Dear friends in America, if you’re feeling deflated, robbed, crushed, devastated, I know how it feels. I felt the same way when the majority of voters on Britain opted for Brexit.
That day, and for many days after that, I was so overwhelmed by the outcome of the ‘Remain or Leave the EU’ referendum I had the sense I was living in a grave new world. It felt like I had blinked and everything had changed. The principles I took for granted — progress, openness, informed decision-making, inclusivity, pluralism, respect for others despite their ethnicity or color — all of them shattered, blown to smithereens overnight.
All of that and more was going through my mind as I walked down the streets of London, one of the few places in the UK that had thankfully not supported Brexit, feeling raw and betrayed, stunned, frayed, because ‘Brexit means Brexit,’ as everyone knows.
It was hard to escape the ramifications of the vote and what it meant for the country. Out of the EU and the single market. No more freedom of movement between Britain and the Continent. No more streamlined banking and business transactions. Enterprise and exchange of culture giving way to an emerging bureaucracy and its peculiar new order.
Plus, the rationale behind the vote, the psyche underpinning it. A slap in the face and a kick in the stomach. A regression to dated mindsets, underpinned by cantankerous suspicion and the basest form of cynicism. Brexit had been carried on a wave of xenophobia and bigotry, bringing out the worst in the kingdom. That undefined sense of division Britain projects on all visitors, the unmistakable insular element typical of the British Isles, it grew into something much more expressive. Like a slow-burning fire that caught the wind and roared into size, it blossomed with thorns of racism.
Before the referendum, if you were a visitor and had an accent, you felt like an outsider, even at the best of times.
Now, after Brexit, you felt targeted.
And the counterlabeling began.
Suddenly everyone with a native English accent felt like a bigot, a career racist waiting to snatch up those who didn’t fit the bill and show them the door, or the bottom of a boot. Nasty vibes, I felt them wherever I went. Everyone seemed to be eyeing me, these haters, eyeing me in particular, secretly wishing I would fuck off and leave them alone, me and my Mediterranean non-Englishness. I could see it in their eyes, telling me without moving their lips, ‘We got you, you wanker! Now piss off!’
Nasty vibes, I felt them wherever I went. Everyone seemed to be eyeing me
Of course, all they said was, That’ll be £2.80 please! Thank you!
Here you go, I would respond. Thanks.
Inside, of course, I was seething. ‘I see through you,’ I would think to myself, ‘I see through you, you racist shit. You and your facade! I know what you’re thinking, so fuck you, too! Take your little England and stuff it!’
Cheers! Have a good day!
Thanks, you too!
See, not a lot is said out loud these days, at least not directly, not in one’s face. Everything happens on the side, or behind the scenes. You register the effects via decisions taken far away, or incidentally and on the side. You monitor the side-effects and add everything up, that’s how you know what’s really going on. You learn to decode the undertone and subtext, filling in the details yourself.
The problem with this approach is, you often get it wrong. You’re never sure what’s going on inside people’s heads, or what that sour smirk means. Sometimes it’s a brush-off, yeah, but other times it means someone’s having a bad day. Problems at home, maybe, or at work. Maybe issues with the car, or too much time spent on stuffy, jam-packed trains and underground stations breathing in other people’s garlicky dinner from last night. Breathing in smog and cancer on the way to work and back. The endless traffic and the overcast sky that sucks the color out of our lives.
Sometimes a sour smirk, or any kind of questionable grimace and gesture, means something silly, irrelevant, like a mouth ulcer that won’t go away, or a stupid song that won’t leave your head, sabotaging the rest of your face.
And sometimes it means fuck all. It’s just a smirk, because you can’t be polite and smiley and genuinely friendly and warm all the time, not with every single person among the hundreds or thousands of people you come across each day.
Lesson number one when living in a big city: don’t take offence too easily or you’ll be constantly miserable.
Lesson number two: apply lesson number one with extra care on the days following the majority of Britons having voted for Brexit.
See, I was out and about, taking the London trains and buses to my meetings and back, or just having lunch, dinner, a stroll down the busy streets, and all I could think of were bogeymen and neanderthals looking to punt the world back into the 70’s.
On a certain level, they had succeeded, or, I should say, the process was underway in very real terms. Britain had suddenly and in a very movie-like fashion found itself a step closer to turning the clocks back forty-so years. It hadn’t taken place yet because you don’t just ‘leave’ the EU. It’s not a door you walk out of the next day, all done, bring on the fish and chips, will you?
It doesn’t happen that way. There are procedures. Long, arduous meetings and negotiations on thousands of deals and arrangements already in place, which need to be changed. Dreadful bureaucracy that needs to be executed, new protocols put in place, new legislation conceived and enacted, new contracts reviewed and signed, a whole new infrastructure to design and build.
Britain had suddenly and in a very movie-like fashion found itself a step closer to turning the clocks back forty-so years
It takes forever to make this happen. Like disassembling and reassembling a cruise ship already out at sea — bring it in, dock it, work on it . . . figure out how to work on it . . . agree who’s going to work on it. I mean, before you even start the job you have to figure out who’s going to do it, let alone how to prep for the job, which is a huge task in itself.
Britain had voted out of the EU, but to activate its exit from the Union it had to invoke Article 50, and to invoke Article 50 it had to address a plethora of political, legal, social, economic and administrational issues leading to the restructuring itself.
