We live in a post-rational age.
Oh sure, all the trappings of reasons still persist; but they persist in the way Christian churches still stand in England, and, increasingly, in Ireland, or the way courts are in a dictatorship – they look solid, but they’re hollowed-out theme parks for a vanished mental scaffolding – nobody takes them seriously any more.
Thus it is with reason. Intelligent people still deploy the conceptual tools of reason. The sentences still are polished. The assured, slightly-condescending delivery, the reassuringly bloodless middle class euphemisms, the whole misleading façade of rationality is as evident as ever.
Such tools used to be spades with which one dug for facts, prior to the application of a considered principle. Not any more though – instead, we’ve hung them over our balls, as a fig leaf to conceal the lack of objectivity that otherwise would be all too evident.
If an intelligent man is hot to trot for an ideology, and is even at risk of onanistic lapses in obeisance to said ideology, then, in 2022, it’s fig leaves that are required, not spade-work.
In a previous post, I noted how thinking was in steep cultural decline:
Thinking does not require too much intelligence. Thinking is a skill, like wood-carving; it can be learned. Humility, patience, honesty, a sense of humour; all those are far more important aids to the craft of thinking than masses of grey matter. No brain, however large, can smuggle thoughts past the wall of a brittle ego.
The basis of thinking is an ability to embrace inner conflict. If you wish seriously to think about anything, you have to dismantle your own comfortable ideas, and argue against yourself.
That’s the basis of an adversarial legal system; both sides in a case slug it out and try to make dirt of each other’s position. And, obviously, swap the lawyers, and they will easily tomorrow argue against their own position yesterday.
That seeming cynicism and amorality leads to lawyers being culturally derided as unprincipled by the hoi polloi.
However, it also points up how principle itself is an impediment to thinking.
If you’re truly thinking, there can be no sacred cows.
If the principle is a good one, it will survive being beaten up.
But this ability to hold opposing ideas in suspense, and to attack your own position, is beyond many people nowadays. It’s not that people have suddenly became more stupid since e.g., the 1970s, but we do now live in a culture of cookie-cutter secular commandments. It is the age of bug-eyed, derivate, sloganeering certainties. Everyone “believes!”; everyone falls in line with their group; everyone derives their personal identity from their group mantra; everybody has a slogan; nobody thinks any more.
I thought of this when I read a recent article in the Spectator by a professor of law at Swansea University.
Ostensibly about the EU’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the article instead was a thinly-disguised pro-Brexit screed.
To my mind, a humanitarian / statesmanlike view of the horrors in Ukraine would seek to park such petty rivalries and insecurities, and, at least in the short to medium term, to accentuate the positive – to make common cause with democratic European allies, and not to do or to say anything petty which could sow division in the anti-Russian camp, and thereby, in however minor a way, give succour to the insecure little Rumpelstiltskin in the Kremlin.
But if one’s moral compass is already so broken that using an horrific war as a political football to score some tabloid points over one’s democratic neighbours is somehow deemed an ethically-acceptable way of arranging one’s discursive priorities, then, at the very least, one would expect that, even in such an ethically-trivialised endeavour, a professor of law would be capable of demonstrating a basic level of impartiality.
Of course, as has been often noted, Brexit is akin to a cult, and its adherents can’t really help themselves – even faced with a potential nuclear war, a Brexiter still will view everything through a Brexit prism. Such narrowness of vision may not be a species of mental disorder, but it strays uncomfortably close into such territory.
Legal reasoning is a peculiarly bloodless pursuit. It eschews passion. First, you establish the facts. This is hard work. As a former corporate litigator in London, one of the first things I learned was that my clients habitually lied to me. In many cases, they were barely aware of doing so. To rehabilitate their self-esteem, people in sticky situations tend to spin a self-serving narrative to themselves, Over time, like Brexiters, and like Putin, they start to believe their own bullshit.
A key part of a corporate litigator’s job is to be alert to the lies your client will tell you – the omissions, the half-truths, the distortions – and to nail them on this. A courtroom is no place to be torpedoed by an unexpected fact that your self-blinkered client has “forgotten” to tell you about.
Facts are difficult. The human tendency is to inhabit a narrative that makes you feel good about yourself, or about your tribe, or about your country, or about your ideology.
Facts, and a respect for facts, are of course critical. You cannot omit salient facts. Even the soundest principle produces inequitable or unreliable or unprincipled outcomes if half the factual jigsaw (whether through bias or laziness) is missing.
The professor’s article is <here>.
His article has three broad themes:
1. The EU’s response to the invasion has been poor; and
2. The EU has failed to deliver on its promise of a European army; and
3. A concluding hope that the Ukraine experience will weaken and greatly diminish the EU.
You can read it for yourself here; you do not need me to point out in detail how nakedly partisan it is.
But just to isolate some representative extracts:
The professor says:
“Since the Ukraine conflict erupted, the EU has had a great deal to say about its sympathy for Ukraine as a brother European state. But if you look closely it has not actually done a great deal to derail Vladimir Putin’s war machine.”
What he failed to say:
A fair-minded commentator would have acknowledged that both Britain and the EU were doing quite a good job; but that both could do better. Specifically, German dependence on Russian gas and oil presents the EU with a difficult problem, in that turning off the taps completely could – potentially – usher in some pro-Russian populist former East German quisling who might prosper politically by hawking the simplistic message that “supporting Ukraine should not be at the expense of wrecking the German economy”. Of course, the Germans want to do more, but there needs to be an adult acknowledgment of the bind they’re in, and the pace at which they can extricate themselves from their current dependence.
Similarly, like the Germans, the Brits are doing good work militarily, by supplying some pretty handy tank-busting weapons.
