The Bittersweet Irony Caused by Brexit

Great Britain is leaving the European Union.  A referendum was held recently, and the British voting public has decided that they no longer wish to be a member of the EU, and urge their government to withdraw from the union as soon as possible.  Of course, when I say as soon as possible, I mean as soon as it’s deemed convenient for the politicians in Britain who have been most adamant that their nation’s interests lie separate–if not, in opposition to–the rest of the European continent.  Personally, I find it strange that the people who have spent weeks on end arguing about how it is of the utmost urgency for the UK to get out of the EU, lest it risk having its national integrity superseded by an undemocratic superstate (with implied nefarious long-term intentions), are now calling for everyone not to get ahead of themselves and to not be too hasty in actually biting the bullet on this whole thing by doing what they campaigned to do: leave the EU, posthaste.   I’ve always been of the opinion that once you identify a recognizable danger to your person (which the Brexit crowd has clearly and repeatedly claimed the EU to be), you’d want to take actions to step away from said danger as speedily as you can. But, then again, I’m not English, and perhaps this is just one of the many cultural quirks of the English character that elude me, and make total sense to those within the culture.

Notice I exclusively said English at the end there, and not British.  The reason for that is that it is predominately the English (and the Welsh) who voted in favor of leaving the EU (in particular the middle-aged and elderly crowd in those areas), while the majority of Scotland (and a large portion of Northern Ireland) voted in favor of remaining in the EU.  The significance of this will be shown shortly.

First, let me just say that, as someone who was brought up in continental Europe, within the EU zone, I have a bit more familiarity with the functions of the economic union than the average person residing in the United States.  To me, as a fellow European, the criticisms leveled against the EU (i.e. concerns regarding its role in relation to the sovereignty of its member states, and the dynamic between its more economically affluent members and its less well-off members) are perfectly fair points to consider.  And while I am of the opinion that improvements can (and should) be made, and laws and policies must be adjusted and amended as circumstances change and develop, to attempt to point to the EU as some sort of unmanageable mess that reaps no benefits for its member states is nevertheless a terribly disingenuous line of argument.  However, even though I have always regarding the existence of the EU as a general net positive for Europe and its citizens, I also wholeheartedly respect any member’s wishes to not be a part of it, if they so choose.  Of course, this includes England’s vote to withdraw from the EU, and I wish them well in doing so, and ultimately hope it turns out to be the right decision for its citizens.

With all that out of the way, let us get to the irony part of this news event, referenced in the title of this post.  It would be ironic enough to point out that a nation that gained its influence in the global scene by subjugating over a quarter of the rest of the world under its crowd at the height of its power, is now complaining about having its national sovereignty undermined by an authoritative state (of which it is an active member).  It is equally salient to mention how ironic it is for a nation that readily accepts and operates under a government that does not directly elect its Prime Minister, nor the de facto head of its armed services, and completely lacks a codified constitution, has deemed the bureaucratic (and, at times, mundane) political structure of the European Union as too undemocratic for its liking.  However, none of these are  of immediate interest as the key ironic bit that has come out of this referendum.  No, the true irony relates in the way the vote on the referendum split between the member states within the United Kingdom itself.

As mentioned, Scotland predominately voted to remain in the EU.  Now that England has set the precedent that a member state of an active political/economic union can declare its separation from said union, because it no longer feels that its sovereignty and interests are being properly represented by remaining a member of this same union, by what right can London argue for Edinburgh to remain in the United Kingdom if the Scottish citizenry decides that its interest are better served by remaining in the EU instead?  Any move by England to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom, if they formally proclaim their intent to depart as a member of Great Britain, will reveal the British government to be the very over-imposing political structure that the Brexit crowd was claiming to be saving Britain from by voting to leave the EU in the first place.  Hence, the great irony is that if Scotland (as well as Northern Ireland) decides that it would prefer to remain in the European Union, and as a result decides to formally leave the UK, it would signal the dissolution of Great Britain in its current political integrity, brought about directly by the same people–the Brexit crowd–who were so adamant about the need for the UK to leave the EU, because they feared that staying in the union would lead to the eventual destruction of the British state; a definitely possibility right now, with the potential departure of Scotland and Northern Ireland from the UK, as a result of Brexit.

Honestly, all politics aside, Joseph Heller himself couldn’t have written a better story of bittersweet irony.

