The angry brigade, intolerance and the assault on Enlightenment values

Last night I watched the second US presidential debate. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or for that matter what I would find most satisfying, but I wanted to see it happening live. The post-debate consensus appears to be that Hillary Clinton won a particularly nasty event – in which, mind you, the nastiness did not particularly come from her.

But if we are horrified, as I am, by all the bile and aggression, we have to acknowledge that it’s not just appearing in American politics. In Europe the language of political discourse is taking similar forms in some contributions from France and Germany (and elsewhere). In Britain we have just witnessed a party’s internal ‘debate’ that involved an emergency hospital visit. And often when we get to hear members of the public contributing to a discussion the tone is one of anger.

There are several layers to this phenomenon, and the most obvious one is not the most important. Commentators are referring to the current political mood as something unprecedented – a growing group of people who have become angry because they have been ‘left behind’, because the gap between their means or aspirations and those of an ‘elite’ has widened excessively, whose fears and discomforts are not identified and addressed by that elite. In fact some of this is a true reflection of global societies: income inequality has been growing, albeit less because of pressures on the poor but more because of a huge growth in more extreme wealth. But then again, how can we explain such anger leading to support by the angry for a billionaire (Donald Trump) or for a former city trader (Nigel Farage)?

The more significant element here is that the angry sections of the population have, as people often do, been looking for someone to blame; and across continents that someone is the foreigner. The key shout has been to stop migration. This is by far the most important, and the most worrying, aspect of recent trends in popular opinion, and of political responses to it.

Of course concerns with immigration can be quite rational. No place can at short notice accommodate a massive influx of people, as Germany has discovered, and a clash of cultures between migrants and host communities can create genuinely uncomfortable (and indeed unacceptable) consequences. It is not disreputable to say that immigration must be managed intelligently. But you can measure the competence and integrity of politicians by the way they undertake this task, a hugely important part of which is to stop the emergence of xenophobia and racism. Many of the current generation of leading politicians globally (with some very honourable exceptions) are failing dismally. Or worse, they see it as their opportunity to follow the mob and stoke the fires of resentment.

The key victim of all of this is the western post-war liberal consensus. In Britain the attack on liberal values has most recently come from politicians who might have been expected to defend them, but who appeared to conclude that they must side with public opinion (as for example expressed in the Brexit decision). Some academics have recently pointed out that UK politicians are departing from the Enlightenment values that actually have their origins in Britain and which made the country a beacon of tolerance and decency. And this is a dangerous road on which to travel; it has only ever led to catastrophe.

Those of us who still believe in liberal Enlightenment values, even where we understand the pressures facing people in their lives, must not now stay silent. We should not be intimidated by the insults flying in our direction, often from the left as much as from the right. The freedoms that we all still enjoy are very very easily lost, and very hard to recover when they are.

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2 Comments on “The angry brigade, intolerance and the assault on Enlightenment values”

  1. Vince Says:

    If you see the issue in terms of mutiny, by an ungrateful voter cohort like the Irish Labour party. Rather than the insane situation where like France the left is in their actions as right wing as the right. A FF FG situation if you will.
    If like in the UK the Blair Labour party with a gigantic majority in the 90s move so far to the Right they were indistinguishable from the Tories. Such that they tories were with successive leaders going further and further to the gaga levels of righwingedness. That the pillock in the Liberals went into bed with the tories and laughably expected to survive it.
    With all this across Europe. Left becoming Right. The only cohort protected are those that are well protected already, usually with gigantic pensions when 70% of the population left to flounder about on subsistence.
    People don’t feel safe. And not the usual bull that you get from the usual suspects like the mail, but real lack of safety.
    People work, people get paid. The have kids, they send those kids to school. They have a holiday once or twice a year. A car if needed. And a house, one that won’t be taken out from under them on the whim of some shit in a finance house.
    It’s not difficult. There’s no growth that matters a hoot to most people. Yes you have the S&P500 producing humongous book growth. But when stupid notions of QE had first the Fed in the US revving up the notional printing presses and then the ECB doing the same all that ‘thought experimental’ cash had to go someplace to get a return. So rather that wipe the debts off the people, which would have the desired hum of inflation, they sent it to the banks to shore up balance sheets. They could have put it on one side, the side of the people, but the liberals didn’t, be the right or left of center.
    Ask yourself this, where is the growth you’d expect from so much cash sloshing about in the banks. Or you could go to schools in Sunderland Sligo or Santiago, not the private schools mind, but they are all in the same boat Brexit or not. But god help the misfortunate kids in Mesolongi, for Greece is the first place that could easily tip.

  2. “The key victim of all of this is the western post-war liberal consensus” I am not sure that this is correct: no one is (really) saying roll back on such as gay marriage – one of David Cameron’s self proclaimed successes. The protest vote was against the chumocracy particularly those by his side whom he over rewarded on the way out. Theresa May seems to have hit a raw academic nerve with her Citizen of the World critique, but I am not sure she is against the Enlightenment.

    Clearly immigration is an issue. The older generation, and others, fear for jobs of the grandkids but do appreciate that East Europeans worry about Putin and Syrians need safe haven. However the freedom of open borders has problems. Overall I feel you conflate issues: Trump vs Clinton has become embarrassingly personal of late but he does seem to speak for many, who are angry.

    I welcome the robust debate that is happening widely locally eg yesterday’s Daily Record had two good well reasoned articles. Academia is having a hard time but there are public positives. Outreach, philosophical lectures & festivals, has improved over the past few years; and practical examples too with such as kids swimming lessons (especially as school pools round here close). Down south Universities are being encouraged to conspicuously adopt schools – not sure if this is a good idea, but at least the conversation is becoming relevant to most people.

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