Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pity the Brexiteers?

June 23rd. What a day. What a bloody day. I awoke with a knot of fear and excitement over the coming night's Brexit vote -- fear that they might vote Leave; excitement over the anticipated flood of relief I would experience once they almost certainly decided to vote Remain. And at some point in the shower, the thought crossed my mind again  -- as it had for much of the last month -- that we still didn't know the result of the Supreme Court's DAPA/DACA+ case, U.S. v. Texas, that would decide whether or not to grant some form of relief from deportation (however temporary and insecure) to 5 million undocumented immigrants. Oh well, I thought, they probably won't release the decision today. It occurred to me that the SCOTUS most likely released its opinions with an eye toward the news-cycle, and that they'd let us get Brexit over with before making any headlines of their own.

I don't know why I thought this. If anything, I suppose now they'd be more keen to release a decision likely to disappoint millions of families on a day when the media and advocates would be distracted from the outcome. But somehow, it seemed it would simply be too rough to have  U.S. v Texas and Brexit on the same day, and that something would intervene to avert that horrible conjuncture. I had fallen victim to the kind of magical thinking that makes the gambler who has just rolled snake eyes think that next time he is bound to get a six, as just recompense for his patient suffering.

But no. The universe has decided to pile it on. To cap off the previous twelve months of Trump, terrorism, mass shootings, and an unprecedented global crisis of forced migration, we had two further punches to the gut, all on that one black day. After the outcome of the SCOTUS case was revealed in a single line -- no explanation, no analysis; just the judicial equivalent of the hung jury -- after that came down, how many times did I say to friends and colleagues in the coming hours: the only thing that can make this day worse is if Britain votes to leave the EU

Still, though, I thought it wouldn't happen. This one, we'll win. At a planned meeting of immigration activists, which had now turned into an impromptu wake, one tried to keep up one's spirits with the comfort of a confirmed despair -- the assurance that the worst had come, and that at least now we could figure out what to do with it. Perhaps the SCOTUS decision was actually an opportunity in disguise, I hazarded. After all, it meant that Obama could no longer pretend that his unprecedentedly harsh enforcement actions were a political necessity. He couldn't say any more that he had to implement the largest detention regime in history, to deport more people than any other U.S. president, to maintain family detention in the face of multiple federal court decisions ruling it in violation of the Flores settlement, to conduct home raids against asylum seeking mothers and children, and all on the premise that this would somehow convince the Republicans he was "serious" and therefore allow him to pass immigration reform or get his executive orders through the courts. That strategy had now failed -- and if Obama still wanted to be remembered for something other than tearing families apart, he had to use his executive discretion in what time was left to him to end family detention, halt the raids, etc. Most of his enforcement apparatus had not existed before his presidency -- he had brought it into being by his discretion; he could dismantle it just as easily... 

This was my way of putting a brave face on things; which is easier to do when one is talking about an issue which does not directly impact one's daily life. It's possible to get excited about the contortions and surprises of immigration politics when it is not one's own parents who might have just received their first work permit and driver's licenses as U.S. residents, but who will now be denied these things -- possibly forever. 

The Unitarian Universalist General Assembly was, moreover, a good place to be, in a week of such news. I had set aside the night of June 23rd on my calendar for a binge session of nail-biting and coffee-drinking as I watched the results come in on the Guardian live-feed, but running into friends from divinity school I decided to forget it and join them for drinks instead -- whether I followed the results from Sunderland down to Manchester, or simply awoke the next morning to the big and irreversible headline, I would know soon enough which way the winds had blown. 

It turns out I didn't have to wait even that long, however. Around midnight, someone looked at his phone and reported that the verdict was in: Britain was out. It was good to have had half a beer in one's belly and to be in good company when that one was announced. But still, when I eventually fell asleep that night, it was with the weird clawing sensation that overtakes me on nights of high anxiety -- that I couldn't sleep yet, that I was still needed for something, that -- oh, but I was so tired...

