“Democracy” — Greek for “the people” — by definition must rise from the bottom up, not sink from the top down. In best-case scenarios an informed, enlightened electorate lets its wishes be known, then put into practice. In worst-case ones, those same masses succumb to being swayed by individuals or groups pursuing self-serving agendas, which — if they skid out of control — crash and burn for lack of ballast.
This seems to be the case with our English cousins and their passed-by-a-skinny-hair self-separation from the European Union. As the smoke rises from the ruins of the UK’s decades-long trial-membership test drive, I look for lessons to be sifted from the wreckage. As an Iowan who has lived in both England and Germany for a total of 15 years, I see the matter through a personal, hybrid prism.
With a Mason City Rotary scholarship in hand, I studied in North Yorkshire in 1981-82. While there, I passed uncountable times through a Leeds, a Sheffield, a Manchester and a Liverpool still caked in black soot and sinking in postindustrial redundancy. They were ugly, wretched, dying cities with little to show for their two centuries or so as capital-generating engines for a once-global empire. It was later EU, not UK initiatives and moneys that provided much of the impetus to repurpose and rejuvenate what are now again flourishing, attractive places to live. If they’d been left to Britain’s former London-centric politics …
The United Kingdom had only joined the European Union — then known as the “Economic Community” — in 1973, just eight years before I lived in England. I’ve watched most my adult life, then, as the Brits have been less-than-avid participants in the European project, one created as an antidote to decades, make that centuries of bloodletting our cultural ancestors conducted for so long. As an English commentator observed last week, the Brits haven’t been “congenial members.” In fact, they’ve steadily complained about the Union, its goals, its funding … about virtually everything to do with their unwanted shotgun bride. Repeated times, the Brits have taken as much as they could, while giving as little as possible.
This time, however, John Bull’s bluff backfired: In February now-resigned Prime Minister David Cameron trekked to Germany to wave his fist in Angela Merkel’s face, threatening to pull England out of the EU if it didn’t concede to a long list of conditions, once again, granting the island nation special terms. When the Germans conceeded to his demands, he returned to Britannia triumphant and announced, in effect, “Call the war ships back to port” — but it was too late: The referendum he called into being was already on the books and, well, the vote turned out very differently than he wanted and had assumed.
Not only have the results of this unwanted child of a plebiscite resulted in England self-ejecting from the EU — very plausibly without Scotland and perhaps even Northern Ireland, now eying their own exit from a self-important UK — but they’ve cost Cameron his own post. Were he a real leader, he’d stay to mop up the mess he’s spilled upon his country, but being all about David Cameron, he’s jumping a listing ship.
Yes, a slim majority of British voters have elected to leave the EU, but now everyone living on “Fortress Britain” will have to live with the results — including about a million Eastern Europeans who legally live there, but whose futures are unclear, as are those of their Anglo-fied children. As of this writing the Pound Sterling is in free fall and the world’s stock markets are reeling from the Brexit vote, but for generations we will all be picking up the pieces of sly Davey’s most unwise, miscalculated maneuvers.
In this country, as we Americans face a turning-point election of our own soon, we’ll be well served to weigh the consequences of each vote exceptionally carefully, as the final results will linger for decades. We must not be manipulated by self-serving elites into self-sabotage on a national scale; we must think.
“Freedom” is one of the most loosely bandied-about terms in American political history. So much so, it’s become a victim of its own success: Too much use has morphed a noble word into shallow, pat jingoism.
An example: Remember that ad series from our youth, the one where “freedom” supposedly meant the “right” to choose between Coke and Pepsi? As I said: “shallow” and “pat.” What were we thinking?
Just after the Brexit vote, when a National Public Radio reporter asked one Brit who’d voted for “independence” how she felt postelection, she gushed “Great — and free, truly free!” Her use of the word left me puzzled, unhappy and sad, especially now as we watch the British economy trip and totter.
I had a student in Dresden — let’s call him “Felix” — who secured an internship in the English Midlands. Already good in English, he was going, among other sound reasons, to become fluent before moving to Barcelona to found a startup where he’d connect German medical-technology firms with Spanish health care providers as well as consumers. Post-Brexit, the “Felixes” of a united Europe won’t be able to simply sojourn in Great Britain to study: His “freedom” has been curtailed immensely — but the woman NPR interviewed still crows about being “free” despite the collapse of opportunities for endless millions.
Again the Pepsi-Coke metaphor: If “freedom” were merely the ability to choose — in that case, between one brand of sugar water verses another brand of sugar water, both of which rot teeth, bleach bones and stoke obesity — it’d be a pretty shallow exercise. Another variation of that view of “freedom” would be to choose between cigarettes and chewing tobacco: You can choose to use either, but both result in grave health problems. Just like two competing brands of sugar water, being “free” to choose between two forms of tobacco is merely pursuing one preferred form of death over another: Both will kill you.
I have long told students that, for me, “freedom” isn’t just the ability to choose, but to choose wisely. The results of the Brexit embody the weakness of “choice” when an uninformed, unreflective electorate exercises its “freedom” but lacks the wisdom to foresee the likely outcomes of each of those choices.
In the United States, we face a fall election where the evil of two lessors will cost the nation dearly, no matter who should win the presidential contest. I’m not smart enough to know now who that will be, but I am wise enough to know already who will lose: The American people. Question is, will we simply swallow this charade sold as “democracy” or will we demand that a flawed system be replaced — soon.
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• Michael Luick-Thrams, of Mason City, is an Independent candidate for U.S. Senate. Comments: www.HeartlandParties.US