Faith, Doubt and Brexit

Anti Brexit march

A warning about the disturbing fundamentalism of Continuity Remain and the anti-Brexit crusaders

In the course of arguing on Twitter this evening, I received back the following piece of friendly psychological analysis from a longtime follower and antagonist.

The text reads:

“You are almost always wrong, as if you’re from another planet. I’m starting to feel pity, not sure if for you or for the people who have to suffer the consequences of what you keep saying with grave conviction. Please take a step back and reflect.”

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Now, I don’t necessarily take issue with the charge of being “almost always wrong”, nor even the insinuation that I hail from extraterrestrial origins. But the funny thing is that I am actually a rather introspective person, and do spend quite a lot of time stepping back and reflecting on my beliefs and political worldview – perhaps in fact never more so than now, when law school has limited my available time to write.

Also, having never attained any level of fame or recognition from my writing (save a solitary appearance on the BBC and the very occasional retweet from a famed Twitter bluecheck journalist) I have not been subject to the temptation to lapse into permanent “transmit mode”, that gnawing need to be seen by my legions of followers as an all-knowing sage, privy to Great Knowledge and the secret schemes of the political elite.

In fact, performing a word count search on my blog reveals that the word “introspection” appears over 30 times in more than 20 articles – usually in the context of me demanding that certain politicians, journalists or other actors engage in some introspection as to their recent behavior, and precisely because I hold myself to this standard of regular self-reflection and accountability.

So I do take it somewhat personally when it is suggested I “take a step back and reflect” on my position on Brexit, because that is something I frequently do anyway. Having begun my age of political awareness as a devout europhile and even ardent euro-federalist, I already know many of the arguments in favor of the EU and against Brexit inside-out, without needed to hear mangled recitations of them from the Continuity Remain lobby’s telegenic campaign mouthpieces. In some cases, I was spouting many of those same tedious lines about “friendship ‘n cooperation” while pro-EU “celebrities” like EU Supergirl and Femi Oluwole were probably still watching children’s television rather than the evening news.

Having been on a journey from ardent euro-federalist (I once proudly wore a polo-shirt emblazoned with the Euro logo, soon after the single currency’s launch) to reluctant supporter to resigned leaver to committed Brexiteer, I have naturally examined and re-examined my views and the evidence supporting them on repeated occasions. That’s what it is to change one’s mind. And when it comes to the question of Britain’s European Union membership, I would always sooner listen to someone who once held an opposing view only to change their minds – whichever side they ultimately end up on – because at least I then know I am dealing with someone who has likely evaluated conflicting evidence or willingly exposed themselves to alternate viewpoints. The result is almost always a more productive exchange of ideas, and the avoidance of those dreary social media debates where two ideologues simply sling dueling talking points at one another with no intention of engaging in real debate.

Thus I continually questioned my beliefs before I started taking a more outspoken role in the Leave movement. Was the EU really as harmful to our democracy and impervious to attempts at reform as I had come to believe? Were many of the benefits of EU membership really replicable through other means that did not involve supranational government? Was the EU actually the best we could hope to do in terms of looking at governance beyond the nation state at a time of globalization? Were there realistic prospects of spurring that broader international discussion through Brexit, or would it be an act of national self-mutilation that had no ripple effects beyond Britain? Would it be better to just bide our time sheltering inside the European Union while we waited for someone else to finally address the pressing issue of balancing global governance with national (and local) democracy? Does it look like anybody else is about to step up to the plate and begin that work? Is the EU actually going to step up, admit its past failings and respond in a humble new citizen-centered way?

I also inevitably thought about how history would judge the positions I took and the statements I made, particularly at a time when social media records every throwaway remark or careless retweet, creating a rich seam of information that can be used by the unscrupulous to destroy one’s reputation and career. If Brexit was likely to fail and its opponents succeed in portraying it as a doomed nationalist spasm fueled primarily by xenophobia, was it worth the risk of me sticking my head above the parapet and supporting it? With so many powerful people on the pro-EU side, Remainers never seriously had to worry about being viewed by the history books as a latter-day Nazi if Brexit succeeded despite their opposition – they had more than enough manpower in the political, commercial, academic and cultural arenas to effectively absolve themselves from any blame for standing in the way of Brexit if it did lead to good things. Not so Brexiteers – like the American revolutionaries who would have been hung for treason had they not prevailed, history’s judgment would likely be merciless to Leave advocates and voters if Brexit did not go well, even if the fault was that of saboteurs determined to ensure that it not succeed.

Even after winning the referendum in 2016, I questioned my choices. The very next day, as Brexiteers toasted victory, I travelled with my wife and friends to Greece on holiday. As we passed through the EU flag-starred lane at passport control, I again asked myself if my decision to support Brexit had been a mistake; whether the EU, imperfect as it is, was the best we could do; whether it were better to remain in a vast bloc and regulatory superpower that looked likely to centralize further and become more powerful, even if it meant the further atrophy of British democracy, in order to remain “in the club”.

And of course the dismal events of the past two years – as Article 50 was triggered prematurely and without a plan, negotiated ineptly by a government sorely lacking in expertise, held to account by a Parliament full of MPs who cared more about appearing superficially knowledgeable or striking partisan poses than actually understanding the important minutiae on which everything depends, watched over by a debased and infantilized national media which either failed to contain its bias or do its due diligence – only led to more such introspection. Was it all a terrible mistake? Was there never anything good to be won? Was it inevitable that things would end up this way, with our government, opposition and legislature beclowning themselves in front of the world on a daily basis?

Yet after all of my questioning, my answer remains the same – Britain was right to vote to leave the European Union. I was right to campaign for Britain to do so. Even now, we are right to pursue Brexit and to resist those who would like to simply maintain the status quo in our governance and relationship with the EU. The fundamentals have not changed – indeed, Continuity Remainers seeking to overturn the result have generally still not bothered to discern precisely what those fundamentals are, in order to better communicate with Leave voters.

I do, however, wonder whether my far more famous and eminent counterparts on the Remain side have ever once engaged in the kind of introspection and self-questioning as to their stance of opposing Brexit and uncritically embracing the EU that I perform on a routine basis regarding my opposition to the project. And I strongly suspect that many of them have not.

