I bring this essay to you both as a manifesto and as a recollection of my initial trip outside the British Isles.
Arrival and Reflection
Last month I had taken a week’s holiday to visit Berlin, the centre of so much European history and certainly the centre of so much more to come. I had left for my city break just as Ken Livingstone had seriously suggested the Nazi regime had serious support for a Jewish homeland, for the first time of what would be countless times. I had returned after that city break to read of Boris Johnson likening the European Union’s German foundations to the ruthless imperial tendencies of the Nazi regime, with a bit of Bonaparte thrown in. Well then. To get us off to a flying start, it was sickening to contemplate how the texture of the Second World War had been diluted to such petty, cretinous populism amongst British society like this. And when I contrasted these two instances of transparently anus-inverted tripe with what I felt, breathed and lived in a Germany that has done so much to face its history and has come so far to be so prosperous and so free, it was confirmed to me that this spoiled, democratic West – a West that has never had it so good – was beginning to bleed poison.
The first night of indulgence in the metropolitan city consisted of a dinner at the Romiosini, a Greek restaurant just across from our hotel, the H10 Ku’damm near the Kurfürstendamm avenue, where my very first German Currywurst was kindly served to me. After dinner I had returned to the hotel and flicked through the channels to see the Russian state’s propaganda channel Russia Today commemorating the annual victory over the Third Reich in Red Square, Moscow. I took a moment to digest and process all this as I fell asleep. The new city and country I was going to slumber in once did not have a brick standing, but also once had too many bricks cobbled from forced labour, which required nothing less than absolute defeat. Here, now having come so far from such hell, was a proud and above all healthy community, putting its European solidarity at its core and forever cementing the principle that culture without the “multi” is no culture at all. And in the face of disputes between itself and other European states. What hope there is for us humans! What better example to show in front of all the isolationists of the world that countries with even the most vicious histories have a forward to look too, no matter how hopeless and doomed. Though trying to be objective (and as is the case for everyone it is always “trying to be”, never “being”), I sincerely contemplated the major protests directed at the European project’s supposed utopia. Was this mighty Russian force, which could not possibly be intimidated by anyone, in the right with its determination to see all the member states go their separate ways and see that they all be much more dependent on its own autocracy as an alternative?
It would be wrong to suggest that the Red Square parade was anything more than a celebratory victory over the destruction of the Nazis. And it would also be wrong to say it was nothing more than that. One cannot help but wonder that the lies of all kinds from the Kremlin that Europe was still full of Nazis during the Crimean invasion and annexation may be repeated under even more gruesome predicaments. Oppositional resistance – any opposition – against these slanders within Russia is getting harder day by day, in the face of assassinations and deep restrictions on freedom of assembly. Those who want to stand up to the creepy wave of god-fearing love and devotion towards a former KGB agent turned Russian Orthodox Church suck-up, who still weeps to the Russian’s musical obituary to the Soviet Union, have painstaking work to do, and hundreds of years of Christian, Tsarist and Stalinist history to overcome.
The best cure for it is solidarity and liberty. I will admit that I overreacted last year when I heard the Parthenon Marbles had been loaned from the British Museum in London to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the first time in two hundred years they had left England after howls of insistence by the museum that they should never leave the building. This had been not too long after the imperialist invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and I called bullshit. I even suspected a scandal behind it. Greece, which was already on fragile economic ice and still is, could not afford any nationalist sentiment to be whipped up. And Russia’s persistent attempts at destabilising Greece and in turn Europe by backing and inviting fascist groups like Golden Dawn to its homeland had resulted in them being given all the ground they wanted to make Europe self-destruct even more.(“Oh why is Europe so full of fascists?” the Russian troops and paramilitaries must have been repeatedly snickering to the deported Tatars of Crimea)
It wasn’t so much – too much – about whether the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Athens; I think they should be, for aesthetic reasons primarily. Rather, I refused to buy the explanation that after all this time the Parthenon Marbles had been shielded in the British Museum and after all the arguments about how that would be the best eternal place for them in denial of any possibility of loaning, that they suddenly be moved to a hostile state above all other relaxed states after two centuries of this mentality. With a slap in the face to Greece, the Parthenon Marbles’ state of origin, that could turn hostile and return to the 1960s if we are not careful.
