Our world keeps paying a very heavy price for the xenophobia that lurks deep in the Anglo-Saxon brain. From the populist demagogues whipping up voter fears in the United States to the dockworkers in Tilbury on England’s east coast who voted overwhelmingly to get out of the European Union, the driving impulse of political choice on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be a deep and lasting hatred and fear of other people. And not just any other people, but those who are darker, swarthier, arising from the south, speaking different languages, preferring different customs, perhaps worshiping in mosques.
Brexit — the choice made by 51% of voters in Great Britain to leave the European Union — is a vote against globalism, against collaboration across nations and nationalities, against the idea of welcome and care for other people who are fleeing tyranny and oppression. It’s as if the Brits think they can pull up their drawbridges and fill all the moats with alligators the better to fend off the invading hordes, just like in the old days! Some people in the United States think this is admirable, including one leading presidential candidate — but if similar sentiments had prevailed in the U.S. 100 years ago, it’s quite possible that the hordes of Irish and German and Polish and Italian immigrants would never have made it to New York and Boston and Philadelphia and elsewhere, and what kind of nation would we now be if it were not for the great immigrant waves of the late 19th and early 20th centuries? Think about it. The United States became a great nation because of immigration, and now at least some politicians want to deny our very history — and, by the way, their own.
In its most extreme and evil form, xenophobia leads to racial oppression on a grand scale — the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews remains the world’s most appalling example of racial hatred and xenophobia, but the same philosophy supported slavery and infects the white supremacist caves in this country today.
Ten years ago the noted commentator Thomas Friedman wrote The World is Flat heralding the era of global interdependence and expanded trade across rapidly dissolving borders. But it seems that Friedman discounted the power of the reptilian brain’s instinctive rejection of other people who we do not recognize as one of us. The internet made the world flatter, yes, but that flatness has enable hatred and terrorism and xenophobia to ooze in torrents across all borders of nations and common decency, infecting countless minds along the way with ideas and attitudes that ultimately lead to destruction of the common ground on which we had hoped to build a better world.
Education remains the best defense we have against the rising tide of suspicion and hatred. It’s no secret that demagogues exploit ignorance — “I love the uneducated,” proclaims one presidential candidate whose greatest supporters are among the least well educated citizens of the United States. The British referendum results show clearly that the overwhelming majority of those who voted to leave the European Union were among the least well educated.
Low levels of education go hand in hand with economic insecurity, and certainly the consequences of poverty, loss of jobs, sense of threat from immigrants taking jobs from others or the export of jobs to other countries are all issues that play heavily into the Brexit vote and are influencing the American presidential election. Demagogues encourage and exploit this fear and economic uncertainty; responsible politicians look for ways to alleviate the fears, to create jobs and improve economic conditions for all.
This small planet cannot afford a resumption of the aggressive nationalism that led to two world wars in the 20th Century. In a way that seems chilling, the Brexit vote on June 24 might be the real end of World War II, but not in a good way. By destroying the alliances that have worked to keep the peace and promote economic security since 1945, the triumph of xenophobia will be a more fractured, suspicious and economically unstable world. That’s the kind of world where terrorism and tyranny will flourish.