Catherine Baker

Drafting the minibook: thoughts on beginning to write an intro text to the Yugoslav wars

leave a comment »

The Easter break from teaching gives me an opportunity to take stock of how I’m doing with my next book project – a very brief introductory text to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, which all being well should be available from one of the UK academic publishers in 2015 or 2016.

It’s aimed at students in history and social sciences who need an introductory survey of ways in which scholars have interpreted the wars, in order to prepare them for the further reading that they’re going to do (whether the course is about the wars/Yugoslavia/south/east Europe specifically, or whether the Yugoslav wars are one case study within a broader module); it’s also targeting researchers in fields such as peacebuilding and transitional justice who might be moving into a post-Yugoslav case study for the first time; and, hopefully, some of the general public. (I’m glad to say that books in this series go straight into paperback.)

There are one or two books with this kind of scope already, but nothing published in the last ten years, and I’ve always struggled to find one intro text for students that does everything I’d like it to (Laura Silber and Allan Little’s The Death of Yugoslavia, for instance, is a classic, if longer than a purpose-written intro text would be, but it appeared in 1996 and obviously doesn’t integrate the Kosovo War). Events from the past 10-15 years need integrating into the narrative, and so many new directions have emerged in the research that a good new intro text needs to be able to point readers to what’s been going on.

This is a very different kind of undertaking from the detailed research monographs I’ve written and co-written before. For one thing, books in the series are only 50,000 words (a figure that will no doubt be appearing in my dreams by midsummer), whereas my book on popular music and nationalism in Croatia was 100,000 and the book on languages and peace operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina that I co-wrote was 80,000 or so. (I’ve started thinking of this text as ‘the minibook’, in order to soften the blow when I need to take oh god I don’t even want to think about how many bits out…)

On the other hand, the teaching trajectory that I’ve had means that I’ve been planning this book for years without knowing it. Almost every year I’ve had to work out how to present the Yugoslav wars to different sets of learners, at various levels, within different kinds of module structures. What have first-year historians who are exploring the Yugoslav wars as a case study of a historical controversy struggled with? What would help social sciences postgraduates specialising in nationalism in eastern Europe? When I’ve had one or two weeks on the Yugoslav wars as part of a second- or third-year undergraduate comparative thematic module, what are the essentials I’ve needed to get across in order for them to be able to engage with the theme and appreciate what this one case adds to their broader understanding? And what kinds of readings have colleagues in anthropology, sociology, or languages and literatures asked me about? I need to draw on all these experiences in order to work out what to include, and that involves thinking about how learners are likely to build up the ‘scaffolding’ of their knowledge about the Yugoslav wars.

I’ve hesitated to talk about the book on public social media (blogging and Twitter) until I was happy with the progress of the first draft, though I did post about it on Facebook after it was under contract. I’ve now been able to write very preliminary first drafts of the first four chapters – on the long-term history of the region and Yugoslav unification; on the Yugoslav crisis in the 1980s; the war in Croatia; and the Bosnian conflict – which in many ways are also the most difficult, since these topics are precisely where the most extensive debates have been. All of them still need some tightening of phrasing, expansion of some references to the literature, and (the frightening part) some shortening of the word count, but I need to get the remaining chapters drafted before I can do that. The question I’m still asking when I go over some of these sections is: what do I still need to put in to make this an account that only I could have written, at only this time? It’ll all get there in the end – it has before – but this early in the process, not everything is jumping off the page the way I’d like it to.

(Also, people just keep writing things. One of the books I’m most looking forward to being able to discuss, Florian Bieber/Armina Galijaš/Rory Archer’s edited volume Debating the End of Yugoslavia, isn’t out until October, and that’s not the only case like that…)

Starting to draft this book has thrown up some interesting theoretical questions about how we narrate and arrange history, which I’d quite like to explore further after the book itself is done.One thing the reader needs to be able to understand is anti-essentialist approaches to nationalism and ethnicity, which in many ways inform a lot (though clearly not all) of the more recent research. It makes a difference to say that ‘the Croats’, as opposed to let’s say ‘the Croatian Democratic Union’ or ‘the President of Croatia’ or ‘the inhabitants of Dubrovnik’ or ‘the 1st Guards Brigade of the Croatian Army’, did something, perhaps especially when talking about war. I want to avoid my own writing reinforcing collectivist assumptions, but I also want the reader to be able to see why it makes a difference and what some of the implications of those different kinds of description might be. All of this takes words, and I don’t have many. It’s simply easier to say that ‘the Croats’ or ‘Croatia’ did this or that; expressing something more complex in the same level of brevity is much more difficult.

Another problem is that while I want the reader to be aware of critical and deconstructive approaches to the topic, I still need to equip a reader to be able to tell facts from fabrications – a particular issue with some aspects of the history of the Yugoslav wars, where deliberate misrepresentation has abounded. If I problematise interpretations of X, but state that Y unequivocally cannot be denied, where does my truth claim come from?

I want to try to make some of these difficulties transparent in the writing, so that I can be accountable for my own narrative choices: although it’s my responsibility to give the fairest overview of the material as well as to present an interpretation that will be innovative for this sector of the market, I am still making choices about how I organise, illustrate and retell the material. I face the same issues of narrativisation and periodisation whenever I design or redesign a module – something I discussed here last year when I blogged about two versions of my Yugoslavia module that I’ve offered final-year history undergraduates at Hull – but with a larger and more diverse readership and with the permanence of a printed book. Where, for instance, is the best place to cover the Slovenian war of independence in June-July 1991 – together with the 1980s crisis? Together with the Homeland War in Croatia, which began at the same time yet lasted until 1995? In a lecture or a chapter of its own?

If I’ve got early first drafts of these four chapters (and I do say early: one of their conclusions still has a note on which reads ‘FINISH AND LINK INTO BEGINNING OF NEXT CHAPTER’), it puts me over the halfway point for a draft of the whole volume, just. (Kristen Ghodsee, the author of several books on the anthropology of postsocialism, recently blogged about her own ten-step process for writing a book; my workflow isn’t identical, but the ‘crappy first drafts’ stage is definitely something it shares.) The plan is to finish drafting by July, use July and August for getting it ready enough to show to some colleagues, and redraft in the autumn, interweaved with editing the first draft of the edited volume on gender that I’m also working on. The manuscript needs delivering by December.

And then in about a year’s time after that, if all goes well, I’ll be able to start using it in class, and if you’re an instructor or student then so might you…

Written by bakercatherine

16 April 2014 at 1:05 pm

‘The Gay World Cup’?: the Eurovision Song Contest, LGBT equality and human rights after the Cold War

with one comment

This is an adapted version of a talk I originally gave as part of LGBT History Month at the University of Hull in February 2014.

This post starts with thinking about a phrase that gay journalists in Britain have started to use to refer to the Eurovision Song Contest: the ‘Gay World Cup’. The comparison that Benjamin Cohen (the founder of Pink News) and Scott Mills (the BBC Radio 1 DJ who now commentates on Eurovision semi-finals) have made between Eurovision and the World Cup in recent interviews is only one of several nicknames that imagine Eurovision as a ‘gay’ version of a ritual celebration: for a German journalist quoted in Peter Rehberg’s essay on ‘queer nationality at the Eurovision Song Contest’, Eurovision is the ‘gay Christmas’ (Rehberg 2007: 60), and one of the gay men Dafna Lemish interviewed during her research on Eurovision fandom in Israel similarly called it ‘Passover for the homos’ (Lemish 2004: 51, £).

All these other events are mainstream social celebrations – heteronormative celebrations – that have traditionally contained very little space for queer people and their relationships. The predominant culture around men’s football is one of straight masculinity; the centrality of family reunion to the contemporary Christmas also makes it, for many queer people, an uncomfortable time. (The queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote that Christmas is ‘the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice’ to shape Christmas in the image of the family.) For Eurovision to be the ‘gay World Cup’ or the ‘gay Christmas’ is suggesting that it’s had a special place in some LGBT or queer cultures, at least among gay men, as an annual focus for reunion and celebration, as of course it has.

By the 1980s, Eurovision had already become the basis of a transnational fandom created largely, though not entirely, by gay men, celebrating the kitsch aesthetic to be found in many Eurovision performances as well as the diversity of European languages and musical cultures that the contest has contained. (One among dozens of possible examples, Salomé’s performance of ‘Vivo cantando’ in 1969, is below.)

