Fraternity: the key defence of democracy. The Metaphysician speaks out.

Speech given at Grand Hotel, Amsterdam 

                                         November 29, 2018

I’m honoured that I have been asked me to speak. Please excuse me speaking in English but if I tried this in Dutch …. I’d be remembered only as a great stand-up comedy act.

The Fox and the Hedgehog

 The paradox of careers is that, just as we’re really getting on top of things - with a lifetime of experience and knowledge behind us - it’s time to step down.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote about the Fox and the Hedgehog. The fox was very clever and knew many things; the hedgehog only knew one thing. But it was a big thing - something so important that it defined and guided his entire approach to life. It’s the difference between facts, know-how and information on the one hand - and wisdom and insight on the other. The world needs both, of course.

 But we’re all raised and educated as foxes. That’s because we can be taught information and skills…. but you can’t teach wisdom - it comes only with experience. 

 The fact is, learning what’s really important in life is almost always a painful process - and usually follows loss, or failure; where the way back to life-as-we-knew-it is blocked -- or has disappeared.

 The 19th-century German philosopher, Hegel, noted that "The owl of Minerva (the goddess of wisdom) spreads its wings only as the darkness falls…."—meaning that we only come to understand or value a historical condition late in the day…. Often too late …. just as it’s slipping away. 

Warzone, fear and polarization

As one who values a peaceful life, I’ve spent too much of my life working in warzones, fighting terrorist campaigns or living in aggressively polarised societies.

As a young man in Belfast I lived in fear and anger.

Pre-mobile phones and internet - it’s late at night and a family member has not come home - you start phoning around: was there a bomb or a drive-by shooting somewhere? There are rumours of riots and street violence. The sound of gun-shots and emergency sirens, can be heard across the city. A friend walking his girlfriend home is beaten-up by masked street vigilantes claiming to protect the people. You learn that vigilantes - even your own - are always thugs - in it just for the violence. 

A couple suddenly get up and leave a crowded bar - their drinks are half-finished - and she’s left a bag underneath her seat… is it a bomb? The chances are, that it is. You meet a girl you like … but… it’s pointless. She lives in a street that is no-go for you. Her friend tells you it is even dangerous for you to be seen talking to her. The list goes on.

You learn there are places you can go and once-familiar places that you can't. Why? Because being in the wrong place at the wrong time becomes a risk, a calculation, you have to factor into your life - it takes on a survival value. Welcome to a day in the life.

But here’s the thing - we lived in a democracy. The IRA had a political party - as did the Protestant paramilitaries and Paisley. At first, they were all marginalised and only a few - less than 10% -- voted for them.

But as the violence intensified -- and the population radicalised and recoiled in horror -- we had more elections in N Ireland than any other part of the UK. And every time, the results were highly predictable - and increasingly polarizing. The extremist margins began to move-in on - and dissolve - the centre. 

Elections provided a platform and excuse for extremists to further radicalise the population and a reason for people to come off the fence and pick a side. Grotesque acts of terrorism would peak around elections. So, the democratic process, far from making things better, fuelled the dynamic of division, polarization and radicalisation.

We see the results today. Paisley’s party of incompetent and corrupt religious hypocrites (the DUP) is the largest party and shares power with the IRA’s retro-ultra-nationalist (Sinn Fein)  - and neither party speaks to the other. 

The centre has evaporated. There is no trust, no dialogue and almost everyone in politics is an extremist. Most people vote only to keep the other side out -- and the threat from dissident IRA terrorists is still very real. ….But, there has been - and continues to be - plenty of voting.

Democracy as process in Iraq

 For 6 years, between 2005 and 2011, I was Chief Strategist for psychological operations with the Coalition Forces in Baghdad. Our task was to prevent recruitment of suicide bombers, to destroy support for al Qaeda, slow its momentum and prevent civil war between Sunni and Shi’ia Muslims. By 2010, the wildfire in Iraq had more-or-less been extinguished… until the elected local politicians took over. What happened next was inevitable.

In 2003, the US claimed to remove Saddam in order to bring democracy to Iraq.  Well, when it came to it, it turns out they didn’t really understand democracy at all. Far from being pragmatic, they turned out to be blinded by ideological fantasies.

They saw democracy primarily as process - a kind of business school model with boxes, arrows, events and timelines, inputs and outcomes – explained through PowerPointpresentations - and at the centre, voting and elections. 

I learned that people explaining diagrams are good at describing the content of “boxes” but not so good at explaining howthe arrows linking them are supposed to work. As if selecting candidates, forming parties, creating an electoral register, voting, counting votes and building a parliament was enough. 

These processes were rushed through - they called it “freedom” -- but they lacked knowledge of the one really big thing - and in my opinion, the US still lacks it today -- the cultural glue that turns the democratic process into sustainable democratic values. If Trump has proved anything, it is that the US’s democratic values are not guaranteed by the democratic process.

