Brexit forces us to find a new way of engaging with the world

Those who have suffered in the economic downturn are making their voices heard. The populism behind Brexit resonates with the supporters of Trump in the US. Both political movements draw energy from a large swath of people who rightly expect better from a system that has been giving them less and less to count on over several decades and, in the past eight years, have seen the bottom drop out of their hopes for a decent life for themselves and their children.

The UK shows us that the possibility that Donald Trump’s view of the world, a view catering to this sense of anger and loss, could prevail in the US in November is real.

Concerns about immigration have played into this vote, in the same way they create facile  support for Trump. Refugees and migrants are easy scapegoats when fear and loss feed a frenzied political atmosphere.

The economic repercussions of Brexit will be huge but at this point are not easily measured. Right now, all of us UK citizens are feeling its psychological implications.

It is a sad day for the great project of Europe. My generation, the children of those who fought in the Second World War, have grown up with pride in the way that Europe ventured into the unknown with a new economic and constitutional arrangement that harnessed countries previously at war in a common effort to create a better future. Even with its abject difficulties and poor management of a series of crises, Europe has, for my lifetime, given us optimism about how the tragedy of war could be turned to good effect.

It is a sad day for Britain’s image in the world. In the past century Britain has drastically diminished as a world power. It’s connection with Europe – albeit always a somewhat dodgy matter – seemed an obvious way to keep its hand in.

It is a sad day for the UK, which is going to have much less reason to stick together after this. Scotland will have more reason to secede, since Scots largely supported remaining in the EU. Northern Ireland, which has relied on free movement of people and goods across its border with the Republic of Ireland to assuage the sentiments of its Irish nationalist population, will be looking at the new situation ith concern. Could Brexit do what over a century of complex political negotiation and terrorist activity never managed to do – to hasten a united Ireland?

But I suspect the biggest affront we are going to feel over coming months and years as a result of this vote is to our deeper belief that joint institutions, however frustrating and inept, are worth the effort in the interests of making our life on this planet a common project. It will be tempting to be more cynical about other international institutions, and to be less supportive of efforts at joint action.

Let’s hope this moment can introduce some healthy soul searching about the kind of world we want going forward and how much effort we will put in to make it happen.


Polarization and Moral Emptiness: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Last night I watched the TV news on two different stations. The first ended the newscast by showing, one by one, photos of each of the 49 people killed in Orlando early Sunday morning. Most were in their twenties, each of them bright, strong individuals with a lot of future in their faces. My own tears blurred the picture. Then I watched the second TV news bulletin. It ended in exactly the same way as the first, and I cried all over again.

Before Orlando, I had prepared my next blog, whose opening paragraph read as follows, “I reject the rote use of the word ‘extremism’ that we are seeing these days. Adoption of this word as a summary description of all that confounds us suggests that a single enemy stalks us, conflating several different concerns, melding them into a less-than-meaningful label and helping to raise the fear factor. It suggests that if we once put extremism in check, we’ll get back to that better world we seem to have left behind.”

Now I ask myself if the thoughts that I recorded in my notebook last Friday stand up to our post-Orlando world. They don’t address the tragedy itself.  But they do address the rhythm and intensity of our times, in which Orlando is the latest in a series of shocking events.

Terrorists will applaud any discourse or behavior that raises the fear level. As people’s obsession with that mysterious conglomerate of problems we are calling “extremism” mounts, their fear mounts in parallel. This creates black and white, dualist thinking and plays into the hands of those who want us to be reduced by our fears.

Two features of life right now invite the use of the word “extremism.”

First, the security sector has chosen to use the phrase “countering violent extremism” (CVE) to replace “counter-terrorism.” The phrase captures the fact that some current terrorist projects have the capacity to mobilize larger numbers than in the past, because they go beyond declaring any particular political goal, and base their appeal on a set of ideas that they attribute to the Koran. Their expression of an extremist Islam makes it easy to draw alienated young Muslims to their cause.

