27 February 2011

Image Is Everything

According to the Guardian newspaper, "Huge numbers of Britons would support an anti-immigration English nationalist party if it was not associated with violence and fascist imagery." The poll found that 48% would favor the party if only it did not remind them of the bad old days of National Socialism.

The article makes interesting reading. Here's an excerpt:

    The poll suggests that the level of backing for a far-right party could equal or even outstrip that in countries such as France, the Netherlands and Austria. France's National Front party hopes to secure 20% in the first round of the presidential vote next year. The Dutch anti-Islam party led by Geert Wilders attracted 15.5% of the vote in last year's parliamentary elections.

    Anti-fascist groups said the poll's findings challenged the belief that Britons were more tolerant than other Europeans. "This is not because British people are more moderate, but simply because their views have not found a political articulation," said a report by the Searchlight Educational Trust, the anti-fascist charity that commissioned the poll.

    According to the survey, 39% of Asian Britons, 34% of white Britons and 21% of black Britons wanted all immigration into the UK to be stopped permanently, or at least until the economy improved. And 43% of Asian Britons, 63% of white Britons and 17% of black Britons agreed with the statement that "immigration into Britain has been a bad thing for the country". Just over half of respondents – 52% – agreed with the proposition that "Muslims create problems in the UK".

In some ways these results are not terribly shocking. Reportage about Islam is usually one sided and misleading. Most non-Muslims probably believe that Islamism is the same thing as Islam. [In reality, of course, they are not the same and are only vaguely related as this excellent documentary makes clear. In point of fact, Islamism is a political ideology (much like communism or fascism) that makes a mockery of the central tenants of Islam.] Given the misconception, it is hardly surprising that Britons would be fearful. It is easier to misunderstand and hate than it is to seek comprehension, empathy, and solutions to difficult challenges.

Likewise, the notion that so many Brits are anxious that their countrymen unfurl flags (both literally and figuratively) is also not surprising. One need only look to Michael Billig's Banal Nationalism to understand why.

What strikes me, however, is the reason that so many give for not throwing their support behind the British National Party (BNP) or its ilk: the perceived relationship between these parties and fascism.

One might posit the following hypothesis. The story of postwar British history is often presented as a narrative of malaise. The empire fell. The industrial economy vanished. Britain ceased to be a major superpower. Everything that made Britain "great" appeared on the wane.

Under such circumstances, what did the country have? The war. People were united then. Good and evil were obvious. The importance of class diminished. It was truly, as Churchill put it, the country's "finest hour." To forget that the great struggle was against fascism and to invite that ideology in with open arms is unthinkable, even though most Britons know only the nostalgic memory of the war.

Nationalist parties across Britain must contend with this reality. During the Watch Group incident in Scotland during the early 1990s when two small groups campaigned against English "white settlers," at least one media outlet equated Settler Watch with the Nazis. The Scottish National Party, which did not support the Watch Groups, responded by announcing that it was not a fascist party and was in no way similar to Hitler's NSDAP. To anybody paying attention, this was obvious. The catch is that much of the success or failure of nationalist groups is tied to perception, memory, and nostalgia.

Nationalism gains its strength by forwarding an imagined past and invented traditions. Yet this fact is a catch-22. Just as strength comes from the past, so too does weakness. What version of the past is a party tied to?

Voters (increasingly?) identify themselves through the lens of their party, just as they do through the consumer items that they purchase. Many of us believe that we are a product of the past, almost as if our personalities, skills, and interests are a result of genetics rather than our own efforts and hard work. Many genealogists seem to think, for example, that we are who we are because Uncle Cleo was a mason and Auntie Jean a secretary. Surely our ability to build things or to keep track of appointments must be related! If one comes from a long line of freedom fighters, then surely fighting for freedom is in the bones. It is nature. It is inescapable.

If a political group is imagined in connection with unpleasant memories, voters will seldom willingly equate themselves with that past. If Great Uncle Abner flew in the Battle of Britain or Grandmother Adele kept things organized in a shelter during the Blitz, few can fathom turning aside that legacy to support anyone or anything associated with the enemy their relatives so bravely faced down more than seventy years ago.

Memory, especially nostalgic memory, matters. A lot.

So, it is striking that so many more people than in other European countries would support the BNP than would support similar parties elsewhere in Europe, but they do not do so given the association with fascism.

24 October 2010

1641 Rebellion Goes Online

Irish national memory has long been haunted by the 1641 Rebellion and its aftermath when Oliver Cromwell cut a bloody swath through the country, reportedly slaughtering most of the inhabitants of Drogheda.

