To you, with regard (8)

And the voice said: “This is the hand, the hand that takes…”

Location: a busy street in a south Manchester suburb, on a sunny Saturday morning. We see PHIL coming out of a newsagent, a hessian shopping bag in one hand. A passer-by accosts him.
VOICE: Phil, could I have a word?
PHIL recognises the voice, turns towards it and answers without thinking.
PHIL: Sure, what’s it about? Oh, wait…
Seeing the bystander who had addressed him, PHIL freezes and shrinks back. His mouth moves uncertainly before he speaks again.
PHIL: You… I’m sorry, have we met? I know Jan had family, but…
The bystander returns PHIL’s baffled gaze with an expression combining patience, impatience and amusement.
BYSTANDER: Phil, it’s all right. You can say what you see. What was your immediate reaction when you heard my voice?
PHIL: I thought you were Jan.
BYSTANDER: And what was the one possibility you utterly refused to consider?
PHIL: That you were Jan.
JAN: Well, then. Which way are you headed?

PHIL and JAN walk up the road in silence. Eventually PHIL finds his voice again.
PHIL: So, you wanted a word?
JAN: Thought you were never going to ask. You’ve been thinking about regret.
It’s not a question.
PHIL: Well, since you… And thinking I’d never see you again… I mean, we had that disagreement… more of a misunderstanding really… and I never went to see you when you were in the… before…
JAN: Before I died, no – no, you didn’t. It’s all right, don’t worry.
PHIL: Don’t worry? That’s just it – if I was worrying I could do something about it. I’m a bit past worry.
JAN: You’re not, though – that’s the point. You’re not even on the same track as worry. I’m not explaining it very well – have a word with this gentleman.
They are approaching a bridge over a canal. A path branches off from the pavement to run down beside the canal. A FAIR-HAIRED MAN, wearing flared jeans and an embroidered waistcoat, has just pushed past them onto the path.
JAN: Not so fast! Peter, a word?
PETER BELLAMY stops, turns and grudgingly walks back to join them.

PHIL: You’re… you’re actually him. You’re actually Peter Bellamy. I don’t know what to say.
PB: Stop there, I should, you’ve already given me my next publicity campaign. “Peter Bellamy – He’s Actually Him.” How can I ever repay you. Don’t answer that, for God’s sake. My amazing talent of actually being Peter Bellamy doesn’t seem to pull the crowds somehow.
JAN: Come on, Peter, give it up – stop pretending that stuff still matters. Actually it’s regret that I was wanting to talk to you about – I was wondering if you could say a few words on the subject to my friend here.
PB: Oh, very well. [To PHIL] I guess you regret never having met me, or even seen me, when you could.
PHIL: Well, yes. I mean, I was thirty years old when you… I wasn’t into folk back then, but I’d been into Steeleye Span…
PB: You said it, not me. Go on.
PHIL: I had Pentangle albums, I’d gone to Lark Rise… But somehow I never even heard your name till much, much later. I’d heard one track by the Young Tradition, but I didn’t get it at the time – I just thought you sounded like a bunch of mad Yorkshire reactionaries who were determined to make themselves sound as antiquated as possible.
PB: Did we record with the Watersons? I don’t remember.
PHIL: I didn’t have a very good ear for accents. So when I found out what I’d missed – how much I’d missed – who I’d missed… It felt like claiming that I was into classical music when I’d been living round the corner from J.S. Bach and never known.
PB: You weren’t, though, were you? Living round the corner, I mean. Going to the same folk clubs, whatever.
PHIL: Well, no, our paths didn’t cross, that was…
PB: And you were talking in the pluperfect, which is a dead giveaway.
PHIL: Sorry?
PB: “How much I had missed” – pluperfect. You’re thinking in the pluperfect, and that’s why you’re wrong – and that’s why it’s all right. For a start you’ve got to distinguish between ‘losing’ and ‘having lost’. Losing is when you’re clinging on to the rockface and feeling it slip away from under your fingers; lost is when you’re falling, or when you’ve fallen, and it’s all over. Losing is sitting by the phone all day with the growing certainty that it isn’t going to ring; lost is remembering that day a year later. Or you can think of it in terms of songs. Take Reynardine or the Recruited Collier – some song that you sang a couple of times when you were just getting started and never thought about since.
PHIL: And will probably never sing again.
PB: And will probably never sing again – exactly. That’s lost. But you learned those songs, once – you learned the lines, forgot the lines, struggled to remember the lines, got them, lost them again, learned them again… That’s losing.
PHIL: I suppose so. But where are we going with this?
PB: I was planning on a bit of a walk by the canal, but since your friend roped me in… No, the point is: how do you feel about not knowing the second verse of Reynardine, or the penultimate verse of The Recruited Collier?
PHIL: I’d never really thought about it. Nothing, really – I don’t make any claim to know those songs.
PB: Although you did once?
PHIL: I did once, but they’re gone. They mean nothing to me.
PB: And those are songs you used to know. Suppose you heard that there were some interesting songs in a book you’ve never seen, and that the only copy’s been lost?
PHIL: That would be sad, but I wouldn’t regret it personally – that would be like taking responsibility for something that never happened or never could happen.
PB: And yet you think you regret not meeting someone you never could meet, not hearing music you never had any chance to hear. It may be sad – it might have been good if those things had happened – but there’s nothing there to regret. Your life is your life; what happened, happened. It’s all right. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to resume my walk, and if you won’t excuse me I’m afraid I’m going anyway. Val de ree, and so forth.

PHIL and JAN are standing side by side on the bridge over the canal, leaning over the parapet and looking out into nothing. For a few minutes nobody speaks. Eventually PHIL sighs.
PHIL: That’s reassuring up to a point, but surely there are things to regret in situations like…
JAN: Like mine?
PHIL: Yes! We shouldn’t have fallen out, I should have explained myself better, I should have made more of an effort… All those things I could have done, and now I can’t.
JAN: Now you can’t. Tell me, what would you think of a religious leader who said that everyone had a moral duty to avoid anger, pride, lust and the rest of them at all times? No exceptions – anyone who committed any of those sins, even inside their head, would be drummed out of the church. What would you think of that approach?
PHIL: I’d think that was cruel and exploitative, as it’s a standard that almost everyone is bound to fail.
JAN: Almost everyone, yes. And what would you think of the idea that everyone has a moral duty to go back in time, after they’ve sinned, and avoid committing the sinful act?
PHIL: I’d think that was ridiculous – you can’t have a moral duty to do something impossible.
JAN: No indeed. And you can’t have a duty towards someone who doesn’t exist. Maybe you did the wrong things back there, or not enough of the right things, and maybe you’ll want to do better if you’re in a similar situation in future. But you haven’t got anything to regret. You don’t owe me anything – how could you?
PHIL: So maybe I did owe you something…
JAN: And maybe I was well aware of that. Or maybe I thought you owed me something different from what you thought you owed me; maybe I would still have thought you owed me, even if you’d done everything you thought you ought to do. Whatever. The point is, that story’s over now. You can’t owe Jan something if there isn’t any Jan for you to owe anything to. Try and do better another time, but apart from that, go on, go in peace. It’s just you now.
PHIL: I suppose… when someone dies, we lose the person, but we also lose the whole entanglement of expectations and obligations and shared understandings and misunderstandings and grudges and guilt that grows up around a relationship over time. Laying all of that down, letting it all blow away, isn’t the same as having the other person actually tell you they don’t care about any of it, but it could feel like that. I suppose it’s the difference between a debt being settled and a debt being cancelled – which is to say, if you’re the one with the debt, there is no difference. Losing somebody is pain, but there’s also a release: a chance to wipe the slate, let all the nonsense go, see the person as they were and feel your affection for them as it was. A chance to hear those words –
PHIL straightens up, steps back from the parapet of the bridge, looks around. He is alone.
PHIL: “It’s all right. It’s really all right.”

To you, with regard (7)

Wherever I… was… I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn’t mean anything, nothing had form… but I was still me, you know? And I was warm and I was loved… and I was finished. Complete. I don’t understand about dimensions or theology or any of… but I think I was in heaven.
After Life (BtVS S6E3), script by Jane Espenson

Right, that’s enough background reading. Here’s the thought-experiment that sparked all this off, when I wandered into it late last year. Let’s assume that there is such a thing as Heaven, and let’s assume that conventional wisdom about Heaven has more or less got it right. By which I mean, not the clouds or the harps or the pearly gates or any of that apparatus, but the basic setup. What do we ‘know’ about Heaven? (I’m leaving Hell out of consideration for the time being, although I will come back to it. For now let’s just assume that everyone goes to the same place.) There are two key things, I think. One is that we go to Heaven as individuals – identifiable individuals, even; you are still you, your grandfather is still the person he was, and so on. The other is that Heaven is a place out of time; it’s eternal.

But what does ‘eternal’ mean?

Here there are many many sheep
And the people only sleep
Or awake to tell how gory and gruesome was their end
And I don’t have many friends
And it’s really very clean
And I’m thinking:

Juliet, you broke our little pact!
Juliet, I’m never coming back.

Up here in Heaven without you
I’m here in Heaven without you
Up here in Heaven without you
It is Hell knowing that your health
Will keep you out of here
For many many years
– Sparks, “Here in Heaven”

Well, it doesn’t mean that. Eternity can’t mean that time passes, for everyone but you, and you see it pass – watching while your children and grandchildren grow old, waiting for your double-crossing lover to get hit by a bus, etc. Why not? Because if you see it passing, it is passing for you (“oh look, now my widow’s got a new man – wonder if this one will last”); it’s just that its passage matters less to you, not least because you’ve got an infinite supply of it. And that would open up a whole range of possibilities which, I think, take Heaven in the ‘wrong’ – counter-intuitive – direction. For a start, if time can pass in Heaven, things can happen – and that means that Heaven can change, which probably isn’t something we want to allow. Take C.S. Lewis’s ‘worlds within worlds’ vision of Heaven in The Last Battle:

About half an hour later—or it might have been half a hundred years later, for time there is not like time here—Lucy stood with her dear friend, her oldest Narnian friend, the Faun Tumnus, looking down over the wall of that garden, and seeing all Narnia spread out below. … Then she turned inward again and stood with her back to the wall and looked at the garden.

“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see … world within world, Narnia within Narnia….”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

Further up and further in! But those woods – I can’t help thinking of Minecraft. Could you cut down the trees? Could you use the wood to make things? Could you cut down all the trees, pave Paradise and put up… well, presumably not. But what if you’d been a handyman in life and building an infinitely extensible log cabin was your idea of heavenly bliss? What if there were lots of people like you? Come to that, what if you had really happy memories of a car park and wanted to recreate that in heaven? Really, there’s no way of having large numbers of people coexisting, over indefinitely long time periods, without conflict developing and leading to at least relative unhappiness.

This is the case even if we aren’t talking about resource conflicts – in other words, even if we drop the rivers and woods and sea and mountains and assume there’s nothing there but people, perhaps sitting on clouds. Being reunited with lost friends and relatives has always seemed like one of the most appealing things about Heaven, closely followed by the chance to meet and get to know the heroes you never did know in this life. But if it all takes time, it could get awfully frustrating: what if Guy Debord or John Lennon wanted to talk to someone else (their own lost friends and relatives, maybe)? What if there were so many people wanting to talk to Picasso or Gandhi that you ended up getting stuck in a celestial signing queue? (“So amazing to finally meet you! Love your work!” “Yeah, great. Thanks. Who’s next?”) It starts to look as if Ron Mael had the right idea all along – eternity, if you think of it in terms of endless amounts of time, would get boring.

So eternity has to mean, not infinite time, but no time (Uchronia?) – and not a hack like “waking up to the same day over and over again” (which, as we know, would get a bit nightmarish after a while) but actually no time passing. When I imagine this kind of infinite stasis I picture the sound of a tuning fork: after the first impact it suddenly sounds as if that tone has always been there and will never fade away – 100% sustain, no attack or decay. Nothing happens, nothing changes. What’s interesting about this is that if there is no time, there can be no energy and hence no matter – whatever it is they do, sub-atomic particles take time to do it (or: they do it within a four-dimensional space-time reference frame). This in turn means no space; imagine space with no photons to traverse it and no matter to bend it out of shape, and what you’ve got isn’t just a void but a dimensionless void.

In Heaven, then, there is no space or time; there’s no light, no matter to be lit by it and no void to be dark. But there are (ex hypothesi) people – identifiable individuals; after spending however-many years looking out through a pair of eyes down here, your consciousness and character – whatever makes you you – is translated at death onto this timeless, spaceless plane. Now what? What logically follows from these (not particularly outlandish) premises about the afterlife?

You’re Already There. We know that there’s no time in Heaven. But that must mean, not just that when you arrive you’re there forever, but that when you arrive you will have been there forever. Which means that Heaven’s always already populated, not just with everyone who’s ever lived, but with everyone who ever will have lived. That family reunion will reunite you not just with your long-lost ancestors but with your descendants, even those born long after you died. For they too will, eventually, die – which means, from the perspective of eternity, their death has already been taken into account.

We Are What We Will Have Been (so we must be careful what we will have been). There are no concertinas in Heaven (yes, I know) – mainly because there’s no space, no matter and no time. But if I were to die tomorrow I would – theoretically – enter Heaven as the kind of person who plays concertina, and be that person for eternity; I’d also be the kind of person who had acquired that kind of musical knowledge at a fairly advanced age, and regretted not having done anything about it earlier. Whereas if I’d died ten years ago I would have (eternally) been the kind of person who vaguely wanted to learn another instrument and regretted not doing anything about it. In this way of thinking, the fulfilment that you’ve achieved by the time you die is yours for eternity – and so are the regrets you die with. If what you are – eternally – is in some way determined by the life you’ve lived, it’s pretty important to live a good life, whatever ‘good’ means in this context.

Try Not to Sin. The specific idea of sin, as distinct from ideas of wicked or wrongful action, is that a sin is something that goes on your record: your sins weigh you down. To paraphrase the previous point, if who you are for eternity is who you are when you die, you don’t want to die with too much on your conscience. So if it’s a good idea to get round to the things you keep meaning to get round to, it’s also a good idea not to do things you’ll regret – a category that includes things you think you shouldn’t be doing. This would also suggest a reason for thinking that suicide is a bad idea – it might get you there a bit sooner, but you’re better off staying here a bit longer and arriving in a better state, if that’s possible.

Getting to Know You. There isn’t a lot to do in Heaven, but why would there be? There’s no time and no space and no matter; as such, there are no material wants, no scarcity and no competition. There’s no advantage to be gained over anyone else, no risks and no opportunities, nothing to hope for and nothing to fear; there’s nothing to buy or sell, nothing to organize for or take part in. What there is is people: everyone who has ever lived or will ever have lived. Think of those long conversations with strangers, at the heel of a party or in the middle of a long journey, when there’s nothing to do but talk – about yourselves, what you’ve been doing, where you’re going, what you care about and hope for. Imagine having that kind of conversation with your Mum and Dad (finally); and with your long-lost ancestors, and with your descendants; and with your heroes; and with the people who slighted you and let you down in life, and with the people you slighted and let down. Not to mention total strangers – all those unique, irreplaceable individuals who happened never to come into contact with you. The moment of entering Heaven would feel like the longest and most exhaustive ‘meet and greet’ anyone could imagine. And the moment of entering Heaven would also be the eternity of being in Heaven.

Time (And/Or Something Else) Heals All Wounds. If you would meet and get to know multiple billions of people in a moment out of time (or an aeon), you would also be changed in the process: a single, irreversible and unavoidable process of change. Imagine what happens, in this model, when somebody dies feeling hatred for others, or any of a number of other emotions that wouldn’t have any function in Heaven. What are you going to feel towards the rest of humanity, when you’re sharing eternity with them (with no material wants, no advantage to be gained over anyone else, etc)? Nothing but curiosity, wonderment, fellow-feeling and love, surely; something a bit richer than Vonnegut’s two mutually-triggering signals of presence and recognition, but in that basic form. If someone dies after a life of feeling nothing but love and benign curiosity towards all their fellow humans, they’re basically going to fit right in. (Not that my thought experiment is telling you how to live your life, or anything.) But if someone dies after killing another person, or multiple other people – what would that reunion be like? Imagine Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting“:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

Like that, but not ending – as the poem ends, a couple of lines later – in a sleep that envelopes both the dreamer and the dead man in his dream. Like that, in fact, but not ending at all. Imagine going to your death a righteous, ideologically-justified killer, and then meeting your victims individually and getting to know them, to the point where you can experience the equal value of each one’s life with your own. Imagine the horror of that. Learning to relate to people you’d hated, feared and wronged, and relate to them as valued equals; feeling hatred, fear and righteous anger, then feeling the horror of what those emotions had led to and feeling them boil away; feeling the weight of what you’d done, perhaps for the first time; feeling the burden of guilt and feeling that in turn burn away in a kind of acid bath of pain, sorrow and forgiveness. Imagine that whole process condensed into an instant, so that your experience of entering Heaven would be an experience of hatred, confusion, horror, self-hatred, guilt and pain, culminating in love, acceptance and fellow-feeling. Then imagine that instant smeared out across the infinite expanse of eternity.

Now generalise from killers to everyone who’s ever done anyone any harm.

Heaven Is Other People, Hell Is Just You. Everyone, on this model, basically gets forgiven – what is there not to forgive anyone for, when everyone concerned is a massless, positionless entity on a timeless plane? – but the pathway to forgiveness runs through guilt and horror. Horror, that is, at yourself and the harm you did to others when you were alive: the more harm, the more horror. Have I just reinvented Hell? Hell, no (if you’ll pardon the expression) – but Purgatory, maybe. It’s a process of love and acceptance, fundamentally; it’s just that, for some people, getting to love and acceptance would in itself be an ordeal.

Lonely Planet. So Heaven would be this humanity-sized static hum of mutual recognition signals and general benevolence, coloured to a greater or lesser extent by the anguish caused by each person’s own deeds while alive. The good end happily and the bad – the bad also end happily, but with more difficulty. Moreover, given that the whole of the human race is represented on the eternal plane, what we have there in aggregate is total knowledge of the course of every human life, together with the capacity (or at least the certain knowledge that somebody has or had the capacity) to change or have changed any detail at any time. Benevolence towards humanity combined with omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence (exercised through human agency): out there in Uchronia, the timeless human race as a whole loves you, wishes you well, knows exactly what you’re going to do and can transform your life at any moment, although it doesn’t generally intervene directly in this world. What does that remind you of?

This model of Heaven – which is to say, a couple of ‘common knowledge’ precepts about Heaven taken to their logical conclusion – seems not only to work without God but to culminate in something with properties that are very much those of God (if we set aside the whole world-creating part – and even that works metaphorically). We can even imagine, pushing the conceptual boat out a bit further, that subjective experience of (awareness of? contact with?) the benevolent eternal background hum of humanity could be mistaken for awareness of, or contact with, God.

To sum up, then: if you take it that individual identity survives death, and that it does so on an eternal plane, it follows that it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people. It also follows that there is no need to suppose there is a God.

(And the truth is as great as belief is.)

NEXT: So I said, “OK. Who is this really?”

To you, with regard (6)

Humanity is what we are: we’ve all benefited from other people being humane, we’ve all been humane to others, nothing comes more naturally.

Humanity is an accomplishment: even though everyone can treat others humanely and everyone deserves to be treated humanely, most people, most of the time, don’t and aren’t.

Humanity is utopian: a society where everyone was humane to everyone else all the time would have to be a subsistence-farming commune or something (and we suspect that it would get dull after a while).

The frustrating sense that all three of these statements are true – that society would be so much better if it were built on the care that we naturally, unthinkingly feel for family and close friends, but that this would be a titanic undertaking and we’re unlikely ever to see it – runs through a lot of Kurt Vonnegut’s work. There’s a character – I can’t remember which character or even which book – who decides to go and live in Indianapolis; he knows nothing about the city, but he’s read that Indiana was the first state to give Native Americans the vote and he thinks that whoever lives in a place like that must be pretty decent people. He arrives in Indianapolis in mid-winter; not knowing anyone and with nowhere to go, he spends the night on a bench at the bus station and freezes to death.

A similar story in a non-political vein, from Slapstick:

I have had some experiences with love, or think I have, anyway, although the ones I have liked best could easily be described as “common decency”. I treated somebody well for a little while, or even for a tremendously long time, and that person treated me well in return. Love need not have anything to do with it. …

Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous. I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please – a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

And, from God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, here’s the blessing that Eliot Rosewater imagines himself pronouncing over newborn twins in lieu of a conventional baptism:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

The quiet frustration in that ‘God damn it’ always chokes me up – as if to say, it’s not hard; it really shouldn’t be hard.

Someone else who grappled with the challenge of kindness was the psychotherapist Carl Rogers. Here’s a statement of his therapeutic credo, from a 1957 paper.

For constructive personality change to occur, it is necessary that these conditions exist and continue over a period of time:

  1. Two persons are in psychological contact.
  2. The first, whom we shall term the client, is in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious.
  3. The second person, whom we shall term the therapist, is congruent or integrated in the relationship.
  4. The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client.
  5. The therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference and endeavors to communicate this experience to the client.
  6. The communication to the client of the therapist’s empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard is to a minimal degree achieved.

No other conditions are necessary. If these six conditions exist, and continue over a period of time, this is sufficient. The process of construc- tive personality change will follow.

There’s a certain amount of throat-clearing and scene-setting there, as you can see. For our purposes the key conditions are the ones listed above as 3, 4 and 5 – what the therapist needs to do, or more precisely how the therapist needs to be. (Rogers and his followers later generalised this model to other settings, notably education (where what was at issue is not so much ‘constructive personality change’ as personal growth).)

