Monday, June 27, 2016

Brexit and the English Nation

Tyler Cowen:
As I interpret what happened, ultimately the vote was about preserving the English nation, and yes I use those last two italicized words deliberately. For centuries, England has been filled with English people, plus some others from nearby regions. Go visit Norfolk and also stop in Great Yarmouth, once described by Charles Dickens as “…the finest place in the universe,” and which, for whatever decline it may have experienced, still looks and feels like England. London does not.

As Zack Beauchamp notes: “…the number of foreign-born people living in the UK has gone from 2.3 million in 1993 (when Britain joined the EU) to 8.2 million in 2014.” . . .

Cities such as Bradford, while still predominantly white, no longer feel as English as they once did. And if you are thinking that voting “Leave” does not at all limit Pakistani immigration, you are truly missing the point; this vote was the one lever the English were given for sending a message to their politicians. . . .

Quite simply, the English want England to stay relatively English, and voting Leave was the instrument they were given. . . .

Much has been made of the supposed paradox that opposition to immigration is highest where the number of immigrants is lowest. Yes, some of that is the racism and xenophobia of less cosmopolitan areas, but it would be a big mistake to dismiss it as such or even to mainly frame it as such. Most of all it is an endowment effect. Those are the regions which best remember — and indeed still live — some earlier notion of what England was like. And they wish to hold on to that, albeit with the possibility of continuing evolution along mostly English lines.

One way to understand the English vote is to compare it to other areas, especially with regard to immigration. If you read Frank Fukuyama, he correctly portrays Japan and Denmark, as, along with England, being the two other truly developed, mature nation states in earlier times, well before the Industrial Revolution. And what do we see about these countries? Relative to their other demographics, they are especially opposed to very high levels of immigration. England, in a sense, was the region “out on a limb,” when it comes to taking in foreigners, and now it has decided to pull back and be more like Denmark and Japan. The regularity here is that the coherent, longstanding nation states are most protective of their core identities. 
I regard these questions of immigration and identity as inherently hard. Many, many people simply want their world to stay the way it has been. It may be hard to write down in clear prose what that means, but Cowen is right that a place like Great Yarmouth feels English in a way that much of London does not. Is that inherently illegitimate? Is it simply racist and wrong to prefer a homeland of native-born English and fish and chips shops to a diverse neighborhood with dozens of nationalities and every sort of ethnic food?

The great example of a place that puts national identity first is Japan. As Japan's population ages and its economy stagnates, many outsiders assume that it must, at some point, open itself to large-scale immigration. But this view is not at all popular in Japan, and their government shows no sign of even considering it. Most Japanese prefer to live in an aging, shrinking, depressed nation that still feels Japanese, rather than invite in millions of immigrants who would re-invigorate the economy but change the culture. Are they wrong? Or, more important, do they have the right to make that decision?

I am myself a cosmopolitan, with very little interest in preserving American culture in whatever form. Given the choice that the people of Britain faced, I would choose a more open and worldly society; I would value the freedom to live wherever I wanted in Europe over the preservation of my native place as it used to be. But I am not at all sure that voting to keep your home as it was is inherently an illegitimate act.


szopen said...

In discussion with Polish pro=immigration advocates who say that Poland would be more cosmopolitan, I always answer that if they don't care about Polish culture and love cosmopolitan places, they have dozens and dozens of cities to choose; but for me, there exist only one place in the world I love, that is my Poland. I am no utilitarian, but from purely utilitarian point of view I think they should emigrate instead of forcing me to accept immigration to POland.

Also, there is a research by Putnam and alike showing that the more diverse places, the higher social anomie.

G. Verloren said...

"Is it simply racist and wrong to prefer a homeland of native-born English and fish and chips shops to a diverse neighborhood with dozens of nationalities and every sort of ethnic food?"

