Photographs, truth and the Westminster attack

westminster_bridge_attack_1During the recent Westminster attack, a photograph was taken of a young Muslim woman, wearing a hijab, walking past one of the victims. She clasps one hand to the side of her face; she is looking at her phone, which she holds in her other hand. Behind her, a victim is being attended by two women; a group of four people are standing around, two of them looking at the victim, two of them talking to one another; and another woman, with grey hair but largely obscured from view, also appears to be walking by.

As The Guardian has reported, there have been several outraged responses to this photograph. Tim Young, who describes himself as a “political comedian” (despite his numerous tweets exhibiting neither comedic ability nor political intelligence) claimed that the image “could end up being one of the most iconic of our time”. The faulty, unspoken logic behind his tweet is this: an apparently Muslim terrorist act has been perpetrated; a young Muslim woman is unconcerned about this; therefore all Muslims are, at the very least, unconcerned by Islamist terror, and quite possibly approve of it.

Another Twitter user (who goes by the handle of “@SouthLoneStar”, moronically declares “Fuck Islam” in his profile and seems manically obsessed with tweeting endless, mindless and offensive Islamophobia) contrasted the photograph with that of the Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood attempting to save the life of the police officer stabbed by the assailant, suggesting that the two images show “the main difference between Christians and Muslims”.

westminster_bridge_attack_2Jamie Lorriman, the photographer who captured the image on Westminster Bridge, has said that the image has been “misappropriated” by those seeking to make Islamophobic capital from it. He points to another photograph in the sequence in which the Muslim woman is clearly distressed, and has commented: “Looking back at the pictures now, she looks visibly distraught in both pictures in my opinion. She’s in the middle of an unfolding horrific scene… I think her expression says to me that she’s horrified by what she’s seen and she just needs to get out of the situation.” As Lorriman adds, it’s “impossible to know” what the young woman was thinking.

I used to teach a class on visual evidence to first-year history undergraduates. One of the main points I tried to get across in the lecture was the importance of being highly critical of images as a form of evidence. In particular, we can be easily seduced by the power of the camera, and the notion that “the camera never lies”. But that notion is a fallacy. A photograph neither lies nor tells the truth; it simply records a tiny fragment of time and space. It then becomes subject to multiple interpretations that invariably have little relationship to the reality of the scene it depicts.

9-11-brooklyn-photoOne of the images I showed the students is a controversial photograph taken by Thomas Hoepker during the 9/11 attacks. It depicts a group of young people in a Brooklyn park, casually dressed, looking relaxed and chatting among themselves while in the distance behind them smoke pours from the World Trade Center. For some commentators, the image exhibited the detached, possibly callous nature of modern youth: while thousands are dying across the Hudson, these New Yorkers are carrying on as normal, seemingly careless about the atrocity.

But there are numerous problems with such an interpretation. Photographs, which show 1/500th or 1/1000th or 1/2000th of a second of time, tell us little about what their subjects are thinking or feeling. We have no way of knowing from the 9/11 image what these young Brooklynites were talking about, what their emotional state was, or what was going through their minds. Subsequently, one of those in the photograph has said that the group were “in a profound state of shock and disbelief” and that they were “in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened”. Five minutes or half an hour earlier or later, were they crying, or hugging one another in consolation, or standing with heads in their hands? The photograph gives us none of this information. Yet it becomes enough for some commentators to make a sweeping and condemning judgement on modern youth, and to trumpet this photograph as capturing a supposed social and cultural truth.

But ask this: how are people supposed to appear during such an incident? Should these New Yorkers have been exhibiting a constant state of distressed wailing on the off chance that a photographer may have been in the vicinity?

And consider: how many unstaged wedding photographs are there which show the bride or groom looking, in a seemingly unguarded moment, miserable? How many staged photographs have we all been in when, no matter how hard we tried to maintain a fixed smile and open eyes, we unfortunately get caught looking unhappy and half asleep? Later we may protest that the photograph misrepresents us: we were genuinely happy, we may sincerely and honestly say, but we are stuck with an image that is repeatedly and unfairly cited as evidence to the contrary.

And ask this: if we are quick to condemn the New Yorkers for their apparent lack of concern over 9/11, what do we say about the photographer choosing to spend his time in a Brooklyn park and focus his attention on park-goers? And what, indeed, do we say about ourselves, fixating on this image rather than on, say, images of the victims in Manhattan?

schoolchildren_rembrandt_night_watchRecently I was involved in a brief Facebook discussion about a viral image of schoolchildren looking at their phones rather than at Rembrandt’s The Night Watch on the wall behind them. A “metaphor for our age”; “the ‘distracted society’. No wonder we’re in the shape we’re in now”; “what a sad picture of today’s society!”: these were some of the comments about the photograph on Twitter.

But the photograph tells us little, and is potentially highly misleading. It says nothing about what the kids were doing the rest of the time in the gallery; and it reveals nothing about what they were looking at on their phones. The reality is (as later confirmed by the teachers accompanying the school party) that the children were, as part of an assignment, researching Rembrandt’s painting using an app on their phones. For some, this is still a dismal comment on our society; but would they complain if, instead of learning about the painting on their phones, the children were all reading a catalogue? The Night Watch is not an easy painting to interpret; we all need some guidance to help us, and it is not obvious why such guidance is any better in physical rather than digital form.

So the photograph in fact shows children interacting with art; indeed, they appear rather engrossed in what they are learning about Rembrandt’s painting. Yet, by ignoring all context and by leaping unthinkingly to an abrupt judgement, this photograph ends up being used to illustrate the idea that young people are so hopelessly obsessed with their smartphones and social media they are no longer capable of interacting with art (and, perhaps, reality in general).

For those inclined to a negative view on the culture and character of young people, or on the effect of digital media on modern society, then it is as easy as it is erroneous to read into the photographs of the 9/11 park group or the school party in the Rijksmuseum confirmation of existing beliefs. Similarly, those already prejudiced against Islam will seize on the photograph of the young woman on Westminster Bridge and distort it to fit their own agenda.

