Last Friday’s referendum in the UK deciding whether or not the UK will remain part of the European Union is already having a major impact on the fabric of our political and economic lives. The full impact of it remains to be seen. The fact that the political faces of Brexit, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and Nigel Farage, clearly have no coherent plan forward, suggests that no one knows what the future will hold. And even if some obstacle prevents the actual separation, the vote itself demonstrates that all is not well. I think the result of the referendum, narrow though it may be, has demonstrated that people around the world are losing patience with attempts to build a global order that transcends the more comfortable boundaries that have traditionally delineated our political, social, and economic worlds. The ideal of a collaborative economic and political globalism itself has been damaged, perhaps irreparably.
What this means for me personally is that I am in mourning. I have not lost a family member or friend, thankfully. But I am mourning because of an acutely felt loss. I have lost my homeland. I have lost the place where I reside and where I would prefer to be. What I have lost is not a physical place. It is not a homeland that one can reside in and build a home, because it is inextricably connected to the ideal of a global community connected through a willingness to tie our futures together and collaborate. For me, Brexit has taken this world away.
My mother is Swiss and my father is English. While I was born in England, I am neither. We left England when I was very young and did not return. I lived in the United States as an immigrant. Because I grew up and was educated there, I learned to be an American. But I was always an immigrant first, largely because I was not entirely culturally American. I lived with a palpable distance that separated me from everything, and everyone, around me. The UK and Switzerland held me back. Their spectral presence was just enough to keep me at arm’s length from my new home. As a result, I grew up in three places, one real, and two that existed only in stories, media, and vacations. For whatever reason, this situation imprinted itself on me as a sense of perpetual alienation.
Immigrant children who remember the passage have a very difficult choice. They can either choose to identify with their parent’s old lives and try to hold onto the old ways. Alternatively, they can embrace the new society and culture and become alienated from their parents, their grandparents, cousins, and everyone else that was left behind. When a home language, or some visible marker of difference, separates you, the first option is much easier. When you are a white, English speaking immigrant, you are lost to the new ways almost immediately because there is nothing to stop it. I took the second path without fully realizing that there might be another way. However, in my case the transformation did not work. My host country never seemed to be welcoming or interesting, and I remembered just enough of the UK to recognize that there was an alternative to where I was. But I was too young to know anything real about where I came from. I became a reluctant American yet have never managed to shake the feeling that it was a mistake to do so. My unwillingness to submit to the change rendered me a failed American with no sense of home or origin. I was, and still am, caught between a reality that I rejected and an idealized Britain and Switzerland that bore no connections to the realities of either place.
I have never felt that the United States is my home, and I have always been acutely aware that the UK and Switzerland are not my home either. The only way that I have managed to feel at home in my skin is to align myself with a connective reality of global camaraderie and cosmopolitan experimentation. I have tried to inhabit this world through my academic research, through my choice to move to Canada, and even in my choice of friends. I am most at home with those who are not entirely home either. But this weak, almost fanciful, redoubt is always on the brink of thrashing itself apart. It is nothing but an ideal, a conceptualization of togetherness that is only glued together through common cause. It is also under attack around the world.
I was elated when the EU because a tangible reality following the Maastricht Treat of 1993. It offered me a way to suture my reality together. The promise of a Europe that transcended the political, social, economic, and cultural boundaries was exhilarating because it created a new ideal homeland for every European. While there were cold realities that were not entirely positive, the founding of the EU proper meant that now I shared an idealized homeland with more people than every before. Of course Europe was still only a concept, but it was something that I could align myself with as a way to suture my fractured identities together. This was possible because I was a British citizen. I soon took possession of a burgundy passport that was physically and conceptually more important than my green card. But while I was conceptually European, I was still practically American. I was still living in the United States.
I have not lived in the U.S. for some time now. I spent time in Turkey working on my Ph.D. and moved to Canada immediately thereafter. Although I am an immigrant again, Canada has offered me a new way to be. Everyone in Toronto seems to be just like me. Everyone has an immigrant story, be it their own or their immediate family’s. Everyone seems to have more than one past, country, and passport. My cosmopolitan community in Toronto has provided me a way to bring my lived reality inline with my idealized homeland because everyone lives in both and crosses the boundaries on a daily basis. For several years, I have found a way to live that allows my sense of self to exist in harmony with my physical, political, social, and cultural reality. Toronto has been a homeland that does not require me to suture the ideal and the real through daily work. It has also allowed me to be British, English, and European in the way that I am. The spectral Britain is a palpable presence here as well. Markers of it are everywhere from the silhouette on our money to the way one spells colour, cheque, and centre.
Brexit has shattered this comfortable coexistence because it has demonstrated the fragility of the ideal. England has rejected it, and excepting Scotland, the UK has rejected it. Even though a plurality of voters does not adequately reflect the entire population of the UK, the fact that the political and economic foundations of this idea can be damaged so easily has made me feel under attack. The safety of my global identity is gone. I am not alone. Those of my generation who have lived in a united Europe are also feeling this way.
We seem to be living in an age where the very idea of global togetherness is shattering. It is rejected through small thoughts and words while it is being eroded on the largest social scales. The political tide, at the very least, is turning against post-national politics as populations are turning in on themselves. And one can sympathize. When there is inequality, stagnation, and political disenfranchisement, it is natural to being to question how valuable large-scale political, social, and economic structures really are. We see this questioning frustration manifesting in populist, nativist, and reactionary movements across the globe. But it need not be this way.
Like many in Europe, I find the ideals of the contemporary European project worth working for. I believe we should be pushing to improve our respectful, collaborative efforts and try to correct the alienating effect it can have on disadvantaged, and neglected peoples. However, in the face of an easy racist populism, globalism cannot win. It requires us to hold an ideal and imagine a community together that can never fully materialize. The alternative is much simpler because it is connected to what seem to be our immediate realities. The attack on collaborative global structures is an attack on an ideal home. It is an attack on idealism itself. It calls into question the best version us by asserting that we are simply creatures made of mud who should not aspire to be better than we actually are.
I am grieving for my lost homeland. It never existed, but the promise that it might exist was enough. Now, it has been rejected and I do not know what will replace it. Nevertheless, I agree with those who are calling for the need to begin rebuilding a new ideal. It is time to begin reclaim our lost ground and demonstrate that a thoughtful, global collaboration can rise above our tendency to bicker and hate.
In part two, I will take a less personal approach to understanding what Brexit means for those of us who are ex-pats and émigrés.
Image Copyright: Thor