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?

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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.

 

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Lessons On Populism, From Bono

Fareed Zakaria - U2 Bono - populism Europe - Kiev

 

How to solve the “scourge” of European populism? CNN’s Fareed Zakaria makes a pilgrimage to Kiev, to consult with the geopolitical oracle known as Bono

Every now and then you read an article so astonishingly un-self aware, so counterproductive, so open to attack and ridicule on multiple fronts that it is difficult to know where to begin. The latest writer to evoke this strong reaction is Fareed Zakaria, CNN’s in-house intellectual and self-touted expert on international issues and foreign affairs.

The headline of Zakaria’s latest asinine column in the Washington Post? “I wanted to understand Europe’s populism. So I talked to Bono.”

Zakaria has apparently turned his formidable mind towards the rising backlash against years of technocratic supranational rule which favored delivering a stream of perks and opportunities to urban cognitive elites while leaving the rest of their citizens to face the vagaries of globalization, automation, outsourcing and supranationalism unsupervised, unrepresented and unprotected. Of course, Zakaria does not view the problem in these terms – he would doubtless describe it as a mass turning away from reason and rationality, and a refusal on the part of ordinary people to gratefully follow the course carefully laid out for them by their intellectual and moral betters.

And so when faced with a rise in “populism” around the world, Zakaria doesn’t engage in any personal introspection as to how he and his circle might have brought us to this moment. He certainly doesn’t reach out to any of the discredited technocrats and ask searching questions of leaders like Hillary Clinton, David Cameron or Tony Blair. No; Fareed Zakaria hopped on a plane to Kiev, where he hunkered down with U2 singer and Woman of the Year Bono, who – as we all know – is the premier global expert on the subject of populism, its causes and its cures.

Again, this is one of those articles where one can scarcely make it to the end of each paragraph without wanting to fly to Fareed Zakaria’s New York home for a personal one-on-one summit with the guy. I read the thing and just sat staring at the screen for a good five minutes, incredulous that anybody could show such supreme ignorance – and worse, lack of curiosity – about the other perspectives he pretends on his television show to care about.

From the top:

When confronting a challenging problem, it’s sometimes useful to listen to someone who looks at it from an entirely different angle. That’s why I found it fascinating to talk about the rise of populism and nativism with Bono last weekend at a summit in Kiev.

Naturally. I hop on a plane to see Bono at least once a month, whenever I am faced with a personal or geopolitical quandary, and I am sure that you do the same. The man is just a font of wisdom. And “different angle”? Bono believes in and champions exactly the same supranational, technocratic and remote system as Zakaria. The man waves an EU flag around on stage in his concerts, for heaven’s sake. Yet Zakaria has the nerve to portray traveling thousands of miles to hear his own opinions reflected back at him from an aging rock-star as a fearless search for alternative points of view.

The Irish singer-activist-philanthropist sees the same forces that we all do, particularly in Europe, but he zeroes in on something intangible yet essential. The only way to counter the dark, pessimistic vision being peddled by nationalists and extremists, Bono says, is to have an uplifting, positive vision. Homing in on the trouble in his part of the world, he told me, “Europe needs to go from being seen as a bore, a bureaucracy, a technical project, to being what it is: a grand, inspiring idea.”

And immediately the bias betrays itself. At a time when the European Union’s failures and the hubris of EU leaders are dooming entire generations of youth to chronic unemployment, when their incompetence at defending the union’s frontiers has led to an inward wave of illegal migration which no voters sanctioned and at a time when the entire European project stands either discredited or seriously questioned in a whole swathe of member states, Fareed Zakaria’s first thought isn’t whether some of the EU’s critics might have a point worth hearing. His first thought is how European elites can best double down on their vision and make their recalcitrant citizens realize the error of their ways and drop their inconvenient resistance to further political integration.

More:

To that end, Bono’s band, U2, has been choosing a moment during its concerts to unfurl — wait for it — the flag of the European Union.

How dreadfully original. He should do a duet with EU supergirl.

“Europe is a thought that needs to become a feeling,” Bono wrote in a recent op-ed in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine. He is trying to give that feeling meaning. To him, Europe is about the ability of countries that were once warring to live in peace, for people of many different lands and languages to come together. “That idea of Europe deserves songs written about it, and big bright blue flags to be waved about,” he wrote.

This same tedious and over-simplistic point has been made by a thousand teenage left-wingers with the EU flag painted on their faces, not to mention legions of C-list cable news talking heads, yet when Bono says the same thing it becomes profound and original insight worthy of inclusion in a Washington Post feature article. Remarkable.

But here’s the bit where Zakaria’s powers of analysis really desert him:

Bono admits that Europe is a “hard sell” today. The continent is ablaze with populism. These forces have taken control in Hungary, Poland and Italy and are steadily gaining ground elsewhere, including Germany and Sweden. It seems that everywhere the fuel is the same: hostility toward strangers, foreigners, anyone who is different.

There is absolutely zero attempt here to distinguish between actual xenophobia and racism on the one hand, and legitimate concerns about a lack of democratic control over immigration or enforcement of the rule of law against illegal immigrants on the other. But of course in Zakaria’s mind there is no distinction to make. Merely objecting to massive expansions of inward immigration ushered in by governments without seeking popular consent is every bit as racist and worthy of condemnation as donning a white robe and lighting crosses on fire. Simply asking questions about the impact of high levels of migration on societal cohesiveness and public service provision is taken to be the sufficient mens rea to establish guilt.