A super slow, laborious, pedantic process.
Still, we were faced with the fact of Brexit. People had voted out of the EU. Their message was clear, and everyone had to live with the side effects of the referendum until the real effects took hold.
It was a hard idea to swallow. Parting with the Continent? The first divisive move since the conception of a peaceful and integrated Europe?
The prospect was terrifying. Out of the single market for good, gone, cut off from the Continent in so many ways. Heavy, distressing stuff. Britain’s ties with Europe about to be severed in a less than amicable manner — sour is the proper term, if not bitter — only to be recultivated in due course, possibly, based on negotiations that would probably drag on for years and with no real certainty as to how and when relations would smoothen out again, if ever, at least in the foreseeable future.
Not only that, there were all the lies and fibs the Brexit Campaign had told the British electorate to get what it wanted, all the filthy misinformation it had spread about the EU and the great things that would automatically take place when the UK showed itself out.
Not that there wasn’t plenty to say about the EU. Dear God, did the EU screw things up! A bloated technocracy becoming increasingly detached from the electorate, governed by a combination of special parliamentarians and unelected bodies who wrote up and signed treaties mostly behind closed doors, cutting deals, devising policies that the sovereign governments of Europe had to implement locally. Talk about a Sovietized system — a well-meaning, technocratic Soviet Union, of course, with neither gulags nor Stalin, nor an Iron Curtain and the Tovarisch Comrade up your nose all the time — but a behemoth nonetheless: the perfunctory EU, issuing directives top-down, willy-nilly, and screw functionality. Let the national administrations of each country sort out the details.
Really bad management, you see, only gigantic, and everywhere.
It was only a matter of time before something cracked.
At first all bets were on the Greeks. Their state was in shambles, failing from end to end in ways that boggled the mind, and the loans given to it by the ECB and the IMF were cruel and unsustainable, making things even worse. It was only a matter of time before Greece went off the cliff, taking the entire European project with it, but, against all odds, the Greek state cracked internally instead, giving in to the economic and financial pressures, ending up playing patsy to the big players, who kept loaning them money in exchange for a mortgaged generation.
So a disorderly Grexit was avoided and the can was kicked down the road. Spain, another member suffering from a number of ailments, recovered from its sovereign debt crisis through a better memorandum loan deal, thereby averting a political earthquake, and so did Ireland and Italy and Portugal. They dodged the bullet, so to speak, helping the Union dodge it in turn.
Or, as I like to say, the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) didn’t chew up through the EU’s kernel. They stayed on the prefabricated cud, and the acorns. Acorns all around, for those who knew how to dig them up from the gargantuan legislation and procedure manuals — the complex EU grants, the financial schemes etc.
Unfortunately the whole Brexit cause was based on lies
But Britain, there was no appetite for acorns there, no love for cud, or so the story went. A number of players were unwilling to play along anymore, showing no patience for the EU’s shortfalls. They wanted out, yesterday, even though there was no Plan B. (We’ll get to that minor detail in a minute.) Britain with its formidable economy and its non-continental position, with its tradition of exceptionalism and its incredibly powerful Foreign Office, its experience in diplomacy and war, its divide-and-rule expertise, its Commonwealth — Great rambunctious Britain decided to do what the others couldn’t, or wouldn’t. It flipped the EU the bird, and the rest is history (in the making).
Unfortunately the whole Brexit cause was based on lies, as I already mentioned; petty micropolitical power games by petty but ambitious politicians and their backers for the top seats in the country, plus a wave of frustration from ordinary Britons not faring so well — all the people who felt cheated by the system, eager to swallow any tall tale they heard in their effort to change things up.
Add to that a wave of crypto-racism now coming to the surface through the work of a certain Nigel Farage AKA the Big Tosser, and his UKIP party of frustration-slash-racism, and you had a Brexit Campaign. A disconcerting but attention-grabbing phenomenon that wouldn’t go away no matter what. Something like Trump and his bluster on making the country great again, but without the entertainment value, or the grand spectacle, meaning it was parochial and pathetic, but still very, very dangerous.
You’ll be surprised how it’s oftentimes the pathetic ones who end causing the most damage. They don’t get the respect they think they deserve, or the reaction they crave, so they harden their stance until they cause real and lasting destruction.
UKIP came to the fight with a hooligan attitude. Eager to crack skulls and shatter livelihoods, sometimes for real — not officially; they left the violence to the English Defence League and other affiliated extremists; and you knew they approved of the violence; and you knew they took secret pleasure in watching foreigners suffer: ‘That’ll be £10.60 and a bruised ego so you can learn your place and get out of our country, you filthy this-and-that, thank you very much!’ — and you knew they were wishing for more violence, you could almost hear the loutish gears grinding inside their heads. There was no mistaking it, especially not after they brought out the Nazi-style banners and the foul language that accompanied them.
Yes, the UKIP leadership put their big mouth were their nasty mind was, and we didn’t have to surmise anymore. We knew. We saw. We heard their hate speech and acknowledged how they were vilifying migrants openly and with a vengeance, and we pointed back at UKIP, crying, ‘Bigots! Imbeciles! Brown-shirts in everyday clothing! Thugs!’
