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Brenda from Bristol went viral yesterday, and deservedly so. Interviewed in the street about the forthcoming General Election, of which she knew nothing until that moment, her response is priceless. Watch it here if you’ve not yet.
It is also, I suspect, reasonably typical. There was a barely audible sigh from several people I spoke to yesterday and a very audible one from several others. Enthusiasm was thin on the ground. No one actually said “enough voting already” but that’s what I heard.
You can understand why people feel this way. June 8th will be roughly a year after the EU Referendum which was roughly a year after the 2015 General Election which was eight months after the Scottish referendum which was three years after the Alternative Vote referendum which was a year after the 2010 General Election. The last few years have felt very different from my political youth when we dragged ourselves to the voting booths once every four years if lucky.
Yet our collective groaning does seem a wee bit hypocritical. We have repeatedly been told over the course of this still short century, that the West is engaged in a massive battle of ideas. Middle East dictatorships, Islamist terrorism, Chinese state capitalism, North Korean totalitarianism, Russian autocracy: each poses an ideological, even an existential, threat to who we are. Not so many people like to use Samuel Huntingdon’s phrase “the clash of civilisations”, if only because they don’t want it to become a self–fulfilling prophecy, but his ideas hang about the unprecedentedly rich feast that is Western life like Banquo’s ghost.
The task of understanding what made ‘the West’ ‘the West’, and what marks ‘the West’ as ‘the West’ has become urgent. I have made a small contribution to the former debate, arguing the all–too–unrecognised fact that it is Christianity.
The latter question has received rather more attention, with certain phrases endlessly repeated as self–evident shibboleths. What marks ‘the West’ as ‘the West’? What makes ‘us’ different from ‘them’? What are the values we need to defend? My guess is that the majority of answers to this question include (some combination of) the words “freedom”, “equality”, “rule of law”, “human rights” and, of course, “democracy”. Indeed, “democracyandhumanrights” is almost treated as one word in public discourse, just as one wag pointed out that “schoolsandhospitals” was one word in Tony Blair’s dictionary.
We are proud of our democracy, of our placing power in the hands of the people, of our regular (and frequent) judgement on our leaders. Democracy is who we are. It is makes us different from Kim Yong–un, Saddam Hussein, the People’ Republic of China, ISIS and, after a fashion, Vladimir Putin. It is what many Westerners have wanted to export to the rest of the world, some of them even imagining it was worth doing so by force. So it stands to reason that the more opportunity we have to exercise our democratic rights the happier we will be, right?
Brenda from Bristol suggests otherwise.
You might well call this hypocrisy, which is arguably is. But you could also say it points to something more profound.
For a good half century we have sought to cut the Gordian knot of how we live well together by straightforward recourse to ‘choice’. Long accustomed to being able to choose our leaders, we realised that being able to choose our lifestyle and then our economic life, made everything so much simpler. If I chose it, it can’t be wrong. The content of ‘it’ hardly matters.
As it happens there are some pretty well–established philosophical problems with this approach to life, problems that are well illustrated by the examples of consensual cannibalism or suicide
One doesn’t need to go as far as consensual cannibalism to illustrate the problem, however. Brenda from Bristol does it just as well. For all we rightly celebrate ‘choice’ as reflecting and enhancing our human dignity, when elevated into an all–controlling principle, disembedded from the moral content of that which is being chosen, it ends up being a burden, indeed even a meaningless burden. The proper end of choosing is not simply to choose once again – that way lies a confusing, exhausting, inconsequential hamster wheel of life; what no–one in history until now has called the deliquescence of our embodied humanity, and everything meaningful that goes with it. The end of choosing is to stop choosing, at least for a while.
I doubt whether any of this was in Brenda from Bristol’s mind as she voiced her frustration, but she said it far better than any of my pretentiously long words ever could. “There’s just too much politics going on at the moment.”
That might be straightforward hypocrisy, lauding our democracy when talking to the rest of the undemocratic world and cursing it when among friends. Or it might be a reflection on the fact that the magnificence of democracy – and indeed of human rights, freedom, rule of law, and equality – is slowly tarnished when severed from the accompanying, underpinning idea of the good.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos | @theosnick