But I could not defeat the argument that the internationalism of historical artifacts was always a good thing in itself. The loaning of objects that only we give meaning to is an irrelevance in the face of political attitudes that already exist anyway. The Greeks would no doubt have loaned the Parthenon Marbles themselves to everywhere they could had they been given them back. And as I came to humbly reflect upon my stance after seeing the Russia Today footage, Russia above all else needs more internationalist plurality and global antiquity if it is to begin to keep its past demons in check. That won’t be possible if we deny them such opportunities. If I turns out I had been right about any under-the-table dealings previously, I like to think that the Kremlin chauvinists had ended up with an ironic result from the cultural dam-burst: in the one instance unsuccessful provocation of nationalism in a Europe standing strong against it and all other adversaries, and in the other instance chances for more diversity for all citizens of Russia and making it loud and clear that Europeans are not the insane imperialist invaders that Putin makes them out to be. Plus it makes me feel a bit better about being wrong.
But rethinking this has given me more cause to defend the Union of Europe. Every possible measure must be taken to shatter illusions of Russian demonisation and self-pity. Europe is a threat to noone – the same cannot be said of Putin.
East and West, Us and Them
The latest big conflict of Berlin still shows its marks amongst the distinctly capitalist and communist styled buildings today. Or should I say it was a quantum state of both a conflict and a non-conflict? The first major sight that hit me in front of the ferocious sun was the overwhelming Brandenburg Gate, a sight made that little bit more supreme to me because I had conveniently emerged from the steps of a nearby underground U-Bahn station to see it dwarf me.
I had soaked in the city’s atmosphere throughout the terrifically warm week. Though for some reason my body did not react the way I wanted during this gift of a spring season. Heat-induced headaches had to be barely fought off with plenty of water, paracetamol, ice cream and shade. Plus a pair of sunglasses I have with me still. Still, I was not put off.
Folk were attractive and friendly all round. Many had clearly taken a lot of time out their lives to learn how to speak fluent English, without expecting any English speakers to learn their language in return. This did make me feel rather… guilty. With the age of the internet abound putting pressure on non-English speakers to learn English so as to better communicate with the vast majority of website domains that are American dotcoms, I felt bad for not doing more to give back. Since America, and perhaps China, are the centres of the internet with one open and the other not so much, the work we would have to do to match all the alternative languages out there would probably never have that same kind of urgency. I know, I know, freedom to speak whatever words you want, and all that… but it’s still kind of sad.
There were plenty of bicycles, parked and moving. Food ranged from East Prussian specialties to fantastically exquisite pasta atop the Eastern TV Tower’s restaurant, with a spectacular red sunset across the city’s horizon to surreally top that all off. I took three pictures of each sight just to make sure I definitely got something good. I had one taken of myself sitting in front of the statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Mitte, built by the German Democratic Republic in 1986. This was followed by visits to museums documenting some of the treasures and records of lives in East Germany. To be honest, more time was spent in the East than West, simply because all the places I had made a note of to visit were found there.
I had purchased a small piece of the Berlin Wall. I couldn’t not do this. This ugly, pointless, disgusting assault on all Berliners’ freedoms had separated families and friends and communities of all sorts from its inception in 1961 all the way to its inevitable fall in 1989, for the sole sake of preserving a zombie autocracy armed with a mutant, infectious Stasi. Partition from above, as opposed to self-determination from below, has never produced anything positive for Germany or any other state, and is much, much more deadly when the partition is done based on religious sectarianism, because the extremists always decide where the boundaries are drawn for it to not appear pointless in the first place. See to the history of the British Foreign Office to see how well that worked out. You can also look to Vietnam and Korea for more politically disastrous carvings.
