022 | Ian Dunt | Liberalism is in a fight for its life
If there is one political philosophy that allows our global lives to exist, it’s liberalism. There is no freedom of movement without freedom. There is no belonging to multiple tribes if the individual does not supersede the collective. There is no room for our weird, compound identities if we’re systematically reduced to a nation, an ethnicity, a gender or a sexuality. Liberalism makes global citizenship possible.
Ian Dunt made himself the champion of this endangered philosophy in a book that surprised and enchanted me, How to Be a Liberal. UK listeners will know him of course, as the occasionally foul-mouthed co-host of the Remainiacs podcast (now Oh God, What Now?), an editor-at-large at politics.co.uk and Twitter royalty. Bring on the RTs, Ian!
01:24 Another TCK childhood
04:19 Why write a book that goes back 400 years?
08:48 What is a liberal?
14:16 How liberalism failed to stand for the liberty of most individuals
19:28 Identity politics are both a threat and a gift
23:00 How to become a Borderline member
23:41 “The people” does not exist
27:44 Can liberalism make room for tribalism?
30:18 The immigrant’s whisper of loneliness
32:37 How liberalism survives the pandemic
Sources & credits
📚 How to Be a Liberal, Ian Dunt, Canbury Press, 2020. On sale here.
🎧 Ian’s podcasts: Oh God, What Now? and The Bunker.
👀 Ian on politics.co.uk and on Twitter.
Music by Ofshane via Youtube’s audio library.
Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuses typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.
[00:00:00] When you make everything dependent on the identity of the person, what you lose is the ability to distinguish between arguments within that identity group. To do that, you need to go back to the individual. You need that dose of liberalism in these debates.
[00:00:14] Isabelle Roughol: [00:00:24] Hi, I'm Isabelle Roughol and this is Borderline. Today, I'm talking to a fellow journalist and it was an absolute treat to meet him. That's Ian Dunt. Now, if you follow UK politics, if you live in the UK, you've probably heard him, he's a fairly visible political journalist. He's the co-host of the podcast Remainiacs now called, Oh God! What Now?, and the editor of politics.co.uk. He's also the author of a wonderful little book, and that's what we're talking about today, actually, not that little, it's about 400 pages, a book called How to Be a Liberal.
[00:00:56] Now to my American listeners, a liberal is not a lefty. To my French listeners, a liberal is not a Thatcherite or someone who's into Reaganomics. What a liberal is, well, actually is something that we're going to get into. So please listen to my conversation with Ian Dunt, who it turns out and completely unrelated to my invitation, is actually also a global citizen because we are everywhere.
Another TCK childhood
[00:01:24] I read on your Wikipedia page that you were born in Guatemala and raised in Chile. Is that accurate?
[00:01:29] Ian Dunt: [00:01:29] That's wrong and I didn't even, so I didn't even know I had a Wikipedia page until the other week. And the reason I found that out is because everyone kept on coming up with wrong stuff about my life, which is. Like all the parts are correct, but they're just like in the wrong order and in the wrong place.
[00:01:45] So I'm half Guatemalan. My mom's Guatemalan my dad's English. And I was born in Winchester and then we went off to live in Chile, and then we went back to Winchester. So that's my thing. And the Wikipedia is bits of that at various points, chucked together.
[00:02:00] Isabelle Roughol: [00:02:00] Yeah, I thought it wasn't, it wasn't particularly sourced. So I thought I should check. I didn't know this obviously when I invited you, but this podcast is about lives lived across borders and kind of everyone that comes onto the podcast has this like crazy globalist background. So it's cool that you're, you're one of us too.
[00:02:18] Ian Dunt: [00:02:18] Well it feels, it's odd you know, because if I think about, I mean, I would feel very Guatemalan any way cause we used to go, we'd pretty much go every sort of Christmas. The family are now quite dispersed. So there's lots in the U S and things like that. So you go to different places. But I had enough childhood in Guatemala for it to impact me. But I think honestly, if I hadn't sort of had those early years growing up in Chile, I would weirdly feel less Guatemalan because to me the sound of... Spanish was my first language, right? So the sound of Spanish sounds like home to me in a way that it just wouldn't have any other way.
[00:02:52] And I think for that, it's a complete coincidence. There was no connection to the fact that my mom is Guatemalan for why we were in Chile at that point, that was to do with my dad's move. But if that hadn't happened, I just think my whole sense of identity would be like subtly, but quite fundamentally different. And that's a lot about how just language, especially in your very early years, especially if it's your first language, has like a really core part to forming your identity. Right.