Do you think for a moment that James O’Brien, LBC’s anti-Brexit polemicist-in-chief, as ever once taken a break from his task of finding the most inarticulate, confused and angry Brexit supporters to “defeat” in argument on his show to question any of the fundamental issues about the EU and Brexit that I and other Brexiteers consider every day?

James Obrien Brexit LBC

Do you think that eminent celebrity academics like AC Grayling ever once take a break from rending their garments and peddling conspiracy theories on Twitter to consider whether they might themselves be trapped in a closed ideological echo chamber which prevents them from fulfilling the basic academic and scientific duty of exposing their dogmas and hypotheses to scrutiny and criticism from alternative perspectives?

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Do you think that grandees like Tony Blair and John Major ever really stop and reconsider the pivotal moments in their administrations, and ask themselves whether they might have ever misjudged the march toward greater EU integration without public consent? Or is it more likely that they are simply desperate to cement their legacies rather than concede potential error?

Tony Blair and John Major warn against Brexit

Do you think that progressive-left religious leaders like the vast majority of bishops of the Church of England – people who are supposed to unite the nation in faith but who have often chosen instead to use politics to divide us while idolizing a slick salesman’s vision of European unity – have ever prayerfully reflected on their behavior?

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Do you think that issue-illiterate, virtue-signaling woke celebrities like Gary Lineker and Eddie Izzard ever engaged in a serious evaluative process of understanding valid complaints about the EU and the driving forces behind Brexit, or is it more likely that their publicists simply spotted a good opportunity for them to effortlessly win acclaim from the chatterati?

Gary Lineker celebrity Remainer Brexit

Do you think that the self-regarding doyens of the prestige international media ever take a break from communing with Bono to learn the causes of populism in order to question whether their very actions might contribute to the problem, and whether their uncritical acceptance of the legitimacy of bodies like the European Union (and consequent feeble scrutiny of them) was harmful to the very democracy they claim to defend?

Fareed Zakaria Bono Populism Brexit

Do you think that the plum voices of the BBC ever take a break from smearing UKIP voters or flatly declaring without evidence that Tory MPs belong to the “far right” in order to question whether they are really promoting the cause of truth and serving the whole of society?

James Naughtie BBC bias journalism Brexit - ERG conservatives far right

Do you think that shamelessly biased Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow ever actually seriously considered whether he was wrong to negatively highlight and criticize the number of “white people” attending a pro-Brexit rally in Westminster?

Jon Snow Brexit Protest criticise white people journalism media bias

In all of the above cases, I believe that the answer is probably “no”. Convinced of their righteousness from the start, these individuals and many others switched into permanent transmit mode on 24 June 2016 (and in some cases long before), never once subjecting themselves to the discomfort and potential cognitive dissonance of questioning their own assumptions.

Maybe these people have actually forfeited the public trust and the right to their bully pulpits in the media.

Maybe when evaluating how Brexit is being attempted, resisted and portrayed in the media, we should ask ourselves who is actually engaging in an intellectual exercise of any kind, and who has simply lapsed into triumphantly bleating articles of faith, with little questioning of their own side. I would argue that many of the latter can be found in prominent positions on the Continuity Remain campaign, or at the apex of those organizations and industries which most strongly support it. And ironically, many of them can also be found publicly marveling at the inability of Brexiteers to reconsider their stance, question their dogmas and change their minds.

The truth is that Brexiteers have had nearly three years of unremitting exposure to the scorn, derision and hatred of many of the most respected and influential groups in our society – the politicians elected to our Parliament; the people who staff our civil service, lead our educational institutions, run our largest companies, lead our charities and edit our newspapers; the people who act in our favorite films and television shows, entertain us with their stand-up comedy or represent us at the pinnacle of professional sports, literature, music and the arts. Three years of this unremitting negativity and hostility from opposing forces in the most powerful reaches of the country; three years of embarrassing failure after failure by the people tasked with executing the decision we made at the ballot box on 23 June 2016, and still there is no overwhelming desire among Brexiteers nor the country as a whole to scrap Brexit and remain a member state of the European Union.

You could say that this is emotion over reason, that it is faith over fact, that it is a desperate act of confirmation bias by people who simply don’t want to admit to themselves that they were wrong. But every single one of these attack lines is also a piercing dagger which can just as easily be aimed right back at the heart of the Continuity Remainer “resistance” movement – people who despite being rebuffed at the referendum against all the odds and opinion polls have still not engaged in any kind of meaningful introspection at a group or individual level, and many of whom never once questioned their stance on Brexit, prior to nor after the referendum.

We are continually told that Remain voters and their movement’s heroes are more highly educated – even more moral – than those of us who had the nerve to imagine a future for British democracy outside the European Union. We are told that they are stringent disciples of reason while we are base creatures motivated by nativist superstition and easily led astray by nefarious outside influence. But it’s all a total sham. Theirs is a priesthood with no monopoly on fundamental truth, just a desperate faith in the European Union as the solution to problems which it has shown no capacity to meet.

There is indeed an emergent quasi-religious movement in Britain, one which holds its truths as unquestionable dogma, which views nonbelievers as automatically “lesser than” and which blindly fetishizes a flag as representation of all that is good and true in humanity. But the new faith militant in British politics is not the fractured and browbeaten Brexit movement. It is the Cult of Continuity Remain, and the banner under which it triumphantly marches bears the twelve yellow stars of the European Union.


EU flag body paint

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Late Night TV Hosts vs Trumpland, Part 2

Late night TV comedy hosts - Donald Trump - Conservatives - Progressivism - Bias

As late night TV hosts double down on their anti-conservative themes, opportunities for Left and Right to come together away from politics continue to dwindle, to everyone’s cost

Following Jimmy Kimmel’s recent pronouncement that nearly all talk show hosts are left-wing because only progressives have the required intellect to read jokes into a television camera, I wrote a bit of a meditation on why extending the politicising of everything to the realm of late night TV can only be a bad thing for society.

