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David J. Wingrave: The Brexit Delusion

A British expatriate reflects on the country's “Leave” vote.

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Image courtesy of Frankleleon / Flickr

Though I was born in England, within three years I was whisked off to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and retain only a few grainy frames of my English infanthood. As an adult, I have lived in Canada, Germany, and, now, the United States. In a few months I’m packing off to Poland. By birth, parentage, adolescence, and passport, I’m British. In my head and my heart, I’m not so sure.

In an eerily prescient 2011 essay, “The Great Splintering,” Umair Haque writes of being a “global orphan,” who found a home in London only for the tenor of the city to “gradually, almost imperceptibly,” shift beneath him. This new city had the “dynamics of a Great Stagnation: a few super-rich get super-richer while incomes stagnate and decline for the vast majority of the ‘rest.’”

The Great Splintering, in his formulation, is

not purely an economic phenomenon, as in “Great Contraction,” but a social one: an era when social contracts are being torn up, abrogated, betrayed… as they break, yesterday’s ways of living, working, and playing rupture; yesterday’s organizations, from corporations to banks to nations, creak and crack.

One gets the feeling that Haque was not surprised by Great Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union, or by the rise of the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. All the traditional contracts are broken, and the “rest” are desperate to send a message to the elite that they are suffering, even if that message only piles more on.

I sometimes feel like a “global orphan” myself, though outside its original context the term sounds somewhat precious. But identifying a single “home” city, or even nation, has recently seemed less important. My identity has coalesced around my permanent dislocation. If I’m a global whatever, a global unaffiliated, then that’s fine by me. If someone asks me where I’m from, I say, “Oh, all over the place.”

I am European, I am internationalist; they amount to the same thing.

But in my early twenties it bothered me that I could never quite answer the question without a pompous explanation or insincere simplification. It bothered me also that I couldn’t shake the feeling that, wherever I lived, I might be something of a parasite. All of my relocations were officially sanctioned, with visas to prove it, and I paid my elevated tax rates. But still, there was the feeling of swooping in, brushing against a community or culture for a few years, and then moving on. Sitting in a hockey bar in Vancouver or eating falafel at an Omani cafe in Berlin, I sometimes felt something arthropoid creep down my spine. What, exactly, were the terms of my social contract? Were the people around me okay with my being there?

Gradually, I came to realize the muddled nature of my thoughts: it was progressive to understand my position as an immigrant and act responsibly, but to accuse my presence of inherent amorality was reactionary. If I did the latter, logically I should also accuse the Poles working in England, or my Swedish coworkers in Germany, or I should rail against the “threat” of Turkey joining the EU. Cultural exchange, free movement, and the dismantling of psychological borders. These are good things. After Brexit, I am with those Remain supporters writing on social media and placards: I am European. I don’t even think the specifics of how I feel matter. I am European, I am internationalist; they amount to the same thing.

*                      *                     *

In her 2010 book The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson considers “performative utterances,” the British philosopher J. L. Austin’s term for “instances in which words themselves act as deeds: ‘I thee wed,’ ‘I hereby christen you,’ ‘I dare you,’ ‘I declare war,’ and so on.” Nelson is interested in Austin’s examination of these performances in an artistic, fictional context, where, Austin explains, “A performative utterance will, for example, be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in a soliloquy. Language in such circumstances is in special ways—intelligibly—used not seriously, but in ways parasitic upon its normal use.” It is this context, the “realm of the perverse, or the explicitly performative,” which interests Nelson. She writes, “For it is here that the question ‘Is it true?’ falls off the table, and other questions move into view, such as ‘Does it work?’”

A persistent theme in the analysis of the campaigns by both Trump and Leave has been the assertion that they exist as explicit performance. Trump “does not want the presidency,” regretful Leave voters “thought it would never happen.” If at times Leave did seem explicitly performative (buffoons the world over, from Trump to Putin, cannot climb out of their clown suits), it was not taken as such by 52 percent of the British electorate. Of the two questions Nelson posits, “Does it work?” must surely have been the only one Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and Michael Gove, Leave’s most prominent cheerleaders, were asking themselves in the run-up to the referendum. Their malevolent fiction—Britain is swamped with people who are, paradoxically, both welfare cheats and employment thieves—made the language of their arguments into speech acts. Those acts created an alternate reality: one parasitic upon the truth, upon history, and upon the contracts of political discourse. These contracts have not survived the infestation. Leave gambled that a majority would not be able to identify their lies as a “realm of the perverse,” and they were right. It did work. As Nick Cohen, writing for The Guardian, put it: “There are liars, and then there are Johnson and Gove.” When Nigel Farage produced a vile poster showing people, mostly of color, amassed along a road, similarities were cited between it and a piece of Nazi propaganda that accused Jews of being “parasites undermining their host countries.” Their sapped lives, the British were told, in language parasitic upon everything related to the truth, were due to unwelcome, foreign parasites bleeding their great country dry. This was, they said, not at all the fault of the parasitism of moribund social mobility, unrelenting austerity, and a two-tier state whereby, as Umair Haque concludes, “the rule of law is visibly, easily flouted by the rich,” rendering the rule of law to the poor, rightly, “laughable.”

A deluded nativism carried the day. Little England wanted rid of its supposed leeches, and it wasn’t about to let the truth get in the way.