The three key attributes, then, are congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathic understanding. Congruence can also be thought of as genuineness: the point is not that you feel perfectly integrated into the situation you’re in, but that you’re not managing the situation by faking or putting on a performance; you’re integrated in the sense that there’s no break between the ‘you’ who’s in the situation and the ‘you’ who you feel you are. So you don’t censor your reactions or tailor what you say to the role you’re playing; if you’re bored or frustrated, you ‘bring it in’. Empathic understanding means that you try to appreciate the way that the client’s feeling and get a sense of how they’re responding to the place that they’re in. Unconditional positive regard, lastly, is just that: the words, at least, need very little translation. The concept can be hard to get across, though: the idea of helping your patient feel good about herself, whatever she brings to you, can seem a bit counter-intuitive (let alone applying the idea to students). But the idea isn’t to approve of everything your client does, so much as to convey love and support for what she is – a good person, deep down, or at any rate someone with the capacity to be a good person. Unconditional positive regard is another way to talk about having faith in someone. Rogerian therapy is about sending an unhappy person the message that it’s possible to express one’s feelings spontaneously and honestly without worrying about it (congruence), that their feelings are worth feeling and expressing (empathic understanding), and that the world is a better place for having them in it (unconditional positive regard).

Back to Vonnegut; The Sirens of Titan this time.

It is the tension between the hot hemisphere of day-without-end and the cold hemisphere of night-without-end that makes Mercury sing. Mercury has no atmosphere, so the song it sings is for the sense of touch. …

There are creatures in the deep caves of Mercury. The song their planet sings is important to them, for the creatures are nourished by vibrations. They feed on mechanical energy. The creatures cling to the singing walls of their caves. In that way, they eat the song of Mercury. …

There is no need for a circulatory system in the creatures. They are so thin that life-giving vibrations can make all their cells tingle without intermediaries.  The creatures do not excrete. The creatures reproduce by flaking. The young, when shed by a parent, are indistinguishable from dandruff. There is only one sex. Every creature simply sheds flakes of his own kind, and his own kind is like everybody else’s kind. There is no childhood as such. Flakes begin flaking three Earthling hours after they themselves have been shed. They do not reach maturity, then deteriorate and die. They reach maturity and stay in full bloom, so to speak, for as long as Mercury cares to sing. There is no way in which one creature can harm another, and no motive for one’s harming another. Hunger, envy, ambition, fear, indignation, religion, and sexual lust are irrelevant and unknown.

The creatures have only one sense: touch. They have weak powers of telepathy. The messages they are capable of transmitting and receiving are almost as monotonous as the song of Mercury. They have only two possible messages. The first is an automatic response to the second, and the second is an automatic response to the first.

The first is, ”Here I am, here I am, here I am.”

The second is, ”So glad you are, so glad you are, so glad you are.”

“The first is an automatic response to the second, and the second is an automatic response to the first.” It’s not hard.

NEXT: so, where’s all this going?


To you, with regard (5)

All I ever been is me
All I know is I
And I will turn to nothing
In the second that I die

– Robyn Hitchcock, telling it like it (spoiler) probably is.

What interests me about that formulation is that the scepticism about the afterlife goes along with a strong sense of self – an awareness that whatever any one of us has experienced, wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done, ‘I’ have always been there. Whoever you are, there’s a unique consciousness looking out at the world through your eyes; it’s you, it always has been and it always will be – until you aren’t any more.

So on one level Robyn Hitchcock has a surprising amount in common with Emily Brontë: they both express a fascinated, wondering awareness of what it is to be here, what it is to be an ‘I’. On another level, of course, their disagreement is pretty fundamental. Emily Brontë envisages, not only her own removal from the scene, but the disappearance of the world, the sun, the universe; and she looks on it all with equanimity:

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

For what thou art is also right here:

Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

She pictures God as ‘resting’ by stepping his energy down to the level of creatures such as her – very much as matter effectively slows down spacetime from its default setting of c – while at the same time linking them back up to the source of all energy. Consciousness of self, for Emily Brontë, is consciousness of something immeasurably – infinitely – greater than her physical existence. Death is nothing to fear, because strictly speaking there is no death to fear: all there is is return to the source, reuniting the spark of creative power that looked out through her eyes with the vastness of the power that had created the world she saw.

When I was doing English Language O Level one of the exercises we had to do was ‘précis’. Tell me what this 500-word piece is saying, in 100 words; when you’ve done that, do it again in 50 words. Generally the source texts were on the flowery side; you’d get very good at skipping to the end of sentences, then working back through the sub-clauses and checking if any of them were needed. George Eliot’s poem reminded me of that. It’s 43 lines long, and a précis would look something like this:

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live

In good deeds, deep thoughts and generous impulses.

That’s heaven: to continue to have an effect in the world
Helping to make people’s lives better and better,
Ultimately bringing about the ideal state of affairs
Which we failed to achieve in our lives.
After the body dies, our better self
(Generous, contemplative, religious)
Will live on.

May I reach that purest heaven
Inspiring others to good and generous thoughts
(Lots of others, including people I don’t know).
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

Apologies to any George Eliot fans or poetry-lovers, but I think that’s the gist of it. Here’s the question (and you can check back with the original): what kind of survival is George Eliot talking about here? “So to live is heaven”, “This is life to come”, “that purest heaven”; is the ‘choir invisible’ Heaven? Or is it some more diffuse blending into the enspirited natural world, such as might appeal to a panpsychist like Emily Brontë or the young Wordsworth?

I think the answer is ‘neither of the above’. This poem is often linked to the closing lines of Middlemarch:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Alexander broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

And, I think, rightly so. George Eliot’s imagination was social, as full of people as Emily Brontë’s was full of landscape. She envisages herself as living on, in a pure and near-eternal state, among other people, for as long as other people exist – or rather, through other people. Read the poem through carefully and you’ll see that there’s no reference to continuing subjective survival, no sense that Mary Anne Evans’s consciousness will continue after the heart in Mary Anne Evans’s body has stopped beating. The continuing existence George Eliot hopes for – the glorious, near-eternal, purest-Heavenly continuing existence – is the continuing existence of her influence on other people, as experienced by those people in their own lives. She hopes to have been a good enough person for her memory to inspire other people to be good, and to have been a wise enough person for her insights to help other people to be wise. And – this is the crucial, very George-Eliot-ian point – she recognises and gives thanks for all the other people who have already gone before: all the other people whose good deeds have inspired her to be good, whose insights have helped her to have insights of her own. She presents the history of humanity as a continuing story of collective improvement, continually renewed, and continually spurred on by the example of those who have gone before. It’s a big picture; something well worth aspiring to be part of. But it offers no glimmer of hope for the person who was looking out through Mary Anne Evans’s eyes. Yes, we will go on, as a species – not forever, but for a good while yet. But the same can’t be said for you as an individual: when you’re gone, you’re gone. It’s also worth noting briefly that, as well as there being no sense of personal survival, there’s no reference to God here – you aren’t there, and neither is anyone else (just us).


Robyn Hitchcock Emily Brontë George Eliot
Where do we start from? Me (“All I know is I”) Me and God (“Life, that in me hast rest”) Us; society, humanity
What happens after death? Nothing; we cease to exist There is no death, only reunion with God Nothing, but people remember us
Is God there? No Yes, and He’s right here too! No
Is there any point?
No, there’s just this life Yes, but it’s a mystery Yes, people will remember us

Three views of personal immortality or only two? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

It’s worth mentioning, incidentally, that Robyn Hitchcock has written about death and the afterlife several times, usually not in quite such clear-cut terms; perhaps “Where do you go when you die?” was a response to over-enthusiastic readings of some of his earlier work on the subject. Well, call me over-enthusiastic, but I have to say I prefer this (musically as well as in other ways).

When I was dead I wasn’t interested in sex
I didn’t even care what happened next
I was free as a penny whistle
And silent as a glove
I wasn’t me to speak of
Just a thousand ancient feelings
That vanished into nothing
Into love

NEXT: science fiction, with space travel and everything!

Not saying, just saying

I’ll get back to the poetry shortly. I just wanted to put down a memory that was stirred by the Anne Marie Morris furore. The evidence that the phrase is common currency in some circles – despite having been so thoroughly lost to the language more generally as to cause both offence and bafflement when Morris used it – is compelling and, frankly, odd. If people (some people) were using a word that’s now streng verboten in normal usage, but using it for the sake of a familiar and resonant idiom, that would be one thing. Using it for the sake of an idiom from the Old (American) South, and one that’s so unfamiliar that most people commenting aren’t entirely sure what it means or whether Moss was even using it correctly – well, it’s odd, and that’s the polite word for it.

A few people have taken to Twitter with memories of hearing an aged relative use the phrase forty years ago, to be met with pursed lips or worse from the speaker’s younger and more enlightened relations. I had a faint memory myself of hearing my mother use the phrase – or rather, quote someone else using it – in a context that made it quite clear that the point of using it was to say that word. But I couldn’t remember the details until just now, when the whole thing bubbled gloopily up to the surface. So here you go.

When my younger sister went to secondary school, my mother got a part-time job, working for the civil service. We lived near Croydon, so what that meant was working for the Home Office in Lunar House, where the immigration applications were processed. I was in Sixth Form at the time and was frequently at home when my mother came home in the early afternoon; I remember we used to have a cup of tea and share a Caramel bar. They had a huge backlog of applications at the time, and it seemed to be growing faster than they could bring it down. Still, they had a pretty good time of it, up there in Lunar House. One Christmas my mother let me come along to see the ‘cabaret’ they’d laid on for the staff party. One man dragged up as Tammy Wynette and led the room in a rousing chorus of “S B Y M” (sic; I never knew why he resorted to initials). Another dropped his trousers at one point to reveal Union Jack underpants. My mother said afterwards that he was the office racist – and an open member of the National Front – and the general thinking was that he probably wore them most days.

But if he was known as the office racist, that does suggest that he was the only one… well, maybe. I certainly remember my mother saying that the level of racism among the Immigration Officers who worked at ports and airports was much, much worse; predictably, Underpants Man was hoping to get transferred (promoted?) out of that office to an IO role. She herself genuinely couldn’t be doing with racism; it’d be silly to imagine that a middle-class White British woman of her generation “didn’t have a racist bone in her body”, as people like to say, but she’d certainly decided some time ago that racism was something she didn’t intend to indulge, in herself or others. This was when the NF were at their height, and when people were organising against them – RAR, the ANL; my mother was a member of Christians Against Racism And Fascism, who struck me as the nicest group of well-meaning Guardian-readers you could hope to meet. Their mailings always seemed to arrive torn and crumpled, all the same. Can’t be too careful, eh?

The other thing about my mother was that she tended to attract people who wanted someone to talk to. There was a rather posh young Black man in the office who confided in her quite regularly, although she was never quite sure how much he was confiding, or how much he knew he was confiding. He would often go for walks at night, just around and about, and sometimes he would meet another man and they’d have a nice chat; it was all very pleasant. One night he met a charming little man who bought him a drink and then gave him a watch. (He showed my mother the watch; it looked good.) We were convinced he was going to get beaten up or worse one of these nights, but happily he never did.

Then there was a very respectable but rather loud Black woman, who also latched on to my mother (perhaps the level of racism in the office was a bit higher than I thought) but who my mother didn’t take to. And this, in case you’ve been wondering, is where we get back to the point – for it was she who used the ‘woodpile’ phrase. As my mother told it, she dropped it – or dragged it – into conversation, quite deliberately and emphatically – “…that’s the N in the W!” (No mystery why I resorted to initials there.) It may even have been applied to herself, talking about some situation where she would stand out or where her presence would be a giveaway – “…and I’d be the N in the W!” Either way, she drove home the exclamation mark by giving her audience a hard stare – as if to say, “anyone offended? are you offended? I don’t know why, because I’m not offended!

It was alright in the 1970s, as they say. I remember this story because of my mother’s reaction when she retold it: disgust, for the most part, but tempered by a kind of grudging respect for the cost and complexity of the manoeuvre this woman had carried out. Not only was she pitching for acceptance by endorsing a prejudice that could – would – be turned against her; she was doing so by endorsing a collective denial that it existed or mattered, in the certain knowledge that the denial was a lie. That’s cold, and it’s low, and it’s desperate and sad – but you could also say it’s smart, and you could certainly say it’s self-denying. (Costly signalling, in short.)

Anyway: that was 1977 or 1978 – around 40 years ago, either way. And back then, in comfortable Tory-voting Croydon, the phrase “N in the W” had a distinct and easily-recognised function: it was what you said when you wanted to signal that you were a member of the group that agreed to deny that racism existed. That signal in turn served a definite purpose: it guaranteed that your racism wouldn’t be challenged and – more importantly – it let the rest of the group know that you wouldn’t challenge their racism.

So when Tories react to being caught using this phrase by denying outright that it’s in any way racist, or else by insisting that they didn’t mean to offend anyone, we shouldn’t really be surprised. That’s the point of using the phrase in the first place – to deny that racism is racism (look, it’s just a word!), or else to deny that it’s offensive (look, nobody’s upset!). Once one or both of those flags have been run up, we can relax; we know we’re among friends and we can speak freely. If you know what I mean.

To you, with regard (4)

Three views on personal survival after death. (I was holding this post back until I had time to write some commentary, but if I do it this way you can decide what you think about them before I tell you what I think.) They date respectively from 1845, 1867 and 1998.

So: have a read of this.

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

Got that?

Now, take a breath and have a go at this:

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
To vaster issues.

So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing as beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, failed, and agonised
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child
Poor anxious penitence, is quick dissolved;
Its discords, quenched by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air.
And all our rarer, better, truer self,
That sobbed religiously in yearning song,
That watched to ease the burthen of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better – saw within
A worthier image for the sanctuary,
And shaped it forth before the multitude
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reference more mixed with love –
That better self shall live till human Time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gathered like a scroll within the tomb
Unread for ever.

This is life to come,
Which martyred men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardour, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty—
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense.
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

And you know what to do with this:

Homework question: was that in fact three different views of personal survival, or only two? If two of them agree, which two?

To you, with regard (3)

Not the Victorian poetry – I’ll get to that soon – but a footnote to part 1. In that post I wrote briefly about the Beatitudes, ‘blessed are they that mourn’ in particular :

where the meek inherit the earth and the merciful are shown mercy, what mourners are to be endowed with is ‘comfort’; specifically, the Greek says that they will be visited or called upon

Karl Dallas on Peter Bellamy:

We met for the last time on November 5, 1990. It is surprising to me, in retrospect, that though we had been close for a quarter-century … I’d never done what I could call a “proper” interview with the man I’d always regarded as the primus inter pares of the post-MacColl revival.

We settled down on a Monday afternoon for a trawl through all those 25 years, talking about influences, pursuing that endless and ultimately fruitless search for a definition of folksong. Playing back the tapes today, the man lives again in my head as I transcribe the over two hours of conversation, the chuckles and belly laughs, the way he could bat a question back at me like a Wimbledon champion going for game-set-and-match, the muscular integrity of the man.

He was bitter over some things, and I felt his bitterness was wrongheaded, telling him so. That difference spilled over into the interview as published in Folk Roots, and after it appeared he sent me an annotated copy of it, indicating where he felt I had got it wrong. I was hurt by his criticism (we critics aren’t used to subjects who bite back) and for the first time I felt estranged from him. We never met again, and when he died I wondered (as I am sure must many of us) what part I might have played in his decision to take his own life. Of course, each of us has the right to end our story as we wish; to deny that right is to deny our very humanity, I do feel. But the guilt remains.

Looking back, as I re-play the tapes, I have to admit that the article I wrote was a great missed opportunity. By concentrating upon his strictures upon the folk scene (and some of its leading protagonists), I missed the greatness of the man, his enormous humanity, his wonderful contribution to the joy that this process we miscall a revival has given us all. At the funeral, I was still in shock, burdened by guilt. As I knelt in the chapel, I felt Peter’s very presence. He seemed surrounded by light. And I distinctly heard his words, in that unmistakable blend of Norfolk vowels and English grammar-school education. “It’s all right,” he seemed to be saying. “It’s really all right.”

I felt something similar – although much less intense – after my friend Les died recently. Although he was a huge influence on me musically, we were never at all close, partly because we didn’t agree on the types of music we really valued. I wasted a lot of energy alternately resenting not being in with Les’s musical ‘in crowd’ and reproaching myself for not making more of an effort to join in. Ideally I should have talked about it with Les, but he was never particularly voluble – and how do you talk to someone about the fact that you’ve never been close? Anyway, I was fortunate to be among the musicians at the get-together after Les’s funeral, where there was a small display of pictures of Les through the years, many from long before I’d known him. As I looked at the pictures, all that resentment and self-reproach came churning back up like indigestion. But then I felt… not Les’s presence or anything like that, but I did feel precisely those words: It’s all right. It’s really all right.

I remember, too, the evening of the day I heard my friend Madeleine had died; I had a whisky and a hot bath, and suddenly nothing was wrong, everything was perfectly, blissfully all right. It wasn’t just exhaustion (or alcohol); I remember reflecting on how strange this feeling was, even wondering vaguely if it was a stage of grieving that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had missed. I went to bed and slept like a contented child. (Then in the morning it all began again, of course.)

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

I’m not insisting on the reality of these experiences. To put it another way, I absolutely am insisting on the reality of these experiences – they did really happen – but I’m not insisting there was anybody there but me. I do think there’s something interesting here, though.

To you, with regard (2)

THE STORY SO FAR. At the back end of last year (shortly before reading The Thing Itself) I had a weird idea – and though the dream was very small, it would not leave me…

A riddle:

I’m the darkness in the light
I’m the leftness in the right
I’m the rightness in the wrong
I’m the shortness in the long
I’m the goodness in the bad
I’m the saneness in the mad
I’m the sadness in the joy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the ghost in the machine
I’m the genius in the gene
I’m the beauty in the beast
I’m the sunset in the east
I’m the ruby in the dust
I’m the trust in the mistrust
I’m the Trojan horse in Troy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the tiger’s empty cage
I’m the mystery’s final page
I’m the stranger’s lonely glance
I’m the hero’s only chance
I’m the undiscovered land
I’m the single grain of sand
I’m the Christmas morning toy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the world you’ll never see
I’m the slave you’ll never free
I’m the truth you’ll never know
I’m the place you’ll never go
I’m the sound you’ll never hear
I’m the course you’ll never steer
I’m the will you’ll not destroy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the half truth in the lie
I’m the Why not? in the Why?
I’m the last roll in the die
I’m the old school in the tie
I’m the Spirit in the Sky
I’m the Catcher in the Rye
I’m the twinkle in her eye
I’m Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly”
Well, who am I?

Apparently Neil Hannon’s Mum got the answer straight away; I suspect his Dad did too.

NEXT: late Romantic poetry, Rogerian psychotherapy and The Sirens of Titan. Not necessarily in that order.

To you, with regard (1)

Bear with me; the next few posts are going to be a bit weird. For the avoidance of doubt, let me say up front that my position on personal survival after death is pretty much that set out in the Magnetic Fields song “No”:

Is there a man in heaven looking out for you?
Is there a place dead loved ones go?
Is there a source of wisdom that will see you through?
Will there be peace in our time?

But a thought experiment got hold of me a few months ago, and I’d like to explore it here. I’ll start with a couple more quotations.

It is useless for me to describe to you how terrible Violet, Klaus and even Sunny felt in the time that followed. If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.
– Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
μακάριοι οἱ πενθοῦντες ὅτι αὐτοὶ παρακληθήσονται
– Matthew 5:4 (King James version and original)

‘Blessed’. It’s not saying that those who mourn will be all right in the end, it’s singling them out – along with the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart and poor in spirit – for bounty and privilege in the world that is to come. But where the meek inherit the earth and the merciful are shown mercy, what mourners are to be endowed with is ‘comfort’; specifically, the Greek says that they will be visited or called upon. (It’s the same verb stem as ‘paraclete’, a word widely used to refer to the Holy Spirit and literally meaning ‘the one that is summoned’.)

‘Blessed’, though. What’s that about?

NEXT: still no idea, but here’s some music.

In another country

It’s now just over a year on from the assassination of Jo Cox. Since the election, the national mood seems utterly changed. For the first time since the murder, I’m beginning to lose the sense that it was a wake-up call to the worst and most carefully hidden corners of the English collective unconscious (look! somebody’s stood up to those people! somebody’s hit back!). At least, perhaps it wasn’t only that.

But the Pontyclun Van Hire attack reminds us that we’re not out of the woods yet. So, in a different way, do the horrors of Grenfell Tower – the superhuman efforts of unpaid volunteers, and of an underfunded, overstretched fire service; the local council endeavouring to limit its liabilities to the inconvenient proles, if necessary by shipping them out of town;  the borderline-illegal pennypinching decisions that made the fire possible, apparently made by an Arm’s Length Management Organisation [sic], operating without adequate regulatory oversight. Something I wrote just after Jo Cox’s assassination – and just before the EU Referendum – seems relevant again:

Think levers: if I hate the boss who ignored the union and cut my pay, or the people who got their guy elected to the committee, or the people who got their policy passed, or the party that got their candidate elected, the emotion I’m feeling is expressed within a framework of action and accountability. I hate people who have used political mechanisms to change things to my disadvantage, and I can do something about that: I can use those same mechanisms myself. Take those mechanisms away, though, and where have you got to put your hatred? Talk about hating the boss in a non-union shop and you get funny looks – people know there’s nowhere for that antagonism to go (or nowhere that doesn’t end badly for them) and they learn not to express or even feel it.

