It is the famous quote from Jean-Paul Sartre in his play Huis Clos, which is literally translated Hell is other people. Ideally we would be connected by love to the whole of humanity, but such an ideal is destroyed by man’s fallen nature. We are separated by hatred and sin, such that the “other” person, the stranger, the one we cannot trust becomes a threat and an enemy – at least a potential enemy.
I have always been fascinated by the idea of nobility of spirit, but the paradox is like that of humility. Once the subject becomes self-conscious of his humility, he becomes proud, arrogant and sinful. Similarly, he who is conscious of being spiritually “noble” will become arrogant, a tyrant, someone who believes that rules are only for others – and all of a sudden, we have the self-entitled sociopath sending “others” to their deaths. Thus we have paradoxes and cycles that repeat ad nauseam, just as we have happy and unhappy periods in history.
This whole story of Brexit follows the same pattern. I haven’t lived in England for any significant length of time since 1982, but I have been able to observe what has been going on through the news and listening to people during my many visits to family and friends. Over the years I have been through episodes of nostalgia for my native England. It sufficed to listen to some Elgar or Vaughan Williams and dream about my native Lake District or the Cotswolds, that gentle pastoral seduction of an “eternal” England, the “green and pleasant land” of William Blake. On the other hand, living on the outside brings certain realities home. One such reality is politics for money and power, and no longer the principle of the common good. Crusty old statesmen used to say that the country had gone “to the dogs”. What would they say today?
A couple of years ago, I was not allowed to vote because of the 15-year rule. I have no MP, but then again, I have no residence in the UK, nor do I pay tax. Fair enough, I literally got on my bike in July 1982 and set off for France. The illusions peeled away one by one like the skins of an onion, but I am still here because what is left of my life is here, not England. My ecclesial attachment is in England, as is my father and the rest of my family, who have made their lives and made their mark in the places where they live. As is the tradition in my family, I have been Euro-sceptical, believing the usual narrative of Brussels being an unelected and Orwellian body leading to something like the old Soviet Union. At the same time, I saw its cosmopolitan intentions and underpinning philosophy. If I am European, like a New Yorker is an American, then I am still living close to my origins, and no longer as an exile.
For a while since the 2016 referendum, I failed to take Brexit seriously. It was (and is) the butt of jokes in France. My own wife would say as a joke that it would be “good riddance” when the Gendarmes would come and make me pack my bags before putting me on a boat to England! It all goes beautifully with St Joan of Arc, the Hundred Years War and the Napoleonic Wars. For two countries separated by a small sliver of water you could sail across in a day, the level of ignorance, prejudice and stereotyping is astounding. We British see the average Frenchman in a Breton marinière, wearing a beret and carrying a baguette – moustache de rigueur. They call us rosbifs – roast beef – and something like the army officers of nineteenth century India in the days of the Empire. That is when we are not bankers or civil servants in London with the bowler hat and perfectly ironed newspaper. Those days are gone, but the nostalgia remains in many.
Since seeing the reality of Brexit, that my country was really going to declare war on itself, I had to take stock and try to understand how our elite could really be so stupid as to have set in motion a legal monster without any planning or contingency over the past two years. Only when it is too late do they begin to try to negotiate a solution with the EU, or bully the latter into following their ideology. The EU is not the British Empire, because there were two world wars last century, plus national independence of the formerly colonised peoples, putting paid to all that.
Rob Riemen’s book Nobility of Spirit never ceases to bring me to a kind of self-awareness that has given me certain gifts to see the dangers we are in. There is a definite analogy between our time and the rise of Fascism and Nazism in the 1920’s and 30’s, minus the clown dictators and the militaristic jingoism. The accidents are very different, but there are similarities of substance, if you want to use scholastic language. Perhaps nobility of spirit is discerned in relation to its nemesis, that insidious ideology of stupidity, ignorance and hatred we see around us, that “hell” of “other people”. What is this nobility of spirit? It is surely what Christ stood for as the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, all the virtues of prudence, kindness, search for truth and transcendence. It is the antithesis of barbarianism, greed, lust for power and narrow-mindedness. As these forces gather once again, we can only fight them with love and faith, with courage and refusal to give up our principles of conscience.
I don’t think we can class all the “leavers” in one category. I might have been one of them had I had the vote in the summer of 2016. I was taken in by the narrative according to which all our money was being given to poor eastern European countries that are new to the Union, and that Brexit would allow millions to be given each day to our ailing health service. It was a deliberate lie. Finally, as the protests (in which I have participated mainly through this blog) have intensified, the tide is turning. The inevitability of Brexit is slowly evaporating as they are forced to admit that it can be different. The enemy isn’t some far-off Hitler strutting around in Berlin, but is in our own midst. The mask is coming away slowly but surely.
