In early December I leapt across the pond for a short visit to the great capital city of England. Even in inward-looking America we were aware a big election was about to be held, and my time in London was only days before voters went to the polls. Even a parochial American knew the election was of great consequence. Yet few talked of it. I saw no election posters. There were no rallies or street corner orators, only the earnest voices from the All Souls church choir at the corner of Regent Street and Oxford Street. Instead of political pamphlets, I was offered a Gideon Bible.
This surprised me. The election came about because of the endless turmoil over Brexit, which is a synecdoche for the great questions facing the West in the early 21st century. For the European Union represents the promise of globalisation, which seemed so alluring in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union. The promise has been largely economic. Ever greater prosperity will flow from ever greater openness to the free flow of labour, goods and capital. This is paralleled by a cultural promise. A stultifying cultural homogeneity will be opened up by difference and diversity.
Most countries in the West have adopted policies in accord with these promises, which have been fulfilled, at least in part. London, New York and other hubs of finance and technology indeed prospered as the global economic system was built out. And our societies are more open and pluralistic.
But much has been lost. And many now seem to be mourning those losses more than cheering the gains.
The stakes are high, as we all sense. To an extent that seemed remote, even impossible, only few years ago when we were enjoying the blessings of the End of History, voters are now deciding what kind of countries they are going to have. The outcome is certain to be disruptive, opening up divides that will not be bridged for a long time to come.
Given the importance, I was struck by the calm in London. Perhaps this was the outward sign of an inward exhaustion. In or out? Three years down the line, the Crown’s subjects (an English friend once upbraided me for referring to him as a citizen – “A Jacobin concept,” he warned) know where they stand on this momentous question about Britain’s future, finding yet another round of debate pointless and depressing.
As the Virgin Atlantic cabin steward lamented on the flight back, “I just want this to be over.” Why bother with posters and marches and soapboxes when people have long ago made up their minds?
No doubt true, but a conversation over Grüner Veltliner and herring in a gemütlich Marylebone restaurant got me wondering about a deeper enervation. I asked about the coronation that will follow the demise of the current monarch. Will it be characterised by the powerful theological claims made at past enthronements of the British head of state? My tablemates assured me that the use of old formularies would be impossible. The religious pluralism of Britain makes the Christian and biblical elements ever less welcome. So much of public life (including the ecclesiastical dimension) has fallen to the level of daytime talk shows that little of the transcendent dignity of past coronations is likely to survive.
I leave it to the English, who are expert in such matters, to consider this doleful prediction. It seems unquestionably true, however, that Albion has shed a great deal of metaphysical weight in recent decades. The notion that sovereign power in Westminster is ordained by God lost its credence a good while ago. To a great extent the new gods of Empire, Progress, Democracy and Liberty take the place of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But the two World Wars knocked the stuffing out of Europe, the victors and vanquished alike.
For a while the American-led resistance against communism provided a noble cause. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the gods of the city became still smaller and weaker. In 2017, Tony Blair opined: “Today, a distinction that often matters more than the traditional right and left is ‘open’ versus ‘closed’.” He continued: “The open-minded see globalisation as an opportunity”, while “the close-minded see the outside world as a threat”.
In this way of putting things, we face a choice of profound importance, a moral-metaphysical choice: confidence versus fear, a limitless horizon versus parochial limits. But what, exactly, populates the politics of the open-minded? Human rights, free markets and technocratic competence? Worthy notions all, but hardly the sort of things that set a man’s heart aflame and arrest his imagination.
People who think like Tony Blair have been governing for a good while, setting the tone for public life. The idea of “openness” has conquered the media and is very much reinforced by the educational establishment. By my estimation, this dominance explains the calm I experienced on the eve of the December 12 election. The spirit of open-mindedness is loath to draw sharp boundaries or final conclusions. It promises that, with enough dialogue, contradictory positions will reconciled and rebellious, even violent resistance to the status quo can be domesticated and included. Openness is a languid virtue, one that presumes to have history on its side. It waits, accepts and digests. Relativism is not its philosophy, for that would be too exclusive. It is instead its pragmatic stance, a tactical suppression of strong judgments, a patience that seeks to dissolve what is sharp-edged and resolute.
