Charlottesville: History, myth and false equivalence

What happened in Charlottesville last week – and what followed – should be of significance not only to an American audience. After the Unite the Right congregation of neo-Nazis and white nationalists on Saturday and the torchlit march of the same which preceded the evening before, one counter-protestor, Heather Heyer, lay dead – murdered by those she came to oppose – and the world had witnessed slogans such as ‘Jews will not replace us’ and ‘blood and soil’ chanted in America in 2017.

It’s been with a growing sense of incredulity and disbelief that many of us have watched what has happened subsequently. In the US, where, thanks to the election of Donald Trump, overt racism and discrimination are legitimised by the very nature of the head of state, the self-serving responses to what happened in Charlottesville were coming from the right and those sympathetic to them were, perhaps, predictable.

Trump himself set the tone, first blaming ‘many sides’ for what had happened, then – following a backlash – specifically enumerating neo-Nazis and white supremacists, before finally – in an incredible press conference –  turning his fire back onto the so-called ‘alt-left’, who were somehow culpable in his view. Before the week was out, Trump had used the Barcelona terror attacks to (approvingly) peddle a myth regarding a purported war crime committed by a US general against a Muslim population, where they were supposedly executed with bullets dipped in pig’s blood. Trump? A white supremacist? Nothing to see here, claimed his defenders.

Some attempted to muddy the waters, trying to refocus attention on what was ostensibly behind the Unite the Right gathering; the local authority’s decision to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the newly-renamed Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. This was an assault on history, they said. The behaviour of the antifa and so-called ‘alt-left’ was as bad as the Nazis, they said. Freedom of speech must be protected, they said. Here in the UK, Nigel Farage – yes him – said ‘the left must not be allowed to rewrite American history‘.

The willingness of some to reproduce these arguments begs certain questions. One is simply the question of an honest lack of understanding. Is the person putting forward the argument really just – through no fault of their own – unaware of the implications of what they’re saying? Perhaps they don’t understand the difference between history  – a constructed process taking place in the present – and the past, the temporal range of past events which history seeks to interpret and recreate. For many who aren’t professional historians, historical sociologists, anthropologists and the like, ‘history’ is a term used fairly unproblematically, which is taken to have a fixed meaning. Perhaps the person putting forward the argument hasn’t interrogated the basic differences between commemoration, celebration and the place of an artifact in a museum?

That’s where we historians can and should play a useful role.

More worrying in some ways though are the more obviously contemporary questions. Does the person putting forward the argument that there is such as a thing as the ‘alt-left’ (fact check: there isn’t) not appreciate that they are unthinkingly reproducing a smear created by right-wing figures during the 2016 US presidential election cycle to slander left-wing Democrats? Did they not notice that Trump is now using that smear to distract from the actions of supporters of his own – the self-professed ‘alt-right’?

That begs the second question, of bad faith. Perhaps they do know the above. And, in the words of a history tutor of mine when I was a student, they aren’t really putting forward arguments at all – but rationalising their position, trying to put forward evidence that will make their preordained position seem rational to an outsider (this is a human foible that all of us engage in from time to time, though the stakes – ‘I had two cakes because she had two cakes’ – are customarily lower). The gap between the apparent rationalisation and a convincing argument is typically the space where you have to discern whether the person genuinely is acting in bad faith or not. Maybe it isn’t a rationalisation, just a poor argument.

In Farage’s case, it’s pretty straightforward. Whatever Trump does, Nigel seems to fawn over. Making a substandard argument about history is the least of Nigel’s worries. But this might not be true of everyone who’s made this argument, so by way of a response…

Taking down a statue has nothing to do with ‘erasing’ history – if by history you mean the recollection of the past. What societies choose to commemorate is a decision taken by the present in the present, for the present. It’s a decision taken continuously.

It says very little about the past in itself, and very much about the now. This is true of both sides in the debate over the Lee statue, and it is why it is so important that it is taken down. Commemorations are what historians call ‘sites of memory’ (after the work of Pierre Nora); in Britain as everywhere they take physical form, as in the Cenotaph (’empty tomb’) in Whitehall for instance. But the reason the UK undertakes remembrance rituals every November is not simply to ‘remember the fallen’, but to make a point of remembering-in-the-present. That is to say that present-day, contemporary UK society derives something itself from the act of remembrance. And the history isn’t inviolate in this process. Part of the reason remembrance rituals have become more central to national life since the early 1990s is due to the growing number of military campaigns that Britain has been involved in and the ability of the changed broadcast/ online media to personalise the nature of the conflict experience through revealing to a wide audience the implications of these conflicts, in particular, for wounded personnel.