I find myself in agreement with the idea that Brexit is a kind of cult. It is an irrational ideology, like the religion of Reverend Jim Jones who got all his adepts to commit suicide. The “dogma” according to which the result of the 2016 referendum is graven in stone and immutable is a sign of this state of mind. It was a flawed advisory referendum, not a binding contract. Even contracts can be cancelled for unilateral breach of trust. The broken record is wearing thin.
I have not spent time on leavers’ blogs, Facebook pages and suchlike. The bile is harmful enough when it emerges from its habitual cocoon and affects the political elite. Some remainers have been to those parts of the internet, like new Catholic converts listening to the rants of the Protestant Reformation Society at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. They are witnesses to verbal and even physical violence, ignorance, hatred, words without any real meaning like “democracy” and “taking back control”. What has discredited religion in the past was this refusal of reason in the name of faith.
I very much recommend reading the various writings and official teachings of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI on the theme of Fides et Ratio, faith and reason. This is a part of the discipline of fundamental theology, which is Ratzinger’s speciality. It is the part of theology which examines the foundations, those of divine revelation and human reason. There are many things we will never fully understand, because our rational faculties and senses are limited, but we can grasp something with effort and curiosity. The Enlightenment was a very important step in history, even when it became excessive in the thought of men like Voltaire, Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant. It was needed to bring us out of the era of witch-burning and country yokel superstition. Then, when everything became dreary classical, faithless and sterile, the world needed the Romantic movement to restore the heart and the imagination to their rightful places. The result is a transformed religious instinct of man believing, feeling and seeking understanding. Thus I am a Christian and a priest, and take this balance between faith and reason very seriously.
I have seen in National Populism many of the lowly aspects I found in Roman Catholic integralism and its aspiration to temporal power with the help of clown dictators like Pinochet. The ugly spectre of the ideology of hate has not gone away with the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini. I am glad that someone has coined the term National Populism, because it will give many a chance for critical thinking and examination of conscience. These are powerful instincts in man, like faith in a God or a universal consciousness, but appealing to the base instincts of competition, dominance and power. Terrorists kill people, not because they are believers, but because they abdicated humanity and reason under manipulation and brainwashing.
Different people’s “other people” take different forms. It can be the people of the ideology. It can be people from other countries because their wars were the fault of our politicians and we refused to let them rebuild their wrecked and war-torn countries. I too beat my breast because I believed too many stories of foreign people taking our jobs and money, yet I too am a foreigner in another country, even though my country is still in the EU. I read many stories of anxiety of British people afraid that we will become illegal immigrants in France after a no-deal Brexit. Are we getting a taste of our own medicine? More hope is now being given now that the Brexiteer politicians are desperately trying to contain the fallout caused by the impending human rights travesties – because there are some three million EU people living, working and paying tax in the UK, and about two million UK people doing the same thing in the EU countries. We rely on being allowed to do that, just like people from India, Africa and the Middle East. We became afraid because of the immigration crisis of 2015, and the ideologues made hay of it. The experience has forced me to examine many assumptions and become open to more rational and human paradigms. May this threat to my country from its own inner enemy be salutary and healing. We are still on the way to our self-defeat, but it can be averted. It would almost seem to be an Old Testament prophecy about Israel!
I would like to give a warning that anything can come full-circle, in the way liberalism has become illiberal and quite absurd in its irrationalism. I have always believed in women’s rights and have found a lot of inspiration in the suffragettes of 1912 and the character of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin who became Shelley’s wife and wrote Frankenstein. I am utterly repulsed by the present-day gender and sexual identity politics, based not on reason or humanism, but on the same hatred and fanaticism that brought women and “different” people to be oppressed in the first place. These ideologies are parts of human nature in its fallen and hylic state. We can only be brought out of it by a balance of faith and reason.
Parochialism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism are only partial explanations of human experience and thought. Cosmopolitanism is associated with life in cities and parochialism with country living, but this notion is relativised by the fact of former city dwellers seeking a better life in the country, affordable housing and a slower pace of life, whilst children of country families go into town to find work and education. Being free from determinism and the inevitable is a gift of the spirit, which is the discovery of God in ourselves and our species, the only force that can unite and connect us.
For some of these questions, I refer the reader to the Greek Orthodox author Christos Yanneras who has written many illuminating philosophical works dealing with the human person and these issues of connection and alienation. His views of human rights are debatable, and need special study. His books are worth reading. I will note that the same levels of hatred and obscurantism can be found in Orthodoxy as in any other religion or ideology. Take the good ideas – yes, cherry-pick them – and make for yourself a synthesis of goodness, beauty and love.