I am having a difficult time at the moment. I say to friends that I can’t hear the “B” word (Brexit – it is painful even to type it) or the “T” word (I can’t even type that, but if I say “orange sociopath” you’ll know what I’m talking about).
I’ve written five blog pieces prior to this one, trying to express and understand my feelings and binned all of them. Hopefully, this one nails my calm, resolute position and I can leave the rage, frustration, dismay, fear and despair behind as the year closes.
As I’m sure many of you know, 2016 has felt like a disaster for people like me. Liberals? No. In the long run of history, liberals are doing pretty well.
Slavery has disappeared as an industry, for the most part, replaced by metaphorical slavery (McJobs etc) or criminal trafficking, both of which are a blight on humanity, true, but an improvement. Female emancipation is there or thereabouts in most of the civilised world. Even gay marriage is on the statute here and there. As liberal sentiment – and enlightened self-interest – worms its way into global trade and development, things are getting slowly better for billions, whether most of the Left accepts that or not. The data don’t lie.
Liberals have been doing a good, steady job, and progress will continue by inches here and there, with the odd backward lurch.
No, I’m talking about internationalists, people like me. People I’d consider the true liberals. What do I mean by that?
If I had the choice, I would prefer to be stateless. Far from being a ‘hippy’ concept – a term which has always been used to deride those not buckling under the pressure to ‘belong’ – I believe a stateless world should be our overriding goal as a species.
Technology, you see, has finally reached the point where we are on the brink of being able to almost entirely self-actualise, to express ourselves, develop ourselves, to learn and to grow via an ever-expanding global resource of incredible proportions and almost unlimited scope.
What stands in its way is what I have always considered to the be real enemy of humanity: nationalism.
Religion – my former ‘old enemy’ – is a form of mental illness which has inspired and inflicted great suffering on mankind for centuries, but it has many mild forms through which it can do good of a sort, and atheism (heresy, apostasy) only continues to gain ground as science advances. Hurrah for that. (When religion invents a new antibiotic or a treatment for cancer, I’ll give it more brain-space).
But nationalism is, I think, much worse.
The religious often use Stalin and Mao (and sometimes Hitler) as examples of how religion isn’t that bad really because all the real monsters were atheists, but this ignores the fundamental, unsayable point. Stalin, Mao and Hitler weren’t doing what they did on religious or irreligious grounds. Religion was, for each of them, by turns an obstacle and a convenient tool, but ultimately just a sideshow to the main event.
The driving force behind their respective mass slaughters was nationalism, not atheism.
The dark side of nationalism, of course, is racism. It is very much easier to organise a nation around one particular racial group, and very, very challenging to try to organise a nation riven by racial divides (Iraq, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, South Africa off the top of my head, but you can throw in Turkey, Russia, the US, Indonesia and a number of others).
And once you start organising by race, anything ‘other’ can easily be presented as the enemy, especially if it is unfortunate enough to share space with the maniacs with machetes.
We, the human race, have not yet succeeded in escaping our tribal origins. And nationalism is simply a perpetuation of tribalism.
Tribal behaviour, naturalists tell us, is perfectly natural for humans, and even a good thing, originally at least. We are a social species, we evolved in family groups and making those families as extensive as possible was useful for defence, for food-gathering and for development, as we became gradually task-based (women keeping the cave tidy and stopping the pet dinosaurs from eating the kids; the men watching the horizon for the next mammoth).
And so families grew and became tribes, and those tribes went and slaughtered other tribes for resources, land or just for the hell of it.
Nations evolved out of tribes but as the real boundaries between people have started to dissolve, and people in every country have been able to connect with other like-minded people across the world, the nation-state has become the central power-play.
From the absurdity of “Make America Great Again” (it already was, you jerk) to Putin’s tribal land-grab in the Crimea to the turbulence across Europe and the “Take Back Control” movement in the UK, the tribe is kicking back.
I get it, I really do. The world is a big, scary place.
When you only had to compete with people in your own city, making a success of your life was at least straightforward, if not guaranteed.
When you had to compete with the next city and then the next country, things became a little trickier. But compete with the whole world? Yowsa. Way to make those who already feel inadequate feel even more inadequate.
