Brexit, Shmexit: Schadenfreude And How The Old Eat The Young

Old habits die hard. I like watching England lose: in soccer and in cricket mainly, but I’ll admit to cheering for Napoleon too. (I morbidly continue to study the Battle of Waterloo, hoping again and again that that damn fool Grouchy will show up.) English self-destructiveness–think David Beckham during the 1998 World Cup, and the national self-flagellation that follows, has always provided great entertainment for distant observers.

And so it has been with some truly ghastly interest that I’ve followed the epic meltdown of the European dream’s English chapter: first, the Trumpish silliness of the Leavers’ rhetoric, which became remarkably unfunny once Jo Cox was murdered, and then, the apoplectic fury unleashed by the insanity of the final referendum results: fifty-two percent of the English population voted to turn their backs on Europe–perhaps to stand facing, all the more resolutely, an America which threatens to emulate their xenophobic, racist, nativist, populism.

But I stopped chuckling soon enough, for as in the US, it turns out the old will eat the young:

57 percent of Britons between ages 18 and 34 who intended to vote in Thursday’s referendum on the European Union wished to remain in the bloc….In contrast, an identical proportion — 57 percent — of Britons over 55 who intended to take part in the referendum signaled that they wanted to leave, Survation found.

European labor markets will now become more inaccessible to English workers, a fact which will not bother those who voted to leave, because the majority of those who did so had few years left in the workforce; in general, the economic and political costs of this vote–a stock market crash, a decline in the value of the pound–will be felt more acutely by those who have more years left to live with it.

Equally damaging is the signal that England sends to the rest of the world: that its politics has been captured by the mean and the narrow-minded, by the spiteful and the vicious. This morning, on Facebook, I quoted that old man, John of Gaunt, and his epic complaint:

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

Lamentations over the fall of England are, as can be seen, not new. But this paranoid pulling up of the drawbridge is especially astonishing when witnessed in its historic context: in an ever-more connected world, England, frightened by strange accents and brown faces, has voted for pathetic isolation, all the better to rummage about in corners, muttering vaingloriously about days of empire and exclusive Englishness.

Flood the Chunnel; form squares. The good old days are back.

Post-Colonial Resentment, Irrationality, and Jeremy Corbyn

Experienced students of politics and of the human mind know that politics–the ‘science,’ the business, of power–is all too often a zone of the irrational, a domain of intense passion and emotion, covered up with a thin veneer of seemingly rational discourse, of point and counterpoint. This irrationality manifests itself in familiar phenomena such as the futility of political argument: participants in these festivals of rhetorical jousting come away, not with their beliefs changed or altered in the slightest, but rather, ever more entrenched and buttressed with more sophisticated defenses. Offense in political arguments does not bring about meek or even reluctant surrender; it only produces defiant defense.

I have been reminded, acutely, of these irrational foundations of politics as I inspect my reactions to the recent rise to power of Jeremy Corbyn, the ‘British politician who is Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition.’ For weeks my social media timelines have been full of Corbyn; his political record, his manifesto, the reactions of Britain’s conservatives to his ascent to power, his non-singing of the national anthem and so on. Wall to wall Corbyn, really. ‘Progressive’ and ‘leftist’ Americans, Englishmen, and Australians, are all entranced by this man, by the hostility he provokes on the political right; his record on all the major issues that engage this demographic evokes murmurs of admiration and respect; there have been no sightings, yet, of Corbyn riding on an ass into Jerusalem, but for all the attention he has attracted, one would not be remiss in thinking that precisely such a triumphal march had taken place. (Corbyn, as a reminder, has not been elected Prime Minister; he has merely been elected leader of the Labour Party.)

I should perhaps be interested in this spectacle; the rise to a power of a ‘progressive’ politician should catch my attention and tickle my fancies. And yet, the overwhelming response on my part, once my initial curiosity about the man who seemed to be attracting so much hostility from David Cameron and his party had passed, has been one of thinly repressed irritation. I’m sick of the wall-to-wall bonanaza of Corbyn that I’ve been subjected to; I cannot wait for it to end, for this season to pass.

My reasons are quite transparent to me. I’m consumed by a species of post-colonial resentment. I’m an American citizen, and the US has been my home for almost thirty years, but my political responses and reactions to the Corbyn ‘phenomenon’ are still animated by a primeval response whose underpinnings are only discernible in the older, bound-up-with-each-other histories of India and Britain. I find myself seething at the disproportionate attention paid to this British politician; I wonder what relevance it has to American politics (even as I tell myself that comfort and succor given to George Bush by Tony Blair in the run-up to the Iraq war was perhaps a crucial factor in the decision to go to war); I glower at the hagiographic descriptions showered upon Corbyn; I cannot bring myself to click on the parade of links that march through my social media timelines.

In short, I wish the sun would set on the damn British Empire already, that Britain would stop being made to feel like it was still the center of the universe and more like it was just any other European nation.

Not very rational, right? But there it is. And I’m a grown man with a PhD in philosophy. What hope political discourse?

‘Racial Weakening’ and the Decline of Ancient Rome

Muslim migration to Europe in recent times, and the resultant presence of large Muslim immigrant communities in several European countries, has often prompted much alarmist commentary ranging from accusations of Fifth Column style betrayal to suggestions that Muslims are incapable of assimilating in any shape, manner or form into ‘European culture.’ The decline of Europe downwards and into ‘Eurabia‘ thus appears foretold by the presence of that lurking menace, the Muslim.

