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Brexit: Fear and Loathing Among the Latte Crowd
I didn't vote in the recent UK Brexit referendum. Subsequent events have very much shown this to be the right decision. I didn't vote for the following reasons:
The last issue, of extremists hijacking political situations, is becoming a trend in politics, both big and small. You can see this happening in something as trivial as the recent 'Sad Puppies' farrago in the science-fiction community. One must admit that this is a uniquely problematic community, but it seems more and more that as sci-fi goes, so goes the world (except for what's actually written in the books which tends to have very little predictive value. Unless you're Dave Hutchinson, in which case you basically predict the future but can't win an award for it). The 'Sad Puppies' were a bunch of people angry at the way science-fiction is going. However, they were immediately glommed onto by horrible right-wing extremist Vox Day (Theodore Beale). The Sads failed to realize that this was a threat, indeed many of them were friendly Beale who they viewed as being just a crazy guy who says stuff to get attention (they are not wrong in this, but that's not the point). The Sads were, and continued to be, judged on the basis of Beale, and no amount of denying any connection to him could get them out of this association. Another place that we saw this dynamic happening was during the "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations, where black-bloc anarchists hijacked the demonstrations, allowing authorities to characterize them as violent.
Personally I'm not greatly concerned whether we're in or out of the EU. We'll wind up having to work with other European states anyway and less will really change than either side is making out. I'm far more concerned about what the heck we're going to do about the ongoing traincrash that is the Middle-East, a situation that has far more long-term consequences for Britain, Europe, and the World (not to mention the people of the Middle-East themselves who are going through a catastrophe so vast that there are no words to encompass it). However, events after the referendum have very much held my attention and swung me decisively to the position that, should we have a second one, I will vote 'leave'.
Even during the campaign it was very noticeable to me that discussion I was hearing from 'leavers' was discussion of Europe. Discussion I was hearing from 'remainers' was mostly focused on 'leavers' and why they were deluded, xenophobic and stupid. This is likely due in some part to the fact that, being from a working-class background, I mostly know 'leavers' in the real world. Only on social-media, which is dominated by people in the power-classes, do I encounter 'remainers'. But social-media is not a good platform for people to express a reasoned argument. Twitter forces everyone to speak in 140 character soundbites, and everyone self-polices, aware that anything they say might lose them friends. I think you can often see a kind of negotiation happening on social media, where people will start by making moderate statements, and as they see that the rest of the crowd supports them, gradually become more confident and more extreme. Eventually this ramps up into the kind of mob fury that we see so often these days.
The 'leave' vote prompted a furious response from most of the remainers I knew online. Things escalated into a tsunami of hatred and outright bigotry. Remember that seventeen million people voted leave, but this vast number of people were now declared to be ignorant, uneducated, old and racist. A lot of this commentry had an explicitly classist tinge. It's very clear who was being spoken of when we're talking of 'ignorant masses'. This wound me up to the point where I made some injudicious comments. Bu then, shouldn't I be angry? While I may not have voted you are, after all, talking about people I know.
Others wanted to hate on leavers without attacking the working class. Probably the apex of this was an article I frankly consider dishonest from Eric Kaufmann of the Fabian society. In this article Mr Kaufmann claims that it wasn't the 'left behind' who voted leave, but the rich. Producing graphs that show that people in favor of the death penalty are more likely to vote 'leave' he claims that the 'leave' vote had nothing to do with working class disillusionment. Instead:
"Wealthy people who back capital punishment back Brexit. Poor folk who oppose the death penalty support Remain."
But why focus on capital punishment as a meaningful variable? Why not, say, attitude towards polygamy? Let's say, for the sake of argument, that more people who favor polygamy voted Remain. Would that mean anything? I think not. As we are told that 'leave' is a bad vote for the banks, I think I can say that corrupt stockbrokers of the kind that bought us recent financial scandals, will have voted 'remain'. The same probably goes for rich tax-dodgers who have their money stashed in Luxembourg. Therefore applying the same logic as Mr Kaufmann, I can characterize the entire remain movement as being white collar criminals. I don't doubt, incidentally, that some people on the 'leave' side do exactly this. My point here is merely to show the dishonesty of the arguments I've been seeing. One can say things that are perfectly true, but which are still misleading and dishonest.
Mr Kaufmann's astounding claims backed by graphs and charts are debunked by consulting the Ashcroft report on the Referendum.