[00:03:15] Isabelle Roughol: [00:03:15] Do you speak it regularly? Still?
[00:03:17] Ian Dunt: [00:03:17] Yeah but it's sh... Can I swear?
[00:03:21] Isabelle Roughol: [00:03:21] Yeah. Yeah. You know, this is, this is not the BBC.
[00:03:24] Ian Dunt: [00:03:24] Okay, great. Yeah, no, it's my Spanish is now quite shit. so it improves at some points. I was traveling around Chile a while back and there was a period where I wasn't really able to speak any English at all. And by the end of that, it was, it was going all guns blazing. But as soon as you don't use it, and I didn't even speak it with my mum right, my mom is more, has been in England longer than she was in Guatemala or Belize, she's used to speaking English.
[00:03:46] So it just degrades and what's left is like a child Spanish, with all the swear words that I've picked up from my cousins. So it's like just this brutal, jagged- edged Spanish that I have there. It's pretty poor, pretty poor. And I've been trying to improve it recently.
[00:04:01] Isabelle Roughol: [00:04:01] Yeah. Are you trying to pass it on? Do you have kids or?
[00:04:04] Ian Dunt: [00:04:04] No I don't. But I would, that, that would matter to me.
[00:04:07] It's weird how you, you, you can be so certain of that right. And I can't even really articulate why it would matter so much, but it would matter. It would be one of those things that I would make sure happen. Yeah.
[00:04:15] Isabelle Roughol: [00:04:15] Yeah. Yeah. I feel the same. So I hear you.
[00:04:19] Why write a book that goes back 400 years?
All right, let's talk about the book. I really, I really loved it. I have to say it's the, it's the book I didn't know I needed, um. I wonder with so much sort of contemporary news to write about and you do plenty of that, why think, "Hey, I'm going to go back 400 years and read Descartes again and write about
[00:04:39] Ian Dunt: [00:04:39] You know what, I always end up doing that. Like for every, for every feature you write. Like right now, right? Like I'm writing about sort of vaccine procurement programs and things like that. And as soon as you do that, you very quickly, if you just... Your job as a journalist is to ask the question, why basically. Just to keep on asking the question, why over and over again, until you really understand something and can communicate it simply to a reader.
[00:05:01] And when those things you keep on, just finding yourself, the question, why just takes you further back through, you know, law. Contractual obligations and policy decisions made. And that was basically what was happening with the liberalism stuff that I wanted to talk about. Trump, Brexit, what's going on in our world right now.
[00:05:16] And once you do that, if you start asking questions, why like, why do we have a scenario where you don't attack the judiciary? You know, Why you don't have a president that attacks the judiciary? Why you don't have a prime minister that can just cancel parliament? That starts leading you to, well, we separate powers, and we separate powers because it's the best way of controlling and preventing tyranny.
[00:05:37] And once you ask that question, you're in the English civil war, you know. You've, you've already gone back 400 years and just seems like to tell that story, to describe what it is that's getting shattered, what it is that's being sort of vandalized, it's a 400-year story. And so you end up just going very far back.
[00:05:54] So really the first half of the book, first two thirds of the book turns into this kind of historical narrative. And I got to the bit that I wanted to talk about, which is Trump and Brexit, like right at the very end. But hopefully that has a bit more force by virtue of showing what it is that they're actually destroying.
[00:06:10] Isabelle Roughol: [00:06:10] How'd you pick that starting point? Did you ever think, Oh, let's go back even further?
[00:06:14] Ian Dunt: [00:06:14] Yeah, you can, right? So you, I mean, you could... Kant is the guy that really misses out on this book because he's not mentioned apart from an apology that I make towards the back thing. I am aware that, you know, there is a very strong argument for why Kant should be in this book. and obviously you can go back.
[00:06:30] The truth is. It's like all questions, you go back to the ancient Greeks if you really want to go back to the beginning of all of this stuff. And I fucking, I just can't be. I just think that really does take you very far back. And it's not clear that they're thinking of terms like the individual in anything like the same way. You bring up a lot of confusion there.
[00:06:47] And the truth is with most of our politics, and this would apply too to many other forms of thought, you are starting in the scientific revolution. You're starting in this point. What sort of, you know, people like Galileo, people like Descartes are fundamentally challenging the way that we gain knowledge about the world. They're saying, well, actually it's not really enough just to take it from the Church. You know, we actually are going to apply an independent mind to the world, on the basis of reason and evidence. And that is, I mean, it was probably the greatest revolution in human thought, in the history of our species. And certainly I think everything ends up going back to that moment and the kind of units, these units of thought that just get dredged up, that come up shiny new. And pretty much everyone that drudges them up underestimates the amount of sort of chaos that they're about to unleash, right? They're sort of like, Oh, I can control this, this whole idea of reason and the individual, I can just, you know, control it and put on these layers here and these layers here, and then it won't be too much trouble. But in actual fact, once you get that thing up, it just explodes and shatters the existing structure of authority.
