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The Oxford Manner; or, Wherefore art thou, Brexit?

In the continuing accretion of dolor following the Brexit Referendum, I’ve been reminded of something I read in the weeks leading up that might shed some light on the result. The result of both the referendum, and the shaping of society that has gotten us to this point, that is. Of all things, it was a puff piece on the actor Miriam Margolyes (Professor Sprout, for you Potterites). A short, Q&A style article, it spent the majority of its length ribbing received wisdom and PC shibboleths, but never to a truly threatening degree, which has become Margolyes’ trademark of late.

Amongst the various questions about her youth, her co-stars, her views on Western cultural practices and Middle-Eastern geo-politics, she referred to her class roots, saying ‘…my mother was uneducated and felt inferior. She was determined that I would go to university. She’d say, “I want you to be able to talk to anybody about anything” – and I can.’ Because I’ve a wide masochistic streak, I proceeded, upon completion, to read the first few comments “below the line.” Amidst the swathes of drek and sprinklings of misogyny, one commenter stated (well couched in sexist piffle) that ‘…the notion that only those who attend uni can debate and discuss any subject is not only inaccurate, but patronising to the vast number of working-class men who win any kind of argument with these individuals, even though they think they have an advantage over us because we’re not “educated”. Being vociferous and having the temerity to never back down or capitulate is a sign of a good orator, and Miriam hasn’t displayed these attributes, merely that she believes in social cleansing.’

I’m willing to give Margolyes the benefit of the doubt on this one, not in small degree because I would tend to agree with her, and assume that that is not what she meant, but our andro-centric commenter does have a bit of a point. At the very least, his invective taps into the sea of feeling that has driven us to these dark times, the frustrations of a large section of society made to feel lesser.

Earlier this week, I attended a pro-EU rally here in Cambridge. Weather was miserable, and the audio equipment was suffering, but the assembled local grandees were able to struggle through and pass along their message of condolence, of renewed effort, and all the rest. Everyone to speak was quite emphatic in saying that not all Brexiters were racists, not all were xenophobes. All the more jarring, then, the echo-chamber affirmation of disdain following the denunciation of prime-ministerial hopeful Michael Gove’s now-notorious line – “people have had enough of Experts!” Oh, yes, silly Gove and his distrust of experts, and silly Brexiters for being so gullible as to follow him. Because, of course, there is only ever one proper way to read things, statements only ever mean what they say on the surface, and Michael Gove and his ilk invariably deny the facticity of reality. That’s definitely what’s going on here. Let’s all have a good, self-congratulatory chuckle for knowing better than those clods, that facts are facts and that there are people who know them. Quite right.

Britain, I give you your next Prime Minister. May Satan help us all.

Britain, I give you your next Prime Minister. May Satan help us all.

Wait. What’s that you say? It’s not the facts people may have been tired of, but the hectoring, dismissive way they are so often delivered? Preposterous! People that know best know best after all! Leave everything to the professional professionals, and don’t worry your head about things you can’t understand anyways!

More seriously, you can see the overlap between the two issues without an overwhelming amount of effort, I think. The tacit assumption that those who haven’t been through the ivory-bound gates of the academy are precluded all knowledge, whether it be conversational or economic, is likely a bit overdone, but, as is often the case, it’s the way in which these subjects are presented that is at issue. The locking-out of people from the conversation, and the tone-deafness of the infrequent missives to these penned herds, have long been a problem, and it’s no surprise that it’s started to rankle.

As I said a moment ago, I would tend to agree with Margolyes – education is one of the few goods-in-itself, and I hope I’d be one of the last people one the list of anti-intellectuals. However (and I recognise that an off-the-cuff remark in a >500 word article isn’t likely to show nuance), I fear that the spirit of what she was saying about Universities, the ideal of them, doesn’t match the reality. Probably never has, unless for a very small slice. The blithe assumption that it does and that this is an effective way of cutting up society is, understandably, offensive. The idea, though, that University education ought to provide one with a richer, more vibrant life, a tool-set to explore deep interests and an exposure to the broader world, coupled with the universal access to these boons, now, there is something to strive for.

In his closing comments to the Oxford Student Union a year or so ago, Stephen Fry (another embattled anti-PC’er) quoted from Wilde’s De Profundis, the letter the poet wrote to his sometime paramour (and downfall) Lord Alfred Douglas, saying ‘That you failed to get a degree at Oxford is perfectly understandable. Many great minds have failed to get a degree. What is not forgivable is that you failed to acquire what is sometimes called the Oxford Manner, which I take to mean the ability to play gracefully with ideas.’ So, we see that this conception of what Universities are for is not a new one, or rather, not one of the last half-century. While there are plenty of worthwhile careers built out of it, this is what a proper education in the Humanities is meant, or should be meant, to instill, the zest for life. The technical sciences, the professional courses, while they might have more obvious and immediate economic benefits, can only be augmented by the addition of this. Too much of the modern University, with its bloated bureaucracy and its efficiencies schemes and its slashed budgets, is aimed only at producing something quantifiable, and it is diminished by this in a fundamental manner.

