interesting times

Theresa May Might Be the Most Important Person in the World Right Now

Good luck. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

There was a priceless video this past week of Theresa May arriving to visit Angela Merkel in Berlin, in another soul-sucking trip to beg the E.U. to give her something — anything — to throw to the wolves at home. After her black town car stopped at the curb, and a flunky rushed to open the door, the lock jammed. He yanked and pulled for a painful length of time, and after some final wiggling, the door eventually yielded. And the prime minister emerged, all smiles with gritted teeth, and perkily shook hands with her German alter ego, Angela Merkel. Merkel subsequently insisted that the deal they had already negotiated was the final one.

It’s a metaphor for Theresa May’s task since the Brexit referendum. Getting out of the E.U. has turned out to be like one of those travel anxiety dreams, where you never somehow get to where you need to go and time is running out. And you’ve got to feel for her. She didn’t intend to be prime minister in the wake of Brexit. She’d voted to remain in the E.U. after all, unlike the triumphant Brexiteers, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the two leading Tories who gave Brexit crucial, and unmerited, credibility. But these two men engaged in so much flimflam, bullshit, mutual betrayal, and public grandstanding, that May was asked to be the grown-up to clear up the male mess.

But she had and has a close-to-impossible task. The country had voted in favor of a profound and radical change in Britain’s place in the world. But it was a very narrow victory — 51.9 to 48.1 percent. She realized from the start that this made her task more difficult: She had to both leave the E.U. and somehow keep the country from splitting in two. But the job became even harder after she called the 2017 election and lost her parliamentary majority entirely. She’s now reliant on a Northern Irish party to stay in Downing Street at all. And they’re currently pissed off.

What she eventually wrangled was a deal that kept Britain’s trade in goods with the E.U. — 44 percent of exports and 53 percent of imports — as frictionless as possible, while formally leaving the bloc, and regaining control over immigration. It’s the only feasible compromise, but renders the U.K. subject to E.U. trading rules without having any say in making them, and also constrains Britain’s ability to make bilateral trade deals across the world. She tried to make sure there was something for the Leave voters and something for the Remain voters, but in the end no one was satisfied, her own party revolted, her Northern Irish partners said they’d vote against the deal, and the opposition was unwilling to rescue her, leaving May without any majority in parliament for her Brexit deal — or indeed, potentially, for her government as a whole.

Yes, this past week, she survived an internal Tory contest to boot her out as leader. But only just. The number of Tory MPs who voted to get rid of her was a whopping 117 (much higher than expected). If you subtract the votes of her own appointed ministers, she lost a majority of Tory backbenchers. Two-hundred votes in favor was not too encouraging. For a comparison, when Thatcher got 204 votes in the internal coup of 1990, she felt she had no choice but to resign. And the only way that May got 200 votes at all was that she promised she’d quit after the Brexit deadline and before the next election in 2022. So May limps on, governing as a lame turkey waiting for Christmas. (In this, oddly, she is joined by both Angela Merkel, who is still chancellor but will not fight the next election, and Nancy Pelosi, who will be the speaker after promising to quit in 2021.)

Here’s my best bet for what comes next. She gets no breaks from the E.U., and loses the parliamentary vote on Brexit in the first weeks of January. Then the prospect of a Brexit with no deal — an abrupt wall of new tariffs going up, a sharp end to all the myriad arrangements Britain has evolved with the E.U. over the past 40 years — will hit home. Markets will likely tank, and the pound likely plummet. May might lose a parliamentary vote of no confidence — much graver than an internal Tory revolt — and face a new election.

At the same time, many Brits realize that Labour is as divided as the Tories and prefer her as prime minister to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn — and her own MPs are very leery of effectively handing over the government to Jeremy Corbyn, their socialist nemesis. So that vote of no-confidence might well not happen, in which case, there could be a vote for second referendum. But there’s no guarantee that a new plebiscite would be any less divisive than the first. And so Parliament may well have to come around and ask themselves at some point if May’s squishy Brexit is better than no deal or no Brexit at all.

This, it seems to me, is May’s gamble. She’s betting that though her compromise is widely reviled right now, all the alternatives will, in the cold light of day, soon look worse. Think of voting her deal down like Congress’s refusal to follow George W. Bush and bail out the banks in 2008. The House rejected a $700 billion bailout plan on a Monday, but by Friday, after a $1.2 trillion plummet in the market, enough Republicans flipped to allow the measure to pass. May is trying to bounce her party into accepting her deal in a similar way. It’s brinksmanship of the highest level. We simply don’t know if May, the Remainers, or the Leavers will blink first.

