La question française: Is there a truly, special English stupidity?
Once, when I was first here in France, I hurriedly hopped on a wrong train. With a particularly absorbing novel close to my nose, I settled in at once and that was that. I only discovered how really wrong that wrong train was when the conductor passed through, took my ticket and laughed out loud.
I slapped my forehead and exclaimed “Burbelsdorf! How could I be so stupid!”
In those days, seats on trains faced each other. The woman in front of me smiled broadly and said, in heavily accented English, “You are so stupid because you are English.”
Stupidity explained but not cleared up
By “stupid” she meant “obtuse”, the inability to see or understand something logically obvious. For instance, people who propose free circulation of firearms fail to understand that the arguments for restricting guns are about tolerable levels of public violence, not about guns. The right to bear arms folks are therefore exercising obtuseness, or “stupidity” when they try to deny the link between violence and unrestricted sale of firearms.
The French question hot today
I quickly corrected the French lady as to my nationality. But the French question, La Question française, is a hot one today. Is there or is there not a peculiarly English stupidity? And if there is, will it be checked at the urns on the June 23rd United Kingdom referendum on leaving or staying in the European Union?
Given the importance of the decision and the country’s success within the Union, it is surely a head-scratcher that the English leave campaign has any traction at all. Unless a peculiarly English stupidity exists, nothing even faintly rational explains it.
The economic, social, security and political cases for staying in the EU are, each one after the other, obvious no-brainers, like gun control. When questioned leave campaigners, like the promoters of unrestricted sales of firearms, are forced to shout snarling lies impossible to answer on Twitter. The tension created by the snarling is followed on with naked appeals to “xenophobia”, something which nowadays is mostly found in sparsely-populated hollows in Appalachia or outer Mongolia or deepest Africa or something.
Not many of us have heard the frightened, passive-aggressive squeak of this nowadays rare psychosociopathology. It requires definition. Most Americans have heard – if they’ve wished to hear – racist propos. Racism focuses on the supposed failings of an identifiable group. Nasty and undemocratic as it may be, racism usually serves some social purpose and many people feed at the trough of its consequences. Xenophobia, on the other hand, is the mother of all racism, its primary form. It is a sort of generalized passive-aggression practiced in thought, word and deed against any and all persons not included in a particular socio-cultural, “ethnic” or “national” imagination. Like a paranoia, xenophobia is usually present as a gooey, poisonous subtext that sane persons fear to get caught up in.
Able to use the xenophobic subtext to perfection, English leave proponents may then freely make lurid claims that Euro-spongers are glomming on their country’s niggardly, poorly delivered, chronically underfunded, under-staffed, low-rated schools and health and social services! The boshiest bullshit you’ll ever hear. Yet, defense of French waiters, Polish plumbers or Bulgarian farm workers is rare. Realistic assessment of England’s social provision even compared to what poorish Eastern Europeans are used to is even rarer!
Though I do sometimes wonder, it is hard to argue that xenophobia and denial of evident truths are peculiarly English forms of stupidity. However, when looked at closely, most stupidity disguises a rational self-seeking that benefits one group at the expense of the general good. Yet, most of the consequences of England’s leaving the EU are quite predictably – obviously – the opposite of what leave promoters say they want for their country. Absolutely nobody seems to benefit from leaving, unless you count masochistic neurotics and those who are looking to become the US’s 52nd state (after Puerto Rico) or those who wish the break up of the United Kingdom – or power-hungry national politicians eager to throw off the trammels of outside scrutiny.
At first, this lack of any apparent beneficiary seems suspiciously like a special form of national stupidity.
Then again, policies that are clearly against nearly everybody’s rational self-interest have clear historical precedent. In my adult life alone, and just off the top of my head, if I could name every country on the planet, I would. Suffice it to say that political foot-shooting, like half-witted economic, social, security and political decisions or fear & loathing of strangers, is not a mark of a special English stupidity.
Daladier's unquiet ghost
If you listen carefully, under the roar of anti-European rhetoric you may hear the anxious retching of Edouard Daladier’s restless ghost. He is considering the news that the English want to retake the heights of national sovereignty. As the prime minister’s shade well knows, by leaving the European Union, England will be taking back power that has been pooled ever since his and Chamberlain’s peace-in-our-time gambit failed so miserably.