In its second use “extremism” gets applied to polarized and populist politics. In times of relative stasis and satisfaction, the political center is larger than its extreme wings. But the times we live in are different, and they will continue to be different. We are engulfed in an acceleration of change, where assumptions about the past that used to make life fairly predictable are falling away. The most basic of these, at least in the West, has been that if you work hard you can count on having a job and a life of increasing material satisfaction. That assumption carried with it not only job security, but meaning

Polarized politics look extreme, but casting political issues in a strongly-tuned-up fashion is an understandable response to a real problem. The “enemy” is the failure of imagination on the part of all in leadership to search for and find solutions to difficult problems; the “enemy” is the inclination to ratchet up business as usual in hopes that intensification of old methods will bring new answers; the “enemy” is a soul-lessness, a “moral emptiness,” to use the phrase of one of our pundits, New York Times columnist David Brooks, that leaves many good people paralyzed on the sidelines.

We’ve seen this problem before. The Irish poet Yeats described the mood of Europe in the wake of the First World War,

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

…The best lack all conviction

While the worst are filled with passionate intensity.

If Yeats is correct, that in times such as ours, the reliable center lacks passion and conviction, how do we go about changing that? What can we of the center do to ensure that the best will have convictions and passions in testing times?

Here is David Brooks’ answer to that question (New York Times, June 7, 2016):

“The larger culture itself needs to be revived in four distinct ways: We need to be more communal in an age that’s overly individualistic; we need to be more morally minded in an age that’s overly utilitarian; we need to be more spiritually literate in an age that’s overly materialistic; and we need to be more emotionally intelligent in an age that is overly cognitive.”

“Moral emptiness” may be related to rapid change, but it is also a product of our twentieth century struggle for values, where, in the West, freedom of choice, as long as it does not hurt another, became king. Freedom is an important moral requirement, but as a core principle it fails on its own to capture the deeper, values-based behaviors that promote human wholeness and maturity. The “extremism” discussion highlights the vacuum of moral content we are presenting to the next generation.


Let’s be more extreme in our passion for engaging those different from us, for justice and equality….

Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in defense of justice is no virtue.
– Marcus Tullius Cicero

Clearly, extremism is not the enemy, in spite of what many are inclined to say right now.

The real enemy is the lukewarm determination to address the dilemmas that fall disproportionately on the poor, on the lower middle class who see their situation deteriorating, on the disempowered, on the displaced, and on the dark skinned people of the world. The benumbed response of the privileged to the urgency of a number of shared problems redounds to the disfavor of us all in a world where so little can be masked or hidden.

For too long the West’s quest for the ideal life has been framed around notions of personal gain and independence.   Now we can see that passion for a fairer, juster, and more loving world, accepting of those who are different from us, is an essential part of the truly liberated self. In the new world that is emerging, we will not grow into fully realized human beings without connectedness, compassion and justice. Recognition of these truths is growing. How can we encourage more people to embrace them?

For starters, let’s take a few minutes to recognize the values that have gotten us this far, and use the particular time we live in to understand them afresh.

Equality before the law. Religious toleration. Liberty of conscience. The consent of the governed as a requirement for legitimate government. Freedom of speech. Freedom from fear. Freedom from want.

Thinking about them can be embarrassing, because we recognize immediately how much more needs to be done to achieve them. If we have allowed ourselves to sink into a mindset where these great truths have become pat phrases echoing something we used to hear about in high school, we have some things to attend to.

Perhaps the angst that is in the air right now arises in part because, in the years leading up to the turn of the new century, some of us deluded ourselves into believing we had arrived in the task of creating a better world. Maybe the collapse of communism in 1989 took away the West’s sense of urgency, or released a kind of hubris, best exemplified by Francis Fukuyama’s announcement of “The end of history,” which dubbed liberal democracy the “winner.”

Embracing values is not the same thing as snapping your fingers and seeing the world become different. Embracing values is the first step in a way of life devoted to the realization of these values in the lives of individuals. We stand on the shoulders of a host of people who moved that struggle forward.

In this time when moderation is held up as the antidote to polarized politics, let’s be sure we are immoderate in protecting the values that undergird respect and compassion for those who are not our immediate kin. This is the minimum life asks of us.