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A good section of the internet spent this past week gathered around a collective “I told you so”, their adrenaline spiking on the news that Porton Down scientists have finally admitted what cynics had long suspected: that they could not identify the origin of the novichok used to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. This was the admission they’d waited for, finally proving that Jeremy Corbyn had been right to wait for evidence before he had moved to condemn Russia. It also confirmed to them that the British establishment is rotten to the core – clearly trying to provoke Russia for reasons unknown but certainly fiendish. Perhaps it was all a government plan to make Corbyn look bad and allow Theresa May to reassert her authority. It was all so mysterious and so very “deep state”. And, clearly, the BBC was behind it all…
Then there was the counter-narrative.
Looked at from the other side, we had the stuff of red-top headlines that would have us believe that John McDonnell is ready to shimmy up the flagpole on Westminster’s Victoria Tower in order to tear down the Union Jack with his teeth. This is worldview in which Corbyn is unelectable, a danger to national security, the man who would bring anarchy and ruin to the UK. And as if his capitulation in front of Russia wasn’t enough, he was also the man who runs his party so ineptly that he can’t even get anti-Semitism right. And, clearly, the BBC was behind it all…
In other words: it’s all fun in British politics. Pick a side and join the argument.
Then take a deep breath and prepare to scream.
At times it feels like we live in an age of screams when the perpetually outraged refuse to accept that there are people who don’t accept their chosen abstractions. Those on the hard Left largely reject “norms”. They have a dissolute view of the world, where there is no transcendent meaning and “authority” of any kind is merely an expression of strength.
Beginning with Marx but more recently expressed by postmodernists such as Derrida, they have been taught that history is contextual and that we should distrust all forms of centre. “Knowledge is not for knowing: knowledge is for cutting,” said Foucault, reformulating the old adage that history has been written by the victors. The conclusion is that there is no one civilization better than the rest and there’s really no point in discussing facts when facts can be qualified and even the most objective assessment can be recast inside a subjective frame. For them, there is no empire and there is no empiricism. There is only the perpetual shade of relativism.
Over on the hard Right, meanwhile, the outrage is about the exact opposite and the reveries for centres so solidly defined that they can accept no alternative. They defend what they perceive as moral truths: God, goodness, nationhood. Further still to the right come the racist demagogues who promote the belief that ethnicity is an absolute demarcation of value. Meanwhile, variously in the ranks stand the nationalists, proudly flying their flags representative of some eternal standard. This is that domain that gives us our historical absolutes. Germanic myths. Mother Russia. One China. Making America Great Again. Albion.
Art, politics, and culture have always offered up such a stark binary choice. It’s a polarity that probably exists deep in our makeup and psychologists have even speculated that there might be two kinds of mind that explain conservative and liberal consciousnesses. In ‘The Birth of Tragedy’, Nietzsche named them after the gods Apollo and Dionysius, representing order and chaos and, in some way or another, they have tracked us over centuries. The rivalry between structure and structureless is repeated with classicism, neoclassicism, and modernism shaping up against the broadly baroque, Romantic and now postmodern.
What is different, however, is that these absolutes have hardened. Social media seems to have given a voice to people incapable or unwilling to recognise their own naive response to their innate tendencies. The echo chambers resonate with whatever is the prevalent tone. According to advocates on both sides, if you don’t subscribe to one all-encompassing vision, you must tacitly approve of the other.
It makes you “part of the problem”.
This is the sin of “centrism”, currently perhaps the most maligned of all political positions. Centrism is damned because its advocates are said to be mild, always seeking compromise, or have no deep convictions. Centrism failed, we’re told, because, depending on your starting point, is was either socialism-lite or thinly-veiled conservatism. It was the Blairite centre; the most squalid forms of neoliberalism that apparently died in the deserts and streets of Iraq. This is the centre that saw Labour trying to play the Tory game, with all the spin, good suits, and beard bans. From the other side, this is the land of the Tory “wets” and (deep breath) the Liberal Democrats. Centrist is the ultimate insult and its advocates are, in Owen Jones’s words:
Ideologues, extolling a blend of market liberalism, social liberalism and – more often than not – a hawkish military posture.
The condemnation is powerful because it based on some observable facts. Some centrists are as described, yet others are less so. Some definitions of centrism make exactly the same points but others describe something quite different. What is moderate and harmonious in one definition is pragmatic and reason-based in another. Clearly, then, we have different kinds of “centrism”.
Yet, really, it’s not at all difficult to describe the feeling of being stuck in the middle. This past week has convinced me that I simply want a term that adequately describes the need to shout “leave me out of this insane squabbling” or “I want no part of this imbecilic narrative”. What we are perhaps crying out for is a new term for politics that isn’t defined by the end points but by the process; defined not by the beliefs but the rational steps the lead us to those beliefs. We need a word that would more adequately express that position from which Thomas Jefferson said:
I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.
It has been too convenient to think of centrism as being equivalent to being “stuck in the middle” but it no longer adequately expresses the feeling of not belonging. What we need is a new word that emphasises a rational approach to politics, which isn’t played like football where a player dives in the opposition box and you scream “penalty” so long as they’re your player. It should be possible to argue based on the facts without feeling a duty to skew the conclusions to one side or the other.
Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn was right to wait for the results of the expert analysis but naive to offer Russia a chance to analyse the poison. Similarly, Boris might well have been right to point the finger at Russia if he did so based on UK intelligence assessments but wrong if he in any way played fast and loose with the facts. Some of these things are only hard to judge inside the confines of ideology, partisanship, and the cult of personality. These things really shouldn’t be this difficult.