After vote for Leave in the Brexit referendum, I felt oddly unbalanced by the results. I actually have been a mild advocate for the “Leave”, since I saw the first fear-mongering and opportunistic slogans the “Remain” campaign touted from the moment I step foot on British soil, however I’ve been more shaken than expected by the turnout.
The reason is, I believe, largely in realizing that the perception of the cultural self that some European people have, is sometimes not enough to unite everybody else. I am not an anthropologist, or even a humanist expert, to embark in the huge cultural task of defining the characterizing treats of the “European-ness”. There is no such thing as a sharp demarcation parameter to make it an easy task: try to do it for your own country, for your own region or village. If you are not stupid, you immediately realize that it is a titanic feat to define precisely what makes an Italian Italian, or an Englishman English (protip: the anthropologist Kate Fox wrote a funny 600 pages book defining the “Englishness”, and in the epilogue she admits that characterize a cultural identity is a never-ending endeavor).
Moreover it would be deadly useless for me and you, several books have already been written by better people than me, and several speeches have already been made (check out the one by Churchill): De Tocqueville and Henry James make a nice point through the comparison with Americans, Husserl talk at length about rewards and shortcoming of an “European spirit”, dedicating a whole chapter and several mentions in its main book opening the field of Phenomenology (to be noted: for Husserl the most terrible danger for European existence was “tiredness”). The same was for Hegel and so on in a tradition that holds back to Lutero and Acquinas, maybe one of the firsts “European errant” studying between Naples, Rome, Paris and Köln.
I will then report my own life experience, and if it seemed pointless to you, at least it would have helped me sort out my years of living among “European” people.
In my family my mom went to high school college in Liguria, living together with girls from France, and my father worked in Italy and Switzerland with people of several nationalities (Europeans or otherwise). Europe was silently growing and weaving under the eyes of the past generation, even before I was born.
But my generation is the one that is realizing the full extent on how close European people have grown, exploiting the connections they have made over the centuries and making it easy to talk between us.
Apart from a strange fondness for flour-based bread, there is a genuine common cultural and political history that bounds Europe together. It is very easy to talk to any European about the Napoleon domination, Illuminism, Italian Renaissance, Spanish Reconquista, German Philosophy, Vikings invasions, at a level that cannot be expected to any other world citizen that is not particularly knowledgeable or interested in European history and culture.
There’s a subtext in the conversation between every two Europeans, e.g. on how and why representative Democracy is a good form of government, that is almost impossible to have when you talk to a Chinese person that has not extensively lived in Europe. In my experience, a really deep conversation about a political or cultural issue with an Asian or Middle-Eastern, frequently provides to be extremely challenging since it always boils down to deep philosophical question that we usually take for granted.
I had the luck to meet a lot of people from a lot of countries (in the last three weeks I’ve been lecturer at York for TALENT, International PhD school in Low Energy Nuclear Structure, with 27 students from 17 countries) and during the course of the years I have been challenged with a lot of questions for which I have no answer:
“If the role of the government is to guarantee the well-being of the people, why a fixed chaste system, which is rooted into guaranteeing the well-being of your chaste, should not be a good system?”,
“Why should we fear a dictatorship system, if the purpose of the dictator is to ensure the prosperity of an overcrowded country trough a sense of rigor and continuity?” ,
“Hitler is my hero, and just a guy that was just willing to take any means necessary to raise a nation on its knees and almost succeeded” (joke you not, Chiara is my witness for one of the times),
“Why someone with a story of mental illness should not buy a gun, if its his constitutional right devised as the ultimate fail-safe to topple an absolutely corrupt government? Can’t a schizophrenic decide when to embrace a revolution?”
These issues were not raised from desperate or illiterate people amidst ignorance and historical confusion, but from people with Masters and PhD and a just so different mindset regarding society perception and values at their core.
I personally have no answer to those questions and end up to stare silently in astonishment as an insufficient form of reply. Simply these lines of thinking are so completely outside mines that even to begin to approach them would require a re-framing of my whole cultural background as an explanation to other people. Which is why no-European in decades (and for some issues in centuries) ever dared to jeopardize the sanctity of democratic system, social mobility, or a severely regulated access to deadly fire-weapons, among other things.
