18.05.2020 | Youssef Rakkha
We the populists
My fellow inmates,
It is hard to begin again after so long. This up-to-the-minute quote from the President of the United States, the last in a series of unbelievable blunders, makes it harder: “Our death totals, our numbers per million people, are really very, very strong. We're very proud of the job we've done.” So does the sight of such a blatantly dishonest, incompetent, ignorant, laughable man effectively in charge of the world because he happens to have been born rich. It is no longer amusing to ask, exasperated, how such a thing could happen. It is no longer interesting to watch while every entity that can – corporations, governments, activists, gossips – uses the coronavirus crisis to advance its own unrelated agenda or to make some kind of profit.
Recalling the sad confessional tone of Jonas’s last letter also makes it hard: “Isn’t my perspective – that of a Central European white man with no material worries, born into a family of academics and educated in the humanities, i.e. whose thinking is deeply rooted in the European humanistic tradition, inalterably influenced by the thinkers of antiquity and the Enlightenment, liberalism and social democracy – isn’t my point of view more part of the problem than part of the solution?” So does Michael’s suggestion – echoing the same sentiment – that, even in the self-acknowledged home of that tradition, Europe and the rest of the so-called West, liberal democracy turns out to be a brittle veneer.
This too makes it hard to say anything at all, not just the gratuitous bloodshed but the sense that, no matter what you do to them or how you explain their existence, there really is no way to stop jihadis. Nearly seven years after the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood in a move that, to my mind, helped to spare the country an open-ended armed conflict, the “mini civil war” in Sinai, as I have called it, rages on.
In the confinement of quarantine, there is no school or playground for the children to go to, no swimming pool for daddy to work on his crawl stroke in, no patisserie for mummy to meet her neighbourhood friends at, and no chance of visiting octogenarian grandma, who lives alone a five-minute drive away from the apartment.
I only go into the office once a week now. My wife has stopped travelling by rail to the campus where she teaches outside town. And, with the omnipresence of ethyl alcohol and the proliferation of face masks and surgical gloves on visibly unhygienic streets – with the constant, unsolicited, unnecessary injunction to “stay at home”, too – it feels like there is no longer any opportunity for human agency, let alone political resistance of the kind we’ve been exploring in this colloquium.
When you can’t go for a cup of coffee, when you are subject to censure not only from the authorities but also from fellow citizens for simply walking the streets minding your own business, how can you think about changing the world?
One realisation that has tormented me now that I’ve been devoting more time to social media is that this side of populism might actually turn out to be just as “populist”.I don’t mean that we share beliefs and narratives that are tribal-patriarchal, atavistic, racist, sectarian, anti-intellectual, or irrational. And I’m obviously not talking about the eight of us but the wider left-liberal constituency we speak for.
What I mean is that there are things “we” too do that make us the opposite of “a cultural elite” as the late Ágnes defined it: “people who are respected and emulated both for their spiritual accomplishment and social responsibility”, people whose role is not to grow wealthy and successful but to promote “human dignity and understanding”.
We refuse to engage seriously with “what people feel” (as Michael puts it): nothing vaguely vanilla, traditional or conservative is allowed to have traction or validity in our arguments, however essential or meaningful in context. We monopolize the moral high ground, often on the basis of misinformation or unwarranted assumptions. We espouse rhetorical or absurd solutions to harrowing real-life problems that do not personally affect us. And we put forth with certitude on topics we can know nothing about.
Above all we let our discourse devolve in the name of being accessible or democratic. So we deal with every major issue as though it can be reduced to a set of consumerist choices. Even as we rail against “late capitalism” and brand ourselves “Marxists” and “abolitionists” in social media bios, valiantly flaunting our pronouns, we express moral convictions and personal affiliations as though they were prayers to an apotheosized marketplace. We speak of evolving scientific facts as though they were eternal doctrinal principles, and of questionable conceptual constructs in the humanities as though they were scientific facts. We attain heroic ranks of irrelevance.