Their response was thuggish, as expected. UKIP went all-out flippers, jitters, and scaremonger-some on Europe, using its campaign to target EU institutions and citizens left, right, and far-right. Language suddenly became an issue for Nigel Farage who made a point of explaining how disturbing it was for him to ride in the train and hear people speaking languages other than English. He promoted a narrow-minded and hate-filled campaign, forcing sensible people around the country to watch aghast as the horrors of pre-War discrimination became part of the political discourse.
The specters of the early 20th century were returning with a vengeance, and we watched them making their moves on screen, both live and recorded, in the studios and on the streets, all around the kingdom, but especially in England, where the animosity toward Europe was strongest.
I, like so many others, watched horrified as UKIP gained traction, disappointed at the rest of the Brexit campaigners and their unwillingness to counterbalance the situation by bringing some sense to the campaign trail. These ‘mainstreamers,’ the ‘establishment’ branch of the movement and its conservative but non-UKIP affiliated leaders, they were happy to stand on the side and watch it all unfold, secretly taking advantage. They shamelessly fed off UKIP’s disgusting rhetoric. They distanced themselves just enough so as not to be tainted by the racism and xenophobia, but remained close enough to appeal to voters, coming across as the sane choice for the disgruntled British patriot. They were smart-ish in their overall dumbness, but ultimately in support of a poor choice. They were supposed to keep things civilized, and they did, to a very slight degree, and only to the point where it suited them, which made their civility moot and irrelevant, if not downright hypocritical and self-serving.
You’d expect it from UKIP — its whole raison d’etre hinged around getting pissed off with other people, passing it all off as patriotism, hence their name, the United Kingdom Independence Party — UKIP! — but the mainstream conservatives? Really!
‘Screw the EU,’ mainstream Brexit conservatives cried in so many words, ‘what has it ever done for us, blah blah, tell them to piss off with their Brussels sprouts rules and regulations, we are a sovereign country. We want to devise the rules we live by and become the authors of our destiny,’ — and to a point, there was logic in the argument. Who could disagree with becoming the author of your destiny and devising your country’s rules and all that?
It would have made sense, and could have, only it didn’t stop there. The ‘sane-choice’ Brexiteers decided it would be a good idea to stretch the argument to the extreme.
‘We will make Britain independent again,’ they said.
Yep! The Brexit mainstream Campaign, led by Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, and Michael Gove, wannabe-leader-of-anything and punch-face extraordinaire, said they would make Britain independent again.
The Johnsons and Goves of the Brexit Campaign wanted to make the UK ‘independent’ again
In case they hadn’t noticed, Britain was already independent. Plus, the kingdom enjoyed a spectacular array of exemptions from EU law. These opt-outs, as they were called, had made it possible for Britain to stay out of the Eurozone and the Schengen Treaty, retaining control of both its currency and borders.
In other words, it was as good as it could get for the UK. It got to do things its own way and still be part of the EU team; have its European Union and veer off-track, too.
Minor details, of course, all of the above. The Johnsons and Goves of the Brexit Campaign wanted to make the UK ‘independent’ again, stealing UKIP’s thunder just in case Farage’s party got too far ahead of itself.
The concept killed on the campaign trail, so they stuck with it.
Remember the quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. That’s what it was, all without the feelgood nature of the movie; an array of trumped up, blistering lies delivered on the backdrop of a toxic campaign that would be topped in folly and scale four months later by none other than serial topper and career showman, Uncle Sam, and its latest enfant terrible, Donald Trump.
It was an unholy dynamic conceived in the bowels of disrepute. Donald Trump, a savvy manipulator of public opinion, fed off Brexit’s furious momentum, and in turn, Brexit fed off the relentless Trump advance.
Together, they formed a feedback loop mechanism, making each other stronger.
Fortifying the cocktail even further were the European populists and their anti-EU policies. These movements-slash-administrations had entrenched themselves in countries like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Greece, introducing a form of proto-fascism/nationalism/neo-Marxism to European politics. Partly racist, partly protectionist, sometimes conservative and religious-minded (Poland), other times secular and communist (Greece), these administrations tainted the tenets of political decency around the Continent.
In addition, there was France and its popular National Front working its way up the ladder through the French opposition, and the Nordic Resistance Movement in Scandinavia. An unsavory assortment of far-left and far-right movements led by questionable elements of society, supporting each other, egging each other on, getting their power from attacking the EU and everything it stood for, everyone non-native, to each their own. An unholy alliance of frustration turned into extremism.
Britain caved in to the folly of fear and hysteria, evoking prejudice and distemper
You’d think the Brits would get a handle on the situation and find a way to protest the failures of the greater European project with calculated precision, something more refined and sophisticated than blind populist outrage.
Yet, against all odds, and in line with human nature, which we disregard at our own peril, Britain caved in to the folly of fear and hysteria, evoking prejudice and distemper. Both Nigel Farage’s UKIP with its filthy rhetoric and the Johnson-Gove branch of the Brexit Campaign and their blatant misinformation strategy, they took up proudly the standard of madness.
‘We will save 350 million pounds a day, and we will guarantee jobs for every Briton, and we will make the country prosperous in a jiffy . . .’
The lies we talked about.
‘We will deport all the immigrants, at least all those who exceed our quotas. And we will make our country ours again. And we will no longer be subject to unelected officials. Power to the British voter. Britain belongs to its people.’
