Last week, Thomas Mair murdered Labour Party lawmaker Jo Cox in a village in northern England. Yesterday, Parliament paid tribute to her in a special session. To judge by the speeches, British politicians are just as attracted to the explanatory power of “hate” in political violence as are their American counterparts.
The New York Times reports that Prime Minister David Cameron urged all present to honor Cox's memory by “uniting against the hatred that killed her.” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for “a kinder, gentler politics,” one that does not “whip up hatred and sow division.”
“Hatred” killed Jo Cox? That's absurd. When brought before a London court on Saturday, Mair was asked his name. He responded defiantly, “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Cox had been outspoken in her advocacy of refugees. Evidence suggests that Mair may have been influenced by “Britain First,” a hard-core anti-immigrant “patriotic party” and “street defense organization.” One doesn't need a degree in political science to draw the reasonable conclusion that Cox was assassinated by Mair, who, however psychologically troubled, was motivated by the political conviction that Cox was a traitor and the political views she advanced were traitorous.
By contrast, House of Commons Speaker John Bercow actually said something that made sense: “An attack like this strikes not only at an individual but at our freedom.” Exactly right. When a person is gunned down in the street because she takes a strong political stand, the effect is chilling, to say the least. Assassinations, like riots and other forms of violence, represent assaults on the rule of law—the rule of law being the most fundamental precondition for any sort of freedom.
Why the recourse to “hatred”? The answer is simple. It's a therapeutic strategy for evading reality. David Cameron and others who wish to remain in the European Union would rather not address the reasons why some wish to leave. They don't want to talk about knotty problems of national identity in our increasingly fluid, mobile world. And what about the fate of working-class workers in a globalized economy? Another hard question. And then there's national sovereignty and democratic accountability. How will those core elements of modern liberal polity survive in the transnational future envisioned by the European Union?
Cameron can't be bothered. He finds it more convenient to speak about an emotion. Those who oppose him are not rational. They are “haters” who need therapy (or incarceration).
This way of talking is extremely divisive—which is ironic, given all the rhetoric about overcoming divisive rhetoric. A substantial plurality of Englishmen wish to leave the European Union because they are opposed to the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Speaking of that stance as motived by hatred implies that these people are not fit to participate in democratic deliberation. They don't have political judgments, just irrational, negative, and socially destructive emotions.
Sayeeda Warsi, former chair of the Conservative Party, speaks in an even more extreme way. She justifies her switching from “leave” to “remain” by tarring the former position as racist: “This kind of nudge-nudge, wink-wink xenophobic racist campaign may be politically savvy or politically useful in the short term, but it causes long-term damage to communities.”
And denouncing people as xenophobic racists doesn't cause damage to communities?
We're in a bad way in the postmodern West. Our political culture seems unable to speak about justice, preferring instead to psychologize.
Democracy involves sometimes deep disagreements. The genuinely just response to the many aspects of globalization (and mass immigration is one aspect) is not obvious. Is it any surprise that we draw different conclusions? The recourse to hatred is simple-minded and lazy.
What we need is more from people like John Bercow. Assassinations, terrorism, and thuggery in the streets are threats to civil life because they replace the rule of law with the rule of violence. And the rule of violence is the most fundamental enemy of civilization.
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things.