

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No, Jesus Would Not Demand Open Borders

Immigrants are all Gods children - Christian immigration protest

Those who make a Christian case for open borders and uncontrolled mass immigration do not apply the same altruism they demand of society to their own personal lives, and neither would tearing down national borders improve the common good. Those who use their faith (or even more cynically, the faith of others) as a bludgeon to agitate for open borders do so based on a deliberately superficial reading of Christianity, in which Jesus is little more than an easy-going aging hippie, or a benevolent Santa Claus figure

The Windrush scandal – in which British permanent residents and citizens, either naturalised immigrants or descendants of immigrants, were wrongly targeted for deportation because of bureaucratic incompetence and the eagerness of a fawning, rootless government to appear tough on immigration – has pushed the issue of immigration back up the list of top voter priorities in the United Kingdom.

At times like this, it is customary for cynical and opportunistic voices on the Left to exploit developments in order to agitate for their broader goal of open borders (or at least something perilously close to open borders – few left wing politicians are now willing to publicly articulate any restriction on immigration or sanction for immigration law violations which they actually support). And so it was this time, with a parade of Labour and other left-wing politicians effectively making the preposterous case that bureaucratic callousness with regard to the affected Windrush immigrants means that the government has now morally forfeited the right to control the borders at all.

Unfortunately, these voices are often also joined by left-wing Christians who waste no time extrapolating from one appalling example of Big Government callousness to press entirely tangential arguments about a more permissive immigration system. The Church of England’s own Migration policy subsite rather deceptively makes mention only of asylum and refugee issues, utterly ignoring the dominant economic migrant subgroup. One can only assume that this is because the CofE knows as well as the rest of us that pretending that the great migration wave consists entirely of the former type and not the latter is more likely to generate sympathy and lead to pressure for looser immigration policy.

As the depth of the government’s failure and mismanagement with regard to Windrush immigrants became evident, social media was swiftly flooded with tweets and sentiments suggesting that any attempt by politicians or civic leaders to dissuade or expel illegal immigrants – people entirely unconnected with the Windrush scandal – from maintaining unlawful residence in the United Kingdom is prima facie evidence of a missing or defective conscience:

 

Even Martyn Eden, political editor of Premier Christianity magazine, equivocates:

Some will see this affair as reflecting an underlying racism in British culture. Given that the density of population in the UK is 268 people per square kilometre, second only to Holland in the EU, a case can be made for limiting immigration, but the Brexit campaign certainly showed evidence of a xenophobic hostility to foreigners.

Our duty to love our neighbours regardless of their racial and family backgrounds, following Jesus’ teaching and example, will shape how Christians understand and respond to this distressing and shameful episode in our national life.

This mirrors the vague, evasive wooliness and anti Brexit bigotry which swathes of the Church of England (including all the senior hierarchy) displayed so prominently during the 2016 EU referendum campaign and its aftermath (see here, here, here and here).

Recently, Pope Francis has made noises (in the form of an apostolic exhortation) deeply suggestive that he believes open borders to be “pro-life” and the correct starting point for any Christian view of immigration:

102. We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)? Saint Benedict did so readily, and though it might have “complicated” the life of his monks, he ordered that all guests who knocked at the monastery door be welcomed “like Christ”,[85] with a gesture of veneration;[86] the poor and pilgrims were to be met with “the greatest care and solicitude”.[87]

We see exactly the same climate in the United States, where the progressive wing of the Church is enthusiastically embracing the concept of “sanctuary cities” and taking an increasingly extreme position against any kind of immigration enforcement. The argument usually goes along the lines of that advanced here by Michael Clark in Sojourners:

I currently live in Houston, Texas, the nation’s fourth largest city and most diverse metropolitan area. We’re a city with no racial or ethnic majority, where nearly 1 in 4 people were born outside the U.S. We’re also home to 400,000 undocumented immigrants, earning us the label “sanctuary city” from some.

[..] but Houston’s status as a sanctuary city requires a response from everyday residents, nearly three quarters of whom claim to be Christians. Will Christians make a sanctuary in our city?

Before we put our defenses up (They’re here illegally! They’re taking our jobs! They need to come in the right way!), let us remember that our allegiance is not primarily to this nation. Jesus himself said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Paul reminds us that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20), and though we are to respect earthly authority (Romans 13:1), when push comes to shove, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Will we be a sanctuary in the tradition of the early church? Will we heed God’s commandment: “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34)?

Will Christ say to us, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison [or an immigration detention center] and you came to visit me”?

Let us remember his words, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

This is manipulative schmaltz of the worst kind. All of it. Anybody can harvest quotes from the Bible to build a case that Christian compassion involves rolling over and doing whatever a particular activist wants at that moment in time. But what we lack in this argument (and we see this over and over again in Christian arguments for mass immigration or open borders) is any acknowledgement that the immediate benefit to one new incoming migrant is not the only important consideration at stake.

When Jesus performed miracles there was no tradeoff, with one individual newly afflicted by the disease which Jesus cured in another, or the alleviated suffering of one person displaced onto somebody else. Nobody died because Lazarus was raised from the dead. Those who were healed at Gennesaret by touching Jesus’ cloak were not offset by a similar number who were struck down in their place. Uncontrolled mass immigration does not work like this. While there is a clear personal benefit to each marginal unskilled migrant  (and we are talking economic migrants here, remember, not refugees) allowed into a developed country, there are offsetting costs to be considered, too.

Sometimes these costs are tangible and quantifiable, such as the additional burden on infrastructure, services and the welfare state. Other times these costs are uncertain and appear only in the form of risk (such as risk to public order or national security). But the net effect is that the “good” done by letting in unlimited numbers of unskilled migrants from poor countries is offset by a commensurate cost. And this cost is no less important or worthy of consideration just because it is diffused across society as a whole rather than concentrated on one individual.

Rod Dreher makes a similar point in religious terms, rebutting the idea that Christian hospitality must be open-ended to the point of self-destruction:

This is why St. Benedict’s rule of hospitality is not open-ended. Monks will certainly welcome guests as if they were Christ, but that welcome does not imply that visitors have the right to stay in the monastery for as long as they like. What’s more, monks cannot welcome guests who, whether by their behavior or their sheer numbers, prevent a monastery from fulfilling its purpose. No stranger has a right to expect the monks to abandon their way of life to accommodate his desires. It’s simply dishonest and manipulative for the Pope to invoke St. Benedict’s example in this way. One likes to think that even Pope Francis would not expect a monastery to fling its gates open and house as many migrants as want to set up camp there, indefinitely.

We know that these negative costs of open borders will be incurred, and that they will be borne by society at large. So why is it more Christ-like to prioritise one over the other? Welcoming the stranger is absolutely the right thing to do when there are no offsetting costs to that act of charity, but what if welcoming the stranger causes a completely innocent third party to suffer harm? What we see, though, is many Christians prioritising the needs of the former over the latter. And in a way this is understandable – the benefit to the migrant is obvious, easy to measure and enjoyable to bestow, while the cost to society is diffuse, sometimes intangible and only detectable on the macro level, not at the individual level. Choosing the tangible and immediate over the intangible and time-delayed is a natural human instinct, albeit a harmful one in this instance.

So perhaps the real question we should be asking ourselves is this: does Jesus want us to think purely from with hearts, or does He also want us to engage our brains?

Viewed this way, the emotionally incontinent “Jesus would let in all the migrants” line of argument is becoming increasingly tiresome and threadbare. Maybe He would, and maybe not – perhaps instead He would work miracles to improve the broken and dysfunctional countries which feed mass migration in the first place, rather than feeding an urban leftist’s fetish for infinite diversity. Presuming that Jesus would opt for the immediate solution, the easy answer, the quick fix, grant the superficial human desire rather than the deeper human need, is to fundamentally misunderstand how Jesus’ ministry unfolded. Claiming that Jesus would advocate open borders is to subscribe to an incredibly two-dimensional, aging hippie version of Jesus, one which reduces the Son of God to little more than a genial Santa Claus figure.

If – as the Christian open borders activists insist when it comes to welcoming strangers – we sought to emulate Jesus’ dealings with and instructions to his contemporaries in our geopolitical dealings then the world would be a very different, and likely much darker place. Nazism and Soviet Communism were not defeated through pacifism, after all. And if we were to take Jesus’ instructions to his immediate disciples and contemporaries as granular instruction for twenty-first century life we would forever be forsaking all material goods, leaving our families to pursue nomadic and ascetic lives of service and chasing after muggers offering them the few personal effects they haven’t already stolen from us. I know of very few Christians who meet – or even seek to meet – this standard, not because they are selfish and evil but because it is generally understood by everyone (except the far Left) that a one-time charitable binge or government wealth expropriation exercise is not a sustainable long-term solution to poverty and want. Dropping everything and working for the immediate benefit of the person in front of us is not necessarily in the interest of millions of other deserving people beyond our vision. Sadly, our loaves and fish do not miraculously multiply; ultimately, we can only improve the common good by teaching the five thousand how to bake and fish for themselves.

It is also very telling that the “Jesus would let them all come in” brigade only seem to want to apply His teachings so far as they can be twisted to support open borders. The activists who go to protests chanting “no human being is illegal”, the often-wealthy coastal leftists who support unconditional amnesty for all and the establishment media who make a point of proudly failing to distinguish between legal and immigration, very few of them would open their New York or San Francisco homes to those cities’ many homeless, share their shiny new Tesla car to help a poor family do the school run every day or hand over their iPhone X to whomever demanded it. Yes, some profess a willingness to pay a higher marginal tax rate themselves in order to fund more plentiful public services, but that is about as far as it goes – keeping the needy firmly at arm’s length. Otherwise, their “generosity” actually consists of nothing more than calling for the government to tear down borders and disregard immigration law, and loudly screaming that anyone who expresses doubt about this reckless course of action is a racist.