In a world with no available, usable, everyday politics, it’s hard – or pointless, which amounts to the same thing – to hate people who have direct power over you. What happens instead is that hatred gets channelled onto safe targets, which means targets that aren’t going to hit back: either because they’re unreachably distant (those faceless Brussels eurocrats!) or because they’re powerless. And that’s what migrants are – like asylum seekers, benefit claimants, convicted criminals, terror suspects, Travellers: they’re people you can kick down against when you’re angry, without any concern that they might kick back at you. You’re angry, you feel hatred, you kick down. Politics turns into a different kind of lever-pulling – the lever pressed by the laboratory rat that delivers a food pellet or a jolt of electric pleasure.

I can’t tell you how distraught and angry I was after Jo Cox was assassinated. … I thought, this is where we are now. This is the world we’re living in. And I thought, no quarter. No compromise. No useless leniency. It took me [three days] to calm down. Even now, I think there’s a lot of sense in what Ken wrote five years ago, after a greater – but horribly similar – crime:

“Two things have to come out of this: first, the mainstream left and labour movements have to take seriously security and self-defence; second, the mainstream right must be made to pay a heavy political price for this atrocity. As Gramsci wrote 90 years ago, in a world now lost: War is War.”

So: no quarter for those who deal with racists, white supremacists, imperial revanchists; for those who promote racist myths and xenophobic lies; for those who call their opponents traitors or liken them to Nazis. That doesn’t mean violence, I hasten to add, but it means no acceptance, no tolerance, no compromise; no laughing at their jokes, no appealing to their better nature, no sympathetic tutting at how far they’ve fallen. These people are our enemies, and this is a serious business – if we treat it as a game, we’ll be playing to their rules.

But this isn’t – despite some appearances to the contrary – a struggle against racists and Fascists. It’s more complex than that and more interesting. Racism is both a handicap – a map with the wrong borders marked in – and a morbid symptom of powerlessness; needless to say, it’s a symptom whose development doesn’t threaten those in power, and may even be encouraged by them. (New Labour did push back against overt racism, admittedly – but when do you think the very real concerns shtick got started?) As for Fascists, they’re simply the shock troops of the Right; their appearance on the scene tells us only that the legitimate Right is weaker than we thought, the Left is stronger than we thought, or both.

The struggle the working class are caught up in is the same one that constituted us as a class-in-itself to begin with, and it’s one in which the enemy has not ceased to be victorious (to quote Benjamin). If the class is ever to act as a class-for-itself, it will need to be clear as to what its interests are, and who does and doesn’t oppose them. In the last analysis, racism and xenophobia – and other degenerate, lever-pressing forms of politics – are a distraction from the identification of the working class’s real concerns. (Which is also why our response to those who foment racism and lies should be so obdurate; think of them as ideological plague-spreaders.)

“As for Fascists … their appearance on the scene tells us only that the legitimate Right is weaker than we thought, the Left is stronger than we thought, or both.” I wrote that line without much reflection – it just felt right. Conceptually, that is; it didn’t immediately feel like an accurate description of the world, either then or when the referendum result came in. Now, though, I wonder – not whether the Right is weak, but how deep (and wide) the weakness of the Right runs.

To Do (For Everyone)

  1. Rise like lions after slumber in unvanquishable number
  2. Get involved
  3. Learn some committee procedure

There’s going to be a lot to do.

Too few to mention

There’s been a flurry of articles in the last few days from commentators and political journalists who had dismissed Corbyn, asking themselves – with, I think it’s fair to say, varying degrees of rigour and sincerity – how and why they got it so wrong. Some conclude that they weren’t very wrong (Labour lost, didn’t they?) – or that if they were wrong, so was everyone else, so it doesn’t count (nobody expected that kind of vote!). Others – like the ‘Corbynsceptic’ MPs cited by Helen Lewis – “accept that they were wrong about Corbyn’s popular appeal“, but add a disclaimer: “Their concerns about his management style, ideology and past positions have not gone away.” They were actually right about Corbyn, in other words – they just didn’t realise that the voting public would get him wrong.

Others again plead a kind of Benefit of Columnists: you wanted an informed opinion, I gave you my informed opinion – and now you want to shut me down! Who would do such a thing but a Stalinist, a would-be censor, someone who wants to put good journalists out of a job… It’s a bit reminiscent of Lewis’s construction of Corbyn’s opponents’ response to post-election criticism, as MPs and grassroots activists who have put their lives on hold for seven weeks to campaign for Labour and who now don’t appreciate being treated like scabs. Never mind that the people doing the criticising have very often been campaigning themselves, or that nobody – by and large – is being called a scab. Criticism from the Left can’t be accepted as such, and it certainly can’t be heard; it has to be framed as an unpardonable breach of solidarity and rejected out of hand. The excess of these reactions seems to be part of the point – they seem designed to provoke outraged defensive pedantry (see above), thus diverting everyone’s attention from the original criticism and its object.

If we want to understand what’s gone on, though, clearly none of this gets us very far. I was a bit more impressed with this brief piece from Marie le Conte. Quote:

In hindsight, what has annoyed me the most over these past few months has been the lack of curiosity in political journalism. I have read many reports on the changing minds of the unlikely UKIP, Le Pen and Trump voters … What I wish I could have read more of is reporting on unlikely Corbyn voters; what makes them tick, what made them change, why they think that his political positions, which had mostly all but disappeared from the mainstream discourse, were the best the country has to offer.

It’s a good point, but in a way the question answers itself. Any one of us can assemble a mental image of the white working-class voter motivated by social conservatism and unavowed racism. It’s a social type we’ve become familiar with through all those endless UKIP/Le Pen road trips and exposés, but – more importantly – it’s a type that we already knew about; it goes back to Love Thy Neighbour and Till Death, and to the dockers marching for Enoch. But here’s the thing: we can just as easily assemble a mental image of the working-class voter demanding better pay and conditions, the young idealist getting fired up by radical ideas, the middle-class liberal getting involved in campaigning and moving leftwards… The question of why Corbyn would be attractive, to a certain kind of person, really isn’t all that difficult – any more than the question of why UKIP would be attractive (to a certain kind of person). And it’s not as if we didn’t have any idea about what might be a Corbyn-supporting kind of person. All those social types were right there in the collective consciousness; if John Harris wasn’t going to go out and find them, at least Owen Jones could have had a go. But nobody did; everyone assumed that those people weren’t out there any more, just like they assumed that the working people of Britain had had their heads turned by Farage and Brexit.

A lot of these writers who seemingly had the urge to get under the skin of people unexpectedly going right suddenly went silent when it came to people unexpectedly going left, presumably at least partly because Corbyn was simply written off as a future failure after each of his victories.

Some features did get written about the Corbynistas, but much of the response from mainstream media and political figures alike went from condescending shrugs to full-blown smirks.

Yes – and ‘shrug’ vs ‘smirk’ is a classic example of a distinction without a difference. But rewind a bit – Corbyn was written off as a future failure after each of his victories. This looks to have been written fairly quickly and without much reflection, which has allowed some interesting material to surface (if you’ll pardon my psych-speak). To put it another way, logically this makes no sense. How do you go from “he hasn’t got a hope, ha ha” to “OK, he won, but he hasn’t got a hope next time, ha ha”? What’s the mindset? Doesn’t the lizard-brain self-preservation instinct kick in at least? (Warning! Incoming data inconsistent with expectations!) What’s so important as to override those signals?

my political roots lie in student activism, and I knew in that summer of 2015 that in order to become the political reporter I wanted to be, and do my job as accurately as possible, I needed to get rid of my biases, and unfair assumptions on some corners of the political spectrum.

What my personal opinions were then and what they are now doesn’t matter; what does is that I firmly believe that my work, which I take very seriously, hasn’t been influenced by whatever it is that I happen to think or say in private.

This probably isn’t relevant to this post, but I do find this odd. I’m a Marxist; I’ve been a Marxist since I was 19, give or take. So I’m currently a Marxist university lecturer; before that, I was a Marxist journalist (employed for three years, freelancing for six); and before that I spent several years as a Marxist computer programmer and data analyst. I could also say I was a Freudian journalist and a Darwinian programmer, in the sense that I’ve always thought that some of their fundamental insights are valuable and reliable as a way of looking at the world – which is pretty much what I think about Marx. As a journalist I wrote about Druids, Bomber Command, decimalisation, the Queen’s nanny and a fair variety of other topics. At no point was my copy spiked or returned to me for being too ‘political’ – or too psychoanalytical or too evolutionist, for that matter. You can have bedrock beliefs without trying to bring them into every conversation, surely. (Anyway, doesn’t everyone have bedrock beliefs?)

In hindsight, I do however think that I may have been overzealous in compensating for what I saw as my political weaknesses, which pushed me to joined the sneering chorus chanting that Corbyn was about as likely to be successful as I am to become an astronaut then marry Rihanna.

It is, after all, hard to go against the grain when you’re the new kid at school and all the loudest voices are shouting the same thing, though this doesn’t excuse my own lack of political imagination.

Again, I find it hard to identify with this. Perhaps it goes back to being bullied at school, but I’ve always felt I know exactly what I think about important subjects, and never felt any need to conform to the views of the people around me. Or rather, I’ve never had any doubt that there was a way I thought about any given issue, and that I’d be willing to back it as at least provisionally correct, whatever anybody else thought. I am the gin in the gin-soaked boy, and I’m very happy about it. (So are you, of course.)

I regret patronisingly mocking my friends saying that if only Jezza was given a chance he could do wonders, and I regret not spending more time talking to the very people Corbyn appealed to, to understand a phenomenon I found slightly baffling.

This is another odd, unexpectedly revealing passage. We already know that Marie (like so many others) didn’t make the effort to imagine how Corbyn supporters might think and then go out on the road to find them, John Harris style. And fair enough – who can afford that amount of time out of the office? But it turns out that she didn’t make the effort to imagine how Corbyn supporters might think even when they were her friends. It’s one thing to say that an abstract mass of ‘voters’ are deluded or stupid or don’t exist; to maintain that level of denial with people you know is something else. Whatever’s driving this antipathy to Corbyn, it’s clearly strong stuff.

What I will add, though, is that this was not quite a victory for the left. Thursday’s results seemed unbelievable partly because the bar had been set so low by sceptic MPs and commentators.

Labour did not win the election, and any opposition party should have hoped to do at least this well in defeat while running against a campaign as clunky and dreary as May’s.

…and we’ve lost her. Shame – it was going well for a while there.

First point: sceptical MPs and commentators did not “set the bar low”. I’ll come back to this – it’s important in itself. But let’s imagine that they had done. Let’s imagine that you’d sat down a week before the election to bash out a column (I’ve done it, let’s not dress it up), and you’d said something like “Given the immediate political situation and the longer-term trends – which I take to be X, Y and Z – I think it’s highly unlikely that Labour will make more than one or two gains. This is [regrettable/just as well] in view of how [Jeremy Corbyn/the Labour Party/the state of political opposition in this country] relates to my assessment of what’s at stake at the moment (the key issues being A, B and C). Having said that, it’s always possible that Labour will outperform my expectations, so let’s [keep our fingers crossed/prepare for the worst].” That would have been setting the bar low. And how would you have reacted to the actual result? Not, I think, by saying “yeah, well, basically it only looks like a dramatic result because we all set the bar low”. Anyone who cares enough about politics to write about it – pure “Westminster soap opera” merchants apart – will have had a stake in the result; not a “yay Corbyn!” stake necessarily, but a “let’s not have a one-party state” stake, a “can we at least slow Brexit down” stake, or for that matter an “IRA sympathisers don’t belong in Downing St” stake.  And when you have low expectations of somebody, in an area you care about, and they exceed them, you react. So when people respond as if this was a ho-hum, unexceptional result that didn’t particularly bother them one way or the other – and that only looked striking because of the way people managed expectations – I’m afraid I don’t really believe them.

Coming back to the first point, nobody actually did set the bar low; setting the bar low would have been saying “the best Corbyn will do is make a few gains here and there” or “this will be a tough election, we’ll be lucky to break even”. When you set the bar low for somebody, you’re setting them up as winners – in a small way – or at least as honourable near misses. You’re judging what they’re about to do in terms of positive achievements, in other words. Those sceptical MPs and commentators – did they judge Labour’s impending General Election performance in terms of positive achievements? Of course not. They confidently anticipated a minimum of 30 losses and a maximum of, well, you name it – 100? 150? This would, of course, have been a disaster for Labour, and that’s exactly how they saw it. Blaming Corbyn for an impending historic catastrophe isn’t “setting the bar low” relative to future successes – it’s saying that Corbyn’s leadership is such a disaster that there aren’t going to be any future successes, with him in charge or quite possibly ever again. Labour didn’t out-perform those forecasts, they proved them wrong. Yes, those results seemed unbelievably good, and yes, that did have something to do with those forecasts. The connection is that, if you took those forecasts seriously, the results literally were impossible to believe. Now, those forecasts – and the contemptuous, dismissive mindset from which they came – have been comprehensively disproved. That in itself is a victory for the Left: we’re credible – even popular – in a way we’ve never been in my lifetime.

As for Marie’s second point: no, we didn’t win the election. I don’t think anyone ever thought we could – after four successive elections of losses, we started much too far back. What we have done is show just how much damage Labour can inflict on a Tory government without winning outright – and that story’s only just getting started. As for “any opposition party should have hoped to do at least this well”, really? Corbyn’s Labour gained 30 seats and increased its vote share by 9.7% relative to 2015. This was the 20th general election since World War II; in eleven of the twenty Labour lost seats, and only six of the other nine saw Labour gain 30 seats or more. (Neil Kinnock is the only other Labour Party leader to have seen his party gain 30+ seats without forming the next government; in 1992 Labour gained 42 seats on a rise of 3.8% of votes.) Only one other election saw Labour gain more than 9% in vote share, and that was Attlee’s historic victory in 1945. Labour gained 8.6% in 1997, but three of the four elections between then and 2017 saw Labour lose both seats and vote share – and in the fourth, in 2015, Labour gained 1.3% but still lost 26 seats.

So no, we really couldn’t have expected any opposition party to do just as well; a charitable observer, if there had been any, actually would have set the bar low for Labour. What we achieved, under Corbyn’s leadership and with a Corbyn-approved programme, really was remarkable.

But that’s not to say that nobody could have seen it coming: there are reasons why Labour appealed to the people it appealed to, and those reasons – and those people – were there to be identified the week before the election just as much as the week after. The fact that nobody did see it coming just tells us something about those political commentators: where they looked, where they wanted to look; who they took seriously, who they wanted to take seriously; what they thought was possible, what they wanted to think was possible.

Most of the Labour Party has now swung behind Corbyn, but I expect there will be holdouts – and I expect to see them as much on the ‘soft Left’ as on the Blairite Right. (The soft Left, unlike the hard Left, isn’t defined by policies or beliefs but by its position, which in turn is defined relative to the Right of the party.) The soft Left is also where most of our commentariat is located. Which makes me think – and what it makes me think of is the Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Always on my mind”. (Bear with me.) Neil Tennant’s remorselessly deadpan delivery of the song converts a mid-line caesura into a line break, making the nagging self-reproach of the lyrics even more relentless:

Maybe I didn’t love you
Quite as often as I could have
Maybe I didn’t treat you
Quite as well as I should have…

and so on, and on, and on. Suddenly, midway through the fade, he leaves the line unfinished and lets it hang:

Maybe I didn’t love you…

I never hear that line without a weird sense of release – yes, that would explain it… And maybe that’s also the explanation for the commentariat’s inexplicable failure to see the positive qualities of Corbyn and Corbynism, qualities that are apparent to at least 40% of the British public and (apparently) a large majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Maybe you just weren’t looking; maybe you just didn’t want to see, or understand what you did see; maybe you were just never on our side.

Update What should appear, after I’d finished composing this post, but this from Jonathan Dean (h/t @Moonbootica for the Tweet). Quotes:

the problem we face is, I would suggest, more fundamental than that a few of us (myself included) made some dodgy predictions underestimating how Corbyn’s Labour Party would fare at the ballot box. More significant, I would suggest, is the fact that few in our profession were even interested in Corbynism. Corbynism was, for many, so self-evidently misguided that it barely merited any scholarly attention or analysis.

the myth of neutrality persists: rather than have an honest discussion about how our political analyses are shaped by our ideological commitments we just pretend, in public at least, that we don’t have any. And at times we have cynically hid behind the veneer of scholarly objectivity to actively pursue an anti-Corbyn agenda, enthusiastically confirming rather than interrogating kneejerk dismissals of Corbynism in print and broadcast media. If we were more honest with ourselves, we might concede that a lot of us think that the royal road to good, robust, ideologically neutral political science scholarship passes somewhere to the left of Tony Blair and to the right of Angela Eagle.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Get a grip

A quick thought-experiment for you. Imagine that you’re a citizen of a prosperous but divided and unhappy country, governed through institutions of representative democracy. Elections are held every five years, or four years, or when the Prime Minister feels like it – let’s not get bogged down in the details; basically, there are elections, they come round from time to time. One’s come round now, and you’ve got a fairly straightforward choice, inasmuch as there are only two parties that can possibly form a government. One of the two – the party currently in power – is exhibiting a weird and almost pathological combination of authoritarian instinct, vote-whoring volatility, populist pig-headedness and rampant ineptitude. The other… isn’t; in fact they’re doing quite nicely at the moment on the policy and presentational front, with some decent ideas and some competent people to front them. Also, they’re the party you’ve supported for most, or all, of your adult life. Oh, and you don’t like the current leader – never have – but in the circumstances that’s not going to be a deal-breaker, is it?

Is it? Really?

I know, rubbish thought-experiment. But I think it gets across what I find most baffling about the current situation on the Left – the fact that some people, while considering themselves Labour supporters and even leftists, hate Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership so much that they’d actually rather keep the Tories in power.

Too strong? But what other sense can we make of the defeatism of Atul Hatwal (“An addition to Labour’s sensible commentariat” – Conservative Home) and Jason Cowley? Cowley, bless him, chose the week before an election to announce that “the Labour Party is heading – and it gives me no pleasure to say this – for a shattering defeat”. As the bringers of bad news to Guardian readers so often do, he writes off whole swathes of England – the south, for a change: everything below “an imaginary line across the country from the Severn in the west to the Wash in the east”. Or rather, he writes off the south except for London, “where Labour is protected by the shield under which cosmopolitans shelter from the post-liberal turn that is transforming our national politics”. (These cosmopolitans – rooted at all, are they, or might they be lacking in the root department? Just wondering.) The ‘post-liberal turn’ seems to be a spray-job for the old “patriotic socialist” line that Cowley was running back in 2015; you might have thought the collapse of UKIP would have put paid to it by now, but I guess the dog knows his vomit.

Now, in the days before an election, this isn’t just wrong-headed; it’s pernicious. What’s its effect on the vote? You may go out leafletting or canvassing, but Hatwal and Cowley are here to let you know that it’s all a bit pointless – all those people out there, they aren’t going to vote Labour… And if you’re in London – or any other conurbation or university town – the message is doubly demoralising: oh, sure, these people vote Labour, but you’re not reaching all those people out there…

I can’t see how the effect of articles like these can be anything other than to drive the Labour vote down. And – God knows it shouldn’t be necessary to state this – driving the Labour vote down doesn’t benefit the Alternative Labour Party (Without Corbyn), because they’re not standing in this election; Tony Blair isn’t going to ride out from beneath Glastonbury Tor to save the New Statesman in its hour of need, either. If you drive the Labour vote down, you make a Tory victory more likely; you make it more likely that we end up with a stronger, more tenacious, more confident Tory government led by Theresa May.

How could anyone on the Left want that? Why would anyone on the Left work for that? Why would anyone on the Left even risk that?

I think there’s a deep, craven pessimism running through the British centre-left – a tendency to look at a house draped in St George’s flags, a focus group denouncing benefit claimants or a poll expressing distrust of Muslims and think, but who are we to tell them they’re wrong?…and maybe they’re actually right… It’s partly self-administered middle-class guilt-tripping, but also partly a deep-seated lack of trust in the project of the Left; the two work together, making it possible to pick off individual beliefs and label them as middle-class affectations rather than core beliefs. (I mean, yeah, in principle, everyone’s equal… but that’s easy for us to say…) The trouble with this way of thinking is that it doesn’t come with any particular sense of what the core beliefs are: potentially just about every tenet of the Left can be discarded as ‘liberal’, ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘middle-class’, from anti-racism to full employment. What will never be discarded are the core beliefs of the Right – nation, tradition, discipline, authority, Empire… Hence the periodic calls for Labour to get closer to ‘our people’, which on inspection always seems to mean those of ‘our people’ who see themselves in certain ways – our respectable hard-working people, our old-fashioned traditionalist people, our patriotic heritage-defending people… If Labour aren’t going to deliver – if Labour are going to give us a lot of namby-pamby nonsense about how you should talk to your enemies, be friendly with strangers, love your neighbours wherever they’re from – then Labour can’t win; Labour must be heading for a shattering defeat, the more shattering the better.

It amounts to another weird combination: a dogmatic insistence on the abandonment of Left principles, even at the cost of embracing defeat. Coming from people who criticised Corbyn supporters for not being serious about gaining power, this is disgusting. (Coming from anyone on the Left it’s pretty bad.) I hope Cowley and Hatwal, and everyone who thinks like them, find in a couple of days that their words have had no effect at all; I hope the results give them the chance to think again, and I hope they take it.

As for you, dear reader: I hope you do everything you can, in this last couple of days, to make a Labour victory more likely and a Tory victory less likely. I don’t care if you think Jeremy Corbyn is a card-carrying member of both the Communist Party of Britain and the Provisional IRA; he isn’t, of course, but as far as the choice before us is concerned it really wouldn’t matter if he was. A Labour-led government or a Tory-led government: that’s the contest; that’s what’s going on. Use your vote, and whatever influence you have, wisely.

