Sunday, March 24, 2019

Road Rage

“ ‘EU Would Never Betray Us’ Confirms [Irish] Government Forgetting Bank Crash”
—Headline in the Irish satirical newspaper Waterford Whispers, January 23
After I returned from a year in South America and took care of a few commitments at home in California, I traveled to the Pacific Northwest for an extended visit with my old childhood friend Eric. It had been a couple years since we had spent any time together, and in the meantime, he had moved north with the rest of his family for a new start. They had become owners and operaters of an old-fashioned general store and gas station in a rural area. Eric still had his penchant for American-made muscle cars, and after work in the evening, he would drive me around the local backroads. As he laid rubber on pavement wherever he could and executed maneuvers resminiscent of the Steve McQueen movie Bullitt, I quickly came to realize that Eric was in fact living out his own Dukes of Hazzard fantasy. As he made sudden turns onto side roads and performed well-practiced hairpin turns on the mostly empty roads, he explained that the local sheriff deputies all knew his car and were anxious to track him down and arrest him but they simply could not keep up with him or outsmart him.

He did not tell me this with a wink or any other sign of a joke. He clearly believed it. We did occasionally spy a sheriff’s car on the road, but as far as I could tell, the deputies had no particular interest in us. Yet Eric was convinced that they and he were engaged in some desperate Smokey and the Bandit duel to the death. Always a nervous passenger in Eric’s car, I did not argue with him. I simply participated in the charade as I carefully checked my seatbelt one more time. It seemed clear that Eric was delusional, but how could I really be certain? Maybe I was the one who could not see what was going on around me. Maybe Eric’s crazy driving really was the only thing keeping us out of a night in the pokey.

There is a point to this story. One’s grip on reality is always a tenuous thing. As in the parable about the blind men and the elephant, we only perceive a portion of everything that goes on in the universe. When it comes to politics and world events, we are at the mercy of our news sources. If we do not read or hear about something, then to all intents and purposes it did not happen. We tend to fill in the gaps according our own individual experiences and our own expectations. Information which does not conform to our expectations tends to get filtered out. News that conforms and supports our biases looms large, mainly because we seek it out to confirm those biases. While Eric perceived a daring cat-and-mouse game with law enforcement, I looked at the same reality and experienced nothing more than a bracing, sometimes-harrowing drive through the countryside.

There is a further point to the story. What is currently going on in Europe and in the United States reeks to high heaven of people looking to the same elephant with entirely different filters. I’ll leave the American situation for later, as it will be interesting to see if any realities merge in the wake of the now-complete Mueller report. In the meantime, let us look at the UK situation.

The Brexit melodrama has been, at turns, fascinating and frustrating, as seen from the Irish media market. Needless to say, the Irish have all kinds of baggage when it comes to the British that affects how journalists and politicians see the situation. On one hand, there is some eight centuries of cultural, political, linguistic and military domination. On the other hand, there is the Irish establishment’s complete buy-in and commitment to the vision of European unification. This means that this small republic, which shares an island with its former colonial master, doggedly views the situation through the mindset of Brussels rather than of London. This creates the strange situation where the single thorniest issue caused by Brexit—what will happen with the border between the republic and Northern Ireland—is being negotiated between London and not the republic (which fought tenaciously for many years for sovereignty) but with an administration that was elected only indirectly and dominated by much larger countries on the European continent.

This is where the filters come in. The Irish media report as if the Irish government is somehow a crucial player in the Brexit negotiations. It is not. The republic has no control of its own land border because it has ceded its authority in such matters to Europeans in Brussels.

Meanwhile in Britain, the most incredible display has played out among the political class. A quick summary: In 2013 David Cameron secured his reelection as prime minister by promising a referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union. When the referendum was held in 2016, to everyone’s surprise, a scant majority voted to leave. Cameron, who had opposed his own referendum, resigned and was replaced by Theresa May, who had also been on the Remain side. She has since done her best to negotiate an agreement with the EU that would provide the least amount of disruption to trade and travel. Her agreement—or any agreement for that matter—is optional. Absent an agreement, the UK would simply revert to a state with no established cooperation with the rest of Europe.

Here is where the filters come in for Brexit. People who were in favor of remaining have opposed May’s agreement because they hate Brexit. In their movie she is the one causing Brexit. People who were in favor of leaving have opposed her agreement because they think it keeps the UK tied too closely to the EU. In their movie the PM is ruining Brexit, but at least the Brexiteers are somewhat consistent. They actually want a hard Brexit. The Remainers, on the other hand, are just taking a situation they hate and are making it worse. The opposition Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn—less a faction that bolted because Corbyn is an unreconstructed Marxist and an anti-semite—opposes everything May does because the sole objective of Corbyn (who, as it happens, was on the Leave side) is to get power any way he can. In his movie May is all that stands between him and full authoritarian domination. As for the Irish media, they reflexively do what they have always done: heap scorn on the Conservative prime minister—even though her agreement is actually in Ireland’s best interest. In their movie May is Margaret Thatcher.

At this point it is hard to see any outcome other than a hard Brexit—the one thing most people say they do not want. The political establishments and the media are like passengers in a car hurtling down the rural backroads unable to agree on what movie they in, let alone on how to get to a happy ending.

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