Unfortunately, in terms of tackling the dirty money, laundered in London, which is funding Putin’s war, Britain has been feeble. It’s dragging its feet, and hoping nobody notices. See article <here>.
Britain has also been slow to take in immigrants. Little Ireland, a country with nothing like the UK’s wealth or resources, already has taken in about 10 times as many as Britain.
Of course, this level of practical xenophobia and dissuasion of Johnny Foreigner is just how a Brexit administration, one that was swept to power on a wave of anti-immigrant fervour, always will behave. Embarrassed Brexiters, unable to face the facts about the Brexit ideology, are railing against “incompetent bureaucracy”, but they are (perhaps deliberately) missing the point. For all those simple-minded and lightly-travelled people I spoke to in 2016 who were worried sick about being “invaded by millions of Turks”, Brexit is working well, and Britain’s begrudging response to war refugees is entirely intentional. A Brexiter government temperamentally will always be unable to think its way to a position of generosity on immigration. You might as well expect a Mormon government to open a string of late-night pubs.
If one was marking the UK’s and the EU’s score-cards, one might give them each a C+. Not bad, but could do better.
However, to attack the EU’s failings and entirely to ignore the UK’s is the kind of cherry-picked bias you expect in a tabloid. Any law professor worthy of the name should perhaps aim a little higher.
The professor says:
“This may have important long term implications. Having officially incorporated it into the EU treaties in 1997 as a fundamental part of the EU constitution, the EU has constantly boasted of its common foreign and security policy. It sees it as a key component of its mission to become a major political, as well as an economic, world player. Repeated proposals from Brussels for at least something in the way of a European army, or at least a strike force, are clearly built on its foundations. But if this is the best the EU can do for Ukraine, outsiders as well as Europeans will begin to see just how hollow these boasts are.”
What he failed to say:
Unfortunately, this may be a mea culpa moment! For years, Brexiters, people like me, have been railing against the prosect of a common European army. Now, having spent decades working hard to ensure that the EU would never have a common army, I now find myself in the rather uncomfortable position of now berating the EU for not having a common army. Oops …
Regrettably, the professor seems altogether blind to the fundamental inconsistency in his position. He sees nothing wrong with fulminating about you doing x, and then attacking you for not doing x. Remarkable.
The professor says:
“Whether the EU likes it or not, we may be seeing the high-water mark of the EU in its political form. In its place will come a gradual return to what it was when it started: an economic bloc and free-trade area. ”
What he failed to say:
Putin’s antics may also have serious implications for the Brexit project. Simply, the global conditions on which Brexit depended no longer exist. As Paul Mason’s article notes:
“Brexit, in its original form, is dead: killed by the new geopolitical realities created by the war in Ukraine. I doubt that the UK will re-join the EU anytime soon, but its whole attitude to Europe will have to change – on defence, on energy and even on trade itself.
To understand why, consider the delusional text written by Boris Johnson introducing the Integrated Review, a comprehensive foreign and security strategy issued by Downing Street last March. Brexit, he said, had set Britain free: “free to tread our own path, blessed with a global network of friends and partners, and with the opportunity to forge new and deeper relationships.” The UK would be the buccaneering free agent, ducking and diving across Asia, the Americas and the Pacific, promoting free trade in place of the established trading blocks, and moving its armed forces into the “Indo-Pacific”.
Where is that freedom now? It has vanished, for four reasons.
First, China and Russia have forged a strategic economic alliance. The declaration co-signed in Beijing on 4 February effectively declared an end to the “rules-based global order” designed in 1945. In its place, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have inaugurated an era of systemic conflict, where trade, information flows and access to raw materials will move along paths determined by an alliance of militarised dictatorships.
Second, because proximity suddenly matters. Western sanctions on Russia are reshaping the world economy. Though Russia represents only 3 per cent of global GDP, the impact of removing everything from civilian aviation, to credit cards and McDonalds will be felt worldwide. You need only watch how urgently America is scrambling to appease oil-producing Venezuela to understand the importance of geographic nearness.
Thirdly, we have entered an energy war that will last until the end of the carbon age. The US is self-sufficient in fossil fuels. Europe is not. If Putin switches the lights off in Italy and Germany, the two biggest guzzlers of Siberian gas, then no matter how quickly the UK government builds wind farms and nuclear power stations, we’ll still be part of a continental energy crisis, requiring continental solutions.
Fourth, in this new situation the European Union either becomes a global power, co-equal to Russia, China and the US, or it becomes the chessboard across which the others fight. Hard Brexit was always premised on the break-up and decline of the EU. If that were to happen now, it would be a catastrophe for Britain and a victory for Putin. The emergence of systemic conflict mandates that Britain re-engage with Europe, on defence projects, in space, and even at the basic level of getting humanitarian goods out of Dover into Calais.
The EU knows it must achieve strategic autonomy – the ability to defend itself, regulate its information space, and heat the homes of 500 million people without reliance on Russian gas – much faster than it had imagined. Once it does so, the UK will become its satellite.
By choosing hard Brexit, Johnson deliberately walked away from 70 years of British leadership in Europe. Who benefited? Ultimately, Vladimir Putin. The next government is going to have to rebuild trade, energy, space, internet and defence collaboration with the EU, which means common standards and, ultimately, a common market.
Of course, we all enjoy a bit of shit-stirring. And, in the teeth of many pro-faced prevailing sacred cow orthodoxies, who can resist a little bit of baiting and mischievously-rhetorical countervailance?
However, this is in the context of a bloody invasion which could lead to WW3. And the good Prof is not using a nom de plume. In fact, he’s using his official job title to lend gravitas to his group-think articles.
All I can say is, good luck to his students. One suspects they’ll need to carry several pinches of salt into his lectures.