A few days after the British people voted to leave the European Union, I went to a Polish social club in south London to find out what one of the UK's largest immigrant populations thought about Brexit. There was uncertainty and some fear.It was like the country had changed overnight, turned darker. "I believe Britain might be a racist place now," Michael, who had been in the country for 12 years, told me. "I have Polish friends who have children who were born here. They've grown up here, and now they are being told at school that it's not their country. Anyone would find that difficult."
Everyone asked me a variation of this one question: "If you were living in Poland, and had been there for ten years, would you like to be told to go back to your country?" And immigrants were told this, in so many words, many times. At the end of September, Britain's highest-ranking policeman said that there had been a "horrible spike" in hate crime following the Brexit vote.
Something similar is now happening in the US. On Wednesday, a British friend who teaches at a high school in Texas got in touch: How, she said, was she going to get up in front of mostly non-white children and explain the election of a man who has called Mexicans "rapists," who has spoken openly about banning Muslims from entering America, referred to refugees as terrorists, and ridden a wave of white nationalist anger all the way to the White House?
On this side of the Atlantic, we have long cherished our "special relationship" with the United States. Ever since American soldiers made sure happy young Brits didn't have to "grow up speaking German," Britain has followed Uncle Sam around the world, eagerly carrying his bags of Bibles, trade manuals, and drones while he wages war from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Britain's unresolved longing for its lost empire is so strong and its need to be a big international player so deep that London's foreign policy is pretty much dictated by Washington.
As close as the countries are, it's easy to make easy comparisons between Brexit and Trump. The Republican candidate has gone on and on about this link, and even had Leave leader Nigel Farage show up at some of his rallies. In both cases, the liberal types in big cities said that it couldn't happen—Remain would win out, Hillary Clinton would be the next president—only to be proven disastrously wrong by a mostly monochromatic coalition of voters bitterly unhappy with the way things are.
This shared predicament has more to do with globalization and its discontents than our shared language and love of the Beatles. In both the US and the UK, people have seen their jobs go or their salaries stagnate; they have begun to feel—with different levels of desperation—as though their livelihoods are not secure and the Political Establishment has not given them a convincing enough sense that this will be made better.
In short, it's not like there weren't some perfectly convincing reasons for voting for Trump, or to leave the European Union, and it's not as if either Clinton or the Remain campaign offered anything other than a relatively uninspiring business as usual vision peddled by the same old people. But to simply sing a song of the dispossessed working man is to ignore a crucial element of both campaigns. Bernie Sanders spoke truthfully to these problems but did so in a way that was not full of hatred for anyone who isn't white and straight.
White Americans and white Brits have been stirred up by rhetoric that normalized racism, misogyny, and homophobia, and pushed, again and again, the idea that their nations were exceptional places. The success of the Brexit and Trump campaigns was cultural as well as economic, though the two are linked. In harder economic times, the racism and hostility that can be found in white populations that consider themselves to be more American or more British than non-white citizens can be exploited to devastating effect. They can be told that political correctness is the great evil of our age, and they can believe it because, hey, things aren't so great, and they want to say whatever the fuck they want, and who cares if people are deeply, truly offended and upset by it? Who cares that this kind of language leads to serious violence?
This feeling was more a part of mainstream politics than Clinton supporters or the Remain campaign wanted to admit. But the "whitelash" that followed Brexit is real. Our post-Brexit government has already floated the idea of deporting foreign doctors, of checking the teeth of the small number of refugees being allowed into this country to make sure that they are not "overage," of establishing, in a quite sinister way, who is truly British. Theresa May, the prime minister, even has her own version of Trump's border wall—a suitably pathetic British number built in Calais, France.
This white fury has been fueled, of course, by a media that has either stoked the fires of fear and violence, or obediently regurgitated the platitudes of the ruling elite. In an eerily prescient 2010 afterword to his critique of media narratives, Hello Everybody!, the Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk wrote that unless the press stopped reporting what people "like to hear... another ignorant, gung-ho populist will win the elections, plunging the US—and the democratic West with it—into another disastrous military adventure." Well, here we are.
"Defenceless under the night", the English poet W.H. Auden wrote at the beginning of the Second World War, "our world in stupor lies." This is where we are. Our systems are failing us or being eroded. The politicians who are taking power take our insecurities and enflame them, turning people against one another. This is happening everywhere, not just the US and the UK—as everyone has noted, nationalist movements have been on the rise throughout Europe for years. Violence and division are in the air.
But that is not all that is in the air. Auden's poem continues:
Yet, dotted everywhere
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Now, then, is the time we look to one another. It's all we can do.
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