Thursday 15 September 2022

The Queen is dead, and as I start writing this, scores of people are sacrificing hours of their precious life to stand in an Edinburgh queue that goes up the Royal Mile, across George IV Bridge, past Old College and around the Meadows to see her dead body lying in state in St Giles’ Cathedral. And I am sitting here, a thousand miles away, thinking that the mention of those places around the Scottish capital evoke more of a nostalgic feeling in me than the Queen’s passing ever did. What is wrong with me, I wonder? 

I admit that I felt a pang of something when I first heard the news. On the side of human emotion it was a sadness for the passing of an elderly woman, who, as many people pointed out, had evolved into “the nation’s granny”. Having been close to my own grandmother, I have a soft spot for grannies. And the picture of the Queen as the nice old lady with the marmalade sandwich in her handbag is certainly comforting of sorts. So, sadness-by-proxy? 

But the more persistent feeling I got when hearing about her passing was more similar to how I felt when I first watched footage of planes flying into the Twin Towers all those years ago. I can still remember that among all the shock and horror and sorrow for those, who lost their lives that day, was one clear thought that I just could not shake off – try as I might - as part of me desperately sought to join others in the lived experience of their grief. And that thought was 

“Oh my God, what are they going to get away with on the back of this?” 

I can't help it. It's the part of me that will forever be something of a “Cassandra” that informs my own personal threat model. And that meant that, for me, the existential fear that enveloped me that day was not the fear of Islamic terror, which – while an undeniable reality – I felt was still highly unlikely to ever affect me in real life unless I was truly unlucky. My predominant fear was the fear of the US government’s reaction to the attack. Because the place from which that reaction would come was the real centre of power. Power over people like me, that is, and over those more vulnerable than me. And that power, if it could be unchained from the constraints of accepted standards and conventions, was more frightening to me than the idea of being caught, at some point, in a burning building or a bombed out underground station. And there is nothing like a "constitutional moment" to do the unchaining.

Now, I know that quite a few people, who read this, will find this way of looking at things highly offensive because it violates what they perceive as a common standard of decency. Just as the US customs officer did when - having initially thanked us for still visiting the US when we arrived in San Francisco a few days after the attack - took offence when we reassured him that as (then) Londoners, we would not be deterred from living our lives by a terrorist attack. It was the term "terrorist attack" that set him off. Because for him, this was not “just” a terrorist attack, this was act of war against the US itself and all that it stood for. And we learned pretty quickly that minimising that sentiment while on US soil would place us firmly on the side of the “enemy”. 

In much in the same way, it seems, people are currently offended by those, who do not mourn the Queen in the way they feel is necessary and appropriate. But I stand by what I said in a recent Twitter rant: my own threat model is not the end of the stability that the Queen provided or or the fact that thing may now change from the "the way they have always been in my lifetime”. It is instead – again - the fear of what they may possibly be able to get away with on the back of this”.

The exploitation of grief for political aims

Certainly, the authoritarian response to, say protesters in Edinburgh, Oxford and London, does not bode well for the future of a country that faces the kind of problems the UK currently faces. 

But more than that, it is the exploitation of grief – whether real or manufactured - as a means for self-policing, as a means to make dissent “inappropriate”, that I fear. It’s the prospect of that grief subtly being channelled into the kind of numbing "patriotism" that allows governments to get away with literal murder, while they keep their populace in a trance of comforting satisfaction with its own self-image. Britain has form in this, as Nasrine Malike highlights in this Guardian piece much better than I ever could. 

But unlike Nasrine, I cannot muster the confidence that the Queen’s death will force the country and its people to face the “imperfections” of its national psyche. Judging from everything I am observing so far, I fear the opposite will happen. Specifically, I fear that – just as happened with the US in 2001 - we will be faced with a Britain that embraces the idea of its own exceptionalism with even more quasi-religious fervour than before. 

