interesting times

Good-bye, Theresa. Hello, Boris?

The center did not hold. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

If you were hoping that the recent wave of global right-wing populism might be declining, it has not been a very good couple of weeks. In India, the Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi, was just reelected handily — with a hefty majority in the Parliament, despite expectations that he’d do far worse. Buoyed by resurgent nationalism and his standing up to China and Pakistan, as well as appealing to the left-behinds, he achieved something historic: the first full second term for a prime minister in nearly 50 years. But it’s impossible to understand Modi’s success without seeing his exploitation of Hindu anti-Muslim religious bigotry at the heart of it. This was a victory for illiberal democracy — one in which Muslims are used as a classic minority threat.

In Australia, in what some have called the biggest upset in recent political history, the Liberal Party coalition government (the center-right option) swept back into power against all predictions, while the expected Labor Party victory evaporated somewhere between the polls and the election. Some have argued that this was just another case of Australians’ discomfort with radical change, as pledged by Labor. But a key factor is that the Labor Party’s traditional working-class base — guess what? — lurched right. Claire Lehmann notes:

“The swing against Labor was particularly pronounced in the northeastern state of Queensland — which is more rural and socially conservative than the rest of Australia. Many of Queensland’s working-class voters opposed Labor’s greener-than-thou climate-change policies… Queensland’s rejection of Labor carried a particularly painful symbolic sting for [Labor leader Bill] Shorten … In 1899, the world’s first Labor government was sworn into the Queensland parliament. Shorten’s “wipe-out” in Queensland demonstrates what has become of the party’s brand among working-class people 120 years later.”

Sounds depressingly familiar does it not? The same rural-urban, somewhere-nowhere divide opening up all over the West — with the right doing far better than anyone expected. And for those of us committed to action against climate change, the Australian election, where climate legislation was very much part of the debate, and the recent retreat of Macron in the face of anti-gas-tax protests, are not exactly encouraging signs.

In Europe, it’s clearly getting worse. The elections for the European Parliament — taking place yesterday through Sunday — are now expected to end with a surge for the far right across the continent. Some of this was long baked in the cake: These largely meaningless elections to a powerless Parliament are often low-turnout affairs, where protest votes are common. They often help fringe anti-E.U. parties.

Nowhere is this truer, of course, than in the U.K., where politics has been transformed first by the Brexit vote and then by the center-right Tories’ failure to deliver it on time. Theresa May made one final bid for consensus this week, trying to woo Labour into backing her E.U. withdrawal agreement by allowing Parliament a vote on a second, confirmatory referendum. All this did was outrage her own party, which gave her notice in a particularly brutal and humiliating way. She announced her resignation today — but will stay in office until the Tories pick a new leader. My bet is that Boris Johnson will be prime minister by midsummer. Yes: Boris. And he will do his best to deliver a no-deal Brexit. The idea that he could renegotiate a better Brexit deal with the E.U. than May is absurd.

But if you want to know why May’s collapse has been so sudden, and is happening today, check out the polling for the European elections. Brits were assuming they wouldn’t be voting because they should have left the E.U. by now, but … well, we know what happened. And so a completely new party, the Brexit Party, led by the infamous beer-swilling, cigarette-smoking milkshake victim, Nigel Farage, is in first place in a YouGov poll this week with 37 percent of the vote. The Tories are at 7 percent. That is not a typo. More to the point, when you look at polling for the next general domestic election, the Tories and Labour have fallen off a cliff.

We’ll see if it’s as bad as that pretty soon, but it seems that the center-right is meeting the same fate as the center-left: It’s close to a collapse. Labour meanwhile, trying to hang on to their working-class base, have dithered over Brexit, and allowed another party, the Liberal Democrats, to become the recipient of Remain voters.

But France too has seen its center-right outflanked in the current polls by Marine Le Pen’s outfit, which is now in first place, a notch above Macron’s En Marche. Two years ago, Macron beat Le Pen 66–34. Now, her party is beating his 25–23. Italy is now run by Bannon-loving, anti-immigrant populists. Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister, just convened 11 right-populist leaders from European countries in a rally before the European elections:

“As a recording played the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti singing Puccini’s Nessun Dorma aria, with its refrain of “Vincerò!” (I will win), Salvini took center-stage before a crowd of some 20,000 cheering fans. Clutching a rosary and flanked by France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen and 10 other European ethno-nationalists, Salvini dismissed his critics. ‘In this square, there are no racists, no fascists,’ he said. ‘The extremists are those who led Europe into insecurity and poverty — Merkel, Macron and Soros.’”

