Monday, June 27, 2016

Brexit: England Goes All Hobbit

Brexit has spawned more comment than actual effect, and likely will continue to do so for months.  
From New Hampshire, the story looks like entirely different stories depending on who's telling  it.  
Version 1: Brexit is simply the English reacting as the American colonists did when frustrated by the control exerted by an arrogant and distant English king.  "You say the price of my love is too high,"  King George sings in "Hamilton." For the Brits, Brussels is a remote and heedless bureaucracy raining down absurd and unworkable rules.
Version 2: Brexit is simply an expression of  fear of foreigners flooding into England and turning a white, homogeneous country into a melange of races.  Much of the Leave campaign focused on threats of England swamped by young Turk males--although Turkey isn't even in the EU quite yet.  Stories of Muslim immigrants molesting white women in Germany New Year's eve were the British equivalent of those Mexican rapists flooding across the border. Oddly, or not, the strongest opinion against immigration, against dark others was found among the places where there was the least of it. In London, which some say is more cosmopolitan and diverse than even New York, the vote was heavily in favor of staying in the EU and keeping borders open.

Versions 3,4,5 ...n:  Brexit is a misunderstanding; Brexit is an expression of an island people who think God made the channel who is man to undo it?; Brexit is...fill in the blank. 

Donald Trump responded masterfully, at least in the short clip I saw:  "The people have spoken" he shrugged, with none of his usual bombast. "They want borders."
In a way, Mr. Trump encapsulated his genius and his appeal in that simple answer. Break down a complex thing with a simply answer. Cut the Gordian knot with a single stroke.

Reading the piece in the NY Times by a twenty something from Alwesford, a small town in England which sounds like an affluent, insular version of the shire in the Hobbit books, the fundamental urge which he identifies is the urge to circle the wagons and retreat back into the familiar and comfortable.  People who grow up in this happy shire do not want to leave. They are happy where they are, and when they are forced to look beyond their beloved green hills, they leave safety, and all the aesthetically pleasing things they have been raised to love: lush fields, brick homes, blond hair. 

It reminded me of the "experiment" I ran in my exam room. I posted a Colors of Benneton ad in my exam room, directly across from the exam table. When I stepped into the room, if the patient was American, he or she typically was looking at the ad, beaming, loving the kids of all different races arm and arm.  But when the patient was European--English, German, French, Italian, Greek--they typically were not smiling. Sometimes they looked quizzical but they were not responding warmly to that image, at least not overtly, no response written on their faces, not like the Americans. Maybe Europeans smile less than Americans; it was not a scientific experiment.

Americans, at least Americans of the upper class patients I was seeing in those days in that office, were happy with the idea of a Starship Enterprise, with a crew of every race and wide diversity, going forth boldly forth into the unknown, into the new,  going boldly where man has never gone before.  But for the voters who rejected the EU, going forth boldly was to be  wrenched traumatically from the shire.

I have not done the same experiment with my new patients, in my new town. This is a demographic composed mainly of folks who may have graduated high school and now work at Dunkin Donuts or, at best,  Town Fair Tire. They live within 50 miles of where they grew up.  They cannot leave the small towns they grew up in because they cannot get a job based on credentials: They get jobs based on knowing someone local who gets them in.  Globalization is not an adventure into which they willingly and go boldly forth, but a threat.

 I don't know how they'd react to the Colors of Benneton ads.

Listening to some of the members of Parliament who favored leaving the EU, I was persuaded xenophobia and a desire to return to a white shire were strong elements. As one said, a Bulgarian felon who had a relative in England could move to England without so much as pausing at the border, but an American flutist could not. Anyone beyond the EU finds immigrating to England very difficult, and yet over 300,000 immigrated to England,  despite England's lack of enthusiasm for these particular immigrants. England can no longer pick and choose.  All that is disturbing for many English. The fact is, Swedes do not much like paying health insurance premiums for the Spanish, but they do not mind so much paying for other Swedes. English do not relish putting Syrians on the roles of the National Health.

But  the bigger concerns coalesced around a bewildering array of rules which thwarted British business from selling manufactured goods, crops or services across the Channel.  The execution of the project was clumsy and maddening.

It may be that a United States of Europe was simply swimming against too swift a current.  As different as the farmers in New Hampshire were from the plantation owners of Georgia, they still spoke the same language, read the same Bible and even occasionally intermarried.  Ultimately, the Americans had to fight a war over differences of a moral nature--slavery.  So, even among people who had more to unite them than separate them, the similarities were not enough to prevent a messy attempt at divorce. The wonder is that the United States did not dissolve into tribalism, and has not over the ensuing century.  

It may be true that for some Brits, Brexit is just Trump-ism with an accent. Nobody is wearing hats saying Make Britain Great Again, or as the Trump hat really means, "Make America Hate Again."  Not yet.

Clearly, Trump has taken pleasure in seeing the power of anti globalization exert itself.

Just as obvious is the scare Brexit has sent through Democrats, who see an outcome of inward turning which the polls did not predict.

But this story is still being written. 

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