You’ve heard a lot about Brexit in the last week. What can I say that hasn’t already been said?
I’d love that word-long sentence to end with a period and not a question-mark, but that might be false advertising. Let me instead say that unlike many others you’ve alighted upon, my goal is to be non-repetitive. I lived in Britain for a little more than two years of my adult life, from mid-2005 to late 2007, as a European Union transplant. That is, my Irish passport entitled me to live and work and study in Britain without onerous taxes, a visa, or other requirements. It’s starting to look like my kids, who will also have my Irish citizenship, won’t be able to say the same thing.
When I lived in Britain, working on my doctorate, I certainly noticed a lot more casual xenophobia than you might expect amongst my well-educated, middle-class peers. I was told, in a humorous way, that Americans hate the world for no reason, whilst Brits have reasons. Watching any football match in any pub brought evidence of this notional nationalism. Any reference to Germany was never more than five minutes from a reference to Nazis. Italian men tried too hard, French men didn’t try hard enough. I was happy to see John Oliver, as an expatriated Brit, admit to this during his piece on the Brexit where he slagged off a half-dozen European countries (starting at about 11:30 in the clip).
I should hasten to add that every single one of my British friends who posted on Facebook before the Brexit vote – and that felt like all 100 of them – posted that they would be voting to Remain. They understood the difference between a friendly neighborhood rivalry and something a lot less friendly. Still, there was always a certain superiority that I had to laugh about. I hadn’t noticed it in Ireland. Love of red hair and green fields didn’t also mean suspicion about the Dutch and the Danish. (The Irish did and do have a noticeable animosity toward just the U.K., but that’s because reasons.) At another time in my adult life, I lived in Spain for a year and didn’t notice much xenophobia. (Internal hatreds, like Barcelona versus Madrid, yes.) Spaniards watch Mexican TV, take their social cues from Italians, and take sartorial cues from the French. Frankly, living in England, I wished they would at least take one or two culinary cues from the large country 25 miles off their coastline. The fresh baguettes in the morning? The wines and cheeses? When William the Conqueror came to England from France did he forget to bring any cooks? How superior can you consider yourself when you can’t produce one vineyard that makes wine as good as the 100th best vineyard of your neighbor?
But I don’t want to kick Britain while it’s down. Like Humphrey Jennings, I want to Listen to Britain. Many Brits mentioned that with Brexit, their old have sacrificed their young. But my former supervisor, Roberta Pearson, was wise enough to link to an article demonstrating the class divide as equally significant. That reminds us to listen to the working-class people that my British friends sometimes dismiss as “chavs.” Yes, I realize that they’ve mostly been tricked into voting against their own self-interest, that they’ll suffer the losses of E.U. subsidies, that for them finding and keeping a job just became even harder. Nonetheless, I want to listen to them. I can’t help but wonder if this outcome might have been different if the “chavs” had felt a little more heard.
If you’re reading this, you probably read a lot of the same erudite sources I read. But some of these sources are almost trying to dismiss the “chavs” outright. Here’s an example. Politico has the Washington Post’s pre-Watergate reputation for being a non-partisan look at Capitol Hill, the country it serves, and the world it engages with. In this case, Politico saw a story that was very obviously about the populist masses revolting against the “experts,” and to explain it they assembled who? The Brexperts! (Even Politico’s own Jack Shafer was skeptical.)
And sure enough, the “Brexperts” expounded almost entirely upon geopolitics and macroeconomics, offering absolutely no suggestions about how to help the disenfranchised voters who made Leave a reality. Only one, Dean Baker, was unguardedly optimistic, and that’s because Baker saw the election as a turning point against austerity. (Even he finished with a parenthetical suggesting he might be wishfully thinking.) But anyway, what’s up with the media, and Politico is just one example, responding to working-class spite by publishing people who don’t know anyone in the working-class? It would have been like reporting “Women Angry Over Stanford Rapist’s Lenient Sentence” while not publishing any articles by women. Just odd.
I realize that I’m not going to make anyone happy with this, but I notice a rather glaring omission in the media: Rotherham. Go ahead and google “Rotherham” and “Brexit.” I’ll wait here. Finished? Okay, you’ll have noticed zero post-Brexit articles including the word “Rotherham,” other than anodyne election results from the region. In other words, none of the “Brexperts” thought to bring up the scandal of 1400 children in that town having been sold and trafficked as sex slaves by men of mostly Pakistani descent, and the authorities admitting having left it alone because they didn’t want to be accused of racism. (Jonah Goldberg, writing for the L.A. Times, mentioned it, prior to the actual vote.) To me, the 2014 revelations of that scandal was a 9/11 or a Hurricane Katrina. Half the victims of 9/11, perhaps, but those victims are dead; these 1400 girls have to live with pain, humiliation, and suffering for the next 70 years. I don’t know how you have a 9/11 and not ask about its impact on the next two years’ worth of elections.
Actually, I do know. The Oxbridge-educated class who writes the major articles and position papers in the UK, the same ones who predicted that Britain would never vote Leave in the end, dismissed the Rotherham scandal as a one-off, as a contained mess, without drawing any larger conclusions. They didn’t see it as a factor in David Cameron’s surprisingly overwhelming Tory victory in 2015 (when the Tories, explicitly aligned with the nativist UKIP, shocked the UK by winning an outright majority of seats, the elite media shrugged). And they don’t see it as a factor here. To me this represents a failure to listen to the working-class persons who don’t read the Financial Times and instead vote with their guts.
Now, don’t get it twisted: I’m well aware that leaving the EU only promises to limit EU migration (if that), and that it’s as racist to blame all Pakistanis for the Rotherham scandal as it would be to blame all white men for serial killers. Yes, I know that. I also know, as I research my latest book, that “political correctness” can no longer be considered academic navel-gazing; in the US and the UK, at least, “PC” is pretty much the dominant ideology, and many working-class people are wondering when and why “white male” became an insult. Again, I am not saying anyone is right to vote his anger or nativism; if I still lived in the UK I would have voted Remain. I’m just saying, let’s listen to everyone, including the people we don’t agree with.
Liberals aren’t getting anywhere by telling conservatives how stupid they are. We’re all having Christmas at the same table, including your cranky racist uncle; we have to find a way to live with him being in the family. The Brexit campaign has revealed serious fault lines. But Britons have more in common than the last few weeks have often implied. That’s what I meant about John Oliver and slagging off other countries. There’s common ground yet to be reclaimed here.
The Brexit campaign has revealed a somewhat shocking paucity of heroes and the level of grandiloquent-but-persuasive rhetoric that the British were once known for. As the Tories went to war with each other, Labour held back, hoping to reap the benefits of a Tory implosion, when a stronger statement by Labour might have kept the UK in the EU. Now both parties are on the verge of implosion. As an anti-duopolist, this actually makes me happy. Having said that, we can’t forget that the root of this current crisis is globalization and Britain’s failure to extend the extraordinary benefits reaped by the 1% to the 99%. Brexit was an imperfect response to a very real problem. Our first and last reaction should be suggestions about how to solve that problem. And yes, for that, we will need a few Joseph Stieglitz-like experts.