“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

30 March 2017

On Richard Dawkins and Brexit: confusing science with politics

“One fact of life I have learned over the years is that it is possible to be very clever and stupid at the same time.”

Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP and diarist of the New Labour years, said that in his latest memoir Hinterland, referring to judges who presided over the notorious miscarriages of justice that unravelled in the 1980s and early 1990s, like the Birmingham Six IRA bombing case which he was involved in.

This line has come to mind several times lately reading the outbursts of some of those who are still livid at the EU referendum result.

Now I don’t have a problem with people who feel strongly about remaining in the EU, just as long as they respect those on the other side as legitimate political opponents who have worthwhile arguments and in this case won a democratic battle fair and square. The trouble with the arch-Remainers that I am thinking of – the Labour MP David Lammy, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell and the philosopher A.C. Grayling come to mind – is that they each treat their own opinion as absolute, as a form of law which has been broken by an ignorant population that does not know what is good for it. For them, the EU vote came down to one choice: the right thing or the wrong thing - and they knew absolutely which was which.

Into this fray the respected evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has thrown himself with an impressive enthusiasm, issuing some remarkably abrasive tweets and now writing what is perhaps best described as a frothing rant (otherwise known as an article) for the New Statesman, entitled, ‘We need a new party - the European Party’. In this piece we can see, perhaps as clearly as we will ever see, the troubles that scientists (or quasi-scientists like in the social sciences, including economics) can get into when they fail to respect the limits of their science and start using the authority they have in their fields to pronounce on politics.

Dawkins starts off his article by trying to cover himself from this though, saying,

“I wasn’t qualified to vote in the referendum. Nor were you, unless you have a PhD in economics or are an expert in a relevant field such as history.”

This is a nice bit of double-think, for it says that he isn’t qualified to decide, but also establishes that he is qualified to say who is, which means he can take for himself the authority of those who have the authority. You just pick up on the arguments of whatever authority you choose in those fields that you decide are relevant and you have the authority too: job done.

Now he has gathered up a nice slug of authority for himself, he can properly let rip in the meat of the article:

“I voted Remain, too, because, though ­ignorant of the details, I could at least spot that the Leave arguments were visceral, emotional and often downright xenophobic. And I could see that the Remain arguments were predominantly rational and ­evidence-based. They were derided as “Project Fear”, but fear can be rational. The fear of a man stalked by a hungry polar bear is entirely different from the fear of a man who thinks that he has seen a ghost. The trick is to distinguish justified fear from irrational fear. Those who scorned Project Fear made not the slightest attempt to do so.”

It is difficult to counter arguments characterised by a succession of assertions like this, not because they are good arguments, but because you don’t know where to start. But we can see at the core of his arguments this word ‘rational’ – that his arguments and those of people he trusts are rational, while those of others aren’t; some instances of fear are rational, others aren’t.

For him, the EU referendum question was a technical matter to be decided by the relevant experts (the qualification criteria for which he does not explain, but reserves for himself). As he puts it, “You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on.”

As I have found in reading and listening to other arch-Remainers, Dawkins does not address the actual arguments of his opponents. He does not quote them or take them on based on their core arguments. Rather he makes his appeal by assertion and insult – thereby departing from the scientific method of analysis which he invokes to justify his authority. He rants about the distrust of experts, but does not address how his supposedly infallible economic experts failed miserably with their predictions for the economic consequences of a Brexit vote.

But worse is the way that he brushes over the core arguments of the Leave side, which I supported. For him, the arguments made about democracy, sovereignty and accountability have no relevance. They do not fit into his schema so must be illegitimate for being irrational (as well as being apparently ‘visceral, emotional and xenophobic’ in character). Dawkins confuses science and politics, trying to reduce the latter to the former, relegating politics to a technical discipline in which we have a surface democracy but the real power is wielded by political and economic experts.

To the elitist accusation, he says,

“Am I being elitist? Of course. What’s wrong with that? We want elite surgeons who know their anatomy, elite pilots who know how to fly, elite engineers to build safe bridges, elite athletes to win at the Olympics for Team GB, elite architects to design beautiful buildings, elite teachers and professors to educate the next generation and help them join the elite.”

By this viewpoint, the ultimate ends of politics and of mankind should be put out of our reach as citizens.

Personally, I think it’s marvellous that a majority of us stuck two fingers up at this sort of view in the referendum. For democracy to be meaningful, as democratic society, what we vote about must also be meaningful. We must be able to make change happen, as a political community, with poorer and less educated people having the same basic power as me or you or Richard Dawkins or his elite clerisy.

Change must be possible, otherwise we are simply living in what the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev called ‘managed democracy’, not so far off from the kind that Vladimir Putin runs in Russia as we might like to think.

So, as I have said here before about my own choice, Je ne regrette rien.

23 January 2017

Brexit and the arts: reflections on a BBC Radio 3 discussion

Listening to BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters programme the other day, I was struck by a discussion they had about Brexit and the arts – and thought it was worth breaking off from my book-writing to reflect on it a little.