"The AB social group (broadly speaking, professionals and managers) were the only social group among whom a majority voted to remain (57%). C1s divided fairly evenly; nearly two thirds of C2DEs (64%) voted to leave the EU."
"A majority (57%) of those with a university degree voted to remain, as did 64% of those with a higher degree and more than four in five (81%) of those still in full time education. Among those whose formal education ended at secondary school or earlier, a large majority voted to leave."
So it's quite clear that poor people resoundingly voted leave.
But what can be behind this peculiar effort to deny who the 'leave' voters were, and what's behind this urge to demonize people who voted 'leave'? I suspect that we're going to see an attempt by some people to 'gamergate' the leave voters. There's a fashion these days for opposing groups to argue that those on the other side of an issue are very nasty people and you shouldn't support them. This is normally achieved by focusing all attention on those members of the opposing group who say, or do, quite appalling things. Unfortunately all such groups have such members, and so any group or movement can be attacked on this basis. When this tactic is deployed it will essentially be argued that all of the opposing group are, for instance, rich people who support the death penalty. No amount of outcry from people who are not rich, or do not support the death penalty, ever seems to work, mostly because in the contexts where I've seen this tactic used, the people using the tactic generally have overwhelming control of the media within the community where the battle is being fought (though this is very much going to change in the not too distant future). This is a high-risk strategy at the best of times, and one of the reasons why can be seen in the fallout of Brexit. If you categorize everyone in the 'leave' campaign as being racist xenophobes, and then 'leave' beats your ass in a straight-up vote, you'll find that real racist xenophobes suddenly believe that most of the country agrees with them. Furthermore it is questionable that the 'remain' campaign has sufficient control of the national media to pull a 'gamergating' off.
The trend for members of the supposedly liberal elite to assume anyone who disagrees with them is evil, deranged or stupid is becoming deeply worrying. It implies an overconfidence that one is always right and holds all the answers. It implies a lack of understanding of the other side as rational human beings with their own outlook on things. At the height of the online outrage I got into a fight with a well-known science fiction writer, who tweeted a 'diagnosis of the current malaise'.
"Ever since the Suez crisis Britain has struggled with its place in the modern world. Nostalgic about its former glory, anxious about its diminished state, forgetful about its future crimes, bumptious about its future role, it has lived on its reputation as an elderly aristocrat might live on his trust fund - frugally and pompously with a great sense of entitlement and precious self-awareness. Once great, now not so great, it has struggled to find a status in its post colonial iteration that fits its size and budget. We punch above our weight culturally having significant clout economically and suffer painful delusions of grandeur militarily"
And so on and so forth. This again is the argument that those who voted against you did so because there was something wrong with them. One must understand their psychology, diagnose their malaise. It's got something to do with postcolonialism or collapse of empire, or entitlement, or something. The idea that they could have voted against you on perfectly rational grounds because you failed to make a decent argument is unthinkable. Unfortunately, with this popping up in my feed at the height of the "it's the uneducated masses" hysteria on twitter I wound up accusing said SF writer of classism. Looking at it now, they weren't guilty of that, but the main point still stands: don't seek for answers in psychoanalyzing people or arguing they have a malaise. I know lots of people who voted 'leave' and it's not because they're sick, racist or pining for Empire (some are, don't get me wrong, but some people in any large group are).
Mention must be made of the people on the "remain" side who DON'T behave like this. In my own circles there is Tim Hall, who in fact pulled me up short when I started to behave the same way in response to what I was seeing, reminding me #NotAllRemainers. However, the fact that so many do behave like this is a problem. I assume that many people on the 'leave' side are behaving the same way, and I'm just not seeing them because they're not in my circles (most of the 'leavers' I know are not concerned with the identity of the 'remain' voters, they are only concerned with arguments over the issue at hand, but I must confess they may not be representative). So we have a situation where, instead of discussing the issues at hand, everyone slings accusation and abuse at the other side. If you've spent any time in cultural spaces like science-fiction or gaming, you know that this has become the standard style of engagement.