In the United States we live under the same weak god of openness. For this reason, our political struggles, while characterised by hyperbolic and hysterical handwringing, are also characterised by a preternatural calm. I know people who work themselves up into a frenzy, saying that Trump threatens constitutional norms – or that those seeking to oust him represent the “deep state” that imperils our democratic traditions. And yet they go through their days making decisions that presume nothing significant will change. Companies hire workers. The stock market drifts higher. For all the talk of fascism, few act as if they were living in 1939.
This is not to say that stronger gods do not hold sway over the American imagination. The God of Israel who parted the Red Sea and destroyed Pharaoh’s army, and triumphed over sin and death in Christ, and will return in glory to rule the earth, still commands legions of American supporters. In my estimation, a quarter of people in the US have a deeply biblical view of human destiny.
The trumpet blasts that brought down the walls of Jericho are fused to an even more broadly shared confidence in America. We’re in a rough patch. Pointless wars in the Middle East have demoralised many. We are awakening to our vulnerability to China. The rancour of identity politics poisons the body politic. And yet Americans still regard their nation as the central actor in the next chapter of world history, which means our politics retain a certain metaphysical weight.
But here, too, in this vast nation spanning North America, the weight rests uneasily on our shoulders. The limitless horizons of openness – open trade, open borders, open minds – flood our political imaginations with an enervating light. Political struggle is concentrating. The contest for power concerns particular goals and loyalties – to adopt this course of action, to determine to be this kind of nation. Elections are won or lost, certain differences cannot be elided, border lines cannot be eradicated. Openness dissolves and disintegrates particularity. That is its post-political promise of peace.
Blair was right, at least in part. I have no fear of the “outside world”, but I dread the grey-on-grey calm of openness, the bad infinite (to use Hegel’s term) of limitless horizons.
At the end of my brief sojourn in London, a visit to the William Blake exposition at Tate Britain gave focus to my concerns. Blake’s illustrations suggest an imagination aroused by the spectre of a consuming evil and the agonies of existence. Many depict figures with their heads buried in downward turned, self-protective poses. His most arresting illustrations show suffering. Even Elohim’s face is distorted with agony as he bestows upon Adam the gift of life. The monsters of the Apocalypse leap off the paper, while figures in situations of domestic repose or pastoral peace are bland.
Enervated by openness in our politics, we are not happy with the peace it provides. Like Blake, our public culture embraces images of agony and destruction. Greta Thunberg is a seer of global destruction who, if she drew, would no doubt rival Blake. Extinction Rebellion is a movement that feeds on the concentrating power of apocalyptic rhetoric. I can hear the pleasure in the voice of one of my relatives when she insists on the coming climate disasters. It’s the sound of someone delivered from the inhuman perpetual peace of globalisation and entrusted with words of consequence, which are precisely what openness cannot supply.
In more limited ways, our politics returns again and again to the springs of moral outrage. A child’s lifeless body lies face down in the sand – and the immigration debate becomes a Blakean enterprise. I am more and more convinced that, undone by the promises of openness, we hunger for evils to press upon us and restore to us the living pressure of purposes that cannot be dissolved by dialogue, causes that must be won. Rightly rebelling against the post-political promise of peace, we swing towards the post-political urgencies of the moral struggle against evil – a strong, vivid god, as Blake recognised and depicted, but also a dark one.
As I write, the election results are coming in. Boris Johnson has won a decisive majority. Perhaps this result will signal the waning of openness. I hope so. We need to return to the older forms of public life. They are not “closed” in the disparaging way Blair depicted them. They are alive with love and loyalty, which of its nature closes around that which it cherishes and wishes to nurture. We need a politics of love and loyalty. It will exclude. How can love do otherwise? But it will save us from a politics of apocalyptic fear and moral outrage, the dark siblings of utopian openness.
RR Reno is the editor of First Things