 

Limits to my Empathy

Whatever source or imperatives a person wishes to attribute to her/his personal ethics, I believe the one thing we can all readily agree on is that the ability to empathize with others–i.e. being able to see an issue from another person’s perspective–is an indispensable component of any practical moral framework (unless you want to be clever and claim that your moral framework is not to have any empathy towards others; to which I say, touché good sir/madam, but I hope you’ll still agree that it would be best for your continued existence if other people at least feel some level of empathy towards your person, especially when they decide not to callously kill you on sight).

Like most people, if asked I would rate myself as a very empathetic person.  I would even compile a list of all the empathetic things I do for others in my daily life, because, in some sense, being selflessly courteous is often accompanied with the selfish interest to be acknowledged for one’s good deeds (even if we go out of our way to deny and suppress this egocentric impulse to our conscious selves).  I also happen to be of the opinion that when it comes to people who are not afflicted with any sort of crippling mental disorder (referring to those who honestly lack the mental faculties to have any reasonable degree of responsibility for their actions), just about everyone is empathetic to a large extent (though the means by which this empathy is expressed often various from person to person).

No, I do not believe that people are inherently good and generous.  Nor do I believe that we’re inherently bad or apathetic.  I see human behavior as largely adaptive to its varied environments.  This means I see no necessary contradiction in a man being a loving husband and father in one instant, and a murderer in another; different situations (different environments) tend to yield different results and behaviors for many of us (albeit such overly dramatic dichotomies in behavior are rather rare for most of us).

When I see someone hurt on the street, I’ll offer my help.  When I see stray cats or dogs wondering around hungrily, I’ll leave food and drink on my patio for them to find.  I empathize with parents who wish to see their children come home safely at the end of each school day.  All of this is innate, instinctive, to my conscience.  However, it’s also all local to my existence.  Because when I see a TV ad urging me to make a small, financially negligible, donation for a starving child oversees, I do feel a deep concern for the bruised faces shown on the screen, but I never feel any great moral obligation to make a donation.  The fact that a large portion of the clothing and luxury items I enjoy are assembled by exploited workers, in ethically questionable conditions, makes me cynical of the economic system I’m contributing to with my purchases, but it ultimately doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the luxuries any less (and purchasing more when I need to; thereby directly sustaining the vicious cycle).  So, while I actively care about moral situations that lie in my immediate proximity, I only abstractly care about all the more numerous moral dilemmas that lie outside of my personal interactions.  Which is to say, I don’t really care at all, because to only empathize with something on principle–without being willing to engage the issue in question with real, tangible solutions–is the equivalent of doing nothing at all (other than to inflate my egocentric sense of personal impeccability).  I’m aware of this moral shortcoming on my part, and the ethically indefensible position of my “apathetic-empathy”, yet, I still don’t really care enough to bother changing my behavior.  In truth, I only care about the fact that I don’t care about not really caring on any meaningful level.  And, although it sounds self-serving to say, I’m convinced that this is a common sentiment among most people (in particular those of us residing in what is commonly referred to as the first world).

My point isn’t to encourage people to do more about the sufferings and injustices in the world.  In my honest opinion, quite a few people who care strongly about a humanitarian issue end up becoming so engrossed in the presumed righteousness of their position they let their empathy and passion cloud their objectivity and rationality (I offer the various sociopolitical movements of the 19th and 20th Century as an example of this problem).  I simply want to acknowledge a fact about my character that, while not admirable in any sense, appears to be impermeable to any sincere change.  And I haven’t figured out yet, whether or not I really care about this fact.

Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”

In 1784, German philosopher Immanuel Kant declared the motto of enlightenment as, “Have courage to use your own reason!”  He goes further to indict laziness and cowardice as the reasons why much of mankind repeatedly fails to uphold this motto, and instead prefers to remain under lifelong tutelage of external influences:

If I have a book which understands me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself.  I need not think, if I can only pay–others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.

The theme of self-determination (both politically and as a matter of personal principle) runs deep in the writings that came to define the Enlightenment tradition.  However, emerging within a culture of authoritarianism, to promote the values of individual reason and expression as the primary moral principles in life were inseparable from outright heresy.  But it is exactly this so-called heretical mindset that Kant urges the masses to embrace, precisely because it will free them from those who have appointed themselves as guardians of their thoughts:

After the guardians have first made their domestic cattle dumb and have made sure that these placid creatures will not dare take a single step without the harness of the cart to which they are confined, the guardians then show them the danger which threatens if they try to go alone.