This man, who has declared war on the Roma minority and is attempting to deport half a million new immigrants, currently has an approval rating of 72 percent. That’s not a typo either. The only mildly hopeful development is the collapse of Austria’s hard-right governing coalition in a welter of scandal.

We’ll see the tea leaves better by Sunday night; it may be that the forecasts of a far-right surge are tempered. (Exit polls from the Netherlands show the center holding in that country, despite fears of a hard-right victory.) But there’s no sign yet that the center has been able to marshal arguments anywhere nearly as potent as the nationalist right’s. In fact, some of the Brussels plutocrats and Eurocrats seem intent on making things worse. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, and hate-figure in Britain, declared to CNN this week: “These populist, nationalists, stupid nationalists, they are in love with their own countries. They don’t like those coming from far away, I like those coming from far away … we have to act in solidarity with those who are in a worse situation than we are in.” He somehow avoided calling them all deplorables.

But he’s right of course. People do tend to be in love with their own countries, just as they love the borders that allow their countries to exist. Those who turned the E.U. into a kind of megastate incapable of summoning real patriotism never quite grasped this, and still don’t.

If you want to know why neo-fascism is resurgent in Europe, this is why. The European project overreached, and has never recovered from the financial crisis a decade ago. Europeans have always been more attached to their own national identities than to some abstract edifice like the E.U. This has been compounded, as it has in the U.S., by elite contempt for the feelings of ordinary people, denial about elite failure over the last two decades, and an inability of those elites even to speak a language most people can understand. I’d vote against those elites too, if I were Italian or Greek. Their comeuppance cometh. What comes after is the metastasizing problem.

Chernobyl and Socialism

HBO’s Chernobyl doesn’t exactly entice at first blush. It’s a grisly three-hour story of the worst nuclear accident in history. It doesn’t have a happy ending or a happy beginning — it starts off with the main character dutifully recording all he remembers of the incident on a series of audiotapes, before hanging himself, as the KGB waits outside. Then we shift back two years in time for the story to begin. But it is masterfully wrought, vividly filmed, and beautifully acted. I really had no idea what happens to the human body after being exposed even for an hour or so to so much lethal radiation — at one point, we’re told that it’s the equivalent of enduring 4 million simultaneous X-rays. But then you see it — first as a kind of bad sunburn, and then the slow and agonizing decay of the body into a terrifying burning-alive corpse, followed by a small and deceptive reprieve before a screaming, medieval tormented death out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. No morphine, we are told, can quell the pain.

It’s a classic fight against time, and as a disaster flick, it has many fateful moments. But what makes it fascinating is its depiction of how a communist state reacts to such a catastrophe. There is zero institutional concern for human life, because individuals only really count as threats to the system, rather than ends in themselves. In a mandatorily atheist communist world, there are merely bodies, not souls, usefulness, not dignity. And without anything like a free press, the inhabitants of the nearby city know nothing for days except that there has been a fire and explosion at the plant.

So they stay put, hoping for the best, wondering why their sons and husbands and fathers are taking so long to end their work shifts — so much collateral damage to prevent mass panic or any inkling of the reality seeping out into more general public awareness. It’s only when Scandinavian monitors detect radiation in the atmosphere and identify it as Soviet in origin does Moscow concede that anything is awry. By then hundreds of thousands have had their lives potentially shortened, because the Big Lie comes before everything else. They lie about everything, everything.

You begin to see how anti-human this system was. Even as the Soviet Union was fast losing any internal legitimacy, vast swathes of ordinary human existence could be sacrificed with a wave of the hand to avoid admission of elite or ideological failure. It’s sickening. And this is Gorbachev treating humans like so much dirt — not Lenin or Stalin.

There are, of course, flickers of humanity, feats of ordinary heroism, and extreme courage. You watch as a hardened top Soviet official is sent to the site in complete denial, intent on maintaining party discipline and control, and over the following weeks he begins slowly to crumble inside. Not of radiation (although he had probably cut his lifespan to another five years at most); but out of a realization of how foul, incompetent, and monstrous the entire system was. One critical moment comes late in the series when he is asked a question by one of the miners about to sacrifice his life to prevent an even greater catastrophe than the original explosion. And for the first time, he tells the truth. And for the first time, the miner believes him.

Then there’s the color palette: an endless series of grays and blacks. And the architecture: brutal, concrete, inhuman, vast, ugly, functional. Communism and socialism share this key feature: the lack of color, of variety, of personality, of initiative, and personal pride. But the main undercurrent is fear — fear of the authorities, fear of the KGB, fear of making a mistake, fear of any kind of candor. Everyone is followed and spied upon, including those tasked with following and spying.

