#Brexit: when the walls started coming up again all over Europe

brexit‘Everything I know about the world has changed. Things are going to get very dark and very ugly. There will be fear and suspicion and it will not end.’

I remember where I was on 11 September 2001. I remember how it felt. I remember what I thought.

There were a group of us gathered in the boardroom at Deloitte in Cape Town. It was the first meeting of the newly-established board that would govern the non-profit organisation I ran, Business Beat.

I remember ANC member of parliament Ben Turok emphatically telling me that I shouldn’t ‘dabble’, but should take things seriously. It was an odd, and oddly uninformed, rebuke considering that even by that date, I’d spent eight years working in South Africa’s townships to help undo the economic damage caused by Apartheid.

A secretary interrupted and had a brief, nervous conversation with our chair. He immediately, softly, said, ‘An airplane has just flown into the World Trade Centre in New York. I think we should cancel today’s meeting.’

We all went into the common area in the offices where dozens of people were gathered. The north tower was already smoking. Everyone stood around quietly, a few people in tears. As we watched, an airplane appeared and flew into the south tower.

In that moment I thought to myself, ‘Everything I know about the world has changed. Things are going to get very dark and very ugly. There will be fear and suspicion and it will not end.’

I was born into a world where the walls were coming down. The worst had happened and was being dismantled.

The UK joined what would become the European Union in 1973. The Berlin Wall fell in 1991 and Communism began to recede. I voted in the last whites-only referendum in 1992 that formally ended Apartheid. Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first non-racial president in 1994. Barack Obama did the same for the US in 2008.

I voted only once in the new South Africa, on 27 April 1994. I spoiled my vote.

It seemed there were only two choices. Either I could choose the ANC, who promised that they would end Apartheid (which was, officially, anyway, ended), or I could choose any of the others, who promised that they would stop the ANC getting sufficient power to write the constitution as they wished.

No-one told me what I would be voting for. It seems that, after 20 years of democracy in South Africa, there is still no-one to vote for, only things to vote against.

That wasn’t the world I wanted. I wanted to make a positive change.

On 11 September 2001, I remember what it felt like to realise that, maybe, it was the end of all that positive change.

We know now where the world has gone since then. The fear that has eroded the optimism we felt coming out of the end of the Cold War. The gradual suppression of fundamental freedoms in liberal societies. The government-mandated spying programs on their own citizens. No-fly lists, religious persecution, unending fear, ghastly and brutal genocides.

On 23 June 2016, I went to a concert by Ennio Morricone at Blenheim Palace. This Italian, and the most celebrated composer of film music, led a Czech orchestra through a 60-year retrospective of his work. It was the best of what the UK in the EU has to offer.

At 4 a.m. I woke and watched in horror as the referendum on the UK remaining in the EU shifted unequivocally towards ‘Leave’.

I remember where I was on 24 June 2016. I remember how it felt. I remember what I thought.

This was a referendum campaign fought in the finest traditions of Apartheid South Africa where ‘swart gevaar’ was the maxim of my childhood. ‘Black fear’, fear of the other, fear of the stranger. Fear them. Hate them. Women and children all.

In that moment I thought to myself, ‘Everything I know about the world has changed. Things are going to get very dark and very ugly. There will be fear and suspicion and it will not end.’

To put this into context for an American reader. Imagine a Texas secessionist group revived the racist nationalism of the American Civil War and generated sufficient support to trigger a referendum in Texas. Imagine that campaign was fought on the most tribal, nationalist and racist platform against foreigners and taking back ‘control’ of borders and budgets.

Imagine they won.

The US exists no less than the EU to bind warring factions together, to promote free trade and common values. That an unemployed person in Indianapolis can move to San Diego to find work and need fill in no forms, apply for no visas, is a tribute to free movement. That, once that person secures a job, they can work to produce goods that are sent straight back to Indianapolis, is thanks to free trade.

That is what the UK is giving up by leaving the EU.

The EU was founded to put an end to the mindless cycle of destructive racist nationalism that tore Europe apart for centuries, culminating in the atrocities of the holocaust. Small countries, totalitarian countries, blaming and hating minorities and migrants.

Maybe the EU hasn’t been perfect, maybe it’s been unsexy, unfun, and uninspiring.

Boring politics is a luxury I yearn for. I don’t want to know the names of my MPs. I don’t want to worry about lawmaking. I want it all to be boring and mechanical.

I can say the same about healthcare systems, infrastructure, electricity, sewage and sanitation.

I don’t want to be drawn into vast conspiracy theories and tautological debates by tribal parties endlessly fighting about whether chemical treatment of sewage is a corporate endeavour to burgle the poor.

I just want it to function.

That was the EU’s success. It just functioned. Sure, sometimes it produced really stupid legislation, but that’s something that can be debated and changed. If you don’t like the new approach to sewage treatment you don’t cancel the service. Where were you planning to put all your shit?

But this is worse than the UK leaving a trade block, even one as astonishingly successful as the EU, one that permits 500 million people from 27 countries to travel, live and work wherever they want to, whenever they want to.

This has revived a taboo and given it new life.

Racist nationalism was not yet dead. The brutal loathing of minorities and foreigners that brought about the second world war, and necessitated the founding of the EU, still lives.

But we do not talk about it.

Just as racism did not end in South Africa after 1994, there is still xenophobia in the UK. However, the taboo was taking hold. No-one talks about it, so no-one knows who is a racist.

In logic, there is the concept of mutual knowledge and common knowledge. Mutual knowledge is something that we all know, but we do not know whether others know it as well. Common knowledge is knowledge where everyone knows something, and we know that everyone knows it, and they know that we know it.

