Flashbulb Satire: Horrors Preordained

25 June 2016

Some thoughts on the EU Referendum...

It starts with a slur. With a fair-headed, middle-aged white man telling a black undergraduate to “move on, monkey.” Or else. Those were the days: handing out flyers for a nightclub in Newcastle’s city centre. A year-round, all-weather gig: rain or shine, ice or sleet, there’s a dependable clan of disparate stopgap nocturnal wage-slaves promoting the weekend ritual of release and hedonism to the broke and boozy-breathed. There’s a particular togetherness to be found and felt among such workers at the colder end of winter—and on Sundays, when footfalls dwindle and sidewalks grow eerily empty, and passing time as quickly and harmlessly as possible becomes a top priority.

November 2011. Toward the tail end of one such Sunday shift (any drink a pound, no really), the hoodie-wearing, flyer-carrying, work-shirking dispensers of trivial information outside The Gate—a food and entertainment complex on Newcastle’s Newgate Street—were quick to note the prowling, quiet presence of an outsider twice their age. He too had flyers, he too wore a hoodie. No lanyard: no “license to distribute free literature,” as the local council words it.

No sooner had our new competitor arrived than it became clear what he was selling. A silent groan on my part as I noted the embroidered knight’s shield, the St. George’s flag cutting through it like a Halloween hot cross bun. A Latin slogan to complete its resemblance to a sweater-and-polo primary-school uniform: IN HOC SIGNO VINCES. On these occasions I’m instinctively happy to judge a book by its cover: trust appearances, trust fashion, to speak for themselves. His ugliness came spilling out like unsuppressable vomit, an oral diarrhoea belched from a snarling throat like something out of John Carpenter.

Except, the delivery was voluntary and measured. An assault: “Move on, monkey. Me here, you there.” His fat finger, nail bitten to shreds, pointing to some imagined elsewhere down the road—the Bigg Market, the most famous stretch, for worse and better, of Newcastle’s glorious nightlife. I haven’t forgotten the expression on my colleague’s face: a confusing mix of hurt, confusion and dignity. And the razor-sharp survival mechanism that kicked in, which seemed to possess his entire body as he began, in that very instant, to appease this older man’s request and walk away with all of us merely watching.

In May 2014, Michael Rosen published a poem on his blog. I was reminded of it recently when passages from it circulated my social media channels as part of an anti-fascist meme:

Fascism arrives as your friend.
It doesn’t walk in saying,
“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”

Fascism as friend. Experienced, strategic, cunning: it dresses in a suit and tie and cloaks its language in easily decoded dog-whistles. But there’s another kind too. The salivating pitbull, the impatient assassin. The dunderheaded, potbellied ghost of Derek Vinyard. Our eternally besieged street soldier, on 24/7 crisis mode. An eternal avenger of Lee Rigby, a red-alert timebomb of cracked conspiracy theories, dispatched into an imagined urban warfare to target the first brown-skinned person he spots.

I intervened. Tried to disarm him with logic, chitchat; useless, I know, but you have to work within legalities: agitate with a straight face, fire out queries rather than accusations. I asked to see his flyers, feigned a cursory interest, began asking questions about why his promotional literature claimed that the English Defence League is not racist on the one hand and why he’d just called my friend a monkey and a nigger on the other.

Tick tock. There’s a change in body language: chest out, fists half-clenched. He’s about half a foot shorter than me but is in my space, my face, a proud Viking terrier against some bottle-shouldered clever-clogs whose invisible smirk he’d like to smash with the thick end of a glass bottle. Nut me till there’s nothing left of my skull but a chalk-like bubbly crimson.

Impressions are one thing, proximity another: this could to foreign eyes be an eyes-locked movie romance. Except no foreigners are allowed here: he’s sneering through clenched teeth about an incident a week prior, in which some poor fictional white lad was set about by a gang of similarly fictional Asian youths, and that he’s here to take back the streets. The streets are, to reiterate, empty but for six or so nightclub promoters.

I don’t quite remember how this standoff ended but I do know that it fizzled rather than fizzed. The man steps down, drifts off. His victim, who hadn’t disappeared as requested after all, is embarrassed and upset. I presume it isn’t the first time he’s encountered such abominable behaviour. Our colleagues, I noticed, had tactfully taken up a patch of pavement located within earshot but at a distance that might also help insulate them from any actual involvement. It was only after the raging, potentially murderous bigot had gone that they wandered back over, expressing concern while essentially playing dumb.