The independence thing in more sophisticated clothing.
An alluring manifesto, especially if you’re a confused, disillusioned, and angry voter, so pissed off with the system that you’ll try anything, let alone a call to national greatness.
And so it went for a while, until the majority agreed with all the points presented to them, and the Brexit Campaign cheered, ‘Hurrah! We’re independent and happy. We won! . . . Now what?’
People scrambled and crammed to find answers. This was the election they hadn’t expected to win, the exam they’d not prepared for.
After a lot of give and take and hearsay, a new Prime Minister came to power.
Her name was Theresa May, the kingdom’s Home Secretary at the time, six years on the job. May, a staunch conservative, had been in support of Remain, not Brexit, backing David Cameron, the Prime Minister who had campaigned in favor of remaining in the EU. So when Cameron’s Campaign was defeated, he stepped down, and May wasn’t first on the list of candidates seeking to take over the reins of the party.
But May prevailed despite the odds. She was made the new head of the ruling Conservative party, and thus, became the new Prime Minister. The vote was conducted within the Conservative party because that’s how it works in Britain: when the incumbent steps down, a new leader takes charge without the aid of a general election, unless such an election is called, which wasn’t in this case — something like the American Vice President taking over from a resigned President, but with a lot more infighting until the pundits settle on the successor — and Theresa May became Prime Minister, making Brexit a top priority of her administration because ‘Brexit means Brexit,’ as everyone knows.
But, surprise surprise, the money the Brexit Campaign had promised everyone, it wasn’t there, and the foreigners they wanted to kick out couldn’t be kicked out, not without violating a bunch of airtight agreements, not to mention human rights. Plus, it would put at risk the welfare of millions of British expats in turn, who were likely to suffer reprisals from disgruntled governments across the Continent.
The scrambling and wild-goose chasing continued as the pundits tried to find solutions to the dead end into which they had campaigned and voted for.
Meanwhile the Europeans watched from across the Channel, flabbergasted. Greece was having the time of its life, laughing from the sidelines, thinking to itself, ‘At least we were broke and desperate. You guys had a great thing going — a strong economy, a number of opt-outs — yet you opted to fuck it up anyway. Intentionally. Wow! Thanks for letting us off the hook!’
And the markets and the whole world watched in amazement as the Brits fell into slipshod amateurism that left everyone baffled and bewildered. It was as if the circus had come to town, and it was not amusing. Killer clowns everywhere you looked, charlatans and assassins bearing awkward smiles and empty pieces of paper, making loud proclamations that stood for nothing substantial.
And the House of Lords watched from the turrets, hoping no one got wind of the fact that they were Peers — unelected officials who ruled the land alongside the elected Commons. It wouldn’t strike the right note. If asked, they would point out they were local unelected officials, not beyond-the-Channel unelected officials.
I was walking down the London streets, searching for a semblance of normality
Such was happening in dear little Great Britain, and on the days after the Brexit victory, everything looked bleak and worrisome, to me at least.
I was walking down the London streets, searching for a semblance of normality, something to prove to me that things weren’t collapsing, that there was still enough decency left in the world despite the referendum results and all that had preceded it.
I walked up to a couple of members of staff in Paddington train station, people in blue-and-orange uniforms, asking them about train schedules — arrivals, platform numbers, that sort of thing. I wanted to make sure things were still ok, that people in uniform were normal people and not some official thugs eager to bite my foreigner head off and throw me on the tracks.
‘Platform 4, mate. Over there. No worries, yeah?’
Everything seemed normal, and yet everything felt weird, glossed over, laminated like a fashion magazine, like the taxi driver I had dealt with earlier . . .
£9.20, sir . . . Thank you! Here’s your change.
It’s alright, keep the change!
Thank you, sir! Have a lovely morning!
Thanks! You too!
So polite and normal. So weird!
And then there was the cashier at the cafe, who wasn’t local, of course. She sounded Polish, Czech, maybe Slovakian or Slovenian.
And the guy at the grocery store, he was Oriental, with a heavy accent. Like many people in London. Asian, Eastern European, African, Australian, American. Not English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh. They were immigrants, making a living in this huge town, sustaining its operations alongside millions of British people.
London is a big city, and as multicultural as it gets. More than Paris, more than Berlin, more than any city in the EU. Diverse like extra special pizza. And it’s doing great. It’s a thriving hub of commerce and culture, a world leader in world finance, in tourism and entertainment. It has an array of international airports, bringing in millions of visitors each year, and it’s home to the City of London, the financial gild that runs a big chunk of the world’s business activities.
London has nothing to complain about, unless you venture out of the center into the outskirts where people are living in less than ideal situations, and then you reconsider your opinion, and your life in general, realizing that it’s a big bubble, your life, shielding you from the raw reality of the periphery.
In plain terms, poverty and sprawl. Leave the central zones and venture out, into Zones 2, 3 and 4, and you’ll see it. So many people struggling to make ends meet. London is home to some of the most expensive rents in the world. Its housing costs an arm and a leg. You don’t get on the ladder easily. You need a mortgage, which will most probably have you paying through the nose for decades, if you ever get qualify for one. Most people don’t, and sometimes you wonder who’s luckier: the ones who owe the banks for their entire lives, or the ones who remain financially free, yet destitute?