To use one photograph out of the many thousands taken that day as a piece of Islamophobic evidence is a dangerous and wilful distortion of reality: it ignores the fact that another photograph shows the woman in a clear state of distress; it ignores the fact that at least three of the other people in the photograph are also displaying little obvious shock (there are folded arms, hands in pockets, conversations occurring without obvious attention to the victim); it ignores the fact that the police were clearing the bridge (the young woman was doing the right thing not to loiter around at the scene); it ignores the fact that many of those in the area were frantically contacting loved ones to let them know they were safe.

We are prone to see what we want to see, framing images to fit a narrative that suits our purpose. The Islamophobes haven’t looked at this photograph with any critical thought: they have simply read into it their existing prejudices, and they have used it to frame their anti-Islamic narrative. Desperate to exploit the Westminster attack for their own agenda, they have framed it as evidence of the supposed evils of Islam and the dangers of multiculturalism and immigration.

As the facts of the attack slowly emerge, these misleading interpretations look ever more irrational, hateful and nonsensical. But facts and reality count for little in the feverish minds of the Islamophobic far right. Hence they try to build grand “truths” out of an image that, showing no more than a millisecond of time and a minuscule slither of space, reveals next to nothing about the people it depicts, and even less about society and culture as a whole.

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Donald Trump’s solo press conference and the media ‘opposition party’

trump_press_conferenceIt is easy to mock Donald Trump’s first solo press conference as president of the United States; I’ve even tried to do so myself. There were some undeniably cringeworthy moments (above all, his attitude towards the Jewish reporter who asked about anti-Semitism, and his response to the question on the Congressional Black Caucus); Trump offered his usual mix of exaggerations and evasions (and one outright falsehood in the forms of his claims about the size of his electoral college victory); and the president’s relentlessly belligerent attitude towards the press, with his repeated claims about their ‘dishonesty’ and ‘fake news’, was petulant and largely detached from reality. Unsurprisingly, most commentary, whether from journalists or satirists, has concluded that it was an ‘unhinged’ and embarrassing shambles. And yet—and I ask this question as someone who unequivocally regards Trump as an appalling individual who will almost certainly be a terrible president—are the commentators right? The more I reflect on the conference (and I have watched all of its 77 minutes), the more I think they are not. Indeed, in several respects it was a carefully constructed event that will probably prove to be hugely successful for Trump.

Early on in the conference the president explained that he was ‘here again, to take my message straight to the people’. This was Trump back in campaign mode, bypassing the media and presenting himself unfiltered to the public. As he noted, he had won the election despite the hostility of most of the press; his success could be attributed, at least in part, to his direct communication with the public. That he felt the need to return to this form of communication is likely to have been his recognition that the first four weeks of his administration have been widely perceived as chaotic (and not the ‘fine-tuned machine’ that had made ‘incredible progress’) and that it was time to short-circuit the media coverage with an alternative narrative. If so, then he surely fulfilled his aims with both the tone and content of the conference.

Apart from a few tetchy moments towards the end of the conference, Trump looked relaxed and in control throughout. He generally managed to soften his attacks on the media by making them look like good-natured banter; he even shared a few jokes with the assembled journalists. Above all, he achieved the perfect balance of looking like an underdog under attack by a room full of opponents, while also conveying toughness and strength in the face of the attack. That he was not being especially attacked is beside the point: Trump made it look as if he was being attacked. As he himself commented, he could not be said to have been ‘ranting and raving’; and he really did appear to be ‘having a good time doing it’.

When it comes to content, it is becoming increasingly clear that Trump has a genius for being rambling and barely coherent while simultaneously telling his intended audience exactly what it wants to hear. Consider what he covered in the first half hour of the conference (before he took reporters’ questions): he briefly announced some new appointments; he summarized how successful his first four weeks had been; he mentioned a high approval rating, a surging stock market and increased optimism in the business world; he gave an extensive list of jobs that were returning to America; he announced a huge increase in military spending, and his desire to achieve peace through strength; he reminded his audience that Isis is ‘a cancer’ that he would deal with, in addition to sorting out North Korea and Iran; he mentioned the many foreign leaders he had had ‘productive’ talks with; he emphasized his policy of strengthened borders and enhanced law enforcement; he referred to his orders to cut regulation, to repeal and replace the ‘disaster’ of Obamacare, to introduce tax reform, to pursue fair trade deals, to encourage investment in jobs and American industry (for example, his initiative to use American steel for the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines); and he scattered numerous other references to policies and initiatives thoughout the speech (for example, his intention to tackle the drugs problem and his development of a council with Canada to promote women’s business leaders) as well as praise for the people he had appointed. Running through this part-meandering, part-scattergun account of his administration’s policies and achievements were his attacks on Democrats, the courts and the media for attempting to obstruct him, and his view that he had ‘inherited a mess’ from the previous administration.

What would the audience Trump intended to reach—the American public to whom he was speaking directly—take away from this rambling speech? It is likely many of them would have heard the following: the President is a dynamic man who is honouring his campaign promises (unlike many conventional politicians, but like the Donald Trump who presented himself in The Art of the Deal as the dynamic, energetic businessman who successfully achieves his goals); that he is focused on jobs, security and the defence of the American people; and that he is battling the attempts of traditional politicians and the media to frustrate him in these purposes. While it is possible to laugh at many of his claims and statements (‘drugs are becoming cheaper than candy bars’; parts of Chicago are ‘worse than almost any of the places in the Middle East’ that are talked about; nuclear war is bad), his intended audience hears only confirmation of their concerns (drugs are a serious problem; crime in inner cities has got out of control; dealing with Russia reduces the risk of nuclear war).

While watching this I thought of the notorious remarks made by Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, in the first week of Trump’s presidency:

The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while. I want you to quote this. The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.

