Political Tribalism And Brexit

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

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

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

Chua explains:

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

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

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

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

As Chua notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Brexit And The Youth Vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Brexit And The Ivory Tower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I wrote in 2016:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

AC Grayling - sunk frigate

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

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

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

 

Brexit And The Commentariat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so today, Owen Jones writes stuff like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Brexit And The Corridors Of Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My harsh conclusion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chua is quite correct when she writes:

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

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

 

Conclusion — When Two Tribes Go To War

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

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

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

As Amy Chua observes of the United States:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy Thanksgiving – Here’s Why We Urgently Need A Similar Holiday Of Our Own In Britain

The first Thanksgiving

Most Brits probably do not know or care that Thursday 23rd November is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States of America. Yet many of us are getting ready to hunt for bargains and pre-Christmas deals on Black Friday.

Take a trip to your local big box superstore – or virtually anywhere online – in the next day or so and you will be treated to wall-to-wall promotions about the upcoming Black Friday sales. “Get ready for Black Friday!” scream the advertisements, as one company after another tempts you with sweet promises of unbelievable savings. Yes, Black Friday is coming to Britain – again.

And so it has been for the past few years now. We in Britain have successfully imported the commercially lucrative, post-coital rump of a cherished American national holiday – Thanksgiving – while neatly skipping over all the pesky fundamentals that give it real meaning: you know, those pesky things like love, family, gratitude and patriotism, tiresome distractions that don’t give us an excuse to shop and which will never generate a good Return On Investment.

This is as strong a contender for Tasteless Corporate Act of the Year (Large Retailer category) as we are likely to witness this side of Christmas. And we Brits have certainly thrown ourselves into the spirit, crushing one another in the stampede for discounted TVs and getting into fights which have to be broken up by the police.

But apparently – and rather gratifyingly – a number of Brits have started to recognise Thanksgiving too, in our own semi-comprehending way (I’ve seen Yorkshire pudding and roast beef being served at some British Thanksgiving dinners, which is definitely cultural appropriation gone wrong), with retailers now stocking up with pumpkin pie and other traditional Thanksgiving fare in time for the holiday.

Full disclosure: I’m married to a Texan girl, so our household observes both British and American holidays – which means that Jenny gains Boxing Day while I gain Thanksgiving. And for the past five years we have held a Thanksgiving dinner the weekend closest to the day itself, and invited as many friends as we’ve been able to squeeze into our succession of tiny shoebox apartments. I’m responsible for the turkey, Jenny takes charge of the stuffing and the sweet potato casserole (you mock the idea of marshmallows on top of sugared, spiced sweet potato until you’ve tried it) and we split everything else between us with our flatmate.

And if I may say so myself, this annual event has become roaringly popular, to the extent that who gets invited and who doesn’t quite make the cut has become a rather delicate political dance. This year there will be fourteen of us squeezed into an improbably small space, and all fourteen places were snapped up as soon as my wife sent the Facebook invite back in April.

But not everybody is happy that Thanksgiving is gaining a foothold in Britain, including Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn who argues that just like American GIs after the Second World War, Thanksgiving has outstayed its welcome on our shores:

Yet until about five minutes ago, none of this madness existed. Like Halloween, another tacky American import which has hijacked Guy Fawkes Night, and about which I wrote recently, both Thanksgiving and Black Friday are now fixtures in our calendars.

Supermarkets tempt us with ‘traditional’ Thanksgiving treats. Colour supplements carry recipes for Thanksgiving dinners. The Sunday Times Magazine this weekend devoted several pages to telling readers how to prepare mouth-watering delights such as pumpkin pie, candied sweet potatoes and green chilli cornbread.

Why? Do the editors imagine that out there in Middle England, people are thinking to themselves: ‘I could murder a slice of green chilli cornbread’?

He goes on to rant:

We don’t celebrate France’s Bastille Day, or Canada Day, or Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). So why the hell should we adopt U.S. holidays?

Apparently it does not occur to Littlejohn that the British may be increasingly curious about Thanksgiving because the very idea of a unifying, non-commercialised national holiday which binds us together as a United Kingdom and calls on us to be thankful rather than petulantly self-entitled is so curiously alien to this country – especially the contemporary Britain of 2017.

A couple of years ago I took part in a TV debate on London Live, arguing that we should absolutely not make the festivals of Eid and Diwali UK public holidays, for fear of muddying the cloudy waters between religion and state yet further:

 

I was outnumbered, but I made the case as strongly as I could that what Britain desperately needs is a unifying, secular public holiday that can bring us all together as one people – not another cynical, politically correct and divisive nod to multiculturalism.