In the past 15 to 20 years, however, the creators of some Eurovision entries and even the organisers themselves have begun to acknowledge Eurovision’s importance in gay culture and to use Eurovision performance to openly advocate for LGBT equality. This pulls Eurovision into a wider contemporary context: the international politics through which ‘LGBT equality’ started to become a symbol of European identity, sometimes even a matter of national pride, after the Cold War.

But to steer clear of a simplistic progress narrative, we also need to think critically about those things.

Integration and enlargement

When the European Broadcasting Union, an association of national television broadcasters, founded the Eurovision Song Contest in 1956, it showcased the new broadcasting technology that made it possible to relay TV signals live from one broadcaster’s territory to another, but also reflected other initiatives for co-operation between western European countries that were underway in the mid-1950s.

Economic and political organisations such as the European Coal and Steel Community (founded 1950), the Western European Union (founded as a mutual defence pact in 1954) and the European Economic Community (founded 1957) aimed to connect European states, especially France and Germany, so tightly together that they could not go to war. Though separate from these intergovernmental organisations, the EBU’s song contest was a cultural counterpart to them – showing that the different popular musics and languages of European nations were part of a shared European entertainment culture.

Eurovision Song Contest participants in 1956

The seven founding member broadcasters at the 1956 contest were all from Western Europe (Italy, France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland). By 1959 Sweden and the UK were participating, and by 1961 Eurovision had sixteen participants including Yugoslavia, the only Communist country to take part (one of many ways that Yugoslavia aimed to demonstrate how different its Communism was from the Soviet bloc, as Dean Vuletic has shown in book chapters which unfortunately aren’t online). The parameters for EBU membership, accepting broadcasters from any country with a Mediterranean coastline, meant Israel could join in 1973 (one North African country, Morocco, has also taken part – but only in a year, 1980, when Israel was absent).

Eurovision’s greatest expansion, however, came after the Cold War, when broadcasters in post-socialist eastern Europe wanted to participate. The disintegrations of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the USSR increased potential competitor numbers further. In 1993, seven ex-Communist countries including three of the new ex-Yugoslav states applied, pushing the total number of entries to 29 and forcing the organisers to introduce a pre-qualification round through which the new east European applicants had to pass. After experiments with relegation systems in the 1990s where the worst-performing countries would have to sit out a year, the EBU in 2004 introduced a semi-final so that every broadcaster expressing an interest would be able to take part. At this point – the same year that the European Union was adding ten new members of its own – Eurovision had 36 countries involved; further new participants, including Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, have taken the record to 43 in 2011.

Eurovision Song Contest participants in 2011

Although not an identical timeline to European political integration, the expansion of Eurovision does parallel the transformation of the EU through gradual eastwards enlargement.

From subtext to text?

Many of the popular music genres that broadcasters showcased at Eurovision lent themselves well to camp – a way of seeking out and celebrating the overdone, exaggerated and extravagant in popular culture that had already inspired gay fandoms for opera (the origin of the diva) and musical theatre.

Watching Eurovision through the ‘lens’ of camp originally meant projecting new readings, hidden readings, even resistant readings, on to what was happening on screen. In the late 1990s, however, the queerness of Eurovision began to move from subcultural camp to open visibility – a development that can’t be separated from the improvements in the social and legal position of lesbian, gay and bisexual people (as long as they were cisgender) in many European countries. In a book chapter on LGBT equality and Eurovision, Robert Deam Tobin points out that the European human rights framework, especially the European Court of Human Rights but also resolutions by the European Parliament, was frequently a catalyst for this legislative change (for instance, ruling against unequal ages of consent in a case brought against the UK government in 1997).

In 1997 and 1998, queerness at Eurovision became not just implied but visible. Paul Oscar, who represented Iceland in 1997, was the first out gay man to take part in Eurovision (with the most sexually suggestive staging of any Eurovision performance until then). Iceland, which legalised homosexuality in 1940, was one of the first European countries in the 20th century to do so; the idea of Iceland as a European leader in LGBT equality is now part of the country’s national historical narrative, as is the case for other Nordic countries and the Netherlands. Oscar’s entry Minn hinsti dans (My Last Dance) only came 20th, but represented a landmark for gay visibility at Eurovision.

Dana International’s Eurovision victory in 1998 was even more significant, as a landmark for trans visibility – not just at Eurovision itself, but in many of the countries where Eurovision was broadcast. By 1998, Dana had been a well-known singer in Israel for several years, and her participation in Eurovision was the biggest news story in the run-up to the 1998 contest (though often reported in a sensationalistic way). Her song Diva – doing as much as possible to communicate with diverse linguistic audiences despite the rule at the time that most lyrics had to be in countries’ official languages – was amplified by the personal narrative of overcoming prejudice to succeed that many viewers would already have known about before the performance began.

Open acknowledgement of queer identities in Eurovision performance continued taking contested steps in the early 2000s. Sestre, a transvestite cabaret group from Slovenia, performed in drag in Eurovision 2002 but had had to face a transphobic media campaign at home, in which the European Parliament briefly intervened.[1] Russia was represented in 2003 by its most successful pop export of the time, Tatu, whose selling point was suggesting to their audience that the two singers were lesbians in a relationship. While the group annoyed producers by turning up late to rehearsals in the week before Eurovision, the focus of media speculation was whether they would try to kiss on stage and whether the organisers would allow them to. (They didn’t.)

Simultaneously, the Eurovision format was undergoing changes: massive increase in audience sizes from theatre-size to arena-size events; larger stages with much more complex backdrops and lighting; first one and then two semi-finals, eventually extending the televised Eurovision over three nights of a week, in order to accommodate the growing number of participant broadcasters; and in the background, a change in executive supervisor, so that since 2004 the post has always been held by a male Scandinavian broadcasting executive (first Svante Stockselius from Sweden, later Jon Ola Sand from Norway).

The international politics of equality and human rights as seen from Scandinavia thus become directly relevant to how Eurovision as an institution has approached LGBT equality over the past ten years, given the framework of values and public ‘common sense’ in which Stockselius and Sand were used to working before they became responsible for an international event.

Ukraine’s 2007 entry Dancing Lasha Tumbai, by Andriy Danilko’s comic character Verka Serduchka, epitomises a contemporary mode of Eurovision camp made possible by the new technical possibilities for creating a performance there – even though, Galina Miazhevich argues (£), it would be more accurately interpreted through a lens of post-Soviet self-irony than Western kitsch.

(Verka would like you to know that she was, under absolutely no circumstances, singing ‘Russia, Goodbye’.)

Marching towards Pride?

By the mid-2000s, in many western European countries, the institution of Pride with a capital P had shifted from an oppositional event fighting for queer people’s presence in public space, towards an officially recognised event celebrating our presence there. However, a critique goes along with this institutionalisation of the Pride march or festival as a cultural form: in such circumstances, is there a risk that Pride becomes a celebration of how tolerant ‘we’ are as a nation while silencing more radical viewpoints on the relationship between queer people and the state?

At Brighton Pride in 2012 (in a city where LGBT equality has the same kind of symbolic value in Brighton’s urban identity as it does in Scandinavian nationalisms today), for instance, the march organisers forced the Queers Against Cuts group to move to the back of the march, where they had to march surrounded by police. This, and the direct participation of police forces and the military in many western European Pride marches, is a long way from the early Pride marches which were expressly protesting against the police and the state.

For some, this is a sign of true equality; for others, a sign of the state finding a way to assimilate lesbian and gay people while leaving intact as many other norms as possible.

The most successful queer performance on a Eurovision scoreboard since Diva, however, did not come from Scandinavia or the Netherlands but from Serbia, where LGBT rights have been a much more controversial question. Although Marija Šerifović had not spoken publicly about her sexual orientation when she won Eurovision in 2007 (she came out as a lesbian in 2013), the performance of her song Molitva (Prayer) clearly steered viewers towards understanding it as queer:

LGBT equality, and campaigners’ right to hold marches in Belgrade, has been one of the issues that polarises contemporary Serbian politics most – with the Serbian Orthodox Church and far right movements openly opposing campaigns, and the Serbian authorities generally preferring to ban or obstruct Pride parades rather than commit to protecting them from far-right attacks. Beneath this polarisation is a narrative about Serbian national identity that in a way both sides share: that Serbia has always been a nation faced with the choice to turn towards Europe and democracy or away from them, towards tradition and Orthodox Christianity. In this framework too, LGBT rights become a symbol of Europeanisation and modernity, as Marek Mikuš shows in his research from the last successfully held Belgrade Pride in 2010.

