Michael Frazer’s (UEA) response to the Brexit Referendum

Michael Frazer's (UEA) response to the Brexit Referendum

Michael Frazer’s (UEA) response to the Brexit Referendum

“When I woke up Friday morning, my Facebook friends—pro-Remain university lecturers, mostly—were quoting Yeats: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

There was an easy explanation for what had just happened. As former Europe minister Keith Vaz told the BBC, “emotions” had triumphed over reason. This is certainly how most people understands Yeats’s poem: the reason anarchy is loosed upon the world is because of the danger of passion itself.

The political theorist Michael Walzer has a different reading of the poem. The problem is not that the worst are full of passionate intensity. The problem is that the best are not. Conviction is itself a form of passion—an intense, passionate commitment to the truth.

One of the strangest features of our politics is that we all know passion is indispensable, but are ashamed to admit it. While we all appeal to emotion in political argument, we are quick to deny our opponent’s accusations that this is what we are doing. Remain accused Leave of appealing to nationalism and xenophobia, Leave accused Remain of appealing to fear and economic anxiety. Both accusations were correct.

The main argument for Remain was that it would be in the self-interest of British voters to stay part of the EU. All the experts said so. Since we’re already seeing the economic devastation that a Leave vote brings, they may actually have been right for once. Surely voters were irrational to reject this.

But it’s not reason that makes us care about our own economic interests. Reason can’t make us care about anything. Caring is an emotion. The Scottish philosopher David Hume argued almost three centuries ago that it is not contrary to reason to act against even my own acknowledged self-interest, choosing my own lesser good over my greater.

Of course, most of us have a passionate commitment to our own interests. This passion, however, is a surprisingly weak one. While economists have long assumed that people act in their own self-interest, when they actually began to test this assumption experimentally they found that this is the case far less often than they expected. We can take these experiments as yet more evidence for the sad fact of human irrationality. Yet at least some of these experiments might be explained another way: People might not care about their own interests as much as we thought they did.

For most of us, our governing passions grow from our connection to something larger than ourselves: our families, our communities, our countries, for some even our species or our planet as a whole. Both the best and the worst are full of passionate intensity, whether they’re sacrificing current comforts to give their children a better future, or sacrificing their lives to some ideological cause.

The great irony of the Brexit referendum is that it was the Leave campaign that spoke most powerfully to this passionate connection to something larger: the connection to Britain, which can take the form of either a noble passion for national sovereignty or a deeply ignoble hatred of immigrants and foreigners. Remain had a golden opportunity to emphasize the connection to something larger still—to Europe, and by extension, the wider world. There were moments when they did so—Gordon Brown’s viral video on war and peace was a good example—but these were too little, too late, overwhelmed by the economic rhetoric of self-interest.

As an American, I can only hope that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party do not fall prey to the same mistake. Donald Trump is advocating a wide array of incoherent, irrational positions, ones which would do real harm to American interests if he ever got the opportunity to enact them. Clinton has self-admitted wonkish tendencies, and might be under the mistaken impression that the passionate intensity of Trump’s followers can be countered by the overwhelming evidence she has for the superiority of her policies and leadership skills.

But if the best have only convictions of this sort, while the worst remain filled with passionate intensity, there may indeed be a rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Washington to be born.”


Dr. Michael L. Frazer is a Lecturer in Political and Social Theory at the University of East Anglia. His research focuses on canonical moral and political philosophy, with a focus on its relevance for contemporary political theory and the philosophy of social science. He is the author of ‘The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today’ (Oxford University Press, 2010), as well as many shorter works. Dr. Frazer received his BA from Yale University, his PhD from Princeton, and has previously held positions at Brown and Harvard.

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