11 September 2020

The ‘sympathetic magic’ of identity politics has cast an awful spell

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What, I wonder, will future generations make of us? We have spent the past three months raging against our ancestors, calling them racists and bigots, smashing their statues. But imagine turning a similar lens on ourselves. What might tomorrow’s historians have to say about the year 2020?

I have a nasty feeling that they will record it as the moment when we turned our backs on an open society and embraced an illiberal form of identity politics. They will remember it as the year when we stopped thinking of people as responsible individuals and went back to categorising them by sex and race. They will recall how suddenly we stopped caring about personal freedom, equality before the law and impartial policing, and how quickly we fell back on tribalism.

When I say “we”, I mean our intellectual elites: protesters, pundits, politicians, police – pretty much everyone, in fact, except the general population.

This is not a revolution supported by the masses or the government. It is driven by those in between: quangocrats, academics, chief constables. Consider the way our cultural elites responded to Black Lives Matter (BLM). Having previously raged against the most trivial lockdown infractions, they gave a pass to anyone who claimed to be acting in the name of anti-racism.

The police, who had been ticking people off for walking too slowly in parks, buying non-essential goods and even, in one case, being in their own garden, gave up completely on enforcing the law. Instead of ordering protesters to disperse, they dropped to one knee before them.

In Bristol, a superintendent allowed a mob to tear down a statue of Edward Colston, a seventeenth-century philanthropist who had derived part of his fortune from the slave trade. His justification? “We know that it has been an historical figure that has caused the black community quite a lot of angst over the last couple of years.” Perhaps so – but that was hardly a call for a middle-ranking copper to make, was it?

In London, officers were pulled out of Parliament Square to chants of “Run, Piggy, run!” allowing the hooligans to fall upon the statues. The following week, a Met officer was reduced to issuing a video in which he asked people to break the law in a considerate manner.

“First and foremost we want people to be safe, and would encourage you to stay at home,” said Commander Alex Murray. “However, if you feel compelled to come and have your voice heard, we would say please remain socially distant, we don’t want people to get ill; and, more than that, please do not engage in any violence.” 

It was hard not to think of Clancy Wiggum, the hapless police chief from The Simpsons: “Can’t you people take the law into your own hands?”

Not that I want to pick on the rozzers. They are reflecting the mood of what we might call Official Britain. Professors, columnists, entertainers, intellectuals – all decided to excuse the hard-Left activists protesting in the name of BLM.

The Establishment took a knee – sometimes figuratively and sometimes, as with Labour MPs and Premier League footballers, literally. Television anchors wore BLM lapel badges. Big corporations rushed out statements in support of an organisation that proclaimed its hatred of capitalism.

The Archbishop of Canterbury mused about removing images where Jesus was portrayed as white (though, naturally, no one had a problem with Jesus being painted as black or Filipino). Prince Harry issued a vapid apology. A BBC radio presenter was fired for saying on air that all lives mattered – hardly, in normal times, a controversial statement.

Indeed, our state broadcaster was especially blatant, When BLM thugs turned violent, the BBC produced the ludicrous headline, “27 police officers injured during largely peaceful anti-racism protests in London”. The following week, when a different set of thugs turned violent, it had the more conventional headline, “London protests: more than 100 arrests after violent clashes with police.”

The question that I suspect will perplex future historians is what any of this had to do with the abominable killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. That event should have been uncontroversial in the sense that no one tried to defend the actions of police officer Derek Chauvin. Unlike some past deaths in police custody, there was no ambiguity about what had happened. Everyone saw the dreadful footage. The cop was charged with murder, and his fellow officers were sacked.

Yet, months later, and 4,000 miles away, mobs are still attacking statues. Films and TV comedies are being withdrawn. England’s rugby authorities mull whether to stop the singing of ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ – an old spiritual which, far from being chanted with malice, had been a symbol of sincere and successful multiculturalism. Oxford is offering special dispensation to black students in exams.

Most people of all ethnic backgrounds recognise that these things are demented. Yet few dare step into the path of the mob. And so the absurdities go unchallenged. Feelings trump facts. Imagined grievances count for more than accurate history.

Consider some of the statues that have been attacked: Sir Robert Peel, whose insistence on establishing an unarmed police force is the reason that, whereas 1100 people are shot by American cops every year, the number here is three; Abraham Lincoln, honoured for freeing the slaves; Winston Churchill who, unlike the masked mobsters who presume to call themselves anti-fascist, was the original “antifa”. 

It is tempting to dismiss all this as “political correctness gone mad”, but the truth is far more sinister. What we are seeing is an abandonment of the ideas that made the Enlightenment possible: personal autonomy, the scientific method, the elevation of the individual above the collective.