Is this a bit of a histrionic response to an event that seems, at first blush, rather far removed from one's actual life? Two writers seem annoyed, at any rate, by the sort of reaction to Brexit I am describing, even if neither of them would actually defend the referendum outcome as policy -- I refer to David Frum and Glenn Greenwald, tackling this from the right and the left, respectively.  We don't really care as much as we pretend to, both imply, or if we do, it is not through disinterested humanity, but because we are members of the cosmopolitan elite, and feel ourselves personally threatened by Brexit.

Maybe so, but strolling the Facebook home page promenade the next morning, I found that at least I was not alone in such "elite" angst. People I wouldn't have pegged as being as wretchedly Anglophilic as myself were greeting the dawn in an equally apocalyptic spirit. There was talk of people having fantasies as they were falling asleep the previous night that they would awake the next morning to discover it had all been a dream. There was widespread agreement that Brexit meant more than just Brexit -- though that was quite bad enough on its own terms -- but that somehow it meant Trump, too, it meant Marine Le Pen, it meant the ghost of Jörg Haider and the Baroness von Storch.

I can't speak for everyone's reasons for such gloomy prognostications, but I can give you some of my own. For one thing -- whatever else may be the result of Britain's referendum, it almost certainly spells the demise of any hope for a concerted, multilateral, and compassionate effort to welcome the millions of refugees on Europe's periphery-- whose cries still echo to the heavens, even if the news media seems to have forgotten them. Britain, let us recall, has already set a toxic example by resettling almost no refugees, relative to its wealth and population size, and by backing out of a minimal EU relocation scheme that would have begun to share the resettlement burden somewhat more fairly among countries with the resources to help (though this unilateral rinsing of the hands on Britain's part was still not enough to quiet the Leave campaign's insinuations that Britain had long since given up its "sovereignty" to Brussels).

It is an extraordinary thing that the countries that have done the very least for refugees, the ones that have taken in almost none of the desperate millions fleeing Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere -- indeed, the very countries whose foreign policies most directly served to fuel and engender the conflicts in all four of those sending countries -- namely, the United States and Britain -- are also the countries that have seen the most astonishing nativist backlash in response to the specter of "Syrian refugees." You know to what I am referring in the United States, I'm sure. And now, in Britain, we have learned that the second largest economy in the entire EU was willing to pull out of the Union-- not because it was being compelled to resettle refugees, not even because it was actually going to resettle very many refugees, but merely on the vague intimation that there are refugees in Europe, and that this might somehow impact Great Britain down the line. Though Nigel Farage's notorious "Breaking Point" poster (which showed a crowd of Syrian refugees and left the viewer to draw whatever off-base conclusions from the image he preferred) was widely condemned-- at least among literate opinion-- and while Britain's membership in the EU or otherwise has no deciding impact on its refugee resettlement policies, it seems clear that for many Leave voters, by the end of the campaign, the Brexit vote had effectively become a referendum on the refugee crisis. Few observers deny that "immigration" at any rate was a core issue of the campaign, and the reported spike in xenophobic abuse and hate incidents that has occurred since the referendum passed -- which have been directed against everyone from UK citizens with dark skin to visitors to a Polish community center -- suggests that plenty of Leave lads and Brexit blokes aren't too interested in drawing the subtler distinctions between different classes of purported "foreigners."

The utter selfishness of it all is exhausting. The U.S. and the U.K. created power vacuums and installed sectarian and corrupt proxy governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, bombing thousands of people in the process. Libya was a victim of similar Western delusions. Syria's conflict has been exacerbated by the spillover effect of sectarian hatred and ISIS's attempted genocides spawned from the wreckage of the other three countries. And now that the very people whose (hardly paradisiacal) former lives and countries were destroyed by Western intervention are calling out for help, we are pulling up the bridges, leaving them to starve or otherwise perish. More than that, the U.K. is bowing out of a major multinational institution merely at the suggestion that it might one day devote a tiny percentage more of its resources to the people fleeing persecution and death. (And it really would be such a small amount of resources, in the scheme of things! None of us would even notice it!)

