February 22, 2019

The Inscrutability of Brexit

“In Alan Bennet’s play The History Boys, a charismatic history teacher at a state school in 1980s northern England attempts to tutor students for the entry exams of Oxford and Cambridge. “How do you define history?” one student gets asked in a mock interview. “How do I define history? It’s just one bloody thing after another,” the student replies.

Since the June 2016 referendum in favor of ending the UK’s membership of the European Union, analyzing Brexit’s causes has become something of a public pastime. Approaches tend to fall into one of two categories: The first one understands Brexit as the result of economic forces, looking back at the 2008 financial crisis and its continuing impact, as well as at the austerity policies of Conservative governments from 2010 onwards, which left many people with worse-paying and less secure jobs. In this story, the EU becomes a scapegoat for the sins of domestic politics. The second approach focuses on issues of identity: A resurgence of nationalism and a nostalgic yearning for a lost, glorious past—a rejection of the political elite and the educated classes by those who feel socially and politically disenfranchised, or a flailing from a former Great Power still coming to terms with its decline.

But as much truth as these narratives contain, they ignore a central aspect of the current mess: the accidental nature of many of its most crucial turning points. The current impasse in British parliament over the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the fact that a mere two months from the date the UK is set to leave, the nature of the exit remains unknown, are easy to blame on individual politicians. But they’re also a stark reminder of just how contingent history can sometimes be. Alan Bennet’s irreverent student wasn’t wholly wrong.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Daily Picks

"Political leaders from all French parties, including former presidents Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, joined Jews and non-Jews in Paris’s Place de la Republique to condemn antisemitic acts."

"Eighty years ago tonight, thousands of Americans gathered in New York to rally behind the Nazi Party and its ideals. An Oscar-nominated short documentary retrieves footage of the event, but leaves out the context that gives it meaning."

"The PM has persuaded the religious-Zionist Jewish Home to partner with the Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit. It makes cynical political sense for his interests, but what of Israel’s?"

"IFC’s series Documentary Now! began as an affectionately parodic tribute to the classics of nonfiction cinema. Its first episode, “Sandy Passage,” was a note-perfect evocation of the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens..."

"Making our choices count is, however, far from straightforward, and this is the subject of Martin Hägglund’s book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom."

"Teens in the United States are coming of age at a time when digital technology is truly ubiquitous, where smartphones are all of our “constant companions.”"

"...the Smollett story, if the “trajectory” leads to evidence of fakery, would actually reveal something else modern America is about: victimhood chic."

"Cool in the humanities isn’t that different from cool in other areas of cultural life, like planking, hotdog-legs photography, mason jar rehabilitation, and novels whose main character is a city."

"It’s true that high-octane, hardworking child-rearing has some pointless excesses, and it doesn’t spark joy for parents. But done right, it works for kids..."

"Cape Town in South Africa is a foodie destination. Some people in its renowned restaurant industry are trying to spread the food wealth citywide."

"...for many “space expansionists,” escaping Earth is about much more than dodging the bullet of extinction: it’s about realizing astronomical amounts of value by exploiting the universe’s vast resources to create something resembling utopia. "

"After facing persecution in the former Soviet Union and a new wave of antisemitism in the United States, Marya Zilberberg decides to put her Jewishness on display."