Brexit (or the decline and fall of Western democracy?)

I was three years old at the time, but I can still remember when I saw the news about 9/11. I was sitting on the living room floor, looking up at our bulky TV showing somewhat incomprehensible images – a plane? two buildings? smoke? fire? Despite my limited understanding of the world, I could still sense the gravity of this event then.

It’s still too early to ascertain what the full implications of Brexit will mean to Western democracy, but for me personally, it will probably be as disruptive as the memory of 9/11. Perhaps you will think of how the British pound collapsed faster than a tower of unsettled Jenga. Perhaps you will think of the irony of feeling upset that David Cameron has resigned. Perhaps you will see the roots of Scottish independence (?). But for me, I will likely remember it as the day my faith in the democratic system – which had, as in every good liberal democracy, been pressed into me since I started school in Australia in 2005 – crumbled. Perhaps a few years down the track I’ll look back to that moment of me and my mum sitting in that tea restaurant in Eastwood after my Philosophy exam, shovelling pork rice into my mouth and feeling only despair as my mum translated the Brexit results off the Hong Kong news that was broadcasting on the TV.

I’m not British; I can’t claim to be the biggest victim of Brexit, and I can’t claim to be an expert on the whole issue. But I know enough to know that it was bad, and thinking about this non-stop for the last ten hours has engendered a lot of interesting questions and anxieties for me.

To begin with: democracy has failed. It has failed us, or we have failed it. (Here, Alice will disagree with me and say that “democracy” as a concept is difficult to define or something. But. You know what I mean. Western democracy, generally.) Democracy operates on majorities, but the majority of people, we need to admit, are just unfit to make decisions about nations because they are just. So. Fucking. Stupid. But democracy lets them have a say, still, because then if we fuck up, then at least it’s our fault and not just the politicians’.

Democracy started the Iraq War. Democracy keeps gun laws in the US. Democracy voted Abbott in. Democracy made Trump. Democracy preferred Clinton over Sanders. Democracy keeps asylum seekers out. Democracy voted in Cameron, twice (which should have been proof that the UK public cannot be trusted with major decisions). And now, democracy has Brexited.

Is there a better regime system? Probably not. Yet, for all my disenchantment, I still believe that democracy had the potential to do better. But the results of this referendum has, if nothing, really hit home the various issues in the Western democratic system which stifled this potential.

Democracy relies on education, but honestly – most people aren’t very educated. Most people in liberal democracies with compulsory schooling resent education. And even with education, there are those who will outright reject the ideas they’re taught. There was a video of a lecture by a professor in EU Law from the University of Liverpool posted onto Facebook, and the professor more or less used his expertise in the field to reject certain “myths” surrounding the Brexit debate and ultimately advocate Remain, a conclusion he reached because of his research. Yet, there were still Leave voters dismissing what he had to say because, apparently, they were better informed about the EU than a man who has a PhD in the field.

So you may say, Jocelin, what’s the point of educating people more if they’re just all idiotic arseholes who are going to ignore people with PhDs?, and in reply, I will assert my continued belief in education to broaden if not all, then at least some minds. And in reply, you may say, Jocelin, not everyone is going to want to do a course in Government studies, and in reply, I’ll say that that’s fair enough, because they shouldn’t need to.

Because they have the media.

The media were meant to be the Fourth Estate of the liberal democracy, the watchdog of politics, the machine that would turn the uneducated masses into informed citizens and voters. But the media have failed us – and in this, I am concerned particularly with news media. All over the world, news media have become disgustingly ineffective. Obsessed with trying to seem “unbiased”, news media have shielded truths from the people with their smokescreen of deflecting words, and have buried their agendas in a cascade of metaphor. Instead of getting into the crux of the issues, instead of giving airtime to detailed political analyses from experts in the field, the news has merely become the soapbox and megaphone of unfiltered political rhetoric. The news has become so obsessed with capturing scandal, it has distorted the truth. What is the point of the media, if not to filter through rhetorical shit for us? If not to raise the real concerns and issues? If not to detain myths with extreme prejudice (like the Australian government has detained asylum seekers on Manus Island)? Without a sensible source of understanding, how can you expect people to do the sensible thing?

