The papers, radio and TV are all focused this morning on the vote in the United Kingdom, the so-call Brexit, to determine whether Britain will remain in the European Union or go it alone. Many have noted the parallels between what is happening politically in Britain and the United States as well as much of the western world. There’s a broad retreat into tribalism. Established political elites are challenged by growing numbers of citizens who long for a past marked by colonialism, ethnocentrism and racism that for centuries exploded periodically into violence.
I began my public schooling in 1947, just after the end of World War II. I was taught by teacher who watched the carnage of that human tragedy, some with spouses who had experienced it firsthand. Some had grown up during World War I and talked about relatives who died in that explosion of human ignorance. Having lived through these decades political delusions, they very consciously tried to instill in us notions of a better world. They had us sing songs about “One world built on a firm foundation. One world no longer cursed by war.” We sang the Negro National Anthem and were asked to imagine how it might feel to be a Negro in America. We had lessons on the brand new United Nations and the hope it generated for the possibility for world peace. My teachers’ generations had known war and were clear in their conviction to influence us to strive for, “One great world at peace once more. One world, one world, With peace forevermore.”
That same idealism sparked the founders of what would go from a Common Market to the European Union to try to do what had never been done before, build a union of people with centuries of armed conflict separating them into an ever closer association so that a shared prosperity might bring them peace, burying once and for all the ancient hatreds and prejudice. That’s been threatened for some time, and dangerously so with the possible end of British participation in the European Union. Here at home similar forces lurk, calling upon citizens, many seriously disconnected from the world’s richest economy, to imagine an idealized past when white men ruled, women and minorities new their place, government was indifferent to the needs of its citizens and business were free to rape and pillage the landscape.