Turn up

I saw this chart recently on Twitter. (Despite the attributions given, I haven’t been able to find a better copy or an accompanying article – if anyone knows more…)

As you can see, it shows changing levels of turnout at thirteen General Elections – 1964, 1966, 1970, 1974 (x2), 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015 – broken down by age group. There are a couple of things I don’t like about it. Firstly, under-21s didn’t get the vote until 1970; the first two data points on that salmon-pink line aren’t 18-24s at all but (presumably) 21-24s. For internal consistency, we need to start in 1970. Secondly, at the other end of the chart there’s an uptick – or, in the case of 18-24s, a downtick – apparently referring to an election in 2016. Obviously, there wasn’t one. The figures may refer to the EU referendum, but if so they aren’t really comparing like with like; in any case they don’t appear to be correct (36% turnout in the 18-24 age range?).

So, if it were up to me, I’d start the series no earlier than 1970 and end it in 2015. But there’s a bigger problem, caused by those lines. The decision to plot a line against a continuous time-based X-axis, rather than represent the different elections as discrete events, shows how turnout can change when there are two elections close together (as there were in 1974). Apart from that, it doesn’t really gain you anything – and it creates a false impression that we’re looking at continuous change over time, i.e. that the turnout figures for 2005 and 2010 allow us to read off what the turnout would have been in 2007. So I’d go for clustered columns. Also, we are interested in how different groups have changed over time – it’s just not continuous change over time. So, rather than plot the values themselves (most of which cluster together, making for a cluttered chart), I’d plot the change for each group. A bit like this:

What you’re seeing there is the change in turnout for each group – and for the whole population (pale blue bar) – relative to 1970. (Zeroes are invisible – see 1979 and 1983.) Straight away you can see that it’s a chart of two halves: turnout in almost all groups grows or holds steady from February 1974 to 1992. Then turnout falls for under-45s in 1997, and falls across the board in 2001. The next three elections see some of those losses clawed back, but with further losses among under-25s in 2005 and 2015. By 2015 over-65 turnout is back to its 1970 level and 55-64 turnout is slightly up, but overall turnout is still down 12%.

You can see the election-to-election trends more clearly on this second chart. Percentage changes here are against the previous election.

This shows just what a landmark election 1997 was – in a bad way: turnout was down nearly 10% overall, and 15% or more among under-35s. Then look at 2001: turnout is down over 10%, with >20% declines in the younger age groups, relative to 1997. Then, in 2010, we see a huge rally of the two youngest age groups – up by a third and a fifth respectively – followed by a slump for those groups in 2015. (And I’m sure Nick Clegg is very sorry.)

What all this tells us is that there’s nothing constant or ‘given’ about young people not turning out to vote; in all six of the elections from 1974 to 1992, the 25-34 turnout showed a bigger increase from its 1970 level than over-65s’ did from its, and the same was true of the 18-24s in four out of the six. It also seems to show that something happened to British politics in the mid-90s that made it a lot less interesting to people – what could that be, eh? And it suggests that, if people in general are disengaging from electoral politics, young people in particular will really disengage. (Interesting to see that the one group where turnout actually increased between 1992 and 1997 is 55-64s. New Labour: the triumph of Dad Rock?)

In short: if Labour were running a managerial, trust-me-I-know-what-I’m-doing, we’re-in-charge-now, let’s-not-be-hasty, listen-to-your-father type of campaign – which is to say, the type that won them three elections in a row – I would be really worried now, about turnout in general and about young people’s turnout in particular. Needless to say, that’s not the campaign they’re running – and on that basis I’m not sure that past trends tell us anything at all. Except, perhaps, that there are an awful lot of relatively young non-voters out there, and a lot of them have not voted in the past for good reasons. Let’s see if we can persuade them otherwise this time. I think it could really make a difference.

And I must agree

I’ve been thinking for a while – a phrase which here means “a couple of years” – about adding to my occasional series of book reviews. Something about why Light left me feeling simultaneously awestruck, existentially uprooted and in need of a wash; or how The Star Fraction brought me out in a mild case of conspiracy mania, but Descent didn’t do a thing; or how Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell only really works if you read it as a secret history of the actual England; or the roles of psychosis, neurosis and therapy in the Frieda Klein books; or the artist’s eye and the problem of genius in The Maker of Swans; or what was actually going on in The Thing Itself (although I might need to re-read it first).

But I’ll start with an easier one: what’s wrong with Paula Hawkins’ phenomenally successful novel The Girl on the Train?

1. The girl on the train

First problem: there is no girl on a train. The main character commutes into London and consequently spends a fair bit of time on trains, and she makes an observation which is central to the main plot (or seems to be) while looking out of a train window; but that’s about it. The plot mutates part of the way through, but in neither of its forms is it actually about her. In any case, she isn’t a girl. Admittedly, different people draw the age boundary between ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ at different points – 16? 18? 21? – but it would be a very odd definition of ‘girl’ that included somebody who had (a) got a job (b) got married (c) bought a house (d) tried and failed to get pregnant (e) suffered from depression triggered by (d) (f) got divorced (g) moved out to live in a friend’s spare room (h) become an alcoholic (i) lost her job and (j) spent two years(!) concealing (h) and (i) from all around her. Not to mention that she describes herself as getting married seven years before the period of the novel and moving into her first house aged 26. Once I’d realised that I was reading Scenes observed by a woman on a train I started to wonder if an actual girl on a train was going to figure in the narrative later on (oh, that‘s what…), but no.

2. The narrative voice(s)

The book has three narrators, whose names are helpfully given at the start of each chapter. Saying that this sort of thing was done better by William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf would be a bit beside the point – their audiences were very different from Hawkins’ – but I will say that John Wain did it a lot better, and nobody even remembers John Wain these days.

Here are our three narrators:

My phone beeps. There’s a message on it, received hours ago. It’s Tom again. I don’t what to hear what he has to say, but I have to, I can’t ignore him.

No one comes. The lights are on, but no one comes. Perhaps he has seen me outside, lurking, perhaps he’s upstairs, just hoping that if he ignores me I’ll go away. I won’t.

I’m upstairs, in the bedroom. Tom’s watching TV with Evie. We’re not talking. It’s my fault. He walked in the door and I just went for him.

As Kevin Rowland might say, their internal monologues are various (various, yeah, various) but they’ve all got one thing in common: they all sound the same. Hawkins’ idea of character differentiation seems to consist of having them talk about different things. So voice 1 (who’s an alcoholic) talks about how delicious her first (or second) cool (or warm) drink tastes; voice 2 (who’s wild and impetuous) talks about feeling frustrated and cooped-up in the hell that is suburbia; and voice 3 (happy young mum) says things like “treated myself to a very cute Max Mara mini dress (Tom will forgive me once he sees me in it)”. But they all talk the same way. Like this, in short sentences. Then longer sentences, ungrammatical (mimicking speech patterns), sometimes creating a sense of urgency by going on just a bit too long. Then short ones again – I mean, obviously.

All this might be bearable if the characters themselves were… well, bearable, or even if they were annoying in interesting ways. (Read Some Effing Dickens! Or listen to the Archers, for that matter.) Even to say that the three narrators talk about different things does Hawkins too much credit; they all spend most of their time talking about the same thing – themselves. Internal monologue is a wonderful thing in the right hands; in the wrong ones it just gets you endless sentences beginning with “I” and “My”.

3. The present tense

As the three extracts above suggest, the book’s written in a breathless present tense, as if spoken by the three narrators. Not only is each chapter headed with the name of its narrator; each chapter – or rather each section within a chapter – also has a date, giving the effect of a series of diary entries. The chapters belonging to one of the narrators take place over a different, longer time period than those of the other two; just to make sure we don’t miss this, the section headed Thursday, 11 July 2013 is followed by a chapter headed with a different name and the words: One year earlier: Wednesday, 16 May 2012. This system makes it very easy for readers to check what’s taking place before what, and lets us know when the earlier timestream starts to catch up with the other two; there’s no other justification for it, though, which is to say that there’s no justification for it at all within the characters’ own reality. For instance, there’s never any suggestion that any one of the narrators is particularly obsessive about dates – or that any of them actually is keeping a diary. It isn’t even suggested that the narrators are reconstructing events after the fact – a plausible framing device that Hawkins could easily have helped herself to, had she not used the ‘diary’ format for all three of the narrators.

Perhaps the thinking was that endless present-tense narration would be disorientating if readers didn’t get regular reminders that time was in fact passing. If so, it would have been much better to ditch the commitment to use the present tense, which Hawkins does in fact abandon whenever it starts to be too much trouble. And it is trouble, writing in the continuous present; that’s why it’s so effective when it’s done well. (Read some effing Silverberg – “Passengers” for a start, and “Sundance” after that; a day or so after, perhaps.) Here are our three narrators again:

‘Did you see this woman on Saturday night?’ he asked. I stared at it for a long time. It seemed so surreal having her presented to me like that, the perfect blonde I’d watched, whose image I’d constructed and deconstructed in my head.

I turned up to my session late, and walked straight into his office without a word to the receptionist. He was sitting at his desk, writing something. He glanced up at me when I walked in, didn’t smile, then looked back down at his papers.

Tom rang me back – he was between meetings, he couldn’t come home. He tried to placate me, he made all the right noises, he told me it was probably a load of rubbish anyway.

Present-tense narration, indeed. Our narrators talk to themselves at great length and in what’s basically the same voice, beginning each day’s ruminations with a quick timestamp for ease of reference. Then later – when the plot starts to pick up – they tell themselves the story of what’s been happening to them and what they’ve been doing, in the past tense. Some events are still narrated as taking place in the present, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for this, other than to make the present-tense sections seem more gripping. As with the diary dates, it’s a completely spurious device.

4. Women and men

All this wouldn’t be so bad if it was fun to listen in on our narrators chatting to themselves. Unfortunately, it’s tough spending time with these people. The main cast is tiny – three women (the narrators), three men. The women aren’t women, they’re airheads: a drunken, neurotic airhead, a scatty, hippyish airhead and a smug young-married airhead. The men are drawn in less detail, but they’re all alike: they’re all strong, silent and secretive, and they’re all devastatingly attractive. One’s a nice guy – although he’s also a therapist, so it may just be the job talking – and the other two are jealous, possessive bullies and thugs; devastatingly attractive bullies and thugs, mind you. The two women who aren’t drunk are pretty hot stuff themselves – one of them comes close to seducing the therapist, which is of course at the top of page one on the Therapist’s Big Book Of Things You Must Absolutely Not Do. But I guess he’s too weak to resist her, what with being a nice guy and not a thug… ugh. It’s like a Mills and Boon with the masochism turned up to 11.

Each narrator goes in for a lot of flappy will-I-won’t-I-yes-I-will-damn-it equivocation, treading irresolute water for a while and eliciting our sympathy for her indecision, before deciding on a course of action and eliciting our sympathy all over again; it’s the kind of thing you used to see in short fiction in women’s magazines, like Bella‘s “Tales with a twist”. To be fair, when it’s done sparingly, and when you’ve invested in the character, getting inside her head in this way can work really effectively. When it’s done over and over again – over the length of a novel – it just seems mechanical and exploitative. It also uses up a lot more words than just getting on with it would do – which may also have been a factor in those Bella stories, of course. And how our narrators like using up words! Was a character thinking about work as he put on his shirt and tie? Yes, he probably was. More specifically, he was “probably running through his schedule for the day – meetings, appointments, who, what, where.” Oh, that kind of schedule.

People do go to work – or rather, the men do; not one of the women has a job. But for the most part work is something that people just disappear off to and come back from. Even outside work, nobody has any hinterland at all – nobody reads books, nobody watches films, nobody even watches TV as far as we can tell. They go shopping, they go to the gym; the alcoholic goes to the pub, the young mum goes for coffee with “the NCT girls”[sic]; and, er, that’s it. About two thirds of the way through somebody mentions a band she used to listen to, and it’s like opening a window in a stuffy room.

And then there’s

5. The plot

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. An awful man was rejected by the Army and trained to be a surveyor instead (he just did, all right), then conned lots of money out of his parents and got married to a woman who worked in PR (no, I don’t know what he spent it all on). She couldn’t get pregnant, got depressed and started drinking heavily, and he started an affair with a woman who worked in a gallery. He also started threatening his wife and beating her up, but only when she was too drunk to remember what happened the next morning. Then he divorced her and married Gallery Woman, had a child with her and started an affair with the (married) childminder, who promptly got fed up with being a childminder (but carried on with the affair). Meanwhile PR Woman had taken to getting horribly drunk and harassing, or stalking, Awful Man – although very often when she did this she was too drunk to remember what had happened the next morning. When less drunk, during the day, she caught the train into London – where she worked until she was sacked for being drunk – which she could afford to do because reasons. ♠She got into a habit of looking at her old house, and then looking at the house a few doors down where Former Childminder lived with her husband, who was in fact a Very Slightly Less Awful Man. One day she saw FC kissing another man. In fact, Former Childminder had been seeing a Nice Therapist about her traumatic (but unrelated) backstory, and had fallen for him horribly, as patients in therapy often do; it was innocent! In any case, she’d decided to break off the affair with Awful Man. She then told her husband about it; being awful himself, he attacked her violently. She escaped and met Awful Man, who took her away in his car and (being a lot more Awful than she, or indeed we, had realised) killed her. PR Woman, who was in the area at the time stalking Awful Man, saw them in the car, but she forgot all about it the next day, due to being drunk. She then read about FC’s disappearance, put the police on to Nice Therapist, got him arrested and ruined his life, went and introduced herself to VSLAM under false pretences, tried to put the police on to VSLAM instead, and generally got in everyone’s way. (You can’t help feeling there’s a decent black comedy in here somewhere.) Eventually she remembered what she’d really seen and tried to rescue Gallery Woman from Awful Man. He admitted everything, there was a confrontation, and the two of them killed him, in self defence, sort of, not really. At the end of the story PR Woman still hasn’t got a job, but she’s given up drinking and her mother’s given her a lot of money (“Mum was quite generous when she discovered everything I’d been through”), so it’s a kind of happy ending.

It’s pants. The plot is driven by two completely unbelievable characters, one of them the main villain: a failed squaddie turned surveyor(!), a con artist, rapist and murderer, who is described as irresistibly charming but consistently portrayed as a thug. It only works at all because it starts in medias res – at the point marked ♠ above – and fills in the backstory afterwards. The dice are loaded further by the interleaving of the victim’s story, told over a longer timeframe; this makes it possible to withhold the (crucial) information about her and the therapist for a long time, and postpone the murder itself for even longer. The interleaving and the timelag don’t seem to have any other justification, though; once again, a technical device is used for no other reason than to create suspense. Not too much suspense, though. If, for instance, the entire story had been told through the eyes of PR Woman, without the interleaved chapters from FC’s point of view, the truth about the murder would have been deferred even further, leaving us in some doubt right to the end of the story. Running a supposedly unreliable narrative alongside a perfectly truthful account of the same events lets readers feel a frisson of doubt without ever really losing the comfort of omniscience.

6. Boozing, bloody well boozing

And what about that unreliable narrative? Everyone says this book’s got an unreliable narrator. It hasn’t. An unreliable narrator is a voice that tells you what the character believes (s)he’s seeing – or wants to believe (s)he’s seeing – but also lets you know that that’s happening, and leaves you not quite knowing what you can believe. (Read “Sundance”. Read some Ruth Rendell, come to that.) What we’ve got here is a narrator who drinks till she blacks out and wakes up not remembering the night before. Sometimes the memory comes back later, and she tells us what it was. Sometimes another memory comes back and she decides the first one was wrong, and she tells us that too. We know we’re reading a narrator who doesn’t know the whole story – and by the end of the book we know we’ve just read a narrator who was sometimes mistaken – but at no point do we know that what we’re being told isn’t reliable. Once again – yet again – a technical device which can be used to do amazing things is being used, clumsily, for no other reason than to postpone a crucial revelation.

I referred to two completely unbelievable characters, and the main narrator is the second; she’s nothing like any alcoholic I’ve ever read about, or any drinker I’ve ever known. She doesn’t seem to have an addict’s craving for alcohol; the way that she describes her longing for a drink, it’s not something she needs to make her feel normal or get her through the day. It’s just… a drink; she just really, really likes a drink.

The pre-mixed gin and tonic fizzes up over the lip of the can as I bring it to my mouth and sip.

I open one of the little bottles of Chenin Blanc I purchased from the Whistlestop at Euston. It’s not cold, but it’ll do.

I finish the second can and make a start on the third. The blissful rush of alcohol hitting my bloodstream lasts only a few minutes and then I feel sick. I’m going too fast, even for me, I need to slow down

(Halfway through the third drink? Never mind an alcoholic, she isn’t even a seasoned drinker.)

The pleasure she takes in the drink – in every drink – seems all wrong, as does the variety: red wine, white wine, pre-mixed G&Ts, shots of Jack Daniels (none of your rubbish)… It’s like a non-drinker’s idea of what it would be like to have a drink problem: alcoholism as a really extreme form of self-indulgence.

But it doesn’t have to be realistic as long as it serves its purpose. The booze, like most other things in this novel, is only a means to an end: the blackout. She drinks, she gets drunk, she remembers nothing. In a suspense novel that derives most of its suspense from withholding information, this is mightily convenient.

7. Tales with a twist

I suppose I should conclude by saying something positive about the book, but – without recourse to lying, distortion or cheating – I’m not sure what it would be. I wanted to carry on reading until I’d finished it, I’ll say that much. But that’s not so much praise as testimony to the effectiveness of its narrative devices. Beyond that, I don’t think it has any value at all. The characters are paper-thin, the story’s ridiculous, the gender politics is truly awful, and everything else in the book is a manipulative and rather badly-executed contrivance with no internal justification – the multiple narrators, the multiple time frames, the ‘diary’ structure, the amnesia.

But I guess the success of the book does tell us something interesting. You’d think that, as between the proverbial “good story well told” and a rather poor story dolled up with literary tricks and twists – it’s being told backwards! she’s a boy! they’re all ghosts! – the latter would only work on the jaded palates of the literary fiction crowd. The success of The Woman Who Saw Something From A Train – a novel which is nothing but literary devices, to the point that it would fall apart without them – suggests that there’s a real appetite for writing that takes readers outside their narrative comfort zone, even if it only goes a little way outside and doesn’t end up anywhere interesting. That’s encouraging news, at least for lovers of literary technique.

Woke up sucking a lemon

Adapted from original material by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood

Adapted from original material by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood

I’ve now written four follow-up posts to this post on David Goodhart and Eric Kaufmann. I think by now I’ve said all I want to say on the subject. (I hope so, anyway – I’ve written 18,000 words already.) As a final postscript, these are some notes on reactions to the original post.

There was quite a lot of reaction to the post, and almost all positive; it was endorsed on Twitter by Frances Coppola, Declan Gaffney, Peter Jukes and Jonathan Portes, as well as being mentioned favourably on Stumbling and Mumbling and the Cedar Lounge. (Not a peep out of Wren-Lewis, though. Maybe another time.) I didn’t link to the column I was quoting, or name its author, the researcher he quotes or the latter’s institution (David Goodhart, Eric Kaufmann and Birkbeck respectively); I liked the idea of challenging (and hopefully demolishing) DG and EK’s arguments without actually giving them any publicity. Nevertheless, within 24 hours the post had come to both their attention, and I had my first critical readings – both from the authors and from their Twitter followers, although the latter didn’t say much about the post. (They were a charming bunch. One @-ed me in on a tweet telling DG I was a loon ranting into the void and advising him not to bother with me; he had an egg avatar and a timeline that seemed to consist mainly of insulting public figures and then complaining that they’d blocked him. I tweaked him a bit, asking who he was and how he was so sure I was a ranting loon. In reply he insulted me at some length, so I blocked him.)

The reactions from EK and DG were interesting. If you look at the original post you’ll see that I’ve retracted one point and expanded another quite substantially; each of these amendments was necessitated by a brief tweet from EK, and one which (in both cases) didn’t sink in until a couple of hours after I’d first read it. I still think his report’s dreadful, but on the detail level EK is clearly not someone to trifle with. DG’s response was interesting in a different way. When I accused EK of purveying unreliable stats, he reacted to the accusation by looking at my underlying argument, spotting the flaw in it and pointing it out to me; hence the retraction. When I accused DG of making a claim that’s straightforwardly false (In several UK cities, the white British are now a minority), he said nothing at all. He did respond to me, but not on that point, and not to very much effect. He challenged my point about the supposed rights of minorities, albeit rather feebly (as we saw earlier), but that was about it in terms of references to the post. Other than that, he accused me of facetiousness, pedantry and point-missing; he subtweeted me twice (that I know of), lamenting to his followers that he was having to argue with people who didn’t believe there was such a thing as ethnicity and/or believed that mentioning ethnicity was racist; and he repeatedly accused me of calling him a racist, and (for good measure) of calling “about 90% of Brits” racists. (This led to some short-form sermonising from one of DG’s followers about all these Lefties calling people racists all the time.) Needless to say, I hadn’t called anyone a racist. I tried to keep up the pressure – although most of the time it was more a matter of trying to keep him on topic – but it was a singularly unedifying series of exchanges. DG eventually cut it short, after replying to his egg-shaped follower and agreeing that I wasn’t worth bothering with.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning one other response – if it was a response; it may just be a curious coincidence. There’s a guy out there called Stuart Russell, who was formerly employed as press spokesman for the BNP; in that role, for reasons best known to himself, he went by the name of ‘Phil Edwards’. Russell seems to be rather proud of having a doctorate, as (unlike most PhDs I know) he uses his title routinely; his friends even seem to call him ‘the Doc’. I don’t know anything about this doctorate, and I’ve got no reason to believe it’s as fake as his pseudonym. I do know that if Russell was ever an academic it was a long time ago; company listings show him running a fireworks company in the early 90s, apparently alongside his father (search “Stuart Harling Russell” if you’re curious). Naturally the doctoral affectation carried over to his pseudonym, so Dr Stuart Russell became Dr Phil Edwards. Some years ago I tried to get the Guardian to refer to the man by his real name – instead of referring to him by my real name – but without much success. Anyway, Russell left his post (voluntarily or otherwise) when the BNP imploded in 2007 – and he was 64 then – so I hadn’t given him much thought for the last few years.

