If Marshall McLuhan were around today to comment on the results of Britain’s referendum about whether to “Remain” or to “Leave” the European Union, no doubt he would offer comments that would be surprising and puzzling. Nevertheless, it is the unexpected quality of McLuhan’s probing remarks (he himself liked to designate his aphorisms with the term “probes”) that we most benefited from. Their unexpected quality was intended to encourage us to reframe our perceptions and to look for what we were overlooking in the surrounding environment. McLuhan once observed: “When the Emperor appeared in his new clothes, his courtiers did not see his nudity, they saw his old clothes. Only the small child and the artist have that immediacy of approach that permits perception of the environmental. Such anti-environmental means of perception must constantly be renewed in order to be efficacious.”
What is the larger environment that we take for granted, which we have been failing to factor into our evaluation of the Brexit vote? McLuhan thought that we could only see it if we were to develop the ability to recognize the new patterns unleashed by the new technologies. In his view, “new strategies of perception and attention have to be created,” at least if we are to have any hope of perceiving the greater environment in which we move, in order not to fall victim to it.
We may begin our search for patterns with the technological dimension of our global environment. The most important environmental factor in our digital age has to do with the abundance of data available and our concomitant ability (or inability) to process it. For, as McLuhan put it: “In the age of information, it is information itself that becomes environmental.”
Some patterns are immediately visible, thanks to the digital technologies themselves that permit us to instantly view large shifts in social media’s perpetually dynamic environment. But what can we possibly learn by looking to “trending topics”? Are they not the very things that sweep us up, carrying us unthinkingly through the digital environment? McLuhan himself would have termed them only the visible technological “figures” that are determined somewhere by a hidden, environmental “ground.” What, then, is the hidden “ground” of the Brexit vote?
In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, which included turmoil in the planet’s financial exchanges, the Washington Post ran an essay that ended up going viral: “The British are frantically Googling what the E.U. is, hours after voting to leave it.” An urban legend began to take hold, according to which those who voted to leave the European Union would have to be viewed as impulsive and intellectually deficient, given the immediately disastrous consequences. Even if the immediate disaster could not be agreed upon as an indisputable fact, at least an appeal to the authority of Google statistics would be able to demonstrate an unmistakable trail pointing to the staggering stupidity of the “Leave” camp.
The problem with this instant technological myth, however, was quickly pointed out by those determined to question it. The Post myth claimed that searches for “What is the E.U.?” had “more than tripled” immediately after the referendum. But the obvious follow-up question should be: Tripled from what number? As it turned out, closer analysis of the data available from Google showed that “less than 1,000 Brits made that Google search.”
The greater concern McLuhan would point to here would be that any debate over “trending topics” and precise “Google statistics” would still be attentive only to various “figures” in the digital environment. The more important task is to recognize the hidden source that generates these visible patterns. The Brexit vote itself, because it was so unexpected by so many, seems to suggest that there is something hidden, but nevertheless still strongly dominant, that lies just outside of our online digital world’s awareness. On rare occasions, however, such as the Brexit vote, its hidden presence enters into awareness, inviting us to consider what this determining “ground” might be.
Think of the Brexit vote, as McLuhan might, as an unveiling of today’s Emperors of Europe. It is a brief chance to glimpse at what a child can see in the current environment, an obvious element that usually escapes our awareness. If a child were asked to explain the nakedness of the elites who oversee the bureaucratic aspects of the European Union, what would that child say?
The Washington Post essay seemed to be telling a story that appealed to a childlike desire for a simple narrative with a clear moral lesson about human folly. If we were to try and mine the myth, then, for a hidden truth buried within it, perhaps we could find something resonant. After all, the online world of combox comments and Twitter flame wars and instant punditry is a world of impulsiveness and thoughtlessness. The Post essay seemed to be registering the widespread self-awareness of the participants in social media about the moronic environment in which they are accustomed to move.