The discussion illustrated once more the remarkable hold that ideas and myths associated with ‘the European project’ have taken over the great and the good in Britain. That includes the BBC of course.

As we have come to expect from the Beeb since it was allowed to drop its impressive impartiality during the referendum campaign, the discussion here was remarkably one-sided. All three guests, Cathy Graham of the British Council, composer Gerard McBurney and Emmanuel Hondre of the Philharmonie de Paris, were resolutely anti-Brexit. The only questioning of their consensus came from a short segment of an enjoyable rant from the artist Grayson Perry, railing against the complacency of the arts Establishment for peddling its comfortable ideas and preaching to the converted. 

However, the substance of what Brexit means was for the most part explored only on a plane of abstractions, and Perry's message was assimilated into how ‘we’ need to respond to what a horrible and nasty thing ‘they’ have done to us. Listeners heard from McBurney a fear of how ‘parochialism’ might take over, a wailing about how Leave voters “feel resentful at a world in which ideas flow from one culture to another”, with the strange implication that ideas and people might somehow no longer circulate between these Isles and the rest of the world after Britain leaves the EU.

It was all rather strange. Taking these ideas seriously, you might think that music and ideas and people hadn’t circulated between Britain and the rest of the world before we joined the EU in 1973; as if the arts in Britain were a wasteland before that point and have been some sort of beneficient paradise ever since. It also had me wondering how all these Russian violinists and Chinese viola players and American trumpeters managed to get jobs with British orchestras given that their countries are not in the EU.

But somehow such details didn’t seem to be the point, with the assertions just left hanging, remaining unexplained and unexplored and largely unquestioned by presenter Tom Service (who is generally excellent on this programme and others). It seems that all this was an established consensus (among an Establishment, you might say) – and with established consensus, assumptions are shared and become part of a generally accepted reality, however questionable they are.

Quite clearly, this is what has happened in the arts world. That world, like those of the business and economic elite, mainstream politicians and our major institutions (not least educational), is genuinely baffled by and afraid of the world outside itself. It sees the other half that voted a different way to it as genuinely ‘other’. Existentially, there appear to be two sides which are separate from each other: a new form of a very old class divide.

But that divide is not strictly middle class to working class – and from this Radio 3 discussion I think we could hear some intimations of the lines on which at least one side draws it. The invoking of ‘parochialism’ and ‘provincialism’ by McBurney in particular might be absurd if taken seriously, not least in such a multi-cultural country as Britain, but it points to a slightly different and more substantial political position. That is a political stance of not wanting to be tied down in any way to the land, territory and people of Britain, of not making one’s identity connections on those lines, of subsuming oneself into the much bigger, European entity. This means to a greater or lesser extent sacrificing affiliation to the smaller unit and forsaking the attachment to one’s geographical origins. It is an urge to sameness on a higher, more abstract level, being part of Europe not as a separable part but as indistinguishable from the whole, casting off those embarrassing connections of national identity, which are derided as ‘parochial’, 'provincial' and ‘nativist’.

This mirrors the political integration of Europe of course: of the drive to sameness, of European citizenship rights trumping those of nation states, of the disintegration of nation states and nationalities within Europe.

Even by getting quite involved in the whole EU referendum thing I still gasp sometimes at the extraordinary hold this story and the myths associated with it have come to have. Indeed I am constantly surprised by how many people – especially those in elite positions in our society – do not just approve of these ideas but are wedded to them as a core part of their own personal identity, one which is utterly different to that of those they oversee from their exalted positions.

It is visceral and emotional and in some ways incoherent (which is the nature of attachment), but it is also indelibly attached to what it is not: the most important aspect of who I am is that I am not like them. As an identity relation, this doesn’t have to manifest itself as being better than them in an absolute sense, but it often does – and certainly does here. There is a potential challenge here for the arts as for politics and the other ‘top’ professions: to show they have something to offer to people they seem to have lost all existential contact with - and often hold in contempt as we have seen from the referendum and its aftermath. This is fundamentally problematic though, for a great many of them are deeply protective of and committed to their separateness and higher status, and of looking down on people.

Thinking of classical music as I do (which is why I was listening to the programme) I couldn’t help associating all this with the modernist music movement. Modernism – especially in its atonal form - often seeks to intellectualise music, to take it beyond tunefulness to a place where it can be judged as other intellectual works are: through the use of concepts, thoughts, brain-power – thereby putting it beyond the reach of those who like music more for its musical qualities and placing its adherents on a pedestal with intellectual, ideological backing to justify it.

To me, one piece of contemporary musical modernism generally sounds pretty much the same as another (generally, awful), whoever produced it and wherever whoever produced it came from. It seems to be part of the same general movement as the wish to disappear into Europe: a process of assimilating and integrating, of losing the connection between ourselves as distinctive beings and the place where we come from: the push of globalisation in other words.

To my mind at least, great works of art are more likely to come from rebelling against this drive than going along with it. In that light, Brexit might itself appear like an artistic statement: one of rebellion and reaction against the people who direct our culture, who tell us what to do and what we should like; an assertion of individuality and distinctiveness. Maybe our Establishments are right to feel threatened by it?