A response to some of the comments on my last essay

I wrote this essay mainly to organise thoughts in my head, and to share them with others. The aim is to provoke thought and debate, and I am glad I have done that. I don’t claim to be right, but do claim the right to put forward ideas for others to discuss. So I thought it would be appropriate to respond to some of the many interesting comments people have made. I don’t expect or need everyone to agree with me. In fact, if everyone agreed with me I think I’d have achieved nothing beyond being another voice in the echo chamber.

Sebastian Ungureanu writes: “I was discussing your article with a friend, and we were wondering what exactly do you mean by saying “ The liberal intellectuals are always in the minority” — do you mean in academia? In the general population? There are, as you said, certain closed groups in which quite the contrary is true, and it would be great if you could go into a bit more detail here. Thanks!”

My point was picking up from Clay Shirky’s great Twitter feed recently (underlined bits here are links out). He points out that Liberals cluster, mainly in cities, then think that their opinion is in the majority. What we just saw in the UK with Brexit was London thinking nobody would vote to Leave, only to find that they were in a minority, clustered in a city, and were out of touch with too many people outside London and other affluent cities. That realisation should be the most important outcome of the Brexit vote: that the UK is too divided between those who benefit from globalisation and the EU, and those who do not.

Henje Richter writes: “Thank you for the interesting read. But being a historian myself, I have a little trouble with you trying to use the historian’s toolbox to interpret the present or to predict the future — our methods simply aren’t able to do that. Using them the way you do leads to such conclusions as history being cyclical, which it really isn’t. It can be told cyclically, yes. But it can also be told in any other way: teleologically, eschatologically, chaotically, etc. History is our way of making sense of past events, not the events themselves.

What I am trying to say is: Don’t tell a story where things just happen and you can’t do a thing about it. Tell the one where people are powerful, where even small actions can have big effects and where nothing is set in stone, especially not future events. We definitely live in interesting times and things are in motion, but where they go from here is up to us to decide, and for future historians to write about.”

Thanks. I love this point. I totally agree. I am using the toolbox of history to speculate as to what might happen next. The aim is to provoke people into thinking more about the times we’re in, which are clearly significant. I agree the cycles are to some extent created with the benefit of hindsight, but you can also see very clear patterns from history that tend to repeat. If we don’t learn lessons from those patterns in history, surely we’re just blindly stumbling forward, to make the same mistakes again and again.

Steve Dorsett writes: “Stupid, idiotic article. Comparing leaving a political union which was corrupt, didn’t work due to the self-serving nature of it’s members states and ignored and overrode the democratic will of individual members, as leading to a nuclear war?!?! People chose to make a choice as to how they were governed — this is a GOOD thing and a sign that we live in a truly free democratic society that we were able to do this. And you belittle the will of the people, as some sort of sign that it signifies an oncoming apocalypse or armageddon. This is intellectual snobbery of the worst kind.”

Steve, you totally failed to understand the article. Also, you are calling it stupid because you disagree with a point in it, that Brexit may not have been a good idea. It is precisely that response I am arguing leads to people not challenging events, and why things get out of control. If I am an intellectual snob, you are not being intellectual enough. How about we meet in the middle?

What I’m saying is that single events which at the time seem isolated and contained can cause reverberations to lead to massive global events. The killing of Archduke Ferdinand led to WW1 and the death of 17m people. That is an example. I then say, and use italics to emphasise it, that one scenario could be what I describe, and make clear it is just one of many possible scenarios. I agree with your description of the EU, actually, but am trying to put Brexit into a wider global context, where the implications are generally not well understood. The Brexit vote will impact the American elections, elections around Europe, and empower the type of far right parties we thankfully don’t have here in the UK. You are the person I refer to in the article, who does not look at the past, the future, or the global context of an event. Read the links in this essay and have a think.

Kingshuk Mukherjee writes: “This is opinion masquerading as fact. You use tidbits from history to conform to your opinions, when the case could be argued the other way. I’m neutral in all this. But the confirmation bias is very real.”

No, this is opinion presented as opinion, built around facts. Anyone can build any number of opinions around facts, and that is the point of debate. The case could be argued in an infinite number of ways. As I point out, I am just presenting one of them. Everyone has a bias. I am presenting mine in how I interpret the facts to form an opinion. Don’t confuse having an opinion with a presentation of a fact. And instead of just criticising, why not write the argument the other way so people can compare both.