Behaving in a bigoted way towards those who disagree with you has consequences: I've been saying for some years that political discourse is changing in a way that enables and empowers the extreme, racist right. The rise of 'social justice' ideology and the false, evil, claim that "there's no such thing as racism towards white people" and "no such thing as sexism towards men" has led to an online environment in which racism and sexism have become normalized, provided you target the right people. In this regard "social justice" is no different to any other quasi-fascist movement, as it declares a demographic sub-group as "different" to everyone else and thus not protected by the same rules of human behaviour that mediate civil life. This change in the memetic environment has been a gift to the extremist right, and must play some part in their rise in the western world. Hate begets hate, but the really alarming thing about this ideology is that the people spreading it are themselves very often white (often male too, but it's race that matters in today's conversation). Time and again I've had some white middle-class person ask me "What does it matter if we scare white people? Why shouldn't they be scared like everyone else?" One assumes that with the rise of Trump, of the far-right across Europe, and with the racist violence and abuse that occurred after the Brexit vote, they have their answer. But I suspect they will ignore it and carry on. After all, as a white person themselves they are not going to suffer the consequences of an increasingly alarmed white populace. Thus they are effectively agents provocateurs for the extreme right, I assume unknowingly so.
One does not build a better, more inclusive society via moral exclusion and witchhunts. The majority of people support positions that benefit them (this is true even of white social justice warriors, but I have not time to go into that here). Therefore a better social environment is created by building ideological and social structures that apply to everyone and benefit everyone. I call this the 'firestation model'. People (certainly not all, but many people) are happy to pay for a firestation even if it's unlikely they will ever need to make use of its service. This is because they understand that the firestation is there for everyone equally. It does not matter whether their house is particularly flammable or not, what matters to them is the abstract point that this is something that's there for them should they ever need it. This is what it is to be part of a community of peers who all agree to band together for mutual assistance. Someone in such a community feels a sense of belonging and being valued, albeit, being valued as one citizen among millions, but that's enough for most people. However, if you start to make the firestation means-tested, and say to some people "You are rich, and must therefore make your own arrangements, the firestation will only answer the needs of vulnerable people" then they will feel differently toward it. If you still expect them to pay taxes for the upkeep of the firestation, then they will come to resent it. The last decade has seen the gradual movement of anti-racism and anti-sexism away from 'firestation' models, in which we all agree not to be racist/sexist to each other, to 'means-tested' models, in which some are expected not to be racist/sexist, whilst suffering racism/sexism thrown at them. These people swiftly abandon the contract of 'we shall not be bigoted to each other'. This, I think, goes a long way towards explaining some of the racist attacks happening around the Brexit vote.
However, the aftershock of the vote revealed another bigotry that I've become very aware of, but which is normally kept concealed: classism. Probably the pinnacle of this came from an article by James Traub in Foreign Policy Magazine.
It's easy to dismiss this article as mere clickbait. I'm sure it's driven a lot of attention to FP magazine. However, I worry that many people viewing this article are likely to agree with it. This article is not only a jaw-dropping piece of classist bigotry, also a startling call for the suspension of democracy. Mr Traub is very explicit that he's talking about the working class, the common person, when he speaks of "the ignorant masses" and the "mindlessly angry". He's outraged that we won't listen to our betters. He laments
"One of the most brazen features of the Brexit vote was the utter repudiation of the bankers and economists and Western heads of state who warned voters against the dangers of a split with the European Union. British Prime Minister David Cameron thought that voters would defer to the near-universal opinion of experts; that only shows how utterly he misjudged his own people."
Oh, those "brazen" proles! What possible cause could they have to eschew the wise, paternal advice of bankers, economists, and Western heads of state?
Well, maybe it's got something to do with the 2008 financial crisis, Mr Traub? A time when economists and bankers were quite clearly exposed as not knowing their arse from their elbow. If we mistrust heads of state, that might have something to do with the Iraq war, where western heads of state told us they had undeniable proof of Saddam's WMDs, and were exposed as dupes at best, and liars at worst. Or that time when the elites were telling us we were at "The End of History" and the common person was thinking "Well, I don't know too much about economics, history or geopolitics, but this sounds like bullshit to me". Or there was the time when the elites (admittedly the neo-cons, but they were the elites in power at the time) told us that peace and democracy would flourish in the middle east if we just knocked over the nasty regimes. Continuing on military matters we've been unimpressed with the handling of Islamic State or Putin's Russia, in modern warfare it seems all the experts are on the other side, they certainly dance rings around our lot. The recent refugee crisis is particularly damning, for whether one was for accepting refugees or not, one cannot deny that Europe was caught completely unprepared by it, which seems a little odd given that warfare and the flow of people fleeing it has been a constant of human history. Why had not the 'experts' prepared a plan to handle something that was bound to happen sooner or later? And for those of us working in technical spheres we're seeing our governments and judiciary having to deal with realities of the new digital world, and often being exposed as digital 'know-nothings'. When a judge decides to block a service that many people depend on to run thier lives and businesses or that people have no expectation of privacy on their private devices the people are, quite rightly, likely to conclude that too many judges are dangerously out of touch at best (I will not stoop to saying what they will think at worst).