The intervening years have only proved my point, with ISIS flags flying from London housing estates, disaffected young Muslim teens stealing away from the country which gave them life and liberty to join the Islamic State and deadly terror attacks in London and Manchester. On the domestic front things are little better, with a painfully wide chasm emerging between those of us who voted to leave the European Union and those who wanted us to Remain, those who think that Jeremy Corbyn is a living saint while the Tories are evil on the one hand and people who think the exact opposite on the other.

Meanwhile, increasingly everything is being politicised and dragged into the gravity of our culture war. Only this week greeting card firm Paperchase was in the news after they were bullied by left-wing activists into a grovelling public apology for having dared to advertise in the Daily Mail, thereby prompting an equal (and deserved) reaction against the company from people who are not leftist ideologues.

In short, we in Britain are in desperate need of a reminder that we still have an awful lot in common with our neighbours, even if we vote or worship differently. But the ties that bind us together – frayed for so long by successive referenda, general elections, the culture wars and the toxic swamp that is political social media – need to be continually renewed, even if some of us do find patriotism “problematic“. And what better way to do so than with a national holiday which celebrates something in our rich, shared history of which we can all be proud?

There is no shortage of possibilities. While some seem to enjoy talking down Britain and our substantial contributions to world commerce, art, science and culture, I’m sure that if we put our heads together we might find something in the last few centuries of our national story worth elevating as an occasion of which all Britons can be proud (but please, just not the Fifth of July).

Magna Carta Day (15th June), Trafalgar Day (21st October), VE Day (8th May) or Commonwealth Day (second Monday in March) are just a few possible candidates which are existing days that could be “upgraded” to a UK-wide celebration of quiet patriotism, community service and thanksgiving, and which already have some historic resonance.

Such resonance is important. In the United States, President’s DayIndependence Day and Thanksgiving have meaning for all Americans because they are rooted in shared history and not political views, ancestry or sadly-waning Christian faith. The newly arrived immigrant can take up these celebrations immediately upon arrival at no cost to their existing traditions and without any potential religious conflict. And that is exactly what Britain needs right now.

So before you scoff at the idea of our American cousins eating themselves into a stupor for seemingly no good reason, I would ask you to do two things — firstly, spare a thought for me as I try to avoid burning a massive turkey that barely fits inside our oven while also cooking it sufficiently well that I don’t send fourteen angry people to the hospital with food poisoning. But secondly and more importantly, take some time to reflect on the reasons that you – and that we all – have for being thankful this year, and on the many traits and aspirations which we still have in common, even amidst Brexit, the culture war and the politicisation of everything.

As Abraham Lincoln – the president who in 1863 fixed the observance of Thanksgiving to be the fourth Thursday in November – implored in his first inaugural address:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.

After another year in which the idea of what it means to be British has become increasingly muddled and uncertain, let’s humble ourselves and dare to take a lesson from our former American colonies. Let us find inspiration in our storied history, our rich culture and also from within our own hearts. Let us find that elusive common thread of Britishness that should unite us all, transcending race and religion and politics.

I would argue that maybe some of the reason that more British people are starting to notice and observe Thanksgiving as well as the Black Friday sales we have imported from America is that deep down we subconsciously yearn for the sense of gratitude, social solidarity and civic-mindedness which Thanksgiving brings, and acutely feel the lack anything similar in our own national life.

So let’s change that.

Thanksgiving Proclamation - President Abraham Lincoln - 1863

Happy Thanksgiving

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Quote For The Day

From Conor Friedersdorf’s excellent interview of writer and professor David Hillel Gelernter:

Everyone knows that we live in politically superheated times; partisanship feels more bitter and more personal than it ever has in my lifetime.

There are many reasons, but here is one: we all know that faith in the Judeo-Christian religions is dramatically weaker than it used to be. But human beings are religious animals, and most will find an alternative if the conventional choices are gone.

The readiest replacement nowadays for lost traditional religion is political ideology. But a citizen with faith in a political position, instead of rational belief, is a potential disaster for democracy. A religious believer can rarely be argued out of his faith in any ordinary conversational give-and-take. His personality is more likely to be wrapped up with his religion than with any mere political program. When a person’s religion is attacked, he’s more likely to take it personally and dislike (or even hate) the attacker than he is in the case of mere political attacks or arguments. Thus, the collapse of traditional religion within important parts of the population is one cause of our increasingly poisoned politics. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.

Turn back to the generation after the Second World War. The collapse of religion is well underway, but there is another alternate religion at hand: art.