But the costs of unskilled immigration (for the kind of mass immigration entailed by open borders would inevitably be of the unskilled kind) tend not to impact the wealthy enclaves where the cognitive, financial and social elites live, falling instead on far less privileged groups and communities. Many of those calling for open borders or more immigration in the name of Jesus also conveniently stand to get cheaper maids, gardeners and cleaners as a result, or live in neighbourhoods where the principle consequence of immigration is a wonderful explosion of diversity in art, culture and food. They are not the ones who typically rely on increasingly stretched public services, compete for low wage jobs or live in areas of higher crime or social tension. Nestled within gated communities or exclusive neighbourhoods, many will be insulated from the kind of widespread social unrest which the implementation of open borders would quickly deliver.

These activists are, in effect, disguising their naked self interest as generosity, benefiting economically and making themselves feel good and progressive while pushing nearly all of the negative externalities of mass immigration onto others. Jesus, let us remember, said nothing about giving away one’s neighbour’s possessions – the whole point is supposed to be one of personal devotion and sacrifice. The Jesus 4 Open Borders crowd, on the other hand, seek largely to give away something which is not theirs, promising to bear a cost which in actual fact they have every intention of palming off onto people further down the social ladder. How very Christian.

Ultimately, if the Jesus 4 Open Borders brigade are to maintain intellectual integrity while holding to their extremist stance they must concede that the policy they want, if retroactively applied decades or centuries ago, would mean that human development would be far less advanced today than is currently the case and that net human suffering might well be significantly higher. They must also concede that if the policy were implemented today, there will be an unknowable but significant opportunity cost in terms of curtailed future human progress and relief of suffering. They must admit that one or other or both of these seismic and overwhelmingly negative changes would be a price worth paying to achieve their particular conception of social justice.

Why? Because the nation state forms the bedrock of our current prosperity and the stability of the world order, and open borders are an all-out assault on the concept of the nation state. Humanity is not homogeneous – some cultures and value systems are objectively superior to others, and even in the case of immigration between broadly similar countries, human nature is such that too fast a rate of immigration creates political resentment and the potential for societal unrest. Implementing open borders in this age, when access to information is so widespread and fast modes of transport so ubiquitous, would immediately trigger a wave of migration from poor and dysfunctional countries that make the present global migration crisis look like a slow trickle.

While immigration activists love to tout the many economic benefits that immigration brings, and rightly so, they generally neglect to point out that there is often a (significant) time lag between the marginal new immigrant arriving and local housing and infrastructure expanding in proportion to service the increased population. In fact, unless deliberate steps are taken by local and national populations, that increase might never happen at all. Even in the best case where the marginal immigrant is a net fiscal contributor, this does not instantly make the freeway a fraction of an inch wider or add a few thousandths of a new bed to the local hospital. This necessary growth in service provision requires political direction and civic planning, and must often be commenced in advance, long before the tax revenue stream from the new immigrant comes online (thus requiring deficit spending in the interim).

Now imagine a situation where developed countries receive greatly inflated numbers of new immigrants who are not in a position to be immediate positive fiscal contributors due to language, cultural or educational barriers which may also hinder quick and easy assimilation into the host country’s culture. Not only do housing and infrastructure continue to lag behind demand, now social tensions are also likely to spike, leading to scenes which make recent anti-immigration protests look like a model of peaceful, reasoned civility. We may well be looking a riots. Martial law. Deepening social division, violence and even deaths.

This kind of environment is not one in which great prosperity is easily created. Unless open borders were implemented everywhere in a coordinated way there would likely be a brain drain of the most educated and productive native citizens (many of whom had likely cheered on open borders while possessing the ability to skip out of town the moment their Utopian fantasy turned into a nightmare) to other more sensible developed countries with functional immigration systems, leading to a self-perpetuating spiral of decline among those advanced Western countries (and it is always Western countries – activists are not demanding that Japan drop its exclusionary immigration practices) which decided to throw open their borders.

In short, one does not have to play the tape forward very far to realise that there are alarmingly few steps between implementing a policy decision which makes woke, “no human being is illegal”, Jesus 4 Open Borders activists feel warm and virtuous on the inside and a situation where everything that makes their country an attractive destination for mass immigration in the first place is utterly snuffed out. Open borders is the kind of rash, ill-considered “Jesus, take the wheel!” policy proposal which its most ardent advocates would never replicate in any other area of their lives.

But of course, none of this matters. Christian immigration activists can adopt the “good-hearted” open borders position at zero cost to themselves, knowing that fully open borders (and the chaos that would be unleashed) will never plausibly be implemented. Campaigning for open borders is an opportunity to appear compassionate without having to either dip one’s hand into one’s pocket or seriously risk the unravelling of one’s present, privileged existence. And rather than wrestling with the far more thorny questions of why so many countries remain so dysfunctional and deeply unattractive to their own citizens, and driving solutions to help those countries help themselves, many Christians can opt instead to abdicate the intellectual work and simply shroud themselves in moral outrage that evil Western governments don’t let anyone and everyone breeze into the country.

As John Zmirak writes in Quadrant Magazine:

When we inflict such radical changes on our society, we should ask ourselves whether we are being faithful stewards of the prosperous, free societies for which our ancestors struggled, fought and sometimes died. Perhaps instead we are squandering our inheritance, for the sake of that happy frisson we experience when we do or say something supporting “openness”, “tolerance”, and “social justice”. We are purchasing approval from our fellow upper-middle-class citizens, with social capital stolen from our children and grandchildren. We are feathering our own cosy nests, while making life even more wretched for our own nations’ native poor—whose ancestors did fight and die, alongside ours, for their descendants’ stakes in the nation. We are stealing the precious gifts of freedom and order from our least-advantaged fellow citizens—the blue-collar workers, the unemployed, the troubled war veterans—in order to salve our confused consciences, and feed our self-esteem.

In the case of mass migration, Christian outrage would be far better directed at the fact that all too often, the West ignores or downplays pressing questions relating to the root cause and does little to help solve the drivers of continued poverty and instability in much of the world, often actively contributing to the problem rather than helping, be it though haphazard military interventions or discriminatory trade policies. This criticism would be absolutely justified, though the solutions are nowhere near as simple as clamouring for open borders.

It may not fit quite so neatly on a protest placard, but I am personally inclined to believe that the more Christian thing is to wrestle with these difficult questions and to make intelligent national and personal self-sacrifice in targeted areas to improve the lot of poor and unstable countries, while pressing for an immigration system which is fair and non-discriminatory to applicants and seeking to find the optimal “sweet spot” where the benefits and costs of immigration, however defined (and it should be an expansive measure) break even.

I’m no theologian, but something tells me that a well-considered policy which diligently aims to deal with the root drivers of mass migration is both superior and more authentically Christian than a rash, emotion-driven and deeply harmful policy whose primary benefit is to make overwhelmingly privileged, first world activists feel better about themselves.

 

Update: A thoughtful and balanced Christian reflection on the proper response to mass migration, written by Luke Bretherton in 2014, can be read here.

Update 2: See also this very thoughtful piece by Stephen Kneale of the Building Jerusalem blog.

Update 3: This is an excellent reflection from Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, published late last year in the Catholic Herald, concluding:

When it comes to welcoming the stranger, the wise must look to the future, and ask what the long term effects will be. What happens to the stranger five, ten, or twenty years down the line? This is the real question. Does the stranger return home? Does the stranger assimilate? Does the stranger live as what the Bible calls a “sojourner”, a resident alien who is not assimilated? Is it a violation of their human rights to ask new arrivals to assimilate?

[..] my impression is not that the Catholic Church has not got a firm teaching on immigration, but rather that the Church has not yet worked out the implications of what welcoming the stranger means. “Welcoming the stranger” sounds like a good principle, but what does it mean in practice? It would be an excellent idea for the Universal Church to hold some sort of synod on this matter. Then the American and European bishops could hear from bishops whose countries have welcomed large numbers of refugees and migrants, such as Kenya, South Africa, and in particular, Jordan and Lebanon. The latter is an important case study, as the huge influx of Palestinians into the country after 1948 and 1967 is generally regarded as one of the contributing factors to the country’s destabilisation and descent into 17 years of savage civil war. Even today Jordan and Lebanon are under huge pressure thanks to the effects of the Syrian conflict.

As for border controls, annoying as they are for first world travellers as well, these have to stay. Every country needs to know who is coming in, who is going out, as this information is useful in the matter of governing the territory. For in immigration matters the greatest of virtues is prudence, which must work hand in hand with justice and charity.

 

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Who Is Truly Marginalized?

Kevin Williamson - The Atlantic - When the Twitter mob came for me

The marginalization of people and the marginalization of supposedly harmful ideas are very different phenomena, and the continued existence of the former neither requires nor excuses the latter

Rod Dreher has a great reflection on his blog today about who and what viewpoints in our present society are truly marginalised. Unsurprisingly, he is of the opinion that the side which bleats the loudest about its vulnerability and powerlessness is, more often than not, actually the one which is not only ascendant but effectively dominant, wielding both the power to destroy nonconformists and an increased willingness to deploy that power for social and political ends.