But it will be a watershed whatever. You can see Brexit more broadly as a critical stage in the evolution of the new populist nationalism in the West. Can old-style pragmatic conservatism defang, co-opt, and tame it? Or are the forces behind it too strong? One thing I’d say: If the usually sensible British people, through their representatives, decide that the meaning of being British and completely independent again is worth the price of economic crisis and even collapse, and a drastic drop in Britain’s global power, then we will learn something important.

It will be a sign that the populist tide is, for the moment at least, unstoppable. It means that Macron, already crippled with 18 an percent approval rating, will not be the savior of Europe or globalism, merely their undertaker. It will mean that the Greens and the AfD will be the key rival players in the future of Germany. It will mean that Italy may well be the next E.U. member to leave. And it should sink in Stateside that maybe ignoring the groundswell for protectionism and immigration control in this rapidly changing world is not the smartest thing to do. Which is why I’m not so sure that Nancy Pelosi’s absolutism on Trump’s wall this week was as big a victory as the media deemed it to be.

So a lot is riding on May’s gamble. And there is real courage and patriotism behind her attempt to honor Brexit while also respecting those Brits who voted to remain. She has endured mockery, contempt, ridicule, and worse for doing her duty. Which is why I hope and pray she can still somehow pull this off. Somehow.

America’s New Religions, Revisited

I was a little surprised by how last week’s diary touched so many nerves. I guess shouldn’t have been. It did tackle the Meaning of Life, and Trump cultists, and social-justice fanatics. I was asking for it. So allow me to engage some of the points others have made.

The great Steven Pinker tweeted that I was dismissing the great secular advances in science, human health, comfort, and knowledge as meaningless. I didn’t. That would be nuts. Without such non-divine miracles, I’d have died 20 years ago from AIDS, along with many friends. This material progress does indeed have real meaning. But ultimate meaning? Not for most, as many of those who have benefited from this material progress, particularly in the developing world, will attest. We are foolish to believe that the search for a deeper meaning has disappeared among humans.

Jerry Coyne, for his part, argues that there is nothing in our genes to make us religious. I didn’t elaborate this point, but it’s rooted in the link I provided to a book, God Is Watching You, which is a pioneering work in evolutionary biology, and political science. I’d love to know what Jerry might make of its argument. He then says that equating atheists with believers because of the intensity of their belief system is fundamentally wrong: “Most atheists simply reject the notion of God because there is no evidence for one … There is evidence that could surface that would convince many of us — I am one, Carl Sagan was another — that a divine being existed. But we haven’t seen any such evidence.”

I accept that and respect it. But this is surely a better description of what I’d call agnosticism, which in its more profound expressions, is quite similar to the doubting faith of nonfundamentalist Christians (my attempt to explain this religion of doubt is in Chapter 5 of my book, The Conservative Soul). Atheism, in contrast, is the positive denial of any God or “godness.” We can debate these definitions ad infinitum, but my diagnosis is directed more at the new Hitchens-Dawkins-Harris atheism than more agnostic varieties, prompted by John Gray’s little masterpiece, which treats these questions at the length and depth they deserve.

Coyne also argues that “with no evidence of a God, there’s no use asking for an ultimate meaning and purpose.” But even if this is the case, we still do so all the time! We can’t seem to help ourselves. A few sturdy souls may be able to live without any metaphysics or any claim to ultimate meaning — but empirically, humankind has almost never been able to pull this off. My essay was not about the truth of faith. It was an analysis of how faith can express itself. The religious instinct is not going away, just mutating. As Ross Douthat noted in his column this week, “In the early 2000s, over 40 percent of Americans answered with an emphatic ‘yes’ when Gallup asked them if ‘a profound religious experience or awakening’ had redirected their lives; that number had doubled since the 1960s, when institutional religion was more vigorous.” Douthat’s book, Bad Religion, is an excellent guide to his broader argument.

Ezra Klein’s first response was that the column was “absurd” — and I don’t think he was referring to Camus’s influence on its thesis. His more considered response was that: “Sullivan claims that the modern West has lost Christian practice and gained, in its place, a monstrous political tribalism.” But the word “tribalism” doesn’t even appear in it. (The only sentence that refers to it is a theological argument that the Evangelical right has drifted from Jesus’ anti-tribal message.) My subject was not tribes but cults. There’s a big distinction. Sure, tribalism is an important topic, and here’s a 7,500-word essay I wrote last year on that very subject. And you can see how cults might intensify tribalism. But they’re not the same thing. A tribalism based on race or region or gender or partisanship, for example, is not a religious phenomenon.

