One of the consistent accusations against those who voted in favor of Brexit, the referendum on Great Britain leaving the European Union (EU), is that they are racists.  The charge is based upon the facts that the great majority of those who voted for Brexit are white and many are motivated by an anti-immigrant bias, even animus.  In contrast, the opponents of Brexit view themselves as tolerant, even welcoming, of racial differences.

The problem with the anti-Brexits’ racist charge is that it is inexact and self-serving.  I propose, therefore, that we change the way we categorize the two groups in the debate.   Brexit is a dispute between the slobs and the snobs.  As we shall see, the categories of “slobs” and “snobs” have two distinct advantages.  First, they better represent the complexities of the issues, although admittedly not all.  Second, the terms are impartial because both are pejorative and reflect how each side views the other.

A slob is a crude, ill-mannered person of unkempt appearance and questionable health habits.  The supporters of Brexit are generally from the provinces, not London, less educated and cultured than their opponents, and not up-to-date in the latest fashion and food fads.  The disgust one feels for the slob and his ways would appear to be the way the snobs view them.

On the other hand, a snob is a person who believes that his knowledge, status or manners make him superior to others upon whom he looks condescendingly.  This is how the young, urban, better educated and wealthier opponents of Brexit come across to those who supported the referendum.  I suspect that the slobs have probably accurately gauged their opponents’ attitudes toward them.

If my position on Brexit is not already clear, let me make it so by stating my prejudices—my use of this word is intentional—right from the beginning.  When I heard that the referendum for Britain to exit the EU passed, I was happily surprised.  Why?  I dislike and disapprove of the centralizing forces of the modern world; so when the slobs resisted those forces, I was with them.  Furthermore, by their nature the slobs do not defend their position well and do not occupy the corridors of power; so their winning appealed to my desire to root for the underdog.

However, the result of their victory is that they are being horribly vilified by the snobs, which makes me want to take up the cause of the slobs.  On the other hand, if it were a matter of sitting down to a meal at a restaurant of choice and talking about literature, art, travel, and philosophy, things I love to do, I prefer to be with snobs, although I admit to being a bit ashamed of it.  As a Christian, I realize that my preference for the company of the snobs has more than a little of the tainted odor of pride, one of the deadly, perhaps the deadliest, of sins.

Having defined terms and stated my prejudices, let’s look at the specific aspects of the Brexit debate. To start with, the blanket racist charge against the slobs needs to be refuted.  Race is fundamentally a biological category used to distinguish people based upon physical traits such as skin, eye or hair color, bone structure, facial characteristics, etc.  A racist then is one who believes that other races are inferior in various ways and has either a hostile or patronizing attitude towards them.  The accusation of racism is problematic because of the very concept of race.  Race is not a very exact category.  For example, how many shared biological traits are needed to constitute a race? Additionally, what does race mean, when in the modern world the races increasingly are mixing with one another?

In fairness to the snobs, there are undoubtedly racists among the slobs.   Nevertheless, the category of race and the attendant charge of racism obscure the more fundamental issues.  The concept of ethnicity will serve us better. In contrast to the biological nature of race, ethnicity is more social or cultural. It refers to a group that shares or perceives itself as sharing and being committed to, among other things, a common history, language, place of origin, religious and political traditions.

When we grasp the distinction between race and ethnicity, we can begin to understand some of the unfortunate dynamics of the Brexit debates.  Part of the difficulty is the overlap of race and ethnicity.  Immigrants, who have ethnic traditions different from traditional English ones, also have biological characteristics different from the English, bringing in the slippery notion of race.  This reality has led both the snobs and the slobs to confuse the categories of race and ethnicity.  Thus slobs often associate the cultural differences with race, and the snobs, whose education should supposedly help them know better, see a group’s defense of its ethnicity as racist.  The racist charge, in addition to feeding the snobs sense of moral and intellectual superiority, also garners them significant polemical points, since racism is one of the unforgivable sins of the contemporary era.  Thus, racism is so evil that it justifies giving free rein to anger, disdain and the harshest possible characterizations of one’s opponents.