As amusing as I find the likes of Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher – and at their best, they are searingly funny – one cannot complain about division in society while simultaneously pitching late night talk shows to only half of the country. Even if it makes short-term business sense to drive up ratings by pandering to a particular partisan demographic, it comes at the cost of strengthening the bubble effect and ensuring that the left-wing comedians and their cheering audiences continue to be perplexed and outraged by the concerns, priorities and actions of whole other demographic groups they never bothered to understand.

Joseph Epstein picks up the same thread in the Wall Street Journal today, lamenting the way that late night comedy has jettisoned nonpartisan humour in favour of preachy, hectoring progressivism:

In a political time as divisive as ours, a public figure loses roughly half his following—and hence his charm—just as soon as he announces his politics. For an entertainer to do so is perhaps even more hazardous.

That the late-night talk-show hosts are ready to give up a large share of the audience to indulge their politics is something new in American comedy. Whatever Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle, Joan Rivers or Johnny Carson might have thought about what was happening in Washington, they wisely kept it to themselves. When Charlie Chaplin was revealed as a Communist fellow-traveler in the late 1930s it hurt his reputation, though he never allowed his politics directly to influence his art. On the other side, when Bob Hope found himself, because of his support for the Vietnam War, aligned with Richard Nixon, many of his most steadfast fans deserted him. The lesson, one should have thought, is that comedy and politics don’t mix.

It is worth remembering just how recent a phenomenon this really is. Jay Leno, the former king of late night (whom I found tremendously unfunny) personally skewed to the right but refrained from turning The Tonight Show into After Hours at the Heritage Foundation in favour of a gentler, undiscriminating mockery. And as I wrote the other day, even Jon Stewart managed to excoriate the Bush administration for its manifold failings without coming across as dismissive or hostile towards those who may have voted for George W. Bush. The Daily Show always had a leftward tilt, but there was still some entertainment value for conservatives; it is hard to imagine a Trump voter watching Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel or Bill Maher with any enjoyment.

And yet this approach is clearly good business, because turning on the television in primetime is increasingly like watching Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals made flesh, night after night. Meanwhile, advertisers exercise their prerogative to stop their ads from being shown during the shows of right-wing opinion journalists on cable news, but are only too happy to have their brands associated with comedians who speak exclusively to one half of the country. Again, that is their right, the free market in action, but that only brings me back to my original point – that society is in a pretty wretched state when half the country is fair game for comedians and written off by large corporations while the other half  is pandered to by both.

Epstein goes on to make the same point:

Enough people must share the views of these hosts to keep the careers of Maher, Colbert, Kimmel & Co. afloat, which is to say to keep their ratings high enough to be commercially viable. Yet these insufficiently funny comedians, with their crude political humor, do little more than add to the sad divisiveness that is rending the country. Something, surely, has been lost if one can no longer turn to comedy as a relief from the general woes of life and the greater farce that has for some years now been playing out in our everyday politics.

We have seen what can happen when key institutions of society tilt too far one way or the other, and the destructive knock-on effects which are sometimes unleashed as a consequence. The persistent soft-left bias of the mainstream media was instrumental in driving the success of conservative talk radio in the 1990s, and then right-wing online outlets such as the Drudge Report. The free market in action, yes, but also an encouragement for the political right to decamp into a self-contained ideological bubble of their own, a swamp where exaggerations and conspiracy theories festered, leading first to obstructionist Tea Party representatives and ultimately to Donald Trump himself.

And as conservatives departed the mainstream for their new niche market refuges, so the ideological balance of those who remained tilted ever further to the left, spurring the creation of an equal and opposite left-wing bubble in what was once the unbiased mainstream space, now replete with its own insatiable demands for bias confirming facts and narratives.

Obviously this pattern is far more troubling as it pertains to the media than the relatively trivial world of late night television, but still the latter it is yet more evidence of the same divisive force at work. Where people of all political persuasions could once happily watch Johnny Carson or Jay Leno, now the Left has captured virtually the entirety of  mainstream television programming, with younger web-savvy conservatives seeking equally politicised conservative-skewed comedy such as Steven Crowder‘s growing media empire (his show is also very good).

Individually there is nothing wrong with any of these shows; it is not as though Stephen Colbert represents an existential threat to the fabric of American society. The problem is that the cumulative effect of this divisiveness, this self-segregation generally initiated by the Left and eventually responded to by the Right, is that over time there are fewer and fewer meeting grounds where people of all political stripes can gather as Americans (or Brits, for we have the same problem here) first and foremost. Our national town square is shrinking, and at a time when we most need to reach within ourselves to find empathy for those with different political views, instead we retreat into mockery and incomprehension.

I wonder if those late night TV talk show hosts whose careers are presently flourishing under Donald Trump will ever come to realise that they, too, are catalysts in this destructive Trumpian reaction?

Stephen Colbert interviews Donald Trump

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Vince Cable Joins The Anti-Brexit War On The Elderly

Vince Cable - Brexit

Remainers love to claim that the EU referendum “divided Britain”. But many prominent Remainers are perfectly happy to stoke divisions of their own in order to thwart Brexit

While any measured, rational human being ought to be immediately capable of seeing through YouGov’s recent flawed opinion poll – which was constructed to give the misleading impression of elderly Brexit voters being selfish extremists – new LibDem leader Vince Cable is happy to stoke intergenerational conflict in order to feed his desperate pro-EU confirmation bias.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday (surprising enough in itself, considering most bien-pensant elites view that paper as little more than a fascist propaganda newsletter), Cable moans and wails about how the older generations have supposedly “shafted the young”.

Cable writes:

The Remain argument about economic damage is now largely accepted. Mounting evidence of a slowing economy and rising inflation give substance to earlier warnings. The issue has become one of how to minimise or postpone the damage. And instead of countering the arguments, more and more Brexiteers are embracing economic pain as a price worth paying for ‘taking back control’: almost as a badge of honour.

This attitude has reached worrying proportions. Press stories refer to ‘martyrs for Brexit’ based on a YouGov survey suggesting 61 per cent of the public would accept ‘significant damage to the economy’ from Brexit and 39 per cent ‘don’t mind losing their job’. These figures seem wildly implausible.