With this considered, and with the general success of democratic unions that have timid borders, I think it’s safe to say that any step away from this that involves building up walls instead of tearing them down is bound to spell trouble. On the contrary, we should be having more democratic unions, not less. The beginnings of the European Union in the 1970s, then the European Economic Community, had its roots in abolishing state-tariffs and trade restrictions between countries so as to recover from war and expand Europe’s total economy. And after a mere forty years, hundreds of years of war within Europe had finally started to lay to rest, and this was even considering the fact that the Soviet Union was the commanding regime in Eastern Europe. Libertarians are correct up to a point when they say free trade does much to create peace between states. After so many periods of conflict, it made more sense than most realised at the time to go down this route. Hence, the Soviet Union fell while the EEC-turned-EU stood upright. Now the idea has taken hold in the East and hopefully further East soon.
During the Thursday I committed to my own memory a visit to what was the centre of the fatal moment when a Third World War and a nuclear Holocaust could very well have begun in the year 1961, putting it alongside the near-extinction level events of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Thule Air Base Crash. Checkpoint Charlie was the bottleneck of the still young, artificial border of Berlin where United States and Soviet Union tanks once stared each other down, while simultaneously on the phone with Kennedy and Khrushchev respectively, consistently babbling about what they should do as if it were a life or death question. I say “as if” because it should never have been a question. Anybody with even a hint of a conscience can easily see to this day why this was morally, logically and just simply simple. Choose life, not death. If even so much as one soldier had set off a round, accidently or otherwise, it would have been more than enough to panic all other soldiers in the area to unleash everything they had, with a real possibility of nuclear annihilation for the rest of us. How hard could it be? Don’t do it. Walk away from each other immediately. Don’t even think yourselves entitled to have this legitimacy in the first place. Yet this reckoning took sixteen hours to resolve. One can only laugh at the maniacal mantra called Mutually Assured Destruction: a proposition that was just to be accepted as unquestioning fact because rational scenarios will lead to rational actors, because it just was! When nothing could have been more fucking irrational than this pointless, deadly, potentially multi-genocidal standoff between two ruthless, indifferent superpowers. And when the simplest action to take would have been not allowing it to happen at all! One can only laugh, then realise the very next moment that it is not really that funny at all. One can only laugh. We can’t exactly fight it, can we?
I had my photograph taken in front of the command post which still stands as it did on that day. Though I wore the hat out of politeness, I didn’t feel comfortable with the insincerity of the tourism trying to recreate the history. The post is surrounded by numerous tourist shops, which didn’t exactly match the sheer despair that overshadows the memory of the place. The tourist guide had asked me where I was from. After saying “Scotland”, I figured he must have understood my accent because his reply was “Ah! C’mon Glasgow Rangers!”
Which touched on something else that is crucial to Europe. Everyone thinks they know how to respond to the secessionist’s party line, “take back control of Britain’s borders!” Usually they go: “But we’re not in Schengen!” “You can work in other EU states, too!” And so forth. But everyone forgets the fallacy right in front of our noses that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has only one border, and it is not in the “Great Britain” part. It is singular, not plural. When I flew back to Scotland I did not arrive at the “UK Borders” getting off the plane.
This is not nitpicking on the language, because a sure-sign of banality is when people repeat clichés in print but the very words they say make no sense upon one second of scrutiny. It proves they are not paying attention and not thinking. The expression “taking back control of our borders” euphemises the already euphemistic but meaningless moaning over immigration numbers. Where anyone can change said limit at a moment’s notice and score cheap political points.
