On Brexit Day, an Elegiac Read on England


Image of Sutton Hoo by Marc Atkins, via LRB

Sutton Hoo © Marc Atkins/marcatkins.com

Sutton Hoo © Marc Atkins/marcatkins.com


Today (or, I guess, yesterday), as Theresa May officially initiated Brexit, throwing the European project into disarray, and continuing the long and nightmarish trend of advanced countries saying “LEAVE” to the modern world that got Donald Trump elected, I read a beautiful little piece in the London Review of Books about the burial ground of a 6th-century Anglican king. This article, by Rod Mengham, was written with Brexit in mind without mentioning it, by showing the whole sweep of English history, whether it was insular or expansive. It’s a beautiful little drizzle of a read, in which you get the scope of time and our current politics.

But it’s worth remembering that the version of English spoken by Rædwald also evolved into Swedish, not to mention Danish, Norwegian, German and Dutch. There is a case for saying that Sutton Hoo does not mark the beginnings of Englishness, but its end: no money, no Christianity, no island mentality. Whoever was buried in Mound 1 did not die in the ship, but he did live in one, conceptually – his people were joined by the sea, not bounded by it.

It’s also worth reading for the comment section, which discusses if Rædwald could count as UKIP.



Chaos In London Suggests That Maybe Listening to The Dumb Is A Bad Idea?

Maybe don’t listen to people like this?

Bad political chaos in London today, as the pound continues to plunge, and Leave leaders continue to backpeddle on the bill of goods they sold to the public. It makes one think: maybe fearful race-baiting demagogues who promise great things in exchange for opting out of the modern world maybe shouldn’t be listened to?

Remember, one of the Leave leaders, Michael Gove, said that people in Great Britain “have had enough of experts”, i.e. the people saying that Brexit would be a disaster. Does this sound familiar?

Like Mr Cameron, Mr Gove faced intense scrutiny of his campaign tactics, in particular the claim that the UK sends £350m to the EU every week.

Sky’s political editor Faisal Islam said Mr Gove knew that figure was wrong, and accused him of importing the “post-truth” politics of Donald Trump to the UK. The UK Statistics Authority has said the figure “is misleading and undermines trust in official statistics”, because it is a gross sum and does not account for Britain’s rebate and funding received from the EU. In response to Mr Islam, Mr Gove agreed to have the figure independently audited.

A number of economists do favour Britain’s exit from the EU, among them Andrew Lilico, executive director of Europe Economics, and Patrick Minford of Cardiff University.

Mr Gove opted not to name them, however, preferring to focus on how economists and economic organisations had failed to predict the financial crisis. “I’m not asking the public to trust me. I’m asking them to trust themselves,” he said.

That could easily be Trump, as could Boris Johnson’s and Nigel Farage’s idiot claims that the 350 million pounds per week could go to the NHS, a claim from which they are already saying that they didn’t mean literally. Who could be so preposterous as to hold them to that, now?

The Right in America has long held the same weaponized hatreds of experts who challenge their sacred beliefs, and have been able to turn a reliance on boring stats and figures against opponents who use them. “Experts” are disconnected eggheads who hate real Americans and just want to keep driving around in their Ferraris paid for by your tax dollars. In everything from supply-side economics to climate denial, experts are derided and shunned. The only ones that count are the ones explicitly backing their theories. And even then, they pretend to not be experts, but just walking avatars of common sense.

“Common sense” is the key phrase here, a cousin of Gove’s “I’m asking (the public) to trust themselves.” It’s not that experts can’t be wrong or blinded or biased. They aren’t arguing that. They are arguing that, because they are “experts”, they are inherently biased and wrong, because they are against the people. It’s a way to make people who know what they are talking about as an “other”, an alien, in opposition to common decency. Just like immigrants.

It’s a way to lump together everyone who isn’t in the same fearful corner. It’s an easy tactic used by cruel idiots, from Reagan to Farage, and of course, Trump. They don’t have any facts partly because they don’t care, and partly because there just aren’t any to back them up. Truth doesn’t matter as much as a visceral poke to the reptile brain. If you wonder why Trump did so well when he wasn’t a “conservative”, it’s because he was able to directly appeal to fear. He made a tribal connection by creating a small band of insiders and putting everyone else on the outside, whooping around the encircled wagons. I think that’ll doom him the the general, of course. But the tactic, in a post-national world, is only going to get stronger.