I don’t encounter people running around saying ‘please make me poorer’ or ‘please sack me’. These figures are also difficult to reconcile with polling which shows 66 per cent of voters wanting to remain inside the single market.

Of course, as I explained at length in my response to an equally idiotic piece in the New Statesman, there is in fact no contradiction here. It has nothing to do with being a “martyr”, or acting irrationally against one’s economic self interest. Rather, elderly voters simply understand that there are other motivations and considerations besides short term economic gain.

Having grown up in the post-war years and through the Cold War, older voters tend to appreciate the value of democracy and self-determination more than young voters who have never faced existential threat and for whom the EU has been an ever-present reality and an unquestioned positive force. And Vince Cable probably knows this full well, but it suits his purposes to portray those with differing political opinions as somehow unhinged or even malevolent.

Ironically, immediately after impugning the motives and morals of older Brexit voters, Vince Cable then goes on to make a plea for tolerance and mutual respect:

But the last thing the UK needs is further polarisation. There is already more than enough bad-mouthing of opponents and questioning of the patriotism of those who criticise the Government.

The gall of these establishment EU-defenders is absolutely off the charts. Where once a senior politician might have felt a degree of shame that would have prevented him from contradicting himself so completely in an Op-Ed, Cable does so proudly, fully expecting not to be picked up on it. This is how little establishment centrist politicians think of voters and their capacity to understand political or rhetorical arguments. But it is also a sign of the desperation in the Remain camp, as the dream of thwarting Brexit altogether recedes further and further into the distance.

And it gets worse:

To describe such masochism as ‘martyrdom’ is dangerous. We haven’t yet heard about ‘Brexit jihadis’ but there is an undercurrent of violence in the language which is troubling. We have already had the most fervent of Brexiteers, such as Nigel Farage, warning of civil unrest if the ‘will of the people’ is frustrated.

Brexiteers may well be frustrated since the practical difficulties of Brexit, as well as the costs, could result in Brexit never happening.

This is a clever little construction of Cable’s, writing that we haven’t yet heard about “Brexit jihadis” while simultaneously inserting what he clearly hopes will become the Left’s new insult of choice into the public discourse. Let’s be clear – the leader of the Liberal Democrats, that party which considers itself so rational and pragmatic, has just compared Brexiteers who dared to weigh considerations other than economic gain when voting in the EU referendum to jihadis. To murderous Islamist terrorists who maim and kill.

At what point do we stand up to the establishment’s collective hissy fit over Brexit? At what point do decent people refuse to be thus insulted by what Tim Montgomerie called the very “greybeards” who only recently urged further EU integration and the Euro on us even as these failing policies devastated the younger generation, particularly in southern Europe?

That’s not to say that Vince Cable is wrong in many of his warnings about Brexit. In many ways he is right to warn about the implausibility of hammering out a bespoke deal with the EU by 2019, and to urge a slower, managed transition which maintains current access to the EEA. But all of these sensible warnings are completely overshadowed by the overwrought, flowery language suggesting that Britain’s grey-haired voters are supposedly full of hatred and malice towards the children that they raised.

Are the older generations completely innocent? Of course not. Valid arguments can be made that they have been too sheltered from “austerity” and the consequences of the Great Recession thanks to universal benefits and the “triple lock” on pensions. And certainly, as a demographic with a high propensity to vote, the retiree lobby has been very successful in seeing their interests turned into government policy.

But Vince Cable’s over-the-top attack on older voters immediately turns them back into sympathetic characters, and only makes it harder to question the privileges that they have accrued through successive government policy. Comparing decent people who have worked their whole lives and done so much to build the country in which we live today to radical Islamist terrorists is so heinous, so wildly excessive, that sensible discussion becomes impossible.

This kind of behaviour might be just about acceptable from someone like me – a relatively unknown political blogger perhaps looking to make a splash by saying something outrageous or provocative (see Abi Wilkinson’s clickbait call for a 100% inheritance tax in the Guardian). But Vince Cable is not an obscure political commentator. He is leader of the Liberal Democrats, a political party which still purports to be taken seriously.

In reality, most people vote both for reasons of self interest and for the perceived good of society. The truth about the elderly Brexit vote probably lies between Brendan O’Neill’s lionisation of these voters and Vince Cable’s haughty dismissal.

O’Neill has been effusive in his praise:

I find it deeply inspiring, moving even, that my fellow Brexiteers are willing to have it rough in the name of democracy, in the name of bringing law-making back to where every progressive of the modern, Enlightened era believed it should be: in the nation, under a people’s oversight.

I straight up got a lump in my throat when I read the bit of the YouGov research that says many Leave voters would even be okay with losing their own jobs, or seeing a family member lose a job, in the name of Brexit. Thirty-nine per cent said such personal hardship would be a price worth paying, against 38 per cent who said it wouldn’t be. Now that’s devotion. That’s idealism. And if it seems alien to us, that only goes to show what a flat, grey political era we live in.

Indeed, the rather elitist alarm that has greeted the revelation that people are willing to suffer for their democratic ideals sums up what a baleful influence technocracy has had on our political imagination. In the technocratic era, when politics has been drained of big ideas and reduced to a box-ticking exercise that is all about managing society, its inhabitants and their aspirations, political passion can seem threatening. Strong feelings, democratic devotion, self-sacrifice – these have become foreign bodies in a time when politics is about making things chug along as uncontroversially as possible. To the technocrat, to the EU suit who drafts laws far from the madding demos, the utterance ‘I am willing to go through hardship for what I believe in’ seems perverse. It’s disruptive. It is because we inhabit such a beige world of spun, small politics that the willingness of us Brexiteers to suffer for our beliefs can look like ‘extremism’.

I get where O’Neill is coming from, even though I think he goes a little too far, reading something that both he and I desperately want to see (a return to conviction politics and commitment to ideology rather than fudged centrist compromise) into a vote whose motivations were more nuanced than either extreme.

