The experts were all wrong. Their forecasts Wednesday of clear victory for the Remain side of Britain’s stay-or-go vote sent the FTSE, Dow and other financial markets worldwide on upward climbs, even as ballots were cast the following day. Today, June 24, 2016 will be forever recalled as the day the people of Wales and England, especially those over forty years of age, told the nation’s experts, intellectuals, financial whizzes, political parties and the entire European Union to shove off.
Across the world the intellectuals, business leaders, scholars and politicians that have sung the praises of globalization and the tech billionaires that boast of “disruptive innovation” are scratching their heads, wondering why the voters of the United Kingdom – absent contrary Northern Ireland, Scotland and London – aren’t in love with the brave new 21st Century world they have built. America had best pay close attention, as our election cycle shows trends that mirror the populist anger and anti-intellectualism inherent in the Brexit vote. Donald Trump sees the links, telling reporters gathered at his golf course in Scotland Friday morning, “Yeah. I think I see a big parallel. I think people really — I think people really see a big parallel. And I felt it wouldn't stay together, and again, I think that's what's happening in the United States. It's not staying together. It's a really positive force taking place. They want to take their country back. The people want their country back. We don't want to lose our jobs, we don't want to lose our borders.”
Sadly, suffering alongside the errors and arrogance of British Prime Minister David Cameron, globalization boosters like the World Economic Forum, and cheerleaders for disruption such as TED, Google and Facebook will be some of humanity’s most important collective missions – fighting climate change, pursuit of scientific and biomedical knowledge, artistic collaboration, defeat of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, bold ideas for ending extreme poverty, 63 million refugees and the hopes and dreams of a generation of youthful innovators.
As one young Brit commentator posted on the Financial Times website in a commentary heard around the world, “The younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors…We now live in a post- factual democracy…can anybody tell me the last time a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has lead to anything other than bigotry?”
When an immigrant tweeted his concerns in the UK, the response was reminiscent of a phrase often heard in the USA, “If you don’t like it here, go back to where you came from!” Jim Al-Khalili tweeted, “Sad and shocked this morning. Presumably as an immigrant I should hand my job back to whoever it is I took it from. A victory for xenophobia.” The reaction came from Twitter handle @occidissident: “That’s a start. The self-deportation. Take your skill set and benefit your own country, your own people #brexit.”
And another individual, @SpectreRedux, quipped, “Yes. And then get the fuck out. Go home kebob.” And in case the sentiment was less than obvious, @BigButterNutJoe added, “You should absolutely leave. What kind of Brit has a last name like Al-Khalili? Your people have a home.”
In the barrage of voices expressing dismay since the BBC declared at 5am Friday morning in London that Brexit voters won the Referendum by a margin of 52-to-48 percent, two other youthful voices stand out. A young Scotsman called from Edinburgh to a New York NPR talk show, saying, “This is the UK’s worst foreign policy move since Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler.” And on BBC TV at bleary 6am London time Friday morning an English college student decried the vote, “As one generation screwing another generation.”
The generation that grew up playing in cyberspace while barely out of diapers is inherently less nationalistic than their parents, or grandparents. That’s reflected in the Brexit vote, as Lord Ashcroft showed in his 12,000-sample referendum day poll:
The cut-off point was age 44: Those under that age overwhelmingly voted Remain, while those older went pro-Brexit, in greatest numbers with highest age. Ashcroft’s polling shows a range of social values tracking by age, as well: attitudes towards refugees, feminism, birth control, homosexuality, and the like demonstrated greater openness in tandem with youthfulness. Millennials throughout Europe and North America show attitudes that reflect having the world literally at their typing fingertips, with ideas and culture ripe for the picking, regardless of its country of origin. Their world view is the diametric opposite of Trump’s phrase, “We don’t want to lose our borders.”
Pursuits that have thrived in the open atmosphere of the EU and globalization, writ large, will likely suffer immediately from Brexit. Scientists foresee a withering of British dominance in European science, Imperial College biologist Stephen Curry told Buzzfeed, “And there’s disquiet among my European colleagues at Imperial that Britain has become a colder, more forbidding place, less welcoming to them, and we’re going to lose a lot of talent because I don’t see how we can maintain freedom of movement. I hope that we can limit the damage as much as possible, but I don’t see anything but damage in the short and medium term.”