[00:07:51] So ultimately with all of these questions, you either start with the ancient Greeks, which you could kind of do, but I dunno, I don't know really how meaningful that is. Or you start with the scientific revolution.
[00:08:02] Isabelle Roughol: [00:08:02] It is pretty stunning how shattering those, those few pages are. I think if there's ever been something resembling a religious revelation in my life, it was when I was 18 years old and I read the the Discourse, the Descartes, and I, I understood the cogito. And I was like, Oh, wow. Yeah. Okay. I get it now. Cause, cause you know, in France they make every high school senior take philosophy. And it's kind of a Rite of passage that everyone is completely lost and has no idea and takes this class because they have to and just muddles through. And and a few weeks into the class, it was just that moment where we read Descartes and I was finally like, Oh, I think I understand what's going on here.
[00:08:42] So, so I love that you started with, with those pages because they are really, really powerful pages.
[00:08:48] What is a liberal?
[00:08:48] maybe we should define some terms cause you, you know, the book is How to Be a Liberal. And when I was growing up in France, a liberal was a selfish right-wing person who you know, no such thing as society kind of, kind of vibe. And then I moved to the U S and it was, you know, crazy cultural Marxists on the left. And so it feels like it's always an insult and it never means the same thing. So how, how do you define what's the liberal?
[00:09:18] Ian Dunt: [00:09:18] So for me, a liberal is someone who believes in the freedom of the individual. And you can go, the truth is none of these categorizations are false, right? You can be a liberal in that French abusive mode that you were talking about. You can become really quite right wing economically, right? I'm not talking about the rest of politics. I'm just talking about economics. Right? You can go to a position where you just say, look, everyone gets to keep their own stuff, taxes aren't, you know, really tolerable. and we're going to have a very unequal society.
[00:09:46] Or you can go to a place where you say, well, exactly how much freedom does, you know, how much privacy does a homeless person have? You know, how much freedom does someone have to explore their personality and their life if they're constantly in insecure work, if they're constantly in insecure housing and therefore we are going to have to tax people, wealthy people more, in order to improve the situation for the individuals who have a harder time with it. That then takes you to a more left-wing position.
[00:10:12] The place there are places you can't go. Obviously it's basically fascism on the one side, communism on the other, where you lose the individual completely. And it becomes either about the racial block, or it becomes about the class block as a homogenous element humanity. But ultimately liberalism does give you a tremendous amount of leeway on the economics.
[00:10:30] And I think that's where you get this thing that it's more often used as an insult than a badge of approval. you mentioned exactly the situation in the U S and France. I mean, in the UK, I think you get a bit of both, right? So you get these attacks from the right wing going, ""Oh, what liberals really want is, you know, you know, men to be wearing women's clothing and hijabs everywhere and blah, blah, blah," which by the way is correct. That is what we want. We want people to do whatever they damn well please. That is what we want. And then you get the attacks from the left. You see it a lot in sort of Corbyn-supporting left in the UK at the moment, which will be attacking sort of liberals as you know, laissez-faire, kind of Thatcher Milton Friedman, don't care about the poor, you know, the spitting on homeless people in the street, kind of people.
[00:11:14] and what really, what that is, is just taking the side of liberalism that you don't like and applying your criticism to it. The truth is liberalism doesn't tell you what to think. It tells you how to think. It tells you what is the primary moral unit in life. And that is the freedom of the individual. Where you go from that, the conclusions that you come to on that basis, that's up to you. It doesn't really, it doesn't hand down stone tablets. It doesn't really have sort of political leaders, you know, that we're going to put in a mausoleum somewhere. It's for free thinkers. It's for people who would think for themselves. And on that basis, they come to a wide, very, very wide variety of conclusions as to where its principles lead to.
[00:11:52] Isabelle Roughol: [00:11:52] And so that's why you, you connect fascism and communism as just being kind of two sides of the same coin of negating the individual.
[00:12:01] Ian Dunt: [00:12:01] Oh, yeah. Yeah. They say they're enemies, but they're really not. They're really pretty similar. And in both cases, what you do is you do just take this unit. I mean, for the Nazis, it was race leadership. Um and for the Soviets, it was class leadership. And you just submerge the individual within it into a homogenous mass of people.