And so Fareed Zakaria, ventriloquizing Bono the Philosopher King, doesn’t seek to dig into a hugely complex issue featuring a cast of thousands of actors and hundreds of policies and sub-policies. He doesn’t attempt to separate actual racism, prejudice and discrimination against people based on their national or ethnic background, from legitimate concerns about how the EU’s leaders and national leaders have stubbornly implemented their own view of the open, multicultural society without consulting let alone seeking the approval of those they nominally serve. They are all lumped together as “hostility toward strangers, foreigners, anyone who is different”, a blanket condemnation which allows people like Fareed Zakaria and the political masters for whom he covers to press ahead with their existing policies without feeling the need to justify themselves or win public approval. After all, one doesn’t need to make accommodation with racists.

Zakaria then goes on to paraphrase Francis Fukuyama:

The founders of the E.U., he argues, spent too much time building the technical aspects of the project — laws, rules, tariffs. They neglected to nurture an actual European identity, something people could believe in not for rational reasons but for emotional and idealistic ones.

This is one of only two perceptive points made in the entire article, and it comes courtesy of a third party. This is absolutely correct – the EU’s founders and subsequent leaders adopted an unapologetically antidemocratic “if we build it, they will come” approach to constructing their new European superstate. They figured that if only they could get all of the institutions set up and orchestrate enough power grabs from member states to Brussels, the entire project would be a fait accompli and ordinary people would simply have to make their peace with taking orders from elsewhere, and being represented by institutions to which they felt no allegiance and often barely recognized.

But Fareed Zakaria doesn’t pause to marvel at this slow-motion, silent coup or acknowledge that its opponents may have a point in at least raising concerns about it. He and Bono simply look forward to the time when the various peoples of Europe have been successfully re-educated and taught to love their new overlords:

According to the latest European Commission surveys, 71 percent of Poles say they feel attached to the E.U., more so than Germans or Spaniards, while 61 percent of Hungarians feel attached, outstripping the French, Swedes and Belgians. The problem is, it isn’t a deep, emotional bond — they are three to four times more likely to feel very attached to their own nation than to the E.U.

Apparently it is a problem that we do not feel attached to these institutions built largely without our consent, input or oversight. It is problematic, according to Bono and his acolyte Zakaria, that people object to vast new and powerful layers of government constructed at a geographic and political level that we naturally do not feel strong allegiance to because of entirely normal cultural and historic differences. It is something, goes this argument, that must be overcome or suppressed for the Greater Good.

Ordinarily I would enjoy sitting back and watching Fareed Zakaria’s smugness, moral certainty and profound lack of curiousness about people from outside his hermetically sealed intellectual bubble come back to bite him. But I cannot do so, because Zakaria’s loss and humiliation will be all of ours, too. None of us stand to benefit if the worst and harshest elements of the populist revolution take over our politics and trample over our imperfect but essential institutions. A proliferation of Viktor Orbans throughout Europe is not a price worth paying to see the smug self-satisfied smile wiped off Zakaria’s face.

And this is the frustrating thing. In the fight against racism, xenophobia and authoritarianism, we should be allies. But Zakaria will not engage in good faith with the opponents of technocratic, managerialist, supranationalism. He is unable or unwilling to distinguish between discomfort and disagreement with the direction and destination of European political union and “hostility toward strangers, foreigners, anyone who is different”. Because Fareed Zakaria and a hundred prominent journalists and politicians like him are incapable of distinguishing between legitimate criticism of the status quo and support for the worst elements of the populist revolution, they are able neither to call their own side to account for their failings, nor chart the kind of compromise we ultimately need to preserve the benefits of globalization and internationalism with the rightful demand of ordinary citizens for democratic control over their destinies.

This is the real conversation – and I have been saying this for years now – that we urgently need to be having. We need our smartest minds and those with social capital to come together to develop answers to these big questions. But instead, almost to a person, they would rather zip around the globe from Davos to Aspen to Kiev, commiserating with themselves, hobnobbing with aging rock stars, stroking their metaphorical beards and wondering why the rest of their fellow citizens stubbornly refuse to fall into line and get with the program.

Fareed Zakaria will no more learn about the origins of and solutions to populism from Bono than he will learn about bioethics from Justin Bieber. That he felt no sense of shame putting his name to this execrable article in the Washington Post leaves me with a feeling of profound frustration and despair.

But Zakaria is not alone – indeed, his article is emblematic of the cognitive bias which runs through the upper echelons of the corporate, cultural, educational, governmental and journalistic institutions which together set society’s direction of travel (and in the latter’s case, report back on the situation with a laughably false veneer of objectivity).  The only difference between Fareed Zakaria and the rest of them is that he was stupid enough to print what the rest of them think in private on the pages of the Washington Post.

Two years after Brexit, nearly two years after Trump and still the Smartest Guys In The Room™ exhibit no self-awareness, no introspection, no respect for opposing viewpoints and no new ideas beyond “more Europe, more technocracy, more unaccountable supranationalism, and if you don’t like it then there must be something wrong with you”.

Zakaria can commune with Bono all he wants, but it will not save them or us from the slow-motion collision with reality that the West is now experiencing. Yet he prattles on in the Washington Post oblivious to the danger because in Fareed Zakaria’s mind, he and the people he interviews cannot be wrong about anything, and theirs is the only valid perspective.

In the words of Evelyn Waugh, “They were too old and they didn’t know and they wouldn’t learn. That’s the truth.”

 

Bono - U2 concert - EU flags - Brexit

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