Dreher quotes a powerful passage from fellow writer Kevin D. Williamson, who made much news this month for being first hired and then swiftly fired from The Atlantic because of previously-expressed heterodox opinions. Williamson writes of a journalistic panel event he attended at South by Southwest on the subject of marginalized points of view:

Which brings us back to that event at South by Southwest, where the Atlantic was sponsoring a panel about marginalized points of view and diversity in journalism. The panelists, all Atlantic writers and editors, argued that the cultural and economic decks are stacked against feminists and advocates of minority interests. They made this argument under the prestigious, high-profile auspices of South by Southwest and their own magazine, hosted by a feminist group called the Female Quotient, which enjoys the patronage of Google, PepsiCo, AT&T, NBCUniversal, Facebook, UBS, JPMorgan Chase and Deloitte. We should all be so marginalized. If you want to know who actually has the power in our society and who is actually marginalized, ask which ideas get you sponsorships from Google and Pepsi and which get you fired.

My emphasis in bold above. Note Williamson’s correct observation that the “advocates of minority interests” increasingly see themselves as persecuted underdogs, not just the minority groups on whose behalf they claim to speak.

Dreher goes on to give another example provided by a reader, all the more serious because it impacts a private citizen who is simply attempting to go about their daily life (as opposed to making a living by expressing opinions in the public square like Kevin Williamson):

True. This past weekend, I heard from a reader who holds a management position in a Fortune 100 company. The reader is a Christian, and is struggling because the reader’s company has been pushing its employees, especially at that level, to get involved in their community as advocates for LGBT inclusion. The reader, who is closeted as a Christian inside the company, has stayed very quiet, but the reader’s bosses are starting to wonder why the reader isn’t signing on. The reader is dealing with a serious medical disability, and cannot afford to lose this job. Understandably, the reader is really starting to get anxious.

[..] This Christian reader is at the mercy of this woke corporation. But as a traditional Christian, this reader will always and everywhere be the Oppressor in the eyes of this company, even though people with the views of this reader are powerless within its culture.

Dreher’s conclusion:

Williamson is on to a truly remarkable thing about the way the power-holders in our society work: their ideology allows them to tell themselves that they are advocates for the oppressed, and stand in solidarity with the marginalized, etc. But it’s a sham.

I think it is important here to distinguish between those on the sharp end of lingering prejudice and discrimination to a greater or lesser degree – groups which certainly include ethnic minorities, non-heterosexuals and those who place themselves outside what is now called the “gender binary”, but also other far less favoured groups like white working class boys, people whom it is not fashionable to pity – and those who experience blowback either voluntarily expressing their own opinions on social issues in the public sphere (including journalists and public figures) or in the course of their daily lives (people of faith working for corporations, etc.)

In the case of the former, reasonable people still ought to be able to agree that historically disadvantaged minorities still have it worse on aggregate, despite often-tremendous strides of progress and occasionally even surpassing parity with the “privileged” majority. The aggregate experience of most minorities in countries like Britain and America is significantly better than would have been the case just two decades ago, but it would be churlish to deny that the legacy of past discrimination and its lingering remnants do not have a disproportionate effect on those who are not white, male and wealthy (though we can certainly quibble over the degree).

Where it gets far more interesting, though, is who wins the “marginalization contest” when it comes to publicly expressing viewpoints or living one’s values in modern society. And here, I think both Rod Dreher and Kevin Williamson are right that the situation is almost completely reversed. When it comes to which worldview and values dominate our society (from the political and corporate worlds down through academia, high and low culture) social progressivism is utterly ascendant. More than ascendant, in fact; it has won the battle of ideas and done so without grace or magnanimity towards those it vanquished along the way.

When somebody like former Google engineer James Damore can be summarily fired from his job for publishing a controversial but eminently reasoned and defensible memo on Google’s hiring policies, it is not the supposed “victims” of his memo who lack agency, power or a platform to defend themselves. When so many prestigious and supposedly trustworthy news sources can casually refer to Damore’s “anti-diversity screed” without critically reading it or placing it in proper context, how is Damore the all-powerful oppressor who must be purged from society for the protection of others?

And when writers like Kevin Williamson are hounded out of their jobs by baying Twitter mobs before they even get their feet under the desk, and not once contacted by any of the major news outlets who extensively covered the story in order to seek his comment and version of events, how is Williamson the snarling ideological hegemon with his jackboot on the neck of the innocent masses?

This all points to a contradiction at the heart of the debate over social justice and identity politics which is often overlooked in the glib media debate: those traditionally considered vulnerable and marginalised minorities often do continue to experience an unequal playing field and have just cause for complaint, even while the most extreme elements of progressivism (fully unrestricted abortion, open borders, the imposition of radical new gender theory) are now established orthodoxy nearly everywhere that it matters. Or to deploy a military analogy, while many foot soldiers and protectorates of their movement continue to be pinned down by sporadic enemy resistance on the ground, they are also secure in the knowledge that their side enjoys total air superiority and that ultimate victory is all but assured.

One then has to ask whether it is right that the progressive air campaign is allowed to dominate in such a fashion. Many would glibly answer “yes”, and perhaps suggest (not unreasonably) that the right of a minority individual to be physically safe and undiscriminated against in the affairs of life far outweighs the rights of the newspaper columnist or blogger to express their dissenting opinion on social issues. As a rhetorical device this argument is quite effective, but it is also a deceptive false dichotomy. While social justice advocates may claim that dissenting speech is the equivalent of physical or mental harm, this is nothing but cynical, censorious manoeuvring on their part. Kevin Williamson writing for The Atlantic no more made anybody unsafe than James Damore’s respectfully-worded memo. To the extent that harm of any kind is suffered, it is entirely through the self-imposed mental fragility of the identity politics movement, which often takes grown people and renders them screechy, adult-sized babies.

As Rod Dreher notes elsewhere:

It’s like everybody just wants to be offended, and so offended that they become emotionally disabled, because that’s how they know who they are. I am offended, therefore I am. Not too long ago, to admit to being undone by the least little thing would have been seen as a sign of weakness, of feeble character. The man or woman who was able to endure all kinds of insults and threats to their lives — think James Meredith and Ruby Bridges — without desisting from their path were real heroes.

Now? The therapeutic mindset has triumphed so thoroughly that the faintest flap of a butterfly’s wing will cause an emotional hurricane within anyone who feels the air quiver. It’s the way to achieve power.

Ultimately, we need to be able to acknowledge that while discrimination against minorities continues and is appalling, that the victim status does not extend to those fighting on their behalf. A woke Hollywood A-lister with the power to direct his legions of social media followers to hound and destroy the livelihood of a working class citizen who expresses less than politically correct views or attempts to live out traditional values in their own life is no brave underdog – he is a bully. A corporate CEO who cuts short a vacation and flies home to summarily fire a diligent employee for making a thoughtful contribution is not a good corporate citizen – she is a mini tyrant, seeking to control her worker’s thoughts and actions with the same impersonal intensity as the industrial revolution mill-owner of old.

Victimhood is not transferable from those who genuinely suffer disadvantage to those who ostentatiously advocate (or posture) on their behalf. The sympathy or compensatory advantages due to somebody who suffers the barbs of ongoing racism or discrimination must not be appropriated by those who make a profitable cottage industry of fighting for “equality”. Yet this is precisely what currently happens, even though these two wrongs in no way make a right.

Censoring or otherwise persecuting those who dissent from the slightest aspect of progressive orthodoxy is not a just punishment for past discrimination against minorities, particularly when those doling out the punishment are among the most successful and privileged people in society. Destroying innocent careers or purging heterodox or dissenting viewpoints from the public square must not become seen as a valid reparation for society’s past sins.

Diversity

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Three Little SJWs From School

The Mikado poster

Nobody’s safe, for they care for none

I must admit that I have been waiting for this one. I knew that it was only a matter of time before the social justice censors came for The Mikado, that beloved Gilbert & Sullivan operetta set in a highly fictionalized version of Japan, and here we are.

(My other long-standing test for the final capitulation of our society to the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics is the inevitable future banning of George Gershwin’s sublime Piano Concerto in F, a work of jazz and blues rendered in classical form for orchestra, due to its “cultural appropriation” of musical forms pioneered by African Americans. I guarantee you that this will happen, and that picket lines will appear outside the Lincoln Center and Walt Disney Concert Hall much sooner than you think.)

Back to the present day, though, and Fort Hays State University has become the latest epicenter of SJW protests after the FHSU Music and Theatre student organization dared to put on a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”.

Campus Reform reports:

Some students at Fort Hays State University (FHSU) in Kansas say a school-sponsored operetta production is not only “racist,” but also rife with “cultural appropriation.”

Naturally, the idea of an operetta based on late-nineteenth century stereotypes of Japanese culture and customs provided the perfect opportunity for various SJW saviour types to go charging to the defence of any innocent contemporary Japanese (or Japanese-American) people who may be offended. Never mind that the real target of W. S. Gilbert’s humour in The Mikado, as in so many of his works, is British bureaucracy and imperial custom. No; instead we must see only artistic cruelty and the helpless victimhood of a designated minority group.

One of the most damaging facets of the current craze for scouring old artistic treasures for reasons to hate and ostentatiously denounce them is the fact that everything interesting about the work in question must take a backseat to the confected outrage of the professionally offended. And sometimes the outrage obscures truly interesting detail, such as that noted by Caroline Crampton in the New Statesman:

Gilbert and Sullivan were first and foremost creating a satire, not a musical comedy. They were working at a time of wide-ranging, if implicit, censorship of the theatre, where easily affronted middle-class audiences would simply not turn up if a work had a whiff of scandal or immorality about it. Gilbert himself likened the challenge of being a late-19th-century dramatist to “doing a hornpipe in fetters”.