[00:12:22] And you see, if you look at the way that they approach schooling from a very young age, it was almost identical. very, very similar approaches towards it. If you look at the way that they thought of social control, of the extent to which thoughts and activity had to be controlled, because it either did or didn't correspond to their idea of what the race or the class required. There were very, again, very, very similar.
[00:12:44] And you would see again, I mean, in a more. in in a more terrible way on the Nazi side, although not in terms of body count, but just in terms of perniciousness and morality, the way that war effectively radicalized both of those regimes. I mean, they were terrible beforehand, but once war started, they had an opportunity to experiment in ways that they just didn't have before.
[00:13:04] So you can look at the German camp system and you look at the Gulag system under the Soviet regime. And again, there are, there are differences much more regimented in the German side, much more chaotic and amorphous on the Soviet side. But again, you see very, very similar ideas of society because in both cases, they want to just stamp humans into one concrete block without any real personality, without anything that divides them, without the eccentricities and the things that make you human, which is your individuality, you know, the person that you are as one, rather than what you share with society or the people that we say you're like outside of yourself.
[00:13:38] So yeah, they are, they are two sides of the same coin. And I say it begrudgingly, because I think, you know, when you come to... To me morally, if I meet a communist, I do not feel anything like the same sort of hatred towards them as I do towards a fascist. I understand this, especially many people I know that come to communism, come to from a concern about inequality and it comes from a much better place than you could ever come to by approaching things from a fascist perspective.
[00:14:04] But nevertheless, the moment that you give up on the individual, you authorize these abuses the murder, the torture, the homogenization of humankind, and in both cases, that is what happens when liberalism fails.
[00:14:16] How liberalism failed to stand for the liberty of most individuals
Isabelle Roughol: [00:14:16] So you have a movement in liberalism that is very much focused on the, on the liberty of the individual. And it has somehow managed to ignore most individuals in need, most in need of freedom. Right? When you're looking at black people and enslaved people, especially on you're looking at women and LGBTQ. How did, how do we square that circle? Like how did liberalism has such a blind spot there?
[00:14:44] Ian Dunt: [00:14:44] Yeah. So this is like a core part of the story. I mean that that's a storyline in the book that really starts with the sort of English civil war. You could argue, it starts earlier with Descartes who seemed broadly unaware that women existed in any capacity, apart from when he impregnated the woman that worked in his house. So that was the only time he suddenly realized...
[00:15:03] Isabelle Roughol: [00:15:03] We're used to that with French intellectuals but....
[00:15:05] Ian Dunt: [00:15:05] Yeah. That's not necessarily the reputation that they have here. so you get this moment where, over and over, you have documents being published. For instance, in the French Revolution, right, the Rights of Man. And they are literally the rights of man. They are for men. There is no, that is not a debate that takes place at that time. No one even says it, right? Because it's beyond comprehension women would ever be included.
[00:15:31] Isabelle Roughol: [00:15:31] Right, you don't even need to mention that women are excluded. It's a given.
[00:15:34] Ian Dunt: [00:15:34] Right. Exactly. Yeah. And, you know, in a sense like the, the constitution, the US constitution, which is a genius document on the separation of powers and a crucial moment in liberalism, but also entrenches slavery, in a sense that's almost less pernicious because at least it recognizes what it is doing. You know, the, the danger with these previous documents is they literally, women are just simply not even mentioned.
[00:15:56] and that comes down to an idea, a really pernicious idea, it's the great tragedy of liberal history, which is called the community of the free. And that's the... yes, liberalism... for these guys. Right. But not for these guys over here. Right. you know, in the U S at that period, you would include sort of Native Americans in that, many, many categories that you would, that you would include, and we have throughout history. and that I think comes from a failure of imagination, a failure to truly commit to the idea of the individual.
[00:16:28] Like how can it be right in the 1800s in a big event, so during the American Civil War, In the, in Britain, most liberals were on the side of the South, not the North. You know, it seems incomprehensible that you would not realize that if you say I believe in the freedom of the individual and on one side, there is slavery, which outside of murder is the greatest eradication of the freedom of individual that can be conceived of by human brain, that people would come to that conclusion.
[00:16:58] The only reason they did was because they didn't really consider black people to be actual humans. They didn't really consider them to be capable of individualism to be part of that moral category. But what you get throughout history, starting in really the Victorian period with Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, when they start applying liberal principles to women and what has been done to women and doing it in a liberal way, that's the core part of it, not in a separate way. They do it as liberals. If these are the principles, then exactly what the fuck is going on over here, if this is the kind of treatment of people that we're allowing. And expanding through race and predominantly in the sixties, in the 1960s, where you really see huge advances in gender and race and sexuality, more in sort of eighties, nineties where we get to where we are now.
