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The revolt against virtue

Why should this appeal to so many people in such a stable, prosperous country? And why do politicians who worry about immigrants and national decline almost automatically assume that climate change is not a problem? I found a possible answer, not in Amsterdam, but in London, where I marched a few weeks ago with hundreds of thousands of UK citizens in protest against Brexit.

The crowd was utterly civilized, almost genteel even, and exuded a kind of virtuousness. There was a mostly unspoken assumption that Brexiteers were not just wrong, but bigots and xenophobes. This may be true of many Brexiteers, and especially of some of their loudest official cheerleaders. My own sentiments were entirely with the marchers. But the assumption of virtue among those who count themselves as progressive may help to explain the popularity of right-wing agitators, as well as the link between anti-immigrant sentiment and denial of climate change.

Left-of-center parties used to represent the economic interests of the industrial working class. The focus began to change in the last decades of the twentieth century, when race, gender, and ecology became more important concerns of the left. Anti-racism, equal rights for women and sexual minorities, as well as the health of the planet – all worthy goals – injected a strong sense of virtuousness into progressive politics. We knew what was best for people, and those who opposed us were either stupid or wicked.

This attitude can be hard to tolerate, especially when it is accompanied by social and educational privilege, which it often is. The Netherlands has a long tradition of virtuous rule. You can see it in portraits by Frans Hals of seventeenth-century Dutch worthies dressed in sober but expensive black clothes. These figures, who were indeed often inspired by noble motives, held a firm belief that their innate Protestant virtue gave them the right to govern.

Something of this tradition survived in the Netherlands for a long time. The liberal and social democratic parties, in particular, would tell people that good citizens should believe in European integration, welcome “guest workers” and refugees, eat and drink healthily, and do everything possible to mitigate the damage of changing climate conditions.

The reaction to this type of paternalism, sensible and well-meant as it usually was, came in the form of petulant populism. Like a child who refuses to eat his spinach, just because his mother claims it is good for him, supporters of Trump, Brexiteers, or Baudet want to give the finger to the politics of virtue. That is why Nigel Farage, the chief promoter of Brexit, likes to be photographed with a glass full of beer and a smoldering cigarette: if the virtuous elite want us to drink less and quit smoking, let’s have another and light up.

And that personal rebellion quickly turns political. If “they” tell us to stay in Europe, let’s get out. If they tell us to accept immigrants, let’s turn them away. If they tell us that climate change is a serious threat, let’s deny it. Anything, it seems, is better than admitting that the experts are right. This is true in Trump country, and it is just as true in the placid, affluent Netherlands.

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Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of `A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir’.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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