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Spectator USA
Spectator USA
20 Oct 2023
Lionel Shriver


NextImg:Against set-menu morality

It’s a truism that the Anglosphere has developed a “tribalism” that rivals the divisions between the Kikuyu and Luhya in Kenya. One pernicious aspect of mutually hostile groupsterism is prix fixe politics. Your side shares a rigid, prescribed collection of beliefs, and joining the club entails embracing every single one, while despising a compulsory roster of enemies and backing the folks on your team — whatever friend or foe may say, whatever friend or foe may do. As in French restaurants, there are no substitutions.

Letting go of indefensible positions your gang is ‘supposed’ to maintain is a relief

Rarely has set-menu morality been put on more vivid display than last week. Left-wing cheering, flag-waving and brandishing of bloodthirsty antisemitic posters to applaud the Hamas rampage through Israel — which included infanticide, geronticide, rape — and the indiscriminate massacre of civilians — has already been roundly decried by other commentators. Let’s put aside our revulsion for a moment, then, to puzzle out why so many westerners celebrated what would otherwise seem universally repugnant barbarism.

Mind, these demonstrators — some of them our neighbors, who probably appear sound, sensible and sane when sitting at the next café table — were out in the streets whooping with glee over the murder, maiming, sexual violation and kidnapping of Israelis well before the country’s military had had a chance to react. So whatever we think about Netanyahu’s response — overkill, collective punishment or legitimate self-defense — the Anglo left’s perplexing glorification of animalistic slaughter couldn’t have been inspired at first by any vengeful Israeli excess.

Support for Palestinians, along with demonization of Israel, has for years sat on the hard left’s set menu, and this viewpoint has once more moved from starter to main course. No matter what regressive atrocities Hamas commits, “progressives” are compelled to take them in their stride, if not to claim that in the “context” of Israeli “colonization,” slitting the throats of babies is justified. I feel a little sorry for these lefties, getting stuck with a perceived obligation to advocate for horror.

Misguided armchair Marxists have long had form in plumping for tyranny, but not because they promote tyranny per se as a matter of creed. As the twentieth century’s most deadly demagogues couched their crimes in socialist cant, Mao and Stalin were officially on the left’s side. Being lumbered with championing these despots’ mass murder amounted to a form of bad luck. Think walking into a Michelin-starred eatery on the Champs-Élysées only to discover that the menu du jour sponsors stewed tripe. Yuck. The same bad-day-in-the-kitchen phenomenon helps explain Guardianistas’ baffling historical endorsement of blowing up little boys with bin bombs: the IRA claimed to be not nationalistic thugs but revolutionary “liberators,” so the rules of the game made them allies.

Set-menu morality isn’t solely a problem for the left. I may fancy myself an independent thinker (many a fierce factionalist nurses the same vanity), but especially in the last ten years, during which former political confederates migrated so far left as to become distant dots on the horizon, I’ve had no choice but to label myself as roughly conservative. Thus I, too, belong to a side. Rejoicing in the victories of like-minded colleagues, I root for my team. When another American state bans paediatric sex changes, I chalk it up as another point scored for our anti-woke gang.

Yet however cozy belonging to a band of brothers may feel, this lands me with a serious strange-bedfellows problem, particularly in the US. The Republican Party is a fractious, infighting mess in the grip of Donald Trump. Also, I’ve little appetite for more than one course on red-state set menus.

So here’s a useful aphorism for all ideological persuasions: in politics, always order à la carte. I regularly remind myself that I’ve not signed up to some official membership that commits me to eating tripe. I can object to the left’s divisive obsession with race while also finding individual police abuses of minority suspects perfectly appalling. Just because I agree with Republicans that children shouldn’t be allowed to permanently damage their bodies in the service of some faddish “gender” nonsense doesn’t mean I also want to ban abortion, and I can still, on balance, support funding for Ukraine. My abstract appreciation for the importance of tradition in Britain, for instance, doesn’t require me to ardently follow the royal family.

The opposing tribe would also profit from ordering their dishes one at a time. Being “progressive” doesn’t force you to excuse unrestrained slaughter and the hostage–taking of children. You can still sympathize with Palestinians, still criticize Israeli policies on West Bank settlements, while condemning Hamas’s butchery of innocents. We are all independent moral agents who should be capable of seeing single events for what they are, and we don’t benefit from blinding ourselves to reality just because what happened doesn’t score a point for our team.

It’s emotionally inevitable that we’re more exercised by some news stories than others. Eco-warriors will get up in arms about floods, while climate sceptics will see more ho-hum weather. Yet letting go of often-indefensible positions your lot are “supposed” to maintain is a relief — one akin to the unburdening sensation of apologizing or admitting you made a mistake. “Oh, I see. I can deplore gunning down whole families and putting out the eyes of corpses. That doesn’t mean I want to give Netanyahu a big sloppy kiss.”

As a postscript, I question the degree to which anti-Israel protesters in New York, London and Sydney are truly agonized by the Palestinian plight. The tribalism that divides the Anglosphere is in-house. Foreign conflicts are merely weapons to be deployed against domestic enemies. The English-speaking left doesn’t care about Uighurs in concentration camps, because that particular suffering doesn’t bolster any “progressive” cause back home. The American right uses Ukraine as a ploy in the immigration debate, arguing that the money shipped to Zelensky should be spent on defending the US southern border instead. For tribes, much foofaraw over international strife and foreign policy is secretly provincial.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.