[00:17:43] But that doesn't, it's not the end of the story because that original failure has been there in liberalism in recent years, I think, which is a failure to listen. Like you say you care about the freedom of the individual, right? So, and what, what are the freedoms that we end up talking about? Freedom of speech, freedom of election, the standard freedoms that we imagined.
[00:18:04] You don't think about racial discrimination from someone trying to get a job or sexual harassment in the workplace. If you happen to be typically speaking a middle-class straight white guy, very often, they have not used the imagination. They have not spoken enough to people to uncover the limitations on freedom that they have. And where that's led to is I think the separation on the left between liberals and social justice activists who are just saying, "well, you just, you just ignored us for a very long time. So don't expect us now to start believing that you are the great saviors of, of whatever. So a lot of, part of the book is saying it is not as if this ended in the 1960s with, you know, Martin Luther King. And that, that, that tragedy is over now.
[00:18:48] This is a problem that liberals always have again and again is they show insufficient imagination, insufficient empathy, and they don't listen enough to people in various situations to discover the restrictions on their freedoms, which they must by virtue of the principles that they espouse. And if there is a future for liberalism, and at the moment we're in the battle of our lives, we're in an existential threat against liberalism. It is by virtue of finding the radical liberalism that listens to marginalized people, to oppressed people, to people who are discriminated against, to people who are stacked to the bottom of an economic system and exploring in a really aggressive way, how to improve the freedom in their lives.
[00:19:25] Sorry. That was an incredibly long answer, but it was a big question.
[00:19:28] Identity politics are both a threat and a gift to liberalism
[00:19:28] Isabelle Roughol: [00:19:28] No, no, no. It was a fascinating answer. but, but you touched on that, that idea that I'm trying to put into words, but, but still mulling, which is that idea that, yeah, especially in the younger generations now and, and people, fighting the rights of women and non-binary people or people of color, there's this embrace of identity politics, which are not Enlightenment liberalism. It's something else, right? How do these two connect? Do they connect. Is identity politics, a threat to liberalism, or is it a sub genre of it? I don't know.
[00:20:05] Ian Dunt: [00:20:05] And that this stuff is, is hard and it's hard for people... it's hard for us all to morally work it out. It is both a threat and a gift, I think.
[00:20:17] So the gift is that you are being explicitly stated to you: "you need to listen." And part of that is just the idea of standpoint theory. Just imagine partly your ability to process information about the world is dependent on who you are and the experiences that you have had. Okay. And it's not enough to just say, "Oh, of course I have infinite power to imagine myself in other scenarios. So I can presume what, you know, a black woman of 70 years old in this completely different community would understand." No, you have to listen. That lesson needs to be taken on board by liberalism.
[00:20:48] But the split with that part of the left, I think also has a damaging impact on identity politics, which has ended up falling into that old, old trap of homogenizing groups. So for instance, there was an exhibit at the Barbican a few years back in which a series of black actors were sort of put in stances as if it was a sort of museum. And it was an anti-racist artistic show, which was eventually closed down because of protests. And in the debates afterwards, in a TV debate one of the acts, you know, people were told, well, you know, "black voices are telling you, black voices are telling you that the show cannot go on". When one of the black actors came out to say, "well, I'm part of this show, and I believe in this show," they were told black actors, black artists do not have the authority to decide this. So suddenly you see, when you make everything dependent on the identity of the person, what you lose is the ability to distinguish between arguments within that identity group. To do that, you need to go back to the individual, you need that dose of liberalism in these debates so that you make sure that people are not silenced within the group that they belong to, whether that's because of their sex or because of their race, or because of any other identifying characteristic.
[00:22:05] Many of the debates that we see now, you look at things like cultural appropriation, I mean, look at a variety of other debates and you see an insufficient complexity to the categories as if all people who are Black would think this way, as if all people who are Latin would think this way. And that is simply not true.
[00:22:21] In fact, a lot of the time, what we find is we find actually quite conservative views within marginalized groups. Be that by sex or be that by race. Now, those voices, I might not even agree, but they have a right to be heard and not to be spoken over by activists and academics who claim to be speaking in their own best interests.
[00:22:39] So again, the rupture is the problem. Liberalism has a lot to learn from these movements and these movements have a lot to learn from liberalism. And if we can hopefully get them talking rather than screaming abuse at one another, we might actually be in a better position than we are right now.
