Once in a while and more often than not it is a good idea to get out of your own apartment. It is also very healthy to get out one’s own country. We have done that and have just returned from a trip to London and Paris. The view from abroad was startling. To understand one owns country through the eyes of a foreign nation, to read the local press of another nation not tainted by the prejudices of home, to look at something at arm’s length provides a view neither varnished nor sanitized. It was at once unsettling and refreshing. I have waited a short while to write this blog to allow the events that transpired to settle into reality.
First London, where only a year before we were counselled not to go on to Paris because of the bombings, we found the hotels in London half empty, easy to obtain a restaurant reservation and theatres selling tickets at half price. The Americans (among others) were staying home. Our hotel tea room was filled with a group of women wearing burkas with mere slits so they could see. Men from Africa in overflowing bright floral-patterned shirts, their fingers encased in massive rings, doing business with their formal English counterparts, and English secretaries’ scurrying about with their I-pads taking notes. Security was on alert but nothing to compare with what we were to confront in Paris. And, as an aside, property rates in London are still rising with the influx of foreign money.
But, it was the local and national UK politics that held center stage with massive headlines in London. And by American standards, the language was not far behind the language used by Donald Trump. In the past I have written about the level of anti-Semitism in English academia, but it became clear that it was now more pervasive and intense, than I had seen in the past or anticipated. Shocking to me because this news had not even scratched the surface in the US press, then again, why should it.
A vicious campaign for the mayor of London was about to end with an election during our stay. In the headlights: The Conservative Party vs. the Labor Party. The Conservative Party candidate wild eyed and the Labor party headed by a Muslim. In proper London, bowler hats, rolled umbrellas and with a population no longer represented by Mary Poppins elected the Muslim candidate. A first, but not the end of the story: The Labor party was hit by a massive scandal that found dozens of its members drummed out of the party for extreme anti-Semitic remarks. This behavior was now street talk. The unsettling news shared the headlines in the London press in which the PLO announced, with the killing of an American, that “their” people “loved death more than life”.
While this played out each day, the ongoing slug fest was whether the UK should leave the EU: “Brexit”. The international invitation to join the conversation had words from the President of the United States and the Chancellor of Germany and all the rest around the world. Clearly, there are massive implications for not merely those who live and work in the UK but for treaties, deals, travels, security and life beyond the tiny island of the Kingdom. If the vote, to take place later in June, were to find the UK saying goodbye to the EU, it is more than an economic decision. Many think that the UK would be stronger economically, since it could deal with whomever it wishes on any terms it wishes. “Self-government works better than being part of an empire that doesn’t have our interests at heart”. A comment made in 1776 and now repeated with the question: will the Eurozone be in existence a decade from now? Others feel it would be a catastrophic. The person shopping in the UK does not trade locally in the Euro but the Pound, so there is no problem there. But it invades the lives of each person living in the UK whether they are citizens of the UK or not. From the simple decision to take a day trip by Chunnel train to France, to the cost of their daily purchases. Passport control will be reinstated, border controls will be erected, import duties will be imposed; a French person or Italian or German living in London might have to register as an alien. The legal issues will remain even after a proposed economic retreat. Investors are pulling out of Europe in anticipation of the vote. And while Britain provides more intelligence to the EU than it receives, the routing will be slower, more guarded, and thereby impacting security.
But more import and overarching: Since World War II the world has looked to a united European Continent: different languages, but one nation, one set of legal values and the civil rights of individuals. People of enormous political stature had given their entire adult lives to this political and social cause, and now it seems to be unravelling. And the big question is why and why now? And the not very simple answer is not economics. It is immigration and control of not merely ones own boarders, but of who can be allowed to enter “my” country by merely crossing an invisible line on a map. “My” country no longer looks like me; these people speak a different language; the food they cook smells funny; their clothes and manner of dress are not the same as mine; their religion is not mine. And they want things—the line is longer for health care; they want to build a mosque, they talk about imposing their own laws instead of our treasured national laws of governance. I am losing my country; it is no longer mine. So let’s turn back the clock to a time “before” the EU by voting for Brexit. But is that simple, and can you? Tension, but clearly not the type of tension we experienced in Paris.
In Paris, a most beautiful city that is changing: a narrow local street that I love, once occupied by a small butcher, a baker, a tobacconist, a florist and a small super market, now has cafes shoulder to shoulder. But it is the tension that runs through it all that is mounting and palpable. A department store now has a private security force at all its entrances, examining your purse, back pack, your attaché case and your shopping bag. Outside on the sidewalk are four to six young men—soldiers in full combat fatigues, wearing green berets with their helmets attached to their combat vests, carrying Famas assault weapons across their chest, at full ready with their fingers across the trigger guard. Their eyes darting and suddenly they will move to another street or another location. In a taxi cab rid–any ride if you pass by one of the areas hit by the terrorist attacks in January 2015, you are told how many died that night.
The driver will tell you how Charlie Hebdo has moved but not to where.
Then the Paris government, in the midst of our stay, announced a new austerity movement that will curtail labor and the protests started and continue to this day. Coming back to our hotel after dinner, night after night, we are diverted more than once because the protesters had taken over the streets. The protests then turn into riots and then the attack on the police and an American is accused of a violent attack on a police car. My wife has metal in her legs because of a series of breaks, it has been years since any airport security has stopped her and, in fact, we stopped carrying a doctor’s letter to that effect in our passport holder. At the airport in Paris, on the way home, she was not only patted down with utmost precision, but also subjected to the use of the wand in a slow and meticulous manner. Nothing left to chance. But that was Paris.
After our return home, I heard “horror” stories from seasoned travelers who are complaining that airport security is getting negligent to the point of non-existence. I had a friend who once said (and it has been said by others):”Just because I am paranoid doesn’t mean that someone is not trying to kill me.”
The political world – and I do not mean international foreign relations—is getting more vulgar with gutter politics looking to incite the lowest common dominator in the population. This is not unique to America. England has its share. There are pronouncements and statements aimed at our most irrational fears, looking for a scapegoat for our own failures, and not taking responsibility but blaming others for missteps is becoming the norm. This vile populist rhetoric attempts to create a mass movement in efforts to morph a nation into nationalistic isolation. This behavior, by its very nature, invites not merely verbal confrontation as in the discussion of the place of the individual Mexican in the US or the hostility toward the immigrant in the UK. It adds fire to a type of tension that gives rise to fascism and the ugly personal violence it usually accompanies. One need only look back a little more than seventy-five years ago in world history. It is all based upon the irrational, the stereotypical and innuendos to intentionally introduce instability. It jeopardizes not merely our political process but in the long run our national and international security, our individual security and individual rights. That is my fear, and it is not unfounded.