Which leads me back to “Glasgow Rangers!” Peaceful football fans of Glasgow, or indeed anyone peaceful from Glasgow at all, will inevitably find they cannot run away from thinking about the bitter sides of a certain rivalry. And everyone knows it’s not the football that drives it. “Troubles”, too, is a plural where none should be. (We’re having a spot of bothers, here!) Plus, it is a euphemism for war. The sole border we do have in question, the one which partitioned Ireland from four to three provinces and in turn partitioned Ulster from nine to six counties, is the last border anyone would dare “take back” control. Drawn in an absurd, sectarian lack-of-manner in 1921 for the sole purpose of gerrymandering the Protestant vote at the expense of no rights for Catholics (eventually invoking a mutually assured destruction veto of its own in 1998 that had to be clunkily imposed on both “representative” sects in Stormont to redress the issue, at the needless expense of so many lives), the border slices across many Irish towns and villages from Newry to Derry and sours religious bigotry from all angles. European solvency had been a crucial component of slowing down the Ulster Civil War, in contrast to the British army’s blowing up of bridges only to pitifully fail to stop Irish Republican Army traffic between the states. Putting this alongside the fact that Spain, Portugal and Greece were not allowed memberships of the European Union until they put an end to their dictatorships, it is worth remembering all of this in the face of those who take their listeners for idiots, and insist the “oppressive, undemocratic” nature of the European Union despite its central mandate being built on peace and democracy. The health and gravity of Europe is unity, where conflict has been resolved wherever it has touched. And comparisons between this union and iron-fisted dictatorships on the grounds that the union isn’t perfect – because utopia is what the Leave campaign are insisting if they won’t tolerate a single fault of the European Union – should be dismissed as ahistorical absurdity. It surely must have occurred to any reasonable thinker that when compared with other state-relationships and state-wars within Europe in the past, or indeed of the world, the faults of the European Union are actually rather miniscule.
And of course, the mentality of that Irish partition exists today still, where the Democratic Unionist Party are the only other Westminster party besides the United Kingdom Independence Party that want to leave the European Union, for reasons you should hopefully be able to guess. The above is what happens when Britain disgraces itself by drawing an ugly border and then does everything it can to control it.
Now, note the following which is what happens when Britain does rather well for itself when ugly borders are non-existent, but then does everything it can to build them back up again: do the British secessionists not care in the slightest that Scottish Nationalism may seize its own secessionist chance to stop there being an existing United Kingdom whatsoever? Do they really want to risk another land border which they once again will not be able to control? Or maybe they would want to (try and) control it anyway and take revenge on the Scots by demanding immigration controls on them too. Wouldn’t that be a lovely sight? And on top of the secondary Irish-Christian sectarianism in Scotland for good measure, particularly Glasgow. Recklessness of this kind is no big deal to the British Nationalists but they should show some responsibility for it.
Not forgetting nationalisms feed off of each other as they are bound to do. Isn’t it any wonder that there are new Scottish National Party splinter groups turning Euro-secessionist too? After all what other means would be the logical conclusion, if your end-game is another Scottish Independence referendum? The secrecy of the Brexit ballot box may yet prove a temptation for more Scots than we think. I’ve distrusted the way in which pro-European attitudes in Scotland have been taken as a given, and that this will never change. We’ve even seen factions of the Left and Labour wanting to abandon what little is left of their principled solidarity by calling for a Leave vote too. Why assume Scotland is so immune to this and always will be immune to this? On what basis?
Call me anything you like, but I see no reason to put up walls and burn bridges, lest the idea catches on. And neither did Berlin. They wouldn’t want to go back. Who on Earth would? How hard is it to say if a struggle belongs to one human it belongs to all? I blame this rise of nationalist identity politics, among many other things, on the loss of international socialism. And I can say that despite not being a socialist. Globalism as an international movement doesn’t have the same social forces behind it.
The whole point of humanity is that rights are universal for goodness sake. Thomas Paine wrote the Rights Of Man, though today we talk about “human rights”. We should all be catching on by now that there really is no difference between their spirits. Marx tried to approximate the struggle through class. Darwin and Einstein through the liberation of reason. But none of them or anybody in-between would have bought into this new wave of tribal political nothingness. Identity politics, nationalist politics, “us-and-them” politics is nothing but empty. Who really goes around saying “I belong to group X, therefore in the name of equality I am more equal than others” unless they try to be benign and euphemistic about it?