Because that’s what we are encouraged to do by every news story in every media outlet that requires us to pledge allegiance to an idea of Britain that no longer exists, if indeed it ever really existed. It is, as historian Dan Snow hinted at in this interview, likely one of the reasons why so much is made in the British media of the sheer number of people currently queuing in London, to see the Queen's body. "Look!", they will say, "look at the outpouring of grief among the people. They love her, so whatever she stood for must have been right to engender such love." But what did she actually stand for but the pomp and circumstance that protects an establishment that has been desperate to protect its position as "ruler" in the face of an increasing unwillingness of the ruled to grant them that power?

Be afraid! Be very afraid!

So rather than feeling sadness at the Queen's passing, it scares the bejesus out of me that criticism of that establishment is now portrayed as disrespect for "a little old lady, who never did anyone any harm" (didn't she?). 

I am scared when I watch people standing by when police “protect the peace” by arresting those, who exercise their right to dissent. 

I am scared when I see snipers being placed on the roof of the Scottish parliament in a show of force. 

I am scared when even countries like my own get in on the action with wall-to-wall coverage about how much the British loved their bejewelled nana, and isn’t it just lovely and wouldn’t it be nice, if we could all be like that? 

I am scared when, for several days, my Twitter feed mostly consists of weepy statements by otherwise clear-thinking regime critics of "how much this has affected them" (insert surprise at own depth of feeling) and who all of a sudden think nothing of retweeting puff pieces about the Queen’s noble spirit, her sense of humour, her love for her dogs and her family (in that order, it seems), and her ability to hold the country together. It scares me because I know in my bones that what her job really entailed was the protection and reinforcement of a British (English?) self-image as basically a good, kind and generous people that want to get along with their neighbours (if only said neighbours weren’t so goddamn obnoxious or so childlike that they constantly needed saving from themselves). 

Using grief as intellectual curare

And I particularly feel that fear when even a liberal commentator like Ian Dunt tweets that he unfollowed people, presumably for showing support for US academic Uju Anja’s right to free speech when she in turn tweeted that she wished the Queen an “excruciatingly painful death” for her role in the colonisation and enslavement of people in Trinidad and Nigeria, her parents’ countries of origin. 

You can think whatever you want about that tweet. Agreed, it wasn't a particularly nice thing to say. But personally, I disagree with Ian Dunt when he says that it doesn’t make a difference if you’re on the side of the marginalised when you tweet something like that. I think it makes a great deal of difference, but that’s another blog post entirely and maybe not even one that I, as a white woman, should be writing. 

But the fact that, as a self-proclaimed liberal, you unfollow people you yourself rate as “decent campaigners and academics” for expressing this kind of support for the right of a marginalised person to speak her own pain, scares me more than I can say, because it is so symptomatic of the kind of intellectual curare that we are currently being injected with, just so that we can cling on to that picture of ourselves as empathic human beings, who want to feel kind and generous at all cost. But kind and generous to whom? 

It always starts with the flag

I expect that I feel this fear primarily because, as a German of a certain age, who was trained in "Vergangenheitsbew√§ltigungalmost from the moment I left the womb, I will always be suspicious of this kind of exploitation of emotion. Equally, as a person of a certain age, who has lived through the period following 9/11, I have already spent years witnessing first-hand an entire country's grief being instrumentalised to shore up uncritical support for the human-rights violating actions of its war- and power-hungry government. 

Then, as in 1933, as now, it started with people wrapping themselves in the flag like it was a form of adult comfort blanky. And not just that. This "personal act" comes with an expectation that everyone else is not just ok with you doing that, but that they have to respect and salute salute you for it, even as that flag had been and would be used to justify untold atrocities.  

All of which reminds me of an article US author Barbara Kingsolver published just after 9/11, in which she tried to reclaim her flag from those "patriots" who claim to stand for US values but who oppose “the lone representative of democracy, who was brave enough to vote her conscience [with regard to the PATRIOT ACT] instead of following an angry mob.” In that article, which came across to me at the time as a clear-sighted analysis in another sea of critical minds gone AWOL, she specifically criticises the kind of patriotism that “threatening free speech with death”. That kind of patriotism, she says, “is infuriated by thoughtful hesitation, constructive criticism of our leaders and pleas for peace”. And for those kind of "patriots “the American flag stands for intimidation, censorship, violence, bigotry, sexism, homophobia and shoving the Constitution through a paper shredder”.