In truth, elderly Brexit voters are neither selfless heroes nor foaming-at-the-mouth jihadists. But as far as the media is concerned, the narrative about older voters being selfish is too convenient to ignore. Unfortunately it reveals a gulf of misunderstanding, as Vince Cable makes clear:

The old have comprehensively shafted the young. And the old have had the last word about Brexit, imposing a world view coloured by nostalgia for an imperial past on a younger generation much more comfortable with modern Europe.

If I had a pound for every time some sanctimonious Remainer airily asserted that Brexit was motivated by “nostalgia for an imperial past” then I would never need to work again. In reality, the Lord Ashcroft poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum clearly showed that the principle motivating factor for Leave voters was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. Perhaps this lacks nuance and an understanding of modern day interdependence in the regulatory environment, but it is also a clear and unambiguous call for the same kind of autonomy enjoyed by countries far smaller than ours in terms of GDP such as Australia, Canada or Korea. This is by no means unreasonable, and cannot be fairly caricatured as some kind of imperial nostalgia.

So why pretend that it is? Either Vince Cable is so full of self-hatred for his own country and its history that he believes that our dissolution as an independent nation state into an increasingly federal EU is somehow appropriate “payback” for our transgressions in the days of empire, or he knows full well that the Brexit vote was not motivated by imperial nostalgia but simply finds this to be a convenient trope with which to whip up his own supporters.

For now I will do Vince Cable the courtesy of assuming the latter rather than the former – that he is in fact not a self-hating Brit, but rather just a cynical old politician like so many others. But the longer this tantrum against anyone and everyone who voted for Brexit goes on, the harder it becomes to assume good faith on the part of the furious Remainers.

At some point the Vince Cables of this world have to either engage with the real substance of Brexiteer arguments, attitudes and motivations, or else just admit that they don’t care – that they simply feel blind, unthinking hatred towards those who disagree with them and have no interest in rational discussion.

It might actually prove quite cathartic; rather than having to make increasingly ludicrous arguments that people voted for Brexit somehow want to bring back the Empire, Vince Cable and his ilk could simply have their Two Minutes Hate every day and be satisfied.


Vince Cable - Brexit - EU

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America’s Armchair Psychiatrists: Go To Town On Donald Trump, But Lay Off His Supporters

Donald Trump supporters - idiots

Donald Trump opponents should spend less time psychoanalysing Trump supporters and more time reflecting on the reasons for their own deep unpopularity

Sometimes, one wonders whether the American left actually want to defeat Donald Trump at all, or if they are more interested in parading their superior moral virtue for others to see. Certainly, the way that they are behaving in the media at present suggests that defeating Trump has become less important than using him as a mirror to reflect their own supposed holiness.

What else could excuse the rash of execrable articles openly mocking Trump supporters and suggesting that they are morally and intellectually defective?

First, a sanctimonious piece in the Washington Post explaining to it’s oh-so-enlightened readers why “facts don’t matter to Trump’s Supporters“:

How did Donald Trump win the Republican nomination, despite clear evidence that he had misrepresented or falsified key issues throughout the campaign? Social scientists have some intriguing explanations for why people persist in misjudgments despite strong contrary evidence.

Trump is a vivid and, to his critics, a frightening present-day illustration of this perception problem. But it has been studied carefully by researchers for more than 30 years. Basically, the studies show that attempts to refute false information often backfire and lead people to hold on to their misperceptions even more strongly.

This literature about misperception was lucidly summarized by Christopher Graves, the global chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations, in a February 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review, months before Trump surfaced as a candidate. Graves is now writing a book about his research at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy.

Graves’s article examined the puzzle of why nearly one-third of U.S. parents believe that childhood vaccines cause autism, despite overwhelming medical evidence that there’s no such link. In such cases, he noted, “arguing the facts doesn’t help — in fact, it makes the situation worse.” The reason is that people tend to accept arguments that confirm their views and discount facts that challenge what they believe.

This “confirmation bias” was outlined in a 1979 article by psychologist Charles Lord, cited by Graves. Lord found that his test subjects, when asked questions about capital punishment, responded with answers shaped by their prior beliefs. “Instead of changing their minds, most will dig in their heels and cling even more firmly to their originally held views,” Graves explained in summarizing the study.

Entirely missing from this “analysis” is any acknowledgement that the phenomenon works both ways, and that Trump supporters are not the only ones prone to confirmation bias, that entirely human instinct to search out more corroborating evidence when attacked rather than accepting the potential validity of the criticism.

The same charge could just as easily be levelled at Hillary Clinton supporters who aggressively dismiss questions around the ethics and competence of the Democratic Party nominee. And while this blog believes that many of these concerns have more to do with a good old fashioned witch hunt than principled criticism (note how Hillary Clinton was previously dismissed by many as a far-left ideologue and is now criticised by the same people, correctly, as a triangulating centrist) the reaction of hardcore Hillary Clinton defenders to criticism of their candidate is no different than the way that Donald Trump’s supporters defend their man.

Unfortunately, this Washington Post article (especially its headline, which in fairness to author David Ignatius was probably not of his creation) makes it seem as though it is only Donald Trump supporters who are susceptible to the trait of confirmation bias, when this is absolutely not the case. It is, in effect, another part of the grubby effort to dismiss the concerns of Trump-supporting Americans, suggesting that their views and political preferences are the result of defective thinking rather than legitimate grievances and concerns.

Even worse than the Washington Post piece, though, is this article from Raw Story, in which neuroscientist Bobby Azarian attempts to remotely diagnose supposed abnormalities found in the brains of Donald Trump supporters.

The piece (the cover picture of which shows a Trump supporter’s face frozen mid-gesture, all the more to make her look stupid) alleges:

The only thing that might be more perplexing than the psychology of Donald Trump is the psychology of his supporters. In their eyes, The Donald can do no wrong. Even Trump himself seems to be astonished by this phenomenon. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”

[..] So how exactly are Trump loyalists psychologically or neurologically different from everyone else? What is going on in their brains that makes them so blindly devoted?

Again, here we see the same arrogance which wrongly presumes that other partisans would behave differently when confronted with evidence that “their” candidate is in some way unacceptable. Yet anybody with eyes and a functioning brain knows that “Hillary Bots” and “Bernie Bros” were likewise called out for blindly supporting their chosen candidate regardless of new information presented.

