Somewhere I Belong — But That’s None of Your Business

Corona sent all of us back to the Somewheres from whence we stem — and I therefore decided to read the book whose contents everyone knows but nobody actually reads: David Goodhart’s 2017 The Road to Somewhere.

It’s not a terrible read, but neither is it particularly great.

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As a writer, most of my work is read by Anywheres and particularly those who most closely resembles the extreme end — Global Villagers — in Goodhart’s classification. But I grew up Somewhere, with distinctly Somewhere families, the first in my family to attend university, and most certainly (bar an occasional town fool somewhere in my family tree) the first to make his living crafting words rather than tools, metal or soil. As the corona pandemic relegated me to the Somewhere from which I originate (by Anywheres of questionable acumen), I may have a thing or two to insightfully contribute.

See, the crafting of words rather than the crafting of goods concerns Goodhart a great deal. For words are the Anywhere’s tools — the journalists, the politicians, the press secretaries and the consultants. The mobile lot, at ease in every woke metropolis of the West, have neglected their pasts and the values and interests of the towns from whence they stem.

The Somewheres, on the other hand, don’t make the news — neither in front or behind the camera. They’re the silent majority who don’t fancy those Hungarian or Lithuanian or Indian workers taking all the jobs, and disapprove of the local school closing or the town manufacturing being outsourced. Not exactly for intellectually sound reasons or with coherent arguments, but objecting they do all the same. They value security and local roots, that most things just remain the way they were.

Goodhart writes that “both the Anywhere and Somewhere world views are legitimate,” but it’s clear from his writing that he doesn’t believe that.

Reading it, I come back to three things that — over and over — provoke me:

  1. How much of this is none of your business.
  2. What it means for a country to be “yours”
  3. Identity and Language as illustrations of human interaction.

Going through them reveals my strong Anywhere belonging and a fair dose of libertarian live-and-let-live kodus.

First, most of the concerns that Goodhart’s numerous survey results reveal are topics that are clearly none of his business — or the disapproving people’s business. Do you disapprove of companies outsourcing production? Should work go to British-born workers first? Should companies invest more in training? Are you upset that the ethnic and demographic composition of your neighbourhood is changing?

Cool, who cares? These are things much out of your sphere of influence. Definitely none of your business.

Let’s bring back some ice-cream examples I’ve successfully used in the past: I eat chocolate ice-cream, and the ice-cream man sells it to me. Nobody else is involved. Why is it of your concern whether the ice-cream man comes to these lands to sell ice-cream before he goes back to his native turf and spend the proceeds? Why are we concerned if the ice-cream man makes better (or cheaper) ice-cream than the previous guy who now finds himself out of a job?

Equivalently, the flip side is even more absurd. Should the community grant permission to a new ice-cream man? Should the incumbent industry decide who gets to trade what with whom? May you only sell your apartment, or hire and fire employees in your company, if some collection of outsiders allow it?

No, thanks.

He clearly don’t see the value that employers and migrant workers do to engage in their mutually beneficial trade. Here, as so often in moralistic disagreements over societal problems left or right, the argument boils down to this: how is this any of your business?

In even stranger ways, Goodhart keeps talking about “the need to be valued and to belong” as if someone else’s good opinion not only has to be earned, but can reasonably be expected — or even mandated.

I don’t care about your need to belong, and whether I value your contribution is beside the point. Which contribution, anyway? Your market value? Your countenance? Your social work in our neighbourhood? In the same way nobody else can rightfully mandate some ice cream flavor other another, nobody can rightfully mandate others’ evaluation. None of your business.

Rights come with accompanying duties, as Goodhart accurately explains, but then whose duty is it to ensure that I feel “valued” and “belong”? And if I don’t, can I sue for it? Arguments like this, that appeal to events and estimations that are not of your business, have one coherent conclusion: your life decisions and preferences do not belong to you.

Second: “Your” Country

A frequent concern among many British Somewheres is that they feel like a foreigner in “their own country.” Cosmopolitan languages on the tube, all kinds of ethnicities in your neighbourhood. People who operate, value, share, and celebrate different things differently than you do.

Is that your thing to decide? Limit? Govern?

You guessed it: no, none of your business.

Goodhart ensures that his survey results indicate that people aren’t necessarily hostile to newcomers, but “do not want to lose a sense of ownership of their area, a sense that people like them set the tone in the shops and the way or life.”

Hang on. Their area? Set the tone in shops? Direct others’ way of life?

You don’t own that; those are not your things to decide over. If you have a superior idea of how land, shops, products, parks or apartments ought to be used, there’s a simple way to reconcile those differences, a way that doesn’t include stubbornly answer surveys or complain loudly in elections. Buy the resources. If you wanna run the shops and decide what goes on their shelves, open a bloody store — or better yet, buy the store that annoys you so.

There is no ‘we’, as Deirdre McCloskey expertly explains: “really, individuals making decisions about what to do, and not the collectivist ‘we’ of nationalist fantasies.”