She was right, of course. 

(Re)capture the flag?

But reading the article again now, it occurs to me just how much she is, nevertheless, still attached to that flag even as she criticises what she sees as its misuse. So much so that she sees it as her own "patriotic" duty to “recapture [it] from the men now waving it in the name of censorship and jingoism.” And I just don’t know, if that is possible if you ever want to move forward. 

After 1945, Germany changed its flag from the old red, black and white to black, red and gold. It retained its national anthem but decided that, from then on, only the third verse would be sung. Both, the flag and the anthem predated the Nazi regime by several decades. But the decision was taken nonetheless, because it was felt that both had become powerful signifiers of the ideology of Arian supremacy that the Nazis used to justify the genocide that Germans had committed. Germany made a break with its national symbols because even though they had not been created with that supremacy and genocide in mind, they were now inextricably attached to it. 

So, in today's Germany, the people, who still insist on proudly flying the old flag or promoting the old insigniae are not just innocent history buffs. Just like those people flying the Confederate flag don't do so to celebrate Scarlett O-Hara being a Southern Belle with a lot of beaus. Their allegiance to those particular flags and symbols means something. 

Specifically, it means that they are unwilling to accept responsibility for the atrocities that were committed in the name of those insigniae. It means an unwillingness to see those atrocities (assuming they acknowledge the fact that they were atrocities) as a meaningful part of the history of the country they inhabit today. It means that they do not feel compelled, to learn from that history, to account or provide compensation for it. And most importantly, those who proudly demonstrate their continued attachment to those flags, clearly also still identify with current meaning for those that were harmed in its name  - namely a reflection of their own perceived supremacy and exceptionalism and of the continued subjection and unworthiness of others. 

Cannot the same be said about a – however fond, nostalgic and emotional attachment to the Crown and it’s insigniae? And shouldn’t the fact that, in the UK today, we are still not allowed to say it, bother us more? 

"At least I'm [insert exceptionalist concept of your choice]"

The UK is at the precipice of a dangerous period in its history. Scarcely protected by its unwritten gentlemen’s agreement of a Constitution at a time when there is a notable absence of gentlemen (and women) among its political and corporate class, their unchecked greed and contempt for those outside their own circles risks hurtling us all towards possible societal collapse. This is rarely good news for those whom “the law binds but does not protect”, but sometimes it is also not good news for their rulers. History has shown, after all, that a fair few “Let-them-eat-cakers” ended up losing their head. 

However, history has also shown that giving people something to not just feel good about but to feel “better than” about, can unite them in a way that stifles resistance to those actually causing them harm. It has also shown that providing a distraction at a dicey point in the proceedings can be a lifesaver for those in power, who might otherwise be called to account. 

If it is true that humans can only feel six emotions of which only one - “joy” - is a positive one (and hence one that leads to the affirmation of the status quo), and if it is also true that we are led by our emotions but are limited in the amount of emotion each of us can actually feel at any one time, then manipulating people's emotion for one's own benefit is a powerful tool to wield. So, if an otherwise ineffective and abusive government can orchestrate it so that people's sadness (over the Queen’s passing) replaces their anger (over said government’s lack of action in relation to the cost-of-living crisis), and if it can then gently turn that sadness into joy (over having a new King and because they are now once again assured of their own superior status as the citizen of a "Great" nation), then it will have pulled off a remarkable feat of manipulation that might just about allow that government to save its bacon even while it fries theirs. 

So ... what are they going to get away with on the back of this this time, I wonder? When we’re not looking because we’re distracted? When our natural empathy pre-disposes us to feel kindly also towards those that would harm and "other" us? When our defences are weakened purely because we are humans, who fear change and crave comfort and safety and familiarity? And when we are vulnerable to having those feelings exploited by those who seemingly have no scruples? 

I have no answer to this. But I just cannot get away from this Cassandra-like feeling that we’re being played here in a way that we will all come to regret.

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