In the mid-2000s, Serbia’s national broadcaster had been striving to use Eurovision to promote the idea of a new, European Serbia, which had moved on from the era of nationalism and Slobodan Milošević. Molitva confirmed that this self-representation appealed to Eurovision audiences. As Šerifović continued to celebrate her victory in and for Serbia, however, she was assimilated by (and assimilated herself into) discourses of national unity rather than becoming a figure of radical subversion.

Winning Eurovision in 2007 meant that the 2008 contest would be held in Serbia. At that time, Pride campaigners in Belgrade had not been able to hold a march since 2001, when skinheads had broken up the first attempt. The hope of the organisers, and of many fans who visited Belgrade for the final (such as Monty Moncrieff in this blog post from last year), was that Eurovision would help to spotlight the issue of LGBT equality in Serbia, and in more recent host countries – Russia and Azerbaijan – where foreign media similarly placed the authorities’ repression of LGBT people on to the agenda before the contests began. (Moscow authorities had not permitted a Pride march for three years before Eurovision was held in 2009, and a small march on the day of the final was broken up by police.)

This has presented Eurovision organisers with a similar problem to that faced by the International Olympics Committee in dealing with repressive regimes – indeed, as Paul Jordan notes, the BBC commentator Graham Norton described Moscow 2009 as ‘the Beijing Olympics of Eurovision’ during the broadcast – except that the right to host Eurovision goes to whichever broadcaster has won the last contest, giving organisers far less control over where the next edition will take place.

Concentrating on the Baku contest, Milija Gluhović argues that Eurovision has come to ‘offer an arena for advancing demands for the recognition and social inclusion of LGBT people in Europe, especially countries [...] where the position of these sexual minorities remains precarious’ (2013: 200). At the same time, however, he recognises a new ‘rhetoric of sexual democracy, in the form of LGBT rights and freedoms’ in post-9/11 western Europe that amounts to ‘a new sexual nationalism’, directed particularly against Islam (2013: 196). He therefore offers a caveat for equality and human rights campaigners, including those in Eurovision:

We should remain wary of an uncritical acceptance of this language of freedom, including sexual freedom, considering the paradox that human rights and humanitarianism can be seen to operate as tools and strategies of contemporary imperialism. (2013: 198)

Ding dong! The transnational symbolism of equal marriage

For mainstream lesbian, gay and bisexual campaigns today, the primary symbol of progress is equal marriage – first introduced by the Netherlands in 2000, and now available in ten European countries, while many others recognise forms of civil partnership. (How far equal marriage benefits trans people depends on whether they are easily able to obtain gender recognition, including, in England and Wales, on the individual impact of a ‘spousal veto’ on gender recognition that was written into the new equal marriage law.)

In the USA, equal marriage was the theme of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s 2013 hit Same Love, the song that the producers of the 2014 Grammys turned into an on-stage mass wedding. (Brittney Cooper’s critical reading of Same Love and the Grammys performance argues that Macklemore has presented himself as a lone progressive voice in hip-hop in a way that erases African-American rappers who have already been pursuing similar themes.)

The Finnish representative at Eurovision 2013, Krista Siegfrids, performed a marriage-themed song, Ding Dong, which she also intended as a message to the Finnish audience before an upcoming referendum on equal marriage in Finland. Eurovision performance and Anglo-American chart music have now converged to the extent that everything on stage, including the Desperate Housewives-like Americana, could equally have involved Katy Perry. The number of Scandinavian pop composers and producers now working with US stars suggest that it isn’t a matter of Americanisation as such but a more two-way exchange, even if the amount of cultural and economic power on each side is unequal.

Unlike in 2003, nothing stood in the way of Siegfrids kissing another woman on stage during her performance in Malmo.

Equal marriage returned as a symbol of progress and tolerance in the interval, when the Swedish comedian Petra Mede performed a cabaret act poking fun at national symbols and stereotypes of Sweden. Along with the elks, meatballs, and allusions to Swedish films, her act included a moment where she played a minister marrying two grooms. (The very next lines happen to be ”follow our example, come and try a sample of our Swedish smorgasbord’.)

In 2014, when Copenhagen is hosting Eurovision, Copenhagen Pride will be heavily involved in organising activities, and the City of Copenhagen will arrange wedding ceremonies for foreign tourists during Eurovision week to promote the fact that Denmark allows lesbian, gay and bi people to marry.

With Scandinavian broadcasters very much in the forefront, over the past ten years Eurovision has found itself transformed into an institution that explicitly aims to promote human rights, including LGBT equality.

Good luck to everyone out there in Sochi

The idea of LGBT equality as a national value was in the foreground of advertising in countries such as the UK, USA or Canada during the Sochi Winter Olympics, with rainbow colours turning up in sponsors’ images where during most Olympics one would expect to see a national flag.

Chobani Yoghurts ad in rainbow colours

By using the rainbow in ads celebrating national Olympic teams, these advertisers were ostensibly challenging the state homophobia of Putin’s Russia, which passed a law banning the ‘promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors’ in 2013. They also reinforce the idea of LGBT equality as something that ‘we’ have and ‘they’ don’t – reducing the complex politics of queer rights in any of these countries to a simple national us/them.

In the run-up to Sochi, the UK’s Channel 4 did not miss an opportunity to make fun of Vladinir Putin: its chat show The Last Leg has been mocking Putin since last summer, when the host Adam Hills started suggesting that Putin (of camouflage pants and topless photos fame) should be taken up as a gay icon.

The day before the Sochi opening ceremony, Channel 4 started showing a new ident, Gay Mountain. With the punchline ‘Good luck to everyone out there in Sochi’, Gay Mountain operates musically as a rearrangement of the Russian (and formerly Soviet) national anthem, but in every other respects is meant to be as un-Russian as can be:

Gay Mountain invites its liberal British audience to participate in the idea that Russia is somewhere Other, with different values, which can be liberated through the power of camp and irony and rainbows and disco. There’s a problematic narrative of western rescue here, and also the same message about national identity that has come through the rainbow advertising: the reason LGBT equality is in the foreground for that team at the Sochi Olympics is because Russia doesn’t have it. (Though, ironically, Gay Mountain makes me think of nothing so much as a Verka Serduchka video.) In a way, it’s reminiscent of the superpowers’ representations of each other during the Cold War, where both blocs were anxious to prove that they were the leaders in human rights and quality of life and that the opposing bloc was failing in those things.

In contemporary Scandinavia and the Netherlands, in Canada, in the USA and the UK, advances in LGBT equality have become a matter of national pride.


On the face of things, this would be worth celebrating. In an article on queerness in Eurovision, Peter Rehberg asked in 2007: ‘Is the Eurovision Song Contest [...] a rare occasion where queer people have access to a sense of nationality?’ From the point of view of 2014, such occasions, in Europe, in Canada, even in the USA, might not even be so rare.

But these celebrations are still masking marginalisation.

For one thing, the idea of ‘LGBT’ equality, even of one common LGBT struggle against oppression, is an idea that aggregates several different forms of oppression, some of which are much more socially visible (and, in contemporary Western society, much easier to challenge) than others. I found it very difficult to recognise bi visibility properly when I prepared the talk this post is based on – there’s still been no canonical ‘first bi performer’ in the history of Eurovision, let alone a first bi performance. The specificness of being bisexual, rather than being gay with a capital G, has never had its own space in Eurovision or the subculture around it.

Moreover, mainstream lesbian and gay or even LGB campaigning today often fails to recognise the interests of trans people and sometimes actively works against them (an ongoing difficulty, for instance, with Stonewall UK, at least under its previous leadership). The Eurovision interval act from Malmo 2013 contained an unfortunate example of its own: a couple of minutes before the marriage scene, another segment included Petra Mede singing the words ‘In all of our cities, though men don’t have titties they can still stay at home to raise the kids’ – erasing at a stroke the fact that trans men do exist and some trans men do have breasts.

This matters because when state authorities take action based on the same cissexist ideas, it causes harm to trans people. Even though Sweden has made so much of LGBT equality as a national value, until 2012 the Swedish state required trans people to be sterilised before it would recognise their gender. Denmark similarly came very close to deporting Fernanda Milán, a Guatemalan trans woman seeking asylum, whom the Danish authorities had initially housed in the men’s section of a refugee camp.