But forget it, we don't absolutely have to, so why bother? That is the sort of thing that the voters of wealthy countries with militarized borders get to do. That is their awful prerogative. It's not my bloody problem... Why can't they fix their own countries? One of course hears the same things in the U.S., said in regard to people fleeing Central American countries where the rule of law has been similarly eroded by decades of U.S. support to rights-abusing regimes and rogue militarized police forces...

Is this really the sort of thing, though, that was running through my head as I fought my way to sleep on the night of Brexit? Partly, but not exclusively, I admit. There were also, to be sure, the more mundane impulses toward self-preservation. I have to live in this economy same as you, after all, and while I can't claim to be sure whether the market and currency cascades after Brexit will stabilize soon, or will instead lead to a global recession, I would much prefer that we had not taken the chance.

I resent the idea, however, that the only sort of life that really impacts one directly is one's financial life. There shouldn't be anything odd about being strongly affected by what happens in the news. The news is real life, in spite of what our Kardashian-esque American election cycle would lead us to believe. The 2.7 million refugees stranded in Turkey are real people. One can suffer with them sincerely, and from a distance, if one insists on having a heart-- even in such times as these. Multatuli, deploring the conventional notion of the the importance of direct "experience" to achieving real knowledge, once wrote, "[H]ow many people undergo a whole series of emotions without outward circumstances appearing to give occasion for them? One may recall [...] the feelings of a friend of humanity who, without being outwardly involved in the course of events, nevertheless takes a burning interest in the welfare of his fellow-citizens [...] One may imagine how that humanitarian hopes and fears alternately as he watches every change, how he enthuses over a fine idea and blazes with indignation when he sees it pushed aside and trampled on by the multitude[.]" (Edwards trans.) It may be-- okay, is -- too self-congratulatory to regard oneself as actually being such a "friend of humanity," but one hopes that each of us has at least some element of him within us, who can be called upon on rare occasions to wax wroth at events that don't directly impinge on one's own household or bank account.

And then too, there was the vaguer sense that if Brexit can happen, then anything's possible. If Leave can win a campaign amidst an almost total absence of anyone providing good reasons why it should; if the assassination of a beloved M.P. -- who was also a martyr for the causes of internationalism, refugee resettlement, and of a more welcoming stance toward migrants -- did nothing to sway the hearts of British voters; if a full chorus of newspapers and pundits and politicians and thinkers were all urging them not to go and still they went ahead and left anyways -- then what if anything can we be sure of anymore? Trump's stock just rose in the betting markets, I expect... just as the rest of ours plummeted. Indeed, his is about the only stock trending in that direction right now.


Feeling the need for some wisdom of the ages to help me explain such incomprehensible swings of fortune this week, I turned to Ortega y Gasset's 1930 classic of prescient denunciation, The Revolt of the Masses, in the hope that it would shed some light on how we got here. One finds in reading it, however, that Ortega y Gasset is less useful for his explanations of root causes than for his succinct summations of what is distinctly ugly about the present -- his present, of course -- though it is now increasingly our present as well (perhaps for the first time, really, since the essay was published). Ortega's diagnosis of the mass-man he is denouncing-- the man of convention, the man of inertia --  as being cursed with the mindset of the "spoiled child," is perhaps overly demeaning -- the notion being that the people of his day -- or at least, the middle class Fascist voters Ortega had in mind -- had grown up in a world of comforts and abundance that seemed to them a given, a part of "Nature"; as a result, they did not recognize the travails and sacrifices that had to be gone through by other generations in order to arrive at that world, that civilization.

One finds such a diagnosis less implausible, however, when one considers the spectacle of the British and American voter deciding to bolt at the barest suggestion that a few of their tax dollars (and so very few at that) might be devoted to refugee resettlement. That voter has come of age in a world in which global conflicts and their victims never came to his door, and the privilege of wealthy nations -- that of declaring that all that sort of thing is someone else's problem -- always seemed to him the most natural and eternal of conditions -- his due by birthright. The notion that he might once have been -- or could yet be -- a stranger too in the land of Egypt -- has become to him an incomprehensible and meaningless riddle.