This past week, a new online archive of 8,000 depositions given by eye witnesses to the 1641 Rebellion went online. The archive includes 19,000 pages, spread over 31 volumes.

This collection is interesting from the standpoint of national memory, but is equally fascinating for the fact that it was launched by Mary McAleese, president of the Irish Republic, and Ian Paisley, former head of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland—a pairing that would have been completely unimaginable only a few years ago.

In a land haunted by memory, McAleese and Paisley were both anxious to address legacies of trauma. The Irish Independent reported:

[McAleese said] "They (the depositions) bring us deep into that dysfunctional and insane world where neighbour killed neighbour and where a ferociously harsh winter ensured that many more were to perish from the cold as they fled from the encircling violence."

"Let us hope that their voices and their suffering, far from driving us deeper into our sectarian bunkers, do the opposite and inspire us to keep on working to ensure an end forever to such suffering."

In giving his own reaction to the exhibition, Mr Paisley called on the public to "grasp the hand" of history. "Let us introduce these parts of our history in the right way to our children".

He added: "Trouble does not discriminate.

"Our fellow men and women of the 1600s knew trouble like, thankfully, none of us have ever experienced."

Quite a change from the bad old days of the Troubles.

10 October 2010

The Tea Party Goes Global

The Guardian newspaper published an article today that links the far-right English Defence League (EDL) with the American Tea Party movement. The author, Mark Townsend, reports that the connection between the two groups is based on mutual opposition to the "Islamification" of the west.

Townsend notes that "With the Tea Party said to benefit from millions of dollars of funding from conservative foundations, experts warn an alliance between the EDL and extremist elements within the US movement could allow the English group to invest in wider recruitment and activism." This possibility is disturbing given that the EDL has already led a series of violent marches in English cities.

This trans-Atlantic links story is certainly of interest from the standpoint of American politics. With mid-term elections looming in less than a month, one wonders how far voters are willing to support a group that evidently allies itself with race-driven nationalist politics? Assuming that most people who will vote for Tea Party candidates are moderate or right-leaning (as most American voters arguably are), how much will these voters willingly swallow? How far are they willing to go?

It is also interesting from the perspective of nationalist politics. I have always been struck by the degree of connection, at least emotional connection, between nationalist groups in often very different countries and circumstances. There is, for example, an entire wall of murals in West Belfast dedicated to celebrating non-Irish nationalist movements. While one might posit a variety of explanations for such connections, I am not aware of any systematic study of them. Such a study might provide very interesting information about how national identities develop and change over time.

Finally, is it not a little bit curious that the Tea Party celebrates memory of an attack on British economic and political domination on the one hand while throwing its weight behind a far right British nationalist group on the other? The topic of political memory in America certainly deserves future study.

12 September 2010

America's Debate Over Membership

The terrifying anti-Muslim rhetoric surrounding the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the proposed Islamic center near the New York World Trade Center site continues. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof has written a worthwhile editorial entitled "Is This America?" Kristof writes about a disturbing blog post published in The New Republic. In that post, the author wonders "whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse."

Kristof replies:
Thus a prominent American commentator, in a magazine long associated with tolerance, ponders whether Muslims should be afforded constitutional freedoms. Is it possible to imagine the same kind of casual slur tossed off about blacks or Jews? How do America’s nearly seven million American Muslims feel when their faith is denounced as barbaric?

This is one of those times that test our values, a bit like the shameful interning of Japanese-Americans during World War II, or the disgraceful refusal to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe.
On the same topic, CBS Sunday Morning ran two worthwhile stories this morning. The first deals with the fears of self-described "patriotic" Muslims in middle America. The second is a heart-felt plea for an end to the "anger" that, according to 9/11 widow Nikki Stern, now pervades American society.

So continues the painful debate about who is covered by American foundation myths regarding freedom of religion and the guarantee of "liberty and justice for all."

06 September 2010

American Muslims: "Will We Ever Belong?"

At its best, nationalism unifies people and encourages them to build vibrant cultural, political, and economic traditions. At its worst, nationalism is exclusive. It creates insiders and outsiders, fueling violence, hatred, and worse. Or, at least, that is a dichotomy that apologists for nationalism often draw.

