The Year of Throwing Bricks: A Globalist's View of 2016, and the Way Forward

Friday, December 30, 2016

Mark Abramson's double exposures from the campaign trail epitomized 2016's dystopian spirit.   (Source: Wired)
In my personal life as in the wider world, 2016 was a year that demanded reflection and reevaluation of many once-firm truths. The second of a trio of year-end posts:

(Read the first here: "Who Am I? Confessions of a Global Citizen")


Many people are born at the wrong time. Picture a woman with the mind of a brilliant particle physicist, forced to labor as a peasant in the Middle Ages, or a man as strong as Rome's greatest gladiators, slouched behind a guard's desk at a modern-day office park.

In contrast, I consider myself among the lucky few in history to be born in an era when I can flourish. Coming of age at the cusp of the 21st century, the great age of globalization, I am tech savvy, multi-lingual, curious about other peoples and cultures, and eager to travel. I have constructed my globalist identity just as humanity has rapidly grown more interconnected than ever before.

Consequently, as I have emerged as a cosmopolitan "citizen of the world," I have enjoyed the feeling that I am swimming with the current—that I have the right skillset and mindset to thrive in precisely this historical moment. I also continually see more globalists emerging all around me; whether by push or pull, globalization seems to swell our numbers more with each passing year. Sure, I told myself, there's still plenty of people who aren't so interested in embracing the fast-arriving globalized future—and even some who are downright hostile to it—but overall our side is winning.

Then came 2016.

Brexit

In June, a pack of opportunist demagogues managed to turn the UK's referendum on EU membership, conceived as a trivial formality, into a historic disaster by stoking a wave of populist resentment aimed at Europe—both the continent and the concept.

Globalists in cosmopolitan London followed their interests, voting to remain in the EU on which their livelihoods and lifestyle depended—and which many knew had brought decades of peace to a once-wartorn continent.

But many others found the anti-Europe message appealing. Some of these distrusted bureaucrats in Brussels, some despised immigrants. Others—once informed that a vote to leave would deal a dreadful blow to the European project while also angering elites in their own country—just seemed eager to throw that brick through the window, to thrust that middle finger high. Many of these were among the biggest recipients of EU aid. Some later expressed regret at their decision, but many did not, even if it flew in the face of their own self-interest. Why? Because their vote was a symbolic and emotional one, not an economic one. It was about throwing that brick, about derailing European integration, about sticking it to the know-it-alls, about stemming the free flow of goods and people, about keeping out immigrants, about keeping Britain for the British. "It was a victory for people who have neither the guts nor the imagination to take on the downsides of globalization," wrote one young European commentator.

More broadly, Brexit was about fear of the other. Analysis of voter data showed stronger support for EU withdrawal in areas with fewer passport holders (read: with fewer globalists). Young people, open-minded as ever, overwhelmingly supported remaining in the EU, but failed to turn out to in sufficient numbers to outweigh their more conservative elders. As a consequence, young globalists will suffer for their grandparents' fears for decades to come. "This was never a referendum on the EU. It was a referendum on the modern world," wrote one such young Brit, in an op-ed pointedly titled "I Want My Country Back".

The nativism that fed the Brexit victory has put the UK on an uncertain path toward an unknown destination (though it seems likely to include stripping all 64 million Brits of their EU citizenship, like it or not). But more importantly, this symbolic vote has rocked the foundations of one of the greatest globalist endeavors, the EU, and emboldened reactionary populists across the continent and the world. For globalists like me, the Brexit vote was a full-frontal attack on our vision of an integrated, cooperative, mutually respectful world. It was a blow to our deeply held belief that we can and must coexist.

Trump

If Brexit felt like a slap to the face, Trump's victory in the US presidential election hit with something closer to the force of a dumptruck. Here in Algiers, I sat watching the results roll in until dawn on election night, slack-jawed and dumbstruck, staring into the abyss that is the pit of my country's soul. "The rot is so deep," one friend and fellow globalist wrote on Facebook that night, and it was all I could think.

