Kenan Malik attempts to dissect romantic notions of solidified cultures that hold peoples together. He contends that the idea of an “unchanging spirit of a people” is an unnatural counter-Enlightenment one, embraced by conservative nationalists and left-wing multiculturalists. These deny, he states, the human “capacity for change, for progress, and for the creation of universal moral and political forms through reason and dialogue”. It’s a thoughtful essay that’s provoked a fair few thoughts within me so I might return to it again. For the moment, though, here’s a curmudgeonly observation. I believe it’s true that people have such a capacity. For all that we search for a single, coherent notion of “Britishness”, for example, it boggles the mind to think of all the cultural changes people of these Isles have undergone: their history encompassing ages of tribes, shires and nations; feudal kingdoms and parliamentary democracies; Druidism, Catholicism and Protestantism; Romans, Saxons, Normans and Hanoverians et cetera ad nauseum. Peoples have changed beyond recognition and unless governments attempted to go the whole sakoku they’re bound to go on changing by, in part, influencing eachother through our unprecedentedly powerful means of transport and communication.

But I sometimes feel that liberal universalists observe that our identities have been mutable and assume that these transformations can be nigh-on instantaneous. This, in fact, is true of people of many orientations. That something has taken place somewhere in history is held as reason to believe that it might take place here – and by Christmas! So, the fact that we moved from witch hunts to women’s suffrage, say, is evidence that parochial nationalists might be infused with cheerful cosmopolitanism. This inspires the thought of someone claiming that as the human form is also mutable we shouldn’t be surprised if we grow an extra limb. Our societies can progress – somewhat – through reason, dialogue and, indeed, blind chance but everything I know about the course of history suggests this is a process that emerges over years, decades and generations as patterns of thought and behaviour evolve – and, especially when it’s premature, it’s often associated with a lot of conflict. Common experiences and the loyalties, ideas, achievements and grudges bound up with them may not be eternal but neither are they swiftly forgotten or – perhaps more vitally, the latter excepted – replaced. Which, I ‘spose, is one reason why gazing across Europe turns up quite a lot of resentment and disorientation and all too little reason, dialogue and, yeah, progress.

Marine Le Pen has won a record 20% of the vote in the French presidential elections and various commentators have been asking how her voters can “flirt with fascism”. This point could be relevant…

Using data from the 2007 French elections, a London research and advisory group, Counterpoint, has drilled down into the FN support and come up with interesting findings. Looking at 5,000 voters, it defined three main categories of FN support: “potential radicals”, who agreed with Le Pen’s ideas but said they would not vote for him; “reluctant radicals”, who said they were likely to vote FN but did not feel close to the party; and “committed radicals”, who said they would vote FN and felt close to the party.

Counterpoint’s research found that while 20% of the FN’s voters in 2007 were committed, fully 80% could be classified as reluctant, and 13% as potential radicals – a big group of swing voters, whose behaviour could significantly affect the 2012 election.

In other words, they needn’t have especial fondness for Le Pen pere or fille but see them as the least bad option; because, one infers, of the dearth of nationalist opinion elsewhere. Few Europeans are racial supremacists, historical revisionists, imperialists, skinheads or whatever else might be expected from the worst of the far right. Yet majorities of them dislike supranationalist officiating and endorse severe restrictions on immigration. This might contradict the values of liberal thinkers who feel humans should transcend the “myth” of the nation state but it’s hardly suggestive of Hitlerian tendencies (it would, after all, have applied to most of the people who were prepared to sacrifice their lives to fight the Nazis). Most people simply reject the universalism that’s so popular among the academic and, to some extent, political classes. Private citizens needn’t acknowledge or address this fact, of course, but it shouldn’t surprise them if their compatriots plump for candidates they view as especially obnoxious as their concerns are neglected elsewhere.

An intriguing question is why England hasn’t seen the rise of a comparable figure despite nationalist sentiments being more popular here. Perhaps it’s significant that voters are split between UKIP and the BNP but I’d guess it’s likelier that they’ve been sleazy and/or bumbling enough that they’ve entirely failed to capitalise on public opinion and such voters have, in large part, just stayed at home.

The New York Times reports a view from Jonathan Haidt…

As a scientist, he takes a passive, empirical view of human nature. He describes us as we have been, expecting no more. Based on evolution, he argues, universal love is implausible: “Parochial love . . . amplified by similarity” and a “sense of shared fate . . . may be the most we can accomplish.”

One might object to this. After all, none of us “love” English people qua English people. In fact, we dislike a good many of them. But here’s a thought: if a hundred Englishmen were being worked to death wouldn’t you be affected? This could be explained by a desire for self-preservation if they were being killed in England so let’s say it’s abroad. You be angered, horrified and sympathetic, no? I would. Yet in North Korea tens of thousands of people face such hardships every day of every year and have been doing so for decades. Aside from, perhaps, the odd teary moment over Nothing to Envy or Escape From Camp 14 has this knowledge had the slightest impact on your emotional state? Apart from those times I’ve been directly confronted with it I have to admit it’s left mine relatively unaffected. That also applies to massacres in the Congo; disease in Kenya and oppression in Zimbabwe.

All people have limited emotional responsiveness. They act according to their membership of communities based on shared experience and ambition, and common humanity is simply not a guarantor of fellow feeling. Even the strongest, broadest concept of tribal allegiance, that of the Muslim Ummah, is nebulous in practice: speaking crudely, Pakistani Muslims tend to be stirred up over Kashmir; Egyptians over Gaza and Kurds over, well, Kurdistan. It needn’t mean we fail to recognise the injustice and suffering faced by others – though, of course, we might – but that our intellectual acknowledgement rarely transcends the cerebrum and manifests itself in empathetic feeling. This is only true, I think, when we have a tribal connection to the victims – be it familial, national or ideological – or heavy exposure to the reality of their suffering.

While this might disincline us from working as hard to ameliorate distress as we might otherwise, it can focus our attention on achievable goals. And, besides, it’s worth remembering that if we truly empathised with all people, let alone creatures, we’d be struck down with an anguish that would make existence Hell.

This does not, of course, mean you have to base your emotions round particular loyalties; only that it should be remembered that most people will.


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