The banality of leaving the EU

by Lyndsey Stonebridge

Introduction by Yanis Varoufakis

One of the most unnerving feelings that I had during meetings with troika officials was the sense of indifference they conveyed regarding the issues at hand. During negotiations whose outcome would affect the lives and prospects of millions, they were clearly just going through the motions of a pre-fabricated strategy, quasi-bored, and with the kind of ‘excitement’ usually associated with gravediggers. I was reminded of this sensation, and of its connection with Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil masterpiece, when reading the piece below entitled The Banality of Leaving by Lyndsey Stonebridge – DiEM25er, friend and English Literature professor at the University of East Anglia.

Lyndesy’s point is that it is profoundly wrong of bitter Remainers to call Brexiters stupid. Referring to the Tory and UKIP leaders of the Brexit campaign, who invested in xenophobia and wooly arguments about national pride etc., she rejects even the claim that they were just spoilt private school kids indulging themselves. No, for Lyndsey Stonebridge these Tory boyish Brexiters were just banal!

Stupid. Men too stupid to think about the consequences of their actions tricked the British into making a fatally stupid decision. This is how Brexit is most commonly described. In the UK our stupid politicians tend to actually look stupid. It’s a clever, but dangerous deception. Boris Johnson, the boy with the flyaway hair and the love of a doting mother in his eyes, roaring and thumping the pride of Britain throughout the campaign, was left mouthing bland nothings the day after his success. On the same morning, buffoon-in-chief, Nigel Farage, he of the marionette jaw and the patent shoes patterned with the Union Jack flag, exulted: “And we’ll have won it, without a single bullet being fired.” Barely 24 hours earlier the body of Jo Cox MP had been released to her family; the coroner recorded three bullet wounds on her corpse.

This is a dark and dangerous stupidity, all the more pernicious for the way it is worn so lightly by its perpetrators and tolerated, sometimes even indulged, by the rest of us. Bereft educated remainers have taken to consoling themselves with their cleverness, collectively rolling their eyes at the stupidity of others. This is not only arrogant; it is also stupid. The stupidity that led the UK out of the EU, the easy idiocy that has unleashed hate and intolerance, economic and political instability, is in fact a banality that we need to take very seriously.

Weightless, rootless, banality creeps like fungus, sticking to everything. Often you don’t know it’s there until the furniture of politics goes clammy and starts to rot.

Boris and Farage take evident pleasure in performing their twitfuckery. By contrast, Adolf Eichmann thought of himself as a serious, even profound, man. This was why when the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, travelled to Jerusalem to confront the Nazi specialist face-to-face, she burst out laughing. The man was a buffoon, a vain cardboard cut out of a person, unable to account for himself in anything other than clichés. Eichmann wasn’t banal simply because he was stupid, he was banal because he was radically thoughtless. The longer you listened to him, Arendt said, the more obvious it became that he was incapable of thinking from the standpoint of anyone else. He lacked the two-in-one dialogue with oneself, the classical Socratic definition of thought itself. It’s thoughtlessness not mere twittery, that is banal.

‘Remember thinking?’ asked a despairing former archbishop of England, Rowan Williams, at a meeting on anti-Semitism in Westminster days after Brexit. Arendt thought that thinking was the precondition of political judgment. Thinking is not politics, but politics needs thinking if it is to thrive. Without thought there can be no moral responsibility. This is an old Athenian idea; another piece of European heritage that Britain appears to have turned its back on.

Banality is not just being wrong, it is being radically indifferent to the world. The point when many people think the Leave campaign finally crossed the line was when Boris Johnson attempted to justify Obama’s opposition to Brexit by reference to a ‘part-Kenyan ancestral dislike of the British empire.’ This was a stupid thing to say. It was also a defining moment of banality. Boris couldn’t understand that Obama’s race had absolutely nothing to do with his presidency, because he is incapable of thinking of a world where other lives or views really exist. Thoughtlessness like this is contagious. It was not only the casual racism of the remark that was shocking, but the fact that so many people failed to understand – to think – that it was racist at all.

These are the people Arendt called the ‘nonwicked everybody’ who, having ‘no special motives’ are capable of infinite evil.’ But it is the politicians whose thoughtlessness abrogates responsibility, the properly wicked, who in the end make evil possible. Philippe Sands QC, author of Lawless World, the definitive takedown of Bush and Blair’s assault on international law, argues that the path to Brexit began with Iraq. Another stupid decision made by stupid men. There has always been lying in politics, but the insouciant disregard for either process or reality then, marked the beginning of the end of political trust for an entire generation.

Anybody watching Tony Blair responding to the findings of the Chilcot Inquiry this week could only agree. Draining the words responsibility and regret dry of meaning with his clammy self-justification and blithe self-importance, Blair simply cannot or will not hear the voices of others. He is not a buffoon. But he is banal.

Lyndsey Stonebridge
July 2016

 

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