The result of never encountering any meaningful limits or opposition to one's desires, says Ortega, is that one assumes one's own perfection. Everything has so far always arranged itself to suit one's own self (or country, as the case may be), which must mean that one is just right the way one is. It is precisely this conviction that he is always right that ensures that the mass-man is always wrong. Ortega explains this by means of the "difference that eternally exists between the fool and the man of sense. The latter is constantly catching himself within an inch of being a fool; hence he makes an effort to escape from the imminent folly, and in that effort lies his intelligence." (Wilhelm Reich offers a similar observation about his "Little Man," who is very much like the "Mass-Man" in most respects -- nay, is he. "The great man," he writes, "at one time, also was a very little man, but he developed one important ability: he learned to see where he was small in his thinking and actions. [...] The great man, then, knows when and in what he is a little man. The Little Man does not know that he is little, and he is afraid of knowing it." (Wolfe trans.))

And if one is already perfect -- at least by one's own lights--, Ortega goes on, then whatever one desires must be perfect, hence true. "Truth," therefore, very rapidly ceases to be an external "standard" to which one must adjust oneself. Rather, my desiring it to be so becomes itself the standard of truth.
"An idea is a putting truth in checkmate," writes Ortega. "Whoever wishes to have ideas must first prepare himself to desire truth and to accept the rules of the game imposed by it. It is no use speaking of ideas when there is no acceptance of a higher authority to regulate them, a series of standards to which it is possible to appeal in a discussion. These standards are the principles on which culture rests. I am not concerned with the form they take. What I affirm is that there is no culture where there are no standards to which our fellow-men can have recourse. There is no culture where there are no principles of legality to which to appeal. [...] Under the species of Syndicalism and Fascism there appears for the first time in Europe a type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his opinions. This is the new thing: the right not to be reasonable, the “reason of unreason.” Here I see the most palpable manifestation of the new mentality of the masses[.]"  (Standard trans., anonymous)
 One hears the same thing amongst the Trumpists and the Brexiteers -- any attempt to point out to them that they are simply wrong in many of their assertions, that they are patently incorrect -- this is the voice of the "elite." Who cares what the journos and the pundits and the academics say? They're all in on it together. Isn't it the Trump-iteers right to say what they feel? Isn't it their god-given right to be wrong?

And riding in to their defense at just this point, implausibly enough, comes Glenn Greenwald! He is all too happy to join them in this reduction. Everyone who is outraged, hurt, astonished, horrified by the outcome of the Brexit vote, it turns out: they feel this way because they are self-interested elites frightened at the prospect of, well, the revolt of the masses. Says Greenwald:
"The decision by U.K. voters to leave the EU is such a glaring repudiation of the wisdom and relevance of elite political and media institutions that — for once — their failures have become a prominent part of the storyline. Media reaction to the Brexit vote falls into two general categories: (1) earnest, candid attempts to understand what motivated voters to make this choice, even if that means indicting their own establishment circles, and (2) petulant, self-serving, simple-minded attacks on disobedient pro-Leave voters for being primitive, xenophobic bigots (and stupid to boot), all to evade any reckoning with their own responsibility[.]"
It is not hard to guess into which of the two categories Greenwald would place blog posts such as the one I am presently writing.

The Brexit vote, urges Greenwald, was an expression of legitimate discontent against the economic and foreign policy failures of the governing elite. It was a vote against callous corporate globalization, against neoliberalism-- and against neoconservatism too, while we're at it -- though I really don't know how we get there, since the U.S. and U.K.'s intervention in Iraq was a unilateral decision, not undertaken with the support or encouragement of the EU member states. Greenwald likewise singles out the crisis in Libya as an example of "elite failure", and the role it has played in contributing to the refugee crisis, yet I hardly see why this should make us more sympathetic to the Brexiteers, rather than less, for reasons given above. But then, in Greenwald's totalistic worldview, the "elite" is always a single beast -- it is the IMF and the Project for the New American Century and the EU and the UN and Paul Krugman and Vox magazine all together -- regardless of the many struggles between these various institutions that actually take place in the real world.

