Pietro Russell, whose life is narrated in twenty-six episodes in Sebastian Faulks’ novel, A Fool’s Alphabet, visits Jerusalem in 1982. The deep antipathy towards the other he senses in each of the communities leaves him confused. His liberal English upbringing had not equipped him to cope with deep antagonism.
In childhood Pietro had liked to choose a side to support in any debate, even if it turned out to be the ‘wrong’ one – the Roundheads, the Southern States, Sonny Liston, even, when he was older, George McGovern. When a combination of experience and laziness showed him there were seldom easy solutions, he relied on balance as a substitute for commitment.
He began to be depressed in Israel because there seemed to be no ground available for compromise, no way in which all the parties could be even partially right. So whose experience counted for most?
Growing up in the English liberal tradition that shapes the character of Russell, the latitude of the ‘live and let live’ approach to life, understanding irreconcilable attitudes is not easy.
In college days, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism was a set text. It provided an introduction to a libertarian tradition where personal liberty was tolerated to the extent that it did not impinge upon the personal liberty of others.
English political tradition has been implicitly libertarian. Allowing a multiplicity of views has been a de facto recognition that no-one possesses the right to prescribe the thinking, or the behaviour, of those who disagree.
Being English has been, by implication, an acceptance of relativism.
If one accepts that there is a diversity of views in which each expresses a facet of the truth, then one accepts that no single tradition possesses all, or absolute, truth. Like Russell, our English political thought has been pragmatic, deriving conclusions from experience, looking for balance in arguments, in order that we not stray down the path of autocracy.
Yet the libertarian and relativist tradition, a tradition that that has allowed the emergence of Western democratic capitalist society, is now under threat.
On one hand the populists, the adherents of conspiracy theories, the isolationists, are implicitly anti-capitalist and explicitly against the free movement of goods and people that has allowed the development of markets and liberty. On the other hand, the exponents of identity politics seek to impose their perception of reality upon the entire community, the only lens through which life may be perceived is the one of which they approve.
Public discourse has been replaced by trolling and cancelling. It is far removed from the writings of J.S. Mill. It leaves an ageing English liberal feeling depressed.