Trump’s press conference helps illuminate what Bannon was driving at. The president was speaking about jobs, security and defence; he was appealing to popular fears and concerns, and promising to fix them in ways that traditional politicians had consistently failed to do. In one telling moment he said: ‘I can’t believe I’m saying I’m a politician, but I guess that’s what I am now.’ In other words: the America the media do not understand is the America whose primary concerns are jobs and security; and the media do not understand that Trump was elected because he is not a traditional politician. Trump’s slightly folksy and simple manner, his blunt and plain speaking, even his mistakes and exaggerations: all of this makes him look like the sort of non-politician that millions of Americans consciously wanted to occupy the White House.

After Trump’s speech the media had an extended opportunity to ask questions—and they would likely have confirmed to the president’s intended audience Bannon’s claim that the media are ‘the opposition party’. More than half the questions were about the continuing suspicions of the Trump administration’s connections with Russia, and the related resignation of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor. These are vital questions because this is an issue of immense political, constitutional and security importance; if some of the links to Russia are proved, it is likely to prove a bigger scandal than Watergate (and will almost certainly lead to Trump’s downfall). But Trump’s calculation—and I suspect he is correct—is that, just as Lynyrd Skynyrd weren’t bothered by Watergate in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, most of the American public do not care much the Russian rumours. Rather, his intended audience are far more bothered about employment, illegal immigration, crime and threats to America than they are about an issue that does not resonate beyond the political, intelligence and media circles of Washington, New York and Los Angeles.

So the spectacle that unfolded from the conference—just as Trump probably hoped it would, and which was probably why he was enjoying it so much—was of a president focused on issues that matter to most of the public, and a media ignoring those issues to fixate on things that matter little to the wider public. This was the media doing its job properly—and yet also confirming Bannon’s ‘opposition party’ label. This was why the president repeatedly insisted that the Russia stories were ‘fake news’, by which he meant not so much that they were untrue but that they were a deliberate attempt by the media to distract from the real story of his administration’s achievements with non-stories about things that may have been said in a phone conversation between Flynn and a Russian ambassador. And many Trump supporters will concur with their president that the media are dishonest, by reasoning that the media prefer to print rumours about Russian influence on the election than to write about job creation, drug problems and inner city crime. Whether they are right to reason in this way is not the point; the point is that millions of people (and not just in America) are more concerned about the immediate issues that appear to threaten them than they are about the comparatively remote issues of concern to political and media circles.

Most of the media, as well as those of us who are anti-Trump, will regard the press conference as confirmation of Trump’s unsuitability to be president and the shambolic nature of his administration. It is unlikely he won any converts among the media or his opponents. But Trump was not speaking to the media or to those who did not vote for him. He was speaking to those who had voted for him, and he was doing something that he has focused on for the first few weeks of his presidency: firming up his base. The press conference was almost certainly highly successful to that end: his supporters will have regarded his conference as vindication of their support, because Trump told them everything they wanted to hear. It’s a smart strategy, because for now Trump has time on his side to win converts; what he can’t afford to do is lose his base. Given that there is no realistic prospect of Trump winning over the mainstream media, sceptics and opponents any time soon, it would not be a surprise if these solo press conferences become a regular event.

Whether this strategy will work in the long run is open to question; Trump will need his policies to work, and there is surely only so much controversy and scandal any administration can withstand. But Trump has succeeded for nearly two years now with his unconventional approach of bypassing the mainstream media and communicating directly with the public, so he and Bannon probably reason that there is no need to change a winning formula. There is clearly a deliberate policy of dividing the media and political establishment from the public, and it’s a policy that poses more challenges to the media than it does to Trump: it is not obvious in the current climate how the mainstream media and political class can reach out to Trump’s support base.

In one of his final answers, Trump said:

Hey, just so you understand, we had a totally divided country for eight years and long before that. In all fairness to President Obama, long before President Obama we have had a very divided—I didn’t come along and divide this country. This country was seriously divided before I got here… This isn’t Donald Trump that divided a nation. We went eight years with President Obama and we went many years before President Obama. We lived in a divided nation. And I am going to try—I will do everything within my power to fix that.

It’s a powerful point—which is why he keeps reiterating it—and goes to the heart of Trump’s narrative. The United States is clearly deeply divided, but it would be absurd to think that these divisions have opened up only in the past few months. As Trump says, the divisions are deep and long standing; they are a reality that has nothing to do with his being elected president. Of course, he claims to represent that side of the divide which has hitherto been unrepresented by politicians and the media. It matters little whether Trump’s analysis is right, nor whether he really does represent those people who elected him. What matters is that his press conference, like almost everything he has been doing since his inauguration, played perfectly to his supporters.

 

Democracy and the ‘will of the people’

daily_mail_will_of_the_peopleOne of the more disturbing features of the debates surrounding Brexit is the routine way in which many Brexiteers invoke a notion of democracy based on the ‘will of the people’. According to this view, those who are trying to ‘frustrate’ Brexit are being anti-democratic, because they are going against the supposed popular will (this popular will amounting to 17 million people out of a UK population of 65 million; or, a 52% vote for Leave on a 74% turnout). Unfortunately, this increasingly common argument (it is encountered frequently in the Brexit-supporting tabloid press) is itself dangerously close to being anti-democratic, since it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what democracy is.

Democracy is government by popular consent. It is a form of government in which political authority flows from the people (rather than, say, from God, as in medieval political systems). Consent is a key term: where there is consent, a government is legitimate; where there is not consent, a government is illegitimate and can legitimately be replaced. A democracy ensures consent through such things as regular free and fair elections, the opportunity to remove and replace bad governments and to amend or overturn bad policies, a free press and a large public sphere in which politics can be discussed and debated by everyone. All these things are carefully defended in a democracy. Where they are denied—for example, if the press is not free, or there is no opportunity to overturn bad policies—the political system becomes increasingly undemocratic.

The definition of ‘the people’ has always been fluid, but at the heart of democracy is the idea that the ‘people’ should be defined as widely as possible. A society in which only the aristocracy has a say in politics is not democratic; nor is one in which, for example, women or Jews are denied a vote. Since ancient Athenian democracy restricted voting to adult males, excluding all women, slaves and non-Athenians, it would not qualify as a democracy in the modern sense.