That’s why, at a time when fewer people than at any point since the Second World War are either serving or know someone serving in the Armed Forces, remembrance rituals have taken on a revitalised significance (it’s significant that attendance at remembrance rituals and donations to the Royal British Legion et al. were growing in the decade prior to the First World War Centenary). Rituals and memorials originally created for a grieving nation – and that were originally very different in their character in the early post-First World War period – have changed and been repurposed for the needs of the present. That’s how commemoration, societal memory, works. Monuments remain, but the meanings associated with them can change or remain the same. The meanings are what people choose to place on them.

In Charlottesville, the Lee statue isn’t ‘history’ by itself, but as a commemorative focus is it a place where histories are constructed and meaning-making takes place – a site of memory. Unfortunately, much of that meaning-making serves to normalise the historical antecendents of present-day racism. The Lee statue was erected in 1924, the better part of six decades after the Civil War. It was not erected to cater for immediate ‘needs’ of mourning or mass grief as the Cenotaph was (first iteration 1919, immediately after the conflict). No; along with many other statues to Confederate figures, it was erected as the ‘myth of the Lost Cause’ was being enshrined, when the South, having been defeated in war, sought instead to enshrine the oppression of blacks through mythologising the war effort into one of states’ rights and ‘honor’, and disenfranchising blacks through segregation and Jim Crow. At the time the Lee statue was constructed, Ku Klux Klan membership was at its peak, with upper-end estimates putting it at around five million members.

For those of us in Britain watching these events and commenting on them, it’s worth remembering that white supremacy never died out in the South. Lynchings carried on through the Jim Crow era, not to mention church burnings in the 1960s and into the 1990s, and then, more recently, Charleston.

Two years ago this summer, on 17th June 2015, a white supremacist named Dylann Roof massacred nine black churchgoers at a bible study class in Charleston, North Carolina. The church, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was picked as a target by Roof because ‘it was a historic African-American church.’ One of Roof’s victims was Clementa C. Pinckney, senior pastor at the church, and a state senator. Pinckney had campaigned for police to wear body cameras as a result of the shooting of unarmed Walter Scott by a police officer in North Charleston. Roof asked for Pinckney by name before he killed him. President Obama delivered a eulogy at Pinckney’s funeral, where he paid tribute through song:

Roof’s website featured pictures of him with the Confederate Battle Flag. Once this was known, a movement began to proscribe the display of the Confederate flag and to remove Confederate memorials. It began in the same state, South Carolina, where the state capitol stopped flying the Confederate flag, which had originally been raised in 1962 as a protest against desegregation.

There is nothing wrong with this movement – although of course there is always room to debate it – but there is no sense in which it is ‘erasing’ history. The point is that the racism and violence of the Reconstruction era, through Jim Crow, to the 1960s and the present, has never gone away. History is active, not some other ‘foreign country’ where people do things differently; racism in the American South (and, one might add, throughout the Western world) is an historical continuity. Sites of memory like the Lee statue and the Confederate flag flying over state capitols are still sites for meaning-making and racism in the present. And their presence is actually a politicised perversion of history – seeking to enshrine in the ‘Lost Cause’ myth a denatured version of the past, in order to permit its invocation in the racism of the present. It’s not for nothing that such statutes had two peaks in terms of their building – one during Reconstruction, and another during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. As notes:

A large share of Confederate statues are of nameless, generic soldiers, like the one the protesters took down in Durham. Towns erected them in the early 20th century, decades after the Civil War, because their Confederate mythologies helped to justify Jim Crow laws in the South that oppressed black citizens, Taber Andrew Bain, a librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University, pointed out on Twitter.

In Germany, in the 1940s, Nazi emblems were prohibited immediately on the Allied occupation of the country as part of the Allies’ policy of ‘denazification’. This did not happen in the Southern United States at least in part because that conflict was a civil war, and the federal government felt compelled to balance internal political dynamics in order to ensure the reforging of the Union.