The article then goes on to list various potential theories which may explain the supposedly uniquely abnormal thinking of Trump supporters:

Some believe that many of those who support Donald Trump do so because of ignorance — basically they are under-informed or misinformed about the issues at hand. When Trump tells them that crime is skyrocketing in the United States, or that the economy is the worst it’s ever been, they simply take his word for it.

[..] The Dunning-Kruger effect explains that the problem isn’t just that they are misinformed; it’s that they are completely unaware that they are misinformed. This creates a double burden.

Studies have shown that people who lack expertise in some area of knowledge often have a cognitive bias that prevents them from realizing that they lack expertise. As psychologist David Dunning puts it in an op-ed for Politico, “The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment.” Essentially, they’re not smart enough to realize they’re dumb.

And if one is under the illusion that they have sufficient or even superior knowledge, then they have no reason to defer to anyone else’s judgment. This helps explain why even nonpartisan experts — like military generals and Independent former Mayor of New York/billionaire CEO Michael Bloomberg — as well as some respected Republican politicians, don’t seem to be able to say anything that can change the minds of loyal Trump followers.

There is a kernel of truth here, inasmuch as that the Dunning-Kruger effect is certainly real, and does in some way explain the behaviour of Trump supporters (others have used it to similarly belittle Fox News viewers). But Azarian seems to be suggesting that Donald Trump supporters are particularly liable to this erroneous thinking, while providing absolutely no evidence to back this up.

Azarian would have us believe that Hillary Clinton supporters are wise oracles, high-minded arbiters of truth and wisdom, who dispassionately compare various politicians against their entirely rational criteria before coming to support their candidate. One can be quickly and easily disabused of this notion by actually speaking to a particularly committed Clinton supporter.

We also see creeping into Azarian’s analysis the same bias in favour of a “tyranny of the experts” which we saw in Britain’s EU referendum, where a whole parade of economists and members of the economic and political elite lined up to bully Britons into voting to remain in the European Union. When Britain rejected the threats of the Remain campaign and voted for Brexit, many commentators have had a complete meltdown, unable to understand how their compatriots could be so “stupid” as to reject the advice of so many self-described experts.

But what they failed to realise is that Brexiteers were not judging the question of Britain’s membership of the EU in the same terms as the experts. The experts, nearly all sinecured members of the establishment, had a post-patriotic mindset in which democracy and self-determination were irrelevant while economic stability and minimising disruption for current economic winners was all that mattered. Brexiteers, by contrast, actually cared about democracy and freedom, and having control over the decisions which affect their lives (as backed up by opinion polling in the immediate aftermath of the referendum). Seeing yet another EU-funded university professor wail that Brexiteers were “racist” and that leaving the EU might cause short term economic uncertainty left us entirely unmoved – to Brexiteers, such uncertainty is a price well worth paying to be free of an organisation as offensively antidemocratic as the European Union.

We see this same arrogance at work in Azarian’s lament that Trump supporters continually disregard the advice of military experts and their economic betters. One does not need to be a Trump supporter – this blog certainly is not – to understand that in the eyes of many Americans, the experts feted by the anti-Trump crowd are the very same people who presided over two very questionable wars and the greatest recession since the Great Depression. In other words, their advice simply doesn’t count for much in the eyes of Trump supporters – and often, the “experts” have only themselves to blame.

Azarian concludes:

So what can we do to potentially change the minds of Trump loyalists before voting day in November? As a cognitive neuroscientist, it grieves me to say that there may be nothing we can do. The overwhelming majority of these people may be beyond reach, at least in the short term. The best we can do is to motivate everyone else to get out to the booths and check the box that doesn’t belong to a narcissistic nationalist who has the potential to damage the nation beyond repair.

Well, congratulations – this article has contributed to a toxic atmosphere of derision against Trump supporters which will have only hardened his support (as even Azarian recognises at one point during the piece). By penning yet another unbearably sanctimonious piece absolving the political establishment of any responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump and suggesting that his supporters are uniquely prone to confirmation bias and other cognitive flaws, the anti-Trump forces are given more license to think of themselves as uniquely rational and virtuous, and to look down on the significant minority of their fellow Americans who prefer Trump to the rotten establishment.

If Donald Trump is to be halted (or the poison taken out of a narrow Trump defeat), the only words this blog wants to see running through the minds of moderate Republicans and Democrats are “how have I enabled the rise of Donald Trump?” and “what can I do differently to stop enraging so many ordinary decent voters, and pushing them into the arms of a demagogue with such questionable policies, morals and temperament?”.

The easy option for the #NeverTrump crowd is to sit back, bask in their own moral virtue and clutch their pearls while looking at horror at the ill-educated, uncouth white trash who give Trump the time of day. That way risks the world waking up to President-Elect Trump on 9 November.

The harder, more virtuous task is to engage in some real introspection, and think hard and uncompromisingly about how years of Democratic and Republican government and opposition have generated such disillusionment and outright hatred of the political class that ordinary, decent people are willing to vest their hopes in Donald Trump.

If the political class are to succeed in preventing a Donald Trump victory, they must demonstrate a willingness to change. Cheerleading for the status quo while angrily demonising those people who refuse to accept it is simply not good enough. Not this time.

Now is the time for the American political class to show that they are capable of humility and change, not simply to engage in anti-Trump moral grandstanding. Donald Trump did not become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in a vacuum. The flame of Trumpism only burns bright because it is sustained by the hot air of establishment Democrats and Republicans who fight their furious pitched battles in Washington D.C. while too many Americans have seen zero change in their own personal circumstances.

So by all means, America’s smug armchair psychiatrists among the #NeverTrump political establishment should go on diagnosing Donald Trump all they want. This blog certainly believes that anyone who gets into Twitter spats with Gold Star parents and D-list celebrities while running for president is dangerously emotionally unstable at best.

But there is nothing to be gained from going to war with Donald Trump’s supporters, many of whom have been repeatedly let down by the moderate, establishment politicians we tend to respect, and whose anger deserves to be acknowledged.