Democracy has nothing to do with the so-called ‘will of the people’. Not only is this concept impossible to define with any precision (making it largely nonsensical), but it has routinely been invoked by anti-democratic totalitarian regimes (e.g. the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany) to justify their politics. It implies that anyone who disagrees with the supposed ‘will’ can no longer be considered one of the ‘people’; such an individual comes to be regarded as a traitor to the people. Historically, one of the consequences of this notion of the ‘will of the people’ has been the denial of rights to supposed ‘un-persons’ and the use of concentration camps, ‘re-education’, imprisonment and execution.

In any large, complex society there are numerous different interests and values which defeat all attempts to identify a single ‘will of the people’. Democracy involves recognizing these different interests and values through a form of government that, despite the differences running through society, is agreed to by everyone. Democracy is not, therefore, about simple majority rule; it is about governing in a way that commands the consent of everyone. A democracy which, for example, ignores the interests and values of minority groups or beliefs risks no longer being a democracy and becoming instead a tyranny.

For those interested in political thought: look to John Locke and John Stuart Mill, not to Rousseau.

Theresa May’s Brexit speech

theresa_may_brexit_speechTheresa May deserves some credit for the way she has handled Brexit thus far. The reality was that the most incompetent Prime Minister in recent British history tossed a grenade. Somebody had to catch it, and while the hopeless Andrea Leadsom would have provided great entertainment value by quickly letting the grenade explode, it was probably for the best that May and her much-touted safe pair of hands took charge. Evidently nobody had planned for Brexit, so it was always going to be a matter of muddling through the political chaos bequeathed by Cameron. And May has provided a textbook study of how to muddle through: in public play for time, don’t say too much, and don’t commit to anything, while behind doors scramble as rapidly as possible to assemble some sort of coherent plan. She has been much criticized for not having a plan or strategy for Brexit, but criticism should really be directed at her dismal predecessor. Anyway, what would we rather she had done—sit down with Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox over a few evenings, scribbling down a plan on post-its, and then announce that to the world? We may live in an age of instant news, information, clarity and decisions, but in relation to an issue as complex and important as Brexit there are many reasons why old-fashioned virtues such as patience, careful deliberation, information gathering and stalling for time are the best approach.

At some point, of course, May was going to have to issue more clarity, and so she now has with her major Brexit speech. The importance of this speech lies more in its political significance than in its detail. Much of the latter could have been guessed at; the only difference now is that we no longer need to play a guessing game. May’s focus on restricting immigration and freedom of movement has long been known (she was a notoriously illiberal Home Secretary); and the reality that ending freedom of movement means leaving the Single Market has been confirmed. Hard Brexit was always the most likely approach (most EU members have been correctly predicting that for months); May has now closed the door on the faint hopes of Remainers that a Norwegian model might have been the goal.

Although a Remainer myself, I appreciate two things about that. The first is the logic to it: while I would prefer a Norwegian model (aka soft Brexit) over hard Brexit, the Brexiters are right in regarding it as a compromise that would involve continued membership of the EU in everything but name and political clout. It would be a solution that would satisfy few, and would raise the question: if we’re paying for all the benefits of the EU, why not simply be full members with the ability to be part of the decision-making, instead of having access to the Single Market but no say in how it is run? For Remainers, the Norwegian model is hardly ideal, but it would have been a compromise hard to oppose; furthermore, it offered the hope that the model’s contradictions would result in it becoming a convenient stepping stone to a full EU return. That somewhat desperate hope, along with any prospects of a difficult and uncomfortable compromise outcome, is now off the table.

The second thing I appreciate about May’s speech is the clarity. All of us—Brexiters and Remainers alike—have a much better sense of the political terrain ahead. And the fact is, despite the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about Britons coming together over the Brexit negotiations, what she has done is mark out the dividing line for the forthcoming political war. She has confirmed that the referendum result was a winner-take-all outcome: nothing in her speech offered the slightest concession to the 48% who voted Remain (nor to the unknown number of Leave voters who believed that membership of the Single Market would continue after Brexit). As a case study for discussion by future students of democracy, the referendum will provide fascinating material: What is the best democratic response when a fraction over half the country want one thing, and a fraction under half the country want another? In the UK (unlike in most functioning democracies) you give the former everything that they want and the latter nothing, with no attempt at any sort of compromise. Having suggested in her new year message that she would be representing in Brexit negotiations the interests not only of the 52% but also of the 48%, it turns out that she’ll be doing no such thing. So it is that we remain divided—but the divisions are at least clear and confirmed now.

For Remainers the fight ahead is obvious. The object will be to attempt to resist and obstruct the goals of the Brexiters as much as possible. Had membership of the Single Market been on the table, then Remainers would have something worth supporting within the negotiations themselves. As it is, Britain’s objectives have little to recommend themselves to Remainers. A soft Brexit might have been worth supporting; a hard Brexit is not. So Remainers can focus on resisting Brexit tout court. And they can focus on getting organized and prepared for the forthcoming fight, now with a better knowledge of what they will be fighting.

Many Brexiters will regard what I have just written as treason; others will not comprehend why Remainers want to carry on with the fight. Here are some reasons:

(1) Brexit remains in all probability a national suicide. The Brexit position is still largely delusional. It is one thing to make an optimistic set-piece speech, quite another to sit around a table with other negotiators trying to make that optimism real. The speech was intended to be tough, portraying Britain as negotiating from a position of strength. In reality Britain’s position is desperately weak, at the mercy of the EU27 (any one of whom can veto whatever deal may be reached, and many of whom will already be figuring out ways of luring British businesses to the continent). The breezy Brexiter confidence about rapidly agreeing a whole series of favourable trade deals that will establish the UK as a major global player is the stuff of fantasy. May speaks about ‘global Britain’; yet the only platform that would truly give Britain significance on the global stage is that provided by the EU. The Brexit road ahead is going to be extremely hard going for the UK, will almost certainly result in a much diminished country and may well end in national disaster.

