Scene: the carriage of a London underground train. It is past midnight. The pubs have closed, the parties have wound down. Two men, Will and Josh (the names are invented; reader, I did not even see their faces), are discussing a woman in whom Will is interested.
Josh: But you don’t know her. For all you know she could be . . . a professional pedophile. Or a Labour activist.
Will: Oh, I wouldn’t mind if she was a Labour person.
Josh: Wouldn’t you?
Will: Why would I?
Josh: Well, you’re a . . . (groping for a playful insult) regressive Tory retrograde.
Will: A “regressive Tory retrograde.” First time anyone’s called me that.
Josh: It won’t be the last time if you carry on with your politics, you . . . you Brexit buffoon.
Will: Anyway, I wouldn’t mind if she was a Remainer. Would you mind if Kate was a Brexiteer?
Josh: Yes. I couldn’t be with someone who—but Kate voted Remain.
Will (mischievously): She told you she voted Remain. Lots of people who voted Brexit said they voted Remain.
Josh: What are you doing, trying to ruin my beautiful relationship? No, the thing is, I couldn’t be with someone who voted Brexit. Because it’s not just about the consequences, though it is that. It’s about . . . fundamental values.
And Will and Josh were still arguing about Brexit when I got off the train. If it was strange to hear the referendum discussed so openly—perhaps the alcohol helped—it was normal to hear it discussed as a matter of “fundamental values,” the kind of thing that can make or break a relationship. There are many stories along these lines. The historian Sir Max Hastings his challenge in drawing up a guest list for a dinner party: “It was merely a matter of ensuring that we included nobody who might profess enthusiasm” for leaving the EU. The founder of , which is somewhere between a pressure group and a support group, complained last week that “most of our friends are Remain supporters and there is a substantial chunk that have turned into monsters. They have become hysterical about it. I have lost an awful lot of friends.”
The Remainers may well have the better of the argument. But what interests me is how many of them shuttle from a world-weary tone of “It’s all so obvious” to evocations of apocalypse. A fence-sitter like me can be nudged toward the Remain side by fears of economic collapse and political vulnerability. But if these concerns were all that drove the Remain argument, you would expect the public square to be full of arguments like “Our GDP will have fallen by at least 3.5 per cent by 2025,” or “Expect international applications to UK universities to be under 70,000 within the next decade,” or “Paid holiday leave will be abolished during the next government.” Instead, Remainers are more apt to say things like “Brexit is the greatest national disaster of my lifetime,” or “Never have I felt so ashamed of our political leaders,” or “The referendum will be overturned—because it must be.” They would claim their distress is based purely on the facts, but the frantic note in their voices suggests it draws on something deeper.
There are people who mock this, but in some ways it is admirable. The Remainers have proved that political debate is less technical than it is made to seem, that it can be driven by an “identity crisis,” as the Guardian’s Jessica Elgot has ; by considerations as the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson put it last week in a largely failed attempt to mollify Remainers. For many, political debate matters as much as for the man I overheard on the train, who could not imagine a romantic involvement with a Brexiteer.
There are passionate feelings among the Brexiteers, too. But the Remain anguish is more interesting, because it exists among the apparently better-educated, the more self-consciously “rational.” Their terror and dismay have helped to demonstrate the non-existence of Enlightenment Man, the thinker who stands only on evidence and logic, and waves away every distraction.
Steven Pinker, a partisan of this version of Enlightenment, recently a particularly audacious paragraph on the theme:
If there’s anything the Enlightenment thinkers had in common, it was an insistence that we energetically apply the standard of reason to understanding our world, and not fall back on generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts.
But the historical record also shows that Pinker’s “generators of delusion” were integral to the Enlightenment. Kant, whom Pinker mentions admiringly in the following paragraph, said that one of his philosophical goals was to make room for the claims of faith. Samuel Johnson, whose Dictionary is a monument of Enlightenment scholarship, was so preoccupied with dogma that he resolved not to quote heretical authors in its pages. Isaac Newton, whose restless search for knowledge was on one account the beginning of the Enlightenment, wasted years of his life on “the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts.” The list goes on. The thinkers of the Enlightenment were like us: Their debates were not a contest between the “reality-based community” and the deluded, but a battle over commitments stronger than any peer-reviewed paper could overturn.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.