There is, finally, something bafflingly, peculiarly, stupid in the attempt to regain pre-war sovereignty. Everybody knows the UK's current status as US poodle isn’t going to be undone by a vote against Europe.
On the contrary, it’s likely to go from bringing in the slippers to being the footstool.
Remain campaigners, however, seem to accept that England would gain in sovereign power by a leave vote, when the opposite is so obviously likely. This too has the hallmarks of strange and peculiar stupidity. Why otherwise would rational people accept what is so obviously untrue without a whisper. Could it be that, afflicted themselves with this stupidity, they cannot see what is obvious to others?
I believe that the claim of gain and the passive acceptance of the claim has to do with the peculiarly English notions of national victimhood. While the need to see one’s group as victimized is nothing special – is indeed spectacularly in view every time one group or another is invited to take responsibility for some cruel action – the English seem to wish to be themselves at the origin of their victimization. In this encompassing responsibility they are very different than nearly all other groups, which lends them a certain superficial charm as they thank you for taking their money.
The French, for instance, are content to merely snivel and whine about their supposed bad treatment, safe in the knowledge that whoever or whatever the agent of evil, the victim-feeling is quite exquisite pleasure enough. No need to spoil it by being responsible for it. In addition, the French generally believe that bad treatment is simply a fatality of living among and as human beings. The English, on the other hand, believe, in a sort of Darwinian-Christian social order: we humans merit all the bad treatment we receive; unpleasant moral realities – unfairness, inequality, snobbery – are immutable and useful biological realities.
It is the need to be responsible for the immutable unfairness of existence that is specifically English stupidity. And perfecting such stupidity requires that one of their own to hold the stick that beats this stupidity into all citizens and permanent residents. Thus, all those years ago, slapping my own forehead rather than lashing out at the conductor gave the French woman cause to believe me English. Who but an English person would take a wrong train and then punish him or her-self for doing so?
Satisfyingly stupid on a very little island in a big, big world
English stupidity is playing out in the leave referendum insofar as leaving will enable full scope to the political ambition of the country’s national politicians. Whether England is more or less sovereign in the world is actually irrelevant as far a materialization of the English stupidity is concerned. What is important is that, once the English have left the Union, they can all imagine that they hold the stick that beats them within their country, within their own hearts and minds; before their own eyes, with their own consent. Remember the movie The Ruling Class, with Peter O’Toole? Where the scion of the noble family only gets popular and powerful when he stops being a saint and becomes a brutal, cruel and repulsive hypocrite? Eh-beh, voi-là, as the French say.
Once outside the Union, the English will never again have to worry that their well-connected, unprincipled, nakedly ambitious ruling class will have to listen while all those plodding Germans and pooh-poohing French and hysterical Italians point to a bunch of tiresome, carefully negotiated, equitable rules for doing business and ensuring justice. And when their specifically English stupidity returns the country to the good old days of unwholesome food, unclean water, unsafe and unhealthy workplaces and crap-level employment rights, they can blame it on their own unscrupulous political hacks! Here is total victimization triumphant!
Why, from the day after obtusely wrecking the European Union – and Britain’s departure will wreck it, mark my words – a simple majority in the House of Commons will enable the handsome and egregious Boris Johnson (or any half-dozen like him) to reintroduce forelock tugging and hat doffing. The “labor-lefty” Jeremy Corbyn can then deplore it – even as he tones down the affair because doughty England is fighting silly, overbearing Europe to assert its right to overfish! Gimme that stick! John Bull’s back in the saddle! Here is Darwin’s biological order the victor and the reign of Saint Paul commenced!
So, will truly English stupidity jump into the saddle on June 23rd? Or will the rational English nation prevail? If only to prove the French all wet? Will the late, lamented (at least by me) Alexander Cockburn be forced into fervently unwanted rebirth to verbally combat the mud-tide of phony conflicts and false premises belching from a Britain reduced to a proudly obtuse England?