(2) The obsession of May and the Brexiters with immigration and the restriction of freedom of movement is nonsensical and corrosive. Freedom of movement has a sound economic basis, and it is a social and ethical good. The Brexit vision of borders—restricting, it should be remembered, movement both in and out of Britain—is worth opposing, not least because it panders to nationalists and racists.

(3) Early in her speech May spoke about protecting workers’ rights; yet she ended the speech with a threat that should Britain not get the deal it wants then it will choose to become, in effect, a low-regulation, bargain-basement tax haven. This threat was directed at the EU, but it should be seen as an equally great threat to British citizens. Given that May is so ready to make this threat, one ought to be suspicious about the broader government vision. The plan seems to be to leave the EU, then to cherry pick full access to as many areas of the Single Market as possible, with the prospect of ‘competitive’ tax rates as a secondary option if the EU does not hand over the cherries. May is here keen to display her hard edges to the EU—but they are hard edges which will wreak havoc on millions of Britons. More than that, it is precisely the sort of thing many Brexiters (Michael Gove, for example) want: for them, Brexit offers the possibility of pursuing a utopian neoliberal experiment. The admirable European social model, based on such things as workers’ rights and regulations to protect the environment, will be abandoned. For Remainers who value the European social model, and who are rightly dismayed at the casual way Brexiters are prepared to use workers’ rights (as well as the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK) as bargaining chips, there is no choice but to oppose the Brexiters.

(4) Brexit is not a foregone conclusion. The politics are not currently promising for Remainers, but things can change quickly over the months and years to come. (In the past eighteen months Jeremy Corbyn has become leader of the Labour party, David Cameron has resigned, the British have voted to leave the EU, and the Americans have voted for Trump: anyone at the beginning of 2015 predicting even one of those things would have been scorned.) There will be parliamentary votes and elections, there will be opposition from Scotland (and possibly Northern Ireland too), there is likely to be legal action to determine whether Article 50 is reversible (informed legal opinion suggests that it probably is), there will be economic developments, there will be political developments impossible to predict right now, and there are scenarios in which a reversal of Brexit may become a serious possibility. Brexit remains a long game.

(5) A point I have made several times previously bears repeating: just as Brexiters have for years exercised their democratic right to campaign against EU membership while the UK was a member, so Remainers will now exercise their democratic right to campaign for EU membership as the UK ceases to be a member.

(6) For all the predictable and meretricious rhetoric about the British being a great people, and how 65 million of us will come together to make Brexit work, May’s speech changes nothing; at most it offers slightly more coherence to the Brexit position (i.e. no more uncertainty about whether it will be hard or soft Brexit), and consequently it clarifies the anti-Brexit politics that lie ahead for Remainers.

Resist Brexit!

anti-brexit-rallyBrexit can and should be resisted, and it can and should be stopped. Those of us who voted Remain in the EU referendum and who regard Brexit as potentially (for it hasn’t actually happened yet) the most disastrous event in modern British history have every reason to keep fighting and grounds for cautious optimism about success. As Martin Kettle has written in The Guardian, this is a long game: the complex process of leaving the EU has not even begun, and assuming that Article 50 is triggered in March next year it will likely be two years, possibly longer, before any formal agreement to leave has been reached. For the Remainers, there is time to mount a determined fightback; for the Brexiters, who have so far revealed themselves to be lacking any sort of coherent plan, who are divided among those who want variations of ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit, who are increasingly having to explain why they no longer stand by many of the claims and promises made during the referendum campaign, and who are facing growing evidence of the economic, cultural and social disarray that Brexit will cause, the problems will only accumulate.

Many Brexiters have argued that Remainers (or Remoaners as they are fond of dubbing us) should shut up since the ‘will’ of the British public is for Brexit; some, notably the Daily Mail and Daily Express, have gone so far as to accuse those opposing Brexit of being unpatriotic subverters of democracy, in effect suggesting that we are traitors. As I noted shortly after the referendum result, 17 million people voted for Brexit out of a population of 65 million; that amounts to 26% of the population as a whole, and about 38% of the electorate—hardly numbers that reflect a clear and emphatic ‘will of the people’. Even the headline (and most important) figure of 52% does not amount to such a general ‘will’; it simply reveals that a narrow majority of those who could be bothered to vote on 23 June favoured leaving the EU in one form or another. Unless the 48% who voted Remain (and the 74% of the population who, for one reason or another, have not expressed any desire to leave the EU) are no longer to be considered as part of the ‘British public’, any claims that the Brexiters speak on behalf of the ‘will of the people’ should be rejected as arrogant and unjustified. Put simply, they speak for the 17 million who voted for Brexit, no more, no less.

The 17 million do, of course, represent a majority of the vote. But the UK is a democracy, and as such the right of the 48% to continue opposing Brexit, through argument and debate, through democratic and legal means, should be respected. A democracy does not work on the basis that all those who lose a vote are immediately expected to abandon their position and adopt the position of the winning side—if it did, then it would cease to be a democracy and become instead a tyranny of the majority. It may be that the Remainers will not ultimately succeed in resisting Brexit, but that in no way means they do not have the right to resist it democratically. Those Brexiters who think that right should be denied the Remainers are adopting a dangerously anti-democratic stance (in keeping with their ‘enemies of the people’ attack on the judges who ruled that parliament must be consulted about triggering Article 50). Fundamental to democracy is inclusive debate, in which the views of all sides are heard; anyone, whether Brexiter or Remainer, who supports democracy should welcome an ongoing and vigorous debate about Brexit, the right of all sides to make their strongest cases, and the right of the 48%—just as much as that of the 52%—to be represented in those debates.

Equally to be rejected is the Brexiters claim that Remainers are ‘unpatriotic’. Those of us who continue to argue for Remain do so on the basis that Brexit will be enormously damaging to the UK. Remainers are determined that Britain avoids this damage; we believe that for Britain to flourish and prosper, it needs to be an open, inclusive, tolerant country within a Europe founded on cooperation and integration. There is nothing ‘unpatriotic’ about campaigning for the best interests of the UK; the implication that Remainers are anti-British is a nonsense. And there is something perverse about a ‘patriotism’ that is willing to risk the sort of long-term damage to the UK that Brexit is likely to cause.

