Consensus

There’s a parallel world in which Barack Obama, the worst President in US history (a serial liar, Communist, Islamist, and not even born in the US) is replaced by salt-of-the-earth saviour of the people Donald Trump (repealer of the Obama death panels, vanquisher of Hillary Clinton and her child sex ring), a truly great President who can and will do no wrong.  I know this because it’s the narrative pumped out daily by Fox News and right-wing propagandists.

What worries me is that the only thing that stops it being received as fact is that a critical mass of people don’t believe it. Yet. But a quite alarming number of people wholeheartedly do believe it. At some point will we cross the line between political doubletalk and actual revisionist history? I feel like it’s a line we’re meandering along like a giddily unrepentant drunk driver. In our daily lives we can sometimes see history being consciously, mendaciously rewritten even as it happens, and more and more we don’t seem to care — as long as this new history makes us feel better about ourselves, justifies our prejudices, and relieves us of responsibility.

I suppose politics has always been about selling the best narrative, but it feels different this time, at least to me. It feels like we increasingly lack checks and balances, that we’ve lost the patience for such dry and worthy stuff as investigative journalism, public standards in office, and fact-checking. We’ve devalued the idea that there are lines of public integrity you can’t cross without consequences.

Its already the case in America that there are revisionist tussles over history and science. It’s clear that there are people who would, if only they could, literally rewrite the book on evolution, vaccination and climate change. Maybe even the history of civil rights. Political narratives are that much more susceptible, because their factual basis is that much more subjective. It’s quite easy for the public to lose track of why that recession or that war happened, and who was in charge, and who was really to blame. Is it only in my fevered imagination that I put all this together with the likes of Fox News to raise the spectre of a near-future dystopian version of the US, in which things now widely accepted as historical fact have been quietly spun until they are no mainstream; like that scene in Interstellar where the teacher explains that everyone knows the moon landings were faked, but don’t worry because they’ve been recast as an example of a different kind  of American ideal.

In the UK, any suggestion that the recession wasn’t caused by profligate Labour spending is now met with jeers of derision, even though it demonstrably wasn’t, because that’s not the narrative that won. Here, in a fairly small way, we can see that history has already been rewritten just a few years later. Maybe not rewritten in text books,  but absolutely in public discourse. And there are plenty of politically skewed history books out there too, I imagine. (Aren’t they all?) Some politicians already question whether the British Empire was really a bad thing, whether Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was all that unreasonable. And maybe these voices will always be fringe, like Holocaust denial. But we now have Daily Mail headlines where people who are actually fascist in their outlook are treated as valiant revolutionaries, and “alt-right” is treated a reasonable political position, and suddenly it seems like the trolls have taken over the conversation. It’s really not that big a step to a mainstream politician arguing that Hitler was misunderstood.

Damn: Godwin’s Law. I think that means I should stop. Is it me, or did Not Invoking Hitler used to be quite a lot easier?

Hot take on hot takes

Okay, look, liberal smugness and outrage… That’s a thing. Mea culpa.  It didn’t get Trump elected on its own, any more than any other single factor in isolation. And at least as many of those factors are the people who voted for him, and gave him oxygen, and didn’t disavow him. Some genuine racists and misogynists. The truly left behind, the ones who are genuinely disillusioned with politics as usual, even if the proffered solutions to those things are often illusory and come with a big helping of right-wing politics tacked on as a rider (“The band requests only the Aryan M&Ms”). It’s a complicated mess. Simple explanations and itchy hair-shirts rarely work. 

Blaming the people who oppose Trump’s rhetoric for driving people into his arms is a bit perverse. Just because some people think ‘political correctness’ has gone too far, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to push the wide-ranging principles that get pejoratively lumped under that label. It may mean they need to be explained better, less judgementally, and with more understanding of the person listening. That’s fair. But it doesn’t lay all the blame for the Rise of the Right at the door of liberals.

It’s unfortunately true that the political left in the UK is in disarray, and there’s a real danger in an opposition that isn’t organised, is too ideologically dogmatic, and doesn’t offer a clear and inclusive narrative. (I’m unsure if it’s the same in America – at least in the US a left-leaning candidate can win the popular vote – but in both countries liberalism seems to be constantly at war with itself.) Facing up to the issues of the left, and not demonising the people on the other side, would go a long way towards gaining acceptance for liberal ideas.

