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Artillery Row

When the left loves flags

Modish causes satisfy tribal instincts

Towards the end of last month I took a trip up to Oxford, and was struck by a beautiful, clarifying realisation. Walking down a street, my eye was caught by a sticker in the corner of a window, featuring the European stars superimposed onto the Ukrainian flag. Above the colleges, pride flags fluttered, the original rainbow slowly eaten away by an expanding chevron representing trans and black issues in a rather effective metaphor for the general hollowing out of the movement.

What occurred to me at that point is that this was quite an effective display of patriotism. Not in anything so parochial as Britain — the sorts of people who add the flag of the current thing to their social media profiles are generally disdainful of the sort of “flag shagger” who puts up bunting for the jubilee — but in a wider global citizenry, and its values. 

The flag of this meta-country changes regularly, and may not be the same everywhere. For a while after 2016, the British variation was the yellow stars and blue field of the European Union. In February and March this year it was the flag of Ukraine. For a month each year it’s the pride flag, updated annually to indulge the latest letters in the alphabet soup (note the latest iteration displayed in ordered ranks above Regent Street by the Crown Estate, bearing new a yellow circle for intersex pride). This constant shifting is the point — by adopting the most modish political issue of concern to elites across the West, you signal membership of a wider political tribe that crosses national boundaries.

None of this is particularly conscious. It doesn’t have to be. It emerges naturally from a situation where technology has freed people from the old requirement that our social circles should be drawn from those physically adjacent to us. If you tip a very large number of people into a hopper and sort them by political conviction, it is almost inevitable that the clusters that develop will not be defined by national borders alone. 

The human brain is built to deal with small groups of contacts communicating at a level just above “hooting at the guy in the other tree”. That we have managed to jury-rig this system into solving advanced mathematical problems, creating beautiful music, and devising a system of international trade which secures the free availability of almost anything we could happen to want is remarkable, but does not alter the underlying limitations of our hardware. 

The anthropologist Robert Dunbar theorised that we only ever really “know” 150 people at one time. We might be aware of more. We may even interact with them fairly often. But there is a limit — and a low one — to the number of people we can pick metaphorical fleas from in our day-to-day lives. While people argue over whether this limit is 150 or 300, there’s no doubt it’s several orders of magnitude below the numbers we manage to cram into a country.

Our brains are not built to handle the near-constant interactions with hundreds or even thousands of people that modern life demands. We get around this because humans are good at offsetting individual inadequacies with the strength of the group, and one of the ways we do this is by developing rules and structures that allow an individual person to be “smarter’ than they actually are. We substitute in laws, norms, and organisations for our own fallible judgement, leaning on these systems to coordinate behaviour.

This is a wonderful system, with the small flaw that these systems in turn tend to emerge from the interaction of gargantuan numbers of people over extended periods of time. There is nothing in this that says the rules you get will be the rules you want. This is particularly true of the rules which emerge online. 

We are living in America

I’ve said before that we are all living in America, no matter whether or not we believe ourselves to be, and whether or not the concept of America maps well onto the territory we physically reside in. Americans form the largest contingent of first-language English speakers online, and dominate the setting of norms and the topics of conversation. Even with regional filtering, American discourse tends to seep across national borders, just as the feedback alters American politics.

But this isn’t the only way that new alignments form online. Almost by definition, liberals are liberals everywhere. Their ideology is rooted in a philosophical approach that prizes a sort of rationality, asserting that applied intellect can design systems which will better govern a country than obedience to tradition. 

Conservatives, on the other hand, take as their starting point the premise that ideas which are evolved — which emerge, are tested, and survived — are likely to do better than those which are imposed from above. There are limits to the human intellect, and limits to the problems clever men can solve with designed systems. This preference in turn suggests that there is very much such a thing as a national character, that the institutions which worked for you may not work for me. While they might work together across national boundaries — and indeed do so increasingly effectively — conservatives are relatively unlikely to suggest the full-scale import of another country’s values or issues because it would defeat the entire purpose of their existence.

This gives British conservatives some ability to resist adopting the latest insanity from the American right. It is notable, for instance, that while the UK left has made increasingly hysterical noises about the potential outlawing of abortion here, the British right — one or two brainfried MPs aside — has largely left the issue alone.

Their entire philosophy is global

Liberals tend to lack this resistance because their entire philosophy is global in application and ambition, and rests on a quasi-religious opposition to nationalism (“God hates flags”). You can’t use tradition and cultural distinctiveness as your shield against what happens elsewhere because you fundamentally don’t believe in it.

But no matter how rigidly adhered to the ideology, liberals are still humans, and still have brains which were built for hooting at the ape in the opposite tree. They still have the urge towards tribalism, even if their ideology is explicitly opposed to it in theory. Sometimes this manifests as simple in-group/out-group bias — liberals are brilliant, wise, compassionate, conservatives are stupid, foolish, and cruel. And sometimes this doesn’t go quite far enough to scratch the itch. Something more overt is needed.

The flags — the obsession with Ukraine, the brief giddy sensation as they back a national sporting team, the subtle thrill of being wrong to do so — function as an outlet for this urge, as a form of permitted patriotism.


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