The World Cup and other supporting events are supposed to be “harmless” fun, but some politicians are exploiting the worst passions of nationalism and tribalism, writes Joyce McMillan.
As the great blimp that is Donald Trump hovers over the British Isles – emitting the usual stream of hot air in the form of self-aggrandising lies and half-truths about places of which he knows little – the politics of belonging, and of national identity, are suddenly all the rage.
Trump says he is putting “America First”, but claims the right to define “America” to suit himself; and here in Europe, we are indulging in that four-yearly bout of nationalistic pseudo-warfare known as the World Cup, where people paint flags on their faces and go crazy over the sporting performance of teams of young men they have never met, because they too wear the national colours.
This is all supposed to be harmless, of course – and perhaps, in some ways, even beneficial – because it is “only sport”. England’s young team, for example, led by the impressively hate-free Gareth Southgate, has been rightly held up as a fine example of a diverse group of young English players coming together to represent the nation.
Yet still, this month-long fiesta of legitimised belonging and “othering”, opposing and supporting, always leaves some casualties behind, and not just among the players who suffered injuries on the pitch. Once tribalism takes a grip, it becomes lethally entangled with the parts of the human brain that distinguish right from wrong, and good from evil; “we” would never do those evil things, whether genocide, mass rape or just nasty, violent football tactics, whereas “they” are capable of anything. Hence, I suppose, the ugly mutual needling of Serbian fans and Croatian players in Russia; and hence, too the sheer moral ugliness, and collateral damage, of the debate much closer to home over whether Scots “should” support England at football – bullying and insensitive on one side, bigoted and infantile on the other – and the nasty passions that have been unleashed by it.
So now, in the aftermath of Wednesday’s England semi-final, I can see on my timelines stories of Scots in London insulted by aggressive groups of England fans and told to “go home”, and of English people in Scotland, or those thought to be English, being verbally abused by gangs of baying Scots jeering at them in defeat. Some have said that after many happy years in Scotland – or, vice versa, in England – they now feel like packing up and leaving; and always in the background, since the Brexit vote, there is the sad narrative of those from other European countries who thought they had found a lifelong home here, but who now say that they no longer feel welcome in Britain.
Now of course, the EU referendum was far more formal and serious, in its nature and consequences, than any sporting event; just consider the huge apparent impact of the London Olympics of 2012 – with its portrayal of Britain as a modern, diverse European nation at one with its new role in the world – and how brief that effect turned out to be.
Yet still, the serious hurt I can see among people bruised by the national passions of this World Cup seems like a high price to pay for some supposedly “harmless” fun; and it does invite us to revisit once again the rules around national identity which help to keep its more crazed and brutal aspects in check, and to enable us to enjoy our cultural and national differences without feeling threatened by them.
And so far as I can see, the rules are these. In the first place, we should always build into our thinking the powerful insight of the great Scottish theorist of nationalism, Tom Nairn, who described the idea of national identity as a “Janus-faced” phenomenon, capable of being both immensely progressive – as in great struggles against oppressive colonial power – and immensely reactionary. Our job is not to try to ignore those identities, or to indulge in futile hopes that they will just disappear, but to keep any nation or group in which we are involved on the progressive and inclusive path.
Then secondly, in order to achieve that, we have to surround our sense of national identity with a robust, internationally agreed human rights culture which protects the freedom of all individuals, and their right to express their own cultural identity wherever they are living, as well as putting strict limits on the kind of group-think that makes it OK to bully people just because of the group they belong to, or to insult whole groups of people, often while assuring individuals that “we really didn’t mean you”. It only takes one incident like this, among 1,000 welcomes, to make individuals feel uneasy and unwanted, and to begin dangerous processes of alienation and segregation; and we should remember that truth, while enjoying the so-called “fun” of insulting old enemies over a football game.
And finally, we have to remember that human beings always become more fearful, more tribal, and more vulnerable to the rhetoric of hate when they are under economic stress. The causal link between crude neoliberal economics, imposed on nation after nation over the last 40 years, and the current rise of bigoted and xenophobic nationalism is demonstrable both from history and from current events; and the only antidote to it is the kind of social democracy that seeks, both nationally and internationally, to provide individuals and communities with greater economic security, dignity, and opportunity. Once or twice in its history, the European Union came close to being that kind of international alliance; and for that, we who lived through that time of peace and progress on our warring continent should be grateful.
Now, though, we face a new generation of brutes in leadership, including Donald Trump and World Cup host Vladimir Putin, who will use the worst passions of nationalism and tribalism for nothing but to enhance their own power. And unless we find the energy to confront their language of hate wherever we encounter it – in examples large and small, serious or apparently playful – they will have their way; and all the rest of us will be the losers, in a global game that is suddenly being played without any rules at all.