Looking backward: Some Thoughts in 2016 After Brexit

I don’t feel bad for Britain. I feel bad for my British friends. There are not a lot of them,

I don’t feel bad for Britain. I feel bad for my British friends. There are not a lot of them, but of those there are, all argued and hoped fervently for a victory for the “remain” vote. It was not to be.

I don’t feel bad for the Britain of little people, the ones who voted “leave.” They voted filled with fears, and empty of insight or clear perception, and stuffed with the lies of the British tabloid press fed to them for two years by a very special class—a unique British class—of elite, the demagogic hate mongers of the right.

What is as bad now as the lying is the reneging on campaign promises by those same smug manipulators of the opinions of the irredeemably ignorant—witness Nigel Farage’s repudiation of ever having pledged that £319 million per week could now be re-routed from the coffers of the European Union to the bankrupt National Health Service. It was a figure, made up of whole cloth and insupportable by fact, believed to be true by 46% of the British electorate. There will be no such windfall. More likely greater amounts of red ink for the Royal Exchequer.

Yet for all that, nothing is as bad as the vision now expounded in the world media, and multiplied a billion-fold by social media’s infinite feedback machine of recursive half-truth telling, of a cataclysmic failure of civilization, at least as we know it in its European form, and more specifically in its British form. From the latter of which, may we all be spared. The reality is more likely to be not unlike watching a patient, already sick, succumb with agonizing slowness to a wasting terminal illness.

Nothing nearly so bad as a spontaneous failure will occur. The pound sterling will falter, but not to anywhere nearly as low as it did 31 years ago—a trough from which it rose to health. Great Britain will be the poorer, in time. Indeed, in time may prove to be not so “Great” as, among the effects engendered by this particularly pernicious manifestation of democracy allowed to run unchecked into shoal waters—nice job David Cameron; enjoy the retirement you have forced the voters to force upon you for the sake of political expedience—is that Scotland will now be emboldened to disentangle itself from its centuries-old union with England.

We live in a time when at any given moment we are disposed to see things as far worse than they are. Not great, not lacking in hope, but not hopeless and unremitting either.

In 2000, with the involuntary leap we made in the United States from not-so-bad one hell of a lot worse, we felt no pain at all. And we had the further anodyne of guns and rockets. We learned in eight years just how bad things could get—seemingly inextricably so. Many despaired.

But we had managed to elect one brave smart charismatic cookie of a president and with a true Armageddon confronting us, the threat was averted, neutralized. And for all the misery that is preached, in fact, in 2016 things are so much better than they were in 2008, and, yes, than in 2000 when, by gosh, in retrospect we might have thought they just could not get much better. Ignorance truly is bliss.

Nevertheless, we are now confronted by another imagined misery of even greater imagined depth than that in which we have so recently found ourselves. The far-right narrative has taken hold, having finally found its most effective natural voice—in a consummate purely American type: the huckster, what we used to call the Confidence Man. And what is Donald J. Trump more full of than any other perceptible attribute, but confidence?

In fact, before the Donald deigned to teach the stumblebum charlatans who call themselves the Republican establishment, how it’s done, the American people had already primed themselves to believe what has never proved to be other than vapor and delusive reflections. Despite some of our worst intentions, in fact, the United States, after eight anodyne years of incremental correction and recovery, indeed, had recovered. Yet, it was only to discover we could not focus on the still greater work to be done that we failed to acknowledge—people are so easily distracted when persuaded that things are not right, when in fact they are. Or at least right enough that we could begin to reassure ourselves that calamity would not, in fact, come raining down upon us. The roof was no longer leaking, and the basement was dry—so we could start to pay attention to the structural weaknesses that still threatened to undermine our newly hard-won ability to cope.

Collectively people prefer to have short memories, unfortunately, and we prefer to mourn the greatness we imagine we had and seems no longer retrievable—in truth, not ever really so great, and who would want it, anyway? Similarly, once relieved of the distraction and preoccupation of dealing with imminent existential threats to our well-being, we refuse to deal with the disorder that always was there as anything but worse than the real perils we had vanquished so recently.

Currently we face a whole new set of myths. These have the paradoxical quality of being true and being mature, and being, if anything, endemic to our structure as a nation from the beginning, and yet we are relentlessly persuaded they are newly hatched, the work of the enemy (to be defined) and imposed upon us by stealth.

We seem to prefer to believe that elites were invented overnight, and they did their nasty work, like Dickens’s ghosts that very same night, even, miraculously, as we were watching. We seem to believe that suddenly life is a hard row of inequities that, unbidden, sprang up and captured the bulk of us, otherwise unawares, in their seemingly inescapable grip.

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