Trump on Turnberry: Every Campaign Ad From Here On Out

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump poses with a bagpiper as he arrives at his revamped Trump Turnberry golf course in Turnberry Scotland, June 24, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA/AP)

Dude wheezing into a sheep’s bladder is a billion times more dignified. Image from MSNBC

“If the pound goes down, more people are coming to Turnberry, frankly,” he said, referring to the location of his resort. “For traveling and for other things, I think it very well could turn out to be positive.”
-Trump, today, as the world burns.
Issac Chotiner, who is just doing invaluable work at Slate, has a terrific column about Trump’s “absurd, solipsistic” response to Brexit, but he published it too early, before the above statement came out. (He also perfectly describes Boris Johnson as “a slightly sinister and slightly absurd Trump-lite figure”) There is nothing more Trumpian than celebrating chaos simply because it benefits him. This has to lead off every single Hillary ad for the next six months.
Of course, that might not even be the low point of his presser, as MSNBC said:
Trump proceeded to hold a press conference in Scotland, against the backdrop of one of the most important political moments in the modern history of the United Kingdom, where he spoke at great length, and in great detail, about his new golf resort. The Republican candidate boasted about refurbished holes on his course, plumbing, putting greens, and zoning considerations.
This is the least, and therefore most serious candidacy in the history of the Republic. The Leave idea might be transatlantic, and even global (or Western), but I don’t think that will be enough. Hopefully, just Trump being Trump will convince even more people that he is singularly unfit to be on the library board of a bookless town, much less the President. We can only hope.

Brexit Quote of the Night: Labour and Immigration

Via The Guardian

Chuka Umunna, the London Labour MP, said that the referendum result highlighted “particular issues” for the Labour Party adding:

I don’t actually think for a lot of our supporters and voters sovereignty was quite the issue that immigration became. Why did it become such an overwhelming issue in spite of all the warnings of the experts? A lot of people said that you are saying this about the economy but we don’t actually feel we have a lot from that economy for the moment.

This is something, I think, we’re all learning not to underestimate. Economic issues matter enormously, but they matter this year, to an extent, in how they can reframed in an “us vs them” sort of way. The EU has been rent asunder by immigration, especially the Syrian crisis. This is a 100-yr fallout that isn’t just redefining the Middle East, but redefining Europe for a generation. America’s massive annexations in the 1840s are becoming the turning point of today’s politics. The world as we knew it for all of most our lives isn’t falling apart, but it is changing quickly, and when that happens, scapegoats are to be found, and demagogues can rally the dislocated.

I don’t think what happens there is what happens here. Too many differences. But the same issues are coming to ugly play in much of the “developed” world.  We live in the flicker.

Brexit: The US Fallout


Pictured: the face that millions of people want to be President.

Leave declares victory a few minutes ago, and already the Asian markets are tumbling. Some of this is correction from the huge upsurge in stocks earlier on Thursday as it looked like Remain would win. This proves, again, that the markets are insane and are based on the gut instincts of terrified and greedy children. But regardless.

In the US, this will play out interestingly. I think it will give Trump some ammunition. After all, he supported Leave (as we said, “Leave” is the heart of Trumpism), and Obama, as any sane US president would be, was against it. This will allow Trump to talk about how his vision is correct, how the English (and he’ll probably say English, because he doesn’t know the difference between England and Great Britain and the UK) love him, and how he was really the big factor, even though he was no factor at all. It’ll be a minor coup, mitigated by his arriving in Scotland tomorrow in a miasma of phony triumph, Scotland being the one place that was firmly Remain. I don’t think he’ll have a glowing reception.

(And meanwhile, can we get some coverage on how unbearably tacky it is for a US Presidential candidate to abscond so that he can brag about his new gilded golf course? It’s not entirely Presidential, right?)