Is LGBT equality more of a symbol than a commitment on the part of contemporary European states? That’s the implication of what several authors such as Sarah Bracke and Fatima El-Tayeb have written about Dutch public discourse on LGBT rights after 9/11. In the Netherlands, right-wing politicians have argued that a Dutch tradition of gay rights is now under threat from homophobic Muslim immigrants (Bracke); when the Dutch state interacts with queer Muslims, it only seems to recognise a white Dutch model of sexuality as legitimate, leaving queer Muslims in the Netherlands in a very difficult position (El Tayeb). The Netherlands, as well as the UK, regularly deports queer asylum seekers to their countries of origin where they face persecution. Racism, Islamophobia, cissexism and the politics of border control all limit the commitment to queer rights that these countries show; yet LGBT equality comes back into the foreground when the nation needs to present itself as progressive in relation to the rest of the world.

This kind of dynamic is what the theorist Jasbir Puar has called ‘homonationalism’: the transformation of LGBT equality into a Western benchmark for evaluating whether or not states or peoples are modern enough to be allowed their own sovereignty or treated as real citizens.[1] In particular, as Sara Ahmed also notes, this involves an opposition between sexual freedom and Islam. Sarah Schulman, in the same vein, described Israel’s self-promotion as an LGBT-friendly state as ‘pinkwashing’, which she defined as ‘a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life’.

During the Sochi Olympics, the feminist blogger Flavia Dzodan, who lives in the Netherlands, wrote on Twitter: ‘Why I speak abt homonationalism? Bc while EU media is spinning wheels of gay rights in Russia, queer asylum seekers are summarily deported’.

Eurovision takes place within the same global politics of competition, spectacle and celebration as the Sochi Olympics, or indeed the World Cup. As an institution, it has embraced the idea of LGBT equality much more than the organisers of any other international event, because of the history through which Eurovision became an annual celebration for a particular gay culture in the first place.

The same states that now heavily promote LGBT equality as a symbol regularly fail to back it up through policy. To make equality, let alone liberation, more than a symbol, Eurovision’s organisers will need to actively challenge homophobic, biphobic and transphobic remarks by commentators and contestants (something that will need particular vigilance this year when the drag artist Conchita Wurst competes for Austria). But they will also need to go further: to be sensitive to the international politics of equality and activism, and to recognise the separate forms of oppression that sit underneath, and sometimes operate between, the letters in the LGBT umbrella.


[1] Though not quite the first drag performers in Eurovision after all: Ketil Stokkan had two members of a Norwegian drag troupe as backing vocalists in 1986.

[2] International Relations scholars have been refining and rethinking this concept recently – for instance, Momin Rahman in his new book would rather work with an idea of ‘homocolonialism’ – but it’s still an important starting point for thinking about the global politics of LGBT rights today.

Written by bakercatherine

4 April 2014 at 11:22 am

Lord Kitchener, Jane Austen and the Latvian Maiden go into a bar: does currency symbolism matter?

leave a comment »

So Lord Kitchener, Jane Austen and the Latvian Maiden go into a bar… and all of them have recently won places on their countries’ new coins or banknotes, so the chances are we’re talking about the contents of a slightly disorganised wallet rather than an encounter that would be both historically impossible and probably also somewhat embarrassing for all three figures concerned.

The latest ripple of unease about how the current British government intends to commemorate the beginning of the First World War emerged when the Royal Mint revealed that its new coins for 2014 would include an £2 coin depicting Kitchener, Britain’s Secretary of State for War between 1914 and 1916.

Oh, what a lovely coin?

Kitchener’s picture, on a pre-conscription British recruiting poster, is probably the best-known British propaganda image from the war. It’s this picture, complete with the pointing finger and the slogan ‘Your country needs YOU’, that the Mint has chosen as the first of a series of commemorative WW1 coins to go into circulation between 2014 and 2019.

(I say this was ‘the latest’ ripple of unease; as I’m writing this, the education secretary Michael Gove turns out to have written an article for the Daily Mail criticising ‘Left-wing academics’ and ‘dramas such as Oh! What A Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder’ for creating a myth of WW1 as ‘a misbegotten shambles’.)

Beginning the commemoration with an image designed to inspire men to volunteer to fight in the war has chimed with existing fears that official commemorations will ‘celebrate’ or ‘glorify’ the war in a way that has more to do with stirring up patriotic sentiment in the present and winning public support for a conservative/Conservative narrative of the past than with reflecting on the past for its own sake. (The pacifist Symon Hill, who has since started a petition for the Mint to change the design, argued that the Mint should have chosen an image that invited people to ‘mourn and commemorate the dead’.)

Beyond the sensitivities of recalling the enthusiasm of government propaganda as the Mint’s initial commemoration of the First World War, Kitchener’s actions in an earlier conflict make him an even more troubling figure to commemorate uncritically. Under Kitchener’s command, British forces in the Second Boer War forced civilians into unhygienic camps in order to prevent them supporting Boer guerrillas. Kitchener’s camps, and the ‘reconcentration’ policy employed a few years earlier in Cuba by Spanish forces under Valeriano Weyler, remain a point of reference in the history of genocide. Writing in 1950, Hannah Arendt argued that ‘[c]oncentration camps made their first appearance during the Boer War’ before evolving into the Nazi extermination camp ‘within the framework of totalitarian terror’ (1950: 55, £), and arguments about the conceptual links between colonialism and genocide (such as this article by Vinay Lal) cannot ignore them.[1]

Taken as a whole, the Mint’s strategy of commemorating the war through multiple images may do a better job of representing the multiple, complex meanings that WW1 has to the people who will be using the coins in Britain today (yet even then could never represent them all) than its first announcement has achieved – and it hasn’t yet revealed what the other images will be – but against such a background the selection of Kitchener has brought this commemoration through currency to a difficult start.

‘Banknote feminism’

The Kitchener problem is the second contestation over currency in Britain in less than a year, after the latest stage in the Bank of England’s rolling update of paper money – withdrawing the Elizabeth Fry £5 and replacing it with Winston Churchill (himself of course a major symbol in narratives of British leadership at war) – made it likely that the resulting set of notes would depict no women except the Queen. Another campaign and petition, organised by Caroline Criado-Perez with the aim of ensuring there would always be at least one woman from history on the Bank of England notes, led the Bank to decide that the next £10 would replace Charles Darwin with Jane Austen. (The length of time it takes to develop a banknote with adequate security details suggests that Austen may already have been in the Bank’s plans, if only as a reserve design.)

After the Bank made its announcement in late July, Criado-Perez started to receive direct threats through Twitter which attracted both media interest and police action – a level of support which, regrettably, the media and authorities do not render to most other women (especially women of colour and trans women) who have been threatened online.

The ways in which this incident and responses to it developed during 2013 online has made the banknotes campaign, from some points of view, a symbol of a white, middle-class, liberal feminism that fails to take account of more complex and structural ways in which women experience oppression – to the extent that the term ‘banknote feminism’ has emerged online as a summary of that position, as in some of this discussion on how the idea of intersectionality has made it more possible for women of colour to speak up online.[2] This has related only partly to the campaign itself, but equally to the suggestions that some of its supporters then offered for tackling online abuse (my personal perspective is that those suggestions were indeed flawed because their consequences for more marginalised women could well have been harmful) and to their reactions to the content and tone of the critiques they started to receive. A few days ago, a review of the year in feminism on Radio 4′s Woman’s Hour reopened this when Criado-Perez challenged Reni Eddo-Lodge about women who had ‘abused’ intersectionality in online debate (Eddo-Lodge has reflected on the programme and Criado-Perez’s apology here, and Ally Fogg has commented on the baffling accusation of ‘bullying’ that Louise Mensch went on to make against Eddo-Lodge last night.)[3]

The main impact of these discussions for me has been to make me go back over a position I’ve often expressed when writing about nationalism: that symbols of the nation are politically significant, important to study, and to critique if necessary. (Should it really matter, for instance, whose face is on the banknotes when rising living costs and social security cuts in the UK mean that not enough of any money is getting into women’s hands?)