Simon Hamilton-Allison writes: “This is full of propositions and assumptions without reference to any peer reviewed works or critical analysis. This stream of consiousness drivel contains methaphor after metaphor after metaphor.”

It is an opinion piece not a peer-reviewed article. It is loaded with my assumptions, that’s the nature of an opinion piece. It does reference (click the underlined links) to a lot of news and other references. But it’s a bit silly to make such a criticism of an essay on Medium. It is clear this presents a set of opinions and ideas, and is not an academic work claiming to be anything more than that. Saying an entire essay is ‘drivel’ is easy. Writing another essay to counter the points is not. See that as a challenge.

Marc Salomon write: “I can’t take such historical/political analysis seriously if it ignores economics, in this case, neoliberalism as a proximate cause of anger. People are angry legitimately and for reasons that aggregate statistics do not capture.”

Totally agree Marc, and I love economics, but it was not the subject I chose to write about. Had I tried to bring that in it would have been twice as long. The anger is legitimate, and the political establishment and media seem mainly to blame. I’d say that’s usually the case when things all fall apart.

Don Joe writes: “You make some interesting points, but at the same time you’re just being led by the nose by the age-old US-promoted blind fear of Russia and you’re not checking your facts on what Putinist Russia has done and can do. If you take off your anti-Russia hate goggles you will see that 1. all of Putin‘s forceful interventions in neighboring countries were aimed at protecting the interests of significant Russian-ethnic populations”

Joe, I’m not American and not exposed to American media. Russia just invaded a sovereign country, and annexed a region, Crimea, with the same population as Latvia. It is now widely accepted, based on a forensic investigation of the evidence, that they also shot down the MH17 civilian airliner. The argument that Putin was protecting ethnic Russians is the very basic, simplistic bit of propaganda he used, and was taken from the rule-book written by Hitler, who used exactly the same technique and reasoning when he invaded the Sudetenland. The man who led the invasion, Strelkov, admitted afterwards that it was hard at first to persuade the locals to rise up and fight. You affirm my main point: if people don’t learn from history, it repeats itself.

Jason Kenny writes: “Brexit — a group of angry people winning a fight ”Is this a fact or are you trying to write history? Do you know that the majority of the 17.4million people were angry? No, this is another case of sore loser syndrome I am afraid. I voted to leave because I think we have an opportunity to be stronger and show the world you don’t need to be in an exclusive club run by unelected officials to have prosperity and peace. Not angry at all to be fair!”

Jason, no it is not a fact, it is an opinion. It is an opinion very widely shared, and I think accurate. Many people voting for Brexit were angry with a political elite that’s totally failed them, and angry with a Europe that’s failed to make itself relevant to them. The sore loser argument is the point in my essay: when people belittle alarmists as sore losers, they fail to sit up and look at what is happening around them. Your vote was clearly based on a respectable and thought-through argument, and I respect that. Some people will agree with it, and some won’t, and that’s all good.

But a lot of people interviewed say they voted to Leave because they’re angry. My essay isn’t about you and Brexit, it’s about the global implications of a combined set of events happening at the moment. Stop thinking about losers and winners, and using the tired argument that the ‘losers’ should stop debating, and instead start looking at the wider possible implications of what you just voted for. A significant rise in hate crimes in the UK was not an outcome that was either promised by Leave or warned of by Remain, but is an outcome all the same.

Michel Proulx writes: “If Russia and China had organised a series of combined manoeuvres in Venezuela, Cuba and along the coasts of the USA, everyone would have been raving mad about the potential dangers of such manoeuvres. In 1962, the Cuba crisis barely avoided leading to a nuclear war. Yet, what is NATO doing now along the borders of Russia and the coast of China? And you dare say that “Russia is a dictatorship with a charismatic leader using fear and passion to establish a cult around himself”. I don’t think much of Putin’s democratic stance, and I do think some of your points are valid. Yet I can’t help feeling you are slightly nearsighted in what concerns Russia.”