But overall, despite the strength this will give the Leave movement in the US, we’re talking about two very different places, demographically. I don’t think the Welsh will turn be too terribly inspiring in Johnstown. Trump’s crowing will hurt him even more in groups in which he is already getting pummeled. If there is economic chaos, globally, due to this, that always hurts the incumbent party, of course, but I don’t think the ramifications will be big enough, quick enough. The EU won’t collapse, and Great Britain was always at an arm’s length, anyway.

It’s still a scary, ugly time.


Brexit, Trump, and The New Dislocation


Make Great Britain, well, great again!


As I type this, ITV (through C-Span) is reporting that the Leave campaign is cruising toward a victory, with an 85% chance at victory. By the time I’m done, it could be a done deal. All night- or in the wee hours, if you are reading this in the immediately impacted areas- the results started to trickle toward the red, toward Leave. Wales, which has benefited enormously from the EU, while still suffering thanks to its postindustrial wreckage, was almost entirely and passionately Leave. England, with a resurgence of nationalism, went heavily toward an exit. Only Scotland kept it from being a total rout.

ITV just called it. It’s over. Brexit is a reality, and the world is a far different place.

It’s been a season of weirdness, on both sides of the ocean, two countries tied umbilically together. For as much as we pretend to be different, and as much as we are, there are real similarities, and they are bubbling to the surface, like some kind of deeply buried and seismically awakened sludge, in this year of simmering discontent and atavistic anger.

It’s impossible to discount what is happening. Throughout the night, there were references to the “white working class”, in cities like Manchester and Cardiff and throughout Wales, and how the Remain camp failed to persuade them that they are better off in a united Europe. I honestly don’t know if that is true they would be, though I suspect it is. But the argument is the same as it is here.

In the US, Trump is essentially in the Leave camp. I mean, he very literally is, having supported it (once he was told what it was). But instinctively, even if he didn’t know what it was, he knew, in his dark heart. He knew that “Leave” encompassed his entire campaign. The heart of Trumpism is a desire to leave the modern world. It’s a desire to leave a world where what once seemed certain and permanent (even if it was only a few generations old) was rapidly changing. It’s a desire to leave the world of complexity and uncertainty and retreat toward blood and soil. It’s the call to retreat disguised as victory.

And yes, that is a powerful message for many, left out of the global economy, punished by market forces that are beyond their control, but clearly in control of those who benefit. It’s a message that resonates because, while it blames “elites”, it really turns anger on those who are weaker (immigrants, Muslims, etc). It’s an extremely seductive howl, a lowing, lusty battle dirge. It accepts failure, but gives in to the desire to burn the world down with it. It’s the truncheon of the race riot manifest in the ballot box.

Both campaigns- Trump and Leave- have had violence as their main currency, or, if not the actual currency, the silver and gold that gives it value. Because when you tell people their country is under attack, and not just from immigrants, but from their children, and their grandchildren (as Satelan chillingly documents), and that they are being enabled by what are essentially quisling politicians, well, then what choice does a patriot have. It’s what led to the murder of Jo Cox. It’s what drives Trump’s supporters, like this terrifying racist. It’s not a policy. It’s sheer emotion.

This emotion is driven by modern dislocation. Yes, we’ve had immigration and a shifting balance of power for decades (it’s still mostly white, and male, but it is shifting). And yes, the UK has been in the EU for decades. But this is still relatively new. Before really the end of WWII an actual political alliance with France would have been insane. Even WWI was more out of the inconsistent European alliances that formed in the wake of Napolean. You don’t have many Englishman who remember France as an enemy, and the Continent as a wholly foreign place, but the memory remains. The memory of Empire remains, as it does, in another form, in America. This loss of identity, tied in with the shifting balance of power through immigration, assimilation, and expanded civil rights, is coupled with the very real economic dislocation of globalization. It all feels like a loss of power, and the personal and political can intertwine easily.

The memory of being on top is still powerful, and can be reanimated up by canny politicians who know how to stir up the blood that has dried in the soil. With sweaty passion and crocodile tears they gift life back into the blood, making it rich and liquid in a suddenly loamy soil, from which can sprout thousands of pairs of thick-booted feet, marching in unison to an old-fashioned martial beat.

It’s transoceanic, baby. Donald Trump doesn’t know anything about the world, but we’re living in his image.