Like Shakespeare hundreds of years earlier, using a fictional version of Italy to host his comedies about the Elizabethan court, Gilbert and Sullivan used their “Japan” as a proxy to enable them to satirise the very middle-class audiences they courted. The Mikado’s central plot device that I find so frustrating – that flirting is a crime punishable by death – is a dig at the theat­rical censorship that would not allow any extramarital romance to be portrayed on the London stage.

Utterly ignorant of this nuance and context, a Fort Hays State student going by the name of Fatima took it upon herself to deface several of the posters advertising the event, attaching a semi-literate rebuttal in which she takes W.S. Gilbert to task for being insufficiently woke:

 

The student’s list of accusations against the production is long and rambling:

The Mikado is racist for many reasons so when I saw the Dr. Joseph Perniciaro picked this for the opera I was appalled. The Mikado is cultural appropriation, it is RACIST, it is “yellow face”, and it sure as hell shouldn’t be a production that still exists.

To begin, the opera is about Japanese People … *BUT* … it is being performed here at Fort Hays State University with an all NON-ASIAN CAST.

Quelle horreur – the student musical theater group failed to observe the unwritten rule that characters of a certain race can only be portrayed by actors of the same race. Presumably, Fatima the Outraged Student is also up in arms that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton dares to use an all-minority cast to tell the story of the white male Alexander Hamilton’s rise and rivalry with fellow white male Aaron Burr. Except of course that we all know that Fatima would cheer this casting.

The charge sheet continues:

All this production is, is an exaggeration of Japanese stereotypes. The actors put on kimonos, black wigs, color their brows black, wear sandals, use fans and small umbrellas, *OH* – and also put white powder on their face. ‘Blackface’ is universally unacceptable, so why is it okay to do a ‘yellowface’ production? Well, NEWSFLASH, it’s not. If this production was about African American people, it WOULD NOT be cast with all white people.

Absolutely. My mother took me to a production of The Mikado at the English National Opera when I was a teenager and now when I think of modern Japan, I immediately picture severe-eyebrowed, black haired warrior men and porcelain-skinned, umbrella-twirling Geishas. The world’s third largest economy and historical imperial power has never had any opportunity whatsoever to export its true culture and neither have I, a citizen of the United Kingdom with two eyes, a (Japanese brand) television set and an internet connection ever had the opportunity to see real Japanese culture and creations for myself.

More:

The show was created by Gilbert and Sullivan (who are known for such racist productions) in the late 1800’s, and it reduced the Japanese culture to an item of curiosity, fetishizing them for a profit.

I think that the widespread Western fetishization of certain things Japanese began somewhat later than 1885 and with very little assistance from late Victorian operetta, but how thoughtful, how brave of this FHSU student to get outraged at the cultural misrepresentation of Japanese people who lived and died a century before she was born, and who undoubtedly practised meticulous open-minded tolerance at every opportunity in their own lives.

This production was not okay when it was created and it definitely isn’t ok today – like COME ON, it’s 2018. Not to mention that they had to cut the N-WORD out to make it more acceptable *(like that changed how racist it was)*.

Yes, this student actually wrote the phrase “like COME ON”.

On a semantic point, how can something be both a stereotype and cultural appropriation? At one point FHSU’s student censor claims that The Mikado is based on an inaccurate pastiche of Japanese culture and custom, and on the other she accuses Gilbert & Sullivan of cultural appropriation. But how can one culturally appropriate a stereotype? And if a stereotype is culturally appropriated, who is actually harmed? Surely not the Japanese people (either contemporary or those of 1885), since what appears on stage was not a true representation of their lives when it first appeared, and certainly bears no resemblance to life in the technologically advanced, urbanised Japan of today. If one were particularly sensitive and pedantic one could say that The Mikado is glib and insulting, but cultural appropriation is an inaccurate charge.

But on a broader level, I am intrigued about the other contradictions inherent in this charge against The Mikado. Japan is a rich, powerful and historically imperial nation, and has certainly not always been a childishly innocent or benevolent actor on the world stage. Modern-day Japanese cultural and commercial reach is strong, though curiously Japan itself does not have a reputation as a cultural melting-pot particularly welcoming to immigrants. Japanese people are among the most privileged in the world, and scarcely in need of defence by do-gooder social justice warriors, fighting on their behalf from American university campuses.

Would the FHSU students protesting The Mikado also be up in arms at a production lampooning the British, either historical or contemporary? Obviously not, because Britain has been placed squarely into the White Imperialist Aggressor box, and therefore made ineligible for sympathy or outrage when her citizens or culture are mocked, parodied or criticised. Yet Japanese imperial “crimes” in recent history are real. People alive today still bear witness to them. So what precisely is it which pardons and rehabilitates Japan in the eyes of SJWs but continues to damn countries such as Britain and America?

The answer can only be a resoundingly arrogant, America-centric view of the world – a quasi-imperial view, if you will, expounded by the identity politics Left. This worldview assumes firstly that the supposed experience of a Japanese individual is the same as a Japanese-American individual, that both are in need of defending against the risk of offence or emotional harm. and that it is the place of American university students who can barely string together a coherent paragraph to act as self-appointed guardians of their wellbeing. But the Japanese are certainly not a persecuted minority in their own country, and thus far the only publicised objections to The Mikado have come from outside Japan. It takes a peculiar kind of arrogance to think that the Japanese culture and people are so weak as to need the help of American campus SJWs.

The English National Opera regularly stages productions of The Mikado. One of the ENO’s corporate partners is the Japanese piano manufacturer Yamaha. If there were any organic upset or consternation at the continued staging of this operetta whatsoever then Yamaha, a Japanese corporation, conscious of its domestic reputation and eager to avoid being associated with a supposedly white supremacist event, might well consider ending its association with the opera company. They do not do so because there are probably only a handful of individuals on Earth who are genuinely upset at the existence of The Mikado, and of those souls an infintessimally small number would actually be Japanese, the rest comprising of deluded young Western campus activists with too much time on their hands and not enough legitimate causes to support.

In fact, a similar protest did apparently take place in 2014 when another musical theater group dared to put on a production of The Mikado in Providence, Rhode Island. The Taiwanese individual who launched that particular protest was at least willing to countenance possible acceptable productions of the work:

I am aware of a production that had Asian actors in the lead roles while wearing British costumes. There is also a film “The Mikado Project” by chil kong, that shows an Asian-American theatre company producing the opera. These are both great moves. I can support a production of this material that shows some consciousness of the present day, but not a straightforward, uncritical celebration of these 1800s racial stereotypes.

The decidedly non-Japanese student(s) who launched this latest protest at Fort Hays State University, on the other hand, think that only total censorship and banishment of the work down the memory hole will do, proving that each concession to the authoritarian, regressive Left only fuels and encourages even more draconian future demands.

There is no victory great enough to sate their appetites because ultimately this is not about protecting a beleaguered minority (I have yet to read of instances of Japanese people traumatised by Gilbert & Sullivan) but rather about the exercise of power by identity politics-soaked leftist activists.

We tolerate this illiberal, censorious nonsense at our peril. Allow the SJW brigade to take down The Mikado and it will be swiftly on to the next target.

 

The Mikado - racist - cultural appropriation - FHSU

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Political Tribalism And Brexit

Political tribalism is usually discussed as a pathology afflicting low-information voters and preying upon the working class, but since the EU referendum we have seen many leading pro-EU figures from the political, journalistic and academic elites – people who often make a great show of their education and superior capacity for reason – throw themselves into the culture war with alarming zeal

I have just finished reading the new book “Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations” by Yale Law professor and author Amy Chua, and what a timely book it is.

Professor Chua uses examples of tribal group manifestations in various other contexts, from Vietnam and Afghanistan to Venezuela, to explain the fundamental human dynamics so often missed by Western countries who have stubbornly viewed geopolitics only through their preferred lenses, often at tremendous cost. But she then goes further, taking these lessons and applying them to the partisan polarisation currently gripping America with the embrace of modern identity politics on the Left and Donald Trump’s reactionary populism on much of the Right.

Chua explains:

When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.

We certainly see this happening today, with many people in the upper economic echelons or who occupy high-status professional jobs, particularly those from the centre of big cities, feeling that their way of life, their entire worldview, is under sudden and sustained assault because the status quo they preferred and personally benefited from has suddenly been overturned.

We in the United Kingdom need to understand that Brexit is now much more than the geopolitical and economic question of whether or not Britain should leave the European Union; Brexit has now become the main proxy for a hundred other divisions and skirmishes in a super-heated culture war being waged by the people who run the country (or who are at least used to having their worldview championed and ideas implemented by those who run the country) and those who feel that the country is being run without their interests in mind at all.

When many Remainers think of the European Union they no longer think of the specific institutions and governance frameworks of Brussels (to the extent that they ever did), and even the various supposed exclusive perks of membership are not always foremost in their minds. Rather, the EU has become such a synonym for the values of peace, progressivism, tolerance and cooperation to the extent that many prominent Remainers genuinely fail to understand how anybody could hold those values in high esteem while also supporting Brexit – an enormously consequential intellectual failure. And conversely, many of the more dogmatic Brexiteers see only Machiavellian plotting and elitist self-interest in establishment support for the European Union, making little allowance for the personal and institutional concern which naturally accompanies such a seismic political change as Brexit.