What, after all, is the connection between the death of George Floyd and, say, the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford? If you are steeped in identity politics, the answer might seem obvious: both, you will say, are about structural racism. But consider the vast and dangerous claim implicit in that assertion – the assumption that we are all defined by our physiognomy.

The struggle of a black person in another age and place, we are invited to believe, is the business of all black people everywhere. The equivalent must, by implication, be true of white people. All of us, in other words, are identified as members of a group rather than as individuals.

Such thinking is the opposite of what was, until the day before yesterday, the liberal ideal. Holding everyone accountable for their own actions, rather than seeing them through the prism of caste or race, was the basis of modernity. It was what led to full civil rights for religious, sexual and ethnic minorities. Yet, all of a sudden, the demand that every group be treated the same has been replaced by the demand that every group be treated differently. 

Behind that demand lies the idea of retributive justice. You look a bit like Person A who did something bad to Person B, who looks a bit like me, therefore you owe me something. Of course, when you state it like that, it sounds downright superstitious. But, strip away the sub-academic cant about critical theory and privilege and intersectionalism and that is what is being said.

This is not even about ancestry: all human beings are descended from both slaves and slave-owners. Slavery was universal for most of the past 10,000 years, and we share recent common ancestors. No, we are in the realm of what the nineteenth-century anthropologist James George Frazer called “sympathetic magic”, the idea that physical resemblance creates some kind of spiritual bond.

Identity politics had been festering away for decades in sociology departments but, until recently, it was regarded by both the mainstream Left and the mainstream Right as deranged. Then came what sociologists call ‘the Great Awokening’. The brilliant behavioural psychologist Jonathan Haidt studied the prevalence of terms such as ‘safe space’, ‘micro-aggression’, ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘trigger warning’ and found almost no use of them before 2015.

Over the past five years, racialised thinking has spilled off campus. A movement that began in a few liberal arts colleges in North America has possessed young people across the oceans. You couldn’t ask for a neater symbol of how US culture wars have spread to Britain than the sight of London crowds yelling the BLM slogan “Hands up, don’t shoot!” at unarmed coppers.

It is in the nature of radical movements that they become both introverted and competitive. The agitators care primarily about the opinion of their fellow wokies, and so are more interested in hunting heretics than in winning converts.

Hence the spiral of idiocy, whereby everyone tries to find a blander thing to be offended by. Why attack Colston’s statue when you can attack Gladstone’s? Why cancel Rudyard Kipling when you can cancel J K Rowling? Why go after Gone with the Wind when you can go after Paw Patrol? Those are all real examples, by the way: BLM protesters have criticised Paw Patrol, a Canadian cartoon aimed at toddlers, because the police dog, Chase, is portrayed too sympathetically.

All this, let’s remember, is happening under a Tory government with an 80-seat majority. Boris Johnson has no time for the mobs and, to his great credit, publicly opposes the removal of the Rhodes statue. “I’m pro-heritage” he says. “I’m pro-history, and I’m in favour of people understanding our past with all its imperfections.”

What, then, is going on? The short answer is that our public bodies are disconnected from the nation at large. Many of them see the ‘inclusiveness and diversity agenda’, not as a complementary function, but as an end in itself. Thus the purpose of a university is not to educate, but to have a representative intake; the role of a company board is not to maximise profits, but to meet ethnic quotas; the point of a film is not to entertain, but to provide opportunity for minority actors, and so on.

In the public sector, this approach is encouraged by two pieces of legislation passed by the last Labour government, one at the start of its term (the 1998 Human Rights Act) and one at the end (the 2010 Equalities Act). Those laws have helped created a culture that bears little resemblance to the morality of the wider nation.

If there is anyone still wondering why Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings are so keen on reforming the administrative state, the past 12 weeks provide the answer. It is not enough to appoint better people to public bodies. We need, rather, to shift power away from unelected officials and place it back in the hands of elected representatives who are answerable to the rest of us. We need to diffuse, democratise and decentralise decision-making, so that the organs of the state cannot drift too far from the people they are meant to serve.

Until this year, Britain was an outstanding example of a multi-racial society. That success rests on the individualism that raised us above the run of nations, and is the basis of liberal democracy.

As the black American writer Thomas Sowell puts it, “It is self-destructive for any society to create a situation where a baby who is born into the world today automatically has pre-existing grievances against another baby born at the same time, because of what their ancestors did centuries ago.” Amen, Thomas. Amen.

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Daniel Hannan is an author and columnist. He teaches at Buckingham University and is a member of the Board of Trade.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.