If you have been silly enough to explore the alt-right’s presence online, there’s a high chance you have already encountered this cartoon. It would have you believe that people join the Ku Klux Klan because they find the world isn’t diverse enough. They’ve trekked around the globe, encountered the common threads of multinational capitalism, and were annoyed that the humbling cultural plethora Mark Twain promised was nowhere to be found. And so, they donned the hood. This is patently absurd, but does anyone really believe it?
It’s difficult to tell. Anyone who has followed the mutation maturation of the alt-right movement will know that a good deal of its number simply “fell” into it. There are people who say outrageous, fascistic things for reasons separate from being a fascist (Milo Yiannopoulos built a career around it): for shock, for laughs, for attention, or, in a mixture of the three, for purposes of satire. But, when participating in such activities – particularly through the prism of the internet – one may begin to buy (literally) into what one is saying (ironically). There are those on /pol/ who began by lampooning /pol/, who now subscribe to /pol/’s alt-right agenda. Yes… 4chan can do funny things to people.
Kurt Vonnegurt’s had a message in Mother Night, his only novel with a distinct moral: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
As is characteristic of BBC documentaries, viewers spent most of Black and British scrutinizing the details of presenter’s face, while the advertised subject took a back seat. Don’t take this the wrong way, David Olusoga’s face is lovely, but black history is too interesting and, as the audience was repeatedly reminded, important to be mere scenery. And so I persevered through longing shots that must’ve appeared in the editor’s notes as “David walks by some books”, “David stares out a window #54”, “David gazes at parchment”. (Note to BBC: we rather see the bloody parchment. 80 years on and you seem to have forgotten the point of television.)
And there were rewards for hanging on. I hadn’t known, for example, about: the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Royal Navy’s celebrated anti-slavery force; how an African girl was taken by a captain of that fleet and went on to become a ward of Queen Victoria’s; how Liverpool’s success as a city depended, in large part, the commodification of men by other men; and just how much support our “neutralist” government lended the Confederate states during the American Civil War. But these were fleeting glimmers in a drab deluge of pop morals and plaque-unveiling.
None of these nuggets could be shared, for a start, without Olusoga prefixing or suffixing them, in a way reminiscent of Paul Theroux’s travel writing, “you really ought to have known this already”. Well, we’re here now aren’t we – eager to learn? Or at least I was.
The Moral Quagmire
In episode three, Liverpudlian dock hands which had worked on Confederate ships were sneered at for their pro-South, objectively pro–slavery activity. Self-aware viewers who spend their days in a bank, or doing the admin for a multi-national corporation may have grimaced a little. But there is a case to be made, and Olusoga went some way to making it. Other work or, should it come to it, starvation are always available to the ethically-minded employee. Options, wage slaves should never forget, you wouldn’t have chattled.
Next, we were taken to rural Lancaster where those dark mills have been exorcised. Olusoga spoke of how he had been taught about the poor working conditions mill workers endured (that doesn’t really cut it – as they suffered through twelve hour shifts, many nine year olds lost lose life and limb to spinning mules and looms), but never had he nor his classmates, been told how the cotton ended up in their hands. It, the lifeblood of the Industrial Revolution, was grown on the forced labour camps – that’s plantations in our sanitized speech – of the American South. We’re right to condemn the “life” inflicted upon those millions stolen from Africa, but were Northern mill workers really culpable?
Well, yes, went the implication.
(He didn’t explore it in great detail, but there was a movement among British workers to refuse employment involving the Southern blood cotton. Karl Marx helped organise these strikes, and provided morale to those left beleaguered by their courageous moral stand.)
The conclusion brought yet another plaque, this time planted in Brixton to memorialise a massacre of civilians perpetrated by Redcoats (in Jamaica). A succession of talking heads then reminded us again of Olusoga’s brief: black history is British history – and also, ordinary Britons bear responsibility, in part at least, for its darkest episodes.
Would it be too complicated to have mentioned that slavery still persists? That there are more slaves today than there were then? And that, should you reach into your pocket and take out an iPhone, chances are you are contributing to its terrible protraction? (Other corporations involved are Samsung, Sony, and Volkswagen.)
Don’t these millions matter? Or are they an uncomfortable thought best brushed over? Perhaps because it might implicate those boring types who seek esteem for the sufferings of their father, and the sins of your’s.