But are these common digital “figures” of stupidity the real, determining forces of the “figure” visible in the Brexit vote? Does modern voting simply amount to a debasement of politics that is derived from the shallow digital habits of impulsively “liking” pictures and various memes? The suggestion here is that voting in the new global village is a phenomenon of a tribal nature, expressing only in-group gestures of judgment about out-groups. Voting in the digital global theatre is reduced simply to nativist, emoji gestures. The Brexit vote is as dumb as the comments on YouTube videos.
However, I think a child would likely find this sort of inflation of the Post essay’s thesis—i.e., from a commentary on the Brexit vote to a commentary on all the gestures visible in digital media—to be a strangely baroque form of self-hatred on the part of users of technology. It sounds to me too much like the critics of television from decades ago, who liked to denounce the stupidity of television, but were nevertheless irresistibly drawn to watch it: either as a hypocritical guilty pleasure, or as an inescapable environmental necessity (if one were to survive as a socially acceptable modern human).
In the case of the Brexit vote, I think the childlike observation that McLuhan would endorse about the hidden, environmental “ground” of the vote is simply this: That an inference about the genuinely hidden human source of politics was what the vote was inviting us to make. In other words, a child might observe: “Well, come on, it’s obvious; only humans can vote.” And sometimes humans are unpredictable, in ways that defy all the usual technocratic attempts at forecasting.
However, this is not to say that a less technocratic (and more philosophical) way of understanding the vote is unattainable in the digital age. As the political philosopher Fr. James V. Schall observed (in his review summarizing the argument of Pierre Manent’s new book, Beyond Radical Secularism): “The places where people actually live demand sentiments of particular loves and loyalties, more human-sized units. Universal ‘rights,’ in this context, are a scourge that destroy[s] families, cities, fraternities, and other forms of association that go to make up a real common good, a good that allows the other goods to flourish and is not itself another abstract good.”
We are so accustomed to sizing up votes in ideological terms—as arguments either for, or against, certain abstract goods—that we are at a loss when a vote is made simply as a sincere gesture towards a concrete common good. Yes, if the gesture were merely xenophobic, then it would not be a sincere gesture. But are the elites so convinced by their customary certitudes that they are incapable of conceiving of the Brexit gesture as pointing towards a salutary concrete idea: namely, an idea of the common good taking its ground in human generosity?
As Mr. Manent argues in his book,
It is my contention that France’s Muslims will find their place only if the French nation accepts them, not just as rights-bearing citizens, along with other bearers of the same rights, but as a distinctive community to which that nation, shaped by Christianity, grants a place. Our Muslim fellow citizens must obviously enjoy the rights of French citizens without any kind of discrimination, which is not always the case at present. They cannot, however, find a place in a vacuum. They find their place only within a nation that has the spiritual and intellectual resources to be generous without being complacent.
In the case of the Brexit vote, we should at least be willing to entertain the possibility that the hidden ground of that vote, by rejecting the “vacuum” of the European Union, was sincerely generous, and sincerely human. Even in the inescapably digital world of the new global theatre, no matter how powerful or how impotent new technologies may make them feel, humans still (as always) need to feel at home. Unexpectedly, we may become reminded of this truth. Into the digital maelstrom, humans can still cast a generous vote to be human.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
 Marshall McLuhan, “The Relation of Environment to Anti-Environment”, University of Windsor Review 11.1 (Fall 1966): 1–10. Reprinted in Eric McLuhan and W. Terrence Gordon (eds.), Marshall McLuhan: Unbound (Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2005) as #4, to which references are keyed: p.18.
 Ibid., p.7.
 Ibid., p.17.
 Fung, Brian. “The British Are Frantically Googling What the E.U. Is, Hours after Voting to Leave It.” The Switch. The Washington Post, 24 June 2016. Web. 28 June 2016..
 Patterson, Steve. “Less Than 1,000 Brits Googled “What Is the EU?” After Referendum.” Steve Patterson. N.p., 26 June 2016. Web. 28 June 2016.
 “Islam and French Politics: A Reflection”, Homiletic and Pastoral Review (May 14, 2016).
 Pierre Manent, “Repurposing Europe”, First Things (April 2016).