Brexiters are fond of dismissing Remainers as metropolitan elites—part of their argument that we do not speak for ‘the people’. The tendency (on both sides) to portray the referendum result in terms of simple divisions—young versus old, graduates versus non-graduates, cities versus the rest of the country, and so on—should also be rejected. A significant proportion of people in London, Manchester and Birmingham (and the many other areas that were majority Remain) voted for Brexit; and a significant proportion of people in majority-Brexit areas voted for Remain. The notion that Remainers are an elite is laughable to most of us: any elite which includes someone like me—economically poor, insecure in employment and housing, highly critical of neoliberalism—is a strange one indeed. As for the supposed ‘representatives of the people’ such as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, Douglas Carswell, Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail: if standing in a gilded elevator with the multi-millionaire president-elect of the United States (and angling to become UK ambassador to the US, not to mention numerous attempts to become part of Westminster), if public school education and privilege and hedge-fund financing and corporate global media, are considered the marks of the non-elite, then we have entered unusual times. Many of the most prominent Brexiters—Michael Gove, John Redwood, Iain Duncan Smith, Christopher Grayling, and the like—have energetically promoted policies of austerity that have hit hardest the very non-elites that they now claim to represent. The underlying truth, obscured by so much of the rhetoric, is that neither Brexit nor Remain stand for elites or non-elites; they are opposed positions in relation to EU membership, positions which attract the support of both elites and non-elites.

A compelling case can be made, therefore, to reject the demands of those Brexiters for Remainers to be silenced and for debate to cease. Such Brexiters are adopting anti-democratic rhetoric and simplifications intended deliberately to distort discussion. Right now, what is needed above all is a properly democratic debate. Article 50 will be triggered, and a process to leave the EU will start; that needs to be scrutinized and argued about, and the views of the 48% need to be part of that debate. Even if the UK ultimately leaves the EU, the terms of Brexit require careful debate. All we know at present is that 17 million people voted to leave the EU; we do not know what sort of exit they wanted, and there is no evidence that 52% of voters favoured a ‘hard’ Brexit. Almost certainly large numbers of the 17 million did not vote for ‘hard’ Brexit, which may end up being the only form of Brexit left on the table—and is the form of Brexit that many of the most vocal Brexiters are pushing for. At the very least, Remainers will play a vital role in ensuring that any ‘hard’ Brexit is decisively defeated.

Brexit may happen; but it is not inevitable. The Liberal Democrat victory in the Richmond by-election was the result of opposition to Brexit. Cross-party initiatives are being forged to fight Brexit (and, in particular, ‘hard’ Brexit). The calls for a future referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations are being made with increasing persuasion. Brexit is not a done deal; right now, as illustrated by the shambolic early stages of the process, it is ludicrous to talk about Brexit as a reality when those who want it are so clueless about what form it will take and what it will entail. Two years (or more) is an extremely long time in politics, particularly when the economic fall-out from the referendum result is likely to become more acute. As Martin Kettle suggests, time is on the Remainers side (and certainly time favours the Remainers more than it does the Brexiters), and it is a matter of continuously chipping away every day at the increasingly weak Brexit position, resisting outright ‘hard’ Brexit, making the compelling case through debate and democracy for Remain, and turning the 48% into 50+%. Those of us who support Remain should be making the case, clearly, confidently, positively and passionately—and repeatedly. We should be up for the fight ahead. As long as we are, we have good chances of success.

Are we really living in a post-truth world?

Former London Mayor Boris Johnson speaks at the launch of the Vote Leave bus campaign, in favour of Britain leaving the European Union, in Truro
The Vote Leave campaign bus: evidence of a ‘post-truth’ world?

There was no great surprise in the announcement by Oxford Dictionaries that ‘post-truth’ is their 2016 word of the year. Usage of the word has increased 2,000% this year compared to last. Daily it is said that our age is one of ‘post-truth politics’. The vote for Brexit—or, more specifically, the campaign that led to that vote—and the US presidential campaign are cited as confirmation of our ‘post-truth culture’. ‘Post-truth’ has itself become a truth among many commentators and their followers; the term is bandied around in a spirit of assumed general acceptance of its validity and value.

Yet I am instinctively sceptical. ‘Post-truth’ looks a little too much like a trendy buzzword that ultimately turns out to be saying much less than it thinks it is. The coinage itself has that grating appearance of faux meaning for a generation desperate to think both its experience of the world and the way that experience is understood are novel and original. Not all terms beginning with ‘post-’ are vacuous, but many are—and many seem to stem from the laziness or inability to think deeply about an issue, to examine it within a broad historical and cultural context, leading to the easier approach of unquestioningly assuming that our world is unprecedented.

The dictionary definition of ‘post-truth’ is that the word is an adjective ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. My objection is not to this definition—it is quite neat to have a word, and a concept, that describes such a cultural state—but rather what is not contained in the definition: the implication, in the coinage itself and in the way that it is used, that ‘post-truth’ describes a new phenomenon.

I do not question that the politics of both Brexit and Trump were dominated by lies, distortion and exaggeration, by a casual dismissal of objective facts (or at least any that were inconvenient to a particular ideological viewpoint), and by appeals to emotion and personal belief. Nor do I doubt the wilful dishonesty of much media, the existence of ‘fake news’, and the power of both to shape public opinion. What I do question is whether any of this is new. The suggestion seems to be that we have moved from an age of truth, in which public opinion was shaped by objective facts, to an age of post-truth, in which public opinion regards objective facts as irrelevant. Neat and catchy as such an analysis is, I see little evidence of its truth—the irony here is that the description of our age as post-truth in contrast to an earlier age of truth may itself lack objective perspective.