As to my own “tribe,” I’m not sure what Ezra is saying. What tribe? He never identifies it. Does he think I’m a tribal Catholic, or conservative, or gay man? Good luck proving that. A tribal elitist? Is it some muddled attempt to call me a racist, alluding to Adam Serwer? I wish he’d been clearer. At best, Klein seems to be saying that all politics and life is tribal, and that every political argument is ultimately a tribal one. And I profoundly disagree. So, I might add, would every leading light of the liberal philosophical tradition. Was Locke tribalist? Montesquieu? Constant? Tocqueville? Rawls? Please.

The core subject of the column was what happens to politics once God is dead and my point is far from new or original. It is that the religious impulse will always be part of human nature, and it will occupy politics if it no longer finds expression in a spiritual space. Think of Soviet communism as a replacement religion for Orthodox Christianity, or national socialism for Protestantism. These were, in many ways, atheist theocracies, with all of the mind control and none of the occasional acts of mercy. They saturated politics with the question of ultimate meaning; and, in that feverish quest, they killed tens of millions of people and enslaved the rest. Red-blooded religious fanaticism has no time for liberalism.

Liberalism emerged because the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries turned everyday life into a kind of hell. The idea was to construct a politics on much lower ground: defense of private property, due process, religious toleration, dispersal of power, and, in the great American experiment, full-on separation of church and state. This didn’t mean that political life became devoid of passion, fervor, and conflict, as Ezra’s argument would imply. It just meant that politics was not about ultimate meaning, the salvation of souls, or Truth. Think of the difference between FDR’s statism and Hitler’s or Stalin’s. Even in a grave emergency like the Great Depression, the West avoided a politics that resembled a fundamentalist and fanatical religion.

I did not say that religion didn’t influence politics either. In America, as Ezra noted, Christianity has inspired all sorts of political movements, from abolitionism to white supremacy, civil rights to Prohibition. Some of these movements were indeed feverishly potent. But the liberal Constitution prevented them from becoming a threat to liberalism by putting so many obstacles in the way of any single faction’s fervor, and by the First Amendment’s restriction on any one cult from suppressing others. The American Constitution is a device, in some ways, to prevent totalizing politics. And, critically, the most vibrant, nonpolitical, free religious culture on earth offered a vast array of alternatives to politics for ultimate meaning.

Graeme Wood argues that I may be right about new religions — he has some fascinating details about the phenomenon of political cults in Japan — but that I’m too dour on liberalism’s reserves of possible meaning. Money quote:

[Sullivan’s] claim is an old calumny against liberalism, repeated by virtually every illiberal movement. It is the political heir to the 800-year-old voluntarist-intellectualist debate in theology, which asked whether God was fundamentally a force of will or of reason — in the modern political transposition, of meaning or of procedure. Nazi philosophers favored meaning (‘the triumph of the will’) and said procedural liberalism, divorced from nationhood, was a Jewish, internationalist poison that would weaken the only true source of German power.

Yes, many illiberal thinkers have attributed a shallowness and vacuity to liberalism, but I was referring to liberal thinkers’ own self-understanding of liberalism’s empty center. Many liberal theorists — for example, the hugely influential John Rawls — see this emptiness as the central, animating virtue. Liberalism is agnostic about ends, but rigid about means. If a society deems that everyone should aim toward a single, transcendent, ultimate good, liberalism will resist because it is always about pluralism, a society where many beliefs can exist and contradict each other. Its essence is about many meanings, rather than one ultimate one.

One last response to the Trump right. Some say that support for Trump is entirely transactional, and not a cult at all. And for some Christianist Machiavellians, that may well indeed be the case (even though the most basic tenets of Christianity could never sanction a preference for the superrich, an attempt to gut poor people’s access to health care, compulsive dishonesty, and an embrace of murderous tyrants as a price worth paying for other political goals). Conservative critic Roger Kimball’s defense said simply: “I have yet to encounter anyone who answers to [Sullivan’s] description of uncritical fidelity.” I wonder if Kimball has ever attended or watched a Trump rally. They are like religious revival meetings. I wonder if he has ever watched Hannity, the Grand Mufti of the cult. Or seen the work of Jon McNaughton, whose paintings Hannity has purchased. It is idolatry, pure and simple. Check it out, Roger. And open your eyes.

