There is only one proper, appropriate, and fruitful response to Brexit, and that is to chill. But deep—or not so deep—inside too many Brexit critics is a repressed desire to freak. Although we should all stage an exit of our own from the therapeutic mantra that everything repressed must be released, it’s true that this bottled-up freakout—far more powerful than even the pent-up rage of the world’s populists, fascists, or racists—has to do with something real. Millions of people simply do not think they can cope with a world gone seriously wrong.
Ask, or look, around: how many of your fellow citizens, how many online interlocutors, have the cognitive, psychological, or spiritual readiness to live into a world like the world of 1918 or 1940? Even the smaller worlds of the Black Plague or the Thirty Years’ War are beyond contemplation. Just a whisper of a risk of catastrophe ushers in an all-consuming fear. Even life as it was last year had people muttering they could never bring a child into this uncertain a world.
This is what Brexit went up against—and will keep butting against as the panic spreads. How dare you unbolt the door of “History” even for a moment, the better to let the nightmares rush in?
Yet everyone knows that the good old days of narrowly charted historical progress have irretrievably passed us by. What’s more, we know they were an illusion. I spent a spring in London in 1999—a moment of unrivaled energy and cool—and the signs of diremption were already lurking everywhere. War, Islam, terrorism, refugees—all today’s buzz fears had begun to lock into place. Nor were the happy days really even that happy. You could hear it in the music. Oasis was fading, Blur was exhausted. It was the centerpiece of Radiohead’s “OK Computer”—a gutting litany of Blairite Britain’s soulless routines called “Fitter Happier”—that loomed over such superficially celebratory times.
Songs are only songs, of course, but during the “right track” years of our warped imagination the United Kingdom really writhed beneath the rictus grin and bankrupt culture of New Labour. Now that era seems as distant as any. But instead of viewing the change with invigoration and relief, Europeans and Americans alike prefer to imagine the worst. Britain will cease to exist—no, Europe! Britain’s economy will crash—no, Europe’s! No, the world’s! The markets might crash—Sell! Sell! Right-wing nationalism will sweep the planet! Donald Trump will become president! My life is already a howling void, and I’m not even poor! Panic!
Imagination, of course, is hardly the same as preparation. Rather than spending the past 15 years on sturdy and modest social structures that could withstand uncertain times, fatuous individualism and equally fatuous institutionalism held sway. Now we find that neither individuals nor institutions have the nerve to endure so much as the possibility of the unknown. They are unfit to be led.
Or are they? So afraid of surprises, many of us fear deep down our capacity to surprise ourselves—not with some new indignity or vice, but with plain courage and resourcefulness. Amid today’s ostensible scarcity of things worth suffering over, I suspect we Westerners, amid our great differences, could find far more that matters in Brexit’s wake than we often dare to seek out. The British can discover in the hard work of earned liberalism a salve for its excesses of both inwardness and outwardness. The French can discover the monumental duties that await them as Europe’s indispensable leaders. The Germans can teach the sobering lesson that economics alone can never provide a foundation for unity.
The Americans can also endure a reckoning with the burdens of true exceptionalism. Although we truly need not fear Europe’s dangerous dreams of reactionary re-enchantment on the one hand and perpetual revolution on the other, we truly do tend to be constitutively crazy in a way other peoples do not. We ought to see in Britain a unique civilization, to which we’re only cousins, refusing to disappear into another. Instead, visions of yet another extremist contagion dancing in our heads, we fear that the British exercise of exceptionalism puts our own in the crosshairs.
Instead, we ought to be soothed by the exceptionally moderate way we Americans have digested the lessons of the ancients. We see religion like we see politics—more as a practical way to deal with drama than a ritual of purification of the will. We are primed more than any comparable people in the world to achieve great things by lowering the stakes. But because of this, we fear that one day the outside world will catch up with us. We fear our good character depends on our good fortune.
It doesn’t. Rather than conflate good character with adherence to some pure and comprehensive doctrine, we should accept that we’re at our best when we use our strong and simple foundations to take life as it comes, making it up as we go. We can responsibly relax well enough to avoid one disaster without inviting another—because we know that even disaster isn’t the end of the world. For all our rootin’-tootin’ stereotypes of the unrestrained cowboy, it’s the languidly controlled one that represents us most. In a reeling world, Brexit is yet another opportunity to psych ourselves out. The thing to do with a steady gaze is touch the brim of our hat and the butt of our gun and let that opportunity ride on past. Cool?