Michel, you have to be very naive to suggest Russia is in anyway democratic. Also, NATO’s exercises along the Russian borders at the moment are primarily a response to Russia invading and ceding a neighbouring country. These are facts and not opinions, so are not nearsighted. Read more about what just happened there.

tmanstark writes: “It’s seems there’s a lot of 20 / 20 hindsight in your piece as well as a confusion that the same group of people are doing the same thing over and over. That last part, in particular, is where this falls apart. There is no grand theory of everything and just saying there are some patterns really isn’t saying anything. Brexit is not the same as the Holocaust, is not the same as the rise of Trump (who in fact hasn’t become president yet). Sure there are some shared characteristics but that does not make them the same. There are more characteristics that are not the same. This piece is a disorganized exercise in, as Somalians say, “we’ll muddle through.” I feel muddled after having read it. But not any more informed.”

A lot of 20/20 hindsight… yes, that is called history and is what the essay is about. And that is precisely what I was arguing. I don’t anywhere say Brexit is the same as the Holocaust. Read more carefully, you are, as you say, very muddled.

I clearly didn’t say that Brexit is like the holocaust or that Trump is Hitler. What I’m saying is that with the benefit of historical hindsight we can see that apparently small events can lead to much larger ones. In a very simple way, you can argue that killing Arch Duke Ferdinand led to the Somme. Hitler’s annexation of the Sudentland led to the Holocaust. Without the first event the second would probably not have happened. The point is simply that we should try to use this lesson from history to question what the future implications might be of events now. Events now are unusual because there are very similar things happening in different places at the same time. When small ripples touch each other they can become big waves.

wuddaworld writes: “Am curious whether or not you’ve factored in the impacts of willful inaction regarding climate change (which seems to be a common trait among authoritarians) when you say ‘Humans will come out the other side, recover, and move on. The human race will be fine, changed, maybe better.’”

No, and that’s a great point. It’s a whole other essay. If you think mine was depressing, try combining it with another about the climate!

martyn jones writes: “I seriously doubt the next world war will start with one person’s death. You yourself said that you would fail your university exams by not taking more than one side. So tell the other side of the story as well.”

No, in this case I am not writing an academic essay, I’m just expressing opinions. And for you to doubt the next world war will start with one person’s death entirely demonstrates what I was saying. I’m sure nobody thought that WW1 was going to start when Archduke Ferdinand was killed. And I doubt anyone predicted WW2 would start when the first soldiers died. It is precisely that unwillingness to look at history and let it cause you to ask questions that creates the risks of repeating itself.

Trevin writes: “You’re fear mongering. First it was Britain’s economy would fail post-Brexit, now that you’ve inevitably been proven wrong you’ve moved on to another false idea.”

Do you read the news? The British economy is in a dreadful state as a result of Brexit. The sad truth is that the people who voted for it are the ones most likely to be hit by the ensuing recession. Read this piece in the Economist for example. There is so much written about it that it must be willful blindness if you don’t see it. Even the British Government accepts we’re seeing a financial crisis and possible recession now.

“Trump won’t honor NATO simply because nobody honors NATO. Under NATO Americans are being used as a broad sweeping sword.”

NATO works because everyone honours it. The minute that system fails, NATO fails. That is why NATO was quick to respond after Trump made these comment.

“You likened NATO to the complex alliances before the First World War, then you admit that Trump doesn’t want to be apart of NATO. You then claim this to be a bad thing.”

Nope, I didn’t liken NATO to the complex alliances before WW1. You misunderstood that.

the_vinx writes: “Why do you start so strong and then blame the start of WW3 on Russia? By all statistics America is greatest in starting wars. I think you’re seriously blinded by your nationalism.”

I’m not nationalist, but it’s a fair point. I didn’t blame the next war on Russia, I presented a scenario which I clearly said was one of many possible scenarios, in which Russian military action in Europe could lead to another war. I actually imply in that scenario that America would also be responsible for that war, due to a Trump-led isolationist policy disrupting a NATO response. Clearly, Trump may not win, Putin may not invade Latvia. Anything could happen but my point is that right now things look very bad — there are a lot of corresponding events happening that can be pieced together to paint a worrying picture. Not playing through scenarios like this means we’re less likely to see dangers in the future. Not worrying is surely the most dangerous thing you can do.