But that failure to address the racist nature of the Confederacy at a cultural level has allowed Confederate symbology to play an active role in racism from the close of the civil war to the present day. Removing such symbols is simply a long-overdue clampdown on the espousal of racism in public space. And there is a world of difference between a commemoration and a museum exhibit, as a visit to the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool would tell you. Confederate memorabilia could, and probably should, be housed in museums – accompanied by clear, unambiguous descriptions of the moral disgrace it represented, and has continued to represent and inspire, since. Those bringing up book-burning to make another allusion of false equivalence are guilty at the very least of hyperbole, at worst of straightforward misrepresentation. No-one wants to erase the memory of the Confederacy. Quite the contrary. The question is simply that it be remembered for what it was, not be glorified in contemporary public space.

Perhaps many people don’t understand how memory becomes history, how popular memory is shaped, how knowledge is constructed – but most people aren’t stupid, and even if they haven’t engaged with academic history or psychology, have an understanding that the past is framed according to the present.

But the other myth doing the rounds – that of the ‘alt-left’ – isn’t old enough to be historical in nature. It’s ironic that neither the ‘alt-left’ or ‘alt-right’ should exist as publicly acceptable nomenclature; it’s also ironic that both are the creations of the right. The ‘alt-right’ was invented as a term to denature the toxicity of right-wing extremism – much like the Confederacy and the ‘lost cause’ were reimagined to make the racism of the South ambiguous whilst still celebrating it. Though many news outlets fell for it, the Associated Press didn’t, as they noted in their guidance to correspondents:

Avoid using the term generically and without definition, however, because it is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience. In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist.

So, as AP rightly put it – call the alt-right what it is. Neo-Nazism, racism, white supremacy as appropriate. The alt-right was a way of making the rise of far-right extremism in the US look more palatable – and it worked. Senior alt-right figures worked in the Trump administration and helped develop his message. Racism went mainstream.

But gradually, the alt-right has become visible for what it is. Richard Spencer, the white nationalist head of the National Policy Institute, who became famous in the UK at least for getting punched in the face at Trump’s inauguration, led an earlier torchlit rally at Emancipation Park. And of course, he presided over this:

The alt-left by comparison was a slur, designed to ensure that anyone who opposed the self-described alt-right would be tarred by the same brush – delegitimised by the very act of opposition. In a sense, this is clever tactics from the far right, on a number of levels. With a public inundated with political change, quick soundbites such as ‘horseshoe theory’ and ‘alt-left’ can translate to ‘they’re both as bad as each other’, or the ‘left started it with antifa and Black Lives Matter’. On this last point, opposing BLM is somewhere where the far right sees fertile ground – whites who identity as liberal often identify with conventional structures of authority, and whilst BLM has highlighted the endemic racism within US law enforcement, and the terrible human cost of that racism, some whites in the US simply refuse to accept that there can be what (in a different police context) the Macpherson Report in Britain termed ‘institutional racism’ throughout US society.

As such, by invoking horseshoe theory, attacking BLM – note the ‘White Lives Matter’ chants at the torchlit rally a week ago Friday – and throwing their opponents in a skip called the alt-left, far-right extremism both makes opposition to it more difficult, and muddies the water sufficiently that its own messages are heard by a wide audience. This appeals to a section of the US population who, whilst they might not themselves be actively participative in white nationalism, are fearful of instability and crave order. The danger is that this is historically a section of the population – the anxious middle-class – that can involuntarily act (through its inaction or tacit acquiescence) as an enabler for the rise of fascism.

There’s also the issue of freedom of speech, another area where far-right extremists try to muddy the waters – as Trump put it, ‘they had a permit’. The US takes a very different approach to free speech than most Western European societies, as Michel Rosenfeld noted thirty years ago in the Harvard Law Review:

the constitutions and laws of the Western European democracies that adhere to the principle of freedom of speech all heed the warning of the “paradox of tolerance” and do not afford legal protection to extremist speech.

The UK arguably (in my view, as a genuine libertarian socialist) goes too far in terms of how much it circumscribes freedom of speech, and has a nebulous definition of extremism. But the point here is simply to point up hypocrisy – many arguing about freedom of speech in the UK in the context of Charlottesville are quite happy to support restrictions on it when it suits them (e.g. specific restrictions on language around extremism etc.). The ‘paradox of tolerance’ alluded to in Rosenfeld’s comment is referring to the work of the philosopher Karl Popper, who argued that for society to remain tolerant it was necessary not to tolerate the intolerant. This is a genuine paradox insofar as it offers specific limits to toleration (which is nominally an absolute concept). But Popper’s view was that society had not obligation to tolerate that which would use that toleration to destroy that society; as he ruefully mused in a lecture once, such was the fate of the Weimar Republic.