Many of the people I’ve known who best exemplify the Oxford Manner, the ‘ability to play gracefully with ideas,’ the possession of a boundless curiosity about the world, have never had a lick of post-secondary. Conversely, I am acquainted with many people who have attended top-tier universities and are dumb as a stump, doubly uninterested and uninteresting. So, clearly a University education is not always necessary for these gains, nor does it always work. That said, it takes a very particular type of person to seek out such knowledge, to take on that mode, for themselves. Much more likely is it that, given the opportunity and the skillset to make good on it, people will take this on once shown how. While you may not be able to make a horse drink having brought it to water, it’ll certainly do better there than in the desert. We must expand education in our society, obviously for the concomitant economic benefits, but also to make of our society a collection of better humans, more involved with the world, more engaged with their lives and better able to take part in their communities. We cannot continue to shut the door on these opportunities and laugh at those locked out. We cannot continue to fob off on the economically disenfranchised the barest of educations, ‘streamlining’ them into becoming living tools for business’ gain and little else. We are beginning to see the unrest that this causes, the deserved distrust and anger that generations of this foolhardiness brings about.

Perhaps Brexit shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but hopefully it will provide the wake-up we so clearly need.

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Brexit -So far

And so, here we are, in the Brave, New, Post-Brexit World. But not really – despite the slim majority (52%) on the side of the Leave vote, article 50 – the clause of 2007’s Lisbon Treaty that covers the exit of a member state from the EU – has not been triggered. And may never be so. Cameron, in a clever, if thoroughly spineless, move refused to act immediately on the results of the referendum, saying instead that he was stepping down and would allow the next Prime Minister to move the situation forward. Meanwhile, over in the Leave quarter, we’ve seen more back-pedalling. Nigel Farage has distanced himself from any firm statement on the allocation of that £350 million weekly delivered to the EU, not of course that he has the authority to do anything with it, but the suggestion that this might be redirected to the NHS played no small role in deciding the minds of many. Iain Duncan Smith, much closer to the levers of power, has also downplayed that particular “promise.” On the xenophobic side of the Brexit coin, the Conservative MEP that headed up the Leave campaign Daniel Hannan has admitted that, even with an exit from the bloc, they will not be able to stem migration. A gormless, squirming Boris Johnson has as much as said that he didn’t expect to win. All in all, a pretty pathetic showing from the Victorious.

'What do you mean, we won?'

‘What do you mean, we won?’

And that is merely a portion of what’s going on with the Tories and UKIP. In the country more generally, we’ve seen a continually declining exchange rate for stirling – at a 12% drop last I checked, it represents the most abrupt depreciation for the currency ever, and the lowest rate in 35 years. £125 billion was wiped off the FTSE 100 within 5 hours Friday morning, with continuing damage to the FTSE 250. At close on Friday, markets worldwide saw the loss of approximately $2 trillion, which has only increased in the new week. Last night, the country lost its Triple-A credit rating with Standard and Poor (the last major credit agency to rate them so, others having reduced their rating in response to austerity measures in previous years – though they too reduced their already slashed values). In Scotland, which voted almost unanimously (by area) for Remain, Nicola Sturgeon has begun the drumbeat of Independence once more, whereas Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland have called for a uniting with the Republic, and Plaid Cymru, in Wales, is calling for their own national referendum. The PLP Blairites have, in their wisdom, taken this time to stage a (failing) leadership coup. The arch-quisling Hillary Benn was sacked over the weekend for initiating it, and that rational move has set off a cascade of resignations from the shadow cabinet – 35 at last count.

I was, rightly, criticised for passing over the subject of migration in my last piece. To be fair, I didn’t intend to offer a comprehensive gloss of the situation, rather a background for my more academic concerns, but it has proven to be such a pivotal issue in the whole farrago that to not mention it was a glaring omission. As if we needed proof that, for many, this is the key issue of the referendum, we’ve seen a disgusting uptick in racist rhetoric and action since the results came in Friday. There have been instances of cars and homes leafleted with anti-polish slogans; groups of non-ethnic English verbally harassed up and down the country, even just outside Cambridge; there have been Muslims told “you’re next.” Reports are still trickling in from the weekend of multiple acts of vandalism, windows smashed and exteriors vandalised. Huffpo have an ongoing collection of reports, and it is troublingly long. People, people who have lived here for generations, are afraid in their own country. Although it occurred before the referendum was actually held, I would be remiss not to mention the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox by a white supremacist – Jo Cox who headed the all-party group Friends of Syria, focussing on Syrian refugee response. ANTIFA brigades are suddenly looking a lot less LARP-like.