Milda makes her way to Europe

The third new piece of currency I want to include here seems – as far as I can tell – to have been received with much less contestation: the new Latvian euro coin, which on the side reserved for a national design revives the image of the ‘Latvian Maiden’ from the 5 lat coin minted by the first Latvian republic in 1929. National identity in interwar Latvia emphasised folk customs and the forest landscape, and the maiden (nicknamed ‘Milda’) with her traditional headdress personified an idealised and symbolic womanhood that stood for the origins of the Latvian people. Soviet authorities, after occupying Latvia, removed the coin from circulation in 1941, but part of the Latvian narrative of resistance to Soviet rule is that Latvians held on to the coins and used them as decorations and gifts, making them ‘the most popular symbol of once independent Latvia’. Independent again in 1992, the Latvian state restored Milda to its currency, placing her on the 500-lat note until 1998 and using her as the standard watermark until the time came to replace the lat with the euro in 2014.

(Importantly, I don’t know how Russian-speakers in post-Soviet Latvia view the ‘Latvian Maiden’ symbol, and haven’t been able to find any research that addresses this specifically – though if the right former colleagues of mine are reading this, they may be able to help…)

A couple of years ago, the scale of the Greek debt crisis was making the idea that the eurozone would be adding rather than shedding members by 2014 seem counter-intuitive; but here Latvia is. As Latvia made its preparations to join the single European currency last year, The Economist‘s ‘Charlemagne’ column framed the choice as ‘between Europa or Milda’ – in other words, to abandon the national symbolism of Latvia’s own currency for the vaguer, impersonal designs of euro notes. Latvia’s national bank has solved the problem by adding Milda to the euro coin instead, in the space where every eurozone member puts a national symbol of its own, be it the Maltese or Slovakian cross, an Austrian pacifist or the Spanish king.

Questioning the pine marten

It was examples like the Latvian Maiden that made me start to notice how national identity was being represented in currency, when I first started to read about nationalism as a student. The most influential argument about currency I’ve read has been Michael Billig’s in Banal Nationalism (1995), a book about national symbols that has done a lot to shape how I think about cultural artefacts and the material world. What Billig suggests is that nationalism is at its most powerful when it goes unnoticed and becomes embedded into people’s everyday lives – and something that almost everyone has to do, day in day out, is handle money.

Billig illustrates this argument with an example from Croatia, which like Latvia changed its currency in the early 1990s after separating from a larger state. Croatia’s currency became the kuna, a name that originated with the use of pine marten skins as a medieval form of exchange but had also belonged in 1941-45 to the currency of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), an entity which had persecuted Serbs, Jews, Roma, homosexuals and political opponents under the supervision of the Axis powers. The NDH’s adoption of symbols from Croatian history has caused serious problems of representation for today’s Croatian state. Billig reads the introduction of the kuna as an attempt to embed the history of the NDH, as well as Croatian tradition and sovereignty in general, into Croatian public consciousness: ‘In this way, the tradition, including the Nazi heritage, would be neither consciously remembered, or forgotten: it would be preserved in daily life’ (p. 42).

This account of Croatian intentions in designing the kuna is open to critique. Alex Bellamy in The Formation of Croatian National Identity (2003), for instance, points out that the name had also been used by the communist Partisans in WW2 Croatia in so far as they had issued ‘dinar-kuna’ notes (p. 107), and reads the naming of the kuna as a tactic supporting President Tudjman’s (still problematic) strategy of national unification (urging former Communists and former NDH supporters to forgive and be silent about the past and join together in building a sovereign Croatian state).

I incline towards Bellamy rather than Billig in my reading of the kuna, but Billig’s overall message is still something I find valuable: asking why post-Yugoslav Croatia named its currency the kuna rather than the kruna or crown (a common name for currency elsewhere in the central European region that the state aspired to be recognised as belonging to), let alone choosing to retain the Yugoslav name of dinar, surely has something to tell us about how Croatia’s first president and its national bank wanted the state and nation to be represented. Who and what is depicted on Croatian banknotes, similarly, is as revealing of official narratives about the nation as it would be anywhere else. (One thing I find striking is the effort to choose a range of historical monuments that stretch across the entire reach of the state’s territory, in a country where deep regional distinctiveness can often get in the way of the homogeneity that nations are supposed to have.)

Currency and the age of revolutions

Even before the emergence of modern nationalism, the design of coinage has always communicated something about sovereignty and authority – a practice stemming from the ruler’s mark that guaranteed the weight and composition of a coin. The shift from metal currency to paper money for the more valuable denominations, Josh Lauer suggests in a history of banknotes in the USA (£), made it all the more important for US currency to symbolise the nation: if it hardly weighs anything, why should it be worth something? The answer, Lauer thinks, is because the nation and its elected representatives agrees it is; and it’s the symbolism of the images on the paper that reassures them of that.

Before the American Revolution, British colonies in North America that issued paper money already used ‘images of ships, anchors, indigenous flora and fauna, and buildings [...] to invoke a sense of common identity and affiliation with local industry and commerce’ (p. 115-6); during the Revolutionary War, their symbols became warlike and patriotic. Even before 1861, when the US government began federally printing notes, the private banks that issued banknotes on a state-by-state basis often included symbols of the American Revolution and its values, though often also events from the locality’s recent history that would not go on to acquire national significance.

The chief clerk of the US Treasury in 1863 offered reasons for placing national imagery on the banknotes that resonate with Billig’s arguments about nationalism in the everyday:

[They] would tend to teach the masses the prominent periods in our country’s history. [...] they would soon be familiar to those who would never read them in books, teaching them history and imbuing them with a National feeling. (Helleiner 1998: 1412, £)

Eric Helleiner, who gives the quote above, also points out that the French revolutionary regime replaced the Latin language on Old Regime currency with French and printed symbols of Liberty and republicanism on its first paper currency, the assignats. By the late 19th century – a decisive phase in many ways for the uptake of nationalism by states – the convention of designing currency with symbols of the nation rather than simply of the head of state was becoming a general practice, something taken for granted in the present day.

(In the interests of centring Haiti as well as the USA and France in narratives of the age of revolutions, I’m aware that the account above also ought to talk about currency in Haiti during its independence from French rule between 1791 and 1804. I’ve failed to find this out as yet, and I’m not satisfied.)

Does currency matter?

Given this intellectual background, I’d have trouble arguing that the design of currency is something that it isn’t worth researching (or, in that case, campaigning about), or what what a state’s institutions choose to depict or not depict as representations of the nation isn’t significant. But at the same time, I’m aware that the kind of scholarship I most naturally turn to is deconstructive, or as I put it during a talk I gave last year (about representations of the Balkans in a recent film), ‘picking things apart until they fall over’. At the end of the talk, a senior feminist in International Relations prodded me to reflect further on what this kind of research is for.

I came back to that thought two or three months later when I started to see critical discussions of the English banknotes campaign (after all, writing a research article on currency is exactly the kind of thing that I might do). I suppose the only way I can reconcile these points of view is to say: the politics of representation are important, but they’re not enough, and it’s incumbent on me not to get in the way of the arguments about the other things, indeed to amplify them when I can.

I’ve hesitated several times in planning this post, which I originally meant to write several days ago after reading about the Kitchener coin, before the aftermath of the Woman’s Hour debate overtook anything I might have been able to say. White writers in particular have to be careful about ‘derailing‘ – changing the course of an argument in a way that diverts attention from the marginalisation it was meant to be about. My argument here isn’t as simple as trying to say that the symbolism of currency is important, which feels like it would be the wrong thing at this point in time. Rather, I’m trying to think through why I still believe it is important even though I’m coming to believe that a framework that was only focused on the politics of representation wouldn’t go far enough.

But then, I’m really not a disinterested party. I write and teach about nationalism, and being able to do that has helped me get the financial and intellectual security of an academic post, a job that I enjoy and which is in very short supply. In the classroom, I suppose I use illustrations like these to encourage students to think critically and analytically about more than just nationalism, to pay attention to the details of things, and to see perspectives they might not initially have thought of – and all of these are skills that have a role to play in the humanities and social sciences. Yet the challenge of seeing beyond representation still remains.

Edit: as I was finishing this post, Sara Ahmed posted the second of two excellent posts on the limitations of ‘criticality’ as a stance in research and activism. In the first of them, she made the point that:

Assuming one’s criticality can be a way of not admitting one’s complicity. I think complicity is a starting point. We are implicated in the worlds that we critique; being critical does not suspend any such implication.

We need to keep this in mind when doing ‘deconstructive’ research.


[1] Recently, historians such as Liz Stanley have suggested that Afrikaner nationalists during the 20th century over-emphasised the level of British brutality in the camps in order to strengthen a narrative of suffering within Afrikaner national identity, though they do not dispute the level of starvation, disease and death. Here, my account of the historiography relies on Elizabeth Van Heyningen’s (paywalled) 2009 article in History Compass, particularly the discussion on pp. 27-9.