As Chua notes:

Of course, one group’s claims to feeling threatened and voiceless are often met by another group’s derision because it discounts their own feelings of persecution – but such is political tribalism.

Both sides in this debate feel that they are under attack and have everything to lose. Too often, Remainers think that Brexit by its very nature and however it is implemented will inevitably make Britain a meaner, more insular and less tolerant place more hostile to their own interests, failing to even acknowledge the many glaring issues with the EU and valid reasons for wanting to leave. Those in traditionally Remain-supporting demographics and professions may feel that everything from the diverse character of their home cities to their very livelihoods are at stake, while those in strongly Brexit-supporting regions and demographics wonder just how much more they are supposed to sacrifice so that others can continue to live a lifestyle and receive perks and benefits which they themselves are increasingly unlikely to share.

I wrote last year about the “Two Brexits” – the technocratic, largely economic and regulatory matter of legally seceding from the European Union on one hand, and the much wider cultural and constitutional argument on the other. But now it seems that while the former will inevitably still determine the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and Britain’s future relationship with the EU, the latter will shape the wider political discourse for years to come, and is already doing so.

But while the media (itself largely composed of people who are instinctively pro-EU, just as few American political journalists could plausibly claim to truly empathise with Trumpland) is more than happy to pathologise working-class pro-Brexit sentiment, too rarely is the gaze turned back at the demographics who cheer loudest for the EU. Too rarely do we examine their motivations or behaviours. Yet if Brexit was driven partly by tribal politics which energised anti-establishment sentiments among certain demographics, so too the anti-Brexit backlash is being fuelled by a surging new tribal politics of the elite.

This is both fascinating and scary; scary because the capacity of well-connected elites – people with access to power and used to getting their way suddenly finding themselves denied for the first time – to exact vengeance or engage in democratic obstructionism vastly outweighs the ability of most Brexit voters to defend their hard-won achievement.

After the shock referendum result, one might have expected the pro-EU establishment to gradually work through the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But much of the elite never made it past anger; indeed, many of the most prominent Remainers are still stuck firmly in denial, believing that they have an almost sacred duty to overrule the electorate when they make so colossal a “mistake” as voting to leave the EU.

As the process of secession grinds onward, many such Remainers are becoming increasingly desperate, and this desperation manifests in increasingly erratic, extreme and bizarre behaviour. Rather than viewing Britain’s departure from the EU as an economic or geopolitical setback to be mitigated, instead they see the outcome as representing an existential threat to their “tribe”.

When examining the way that Brexit has warped the thinking and behaviour of many of those fundamentally opposed to leaving the EU, it is instructive to use representative examples. Here we shall examine four specific cases: young pro-EU activists, academics, journalists and politicians.

 

Brexit And The Youth Vote

Nobody represents the post-referendum pro-EU “youthquake” – or at least the mainstream media’s determination to see and portray the uniform attitude of young people towards Brexit – better than Madeleina Kay, also known as “EU Supergirl”. Kay describes herself as an “artist, writer, musician and social activist from Sheffield”, but the vast bulk of her activism began after the EU referendum and focuses on stopping Brexit.

Kay started out by drawing whimsical cartoons portraying Theresa May and Brexit-supporting politicians as evil, and post-Brexit Britain as some kind of disaster-ravaged, flaming dystopia. She then augmented this artwork by recording protest songs, basically naive little ditties and love songs to the European Union, with titles such as “All I Want for Christmas is EU” and “Stand Up For Them”, a song which treats the plight of EU migrants in the UK as a festering humanitarian outrage akin to genocide:

Stand up for them and you stand up for us
Complacent disapproval just isn’t enough
Actions not words, my friends, deeds not thoughts
This is a fight you will regret not having fought

Because this is the outrage of our times
And this is the time to make it known!
If our values are hijacked by extremes
We will lose much more than just our hopes and dreams

I see people who have given and cared
Let’s treat them with the love they themselves have shared
And show them the respect that they deserve
Appreciation from the country they have served

But Madeleina Kay really hit the big time when she invented and debuted her alter ego, “EU Supergirl”. Inhabiting this character involves donning a superwoman outfit and cape emblazoned with the EU flag, and turning up at various events with her long-suffering dog (also flag-bedecked) to sing protest songs and rub shoulders with various celebrity Remainers including Bob Geldoff and Eddie Izzard.

Having won an EU blogging contest, Kay found herself invited to Brussels to meet the great and the good of the various European Union institutions, after which she invited herself to a joint press conference on the status of the Brexit negotiations being given by Brexit Secretary David Davis and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier. Perhaps because the event followed so soon after the UK’s Conservative Party Conference at which a heckler invaded the stage while prime minister Theresa May was giving her keynote speech, the EU’s security team suspected that a similar stunt was imminent and escorted Madeleina Kay from the auditorium amid a glare of camera flashes. This notoriety then earned Kay vast amounts of coverage in the online and print media, as well as several quite lengthy television appearances on the BBC.

In all of this, Kay is being held up by the media to represent the “voice of youth”, an oppressed generation who are having their country taken from them and their future stolen from them by selfish, bigoted and reactionary older generations. Never mind that 25 percent of young people voted to leave the European Union – they don’t feature at all in the narrative; newspapers like the Guardian will never never devote endless column inches to understanding their motivations and principles.

This is highly unfortunate because while there are many lucid and compelling arguments for remaining in the European Union that young people could potentially hold, the voices elevated to national prominence tend to be highly simplistic with very little evidence of understanding of the European Union and its workings.

This is because to many young people, supporting the European Union is less a rational, historical or evidence-based decision and more a necessary cultural stance to be adopted in order to be part of the “in” group. Over the years, the European Union has done a majestic job of associating itself with the values of peace, progressivism, openness and tolerance, to the extent that supporting the EU has become useful political shorthand for associating oneself with those ideals. Taking the time to learn how the EU’s protectionist trade policies severely harm African countries or how through its behaviour the EU has repeatedly proved itself antithetical to any serious idea of democracy or self-determination takes effort and a willingness to step outside the bubble of bias confirmation. By contrast, staying popular with one’s friends is as easy as rocking up to a protest, painting the EU flag on one’s face or burbling inanities on Twitter about how the EU alone prevented war in Europe.

But even more narrow than that, the young voices making themselves heard in the media are disproportionately middle or upper-middle class. Madeleina Kay was able to drop out of university and return to live with her parents when she felt the calling to become a full-time anti-Brexit activist. And time and again, the young people called upon by the media to speak for their generation fall into this category, if not by upbringing then at least by the fact that they now attend university, bastions of pro-EU groupthink.

Never once have I seen a working class kid from my hometown of Harlow, Essex or anywhere similar called upon to give their thoughts on Brexit. Why? Because they would quite likely offer a stinging rebuke to the European Union and express support for Brexit in one mode or another. University-educated young people are most likely to take advantage of various “perks” associated with the EU such as freedom of movement, and are also most likely to perceive opportunities to work or travel abroad to be gravely limited by Brexit. Working class young people are to some degree less likely to avail themselves of these opportunities, and so weighed their consideration of Britain’s EU membership quite differently.

The media seemed to acknowledge that the EU referendum divided Britain along lines of class and education, at least when it suited their narrative that Brexit was powered by stupid older low-information voters with broad accents and unskilled labour jobs, but this narrative also (wrongly) carved out an exception for working class young people, whose voices have been entirely erased from the national conversation simply because they fail to support the notion that British youth is united in opposing Brexit. Rather than giving any platform to dissenting voices, the voices of university-educated or university-attending young people possessing only the most childishly naive conception of what the EU is and how it works have been elevated above all others.

This is about tribalism, pure and simple. The middle class pro-EU youth define themselves in opposition to older voters – Daily Mail readers with their supposedly retrograde and often racist beliefs, and their selfish vote to reconstruct the imperial British empire rather than joining in the European Union’s worthy and entirely innocent post-national experiment. And this narrative is gratefully seized upon by a media class which broadly agrees with their perspective and is therefore only too ready to accept it as representative of the entire youth demographic.

 

Brexit And The Ivory Tower

One expects little of politicians, but until the EU referendum it was still just about possible for an objective person to respect the world of academia and those who work within it when they made forays into the political debate. No longer.

Throughout the EU referendum, the term “expert” was abused and appropriated to the point of absolute meaningless by various academics who sought to use their credentials and narrow fields of specific expertise to discredit and warn against a decision so broad and multifaceted as rethinking Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

This was most egregious when economists or those professing expertise in economics and trade matters made bleak and often highly-specific forecasts of the economic ruination which would settle upon Britain not just when we left the European Union but as soon as we voted to do so. This was unhelpful for a number of reasons – firstly because these short term predictions of doom (capital flight, a brain drain, the relocation of large multinational corporations, the need for an “emergency budget” involving drastic cuts to public services imposed by the government) have not taken place, rendering the medium and long-term prognostications equally untrustworthy in the public eye, but secondly because Brexit is not and was never primarily an economic proposition.

Brexit is vast and contains multitudes, but as immediate post-referendum polling clearly showed, it was primarily a vote to repatriate powers and decision-making ability from Brussels, areas of national sovereignty which a majority of voters believed should never have been given away in the first place. Despite the efforts of many Remainers to spin the illusion that Britain only voted to leave the EU because voters were deceived by gaudy and false monetary promises, the Lord Ashcroft poll clearly shows that the primary motivating factor was a desire for a return to the “principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”.

