Artillery Row

I’m a political orphan

Being an old-style radical is not winning me many friends – but I’m staying put

I’m an orphan. Not literally, as my late parents embraced the daunting task of raising their natural offspring rather well. I’m a political and emotional orphan, a saddened figure wandering in no-man’s land and lamenting the lack of belonging. Because I’m the sort of person we read about in modern history. Liberal, social democratic, progressive Christian, looking to a left formed more by Methodism than Marx, seeking to be motivated more by love for the oppressed than hatred for the oppressor. I think that capitalism needs to be controlled by ethical governments, and parliamentary democracy refined through a moral filter. I support charitable causes, I find Dickensian optimism to be moving rather than maudlin, and I’m optimistic about human nature. Which to the new and hard left makes me part of the problem and not the solution.

As an Anglican cleric I’m privileged to still see the best of humanity, often produced by the worst of human suffering. Soup kitchens, shelters, hospices, home visits, funerals. As a journalist, however, I see something else: a fierce and increasingly intolerant polarisation that lacks the gorgeously softening qualities of empathy and humour. Dehumanise your opponent, turn your critic into a cartoon of evil, generalise, marginalise, and dismiss.

When I left conservatism I was canceled by more people than I can even recall

The cancel culture of the left is undeniable, and the social media mobbing of even moderately conservative figures has become invincibly predictable. But the right too often reacts by refusing to embrace their own history of power and censorship, and by failing to listen to the pain of, for example, black or trans people who have been eliminated from the public square for most of their lives. To judge an entire movement or community by the extreme actions of some of its most strident adherents is misleading and unjust. I’ve met many trans people in the last five years and their lives have routinely been ones of physical violence, abuse, family rejection, and often appalling degrees of self-harm. They’re too busy trying to cope with their own pain to spend time silencing those who oppose them.

As for the pendulums of political fashion, take the Palestinian issue as a case in point. Through the 1960s and 70s criticism of Israel was almost unheard of in western media. In Britain and the US in particular even modest calls for balance or for the Palestinian narrative to be understood were generally dismissed as extreme and, worst of all, as anti-Semitism. Memories of the Holocaust were still fresh, the Arab world seemed foreign and alien, and Israelis were surely just like us.

Much of that changed form the early 1980s, to the point where the hard left and even some of their soft allies refuse to listen to the Jewish experience, have turned alleged anti-Zionism into an absolute criteria for ideological purity, and frequently ignore or even allow anti-Semitism unless it’s so obviously racist and detached from the Middle East as to be too hideous to hide. It’s not that all of these people hate Jews – most of them don’t, and some are themselves Jewish – but that the bloc of beliefs has to be pristine.

Both of these positions are wrong and both caused and cause incalculable damage. And both make it more difficult for a genuine peace to be achieved for the people of the region, who are the ones who should matter most.

When I left conservatism for my perhaps fluffy, “more tea vicar”, and “can’t we all get along” liberalism I was canceled by more people than I can even recall. There is none so angry as a true believer scorned. Fired, dismissed, subjected to campaigns to have editors and programme managers never use me again. Those who believe in exclusive truth, right and left, have far more in common than they would like to believe – it’s just that the stacked deck of history has been given a reshuffle and the left now has the strongest cards.

So there is a temptation to retreat into tribal safety and that’s entirely understandable. There is security is consensus, warmth and peace in the reassurance of congratulation. But I’m not sure if comfort is what it’s all about at this point. It would be much easier for me to choose a team and damn the gang at the other end of the field. But that would be to deny their uniqueness, to see them as the “other”, and to inevitably and exponentially divide the world into good and bad, right and wrong. A twisted Manichaeism that can only lead to disaster.

I won’t dismiss Brexiteers as brutes or Remainers as elitists, and even though I struggle I refuse to condemn Trump supporters as demons. I believe that the US President has caused profound harm to his country and hope and pray that he’s voted out of office. But then there’s my dear friend, a south Asian Muslim gay woman, who was introduced to her wife by her loving and kind next-door neighbour – who is a Trump man through and through.

Nuance is hard, being shouted at as a compromiser by both sides is unpleasant, and it may well be that the men and women who worked so that a working-class Essex boy like me could have free school milk, a National Health Service, fully-funded university education, a safety net and a good job with opportunities, would today find themselves in the political wilderness. Perhaps it’s not such a terrible place to be. Flee the person who has all of the answers, embrace those who ask the questions, and listen rather than react. Being a progressive or an old-style radical will not win me an election or even many friends but I’m staying put. Pathetic? Probably. And I like it.

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