[00:22:54] Isabelle Roughol: [00:22:54] Hmm, probably don't want to do that on social media then.
[00:22:57] Ian Dunt: [00:22:57] no, no. It's very unfashionable, now. I know.
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[00:23:41] "The people" does not exist
[00:23:41] You start the book with the lies that, of, of nationalism. And it struck me that a lot of them are things that have been so repeated that even people who oppose these ideas have kind of accepted them as the basis of the debate. And one of them is the people versus the elite and, and you start like on page one with like that does not exist. What do you mean by that?
[00:24:09] Ian Dunt: [00:24:09] Yeah. Would the, these categories just don't exist. I mean, I mean, most importantly there is no such thing as the people. It just doesn't, there is no category and instinctively in their heart everyone knows this, right? But no one goes around thinking I am the people. It doesn't make any sense. You are an individual and you, we have a system of democracy, a product of liberalism, that means that by consent, governments are formed. And we arrange that by the parties that have the most votes. We can arrange it in various ways, you know, by proportional representation or first past the post, but the principle is there. That does not mean that you have exactly the same interests as the other people that voted in one way or that you were exactly like them or that there is one will to the way that you think. There is no one will, we all have different interests and eccentricities and values.
[00:24:55] So throughout history, when you see people use this phrase, the will of the people, it's usually what gets said just before an awful lot of people get killed. And the people that got killed are the ones who didn't count for the will of the people, you know, and there are two categories. They're either the foreign enemy or they are the internal traitor, you know, undermining the country from, from within.
[00:25:17] and you see it, I'm that book, the incredible thing is it popped up as soon as you start researching history, the will of the people was that all the way through. You know, starts in the English civil warit's there in the French revolution, continues on... It's used explicitly by the Soviets and the Nazis. Over and over this phrase is there. And what it really means, what it really always turns into is the will of the leader.
[00:25:42] And you will notice, you know, let's take like the early years of Brexit, right? Where you look at the, the voting ideals of Leave voters, the people that voted for Brexit, were really quite mixed. Like a lot of them were very comfortable with immigration. Some wanted to stay in the single market. Some others were really, really opposed to immigration. They want a different relationship. Some wanted a customs union. They want to trade to continue as normal, but they wanted to put out of the politics. Lots of different interpretations. Once Theresa May gets there, the will of the people, as it was used, just meant whatever her policy agenda was, right? Whatever she thought at that moment was most convenient for her, that was "the will of the people". And everyone else who didn't agree with it was a traitor or an enemy of the people or whatever else they were branded as.
[00:26:24] That's the same dynamic for hundreds of years. Whenever that phrase gets used, that is the ending of it. And the reason for that is there is no such thing as the people, there's just the end, the endless multiplicities of our intentions and our interests.
[00:26:37] And the same is true of the elite. There are lots of different kinds of sort of financial or cultural or political leadership. There is no one elite, no great shadowy force that controls things. In fact, the world is irreducibly complex and made up of lots of different forces that sometimes act against each other and sometimes work in parallel. When people talk about the elite, typically. What they're doing is trying to dress up that complexity in a very, very simple language that can be used to try and find an enemy and an excuse for their own inadequacies.
[00:27:10] You would see that in France, for instance, against Jewish people during the Dreyfus affair where exactly the same kind of language was used in the name of antisemitism. And you see it again by any nationalist now, as they all do, who talk about the elite, whether it's Victor Orban whether it's whether it's Boris Johnson or whether it's Donald Trump. and you will find the extraordinary part of it is they're always in fucking power when they say it like that, they are the political leader.
[00:27:37] Isabelle Roughol: [00:27:37] They are literally
[00:27:39] Ian Dunt: [00:27:39] It's just an incredible sight. And yet people still fall for it somehow.
[00:27:44] Can liberalism make room for belonging and tribalism?
Isabelle Roughol: [00:27:44] But they fall for it because we have that need to, to form a group, some kind of tribe, however imperfect the boundaries of it are, right? And so I wonder if that's not how liberalism fails, is in, is in refusing that notion. And I don't know that you win elections as a collection of individuals with different needs.
[00:28:04] Ian Dunt: [00:28:04] Right, right. Yeah, exactly. Is it this, and this is the problem. I mean, you're spot on. This is the problem that has just, has tortured liberalism for hundreds of years, which is the people who feel the need to, to have identity. And the, probably the two chief thinkers on this were George Orwell and Isaiah Berlin. They were the two great liberals that grappled with it. And they came up with solutions that were ultimately really simple and it still baffles me that people can't see them, but they can't see them because even now, if you look in Britain, we're having this debate from liberals and left-wingers over the flag and is it okay to light the flag? And essentially what I think are pointless debates.