Naturally, Kant considers the implied danger to be a farce concocted by these self-appointed guardians to preserve their own authority, and the deception largely persists because the ordinary man “has come to be fond of this state, and he is for the present really incapable of making use of his reason, for no one has ever let him try it out.”  And that is the primary intent of Kant’s appeal on behalf of reason; simply for the public to be given the opportunity to be guardians of their own mental faculties–i.e. their own enlightenment.  Kant believes that an enlightened public is not only a desirable goal, but an obviously possible one, because “if only freedom is granted, enlightenment is almost sure to follow.”

However, Kant still remains realistic in his own idealism for an enlightened public.  He understands that many prejudices have been ingrained in the public’s psyche that are outright counter to enlightenment thinking, and that therefore “the public can only slowly attain enlightenment.”  He reasons that while tyrannical regimes can be toppled by speedy revolutions, they do not remove said prejudices and predispositions that prevent the public from embracing enlightenment, and that different measures are necessary to reform the ways by which people think (or, rather, refuse to think).

Freedom, of course, is the primary component needed in Kant’s view for an enlightened society.  Namely the freedom to think, and  “make public use of one’s reason at every point.”  Unfortunately, though a simple proposition, there exists much standing in the way of achieving this level of public awareness:

But I hear on all sides, “Do not argue!”  The officer says: “Do not argue but drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue but pay!” The cleric: “Do not argue but believe!” Only one prince in the world says, “Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey!” Everywhere there is restriction on freedom.

The prince Kant is talking about is Frederick II of Prussia, whose civil reforms the philosopher sees as necessary preconditions for creating an enlightened society.  (Reaffirming this point later on in the essay, when he declares, “Do we now live an enlightened age? The answer is, ‘No,’ but we do live in an age of enlightenment / or the century of Frederick.”)

Despite his call for complete freedom for a citizen to use his reason, Kant does differentiate between a person’s right to espouse his opinion freely, and the right of a state to place certain mandate’s on a person’s freedoms when it comes to exercising its right to govern over said person as a subject to its laws.  For instance:

The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed on him; indeed, an impudent complaint at those levied on him can be punished as scandal.  But the same person nevertheless does not act contrary to his duty as a citizen when, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his thoughts on the inappropriateness or even the injustice of these levies.

The hallmark of modern democracy is the right we as a citizenry have to petition our government, either directly or through our elected representatives, to change and shape the laws we abide by in accordance with out collective understand of what is moral and what is just.  Hence, what Kant is proposing above seems rather uncontroversial to us in the 21st century; however, in 1784, a proposition such as this was quite radical indeed.  For to suggest to an absolutist authority, be it monarchical or clerical, that the public ought to be free to openly reason, question, and argue all matters of thinking, including the very function of the authorities that preside over them, is to a hitherto unchallenged power the first an open call for anarchy and heresy.  Kant remains unfazed by such objections, as he clearly lines out how his proposal is neither destabilizing for the state, nor damning for the public’s salvation, because enlightenment–as a product of allowing the pubic its freedom of reason–is the fundamental component in nurturing a society that, even while it remains free to voice its dissatisfaction with the authorities presiding over it, the very freedom of being granted a voice at all endears the public to the system that has set up the parameters that grant such freedoms that treat them “in accordance with their dignity.”

Bibliography

Kant, Immanuel.  “What is Enlightenment?” Berlinische Monatsschrift, 1784.

Straining the Plank: Why Occupy Wall Street Failed

The Tea Party movement began as a set of right-wing protests following the election of President Obama in 2008.  It’s original intent was to institute financial reform, by way of reducing government spending and lower taxes across the board.  Subsequently, it began to add more and more elements from the conservative end of US political spectrum, largely by way of influence from the evangelical Christian right, to the point that the two political movements became synonymous with each other by its latest incarnation (thereby alienating the strong libertarian and moderate capitalist wings that may have been inclined to support its original message).

