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Why, this is history. Nor are we out of it.
On ethnic conflict, mass migration, and progressive exceptionalism
I’m not going to describe any atrocities in this article. You’ll all have seen the images from Israel, or else you’ll know what they contain. Much as I wish I hadn’t seen them, it’s good that Twitter under the reign of Elon Musk has chosen not to censor these images, since they have given Western audiences – probably for the first time in their lives – an insight into what ethnic conflict actually looks like. The events of the weekend have driven me wild with distress, and I don’t even have loved ones in the region. I know I’m not alone in that feeling.
I have no comment to make on how Israel should respond, or on how the situation is likely to develop. Shani Louk could yet be cast in the role of the Princess de Lamballe, or the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. We don’t know.
But I do want to comment on the responses in the UK and other Western countries, where large pro-Hamas demonstrations have been held, and violently antisemitic sentiment has been explicitly expressed. One video shows marchers shouting “gas the jews” outside of the Sydney Opera House. These crowds are overwhelmingly Muslim, but mostly not Palestinian. Many of them were born in the West, but clearly hold firmly to their ethnic and religious identities, and are therefore apparently willing to condone atrocities so awful that I refuse to describe them. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call them fifth columnists. They are saying, clearly and emphatically, that this kind of violence against “oppressors” is justified in the name of “decolonisation.”
These demonstrations have been met with shock and bewilderment by the progressive commentators who, just last week, were condemning the Home Secretary Suella Braverman for describing multiculturalism as a “failed” experiment.
They cannot understand what’s really going on here because of an important feature of contemporary progressive politics that I want to call ‘progressive exceptionalism.’ The model of history they embrace – I say this as a former progressive, I went to SOAS! - inserts a sharp break during the 1960s, after which people have become steadily more enlightened and sensitive to the badness and wrongness of their ancestors. So while other people are silly enough to believe that men and women are biological categories, we don’t think in such simplistic terms. While other people are silly enough to show loyalty to their own nation or ethnic group, we’ve moved beyond that. Modern people are completely unlike people of the past. It’s [current year], after all!
Progressive exceptionalism is a consequence of affluence and technology, plus a long period of peace, and some quirks in European intellectual history that are downstream from Christianity. Members of the laptop class can quite easily pretend that biological sex doesn’t matter because non-manual work and contraception give them the impression day-to-day that it doesn’t. And they can smile weakly at the anti-white statements coming out of academia and other progressive institutions because, well, it’s not serious, is it? When writers at the Huffington Post or the New York Times or Mother Jones appear to call for racial violence, people who have only ever lived under the Pax Americana can write off such statements as a kind of performance art.
Except that it is actually serious, at least some of the time. The events in Israel have shown us as much, and not just in the form of street demonstrations. Ed West has collated a long list of activists and academics who have taken this opportunity to make clear that when they say “decolonisation”, it is not a metaphor. Not by any means. They do actually want to use violence against the oppressor. And no, that doesn’t just mean Israelis. The list of grievances is a long one, and the depth of hatred is all too real. Haven’t you been listening?
Well no, not really. At least, the vaguely well meaning branch of progressivism hasn’t been listening. They had assumed that, being modern people, their own countries were somehow immune to violent ethnic conflict, and – moreover – that new arrivals would soon come to accept their own peculiar worldview, given its obvious superiority. American progressives are the only group of Americans who prefer other ethnic groups to their own. They find it difficult to imagine feeling differently.
They either don’t know, or don’t want to acknowledge, that the kind of tribal warfare that Hamas has displayed for all the world to see is the human norm. We know as much from the archaeological and genetic evidence which finds, for instance, the complete eradication of native men during invasions across human history. It is the WEIRD societies – Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic – that represent an historical aberration. While successful integration is quite common for some individuals and groups (typically highly educated subgroups), most immigrants do not so easily forget their old cultures, nor their old ancestral enmities.
Immigration maximalists don’t seem to release this. The possibility of ethnic conflict as a consequence of mass immigration seems fanciful to them, even after decades of Islamist terrorism has already brought ethnic conflict to Western shores. I am desperate for them to realise their mistake, and to at the very least reduce the flow of immigrants from cultures that make no secret of their hostility to other groups cast in the role of “oppressors.” Maybe it will all be ok, over time. Maybe the 1.2 million people who arrived in the UK last year – an historically unprecedented number – will all swiftly and easily integrate, ignoring the demands for more and more racial animus issuing out of progressive institutions. I would be very glad to be proved wrong.
But the precautionary principle demands that we take the possibility of ethnic conflict seriously. A friend texted me on Sunday to say that, having seen the videos from Israel, the same thought kept cycling over and over in her mind: “it could happen here.” She’s right, it could. There’s no law of the universe that says otherwise. All it takes is a sufficiently large group of violent young men with deep racial grievances and a breakdown of law and order. We are not exempt from history. We are not exceptional.