Theories of this kind, which find contamination by an external agent as cause for the internal weakness and degradation of a civilization, ‘race’ or nation, and often prompt horrendously misguided responses, are not uncommon or even new in European history. Indeed, they have a distinguished pedigree, as they have been offered as an explanation for the end of the ancient world: the decline of Rome, and the commencement of the Middle Ages.

In The Origins of the Middle Ages: Pirenne’s Challenge to Gibbon, Bryce Lyon makes critical note of these theories.  For instance  M. P. Nilsson argued in Imperial Rome that:

[T]he quality of Roman civilization depended upon racial character and that alien races and barbarian tribes, to be assimilated, must be interpenetrated by the conquered. Unfortunately, because the Romans did not succeed in interpenetrating those who conquered them, their birthrate declined while that of the non-Romans increased, Roman blood was diluted by inter-marriage, and the mingling of races produced not Romanization but a mongrelization that spread across the empire, resulting in the loss of stable spiritual and moral standards and the death of a proud civilization. [quote from Lyon]

As Lyon points out:

The rebuttal to this interpretation of the Romans as a kind of master race is that they simply appropriated the rich cultures that the conquered Greeks and peoples of the Middle East had already created. Who can say that Roman ability to build roads and a national system of law is superior to Greek literary, artistic and philosophical talent or to eastern religious perception? Why also did the eastern Roman empire, the Byzantine, that was essentially Greek and eastern, survive a thousand years after the Roman empire in the West was no longer a political entity?

Lyon also points to Tenney Frank who concluded that:

Rome and the Latin West were inundated by Greek and oriental slaves who, as they became emancipated and achieved citizenship, changed the character of the Latin West. He has estimated that, ultimately, ninety percent of Rome’s inhabitants were of foreign origin and that this ‘orientalizing of Rome’s populace has a more important bearing than is usually accorded it upon the larger question of why the spirit and acts of imperial Rome are totally different from those of the republic,’ a situation that inevitably created the triumph of oriental despotism or absolutism, the popularity of oriental mystery religions, the decline in the quality of Latin literature, and the disappearance of those Romans with a flair for government who had built the empire. Rome’s disintegration is thus explained by ‘the fact that the people who had built Rome had given way to a different race.’

Lyon’s refutation is short:

[E]pigraphical research has..placed in doubt Frank’s statistics, suggesting that his sample is invalid, and that he has confused eastern with western slaves.

The long history of the failure of such theories, and their dubious foundations in misapplications of Darwinism, have certainly proved no barrier to their continued expounding by demagogues and racists of all stripes.

Much tedious rebuttal lies ahead.

The ‘American’ Overseas

A few days ago, from my vantage point at the University of Luxembourg, during a week of visiting a research group on Individual and Collective Reasoning, I posted the following status update on Facebook:

As an American in Europe, I am getting shit for (on this trip): Budweiser (as always), the lack of a really good football/soccer team (as usual) Lance Armstrong (a new one), and the fact that fifty million Americans think universal healthcare is a bad idea and worth repealing.

This sort of meta-lament–to borrow from my friend John Sutton, who described my status update as a ‘Budweiser-lament lament’–is exceedingly common. In putting up that status, I was doing no more than indulging in some rather clichéd commentary, in an all-too familiar trope: the hapless American overseas, made the subject of a barrage of questions by Europeans–or residents of other parts of the world–bewildered by aspects of the American life that seem mysterious to many Americans too. (I should hasten to add, despite my facetious language above, that my interlocutors were unfailingly polite and curious, even while being skeptical at times. I was, after all, among friendly and like-minded folks that included former and future academic collaborators.)

So there, in that Heavily Taxed Land Across The Pond, the American finds the usual lenses reversed, becomes the subject of curious investigation, and finds himself caught trying to make sense of the inexplicable. I have had it happen to me before; the conversations follow and reveal familiar patterns and contours. There is, for instance, the insistence that American beer is bad, a judgment that doesn’t seem fair in light of the many brilliant brewers that dot the American landscape and that year after year, turn in one virtuoso performance after another. More seriously, the queries about national healthcare, too, are familiar and have not lost any of their pungency over the years.  (I do not mind the judgments about the US soccer team, which despite much improvement over the years, still has much work to do to be truly excellent, and neither did I mind throwing my tuppence into the Lance Armstrong-deflation bowl.)

In these conversations my status as American immigrant rather than ‘native’ does not matter, of course.  What is instead more pressing is the question of being visibly immersed in a particular way of life, of being, for the moment, its most immediate representative, one available as translator and communicator alike.  I occupy a vantage point from which to report on American life and I am queried accordingly. Indeed, I suspect I would have featured in such conversations even if my ‘nationality’ were not as formalized as it is today with a passport; what would have mattered would have been my residence, my lived experiences, and my ability to fulfill the role of reporter. The academic world being what it is, the migrant and the expat are exceedingly common figures and are expected to do, as they always do elsewhere, double duties of all kinds. In these encounters, as in many others, the migrant is reminded yet again, of his forced ability to inhabit and move between several worlds.