What should appear in my inbox, just as the DG/EK post was trending, but an email from “Dr Stuart Russell”, with some links to a purportedly libertarian site set up by Kevin Scott, formerly of the BNP (or “Kevin Scott BA Hons” as the site refers to him; they do like their credentialled intellectuals over there). A few hours later somebody else – a regular commenter on Chris Dillow and Simon Wren-Lewis’s blogs, whose name I’d last seen attached to a pro-DG comment on one of Chris’s posts – mailed me, claiming “Kev Scott asked me to send you the attached un-PC article in the Financial Times“. The attached article, of course, was the one by DG that started all of this. The question is whether my correspondent thought he was writing to Russell, a.k.a. ‘Phil Edwards’. (He clearly didn’t realise he was writing to me.) But if so, who did Russell think he was writing to? Has he retired and handed over to a new ‘Phil Edwards’, à la Dread Pirate Roberts? All very odd. What’s interesting, of course, that people in the ex-BNP area approve of DG’s column; if DG is sincere in wanting to hold the line against racism, it seems that racism is now so extreme that even fascists oppose it. Or rather, it seems that ‘racism’ defined as something distinct from ‘racial self-interest’ – which is the only form of racism that DG wants to oppose – is so extreme that even fascists are happy to oppose it.

In the mean time, someone identifying only as “Stu” (surely not?) has popped up in comments on the most recent post in the series, arguing strenuously and at some length against free movement in the name of workers’ rights. I may develop my own position on this one more fully another time; then again, I may not (there are other things to write about, after all). All I’ll say here is that one can champion the interests of the workers of one’s own country without being any more left-wing than Otto Strasser. When I see it asserted that “Socialism in a national framework is the only vehicle for positive progressive change“, I don’t think further debate is going to be particularly productive.

In another part of the nationalist field, Pat Kane put this interesting question to me:

As you’ll remember, my take on Harris’s calls for Labour to tell a “national story”, replacing nostalgic dreams of full employment with “ideas of nationhood and belonging”, wasn’t positive. In reply to Kane, I don’t see it as civic nationalism, because I don’t see that political forces in England are operating in a context where civic nationalism has any work to do. Civic nationalism, as distinct from ethnic ditto, comes into play when you’re building a new state and new institutions, and in that – necessarily short-lived – context it can be a powerful, transformative force. Once your state’s there, though – as the English state effectively already is – civic nationalism is a force for conservatism, for the preservation of the status quo. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily – it’s not a force for reaction, as ethnic nationalism so often is – but it’s not radical, progressive or creative. In fact, the danger with civic nationalism is that after a while it’s not anything, and its structures and tropes get taken over by the angrier and more energetic forces of ethnic nationalism (federal Yugoslavia and Serb nationalism, Britain and English nationalism). That’s not to say that ethnic nationalism is inherently a bad thing, either. It’s not a bad thing when it’s in the hands of powerless and/or minority groups, used to combat political exclusion and repression; as such it can be a force for justice, or at least for the disruption of injustice. But, by the same token, ethnic nationalism in the hands of the boss nationality is poison. Which is precisely why DG and EK’s legitimation of majority-group ethnic nationalism – White racism, in other words – is so dangerous.

Come on kids

Something that’s always puzzled me about David Goodhart and Eric Kaufmann – and about people like John Harris, whose writing shows less virulent signs of the same disease – is the question of what they think they’re doing. To put it another way, who do they think they’re talking to – and why?

1. My old man’s a diplomat, he wears a diplomat’s hat

If you’re a Marxist, these things are fairly straightforward. The telos, the good thing, is class consciousness, leading to the constitution of the working class as a class-for-itself; anything that hastens the development of class consciousness is to be welcomed and fostered, while anything that retards it is to be resisted and fought. Intellectuals have a job to do here, as class consciousness would involve the sustained recognition of lived realities which currently only become apparent patchily and intermittently; there’s a lot of They Live about this perspective, and more than a touch of The Thing Itself. Class consciousness would be a good thing because those realities are, well, real, and it’s always a step forward to recognise the real thing that ails you – particularly when the recognition is shared and you can act on it collectively (which is arguably what happens in strikes). Specifically, it’s a step forward into rational self-interest, out of myths and misunderstandings which misdirect our energies and keep us fighting among ourselves. As for the role of the intellectual, you can frame it (as Marx did) as the defection of parts of the ruling bourgeoisie to the rising class. Alternatively, you could just argue that workers are constantly engaging with the distorting perspectives of bourgeois ideology, and intellectual workers (like what I am) are in the privileged position of being able to do so consciously. Although at the moment the marking takes up most of the day, and at night I just like a cup of tea.

I dwell on all this awfully deep stuff because of a bizarre passage in DG’s recent FT column – the one about the ‘Somewheres’ and the ‘Anywheres’ – which suggests that he’s been thinking about the Marxist model too. DG went to Eton, and do you know, it’s been tough (in some unspecified way that doesn’t affect his ability to earn a living):

If you went to the most famous school in the land you are often regarded as a social freak, a tourist in your own country. But, as the patron saint of the Etonian awkward squad George Orwell knew, there is something to be said for being an insider-outsider. It helped to make me aware of the strangeness of some of the instincts of my north London liberal tribe in the 1980s and 1990s: the far greater concern for suffering in distant lands than just around the corner, the blank incomprehension of religious or national feeling and the disdain for the ordinary people we were meant to champion.

(Dickens was writing about Mrs Jellyby and the Borrioboola-Gha venture in 1852. Those liberals may be wrong-headed, but they’ve certainly got staying power.)

As Orwell also discovered, people don’t like it when you leave the tribe, and I have certainly lost a few friends as a result. At a recent public meeting, the writer David Aaronovitch told me that because I went to Eton I wasn’t able to side with Somewhere interests. This felt like crude class stereotyping but then it occurred to me that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I am behaving as Marxist intellectuals are meant to, transcending bourgeois class interests to speak to the concerns of the masses — no longer “bread and land” but “recognition and rootedness”.

I don’t think he’s joking. It doesn’t work, of course – the whole point of the Marxist model is that the concerns of the masses (if you want to use that phrase) are material, are in fact determinants of the reality of their imperfectly-perceived condition. Which is why a phrase like “bread and land” does work; in a similar vein, the Italian workerists of the 1970s summed up their political programme in the phrase “more pay, less work” (whence, indirectly, this). You don’t have to be a sociologist to know that we have a hierarchy of needs, the lower levels needing to be met before we care too much about the higher ones; a sense of belonging and respect is a genuine need, but the necessities of life – bread and the money to buy it – sit considerably further down the hierarchy.

(Stray thought – perhaps the fact that DG has never been hard up, but still feels that life has been a bit of a struggle, is more significant than it looks. Perhaps, deep down, he thinks that’s what life’s like – he thinks non-material interests are the ones that matter, because they’re the only ones he’s ever had to care about. I’m not going anywhere with this – it’s entirely speculative and a bit ad hom – but it would explain a lot.)

Anyway: if DG, EK and their co-thinkers aren’t recalling the working class to the reality of its material interests – which they aren’t, pretty much by definition; and if they’re not neutral observers, which I think we can discount almost as quickly; then what are they up to?

2. Rain down on me

One answer is suggested by EK’s report, and indeed by those other ‘real concerns’ merchants I mentioned earlier. For a start, here’s John Harris before and after the Stoke-on-Trent result (no prizes for spotting which is which):

Stoke-on-Trent Central is precisely the kind of seat where Nuttall’s aspirations to “replace Labour” might conceivably take wing …  a case study in the working-class disaffection that is now causing Labour no end of disquiet … a long-dormant political relationship between party and people [has] reached the point of an indifference tinged with bitterness … We should keep one eye on the looming contest in the Cumbrian seat of Copeland, but Stoke’s byelection is an altogether bigger story. Late last year, Richmond Park offered a story of what 48:52 politics might mean in places that backed remain; now we’re about to get a very vivid sense of changed political realities on the other side of the Brexit divide

Yes, it was all happening in Stoke!

Copeland was 30th on the Tory target list. The swing to the Tories, said the academic John Curtice, was bigger than even the disastrous national polls are suggesting. The Tories are the first governing party to win a byelection since 1982.

Stoke was less a triumph than a lesson in dogged campaigning, which highlighted the fact that the Labour leadership still has far too little to say to its alleged core vote. In essence, we now find ourselves back where we were before both these contests started.

Oh well, better luck next time. More seriously, here’s Harris from last September:

The party has held on to its support in England’s big cities, which may now be its true heartland … [but] Labour has become estranged from its old industrial home turf … Trade union membership is at an all-time low; heavy industry barely exists; conventional class consciousness has been superseded by the collective resentments that defined the referendum campaign. … Both Corbyn and Owen Smith [who he? Ed.] sound far too nostalgic: their shared language of full employment, seemingly unlimited spending and big-state interventions gives them away.

[the Left] will need more working-class voices; more people, too, who understand the attitudes and values of not only cities, but towns and villages. Most of all, it will somehow have to take back ideas of nationhood and belonging that have been so brazenly monopolised by the new populist right in response to people’s disaffection with globalisation. Here, the salient issue is England – which is the country of the Ukip-voting Fens and the north’s lost industrial backwaters, but also that of thriving cosmopolitan cities. Can the left tell a national story that speaks to both constituencies more convincingly than either the lofty promises of big-state socialism or the sink-or-swim message that defined New Labour’s embrace of globalisation? Can it retain its new metropolitan base and also calm the fears and furies of its core supporters?

What’s John Harris up to? The question shouldn’t need asking – surely it’s obvious that he simply wants what’s best for Labour. He’s sounding the alarm that Labour is losing ground in its “working-class heartlands” and losing touch with its “core supporters”, and that something else will be needed if the party’s ever to form a government. Which is fair enough, in itself, but I worry about what happens when this kind of logic is treated as fundamental. More support is generally better than less support, of course, but Labour can’t be all things to all people – we’ve got the Lib Dems for that. Apart from anything else, what you’re building support for needs to have some relation to what you do when you get into government, or you’re going to alienate the supporters you’ve just gained (and we’ve got the Lib Dems for that).

Let’s say, just as a working hypothesis, that the Labour Party has something to do with the interests of the working class. If class consciousness is high, all you need to do is keep up with it. (Labour hasn’t always passed that test, of course, but it’s not something we need to worry about now.) If class consciousness is low (as it currently is), is it Labour’s job to (a) build class consciousness or (b) gain support by appealing to whatever’s replaced it at the forefront of people’s minds? Harris unhesitatingly opts for (b), but this seems both dangerous and weirdly naive. Remember Lukes’s three faces of power – decision-making power, agenda-setting power and ideological power. If decision-making power created the bedroom tax, it was underpinned by the agenda-setting power that imposed the ‘austerity’ programme, which in turn was supported by the ideological power which had made so many people see benefit claimants as shiftless and unworthy. And if decision-making power created the low-wage, low-security economy in which full employment seems like a nostalgic dream, it was agenda-setting power that made seemingly unlimited spending politically impossible and ideological power that made big-state interventions a dirty word.

It’s exercises of power, in other words, that have reversed Labour policy, delegitimised Labour goals and discredited Labour doctrine. Rather than challenge them, Harris suggests we take all these exercises of power as read, and cast around for alternative ideals, goals and doctrines that might be more popular in the world they’ve created. We can’t go on with our nostalgic talk of public spending and full employment; we need to get with the programme and speak a language that resonates with popular prejudice, bigotry and fear. (If there’s another way of interpreting “the collective resentments that defined the referendum campaign”, I’d love to hear it.)

England is key to the story Harris wants to tell, but it’s an odd vision of England. England, country of the Ukip-voting Fens and the north’s lost industrial backwaters! These are revealing phrases, when you look at them. As far as I can work out, you can find fenland in six parliamentary constituencies, five if you exclude the city of Peterborough: NE Cambridgeshire, NW Cambridgeshire, NW Norfolk, SW Norfolk and South Holland. In all five, the Conservatives took more than 50% of the vote in 2015. Admittedly, UKIP were in second place in all but one (NW Norfolk), but they were bad second places – as in ‘less than half the winner’s votes’. As for Labour needing to have a message that plays well in the UKIPTory-voting Fens, one question: why? Out of those five seats, only NW Norfolk has been held by Labour at any time in the last forty years, and that was only for one term (1997-2001). What this means, of course, is that the New Labour landslide passed the Fens by – and what that means is that there’s no conceivable Labour target list that includes Fenland constituencies, unless it’s a list headed Mega Parl Maj! Biggest Evs! LOL. Peterborough, to be fair, was Labour from 1974 to 1979 and then again from 1997 to 2005, so a decent Labour performance certainly ought to include getting it back – but Labour held a strong second place there in both 2010 and 2015, so it’s hard to see that a drastic change of message is required.

Then there are those lost industrial backwaters. At the local folk club a few years ago, I got talking to a guy I know – good guitar player, decent singer, knows his Dylan – about where he’d lived as a kid. He’d lived in a house with no mains electricity – it wasn’t just his house, the street hadn’t been connected when it was built. They had mains gas and cold running water, but that was it – and naturally the loo was in the yard. He told me about when his family bought a radio, and how they had to run it off a car battery. His father worked down the pit, as did most of the men in the houses around; they walked to the pithead in the morning and walked home at night. Late 1950s, this would have been; not quite in my lifetime, but not far off. It’s all gone now – the houses, the colliery and all. This was in Bradford – not the one in Yorkshire, the one in Manchester; the site of the pit is about a mile and a half from Piccadilly Station. You can walk it from there in half an hour or so, mostly along by a canal, or there’s a tram stop right outside – the City of Manchester Stadium is there now. It’s like looking at pictures of the same scene in different eras, although in this case you’d be hard pressed to find any landmarks that you could match up. Blink: 1970s, lost industrial backwater (the pit closed in 1968). Blink: 2000s, thriving cosmopolitan city (the stadium was built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and taken over by MCFC the following year). Blink: old industrial home turf. Blink: new metropolitan base. Same place; same postcode. What a difference a generation makes, if the money can be found.

Bradford didn’t need ideas of nationhood and belonging, it needed inward investment and plenty of it; I’d recommend something similar for Stoke-on-Trent, or Clacton or Boston or whever Harris is filing from next week. And if you find yourself looking at the City of Manchester Stadium, and the velodrome alongside it and the big ASDA between them, and regretting the loss of the ‘dad jobs‘ that Bradford pit used to provide, I suggest you seek out a miner or the son of a miner and say that to his face. Class consciousness is one thing, fake nostalgia for hard, dirty, dangerous jobs is quite another. Besides, there’s no rule that new jobs have to be insecure or poorly paid – although they certainly will be for as long as the bosses can get away with it. But you’re never going to demand decent wages and job security – you’re never going to see those things as your right – if you think that class consciousness doesn’t apply any more, and that it’s been superseded (no less) by shared resentment of foreigners.

Appeals to class don’t work any more, Harris’s logic runs; Labour needs to appeal to something; nationalism and xenophobia are something, and moreover they’re something with potential appeal across the board, from the cosmopolitan cities to the deindustrialised backwaters to the Tory-voting towns and villages of rural England. But this doesn’t really work. In my own city, ten council wards had UKIP in second place to Labour at the last round of elections, but six wards had a Lib Dem runner-up and eight a Green – good luck flying your St George’s flag down those streets. (And all the UKIP (and Green) runners-up were very distant. The Lib Dems actually took a seat.) The Tory-voting rural towns would certainly go for a British nationalist narrative, but what does that matter to Labour? (If we didn’t need them in 1997, we certainly don’t need them now.) As for the mining towns (and steel towns, and cotton towns, and fishing towns), what do you do when people have good reason to be angry and to make demands, but some of them are getting angry at the wrong thing and making demands that will only end up hurting them? Do you validate the misdirected anger and the futile, destructive demands?

The answer – from Harris, from DG and EK, from many others – seems to be Yes. But why? Is it defeatism – the big boys laid down the rules and set the agenda long ago, there’s nothing we can do but work with what we’ve got? (It’s an argument in bad faith if so – the Tories and their media have a lot of agenda-setting power, but the merest, lowliest Guardian columnist has some. The merest blogger has some.) Is it cynical opportunism – no time to build class consciousness between now and 2020, let’s just gather voters where we may? Or is it something else?

3. Some of us are having a hard, hard time

Justin Gest, one of a handful of likeminded writers cited in EK’s report, believes that the “I’m not racist but” defence is not what it seems:

Racism is … a ‘mute button’ pressed on someone while they are still crying out about a sense of loss—from a position of historic privilege, frequently in terms they have difficulty articulating. Therefore, the preface ‘I’m not racist’ is not a disclaimer but an exhortation to listen and not dismiss the claims of a purportedly new minority.

In this mindset, accusations of racism are just the kind of thing that they chuck at people like us to shut us up – so “I’m not racist” simply means “don’t shut me up”. The corollary – as Gest, to be fair, has noted – is that “I’m not racist” doesn’t mean that the speaker isn’t racist, or even cares about not being racist; in fact, “I’m not racist” translates as “don’t talk to me about racism, just let me speak”.

But perhaps let them speak is what we should do. Perhaps, by shutting them up, we’re alienating people who (to quote Gest from an article published earlier this year) “must be part of the Labour party if it is to have any future”; people to whom we on the Left “must listen carefully if [we] are to ever understand [our] countrymen and earn their support again”. People are having a hard time out there, and Gest names the causes accurately enough – the decline of established industries, the erosion of patterns of life built up around them, the insecurity created by globalisation and the hardships inflicted by neo-liberalism. And maybe we should listen to the perspectives of the people going through it, even if they’re “overtly tainted by racism and xenophobia”. If we can just tune out the overt racism – or redefine it as ‘racial self-interest’ – maybe there are lessons for us all here.

Well, you be the judge. Here are a few of the things that ‘Nancy’, one of Gest’s East London interviewees, had to say; she’s the person who he specifically said “must be part of the Labour Party” if the party is to have any future.

It has always been diverse what with us living so near the river. But I remember when we went around the houses for a Christmas charity about 10 years ago, and I noticed all the black faces. Now it’s a million times worse.

I know the Muslims want a mosque here, but they haven’t contributed to society. They don’t want to be involved in our community, in our society. The Africans take over everything and turn them into happy clappy churches. They’re all keen to praise God, but then go back to their fiddles [benefit fraud] and push past you to board the bus. I think it’s in their make-up.

I think the anti-racists have made it worse. They look for trouble. They construe everything as racist—like my union flag. But it’s not racist; it’s our country’s flag and it’s up for the Jubilee anyway.

If I could just bring back Maggie Thatcher. She would never have let all this happen.

I got off the train in Barking one night and there were dozens of Romanian women with children, and it’s clear they had been on the nick. Vile people, Romanians. Then you walk outside, and it’s so loud with all the halal shops and rubbish in the streets. We look like a suburb of Nairobi.

I think our government is terrible. The whole country wants to have a referendum about the EU, and David Cameron won’t do it. We’re being dictated by an unelected group of people about our own country. Germany wants to rule the world. We beat them in the war, but they’re still coming.

I vote every time. Last time, I voted UKIP. Before that, BNP. Once BNP got in, I thought they’d work for the community, but they didn’t. They’re far too right wing.

England is a white nation, but it has a black dot in the middle of it, and it’s spreading outward. With a lot of the children being half-caste, there won’t be a purely white person left.

I thought the BNP would prove that they were a force, but a lot of them didn’t even turn up for the Council meetings. I voted for them because I was just fed up. You couldn’t see an end to the black faces coming in. I shouldn’t be a minority.

Exercise for the reader: how many racist statements does Nancy make here, directed against which groups? DG defines racism as “irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group”, while EK defines ‘racial self-interest (which is not racism)’ as “seeking to maximise the demographic advantage of [one’s own] group”. Repeat the exercise using these definitions. What do you notice?

Seriously, that’s the future of the Labour Party? Isn’t it possible that this is just a white working-class racist? And note that last line. “I shouldn’t be a minority” – the mindset of ethnic supremacists everywhere. There’s an old Serb nationalist slogan, “Samo sloga Srbina spasava” or “only unity saves the Serb”. There were Serb communities pretty much throughout the former Yugoslavia; the slogan said, not that they should return to Serbia, but that the territory where they lived should be united under Serb rule. They agreed with Nancy: Serbs shouldn’t be a minority, even where they were.

As for winning the likes of Nancy back to the Labour Party, I suggest that we use whatever ideological and agenda-setting power we have to focus on what even Gest acknowledges are the real issues – decline of secure employment, hardships of neo-liberalism etc – and stay well away from the unreal issues which fill Nancy’s unhappy days. If we can have a political conversation that’s about housing, jobs, health, education – the things that ultimately matter to people in their everyday lives, including people like Nancy – then we can win. And if we can shift that conversation so that it’s not conducted in terms of what the economy can bear but what ordinary people have a right to expect, we can not only win but actually make some changes.

Yes, I’m daydreaming of a return to the sunlit uplands of Butskellism – a mixed economy, a 33% basic rate of income tax, joint staff liaison committees, a fully public transport system and all. And even that seems an awful long way off at the moment. But it’s something worth dreaming of, if you’re on the Left. Nancy’s vision of England for the White English really isn’t. Nor is John Harris’s “nationhood and belonging”, if only because making a virtue of ‘belonging’ necessarily implies that there are some people who don’t belong (Harris doesn’t say much about them). And nor is DG’s “majority group rights” or EK’s “racial self-interest”. None of it works, none of it does anyone any good; its only potential is to mislead, divide and cause unnecessary hardship.