The speed and intensity of social evolution has become too much for some to bear, and the reaction is to draw back, hunker down, rally around the tribe, close the borders, prepare to set up tariff barriers and all manner of other protectionist behaviours. Nobody bothers to ask whom we’re protecting from what, and whose interests we’re really protecting, and at what cost.
Instead of asking and answering the hard questions, nationalism puts on its nice mask – patriotism – and anyone who dares question that is the devil, a true apostate (whisper it: “unpatriotic”).
I genuinely wanted to Remain in Europe not because of the manifold advantages of travel or commerce or any other of a hundred reasons, but because I care less about being British than I care about being something much, much larger than that which is circumscribed by pettifogging local or national concerns where no-one is asking or answering the critical questions.
I have affection for a thousand little things that go along with being British. I’m proud to be British. But I’d still be just as British if we were part of a European superstate or a world superstate. I’d still drink tea. I’d still moan if it were too hot or too cold. I’d still grumble, though I live in one of the most fantastic places on Earth.
But identity is, and should be, a declaration of self, not something forced on you by the location of your birth. You shouldn’t have to be forced to like the Queen, to wave a stupid flag or do anything simply because your mother happened to go into labour in this country, my parents having decided not to move to South Africa shortly before I was born. If they had done so, I’d have been South African. I’d be banging on about the Springboks, pretending I liked biltong and shaking my head at the total mess the country has become. But I digress.
My point is that whatever the country, whatever the flag waving at the top of the flagpole, I’d still be me. Uniquely me. And it would still be my life’s mission to become better at that.
This uniquely-me was born in 1967, when it was still illegal to be gay in the UK. I grew up as a second-class citizen in my own country, unable to marry, unable to access any of the tax or pension benefits bestowed on my straight brethren. Until 1997 I could be arrested and face criminal charges for trying to chat up a man at a bus-stop, whereas they were happily filming adverts and movies where men did just that with a woman. The year before Tony Blair swept away a host of anti-gay legislation, nearly 3,000 gay men got criminal records for doing things straight people took for granted.
And that’s just all the official stuff, never mind hiding your real self at work, being a social pariah if you chose not to, or wondering if you were going to get the crap beaten out of you as you left the pub-with-no-windows-and-no-sign you had to approach like a spy in a James Bond movie watching for the enemy as he attempts the rendez-vous.
Yes, Britain, you made the first 30 years of my life hell, and then the subsequent years pretty grim as homophobia simply went underground like a vampire retreating at dawn.
My life has been right royally fucked up because of you. I’ve succeeded despite you, not thanks to your Union Jack-bedecked cage.
So forgive me if I don’t have a massive upswelling of national pride or particular fondness for the country that was perfectly happy for the genius mathematician Alan Turing to help it win the war, then insisted on trying to castrate him later on.
What most Leavers, the Trumpeters in the US and petty nationalists in any country don’t get is that the nation state is a fraud, an exercise in arbitrary control, an attempt to define us along tribal lines, to give us reasons to hate one another, not reasons to love one another.
I don’t want to be part of a nation as defined by the demagogues. I don’t have a tribe. I just want to be me, and for things to work, for the poor and sick to be taken care of, for society to be great and compassionate and diverse and growing and developing all the time.
I don’t care whether my laws are made in London, Brussels, Beijing or on bloody Mars, as long as they respect the right of the individual to be able to be exactly – and I mean exactly – the person they want to be as long as that does not impinge on someone else’s right to do just the same.
What difference does it make, really, where all this happens?
The “Take Back Control” mob talk about Britain as if it’s one homogenous blob of 63 million people, but it’s not. The only thing that these 63 million all have in common is that they all live within the same invisible lines on a map and are ruled according to those boundaries. That’s it.
So yeah, I’m angry about Brexit and Trump and Putin and Mohdi and Erdowan and Netanyahu and all the other dictators and demagogues and expressions of tin-pot nationalism – “democratically-elected” or otherwise – around the world, and I’m angry that they get to define the terms of debate with their flags and their passports and their national institutions.
Internationalism is the greatest threat to these nasty people, because it threatens the invisible lines on the map they need to be able to exert power over other people. And as long as people choose to define themselves by those invisible lines, the longer they’ll continue to get screwed over by the people with the money and the power.
We had a horrible year in 2016, us internationalists, but the game is far from over.
You may be trying to reset the boundary lines, but you won’t win in the end, because the internet has let the genie out of the bottle, and all bets are off.