I can discuss with someone from Hungary or Portugal, Finland or Malta, giving for granted that, apart members of fringe groups and extreme thinkers, they have in mind a relatively similar society as I do (similar in respect to the extremes above), with a common set of shared values and the same cultural and historical background. From there, the human connection can evolve in actually discussing the current topics, without always revolving around either the trivial amenities, the too heavy core values of European culture, or the usual (and too personal) human universals, which bind us all together.
Most importantly, what makes me feel the connection with the European culture and society as a whole, in these years of living in other countries, is that every time I live in a different European place I learn a little bit more of my own country and of my own people.
While populations in other continents are often the aliens above, people in other places in Europe are just different versions of ourselves. They sometimes exacerbate some of our peculiar traits, and by doing so they make them evident to us. Living in different European is like looking in a mirror, but sometimes reflects you with different hairs, sometimes with different eyes …etc…
** Living Around**
Even less than one month feverishly working, and several short visits to Spain, made me reflect on the value Spanish (and Italians) give to food and evening walks in crowded and historical city streets as means of social congregations, bonding in groups (sometimes identified as peñas).
I did not report a similar discovery in my month-stay in Vancouver, or in my several visits to the US.
Despite how wonderful has been both times, and how wonderful of a city Vancouver is, what has happened in a very work-centered month in Seville has not happened in a relatively socialite month in Canada. I did not find much to be learned about my own country in the American continent (apart from suggestions or juxtapositions, but this is a completely different thing).
In Germany there are of course differences that characterize this country respect to the other European ones. For example the importance of rules is a prominent aspect of German society. Things have to go how they are supposed to go. This is of course very different than Mediterranean countries, with a more relaxed and fatalistic approach to facts and rules (However it is not that there are no differences of this kind between regions in the same country).
But there are also characters which I would say are peculiarly “Europeans” that Germans have particularly sharpened and allow other populations to reflect on their own. Above all, I would say a particular realization of society as an emergent entity that represents the whole population, in doing so the nation (or supra-nation) is a semi-spontaneous congregation that bids the wishes of its citizens and serves them, by means which are both as convenient and efficient as possible and set out by history. In other (German) word(s): der objektive Geist. That is very different from the childish patriotism of the Americans or a passive submission over a dominant strong-ruler in most Asian and African societies.
I would dare to say that this is the ultimate reason that allows Germany to lead the European Union, more than their position of economic strength: their political vision that is ideal for the European project but I might be pushing myself a little too far.
Even Finland, a land so young that its proper history started in 17th century and its very first country independence in 20th (but a strange country by all possible devisable metric, trust me) has given me lessons on the “old” European-ness. The Finns are the quintessential representation of what in North Italy are known as “Mountain wise men”: solitary, hard drinkers and sometimes surprisingly literate. More in general, Finnish people have embraced the value of culture before anything else, in a delicate balance in which study is important and always allowed and encouraged, just as much as the person wants to enjoy it, not for the sake of richness but for the goodness of culture.
In American stores, behind the counter a panel, there is sometimes the phrase “If are you so smart, why ain’t you so rich?", to suggest people to shut up and don’t complain and so often reported that is now an old cliché more than a joke. I never, ever, saw such a phrase in an European shop, and for example it would be utterly unthinkable for a Finnish person to connect smartness to richness and for most of the people in our “old continent” such a connection would make much of a laugh at all. Finnish people remind us that there is much more in life than material richness, being culture one of the best free things life can give us (guaranteed by relatively cheap education across all continent and constitutional safeguards).
And now we come back full-circle to England and the Brexit problem. Even in such a short time England already taught me a lot regarding uses of “The Continent”. For example tongue-in-cheek attitude regarding social classes tells a lot about all our other countries (this is not applicable to US at all, where money is king, and every-hint of class would be sneered upon by the tale of the self-made-man): just a phrase, if not a word, is enough to schedule a native as a member of which class, even though they will never admit not nurturing social aspirations. A class is defined as a complex milieu of cultural, social and capital wealth, as it is structured in a semi-official way by NRS, National Stastistics or other para-governmental offices.
But English people don’t have the same attitude toward education, or society (e.g. an Italian’s house is a piece of society where every friend is welcome, for every Englishman his/her house is a Castle and Feud where he/she has to have absolute ownership and control), or money, or culture as other Europeans do and probably would have been for a long time an exception among European people, even tough an eventually well earned one.