Bigotry and the Symbols of Freedom

Source: Ian Buruma, Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, Project Syndicate, June 29

The most sickening irony for a European of my age and disposition lies in the way narrow-minded and dispiriting nationalism is so often expressed. Bigotry against immigrants is cloaked in the very symbols of freedom that we grew up admiring, including film clips of Spitfires and references to Churchill’s finest hour.

The wilder Brexiteers – shaven heads, national flag tattoos – resemble the English football hooligans infesting European stadiums with their particular brand of violence. But the genteel ladies and gentlemen in the shires of Little England, cheering the lies of Farage and Johnson with the kind of ecstasy once reserved for British rock stars abroad, are no less disquieting.

Many Brexiteers will say that there is no contradiction. The wartime symbols were not misplaced at all. To them, the argument for leaving the EU is no less about freedom than World War II was. “Brussels,” after all, is a dictatorship, they say, and the British – or, rather, the English – are standing up for democracy. Millions of Europeans, we are told, agree with them.

It is indeed true that many Europeans take this view. But most are followers of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and other populist rabble-rousers, who promote plebiscites to undermine elected governments and abuse popular fears and resentments to clear their own paths to power.

The EU is not a democracy; nor does it pretend to be one. But European decisions are still made by sovereign – and, more important, elected – national governments after endless deliberation. This process is often opaque and leaves much to be desired. But the liberties of Europeans will not be better served by blowing up the institutions that were carefully constructed in the ruins of the last calamitous European war.

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One response to “Bigotry and the Symbols of Freedom

  1. mike holliday

    Popular symbols belong to the people and people can appropriate, and misappropriate them.
    Prof Buruma’s distress is real, but he can not dictate who or what can use symbols of national pride.
    The clue lies in the words national pride. I was born in Britain, but have not lived there for 50 years. I visited four years ago. It distressed me that the whole country seemed locked in a time warp.
    It was as if all their achievements since 1945 counted for nought. Great numbers of people was slavishly devoted to wartime exploits and victories. I decided it was a reaction to a real or perceived loss of sovereignty that stemmed from being `ruled’ by Brussels.
    It did not help that local politicians routinely blamed `Europe’ for any decision they felt would be unpopular.
    Nor did it help that so much of the advantage of belonging to a European union appeared in the country’s south east, while a rust-belt of unemployment, under-employment, closed factories, shipyard and mines covered large areas of the midlands and north.
    I suspect the surprise expressed by various European Union observers was a result of their viewing London and the south east as representative of Britain. I wonder how many ventured to Bolton or Barnsley?
    Prof Buruma’s concern about the use of iconic images like the Spitfire to promote a message that was less about freedom than `The Few’ would ever have imagined is actually an cry against nationalism and its fellow traveller, national pride.
    As the old love and marriage song says, you cain’t have one without the other.