Why we love to reenact the moral battles of the past
OK it’s slightly childish of me, but I do find this clip funny. For those of you who don’t know, Jolyon Maugham is a tax barrister who has acquired a big Twitter following by virtue of being an ardent Remainer and now campaigner against Boris Johnson’s government. Here he is being interviewed by his close ideological comrade, the talk radio host James O’Brien. It’s a good example of how a friendly interviewer can, even unintentionally, embarrass their interviewee. When someone already high in self-regard is flattered into believing the very best version of themselves, they set their own booby traps and stroll right into them. (Twitter can have the same effect, as Maugham can testify.)
The conversation is conducted in soothingly low tones, like a therapy session. At one point, Maugham says that he would go to prison “if that’s where I find my ethics require me to go.” He volunteers this out of nowhere, since as far as anyone knows, Maugham is in precisely no danger of going to prison - no, not even for foxslaughter. O’Brien, who has so far eschewed his hardball interview style (sample question: ‘When did you realise you were clever?’) could have let it pass. But some dormant journalistic muscle twitches and out comes a follow-up question: “What might you go to prison for?”
The pause that follows is excruciating and exquisite; you can almost see Maugham’s brain spinning. Failing to identify a plausible answer, he starts talking about a new law which criminalises those who facilitate the arrival of asylum-seekers (a law which, rightly or wrongly, merely brings the UK into line with other European countries). O’Brien - and here I really can’t tell if he means to make his friend squirm - says, “I understand. So you would be prepared to test that law personally, potentially - is what you’re saying?” Maugham, forced to improvise again, delivers a masterstroke. He frames his answer - which is essentially, ‘Good God NO!’ - as an act of self-sacrifice. He says he can’t actually test that law since doing so would get in the way of his campaigning. In other words, he is sacrificing his sacrifice for the greater, greater good. That, my friends, is heroism.
Is there any point to my ragging of dear Jolyon? Well, perhaps. It reminded of something that Andrew Sullivan, in the course of an interview with Tyler Cowen, said in response to a question about the rapid spread of “wokeness” through American institutions:
The elites kind of have a Martin Luther King Jr. envy. Every generation wants to have that moral quality, that sense that they are shifting the arc of history in a better way, even though we’ve generally done about as much as we possibly can to do that in terms of — within the possibilities of — a liberal system…The need to feel worthy and the need to feel that you’re doing things.
I think there’s something to this. Many middle-class people in Western societies carry a covert longing to have our moral mettle tested in the crucible of history. I’ve sometimes felt that urge myself. We want to know how we’d have behaved in societies where overt displays of racism were the norm, and laws explicitly discriminated against people on the basis of race, gender, or sexuality. Would we have meekly accepted such wrongs and even endorsed them, like many or most of our historical peers? Surely not. We’d have stood up and fought for justice, wouldn’t we? We’d have been heroes.
Following the social and political liberalisations of the last century, modern Western societies have provided little opportunity to take sides in genuinely momentous moral contests. We are no longer in conflict over whether different races deserve equal rights or women can vote or - a more recent achievement - gay people can marry. Public attitudes have consistently become more liberal. For all the fuss about populism, most of us agree on the fundamentals of liberal democracy; we’re just arguing over how to optimise it. That means the stakes are lower than they were. The closest many of us get to a test of political integrity is whether we’re willing to spend more on eco-friendly washing up liquid. It’s all unsatisfyingly undramatic.
It means there are fewer opportunities for moral differentiation - fewer ways to mark yourself out as a visionary on the right side of history. Consequently, some are tempted to inflate the real and serious injustices of modern democracies into the direct equivalent of those suffered by African-Americans in the mid-twentieth century, or by Jews and other minorities in Europe earlier on. They are plainly not on the same scale. But by pretending they are, we can promote ourselves to a starring role in history’s drama, rather than accepting that we have bit parts, here to deliver some essential but eminently forgettable dialogue.
That’s why law-abiding barristers indulge in speculation about going to jail for their beliefs. Elsewhere, it’s why the use of incorrect terminology gets quickly condemned as “violence”. It’s why people are always “speaking truth to power”; speaking it so often that you wonder whether power is still listening. It’s why every hashtag campaign gets talked about as if it’s a march to Montgomery. And of course, for us to be the Good, they must be the Bad. People who deviate in minor ways from approved norms of a certain portion of society - including people who hold the most unremarkable and harmless views - are cast as white supremacists or Nazis or the ubiquitous fascists.