You don’t own that. You don’t have a say in that. Frustrates you? B*** me.

The principle of proximity

It gets even better when Goodhart, not exactly persuasively, enunciates the “Charity begins at home” principle, where people have stronger responsibilities for those in their immediate surroundings. To him, that means nationhood and so 65m Brits or 330m America shoved together.

By this principle I carry a greater responsibility for the misfortunes of a Swedish citizen of Kiruna (a mining town 1 800 km away from where my family lives), than the Danish citizens across the Öresund Bridge (with whom I regularly interact and who operate the airport I normally frequent). Or the German citizens 150 km across the Baltic Sea, where I have friends and professional relationships. Or the many Anywheres of London I know (950 km away), whose various nationalities I cherish and interests I broadly share.

If your argument is proximity, which I don’t have a problem with, nation-states make no sense.

I realize that this is a bigger question within moral and political philosophy (to whom do I owe allegiance? Whose suffering ought I alleviate?) and that it’s unreasonable to ask of Goodhart that he solves them in a book on the contemporary political divides in British society. Besides, most Westerners live in pretty entrenched nation-states with fully developed bureaucracies and tax codes (and often also language and culture, although that’s much less homogenous than fifty years ago, and much less applicable for a country like Britain). But Goodhart’s argument isn’t that this is the world we inherited and so we might as well stick with it; his argument is that the myths told about those nations bring us together, and thus we should look out for each other.

I’m as much a stranger to the lands of Sweden’s north and the routines of their lives as I am the Icelandic highlands — or the Argentinian pampas. Simply because we share a tax code and carry similar passports, I don’t see what binds me to them. If we follow Goodhart’s explicit doctrine, “people are readier to share with people with whom they have something in common,” unobjectionable as it is, the nation-state division is kaput.

Perhaps I’m merely revealing my extreme Anywhere sympathies as I cannot wrap my head around why a stranger 1 800 km away has not just a bigger legal claim over me, but moral, social and ethical hold. The beauty with openness, if you wish, is that I can forge human connections with people who interest me rather than people shoved together through accidents of birth.

I am happy to concede some responsibility for the suffering and well-being of those humans I interact with and who are close to me: I accept Peter Singer’s moral responsible for the drowning child in front of me. I am not, however, responsible, at all or to the same extent, for the drowning child across the world — most practically because I’m not in a position to help.

If Goodhart wants to invoke distance and shared cultural communities as the principle by which we ought to take greater considering for some people over others, I am happy to accept that principle. But why, then, do nation states matter? Surely my German friends, my Danish suppliers or air hostesses and airport coffee shop workers — people I actually engage with — carry more weight than the Kiruna miner whose life and lifestyle I know nothing about?

As my mother spontaneously said when she learned that three new houses in her depopulating rural area had no owners:

Wonderful that we get some new people! It’s so sad that these houses remain empty — much better for the community that someone move in.

Except that Somewhere mentality wouldn’t want any other person moving in — but one of theirs. But those are not your decisions to make. If none of yours want to move in, and the only ones willing to move in are foreign (German, Polish, or Iranian? Young, Liberal, or yoga practising?), which principle comes out ahead? The community getting its houses filled, or your surroundings being made up of people you approve of?

That strict mentality and — in lack of a better word — backwater values might explain why many Somewhere areas are so sparsely populated. If your neighbors hates your guts for speaking with an accent or favoring gay marriage or going to university, no wonder that the mobile youth prefers the metropolis.

Who cares if “your” country feels like a foreign country? Every generation remakes its country with the new times, with different norms, values, interests and cultural references. A 20-year-old has values and interests that a 75-year-old can’t grasp — darn, even the lingo they wield iz legit dope, bro. That makes “your own” country feel like a foreign country. Besides, older generations are notorious for aggressively rejecting values, wants and actions of youth (“philosophy degree, what you do with that?!”). What Goodhart fails to explore is why immigration is a divide that cuts much deeper than the naturally occurring divisions between rich and poor, young and old, smart and stupid, small-town and big city life? Why it is a failure to emerge oneself in a British culture that is subtle (and thus hard to grasp), that is non-confrontative (and thus hard to realize when you made a mistake), that is hand-wavy and bitter about its own institutions (if you deride it so, why should I bother embracing it…?)

Worse, where exactly is the line for nationhood anyway?

Let’s stack my own achievements in English-ness with a fictionally average Brit — one who’s definitely English no matter what kind of definition we employ. I know how to work the ONS better than you do. I know more about this country’s (economic and financial) history than you do. I have been to more parts of Britain than you have; I have a larger English vocabulary than you; I’ve read more English literature classics than you; I’ve actually studied at Oxford as opposed to merely hearing about it on tele; I watch QI and the Graham Norton Show almost religiously. Why am I a fleeting Anyway foreigner, decidedly shout out from what makes up the country Goodhart considers deeply divided, but you’re distinctly English?