Watching the vote for Brexit and its chaotic aftermath from abroad, I am tempted to comfort myself with the facts of where I stand: I am paid in dollars, Brexit won’t actually happen for a few years and therefore won’t affect my excursion to Poland, after which I intend to return to the US, which isn’t even in the stupid EU anyway! But these privileged thoughts accept the destruction of internationalism. No one can run forever. Trump might become president. This rationale does not not engage with the problem at the heart of the Leave result: no matter how many times the Leave campaign’s lies were exposed—asserting, for example, that the flow of refugees into Britain could be cut off by ending the union with the continent—their sheer audacity and shamelessness hollowed out the whole debate until racism, fearmongering, and demagoguery were normalized and readmitted to the public sphere. The victims of post-Brexit racism mount. One Facebook user posted she had been called a “fucking Paki,” and told to “go back,” despite living four miles from the hospital in which she was born. A deluded nativism carried the day. Little England wanted rid of its supposed leeches, and it wasn’t about to let the truth get in the way.

*                      *                     *

The late British critic Jenny Diski would have recognized the symptoms. In her 2010 book What I Don’t Know About Animals, a meditation on human relationships with non-humans, she describes a period in her late teens when she became “convinced [she] was infested: I sort of knew it was crazy, and that what I was convinced of was impossible, while nevertheless being sure that I was indeed infested.”

The impression of bugs crawling on and underneath one’s skin, an incessant writhing sensation that no ointment or cleanser can relieve: the medical term is delusional parasitosis. You believe you are contaminated, when in fact you are not. When Diski eventually reported her condition to a nurse, she was placed in a disinfectant bath, examined, and given the all clear. “I was content for about 24 hours before I knew it hadn’t worked,” she writes. “I told the nurse, who explained that the treatment was infallible. So I didn’t mention it again.”

The danger, of course, is that we excuse bigots of all responsibility by saying, ‘Well, they’ve been tricked.’

Eventually Diski “very gradually, without my really noticing… seemed to grow out of it, as children do those ineffable stomach pains they have.” In her reflection on her disease and recovery, she quotes entomologist Nancy C. Hinkle:

Despite finding no arthropod [entomologists who deal with these cases experience] a strong urge to take a shower following these examinations. Consciously, one realizes there is no infestation, but subconsciously one feels the “creepy-crawlies” after looking through the victim’s scurf.

Delusion is contagious. Delusion can be inflicted. Delusion has victims. Recovery is a process that requires time. Delusion cannot simply be undone by facts, and patronizing the victims is unhelpful. As one sufferer of Morgellons, a form of delusional parasitosis explored in Leslie Jamison’s essay “The Devil’s Bait,” wrote to Jamison:

It is bad enough that people are suffering so terribly. But to be the topic of seemingly the biggest joke in the world is way too much for sick people to bear. It is amazing to me that more people with this dreadful illness do not commit suicide…

The author is right to wonder. I am, now that Brexit has happened, filled with terror at the potential for political self-harm.

*                      *                     *

Those creaks and cracks in our corporations, banks, and nations that Haque predicted have manifested themselves in the rise of a populist, xenophobic right, striving for power through Donald Trump, and achieving it through the Brexit vote. These manifestations are symptoms of a vast delusional parasitosis, no longer restricted to a few individual victims. It is a great, vicious lusting after a cleanliness that is unachievable because there is nothing to clean. Immigration contributes to economic growth. White extremists kill more people than radical Muslim jihadists. But when they’re told enough times to distrust the foreigner in the street but not his accuser, people start to believe it. When people start believing things, it’s hard to get them to stop. Sufferers of delusions are not stupid, nor small-minded. After years of being ignored by the right and ridiculed by the left, these members of the electorate are not “wrong” about what they feel. They have, however, been divorced from their symptoms’ causes, and are vulnerable to having their fears exploited by any snake-oil peddler who claims they can stop the itch.

The danger, of course, is that we excuse bigots of all responsibility by saying, “Well, they’ve been tricked.” I am not arguing against personal responsibility, but when an English county such as Cornwall, heavily dependent on European subsidies, votes to leave and then pleads with the EU to retain its funding, it’s hard not to wonder if some pathology is involved.

“Post-fact politics” is the name touted in the media, but this is simply the pithily absurd epitaph for British—and possibly, American—political discourse, nibbled to death by an advancing delusion. The task of those of us who voted Remain; who are committed to staving off the threat to the White House; to those of us who still believe in internationalism, cooperation, and the value of the collective; who believe in eradicating racism, xenophobia, and marginalization in all their forms, is not simply to provide the vision, but project it in such a way that does not simply discount our opponents’ reality as stupid and unacceptable.

Maybe then, gradually, without our really noticing, we can hope to grow out of the mess we’ve made of things.

David J. Wingrave is a graduate of NYU’s fiction MFA, where he was a Writers in the Public Schools Fellow. He currently teaches at The City University of New York.

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One comment for David J. Wingrave: The Brexit Delusion

  1. Comment by Michelle Payette-Daoust on July 1, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    This is a brilliant piece. I’ve read Leslie Jamison’s essay on Morgellons, and as I followed your argument, I immediately recognized the aptness of the metaphor.
    Funny, it’s Nigel Farage and his ilk who give me the creepy-crawlies.

    I have of course also been reading every solid piece of journalism I can, since Brexit. I’m a Montrealer whose son lived in London for a year (2014-2015) while training at LAMDA. I live far from the land of Brexit and yet I’m heartbroken and very worried about the effects of delusional parasitosis on the world.

    Thank you for this piece. It is good to know that there are voices of integrity, wisdom and openness still willing to cry in the ever growing wilderness.

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