Nothing has defined the 21st century quite so much as rampant elite failure, at least in the western world. We have stumbled from one crisis to another, and indeed Brexit itself is part of this pattern. With the vote having been cast we discover that none of the UK's "elites" on either side of the argument, appear to have a plan for what happens next. This is criminal negligence, and it betrays an attitude that the outcome was pre-ordained. Much of the rage of the elites, it seems to me, comes from them being caught, once again, with their pants down. Normally when we see votes in which everyone behaves as though there was only one expected outcome, we assume that we are looking at oppressive regimes whose democracy is a sham. Many people, both within and without the UK, must be thinking the same of this nation.
If the officer class has lost the faith of the rank-and-file and is now finding itself fragged at every turn, I would suggest that the officer class, as the class that is supposed to have the "expertise" to shape the course of events, has no-one to blame but themselves. To be fair, they do face an obstacle: they are increasingly disconnected from the common person by the new media which tends to corral us into online tribes. But it's the job of the powerclass, of the elites, to take that fact on board and find ways to prevent getting too far out of touch.
And there's another thing that Mr Traub seems to be overlooking. If we set aside the apparent incompetence of many western elites (though not all, there was that judge who taught himself the java programming language in order to be able to rule on a patent case. Fair play to him. #NotAllElites) there's the fact that the interests of elites are very much out of alignment with those of the common people. This is nothing unusual, it's been the state of things everywhere throughout human history. Elites hold power and wealth, and aim to keep it. Thus the common person is very wise to treat their advice with a high level of suspicion. I have no doubt that more Europe is a very good thing for economists, bankers and heads of state. I am distinctly less convinced it's a good thing for the common people, and Mr Traub's article does nothing to make me feel better on that score.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Mr Traub's article is it's anti-democratic turn. Though he correctly identifies a lot of the reasons why people are angry, he nevertheless insists they have no right to be angry. He rejects the democratically expressed will of the people, and hopes that new parties will arise that "defending pragmatism, meliorism, technical knowledge, and effective governance against the ideological forces." But what is this "pragmatism" of which you speak, Mr Traub? It's not very pragmatic to oppose the will of the people. If "pragmatism" means anything it means being able to reach a compromise with others, not "rising up" against them and forcing your opinions on them. You talk of "effective governance" but you admit that things have gone poorly since 2008, and that long term prospects are "dismal". Where then is "effective governance"? Mr Traub has the cart before the horse. Demonstrate effective governance and technical knowledge, and the people will vote with you. Western elites have failed to do this, and have thus lost the mandate of heaven.
Mr Traub appears to be calling to a return to a world run by a priestly class whose "expertise" the rest of us defer to. This is a feudalist worldview and it has no place in the modern era. Thus you would think that the middle-class college-educated westerners I follow on twitter would be up in arms about this. Well, David Auerbach is, but he seems to have little support from the twitterarti and the people who publish in the online press, most of whom are muttering that democracy is "problematic". So, who will defend democracy against the neo-feudal elitists? A Lebanese immigrant, that's who! While few on the western left seemed to have much to say in defence of their most important political institution, Karl Sharro, a Lebanese-Iranian architect stepped into the breach. In a brilliant piece of satire Mr Sharro lays out how democracy can be improved by importing some of the ideas of authoritarian regimes. Mr Sharro may well be one of the people whose position is at risk after this vote, yet he displays greater democratic integrity than home grown intellectuals with only their overseas investments at risk.
Indeed, one thing that has stood out for me in recent years is the sight of "educated" westerners supporting Islamism, or denouncing free speech, or decrying democracy, or inventing new justifications for bigotry. Are these really the people we should be entrusting our future to? By contrast people I follow online who live or have lived in places that enjoy lesser amounts of free speech and democracy are the ones who are first to stand up in defence of these principles. Frankly I think it would be good for the country to persuade many of our educated elite to emigrate to their beloved EU, so that we can make room to import more Karl Sharros.
All this has swung my feelings from "neutral" to "leave", and I would vote that way in any future referendum. In part this is because I want to see the democratic choices of the people upheld, and fear elitist plots to reverse them. In part it's because I now see the EU, as everything, as being a class issue. But mostly it's because I observe that the EU is very difficult to get out of. I'm uncomfortable with anything that, once you're into it, it's difficult to get out of.