I’ll See Your Brexit and Raise You a Trump

Photo via Flickr.

Browsing an Americans for the Arts newsletter back in 2008, I came upon a call for applications for something called the Transatlantic Network 2020 (TN2020). This new (at the time), international program of the British Council was their way of investing in the “next generation of leaders” beyond borders, and they were especially looking for young leaders in specified fields that they deemed important at the time, including the arts.

I applied to the program and was honored to be selected in its inaugural year and given the opportunity to attend a joint summit of the Council, NATO and a think tank, Security and Defense Agenda, in the EU’s de facto capital of Brussels, as well as other fully sponsored events in Pristina, Chicago, Paris, Belfast and Dublin. TN2020 made advances in improving relations and cooperation amongst EU citizens and us, their North American peers. The program existed officially until 2013 but its connections are ongoing and legend.

During those TN2020 summits, I met Alison Goldsworthy, a former adviser to senior politicians in both Westminster and the Welsh Assembly who has worked for NGO’s in the UK for 15 years. Alison and I became good friends and we have stayed that way.

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When the Brexit referendum was happening on June 23, I turned to Facebook and read the emotive posts of my British friends. They used phrases like:

Devastated and utterly terrified.

And sentences such as:

A dark, dark day. I’m genuinely fearful for my future and the future of my children. And I’m exhausted.

My mind went straight to Alison. I wanted to know her thoughts and reached out to her as she was still grappling with it all. A week or so later, she had the idea to write a more extensive piece as a way for us to collaborate and commiserate. The following is our own little unofficial transatlantic exercise.

She began by writing:

Those suffering withdrawal symptoms from House of Cards need look no further than British politics in the last few weeks. It’s as if some scriptwriters sat in a room trying to out do each other with shock results, intrigue, and simmering back plots. Except when it’s happening to your own country it’s far less enjoyable than a box set, yet retains the morbid fascination normally reserved by the British for their unappealing habit of rubbernecking car crashes.

I compare Alison’s words with I see and feel in America. As I write this sentence, Donald J. Trump has made his smoke-machine-enhanced, rock-star entrance to the stage of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, with Freddie Mercury’s voice as a disturbingly unwilling soundtrack. I can’t seem to look away. I am compelled to see how much of the RNC’s rhetoric I can stomach, because I feel so very differently.

Alison Goldsworthy and I meeting up in London in 2014
Alison Goldsworthy and I meeting up in London in 2014.

The RNC speakers are strongly clarifying that not all Muslims and Mexican immigrants are terrorists or criminals, but that the US must name the problem in order to address it.

Yet, in doing so, Republicans are selecting not to include the demographics of the majority of domestic terrorists, or the bad cops, or the violence that is white-on-white, black-on-black or brown-on-brown, because we continue, sadly, to live an un-empathetic and segregated existence.

Look at Rudolph Giuliani, foaming in his anger. Where does this hate come from? Where could it go?

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Alison elaborates on the story from the other side of the Atlantic:

More darkly, many of the tendrils of frustration that caused the UK to vote to leave the European Union has seen a spike in the number of racist hate crimes. This spike hasn’t come out of the blue however. It’s roots lie in years of lazy analysis and happiness on the part of politicians to let others take the blame for their mistakes. In 2004, as freedom of movement came in for all the new accession countries to the European Union, the UK government predicted tens of thousands of people would arrive. Within two years estimations were that over 1 million people from new member states had settled in the UK.

The anti-immigrant stance can be lethal. A few days before the Brexit vote, pro-immigrant British MP Jo Cox, a member of the Labour Party, was murdered by a man screaming “Britain first!”

Dancers participating in a 2016 project with the Syrian Community Network for refugees in Chicago
Dancers participating in a 2016 project with the Syrian Community Network for refugees in Chicago.

Back in the US, I have begun arts programs for Syrian refugees, have a story of US immigration recently in my own personal life, and I serve as an EducationUSA Virtual Advisor for the State Department in Egypt, where I advocate for the US education system and encourage students from the Middle East and North Africa (predominantly Muslim students) to apply to US universities.

I am honored to do this important work.

At the same time, some of my childhood friends and extended family in mid-Michigan continue to accuse me of being naive because of my liberal leanings. Trolls have called me stupid.

Despite those extremes, politically, fiscally and socially conservative arguments in both the US and UK are not baseless. Alison, who is currently a Sloan Fellow at Stanford University, explained:

Whilst in many cases the UK integrated migrants remarkably well, there should be no doubt that disrupted local labor markets. Plumbers, carpenters and many more suddenly found that they were being undercut, feeding resentment. It also meant that money didn’t follow these individuals putting huge pressure on schools, hospitals and other vital local services. This was a failure of governance not migration, yet it was migrants (and the EU rules that allowed them in) who often took the blame. Research shows that if you lived in an area that had experienced rapid immigration since 2004, you were far more likely to vote Leave.

I was tagged in this.
I was tagged in this.

For me, that correlation seems counterintuitive. If we live in proximity to someone from a (perceived) opposing or “othered” social group, we should have the potential for interaction with, and appreciation for, one another. On the other hand, isolation (or neighborhood insularity, based on our most salient identities) doesn’t automatically foster prosperity: it breeds distrust. But perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe Trump’s wall and Johnson, Gove and Farage’s anti-immigration policies have merit that I am not seeing.

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Alison explores this thinking from her side of the pond:

Whilst the sensible people involved in Brexit reason that the UK is not becoming isolationist as a result of Brexit–pointing out that Switzerland and Norway (both outside the EU) have very global outlooks — the message that it sends to the rest of the world is that we don’t want to work with others in the way we have. At a time of global unrest this augurs badly for easing tension. If the UK has to wait at the back of the queue, then these will get worse.

She concludes:

It would be quite wrong to interpret 52% of the UK as racist, there were understandable concerns about Britain’s lack of sovereignty and dreadful side stepping by politicians for years. That doesn’t stop the side effects being despicable.

I thank Alison for her words and will finish our shared post by asking a few bold questions that are swirling in my head now:

  • Do we have the grit to deal with the institutionalized racism and personal bigotry being unearthed by the combination of technology and courage?
  • Can we see colonial, exploitative action as being recent and repercussive?
  • In these “United” States, in the “United” Kingdom, in the European “Union,” can we use the nasty political upheaval of 2016 as a force for good?
  • How do we thwart the exhaustive demand on our hearts and minds?
  • Is there a way we can connect with our family, friends, and fellow humans before they are radicalized (by whatever influence) and turn to violence?
  • If a Trump vote in the US does follow this Leave vote in the UK, what will become of our new social responsibility as artists and the next generation of leadership?