Thu 9 Feb 2017
I was lucky enough to attend two big rallies recently against the Trump administration and our government’s unquestioning toadying up to it. One in the bright sunshine of London, two weekends ago. The second a few nights ago in the damp Town Hall Square in Brighton.
There is something comforting in the face of such ugly media narratives that there are people out there who think along the same lines of you and who are fierce and fiery in their commitment to ideals you hold dear. The playful and often witty banners, the youth of the protesters, the peaceful conviction of the marchers: all this made me smile and breathe a little more easily.
Thousands of people turned up spontaneously in Brighton. So many, in fact, that the little speakers that amplified the various orators only barely reached the few rows in front. The vast majority of the crowd were way out of earshot, so occasionally chants would spread through the protestors and swamp the speakers in a pleasing tsunami of collective voice-raising.
“Say it loud, say it clear/ Refugees are WELCOME here”, was one of the most popular and most up-lifting. If I were a passing refugee or asylum-seeker, I would have felt very welcome that evening in Brighton.
And yet, as we chanted it for the fourth or fifth time, I started to get a rather uneasy feeling of the words losing their meaning and the hollow sensation of being stuck in a bubble of self-gratification. The singing and the lovely uplift of mass participation was exhilarating but it was also circular. I felt that we could keep on singing compulsively – almost as a panicky way of warding off the ugly reality of Trump, May, a crumbling Labour opposition, 20 more years of Tory rule, Brexit, decline, collapse.
Fatally, we were chanting to the converted. No one at that rally needed to be chastised into wishing well to refugees. We wanted to feel part of a tribe – which is very legitimate – but that tribalism is actually part of the problem.
Owen Jones, who was very active in the London protests, wrote an excoriating book back in 2012 called ‘Chavs’. And he identified in that word, all the increasingly validated contempt and disgust for so many working class people in Britain. Since the 1960s when the working class were still respected and took major roles in successive Labour administrations, there has been a slow vilification of working people into shiftless, stupid, tasteless “chavs”.
And like it or not a lot of the divisions of post-Brexit Britain is along class lines. As Pankaj Mishra points out in his book “The Age of Anger”, the divisions in India, in Britain, and in the USA are all divisions between wealthy sections of society (labelled ‘elites’) and the excluded majority of non-urban, small town, working people. The top-brass have prospered over the last four decades from the upward mobility of a global market, open borders, increased technological advances, low tax, high property yield and education. That exact prosperity, however, has come to the detriment of those outside of the moneyed capital, in areas of systematic unemployment and very low investment. And the ascent of people like Modi in India, Trump in the USA and the pro-Brexit Tories in the UK have all played on that sense of outraged exclusion felt by the non-elite majority.
The irony of course, is that Trump and May are all part of the monied elite and rather than draw attention to this (and the ultimate betrayal of the working class that they will speciously effect) they deliberately direct the ire and frustration of the non-elite onto an outsider – the immigrant and the Muslim.
This is what we should scrupulously protest – not the devaluation of millions of our fellow citizens, who are rightly indignant. We need to find a chant that all those folk who voted for Brexit or Trump can sing as well. They voted that way out of an exasperated need to be heard and validated. The response of so many left-leaning people (I include myself) after the collapse of our liberal narrative in 2016 was to lash out at these vandals who had broken our (according to Mishra, illusory) myth of progress. Yet the painful truth is that our progress came at the cost of millions of suffering humans around the world – in sweatshops, inhumane factories, slums, unemployment queues, swimming desperate in the Mediterranean. We owe them an apology not our contempt.
That is not to excuse the racism or the displacement of their anger onto the Outsider – racism is racism, but as Jo Cox said, there is more than unites us than divides us. And what unites us is the desire to be happy, support our families, protect our children and loved ones, stay sane, stay safe.
The Buddhist ideal of ‘bodhicitta’ or awakening heart is a challenge. Essentially it makes it an imperative to build a bridge of mutuality to those who we despise. Because we are the same but our contempt, our ‘rightness’, our moral superiority convinces us that we’re not. And it’s that conviction that ‘those’ people (whether that’s Muslims or Brexiteers, immigrants or Trump supporters) are to blame that perpetuates the ugly game.
Phap Dung, a Vietnamese-American and one of the senior students around Thich Nhat Hanh, gave a good interview to the matter on the Vox Website:
“Trump is not an alien who came from another planet. We produced Trump, so we are co-responsible. Our culture, our society, made him […] We’re shocked because we found out there’s a member of our family that we’ve been ignoring. It’s time to listen and really look at our family.”
Until we can find a chant that unifies, then we perhaps should recognise our chanting is just tribal self-soothing. What would have been much more radical and yet potentially healing would have been the chant: “Say it loud, say it clear / Brexiteers are welcome here.” The thought boggles my brain – but rings true.