In addition, the distances. You have to commute for hours each day to get to work. If you’re lucky, you suffer only an hour, roundtrip. And for any kind of sports you have to trek to a sports center, if you can afford one, timing your expedition to or from work, and we haven’t even mentioned family, kids, school runs, bills, crime, and bureaucracy.
As for the various towns and boroughs that make up London Metropolitan Area, or LMA, as it’s called, they’re an amalgam of dozens of nationalities, ethnicities, backgrounds, religions and cultures of all kinds. This diversity was never a front-issue problem — in fact, it was an asset — until UKIP made it a problem. Sure, there were serious issues with ‘scroungers’ — career abusers of the welfare system, individuals or groups of individuals who found ways to milk the state dry for everything it had to offer them, in return for fuck all. Plenty of them played this game, feeding off the state teat at the expense of hard-working, honest people.
But UKIP decided to color the scrounging issue a predominantly ‘immigrant’ issue, labeling all the immigrants as such, while the British people in their totality were automatically described as the hard-working and honest people being taken for a ride by these hordes of foreign scroungers.
A gross generalization and misrepresentation, at best, it was as mendacious and convenient as it was classic . Scapegoating 101, as they’d call it in the US — I don’t know what they’d call it in Germany; probably ‘Hitlerian baby steps’ — but let’s be honest, this has been going on for some time all over the world; blaming foreigners for the general misfortune of any given state, country or nation. It’s been happening in the USA, in Germany, in Italy, France, Denmark and Saudi Arabia, in Russia, India and Pakistan, Australia and Brazil, you name it, it’s a move straight out of the populist basic manual, and it doesn’t need Hitler to get it going. It’s operated by far less vicious people, but it’s still dangerous and vile, in fact, a deplorable tactic.
UKIP decided to make the scrounging issue a predominantly ‘immigrant’ issue
So maybe the Hitlerian analogy is a little overboard, but let’s not lose focus. It’s all a step in the wrong direction, and UKIP and the mainstream Brexit Campaign were making it all happen, as if they hadn’t studied their history, their psychology, or even basic economics.
So the diversity of London became a blemish overnight.
Not only that, this foul, idiotic approach of blaming foreigners willy-nilly detracted from the problem of scrounging in its raw form, of which there was plenty taking place. The freeloaders were extremely inventive, finding ways to live in government housing for nothing, so long as they could prove this and that disability or misfortune. Millions and millions of pounds were systematically siphoned out of the system to sustain professional unemployeds, career tricksters, deadbeat troublemakers who couldn’t hold a job because of their temper or attitude, but who knew exactly how to file complaints for abuse; and single mothers who knew exactly the number of children you had to have to get the maximum benefits; and people with the right kind of stories, all of them carefully researched — kudos to them for knowing their game, triggering the maximum amount of benefits — all while millions of people were busting their backs working two jobs to get a fraction of the reward.
Hell yeah, there was a problem with scrounging, and it wasn’t getting fixed. The welfare system was getting milked dry by the professionals of entitlement, and Joe and Jane Bloggs were getting angry about it.
Had the political players chosen to respond with fierce grace, targeting the problem regardless of the perpetrators’ ethnicity and cultural background, clipping the issue at the root, as it happened, focusing on the transgressions and abused loopholes and nothing else, it would have benefited the British society loads.
But with UKIP spewing its xenophobia, and the Brexit establishment playing coy, watching from the sidelines, everything turned into a witch-hunt. The entire issue was delegitimized, discredited and tainted for the foreseeable future.
Not to mention the mirror loopholes, the ones abused by the rich and privileged, the corporations, the legal and accounting firms, everyone who knew exactly how to play the system in order to dodge taxation and other responsibilities. There was also that, big problem. It had been going on for many years, an issue everyone was aware of and often griped about as London grew and became an ever-greater powerhouse. It came with the territory, to be fair, seeing that kind of power play. Not that anyone let it off the hook completely — on the contrary, it had been in the center of a number of rows between conservatives and socialists and liberal democrats on how to rein in the rich and powerful.
But it became an even greater problem when the Brexit Campaign decided to focus solely and with gross callousness on the plain part of the loophole problem, blaming everything on foreigners, while the loopholes for the rich and fancy were conveniently overlooked.
It was an insult to injury, and it hurt many people’s sense of decency and logic.
But it worked. Once public opinion focused on the immigrants, many people forgot all about the loopholes of the rich.
Populism 101. Baby steps.
So here I was, in paella-diverse London, taking it all in. There was a sense of portent floating about, simmering in a soup of tension and embarrassment. All uniforms, no matter how plain and civil, looked ominous, menacing, the police most of all. Police staff looked strange, overly scrutinizing, as if they were sizing everyone up for some accusation no one could pinpoint. I’d eye them back, part curious, part riled up, thinking to myself, did this guy vote for Brexit? How about her? — and the news were all doom and gloom, full of reports on how it was all going to hell, or the opposite, full of imperial bluster and Carry On, Don’t Panic, We will become great again! and all that nonsense, abusing the Carry On attitude, riddling it with their Brexit lies and then beckoning everyone to remain optimistic. You can’t run a marathon, let alone reclaim an imperial form of sovereignty in an increasingly competitive and interconnected world, if you’ve just shot yourself in the foot.