A disconnected, teenage thought on the growing right-wing populism
There’s something to HG Well’s The Time Machine. It’s becoming more difficult, online and off, to explain away the incredible stupidity of about 50-60% of those I meet. The sort of morlocks people who know they’re being shafted by a government that enforces debilitating austerity, and by their own unscrupulous managers, but treat the Pakistanis and Poles and Polynesians as if they’re the enemy – and talk as if they would happily suffer declining living standards, lower wages and global irrelevance, if only it meant they would see less melanin-filled faces at the supermarket (James O’Brien’s excellent take-downs of Brexiteers). The same sort who, when questioned even slightly about their positions resort to incoherent cliche.
Here’s an easy one, you would think given recent events: why don’t you like the EU? (Responses from LBC.)
“They make 70% of ARE laws – didn’t you hear the thing about bananas?”, or “it’s all about taking ARE country back”, or “there’s a bloody asylum seeker living in Kensington!”
Nothingness punctuated by beastliness (or is it vice versa?).
No, this isn’t a matter of socio-economically enforced ignorance or whatever excuse the sociologists have made: these people just don’t know how to use that squishy pink thing in their heads. That makes them, practically, a different species.
And theory of mind can only apply to those with one.
Paddy: Whenever he found found himself at a loss of words, Marx once told Engels, he would say of the topic at hand, “vell, y’shee, it’sh dialectical”. It was if this contribution would be enough to elicit enough thoughtful nods that no one would notice as he shambled back up to the bar, and away from the arduous task of drunken philosophizing. (And it is, I’ve tried.)
It’s worth being honest: the issue of contemporary cosmopolitanism and tribalism is tricky, with pitfalls and contradiction peppering the path to insight. And yeah, it is dialectical. There is a trend that Whigs, Marxists, liberals, neoconservatives and reactionaries have all recognised (although not universally celebrated): the passage of time brings with it a gradual liberalising of society and a disintegration of its borders.
The diameter of Peter Singer’s moral circle began life a titchy thing but each successive epoch has made it fatter (just like the Westerner’s waist line). As material realities advanced, producing new technologies and broader outlooks, ethical considerations were dragged from the local to universal. So the story goes: the biological “rule of thumb” that ensures we care for our kin (see Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene), was made to apply to one’s province by markets and fetes, to one’s nation by the printing press and through a postal service, and to – we hope – one’s species with the advent of global communication.
And so, dialectically, our institutions came to reflect this moral progression. National inclusiveness gave us the welfare state, continental inclusiveness the European Union, species awareness the United Nations (and, less gloriously, racial inclusiveness produced projects like the “Anglosphere”, the African Union and Arab League).
But, even with all this, there has been a reaction which looks, well, primal. Those who rather do without Them of a different god, flag or melanin count, thank you very much. We see this in the anti-establishment movements currently consuming North American and European politics – Le Pen, Trump, Putin, UKIP, the Golden Dawn – fueled by the racialist and religious. Those people for whom every inclusive and internationalist evolution has been a misstep, and not the inevitable consequence of material gain.
And, if you’ve been paying attention, you’d be forgiven for agreeing. Our future, all of ours, looks to be rather more in their control.
Pole: Just for those who might not exactly understand what tribalism is:
…a tendency to sustain divisions and identities of a pre-national, tribal and ethnic groups that are based on the phenomenon of the ‘genetic’ loyalty, which facilitates ‘tribal survival’
(Potulski, J. 2009)
It is undeniable that tribalism is still a feature of life, Homo Sapiens evolved from pack animals and our emotions follow. We instinctively turn to our family and closest neighbours – our “shrewdness” – for support (a group of apes is called a shrewdness, Google it). And it is this primal impulse which causes us to act sympathetically and altruistically back: to be, in a word, social. When seeking friends, it attracts us to the familiar and away from the different, the Other. So tuned is this, that the smallest similarity can be enough to create a connection, while the smallest difference may antagonise.
[Paddy: there has been research that suggests out-groups can actually elicit disgust in people, in much the same way an invasive pathogen might. See Harris and Fiske (2011)]
So surely, if such behaviour is “natural”, why don’t we all behave like chimpanzees in a troop? Because our species has one thing that no other Earthly creature has: Reason. Thanks to this capacity, we no longer live in perpetually warring tribes. We can put our differences to one side and apply our energies elsewhere… well, in a way.