Yet time and again, academics who appeared on our television screens parading their credentials and expertise acted as though proving that leaving the EU would either cause economic harm or reduce the prospects of future economic growth alone would be sufficient to destroy the case for Brexit. This is not entirely their fault – the media also did an abysmal job of moderating the national debate, failing to pin down both campaigns on the democratic case for Brexit and allowing the discussion to disappear down a rabbit-hole of competing economic claims. But it was highly disingenuous to imply that a strike or cautionary note against Brexit in one sphere automatically invalidates the entire proposition.

A YouGov poll taken in July 2017 showed that a majority of Leave voters believed that even significant economic damage would be a “price worth paying” to secure independence from the EU. One can agree or disagree with the principle being expressed here, but this fact alone shows that the economic case was insufficient to persuade people to vote to remain in the EU. That so many prominent academics failed to appreciate this, or apparently to view the question of Britain’s EU membership in any terms beyond their own area of expertise, speaks very poorly of their intellectual honesty.

Worse still is the fact that rather than face up to these limitations, much of the academic community instead retreated into the comfort blanket of convincing themselves that Brexit came about because of “fake news” and a “post-factual” political climate. The idea that voters might reject rather suspect economic predictions in favour of non-quantifiable facts and narratives never seemed to occur to many of the brightest minds in British academia – or if it did, they certainly made no effort to address the qualitative arguments of Brexit supporters.

As I wrote in 2016:

The facts vs emotion reduction which now colours nearly all of the media coverage of our supposedly “post-truth society” is therefore a bit too simplistic. There are quantitative facts but there are also qualitative facts – truths which are not based on emotion or hunch or prejudice, but which nonetheless cannot be added up in an Excel spreadsheet, slapped on an infographic and shared on social media.

I voted for Brexit because I believe that the EU actively harms and undermines the democracies of its member states, by deliberate design. I marshalled many facts to back up this position during the campaign – from primary and secondary historical sources, the stated positions of current EU leaders and various other proofs. Just because they are not quantifiable and I could not declare (for example) that leaving the EU will make Britain 11.2% more democratic and give the people 8.4% more control over the decision makers does not make the facts on which I argued my case untrue. And reducing those qualitative facts about democratic control, accountability and the known history and trajectory of the EU as mere “emotion” unfairly diminishes those facts.

[..] At present there is far too much self-satisfied criticism of “post-factual politics” in which defeated pro-EU supporters express alarm that people supposedly ignored the only facts available to them and made irrational decisions against their own self interest, and this is not so. There were other, unquantifiable facts which moved people to vote for Brexit. And these pivotal criteria deserve to be acknowledged as legitimate facts, not dismissed as mere emotions.

It is easy and comforting to believe that one’s own side thinks and acts according to reason, logic and evidence while one’s opponents are moved by base emotion, superstition or prejudice. But the divide is very rarely so clear.

How and why did UK academia drop the ball to such an extent, both with their conceptualisation of the EU question and their approach to influencing the debate? Again, the root cause lies in the deep tribalism within the educational sector.

A 2016 survey showed that 9 out of 10 professional and support staff supported remaining in the European Union. There are a number of reasons driving this extreme bias, including the general leftward tilt of those in academia (leftism often though not exclusively being associated with support for the EU), the fact that the EU “funds” various university academic and research initiatives (the fact that this money is simply UK taxpayer money laundered through Brussels apparently eluding our nation’s brightest minds) and a general Utopian belief that the arc of history inevitably bends toward some kind of new post-national accommodation, the EU being the apotheosis of such aims.

As Paul A. Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Communications Theory from the University of Leeds, notes in The Conversation:

Anti-Brexit academics no longer appear able to differentiate between their own personal investment in the EU and the progressive social values they also claim to uphold.

Thus for reasons involving a shared worldview and perceived professional interest in the EU project rolling along unchecked (combined with a strong and often furiously denied groupthink effect), the opportunity for dissenting thought regarding Brexit within academia is vanishingly slim, just as it is in the arts world. But as with other cases of tribal behaviour, this sense of shared values and being under assault by outside “others” often leads to extreme responses from those within the academic tribe.

The most severe case of post-Brexit derangement in the academic world has to be that of philosopher, author and public intellectual Anthony Clifford Grayling. A decade ago, AC Grayling could be found debating on stage with Christopher Hitchens and other respected thinkers and commentators. Since the EU referendum, however, Grayling’s Twitter feed has been an hysterical, overwrought, 20-month tantrum insisting that Brexit is not merely a strategic geopolitical mistake but an evil and corrupt act which threatens the future of democracy itself (quite how Grayling squares this assertion with the fact that Brexit only came about because the people were permitted a democratic choice regarding Britain’s future EU membership for the first time in four decades is unclear, particularly since he pre-emptively blocked me on Twitter despite there never having been any interaction between the two of us).

Choice excerpts from AC Grayling’s increasingly vicious and conspiratorial Twitter tirade against Brexit include:

And:

 

Just this week, Grayling penned a piece for Prospect Magazine titled “Don’t trust the UK” in which he encouraged other governments, institutions, firms and individuals to avoid any association with his own country:

The EU referendum has exposed deep-lying problems in society, especially English society, relating to xenophobia, introversion, a prevailing sense of historical unreality, a dangerously distorting popular media, and a poor general level of understanding among Britons of Europe and the world.

Our fellow Europeans who have lived, worked, raised families and paid their taxes in the UK for decades have been shocked to find how fragile is the welcome they thought they had, and how selfishly disregarded their contribution to the UK’s economy, culture, health service and education system has proved to be.

If one is to be rigorously honest about today’s UK, one would not advise anyone to come and live or study here, or trade with us. In short, we should be put into purdah until we have sorted ourselves out.

Grayling goes on to encourage readers to watch YouTube videos showing footage from Britain in 1945, 1970 and today, and to look at the growth of British GDP since our accession to the EEC as “proof” that the EU has been the fount of all good things over the past four decades. While making this tenuous argument, Grayling manages to completely overlook the fact that Britain’s economic decline continued well past our 1973 EEC accession with the roots of recovery far more closely coinciding with the 1979 accession of the Conservative Thatcher government, a considerable feat of omission. Disingenuously asserting causation while providing no evidence and actively overlooking other more likely triggers in this way is a total abrogation of the academic approach, one which AC Grayling would be ashamed to make were it not in the service of his tribal beliefs.

The article is full of non sequiturs and baseless assertions which would make an undergraduate blush were they to survive proofreading and make it into submitted coursework, but that is nothing compared to the rabid conspiracy theorising in which AC Grayling now indulges:

AC Grayling - sunk frigate

To be clear, this is AC Grayling insinuating that the UK government actively plotted to distract from negative headlines about Brexit by provoking the sinking of a Royal Navy frigate with the attendant loss of human life and an inevitable state of war with China.

Most objective viewers will likely concede that the government’s approach to Brexit has been deeply flawed, characterised by a lack of strategic direction and political awareness. I myself have regularly criticised Theresa May’s Conservative government for their timidy, lack of vision and perpetual damage-control mode of governance. But never in a million years would I suggest to 50,000 Twitter followers that the British government was orchestrating a military conflict with China to distract from negative headlines at home.

This is the extent to which political tribalism causes the afflicted to view everything through the lens of their own pet issues and interpret any event, however benign or unconnected, as a direct attack on their own interests. These are the depths of crazed stupidity to which public intellectuals can sink when their tribal loyalty outweighs their commitment to reason (or regard for their own reputations).

 

Brexit And The Commentariat

The only comparable case I can think of a public intellectual going off the ideological deep end in this manner is the strange unravelling of American author and political commentator Dinesh D’Souza. Like AC Grayling, only a decade ago D’Souza – while always a staunch advocate of fiscal and social conservatism – could be found debating the likes of Christopher Hitchens and engaging in thoughtful, eloquent Christian apologetics which were intelligently structured and often a pleasure to listen to.

In the Age of Trump, however, Dinesh D’Souza has undergone a complete transformation from conservative stalwart to Trumpian demagogue. He can now be found making the case that the US Democratic Party and the American Left are the true heirs to Hitler, while selling books and DVDs to people who stock up on freeze-dried food rations, survival gear and ammunition in anticipation of a coup by the New World Order.

Why the transformation of both AC Grayling and Dinesh D’Souza from intelligent thinkers with admittedly forthright but reasoned views to paranoid conspiracy theorists convinced that there is a plot against Britain/America? Again, it has everything to do with tribes.

In the United States, as Donald Trump seized control of the Republican Party and dragged the GOP ever further away from their nominal commitment to small government conservatism, those in the conservative punditocracy had a choice: get with the new programme or risk falling permanently out of favour if the changes wrought by President Trump took hold. While some conservative pundits (such as Ben Shapiro) attempt to walk a tightrope, praising Trump when he enacts good policy and openly criticising him for his moral and managerial failures, most felt compelled to “pick a side”.

Picking a side meant choosing a tribe, or at least embracing an existing, previously unacknowledged tribal affiliation – either supporting Donald Trump’s populist campaign to Make America Great Again or throwing one’s lot in with the conservative “Never Trumpers”. Both tribes commit the same sin of furiously blinkered partisanship, in which any failures can be excused or denied, all successes exaggerated and all previous values or policy positions jettisoned without regard to principle or consistency.

Thus we see Republican politicians who spent the entire Obama presidency publicly rending their garments about the national debt now cheering for a president whose tax cuts have blown the annual budget deficit wide open, and Evangelical Christian leaders who fret about declining moral values delude themselves into thinking – and publicly insisting – that their new ally in the White House is a man of faith. Simultaneously, many conservative Never Trumpers have taken to blindly criticising every act of the Trump administration, even those policies which they once enthusiastically supported, because in order to “properly” oppose Trump one can never concede that any of his policies or decisions have merit.