But if that’s the case, I’m driven back to my original question: what on earth is going on?

4. Love your neighbour, wherever they’re from

Jonathan Freedland’s Guardian review of DG’s book is an interesting specimen of this type of thinking, blockages and blind spots very much included.

faced with the chasm in attitudes DG charts, especially on immigration, liberals chose to put their fingers in their ears and sing la, la, la. The revulsion that greeted his own 2004 essay, and the ostracism that followed, were part of that reaction, born of a collective desire on the liberal left to hope that if they closed their eyes and branded the likes of [Gillian] Duffy as “bigoted”, the problem might just go away.

I don’t think anyone on the Left – even poor old Gordon Brown – has taken the view that racism and xenophobia should simply be ignored, or that silencing them is enough to make them go away. The point is to deny racism a hearing, but also to address the issues that actually affect people’s lives and create the discontent that sometimes takes racist expression. But apparently this is no go:

A more sophisticated form of ostrich-ism is the redefining of Somewhere anxiety about immigration as purely a material problem that might be solved economically: by, say, enforcing the minimum wage to prevent migrants from undercutting local pay, or by boosting the funds available for housing, health or education in areas that have taken in large numbers of newcomers. Such measures – championed by Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband before him – are good and necessary, of course. But they skirt around the discontent voiced by Goodhart’s Somewheres, which is as much cultural as economic: the non-material sense that their hometown has changed unnervingly fast.

It’s a fine word, ‘cultural’, but here we need to call its bluff. Talk to people like Nancy and they’ll say one of two things. They’ll say that demographic changes have caused them real, material disadvantage; if that’s the case we need real, material responses, in the form of investment in public services and controls on landlords and employers (both of which have been under systematic attack since 2010). Alternatively, they’ll say that demographic changes haven’t done them any material harm, but that they don’t like them anyway; if that’s the case, tough. DG’s use of words like ‘cultural’ is a bait and switch; what the people he champions want to preserve isn’t a culture or a way of life, but the brute fact of White British dominance.

Freedland’s decision to baulk at the final fence is reassuring, but throws a disconcerting light on the rest of his argument.

Where DG goes wrong above all is on Britain’s ethnic and religious minorities. … he frames them throughout as the cloud on the Somewheres’ horizon, the blot that has darkened the Somewheres’ previously sunny landscape. It is their arrival that has changed Britain beyond recognition, their presence that has to be dealt with.

Yes, I think that’s pretty much what Nancy was saying.

surely the task now is not to look back to the time when homogeneity made a cohesive society easy, but to ask how today’s heterogeneous society might be made more cohesive, despite the difficulties. DG is right that people are more inclined to share with those they regard as their fellows: so the challenge is to make all citizens, including the newer ones, appear to each other as fellows.

This won’t be easy:

The patriotic pride invested in and unleashed by the likes of Mo Farah may seem trivial, but it shows that people can indeed come to see a relative newcomer as one of their own. But it takes effort from every level of society. It requires immigrants to work at becoming integrated of course, but it also demands that everyone else welcome and embrace them as Britons. … Goodhart’s book does not offer much advice on how we might get there, but it is a powerful reminder that we have to try.

To recap, ignoring working-class racism won’t work, shutting it out won’t work and trying to address the economic factors underlying it won’t work, because it’s a genuine and authentic phenomenon but a purely cultural one. That said (Freedland adds) actually taking it seriously would be wrong, so we need to take what’s good about it – the belief in social cohesion, the desire to share with kith and kin – and transform it into a kind of racialised liberalism; instead of rejecting immigrants as different, people would be encouraged to recognise immigrants as being just as British as you and me. Well, some immigrants – the ones who are willing to work at becoming integrated. Which would rule out those Romanians, of course, and those Muslims – and as for those Africans, well… Mo Farah, he’s all right. If only they were all like him, eh?

What’s a smart liberal hack like Freedland doing, putting his name to an argument so simultaneously weak and dodgy? But then, why have DG and EK spent so much time and effort finding euphemisms for racism? Why has Harris been alternately hailing the Brexit vote as a working-class revolt and pronouncing on the need to have a message that wins safe Tory seats? Why have UKIP got a near-permanent seat on Question Time, and why have the BBC profiled Marine le Pen three times (on one occasion flatly denying that either she or her father is a racist) and Emmanuel Macron not at all? Why this and why now?

I think there’s a big clue in Freedland’s reference to Corbyn and Miliband’s “ostrich-ism”, contrasted with the validation of “non-material”, “cultural” anxieties. Which is to say, I think it’s a “god that failed” problem. Faced with the Coalition’s combination of class-war savagery and rampant ineptitude, or with the present government’s determination to elevate pig-headed stupidity to an art form, the Left and the liberal centre need something to call on: not just a party or an alternative leader, but a social constituency and a world view. We need to be able to say who we’re talking to and in the name of what, in other words.

Going back to the top of the post, class consciousness would fit the bill perfectly. But class consciousness is gone: it’s been superseded by the collective resentments that defined the referendum campaign. (Bloke said. In the Guardian.) More to the point, I think, class consciousness as a frame of reference for Labour was thrown on the bonfire during the New Labour years; it became axiomatic that we weren’t orienting to the working class any more, let alone thinking in terms of fostering the development of class consciousness (like, strikes and things? why would you want to do that?) The trouble is, New Labour managerialism only really sings when it’s winning; it’s only available as a frame of reference for as long as it’s in power (hence its survival in mutant form in urban local authorities around the country). After seven years of disastrous Tory-led government, renewal – the emergence of a new force and a new vision of the world – is urgently needed, but where’s it going to come from? One thing’s for sure, it can’t be the old Left – everyone from the BBC to the New Statesman agrees that that’s dead and buried, has been for years. In passing, this assumption rather neatly explains both the defeatism between the lines of Harris’s (and others’) commentary on the Labour Party and the furious hostility of much of the centre-left towards Corbyn and his base – the old Left that refused to die. Both are illustrated by a plaintive tweet from the editor of the New Statesman in December 2015:

Labour in grip of London ultra-left liberals – Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott. What’s needed is a patriotic social democratic party #OldhamWest

That’s #OldhamWest as in the seat that Labour held with 65% of the vote (up from 55% at the general election). But the efforts to undermine Corbyn have come on in leaps and bounds since then, so presumably Jason Cowley feels a bit happier now.

Anyway, New Labour isn’t on the menu any more, the old Left is dead and buried – no, it is, it really is – so who does that leave? Who else has got answers, a coherent world-view and a ready-made constituency to call on? As Laurie Penny puts it, bigotry and xenophobia have been sucked into the philosophical void at the heart of political narrative.

And that’s the process that DG, EK, Justin Gest, John Harris and far too many other self-professed liberals are contributing to; and that’s why we need Labour to stand firm against racism and xenophobia, addressing their root causes (where there are any); and that’s why we need to build class consciousness. It really is that simple.

Coda: The folks on the hill

Owen Jones is one commentator who’s now dissociating himself from the “working-class revolt” model of Brexit. While maintaining that “much of the referendum result can be attributed to working-class disaffection with an unjust status quo”, Owen points out that the demographics of the vote don’t make it possible to go any further than that. If we divide the population six ways – ABC1/C2DE, 18-34, 35-64, 65+ – post-referendum polling suggests that there was something like a 2:1 split in favour of Leave among the two older C2DE groups. But those two groups between them only account for a third of the population, which is to say that they accounted for about 22% of the 52% Leave vote. Which in turn means that, if you were to pick a Brexit voter at random, three times out of five you’d find somebody who didn’t fit the ‘disgruntled older working-class’ template. Brexit might not have passed without the element of working-class disaffection, but it certainly wouldn’t have passed on that alone. The only way that two-thirds of 35+-year-old C2DEs are going to swing a national vote is by forming part of a coalition that extends far beyond that relatively narrow group – a coalition that included, in this case, nearly 60% of 65+ ABC1s and very nearly half of the 35-64 ABC1s (the single largest group). Focusing on the (White) working class makes sense if you want to use them to give credibility to your vision of a new wave of respectable racism, but if you actually want to explain what happened last June it won’t really do the job. Apart from anything else, it certainly can’t explain what happened in places like Fareham, the 55%-Leave town Owen visited for his article.

For the most part it’s a good article – and all credit to Owen for openly backtracking from his earlier position. Still, old habits die hard:

For the left, class politics is about who has wealth and power, and who doesn’t, and eliminating the great inequalities that define society. The populist right, on the other hand, denounces “identity politics”, while indulging in exactly that: transforming class into a cultural and political identity, weaponised in their struggle against progressive Britain. The left must be able to counter that approach with arguments that resonate in Doncaster and Thanet, and no less in towns like Fareham.

No real quarrel with the second sentence, although I think it’s actually a bit simpler than that: I think what’s going on, here as in America, is an attempt to annex the ‘working class’ identity and claim it for Whiteness. (Read some of DG’s handwringing about preserving ‘traditions’ and ‘ways of life’, then see how many actual White working-class customs and folkways he mentions. My counter’s still on zero.) But “arguments that resonate … in towns like Fareham”? Owen, mate. Fareham has been a parliamentary constituency, with occasional boundary changes and two name changes, since 1885. That’s 35 General Elections (no by-elections), every single one of which has returned a Conservative (or Unionist) candidate. Nothing’s dislodged the Tory hold on Fareham, ever – not the 1997 landslide, not even the 1945 landslide. (To be fair, in 1945 Labour did get 47% of the vote in Fareham, but unfortunately the Tory candidate got 53%.) “Arguments that resonate in Fareham” is an answer to the question “how can we get an even bigger majority than Attlee?”, and I don’t think that’s one we need to ask at the moment. Forget Fareham and forget the Fens – that’s a different story, and not one that the Left should try to tell. We’ve got our own.

Rats and children

More on David Goodhart and Eric Kaufmann’s work on ‘racial self-interest’, focusing mainly on Goodhart this time.

To judge from DG’s FT article and the report by EK that it draws on and promotes, EK has a Big Idea that he wants us all to adopt – partly because it would make it easier for him to win arguments, partly because adopting it would mean conceding an argument to him. The idea is, of course, racial self-interest – more precisely, the social reality of racial self-interest, and/or the desirability of social settings which do not exclude the reality of racial self-interest. (Or: the desirability of not compelling racists to pretend to be tolerant for the sake of social acceptability.) It’s a thoroughly bad idea and I’ve dealt with it here.

One of the reasons why the logic of that article in the FT was so contorted is that DG, while an enthusiastic promoter of EK’s Big Idea, has a separate and distinct Big Idea of his own. We’re talking now about population sub-groups within a multicultural society rather than races, and rights rather than interests. DG’s Big Idea is… well, something about group rights. On closer inspection, it turns out that it goes like this:

something something minority rights something majority rights, aha! something something answer me that if you can!

All facetiousness aside, it really is hard to get a coherent position on the subject out of DG’s writing. In his recent navel-gazing column for the FT, he reminisces about “tentatively dissent[ing] from the liberal consensus on immigration and multiculturalism” back in 2004, by advancing “what I thought was the uncontroversial assumption that people are readier to share with people with whom they have something in common”; in the response that this essay received, he “met the intolerance of the modern left for the first time”. There he was, tentatively advancing an uncontroversial opinion, but the Left wouldn’t have it – they showed their true, intolerant colours! There’s a book to be written about victim mentality on the Right, and in particular this kind of ‘epiphany of leftist intolerance’ narrative (all I said was…). This is from a poster on Stormfront:

I first viewed that damned film in the 70’s, and thought at the time the song to be remarkably refreshing and uplifting (and the only redeeming quality of the film); unfortunately I shared this thought in the company of a Jew, upon leaving the theatre. Big mistake. I was not able to calm that guy down until I pointed to the origins of those attributed to the song’s composition and lyrics. That was my first indoctrination of the ongoing Jewish hatred for “all” non-Jewish German people and their heritage.

All I said was that “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is the only good thing in Cabaret – these Jews are so intolerant!

Of course, DG’s ‘uncontroversial assumption’ is no such thing (at least, it makes freaks out of me, my family and most of my work colleagues – but more on that another time). And, of course, that was far from being the most controversial statement in that 2004 essay: it also suggested that the US’s low-tax, low-welfare, low-participation society was attributable to the size of the ethnic minority population and that Britain might be heading for an immigration-based ‘tipping point’, and proposed remedying this situation by instituting a British National Day, teaching schoolchildren about the British Empire and denying immigrants access to the welfare state until they “make the effort to become citizens”. (What was to become of Britain’s existing ethnic minorities – in this world where multiculturalism inexorably leads to resentment and alienation, electoral abstention and tax-dodging – was unclear; one would think that these proposals would leave them more alienated than ever. Perhaps the goal was for them all to become fully, culturally British – cricket test and all – and then there wouldn’t be any ethnic minorities any more. No man, no problem.) Far from ‘tentatively’ proposing that people are more friendly to people like them, DG’s 2004 essay proposed that British liberal democracy was doomed unless the government sharply limited immigration and strongly encouraged assimilation to a distinct British national culture – and that if such a culture didn’t already exist it should be created. On one hand, a mildly-worded observation about individual preferences; on the other, a demand for enforced ethno-cultural homogeneity.

I dwell on this because it’s very much how DG works: he puts forward political proposals that are deeply reactionary and often startlingly extreme, then backs them up with nothing more than vague conservative platitudes (all I said was that we’re all different… all I said was that family’s important…) This style of argument creates problems for DG’s opponents, but also for DG himself. The problem is that the platitudes alone will only take you so far. Thus in the FT, talking about his own intellectual evolution, DG says that he started out as a well-to-do, well-educated liberal, but came to identify with “more rooted, generally less well-educated people who … prioritise group attachments and security”; he knew how far he’d come (“one recent incident crystallized matters”) when “I was chatting to a group of friends in a bar, including a few people I didn’t know, and I said I could understand the discomfort that Nigel Farage had recently expressed about not hearing a single English-speaker on a train in London”. (Whereupon one of the people in the group walked out, and good for them.)

The question is, how do these things go together? The connection seems obvious to DG – too obvious to state, in fact – but what is it? Let’s say that you, a ‘rooted’ sort of person, are on a train – in England – and you find yourself surrounded by speakers of Polish, Spanish, Punjabi and Somali; does the fact that they’re not speaking English tell you that you’re among people who don’t “prioritise group attachments and security”? Of course not. (They may be tourists. They may have strong, sentimental attachments to the place they were born, and intend to go back there some day. They may feel rooted in the place they were born and the place where they live now. And, of course, the place they were born may actually be in England.) Looking at the question another way, what if the ‘group attachment’ that you prioritise actually includes people who don’t look or sound like you; what if the ‘home’ group where you feel you belong consists of Manchester City supporters, Joss Whedon fans, fellow Christians, the workers of the world? Farage’s discomfort might fit with the ‘group attachments’ model if he’d been complaining about a train carriage full of well-educated liberals demonstratively performing their rootlessness – talking loudly on their phones about doing breakfast in Zurich and moving their business to the Far East – but he clearly wasn’t. And all this is without even getting into the question of what conceivable harm it does you to share a train with people who think differently from you, if indeed they do.

So there’s at least one missing term here: on its own, “I have a valid attachment to my own group” won’t get you to “I have a valid objection to mixing with foreigners”. For a start, we need to go from (1) “I feel attached to people like me” to (2) “specifically, I feel attached to people with a similar ethnic and cultural background”; then to (3) “my life is structured by my ties to people with a similar ethnic and cultural background”; then (4) “it is valid, and not at all problematic, for my life to be structured by my ties to people with a similar ethnic and cultural background”. But the crucial steps are the last two: (5) “everyone’s life should be structured by ties to people of a similar ethnic and cultural background” and (6) “this structuration is not a distant ideal but an realisable policy outcome, to be imposed through a combination of force and persuasion”. To put it more bluntly, you need to go from (1) “I like people like me” to (2) “I like White people”; then (3) “I only ever mix with White people” and (4) “I don’t see that this is a problem”; then (5) “down with race-mixing” and (6) “Blacks out”.

Of course, DG doesn’t say anything as coarse as this, and I’m sure he’d express himself horrified to find that his words had been interpreted in this way. I mean, all he said was… that people tend to like to stick to their own kind (2), and that there are people out there who live in the same place they were born and like it that way (a vicarious (3)), and that their worldview is “legitimate, and decent” (4). Oh, and this:

Newcomers can be absorbed into [liberal] societies, and can retain some of their own traditions, but unless a critical mass of them embrace the broad common norms of the society, the idea of the nation as a group of people with significant shared interests – the idea of a people – will fracture. Thus moderate nationalism is a positively benign force reinforcing common interests (and welfare states) against the disintegrating effects of affluence, individualism and diversity

They can come here if they’re going to live like us true Brits, but if they aren’t going to live like us they’ll threaten our national survival. And what do we do with threats to our national survival? We don’t let them in, clearly, and if they’re already here we throw them out. DG proposes ethno-cultural purity both as an ideal and as a policy programme. It’s not at all clear, just in passing, how the “broad common norms” of a liberal society turned into “moderate nationalism”; as Harry Hill would say, that surely is the Least Logically Justifiable ‘Thus’ Clause Of The Week.

But there’s a much bigger problem here: the age-old problem of getting from an Is to an Ought. Even if we grant DG’s assertion that there are lots of people out there who feel locally rooted and don’t have much capacity to uproot themselves, and his secondary argument (never quite spelt out) that those people tend to hold conservative and illiberal views, there’s no logical bridge from there to his conclusion that those views are correct – indeed, that the country as a whole should be governed along conservative and illiberal lines, privileging a White British national identity over all others. You can’t get from (4) to (5) without importing additional assumptions; you can’t really get from (3) to (4), come to that.

DG could – and, let’s be honest, probably will – skate right past this whole argument as if it wasn’t there. If he cares about logical consistency, though, there are only a couple of options. One is to fall back on a blank Rortyan post-Pragmatism, saying that (a) there are people who recognise themselves as White British and value White British interests, (b) he finds that he is one of those people and therefore (c) solidarity demands he say Hurrah for the White Brits; I don’t think he’d want to make an argument that seemed so ungrounded, though, or so partisan. The other is to find a middle term to plug in between (3) and (5), between observing the existence of a group characterised by ethnic exclusivity and justifying the imposition of ethnic exclusivity on society more widely.

And this, returning to my original subject, is where ‘minority rights’ come in. Thus:

An emotionally mature liberalism must also accept that white majorities, not just minorities, in western societies have ethnic attachments too and an interest in a degree of demographic stability — and it is not shameful or racist for people to feel uncomfortable if their neighbourhood changes too rapidly, whether from gentrification or ethnic change.

Or, more bluntly, in the earlier piece:

Multiculturalism is premised on the rights of minorities to maintain certain traditions and ways of life. But liberals have usually been reluctant to extend such group rights to majorities.

And which rights might we be talking about here?

it is not always clear what distinguishes legitimate group interest from racism. … while few people from the white majority think in explicitly ethnic terms, many feel a discomfort about their group no longer setting the tone in the neighbourhood.

If minority rights, then majority rights – and if minority rights “to maintain certain traditions and ways of life”, then majority rights to continue “setting the tone in the neighbourhood” through numerical dominance. The White British majority, rather than being a numerical abstraction derived by counting how many people ticked a box on a form, is now a community, an entity with a way of life and the right to maintain that way of life – and being an overwhelming majority is a key part of that way of life. (Perhaps the only part; DG shows very little interest in what anyone’s “traditions and ways of life” actually involve. I’m not sure he even knows about Morris dancing.) As such, our narrow-minded locally-rooted people aren’t just speaking for themselves (or being ventriloquised, by DG and EK, for themselves) – they’re the voice of a kind of class consciousness (or community consciousness), demanding that the British government recognise the rights of the White British community, just as it recognises the rights of minority communities. Just as minority communities have the right not to face direct discrimination, the White British community – historically overwhelmingly dominant – has the right to damn well remain overwhelmingly dominant, which among other things would mean not being bothered by people speaking foreign languages on the train. (Perhaps they could bring in separate coaches. More coaches for the White British, obviously.)

It’s neat, you’ve got to give him that. It’s also nonsense: to say that minority groups have rights is either flat wrong or very imprecise shorthand. I discussed this point with DG on Twitter, briefly. (Image below; the original tweet is here. There are some excellent replies.)

Sikh m/bike helmets, by jingo. The Motor Cycle Crash Helmets Act – which enacted the exemption for Sikhs – dates back to 1976; I’m old enough to remember the National Front trying to make capital out of it. (According to our local paper, NF activists were planning to go out on motorbikes with towels wrapped round their heads in protest. Stay classy, lads.) DG’s older than me, and it seems to have lodged in his memory too.

Needless to say, it doesn’t work for him in the way that he seems to think it does. Individuals have the right to the protection of valuable interests, but it’s the individuals who have both the interests and the rights. Certainly, individuals who are members of faith communities have a valuable interest in religious observance which isn’t shared by secular and atheist individuals, just as members of minority faith communities have an interest in religious freedom which isn’t shared by adherents of the established church. But it would be absurd to conclude from this that atheists have fewer rights than Anglicans, or Anglicans than Sikhs; in each case, the second group simply has different interests from the first, and/or interests in more need of legal protection. In fact there’s only one item on his list that I’d class as anything other than a protected individual interest – the right of religious courts to make rulings that individuals agree to treat as binding – and even that is at most an institutional capacity, a ‘power’ in Hohfeldian terms.

It’s thin, is what it is; it’s almost as thin as the arguments for ‘racial self-interest’. It’s a thin and logically incoherent set of attempted justifications for… well, for racism. I can’t see any other way of looking at it.

Next: these racists, where are they all flocking from?

Standing in the shadows

More on Eric Kaufmann’s recent research into ‘racial self-interest’.