Similarly, Occupy Wall Street was a serious of protests that launched in late 2011, whose stated goal was to address the economic inequalities brought about by crony capitalism, and called for system-wide economic reforms to be instituted within financial and political sectors.  (That was the focus of the movement from the beginning, and it was articulated very clearly for those who were willing to listen; despite several media outlets repeatedly claiming confusion on what the goals of the Occupy protesters were from the time of the first sit-ins in Zuccotti Park).

What made Occupy Wall Street (OWS) unique was the fact that it wasn’t organized like a rally (like most protests of this nature usually are, including the aforementioned Tea Part protests), but a sit-in, with tents and separate “tent-communities” being set up for what most people there expected to be an indefinite stay.  The protests lasted for months (some would count it in years) after the initial sit-in in NYC, and it’s even been argued that fragments of it are still going on, and have expanding into several cities and countries around the world.  The message is slightly different from region to region, but the main points (it is argued) remain the same.   Yet, I would argue that from very early on a vital shift in focus (or loss in focus, as I would put it) doomed the movement before it really gained real traction.

Like the Tea Party rally, early in its development OWS started adopting several social issues to its already ambitious platform.  And like the case with the Tea Party, I personally think this was an unwise move on the part of whoever makes up the ranks of the main organizers for these things (yes, there is always a core group of organizers in these things, otherwise nothing would ever happen).

The central theme of the current financial system needing serious reform is a cogent message to the majority of people who might potentially support your activism.  People will disagree about the methods and phrasings, but the basic desire for change will be heard.  The problem is that as any movement gains a following, social interests groups will naturally gravitate to them in hopes of bringing attention to their own concerns and issues.  Though seemingly a benign move (and I have no reason that it is in any way motivated by malice), it can have the inverse effect of drowning out the original message, which attracted the majority of attention to begin with, spiraling the whole discussion into irrelevancies that only appeal to a select minority of participants.

It’s what I call straining the plank, where too many issues are put on one surface, causing it to eventually bend and break from over-extension.  This is not to say that the social interests advocated for aren’t worth promoting, individually.  It does mean that if you allow every seemingly worthwhile concern to be heard under one tent, at the same time, almost no one’s interests are going to be addressed due to the fact that everyone sees her or his pet-issue as the rightful focus of the discussion.

By far the most valid criticism that can be targeted at my occasional posts on sociopolitical matters is that, while I spend a great deal of time writing polemics against other people’s ideas and reasoning, I offer little to nothing as an alternative to the (in my opinion) faulty thinking I’m so fond of ranting against.  Fair enough, and allow me to break this annoying cycle today.

If I was a more politically active person (the sort that starts and supports social movements; in other words, someone completely unlike me), and I was setting out to reform the global financial system, I would focus on reforming the global financial system.  If, for example, in the midst of my efforts I was approached by an environmentalist group, or a social liberties group, or any other sociopolitical activist group whose affiliation with financial reform is only tangential at best, looking to incorporate their message in with mine, I would greet them, give them the number to an already established organization that caters to their specific interests, wish them well, and telling them that if their group’s interests ever directly correlate with financial reform, to give me a call.  But not before.

In other words:  Do the environmentalists wish to promote their cause?  Great, give them the number to Greenpeace, and continue to focus on financial reform.  Gay rights, you say?  Absolutely, I believe GLAAD would be more than happy to have your time and contributions, while we continue to focus on financial reform.  Anti-war?  Women’s reproductive rights?  Separation of Church and State?  All wonderful and worthwhile causes, all very important, but if our focus is financial reform, then our focus is financial reform, and it is the cause we have decided to promote at the moment.  Period.

This might sounds heartless and elitist to many, but I see it as being focused on the task that’s been set out.  Strength in numbers only works when everyone pulls in the same direction.  100 different hands, placing pressure in 100 different directions just creates stagnation, and deforms the shape of the original platform.  The problem with wanting to do or reform everything in one go, under one banner, is that you will undoubtedly end up doing and reforming nothing of long-term value (biting of more than you can chew in one sitting, so to speak).  Resulting in the possibility of finding yourself part of a movement that either dead on arrival, or–worse yet–whose stated goal(s) has become unrecognizable to you.

What Occupy Wall Street failed to understand is that there is nothing compromising about picking one’s battles, one at a time, and not being distracted by 50 other equally pleasing objectives.  In fact, if real political change is your goal, I would submit that it’s pretty much a necessity of the game.