So the whole of London felt weird, permeated by this bizarre blend of attitudes, infiltrated by exuberant optimists who reminded everyone that Brexit means Brexit, and by politicians lying through the teeth, and by seething scumbags who’d been waiting for their turn to be just a little meaner to others, and by immigrants feeling raw and exposed, uncertain of the future, seeing bigots everywhere. The entire city was consumed with paranoia and folly, not to mention the surrounding barbarians — Brexiteers who had voted Leave. The lovely countryside, which had been overwhelmingly for Brexit; a blue sea of Leave anger around a yellow dot of Remain hope.
Caught between Big Brother and Hooligan Cousin . . . It was scary stuff
The future was bleak and terrible.
One night I walking through the center of town, in Fitzrovia, past the tens of eateries that had opened up in the area over the past few years, giving the area a buzz, a lived-in feel, when I came across an Immigration Enforcement operation. They were parked on the side of road, a big fat white police van with bright blinking lights, doing something inside a building in one of the most reputable parts of town. The fuck was that about?
The fuck was going on?
I went home and wondered how much worse it would get and how exactly the situation would unravel. Were they rounding up people in the streets now? It felt bad, like being in a police state, caught between Big Brother and Hooligan Cousin. The news shows were reporting a dramatic increase in hate crimes, up by 500% in some cases. Innocent people were suffering abuse in the streets, being told to go home, called names and slurs, some of them attacked physically, injured and hospitalized. No fatalities yet, but for how long?
It was scary stuff, and it took me a while to process it.
But over the next weeks, the craziness subsided, and so did my heightened wariness. Life went back to normal, and still is, to this day, normal, within reason, four months into the vote for Brexit.
Fact is, England hasn’t descended into chaos. It hasn’t deported people in droves, or otherwise changed in drastic ways, at least on the surface. The discussions on how to trigger Article 50, which will in turn mark the beginning of the long negotiations leading up to Brexit, are still underway, and will continue for many more months. Brexit is years away. And life is ok. The specter of abandoning the EU is here, with us, bearing plenty of anxiety, yes, plenty of uncertainty to go around, lingering in the sidelines, undermining confidence, but the streets are peaceful, as orderly as they were prior to the referendum, give or take statistical fluctuations. Nothing truly out of the ordinary is taking place, except for the fact that a number of departments and institutions, both governmental and quasi-governmental, have realized they’re going to go bankrupt without EU funding. Like the National Health Service, which was the pride and joy of the British state, and which the daily infusions of 350 million pounds would never reach.
Yes, there’s that, a very stupid turn of events, and avoidable, had people thought things through before voting Leave. It’s going to become a very destabilizing issue in due course, the lack of funding, whose brunt will be felt when the money does run out.
You’d think no one in their right mind would support a strategy without a plan, some kind of cushion, anything to make the alternative better than the supposed bane.
Never underestimate human folly and its thirst for power, and damn the rest. Bridges are crossed when you get to them, or so the Brexiteers seemed to be saying.
Despite the dire forecasts and the total lack of planning and foresight, things are functioning, for now. London is as diverse as ever, its undertones of racism always present — the English cabbies, the lads in the pubs, the clique-like manner in which people separate into groups of foreign residents and locals, to a degree, always to a degree, civilly executed for the most part, very proper and polite, unless you live in the estates where life has always been shit because it’s the Estates, guvna, drowned in poverty, gangs, crime, and poor education, problems that had been there long before the referendum. Problems that may have inspired a bunch of Brexit votes, some of them legitimately and justifiably, others not — many issues had nothing to do with the EU, or immigrants, nor with Brussels sprouts regulations and unelected officials from beyond the Channel — problems that had been twisted by the demagogues and thugs to sound like they did. Just like the scrounging issue.
Crime for example. Even though the foreign criminal gangs have nothing to do with the EU. Forget the fact that the gangs to worry about are made up of Albanians and Russians, so chitty-chitty-bang-bang to that argument, but who cares about facts when you have myths, hysteria, and bogeyman issues with which to seize the day and secure a referendum?
And yet, despite everything, England, London in particular, goes on with life as normal, with its pros and cons in place, the initial shock of Brexit abated and diminished; still in the forefront of political conversation, all over the news etc, but we have thankfully escaped the raw heat of the moment, which had so ruthlessly dominated the run-up to the vote. Normality has returned to our lives, and not a moment too soon.
I, for one, am once again able to judge things clearly and with focus again.
For starters, I came to realize that the smirks I’ve been noticing everywhere, those unsettling little under-the-surface gestures and signs that had bothered me as of late, were the same smirks I’ve always seed when out and about, wherever I went. People in London tend to smirk and grimace, and many of them don’t smile, and not all of them are warm and friendly and fuzzy-eyed when they interact with you. Some are terse, quick, abrupt, mean. Some are apathetic and careless.
This is London, a peculiar and jumpy place driven by a rude form of politeness
Others are super-careful and jumpy, too easily embarrassed and always apologizing, even when there’s no need to apologize. Even when they don’t mean it.
This is London, a peculiar and jittery place driven by a rude form of politeness, a polite form of rudeness and etiquette that is careful not to offend while it refrains from connecting with anyone. Some grimaces and reactions and behaviors in general are routine and meaningless. There’s nothing behind them, nothing to write your MP about.