The concept of ‘racial self-interest’ runs through EK’s research report. In fact, it runs through the research like a barium meal: it goes in at one end and comes out unchanged at the other, after being visible all the way through. A few quotations to give you the idea:

Shadi Hamid … argues that it is important to distinguish racism and racial self-interest, and that Trump supporters, who voted in a racially self-interested way to limit immigration, should not be accused of racism. (Executive Summary)

is it the case that immigration skeptics are majority ethnic partisans who are acting in what Shadi Hamid terms their ‘racial self-interest’: seeking to maximise the demographic advantage of their group (Introduction)

Consider the question: ‘A white American who identifies with her group and its history supports a proposal to reduce immigration. Her motivation is to maintain her group’s share of America’s population. Is this person: 1) just acting in her racial self-interest, which is not racist; 2) being racist; 3) don’t know.’ … First, the words Asian, Black or Latino are swapped for White to see how responses change. Second, ‘decrease’ [sic] is changed to ‘increase’ immigration, and ‘maintain’ to ‘increase’ group share. Thus: ‘An Asian American who identifies with her group and its history supports a proposal to increase immigration from Asia. Her motivation is to increase her group’s share of America’s population.’  (Immigration and Racism: A Conjoint Analysis)

The questions were very explicit about specifying that the subject in each question wants particular policies in order to preserve or enhance her group’s demographic share. In this sense, the ‘correct’ answer is that people are ‘acting in their racial self-interest, which is not racist.’ It is possible – and consistent – for someone to consider all racially self-interested behaviour racist. But the variation in white liberal responses based on whether the question pertains to whites or minorities, belies this rational explanation.  (Immigration and Racism in Britain and America)

On the question of whether group-oriented immigration preferences are racist, white liberals are more biased than white conservatives … imputing white racist motivations to those trying to advance their racial self-interest. … it is important to draw a distinction between irrational racism and rational group self-interest. Wanting fewer people from other ethnic groups or higher numbers of co-ethnics to bolster one’s group share is not racist (Conclusion)

“Racial self-interest? How is that not racist by itself?” (Justify Your Answer: Examining qualitative evidence)

The last one is from a survey participant, not EK; I just thought we needed some fresh air.

The research starts from the assumption that ‘racial self-interest’ is distinct from racism, and that recognising this fact explains – and helps condone – some racially discriminatory behaviour. The survey then prompts participants with the information that ‘racial self-interest’ is in fact distinct from racism, and invites them to apply it to a hypothetical situation which is designed to exemplify racial self-interest. Finally, EK reads the data and concludes that ‘racial self-interest’ is distinct from racism, and that only irrational bias can account for left-wingers’ failure to acknowledge the fact.

This isn’t all that’s going on here, though. A clue is supplied by a passing reference to Kahneman and Thinking, fast and slow. The sucker-punch structure of EK’s question is very reminiscent of the question with which Tversky and Kahneman identified the ‘conjunction problem’:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is a bank teller.

b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The great majority of people consistently get this wrong. The correct answer is – logically has to be – a); “A and also B” cannot be more probable than “A with or without B”, whatever A and B are. But we’re not hard-wired to be good at probability; we seem to read the question as an invitation to fill in the blank in the way that gives the most satisfying story, in this case option b). EK’s question is different, but it has a definite family resemblance; it’s as if we were asked

As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also joined the local Labour Party. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is a Labour Party member, which is not the same as being a socialist.

b) Linda is a socialist.

In EK’s research, in other words, respondents were primed with the ‘right’ answer and duly repeated it back, in the same way that Tversky and Kahneman’s subjects were effectively primed with the ‘wrong’ answer. But this isn’t the point of the research; the point is that a minority of respondents gave the ‘wrong’ answer despite the priming – and it’s these subjects that EK is really interested in. His interest isn’t unmotivated – he clearly believes that the ‘racial self-interest’ model is in fact the right answer, as well as being the ‘right’ answer to the question as he formulated it. This, though, is something that the research as designed can’t confirm or deny; it’s assumed at the outset and assumed in the conclusion.

As, perhaps, it has to be: as the previous post demonstrate, it’s very difficult to separate ‘racial self-interest’ from racism other than by definitional fiat – and even that is liable to collapse if we look at ‘racial self-interest’ from the outside, in terms of its effects on those who are disadvantaged by it. (If I stop my daughter playing with your daughter because of the colour of your skin, do you think that (a) I’m motivated by racial hate; (b) my motives are unknowable and may be nothing more than racial self-interest, which would be perfectly fine; or (c) whatever my motives, my actions themselves are hateful?)

Nor is it clear what the advantage of adopting this concept would be, other than that some people with racist views would no longer be challenged on them. For EK, this in itself would be beneficial:

In one focus group run as part of my ESRC-Demos research, a lady complained of the Croydon (UK) tramlink that ‘I might have been the only English person on that tram… I didn’t like it… I could have been in a foreign country’ was challenged by another participant who asked, ‘Why should that affect you that there’s minorities on the [tram]?’ The woman swiftly changed her narrative to a more acceptable, economic, form of opposition to immigration: ‘It doesn’t affect me. It, um… I’ve got grandchildren and children… I don’t think things are going to get any better or easier for them, to get work.’ In other words, economic but not ethnocultural concerns about immigration are considered legitimate subjects for public debate. This produces dishonest debate rather than a frank and rational exchange between people of all backgrounds – realising they share similar ethnic motivations and must reach an accommodation that is fair to all.

But why would the detoxifying of ‘ethnocultural concerns’ be a good thing? How would the resulting ‘honest’, ‘frank and rational’ debate go?

– Why should that affect you that there’s minorities on the [tram]?
“Well, I’m White, aren’t I. Don’t like being outnumbered by foreigners – stands to reason. It’s against my racial self-interest.”
– Oh, racial self-interest, right. Don’t feel it so strongly myself, but if you do, well, fair enough.

There isn’t that much to debate, at the end of the day: a woman in Croydon didn’t like being – or feeling – outnumbered by foreign people on a tram, and that feeling is either (a) racist and therefore not legitimate or (b) not racist and therefore legitimate. It doesn’t matter how many people might frankly and honestly admit to racist sentiments, if encouraged to do so; if those sentiments are racist, they shouldn’t be publicly legitimated. Really, this is just “you can’t say that any more” in more sophisticated language.

The notion of racial self-interest also carries the unwelcome implication that there are such things as races which can have self-interest. EK has gestured towards the classic sociologist’s answer to this kind of question – that if people believe things are real and act accordingly, they are real in their consequences – but in this case it won’t really do. To believe in ethnic groups – even to believe in one’s own – is not necessarily to believe in ethnic group interests. If people believe that the Black British identity, the Muslim identity, the Welsh-speaking identity (etc) are real and act accordingly, no harm necessarily follows: everyone is free to maintain, develop and celebrate the identities which they feel to be theirs, and to seek out like-minded people to support them in doing so. No harm necessarily follows, up to the point where they start believing that identities like these have interests and are in competition. It’s this additional belief that leads people to act hatefully to people of the ‘wrong’ group, and it’s this belief that we generally call racism.

The one situation where ethnic group interests can become a reality, ironically, is when the ethnic group is under threat – which may be the end result of racism. Where a particular group is threatened with extinction, or its existence is denied, or its identity is treated with contempt, all members of that group have a genuine common interest in group preservation and self-assertion. But this interest is met by physical and cultural survival; there is no intrinsic interest in group expansion, except so far as necessary to assure bare survival. Moreover, the group interest is secondary; it is derivative of the fundamental individual rights which everyone has, to life and to self-actualization through culture. If those needs are met in ways that don’t perpetuate the group, the group has no independent interest in survival. There may be a thousand nominal Muggletonians in Britain, but if none of them feels that being a Muggletonian is an important part of their identity, the extinction of Muggletonianism is inevitable and is not to be regretted (except by historians).

The group extinction scenario clearly has no relevance to the position of Whites in Britain and the USA. EK invokes it nevertheless, noting that Zoroastrians frown on exogamy for just this reason. A similar logic presumably underlies an otherwise puzzling formulation, when EK argues that if someone objects to their child’s chosen partner on the grounds that the union would “defile their race’s purity”, this is racism, but that if the motive is “to preserve the vitality” of their ethnic group, this is “group-interested behaviour”. (Got that, everyone? Purity bad, vitality good.) EK seems to wish to help himself to the genuine issues faced by groups which are so small as to be in danger of extinction; he manages it by blurring the difference between genuinely preserving an ethnic group from extinction and preserving its “vitality”, or believing one is doing so. But the threat to the survival of Zoroastrianism is a reality, not merely something that becomes real by being acted on. If you act as if being English is ‘a thing’, you’re creating the social reality of being English. If you act as if the English are under threat of extinction, you’re creating social reality based on assumptions which you know to be false – in other words, you’re acting in bad faith.

At the end of the report we still have no clue as to why EK believes that ‘racial self-interest’ is a valid model, to the point that people who fail to believe in it can be labelled as biased and irrational. It’s clearly not because he believes that discrete human ‘races’ actually exist, in the sense that distinguishable noble gases or species of lizard exist. Certainly, many people believe in and identify with ethnic groups (defined in a variety of different ways). And certainly, a lot of people believe that ethnic groups have interests – at least, that their ethnic group does – and that the pursuit of these interests is entirely distinct from racism and should not be given such a pejorative label. But it’s not the role of the social scientist to give scientific credibility to widely-held errors – least of all errors as dangerous as this one is.

Next: but what about multiculturalism, eh?

You’ve got ventriloquists

My previous post is now approaching 3,000 reads; it’s now the best-read post in this blog’s history, passing the previous record-holder – which was (bizarrely) my annotated “There There, My Dear”.

I’m pleased with the impact the post has had and very pleased with its reception (I’ll write about some critical responses in another post), but since I wrote it I’ve felt that more was needed. The post was a line-by-line fisking of David Goodhart’s column, following the twists, feints and occasional leaps of the argument, so it wasn’t a very systematic presentation of my disagreement with his and Eric Kaufmann’s ideas. I hadn’t read the whole of EK’s report when I wrote it; I’ve now made good that omission, which in turn has prompted further reflections. Also, DG complained about the post’s facetiousness, which is fair enough; I was trying to raise a smile quite a lot of the time, if only to keep the anger at bay.

So this and the next couple of posts will be devoted to my considered, and reasonably straight-faced, thoughts on this whole ‘racial self-interest’ thing. First, let’s talk about the vexed issue of racism and how to define it. Here’s the OED definition, one more time:

A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs.

Needless to say, this isn’t the definition DG and EK prefer; on Twitter, DG ridiculed my reliance on ‘dictionary definitions’ – which is fairly rich coming from somebody who’d relied on a definition plucked out of the air. For DG the ‘normal definition’ of racism is “irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group”. EK, in the project report, quotes DG (it’s a small world) hypothesising “someone who identifies loosely with their own ethnic group … [and] wishes to live in an area where the group is predominant”; this person, however, “holds no negative views of other groups”, and as such we are invited to consider him or her not to be racist. EK for his part notes that different people do in fact define racism differently – although “most agree that someone who does not want to live next to a person of a different race is racist” – and offers to resolve the problem by coming up with a narrower, core definition on which we can all agree. In his words,

the central question concerns motivation. Do [people who want to reduce immigration] fear, hate or look down upon those of other ethnic backgrounds? If the answer is yes, they are racist by any definition of the term. Or is it the case that immigration skeptics are majority ethnic partisans who are … seeking to maximise the demographic advantage of their group[?]

And in this case, again, we are invited to consider that these people are not racists.

Now, you’ll have noted the absence from the OED definition of any reference to fear, hatred or contempt, so central to both EK’s and DG’s version of the term (DG’s formulation in fact specifies irrational hatred, etc, implying that in some situations he might not even consider those negative emotions to rise to the level of racism). So how can this definition be valid? Let’s suppose that you are one of our putative non-racists, feeling no animus towards any other group but identifying with your own group, wishing to maximise its demographic advantage and preferring to live in an area where the group is predominant. Let’s suppose you live in a street with nineteen houses, ten of them (your own included) occupied by people who identify with the same ethnic group as you – White British, Bosnian Serb, Loyalist, Hutu, whatever it might be. Now suppose that one of those ten families moves out suddenly – trading up to the outer suburbs, relocating for a job in another town, whatever – and the house is bought by a family from the other group. They’re perfectly nice people – you’ve got nothing against them as individuals; the thought of hating or fearing them personally has never crossed your mind – but they’re not from your group, and that matters to you; you want to maximise your group’s demographic advantage, and to live in an area where your group predominates, and while their group has the majority in your street that isn’t possible. You hear on the grapevine that the location is really convenient for them, the house is the house of their dreams and they got a really good deal on it; you’re happy for them, really you are, but still.

Now suppose that your street is a gated community, and buying a house there isn’t just a matter of putting the money down: the residents’ committee have to agree on any newcomer. Or suppose that they’ve got the house fair and square, but you hear rumours that they’re not really happy there and they’re thinking of moving out – they hadn’t expected their new neighbours to throw so many loud parties. Decision time: if you’re going to act on your preference for a community numerically dominated by your group, your course of action is clear. You regretfully vote against the newcomers in the residents’ committee; you find the first excuse to throw the loudest and longest party you can manage. Let’s face it, the new family was never going to fit in – it’s a kindness, really, to let them find out sooner rather than later…

I respectfully put it to DG, EK and their co-thinkers that, from the point of view of the newcomers, it doesn’t make much difference whether you consciously hate them or not. There is very little difference between being coerced into giving up something valuable by people who genuinely hate you, and being coerced into giving up something valuable by people who just don’t want you around. In any case, hatred is as hatred does: if somebody denied you the house of your dreams just because they didn’t like the look of you, I think you could be excused for feeling that they did in fact hate and/or look down on you. In point of fact, if the history of ghettoisation and ethnic cleansing tells us anything, it’s that terrible things can be done by people who don’t consciously hate or fear anyone, but just think it’d be better all round if those people were somewhere out of sight.

It could be argued, conversely, that this is all a dreadful misrepresentation – when we talk about wanting to maximise demographic advantage we’re not actually talking about people who would do nasty things like veto new residents on racial grounds. But if we’re not talking about that, what on earth are we talking about? I may have a deep-seated yearning to surround myself with fans of Cannon and Ball (no ironists or timewasters please), but if I never act on it in any way it’s not of any interest to anyone. We’re surely talking about beliefs that people are prepared to act on – or that they genuinely want politicians to act on on their behalf. That being the case, the difference between being an ‘ethnic partisan’ and ‘irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group’ is vanishingly small.

DG believes this is all a terrible mistake, tactically as well as normatively: “To describe as racist what many ordinary citizens regard as reasonable anxieties about rapid change is simply wrong, and a cause of great resentment”. EK: “Real racism exists and is dangerous. All the more reason to refine the term, using it precisely rather than permitting it to be stretched by political entrepreneurs”. Both seem to be backed up by a former Labour voter, quoted by US academic Justin Gest: “I think the anti-racists have made it worse. They look for trouble. They construe everything as racist.” Labelling people’s views as racist both alienates those people and makes them less sensitive to the actual danger of racism; instead, we should keep our definitional powder dry, abandoning the OED definition for the higher ground of a hatred-based definition. DG again: “The point is precisely to cordon off racism as far as possible into a place where everyone can recognise it and reject it, and then place linguistic and intellectual barriers between it and other forms of thought and behaviour that may involve race but are not racist”. Or rather, to relocate the linguistic and intellectual barriers which make racism taboo, putting some of the forms of thought and behaviour currently regarded as racism outside them.

There are two arguments here, both of them fairly confused. Whether ordinary citizens regard their views as ‘reasonable anxieties’ has no bearing on whether or not those views are in fact racist. (And let’s face it, most people have always regarded their own views as reasonable.) Calling their views racist may cause great resentment, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it (although it may call for a degree of tact). It certainly doesn’t mean that we should redefine racism so as not to offend anyone(!). DG argues both that racism has no intrinsic meaning (but that we should redefine it to exclude anything that ‘many ordinary citizens’ currently think), and that it has an intrinsic meaning which is much narrower than its current usage. EK for his part argues that the current definition has been deliberately stretched out of shape, apparently for partisan advantage, and that this over-extended definition tends to discredit the whole concept (although in that case it’s not clear where the partisan advantage is coming from).

But the whole argument’s moot, given that – as we’ve seen – there is no significant distinction between the broad and narrow definitions. To stop somebody getting what they want, not because it directly benefits you but because of who they are, is to treat that person hatefully and contemptuously. Whether you’re cackling evilly while you do it, or mentally reassuring yourself that you’re acting for the greater good, is not the deciding factor; in fact it’s a very trivial factor, of little interest to anyone but you.

As for the “anti-racists make it worse” argument, I think we should call its bluff – particularly bearing in mind that the “former Labour voter” quoted had subsequently transferred her loyalties to the BNP and then to UKIP, and that Gest also recorded her making comments such as

there were dozens of Romanian women with children, and it’s clear they had been on the nick. Vile people, Romanians. Then you walk outside, and it’s so loud with all the halal shops and rubbish in the streets. We look like a suburb of Nairobi.

Are people really being alienated by anti-racists insisting on labelling harmless traditional preferences and turns of phrase as ‘racist’? Or is it just a case of people expressing racist views, being told that those views are racist and being – or acting – mortally offended?

Next: ‘racial self-interest’ and how to ask a silly question.

Slipped on a little white lie

A recent piece in the broadsheet press has received quite a lot of attention – attention which I think it fully deserves, in much the same way that an infectious disease notification or a hurricane warning deserves attention. My initial impression was that it was extraordinarily bad in every respect, but on closer inspection it does some things very well indeed. All told, it’s an odd combination of superb rhetoric, tenuous logic and moral foulness.

The dividing line between liberals and conservatives in the US and the UK increasingly hinges on different definitions of racism.

The author takes it as axiomatic that racism is a bad thing: whatever it is that we call racism, that thing is bad, OK? So when he talks about ‘different definitions of racism’, what he’s actually referring to is different ways to draw the line between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’. Just as treason doth never prosper, racism is never acceptable – because if we see anything that looks a bit racist but want to say it’s acceptable, we redefine it as not being racism.

What do you mean, “what do you mean, ‘we’?”? We do it; we label some things as acceptable that other people might call racism – it’s something everyone does. In fact two assumptions are being made here: (1) it’s possible to draw the line between acceptable-but-a-bit-racist-in-the-wrong-light and unacceptable-and-just-plain-racist in different ways, and (2) not only is it possible, but everybody does it – liberals do it just as much as conservatives, they just draw their line in a different place. (The British political scene is a bit more complicated than “liberals vs conservatives”, of course, but the author prefers to stick with a cast of two. Presumably this is because it’s a lot easier to say “you’re no better than them” if you’ve decided in advance exactly who ‘you’ and ‘they’ are.)

Anyway, that’s what you’ve absorbed – or what’s been smuggled past you – by the end of the first sentence. Let’s crack on.

Liberals attack President Trump’s proposal to erect a wall along the US border with Mexico, and his ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, as racist. Many on the right defend them as necessary protections.

The border wall and the travel ban: racist or necessary protections? Ooh, complicated. Or not. Simple question: when Donald Trump proposed “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, and when he said of Mexican immigrants “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”, was this the language of (a) racism or (b) necessary protections? Second question: why in the world would we imagine that those two things are mutually exclusive? (You see what I mean about good rhetoric and bad logic.) Surely the measures are racist whether they’re taken to be necessary protections or not. If you’ve identified a nationality or a faith group as the source of problems and declared that the solution is to bar those people from the country en masse, it doesn’t really matter whether what you’re trying to achieve is the necessary protection of the people, the preservation of the national culture or the purity of our precious bodily fluids – your analysis of the problem, and the measures you’ve taken to tackle it, are themselves racist. So this really doesn’t work; it’s another example of the author’s apparent determination to unmoor our understanding of the term ‘racism’, and send it floating off who knows where.

A recent study by a London college and Policy Exchange found that 72 per cent of Clinton voters in November’s presidential election consider Trump’s proposed wall to be racist compared with just 4 per cent of Donald Trump voters. But when the views of white and non-white Americans are contrasted, the gap shrinks. So political partisanship, not race, determines whether the wall is seen as racist.

This article refers to a project involving two sets of studies. The second set, which we’ll come to later, was conducted by YouGov and had reasonably chunky sample sizes; more to the point, YouGov’s involvement suggests that some effort was made to make those samples representative (size isn’t everything). The 72% and 4% figures come from what the project report refers to as a ‘pilot’ study conducted via Amazon Mechanical Turk: a quick-and-dirty convenience sample – or a series of them – with multiple quoted sample sizes, ranging from 117 up to 192. There’s no word on sub-groups within those samples other than a note that “MTurk’s sample is skewed toward secular white liberals”. Now, the gap between (professed) White and Black respondents on this question wasn’t just smaller than the Republican/Democrat gap, it was a lot smaller; 45%/55% Y/N (White) plays 55%/45% (Black), as opposed to 4%/96% (Rep) vs 72%/28% (Dem). On its face this certainly seems to suggest that political partisanship, not race, is doing the heavy lifting.

UPDATE 5/3 It has been pointed out to me that the following section is based on a misinterpretation of the figures, which in turn made me treat them as being less reliable than they are. Apologies.

The trouble is, the lack of weighting for representativeness makes it impossible to make this kind of comparison between different cross-breaks – and this particular contrast is so extreme that it’s hard to see how those two breaks could both be divisions of the same sample, just as a matter of arithmetic. Moreover, if those two splits aren’t divisions of the same sample, we’ve got no way to know which of the two samples we can trust – and we’ve certainly got no good reason to trust both of them, which obviously we need if we’re going to compare one with the other.