This doesn't mean Greenwald thinks the outcome of the Brexit vote was remotely a good idea; he's just dismayed by those of us (including, ahem, me) who can't seem to get round our outrage long enough to imagine that there was genuine suffering at the root of this vote, genuine hardship. My citing of a book called "The Revolt of the Masses" in this post, by a writer who declares himself unapologetically to ascribe to a "radically aristocratic interpretation of history," is not likely to heal the breach anytime soon. (Though Ortega y Gasset's "mass-man" is a personality type, not a social class, and he says that "On the other hand, it is not rare to find to-day amongst working men [...] nobly disciplined minds," and there's always the old why, some of my best friends are..., and various other no more persuasive caveats that could be entered on his behalf.)

David Frum, also linked above, is writing from a surprisingly similar point of view, except for this: if Greenwald thinks that the true rationale behind Brexit was a protest against capitalism, and immigration was merely unfortunate collateral damage; Frum appears to think that the real reason behind it was immigration, and capitalism was the innocent bystander. He writes:
"American policymakers—like their U.K. and EU counterparts—have taken for granted that an open global economy implies (and even requires) the mass migration of people. Yet this same mass migration is generating populist, nativist reactions that threaten that same open economy: [...] If they’re to save the open global economy, maybe they need to protect their populations better against globalization’s most unwelcome consequences—of which mass migration is the very least welcome of them all?"
Both Frum and Greenwald deplore the lack of sympathy that has been expressed for the Brexiteers by the rest of the media and the punditry and the blogosphere (like me!). "Is it possible that leaders and elites had it all wrong?" asks David Frum.... One hear's echoes of Robert Lowell's "Florence." "Perhaps," he wrote, "one always took the wrong side," and then, the immortal advice: "Pity the monsters! /Pity the monsters!" Frum and Greenwald -- without actually endorsing Brexit -- seem to be asking us if we can find it in our hearts to pity these particular, Leave-voting monsters.

Maybe one should. But should one pity them more than one does any others who make terrible and self-centered political decisions? In building their case for this point, both writers seem to take two core premises for granted that seem highly questionable to me: 1) that the people voting for Trump in the U.S. and for Brexit in the U.K. are chiefly drawn from the disenfranchised working class, those who have benefitted the least from the "new economy"; and 2) that the Brexit vote does indeed constitute a challenge to neoliberalism (if only indirectly).

Let us take them in order. From a demographic and sociological standpoint (which is the standpoint it would seem to invite) the first of the premises is specious indeed. Nate Silver has compiled evidence that Trump's supporters are actually disproportionately well-off, compared to most American voters -- not working class at all. While media narratives often incline toward treating far-right political movements as made up largely of the working poor and the dispossessed (which is -- as Greenwald should have seen better than anyone -- a convenient way of stigmatizing the disadvantaged social classes), in truth these movements -- at least in this country -- have historically drawn their membership primarily from the college-educated, from the ranks of the professional classes, from the social circles of engineers and doctors (two professions that Ortega y Gasset singles out for suspicion, for what it's worth). The local head of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was more likely to be the town lawyer, than the farm-hand. The Goldwaterites of the 1960s were chiefly denizens of the California suburbs. The Moral Majority of the 1980s was made up of white collar professionals, rather than laid-off steel mill workers. It does not surprise me in the least that the Trumpists should prove to be drawn from the same quarters, therefore. I have not seen analogous comprehensive data on the demographics of the Brexit voters, meanwhile, but let us recall that Leave was a splinter Tory initiative from the start and that it was opposed bitterly by Britain's Trades Union Congress and the traditional labour strongholds.

Perhaps it is not the working class, let along the most vulnerable among them, who are fueling these twin demagogic beasts. The poor and the suffering, after all, are usually curious. They have to be. The course of terrible dangers through which they thread their life forces them to be observant, to be aware, to understand what's actually happening in the world -- in other words, to have some respect for the standard of truth Ortega y Gasset mentions above, as something external to oneself, as something distinct from wishful thinking.