The current environment in America is nothing if not exclusive. Opinion polls show a growing distrust of Islam and events certainly reflect a growing threat of violence against Muslims. A small church in Florida plans to burn the Koran to mark the anniversary of 9/11—a plan that sparked international condemnation because the Koran is, for Muslims, literally the word of God. It is sacred. A Muslim cab driver in New York was recently stabbed. Right wing politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin seem anxious to add their voices to the debate, roundly condemning what they view as extremism in the Islamic community. Whereas the overwhelming majority of American Muslims view themselves very much as Americans with a long and proud history in the United States, they increasingly find themselves defined as outsiders.

In a New York Times feature story, Dr. Ferhan Asghar, an orthopedic spine surgeon in Cincinnati commented “We worry: Will we ever be really completely accepted in American society? In no other country could we have such freedoms — that’s why so many Muslims choose to make this country their own. But we do wonder whether it will get to the point where people don’t want Muslims here anymore.”

In the same story, Eboo Patel, founder and director of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based community service program that endeavors to reduce religious conflict, said "I am more scared than I've ever been—more scared than I was after Sept. 11."

None of this is entirely new. Edward Curtis, an historian at Indiana University-Purdue University and author of Muslims in America: A Short History, told National Public Radio that at least some Americans have feared Islam since the colonial period (when the first Muslims arrived in the Americas). "Cotton Mather thought that Muslims were a sign of a Christian schism," the author said. "That kind of misunderstanding or negative view of Islam has been with us always. It's kind of come and gone in cycles."

Yet the current anti-Islam backlash is different, if only because there is now a significant Muslim population in the United States. Curtis added "I would say that until there was a significant population of Muslims here ... that kind of prejudice didn't lead into discrimination and hate crimes until really pretty recently."

Many commentators now point out that the anti-Muslim rhetoric has a striking resemblance to "what German media was saying about Jews in the 1920s and 1930s." [The Nazi-link is now made willy-nilly by anybody seeking a short-hand for "evil," but recent events do seem to resemble many instances when a majority community sought to exclude a minority.]

In recent days, a group of concerned Muslims decided to respond with an educational campaign, My Faith, My Voice, a series of web ads that challenge the more xenophobic ideas being voiced.

The entire debate raises an interesting question about nationalism: is it possible to have an inclusive nationalism or does nationalism necessarily have a disturbing and hateful underbelly?

I often cite Michael Billig's excellent distinction between nationalisms, noting that nationalism is most often banal. During such periods, nationalism can be inclusive. Yet in moments of crisis, which themselves might be as pedestrian as a sporting match, hot nationalism emerges with its often xenophobic fears.

For many Americans, this certainly feels like a period of crisis. Unemployment is high, many politicians seem anxious to raise the temperature of debate for their own ends, and the war in Afghanistan drags on. As a result, America's usually banal nationalism turned hot. The proposed Muslim cultural center near ground zero, still raw memories of the terrorist attacks, the on-going war against the Taliban, and a total unwillingness on the part of all too many public figures to clearly distinguish between Islamic (religious ideas premised on a desire for peace dating from the seventh century) and Islamist thought (an extremist and xenophobic political ideology dating from the twentieth century) made Muslims the logical target. Just as there was little effort by Charlemagne's regime to understand the "Saracens" battled in the medieval poem Song of Roland, so now many American nationalists strike out at a convenient "other."

Is it possible for humans to remain inclusive in a crisis or is the desire to assign blame simply too strong? Can educational campaigns reverse the slide toward fear?

SNP Changes Plans on Independence Vote

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has abandoned its pledge, first made three and a half years ago, to hold a referendum on Scottish independence later this year. According to the party, the move is necessary in order to "appeal over the heads" of Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Tory leaders who are expected to vote down any move to hold a plebiscite.

An SNP spokesmen told The Scotsmen: "Tactically, we are deciding whether to introduce a bill to allow the unionist parties to vote it down or rather to publish the bill and concentrate on canvassing public support.

"A new, re-elected SNP government will be in a powerful position to secure passage of the referendum, having successfully mobilised the people over the blocking tactics of the unionist parties."

Opposition parties responded with "derision" and attacked the SNP for "squandering" larger amounts of money on the abandoned vote policy.

The most recent polls show the SNP some 10-points behind Labour in Scotland.

ETA Announces Ceasefire

ETA, the Basque separatist organization, announced another ceasefire yesterday raising hopes of a renewed peace process.

The group previously declared a ceasefire in 2006, only to launch a bomb attack in Madrid nine months later. The attack killed two Ecuadorian immigrants. In total, more than 800 people have died during ETA's 50-year campaign to attain Basque independence from Spain.