Let’s not beat about the bush, the Mechanical Turk stats presented here are little better than junk; that London college should be concerned about having its name attached to them.

What I should have written was something more along the lines of

The contrast between the two is so extreme that it’s hard to see how those two breaks could both be divisions of the same sample, which calls into question the comparison between the two. That said, even from different samples, they could both be valid – however skewed your sample may be (and however small it is, to a point), if the cross-breaks are far enough from being evenly distributed you can be sure that something‘s going on. But that’s what we have p-values for – and, although most of the ‘political’ cross-breaks are statistically significant (the 4/96 vs 72/28 split is significant at p<0.001), almost all the ‘race’ cross-breaks fail to reach statistical significance, this one included. So the Mechanical Turk data does support the first sentence quoted above, but it’s not strong enough to support the second and third. The researcher has suggested that the absence of a significant ‘race’ effect in the sample in itself supports the hypothesis that the real effect is small or non-existent, but I don’t find this convincing; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, surely. But I’m not a quants person and will defer to the judgment of any third party who is.

There’s also a broader question about data and methodology. Throughout the project report – including the sections that rely on YouGov-sanctioned sampling – there are charts with multiple ‘n’ values, with no explanation of which applies to what, or of why it’s appropriate to plot those apples and these pears on the same Y-axis. The exclusive presentation of the results in chart form also rings alarm bells. Methodologically-sound projects can generate nonsense, and projects that keep their methods and raw data to themselves may produce good data, but that’s not the way to bet. I could say something similar about think tanks that are open and informative about their funders as compared to those that aren’t; Policy Exchange scored zero in Transparify‘s 2016 report (“Highly opaque; no relevant or up-to-date information”).

There’s another, more fundamental point here, which the third sentence casually gives away: according to this article (and, indeed, the project) there is such a thing as ‘race’, and it can in principle ‘determine’ our point of view with regard to racism. (If it didn’t exist or couldn’t affect our point of view, there wouldn’t be any point contrasting it with political partisanship; it wouldn’t take a study to establish that your political loyalties are more important than your shoe size or the colour of your aura.) For contemporary sociologists it’s axiomatic that ethnic divisions are socially constructed, the distinctive markers of ethnic division varying from time to time and society to society – skin colour, facial features, language, script, religion, dress, cultural practice – and having no correspondence to any identifiable physical or genetic reality. There are no races, plural; the only reality of ‘race’ is racism, the social practice of dividing Czech from Roma, English from Welsh, Sephardim from Mizrahim, Tutsi from Hutu and so on. UPDATE 6/3 For the avoidance of doubt, self-identification with a group is also a social practice which we experience subjectively as reality; someone may wake up in Streatham and feel entirely confident that he is Black, African, Nigerian, Ibo, Black British, British, English, a Londoner, a south Londoner, a Christian, a Pentecostalist or some combination of the above, just as in the 1980s somebody might wake up in Sarajevo confident in her identity as a Slav, a Yugoslavian, a citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a Bosniak, a Muslim, a Sunni, a Communist, a speaker of Serbo-Croat or some combination of those. But I stand by the statement that the only reality of ‘race’ is racism: identities like these are plural, fluid and basically liberating rather than coercive, up to the point where one identity is set against another. At that point they become a lot less benign, and also – not coincidentally – a lot less plural and fluid: only a few years later our 1980s Sarajka would have been calling herself a Bosniak, a Bosnian Muslim, a citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a speaker of Bosnian and that’s it. ‘Race’ in this sense – an exhaustive and discrete set of categories in which everyone has their place – is the end-product of racism.

By contrast, the formulation used here suggests (if only in passing) that it is racism that is a floating signifier, tacked down in different places by different people, while the reality of race is – or may be – one of the reasons for those differing perspectives. We’re through the looking glass, and I don’t much like where we’re headed.

The argument is not just about physical or economic protection, but cultural protection too. Modern liberals tend to believe that preference for your own ethnic group or even your own nation is a form of racism. Conservatives regard it as common sense and resent being labelled as racist.

As we’ve already seen, physical or economic protection is a red herring: implementing apartheid and saying it’s your way to save the ozone layer doesn’t get you onto the environmentalists’ table. There’s no further discussion of what cultural protection might actually mean, so I think we can discard that too. No, what we’re talking about is the same thing we’ve been talking about all along: racism. And here we get to the meat of the article: some people regard preference for one’s own ethnic group as racism; other people, who regard it as common sense, don’t like being called racists. (That little grace-note or even your own nation is another red herring, incidentally; there’s no reference to nationality in the rest of the article.)

You’d think it wouldn’t be too hard to get to the facts of the matter here – or, if not facts, strong and uncontroversial probabilities. You feel most comfortable with your partner and members of your family, all of whom are of the same ethnic group as you? Almost certainly not racist. You’d take your Mum’s shepherd’s pie over a lamb dupiaza any day? Probably not racist (although it may depend how often and how loudly you tell people about it). You wouldn’t want to have anyone regularly making lamb dupiaza in the house next door? Probably racist, unless you’ve got an onion allergy or something. You wouldn’t be happy if you saw an Asian couple looking at the house for sale down the road? Almost certainly racist. And finally: you don’t like seeing Asians moving in, but you regard it as common sense and resent being labelled as racist? Tough titty. Cuiusque stercum sibi bene olet; everyone regards their own prejudices as common sense, and nobody likes having their prejudices labelled as prejudices.

But that’s not the way this article is going. Rather, we’re being sold the proposition that, maybe, those conservatives are actually right; maybe, preference for your own ethnic group isn’t a form of racism. Huge if true.

The challenge here is to distinguish between white racism and white identity politics, or what Muslim-American writer Shadi Hamid terms white “racial self-interest”. The latter may be clannish and insular, but it is not the same as irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group — the normal definition of racism.

Ladies and gentlemen, the star of our show: white racial self-interest. Sadly, the author neglects to cite a fuller definition of this crucial concept – the well-known fourteen-word definition formulated by David Lane, perhaps? In all seriousness, the overlap with the vocabulary of white supremacism is striking. To speak of interest, after all, requires that there is some entity that has interests: if we speak of white racial self-interest, in other words, we presuppose the existence of a white race. (Including, or excluding, Arabs? Sicilians? Roma? Jews? Slavs? Hours of fun.) The report on which this article is based doesn’t help greatly, defining ‘racial self-interest’ as ‘seeking to maximise the demographic advantage of [one’s] group’. Which, again, presupposes that each of us has a ‘racial’ group, and that maximising the advantage of that group as against others is rational in some way. Why would it be, though? If the argument is that increasing the size and power of my racial group is a good thing for the group as an entity, and that it’s rational for me to recognise this, then the argument is simply and straightforwardly racist. But if the argument is that bulking up my ‘racial’ group will benefit me individually, by making it easier for me to employ, marry and generally surround myself with people of my own ‘race’ – well, once again, why would that be a benefit? All roads lead back to racism.

The author suggests that we should only speak of racism where irrational hatred, fear or contempt are in evidence. This is a familiar move but a vacuous one. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, as our contemporary understanding of racism started to develop, there was a brief rearguard action involving a distinction between ‘racialism’ and ‘racism’. ‘Racists’ were violent bigots motivated by irrational hatred, fear or contempt; ‘racialists’ (usually including the person speaking) didn’t bear non-Whites any ill will, they just didn’t want to have to live near them. It was self-deceiving, self-exculpating nonsense then and – under the name of ‘racial self-interest’ – it still is now. To see why, let’s look at some normal definitions. We’ll take clannish and insular first – those venial sins which may occasionally mar the otherwise rational face of ‘racial self-interest’, but which don’t have anything to do with irrational hatred, fear or contempt. The OED defines ‘clannish’ as ‘having the sympathies, prejudices, etc. of a clan’ and ‘insular’ as ‘narrow or prejudiced in feelings, ideas, or manners’. So the author is saying that ‘racial self-interest’ may dispose a person to prejudice but not to irrational hatred. Let’s see how the OED defines ‘prejudice’:

unreasoned dislike, hostility, or antagonism towards, or discrimination against, a race, sex, or other class of people

In short, racism involves irrational hatred, fear or contempt, whereas ‘racial self-interest’ involves unreasoned dislike, hostility, or antagonism. Much better. The only way of differentiating ‘racial self-interest’ from ‘racism’, even on the author’s own definition, would be to change course and maintain that the rational pursuit of racial self-interest never involves clannishness, insularity and prejudice in general – which would be interesting to watch, if nothing else.

But that’s only the author’s definition of ‘racism’. What does the OED say?

A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs.

That’s the normal definition of racism, that’s the Oxford way, and that’s how you beat Capone. Well, maybe not. But it’s radiantly clear that ‘racism’, per the OED, includes ‘white racial self-interest’ in every last detail – including the implicit belief that there is such a thing as a white race, with identifiable characteristics, in the first place.

(Note to anyone who thinks this is overkill. Look, this isn’t rocket science; as I write I’ve got the OED open in another tab, and I’ve only gone to those lengths because I couldn’t get the browser widget to work. I’m not even using my academic credentials to log in. Got a public library card? You’ve got the OED. Want the normal definition of racism? It’ll take you two minutes, tops. Want to come up with an alternative definition that’s more convenient for your argument and call that ‘normal’ instead? Go ahead, but don’t think nobody will notice.)

(Note to anyone who appreciates that but still thinks it’s taking rather a long time to get through this column. You may have a point. I’ll try and speed up.)

The next bit is tricky, so watch closely.

The question of legitimate ethnic interest is complex. Multiculturalism is premised on the rights of minorities to maintain certain traditions and ways of life. But liberals have usually been reluctant to extend such group rights to majorities.

They have justified this reluctance on two grounds. First, the white majority in the US and Europe is itself so diverse it makes little sense to talk of a culturally homogenous majority (though the same might be said for most minorities too).

Second, majorities have been so numerically dominant that their ways of life have felt threatened only in a few small pockets. The latter is clearly no longer the case, especially in the US where the non-Hispanic white population is now only a little over 60 per cent. In several UK cities, the white British are now a minority too.

As so often in bad syllogistic reasoning, the first premise is the one to watch. Multiculturalism certainly involves the belief that it’s generally a good thing for members of minorities to maintain certain traditions and ways of life (if they want to), but whether it’s premised on the right to do so is more debatable. (Would such rights be absolute? Who would they be asserted by?) I see multiculturalism more in terms of a recognition that individuals who are members of a minority group have a strong and legitimate interest in maintaining the traditions (etc) of that group. In which case, those individual interests are being confused here with a right held by a group collectively. This point is important because of the next step: the proposal to extend such group rights to majorities.

The argument then proceeds with a perverted dexterity that would do any propagandist proud. Why don’t we (liberals) recognise the rights of the majority, or (more broadly) attend to the safeguarding of the majority’s traditions and ways of life? It’s actually not a hard question; the answer is “because it’s the majority and doesn’t need it”. Whatever you may have heard about unaccountable elites, we’re not in Norman England – the ruling class comes from the majority group, speaks its language and shares its culture (give or take). A maj-ority and a min-ority are not just two different kinds of ority, they have fundamentally different positions, needs, vulnerabilities – a superior and more powerful position in the case of the majority, and fewer needs and vulnerabilities.

The author is obviously aware of this objection and tries two routes around it. The first is to throw out another red herring: perhaps our real problem is that the White majority is too diverse to have a single body of traditions ways of life ect ect. (I don’t know who’s supposed to have said this.) If this were the case, though, it would only make White people more like members of ethnic minorities; not one majority but multiple minorities (and we know how much those liberals like minorities). The second approach takes on the argument that majorities don’t need protection more directly, pointing out that in the USA the White population is little more than one and a half times the size of all the other population groups put together, as long as you don’t count Hispanics as White. And if that’s not scary enough, remember that White British people are a minority in “several UK cities”. Again, we are being asked to bring the White majority within the ambit of our sympathy for ethnic minorities, by considering them as a minority.

(You may be surprised to hear that Whites are an ethnic minority in “several UK cities” – and so you should be. Part of the trick is using the phrase “White British”; the White British population is defined considerably more tightly than the non-Hispanic White population of the US, as it excludes people of Eastern European and Irish origin, among others. The other part of the trick is a creative interpretation of the words “several” and “cities”. Although the statement in question is backed with a link to a blog post, the post only lists one city (Leicester), two towns (Luton and Slough) and five London boroughs in which White British people account for less than half of the population. In Leicester, Luton and Slough the White British population accounts for 45%, 45% and 35% of the total respectively – a minority, although by far the largest single population group in all three cases. (It would also be true to say that the Conservatives received a minority of votes cast in 2015, and that more than half of the MPs elected received a minority of votes cast in their constituency.) In short, it would be true to say that White British people are a minority in a handful of UK towns, although it would be grossly misleading. Saying that they’re a minority in “several UK cities” is straightforwardly false.)

So here’s the argument: liberals believe in giving ethnic minorities the right to maintain their traditions, etc; the White majority is an ethnic minority, sort of, a bit, if you look at it a certain way; so surely liberals should support their rights. The syllogism is even more flawed than I realised – the major and minor premises are both dodgy – so the conclusion hasn’t really earned the right to be taken seriously. That said, at this point we only appear to be speculating about recognising the right (if it is a right) of the White majority (if there is such a thing) to maintain its own traditions and ways of life – the Sunday roast, Christmas trees, Preston Guild. And none of those things is under any kind of threat, so the whole argument seems to be academic. No harm done, or not yet.

When YouGov, Policy Exchange and a London college asked 2,600 Americans whether it is racist or “just racial self-interest, which is not racist” for a white person to want less immigration to “maintain his or her group’s share of the population”, 73 per cent of Hillary Clinton voters but just 11 per cent of Donald Trump voters called this racist. In a companion survey of 1,600 Britons, 46 per cent of Remainers in last June’s EU referendum but only 3 per cent of Leavers agreed this was racist. When respondents were asked whether a Hispanic who wants more immigration to increase his or her group’s share was being racist or racially self-interested, only 18 per cent of Hillary Clinton voters called this racist. By contrast, 39 per cent of Donald Trump voters now saw this as racist.

Hey! A minute ago we were talking about preserving cultural traditions and ways of life and so forth – where’s that gone? All of a sudden the rights – or interests – we’re talking about aren’t to do with maintaining certain traditions and ways of life; they’re about numbers, and maintaining one’s own group’s share of the population. Is it racist (associated with irrational hatred and fear) to want one’s own group to have a larger share of the population? Or is it only racial self-interest, which ex hypothesi is not racist (although it is associated with unreasoned hostility and antagonism, but never mind that)? And what if the group in question is itself a minority – what then, eh?

This is truly dreadful stuff. The results of the survey are based on a distinction which makes no difference; moreover, it’s not a distinction which was surfaced by the participants, but one which the survey specifically and overtly prompted. There is no difference between ‘racism’ and ‘nice racism’, a.k.a. ‘racial self-interest’; to believe that there was a difference, one would have to believe that ‘racial self-interest’ was a valid concept, and that belief is in itself racist. This being the case, asking whether behaviour X is (a) ‘racism’ or (b) ‘racial self-interest’ is a bit like asking a rape defendant whether he (a) committed rape or (b) made a woman have sex with him against her will, although it was OK and it definitely wasn’t rape. ‘Racial self-interest’ is what you call racism if you approve of it; the author more or less said so at the top of the article. All we’re measuring is a differential propensity to euphemistic labelling.

The survey did measure that, though – and the results don’t point the way the article suggests they do. If we want to explain Clinton voters’ seeming reluctance to apply the label of racism to a hypothetical Hispanic’s desire for a larger population share, we can easily do so by evoking sympathy with the conditions that go along with being a member of an ethnic minority – conditions of powerlessness and discrimination. The idea that there is some sort of symmetry between this and Trump voters’ reluctance to call White majority racism by its name – and that having named this symmetry one can simply say “hey, political partisanship!” and walk away – is an insult to the intelligence. Both of these things may be temporising with racism, but one of these things is not like the other. The full report, to be fair, acknowledges the argument that Clinton voters may have good reasons – grounded in considerations of social justice and inclusion – for not wanting to label that hypothetical Hispanic as racist. It then ignores this argument and concludes that they’re just biased.

When Trump and Clinton voters were made to explain their reasoning, the gap on whether whites and Hispanics were being racist or racially self-interested closed markedly in the direction of racial self-interest. This points to a possible “third way” on immigration between whites and minorities, liberals and conservatives. As a new Policy Exchange paper argues, accepting that all groups, including whites, have legitimate cultural interests is the first step toward mutual understanding.

(Just to be clear (since this article isn’t), the recent study by a London college and Policy Exchange, the survey in which YouGov, Policy Exchange and a London college asked 2,600 Americans to waste their time making meaningless distinctions and the new Policy Exchange paper referred to just now are one and the same project. Also, our author works at Policy Exchange. Small world.)

When nudged in the direction of applying euphemistic labelling more broadly, then, both ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ were willing to do so. The full report, in fact, argues that it’s liberals rather than conservatives who have work to do here: ‘liberals’ are supposedly more biased than ‘conservatives’, because they’re more likely to be selective in condemning racism. The way to reduce bias, then, is for liberals as well as conservatives to hop aboard the ‘racial self-interest’ train. Brave new world! All we need to do is agree that it’s good and appropriate to think of oneself as the member of a race, and to believe that each race has the right to preserve itself by maintaining or expanding its population share. Then the members of different races can come together in mutual understanding – or else agree to stay apart in mutual understanding. That’s always worked before, right?

This, incidentally, is where the jaws of the traditions and ways of life trap start to close. We’ve conceded – haven’t we? – that minority groups have rights, in a happy fun multicultural stylee? And we’ve agreed that the White majority is, well, kind of a minority, sort of, in its own way, when you think about it? Well, what more fundamental right could a group have than the right to preserve itself – the right to assure its own existence and a future for its, you’re ahead of me.

Majority rights are uncharted territory for liberal democracies and it is not always clear what distinguishes legitimate group interest from racism. Hardly anyone wants to abolish anti-discrimination laws that ban majorities from favouring “their own”. But while few people from the white majority think in explicitly ethnic terms, many feel a discomfort about their group no longer setting the tone in the neighbourhood. Labelling that feeling racist risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, driving white resentment.

You get the feeling the author feels he’s made his point now; he can afford to sit back and concede a few minor points. Yeah, sure, sometimes it actually is racism. Outright discrimination? No, no, nobody wants that – well, hardly anybody. Who’s going around thinking in explicitly ethnic terms? Nobody! Hardly anybody. Just a few people. Still, you know…

many feel a discomfort about their group no longer setting the tone in the neighbourhood

Sweet suffering Jesus on a pogo-stick, what in the name of Mosley is this? People feel a discomfort about no longer setting the tone? This stuff makes me weirdly nostalgic for the respectable racists of old – can you imagine what Michael Wharton or John Junor would have made of the prissy whiffling evasiveness of that sentence? Wharton could have got an entire column out of it. (He’d have ended up advocating something much worse, admittedly.)

But I shouldn’t mock; this column wasn’t just slung together, and we need to keep our wits about us. I said, a couple of paragraphs back, that the jaws of the “it’s just like multiculturalism!” trap were closing; this is where they slam shut – and where we get the payoff to all that equivocation about min-orities and maj-orities. We’ve conceded that minority groups have rights; we’ve conceded that the majority group also has rights – including the right to self-preservation. (This was never about culture, ways of life, traditions. It’s about people; it’s about numbers.) Well now: how can our majority group preserve itself, and preserve its identity as a majority group, if not by remaining the majority and continuing to do what a majority does? Our rhetorical conveyor belt is complete: you go in at one end believing it’s a good idea for Muslims to have time off for Eid, then you discover that this means you believe in group rights, which in turn means that you believe in racial self-interest and the right to pursue it, which means believing in rights for the White majority. Before you know what’s happening, you’ve come out at the other end unable to object to Whites maintaining their dominance and their ability to set the tone in the neighbourhood (a nice pale tone, presumably).

This is bad, bad stuff. Fortunately there’s not much more of it.

Minorities often have real grievances requiring group-specific policy solutions. White grievances are more subtle. For instance, lower-income whites sometimes lack the mutual support that minority communities often enjoy – this can translate into a sense of loss and insecurity. This, too, should be recognised and factored into the policy calculus.

“We’ve lost a lot, haven’t we, over the years? Think of the community spirit we used to have. Immigrant communities seem to have kept much more of a sense of community – they’re more fortunate than us in many ways. Really, they’re quite privileged, aren’t they, compared to poorer White communities in particular…”


The liberal reflex to tar legitimate majority grievances with the brush of racism risks deepening western societies’ cultural divides.

Of course – couldn’t go a whole column without using some form of the phrase legitimate grievance. The blackmail logic underlying the “legitimate concerns” routine is showing through more clearly than usual: either we legitimise these grievances by taking them seriously, calling them rational, making out that they’re not really racism, or… well, cultural divides, innit. Could get nasty, know what I’m saying? Nice racially integrated society you’ve got here, shame if something were to happen to it.

And let’s not forget just what we’re being asked to legitimise. Bring me my OED of burning gold! (Or the one in a browser tab, if that’s more convenient.)

racism, n.

A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs.

The belief that groups defined on racial or ethnic lines “represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being” – and hence that it’s appropriate to maximise one’s own group’s demographic advantageis racism. There’s literally nothing here to argue about. The entire tendency of this very well-written, very ingeniously argued column – and of the rather less impressive report on which it’s based – is to legitimise racism, normalise racism, promote racism. (Specifically, the argument advanced here most closely resembles the ‘ethno-pluralism’ of the French New Right; that said, the ‘racial self-interest’ that it celebrates is hard to tell apart from the fourteen-word catechism of white supremacism.)

This racist work has no place in academic or policy debate; it calls not for discussion but for denunciation.

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