“Fuck it,” I said, quick to quash any gossipy post-mortem by those who are more comfortable playing witness, who prefer to get high on the fumes of solidarity only after the smoke has ceased. “It’s dealt with. It’s done.”

* * *

Newcastle was the first English city to declare its results in the EU Referendum on Thursday night. There had, early on, been a number of jokes about the city’s footballing rivalry with Sunderland spilling over into a task as tedious as counting ballot papers. As the Independent noted: “Sunderland prides itself on running a slick operation to count votes, and its three constituencies were the first to declare at the last general election. The city uses students to run the ballot boxes to the tables of counters, many of whom are bank tellers used to quickly handling cash.”

As giddy scenes began to emerge, of ballot papers spilling out of plastic storage boxes inside the nation’s rundown leisure centres and its drearily-lit town halls, a counter-joke surfaced: forget speed, prioritise accuracy. This was, they said, a referendum in which every vote counted—as opposed to what, we might have asked, wondering if the need to stress this apparently unique selling point told us all we needed to know about other elections here in the UK.

The joke turned neurotic, serious. When Newcastle’s results showed that its residents had voted to Remain by only one percent rather than a more emphatic margin, there was a murmur of keyboard-bound concern. Was it going to be that kind of night? As it turned out, no. It was going to be much, much worse. When Sunderland, which had been expected to vote Leave by six points, announced that it had done so by 22, the city became a hashtag. As the British pound fell quicker than ice off the Saturn V, Lindsay Lohan—tuning in for a night of botched geography and canny product placement—Instagrammed about Chanel and asked where Sunderland was and if Sarah Palin lived there (“Lol”).

There were fewer laughs to be had by around four a.m., when Nigel Farage regained physical form under a satire of flashbulbs, following an uncharacteristically timid, thin-air vanishing act earlier in the night. He returned to the earth realm to claim victory on behalf of the country’s decent, ordinary people. As the belly-height, low-angle camera captured his speech, which made deliberate and brazen reference to last week’s murder of Jo Cox by a man with long-form ties to white supremacy, the horror seemed preordained. “We’ve done it without a single bullet being fired,” Farage barked, simultaneously wiping his party’s hands clean of Thomas Mair while inevitably using his murder of Cox as a loaded barb. (Never mind the implication that, if necessary, Farage would have advocated bullets being fired.)

The nightmare appeared as slick and engineered as the Dalí-designed dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound; pre-loaded, pre-coded. The tailored mise-en-scène, the regular cast. There was David Dimbleby, with his reptile eyes and lizard skin (all the better for pulling televised all-nighters), asking figures like Alex Salmond about betting odds before cutting him off mid-sentence to press him on something equally inane. There was Jeremy Vine, as the suited and booted protagonist of a new crossover remake of Minority Report and The Lawnmower Man, a dead, dancing avatar bouncing across his studio-size, computer-generated graphic and insisting that the heights of the colourised stalks protruding from his interactive map were extremely important. Later, there’d be Laura Kuenssberg, with her blink-per-spoken-syllable euphoria at the thought of transmogrifying the entire enterprise into a weapon with which she could finally crucify Jeremy Corbyn.

And there was Farage, the BBC’s pet gargoyle, a mascot for pachydermous insouciance and open xenophobia, the kind of horrible nuisance who leads catcall demands for a country-pub lock-in. The survivor of a 2010 plane crash that probably ought to have killed him, Nige is the uncle your family never speaks about because he used to bully your dad to heartbroken tears for not despising every queer, woman and negro on the planet. On Good Morning Britain hours after a Leave victory became apparent, the UKIP leader made the most of his airtime by disowning the Leave campaign’s pre-Referendum promise to pledge £350 million a week to the NHS.

* * *

I had grown impatient for Richard Seymour’s take on things—which did indeed come, in predictably no-nonsense fashion, just before six a.m. “The vote cannot be reduced to racism and nationalism—but that is the primary way in which it has been organised and recruited and directed, and that is the primary way in which the outcome will be experienced.”

As one of the founding editors of Salvage, Seymour was jointly responsible for ‘Neither Westminster Nor Brussels’ (22 April 2016), the most comprehensively tortured evaluation of the EU Referendum that I had read going into the vote itself. So bad were the options available, one had to toothcomb this text to extract an actual stance on voting (my italics):

Any left pro-Brexiter who believes a Brexit vote is a triumph for them is deluding themselves: it will inaugurate a crowing reaction. Any radical Bremainer celebrating a future win is celebrating the success of Cameron’s strategy of Europe-wide neoliberalism in the service of British capital and the state.