Does that require supporting the Government line, meeting in the middle on fascism, turning a blind eye to opportunistic racism and misogyny? Hell no. That sounds suspiciously like how To Normalise Fascism 101. In fact, politicians tactically giving ground on immigration is a big part of how we got where we are right now. About half of voters in both the UK and US don’t appear to support bigotry and isolationism; they may fall on a spectrum rather than being dyed-in-the-wool liberals, but they’ll be left voiceless if we allow a marginal majority to pretend that the public speaks with one voice. Someone needs to put the counter-argument.

Is there a way to speak out against those illiberal ideas and policies, while at the same time engaging more genuinely with the people we’d like to persuade? I know it’s a very fine line to walk, and I’m not very good at it myself. But what’s the alternative? Not speaking out just embeds selfishness as the prevailing narrative. Not reaching out means a victory for bon mots on twitter, a self-congratatory bubble of worthiness, and a defeat for progressive values where they might actually affect people’s daily lives.

P.S. Like most of my blog posts this doesn’t so much reach a conclusion as stop when I can no longer parse what I think about the topic.  Feel free to help me out in replies.

You wish for ice cream?

I have to say, I still don’t support overturning the outcome of the Referendum.

But I do very much support the proposal that there should be some Parliamentary process to determine whether, when we leave the EU, we also leave the Single Market.

That’s not ignoring the will of the people, who didn’t demand a ‘hard’ version of Brexit (or even express a view on the single market), nor is it traitorous, or the tyrannical agenda of a shadowy liberal elite operating from their secret base under St.Paul’s.

It’s just the kind of thing that lots of people in the country, including some who voted Leave, might reasonably expect to happen instead of having their answer to a binary question wildly and dogmatically over-interpreted.

It’s like one of those fairy tale wishes that were worded with insufficient care. “You wish for ice cream? Very well, you shall only eat liquorice ice cream! FOREVER! Mwahhahahahahah!”

The inexorable victory of the pod-people

In fiction, stories about fascist regimes almost always focus on the resistance, the few who carry the candle and represent the hope (however dim) that the regime will ultimately perish.

But it seems to me, as I contemplate two dismal candidates for Prime Minister and the backlash from Brexit, that the real story is often not one of idealists fighting back to glorious vindication, it’s about the idealists being gradually smothered as an ever-greater proportion of the country simply accepts the way things are. One by one we disappear, gasping, under a tidal wave of banal self-interest, until we can’t imagine things being any different, or even want it. The inexorable victory of the pod-people.

I’m being a bit melodramatic. I don’t say that we live in a fascist regime right now. I do think that the Overton Window has moved further and further right,and insularity is becoming the prevailing narrative. It’s that gradual shift of the ‘centre’ ground, until large swathes of the country look in genuine dismay and bafflement at those complaining about xenophobia, demonisation of the poor, intrusive surveillance. It’s about experts being decried, education being elitist, lying in public office being accepted with a shrug: “What is truth, anyway?” Even the ideological rewriting of history becomes routine, until our very ideas about who we are and where we came from are distorted by the lens of those who control the mass-media.

I know there are others who feel this way, but I don’t see it ending any time soon. I don’t see that groundswell of anger, that organised public desire to push back in the other direction. Perhaps just as importantly I don’t see any great likelihood that things will improve under the current Government, nor any realistic prospect that the Conservatives will lose the next General Election.

I suppose I’m emotionally influenced by all the ways that Brexit has left me feeling alienated, and by the upsurge in “immigrants go home” sentiment. It’s easy to be too short-termist — I’m no better at forecasting the future than anyone else. Maybe things will get better. Whenever a Blair or an Obama sweeps to power there’s always a false dawn; that rush of “maybe we’ve passed a turning point”. Reality always sets in. Maybe this is the reverse: a false dusk that will ultimately prove to be just another short blip on our journey to increasing liberalism, equality and openness. In some ways those social arguments have felt like a steady win for liberalism over recent decades. But now we have Andrea Leadsom wanting a fight back against “political correctness”, a rolling back of gay marriage, as if we were still stuck in the ‘toddler tantrum’ stage of accepting equality and diversity. I fear that, little by little, from Coalition, to Cameron Government, to May/Leadsom Government, the public mood is changing and no-one is really protesting all that loudly. And the drip-drip-drip of selfishness seeps into our bones.