One of the most disappointing things about this sordid affair is the comparison of the ages of Remain/Leave voters. The majority of Leave voters were – unsurprisingly – geriatrics, robbing the younger generation of the privileges they took for granted as a part of the EU and deciding on a chaotic future that they would not likely not live long enough to see. Frighteningly, this very sentiment – the feeling that the younger generation had been betrayed, sacrificed to a behemoth, by an unaffected older generation – characterised the mood of WWI and the interwar period. This is, as one article eloquently put it, “the baby boomers’ last fuck you”. In “burning the last bridge” to the EU, the baby boomers robbed the generations below of the opportunity to live and work in 27 other nations, of the economic freedoms of being in the EU, of building up other nations for a collective good. But was it needless burning after all? With a plateful of disintegrating economy served with their tea for breakfast this morning, the scales have fallen from many pairs of reading glasses – voting Leave was the most fucking stupid thing they could have ever done in their lives.

The final insight with which I will leave you is this: the racists won. They have tasted victory, and before long they will be hungry for more. This is probably the most devastating thing for me, as a non-white person; to face the fact that there are still places where the majority of people don’t want me because I am, to them, “foreign”. There is a fucking problem with the world if someone has to make travel plans based on which places “have less racists” because they’re afraid of being persecuted for their otherness. All my life, I’ve felt the tug of the UK in my heart; it is the birthplace of so many of my favourite things. More recently, I had planned to go to Wales for my exchange. And now I probably have to change that because I don’t really want to support a country of which the majority of people essentially voted out of a sense of exclusive nationalism and – essentially – xenophobia. There are communities in the UK right now who will feel this on a more heightened level, feeling even more conspicuous of their otherness and a sense of being unwelcome, of being unsafe.

My English teacher’s words from our study of Henry Reynolds’s Why Weren’t We Told? came back to haunt me: that white people have colonised so much that they live in constant fear of being colonised in turn. Because isn’t it just ironic? Isn’t it just. Britain invaded 90% of the world. I was born in Hong Kong pre-1997 handover. I live in Australia, of which Elizabeth II is still head of state. Maybe, in two years, I’ll go to Ireland instead for exchange, where there is still a chunk that’s under UK sovereignty. Yet 52% of the UK still had the gall to think that they were the ones being invaded, being colonised, being held at the mercy of “immigrants”.

Nigel Farage is partying right now, literally, and it is because this result has pleased him. If something makes Nigel Farage happy, it is objectively evil. This is a fact.

Yet what was the point? The economy’s shot. Two countries in the UK are against it. Generations are divided. The EU’s on even shakier ground than it was before. People are still going to immigrate, if not from the EU then the rest of the world. All those geriatrics who voted Leave depend on immigrants to pay for their aged care and pensions. Well, I suppose, if they all drop dead from a lack of welfare for the elderly, at least that’s kind of poetic justice.

Musing on storytelling

The Iliad begins with an invocation of Calliope, Muse of the epic:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

– Homer, the Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles

Curiously, this invocation is not only a call for inspiration. It suspends the story out of time, elevates it to a realm we can access only through the portal of language. It does not just invoke a goddess; it invokes a mythical past and contemporary audience, binding them together with words. An illustration: the epic recalls an event from the first millennium BC, was composed of disparate oral tales by Homer in the 8th century BC, and has drawn people across time and space into its verbal world ever since.

A key point: storytelling binds our experiences.

The written word has always been my stronger point; with a slightly unsynchronised brain and mouth, I have always articulated better on paper than in mouth-noises. That is not to say I have never paid attention to spoken stories – indeed, I have been blessed with true raconteurs in my life (notably, Pastor Jay of the Indian orphanage and my dear friend Chitra) – but only yesterday did I truly muse on the role of spoken storytelling in our life.

This was catalysed by some curious events the day before. I’m in the process of reading Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, which, despite being apparently satirical, pains me with its rather simplistic discourse. After a couple of unsatisfying hours reading through it (and cursing the editor because, for fuck’s sake, I’ve found two spelling errors in it already, among other Literary Sins), I found myself in a much superior storytelling encounter with three English teachers from my high school.

I have been sworn to secrecy on the details of the encounter but am likely allowed to expatiate on the thoughts on storytelling I had garnered from that experience. When I was alerted to the possibility of that bizarre encounter, my first comment was, “I think it would make a great story”. And it did, in fact. And within the overall narrative of my bewilderment and amused discomfort (fidgeting, twisting hands into the voluminous sleeves of my jumper), even more stories emerged.

