Wednesday, November 21, 2018
During this past week the question of Brexit—that is, the process by which the British government is proposing to sever its ties with the European Union—has been much in the news, and in a pretty rancorous fashion. What has surprised me is that American critics have been perhaps even more rancorous in their condemnation of the whole idea of Brexit, and more censorious in their language about it, than most of the British press. In fact I have been surprised by the alacrity with which the American left has claimed instant omniscience about the issue, and treated it as though it were simply another aspect of the election of Donald Trump.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that Brexit is a bad idea; but I also think that while it may not entirely be in the category of “none of our business,” it’s way less of our business than many people here seem to think. A memorable personal experience sticks in my mind. Very shortly after the admittedly confounding Brexit vote had taken place, an eminent academic from Cambridge (England) showed up to occupy an important post in Princeton. Her appointment had been the fruit of a lengthy intergalactic search and (I presume) lots of making nice and inducements on the part of high university officials. There are a certain aspects of superstar academic recruitment that are redolent of the plot of a Shakespeare comedy or a Victorian marriage novel. I was included in one of no doubt several gala dinner parties welcoming her to our shores and our institution. But the festivity almost immediately took on a curious tone—that of a kind of secular auto da fé in which her fellow dinner guests took turns extracting from her and her husband incrementally earnest declarations that they were appalled, absolutely appalled, by the Brexit vote. Signing on our dotted line had apparently been not quite enough.
We spend a fair amount of time in Britain. Joan still has close family members there, and both of us have important and continuing friendships there going back more than a half a century. The majority of these people are “remainers,” but several are not. Among the “leavers” I know are a couple of techno-entrepreneurial types fed up with what they regard as a stultifying super-nanny central EU bureaucracy. The charge of “racism” raised against such attitudes, which now on both sides of the Atlantic is rapidly becoming the slovenly explanation of why someone has the temerity to disagree with you about almost anything, would be ludicrous were there a scrap of ludus left in our political life. To believe that those who differ sharply in their political opinions from yourself are necessarily deluded or misinformed or simply not very bright is presumptuous enough without the reinforcing conclusion that they are wicked people acting in bad faith to boot. This said, it’s pretty obvious that almost everything about Brexit is a first-class mess, beginning with its inception in the pusillanimity of the former Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron. Even this realization, however, intensifies my respect for the current Prime Minister. My English friends tell me she is now being referred to as the “Maybot”—dutiful, uninspired, “over her head”. Well, Maybot, maybe. I am trying to think of any politician in Washington, of any political stripe, who has enough sense of duty to be “dutiful”. When the worst thing you can say about your national leader is that she is dutiful in attempting to execute a divisive popular mandate which she herself opposed and her political opponents supported, you are in my opinion actually rather lucky.
But what of all this “oppressive regulation” business of which Brexiteers complain? Somewhat bizarrely, I’ve just rubbed up against a little of it myself. The book review editor of a learned journal in the medieval field recently asked me to review a new book on a topic on which I myself have published. Book reviewing is not my favorite genre, but just at the moment I am trying to keep mentally alert, and also welcoming small assignments. The topic is of intrinsic interest, and its treatment in the new book appears to be comprehensive. So I agreed, and conveyed my decision to the editor. Obviously, over a long career a scholar is likely to have reviewed many books, and I thought I knew the drill; but almost immediately I discovered a new twist concerning this one. The book is published in England by an eminent academic press. It turns out that before I get so far as reading page one of the book I am supposed to fill out an elaborate on-line form supplied by the European Union, the apparent purpose of which is to aid the cyber security forces of Brussels in their attempt to shield my private and personal information from the prying eyes of roving gangs of Balkan book-review-readers who are up to no good. I may not be understanding this perfectly, but I take the situation to be roughly the following. The good guys at EU Central—I don’t know what to call the Brussels equivalent of a gnome of Zurich, maybe a sprout of Brussels?—cannot guarantee the safety of my private and personal information until they have it to protect. Thus the necessary if insufficient prerequisite to my writing a book review of The Merovingian Cutting Edge: Tonsorial Policy Among the Long-Haired Kings (I think I’m remembering the title correctly) is my completion and electronic submission of a lengthy interrogatory. Raises questions.