Online political discourse can resemble an historical reenactment society, everyone putting on costumes and heading out to Twitter Fields for a thrilling mock-battle. The language is lurid, pitched at a permanent shriek: many things are disgusting, appalling, terrifying, with utterly dumped on top. Young people are most often accused of what Martin Gurri calls “historical cosplay” but MLK syndrome exerts a strong pull on middle-aged men, aside from Maugham. Paul Mason has just published a book called How To Stop Fascism. He appears to genuinely believe we’re living through the equivalent of Weimar Germany, jackboots stomping through suburban streets, and that it’s down to him and his street-fighting allies to avert the collapse of democracy. I like Mason, I think he adds to the gaiety of the nation, but I really hope he and the genteel folk who buy his book in the LRB bookstore aren’t the only people standing between us and a fascist takeover.
It isn’t just left-wing activists and academics who indulge in this warped nostalgia. In fact you might argue that the most ruinous decisions taken by political leaders in the last twenty years were driven by this hankering to bend history’s moral arc. In a new BBC documentary on America’s response to September 11th, Dick Cheney uses the word “Soviets” to refer to al-Qaeda. It’s a Freudian slip - saying one thing and meaning an Other - which reminds us just how much he, along with Rumsfeld, Bush and Blair, conceived of the fight against terrorism as a chance for them to lead the West back up to the moral high ground of the Cold War - and indeed WWII, hence incessant warnings about the danger of “appeasing” Saddam. Tactical counter-terrorism wasn’t exciting enough. This needed to be a grand historical drama, and that required the invasion of a nation, the toppling of a tyrant.
After 9/11, and at intervals since, it has been fun to bring up Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 bestseller, The End of History and the Last Man, in order to laugh at its myopic complacency. So I guess History started again, huh Frankie? But Fukuyama’s argument was always more subtle that its title suggested. He was using ‘end’ in the Hegelian or Marxist sense of a goal towards which history unfolds. His argument wasn’t that there would be no big historical events; it was that there are no more grand historical stories. There is no chapter beyond this one. We are not heading for some promised land, when everyone is happy ever after. As a political system, liberal democracy has been proven over and again to be the least bad alternative, without ever proving to be utopia. It is just an imperfect version of itself, to be improved by increments. And that’s really boring.
At the end of The End of History, Fukuyama discusses democracy’s discontents. Some people will always find liberal democracy unsatisfying since it gives us so few shots at heroism: “Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause…They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle.”
It is precisely the absence of existential risk and sacrifice in middle-class lives that leads some to adopt absurd and needlessly antagonistic positions. This is partly out of a hunger to experience the camaraderie of battle, albeit at many removes from actual battle, and partly so that the individual’s ethical credentials can gleam like jewellery at a ball, marking him or her out as a moral aristocrat.
This stuff is mostly harmless, and in fact it may do some good. Some campaigns really do help people they claim to; motivations do not have to be pure for this to be the case. But MLK syndrome can also lead to the kind of grandstanding which sets progressive causes back and harms the very constituencies on whose behalf the activists claim to be fighting, as with “defund the police” or the poisonous rhetoric of certain trans activists.
And there is always the risk of looking, and indeed being, ridiculous. Particularly when we can contemporaneously witness people who do not live in liberal democracies taking real risks, showing real courage, in the face of truly horrendous injustice.
The Chinese government has banned “sissy” male pop stars from TV, partly in reaction to the popularity of Korean boy bands. If you want to learn about the intersection of Asian pop, masculinity, and defence policy, read on.
Combining data from Covid and Spanish Flu, this paper argues that pandemics are spread by high status people, yet impose their biggest costs on low status people.
For UK politics nerds, this is a good deep dive into the relations between Johnson and Sunak and/or their respective offices.
BioNTech, the company behind the Pfizer vaccine, have trialled an mRNA cancer treatment in mice. It went well - ‘complete regression’ of the tumour in 17 out of 20 mice - and is now in human trials.
To mark the anniversary of 9/11 I’m going to watch the new BBC documentaries. Less seriously: here’s how 9/11 affected Jenga sales.
POD OF THE WEEK
The Rest is History podcast, presented by Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook, is always worth listening to. This pair of episodes is a something of a variation on its formula, since it’s about the future as well as the past. Tom and Dominic interview the entrepreneur and billionaire investor Marc Andreessen on the history of Silicon Valley. It’s a great listen, dense with insights. Andreessen is authentically super-smart, he has a wide intellectual range and a great facility for explaining stuff. In the second half, the conversation widens to cover the impact of the internet on our societies and the future of well, everything.
FACT OF THE WEEK
The British government has discovered there were two million more EU nationals in the country than it believed. 55% more! If you’re a Remainer who considers themselves to be pro-expert, evidence-based, you should reflect on this. Our data on immigration is incredibly low grade.
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QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Our most important thoughts are those which contradict our emotions.