Racist cards handed out in Huntingdon, just outside Cambridge

Racist cards handed out in Huntingdon, just outside Cambridge

This is something I struggle with in discussing these matters in conversation, choosing the level at which to frame them. Often times, I will, while holding to one level in the back of my mind, say something that accords with another, and later on foul myself up on the contradiction between the two. More to the point, the question – what of the rights of migrants? – has many answers, depending on how the question is framed. At the most normative level, the level of “what should the world be like,” the question is easily answered – acknowledging the illusory nature of borders and illegitimacy of existing power structures, digging into what ought to be available for people, yes, it is easy to say that there should be free movement of people and that they should be extended the protection and rights accorded to all humans vis a vis their humanity. Unfortunately, and this is particularly important when trying to convince someone sceptical of such a position, normativity is not sufficient.

In the world realpolitik, basic human rights, never mind those that are self-evident or supposedly God-given, get short shrift. As ever, freedom issues from the barrel of a gun and force rules the day. The legalese is good for little else than assigning blame once the damage is done, and arguing from a position of how-the-world-ought-to-be when your interlocutor holds to this is unlikely to get you anywhere fast. Thankfully, we haven’t (yet) sunk to that depth. However, there are still the circumstances on the ground to be considered when we ask the question.

In answer to this, then, at least on the level of ‘the hard-nosed, disillusioned realist,’ we must recourse to law. What law protects the rights of European migrants in the UK? Obviously, that of the EU. A set of laws that, if ever the Tories choose to take the plunge, will be rescinded. In this instance, what laws would the migrants have? None, other than those ensured by the UN and whatever invariably-odious writ the Government draughts to replace the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. It’s a safe bet that the rights – economic and otherwise – granted to foreigners in this yet-to-come piece of legislation will be sparse. It is, or will be, a fait accompli, and to have a conversation about it, framed with those parameters, is to accept this. What of the rights of migrants? The rhetorical question presents itself – What rights?

So, as rudimentary as the above all is, it does go some way to illustrating my trouble with the question. But, for we who hold to ideas of a better future, isn’t it our job to push against the ‘facts on the ground,’ to push against the way things happen to be, until they align more closely with they way they ought to be? It is ours then to make the case for why the laws need to be changed, to strive to realign the balance of powers such that we have the weight on our side, the weight enough to actually matter in the realms of realpolitik. Assurances have come from the like of Boris Johnson, saying that the status of EU migrants already present in the country will no change – but, looking at even just his track record of the last few days, you’d be a fool to think he won’t change with the wind. We need to push back against the racism, the scapegoating, the lies, and, in some ways most disheartening, the silence on the part of those who should know better (Lexit campaign, I’m looking at you).

All those are nice and stirring words, but that is about the sum of it without an actual, achievable, plan. Well and good to say that, after the Revolution, everyone will be treated justly and graciously, but it won’t be slogans alone that get us there. Demonstrations, and I stress that they are useful in some, limited, respects, don’t stop wars. We need to grapple with the situation, and that is one of parliamentary democracy. There is still hope for a Labour party run in a social democratic way – far from ideal, but this is about damage control now. There are accusations that Corbyn and his team didn’t do nearly enough for the Remain campaign, and even that they actively scuttled efforts amongst the Labour wing. The fact remains, two thirds of Labour voters, despite the obvious incentives of voting out (generational disenfranchisement, economic punishment by elites, continuing disposable status under the status quo – not all reasons for Brexit were racist) voted remain. Comparing this with 46% of Tory voters who voted to stay in the EU, it seems farfetched to say that Brexit was Corbyn’s fault, that he didn’t deliver (as if the votes of an electorate are some packaged object to be shuttled back and forth) the Labour constituents.

corbsup

A crowd of Corbyn supporters, thousands strong, assembled outside of Parliament last night in a flash display of solidarity

There is likely to be a leadership race within the Labour party, and, as far as the rights of migrants go, never mind a whole host of other issues, our best bet is to re-elect Jeremy Corbyn. But then we must hold his feet to the fire – it is not enough to simply elect and assume the job is done, we must hold him to his promises. Whatever his past malfeasances, large or slight, unfortunately, there’s no one else in the Labour party who is a better candidate.

On Brexit and Normative Ethics

While it’s true that I’ve been, for some time, in a state of flux when it comes to ethics and how I view the world, I’ll admit that I still find myself slightly allergic to ends-oriented systems. I’ve the gut feeling, the intuition – as much as I might disdain them as quanta of ‘proper’ knowledge – that the necessary causal link between the action and the desired outcome just doesn’t hold up. Nothing so far reaching as a Humean denial of the whole apparatus, I simply can’t put to rest anxieties cropping up from the unknowable nature of the future. We can at best guess at what our choices will result in, and that doesn’t cut the mustard for the big decisions.