The Emperor’s New Clothes, by Hans Christian Anderson, is a fantastic telling of that distinction. In the story, it seems that only a child is willing to say that the Emperor has no clothes. Mutual knowledge instantly becomes common knowledge.

A more brutal, and more interesting telling of that distinction is the tale of the blue-eyed islanders. You can read a good description of it, and its analysis, by Terence Tao:

There is an island upon which a tribe resides. The tribe consists of 1000 people, with various eye colours. Yet, their religion forbids them to know their own eye colour, or even to discuss the topic; thus, each resident can (and does) see the eye colours of all other residents, but has no way of discovering his or her own (there are no reflective surfaces). If a tribesperson does discover his or her own eye colour, then their religion compels them to commit ritual suicide at noon the following day in the village square for all to witness. All the tribespeople are highly logical and devout, and they all know that each other is also highly logical and devout (and they all know that they all know that each other is highly logical and devout, and so forth).

Of the 1000 islanders, it turns out that 100 of them have blue eyes and 900 of them have brown eyes, although the islanders are not initially aware of these statistics (each of them can of course only see 999 of the 1000 tribespeople).

One day, a blue-eyed foreigner visits to the island and wins the complete trust of the tribe.

One evening, he addresses the entire tribe to thank them for their hospitality.

However, not knowing the customs, the foreigner makes the mistake of mentioning eye colour in his address, remarking “how unusual it is to see another blue-eyed person like myself in this region of the world”.

What effect, if anything, does this faux pas have on the tribe?

I’ll save you the stress of figuring it out. The answer is that on day 101, all the blue-eyed people kill themselves (which can be generalised to day n+1, where n is the number of blue-eyed people).

Effectively, there is a slow percolation of mutual knowledge until something becomes common knowledge at which point there is a sudden response.

We have seen the unexpected success of Donald Trump in the US, and now that of the ‘Leave’ campaign in the UK.

What has happened in each place is that people have been united by the common cause of racism. They have discovered not only that others share their views, but that those others constitute a significant plurality.

Racists can have influence. Mutual knowledge (‘I am a racist, but I’ll keep that to myself.’) has become common knowledge (‘Wow, everyone else is a racist too. Let’s join together and do something about it.’).

While those fighting for ‘Remain’ always seemed to have to caveat their support (‘The EU is very important for us but it does need reform’) and then argued about the nature of that reform, the ‘Leave’ campaign really only had one issue: ‘Fuck you, we’re racists’.

The same goes for the election campaign in the US. Voting for Hilary Clinton is caveated with so many riders. She’s not the right sort of liberal. She’s morally compromised. She’s a closet Republican. She is only pretending to support left-wing issues.

Donald Trump’s supporters only have one issue: ‘Fuck you, we’re racists’.

Yes, I’m generalising. I’m sure there are many people who voted ‘Leave’ after grappling with the issues. They were in the minority.

And, yes, that so many people felt angry and betrayed by the approach of the sanitation department to treating sewage is a weird indictment on the state of politics in the EU. Certainly, politicians have much to answer for. But the only politicians that have any standing with the public are Apartheid-era racists who would make Hendrik Verwoerd proud to be in their company.

Those are the ones that may get the opportunity to choose the future for the rest of us.

Where does it leave those of us with liberal values?

Divided. To our detriment.

Many US liberals would prefer a more left-leaning candidate, like Bernie Sanders. European liberals are similarly split between different versions of liberal elites.

This is a debate about the flavour of liberty; the colour of your parachute. The racist nationalists don’t do nuance. And they may win from such split votes.

David Cameron is responsible for this mess. My hope is that his name becomes the very definition for a person who pursues a short-term political advantage at the expense of the entire world and then brings it down around him.

After committing an insane act of self-harm, in which a person has torn off his leg and used it to beat up an old lady, and then bled to death on top of her, I’d like that person to be referred to as having committed ‘a real David Cameron’.

I want him to live a long and healthy life, and to every day have to experience the fucked up disaster that he has unleashed. I want his children to be ashamed of their father. I want his grandchildren to change their names by deed-pole to hide from the stain.

I want him to be remembered for what he has done.

As for the UK? It doesn’t really matter.

Maybe they’ll figure out some slight-of-hand to remain in the EU. Maybe Scotland will vote for independence and then join the EU. Maybe Northern Ireland will collapse back into sectarian civil war. Maybe it won’t but will join Ireland in a united country. Maybe what’s left of England and Wales becomes some boring and invisible place no-one remembers until, like Iceland, they cause some economic debacle and people wonder how they came to influence so much of the economy.

It doesn’t matter.

The demon of racist nationalism has been unleashed. The sorts of leaders who benefit from this upwell of support are those like Nigel Farage in the UK, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine le Pen in France, and Donald Trump in the US.

They’re all closet fascists, and all ideologically aligned with Vladimir Putin in Russia.

It is no accident that, on the same day as the UK referendum results were announced, the Russian duma passed an antiterrorism bill so brutal that it turns Russia back into a police state.

We are where we were in the weeks following 11 September 2001. A weird calm in the midst of potential chaos with proxy wars and the domino of failed states and millions deprived of their life and liberty still to come.

All across Europe, racist nationalists are having their common knowledge moments. They’re realising they could actually win, and they’re demanding their own referenda on leaving the EU. In France, the Netherlands and Greece, in Germany and Spain.

The world will become a darker, meaner place. Despots around the world will breathe a little easier, and cause even more mayhem.

The walls are coming up again all over Europe. I hope I live long enough that I may see them fall once more.

One comment on “#Brexit: when the walls started coming up again all over Europe

  1. Pingback: Brexit Britain Bigotry Bake-off | Progressive Culture | Scholars & Rogues

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