That’s commonly accepted in the legal and constitutional frameworks of Western Europe, which have in many cases suffered the fate of totalitarian occupation during the Second World War. The UK didn’t, but has increasingly adopted the principle. Ironically, I have my reservations about it, as I’ve noted – I agree with Popper’s view but am wary of the broad-brush way in which it can be applied (for example the UK government often refers to ‘extremism’ which is too broad). The key point however is that the invocation of freedom of speech often looks like a rationalisation, not an argument – citizens of a country that doesn’t have the same level of free speech protection as the US (and who are generally quite happy with that) defending a broader ambit of free speech abroad than they would advocate at home.

And of course, the truth is Charlottesville isn’t about free speech, and it isn’t about ‘saving’ history, it’s about – as one contributor to the recent VICE documentary put it – the far-right demonstrating their power in American society in the age of Trump. When they chanted ‘Jews will not replace us/You will not replace us’ and ‘White Lives Matter’ as they held their torches on Friday night, they echoed Dylann Roof’s words as he gunned down the churchgoers in Charleston – ‘You’re taking over’. They used the statue as a site of memory, invoking the ancestral racism associated with it. And then they added Nazi blood-and-soil fascism for good measure.

The US President then attacked those who stood up to oppose them.

I’m a British person who has the comfort of living several thousand miles away from all of this, but I used to live in the US, know a number of UVa alumni, and did a good chunk of my undergraduate degree in modern German history. When we speak about these issues, we should be aware of their nuances and their complexities. We should also be aware that for the black community, for the Jewish community, these issues have never gone away. As those communities know only too well, history is not some separate anterior reality, a theme park in which to play in, as some of us sometimes treat it. It’s a reality which is lived, and which, through the memory of slavery, racism and the Holocaust, never recedes. It never recedes because the forces which generated those horrors have never left this world, and last weekend those forces showed themselves in plain sight, using a site of memory – a statue – to anchor their bid for power in public space.

The people who oppose that evil are not equivalent to that evil; this is a slander and a lie, fostered by those who seek the opportunity to promote that evil. The evils of racism and fascism should not be compromised with on any level. It is our job as civil society to make sure that those who foster hate and division have to take responsibility for it. That’s precisely what the counter-protestors did in Charlottesville. That’s precisely what Heather Heyer did. And she died for it.

I hope that the rest of us, in the US, the UK, and around the world, will uphold her legacy.




Bravo, Jeremy Corbyn

So rumours of Labour’s imminent demise really were exaggerated. Despite the standard caveat that ‘you can’t trust the polls’ (it really isn’t as simple as that, though you can understand why people feel this way), the Tory lead in the general election campaign has been slashed. By how much depends on which poll you choose to believe, but if the one you fancy is the YouGov seat-by-seat poll of this morning, then May will lose her majority on the 8th June.

That’s optimistic at this stage to say the least, but let’s focus on the positives for now. First off, Jeremy Corbyn has been vindicated. I’ve always been a supporter, though not an uncritical one. Yet in this campaign, Corbyn has caught fire. Anyone who knows anything about Corbyn knows he’s a good campaigner – what’s been surprising in this campaign has been the extent to which he has come off (by and large) as a smooth media performer, most notably in the ‘debate’ (which was no debate, thanks to May’s objection to such a format) the night before last.

The press was divided, but even Sky News allowed for a ‘slight win for Corbyn’ (albeit that viewers seemed to think it a comprehensive one). And yesterday the afterglow really did wane as the morning after the night before became centred on Corbyn’s apparent inability to remember his figures in relation to a childcare policy on Women’s Hour. Yet, though the BBC in particular made great play of Corbyn’s apparent faux pas, the reality is that it’s small beer in the grand scheme of things. Corbyn’s defence – he wanted to check his figures to make sure he got them right – would surely pass muster in most workplaces up and down the country. Bullshitting when things matter is never a good policy, however much journalists might think it makes for good broadcast. And the key point, of course, is the Labour manifesto is costed – rigorously – unlike the Tories’ cost-free zone.

So fumbling the numbers may have cost him a little, but in reality the campaign has been on balance a Corbyn triumph. The public like Labour’s policies, and it’s important to remember that for all the backwards and forwards on Corbyn’s personal polling, policies such as rail renationalisation, an end to university tuition fees, a £10 minimum wage simply wouldn’t be in the manifesto were it not for the fact that Corbyn is the party leader. When the manifesto was drawn up, there was a sentiment expressed by some in the PLP that they would let Corbyn have ‘his’ manifesto – then they could hang him with it. The final defeat of Corbynism at the general election would be akin to Gerald Kaufman’s old jibe at the 1983 manifesto – that it was the ‘longest suicide note in history’.

