The United Kingdom’s June 2016 vote to leave the European Union was of a piece with the general tendency since the latter part of the twentieth century toward secession, fragmentation, and “local control.” Not all such efforts have succeeded, of course—consider Biafra—but efforts to redefine nationhood (by circumscribing it), boundaries (whether inclusively or exclusively), or identity (by tribe, language, religion)—in a word, power—continue in the Ukraine, Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, Tibet, Sri Lanka, and Central and occasionally South America. Recent armed revolts against federal control of federal lands in the United States suggest both that we are not immune from the virus and that it is not the scale of the conflict that commands the requisite emotion.
Two exceptions to this broader pattern were German unification—part of the collapse of the Soviet Union—and the vote in Scotland not to sever ties with England. Another may have been the decision, some years ago, by the Québécois to remain in Canada. But in general, divorce seems to be the preference, often violently so as in Yugoslavia, Eritrea, and the Sudan. Occasionally, the divorce is relatively amicable, as between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but on the whole, Patrick Henry’s familiar cry has found expression across the globe in an astonishing variety of languages.
Regardless of abstract considerations of global markets, international finance, military alliances, religious convictions, and similar forms of universalism, what appears to be at work here is a fundamental disparity between our experience of time and space as individuals—or at most as a family of individuals—and our general cultural awareness of time and space as members of a species. The two are related, of course, but they are profoundly different. As individuals, our own histories and mobility define us: born here, moved there, grew up in different locations but with the same or at least known members of our families. As members of a culture, we learn a different history with an antiquity often shrouded in mythology—an odyssey lasting millennia, or at least centuries, ranging from and to places often remembered only dimly, and often not at all. For many people, childhood—however incorrectly remembered—is the touchstone for the way things ought to be: safe, stable, usually sufficient in fundamentals such as food and shelter, unified, solid.
For more and more adults, that is not present experience. Those who believe they remember stability as the norm are more and more likely to see their communities as under siege from waves of alien invaders taking their spaces, their jobs, their schools, their languages, their essences—turning what had been, say, Britain into an unrecognizable goulash of accent and complexion, a mix of unspellable names and arcane religions, an indigestible chaos of sound and sight and smell into which Merrie Olde England is disappearing like a deer devoured by a pack of wolves.
Until several thousand years ago, space and time must have been experienced by our ancestors as here and now. What was, is and will be. That was probably so obvious that people (people exactly like us biologically) never thought to question it. And then developed agriculture, and everything began to change, slowly at first, in some areas and for some centuries even imperceptibly—but inevitably, inexorably, faster and faster until, perhaps two hundred years ago, inventions and populations multiplied in mutual reinforcement. And now here we are, befuddled, dazed, probably as hairy as we were ten thousand years ago, shouting “Brexit!”
The historically observable facts about us surely include our inability to translate the changes we have wrought in our environment, including our vastly improved physical abilities to affect it, into appropriate corresponding behavioral changes. Xenophobia may have started to diminish among our various subgroups when, through travel of the mind as well as of the body, a few people in different locations began to recognize the human in the stranger. But the call to arms remained far more powerful than that recognition, a call almost always identifying the enemy as alien in his very essence. And conversely, the alien is the enemy. Conservation biologists identify “alien species” as belated arrivals in a locality inhabited by plants and animals that had arrived earlier, earning the prestigious designation of “indigenous” —another way to imply their moral or natural superiority to the aliens. Indigenous people, however, unlike moths or mushrooms, are usually seen as backward, not superior, and (it is often argued, although not by alien pioneers) to be protected from the modernity that threatens “their way of life.”
On the one hand, we are aware, culturally, of the billions of years our universe has been expanding from the Big Bang, and we seem to be quite at ease about it. On the other, we give voice to our sense of loss, of decay and disaster, ever since the other party has been in charge of anything. In socio-psychological terms, this dichotomy might be seen as some sort of schizophrenia: we thrill with excitement to the exploration of space while trembling with rage at the immigrants moving into the neighborhood. But more simply, what seems to be at work is a failure of imagination. For all the popularity of science fiction, horror movies, comic books, Da Vinci codes, hobbits, Harry Potters, fairy tales, supernatural beings, other worlds and their creatures, myths, religions, cults—all the stories and fantasies told around campfires and in cathedrals, temples, mosques, storefront churches, and crystal palaces—we apparently have not absorbed into our cultural imagination ascertainable facts about gravity, light, heat, mass, or the nature of the solar system; or, when it comes to trying to understand ourselves over time, geology, evolution, genetics, and even climate change as demonstrated by the melting of the ice caps. Consider the currently popular approach to self-identification, the claim that DNA testing establishes your membership in a group because one or more of your ancestors may have belonged to it. It does no good to point out that no one is one’s own grandparent, and that the mix of genes required to create a new individual is unique. It is easier and in many ways more comforting to claim that one is 27 percent Viking and consequently the inheritor of Viking traditions, talents, temperament, and predilections than to acknowledge not only that just about everyone’s ancestry of only a few generations ago is unknown and that one has to make one’s own way in a world in which Viking ways and values are most accurately remembered in museums and libraries.
History, of course, is usually taught upside-down in our schools, introducing children not to themselves but to what is as remote as possible, in both time and space, without getting into matters that might tread on creation myths. Egypt, six thousand years ago, will do nicely. Along the way, the teacher and/or the textbook will acknowledge that things were going on in China as well, perhaps even earlier—but of African or Aztec or Inca origins, or of any number of other people well out of caves and no longer beetle-browed, the less said the better.
Our creation myths have a marvelous feel of contemporaneity, perhaps adding to their attraction: it all happened long ago, of course, and we understand that Adam and Eve didn’t depart from the Garden of Eden like today’s Syrian refugees in rubber dinghies. But still, Eve was seduced by a lying snake, and that’s where Adam’s troubles started. What could be more familiar? And to accompany our creation myths, we have destiny stories—about the room that Jesus has prepared for us in the Heavenly Motel or the seventy-two virgins awaiting our prowess in the Islamic hereafter once we have proven our martyrdom. If we are unsure about such fleshly delights in what, after all, is to be a world of spirit, at least our names will be entered in the Book of Ancestors and our descendants will honor us with their prayers and maybe some flowers. Destiny stories, unlike creation myths, are necessarily vague. That does not, however, mean that they are no less worth fighting for. Who is to go where and under what circumstances deserves just as murderous an answer as do the questions of the identity and origins of our ancestors, at least once upon a time.
The notion that life is a journey—not so much from one time to another but rather from one place to another—is often implicit in obituaries published in local newspapers across our country. Descriptions of the deceased’s place of birth when that event occurred or circumstances of the historical period of his arrival are rare. The emphasis is usually on the peaks of one’s life’s achievements and timeless glories of one’s destination. Who knows what lies beyond the horizon? If the subject is eternity, who wants to imagine our planet devoid of life, the sun gasping in its death throes, the solar system near cosmic dust, and the galaxy as indifferent as ever?
But if local control is a delusion, it is not a fiction like religion, impervious to experience, fortified by institutional mumbo-jumbo, guarded by potentates equipped not only with magic incantations and ancient texts but also with a shrewd understanding of the importance of mob psychology. A man’s home, unlike his church, is his castle. Territoriality appears to be an instinct we share with many creatures, suggesting evolutionary forces at work significantly different from whatever dictates our sense of time. Perhaps that is why Eliot’s famous poem ends so memorably: not with a bang but a whimper.