[2] I believe @WassailingGirl, on Twitter, came up with this first, but please correct me if I’ve miscredited it.

[3] I’m conscious that this paragraph is summarising six months and thousands of words from many people, of which I can only have read a fragment. I hope the account I’ve given here does enough to outline it for readers who haven’t been part of these discussions. There’s a wider structural context here of unequal access to the mainstream media for feminists who are white and middle-class on one hand, and those who are speaking from more marginalised positions on the other, which has been reflected in another painful controversy that emerged from the Women’s Hour debate over what came across as an inappropriate attempt by white feminists to ‘reclaim’ intersectionality, a concept developed by and for black women (Kimberlé Crenshaw building on the work of the Combahee River Collective) in the 1970s and 1980s.

Written by bakercatherine

3 January 2014 at 2:04 pm

Spirals of competence, scaffolding, and the problem of knowing what we don’t know

leave a comment »

Earlier this month I was asked to be the closing speaker at the Huddersfield History Postgraduate Conference, an annual event where postgraduate history researchers from Huddersfield and elsewhere give presentations about their research. This is an adapted version of the talk about learning and the research process that I gave at the end of the day (based on my original notes, plus marginalia, plus recollections of things I added on the spur of the moment and responses to some of the Q&A, so it’s far from being an accurate transcript of everything I said, but gives an idea of what I was talking about…

This isn’t the sort of talk that I usually give, but when the postgraduates organising this conference asked me to be the closing speaker, they asked me to talk about the satisfactions and challenges of research, thinking about my own experiences and the climate today. So I needed to make remarks that would be as relevant to someone researching, for instance, late medieval culture as they would be to someone researching the late 20th century, like I do.

At one point earlier in the afternoon I heard myself being referred to as the ‘main’ speaker, but I wouldn’t like to think of myself as that. I don’t feel like the main speaker at an event like this – you’re the main speakers. So my first act probably ought to be to abolish myself – but then it’s the same kind of problem as with the Marxist doctrine that on the road to Communism the state ought to wither away, but in practice Communist officials turned out to be quite reluctant to make themselves wither away…

Anyway: the point of a conference like this isn’t to sit around listening to lecturers talking at you, but for you to present your research to each other and to the rest of the department who are there to support you, and for you to hear about and comment on what everybody else is doing. It’s a way for you all to mutually support each other as researchers, and to build up the History community in and around Huddersfield. Hull and Huddersfield historians are building up more and more links themselves – I sometimes hear people referring (like John Prescott) to an ‘M62 corridor’ – and rather than thinking primarily in terms of departmental communities or even university communities, I want to encourage you to see yourself as part of a much wider network of postgraduate and early career researchers in the North, of historians and others with similar interests, of people with interests in the past whether or not they’re studying academically – all of these are networks where you belong and you have a place. And you’re going to need each other.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend all of the conference [I'd been teaching a class at Hull that morning], which makes it harder to carry out the closing speaker role of tying everything together and hopefully leaving you going away thinking: all this different work we’re doing is actually contributing to the same thing. Whereas what you may well be thinking is: ‘I hope she’s going to finish quickly so we can get away to the pub’ – or, ‘I hope she’s going to finish quickly so that I can get home and sort out dinner for the rest of the family’, or ‘so that I won’t be late for the job I need to go to after this conference is over today’. And all of those are valid responses.

But the reason for explaining about my timetable is because when I thought about the different things I had to get done today it brought home to me how, over time, the activities you find difficult sometimes become less so. So I’m going to start thinking about this as an example of the learning process, which I’ll then tie more closely into the process of research, and ramp up towards thinking about sharing authority, co-production, and some of the ideas that were coming up in the discussion at the end of the panel I was able to attend.

The spiral of competence

The first year that I was teaching was in 2007–08, in the last year of my PhD [at UCL SSEES]. I was teaching two seminars, one after each other, on a module called the History of Eastern Europe since 1856. I remember being so drained after those two seminars one after each other that I knew that was it, the only thing I was going to be able to get done on Fridays was to go in and listen to that lecture and teach those two seminars. I could get some reading done on automatic pilot in the afternoon and evening, but in terms of anything more active, let alone producing words or delivering more words, that wasn’t going to happen.

After a couple of years off from teaching during my postdoc [at Southampton], during the last year of my postdoc the history department there asked me to design a new first-year option on one of my research interests because they needed to offer some more options at that level. And the year after that was almost entirely a teaching year –  I had a teaching contract in London for half the week replacing someone who was on research leave, plus another module became vacant at Southampton for the same reason, then at the last minute Southampton also asked me to put my first year option on again. In terms of the range of teaching I was doing, not just in terms of topics but actual subjects, I felt like I was teaching across the full range of what I was capable of, which is a challenge that I wanted… and if I’d have been able to teleport between London and Southampton it would have been great.

If my circumstances had been different, if I’d had more people depending on the money I was earning with my time, I wouldn’t have been able to do that, and anything I’ve gained from that combination of experiences, I’ve got to acknowledge that it was circumstances like not being a carer which made it possible to even have them. As a structure for getting the best people into the jobs they’re best qualified for, this isn’t good enough.

But at that time in 2011-12 where the amount of teaching I was doing had expanded so much compared to the first year when I was teaching, and the amount of different things I had to get done in the same day was also much greater, I would think – ‘wow, there used to be a time when two hours of teaching would knock me out, and that was it?’ I’d gone through a spiral of competence. The things I used to struggle with, I now had a routine for preparing for, and I was used to. And that creates space to struggle with new things.

At an early stage it might be – ‘I’ve actually got to design my own seminar tasks, how do I do that?’ And then later on – ‘I haven’t just got to mark assessments, I’ve got to work out what the assessments should be, and what skills I actually want this module to develop, so that I can use the assessments to test how well students have achieved them.’ And you go along the spiral of competence. The tasks you used to worry about become more manageable, and new space opens up. This is why people talk about ‘continuous professional development’. It’s how we get more experienced. Knowledge that was new becomes familiar, and that makes us ready to start learning and practising something else that is new now.

That doesn’t mean that the things you’ve done many times before suddenly take no effort. I still very frequently find myself in front of a blank screen thinking I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to put in here. That’s part of the process, I’m not sure it ever goes away. But what changes, with time, is that you’re able to have more of a sense of: ‘yeah, that’s how I felt the last time too, and then I did it.’

This is something that you’ll probably start noticing too, in some or other aspect of what you do. In fact you’re already further along the spiral when it comes to writing and researching than you were in the past. If you had to write an undergraduate dissertation, for instance, for many people that’s the longest single piece of writing that they’ve ever had to write. ‘How the hell do I write an undergraduate dissertation, at 10,000 words?’ It felt like everything you’d done over the last however many years of your degree was meant to get you up to that point. And now, if you’re writing a PhD, something that length would only be a chapter in a much longer piece of work.

So that’s the first thing I wanted to say, and for all of you there’s probably something in your practice as history researchers where you can recognise that. ‘I don’t struggle with that as much as I used to in the past’. Everyone will have something like that, because this is how learning works. Whether it’s learning details and information, or learning in a much broader sense, how to actually do something.

[During the Q&A, somebody asked me whether this meant we were always in a state of 'conscious incompetence']. The thing you want to get towards is ‘conscious competence’. And you can break this down into many kinds of things you do. [Helpfully, the conference venue had a copy of the Vitae 'Researcher Development Framework' - a breakdown of the many skills that researchers use - painted on the wall...]

rdfwheelWhat I like about the Researcher Development Framework is that it distinguishes all these different things that researchers do, and also gives a progression of what they can look like at different stages, whether you’re a postgraduate researcher or somebody who just won a grant worth millions of pounds from one of the research councils, so there are always ‘aspiration points’ that help you answer the question of ‘what should I be working towards next’.[1] (I could also have used the analogy of a ‘skill tree‘ in video games where you develop a character over the course of a game – the point is that you build competence in a certain skill to a threshold level and that opens up new things that you can then go on to learn, but advanced skills won’t open up until you’ve developed the prerequisites enough.)

How we know what we know

The week before the conference, I told the organisers that my title for the talk was going to be ‘The problem of knowing what you don’t know’. And I wanted to talk about learning and training, because this is what all of you are doing.