Aftermath

So many stories of openly racist behaviour emerging.

Some of this, no doubt, is confirmation bias. Racist outbursts have always occurred on the fringes of society and once you start actively looking for an uptick it won’t be hard to find examples. The press does this all the time: one big earthquake means every minor tremor becomes news. But not only does the current run of incidents feel a bit more weighty than that, the character of the incidents is striking. The language is suddenly about repatriation, of ‘why don’t you go home’, ‘back where you came from’. That feels new. Or, rather, old. People openly expressing attitudes that have been culturally submerged for decades.

It’s still anecdotal for now whether Brexit has emboldened these individuals – even if some are actively referring to it – but it’s difficult not to see the influence of this sorry mess of a referendum, this free leg-up for UKIP and the far right.

The Petition for a Second Referendum

I nearly signed the 2nd Referendum ballot today. Nearly. Just to add a stone to the heap, so the scale of dissatisfaction can be seen from a distance.  But I just can’t bring myself to do it.

The time to push for this kind of contingency, for different thresholds for success, was before the Referendum. This just smacks of not liking the outcome and moving the goalposts. The turnout was as high as you could reasonably hope for. The result is valid.

Emotionally I can’t bear this outcome, but I don’t think another Referendum is the answer. If the result had gone the other way and Farage was pushing for this (which of course he did pre-emptively) I’d be angry. Looked at from the outside what does this petition prove? That millions who voted Remain are desperately unhappy. Nothing more.

I understand the argument that Leave sold lies that are now being hurriedly walked back. That was dishonest. But, horribly, that’s politics. What makes this a special case? Even General Elections are increasingly won through lies, misleading statements and ultimately broken promises. I’d love politicians to be held to a higher standard, but they’re not, and so the public has to pick the side whose arguments, policies, ideology and/or smarmy vitriolic intolerance appeals to them the most. In the EU Referendum I genuinely think an impartial view is that Leave not only lied more, but that they were more likely to double-down on those lies and continue to repeat them.  But it’s not like the opposing arguments weren’t aired. Both sides had their say. At length. Over and over again. It was perfectly possible to make an informed decision. If some people choose emotion over fact well, frankly, that’s their right. If they are smart or stupid, racist or progressive, they get to vote the way they want.  Sometimes I wish that weren’t the case, but what alternative is there?

The worst thing is that I think there’s a reasonable chance the Referendum would go the other way if we restaged it now. The reality has sunk in a bit. Would it go 60/40 the other way? Nah. And so we’d need a third referendum surely? And a fourth.

And the very act of not honouring the first outcome would (rightly) incense those who voted Leave. There’d be social unrest. If we do, as some predict, have a General Election within the year then ignoring the first Referendum would mean Leave (and, yes, possibly UKIP) would clean up. Do we really want that? Everything has consequences.

Far better in my view to accept this outcome but implement it in the least bad way possible. Stay in the EEA. Try to hang on to the single market. Try to hang on to free movement. Find a reason to spare the Halkans and make it stick. (Sorry, nerd reference.) That’s the best way forward.

This petition is not going to bring about another Referendum. It’s the same liberal echo-chamber that predicted a Remain victory, and it just won’t happen. I love that echo-chamber. It keeps me sane. But it doesn’t reflect the whole country, and another referendum would offend more people than it buoyed. IMO.

[The above partly adapted from a Facebook conversation with Mark Bowyer]

Sovereignty

*At any time*, for no reason, the UK can give two year’s notice to leave the EU. They literally can’t stop us.

If we stay and the EU ever threatens our sovereignty (even though we are exempt from closer union and can’t transfer powers without a UK referendum) we have enough sovereignty to leave.

So why jump now? Don’t we trust ourselves to exercise our own sovereignty wisely in future? Or is our Government a bit too sovereign for our own liking?