And one omission. I should’ve noted the cult behind Obama. There was a lot of that going around. The difference between the Obama cult and the Trump cult is that Obama’s deep Niebuhrian Christianity and political moderation was the balancing factor Trump has never provided — and never will.

The End of Gay Jokes?

I remember one Christmas at my grandparents’ house when I was probably around 8 years old. I was, as usual, reading a book, while my only brother, four years’ younger, was zooming around the room, playing with a little toy truck, pushing it up and down the sofa, then onto the carpet and skirting board, generally making a ruckus. And I remember my grandmother looking at him, and turning to my mother and saying, “Well, at least you finally have a real boy.”

That I still remember that is a sign of how deeply it wounded me at the time. And I couldn’t help but think of it when I discovered the jokes that had forced Kevin Hart out of hosting the Oscars. This is one of them: “One of my biggest fears is my son growing up and being gay. That’s a fear. Keep in mind, I’m not homophobic, I have nothing against gay people, be happy. Do what you want to do. But me, being a heterosexual male, if I can prevent my son from being gay, I will. Now with that being said, I don’t know if I handled my son’s first gay moment correctly. Every kid has a gay moment but when it happens, you’ve got to nip it in the bud!” One anguished gay journalist noted some other Twitter offenses: “calling someone a ‘fat faced fag,’ comparing a profile picture to a ‘gay bill board for AIDS’ and using the term ‘no homo’ to frequently remind us of his superior heterosexuality.”

Hart has repeatedly said he wouldn’t make the same jokes today, that he has evolved since he made those comments in 2009 and 2010, and he’ll be damned if has to go through yet another Cersei-style ritual of public shaming and apology to appease the social-justice crowd. So he withdrew. Another comedian, Nimesh Patel, recently had his mic cut at Columbia University when he made this joke about gay black men in front of some students: “No one looks in the mirror and thinks, ‘This black thing is too easy; let me just add another thing to it.’ Nobody is doubling down on hardship.”

In another sign of the precariousness of humor in our age of constant offense, comedian Konstantin Kisin tweeted out a contract he received to perform at a university. It includes this stipulation: “By signing this contract, you are agreeing with our policy of no tolerance with regards to racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and xenophobia or anti-religion or anti-atheism.” Mercifully, he declined.

There’s a tension obviously between comedy and offense. I’m not saying comedy cannot sting. But it seems to me that comedy is, at some level, all about offense. It’s a crucial valve for venting all our differences, for sparing no one from ridicule and mockery, and for telling the truth about the world in ways only a joke can. Sometimes, that will hurt people. But banning gay jokes does not abolish homophobia; it just prevents us from being honest about it, and using laughter to vent things in our heads that might otherwise express themselves in uglier ways. Laughing about our differences helps us to live with those differences.

It’s a tragedy, it seems to me, that Eddie Murphy’s Raw, one of the greatest comedy sets ever, would be anathema today. Richard Pryor would have his mic cut by students in 30 seconds. Jackie Mason? No chance of a career today. Each year, I make it a point to watch Airplane, a genius movie, in the sad recognition that it simply could not be made or even put on TV today, because of the taboo on offending anyone. And Johnny — a walking gay stereotype — is one of the funniest characters in it. “There’s a sale at Pennys!”

To be honest, I’m particularly fond of gay jokes. Can they do harm to kids? Sure. So keep them away from adult humor. Can they harm adults? Only if you let them, and only if you can’t take a joke. You can spend your life in a defensive crouch, terrified of being hurt, or you can figure out that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent, and laugh at yourself and others with abandon. Some gay gags are better than others, of course. (Kevin Hart’s old ones weren’t that funny in the first place, but he has cracked me up so many times I can easily forgive him a movie based on gay-panic jokes.) And not everyone can pull off the Monty Python gay regiment of the Australian Poetry Society sketch (rule No. 1: no poofters); or the genius of South Park’s gay characters, Mr. Slave, Big Gay Al, Satan, and the self-hating Mr. Garrison. But the best stereotypes are hilarious because they contain the truths that today’s left-Puritans want to suppress. And do we prefer unfunny PC piety to funny, edgy truths? Who honestly — apart from these sad, indoctrinated kids — does?

So keep Dave Chappelle’s hilarious riffs on his own trans discomfort away from the PG set. But for Pete’s sake, don’t censor or control Chapelle’s genius. In these fanatical times, we need him and other comedians to keep us sane as well as amused. Resist!

See you next Friday.

Theresa May Might Be the Most Important Person in the World