So, Iraqis voted - just as in N Ireland - along sectarian Sunni and Shia lines - primarily to keep “The Other” out. The democratic process - left to itself - simply embedded and institutionalised sectarianism and guaranteed future decades of polarization…  and what the philosopher John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of the majority”.  

The point is - as we know -- democratic process doesn’t guarantee a liberal democratic outcome… and, on its own, can actually do a lot of damage.  So, the question today is, how do we protect democratic values and liberal democracy… ?

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité

 Of the three great core values of democracy -- Liberty, Equality and Fraternity -- the two, glamorous, high-flyers are freedom and equality. 

Freedom and equality of rights are legal concepts, enshrined in the constitution, defined and protected in the courts. Only governments - who are accountable to the people - can change the laws around them.

But there is a natural tension between these two values - they sit uneasily together and keep a jealous eye on each other - since freedom limits equality and equality limits freedom. (Those societies that prioritise freedom etc…) And in many ways the on-going experiment of democracy is about finding a functional, sustainable, balance between them (something, incidentally, I think the Netherlands does particularly well …… up to now..). 

The solution to finding this balance, however, lies in the give-and-take - the elasticity -- the cushioning-effect -- inherent in fraternity. The problem is, fraternity is not legally defined and so cannot be protected by the law. The question is, how do you protect something precious when there is no punishment for breaking it? 

So, what is fraternity and how do we protect it?

 Fraternity is a state of mind - an attitude -- of care or concern ….. towards social justice. It values social cohesion. It’s a desire for compromise where there is deadlock. It prioritises pragmatic outcomes over ideological differences. It’s humane and engaging where the alternatives are looking the other way. It’s active pluralism rather than laissez-faire relativism. 

It’s where we seek to balance individualism with the common good. It’s respect for “The Other’s” humanity. It’s assessing policies qualitatively rather than just for their free-market economic value. It’s active engagement and participation in civil society. It’s citizen solidarity around these values.

But, since fraternity is not legally protected, the state of mind at its core - like all states of mind -- is wide-open to psychological attack and abuse. We all worry, rightly, about preserving freedom and equality, but before extremists and populists can gain power and mess with these legal concepts - as they always do - they need first to move-in on and destroy fraternity; they need voters to become players in their fauxsurvival narratives around “Us” against “Them” in order to get elected. They have to manipulate and convince the electorate that their objectives are easily achieved.

In other words, they depend upon the democratic process working for them. So, to maximize votes, they weaponize narratives of fear: fear of “the Other”; fear of terrorism: fear of refugees; fear of immigrants; fear of uncertainty; fear of loss -- and most of all, fear of the future. 

Not only is fear contagious - like no other emotion…. but a little goes a long way. I know from deep personal experience, that nothing in life destroys an open-mind - and the desire to engage - more quickly - or more catastrophically - than fear. Put under this kind of pressure, the voter can quickly become a threat to democratic values - and their own best interests.

As a result, democracy across the West now has an auto-immune disease where democratic process is used deliberately to attack and destroy democratic values. 

We’re actually in a low-level psychological warwhere many are now conditioned to believe that fraternity is a threat to their security, freedom, identity and culture. And once elected, they will ensure fraternity stays damaged and wounded and - history teaches us -- that attacks on freedom and equality are never far behind. 

In this critical sense, fraternity is the first and last line of defence for liberal democracy. 


So, what have I learned from Belfast and Baghdad, from Beirut and Bosnia? What is my hedgehog - big idea? 

Well, it’s this: fraternity - the soft value that lives in the shadow of freedom and equality -- is the single most important democratic value - the bedrock of it all. Without it, the others can go rogue, become radically unbalanced, unravel, or simply disappear. 

Without fraternity we will lose our freedoms ….. or, as in the US, freedom becomes … “every man for himself” - the freedom of the sinking ship. Without fraternity we also risk social conflict around the kind of soaring inequality that crushes a nation’s soul. 

Indeed, without fraternity the entire value of democracy can be called into question: it quickly becomes dysfunctional and unstable - an electocracy - a hollowed-out shell of meaningless - even dangerous - and largely deceptive -- processes where things function and can look okay, but they’re not.

But fraternity asks us to do more than just look at the world differently; it asks us to look differently at how we look at ourselves - at how we - as individuals - are connected to the world. We need to look to ourselves since it is only the concern, courage and commitment of individuals - even with sound government policies -- that enable fraternity to work - that keep it alive. 

And in this way, unlike the monolithic brittleness of authoritarianism, fraternity is an organic concept - endlessly flexible and inventive since we all practice it as individuals - in our own way. It’s the real core expression of what democracy means.

And here’s the key insight: this is a gamble the populists and extremists assume we will not take. They depend on us becoming too fixated on their narratives to see the harm we are doing to ourselves.. and so, they rely on us doing …. nothing. 

There are times we can sit back and enjoy the fruits of democracy and there are times when we have to fight for it.

 And in any war, good defence beats good attack… Fraternity is that defence of democracy.

“The Metaphysician”, Amsterdam

November 2018 






Hatnstick oct.jpg

Fraternity: the best defence of democratic values.