Though we cannot vote for, let alone campaign for [a leftist Brexit], still less can we for a movement absolutely hegemonised by the hard right, and which will without doubt leave them, should it succeed, resurgent.

The terms were set. Success for Remain would be cause for relief rather than celebration, a ditch to die in rather than a fort to defend. But success for Leave would be cause for nothing in the immediate term but despair. It would enable and help validate a rampant fascism, the vampiric ogre that’s always keen to drift back into the mainstream of political life. In this instance, it would be assisted by the floppy-mopped monster-clown, Boris Johnson, a man who would happily be beaten to death if it was to somehow further his career.

As Remain’s death agony continued into Friday morning, I attempted to glean a more optimistic reading from the detritus of Broken Britain. To a British friend living in New Zealand, I wrote: “The hope is that regardless of who this gifts governmental power to in the short-term, we might read a Leave vote as an expression of disaffection from parliamentary politics, from the neoliberal doctrine of the EU, and from the current UK government as much as it is an expression of fascism, hate, paranoia.”

Lexiters, those belonging to the so-called leftist component of a Brexit vote, began to out themselves on social media. Keen to distance themselves from the idea that they are lily-livered racists, they have been appropriately disparaged, vilified. Engaging with some of them, I have found nothing positive to speak of in their stance: since political decisions demand judgement based upon consequences rather than intentions, their naivety here is indefensible; their continued naivety, unforgivable.

Indulging a pal’s Bremain-sceptic friend heading into Thursday, I noted—as others had elsewhere—that while not everyone voting Leave would be racist, every racist voting would do so for Leave. When he didn’t quite digest those stakes, I sharpened them: while one had every right to vote Leave without being a racist, it was impossible to vote Leave without betraying the working class. Put another way, one could be utopian, here—voting for a situation entirely dislocated from the material dilemma at hand—or one could be political.

Two things. First, some Lexiters (plus thinkpiece reprobates) have framed any attempt to engage them at this point as sour grapes, claiming that had the decision gone the other way, the Leave campaign would be fully expected to accept the result and move on. And would accept the result and move on. On the contrary: we know all too well from history—distant and recent—the extents to which a hard right will go in order to advance its cause: it will cheat, scheme, slander, usurp. It will kill, plant tumours, grow back like a stubborn wart. Second, the claim is that the British people have spoken, they have exercised their democratic right: like it or lump it, that’s the wondrous glory of democracy.

But a democracy requires two things. It requires participation and suffrage, yes. But it also requires actual choices—not only actual choices, but a broad and deep understanding of these and how they differ. While the EU Referendum boasted a 72% turnout, the highest since the 1992 general election, the terms upon which it was proposed and fought ultimately precluded any radical difference between what were two miserable options. Consequently, the simplicity of a Yes/No vote was left open to hijack, a kind of double-sharpening into a battle campaigned through hatred, fear and ignorance.

* * *

They say there is no continuity between a Lexit and a Brexit. But while the intentions behind their ballot-paper crosses were different, the catastrophic consequences of their vote are precisely and blunderingly indistinguishable.

At any rate, I am tonight thinking of Michael Rosen’s poem. How it seems now a little in need of an update. Fascism appears as our friend only until the moment it no longer needs to. How much closer are we now to the social and political conditions under which its pretensions of civility, intermittently transparent to begin with, are finally rendered surplus to requirements?

The result needs to be viewed dialectically. Fascism pounces, exploits. It doesn’t invent or merely plant hatred. Vote Leave’s campaign was opportunistic, not genius. In some sense, we might say this was overdue. I am also thinking of that mangled ball of venom I met one Sunday evening in November 2011, whose name I later discovered when he was jailed for a premeditated attack on the Tyneside Irish Centre not long after our encounter. I think of him, and his kind, especially in light of the appearance of a neo-Nazi celebrating Sunderland’s Brexit result on the Sun’s front page, 24 June 2016.

And I think of my old friend, who I knew only extremely briefly while working a job in nightclub promotion, who suffered the great humiliation that night and presumably other nights of being targeted because of the colour of his skin. I hope he is well, and that he will continue to be.