Get out of my head, Boris!

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 08.11.2019

Last night I dreamt that Boris Johnson, posing undercover as a deranged electrician, was hunting me down. It was alarming. It was also surprising, since Brexit does not really loom largely in my life in any personal way, and electricians are rarely on my mind. But there Johnson was, terrorizing me with a screwdriver, a specious grin, and his floppy blonde hair. It being Halloween, it was probably fair game for anybody to haunt my sleep, and Johnson simply got there first. Plus, another Brexit deadline had just passed. Anyway, it got me thinking – and I know I’m not the only one – what is up with the British lately?

Plenty of pundits can hold compelling political discussions of Brexit, but you will not find that sort of thing in this article. Being unable to keep the necessary facts straight, I can only offer a softer, cultural take on the Brexit era. Underlying the raging political and economic arguments are emotion, patriotism, xenophobia, and nostalgia, all of which boil down to one factor: identity.

Identity is shaping up, in these times, to be not just an idle awareness of the self but a core currency in society. Who you are, in a world context, is relevant to every decision. Publishers want more books by minority authors, firms want speakers of particular languages, universities want students from unique places. Your individuality must shine on your CV. In fact, anything uncommon about you can probably help determine your success.

Identity comes in individual terms, but also cultural and national terms. In Luxembourg, alongside an influx of foreigners – they even give newspaper columns to Americans now – has been a resurgence of interest in what is keeping the country Luxembourgish, observable in movements to further the local language, cuisine, and culture. A threat to an existence hardens and solidifies that existence.

Despite all of us foreigners, Luxembourgish culture is dominant here. Even a small grand duchy has an enormous influence over an outsider. We might not all be confronted daily with Luxembourgish words, the way you are traditionally attacked with French in France, but even that helps characterize this place as open and lingually accommodating. It doesn’t make it feel familiar or empty. It makes it feel Luxembourgish. And promoting the language and customs really works: it’s like a bright light that we, as moths, are attracted to.

Great Britain has its own bright light, but many Brexit supporters must have nevertheless felt that being part of the European Union has diluted Great Britain’s identity. (And the leave camp ran an emotional, patriotic campaign on exactly this premise.)

On first pass, that seems insane to me. What impresses us Americans about the European Union is how each of its countries remains a cultural stronghold despite being, almost paradoxically, “European.” In fact, we have no equivalent idea of a union like this one. It hardly resembles our federation of fifty states, which is highly centralized and culturally homogenous. An Ohioan farmer and a small-town Arizonian could chat for hours about politics or pop culture – but a Finnish villager and an Italian farmhand? I imagine them singing Eurovision songs to one another while making lingonberry pizza.

And yet, Member States do manage to be both culturally unique and closely united. And what unites them is not merely a court system or collective economic power: the European Union, on some level, has a cultural identity of its own. As Britain seeks to exit, look at the reaction of other Europeans: people find its departure overwhelmingly idiotic, but also, often, hurtful. An emotional response suggests the existence of an EU culture of which one can be proud. One side effect of Brexit has perhaps been the solidification of this culture, equally in the UK as in the EU.

All regions already have multiple layers of identity: Esch is Esch-like, Luxembourgish, European, Western, and Earthly all at once. But many fear that outer layers can only have a diluting – not an empowering – effect. Taking that fear to its logical ends, you might imagine a Europe without national identities at all: the average Spaniard has no predilection for tapas, speaks without accent in a common European tongue, and goes to bed at nine o’clock. Going this far is absurd. But we should go further. EU culture would also be threatened by a world culture, so, by uniting more, the whole world will eventually become a single, vacuous, cultureless blob.

Suppose we fully colonize Mars. Maybe – maybe! – 500 years after that, our borders on Earth will really lose their glorious, defining power in light of a rival civilization on the red planet. Until then, all borders, no matter how open or closed, will continue uniting the people inside them. It is just the makeup of the culture within that will continually, gradually shift.

There is something tragic in movements like Brexit or Trump’s wall: they want to keep out foreign influence, and in so doing to capture a moment in time – a culture in memory – forever. In Britain’s case, pursuit of this fictional ideal comes at the expense of leaving the EU, the world’s first serious international peace project and a government like nothing else on the planet. (As an outsider, I can romanticize the EU just a little bit.)

I have recently gained Luxembourgish citizenship, which might also be why Brexit and the EU are on my mind. However, I seem to have paid a terrible price: Boris Johnson now torments my sleep. It would seem that, regardless of national borders, Europeans and their ideas can move quite freely into the minds of other citizens after all.

Jeffrey Palms
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