You’ve had very different experiences before now and the paths you each take after your current research projects will also go in different directions; also, your circumstances are different from each other right now. But one thing you have in common is that all of you are at a stage where you’re becoming independent researchers, with one or more universities and maybe another kind of cultural institution supporting you to help you become that.

You’re in charge of making the case for why your project matters. You already started to do that just by applying to the programme of study that you applied to, and as part of your research you’re in charge of making that case in a deeper and more detailed way.

You’re in charge of planning how this research is going to be done: seeing what methods other researchers have tried, which work, but also, what methods other people researching that topic haven’t tried yet, which might then tell us something new.

You’re in charge of making sense of the results you find out, and then putting those into context by reflecting back on what other people have written about that topic before.

And you’re in charge of delivering all this within the agreed parameters – the word limit – and on time – which you don’t need me reminding you about…

You know better than I do, as well, what you want to do with yourself after having gone through this process, or what you want this process to have done for you. Some of you – but I don’t want to assume that’s what everybody wants – will be seeing it as another step towards working in higher education, though I don’t want to assume that is what everybody wants. In the past, universities tended to assume that the only reason anyone does a PhD is to become an academic, but if you still encounter that attitude today, it’s out of date. Postgraduate research prepares you for a much wider set of careers than that.

But probably what all of you have got in some shape or form is the aspiration to do more with the topic of your research than you were able to do before you started researching it. To do more with the content of your research, or to do more with the skills you’ve used and learned while you’ve been researching.

One of the things you learn as you go through this process is about how we know what we know. In historiography, or in introductory training for teaching, you’ll probably encounter thoughts about this. How for instance do historians know that what they’ve found out in their research and what they write about has the status of ‘historical knowledge’? The answer to that may be: they’ve gone through all the sources that are still available, they have discovered the historical facts through the evidence available, and the weight of that evidence provides the most justified interpretation of that aspect of the past. A postmodern or deconstructionist historian might say that actually all of us are involved in ‘authoring’ the past just through the practice of producing a narrative about it, even when we frame the narrative as ‘the’ truth about our topic in the past.

Each of those positions leads to a very different opinion about what historians actually do when they study history, but both of them are positions about ‘how we know what we know’, and what counts as ‘knowledge’ for historians.

So it’s useful to be aware of what your assumptions are about how we know what we know. But something else is also very important for researchers, if not anyone – and that’s trying to have a sense of what you don’t know. Because that actually has a lot to do with how we learn and understand.

If we go back to those examples of learning how to teach, or learning how to put together progressively longer pieces of written work based on independent research.

These are gradual processes, and teaching and learning researchers like to say that they depend on ‘scaffolding’ – to be able to learn at the top of the scaffolding, you’ve first got to have grasped whatever was underneath it. But then in order to move up the scaffolding, towards more advanced knowledge and competence, you have to know that there are new things to find out that flow from whatever you’ve already learned.

In the framework of a university module or a programme of study this is easy, a lot of that pathway is already visible because it’s already been designed.

In independent research this is much more difficult. A PhD topic is something that no one has ever explored in the same way as you, and this is why it looks so daunting at the beginning: how are you going to map a pathway through making sense of these sources, towards the comprehensive understanding that you want to finish with? You want to know as much as possible.

But at the same time, as part of that process, you also need to be open to what you didn’t know was there. What you will find from the sources that makes you rethink what you thought you knew about the topic, the categories you use to think about the topic with, or even the framework that you want to bring to the task of representing this topic as a whole, because suddenly the sources are challenging what you had expected it might be possible to say.

This is part of the research process for almost everyone. It should be part of the research process. Although the trouble is that when it happens, we usually experience it as a crisis. Something doesn’t work. And then it’s a stressful moment. But often it’s also one that turns out to be transformative – the eventual piece of writing that you end up with wouldn’t have looked the same way if not for that moment. Your initial framework changed, to accommodate that thing that originally you didn’t know. On a much larger scale it’s like that blank-piece-of-paper, what-am-I-going-to-put-into-these-lecture-notes moment. When you do encounter a research crisis like that, that may be what it’s trying to tell you, but your mind might process it first as confusion.

So if that’s an important stage in the research process, then another challenge comes from that: what can be done, methodologically, to create space for those ‘knowing what you don’t know’ moments to happen? Those moments where you become aware that how you’ve understood and experienced the material up until that point doesn’t actually give you a full account of what’s been going on?

Towards an ethics of listening

For me, this is one of the things that’s attracted me to oral history interviewing as a methodology. I used it when I was researching foreign languages and peacekeeping in Bosnia as part of the project I was involved in after my PhD. There simply weren’t enough documents about what we were interested in, so I was going to have to do something more active anyway in terms of finding out about the topic, but what also appealed to me about interviewing was that with interviewing you cannot get away from the fact that the researcher is implicated in producing knowledge and narrative, it’s more complex than accessing a repository of information that is already there. What you ask, who you and the interviewee are, who each of those people is in relation to the other, and even when you do the interview and what else might be going on at the time, all has an influence on what comes to you as ‘the’ source or ‘the’ narrative from that person. You have to come to terms with this in order to interview, you can’t hide from it.

Interviewing can be a powerful tool in opening up new topics that haven’t been researched before, because you select what to ask about. My colleague Simona Tobia, another researcher involved with the project, listened to interviews in the Imperial War Museum sound archive with British Army soldiers from the Second World War whose job had been to interrogate German prisoners, and then did new interviews with some of the same people, to ask them about languages and translation. And the original interviews hadn’t had much to say about languages at all, even though, English speaking army, German speaking prisoners, someone at some stage must have not been using their army’s first language. When Simona went back to these people and specifically asked about languages, they came out with whole new narratives. Because someone had asked.

But that isn’t even the most exciting thing about interviews as a source for those historians who are able to use them. As an interviewer, it wouldn’t be worth me doing it if I already knew exactly what I was going to hear. This means I need to find out, through that interview, that there was something I didn’t know, or perhaps couldn’t even have comprehended before, because I didn’t have the ‘scaffolding’ to appreciate it. I didn’t know that it was possible to perceive that topic or that experience in that particular way. What that means is that the most important thing I do in an interview isn’t how I choose the questions or ask the questions, it’s actually how I listen. And to be able to do that, I have to appreciate that there is a vast amount I don’t know, and vast dimensions I don’t know about.

This is an important thing to recognise not just in terms of research, but I think in every dimension of the lives we lead. The wisdom that it takes to recognise what you might be unaware of, and perhaps even to recognise that there are things you might never be able to be fully aware of. This is a more difficult one for researchers, because we want to find out everything there is to know. But in an interview, for instance, can I ever know the experience of the narrator as intimately as the narrator knows it? All the more, perhaps, if there are ways that I’m in a position of power compared to that other person which makes it more difficult for me to perceive the full weight of what they’re saying. (During a previous Q&A, referring to public engagement, a member of the audience had mentioned ‘the nature of how we intimidate in events like this’ and ‘moments that prevent the co-production of language’ when talking about problems in getting the public to come to events at universities.) Could I, as a white interviewer, ever understand what it means to experience racism, as intimately as the person of colour who was narrating it to me? I can’t. So, then, how best should I listen, and after listening, what is it my responsibility to do?

What this might lead us towards is something that society’s in need of, which is an ethics of listening, and in particular an ethics of listening across these axes of power relations and privilege that we are all in some way or another embedded in. The greater responsibility in this has to come from those who are higher up on any of those axes, when we are higher up on them, to accept that our own perceptions and experiences are not universal – there are things that we will miss.[2]

And if that’s the case then perhaps there’s also a responsibility for, not just speaking over someone or even representing them, but making space for them to be as much at the centre as you are, in the cases where you perceive yourself to be at the centre. Maybe these are some of the implications of an ethics of deep, active listening. And although whereas I’ve said earlier we can and need to know what we don’t know, this is more ‘sometimes we’re not able to learn everything we don’t know’. But the two things still have common roots in the problem of recognising what we don’t know yet.

And this brings us back to the idea of sharing authority that was mentioned in the previous session. This might be a frightening prospect. In order to share authority, does that mean letting go of some of yours? Is authority as zero-sum as that: you can’t have more of it unless I have less? Or is it more about creating extra authority by recognising someone else’s authority – the authority of an interviewee or a community member – where it wasn’t being recognised before? Though in that more optimistic model we still face the ethical problem of ways in which the researcher ultimately has more power than the participant. In the traditional model of historical research, you the researcher write the thesis or the article – a written textual document with a single author. What would need to change about our requirements for assessment and doctoral training in order for us to be able to share the authority of research as far as we possibly can?

