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Everything is Copy: Boaty McBoatface, isolation and exclusion

My favorite news story of 2016 was when the British government decided to launch a new polar research vessel and gave unto their people the greatest of powers: They launched an online poll to #nameourship.

Naming, as we’ve known since Adam, is claiming. When you get to decide on a moniker, you are asserting a kind of ownership, flexing appropriative muscles. You feel invested, potent.

A radio host suggested a name for the ship: Boaty McBoatface. The people voted for it by an overwhelming margin. Oh, the playfulness of the Brits, their fondness for whimsy. These were, after all, the Oxford-educated people who brought us the Ministry of Silly Walks.

Then the government, like a mother who lowers her voice and calls her children by their full names, said hell, no, they were not going to name a Royal Research Ship something so ridiculous. The ship would be christened the RSS Sir Richard Attenborough.

Right. These are also the gentlefolk who talked as if they have marbles in their mouths and sticks lodged in other parts of their anatomy. Britishers can insult you so obliquely and with such good manners you have to pay close attention to feel offended.

What a great story about national, if flatly stereotypical, character. I loved this.

Until: Brexit.

Tell people they get to choose, and then don’t listen to them, and you’re left with citizens who act like pissed off children. Say you trust them with power, and then pull it away like Lucy’s football; unlike Charlie Brown, they’re probably going to get angry.

For me, Boaty McBoatface went from being a hilarious cocktail party story to a cautionary tale.

No one knows exactly what will happen when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, but Brexit is certainly a sign of increasing global isolationism, xenophobia and shooting-oneself-in-the-economic-foot. In my (admittedly reductive) assessment: older white people voted against their self-interest because they didn’t like what immigration was doing to their country, and younger ones felt their votes wouldn’t really matter.

My family forebears came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe through Ellis Island. Yearning to breathe free, they sailed past the big green “Mother of Exiles” who greeted them, tired and poor, from ancient lands. Homeless no longer, they were welcomed by the torch that lit the golden door.

But in California, things were a bit different.

Angel Island was the immigration port for the West Coast in the early 20th century, the San Francisco Bay a point of entry for the “tempest-tost” from the Far East. Except that the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made it possible only for merchants, clergy, diplomats, teachers and students to make it to land. Laborers willing to work for low-paying jobs were not let in. People were interrogated and interned, sometimes for two weeks, sometimes for two years, sometimes rejected.

Now our attention has turned toward our southern border: some in our country are intent on keeping out those who come here because they thought we meant what we proclaimed on the base of that big green mother: a “world-wide welcome.” We’re a nation of mutts and strays – and always have been (except for those who were here when the rest of us started sailing across the Atlantic with our smallpox coated blankets, our booze, our colonizing language), but now we’re pulling up the welcome mat.

Perhaps the real threat isn’t that those who want to emigrate from other parts of the Americas are, as the president has labeled them, rapists and criminals, but that, given the chance of previous generations, they will outsmart and outwork us. It’s possible eventually the jobs they will take will not be as manual laborer, but, with access and opportunity, they will be running big companies and even, this country.

Sound crazy? Just read the news. Turns out that Harvard, like other elite U.S. universities, has for decades enforced its own Chinese exclusion policy. If admission was based only on academic merit, the best colleges in this country would be nearly half Asian-American. But because, from a profile perspective, “they all look the same,” excellent and over-qualified kids are being turned down.

This is an old song. Previously, elite universities had a “Jewish quota.” The wretched refuse who had come through Ellis Island did so well here that, if admitted purely on achievement, they would have taken up every available slot at the universities that help launch people to positions of prestige and power. A fancy degree is the surest path – perhaps even a short cut – to success.

Why shouldn’t we believe that in a couple of generations the Spanish speakers coming over the border will be just as successful? That’s our history after all. We have long been a people who like to hoard not only resources but opportunities.

Boaty McBoatface, once amusing, now feels like a harbinger of a world that has lost not just its sense of humor, but its sense.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.


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