Who killed the liberal dream? (Spoiler: it wasn’t ‘fake news’)
At what fucking point are we going to concede that “people just need to be better and read less fake news” is an irrational centrist dream, and no kind of solution at all? Helen Razer asks the question.
“The centre is not holding,” wrote Ross Douthat in the New York Times in July. He is one of thousands of commentators who have lived since the time of Yeats to pillage a famous poem, and one of millions to notice this year that faith in the centre of politics had evaporated. That vote shares for centrist parties in the West are diminishing as fast as ultra-nationalists can claim them is a terrible fact. Douthat’s solution to this state — wait and say “may this cup of crisis pass from us, and soon” — is a terrible, and terribly common, fantasy.
Douthat offers a “reality check” to readers and reminds them that things aren’t that bad. Certainly, not so bad as to warrant the mainstreaming of radical, racist isolationism. Very concisely, he expresses a centrist frustration with the rise that buoys Trump, Le Pen, Hanson, etc. In short, these people are maniacs, and if we wait long enough, quote enough Joan Didion and remind people that things aren’t bad enough to justify their bad electoral behaviour, the maniacs will be returned to the asylum.
This plea for the balm of reason was restated for the cause of journalism in the same month by editor of The Guardian, Kathrine Viner. She chided commentators and other outlets for their “brazen disregard for facts” and popularised the phrase “post-truth era”. Viner, more erudite than Douthat, was careful to offer an account of “truth” that conceded its terminally subjective, always material nature. But in this much-shared piece, written to launch the paper’s funding campaign, Viner’s faith in a rational centre was equally clear. We cannot concede that a politics of centrism has failed the people. The people, misled by irresponsible speech, have permitted their own failure of reason.
However you church it up, and Waleed Aly is one local commentator who regularly tries to, the centre has lost its hold far less because voters are now particularly irrational, but more due to the rational failure of centrism itself. You can keep saying until George Orwell rises from the dead that “discourse” is the problem, and you probably will keep saying that if the creation of discourse is your actual job. But this does not change the preference of the people for radical political alternatives, any more than it matches positive-sounding pronouncements on GDP to the way that most people live.
By several measures — real wage growth, longevity, mental health, social services, job security, housing affordability, main street prosperity — things are now much more shit than they have been in some shitty time. When you live in this shit and a Viner or a Douthat tells you, ultimately, that your susceptibility to shit-thinking is the true problem, you might start believing that the centre cannot hold even a bake sale to save itself from irrelevance.
Inequality is on the rise. So is racist isolationism. The solution of the centrists to this pair of facts is to not pay any attention at all to the first. The ugly virtuosity of the right, even the centre-right, has been to make the two facts indivisible. “Brown people are stealing our wealth” is, and always has been, “post-truth”. But then again, so is “No one is stealing your wealth. What are you complaining about? Everything is fine.”
From the centre, no one remains to concede the rise of inequality. Terrifying, extreme parties can arise to claim the territory of their centrist opponents in France, the Netherlands, Hungary, the US, Australia and still, the centre says that the decision of voters is “post-truth”. It is, of course, a decision, chiefly by voters of European heritage, that is based on the non-truth of racism. But when the only other truth in town is “you just need to be more calm and reasonable about this government and/or market-enforced austerity”, you can perhaps see, if not forgive, the political re-activation of the racist impulse. It’s not a brave or noble response. It is, or it should be to any casual student of 20th-century history, a predictable one.
“May this cup of crisis pass from us, and soon.” There was a time this rot would barely be tolerated in a self-help book. Now it’s in the Times. As though bad people just eventually stop being bad, and the Nazis were defeated not by air raids, but platitudes. I’m not certain how many centrist, or centre-left, governments must fall before nice, rational journalists give up on the idea that “post-truth” or “fake news” or bad morals is the problem, and acknowledge that the problem is precisely the centrist view they uphold.
To be gracelessly clear. No. I am not suggesting that pleasant, intelligent people like Viner or Aly are to blame for the stink of racism. What they purvey instead is the deodorant of centrist liberal hope. But at some point, surely, popular intellectuals like these must quit telling people to be better and perhaps agree that people might expect better things from a centre that has failed them, or looks like it will any day now.
Underemployment is not a little problem. Racism is not a little problem. But to suppose that one is not buoying the other, or that the two things don’t impact many of the same people, is a monumental problem, maintained by the good of the rational centre.
Clinton, the ur-centrist, said that she’d do something about racism, without once addressing the way this is permitted to play out mechanically in labour, prison, foreign policy and other complexes. Trump pretended he’d do something to shift (white) people away from the possibility of poverty. These were the sour promises offered to US voters in the presidential election: naked neoliberalism with concealed racism, or naked racism with concealed neoliberalism. They’re both variations on the centre. One just looks more radical.
In France — lovely, liberal, philosophising France — the centrist Hollande faces 4% approval and near certain defeat by a dribbling racist twit. In Victoria — home to the experimental arts, host of the nation’s most culturally unifying football code — One Nation is polling at 10%. In Germany — a nation whose identity will be forever inseparable from the profound guilt of Nazism — the execrable racists of Alternative fur Deutschland were polling at 13%, and that was before the Berlin bombing.
At what fucking point are we going to concede that “people just need to be better and read less fake news” is an irrational centrist dream, and no kind of solution at all? Yes. Some people are shit, or at least place their voting faith in abundantly shitty people. What is your plan to forestall this? Tell them some bullshit about a cup of crisis and write, in the spare and tasteful fashion of Didion, from your Manhattan apartment? Will we be so inspired by the objective and universalising power of art, we will rise from our savagery and start attending the symphony?
One strategy to overcome both the irrational violence of racism and the rational fear of diminished purchasing power could be a public conversation about the totalising force of capital, to admit that it is capital, not gentle human hope, that touches us all. But the centre will not brook it. Instead, it frets humanistically about its “cup of crisis”, and offers up a fair-trade ceramic with hopeful bits of pillaged Yeats hand-painted on the side. It maintains its minimal Didion aesthetic, chides racists as tasteless and demands the return of “reasonable” speech, while considering talk about money to be both unreasonable and tasteless.
If centrism’s most notable proponents did dare talk about a dirty thing like wealth, they may be forced not only to examine how much of it they have, but forgo their status as “reasonable”. We all enjoy the delusion that we are reasonable. Even a commie nutter like me.
This was the disastrous year when the centre would not fold, would not concede that only a leftist origami could restore its foundational texts. But. You know. Keep saying that the problem is shit people and their bad taste and their fake news. Hold on to that cup of hope. Hold on to it while the racists drink like ecstatic pigs from the trough of power.