Europe and much of the world was sent reeling this past week when Britons voted to leave the European Union in an act of irrationality that will likely be debated for decades. It is a decision that most experts agree will result in significant economic and political harm to the United Kingdom. There are already moves afoot in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where significant majorities voted to remain in the EU, to exit from their centuries old union with England. It is quite probable that the United Kingdom will shortly be united no more.
Further, despite the wishful thinking of many of those who chose the Leave option, British trade and commerce with Europe will suffer significantly, and it is quite likely that London will lose its stature and prominence as the world’s leading financial center. In the competitive world of global trade, the remaining countries of the EU are not likely to countenance Britain’s selfish and self-serving decision by granting it the same commercial privileges that it has now. Actions like this always have serious consequences. And yet, fueled by fear, xenophobia, racism and a retrogressive longing for the glory days of the British Empire, a slim majority of British voters voted with their guts instead of their brains.
However, they are not alone in this irrational behavior. In the U.S. we are seeing similar, if not worse behavior from a significant proportion of the American electorate who are supporting a buffoon of a candidate for the U.S. presidency. No matter how outrageous the lies and distortions that come out of his mouth on a daily basis, no matter how egregious his behavior, no matter how shallow an understanding of economics, politics, foreign policy and democracy he demonstrates, tens of millions of Americans are willing to suspend their thinking processes, and lap up his spiteful, venomous and demonstrably ignorant pronouncements.
In retrospect, we should not be surprised. For some decades now, a disturbing trend in the growth of anti-intellectualism has been growing in many western societies. The increasing complexity of modern life has left many people unable to understand even the basics of how science, technology, the economy, the political process and even how our social structures work.
Rather than make the effort to try and learn and understand the mechanisms of these dominating influences in our lives, or even to trust the experts that do have the necessary expertise, many people have instead turned to our generation’s version of snake oil salesmen who claim to have simple solutions to all our problems. All too often, they are populist politicians who are more than willing to exploit people’s fears, biases, nostalgia and weaknesses to gain power. They weave spider webs of conspiracies and wonderful visions of return to some golden age of glory and greatness. They concoct simple solutions to complex problems and are particularly adept at blaming the poor, the powerless and foreign for all the ills that plague us. Regrettably, far too many people are buying into this corrosive brand of irrational politics.
It is difficult for me to comprehend how people can fall for political messages and principles that are based on the prerequisite that you first suspend your rational mind, believe in ideals that have no factual basis or proof, and trust in principles that even a cursory understanding of history will show to be both impractical and destructive.
And yet it is happening all around us. The Tea Party in the U.S. with their reactionary and simplistic ideology has taken control of the Republican party and is leading it into self-destruction. The evil gnomes of the NRA have managed to put enough members of the American Senate on their payroll that incredibly and shamelessly, they even vote against restricting the sales of guns to suspected terrorists. The deniers of climate change continue to stick their heads into the sand while every year the world’s weather causes increasing havoc on our planet. Even a fairly progressive country like Canada has not been immune to this phenomenon as witness the fact that, during the recent Conservative governments of Stephen Harper, government scientists were muzzled and prevented from voicing scientific opinions and facts that conflicted with Harper’s own political ideology.
I sincerely hope that the world comes to its senses and realizes that the key to a successful future and a successful society lies not in suppressing facts, science and rational discourse, but in encouraging citizens to be as well informed, educated and engaged as possible. We should not trust demagogues who offer simplistic solution or support political leaders whose ideologies are based on blame, hate, racism and isolationism. Whether we like it or not we have become a global community and we should start behaving like one, finding ways to better co-operate and live with each other in peace, rather than exacerbating our differences and building walls.