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The British Media’s Shameful Coverage Of The EU Referendum

Mark Twain - It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt

Of the many disappointments in this EU referendum campaign, the utter failure of the British press to discharge its basic professional duty stings worst of all

A well-functioning, free press is essential to the health of a democracy.

Rigorous journalism, conducted with integrity, is the lifeblood of a vigilant, engaged citizenry – without it, the people cannot make informed decisions and corruption, incompetence and decay quickly begin to corrode good government.

The current EU referendum should therefore be a great test for our nation’s media elite, and reveal whether or not the British press are fulfilling their essential function. After all, here is an absolutely existential question facing the nation – do we stay in the European Union or do we leave? There are many interweaving areas to consider – trade, foreign policy, defence, national security, trade, immigration, the economy. And there is the temporal aspect – what is awkward or uncertain in the short term may have huge benefits in the long run, and vice versa. In every respect, this is a big, meaty issue for Britain’s finest journalistic minds to wrap their heads around.

Of course, no one journalist or publication can perfectly embody all of the great journalistic characteristics of fearlessness, impartiality, scepticism and rational enquiry all the time. That much is not possible, nor expected. We are all human beings and we all have motivations and core beliefs which give us blind spots or encourage us to take mental shortcuts. That’s normal. But at the macro level, if our democracy were in good shape, by now we should see an accumulation of evidence of rigorous enquiry by the media class. Even in a media market where newspapers and websites make no claim of impartiality we should still see evidence of lies being exposed, truth being searched out and upheld, and assertions constantly questioned.

This holds true even when the quality of the discourse itself – in this case driven by the two official campaigns on each side of the EU referendum – is poor, as is very much the case with the fearmongering establishment Remain campaign and the unhinged, loose cannon Vote Leave. Bad ideas are bad ideas and false statements are false statements, whether they come from the shouty man on Twitter or an oleaginous SW1 spokesperson. Therefore, bearing the imprimatur of establishment authority should make one more open to questioning, not less, and there should always be a healthy scepticism of authority and social status.

So are we currently passing the test? On this most important of issues, has the British media been doing its job properly?

It hardly needs stating that the answer is a resounding “no”. In fact, the quality of coverage has fallen incredibly short of the standard we should expect from a healthy democracy – but then, our democracy is hardly healthy. Or particularly democratic. Tthis is not a criticism of any one journalist or publication – though there are several whose deserve full and individual criticism for their groupthink, confirmation bias and craven deference to power. But for the purposes of this blog post we will focus our attention on the overall national media output.

And the best way to see how the media have fallen short in their EU referendum coverage is through their utter lack of curiosity about a plan for Brexit. This is particularly odd given the fact that the SNP government’s weighty tome outlining a plan for Scottish independence provided such rich pickings for journalists during the 2014 referendum. As time dragged on and on, one might have reasonably expected calls in the press for the release of a Brexit plan to have reached a loud crescendo, eventually forcing the hand of the official campaign.

But no – when it was high handedly decided that having an actual plan for what to do after the referendum would be stupid because it would (shock horror) invite scrutiny, there was barely a peep from the media. Vote Leave were allowed to get away with fighting this most rare and consequential campaign without so much as a list of bullet points scribbled on the back of a napkin. Yet you will struggle to find one television or newspaper interview where senior Vote Leave figures (or Leave.EU figures prior to the designation decision) were put on the spot about their lack of an agreed plan.

And yet a Brexit plan exists, and has done for several years. It’s called Flexcit and is hosted at the blog authored by Dr. Richard North, one of Britain’s foremost authorities on the history and workings of the European Union. Now, it may not bear the stamp of the Westminster bubble, but it was at one point being considered for adoption by Leave.EU (who shamefully decided not to do so because it detracted from the simplistic anti-immigration, economically illiterate message which is working such wonders for the Leave campaign at the moment).

And yet does this warrant the slightest attention from the Westminster media? Apparently not. Besides a vaguely disparaging article in the Herald Scotland, you won’t find a single mention of it by name in a major UK newspaper, let alone on television. Those columnists and pundits who know of Flexcit (and thanks to many ordinary supporters and a large web footprint it is hard to miss in a Google search) and support the plan are forced to make murky allusions to it, because openly mentioning the one citizen-authored plan for leaving the European Union would mean the torpedoing of that article before it ever saw the light of day.

This is a plan which was originally drawn up as an entry to an official competition organised by the IEA, and which has now been downloaded nearly 100,000 times. It isn’t some child’s finger-painting stuck lovingly to the fridge door with a magnet – it is a serious piece of work. And yet even as Britain debates the merits of leaving or staying in the EU and the process by which Brexit might occur, apparently no “household name” Westminster journalist has considered it worthwhile to write about the only comprehensive Brexit plan in existence.

Why the media blackout of Flexcit? One can only speculate – but none of those speculations lead to a very pleasing conclusion. Some journalists and publications overlooking Flexcit might be accepted as a very odd act of omission. The entire Westminster media stubbornly refusing to to mention Flexcit while hanging on every word uttered by Boris Johnson begins to look like a conspiracy of silence. Particularly since The Leave Alliance – the network of Brexit campaigners united under the Flexcit banner (this blog is a member) – has twice met right under their noses in prestigious central London locations.

Warning - Journalist does not understand the subject they are writing about

In fact, if you want to see a serious mention of Flexcit and the staged withdrawal from the EU advocated by the Flexcit plan, one has to look in the American media – Andrew Stuttaford has twice written about Flexcit while covering the EU referendum for the prestigious conservative journal National Review, meaning that American readers are perversely better informed about the most comprehensive (and likely to be adopted) plan for leaving the European Union than most British people.

Take a moment to let that sink in. Britain is having a great national debate about whether and how to leave the European Union. There exists a comprehensive plan for doing so, which is particularly relevant now because one of the Remain campaign’s chief attack lines is that Leave supporters don’t know what Brexit looks like. But if you want to read about this plan, you will have to rely either on the American media or the small but dedicated army of citizen journalists and bloggers who promote it, because nobody in the British media cares to report on something of material significance to the campaign.

