What our politicians have engaged in is a refusal to thinkby Lyndsey Stonebridge / December 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
“He didn’t think this through” tweeted human rights lawyer Adam Wagner last week in response to the suggestion that had he done so, David Cameron might have implemented a two-stage referendum or required a “super majority,” as might be appropriate given the enormity of the decision at issue.
In truth, it was worse than this: David Cameron didn’t think at all. He didn’t make an error of judgement in calling the Brexit vote, because that would have required actual judgement rather than mere calculation, or politically expedient reason. He was simply—and, as it turned out, catastrophically—thoughtless.
Cameron set the standard for what was to follow. The buffoons of Brexit, with their laddish bombast, silly hair, and Union Jack socks looked like exactly what they were: buffoons. Like the adults currently walking the streets wearing elf costumes made of cheap felt, they didn’t care if they looked stupid: it was Brexit!
Those in search of deep meaning behind the events of the past two years might, retrospectively, be tempted to see some cunning here. If it looks and sounds like a pantomime, if the glinty-eyed villains look like villains, if the machinations of the plot seem like a farce, if it’s all so stupid, perhaps people won’t take it seriously. They won’t take it seriously, and that way, we’ll win. Aha, not as stupid as we look!
But it is not stupidity alone that makes the situation so serious just now. Our current political debate—a debate in which not only political lives but real lives might be lost—lacks depth. Brexit is not only characterised by nakedly evident stupidity; its thoughtlessness is banal. That, in the long run, might well turn out to be even more dangerous.
It was the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, who first understood how lethal banality could be. She coined the much-misunderstood phrase “the banality of evil” in response to the trial of Adolf Eichmann, which she witnessed in Jerusalem in 1961. What she did not mean was that Eichmann’s acts were banal: devising quicker and more efficient ways of murdering Europe’s Jewish population was obviously an unprecedented evil. Nor did she mean that Eichmann was some kind of unknowing marionette in a murderous administrative system (although he did a good job of shaming guilelessness). He ran the murderous administrative system,…