And some are random, circumstantial and insignificant, part of the everyday interaction between Londoners, a way for everyone to vent without venting, as Londoners do. Nothing to them.
Others still are uncalled for, true, unsettling in many ways, laden with an extra nasty something, and I deal with such incidents as I see fit, to each their own, then get on with my day. Life goes on and the world hasn’t ended. What’s happening around me, all the things that don’t necessarily satisfy me, they’re not part of our great collapse into the death valley of extremism. This is neither the execution of open society nor the rise of the marching boots. Not yet, anyway.
Like I said, there are problems, serious ones, and we deal with things one issue at a time, one day at a time.
I went over the numbers in my head to get a better grasp on the situation, going over my heretofore impressions and judgments. Everything seemed more manageable in the light of calm. I found out that the 500% increase in racial attacks, which had rattled me, referred to an increase from roughly a baseline of fifty incidents of hate crimes to two hundred and fifty incidents, or something like that, over a given number of days. Huge in percentage terms, a five-fold increase . . . but not world-ending.
See, percentages can be inaccurate and deceptive, or, to be more exact, they can be misrepresentative. Sometimes they rile people up against immigrants, speaking of high rates of immigration and foreign bogeymen out to get your jobs and make you miserable and steal your country and run away with your house and children, and sometimes they speak of racists and bigots rampaging through the streets in hordes, attacking innocent people at will, laying waste to whatever they touch, increasing the rate of hate crime by 500%!!, insinuating that the country is going down the drain and that you need to fear for your life every time you walk down the street, when in fact, you don’t. You shouldn’t.
Not to be underestimated or disregarded, the 500% increase was a worrisome phenomenon, but it wasn’t the end of orderly Britain either. The UK had not turned into the American South, nor into Putin’s Russia. Yes, innocent people had been targeted by a variety of scum ranging from louts and drunkards to criminals and yobs and other malicious idiots looking to express their filthy hostilities in the wake of Brexit, but that didn’t mean that all of Britain had donned the brown shirts.
And while I did publish an article online shortly after the Brexit referendum featuring a Union Jack inlaid with a funky-looking Swastika-type symbol in the middle, red and sharp and horrible, I didn’t believe, or even insinuate, that Britain had turned into 2016’s Nazi nation. I was careful not to do that because I knew such a claim would place me on the wrong side of the argument.
A thought-provoking, solid statement was my intention. My real and underlying concern was clear: this is how it started in Germany, through a movement borne out of the frustration of poor and disillusioned folk looking to scapegoat innocent third parties for the ills befalling the country, blaming every misfortune on the visitors. All of it was the foreigners’ fault, the Nazis had said, and the disillusioned people agreed with them, voting for them. In the name of defending their homes and livelihoods, and against the wishes of foreign interests, the Germans ushered in the populists, some of whom turned out to be very efficient at getting rid of the opposition — the word is ‘monstrous’ — and you know the rest.
I felt Britain had set the tone for a similar development down the line — not the genocide part, but the Brown Shirts element. The populist agenda. The Norsefire Party and the V for Vendetta reaction. There was legitimate reason for concern, that this could turn ugly down the line, and I wanted to make it clear, that the path Britain had just taken was a slippery and dangerous one, pointed toward maddening isolation, self-righteousness, and folly.
None took a knife to my throat and slashed me a wide Joker smile
I also realized that not everyone who had voted for Brexit was a racist maniac. I’d thought they were, but the facts showed otherwise, and I acknowledged them during my various social interactions. I had talked with many English people over the course of that time, in the pub, at the restaurant, some of whom had been in favor for Brexit, and they were for the most part normal people living law-abiding lives. Some of these individuals were less savory than others, I admit, but none took a knife to my throat and slashed me a wide Joker smile to remember him or her by. None came across as the SS type. None gave me a reason to take him or her out the back and feed the trash can, or call the police. There was no cause for panic, or judgment, or apprehension and hatred.
One could say the same thing for the average Heinrich and Helga Bloggzen back in the thirties and forties. They were for the most part normal people living normal lives, yet they somehow ended up serving in the Gestapo, the SS, or the straight-old Wehrmacht, doing bad business, following horrific orders, being nasty and sheit. That’s how power works, seditiously, like a raft floating downstream. It shifts and turns gradually, masking the great distances it covers, and suddenly you’re miles downriver and crushing skulls for a living. It has a corruptive element, power does. It feeds on the fear. It fuels and drives the hysteria, making people see enemies everywhere, inciting excessive and unpredictable behavior. It rationalizes brutality, making it easier for people to harm others in the name of a given cause.
The Britons I had spoken to may or may not have ended up as criminal Brown Shirts had the circumstances fomented it, but the point is, we were not there yet. We are, in fact, nowhere near it. Things have taken a turn for the worse, no doubt, and one has to acknowledge the downturn — how else can you address a problem, or reverse it, if not by acknowledging it?
But give in to an overreactive hysteria? See racist bigots everywhere and vow to smash them and crush them and throw them out of the country before they throw you out of the country? Mourn all day, roll up in a depressed little ball of flesh and tears to grieve the passing of civilization, as if it’s dead, as if it’s so easy to kill? Sure, for a short while, if that’s how one feels. But there’s no solace down that road, no real escape. It speaks ill of the state and legacy one cherishes. How little faith can a person have in the system he or she loves so much, to be so easily and totally overwhelmed by the setbacks?
