Today will go down in history as one of the defining moments of the twenty-first century. As Brexit is implemented and Britain officially leaves the European Union, a major chapter in post-Enlightenment politics comes to an end.
I was fifteen years old in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. That occasion was almost unsettling in its suddenness. For most of the 1980s, anxiety about nuclear war between the US and USSR ran deep. You can discern those fears in the movie scripts, the songs, and the psychological literature of the 80’s. The reason Ronald Reagan is revered by many has less to do with his policies and more to do with the fact that he presided over a deep and profound shift in existential reality. To those who lived with daily fear of a Russian nuclear strike, the erasure of that concern was a massive event. And it happened precipitously. In the summer of 1987, Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and appealed to Soviet president Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” In 1989, the wall came down – and with it, Soviet control over Eastern Europe. The Cold War was over. A new era had begun.
The three decades after 1989 could be titled “The Age of Globalism.” As the standoff between two global superpowers gave way to harmony, as China gradually softened its stance toward the West, and as the internet redefined the economy and unleashed massive global connectivity, the Enlightenment dream of a globalist society seemed more and more realistic. The EU was the grand project of this globalist dream: it would elide national borders, create a common currency, and give the formerly colonialist nations of Europe a chance to hold hands and sing kumbayah while ushering in a new world order.
What the EU gave us instead was a different kind of totalitarianism. Instead of a power center built around national or ethnic sovereignty (German identity in World War II, Afrikaner identity in South Africa, and so forth), the EU created a power center of globalist technocrats. Nationalism was the new transgression; local identity would be subsumed under globalist priorities. Distinct, particular peoples would give way to a broad, generic people – the people of Europe (and hopefully, eventually, the world).
The problem is: this just isn’t how identity works. All of us are defined by the family we come from, the place we grew up, the language (or languages) we speak, and the culture we inherit. The more we feel these things threatened and/or condemned, the more we will resist the pull of the globalist vision.
Nationalism certainly has its dangers – the 20th century was a grim reminder of that. But globalism’s answer to those dangers was to impugn the existence of nations. Thanks to the British people (and also the American working class in 2016), that answer has been exposed as unworkable and oppressive. As Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote this week:
Leaving the European Union is a momentous act precisely because it breaks a political spell. For decades, a powerful intellectual clique has insisted that the gradual erasure of borders and the enfeeblement of national governments was the natural next course of human enlightenment. Often it was implied that some iron law of history drives this trend. The moral progress of mankind, or the exigency of markets, somehow demands it. A kind of sour, smirking Whiggish mind came to believe that human hatreds could be extinguished, that it would just require ditching national and local loyalties.
Brexit will go down as the moment in history when the ship of post-Cold-War progressive globalism crashed on the rocks of rootedness and personal identity. However we learn to live, work, and trade together in this global economy – and learn we must – it won’t happen by pretending that national identity and sovereignty don’t matter. Instead, it will be by honoring the dignity and specificity of “all nations, tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9).