Politics has never been about an unqualified commitment to objective facts. Politics is bound up with ideas (which become ideologies), with theories about, for example, the best ways of organizing economic and social resources. Politicians and political thinkers take strong positions on issues that defy straightforward objective analysis. Freedom and equality, for example, are rooted in ethics far more than they are in objective facts; whether a society should be more or less equal is invariably an ethical question rather than one that can be answered by reference to objective facts. Ideologies are about values, and values are rarely objective. (I am not saying that objective assessment of data does not contribute to these types of question, and that objective truths cannot support particular values; I suggest only that objectivity is usually less important than ethical considerations in answering them.)

Every age has its ideologies, and usually more than one. Consider the dominant ideology in much of early modern Europe: the divine right theory of monarchy (according to which a monarch, as God’s representative on earth, had absolute power). This theory was not built on anything that we would understand as an objective assessment of facts; it was built, rather, on various common beliefs about hierarchy, order and power, and the values that went with those beliefs. A similar point could be made about the many ideologies in our modern world. They are shaped by certain notions of how the world should be, and by various objectively unprovable beliefs and values (for example, that freedom is more important than security, or that a nation is more important than an individual). The advancement of an ideological belief, while it may be in part based on objective facts, is never entirely concerned with objectivity.

Furthermore, since antiquity politics has been closely bound up with the art of rhetoric. The classical authors of rhetorical handbooks (Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian, for example) were interested in the range of tools at a speaker’s disposal for persuading an audience. These tools could include reference to objective facts, but the focus of much rhetorical theory was on the way language could be structured and delivered in ways that worked on an audience’s emotions as well as reason. Persuasion—which is the essence of opinion formation—has always emphasized the importance of playing to emotions.

Rhetoric and the appeal to emotions appears to have been present in all political cultures throughout history. Whether it was the speeches and aesthetics of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, the use of fear as part of political rhetoric during the Cold War era (and the projection of figures such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as strong leaders in the face of communist threats), or the hysteria surrounding the supposed Catholic threat in seventeenth-century England, appeals to emotions and personal beliefs invariably play a key role in shaping public opinion. For centuries, after all, an attachment to monarchy, hierarchy and the Church was largely an emotional attachment, not one grounded in any objective assessment.

Slogans, pamphlets and satires have been around for centuries, and they frequently appeal on an emotional rather than an objective level. And there are many instances of ‘fake news’ throughout history: spurious accounts of ritual murders by Jews, false reports of massacres by Catholics, invented conspiracy theories, fabricated myths and legends. In late seventeenth-century England, for example, the political crisis known as the ‘Popish Plot’ was based on an entirely fabricated account of a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and place the king’s Catholic brother on the throne. Nor is there anything new about a cavalier dismissal of objectivity and truth by the media. Newspapers have been doing this since their beginnings; even within living memory, the idea that the press (and tabloids in particular) have been wholeheartedly committed to objective ‘truth’ seems laughable.

The argument that, in respect to objective truth, the politics of the early twenty-first century differs fundamentally from previous ages seems, therefore, to lack much substance. Clearly the way we communicate today is different; but while digital and social media represent a significant technological shift, it does not follow that the nature of politics has also undergone a revolution. Populism and demagoguery were not born in the digital age; appeals to emotion and personal beliefs did not suddenly arise with social media. Equally, objective facts have not gone away; they are still prominent in debates, and they remain part of the arsenal of almost all politicians (even Farage and Trump).

Perhaps the significant modern shift concerns objectivity itself, in particular the value attached to it. But this shift is not recent; rather, it began happening in the seventeenth century. As Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007) demonstrates, the notion and concept of objectivity arose alongside the empirical sciences. The process by which objectivity became established as part of the modern mental world was a long and complex one; but its legacy is that objectivity as a value and a concept has become ever more deeply embedded in modern culture.

What does seem to be new is the idea contained in the ‘post-truth’ concept that we are only now fully aware of it, as if truth and objectivity were silently taken for granted in previous ages. But they were not. In early modern England, many despaired of the methods of the pamphleteers and satirists, and bemoaned the way truth was lost among the emotion and outright lies of many populist appeals. Our laments about the supposed disappearance of objectivity and truth in politics are really no more than an echo of complaints that have been made for centuries; long before the word ‘post-truth’ was coined, George Orwell devoted considerable attention to the threats posed to ‘truth’ by the totalitarian ideologies of his time.

For those who believe that the term ‘post-truth’ applies to a new form of political culture emerging in the early twenty-first century, one that is qualitatively different from any previous political culture, the challenge is to prove and to articulate this idea fully. I am open to the possibility that there may be something in a notion of a distinctively new post-truth age, one that embodies a political culture fundamentally different from anything previously seen. It may be that digital technology is leading to a decisive rejection of either the existence or the relevancy of objective facts; it may be that politics is becoming so intensely ideological that any semblance of objectivity is eradicated. But I am yet to be persuaded of either of these suggestions, just as I am (for now at least) sceptical that our supposedly post-truth politics is substantially different in its relationship to truth and emotions than were the political cultures of the past.

Tony Blair and the politics of resistance

tony-blair
Enemy? Or useful ally?

Is Tony Blair worth listening to? Are the Liberal Democrats worth voting for? I’m going to risk losing whatever respect and friends I have by suggesting that ‘yes’ is a conceivable answer to both questions. A year ago, even six months ago, I would not have imagined being able to write this. But such is the nature of politics, generally, but particularly right now, that it is necessary to be flexible, to be strategic, to be willing to reassess and shift one’s positions—in short, to think what only recently had seemed unthinkable.

Some personal information will help contextualize this post. Those familiar with me will know that in so far as I am ideological I am well to the political left; I also subscribe to broadly liberal, libertarian and individualist views. All this makes me a somewhat idealistic anarchist. But I’m also a realist and, for the most part, non-partisan. I have long accepted that I will never see a society and political system conforming to my personal beliefs, I have reconciled myself to the long catalogue of political disappointments that I will experience in my life, and I am even sceptical whether my own politics would work—which doesn’t stop me from thinking that anarchism is a beautiful philosophy, and that the ideals of equality and freedom are important, even if only as a valuable counterpoint to and check on prevailing politics. Another way of putting this is to say that I am both politically idealistic and politically practical.