Socialism is not communism. Far from it. It can be democratic, fear can be absent, individual freedom profoundly attenuated but still there. But neither is it social democracy: a capitalist system with a solid welfare state that takes care of its people. Socialism is currently fashionable among the young, who understandably have come to see late capitalism as a failure in improving their lives. But I wish these millennials and Gen-Zers could have some understanding of what living in a socialist society is like. The texture and mood of Chernobyl gives an exaggerated but real sense of it.

I grew up in socialist Britain, before Thatcher, coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s. The state did indeed control most of the means of production: huge industries owned directly by government, and effectively run by union bosses. The government owned and ran all but a sliver of the entire education and health-care systems, steel and coal production and the auto industry and the trains and water and on and on. Governments came and went, but all-powerful unions really ran the place. And unions, by their very nature, are collective entities, deploying collective punishment in their ongoing struggle to secure as many resources as they could for their members at the expense of consumers and taxpayers.

New York City’s Illiberal Education Department

If I were to put a time capsule in the ground to alert future generations what it was like to live in 2019, I think I’d include two simple documents: a video and transcript of one of Donald J. Trump’s deranged and unnerving rallies, and a chart used by the New York City schools system to train all its administrators, principals, and supervisors. The chart’s title is “White Supremacy Culture” and you can take a look at it here.

Back in the day (about five years ago, actually), if you thought of “white supremacy culture” you might have imagined, say, depictions of brutal slavery, crackpot theories of a master race, photographs of burning crosses on lawns, terrifying images of lynchings, or “whites only” signs, or a video of the Charlottesville neo-fascists. You know what I mean. And I think I’d be glad that public schools were educating employees about America’s original sin.

But that, of course, is not what “white supremacy” has come to mean among woke elites in 2019. And the chart, which is taken from a tome called Dismantling Racism: A Resource Book for Social Change Groups, explains what the term now means. Namely: “being results oriented and diminishing an otherwise-sound process which does not produce measurable results”; “seeing things in terms of good or bad, right or wrong, black or white”; “individualism”; “worship of the written word”; an overemphasis on “politeness”; “perfectionism”; “focusing only on the bottom line.” Now, if I were to give this material every benefit of the doubt, I’d note it’s perfectly reasonable to attempt to mitigate some kinds of obsessive conduct, excessive self-criticism, or distorted perspective among kids. We all know that perfectionism can lead to misery (tell me about it), that short-term thinking can be counterproductive, or that students need to have interpersonal skills as well as mastery of the written material. I’ve no doubt principals and administrators get this. But why on earth is this connected in some way to resisting “whiteness”?

But what this document clearly does is much more than that. It seems to me that it finds some essential features of success in America (or anywhere else, for that matter) as somehow racially problematic. And so a major school system is effectively telling principals and administrators not to expect the very best of their mainly minority students, not to reward individual effort, or mastery of written English, to instruct students that there are no binary choices between right or wrong, and to banish from their minds any notion of objective truth. The problem with objectivity, it seems, is that it “can lead to the belief that there is an ultimate truth, and that alternative viewpoints or emotions are bad. It’s even inherent in ‘the belief that there is an objective truth.’” This is not just bad education, it’s an assault on the very principles that buttress Western civilization.

Worse than this, the ideology equates excellence in objective tests with not just whiteness (whatever that is) but white supremacy. And it does this in a school district with enormous racial diversity. It’s hard not to infer that it is an official endorsement — by the schools chancellor no less — of the damaging canard that studying hard in school, doing your homework, and striving for excellence is “acting white.” And this is despite the fact that the ethnic group that is succeeding the most by traditional standards of excellence in New York City’s schools are Asian-Americans. (They comprise 74 percent of students at Stuyvesant High School, because Stuyvesant doesn’t admit students on any other metric than test scores.) Funny, isn’t it, how “white supremacy culture” ends up empowering nonwhites. I’m not sure real white supremacists would be down with that.

I’m often told that the social-justice left’s assault on individuality, meritocracy, and achievement is a figment of my imagination, or only true in isolated pockets of super-woke academia. But here is one of the largest school systems in the country imposing this ideology on its most important employees, mandating lessons in “whiteness,” allegedly firing women solely because they are white, and indoctrinating an entire generation into associating the virtues of objective truth, academic excellence, and reason with the worst kind of bigotry. If you want to know why liberal democracy is in peril in America, mandatory indoctrination in critical race and gender theory is a factor not to be underrated.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Good-bye, Theresa. Hello, Boris?