Tribes may have just transmuted into what we call nations, races, social classes and political parties. Just look at the recent events in the US and the UK. Trump, an obvious idiot, was still able to get the Republican hierarchy behind him. Even Ted Cruz, who was booed during the convention for not openly pledging fealty to the new tribal leader, eventually toed the line. Their gut told them that it is better to follow “one of us”, even if he’s heading off the cliff’s edge.
Following the Brexit vote to “take our country back”, there were a number of xenophobic attacks. In Essex, a man was pummelled to death by a group of teenagers for speaking Polish. Two others were beaten less than 12 hours later, following a vigil for murdered man. In another attack that same day, a father and son were beaten unconscious by strangers in London. These victims were guilty being the wrong ethnicity.
To be more precise: we no longer live in isolated, self-sufficient groups. We have created a global society, interconnected socially, economically and politically. The results of presidential elections in the US affect the world. The collapse of Greek economy causes powerful ripples in the grand pool of the EU. Somewhere in England a Pole and an Irishman can form a friendship. Again, all possible because of Reason. But our tribal inheritance is ever present.
Paddy: Another dialectic: reason and passion.
Reason allows – no, demands – one thing and our instinct is to rebel right back, grasping for the familiar and insular. (As Hume knew – and endorsed due to his Toryism – reason is the slave of the passions.)
It’s trite, but rational action in a internationalist context is our species’ only hope: an effectual United Nations the only prevention to species suicide. (If you know a way in which a single nation can solve the issues of global warming and nuclear catastrophe, please let me know in the comments.) But Freud’s narcissism of small differences, as you explained, precludes just that. Shrewdness, for reasons separate from reason, has attached itself to the nation-state in the 21st century. Perhaps George Bernard Shaw’s observations made in the 20th can help:
A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation’s nationality, it will think of nothing else but having it set [again]. A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man is of his bones.
He was speaking in particular of Eire, where the threat to national unit was clear and present: it had a flag, a uniform, armed men in the streets. The reaction to British rule is easy to understand: home and away literally had their own team colours. International capital can be just as destructive and ubiquitous – imposing a division of labour that turns man into beast and debtor into slave – but, like so much economic hocus pocus, the guiding hand remains hidden. Fraud and cheap tricks are given a sense of levity by the Veil, and a newspeak diverts. Too big to fail, misselling, economic recovery, balancing the books, reducing the deficit… It’s almost enough to make you forget that we’re living through an era of unprecedented class war.
But, as far-right figureheads know, race and nation are easier to discern than market forces.
Remember that fleeting sub-vocalisation you had upon seeing Mr Patel in his brand new BMW? Do you recall the momentary shame you felt as you went to stow it away? Well, so say Le Pen and Farage, there’s no need for that. Trust your instincts – that niggly little voice was right all along – the shiftless immigrant is to blame for all your inadequacies. So too, you were right to hate that public sector worker for thinking she was entitled to a decent pension and maternity pay, and to fear Johnny-Bloody-Foreigner’s funny foreign ways.
The nation has become a safe haven from those chaotic global forces which rather carry on acting upon unseen. From Nairn,
Nationalism can in [a] sense be pictured as like the old Roman god, Janus, who stood above gateways with one face looking forward and one backwards. Thus does nationalism stand over the passage to modernity, for human society. As human kind is forced through its strait doorway, it must look desperately back into the past, to gather strength wherever it can be found for the ordeal of ‘development’
And it is no coincidence that, as well as honouring the flag (be it Southern Cross or Union), Trump’s supporters also harbour authoritarian fantasies. Dictators, for all their faults, offer consistency; and willing subjects, for all their charms, refuse to see what the sacrifice of the self means for self-preservation.
European history teaches us that subjugation campaigns against minorities are seldom a contained affair. They’re often dress rehearsals for something far bolder: Spain’s crusaders banished the Jews after it had cleared out the Moors, and then the Inquisition was born; Russian tsars would have their generals “pacify” the steppe before bringing them home to quell urban dissenters; and as the last Reich folded, Hitler damned his “undeserving” German brothers and sisters. Time after time, once the machinery of state had been adapted to cannibalization, and all of Them had been spent, the mob found that all they called for came calling on them.
(Edit: Is it ironical or just farcical that the first significant movement that proclaimed universal virtue and all men brothers – the French Revolution – also gave birth to the modern nation state?)