There's nothing stopping citizens of a multicultural English city from going out and eatting fish and chips every day of the year if they want to. They're still in England, they're still absolutely surrounded by English culture, and the presence of a Turkish kebab stand or an Indian curry cart or even a Mexican burrito truck should have zero impact on their ability to indulge in English cuisine and culture to their hearts content.

But the opposite situation, of a non-English citizen of the United Kingdom living in a monocultural English city, absolutely prevents that person from indulging in their own native culture. If an individual of Pakistani descent wants to go out and eat chicken karahi, but there aren't any Pakistani restaurants within 100 miles, they're simply out of luck.

The presence of additional cultures in a city or area doesn't in any way hurt anyone - but the exclusion of additional cultures absoutely does.

So is it racist to prefer a monocultural community? Possibly, although that's a bit hard to establish without knowing individual motivations.

But it's absolutely intolerant to insist on the exclusion of other cultures. And yes, I'd even argue it's morally wrong - you're being selfish and demanding to have your own way by preventing someone else from having theirs. You demand not only to have your own culture represented, but also to deny other cultures their own representation.

You are essentially arguing that only you and your favored culture are "good enough" - which, upon reflection, probably does actually constitute racism, or at the very least a philosophy of ethnic or cultural supremacy. I mean, at the end of the day, what's the real difference between Aryanism and "Englishism"?

G. Verloren said...

"Most Japanese prefer to live in an aging, shrinking, depressed nation that still feels Japanese, rather than invite in millions of immigrants who would re-invigorate the economy but change the culture. Are they wrong? Or, more important, do they have the right to make that decision?"

The thing many Westerners overlook when examining Japan is that the Yamato people are not indigenous to the island of Japan. They were foreign invaders who displaced other extant cultures by force, commiting absolutely horrific acts of conquest and genocide in the process.

The Ainu people in northern Japan, and the Ryukyu people of the south, are the original inhabitants of the islands. Both have been historically slaughtered, and in modern times systematically oppressed and denied representation or fair treatment for centuries. Both have only within the past few decades began to see cultural revival movements, after dwindling down to near extinction levels. And these cultural resurgences have actually started pressuring the Japanese government to give them greater, although still inadequate, representation.

Are the Japanese wrong in pursuing a monoculture? Given that they've working to achieve it at the direct expense and suffering of others, yes. Obviously much of the worst offenses are now long past, and it's not as though we can wind back the clock and undo history. But certainly the continued repression of the Ainu and Ryukyu cultures is morally wrong.

No matter how much the Yamato want to believe they are a pure people and a singular culture, the truth is they owe a huge proportion of their modern identity to other cultures. Chinese, Korean, Buddhist, Confucian, Daoist, Christian, and modern Western influences; so many times in their history, from so many different places, they were exposed to outside ideas, and they absorbed them or adapted them and created a new snycretic culture.

Is it morally wrong to cling to a notion of "pure" Japanese culture free from outside influences? Insomuch as such efforts produce needless human suffering as their conseqeuences, yes. But in and of itself? I'm not entirely sure.

But morally wrong or not, it's certainly foolish and hypocritical. Japanese culture as it currently exists would not have come about without foreign influence. Their music, art, literature, government, technology, religion, and cuisine only exist in their current state because they drew from other sources. Even Japan's very existence as a modern nation was only possible because they undertook one of the most rapid Westernizations in all of history in order to be able to fend of Western powers from turning them into a colonial holding.

Do they have the right to foolishly pursue the notion of a "pure" Japanese culture, when no such thing has ever existed, nor ever will? Well, they at least have the political sovereignty to do so.

But will they be able to? No, I'm reasonably certain they won't. Just as before, circumstance seems to be conspiring against their ability to shut out the rest of the world. Their aging population is likely ultimately going to fundmentally necessitate foreign immigration - just as the arrival of Commodore Perry's fleet necessitated opening up the country to Western influences. Both scenarios are the sort of situation you simply can't directly overcome, and both leave you only the option of resisting futilely only to fall prey to the whims of others in the end, or the option of embracing the new reality and compromising to retain some measure of control over your own fate.