It seemed this event was, in many ways, an emotional catharsis in the form of storytelling. In the midst of it, it did not feel like storytelling in a traditional sense (neither pre-historic tribes clustered in reach of a bonfire’s glow, nor toddler drowsing to the soporific tune of a parent’s voice); I only realised afterwards, when I was translating it into the written word, that I could collect certain packages of ranting sentences into stories with hastily-invented genres. In that moment of collation, I truly felt what Homer must have when he wrote the Iliad – a sense of narratives coming together over disparate tales, of audiences coming together over stories, of times coming together over certain words spoken in certain places.

After leaving this event (thoroughly bewildered and a little concerned about the state of my life; I had been cheerfully hazed as a novel, non-teacher addition to the usual crowd), I found myself in another situation of storytelling. Instead of catharsis, this was more reminiscence; my favourite band (New Order, born from the ashes of Joy Division) was having a “conversation” with a friend (Mark Reeder, Mancunian snazzy dresser). Mark was full of fascinating stories about East Berlin and buying 4km of cloth in Shanghai; New Order had hilarious tales about the inspiration of “Bizarre Love Triangle”, Terry the Roadie’s chaotic fuzzy boots, and “certain ex-members of this band”. There was a very apparent sense of mythmaking in the conversation, of weaving together a body of knowledge around a singularity (ha ha). Myths about certain personalities and relationships. Myths about certain works and processes. Myths about certain events. Deconstructing and reworking certain myths.

I suppose, in a more subtle way, the event with the teachers had a similar element of mythmaking.

The process of recording these stories – from the teachers and from New Order – was a desperate attempt to salvage rapidly fading memories. I had to be selective of what I kept and what I omitted, inadvertently carving out new myths. Perhaps I was trying to make sense of the otherwise fragmented experiences by coalescing them into an established narrative (like Yeats. I’m totally Yeats). My particular form of wordsmithing led me to select certain words that could only cast the events from a particular perspective. I couldn’t possibly capture each facet of the live experience. Interestingly, as I spoke little during these events (I like to think of myself as an observer. Mostly, I’m just socially reticent), the writing process allowed me to inject my previously missing voice into the stories. Take this passage, for example:

[Teacher #1] is organising a domestic violence awareness day type thing, and [my high school’s] Women’s Collective must collaborate with [the boys’ school]’s Social Justice Council, comprised mostly of wanky teenage boys who are vying for position of prefect (because honestly, raging misogynists they are why else would any [boy from the boys’ school] commit himself to a feminist cause).

Where I been silent during the account of this event, the written word offered my outsider’s voice prime position, annotating the original tale with the comments I had repressed during the conversation. Here is my derision for the ambitious “wanky teenage boys”. There is the boys’ school’s reputation for being a misogynist sausage-machine (verily, it taketh years before they are reformed – this I have witnessed with mine own eyes).

There. With a smattering of opinions, I have bound a host of other people’s stories into my story.

Une journée en enfer

Six years after a pleasant and mostly indoors life, the outdoors world paved my second coming with jealous vengeance.

Perhaps offended that I had so rarely graced the Outside with my charming presence, the Australian summer sun decided to exact its dire punishment on my blissfully oblivious skin. I won’t elaborate on the arduous details and scientific formulae of the sun’s interaction with my skin; the result, I can tell you now, is that I now somewhat resemble a char siu.

Accurate image of my skin right now.

There is no better time than now, slathered in caking aloe vera gel and striped with patches of white and red, to ponder both my foolishness and the fact that I can never let my skin be exposed to sunlight again.

First: my foolishness. We like to think that, as Asians, we don’t burn. I can verify now that that is grossly untrue, and am convinced more than ever that only Indigenous Australians belong on this land (and, I guess, other dark-skinned people who live here. But not anyone else, no, not them). I should have dutifully smeared my stick-like limbs with sunscreen as the ancient Greeks once smeared their athletic physiques with olive oil, greasiness be damned. Never again will I subject my face to the vague, untanned imprint of wayfarers.

But in order to forestall utterly this wretched possibility, I am brought to – second: the fact that I can never let my skin be exposed to sunlight again. At this point, it is possibly most prudent for me to say a hearty ‘cheerio’ to the Outdoors and live as a pasty vampire in the dark bowels of my home. Thanks to transport and the Internet, I need not live an entirely solitary life. Coles and Woolworths can deliver groceries to my den. And without the potential for eyes to be confronted with me, I am obliged no longer to maintain a respectable appearance. It is indeed a wonderful time in which to live as a hermit. To those naysayers who tell me that I will become vitamin D deficient, think again – vitamin D tablets exist. Praise Be for scientific advancement. And so, to the world, I say farewell. Farewell, cruel world.