However I square the philosophies of the middle-of-the-road concerns that Goodhart discusses, the end in the same conclusion: you have the (moral or legal) right to dictate the lives of others. As a description of how real-world people see their relationship to a democratic state, that’s fine, but causes inevitable clashes in mutually exhaustive games over power.

As a foundational principle for society, it’s self-contradictory — for how can I have the right to dictate your life, if, at the same time, you have the right to dictate mine?

Again, the only way out is leave each other alone. Detach. Secede. Mind your own business.

Third: language, language, language.

As a backpacker — told you I was an extreme Anywhere — I’ve spent time in hostels. Quite a number of them. In some such surroundings, I don’t get to speak my language (abstracting from the silly idea that there even is such a thing as “my” language, a decentralized common knowledge that nobody controls). The tongue I absorbed as a child is spoke by some 10 million people, give it take. The chances that someone in hostel half-way across the world would understand it were always slim — not quite zero, as it does happen on a regular basis, but not large either.

I wonder, is there any morally sound or politically permissible principle that allows me to force my language upon others, that gives me the right to, through whatever mechanism, to impose my language on those around me?

No, that’d be absurd. Languages are deeply communal yet deeply personal things and clearly show the libertarian anarchic marketplace at its best. I am free to speak, but not free to command comprehension; I am free to engage with yours — and even borrow your words — not free to force you to use mine.

This parable is actually pretty great for illustrating human interactions. We can both choose to opt out; we can both cooperate; but there is no obligation one way or another. Negotiated interactions.

That Goodhart’s Somewheres are so upset about the linguistic plurality of Britain is fairly puzzling to me. I’m trying to think about the opposite endeavor: Brits moving abroad. There’s always this or that adventurous one, settling down in the mountains of Nepal, interacting with nobody but locals who don’t speak his language. But the vast majority of expats are more like those — socially, if not geographically — living in British enclaves from Spain to Singapore.

First line of defence is the guttural libertarian point I’ve raised above: who cares?!

Second, granting Goodhart’s premise that it’s a social and/or political problem that a population shares different linguistic, cultural, and morals, how easy is that to rectify?

I imagine a Brit buying an apartment in Costa del Sol. Their neighbour is a similarly placed 55-year old German, also escaping the meteorological misery of his native land. You come and go as family and profession still keeps you attached to Britain. You barely speak any Spanish — and it doesn’t improve, anyway, cause you’re too old to learn much and the simple interactions done on a daily basis are hospitably conducted in English anyway.

Or a twenty-something Brit moving to Frankfurt or Paris or Brussel to pursue careers in banking or politics Besides getting the work-life balance that everyone struggles with, regardless of ethnic or immigrant status, the family commitments and hobbies that all try to improve, she’s also supposed to acquire the linguistic subtleties that take a lifetime for natives to grasp, the cultural schwa of a place, share the moral underpinnings of the mainstream population you’re dealing with once a week while supermarket shopping or talking to the plumber.

It’s totally unreasonable. Nobody lives their life such that a host “society” can feel good about their maintained “cohesion.”

Your group identity depends on where you are

Let me explore a final strange thing.

One of Goodhart’s unconvincing “gotchas” is the proportion of people who identify as European first. Pretty much nobody, it turns out. Hence, the entire European project must have been an Anywhere utopia disregarding the wishes of the Somewheres.

Right. But hang on. Group identity depends on where you are and who else is around you.

On the streets of Buenos Aires or Los Angeles I am most certainly European rather than Swedish (what proportion of Americans can locate Sweden on a map, or tell me the difference between a Swede and an Austrian?). In Stockholm I’m barely even Swedish, as I come bearing our thick and powerful accent — clearly signalling dissent, so much so that I can barely communicate.

Outside Sjöbo, a small agricultural municipality where my mother now lives, I am most certainly “a city boy” — far from European and not primarily “Swedish.” In a place where community acceptability correlates with the thickness of your accent and how much manual labour you do, Anywheres who make their living from crafting words don’t exactly belong.

What Goodhart should have concluded from survey responses that don’t say European-first or British-first is that domain matters. We hold a multitude of identities, depending on our surroundings.

Identity is not a nation-state *thing*, however much Goodhart and the high-flying political scientists he cites wants it to be. On this, classical conservatism of community attachment and gradual change is certainly right.

Preferences (the “I like chocolate ice-cream” of the world) are all legitimate. One camp trying to impose its preference on another camp, using violence or the threat of violence, is not.

Most of the anger and resentment Goodhart identifies boils down to things that are none of their business. You don’t decide what things other can stock their shelves, whom they interact with, what language they speak. If you don’t like it, that’s on you. But who cares?!

Yes, my title referenced Linkin Park, like it’s 2003 in here.

Written by

Writer, editor, and student of money past and present. Here: mostly off-topic stories, personal finance-musings, worldly observations and Reykjavík reflections.

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