And yet the manifesto is popular. Despite the easy (and lazy) comparisons to Foot and 1983, which has been a narrative which press, Labour MPs and academic commentators have been wont to promote since before Corbyn was even elected as leader, the public don’t see the manifesto the way they do. Now Corbyn’s Labour Party are polling above their return under Ed Miliband just two years ago. Corbyn has only been leader for 20 months, and in that time he has had to fight a constant civil war with a Parliamentary Labour Party which has never accepted the democratic decision of the party membership.

It’s signal to note that the collapse in Labour’s poll ratings only began after that Parliamentary party’s attempted (and incompetently-executed) coup last summer. The old Blairite nostrum – that the British public don’t like splits, and you shouldn’t air your dirty laundry in public – seemed to have been forgotten by many of Blair’s disciples in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

The return of Labour’s poll numbers, and the fact that Corbyn is now outpolling Miliband, has forced a shift in the narrative. Rather than concede ground to a leader making real progress for an agenda which is identifiably Labour, murmurings have begun in the Twittersphere amongst PLP members and those sympathetic to them that the British public are crying out for a Labour government, would that only they had a leader they could vote for.

Eh? Aside from the fact that when polled Corbyn is preferred by the public to the alternatives who stood against him in 2015, such a narrative stretches the bounds of credulity. As my former tutor at university once put it, be careful to differentiate between a valid argument and the rationalisation of a position. Most pundits in 2015 (including this one) felt that, whoever they elected, Labour probably couldn’t win in 2020. Whoever inherited the mantle would have a rebuilding job on their hands.

That mantle fell to Corbyn. Rebuild he has. Party membership has soared. Imagine what he could do given the support of his MPs.

Not so long ago, sections of the PLP were arguing that the election would be a disaster and that Corbyn would have to go thereafter – Labour would go down to 150-200 seats and that would vindicate them. They seemed, at points, to be enthusiastic about the possibility; finally they could get rid of the hated Corbyn and his socialists.

The problem for them now is that an apocalypse on that scale looks unlikely. Today’s poll has Labour gaining over 20 seats on their 2015 result. Personally, I don’t buy that; YouGov polls have been unreliable on a number of occasions, but even so Labour is trending upwards on most polls conducted in the past few weeks.

So the goalposts have had to shift. Now it’s not that Corbyn should go in the event of a Labour collapse, it’s that ‘we could have won it’ if it weren’t for Corbyn. Yet it’s Corbyn’s manifesto policies (at least as much as May’s desperate attempt at self-sabotage) which have narrowed the gap and hinted at a Labour revival.

In short, the PLP knows best (as it always has done). It didn’t get us into this mess in the first place through its constant tantrums in public, it didn’t get us into this mess because it previously thought ‘austerity lite’ was a winning ticket, it didn’t get us into this mess because its complacency lost Scotland. It was All Corbyn’s Fault.

Politics is like football in a number of ways; one is tribalism, another is the short memories of some of its participants and fans. Just as the modern fan thinks the world began in 1992 and the formation of the Premier League, so too does the average Blairite think the world began in 1997. This is in part due to the success of the Blair project’s attempt to renarrativise Labour history prior to Blair’s election as Leader in 1994 as ‘old Labour’, pretty much universally bad. This renarrativisation of the history of British social democracy had the effect of moving the whole centre ground to the right; by accepting much of the Thatcherite diagnosis of British political history, Labour couldn’t lay claim to its success stories quite so easily.

Part of Corbyn’s appeal is that yes, he does hark back to the past – but only insofar as he rehabilitates it in order to provide a plausible future. His policies are modern and respond to present circumstances; his values are old and speak to a concept of solidaristic citizenship which Labour has for too long eschewed in favour of an unapologetic enthusiasm for market individualism. But Labour MPs, many of whom do not have political memories which stretch back before 1997, simply struggle to conceive of the world in the ways in which Corbyn speaks of it – of a world where the economy works for people, rather than an inexorable, ever-changing, machine which ‘adaptable’ human capital has to constantly dance on a hamster wheel to sustain.

In the short-term, Labour MPs seemed to forget that the annihilation of the party’s parliamentary representation north of the border took place on Ed Miliband’s watch, and was the result of long-term factors. As stated previously, Corbyn’s only crime here is failing to turn that around in under two years. Bit of an ask given it took a lot longer than that to bring the house down.