That all said, recent political events here in Britain have (further) shaken my confidence in Kantian, maxim-based deontology. Tomorrow marks the day of referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union, riding under the rather facile portmanteau ‘Brexit.’ Appropriately, I would imagine, the vote is closed to Europeans living in Britain, but, and this I don’t quite understand, it is open to Commonwealth citizens who’ve been living in the country for the requisite period. Thus, I am faced with the three choices – Brexit, Bremain (and you thought the former was a neologistic nadir!) or abstain.

"But this is our country!" "Do you have a flag? No flag, no country!" - a great man

“But this is our country!”
“Do you have a flag? No flag, no country!”
– a great man

The run-up, while it has grown a bit tedious of late, has energised public discourse in a way that one doesn’t often see in usual elections. Perhaps this is explained by the largely-populist nature of the Brexit campaign – the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have for several weeks now been resorting to dog-whistle, and in some cases blatant, racist tactics to stir up opposition to the EU. The existence of UKIP as a party is based on the hindbrain vapours of a slice of the populace, and proof of this has only been reiterated over the last few weeks. But, depending on the day, the Leave side surpasses that of the Remain in the polls, so there is more going on here than just abject bigotry. Some portion has to be chalked up to the dismal, dirge-like nature of the In for Britain campaign, a campaign who have relied almost entirely on the tactic of economic fear mongering, delivered up by panels of rich business people, moneyed luvvies, and pompous bureaucrats – the very elites that set the average punter’s blood to boil.

There is, also, a principled reason to exit the Union. From its start, it has been and continues to be an inflexible, undemocratic monolith catering to the needs of multinational corporations. While some worker’s rights, some environmental and safety standards, some crumbs from the tables of our fiscal superiors are codified by the EU, every tangible gain for workers has come through struggle, as is ever the case. The EU, for all its vaunted protection of European citizens, has been systematically eroding the rights of workers for decades. One need look no further than the South of the continent for that, where the ongoing punishment of Greece looms particularly large. The EU, and its destriers, the IMF and the ECB, are not our friends. We would do well to be rid of them.

We would, that is, if their absence wouldn’t leave us even worse off. The country has a unipolar economy directed entirely towards finance, and most of that focussing on funneling money into Frankfurt. The Tories, though it has been amusing to watch this referendum split their party most acrimoniously, are still in power, and any arguments that we will be better positioned to argue against TTIP, to redirect the funds we send to the EU to shoring up the faltering NHS, are belied by that. We have no unified Left-opposition, as Corbyn/McDonnell continue to allow the Parliamentary Labour Party Blairites to run wild, and the radical Left remains in complete disarray, suffering delusions of mass insurrection every time George Galloway or Alan Woods feel dyspeptic. No, leaving the European Union in present circumstances would sink the economy of Britain (we’ve already seen sizeable fluctuations in the pound’s exchange rate, and there are rumblings of a second Scottish independence vote to come, should Leave triumph) and it is ever the working classes that suffer most acutely in such situations.

Returning to ethical concerns for a moment, my quandary becomes a bit clearer – can a maxim, in its successful execution, reflexively undermine the purpose that animated it? I’m not unaware of the irony here – that I should start by saying I’m wary of ends-oriented systems, and then problematise deontology by soiling it with the mere possibility of results. However, I still feel as if there is more to it than that, that this hangs more on Kant’s own formulation – to will the success of an event is to will the means for it – and if there is something mangled about those means, surely this is a problem. I suspect that the issue could be dodged by reframing – maxims are meant to be simple, categorical affairs, and the presentation I’ve provided here – even if boiled down to handy slogans like ‘Avoid acts resulting in Class collaboration’ or ‘Do not undermine the emancipation of working people’ – is incompatibly complex.

There are, of course, cogent criticisms of the maxims and, despite what Kant thought, their tendency to snarl one another and themselves. If the above count as proper maxims, this then looks like one of those cases. If not, then this particular snag is avoided, but at the cost of leaving us wondering how we build a useful system out of the infinitesimals maxims would surely be reduced to, to avoid fouling themselves up.

Whatever the fall-out of these systematic concerns, the fact remains that this is a no-win scenario. At best, we have lose-less and lose-more on the table before us, and, in the interests of damage control, I suspect I’ll be voting, with clenched teeth, for Bremain tomorrow. In the interim, I’ll try to dig out my copy of the Groundwork, and tighten up what is, I admit, a rather sophomoric interpretation of the situation.