As an American studying in Scotland, the scene plays out like some of the worst nightmares I’ve had about November: fear-mongering, xenophobia, a “return” to a time when things were “right” and “great”—but when “right” meant even less equal, and “great” was characterized by imperialistic ideas of worth and value, by laws legitimizing hate. Separation and terror and divisiveness has won the day, oh dear god—
Wait, no. Different nightmare.
No, the nightmare here is the Brexit vote to leave the EU that eerily trumpets (pun unintended, but apt) the same troubling values that plague my American nightmare, and in so doing, underscores an even darker reality: this is not a scourge that knows national boundaries. This is a global phenomenon, this politicization of hate, hearkening back to the 1980s, 1960s, 1930s, and countless times before—this human project of lessening ourselves by rejecting what can be learned in collaboration, what can be grown in communion: what can be gleaned from the simple act of compassion.
I was in Glasgow the day of the vote, and I found a Post-it left on a public map. It read:
Immigration enriches Scotland + the UK. VOTE REMAIN.
If you know my angle on these sorts of things at all: my process-oriented perspective is in full swing in responding to this state of affairs, and this message was a poignantly concise statement of the truth I hold to. The idea of creative contrast is at the heart of meaning making in such a worldview, and there can be no contrast if we eschew diversity. We cannot be enriched, there is such diminished potential for that broadening of self in isolation that it’s almost made insignificant. It cannot yield novelty.
Moreover, there can be no creativity if we trade compassion and camaraderie for hate. The very concepts we define ourselves by as humans—our capacity to make and create and innovate—are cut at the knees.
In this specific instance, and again in the US and across the globe: the maligned immigrant population that has been targeted in order to stoke the racist sentiments that fueled the Leave Campaign—whether they’ve obtained citizenship and have lived in the UK for decades, or they’ve just arrived—happen to have been not just my neighbors and colleagues in the UK, but of late have been my companions in training to serve refugees and asylum seekers, and in passing conversations in my travels for work and study.
In a well-timed exemplar of the strange and blessed ways that the world turns: June 23 heralded rail strikes that required me to hire a cab for the last leg of my journey from Glasgow to St Andrews. I was able to make the last train to Edinburgh, and when I met my driver outside of Waverley Station, it turned out that in a city of many thousands of people, I just so happened to find a driver I’d had the pleasure of traveling with before waiting to ferry me back home.
This driver, I must share, is a gem among his profession. He’s witty, in possession of great experience and knowledge, and across the span of an hour’s drive, there’s never a lull in edifying conversation. He remembered me, and the things we’d spoken of over our last journey, and we picked up threads from months ago quite deftly, though with the immediate cloud of the vote coloring our dialogue—what would the result be, by the end of the night? Why was it even something that was happening, a thing to be voted on at all?
My driver, a tax-paying British citizen for many years and yet an immigrant who still experienced his share of ‘native’ opinion that he wasn’t ‘really’ British, exemplified over the course of our sixty-some minutes what every immigrant I’ve encountered expressed about the possibility—now reality—of a break with the EU.
Fear, frustration, disappointment, despair: but for oneself only secondarily, if at all.
The very people being singled out by this vote, being demonized by their own country in so many cases, are in my experience overwhelmingly most concerned with refugees to come, and how they may or may not be able to find safe haven and the ability to build a new life in a meaningful way. They are most concerned about the family members of immigrants already in the UK, whose spouses, parents, and children cannot make the journey to join them. They are most concerned for those who will suffer most grievously for the lack of trade, labor, and human rights protections and legislations provided by EU membership.
Those who are positioned less favorably than even these targets of carefully crafted governmental scorn themselves, are the people that said targets are fearing for, and feeling for, most.
And these are meant to be the people who are threatening the prosperity and integrity of a nation? Compassion and human decency are now something to despise and uproot, before—heaven forefend—such sentiments start to spread?
Are arguments to break away, to split apart, to build walls: are they, in the end, schisms we draw within our own humanity?
And again, most worryingly is that this perspective is not merely a UK problem—it is a human problem. It is a terrifyingly persistent and escalating pestilence in our modern world that requires careful consideration, action, and reflection as to how to proceed, because it is a part of our societies: endemic.
And last week, it became the law of the land in the United Kingdom.
Nigel Farage declared June 23 an Independence Day. I’d be more inclined to hearken FDR: ‘A Date Which Will Live in Infamy’.
And amidst the arrogance of Victorian ideals of empire, the WWII-era echoes of closing borders and drawing divides, a metaphorical wall to match absurd, bombastic election promises across the pond, a portent of things to come or else a wake-up call that may spur us to act with greater consideration of our common humanity so as to turn other tides—not merely a cautionary tale, but to presume such quiet atrocities occur in a bubble and to refuse to learn from them and act accordingly would be in itself an atrocity: despite a plethora of them, words seem to fail, in the end, really.
Shock, rage, fear, empathy, shame: it is feeling that prevails, in times such as these.
A Day of Infamy—of Brexit-famy—indeed.