[00:28:40] Their theory was essentially, if you care about the individual, you will care about what the individual believes in and how they like to associate themselves and what matters to them, their passions. Over and over in human history, we find that people do have a sense of belonging, a yearning to belong.
[00:28:56] Now that can be expressed in different ways. In our period, typically it's expressed through patriotism, but also of course, you know, your football team and you know, your local city and some people, their continent. There are, there are various ways. So our key is, belonging matters in so far as it matters to the individual. Of course it's expressed. And it's part of your identity. It is for me, you know, Latin America is part of my identity, being a Londoner as part of my identity being British is, and being European. These matter to me, it would be absurd for someone to claim to represent me without being able to speak to them or without showing some kind of affection for the same things.
[00:29:33] And yet at the same time, that stops the moment that it infringes on the individual. If we said to people, the only way to be British is to do the following things and any other way of doing it means that you're no longer British, that is not communicating the reasons why one would believe in belonging in the first place.
[00:29:50] The moment that we stop the individual from doing anything on the basis of their belonging, we have broken the basis upon which they could believe in it in the first place. That crucial lesson is there in liberalism. But it's complex and it's nuanced and it tends to speak to people who are anyway just a little bit uncomfortable with where this whole thing goes. But when you dig to the heart of it, there is no contradiction there except the one which we have mistakenly projected onto it.
[00:30:18] The immigrant's whisper of loneliness
[00:30:18] Isabelle Roughol: [00:30:18] That's something that really resonates with me. I feel like every time I express in France, something that differs from the norm I get, "Oh, you've been Americanized." or you're really British now, aren't you?" You know. it's Every time that you're... you're never, you know, you never quite get to belong a hundred percent to whatever group that you're a part of, as, as soon as you express something that appears influenced.
[00:30:43] Ian Dunt: [00:30:43] you think there's a, there's a kind of like, there's always like this sort of whisper of loneliness to anyone that's in a sort of like an immigrant family. Which is that bit of like, you'll never quite fit. Once you've lived somewhere else, you can never quite fit back home. Even if you go there and, you know, doing this, you will never quite fit back home, but yet there's always that bit, that you're just slightly different from the people in the place that you've gone to. And I think for most people that whisper of loneliness will never be there. It's a core part of like the immigrant experience.
[00:31:14] Isabelle Roughol: [00:31:14] Whisper of loneliness is a, is a perfect way to, to express it. Yes, it's essentially, I think it's the, it's the red thread throughout a hundred percent of my interviews on this podcast is kind of everyone who, you know, has a... one foot in, in a different place feels that, that thing that is a little bit broken, that you can't quite fit in the puzzle anymore.
[00:31:37] Ian Dunt: [00:31:37] Well we have that now more than ever, right? Because we're in a period where borders are going up. I mean, anyway, that was the case, but COVID has really brought that home. And you look at the coverage of the quarantine, which by the way, I think would be the right policy. It's quarantine on countries. I think that's been demonstrated. But all the coverage in the newspapers is all about holiday makers, how it's going to affect your holiday to Spain. And you're like, I mean, does anyone care that millions of people are separated from their partner, from their family? You know, and they don't even know when that will change. And yet they're completely written out of the story at the moment.
[00:32:09] Isabelle Roughol: [00:32:09] That's funny you say that. Cause I literally, I have an op-ed on this that I'm trying to place right now, which is exactly that. It's just, if I see one more headlines about holidays canceled, I'm going to scream. Because right now, literally the UK won't let me leave and France won't let me enter. And it's a, it's a few hours drive to my parents and it is an impassable wall right now. and it just seems completely ignored. So, yes, absolutely.
[00:32:37] How liberalism survives the pandemic
[00:32:37] speaking of, I want to talk about the, the past year to conclude, because we've just been through a very illiberal time with, you know, in the name of public health and for very valid reasons. and we're seeing kind of a weird jumbling where you see people on the side of nationalism and post-truth claim to defend individual liberties by opposing lockdowns. And you see the progressive opposition demanding tighter borders. It just seems just all of it, very bizarre. And and then you see governments, and we've just seen that in the UK, seem very keen to hold on to some of those powers that they've got in the last year and some of those limitations of freedom.
[00:33:19] Are you concerned, are you worried for liberalism coming out of the pandemic? And how do we hold onto it?
