‘The Will Of The People … Once upon a time, I would have thought the phrase absurdly un-British’
In a brilliant essay entitled The Reichstag Fire Next Time, the Russian American writer, Masha Gessen, argues that totalitarianism has already arrived in the United States.
It merely takes an event – one real or created – to make it full-blown and present.
Gessen is a Putin-watcher, and a refugee from that modern day Peter The Great/Stalin that the former KGB spy master appears to emulate.
She witnessed and wrote about his rise accelerated by a series of events. In 1999, bombings in Moscow apartments and in other Russian cities killed hundreds of people. This led eventually to the latest round of warfare in Chechnya.
Then there was the Moscow theatre siege during which the police – after three days – pumped the theatre full of sleeping gas, and shot the terrorists as they lay unconscious.
Gessen calls it: ‘A demonstration of the principle of summary execution.’ There was a crackdown on the media after that, a shut-down of certain words and phrases and thoughts. The press was cowed. Voices were stilled.
A few years later, more than three hundred people, mainly children, died following an attack at a school. Gessen points out that Putin used that atrocity to cancel the elections of local governors. In other words, Putin abolished the country’s federal structure. He made ‘The Other’ the rallying cry of his drive to own the country, to fashion it in his own image.
Gessen goes for the Big One in her essay, the Reichstag — the German parliament – fire on the evening of February 27, 1933.
She quotes Hitler: ‘There will be no mercy now. Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.’ The German Parliamentary elections were a week later. The Nazis won a resounding victory. The next day, Hitler rounded up ‘the usual suspects’, and new ones, too. Shortly after, came an ‘enabling act’ which allowed Hitler to do what he wanted, when he wanted, and to whoever he wanted. The rest, as they say, is history.
Goessen wrote The Reichstag Fire Next Time – the title is a homage to James Baldwin’s prophetic series of essays that previewed African American rage in the 1960s and beyond – to warn America about Donald Trump. Not the fact that Trump was something new on the scene. Trump had been accumulating for years, ever since the beginning of the never-ending ‘War on Terrorism’.
Even the blunt brutality of the name ‘Trump’ puts a coda to an era in which all of us felt under siege from Out There, and from our neighbours, too. Gradually, as these things tend to do, the question of patriotism and its concomitant call to arms-both literally and figuratively-has come to the fore.
Now to question Brexit, the referendum, is to be some sort of traitor, an undemocrat, a despiser of ‘The Will Of The People’.
This term alone should have anti-totalitarians running for the hills. Once upon a time, I would have thought the phrase a too absurdly un-British thing to say: A kind of Monty Python/John Cleese ‘Don’t Mention The war’ piss take. But it’s not. And it’s being said everywhere – Left and Right. And with it comes a nascent anti-immigrant tinge; a ‘no foreigners’ essence beginning to permeate everything.
But is the Royal Family trying to tell us something?
One of the reasons I thought that a kind of toxic patriotism would not take hold is the fact that the Royal Family, descendants of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, has its roots abroad. Philip is related to the last Czar of Russia. They’re a kind of pan-Europe in themselves. And although George The Fifth hurried to change their family name to ‘Windsor’, from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, in July, 1917, and the Family are quintessentially British, there always seemed to be something of that Other Part.
There is no doubt that the colour scheme the Queen wore while reading out the government’s new Business Plan, were the colours of the EU flag. That kind of wit and perhaps message could be understood to be a signal against the idea of Brexit’s ‘Make Britain Great Again’. Her choice of what to wear is never an accident.
That Joe Cox, MP, was assassinated in a street in broad daylight by a man who shouted ‘patriotic’ diatribes at her as he murdered her, has been played down by the right-wing press. To examine why she was killed would force the body politic, the pundits, to have to go deeper than even her murder.
The rise of assaults on women wearing hijabs in public places by men is on the rise. Many Polish-speakers, long settled here, are afraid to open their mouths in public. I know this because a friend of mine told me that while on the Tube, she saw something that she wanted to report, but was too afraid to speak. Too afraid to let her fellow travellers hear her Polish accent. Too afraid to exercise ‘See Something Say Something’.
She let what disturbed her go. She just didn’t want to be abused. And if it happened again, she would do the same thing, she told me: ‘I am a mother. I want to be around for my daughter.’
In subtle ways, this shut-down of the argument, of foreigners too, is everywhere. I have never before, in my three decades living here, ever felt that I had to think before I said something about the UK. That I can’t even make a joke. The push-back can be crude, stupid, and it can be subtle. This kind of New Normal extends not just to those of us born and raised abroad, but to anyone who challenges ‘The Will Of The People’.
This is to be expected on the Right. The School of Nigel Farage demands that every ‘ordinary’ Brexiteer have this kind of braggadocio, this ability to threaten violence in this combination serious/jokey/blokey manner. The BBC are running scared of the government and the government are afraid of head-banger, ‘die in the ditch’ Brexiteers whose toxic life work has been to sever this nation from its neighbours.
From Jacob Rees Mogg – a US sitcom version of an aristo – to Katie Hopkins, the cast of characters of ‘Brexit: The Good, The Bad and The Desperate’ herald the rise of new nationalism.
One way that we can tell this is true is by language. Some on the Left are beginning to explain their reasons for now ‘accepting Brexit’. It’s ‘because I’m a democrat’. This, of course, implies that if you don’t accept Brexit, or question the referendum itself, you are not.
I used to consider myself on the Left. But because I am thwarting the ‘Will of The People’ in opposing Brexit, I am now a ‘Centrist’. When I ask what that word means (I’m assuming that ‘Centrist’ is a bad thing; otherwise it wouldn’t be hurled at me) there comes back the sound of crickets. The gentle breeze made by tumbleweed rolling in the wind. In other words, I get no explanation.
When I ask some how they feel standing on the same side of the street as UKIP, for example albeit holding different placards, I get back ‘The Anthony Scaramucci Defense’.
Scaramucci (‘Mooch’) was vehemently anti-Brexit, and like Theresa May, made a passionate and rationale argument as to why the UK should stay in the European Union. In fact, the argument is classic.
Now, as Trump’s Head Shill, all he says by way of explanation for his volte face is: ‘It’s the past. Delete that.’
Gessen, who has seen the effects of language that excludes and labels human beings ‘The Other’, reminds us it’s not necessarily anymore about Left nor Right.
It is, once again, about ‘Open’.