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Pondering Brexit


Repeating the same arguments–based on background, creed, social group, immediate circle—creates specific paths in our individual and collective brains. Case in point, the extraordinary avalanche of commentary and discussion following the Brexit referendum, with knee-jerk reactions and little original thought. Be it EU officials, governments in individual countries inside and outside the EU, talk-show guests, man/woman in the street, social media addicts, all respond exactly as expected. Except at the highest level of media or analysis, there are few intelligent or thoughtful reactions.

We think what we think, rarely deviating from pattern. The other day, a dear friend exploded when I asked him if he had seen the extraordinary film “Son of Saul.” He embarked on a rant, the gist of which was that because of what he sees as the Holocaust providing Israel with a feeling of entitlement and the international Jewish powers-that-be with its occult world control, he can no longer stand anything about the subject, adding, for good measure, that I was a Zionist for even bringing it up.

A perfect illustration of how most of us think: push this button and you get that reaction. Why I would deny myself a cinematographic masterpiece because the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is pulling strings or because both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, demonstrating their vile nature, have said they are for the continued existence of Israel (as I am, though I detest the present government and the dangerous shift of Israeli society toward orthodox extremism) is beyond me. The automatisms our brain develops muddle our thinking to such an extent that we can no longer see when this actually has nothing to do with that.

So with Brexit and what I’ve been hearing since the referendum right here, in Paris, close to the eye of the storm. On the left, arguments are that establishment figures and conservative intellectuals holding forth on national television and the media—with torrents of words—are being dismissive of the seventeen plus million Britons who have voted to leave the EU, considering them as uneducated white trash, incapable of understanding the economic, political and social implications. Not so, say liberals. This is vox populi at its best, the people have spoken. Never mind the contradiction in this argument: as these liberals are in favor of keeping frontiers open, of aiding the millions of immigrants running away from unbearable circumstances in their homelands and of making all possible allowance for the new social order in European societies, they prefer to turn a blind eye to the extent to which fear of this massive influx of immigrants to their shores drove the vote for Brexit.

On the right, yelps of feelings of betrayal are just as loud, illustrated by the official response, a tantrum reminiscent of the old Bessie Banks song “Go Now.”  EU soon to be ex-partners will not allow Britain to dilly-dally in following the approved agenda for article 50. Brexit voters realize too late how unreliable were the politicians who encouraged them to choose “leave” and are now discredited and on their way out themselves. The whole debacle may well mark the tumbling down of a major project that emerged during WWII, with economist-politician Jean Monnet famously stating, in 1943, “There will be no peace in Europe if the states are reconstituted on the basis of national sovereignty… The countries of Europe are too small to guarantee their peoples the necessary prosperity and social development. The European states must constitute themselves into a federation…”

That was the stepping stone to this new order, this world vision, really, that led to the 1957 Common Market and, step by step, to the European Union, now a bloated bureaucracy encompassing a wide patchwork of economically, culturally and historically different 28 countries, with more knocking at the door. Great Britain, true to form, expected—and received—a different status and its own way of complying with membership rules.

Worse—and best—case scenario, our dysfunctional world may have to draw harsh lessons from this shock to our systems. Where do we, as people and as nations, go from here? Can we move away from the set patterns in our brains, can we find new words, new ideas, a different way of seeing things? Models exist, thinkers such as Frantz Fanon in the 1950s or Achille Mbembe today, and scores in between, describe a more generous world, one that knows that uncrossable borders, corrupt, stilted and unfair economic systems, culture clashes, and the 65 million refugees caught in the mess are unsustainable. We are losing our souls, perhaps even losing democratic principles carved in stone and undemocratic business-as-usual ways of being. Brexit may have shown us, grandly, that everything has to change for humanity to find itself, but can we move beyond our set patterns?

Categories: Daily life
  1. July 3, 2016 at 6:32 pm

    For good or ill, the reality is that there is no “we.” The human population is fragmented among thousands of competing, often conflicting countries, provinces, sects, tribes, parties, religions, economic interests, cultures, gangs, and other factions. Wishing otherwise does not make it so.

    The appeal of the EU in theory is understandable in light of the bloody history of Europe’s internecine wars. But unification is hard to make work in practice. In the short term, feelings on both sides of the English Channel were that the Brexit was irrevocable. But things are far from that clear-cut. The referendum itself was only advisory, not legally binding. The “United Kingdom” itself was far from united in its views — Scotland and Northern Ireland very much want to remain in the EU, possibly more than in the UK.

    Regardless of vexatious chatter in some quarters of the continent, no divorce can begin until the UK parliament officially acts. And it is in no rush to do so.

    There was anxious talk a few years ago about the dire consequences of a Grexit. Recall that Greece also passed a referendum demanding debt relief or … what? Yet Greece’s debt crisis has simply drifted along, continually finessed but unresolved to anyone’s satisfaction (least of all the Greeks). Drift is not a departure from the EU’s default mode of operation.

    The EU project has gone on for about half a century. (The UK’s relationship was always ambivalent.) The Iron Curtain which split Europe only fell a quarter century ago — and Mr. Putin does not seem to presume that that was irrevocable.

    It took the US from 1783 until 1865 to meld disparate states into a federated union — one which still is strained by centrifugal forces. So it is still early days for European unification, which bodes to be a far more difficult task.

    The younger generations in Europe seem to like being “European.” Despite the Brexit setback, time is on their side.


  2. Melinda Barnhardt
    July 3, 2016 at 8:22 pm

    The EU project will clearly take a long time, but it would seem that the case made here is that there are urgent needs meanwhile: to find language which clarifies that openness and flow benefit realizing human potential, and to establish policies that help those left behind by globalization realize their potential. (The “we” in this case may be those of us that The Economist magazine, July 2-8, addresses in its Brexit commentary: “Never take history for granted. . . . Never let up. For today’s liberals that must be the rallying cry.”)


  3. Mary Fisk
    July 8, 2016 at 2:50 am

    Thank you for your particularly thoughtful analysis. It is one of the few pieces I have encountered that actually considered the underlying issues and offered non-polemic insights. Sad that such an approach is the exception, but I am grateful for your genuine contribution to the discussion.


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