Truth and the Tribe in The Age of Entitlement
This is where we are at.
In debate after debate, our discourse is no longer debating particular courses of action based on similar facts, we are disputing the facts themselves.
It is getting worse. We have to admit we have a problem.
On Brexit, ministers and supporters have challenged the basis of government - and independent - predictions. Institutions from the Financial Times to the CBI have been targeted as ‘Remoaners’ for questioning government policy. Former ministers and senior figures within both parties - but mainly the Conservative party - have abandoned reason for policy by gut instinct.
We live with a government whose senior members - May, Hammond, Rudd - have campaigned against the policy they are now enacting. The prime minister herself, when questioned about Brexit, cannot say whether it is worth it. On the one hand, this is commendable: it shows she is not eager to be untruthful; one the other, it demonstrates a wider dishonesty.
There is something reminiscent of that Douglas Adams line where Man (having disproved the existence of god) goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed at the next zebra crossing.
More recently, Jeremy Corbyn has havered again and again on whether Assad, with the aid of the Putin regime, was responsible for the chemical attack on Douma. In life we can never have absolute certainty, but every piece of credible evidence points towards Assad: instead the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition implausibly suggested that rebels groups were responsible.
Were these instances isolated, that would be one thing but they are not.
This is not about Brexit or airstrikes on Syria
Owen Jones - a Guardian columnist - recently suggested that an image of Corbyn’s hat was doctored to make his appearance look more Russian. Even when Channel Four’s Fact Check disproved him, he allowed his assertion to remain.
On BBC’s This Week Peter Hitchens, from the Mail on Sunday, disputed the evidence of the Syrian War. In the face of reputable organisations, he doubted the 2017 attack to be the work of the Assad regime.
When Disclaimer later called him out on it, he then claimed it as a dishonest smear which tells lies. Of course, when asked he could not say where the lies were because there weren’t any. He was playing to his gallery of online supporters.
This is not about Brexit or airstrikes on Syria. And certainly not a hat. There are plenty of respectable arguments for Brexit that do not result in denying the weight of economic opinion. Corbyn could honourably argue that he accepted Assad’s responsibility but still doubted whether bombing the country would help the situation. Jones could just have said that putting the Labour leader in front of the Kremlin was suggestive of anti-left bias. None of them did.
These people want their own facts. What is worse, reasonable opinion is allowing them to have them. The centre cannot hold: democratic politics cannot long survive where it is not the interpretation that is disputed but the facts themselves.
Difference is a good thing. No true democrat should want to see a uniform perspective. It is only though rational discussion that we approach a truth.
How we deal with that truth is up to us. Unemployment at 1.5 million: is that ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Three quarters of A&E patients being seen within 4 hours: does it matter that this is a record low, yes or no?
That is not what is happening though.
We are witnessing a world unfiltered. Infowars has millions of viewers and listeners. It can saw what it likes. Owen Jones does not only opine through his weekly Guardian column but also through Medium and Twitter. Both have credence not for what they say but for the tribe they represent.
The accession of Trump has shown the willingness of Republican voters, then lawmakers, to put common institutions in danger to maintain tribal hegenomy. It does not matter that Trump endangers the norms of the presidency because he has his tribe.
On Question Time, Emily Thornberry was roundly booed for suggesting that red tape was holding up an investigation into the chemical attack on Douma. She hunched her shoulders and defiantly said: “That’s what I heard.”
It was rather like a child with jam over their face, denying they had raided the pantry.
The tribe is the beginning not the end of our problem.
Entitlement is at the heart of democratic politics. We talk about the right to life, liberty and happiness; we want religious freedom, or the right to free healthcare. There is a healthy narcissism to democracy in that we see our needs as central to the polity. Often our frustration with democratic process comes from believing that in not fulfilling our dream - a better health service, more international aid, whatever - it is failing.
What allegiance does someone have to a democracy if it has failed them?
However, democracies have never addressed how to operate when times are lean. Austerity may be ideological but even left-wing government have to operate in straitened times.
Across the Western world, democracies have seen wage stagnation, and a crony capitalism that does not just reward success but rewards failure too, and so on. In Britain, the least well-off have seen their income go down. For too many life and got harder and they can see no end to it. What they do see is the unfairness.
Democracies have failed its citizens since the financial crash. Leaders have been unable to explain their failures or tried to pretend otherwise.
The cunning of Brexiters was to see this gap. It is also the cunning of Owen Jones et al. to play with it. But for all their deceit, they have given us a good question: can democracies function with inequality?
What allegiance does someone have to a democracy if it has failed them? What kind of world is it where the homeless can live in proximity of cafes where brunch costs £30? That failure starts a sense of entitlement. It is a road that leads to resentment cynicism. Then rejection. In that rejection there is the beginning of an alternative narrative.
Something can be both understandable and dangerous at the same time.
It may be too little, too late. Facts are facts. Evidence is evidence. Denial of them is just that.
It is no good politicians calling out the bias against truth our tangled web has created without also addressing the iniquity at its heart. Equally, it is not good talking about democracies' failures without tackling the entitlement to one’s own facts.
It is not one or the other. It is both together or nothing.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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