It was mostly the labor movement, let it be known, that led the push for the United States to welcome more refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. It is mostly the labor movement today that is driving the push for immigration reform -- the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the SEIU, the AFL-CIO, the UFW.

What is xenophobia, by contrast, what is Trumpism, what is the Brexit vote, but a profound display of incuriosity -- of not bothering to know what is happening to refugees at Europe's or America's borders, of letting them rot. It is the mental world of Mr. "What do I care?" and Mrs. "What do I know?" That is the terrible incuriosity of privilege. It is the callousness of the perennially well-off, of the comfortable members of affluent societies, of that guy whom I'm sure you've all met -- I know I have -- who never had to sweat a day in his life, but who informs you confidently that immigrants are "coming here because they're lazy." These are, let us admit, the "spoiled children" of Ortega y Gasset's analysis. They are not the unemployed working class; they are the one's who assume, like Mr. Droogstoppel, that the unemployed -- like the refugees and the immigrants -- must have done something to deserve it.

As for the second of the two premises mentioned above, that the Brexit vote was a vote against neoliberalism, a cry of economic heartbreak from the tortured hulk of the globalized "flexible" economy, I'd find this all a lot easier to believe if the watchword of the Leave campaign from the start hadn't been the promise to shear through the "red tape" of EU regulations -- if their whole pitch to small business hadn't been based on the promise that under their lead, the U.K. would at last be free of the cumbersome health and safety regulations and workers' protections it ostensibly endures under EU auspices.

Sure, there was the occasional whiff of economic populism in the Leave campaign -- one particularly notorious example being the bus-side campaign promise that as soon as the Brexit vote went through, the U.K. government would  redirect £350m a week from EU coffers to the National Health Service. If you believed that one, though, then you're as "stupid" as Greenwald thinks that I think you are. That NHS promise -- which was almost immediately rescinded or at least walked back after the vote -- was about as plausible as Donald Trump's kindred claim that he is going to use the money Hillary Clinton would spend on Syrian refugees to instead "rebuild the inner city."

It's very convenient for blowhards and demagogues to insist that the real reason people haven't been getting their health benefits or their urban infrastructure all these years is the fault of greedy foreigners of various kinds -- whether they be impoverished refugees or Brussels bureaucrats. It also allows voters to comfort themselves with the thought that their country's social problems are due to some alien contaminant, and not to their own lack of political will, expressed over and over again at the ballot box, to actually devote the necessary tax dollars to fund basic social programs. It can't be because of all those Tories and Republicans and "New" Labour-ites and "New" Democrats we keep electing, year after year -- it' must be because of those bloody Syrian refugees!

Do people have even the faintest clue that with the money spent on the U.S. military last year, we could have comfortably resettled every Syrian refugee in the world by now? -- and rebuilt our inner cities and provided universal healthcare to boot? The problem has never been lack of funds -- it's been our own complacent choices about what to do with it.


Greenwald is right, of course, that the world is convulsed at present by the terrible consequences of the policies pursued by elite institutions -- neoliberalism and neoconservatism chief among them. But is it possible that it is not the victims of these phenomena (among whom we must include the refugees themselves, along with the dispossessed workers of the wealthier countries), but rather the sustained efforts of those who reside in the remaining alcoves of relative privilege and comfort, that are feeding the Trump and Brexit backlashes? Times of great uncertainty do tend to fuel restive political movements, but not necessarily because the poor are joining them, but often because fear of the poor is driving the well-off into their arms. Nothing generates terror quite like the sight of human misery.


Such an analysis is a reduction too, of course -- as much of a reduction as Greenwald's and Frum's opposite assumption that the present growth of right-wing populism is fed by the disenfranchised. We have heard both of these and plenty of other one-dimensional analyses before. When was that, again? Oh right, in the mid-twentieth century. Ours is, after all, a political moment when one suddenly finds oneself dusting off those old classics of socio-political analysis concerning the rise of fascism and of totalitarianism -- Arendt, Ortega y Gasset, Wilhelm Reich, Adorno -- with more than historical interest. Please tell us, wise ones, why this is happening to us! we demand.

