As the decades rolled by and I observed crisis succeed crisis I always resisted the temptation to run around yelling “the sky is falling, the sky is falling.” Systems are more resilient and challenges less radical than their opponents and supporters respectively bargain upon. Now, in 2016, it appears to me that the chances that the Western system will fail and disappear are at least as great as that it will continue. None of the current crises- economic, political, social, cultural, demographic- taken singly are unprecedented in their nature or severity. The occurrence of so many of them simultaneously across such a wide geographic spread, however, is something new in my experience. It dwarves the last great shock to hit the Western world, the 1968 events, which happened during an era of sharply rising prosperity and social mobility.
The nearest comparable epoch appears to me to be the period preceding the Second World War which is rather worrying. Nothing, though, is inevitable until it happens. There are many ways in which the current system can more or less survive the current existential threats which it faces. In this endeavour it is our political class which has perhaps the greatest responsibility. If they act wisely and intelligently then the Western system will adapt and continue. If not it will catastrophically crash and burn, or at least significant component parts of it will. But are wisdom and intelligence the first words that come to mind when we consider the mainstream politicians of the West?
Returning to our comparison. It has often struck me that the most significant event of the period from the beginning of 1930 to the end of 1940 was not the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany. It was, rather, the sudden, total and wholly unexpected collapse of France. Many factors contributed to this not the least of which was the disgust that French politicians inspired in their people, a disgust which proceeded by extension from the politicians to the political system which they embodied. This repugnance was not lessened for Frenchmen when they had uniforms put upon their backs and rifles put into their hands. Although many did fight heroically and vainly in 1940 many more did not feel that their system was worth dying for. A decision which was perfectly rational in its way had it not been for the fact that what they gained, Nazi occupation and Vichy, was far worse than the terrible thing which they lost.
Returning to 2016 we can see that huge swathes of the population in Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and elsewhere regard their own political class not as representatives defending their interests but as venal, corrupt, self-serving liars. Again many factors have played into this widespread alienation but the behaviour of politicians themselves is not the least significant of these. By this I do not mean that the bulk of politicians are anything other than well meaning individuals whose primary concern is the common good. There have always been corruption scandals, over-promising manifestos and misleading use of statistics yet none of this has had the hyper-magnified effects of recent years upon public opinion. What we have had recently is a decline of civility.
Politeness may seem a trivial concern to a world which might shortly go up in flames. I would argue though that it can act as an important fireguard. The point is this, civility towards an antagonist proceeds from a respect for them and for the people they represent. It assumes that your opponent, although profoundly wrong, is at least as honest, sincere, intelligent and well meaning as yourself. They are not acting out of malevolent or sinister motives, they are at worst honestly mistaken. Extremists are never civil, they take the Manichean approach that their enemies are dominated by the powers of darkness and deliberately wish to inflict suffering and misery upon the people. When mainstream politicians adopt the language of extremism to describe their equally mainstream opponents, often within the same political party, then they are effectively opening the gates of hell.
When the same words and phrases are used to describe a Marine Le Pen and a Boris Johnson, a Hugo Chavez and a Barack Obama then voters can be forgiven for not being able to differentiate between extremism and moderation. If you spend years demonising a mischievous imp then what do you say when a real demon appears? You have already been broadcasting at full volume you have no additional sound to add which would alert the public to the fact that something new and dangerous has arrived. The recent brutal murder of the British Member of Parliament Jo Cox (eternal rest grant unto her O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon her) apparently by a bona fide fascist highlights some of the issues here.
After the murder politicians of all parties and members of the public were lavish in their tributes. Jo was a talented, hard-working, committed and much loved public servant. Yet it is an oddity of our system that it takes a violent death for people in politics to acknowledge that these qualities exist in their colleagues and opponents. Moreover the long term fascist commitment of Jo’s alleged murderer was swiftly elided into the terms of the Brexit referendum debate as if there was no significant political difference between a Nazi inspired murderer and someone campaigning for the UK to leave the European Union. Where the extremes are understood to be the same as the centre then voters will have no barrier to prevent them voting for extremists.
The words we use affect the thoughts which we have. In US discourse in particular I am often given the impression that the political class have used over-cooked rhetoric about their opponents for so long that they have begun to believe it themselves. Heres the thing, in France, Britain, America and all around the Western world most politicians are decent people trying to do the right thing. If the language they use about each other conveys the opposite impression; that politicians are ravening beasts intent upon destroying civilisation as we know it then, you know, civilisation might well be destroyed because the barrier of plain common decency which separates the extremes from the centre will have been torn down not by the extremists but by the centrists. In the name of God, in the name of all thats holy I call for a return to civility, politeness and mutual respect in our public discourse. The alternative is a price too high to comfortably contemplate.
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The picture shows Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders endorsing Hillary Clinton for President