The war isn’t over, either within the party or without. The intensity will not let up. But, given how grim the situation looked a month ago, a brief pause to recognise just how well Jeremy Corbyn has done doesn’t go amiss. Funny, human, engaged and engaging, the Labour leader has used this campaign effectively to show the public that he really isn’t part of the political establishment, that he really does represent ‘people like you and me’. He’s promoted the policies that give such an appeal substance. And he has put Labour in a position where even if it doesn’t win the general election it may well have a big say in the formation of the next government.

For me personally, he’s made me proud to be a member of the Labour Party.

Bravo, Jeremy Corbyn.

In defence of postmodernism

‘In the past, when you needed information, you went to an encyclopaedia… and you could trust that the information would be true.’ Or so says Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s famed education guru, best-known as the co-ordinator of the PISA testing process which provides a comparative metric analysis of national education systems. The target in his sights today is “fake news”. According to a BBC report, Schleicher is adding an extra category to the test in 2018, one which goes beyond the existing ones of auditing students’ abilities in maths, literacy and science – namely a new category of ‘global competency’. This, he hopes, will incentivise teaching activities which will enable children and young people to spot the ‘truth’.

Schleicher isn’t known for his nuanced ideas on education. His crude views on what constitutes an education and their implications for PISA have faced criticism on numerous occasions. As such, his wholly unproblematic view of knowledge – that there was a halcyon age when a curious pupil could leaf through an encyclopaedia and feel safe in its truth – shouldn’t be surprising. But he’s not alone in diagnosing an absence of ‘truth’ as the characteristic problem of our contemporary politics; in a recent opinion piece for the BBC, journalist Peter Pomerantsev claimed that the election of Donald Trump was the manifestation of the ‘rise of the postmodern politician’, a politician who denies ‘facts’ and consequently is able to reconstruct the public sphere in such a fashion as to deny the possibility for rational debate. Pomerantsev isn’t the first to point the finger of culpability for the Trump administration at ‘postmodernist’ thinkers. The historian Sir Richard Evans, long a trenchant critic of what he characterises as ‘hyper-relativism and scepticism’ recently claimed on Twitter that the architects of the Trump administration were at university during the 1980s and 1990s when, he believed, such postmodern fallacies were in the ascendancy. Little surprise then that a President with a clear disdain for evidence should be supported by staffers who unashamedly proffer ‘alternative facts’.

Yet whilst it is vitally important to understand the Trump phenomenon and to resist it, the opportunistic character assassination of a diverse range of epistemological approaches is hardly the answer. To describe thinkers as varied as Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and White as being one and the same, substitutable and amounting to a singular interpretation of the social world, is naïve in the extreme, perhaps wilfully so. But more than this, the singular interpretation offered – that all such thinkers simply don’t believe in the possibility of facts – is plain wrong. And that’s a fact.

Foucault, for instance, never denied ‘facts’. His project as an historian evolved over time. A famous injunction of his was, after all, ‘do not ask me to remain the same’. It shifted between archaeological investigations of the social world at historically specific points, in short, delineating what concepts and ideas were possible at a given social/political/cultural moment, to genealogical approaches which sought to write a ‘history of the present’ through a discontinuous reading of the past. But either way, it couldn’t work without ‘facts’. Discipline and Punish, arguably Foucault’s most well-known work in the English-speaking world, rested on historical accounts and evidence, from its opening vignette on the execution of Damiens to its legendary account of Bentham’s Panopticon. Foucault’s ambition was to expose the ‘truths’ around these formations, and how they operationalised and actualised decentred ideas of power.

If Foucault held something in common with Lyotard et al., it was a scepticism about narratives; not facts themselves but how we aggregate them, the stories we tell built on them, and the meanings we inscribe on them. Most of all, for Foucault, this was about trying to understand the constitutive nature of power and knowledge, which weren’t, in his view, separate entities but reflexively-linked. Grand accounts of ‘truth’ could be problematic; normative ideas of reason as truth could deem unreason madness; so ran the thesis of Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation. Foucualt’s account of these processes relied on facts; what was in question for him was the nature of assumption.

It’s hardly as if problems with ‘truth’ began with the ’68 generation, either. In her 1949 classic The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir opened her account with a forensic deconstruction of how supposedly-objective science had in fact sought over the centuries to enshrine the politics of gender in sex. Scientists characterised the female body in masculine terms, perceiving female sex organs as a negation of the male. Adam’s rib again, but with latinisms. That begs the question of at what point could Schleicher’s pupil open the encyclopaedia and feel safe? Could a female child open an encyclopaedia at any point up to the present and feel sure that the knowledges offered were remorselessly true, and not couched in terms of patriarchy and oppression? Hardly.

