Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Who's a fanatic? Oh, *you* are.

Girona, Catalunya, via Auto-Europe.

David F. Brooks on the conversation everybody in the world is having ("How to Engage a Fanatic"):

I’ve had a series of experiences over the past two weeks that leave the impression that everybody on earth is having the same conversation: How do you engage with fanatics?
There are some tantalizing implications there that he doesn't get into: (1) that some of the people having the conversation are fanatics themselves, and (2) they're not having it from the standpoint that they're fanatics—they think you're a fanatic.

First, I was at a Washington Nationals game when a Trump supporter in the row in front of me unleashed a 10-minute profanity-strewn tirade at me, my wife and son.
Then I went to the University at North Carolina at Asheville and watched some students engage in a heartfelt discussion over whether extremists should be allowed to speak on campus.
I don't think the creep at the baseball game went home and told the family, "I saw this fanatical New York Times columnist at the game and tried unsuccessfully to engage with him." But I'm not so sure about the heartfelt discussion in Asheville, to be honest. He was there to give them a lecture (originally for Founders' Day on September 12 but rescheduled to Columbus Day on account of Hurricane Irma), in the evening, preceded by a Master Class live on Facebook at 3:00, an interview with the campus radio station; and at some point another interview with Emma Shock of the Blue Banner, who reported,
Brooks met with faculty members and students during the afternoon before the lecture to discuss current issues and how his views and beliefs have changed over time. He said the campus discussion was one of his most provocative in years. 
 “They were serious, they were intent and they were really challenging me,” Brooks said. “I’m grateful that it brought me back to my own student days.”
He wasn't "watching" a discussion, he was in it, and doing most of the talking. As he scolded them for creating an atmosphere of fear on the campus with their speech codes (UNC gets a "yellow light" rating from the twits of FIRE, with "ambiguous" policies that could "restrict freedom of conscience" on exterior space use, sexual harassment, bias incident response, electronic harassment, and having a Community Creed) and safe spaces and identity politics, he didn't realize that they were engaging him, as the fanatic in the room, with courtesy and respect, and the atmosphere of fear was all in his imagination. Hold that thought.

Then I went to Madrid, where a number of Spaniards told me that the leaders of the Catalan independence movement were so radical there was no way to reason with them.
Then I went to London where I was with pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit activists trying to have a civil conversation with one another.
It's extraordinary how he loses the bothsiderist perspective when he leaves the Anglo-Saxon realm, and can't imagine going to Barcelona and finding out how Catalans feel about the Spanish reaction to the independence movement.

My Catalan friend Antoni, who I've known for 25 years, is one of the least fanatical people you ever want to meet, as it happens, a slightly weary and cynical, very international New Yorker. He's a Catalan patriot, but an extremely laid back and urbane one. The independence movement is in mainland Catalunya, and he's from Majorca, so he doesn't have a territorial dog in the fight, but he is a fervent linguistic patriot (not fanatical, he's happy to speak Spanish or English or whatever anybody wants): the way the Catalan language, forbidden under the Franco dictatorship, has been revived since the old monster died, is a genuinely big thing for him.

When the current thing began blowing up, the week before the referendum, he told me Catalans don't really want independence at all, they just want to vote, by which I think he really meant to be heard and recognized as people by people in Madrid, and he was infuriated by the unthinking brutality of prime minister Rajoy and the Madrid government in the leadup to the vote, raiding political offices and arresting officials, seizing schools where the vote was to be held and printing presses to stop the ballots from being printed.

What did they think they were doing? Only 40% of Catalans actually favored independence a couple of months ago (you don't see that in the referendum results because most of the opponents of independence accepted the Madrid view that the referendum was illegal and didn't vote), but the Rajoy government's actions seemed calculated to unify the whole of Catalunya in rage. And because the oppression of Catalans is a direct and essential feature of fascism as Spain lived fascism for 40 years, it feels like a reversion to fascism. To someone like Antoni it is clear that if there's somebody in the argument with whom you can't reason, it is, precisely, Rajoy; your perception of fanaticism really depends on where you stand.

On NPR on Friday, incidentally (I wasn't listening, but Dr. Google took me over when I was trying to find out what Brooks was doing in Madrid, which I didn't successfully do), Brooks was sort of drafting this column out loud, and said something that misread the Catalan crisis in a pretty interesting way:
everyone's looking for a really meaningful form of identity. They don't feel European identity, so they may feel Catalan identity. Or if they're for Brexit, they may feel Brexit identity. So it's really a very personal fight.
(Something telling about that concept of a "Brexit identity", presumably a slip of the tongue, but I wonder why he didn't notice it.)

I think it's clear, to the contrary, both for Catalunya and my other favorite regional-autonomy candidate, Scotland, that the European Union can provide people with a comfortable broad identity within which an ancient local identity has room to breathe. It's British and Spanish identity that have become untenable. What pro-independence Scots and Catalans would really like is to represent themselves at the European table, bypassing London and Madrid. It's the English and the Castilians that are the problem in this sense, wishing to suppress the nationalisms that aren't their own.

(The ongoing mess in Lombardy and Veneto is of a different character, since those people in northern Italy don't in fact like Europe; like the Little Englanders of the Home Counties, they are focused on hating immigrants, not on admiring themselves, and they want to rule Italy in a way that punishes the Italian south, not escape from into their own distinct nation, as the Little Englanders want to rule Scotland—and even Manchester and Birmingham and Newcastle—harshly. England, Castile, and Lombardy all represent unhealthy forms of nationalism focused on the assertion of superiority; Catalunya and Scotland represent healthy forms focused on a demand for equality.)

The Shorter Brooks is that you just can't talk to these people who reject all the rules of civil discourse, who are "so consumed by enmity that the only thing they deserve is contempt," and you're not going to change their minds in any event, but that you ought to argue with them anyway, with civility, because Stephen Carter 1998 said that "the only way to confront fanaticism is with love." I think it's somewhat weird of Carter and Brooks both to conflate "civility" and "love"—to me the one is detached and the other hotly engaged, and it's very weird to think of Dr. King as promoting "civility", in that context. But I don't want to work up an argument about it myself.

I do want to agree part way with one strand of what Brooks is doing, the argument that a central component of engaging with fanatics (or with anybody you disagree with) is listening, but I'm not really interested in lingering on it, in his context. One of my problems with him is that he's such a poor listener himself, though; in the NPR segment, where he's been paired with Matt Yglesias, it's funny to see Brooks not hearing Yglesias talking about his own issue while he's busy making up his wry quip—
YGLESIAS: I mean, I think it's pretty clear that it hasn't. I was in Germany recently. I spoke to a number of people who were supporting the alliance for - Alternative for Germany party there on the far-right. And I do think Europeans in particular have some very legitimate qualms with the way in which the sort of elite project of the European Union has come together but also that you see the establishment forces there are not really forthrightly defending what it is they've done. There's a lot of kind of me-tooing (ph) and sort of hoping that if you ignore right-wing populist leaders, that they will go away. And I do think they have to either - they have to address the concerns that people have or argue with the populists and say why they're wrong.
SHAPIRO: There seem to be real parallels with the tension in the U.S. between establishment and populist Republicans. David, what has your experience reporting on these elections in Europe shown you?
BROOKS: Yeah, well, if you think our elites are condescending, their elites are more condescending.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter).
And it would be nice to have him working to set a better example.

Update 10/25:

Don't miss Driftglass, who has a lot of necessary things to say that are understated or missing here.

No comments:

Post a Comment