Not even the Ivory Tower is safe from the xenophobia let loose on June 23rd. Academic advisers to the Foreign Office have been told that if they were born abroad, they should perhaps think about working from the cafe down the road from now on. Better still – have you thought about becoming a barista?
These LSE academics – brains drawn here from across the globe – were helping the government make the best of Brexit, and this week they were unceremoniously dropped. Why? They, being foreign an’ all, were probably spies, and certainly taking R jawbs. Yeah, you may be the world’s authorities on EU law, but, Ivanka, Pedro and Ho, pack your wheelbarrow, snakeskin briefcase, and that ricksaw thing and git!
Whenever ministers or civil servants wish to defend shady policy you can be sure “national security” isn’t far from their lips. This excuse also has the benefit of having all of its qualifying excuses covered by the same blanket hush order. Not only are they saying foreigners are innately untrustworthy, they are implying that those born in the UK are naturally good eggs because… of what exactly? The effect of milky tea and rainy summers on the unborn? Magic? Jebus? This is the sort of twisted logic fascism relies on. (Am I going too far? They certainly will.)
Legal experts have already questioned the Foreign Office’s decision, one which is driven by Number 10’s “hard Brexit” strategy. Lawyers are currently looking into the possibility that the government may be contravening R own laws; those to do with employment contracts and ethnic discrimination. That legislation which was brought in to ensure employers judged employees on the content of their character – what they do, rather than who they are.
Yes, we really have lapsed this far already. Get ready to protect more truisms such as MLK’s hard fought one as the Brexiteers get to work.
Flicking through a collection of Gore Vidal’s writings from the ’60s, I happened upon an essay on Barry Goldwater. This Republican senator, a blow-hard right-winger from Arizona, also provided Hillary Clinton with her first foray into the world of politics – she a proud “Goldwater girl”.
Opposed to federal action on civil rights questions, for a war with the USSR and against trade unionism, Goldwater managed to collect a curious – but fanatic – fringe following. (After-all, we’re talking of the days when there very much was a New Deal consensus, Goldwater then, as he wouldn’t be now, was far out of the mainstream.)
Reflecting on the phenomenon brought Gore to opine on American’s latent totalitarian potential.
I have often thought and written that if the United States were ever to have a Caesar, a true subverter of the state, 1) he would attract to himself all the true-believers, the extremists, the hot-eyed custodians of the Truth; 2) he would oversimplify some difficult but vital issue, putting himself on the side of the majority (as Huey Long did when he proclaimed every man a king and proposed to divvy up the wealth); 3) he would not in the least resemble the folk idea of a dictator. He would not be hysteric like Hitler. Rather, he would be just plain folks, a regular guy, warm and sincere, and while he was amusing us on television storm troopers would gather in the streets.
Largely speaking, they weren’t in a place to do so. Of course they tried to impose puppets (particularly in Africa) but the historical tide was simply against them. The y*ps, c**lies and n*ggers weren’t having any of it, and neither were the young radicalized cr*ckers at home. The British Establishment was powerless.
No amount of soft or hard power was going to convince any of the above to embrace a new form of colonialism. And so we saw the British hastily carve up boundaries in their former possessions (India/Pakistan, Cyprus, Palestine, etc.) and get out of dodge.
I should add this didn’t stop them from intervening after they had left these places. The British had a strong hand in the removal of Iran’s democratically elected government, and in the assassination of Lumumba, the Congolese revolutionary. (Also, need I mention Eire?)
Economy = downgraded to that of a “developing” country.
Society = ridden by fear and abuse.
Our politics = seized by cynicism, opportunism and mutually assured destruction.
This, all of it, our country chose.
We, those on the Remain side of the argument, seriously misjudged our neighbours and compatriots: many of them really are that stupid. And, no – they cannot be given the benefit of the doubt. Figures from the left, right and centre warned them, the economic institutions and trade unions warned them, the professors and cultural figures warned them, NATO, USA (Trump excluded), Norway’s PM warned them. Warned them what our country would become.
And, nay again, they themselves cannot suddenly pretend that their political analysis is just as deep and deserving of respect as the above.
(In fact, the only figures of note which supported Brexit appeared to be Putin – a long and bitter hater of the EU – and ISIS. The latter has since praised Britain’s move.)
As much as I cannot abide the cult which has slivered up upon and about the grave of that vicious fat dog, Churchill’s words are playing on repeat in my inner ear,
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter
This may help you make sense of Michael Gove’s insight:
…People in this country have had enough of experts
You really have met a cultural incline when expert has become a dirty word, sewn into our porch alongside those other faux-pas (excuse my French) “‘ealth and safety” and “political correctness”.