There is a vital place for both idealism and practicality in the present political situation. Idealism remains valuable: even if unachievable, our ideals, since they are ideas, are important starting points for thinking and debate. At the same time, there is a fundamental practical problem—more than a problem, in fact, a danger—facing us: the rise of the populist, nationalist right, with all its illiberalism and politics of division and (to be blunt) hate. In order to resist and overcome this danger it is essential that ideals and practicality are mutually accommodating.

My ideals can be viewed, above all by myself, both narrowly and broadly. The narrow view sees a particular version of anarcho-socialism. The broad view sees this anarcho-socialism within a wider historical context, namely a liberal and rational intellectual tradition that essentially stems from the Enlightenment. My own politics, in their detail, may be quite narrow and precise, but I recognize them as part of a large family of values and ideals occupying a broad swathe of the political spectrum, from the left all the way to some distant cousins on the centre-right. What unites this diverse and argumentative family are such things as the following: a belief in liberal values, above all a respect for individual freedom; the importance of tolerance; a celebration of diversity; the belief that all, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, religion and sexuality, are fundamentally equal; a rejection of nationalism, and a belief in the importance of international cooperation; a commitment to democracy and equality before the law; a belief that politics should be grounded in rationalism and secularism. Not one of those beliefs and values is straightforward and uncomplicated. But for all the differences and arguments about how best to achieve, say, gender equality, it ought to be possible to recognize the fundamental difference between those of us who believe absolutely in gender equality and those on the right who subscribe to patriarchal and misogynist views.

In good times (or less bad times) we can quietly acknowledge our shared core ideals and attend to the more urgent business of getting at each other’s throats over our more particular differences. But right now we are living in the bad times: the core ideals, the entire liberal and Enlightenment tradition, is in danger of being overwhelmed and overthrown. In practical terms, the family members need to set aside their differences, focus on the common threat and defend their shared, core ideals. That might mean acknowledging, however grudgingly, that the unsavoury and hard-to-like uncle trying to be heard is nevertheless part of our family, unlike Donald, Nigel and Marine, the noisy, obnoxious and aggressive neighbours next door.

I have never much admired Tony Blair, not even in 1997 when he led the sweeping victory of the centre-left over the Tories. His contribution to the rise of neoliberalism has been significant and woeful; his path of personal enrichment, and his work with authoritarian regimes has been appalling; and his role in the Iraq War was little short of scandalous. That Blair bears some responsibility for the current crisis is undeniable. But simply yelling ‘liar’ at him and insisting that he is prosecuted for war crimes is as simple-minded and unproductive as those Trump supporters who screamed ‘crooked’ and ‘lock her up’ about Hillary Clinton. Just as the murderer will never confess to his crime because he knows that to do so would come at the cost of personal destruction, so Blair will never apologize for nor admit the mistakes that led to the Iraq War. Does that refusal—which, I would suggest, owes more to understandable human psychology than to any irredeemable ‘evil’ on Blair’s part—mean that he should never be listened to again?

The fact is, distasteful though Blair may often be politically and personally, he belongs to the same family as I do. He is smart, experienced and insightful, and his political analysis is often incisive—just because one may not like him doesn’t mean one should ignore his strengths, intelligence and qualities. He is evidently dismayed by recent political developments, arguing that a fightback against Brexit needs to be launched in tandem with a revitalization of the political centre ground. I’m not much of a centrist myself, but I rarely find centrism truly objectionable. And right now there are simple binary realities that call for practical responses that embrace centrism rather than precious idealism that rejects it. The fact is, it may be uncomfortable having to vote for the likes of Clinton, or whoever the French centre-right puts up against Marine Le Pen, and it may be uncomfortable having to accept an alliance with figures like Angela Merkel or Richard Branson or Tony Blair, but in times like this it is necessary to act against the larger enemy.

I’m not suggesting that one needs to agree with everything, or even most things, that Blair says. I am suggesting that one needs temporarily to set aside differences and disagreements, or at least not to let them dominate debate, and focus instead on the shared ground. Let’s hope a day will come when arguing against Blairism will seem once more like a good idea. But for now there is an overriding goal: to resist the politics of Trump and Brexit and Farage, to defeat Le Pen, and to defend and reinvigorate the core values of liberal democracy. When that’s done we can all get back to fighting among ourselves; but if the new populist right is allowed to succeed, there’ll be no opportunity for infighting since we will have suffered a crushing defeat. That Labour, and above all Momentum (whose ideals elicit some sympathy from me, but whose practical politics elicit much contempt) seem determined to descend into infighting first, thereby enabling the populist right to run rampant and unchallenged, is a shameful invitation to disaster. Ideologically I may have more in common with Momentum than with Blair, but if the latter is urging broad cooperation in the face of the right-wing threat while the former is obsessed with internecine war on the left, then I’ll listen more seriously to Blair than to Momentum.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, I’m all for the idea of a broad front, spanning from the centre-right to the left, to resist the populist right. This does not necessarily have to be a formal front; on a personal level I find it practically strategic and helpful to view all forms of opposition to Trump, Brexit and Le Pen as constituting such a front, even if it is more an idea than a formally constituted political body. In large part this is a negative form of politics: it’s about doing anything and everything to stop the other side, the common enemy, from winning. If that means listening to Blair and Branson, if it means voting Liberal Democrat (like many, I vowed after 2010 never to vote for them again, but there you go), if it means opposition parties agreeing on single election candidates to fight the Brexiters, if it means voting for a centre-right French presidential candidate, then so be it.

But the notion of a broad front is not entirely negative. The positive essence of such a front is the identification, recognition and defence of the common values—those values of liberalism, tolerance, equality and rationalism stemming from the Enlightenment tradition that I summarized above. And there is a shared and positive wider aim, which is to ensure that history remembers the early twenty-first century not as the death of the liberal, progressive tradition but as a period of revitalization in the face of the threat from the irrational, illiberal, reactionary, authoritarian, intolerant and hateful politics of the populist and nationalist right.

[I have added some further thoughts and discussion to this post in the Comments below.]