Once, a few years ago, I was trying to arrange a meeting with a colleague who, like me, was travelling a great deal. Finding a common place and time to meet was a challenge, until one day we both happened to have connecting flights in Atlanta. Thus, we finally managed to cross paths at a coffee shop in the arrivals lounge, as each of us awaited our onward flights.
The Iraq War was then in full swing and airplanes were disgorging soldiers in their fatigues. Each time the doors of the customs hall opened and some emerged, people in the waiting area and surrounding restaurants applauded. I found this gesture touching, but my friend chuckled ironically at what he considered a jingoistic display.
We on the left are meant to be pacifists who disdain anything that smacks of militarism or authority, as my colleague did. And yet, as both the son and father of men who served, I have always felt there is some nobility to what soldiers do. I also feel that we on the left can at times act hypocritically when it comes to law and order: happy to live in a stable and free society and avail ourselves of all its freedoms, but unwilling to acknowledge the sometimes ugly deeds which free us from fear.
Donald Trump and his ilk cultivate fear and reap its political fruit in the most abhorrent way. In his first television interview after becoming President, Mr Trump shocked we bien-pensants with his dark vision of the world, describing it as ‘a mess: the world is as angry as it gets.’ While Mr Trump is nurturing fear to justify self-serving policies, we on the left are equally guilty of peddling a false narrative.
A classic example is Stephen Pinker’s 2011 book Better Angels of our Nature, which argued that thanks to the triumph of Enlightenment values over traditional beliefs, the world is becoming an increasingly peaceful and civilised place. But in his review of Pinker’s book, John Gray pointed out that peace came to the West in no small part because it out-sourced its wars to the Third World. In Generation Kill, for instance, Evan Wright related how American soldiers who fought in Iraq understood that by taking the fight to foreign shores, they enabled people like me to take our coffee in peace in Atlanta Airport.
Although Professor Pinker might not come across it much in Harvard Square, there is in fact a lot of anger out there. If you’ve lived for any length of time in the Third World, as I have done, you know that – because you feel it yourself: anger at the suffering in your midst which co-exists, and sometimes directly supports, the peace and comfort in which Westerners live. As I argue in my upcoming book, the very Enlightenment which Pinker celebrates was sustained in no small part by brutal oppression in the colonies, and periods of contemporary Western prosperity have often fed on Third World suffering (the most recent instance being the 1990s boom, for which American liberal feel so nostalgic).
A small number of disaffected young men, no doubt wrestling with identity and masculinity issues, have managed to turn this anger into a self-righteous rage. Yet they are exploiting something which is real. As I have written before, neoliberal globalisation has essentially squeezed the traditional working-class to enrich the professional elites and business-owners who have become the backbone of the neoliberal left. It’s easy to feel smug about progress if you’re captaining the plane that’s lifting us into a brave new future. But if you’re the passenger who’s been told that due to a shortage of life-vests, you’re the one who’s been singled out to stay on board in the event of a crash, you’re got a right to feel scared.
The truly progressive response to this fear would not be to pretend it doesn’t exist because everyone in the world is singing kumbayah – they’re not – but to recognise its legitimate well-springs and address those, pulling the carpet out from under the terrorists and right-wing populists. Instead, liberals have too often resorted to ostracising the working-class victims of globalisation, obscuring the economic injustice thrust upon them by focusing on their retrograde culture.
Yes, the culture of the traditional working class had elements of racism, homophobia, sexism and xenophobia. Yet it was not without its virtues, including a rough-hewn egalitarianism, work ethic and civic-mindedness. By airbrushing this out of the picture and singling working-class culture out for a sort of annihilation in the name of progress, we have only heightened the fear of the ‘forgotten,’ who feel their entire world is being taken away from them.
Trucking in a different sort of fear — fear of the angry white male’s vengeance — will solve nothing. How much better it would be to recognise legitimate fear, and stop wilfully leaving behind those whom globalisation has bypassed. That means that we, the winners of globalisation, will have to stop hugging up all its fruits. Are we on the left yet ready for such a discourse of sacrifice?