Of course I’m being unfair: 52% is barely a majority of the voting population, and fairly meaningless of the whole. But it is demonstrative of that cultural strain, long nurtured by demagogues and flustered Cameroons, in this United Kingdom: anti-Brussels, anti-immigrant, anti-Other – becoming something more than a nuance. A new and dangerous voting block that Westminster has no idea of how to counter-act (and may soon not wish to).
A good number of those who put a cross next to Leave seem to have sincerely thought their choice meant, “send the Poles, Pakis and… uh, Polynesians home” (whatever that means). Taking “their” country back so they can set it back on course to backwaterdom, which Britain momentarily detoured from post-WWII. There in the swamp that results they can fester and congeal, filling the pungent air with their pungent thoughts.
And it’s this demographic which knows the least about the history and culture of Britain. When they talk of defending its culture they are almost certainly referring to football hooliganism, shit larger and trash TV – and not the domains of Tolkien, verses of Auden, those skyscapes of Turner. Nor do they acknowledge the Levelers, Chartists and the heroes of the Enlightenment, without which their suffrage would be denied.
(I mean really, just take a look at Britain First’s take on the Peasant’s Revolt here)
Ezra Pound may have been writing of his country of birth, but there is something in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley which does apply here and now, in this Blighted realm where the 52ers reign:
No, hardly, but, seeing he had been born
In a half savage country, out of date;
Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn;
The “name” above was given by Tommy Mair, the man who murdered Jo Cox MP.
This piece of news came to me as I was brooding about the current state of State: we may be in one of the richest and developed countries in the world but the foundations of our civil society – formal and informal – are under threat. Insurgent working class populism of a far-right bent has coalesced with
reactionary Establishment elements. This joining is not to be sniffed at, it is shaping a new (old) political paradigm that doesn’t look to be expiring any time soon. Buh-bye liberalism.
It would be unfair to say Mair is somehow representative of British patriotism, but he does kind of look like misplaced nostalgia personified.
Orwell was rather harsh toward the rejection of the patriotism instinct, chiding leftist commentators (or, as he derisively called them “intellectuals”) for finding nothing good to say about Blighty.
I grew up in an atmosphere tinged with militarism, and afterwards I spent five boring years within the sound of bugles. To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during ‘God save the King’. That is childish, of course, but I would sooner have had that kind of upbringing than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions. It is exactly the people whose hearts have never leapt at the sight of a Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the moment comes. Let anyone compare the poem John Cornford wrote not long before he was killed (‘Before the Storming of Huesca’) with Sir Henry Newbolt’s ‘There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight’. Put aside the technical differences, which are merely a matter of period, and it will be seen that the emotional content of the two poems is almost exactly the same. The young Communist who died heroically in the International Brigade was public school to the core. He had changed his allegiance but not his emotions. What does that prove? Merely the possibility of building a Socialist on the bones of a Blimp, the power of one kind of loyalty to transmute itself into another, the spiritual need for patriotism and the military virtues, for which, however little the boiled rabbits of the Left may like them, no substitute has yet been found.
Orwell, My Country Left or Right
I, alas, am a boiled rabbit.
Perhaps if I were around when the Luftwaffe posed a real danger to red post boxes, black cabs, picnics and Pimms, I might’ve seen things the way of the “Tory anarchist”. But now? Sorry George, the Muslamic hoards don’t quite blacken the skies yet, nor would a world absent of those tourist flick-baits bother me greatly.
(And, conversely, I really do gag at the sight of that red cross upon a white field. During football “season”, when you can’t lose sight of the blighted thing, I have to brush my teeth upwards of three times a day.)
There’s values, principles, I hold dear – much the same as Orwell’s: equality, internationalism, democracy, freedom of expression. But it’ll be an act of double-think to associate them strongly with “Britain” – or more accurately Queen and Country – historically or presently. For one, the (mostly European-imposed) institutions meant to give force to these lofty ambitions are flailing. Only a common will can keep them truly alive. Because, after-all, what is a country without its people?
And like it or not, the lead up to this EU referendum has shown us just how most of them think. We’ll soon find that the “silent majority” we were relying on to give the New Old Left some steam is in fact a loud herd, clambering to derail the whole fucking lot.