And we can find in these books and elsewhere plenty of explanations, probably all of which have some element of truth. Maybe, we start to think, it's all because of Germany's... er- I mean, Britain's and America's... economic recession... Maybe it's all just a sign of the "last gasp of a dying capitalism".... the "death rattle of imperialism," etc. Or maybe it's the opposite of that -- the "road to serfdom"... Or maybe it's all because of people having "authoritarian personality structures," and has no socio-economic root at all. Maybe it's because people have lost their affective ties and become atomized individuals afflicted with dreadful anomie... Except that Robert Paxton reminds us that interwar Germany was nothing like that, that it was actually an unusually structured communitarian society for the most part, during the lead-up to Hitler (Kurt Tucholsky's "Familie," for one, doesn't sound too atomized)... So maybe, the true reason is just the opposite... Maybe it's that Germans were denied their individuality by their overly collectivist family structures... More colorfully still, as Reich suggested, perhaps fascism is just an outgrowth of sexual repression! Or of bed-wetting! Or of the inability to outgrow the need for the all-giving Mutter!

My own account of fascist (and Trump-iteer-ist) origins in this post might at last be no closer to the real heart of things than any of these others. Probably the truth, if it could be known, takes account of all these analyses, and then some. But I guess the question is: does it really matter to the question that concerns us here? Does it count in the moral calculus, at last, whether people voted the way they did on June 23rd because they were protesting globalization, or because they wanted to arrogate more of its fruits to themselves and deny them to others? Either way, I cannot find much sympathy in my heart for the Brexiteers, apart from the universal sympathy one owes to other people simply qua fellow beings. I cannot "Pity the monsters" in this instance, at least not any more than I pity other voters who make other kinds of disastrous and selfish political choices. Whoever the Brexiteers actually were and are -- whatever "anger" they felt (and this part is always said as if "anger" gives one special rights, as if it grants one a license to harm) -- the fact remains that they were willingly inflicting suffering on the innocent in pursuit of their aims. To say much the same thing, I'm not sure I agree with Greenwald when he states that, "sustained economic misery makes people more receptive to tribalistic scapegoating" (for reasons given above, I'm not sure the scapegoaters are also the misérables in this instance), but even if it's true, Greenwald doesn't appear to be denying in the process that there is in fact a lot of "tribalistic scapegoating" going on. And that involves the persecuting of those who are even worse off than oneself for something that they didn't do, that they had no control over. And that is indefensible.

Who are the suffering innocents I have in mind, in this case? They may soon include all of us, depending on how badly the economy melts in the months ahead. But they most certainly include the thousands of refugees still trapped in bottlenecks in the Balkans, in detention camps in Greece, drowning in cargo holds off the European coast, languishing in Turkish slums. The EU already condemned them knowingly to these fates, by making its disastrous deal with a country (Turkey) that has never signed the core legal instruments protecting the international rights of refugees. Brexit was merely a further affirmation of this earlier act of cowardice, a vote against one's brothers in need, a Pilate's cravenness. In light of its example, how many other European politicians are now likely to stake their political fortunes on welcoming refugees, I ask you? How many will be willing to do something brave to help people in need? Very few. Because dangling now over the head of each will be the example of what has happened to David Cameron -- You could be next! each one will hear, whispered in the night.

Don't start, this time, by pitying the monsters. Just now, they can take care of themselves. They proved that well enough on June 23rd. Pity instead the lives that could have been saved. Pity the drowned. Pity the unaccompanied child. Pity the nearly 3,000 refugees who have perished in the Mediteranean since 2016 began. Pity the stateless exile. If you have once pitied them, and done all in one's power to bring them to safety-- perhaps then, yes then... you can open your heart to the Brexiteer too.


  1. I may write a more detailed comment when I have time, but for now I wanted to note that Silver's demographic analysis has received a lot of plausible criticism:

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