If we look more carefully and dispassionately at the evidence, however, racism is not the best explanation of the motives of the slobs.  It would be much more helpful and decent to say that from the cultural or ethnic perspective they are traditional English men and women who feel that their way of life is under siege by the elite snobs who have ignored and despised their concerns.[1]  The fact that the leaders of both the Conservative and Labour parties, most of whom are snobs, were surprised and angered seems to validate the slobs’ perception that they were ignored and unappreciated.  If the slobs felt that way about their own political parties, how much more alienated and threatened by the massive and often accountable-to-no-one EU bureaucracy would they consider themselves to be?

Besides the racist charge, the snobs criticize the slobs for being ignorant or even stupid.   They claim that the exit from the EU will have disastrous effects on the economy.  It is true that the poor working class slobs have less formal education, but one might question the snobs’ economic critique of them.  The English working classes have been economically marginalized by the globalized economy.  One would think that all the discussion about the shrinking middle class among the politicians and economists, who constitute the leaders of the snobs, would make them have more sympathy for a group that is actually suffering from the current economic system.  The fact is that the majority of the snobs benefit from the global economy, making their economic critique self-serving and their chatter about economic reform for the marginalized just empty talk.  They know on which side their bread is buttered.

The snobs’ disdain for the slobs is revealed in some of the angry and frankly quite troubling responses to the Brexit vote.  Articles have been written that advocate that the elites need to rise up against the ignorant masses.  It is argued that Brexit does not represent the will of the people but of the tribalist provinces, thus apparently excluding the non-London English, one hopes not from the human species, but from having a right to have their position predominate in the democratic process.

Indeed, the resentment of the younger voters against older ones is so deep that they do appear to want to disenfranchise the Brexit supporters.  As is well known, Brexit was strongly supported by the older generations, especially those over 65.  At the same time voters under 25 even more strongly opposed it. Many younger opponents of Brexit have complained that older people should not have the right to determine their future, essentially because the old folks are going to die soon.  Since those over 50 have lived about 60% of their allotted time on earth, perhaps the young snobs should creatively appropriate a feature of our American constitutional heritage and propose that the vote of those 50 and older only count as 3/5.

However, the issues run much deeper than mere politics.  On a British news show a Brexit support was reported to have said that he wanted to see things go back to the way they were before.  The broadcaster smugly commented, “That’s not very forward thinking,” revealing the progressivist assumptions of contemporary snob culture.   Progressivism holds that human society improves by necessity.  Consequently, truth, goodness, and justice reside in the future. Anyone, like our elderly Brexit supporter, who seeks to defend or revert to a past social structure is not only inherently mistaken but also, by opposing progress’s inevitable march towards justice, a supporter of oppression.

Finally, the threat of some younger snobs to leave the UK because of Brexit reveals  how they understand their self-identity.  They consider themselves European more than English; so Brexit forces them to leave the UK in order to maintain their European identity.  Even more fundamentally, the threat reveals that they understand the nature of one’s identity differently.  Ethnic identity, whether English, Scottish or Kurdish, is tied to a particular place, people and its traditions.  The multiculturalist shape of the young urban snobs’ identity makes them chary of specific ethnicity.  The multiculturalist snob enjoys the sampler or variety pack of ethnicities, but is not committed to any one of them.  In their view such commitments would narrow them as persons and seem less tolerant.[2]

Brexit represents then a major cultural divide between more traditional ethnic-based societies and multicultural societies.  Given that the young multiculturalists are supported by the political and financial powers that be, I suspect that a way will be found to avoid Brexit or to limit its damages.  In the meantime, I’ll side with the snobs.

However, I don’t want to end on a partisan note.  The two sides should stop shouting and begin listening to one another.  Here the snobs should apply their ideal of tolerance and interconnectedness to themselves and seriously consider the slobs’ perspective.  Without the slobs’ passionate commitment to a particular people and place, the snobs will be doomed both to a superficial cosmopolitanism and to being swallowed up by massive and impersonal international bureaucracies.  The slobs need to learn from the snobs to appreciate other ethnicities without sacrificing their own cultural distinctives.

What is truly needed in this contemporary crisis is a vision, indeed, a reality that combines both the particular and the transcendent.   One that roots us in the soil and lifts us to the skies.  I don’t know, a word that becomes flesh and dwells among us?  Let us pray for that.

[1] Ethnicity also explains why Scotland voted against Brexit.  The Scots are not English and, rightly or wrongly, do not feel threatened by the EU.  They do believe that the English threaten their ethnicity.

[2] Immigrant citizens of the UK who opposed Brexit are not snobs.  They felt their culture would be better protected with a UK in the EU.

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