I had spent the Friday viewing the Reichstag up close, and relaxing within the vast stretches of the Tiergarten park. Afterwards, I had paid a visit to the Holocaust Memorial of Berlin crafted by Peter Eisenman and Buro Happold. You don’t quite realise how deep the towers are until you actually walk through them, descending as you go. The subtlety and simplicity of the journey make the experience all the more harrowing. The inside building itself documents atrocities that are always too wicked to retell, but cannot and never will be retold enough.
Later on, I had seen the inside of the Berlin Cathedral. Damaged during war but restored overtime, this gigantic, reverberating hall of unquestioning devotion had no brick that was anything less than divine eye-candy. It would make anyone inside feel tiny, hopefully for the right reasons. I certainly could not digest every speck of sheer beauty that was there, and I don’t think anyone ever will. My photographs did not do it justice. All the megapixels in the world are feeble in the face of it.
A pleasant boat tour along the river Spree and a visit to the ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church followed. And the final stop was the Story of Berlin Museum, documenting the city’s history right from its origins to this present day. I was then treated to the inside of a massive Cold War bunker by the tour guides afterwards, only a block away. They explained that this futile, transparent government propaganda project was designed to hold about three thousand citizens in the event of a nuclear explosion… for two weeks. Then the air would cease being purified and the clean food and water would run out. In other words, everyone would have to rest unbathed with nothing else to do amongst the rows and rows of tightly compressed bunk beds about five stacks up only to be forced to walk out into the fallout afterwards to stay alive. Only a handful of these bunkers exist in the city. Though this is of course not how they were presented to everyone else.
We really didn’t have a clue, did we?
And we still don’t. Tens of thousands of years of documented global conflict plus hundreds of thousands of years of brutal evolution, and only seventy of those years consisted of the existence of nuclear weapons. So far, that is. But we should always remind ourselves that this is merely one hurdle of the Drake Equation. We still had to have the right planetary conditions, the right initial conditions, the right genes, the right cells and the right sense of consciousness to be able to contemplate life at all. Even getting over one of these hurdles was incomprehensibly improbable. If we are luckier still, we might just bump into another form of life who too will be well aware of our fortune.
In the here and now, I like to treasure what we have right now while still urging the move forward. Throughout all the wars, all the tribalism, all the stupidity, Europe overcame. But in the minds of some, the fact that this union is not perfect is good enough a reason to make the best the enemy of the good. Everything or nothing. And even then, we should suspect they would reject it if it gave them everything.
Every bit of nationalism, imperialism and despotism has always been the enemy of this project. And what is the response from the likes of that prat Mr Johnson? That the supporters of this union seek out the nostalgia ala Napoleon and Hitler, seek all of this nationalist bile, and that is why we should spit on it and dig up our old British flags of glory. What is this profanity, and why aren’t there more sensible Leave pundits denouncing it? On Twitter I had also been sent a Vote Leave campaign station using the infamous picture of Lord Kitchener to recruit presumably testosterone-filled laymen to join the great cause, because Empires are just so evil. I include the eyesore here. The one-defining nationalist trait is self-pity. Our country is always the victim, always oppressed, always the butt-end of the conspiracy.
At least during the Scottish referendum there were many Yes voters who wanted to put distance between themselves and nationalism. In this referendum on Europe, there is no such attempt at distance. Not even the foolish faction of Leave supporters on the Left have made an effort at distancing. If anything we are demanded we be proud to be British as a party-line, when the number of British people who have – gasp – different views proves this as nothing more than meaningless guff.
But I do believe no matter what happens Thursday, Europe will pull through once again. If it is still keeping it together through the refugee crisis, the economic crisis, the unsustainability of a single monetary policy without fiscal policy, the collapse of the left, the rise of the far-right and a looming Russia next door, it can certainly keep it together if Britain does something so stupid. And a Leave vote would be stupid, considering Michael Gove’s new party line appears to be that expertise, research and evidence is not for them. Anyone who holds this view should cease putting forward arguments immediately, because any attempt to pretend to be an expert from that point on will appear nothing short of pathetic.
The non-noisy folk of Britain will hopefully have enough common sense to see this through.