In Britain, the most depressing example of subordinating sincere values for the dogmas of one’s chosen tribe is the strange case of Ian Dunt, a left-wing opinion journalist whose principles once led him to denounce the antidemocratic nature of the European Union and openly advocate for Brexit, but whose overriding need to be accepted by his tribe of London-dwelling metro-leftists forced him to not merely switch sides but become one of the most vocal denouncers of the euroscepticism he once espoused.

 

While Ian Dunt relishes his prominent role among Remainers and studiously ignores his glaring political reversal, the Guido Fawkes blog is less forgiving, writing in December 2016:

Dunt is the go-to Remainer for political TV producers and he has even written a book lobbying MPs to obstruct a proper Brexit. It’s a very clever career move, considering he was until recently a vocal Brexiteer…

As recently as February this year, Dunt wrote: “I despise the EU”. In May this year he bemoaned the “Faceless EU officials running the country”. In 2014 Dunt wrote: “The idea any left winger could support the EU is a constant source of bafflement for me”. And in 2013 he publicly stated his desire to leave the EU, predicting he and his fellow Leavers would lose a referendum.

How does Dunt explain this most audacious of u-turns, an apparently avowed Brexiteer becoming the darling of the Remain cause? You have to salute him for ruthlessly exploiting the dearth of talent on the Remain side and forging a lucrative, high-profile studio talking head role.

And indeed, by the time he penned this outraged column for pro-EU agitprop outlet The New European shortly after the EU referendum, Ian Dunt’s transformation had already been complete for some time:

The oddest thing about Brexit is how utterly un-British it is. The vaguely antagonistic attitude towards the continent is familiar enough, of course, as is the barely-concealed sense of national superiority. But the emotional, even borderline hysterical, manner of debate is not.

We saw left-wing celebrity commentator Owen Jones similarly brought to heel in the run-up to the EU referendum. Jones became increasingly disillusioned with and sceptical about the European Union after witnessing the supranational bloc’s treatment of member state Greece during the Euro crisis, culminating in his open support for Brexit in the summer of 2015:

Look at how the EU has operated. It has driven elected governments – however unsavoury, like Silvio Berlusconi’s – from office. Ireland and Portugal were also blackmailed. The 2011 treaty effectively banned Keynesian economics in the eurozone.

But even outside the eurozone, our democracy is threatened. The Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP), typically negotiated by the EU in secret with corporate interests, threatens a race to the-bottom in environmental and other standards. Even more ominously, it would give large corporations the ability to sue elected governments to try to stop them introducing policies that supposedly hit their profit margins, whatever their democratic mandate.

Fast-forward to the 2016 referendum and beyond, and such anti-EU views are now held as heresy among the tribe to which Owen Jones belongs, from which he craves approval and on which he depends for continued relevance. Has Owen Jones genuinely changed his mind about the EU? It seems fantastically unlikely that he now supports the EU’s antidemocratic tendencies. No, all that has changed is Owen Jones’ political courage and willingness to stand against the orthodoxy of his left-wing tribe.

And so today, Owen Jones writes stuff like this:

If only Brexit would go away. It sucks the political oxygen away from the issues we should all be discussing: like low wages, insecure jobs and the housing crisis. It is a rallying cry for a noxious alliance of anti-immigrant demagogues and regulation-stripping free marketeers. The bigotry, xenophobia and racism stirred up by the official leave campaigns injected an ugliness into British politics which never dissipated, and left hate crimes surging. And, frankly, Brexit is just mind-numbingly, painfully, excruciatingly dull. So yes, if there was a big red button to make it all just go away, I’d enthusiastically push it.

One can respect 180-degree changes when they are accompanied by thoughtful self-examinations and critiques explaining the reason for the reversal. I myself was an ardent euro-federalist and supporter of the European Union in my student days before learning more and changing my mind in subsequent years, and I have written about my change of heart at length. In fact, some of the most persuasive politicians and commentators tend to be those who once held diametrically opposite opinions, precisely because they know the old arguments inside-out, can deconstruct their shortcomings and reveal their flaws.

The likes of Ian Dunt make no mention of their Damascene conversions, however. They are ashamed of them and would like to forget that they ever held the opinions which they now repudiate. Ian Dunt has not and will never write a lucid think piece explaining his rapid conversion from arch-eurosceptic to Chief Brexit Mourner because there was no authentic process of persuasion underpinning his change of heart. Dunt does not believe that his earlier critiques of (and contempt for) the European Union were wrong; it’s just that they are now highly inconvenient given his need to remain in good standing with a tribe he is loathe to leave and which holds unambiguous opposition to Brexit to be a non-negotiable membership requirement.

In fact, I am inclined to believe that Ian Dunt does now hold his new, permanently outraged and catastrophising stance on Brexit with real sincerity. Such is the power of tribalism that the only way one can live with oneself having betrayed one’s own values and intellect is often to adopt one’s new stance as personal truth. Just as compulsive or practised liars are often plausible precisely because they convince themselves of their own falsehoods, so the likes of Ian Dunt are only able to rail against the self-harming “stupidity” of Brexit because they suppress all memory of the part of themselves which once proudly supported what they now denounce.

People engaged in healthy, spirited political discourse normally appreciate and embrace those who have changed their minds on a key issue – converts to one’s own side are seen as a good thing, the journey they have taken held as more important than their previous, “incorrect” views. But this is not the case when political discourse becomes tribal to its current toxic degree. At such times, it is not enough to hold your tribe’s approved positions today; one must also have held them a year ago, two years ago, a decade ago, or risk being seen as a dangerous (even evil) heretic. That is why the likes of Ian Dunt have to take such a strong stance against Brexit. Only by screaming their new faith loudly and continually can they hope to drown out the inconvenient fact of their prior heresy.

Thus political tribalism infects journalism and political commentary in two ways – first by forcing people into stark, binary opposition on fundamental issues, even when adopting those extreme stances conflicts with their current values or previously espoused views, and secondly by chilling the political discourse and making it impossible for people to express nuance or explain their changing thoughts on an issue without fear of being excommunicated from one’s social, professional and political circles.

 

Brexit And The Corridors Of Power

Perhaps the most galling spectacle in the run-up to the EU referendum was the sight of numerous Conservative MPs and government ministers who had built their careers on a foundation of avowed euroscepticism (and often only won selection as a candidate after professing dislike of the Brussels to their local constituency associations) meekly fall in line with prime minister David Cameron’s campaign to remain in the EU.

The most stunning case was that of former Conservative leader William Hague, whose tenure as party leader saw the Tories take a significantly more eurosceptic tack at a time when Tony Blair’s Labour government were gung-ho for deeper integration. A respected thinker and eloquent speaker, Hague would have been a real asset to the broader Leave campaign had he maintained the courage of his convictions when it counted. But of course he did the precise opposite, penning a lengthy Op-Ed for the Telegraph in which he explained in weasel words why Britain should vote to remain in the EU:

Whatever the shortcomings of the European “project” it is manifestly not in our interests for either it or the United Kingdom to fall apart. Such will be the challenges to the western world in the coming years, from a turbulent Middle East and a volatile world economy, that the dismembering of our own country by nationalists or the breaking up of Europe into uncontrolled rivalry would make many dangers more threatening still.

[..] To end up destroying the United Kingdom and gravely weakening the European Union would not be a very clever day’s work. So, even as a long-standing critic of so much of that struggling organisation, I am unlikely in 2016 to vote to leave it.

“Unlikely”. Note how such was Hague’s shame at betraying his espoused principles in so brazen a manner that he couldn’t bring himself to write a more definitive conclusion. And all this after having excoriated the EU for its many shortcomings only a few paragraphs prior:

Close acquaintance with central bodies of the European Union does nothing to create enthusiasm for them. The Commission itself, generally the best-performing of the EU institutions, could benefit from the spending cuts and rigour to which most national governments have been subjected. The European Court of Justice has pushed the boundaries of treaties and is capable of imposing burdens on businesses which suggest a detachment from reality.

As to the European Parliament, it does not remotely provide democratic accountability for the simple reason that most voters across Europe do not take elections to it seriously and are not usually aware of the identity of their MEPs. It is not possible to be accountable and anonymous at the same time.

William Hague is an intelligent man and knew full well that the “concessions” secured from the EU by David Cameron in his pitiful attempt to renegotiate Britain’s membership terms were not worth the non-existent paper they were printed on, but such was his commitment to his true political tribe that the self-evident truth was simply ignored.

Former Business Secretary Sajid Javid gave an equally tortured rationale for supporting the Remain campaign despite having built his name and career on staunch euroscepticism:

It’s clear now that the United Kingdom should never have joined the European Union. In many ways, it’s a failing project, an overblown bureaucracy in need of wide-ranging and urgent reform.

Had we never taken the fateful decision to sign up, the UK would still, of course, be a successful country with a strong economy. We would be an independent trading nation like the US, Japan, or Canada. Over the years, we would have developed trade agreements with the EU and with others, all without surrendering control over immigration or our economic independence.

[..] If this year’s referendum were a vote on whether to join in the first place, I wouldn’t hesitate to stand up and say Britain would be better off staying out. But the question we’re faced with is not about what we should have done 43 years ago. It’s about what we should do now, in 2016.

That’s why, with a heavy heart and no enthusiasm, I shall be voting for the UK to remain a member of the European Union.