You don’t need to be a fully paid-up Brexiteer to realise that there is something profoundly wrong with this picture. Surely, if there exists a properly thought-out plan for how Brexit might work, it would be in the public interest to mention this plan? Maybe a couple of SW1’s finest journalists might take a few hours out of their busy day to skim the 400 pages and form an opinion, heck, even contact the author with a few questions. But apparently not. If it wasn’t dribbled into a microphone by Boris Johnson – a man who had not even decided that he wanted Britain to leave the European Union a few short months ago – the British media don’t seem to think it is worth covering.

Stuttaford’s latest National Review piece says what the British media will not:

David Cameron’s predictably dishonest ‘Project Fear’ is working predictably well.

The best way to counter it is to show that Brexit is, economically speaking, manageable, and the best way to manage it (there are alternatives) is by joining the European Economic Area—doing a Norway, to use the shorthand. It’s dull, and that’s the point: Dull is reassuring. Signing up for the EEA also recognizes the reality that, after decades of British entanglement with Brussels, leaving the EU is a process, not one bold break, however much romantics might wish otherwise.

Over at EU Referendum, Richard North has, as I have mentioned before in this Corner, been making this point for years (his EEA-based ‘Flexcit’ plan remains—for anyone who wants to get into the details—an essential read).

Before concluding:

I have always thought that Brexiteers would be the underdogs in this referendum. That’s how it has turned out to be, but if those who want out of the EU want to have a shot of winning this thing, they have to show that they have come to grips with the ‘how’ as well as the ‘why’ of Brexit. Their version of ‘how’ will not necessarily be definitive, but the fact that it is being articulated will go quite some way to reassuring an understandably nervous electorate that its concerns are being thought through.

[..] Like it or not, Johnson is the most prominent ‘face’ in the Leave camp.  He needs to start talking about a Brexit route with enough substance to it to reassure the anxious. Arguing that the UK has the economic and political clout to cut a good economic deal with its future former EU partners is not crazy, but it is not enough to convince nervous voters to take the Brexit ramp.  It looks too much like wishful thinking.  And what voters want to hear is evidence of serious thinking.

We can talk until we are blue in the face about the many failings of Vote Leave. And when the history of this campaign is written, they will rightly come in for much criticism for failing to embrace a comprehensive, risk-minimising Brexit plan like Flexcit. But a rigorous press should and would have discovered Flexcit without needing it to be trumpeted by Boris Johnson or slapped onto the side of Nigel Farage’s battle bus. Professional rigour should have seen to that much, or even (one would have hoped) natural curiosity.

The fact that the one rigorous Brexit plan in existence has played almost no role in the national referendum discussion to date is damning evidence of the British media’s lack of interest in rigorous reporting, and strong preference for covering the personality-based, tit-for-tat human drama. And one can understand the temptation. Reading through a 400-word tome about how to withdraw from the European Union while maintaining economic stability is soooo boring, especially when one could be writing breathless gossip pieces about how Michael Gove’s wife and Samantha Cameron have fallen out over their husbands’ divergent views on Brexit. Why do the serious research and analysis when it’s far easier – and generates far more precious web traffic – to report on the latest incendiary nugget to fall from the… mouth of Boris Johnson?

Here, Pete North says it best:

As present, we are only superficially aware that we don’t have democracy because we are missing an essential component of a healthy democracy – a free and inquisitive press. It is not that the state censors our media, rather it censors itself largely to appease advertisers and corporate cronies. In that regard the government does not need to censor the British press.

But as much as anything it has lost its essential inquisitiveness. It is concerned only with the entertainment aspect of politics rather than the dreary business of policy. It is for that reason I look forward to the day when our newspapers go the way of the dinosaur. A fate well deserved.

But in having such a dismally inept media, decisions that affect our lives go unnoticed. We are often taken by the idea that government takes sweeping decisions behind closed doors but the ultimate joke is that they are held in the open, transcribed and published on the web. These days the best way to ensure nobody will read something is to put it on the EU website.

Regardless of which side they happen to occupy in this referendum, most thinking people agree that the level of debate has been shockingly bad. Whether it is David Cameron suggesting that it is “immoral” to vote for Brexit (despite having “ruled nothing out” himself during the renegotiation) or Vote Leave insisting that Brexit would free up £350 million every week which they would prefer to spend building a brand new NHS hospital on every street corner, both sides are spewing out misinformation and hysteria, and talking down to the general public in an immensely grating fashion.

If the Westminster media were doing their job, they would not only fact-check the obvious untruths and misrepresentations emanating from both sides, they would also search out and report on the best of Brexit and Remain thinking from outside of the SW1 bubble. Yet it does not seem to occur to them that people who are not currently MPs, journalists, celebrities or the spouses of MPs, journalists and celebrities also have ideas and opinions about the EU referendum. Sometimes, those ideas and opinions are actually quite good. Sometimes – gasp – they are a lot better than what the professional politicians and pundits are saying.

As things stand, Britain is probably on course to vote to Remain in the European Union, based on a campaign in which both sides were reduced to screaming “but the NHS!” at each other until exasperated voters stopped paying attention. Very few of us will go into the polling booth with an understanding of the EU’s history, its strategic impetus and its future direction of travel. Very few of us will cast our vote with so much as a basic understanding of the global regulatory environment and the EU’s (diminishing) role in setting standards. And as the results start to come in, few of us will have voted purely according to the specific question on the ballot paper, which merely asks us whether we want to leave or remain in the European Union.

And to some extent that’s normal. Not everybody can be an expert. Most people have lives, and do not live and breathe this stuff 24/7. But conversely, just as not everybody can be an expert, nobody has to be totally ignorant, either. There is no reason why the British people, at this late stage in the campaign, could not have a better base level of knowledge than we do. There is no good reason why (for example) important terms like the EEA, Single Market and Schengen Area are routinely confused or conflated with one another. There is no good reason why, in a referendum about deciding whether or not to leave the European Union, so few people know about the one comprehensive plan to deliver precisely that outcome. No good reason at all. Yet here we are.

And for this dismal state of affairs you can thank the Great British Media.

You’re doing a heckuva job, Fleet Street.


If you actually put faith in modern journalism youre gonna have a bad time

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