In fact, philosophical scepticism about narrative – as opposed to fact – is a perfect rejoinder to Trumpism. Trumpism is built on nativist fantasy which doesn’t stand up to historical scrutiny. As the Irish Taioseach, Enda Kenny, reminded Trump this past week, the United States is a nation of immigrants; it is not and has never been a society forged behind a wall. Trump’s narrative – his ‘truth’ – speaks to particular constituencies in the United States (particularly amongst whites) which are opposed to globalisation and, to some extent, the relative decline of their historical supremacy. Using Foucauldian tools or dispositions (for example) to critique the nature of Trumpism opens up new sites for resistance; and it does so rooted in a keen awareness of the problems and dangers inherent in proposing one universal narrative.

In the United Kingdom, the victory of the Leave vote in the referendum on membership of the European Union has also been characterised by some as evidence of the rise of ‘post-truth’ politics. This account has it that Brexiteers simply wouldn’t listen to ‘reason’, they wouldn’t engage with ‘evidence’, they had no respect for ‘experts’. It’s hard to disagree with much of this analysis. Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary, and a prominent spokesman for Vote Leave, infamously commented during the campaign that Britain had ‘had enough of experts’. In his tenure as Education Secretary, he had worked strenuously to rewrite the history curriculum in Britain’s schools to emphasise ‘our island story’, shifting the balance away from situating the UK in global perspective and instead emphasising (in Evans’ penetrating phrase) ‘the wonderfulness of us’. Following the Brexit decision, the Leave lobby has, if anything, become still-more vociferous in its advocacy of British exceptionalism. Melanie Phillips, in an historically-illiterate piece in The Times, argued for Britain as ‘the authentic nation’, trumping ‘nationalist claims’ in Scotland and Ireland. For Phillips, ‘Britain is a nation with the right to rule itself. It is the EU which is the artificial construct, the imagined community that falsely claims for itself the hollow appurtenances of a nation.’

Cherry-picking from Jonathan Clark, she claims that ‘Britain was not invented; it developed’. In this she agrees with the former UK Independence Party MP and Vote Leave spokesman Douglas Carswell. Commenting on Twitter, Carswell told the historian Tom Holland that ‘UK fused organically from below. EU a construct of elites from above.’ Both Phillips and Carswell seem to have ignored the findings of historians from Linda Colley to Richard Weight on the nature of the British ‘project’, not to mention discussions in cultural studies such as the reflection by David McCrone that Britain is in truth not a nation-state at all, but a ‘state-nation masquerading as a nation-state…[with] a political superstructure grafted onto the civil societies or nations which to a greater or lesser extent remained self-governing in their domestic or “low” politics.’

Brexiteers selectively aggregating facts to create spurious interpretations which (to borrow McCrone’s term) ‘masquerade’ as ‘truth’ isn’t the child of some cardboard-cut out version of postmodernism. It isn’t novel, either; the creation of metanarratives that empower some whilst disenfranchising others is, in fact, characteristic of political discourses. So too is the appeal to ‘emotion’ over ‘reason’, as the former BBC Director General Mark Thompson notes in his recent book, Enough Said. Both are classic staples of demagoguery.

It has long been the task of the political Left in Western societies to challenge these narratives using whatever analytical tools were available to them at the time. It was not for nothing that the British Labour politician Aneurin Bevan once said ‘This is my truth – now tell me yours’. For political freedom to be possible, meaning-making and truth must be democratised, not left in the hands of oligarchies who seek to impose more or less cohesive and exclusionary narratives to disenfranchise and exclude.

Dissension has necessitated dissenting from the ‘truth’ legitimising social and political systems; from the Diggers of the English Civil War to the feminist campaign for the franchise to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s to LGBTQ rights campaigns in the present. Resisting accounts of mandated oppression from the Great Chain of Being to the normative assumptions underpinning legal constructs of gender has necessitated contesting extant ‘truths’. But in this contestation what is offered are alternative ‘truths’, not ‘alternative facts’; a pluralistic range of interpretations more in keeping with the diversity of human possibility and liberty, not less.