[00:33:26] Ian Dunt: [00:33:26] Well, you see this whole thing relies, I mean, just being able to think clearly about this stuff relies on one of the course of liberal ideas is just taking things in a case by case basis where you recognize the complexity of them, right? When liberalism says it cares about the freedom of the individual, that freedom stops, where you interfere with another individual's freedom.
[00:33:46] So when we talk about a pandemic, I mean, the, the most sort of sophisticated description of this is Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mills' harm principle. And we're talking about a pandemic, you say, yeah, the, in any normal time you get to do whatever then how you damn well, please. If your actions can contribute to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people, then there is a basis, on the basis of individual freedom, in order to put restrictions on people's social lives. And that's where we have been right now. Well, I think when the, when the populists I mean, there's a lot of...
[00:34:19] For a lot of populists, this and the anti-green agenda are very, they think very rich areas of electoral advancement. So I would suggest without being too cynical, that they are being motivated predominantly by that rather than they are any of their core convictions. When they're saying this stuff, it's just an inadequate understanding of what individual freedom entails. In the same way that I don't have the individual freedom to chuck rocks at people's heads, you also have to think in a pandemic about controlling behavior for that.
[00:34:45] Now that does not mean that governments will not try and use the powers that they have suddenly granted themselves for reasons to go well above the pandemic. And at the moment there are reports coming in about Priti Patel, the home secretary, trying to see whether she can keep some of these anti protest laws, because basically because she doesn't like Black Lives Matter protest. I mean, it's no more complicated than that. She doesn't like BLM and she wants to clamp down on it. It's as simple as that.
[00:35:08] So you, you grant governments these powers on a short basis in a scrutinized basis, in moments of emergency, as you would during a war. But you do it on the basis that you need to be pretty fucking vigilant about making sure that you get those powers back from government when it's over. That said, what I've seen mostly online recently is like, of course this was always the plan. It was all just a ploy in order to... No it wasn't. This stuff was there to control a pandemic. But that does not mean that we don't worry about it, that we're not vigilant about it. Especially at this moment when governments and police would just be tempted to see how much of that power they can keep. The battle will be on to make sure that they are unable to do that.
[00:35:48] And liberals are well-placed to do it because they haven't gone completely insane drinking the Kool-Aid, thinking that there's some grand conspiracy. In fact, this is just the typical incentives of government and the reasons that we always hold government to a very, very high degree of aggressive scrutiny, because this is the kind of shit they do.
[00:36:05] Isabelle Roughol: [00:36:05] We'll remain vigilant. Thank you so much, Ian. This was, this was really interesting. Very glad we did
[00:36:10] Ian Dunt: [00:36:10] Thanks for having me, man.
[00:36:11] Isabelle Roughol: [00:36:13] How to be a liberal, which I really warmly recommend, is published in hardback right now by Canbury Press in the UK, a wonderful little independent non-fiction publisher. You should also easily find it in digital formats and Kindle outside the UK. You can hear Ian Dunt on his podcast, Oh God, what now? And sometimes on The Bunker as well, and read his work at politics.co.uk and on Twitter at iandunt.
[00:36:39] If you enjoy Borderline, please do me a favor and rate and review it in your favorite podcasting app, especially if that's Apple podcasts. Now I have no idea whether that actually does anything to the algorithms, but I know it really makes my day when I read one. And please share it. I can spend my day on social media, but the truth is it has very little impact, especially compared to word of mouth. So if you enjoy Borderline, please share it around you and help me grow this audience. We're at a bit of a plateau right now. I'd love to get us to more people.
[00:37:09] On borderlinepod.com, you can subscribe to the newsletter and you'll get transcripts, you'll get the interviews in a shorter edited, written format. You'll get more content, more information. And most importantly, you'll get the option of a paid membership, which is a subscription that helps me continue to make Borderline, and hopefully even at some point, pay the rent, but mainly pay the hosting bills for the podcast at this point.
[00:37:34] Thank you so much for listening for your continued support. Welcome and thank you this week to new members, Wendy Kendall and an anonymous donor.
[00:37:42] I'm your host, Isabelle Roughol. Music is by Ofshane. Borderline is a One Lane Bridge production.
[00:37:54] Selda Shamloo: [00:37:54] It may sound very selfish, but it doesn't come from a selfish place. But when COVID happened and you know, obviously, so many people in the world couldn't travel, so many people in the world couldn't be with their loved ones. And you could see how upset, angry everyone is. I think there was a moment that I thought, Oh, a lot more people can really understand my story now.
[00:38:17] Isabelle Roughol: [00:38:17] Next week on Borderline.
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