If anything, this is a test, the big one, where you get to see how valid the foundations of what you value are, how lasting the legacies you cherish are. If they don’t hold up to the storm, they were probably never any good to begin with. Or you didn’t believe in them enough, allowing yourself to be thrown off the fear-ruled, anger-infested wayside. Going down too easily, and staying down, or staying mad, assuming a nature and stance that doesn’t befit the institutions you stand for, is not the way to honor anything. It does a disservice to everything decent in this world.
The point was to take the blow, assess the situation, understand what had caused it, how it came about, what we could do to reverse the damage while setting stronger foundation for the future, making sure nothing like it would likely repeat itself, and get to it. A process driven by an informed and mindful attitude, an approach on the right side of history, with the facts in mind and world history at heart, and the future always in sight.
In fact, this was it, the test — the test — and I decided to regard it as such, and deal with it appropriately, on behalf of reason. I am a reasonable person, or so I like to think, and a reasonable person has an obligation to remain level-headed in order to steer the discussion back to civility, all the while avoiding to give in to fear and panic. I had to remain focused, centered, reserving my anger for when absolutely necessary. Seeing enemies everywhere was exactly what the bigots did, how the trouble had started in the first place.
So lay off that shit, will you?
That’s what I told myself over and over again while the referendum campaigns were taking place, and more so after the Leave/Brexit Campaign won, and it helped calm me down and settle back inside my skin, allowing me to get on with my day without being spooked, without turning into a counter-maniac.
Seeing enemies everywhere was exactly what the bigots did
If the time ever comes to kick some bigoted hateful fascist ass, I’d like to think I’ll do it. I’m devoting a large part of my writing to exposing bullies and crooks and thieves and cheats and filthy liars as it is, making the case against them wherever they may operate, reminding people not to give in to them, to stand up and not allow others to take advantage of them.
I write about reason and the need to use one’s brains to get ahead and not give in to mental corruption.
I write about emotions and the value of using one’s passion to create amazing things, to be overwhelming when necessary, to pull the trigger when you have to and worry about your conscience later. Get things done with a killer instinct and the ability to deliver.
But don’t forget your principles, is the motto, your compassion and kindness. Don’t ever forget them, I tell myself, and others, too, through my writing. It’s what separates us from the bigots. A slippery slope, when one embraces the use of force or counterforce, but that’s the nature of the game. A paradox. A test.
In the meantime, I focus on what matters to me: the people I love and the causes I believe in. Open society, science, innovation, curiosity. Resilience and decisiveness in the face of uncertainty. Intelligence. Organization. The ability to laugh at oneself, then at others, then with others. The freedom to pursue one’s interests so long as they don’t hurt people.
And the ability to debate and reach agreements, I value that, and the capacity to disagree, that too, and the option to argue and fight over something when the situation reaches a toxic impasse. A strange combination of liberal and conservative attitudes, all of them based on an idiosyncratic common sense. Thomas Paine advocating the rights of man through rebellion against the Barbarian Whoever, preventing said Whoever from trapping the world inside the bogs of the past. Pushing back both the populists who terrorize people on the street as well as the thought police who come after all those who dare cross the invisible limits of propriety. Beating back fear and hysteria, wherever they may come from. My devotion to others, and my love for what is decent and kind and precious, I keep those intact, in constant operation, a dynamic of liberalism and conservativeness combined.
Yes, I’ll go that far, from the center to the extremes and back again, cool and reserved when possible, passionate and fervent when need be, but I keep the center as my base. Abandon it too readily and I lose it too easily. Lose it and I’m gone, stranded in the extremes with no way back, just like the bigots. That’s how they start off, with their hearts in the right place but their priorities and minds all screwed up. Little by little they end up doing hateful things and not even knowing why.
I was not going to let that happen. I would retain my focus and not let the fear and hysteria sweep me away. No panic for me, no tunnel-vision or distemper. Yes, there were problems, plenty of them, all of them in need of a firm grip and steely resolve. Bring them on, I’ll deal with them, I wrote down. Whatever it takes, hoping it doesn’t come to the extremes. Staying within my skin is the primary target.
I wasn’t alone. Many people thought the same, did the same. I could see it all around, feel it, people adjusting and calming down, settling back into their lives without seeing shadows everywhere. Owning the moment so that it wouldn’t own them.
Four months have passed since the Brexit referendum and its unfortunate result, and still no one knows how things will turn out. The coin is spinning and everyone is scrambling to find solutions to an ill-thought, mendacious concept that has arisen in the wake of a once-great but now failing concEUpt. Only time will tell how things will evolve, devolve, or otherwise shift, and what measures need to be taken to keep the country on the right side of history, on the future-generating current of life.
When that happens, we will be ready to deal with what comes through the door, to each our own — hell we’re ready, now, plenty of us are, doing our thing every day, making sure the fear doesn’t take over. Making sure life goes on within reason.
Dear friends in America, I know how it feels right now, after Trump got elected, and I understand.
And now you’ve read my story, too, you know how I feel. I sincerely hope you understand in turn — that you’re willing to take something from this and work on it to make things better, within reason, before the fear and anger sweep you away for good.
It’s a long way back from that current. Better not give in to it. It’s hard to stay focused, but it’s worth it all the way through.