"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Brexit, A State Of Mind–There Will Always Be An England And So Should There Be

Anyone who has said, “I quit!” knows how good it feels to finally shut the door on bad bosses, restrictive regulations, nosy colleagues, and intrusive surveillance.  Or to walk out the door on a bad marriage.  We have been brought up to be social, considerate, and respectful and to sublimate feelings of individualism for the greater good.  We learn to color within the lines, sit up straight, walk tall, speak only when spoken to, be kind and generous to others, respectful to our elders, mindful and dutiful to God, and vote responsibly.  Yet there are always those moments of nastiness when we want to be free of it all, to walk out of all doors and slam them shut behind us.  We put up with a lot, almost too much from wives and husbands, priests, and every other meddling soul who wants to stick his fingers in our business, tell us what to do, how to behave, and what to say; and we want them all to disappear.

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Which is why Brexit – the departure of Great Britain from the European Union after forty-seven years – feels so good. While the economic, financial, and regulatory consequences of the departure remain to be seen, those who voted for Brexit feel a euphoria, a catharsis.  Brexit was as much a restatement of Britishness as it was a rejection of Europe.  More than a nation, an empire,  or a civilization, Britain was a state of mind. Britain had once ruled the world and spread language, liberalism, democracy, laws, and justice. “ There'll always be an England and England shall be free, if England means as much to you as England means to me”.

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England. (Richard II)

Nationalism has gotten a bad name in recent years, coopted as many say it has by xenophobes who want to close borders, be unilateralist, and insist on the recognition of a universal, national ethos. America cannot take all comers, says populist President Donald Trump, and those who are admitted must conform to the country’s historic democratic principles, its reliance on individual enterprise, its adherence to law, and its respect for God.

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There is nothing new or surprising about Trump’s citation of these prerequisites for belonging, for they echo the words of Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams.  Jefferson was eloquent about the protection of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ which would be the responsibility of its guarantor, the government of the new Republic.  He saw the nation evolving around these principles.  No individual enterprise should ever supersede the integrity of the community.  Individualism meant the freedom to act according to one’s own beliefs but in accordance with and out of respect for the the nation at large. The country would be one whose engine of prosperity would be individual free enterprise, whose society would be governed by the rules of God and applied by those men elected to oversee their secular application.

Alexander Hamilton saw a danger in Jeffersonian popular democracy, for he saw too many historical distortions of it.  Mob rule was a feature of society ever since the first social agglomerations.  Shakespeare was not alone in dramatizing the dangers of mob rule as he did in  Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, and Hamilton wanted to assure that it would never happen in his new country.  Yet, despite his reticence, Hamilton whole-heartedly endorsed Jeffersonian philosophical principles of governance and rule and the role and responsibility of the individual.

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The United States today is a far cry from the nation born in 1776 or rather 1787, the signing of the Constitution of the United States, a document which codified rights and responsibilities and laid out the institutional framework within which society was to operate. While it is still a country of the rule of law, and a nation under God, and one still entrepreneurial and productive, each of these principles have been gradually eroded.  The firm, sound moral, religious, and philosophical principles of the Founding Fathers based on a broader intellectual ideas enunciated during the Enlightenment, are no subject to relativism.  In a rapidly diversifying society, say progressives, there can be no one code of honor, no set of moral principles, and no rules of reasonable conduct.

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Cato the Elder (234-139 BC) was a philosopher and educator of the Roman elite – the future leaders of empire.  His teaching diptychs not only included the essentials of secular leadership – history, military strategy, politics, and rhetoric – but focused equally on the moral principles of honesty, integrity, courage, compassion, respect, honor, and duty.  He understood that leadership could never be trusted or respected unless it exhibited a strong moral conviction.   According to him there was indeed one, universal, accepted code of behavior to be applied by both rulers and ruled alike.

Every civilization after Rome, whether European or Asian, had similar universal, moral principles which would provide the foundation for rule.  Confucianism is perhaps the best example of a codified set of moral standards - ren ("humaneness" or "benevolence"), signifying excellent character in accord with li (ritual norms), zhong (loyalty to one's true nature), shu (reciprocity), and xiao (filial piety). Together these constitute de (virtue).

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Confucius highlighted the duties of a leader by explaining the proper way to think, act, and make decisions in government positions.  Qualities such as continual learning, frugality, humility, confidence, commitment, and loyalty are all examples found within his teachings that provide a framework for leadership.  Most importantly, Confucius taught extensively on virtue and why leaders must be virtuous.

So a desire to return to fundamental social, moral, and religious principles which will provide the same philosophical context for newcomers as they did for the first citizens of America is important and laudable.  Xenophobia is a corruption of these principles, for it is a mindless, self-serving, and stubborn expression of patriotism.  It has nothing to do with the re-statement of fundamental historical principles and asking all to abide by them.

Most countries – especially those with a long history of civilization – have an ethos, an often undefinable, ineffable,  but commonly acknowledged sense of distinction.  Although many countries have been subsumed with the European Union, they are still socially and historically distinct.  There may always be an England, but also a France, a Germany, and an Italy.  There is no traveler to any of these countries who would mistake one for another.  France which has a very significant minority community, is still very much France. The country still considers itself la fille ainee de l’Eglise Catholique – the eldest daughter of the Church because it was French, Catholic Charlemagne who held off the Saracens at Roncesvalles – and as importantly a persistent apologist for the best of Western civilization – art, music, literature, philosophy, science, and religion.  There is no reason why an African migrant who wants to become a French citizen cannot respect these cultural expressions and adopt them as his own; for such adoption does not mean a complete rejection of the culture of his country of origin.

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The rise of populist nationalism is because citizens of these countries sense that the integrity of their society, i.e., those moral, philosophical principles and those standards of cultural history are being threatened by a ragtag multiculturalism which will cause inevitable social and political divisions.  If newcomers are encouraged to live just as they did in their countries of origin with the same religious practices, social norms, and cultural standards, any country cannot help but be balkanized.  It is because such multiculturalism is being so aggressively promoted and more temperate, logical, and sensible requirements for admission refused, that citizens are being more populist and more xenophobic.

So many Britons who voted to leave the European Union voted their historical conscience – that sense of empire, independence, and leadership that it has always had – but their philosophical conscience as well.  The old, dear, storied Britain should not be dissolved, scrambled, and reconfigured to resemble nothing.   This is not crazy radical populism nor xenophobia.  It is historical realism.

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