A few days earlier, I had mailed in my absentee ballot and posted that I was "proud to vote for tearing down barriers rather than erecting walls." I still am today, but tragically I have been obliged to spend the last eight weeks explaining to incredulous non-American friends how my country could have elected an ignorant, reactionary, misogynistic, xenophobic, narcissistic, racist, hate-filled bigot, second-rate businessman, and admitted sexual predator as its next president. I struggle to understand it myself, much less explain it to others.

That, we globalists are told, is because we live in a bubble, disconnected from "the real America." As if this supposedly "real", rural, insular side of America were not the truly isolated bubble here, in the larger scheme of things. Their bubble just managed to win a critical few more electoral college votes than ours this time around. (On this point, I recommend reading "I’m a Coastal Elite From the Midwest: The Real Bubble is Rural America" and "A message to red-state Trump voters: I want MY country back".)

Through much reading, reflection, and discussion, what I now understand is that, as with Brexit, Trump's victory was fueled by a toxic mix of factors, the most important of them emotional, irrational, and stoked by appeals to the dark recesses of voters' souls: to fear of imagined present threats and nostalgia for an imagined prosperous past. In four simple words, Trump's slogan of "Make America Great Again" linked these two false notions and suggested that solutions were on the horizon—an equally false imagined future.

For those of us who champion globalisation, interconnectedness, cooperation, understanding, and empathy for our fellow human beings, Trump's triumph is nothing short of catastrophic on both the symbolic and practical levels. Our enemies cheer his victory: champions of racism (the KKK and other white supremacists), of disarray in the international order (Putin), and of authoritarianism (Putin again, along with many tinpot dictators). If the country so many people around the globe looked to as a model democracy can elect such a man, these dictators argue, how can anyone else aspire to higher standards?

Such is the symbolic effect of eroding US leadership. And erode it will. While Obama delivered a substantial, measurable increase in America's worldwide favorability over the past eight years, with Trump's victory foreign analysts are already expressing fear "that the US has now lost its role as a beacon and messenger of the free world."

As in the Brexit vote, we globalists voted on our principles in 2016 but found ourselves outnumbered. Young Americans voted for Clinton decisively. Her vote tallies by state also correlated to the percentage of voters who hold passports; among the half of states with the lowest percentage of passport holders, 24 of 25 voted Trump.

But the worst is yet to come. Because Trump himself is the brick that angry, no-longer-as-privileged white voters left behind by the modern economy chose to heave through the window of American democracy. And what is a brick to do when it lands in the Oval Office? What does a brick know about governing? Precisely nothing. Trump shocked even himself when he won election through a mix of fortuitous timing and masterful media manipulation, but he has hardly ever even pretended to hold actual policy prescriptions. Enter the true deplorables—the team Trump is assembling to do his administration's dirty work. It is they who will be wreaking havoc in the months to come, as Trump mugs for the cameras and seeks attention on Twitter. It is they who will deal the worst blows to America's minorities and to its prospects for one day digging out of this deep, dark hole.

Dark Times

The sum of these two events is enough to make any globalist's stomach turn, but the Brexit vote and Trump election may be just the beginning. In Russia, Putin is emboldened as never before. Nationalists from the Philippines to India to Iran to eastern Europe and beyond are flexing their muscles, eager to see what they can get away with in this new era. Turkey's president is charging full ahead with his rollback of decades of democratic reforms. Meanwhile, reactionaries are eagerly preparing for key elections next year in France and Germany, where the possibility of their victory suddenly looks much less remote. (Only Canada seems to be bucking the anti-globalist trend.)

Across the world, one important phenomenon has driven these parallel events: Citizens are feeling mounting uncertainty, and have grown desperate for solutions. Rather than traditional leaders who offer traditional solutions expressed in traditional terms, they are electing nationalists and reactionaries peddling nostalgia, xenophobia, and other easy (but ultimately hollow) answers.