Schleicher then, should be wary of trying to resolve the world’s problems with an easily-metric-ed reversion to encyclopaedia knowledges. The ‘classic history’ that Michael Gove promoted – ‘Our Island Story’ – in the UK was one which valorised Britannia as a sceptred isle which civilised the world in ‘true’ Christian style. History is central to these debates as it is (as Foucault recognised) the ultimate appeal to authority. Humans are historical beings, grounded in the reality of historical time and experience, drawing on memory, individual and social, to inform their decisions and mores. How the truths of that history are thus constituted is of paramount importance for their ability to frame discursive vocabularies which permit political possibilities in the future. They may agree that President Kennedy was shot on the 22nd November 1963; but they may disagree on what that meant. That is as it should be.

In Britain, Brexit has, at least in part, been the culmination of processes which have attempt to reconstruct popular memory in terms of a certain historical ‘truth’. The island nation, ‘standing alone’, is a fantasy; bedecked with the imagery of the Spitfire above the White Cliffs of Dover, it ignores the fact that 1940 was an exception, rather than the rule, in British history. It has not been the norm of the British historical experience for Britain to cut herself off from the world, for good or ill. Equally, Britain’s engagement with the wider world has hardly been benign; to embrace a sense of political victimhood as a consequence of imperial decline and the fear of globalisation is at best an historical irony. Popular memory matters and going back to encyclopaedia entries is not the solution to the problems of the age of neonationalism. As Marc Ferro remarked decades ago, history does have its users and abusers.

What, then, is called for is more difficult than a simple reconstruction of authority in the form of definitive textbooks or encyclopaedias. The truth should never be ‘fixed’, or ossified. What is required is the continuous contestation of oppressive and tyrannical narratives on the part of citizens. Whilst Schleicher isn’t wrong to claim that space needs to be opened up for this in public education systems, where he fails is in thinking that the answer to a problem created by metrics is to introduce another metric. For the metrics of neoliberalism betray their own tyrannical truth; only that which can be counted matters. Counting the evidence of the ‘right kind of history’, as David Cannadine termed it, isn’t the answer. In fact, if Schleicher wanted to make a real attempt to foster criticality, he might instead abolish PISA altogether. PISA, after all, only counts ‘facts’, though it embodies them with particular meanings. The challenge of the neonationalist age really lies in interpretation. Donald Trump does not need the authority of a philosopher to lie; he just lies. He knows that those who want to believe his lies will choose to. By freeing schools from the normative expectations of neoliberalism – that the ultimate aim of education is to succeed in a ‘global race’ framed in economic terms – Schleicher could help do something meaningful in drawing the sting of neonationalism. He could help create the space for self-expression, freedom of thought, truth-telling and meaning-making.

The attack on ‘postmodernism’ is misplaced, as is the normative expectation that there is always a simple truth to be found. The legacy of the much-traduced thinkers of the ’68 generation is that the personal is political, that narratives must be contested, that we have a responsibility to ourselves to pursue an ethics of liberation. That’s hard. It means an active citizenship that many of us have eschewed in favour of the self-reinforcement of social media and the desire for the comfort of economic security. It’s also based on a naïve view of history as progress. We are not entitled to live in societies which are free, democratic, tolerant or open. These things exist only so long as we fight for them and make them real in the everyday. They will never be as free, tolerant or open as they could be. Indeed, our citizenship and subjectivity are defined in the act of critique.

This was something that was known to post-war existentialists and educationalists, but which has been lost through the reification of the market and the etiolation of the individual into the consumer. The expansion of the universities in the West in the post-war period was driven by a conviction amongst some that they should be wilfully out of step with society – that they should not merely reflect society’s opinions but seek to change and inform them. But the technologies of discipline imposed by the governmentality of neoliberalism (to borrow some Foucauldian terms) have reduced the ability of the individual to resist authoritarian politics. They have decentred the individual, creating a nexus of consumption-as-identity that denudes the political subject of authority, that has reduced the sense of the politically-possible in the minds of many, even in universities themselves. As willing sufferers, many of us have embraced these technologies of discipline in metric form to validate ourselves, just as pupils and students are expected to validate themselves in test-after-test-after-test. Neoliberalism made neonationalism possible. That’s my interpretation, which you are free to contest. But simply appealing to ‘authority’ is no answer to either, as authorities are always-situated. As such, the theories of the thinkers of ’68 and beyond have never been more necessary. They empower us to fight those who would offer fraudulent interpretations, or who would promote interpretations as fact. But they would not have us simply write a new encyclopaedia. As ever, resistance is much more than that.