Think of the extraordinary blaze-up of art in America in the postwar years, especially the 1950s and first half of the ‘60s: painting above all; choreography in New York (Balanchine, Robbins, the American Ballet Theater, the Joffrey and other regional companies); serious music, led by Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts broadcast  nationwide by CBS; intense interest in new American novelists; Frost; the Americanized Auden, Eliot and Delmore Schwartz; the great quartet of European masters as seen from the US: Picasso and Matisse, Giacometti and Chagall; the European film as an art form (Swedish, Italian and French––Hitchcock’s Birds, for that matter, opened in the early ‘60s at MOMA); in the architecture of the Americans Wright and Kahn and Eero Saarinen, and the Europeans Mies and Corbu and Gropius; in the design of the Eames studio, in the museum show as an event, in drama and the Actor’s Studio; art-books, magazines, posters, high-fidelity audio, Lincoln Center, the Dick van Dyke show; a situation comedy with frequent episodes about the theater, galleries, art films–and on and on.

An astonishing era.

Among much else, it helped politics go down easier. (Only a little easier; but every bit helped.)  Other things did too, of course; and art, as always, was its own reward. But we miss something if we don’t see how the religion of art took pressure off politics.

Nowadays it’s mostly gone. But it doesn’t have to be. Art itself is the reason to bring art back to center stage. But some of the merely incidental benefits might be enormous.

My emphasis in bold.

There is a bucketload of truth in this statement. As anyone who has tried to engage your average pro or anti-Trump or Brexit activist in conversation or debate about politics will attest, reasoned discussion is hard to come by, precisely because faith is now vested in political tribes rather than God. In fact, the politically neutral (or those who refuse to see Donald Trump as either Saint Ronald Reagan 2.0 or Hitler Reborn, Brexit as an unadulterated good or an unprecedented disaster) tend to have the hardest time of all – the new atheists and agnostics.

Partisans on either side are increasingly being defriended, blocked or ignored in the real world by those incapable of making the leap of empathy required to understand or forgive a vote for the opposing side. But agnostics and those in the middle face the ire of both sides, incredulous that they can neither see the self-evident worth of the “right” side or the existential danger of the “wrong” side.

It is worse now than it was a decade ago under the George W. Bush administration, and by all accounts it was worse then than it was before under Clinton, Bush senior or Reagan.

Most analysis of this phenomenon of polarisation and mutual incomprehension had focused on the impact that the internet and social media have had on our political discourse, and many of these discussions are valid. But Gelernter takes a different approach and reveals another, more sociological explanation for the current toxic atmosphere – one made all the more profound because of what it says about humanity rather than the technology we now use.

And who can deny Gelernter’s point? As religion and faith have receded, something has indeed taken its place. But it is no longer art, or that wonderful flourishing of high culture that the West saw in the 1950s and 60s. Now it is often decidedly low culture and politics which we elevate above all else – and particularly, for many people, the divisive and grievance-laden politics of identity and victimhood.

But I would add that science also helped to cushion what Gelernter calls the “collapse of religion”. Humanity was inspired by the space race and the Apollo Program – “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” – and great shared human endeavours such as these. But humanity has not lifted its gaze above low earth orbit since 1972, and while other technological breakthroughs such as the mobile computing and the internet have revolutionised our lives, they have on balance tended to fuel the individualist and consumerist aspects of our society rather than the collective and the communal, let alone the spiritual.*

What is becoming manifestly clear is that we need something – be it a new flourishing of art (as Gelernter desires) or a great scientific or technological challenge – to help us once again lift our eyes above our own selves, circumstances and identity groups. More than a few political activists together in a room tend to quickly become insufferable. A whole society comprised entirely of such activists would be so much worse, as we are now starting to discover.

We need a common challenge or faith – whether it is a rekindling of the gentle patriotism spoken of by Andrew Sullivan or a tangible project of some kind – to remind us that we are more than the sum of our political opinions. And this means we need political leaders who dare to demand something of us rather than flatter us and promise us bountiful riches for no effort.

And so this blog asks again: set us a challenge.

 

*In Britain, mindless worship of the National Health Service – as exhibited today by more than 200,000 people who marched through central London in support of the NHS, demanding that more taxpayer money be shovelled into a healthcare system they venerate and claim to be the “envy of the world” despite the awkward fact that no other country has tried to replicate the NHS and many succeed in delivering better healthcare outcomes – has become the closest we have to a national religion. And while this might certainly count as blind faith or religious fervour, it does nothing meaningful to bring us together as a society.

 

apollo-program-nasa

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