In the case of Sajid Javid I must admit that at one point my own tribal instincts got the better of me, and I responded to an olive branch later extended by Javid to the eurosceptics he betrayed with a (hopefully) uncharacteristically vicious response of my own:

Let me say on behalf of all eurosceptics (I’m sure they won’t mind my presumption in this case) – Sajid Javid can take his Brussels bashing and shove it where the sun don’t shine.

The British people have no further need of oleaginous politicians who make eurosceptic noises in pursuit of cheap applause, but who then side time and again with the political establishment to preserve the anti-democratic status quo, with Britain kept as a vassal state of a relentlessly integrating European political union.

Are we supposed to feel comforted and mollified that Sajid Javid has now promised that on 24 June, the day after his own efforts contribute toward a “Remain” vote in the EU referendum, he will once again join our ranks and stand up to criticise the democratic subversion underway in Brussels? Because that would be like a soldier who, on being rotated away from the front lines at the end of his tour of duty, promises his comrades that he will see them again soon, as soon as he is done fighting a stint for the enemy during his R&R break.

My harsh conclusion:

One thing is clear: every last one of those calculating Conservative MPs who made the fateful decision to sit out the fight to extricate Britain from the European Union must be pitilessly cleaved from the eurosceptic herd and never permitted to rejoin it.

They should be made to wear their latent europhilia as a badge of shame and dishonour for the remainder of their sorry political lives.

Yes, I am certainly not immune from political tribalism myself at times.

We see the same tribal effect at work in the United States with regard to Republican Party positions on immigration. Many a conservative Representative or Senator owe their positions to having taken firm, uncompromising and sometimes even extreme positions on immigration, to the point of advocating mass deportations. Such promises rolled off their tongues as they courted a voter base which held similar views, and when their party was stuck firmly in opposition without possibility of enacting the controversial reforms they championed.

Fast-forward to 2018, with a (nominal) Republican in the White House and control of both houses of Congress, and these immigration hardliners should have encountered no problem enacting the draconian reforms they long advocated – or at least ought to have put up a proper fight for them. But of course, in reality we saw just the opposite, with many elected conservatives balking at policies they once claimed to support – building a wall, enacting mass deportations, defunding sanctuary cities and revoking the protected status given by President Obama to young illegal immigrants known as “Dreamers”. This was then promptly (and with some justification) portrayed as a great betrayal by an activist base who took these politicians at their word.

Why? Because while these conservative politicians were more than happy to bash illegal (or even legal) immigration in order to win support from their base, those are not the views of the “tribe” to which they really belong. Their real tribe of course consists of the Republican Party’s corporatist donors and those who benefit economically from continued illegal immigration, together with a Washington elite which is slowly catching up with Europe in its adoption of a laissez-faire, post-national worldview in which borders are increasingly irrelevant.

As Amy Chua notes at the beginning of “Political Tribes”:

Domestically [..] elites in the United States have either not cared about or been remarkably oblivious to the group identities that matter most to large segments of ordinary Americans, including people they are supposedly trying to help”.

In the case of the Republican Party, many of their leaders have actually often paid lip service to these identities and pretended to care about issues of importance to their base – consider George W. Bush’s courting of the Evangelical vote and the Tea Party’s ostentatious fiscal conservatism – but it has mostly been an act. This alone is one of the key reasons for the Trump ascendancy, to the initial horror of most congressional Republicans: the belief by an increasingly betrayed voter base that Donald Trump’s presidency would result in deeds, not words.

Many people – politicians, journalists, academics, even private citizens – often feign to be part of one tribe, but crunch time reveals where their loyalties really lie. In the case of Republican politicians, many were more than happy to court the vote of a base concerned with illegal immigration, but when put on the spot and given a chance to deliver for that particular tribe, instead they balked and kicked the can down the road in order to avoid doing economic damage to (and incurring social pushback from) their real tribe.

Focusing on the elites of which most American politicians are a part, Chua notes:

American elites often like to think of themselves as the exact opposite of tribal, as “citizens of the world” who celebrate universal humanity and embrace global, cosmopolitan values. But what these elites don’t see is how tribal their cosmopolitanism is. For well-educated, well-traveled Americans, cosmopolitanism is its own highly exclusionary clan, with clear out-group members and bogeymen – in this case, the flag-waving bumpkins.

Who can deny that this paragraph could just as easily be describing the centrist political establishment of Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the europhile contingent within the Conservative Party?

In the case of British Conservative MPs, many were happy to give speeches inveighing against Brussels and the antidemocratic European Union when it won them votes, but refused to follow through on those words when the interests of their real tribe asserted themselves.

Chua is quite correct when she writes:

There is nothing more tribal than elite disdain for the provincial, the plebian, the patriotic.

Yet today we find ourselves in a worrying situation where many political leaders in both the United Kingdom and the United States are effectively at war with the citizens they nominally represent, looking upon a democratically made decision with astonished contempt and seeking to undermine or reverse it through any means necessary, from the dubious (holding another referendum in an attempt to get the “correct” answer on the second attempt) to the downright authoritarian (simply ignoring the result of what is now eagerly labelled by Remainers a purely “advisory” referendum).

 

Conclusion — When Two Tribes Go To War

Amy Chua ends her book “Political Tribes” on a hopeful note, writing of the various green shoots of comity and mutual tolerance taking root in a polarised and increasingly Disunited States of America – and to be sure, she offers some compelling examples of individuals organising at the community level to provide forums for Americans to come together as fellow citizens rather than Democrats or Republicans, Trump supporters or members of the #Resistance first and foremost.

At present, I see little such hope for a similar rapprochement in British politics, particularly as far as Brexit is concerned. Partly this is due to the fact that Brexit is more final and harder to overturn once implemented than the usual policy decisions implemented by a US presidential administration. But it is also because the outreach which Chua notes is rooted in a unique sense of civic-mindedness in which American citizenship is used as the “glue” which helps to mend a previously fractured society.

There can and will be no such movement in Britain because the whole idea of the European Union is post-national, with many of the most vociferous anti-Brexit campaigners explicitly repudiating or denigrating their British identity in order to claim the mantle of being European first and foremost. Even more than arguments about immigration or taxation or economic policy, one’s stance on Brexit and the European Union is bound up in one’s conception of self and group identity, and if one group explicitly rejects the only glue which might hold us together then on what other fundamental common ground can we possibly unite?

As Amy Chua observes of the United States:

The Left believes that right-wing tribalism – bigotry, racism – is tearing the country apart. The Right believes that left-wing tribalism – identity politics, political correctness – is tearing the country apart. They are both right.

This, too, could just as easily describe the current state of affairs in Britain:

Today, no group in America feels comfortably dominant. Every group feels attacked, pitted against other groups not just for jobs and spoils but for the right to define the nation’s identity. In these conditions, democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition – pure political tribalism.

While Chua rightly emphasises the importance of face-to-face contact in breaking down barriers to understanding and acceptance, again this proves difficult with Brexit, given that regions and professions are often so polarised. My home for much of the past ten years has been the North London neighbourhood of West Hampstead, one of the most heavily Remain-voting enclaves of the United Kingdom during the EU referendum and a place where EU flags hang from windows and above shop fronts to this day. There are too few people like me for most Remain-supporting inhabitants to meet and get to know in order to overcome the enormous gulf of empathy which exists between the two sides, just as there are too few people like me among the young professional and artistic/creative classes to be effective ambassadors to those redoubts of Remain sentiment.

In the longer term, though, this may well become less of a concern. Brexit will be implemented, however haphazardly, and the absence of provable counterfactuals will make it increasingly difficult for the EU’s loudest cheerleaders to make a compelling case that Britain would have been better off remaining in or rejoining the bloc. This explains so much of the hysteria and vitriol currently emanating from the likes of AC Grayling and other anti-Brexit leaders; deep down they know that Brexit will either be stopped before it takes place, or will go ahead with their objections increasingly drowned out.

There may also be hope in the fact that so much hostility to Brexit is rooted in political tribalism rather than deep knowledge of or affection for the European Union itself. While the true believers like AC Grayling will likely never “cease from mental fight” in their battle to return Britain to the grand projet, there are many others like Ian Dunt and Owen Jones who only maintain their anti-Brexit stance under duress, as the necessary price of membership to their chosen tribe.

As the years go by post-Brexit and new political issues come to the fore, the “social cost” of departing from pro-EU orthodoxy will steadily diminish, allowing those unwilling EU cheerleaders to drift away, leaving a vastly diminished rump of cranks and true believers. And just as the issue fades in importance for Britain’s “thought leaders”, so too the groupthink will fade for many lower-information voters who currently uncritically lift their pro-EU stance from the pages of the Guardian just as some Brexit supporters took theirs from the Daily Mail or Daily Express. In short, a decade or two’s time may well see those still advocating for Britain rejoining the European Union (assuming that it still exists in current form) become the “fruitcakes, loonies” and closet federalists on the fringes of British politics.

But this is some way off yet, and at present such is the viscerally tribal imperative among key demographics to oppose Brexit (and so great the power and prominence of those who do so) that the issue will continue to divide and toxify our politics for a long time to come, at least until we can find it in ourselves to follow Amy Chua’s closing stricture:

If we’re to come together as a nation, we all need to elevate ourselves. We need to find a way to talk to each other if we’re to have any chance of bridging divides. We need to allow ourselves to see our tribal adversaries as fellow Americans, engaged in a common enterprise.

Political Tribes - Group Instinct And The Fate Of Nations - Professor Amy Chua

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