‘We want to get the best possible deal,’ is the mantra of secession from the European Union. No negotiator would hope for the worst deal imaginable, would they? Yet secessionists repeat this line as if it were so wise and inspiring it contains the essence of all that need be said on the subject. Wherever one stands on the question of Britain and the EU surely we all can agree that trite phrases are no substitute for analysis and argument? We are faced with the most serious national question since 2 September 1939 and all we hear are a few banal words.
The problem extends well beyond one particular question. For a long time now the world has been run on the presumption that all problems are easily soluble.
‘Tear down the wall,’ cried Reagan in Berlin. It was as simple as that. The division within that city [and within Europe] had a simple remedy. The complexities of history that created the division were reducible to a Manichean good versus evil contest. The West was free and generous. The East was imprisoned in tyranny. The lines of moral demarcation were clear enough. All that need be done was to declare the tyranny at an end. And the result, of course, was a harmonious world in which East and West joined hands in eternal friendship.
No? Surely you don’t mean the tensions and divisions actually increased? I think I do.
When the Wall came down and the Stalinist bureaucracies collapsed we all hoped there was going to be a new dawn that might affect the West as much as the East. In the euphoria no-one had the inclination to doubt that the dream of transformation was possible. In the event the collapse led not to new models of progress and co-operation, but to bitter military conflict, resurgent nationalisms and the eradication of civil society by the selfish interests of oligarchy.
The Western commentators could not account for this, and so they reported events without seeking causes. Meanwhile they turned their attention to South Africa.
The surrender of Afrikanerdom was never explained adequately. Liberal commentators ignored the presence of tens of thousands of Cuban revolutionary forces on the Angolan border. They concentrated on the concerts in London for the release of Mandela. The West demanded his release and the Boers in their wisdom agreed. And of course the release of Mandela was going to solve everything instantly.
The long walk to freedom of which Mandela spoke was not only a personal journey. It projected the difficult times ahead after the end of segregation and servitude.
Those times are not yet over, for it will take many generations of exceptional goodwill and good sense to create the dream as a working process. Mandela’s remarkably level-headed statesmanship matched his unshakeable idealism. He saved his country from disaster so that it might share his dream. It is an African dream that must be understood in terms of African history and the ideals of African Socialism the West so often either ignores or despises.
The problems of the world are complex. They are best resolved by patient, informed [and, when needed, tough] negotiation. The world is a safer place because Kennedy and Khrushchev, Kissinger and Brezhnev understood the moral requirements of international peace and co-existence. Whether they were good people or not [they all could be ruthless], they had intellect and wisdom as well as power. For some time now we have been governed by those who think it is better to threaten annihilation, or indeed to reign down fire on the innocent. They may act dumb or they may look smart. The rhetoric changes, but the effects are to serve the interest of capital and power in whatever guise is deemed useful. These interests are served by superficial and specious discussion.
There is a great deal of commentary on every public matter. There is in consequence a great deal of repetition. Behind the apparent freedom of discussion there may be discerned a consensus that precludes radical alternatives to the conventional wisdom. There is a charade of dissent orchestrated by outlandish figures whose self-parody of reaction enables the unacceptable extremes to enter the public arena. It is the more thoughtful possibilities that are truly marginalized.
A more recent development is the promotion of these reactionary clowns into positions of authority. A generation ago they were joke figures. Today they make the decisions, or they influence those who do. The hope is that we will laugh at the folly before accepting its wisdom. Unacceptable politicians are targeted while their policies slip through the net by stealth. Oh, it is so, so clever.
And plenty are fooled. Consider the relentless vox pops where ‘members of the public’, apparently from Central Casting, mouth uninformed prejudices. The manner of delivery is barely-articulate and highly emotional. Everything said and the way it is said is wholly predictable. Meanwhile the real debate is taking place off camera. Were it to be broadcast the world might change.
But in that change would come all manner of transformations that some would find discomfiting. Serious questions require serious answers. Once questions are asked other questions naturally follow. The first question is why well-trained and well-stocked minds are content to trivialize the terms of public discussion? Is this not a negation of the culture that once nurtured the spirit of enquiry and the respect for truth?
Of course we are all circumscribed by the lore and custom of our situation.
Challenging the consensus is not a wise career move in the acceptance world.
Hence the stress on personalities rather than policies. We are losing in the mainstream of debate the cold, hard look at the reality of a situation. Ideas once at the heart of things are available only at the margins.
What we are seeing are the effects of a long retreat into infantilism that accompanies the global expansion of selfish materialism. When a habit of mind is in the air it is absorbed so easily into the unspoken, indeed unacknowledged, conventions. They float by like leaves that fall at the year’s end. They seem part of the natural order of things. These conventions are ‘obviously right and good.’ They are guarantors of ‘our freedoms.’ What need is there to question this?
That need is never going to go. What does freedom mean but the exercise of cultural imagination and the intellectual facility to consider all the possibilities? Or does it mean no more than the ability travel to distant places where the muzak is the same? Does it mean the limitless expansion of personal space with no thought for others? A very young child may think so.
A very young child may believe that there are instant remedies to deeply-rooted problems. This naivety is charming in a child, but unacceptable and dangerous in society. Yet for years now public discourse has articulated a habit of wish-fulfilment. That is not an excuse for cynical indifference, but a recognition that actual problems are in want of credible resolutions. They are not marvellous opportunities: they are serious problems. You can knock down a wall or you can build a wall. What you can’t do is change the course of history by volition alone. You have to start walking if you wish to go somewhere.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall