Author’s note: I wrote this a few months ago about the Brexit vote, then I never published it. It’s a rambling, disjointed, ill-informed opinion piece that somehow manages to begin with the Brexit vote and end with the holocaust. I felt like it was rather silly and hyperbolic, even by my own shamefully low standards. But then Donald Trump won the election here in America. I was trying to make up my mind what to say about that, and I had the idea to take about the last quarter of this piece and fold it into another article. But when I read this over again, I felt like it held up. It’s message is more applicable in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory. So, here it is.
Oh, and all you Brits out there who voted for Brexit: Did you really think you were going to out-stupid America?
First of all, I have to say that I’m not an expert on the European Union. I don’t live there. I know there are systemic issues within the EU that need to be addressed. I know it’s not a perfect system; nothing ever is. This is just my take as a whole, as a barely informed spectator from across the pond.
In my opinion, the European Union is one of the greatest accomplishments of the twentieth century. I’d always looked at the EU, at what Europe had managed to accomplish, and thought that I was actually witnessing a turning point in the history of civilization: Human beings actually learning something from history, and then doing something about it.
I mean, think about that. We finally learned. We finally learned. After tens of thousands of years of tribalism, feuds, invasions and counter-invasions, nearly constant war throughout the entire blood-soaked history of the continent, hatreds that go back to the beginning of time, climaxing with the horrors of the world wars, the pogroms, the holocausts, the genocides, the dictators. National Socialism. Fascism. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco. Thousands of years of bloodshed and horror culminating in an orgy of bloodshed and horror.
And then, it stopped. It actually stopped.
It was as if Europe, after centuries of blood-rage, was finally shocked into sobriety by what they’d done. They finally took a look around and realized that it just wasn’t worth it. In all that time, what had this fighting ever accomplished? From Hastings to Normandy, European countries had been sending its young men into the meat grinder, often for the stupidest of reasons. Then, they finally realized that they are all brothers and sisters.
And then they stopped. They finally stopped.
Less than ten years after the second world war ended, the early framework for the EU had been created. One by one, countries joined together, uniting politically and economically, opening their borders to each other. No more armed border crossings. No more papers, please. No more invading neighbors. No more young men sacrificing their lives to the whims of Royal family feuds.
And the result? Seventy years of peace on the European continent. Seventy years. Countries that just decades before had been ruled by dictators and monarchies and despots, now solidly democratic. Quality of life that is the envy of the world and keeps getting better. Economic prosperity. Human rights. Civil rights. Universal healthcare. Education. Say what you will about the immigration crisis, (and I do agree that it’s a crisis, and must be intelligently and reasonably and compassionately managed) you have to acknowledge the fact that these people want so badly to come to the EU because it is so much better than other places.
All of this is why the Brexit vote, and the politics accompanying it, is so discouraging. I may be conflating correlation with causation, but it seems as though, in the long term, we’ve learned nothing. I can’t help but observe that the generation that built this institution is the same generation that witnessed first hand the slaughter and misery of the world wars. And I also can’t help notice that at almost the exact moment this generation fades away, at the exact moment that the horrors of the early twentieth century pass out of living memory, we start going back to our old ways. Nationalism and isolationism. Xenophobia and paranoia. Closing borders. Listening to bigoted, hateful demagogues, lining up with pitchforks in hand to deal with those people, because the angry man up on the podium is feeding off of our fear and our uncertainty, using the rhetorical alchemy of would-be dictators to transform that fear into hatred, and then feeding it right back into our hearts.
We’ve learned nothing. We’re still monkeys flinging our own shit at each other.
Maybe I’m exaggerating, but then again maybe I’m not. Maybe this is how it starts. Maybe we should really know better by now.
And, as an American, I realize that I have no room to talk in regards to idiotic politics. The reason I’m so disappointed by all this is that I thought you guys were doing better than us.
At the risk of hyperbole, I’m going to make one final point. I’ve known many Germans. They’ve all been wonderful, friendly, gracious human beings. I’ve never been to Germany myself, but I know many who have, and they all say the same thing. It’s a wonderful place, full of wonderful people. Intelligent, progressive politics. A high standard of living. Great beer. A great place to visit, and a great place to live. Before the Nazis took over, Berlin was one of the most liberal, cosmopolitan cities in the world. Pre-war Germany was a highly educated, thoroughly modern population. There is no secret black heart of the German people. They’re just people.
If the German people were capable of being duped, of being complicit, willingly or unwillingly, in the holocaust and the rise of the third reich and all of the horrors that followed, then we are all capable as well.
The Holocaust was not made possible by a flaw in the German character.
It was made possible by a flaw in the human character.
If it could happen in Germany, it could happen anywhere. Britain, America, anywhere. And it starts with the smallest things. It always starts with the smallest things. A forest fire can start with just the tiniest ember. We, as human beings, have a responsibility to be forever aware of the horrors of which our own darkest nature makes us capable. And we must always be vigilant.
We can do better. We can be better.