The horrible reversals of 2016 were driven by fear; we globalists grossly underestimated just how great that fear had grown, and just how strongly it would motivate people. Those of us who study or live in the Arab world understand that "Daesh is not the point" but anxious Fox News viewers back in middle America do not. Instead, they have been slowly lulled into thinking that we are living in a more dangerous world than ever before (even though the perfect opposite is true). Now their fear of ISIS/Daesh has just rattled the world order.

It is fitting, in an election year when fake news seemed to drive events more than the real news, a headline in The Onion came closer than any other to summarizing the entire year: "Trump Takes Moment To Thank All The Fear In Audience For Making This Night Possible."

All of this sucks for me and my fellow globalists. Where before we, the vanguard of the age of global interconnectedness, had been feeling ascendant, in 2016 a new wave of raw, ugly nationalism has reared up to (temporarily) crush our hopes. We are reminded that ignorant emotions can overwhelm well-reasoned facts, and more troubling still, we learned that we may have entered a "post-factual" age driven by false beliefs.

It also stings to be losing one of our own. For eight years, a fellow globalist has occupied the Oval Office. Not only is Obama a young, smart, hip, compassionate, progressive leader, and wise beyond his years (a more than healthy slate of qualifications, which is why I voted for him twice without hesitation), he also grew up between Hawaii and Indonesia as the multiracial kid of American and Kenyan parents: as he said, a citizen of the world. And now he will be replaced by his antithesis: the ugliest of ugly Americans, propelled to power by the ugliest of our nation's impulses.

Others have written at greater length and with important insights (including ones critical of globalists like me) about the meaning of Trump's victory for the globalist movement. I recommend these:
What's a Globalist to Do?

As bad as 2016 has been for us globalists, if we don't take action 2017 could be even more destructive for our vision of a globalized world. Here are four suggestions for globalists looking to make a difference in the new year:
1. Resist, remembering our values. If this moment doesn't feel like any we have lived through, and instead more closely resembles the dawn of WWI or another similarly dire moment in history, then don't expect to be able to ride it out passively. No giving in or giving up; now is the time to fight. As we do, let us continue to be motivated by empathy, by charity, by compassion for our fellow woman and man. Let us carry this banner that the right-wing populists are unable to because of the fear in their hearts, the limits of their compassion, and the smallness of their imaginations. Let us stand up for our globalized world, defend diversity, and promote coexistence.

2. Work together. A few weeks ago, right-wing populists in Austria signed a cooperation pact with Putin and met with Trump advisers. If our opponents are going to work together, we globalists certainly need to, regardless of previous affiliations. Recognizing their shared interest, several US Muslim and Jewish organizations are already embracing this spirit and announcing new partnerships to protect religious minorities. As an individual, you can support institutions that are championing investigative journalism, minority rights, cross-cultural exchange, and other causes that advance enlightened globalist views.

3. Educate yourself. We globalists can't regain the upper hand if we don't understand who and what we're up against. Among much spilled ink in the aftermath of Brexit and the Trump victory, some brilliant analyses have emerged that shed light on what went so horribly wrong and that point to solutions. (As always, I continue to share many of these on Sfarjal.) Please read, think, and discuss with others.

4. Fight fear. It is fear that got us into this mess, and so if we are to reverse our fortunes (and the world's) we must help our fellow citizens once again see clearly, without being overwhelmed by fear of the world around them. Overturning emotion with facts is a long struggle, so better to begin today. Share resources to help people see how much real progress humanity has made in past decades, and just how prosperous our world is growing with each passing year. Encourage your friends, family, and everyone else to seize opportunities for travel, exchange, and increased understanding.
Do you have other suggestions? Please share them.

(Update: Read the third post of this trio here: "Ibn Ibn Battuta's 2016 in Review")

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