I am really enjoying the radicalisation of the once-complacent, smug and optimistic humanist elite. Seriously, AC Grayling’s thunderous tirades against “Brexit” are admirably spirited and engaging. True, they are still full of absurdities. Take this:
Too many people were disenfranchised: 16 and 17 years olds, UK citizens living abroad for more than a certain period and tax-paying EU citizens resident in the UK (who should have had a vote on this matter on the principle “no taxation without representation” as they would be directly affected by it).
“No taxation without representation” was a phrase of American colonists, in America, forced to pay taxes to Britain. This is not equivalent to Poles, Frenchmen and Spaniards in Britain paying taxes to Britain. Even the broadest definitions of this phrase restrict it to citizens. I mean, I am a British citizen in Poland and I do not feel entitled to vote on anything.
Still, I really do welcome this new embattled urgency in liberals. It makes them more eloquent and more sincere. Take this, from Grayling:
I like to be a citizen of a community which can boast in its heritage Beethoven and Goethe, Shakespeare and Descartes, Leonardo da Vinci and Newton, Einstein and Moliere, Kant and Vermeer, Dante and Diderot, Spinoza and Titian, Balzac and Milton, Faraday and Proust, Yeats and Fermat, and the rest of a pantheon stretching all the way back to Virgil, Cicero, Aristotle and Homer. I like to think that I am a citizen of region of our planet which stretches from the beautiful Adriatic coast to the equally beautiful Welsh mountains, from Greece’s Cyclades to the isles of Scotland, from the forests of Germany to the green hills of Ireland, from the Baltic coast to the beaches of Portugal. I like feeling at home in Rome and Prague and Amsterdam, because I am a citizen in each of them.
This stirred my love of Europe quite effectively. All I would say is that I do not feel “at home” in Belgium or the Czech Republic. More in my cousin’s home. We are related but we are not from the same nuclear family. The job of federalism, to the extent that it is valuable, is to unite us without obscuring our differences.
But I am infected with a touch of schadenfreude. Liberal humanist complacence has enabled the imperilment of everything a man like Grayling so deeply admires. As European people – who, not only in Britain, but in France, the Netherlands and Hungary, where Le Pen, Wilders and Orban have profited from the same popular grievances as Farage – were growing embittered towards the swelling European project, Grayling and his comrades were blissfully ignorant. He, like Alain De Botton, served liberal bromides with a veneer of philosophy.
Of the idea of a nation, Grayling was scornful. The English, he claimed, were “a mixture of so many immigrations over time that the idea of an English ethnicity is comical”. In fact, Bryan Sykes, Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics, has found that “by about 6,000 years ago, the [matrilineal genetic] pattern was set for the rest of the history of the Isles, and very little has disturbed it since“. No matter. Grayling warned us that national particularism, whatever its basis, “has produced discrimination, apartheid, Nazism, the Holocaust”. So let us not even think of good and bad nationalisms. Put away your flags, boys. That way lies the gas chambers.
It is ludicrous how pie-eyed Grayling’s universalist optimism has been. In an essay before the 2002 Six Nations, he said the singing of the national anthems were “stomach-turning”. “It is the connection of innocuous-seeming national ardour…with the ugly cancer of real nationalism.” There should be “a single anthem, in which all can participate for the joy of the game”. And video games should be about cooperation, not violence. And Twitter should conform to a Socratic ideal. At the risk of sounding like the lazier populists, it is this kind of ivory tower internationalism, which reacts violently even against the mildest, most good-natured expressions of clannishness, that is enabling nationalist radicalisation.
Nationalism, Grayling said, was “interrupting the great historical movement towards larger comities of peoples where loyalty is to peace and cooperation, and whose citizens are humans first and foremost, before they are Serbs or Aryans or Tutsis””
Grayling is, famously, a critic of religion. Indeed, he is an aggressive and insulting critic. For him religious belief shares “the same intellectual respectability…as belief in the existence of fairies”. Religion is “rooted in the superstitions of illiterate goatherds”. He loves this image, writing elsewhere of the “superstitious lucubrations of illiterate goatherds”. And again! “The beliefs of ancient goatherds”. Grayling! What on earth did a goatherd do you?
I hope it is obvious how crude and boorish these insults are. Whatever the epistemic merits of the concept, God is posited to explain the existence of matter, motion, consciousness and morals. Fairies are posited to explain the existence of folk tales. How a philosopher can reduce to theism to “goatherds”, ignoring Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Avicenna, Leibniz, Kierkegaard, Haldane and Plantinga is beyond me.
It is also absurd how Grayling ignores the human impulse towards religion: the attachment to narratives of intelligent creation, objective meaning and eventual justice. I am sure he thinks our brief existence in a heartless universe where bad men die in comfort and small children die in pain is far richer and more fulfulling than the narratives of faiths but many people disagree.
The act of disagreement baffles many liberal humanists, who think that their ideas are self-evidently true. So do people of all tribes, of course, but it is especially sad in people who praise rationality and independent thought. This leads them to irrational overconfidence in their ideas but also ignorance of other people. Men and women across the world are tribal and religious (religious in thought if not even in coherent belief). Even if one disagrees, such attitudes must be accounted for. Appeals for reason are paper darts on the walls of human behaviour.