Reflections at 30,000 Feet

Written on 3 July 2016, in Oxford

After six years and two degrees, it’s finally time to come home. I have now spent a quarter of my life in Britain, chasing the elusive European identity that always felt just out of reach, hanging in the air like a mist that tickles the skin yet cannot be grasped. I suppose this vague sense of displacement is fated for all children of immigrant families, those born in one place but raised in the spirit and memories of another. When I first arrived, then in Scotland, the happiness I felt to finally be where I belonged — in ‘Europe’! — was so overpowering it bordered on delirium. I was just a stone’s throw from Prague and Vienna, cities that have always had my heart. For the first time in my life, I felt like part of a larger community — intuitively understood by the strangers who floated past me on the street and sat beside me at cafés, in virtually every city and every country I went. It is true that the pace of life is different here, with an appreciation for the aesthetic that is seldom found in America. But live anywhere long enough, and you begin to notice the cracks in the facade. Once the superficial pleasures of daily life start to grow familiar, grievances inevitably follow.

Mine are not insignificant — a realisation that pains me deeply and that I feel helpless to address. I did not find ‘Europe’, the Platonic ideal of intellectualism and sophistication, of cultured cosmopolitanism and old-world wisdom, that I had dreamt of so passionately (and naïvely) during my all-American childhood. Instead, I found a continent precariously stitched together by a union whose grand vision for a greater, more prosperous, more tolerant Europe seems increasingly out of touch with the realities of public life in the nations it purports to serve and represent. The rampant anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, and parochialism I also encountered prove that historical memory has about the lifespan of a fruit fly.

The last two years have left a particularly bitter taste in my mouth and an unshakeable sense of foreboding about what is to come. A century ago, fragmentation of the sort we are witnessing in Europe today led to two world wars and unprecedented loss of life. The Western institutional order is perceived to no longer be capable of delivering upon its promises, having reduced inequality between countries but exacerbated it within them, serving an elite transnational class that has more loyalty to itself than any nation. As the gap between winners and losers grows, the former stick their heads into the sand like big, stupid ostriches, hoping the problem will resolve itself and go away. The latter are not having it. Their discontent is not unjustified, and we ignore it at our own peril.

Yet ignore it is precisely what the mainstream political establishment is doing. Following Brexit, the EU appears to be buckling down on the status quo, urging Britain to leave as quickly as possible while ignoring the popular uptick of secessionist sentiment in other countries as well as the growing rift between its Euro-ravaged southern members and Germany et al. This wilful ignorance isn’t limited to Europe — in the US, the failure of Trump’s (and Bernie’s) astonishing success to generate any serious introspection on part of either party is shameful and utterly incomprehensible. Meanwhile, counter-hegemonic regimes like Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey, and Orban’s Hungary, to name but a few, are consolidating their power on opposition platforms that repudiate the assumed universal appeal and legitimacy of Western-style liberal democracy.

I cannot help but feel that we are teetering at the edge of cliff that, should we fall off, will fundamentally change the global geopolitical landscape, and not for the better. We are poised for the perfect storm. Revolutions are always destructive, at least in the short term; if we are to avert that or worse, we urgently need to pull our heads out of sand, abandon rhetorical platitudes, and insist that our representatives speak truth to fact. The cracks are deeper than the facade; they go all the way to the foundation, and if we don’t act now, we stand to lose more than we can easily handle.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps this is simply a temporary phase that will subside with time — a cyclical expression of democratic contestation. I hope that is the case. But if there is even a sliver of a chance that it is not, we cannot afford the blasé complacency of ‘business as usual’ any longer.

The shattering of childhood dreams always leaves us a little broken-hearted, and I am returning to the US today with a heavy heart. The ‘Europe’ I dreamt of exists only in the past, if it ever truly did. Meanwhile, it has taken me six years of absence to appreciate the place that welcomed my parents when they emigrated from communist Czechoslovakia and that, to this day, continues to give us so very much. Few cures are better for mending a broken heart than clam chowder and sunsets over the Olympic coastline, exploring the Cascades, or getting lost on the wide, open roads of the Pacific Northwest. It’s good to be home.


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