A few days before the vote on Brexit, a crowd of Democratic Party grandees gathered in one of Manhattan’s toniest venues. Old friends and allies happily greeted one another, and as liquor unlocked emotions, one of them turned nostalgic about his stint in the Clinton Administration — a happier time, when the party was unified around the cult of political pragmatism known as triangulation. ‘Yes,’ said a misty-eyed associate who also remembered those days fondly. ‘We didn’t have the inequality thing…. How did we miss it?’
Propriety prevents me from identifying the participants, but the clueless arrogance about ‘the inequality thing’ largely sums up the reaction to Britain’s Leave vote in America’s capital of high finance and outsized intellectual pretentions. Of course they missed it, along with everything else that has brought the United States to a class divide unseen since the Gilded Age — not to mention to the brink of electing Donald Trump as President. Unsurprisingly, they also missed the mounting anti-European Union sentiment in the United Kingdom. But ignorance doesn’t lead to humility and it didn’t stop liberal Democrats, or their correct-thinking spokesmen in the Manhattan media, from dismissing British voters as if they were yokels lifted straight out of Dogpatch in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip.
Most media commentary on Brexit was humourless, including Andy Borowitz’s humour blog in the New Yorker. Masquerading as satire, it reflected the true sentiments of many of the magazine’s cosmopolitan staff and readers: that is, that the British, by voting to leave Europe, had done something inexplicably foolish and would henceforth have to relinquish ‘their long-cherished right to claim that Americans were significantly dumber than they are.’ Borowitz quoted a ‘North London pub owner’ to allegedly hilarious effect: ‘In the face of this startling display of national idiocy, [Alistair] Dorrinson still mustered some of the resilience for which the British people are known. “This is a dark day,” he said. “But I hold out hope that, come November, Americans could become dumber than us once more.”‘ I get it: he means we would elect Trump.
Apart from Borowitz’s heavy-handed joke, most Manhattan media reaction was deadly earnest, and at times the handwringing bordered on the, well, idiotic. In the New Yorker, I learned from Adam Gopnik that ‘economic insecurity’ was a factor in the Brexit outcome, but any notion that the vote constituted legitimate protest was ‘at worst sentimental and self-deluding.’ In fact, ‘what was really at stake was a closed vision of the future against a cosmopolitan one.’ Then came the straw man, or shall I say, the straw Tommy argument: ‘Anyone who thinks that absurd elements of overplanning and bureaucratic constraint are the worst evils Europe has experienced should try the Battle of the Somme.’
In the same cosmopolitan magazine, Andrew Solomon got right to the point about Leave’s primitive, hooligan instincts. ‘The growing worldwide aversion to unifying bodies such as the E.U. is based on tribalism, and tribalism draws on the perception of likeness,’ he wrote. Why didn’t the English working class understand how little it has in common with ‘privileged Englishman’ and how much more with working-class Spanish, Portuguese and Latvians? Brexit, alas, displayed ‘an archaic, ethnic notion of collectivity that shares ground with racism.’
In case you didn’t recognise the sinister implications of this unholy tribal coalition of hoi polloi and posh, here came a Scotsman, the New Yorker’s literary critic James Wood, to explain that ‘The parallels with the Trump campaign could not be more obvious.’ How are they obvious? Of course! On both sides of the Atlantic, it’s all about fear of immigrants. One ‘stream of anxiety’ among down-on-their-luck white thugs has to do with unseemly economic fears — that ‘poorer, hungrier, more eager workers from nearby countries (Mexico; or Poland, Slovakia, Spain) are taking jobs that somehow “belong” to native populations (even if those native people seem disinclined to do them) and are swallowing up much-needed public resources, like education and health care.’
Wood’s remarks were especially obnoxious in their condescension, since he writes from a safe haven in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his income is presumably sheltered from immigrant Slovakian literary critics and Mexicans gunning for his Harvard job as Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism. But my annoyance should not obscure the point that he is widely supported in his sophisticated disgust. There is a liberal consensus in New York in support of the European ‘ideal,’ although many liberals would be hard-pressed to define just what that is beyond ‘peace’ and the convenience of making the scene in Berlin and Prague nightclubs without having to change money. Does this ‘ideal’ also include German austerity, Greek impoverishment, and Spanish unemployment over 20 percent? I can’t say, but since the Brexit vote, the liberal Manhattan conception of the European Union seems to be whatever is the opposite of Trump. I guess we’re supposed to know what that means, just among us cosmopolitans.
If the haughty New Yorker was offended by Brexit, its cultural twin, the New York Times, was almost uniformly hysterical in its response, since ‘populism,’ whether inspired by Bernie Sanders from the left or Trump from the right, has become its bête noir. The Times long ago abandoned any real commitment to objectivity in its news columns, so its genuine reaction to Brexit was more clearly displayed in editorials posing as news stories than in official editorials presented as expressions of opinion. The purest example I found was a day-after Brexit story that should have been headlined, ‘The Sky May Be Falling.’ The reporter, Peter Goodman, purported to analyse why ‘world markets’ had been ‘seized’ by ‘panic.’ In the wake of Brexit ‘the collective imagination leads to dark places,’ Goodman menacingly declared. (Where, Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory?) ‘The world has never been here before,’ he warned. Yet beyond the boilerplate alarums about finance jobs possibly leaving London for the continent, the darkest place Goodman could name was the dreaded experiment in democracy that made Sanders and Trump so popular. ‘Most broadly, the Brexit vote is likely to resonate as a sign that major democracies are increasingly vulnerable to the influence of populist political movements that curry favour by demonising immigrants and external forces – officials in Brussels and Washington, low-wage workers in China and Mexico.’
Good heavens. Ordinary people expressing ordinary outrage about the ‘inequality thing’. What’s next, class warfare? Let’s try not to miss it this time.