By recalling the extent to which our compulsion to virtue-signaling has turned us into the useful idiots of multinationals and other draconian agents of globalization, Michael’s question too makes beginning again hard: “Furthermore, is populism a consequence of our own blind spots, a backlash resulting from collective denial? In other words, doesn't populism force us to take a long hard look at ourselves where it hurts?” Back in July 2019, I wrote that college campus liberalism “has contributed to making the liberal status quo an alienating and inquisitorial space not only for ‘the masses’ but for intelligent and open-minded intellectuals as well”. I am sorry to say this has become even clearer.
Before going any further, though, I should point out that these thoughts – which will no doubt come across as jumbled and gloomy, perhaps also belligerent – are influenced by cabin fever and the perplexity that has accompanied my confinement. Perhaps what’s making it hardest of all to resume this conversation is the fact that, nearly six weeks after preventative measures were introduced in Cairo, I still don’t know what to make of the Covid-19 phenomenon. In the last six letters – only the last, Yvonne’s, is recent enough to take stock of the crisis – there are flashes of far-fetched optimism. Naren talks of populist excesses under the Modi regime helping to dispel the illusion of nationhood in India. Maria says that recent protests in Moscow, though sombre, reflect a widespread desire to abandon the mythical past. Carol reiterates her faith in inclusive democracy and sustainable development. Yet the overriding tone remains one of foreboding.
Even before the words “lockdown” and “pandemic” entered our everyday lexicon, it seems we all had a sense of impending doom no matter where we happened to be in the world. And the takeaway from this is that what Covid-19 has caused us to feel – anxiety, frustration with lack of clarity and, in my case at least, anger with the free-for-all of hectoring and hysteria – is only a concentrated form of what we were feeling anyway.
That makes the crisis a powerful prism. Depending on location and environment, there are at least as many variant strains of populism as there are of the SARS-CoV virus.
Now I don’t believe there is anything curative about populism. When in my last letter I spoke of choosing “an older and better established mode” of authoritarian rule, I did not mean to imply that this was in any way positive or virtuous – only realistically preferable to a situation in which I was more likely to end up dead or abroad. But perhaps the positive lesson here is that the beginning of the way out is to understand that what we have been framing and dissecting is an attitude of mind – it too a pandemic that “brings us together” while we practise social isolation and call it a moral choice – not any one set of beliefs.
A pandemic of schizoaffective unreason is the strange disquiet of our times. It seems to be at the root of both the alt-right movement and hashtag-left activism, which on reflection are not as different from each other as they might seem at first sight. Of course, the elephant in the room is the relatively simple fact that the global economic system is no longer viable for the material needs of the overwhelming majority of humanity. (Watching people “unbox” commodities on YouTube before you order them on Amazon will not suffice for a sense purpose or meaning, either.) But the truth is that, far from presenting an alternative or a solution to an increasingly untenable status quo, unreason can only make things worse.
Comparing populism to a virulent flu-like illness brings home the limits of our role whether as potential victims of the plague or as doctors beleaguered by it. Other than using the same platforms as the populists – whether to watch in horror or, possessed, take on the mantle of the quixotic preacher – what can we do?
Can we say the same thing about populism? And, if we can’t, what would be the driving force behind that contagious symptom cluster? What, in other words, is the etiology of the apocalypse?
I’m going to leave you with this thought, but first let me say one more thing. Considering how insignificant Covid-19 seems to be compared to other existential threats, I was initially surprised by hashtags like #coronapocalypse and frequent declarations of the end of the world and “We’re all going to die”. But the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve come to see this self-willed end-of-days atmosphere – terror on the street, and what experts like John Ioannidis have since confirmed was mostly a premature overreaction in decision-making offices – as a the expression of a far deeper disease, one that we started diagnosing long before any of us could spot any signs of infection in ourselves.
I have no idea where we are going from here, but one thing I do know is that, before too long, we will all be suffering greater economic difficulties resulting from the fact that we’ve been staying at home. And say what we will, at no point in this entire trajectory can we pretend that we have any choice in what happens to us.
Be well, my friends. Don’t turn into ghosts.