For those of you who are unsure what Brexit is, simply stated, it’s the decision by the British government for Britain to withdraw from the European Union (EU), consequent to a narrowly contested referendum held back in June of 2016. The hope, for those naive enough to believe it, was that Britain would emerge from the EU relatively unscathed, unscathed by lost trade deals and reduced freedom of movement, with the false promise that Britain would be improved somehow by greater autonomy.
Indeed, when people refer to a “Hard Brexit,” what they mean is no trade deals of any kind in place, little or no freedom of movement between European nations, particularly in Ireland where there is a physical land border to Northern Ireland, and no clue how Britain as a whole will be affected economically after Brexit is finally implemented. Hard Brexit is beginning to look inevitable, and is due to take effect on Halloween of this year. You would think that the implications of a hard Brexit would make most of, if not all, pro Brexiters squeamish, if not downright repentant. The reason that it does not ought to be a familiar one in the United States. In the end, Brexit is about bigotry, and as America has learned in its bitter experience with Donald Trump, for some people there is no price too high, no vote too far against one’s own best interest, and no damage too costly in the abject subservience and veneration of hatred.
So when Priti Patel, the new hardline British home secretary, announced that freedom of movement will be significantly restricted for foreign nationals still in Britain after 31 October, even more restricted than had been originally thought, it sent a premonitory Orwellian chill down the spines of thoughtful people living here. Fascism is really beginning to look like the thin end of the wedge, spreading like the Angel of Death across the world.
This societal proclivity is becoming, in short, a meme for fascism. Now, when I say “meme,” I’m not talking about cute pictures of kittens with cute captions, I mean it in the same sense as when the concept was first coined. In 1976 Richard Dawkins published a book called “The Selfish Gene,” where he introduced the idea of a meme. Dawkins defined it as “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture—often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the meme.”
Used in the sense of the definition above, a meme can also carry ideas and behaviors that promote and spread fascism. Such memes can infect entire cultures very quickly and cause entire nations to embrace the ideologies and intolerances of fascism, as happened in Italy in the 20s and Germany in the 30s. That these ideations tended to remain inside those national borders was thanks largely to the paranoid security of those borders, and the tendency of the propaganda promoting them inside those borders to remain insular.
Today the internet can spread this fascism meme with the same terrifying speed that jet airplanes spread diseases. We are beginning to witness these ideas popping up all over the planet, infecting individual minds and the political ideologies of entire nations alike. From Australia to Britain to Russia to the Philippines to Argentina to the United States, people are becoming enculturated to fascistic ideas and comfortable with xenophobic, isolationist tendencies. It is becoming acceptable, even fashionable, to speak in sweeping generalities of other cultures, to paint entire nations with the jack boot-flavored pronouns of “them” and “they.”
The timing is awful. With a planet in trouble from global climate change and a desperate prerogative for nations to come together as a result, many are denying what our scientists are telling us, preferring to scapegoat other peoples and nations for their woes by embracing this new message of hate. With America now the chief exporter of the fascism meme, the terrible irony could be that the survival of our very planet may literally come down to a single election, the one in 2020.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.