University of Cambridge physicist Athene Donald insists Brexit will be bad for UK science, noting, “Science, broadly interpreted, has been a fantastic strength in the UK. Not only has this meant excellence in and of itself but it has made a huge contribution to innovation and the economy. There is a real danger this strength will be put severely at risk with knock on effects for the economy and jobs. We will lose talented people to countries where EU funding can be accessed, as well as losing the funding itself.”
Swiss researcher Helga Nowotny, a former president of the European Research Council, told ScienceInsider, “"It’s a bad day for Europe, the U.K., and European science. I think the E.U. funding was such a significant part of U.K. science funding. I think this will really lead to a dramatic drop in funding, and it will not be made up by charities or national government. This will disproportionately affect young European researchers, who are largely funded on soft money.”
“There is no way I can pretend to be anything other than dispirited and disappointed," Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London, told Science. "Whilst I don’t believe that people voted to leave the E.U. with science and health foremost in their minds, I fear that the consequences for both will be serious over the coming year unless we take firm and decisive action now.”
Collaboration, freedom of movement, cross-fertilization of ideas – these are crucial to all creative pursuits, from science to the arts. Like the scientific world, artists reacted harshly to the Brexit vote. Artist Ryan Gander predicted, “We will see artists and creatives beginning to leave this country,” in search of “less hateful” environs. Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator-at-large for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, tweeted: "TRUMP DUMP WORLD BEGINS."
Beyond the arts and sciences the 21st Century has witnessed unparalleled collaborative efforts to tackle problems of gigantic proportion, from climate change to measles immunization, humanitarian crises to the Ebola epidemic. In social tiers ranging from neighborhood congregations and cyber-chat rooms all the way up to the G20 and G7 heads-of-state there has been concerted effort to transcend national boundaries, bringing innovative thinking and money to bear upon transnational problems. The trend has been both aspiration and quite practical. More than 17 million people are alive today, despite their HIV infections, because such transnational dreams became reality, providing life-sparing medicines to people living in poor countries. Global scale immunization campaigns, including the near-eradication of polio, arise from the same trans-nationalism.
Before the UK referendum this grand aspirational paradigm was in trouble. Funding was dwindling, even as need and expectations grew. The United Nations system and dozens of prominent humanitarian organizations were crying out for help to tackle record levels of heat, record numbers of refugees, wars that target civilians and an increasing frequency of outbreaks and epidemics. The World Health Organization, for example, declared a state of global emergency on February 1st regarding Zika, requesting donors provide a $26 million war chest to the Geneva-based agency to tackle the virus. Since then, the WHO has transferred $3.8 million from one of its funds into a Zika pot, but the remainder of the request has fallen on deaf ears. Now the Zika threat has grown, alongside a new African Yellow Fever surge, and the combined “ask” from WHO is for $194 million – none of which has been forthcoming. If the prospect of tens of thousands of babies born with hideous birth defects is insufficient to loosen wealthy nations’ pocketbooks, what can possibly prompt concrete collective action?
In the UK on Friday Brexit leaders, especially Nigel Farage, scrambled to roll back expectations, most of which were spawned by their own propaganda. No, Farage said, there aren’t 350 million pounds/year of British money sitting in EU coffers, ready to be put to use building up the UK National Health Service; “That was a mistake.” Soon the pro-Brexit camp will be explaining why Wales and Northeast England won’t be getting their jobs back, simply because they voted out of the EU and blocked further immigration to the island nation.
It was William Safire, 1969 Nixon Administration speechwriter, who had Vice President Spiro Agnew decry anti-Vietnam War intellectuals as, “nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H club—the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” They were, Agnew pronounced, “an effete corps of impudent snobs,” “ideological eunuchs,” “professional anarchists,” and “vultures who sit in trees.” Attacking intellectuals was a blood sport in the U.S. back then – and clearly is gaining traction today in the UK and America.
As the young Financial Times commentator put it, “We now live in a post- factual democracy,” that leaves dreamers, creators, disrupters and thinkers side-lined by angry populism, fueling a worldwide retreat behind national borders.
Good luck to all of us. We’ll need it.