[1] Obviously we should also be asking critical questions about how any kind of framework like this orders people’s knowledge about what being a competent researcher looks like – what’s being left out? what’s being covered up with euphemisms? what’s being made to look like just one person’s responsibility when actually it should be being supported in a much more structural way? Let’s not forget that competence is often collective, nor that the pressure to be ‘hard-working, self-motivating and enterprising subjects’ in the corporate university is, as Rosalind Gill puts it in her excellent essay on this topic, a huge part of the stress that contemporary academia makes researchers feel.

[2] I’ve written more about this in a blog post last year called ‘Starting to think about teaching about privilege‘, although it still needs a lot of firming up.

Written by bakercatherine

21 October 2013 at 1:08 pm

Posted in history, research, teaching

Call for proposals: edited volume on gender in 20th-century eastern Europe and the former USSR

with one comment

Call for papers, edited volume
Gender in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union
Edited by Catherine Baker

This call for papers seeks contributors to an edited volume (c. 80,000 words) on the gendered histories of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union during the twentieth century, aimed primarily at an undergraduate/taught postgraduate readership. Drawing on current research into a broad range of societies and experiences within the scope of the volume, it aims to explore whether or how far the course of the twentieth century has made it possible to speak of a common history of gender in this part of the world. Since the early 1900s, the region has witnessed the collapse of multinational empires into nation-states; the human devastation and divided legacies left by the Second World War and the Holocaust; the transformation of society and the economy under Communist power, and the divided legacies that this too has left behind; the break-up of the Warsaw Pact bloc and the remaining federations into nation-states that were to be remade in the image of a democratic, free-market ideal. Yet these grand narratives of transformation and transition risk obscuring divergences and specificities that historians of gender may also need to take into account.

Contributions may focus on one country or may have a broader comparative scope, but all proposals should indicate how the material can contribute to an understanding of the region as a whole. The coverage of the volume will be balanced across the time frame of the twentieth century and the region under consideration. Proposals are welcome regarding any part of the east European region or the former USSR. A major UK publisher has expressed interest in publishing the volume as a paperback, subject to successful completion of their review process.

Aspects that might be discussed within essays include, but are not limited to:

  •  Borderlands and the question of ‘national indifference’
  • Childhood and youth
  • The Communist revolutions and takeovers
  • Communist parties in power
  • Consumption, the home and everyday life under state socialism
  • Feminism and other activist movements
  • Interactions between the region and the rest of the world, including the Global South
  • Labour, postsocialism and neoliberalism
  • Oral history and memory
  • Popular culture and the media
  • Refugees and humanitarian relief
  • Reproductive and sexual politics
  • Queer and trans* histories
  • Security and surveillance
  • Socialist approaches to gender in theory and practice
  • War and the military, including female participation on the front line
  • War memory and commemoration
  • Intersections of gender with other power relationships

Please send an abstract of 300–500 words to Catherine Baker (University of Hull) at by Sunday 13 October 2013. Proposals will be reviewed immediately and notification will be made by the end of October 2013. Draft papers are likely to be due in July 2014. As part of preparing the book I hope to organise related conference panels e.g. at ASEEES in November 2014, although being able to attend a conference is not a requirement for taking part.

Written by bakercatherine

2 September 2013 at 9:49 am

The ethics of archive acquisitions: why couldn’t an important collection of British trans history stay in the UK?

with 3 comments

The Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada may have expanded its collection by as much as 50 per cent, according to its academic director Aaron Devor, after acquiring what’s thought to be the largest collection of material related to trans history in the UK: the ‘Transgender Archive’ built up by the sociologist Richard Ekins at the University of Ulster between 1986 and 2010, when Ekins retired and had to consider what to do with the archive next.

UVic Archives are rightly proud to have acquired the Ekins collection, which fits well with its mission of ‘actively acquiring documents, rare publications, and memorabilia of persons and organizations that have worked for the betterment of transgendered people’. The archive already contains the papers of a number of trans activists, scholars and organisations from Canada and the US, but the Ekins collection broadens the archive’s geographical scope of the archive, as Devor told the local Times Colonist newspaper: ‘We don’t have a large body of materials on the history of transgender activity in the United Kingdom, so this will flesh out that component of our collection [...] It will be great to give a more comprehensive view on what’s been going on in transgender rights and organizing in a broader swath of the globe.’

Last week, however, a report in the Camden New Journal raised some troubling questions about whether the collection might have had the opportunity to stay in the UK before even being offered to UVic. The CNJ stated that Ekins’s first choice for the collection’s new home had been the Hall-Carpenter Archive at LSE – which describes itself as ‘Britain’s major resource for the study of lesbian and gay activism in the UK since the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957′ – but that the HCA had been unable to accept it unless it was inventoried and anonymised before the archive took it on:

After an approach to Professor Ekins’ “first choice” library, the Hall-Carpenter Archive (HCA) at the LSE, the largest source for the study of gay activism in Britain, a “stumbling block” app­eared when the university said to consider it they would need him to get rid of any items subject to copyright or containing personal information like addresses, and provide a full, professional ­inven­tory.

He is “at pains” not to criticise the LSE but said: “I’m disappointed it couldn’t stay in the UK, it is a chronicle of a part of Britain’s history.”

UVic, in contrast, was able to pay for the transportation and inventory of the material, which appears to already be on its way to Canada.

Reading that LSE – my former university – had been offered this amount of material and turned it down was a shock, and one that raises some difficult questions about the ethics of archive acquisitions, especially when they concern the histories of marginalised people. UVic’s archivists are world leaders in trans history, and could hardly have been expected to refuse the Ekins collection once it was offered to them. The thorny questions mostly come before that stage: how did the Ekins collection fail to find a home in the UK?

On the face of it, the Ekins collection should have been well within the remit of the HCA and LSE. Although the HCA highlights ‘lesbian and gay’ activism as its theme, it already contains several smaller trans-related holdings, such as small amounts of material from Trans Essex, the Transsexual Action Group, the Harry Benjamin Foundation, the Transsexual Action Organisation and the Self Help Association for Transsexuals. (It’s not clear whether or not the HCA also systematically collects bi material, though again there are holdings related to several bisexual groups and campaigns in the archive.) The Ekins collection would have been a headline acquisition that could have made the LSE’s archives a focal point for British trans history in the future. There’s all the more need for this since historical research on trans activism and gender variance in a British context is still some way behind the US, where Susan Stryker’s Transgender History has been available since 2008.

I ought to acknowledge that I don’t know myself what’s in the Ekins collection or – importantly – what isn’t in it. I have no idea, for instance, on how fully the collection covered gender variance outside the male/female binary, or the intersections of trans-ness and race, even though those are lenses that any future history of trans people in Britain will need to be sensitive to. Despite the significance of the collection, it would be a mistake to rely solely on it to represent British trans experiences in their entirety. I still have a sense that British archives have missed out by not being able to acquire it, which seemed to be shared on social media when the Camden New Journal article was circulating on Friday.

I hope that I’d be one of the least likely people to defend nationalism for its own sake: this isn’t an argument that the collection ought to stay inside British borders just because it was made within them. Neither is this a case where a foreign archive’s acquisition of a collection can be challenged because of a history of colonial exploitation by the acquiring state over the place where the material is from. The sadness I felt on hearing that LSE had been unable to acquire the archive is to do with the accessibility of the material. I suppose my general feeling is that archives ought to be located somewhere where they’ll be as accessible as possible to the people they refer to. Unless the collection is made available online by UVic – and it’s been suggested that this will happen in due course – it could only be used by researchers based in British Columbia or funded for a long research visit there, with an impact on who that much-needed history of trans experiences in Britain could be written by, and inaccessible to nearly all trans people in Britain.

There are some parallels with the arguments that break out every few years when the papers of one or other famous British writer get bought by a North American university (usually the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at UT Austin, which plans for years to acquire writers’ papers). But the ethical problems are sharper here because these are materials relating to people who have suffered systematic marginalisation and erasure, rather than the papers of members of a cultural elite. (I don’t mean to suggest that no individual writer in their own life has suffered these things; just that the two groups, as groups, aren’t equally situated.) LSE’s response in the Camden New Journal article mentioned the lack of an inventory for the collection as the stumbling block:

“The school was last contacted by Professor Ekins two years ago and requested further information about the archive’s contents.

“The school did not receive this inventory from Professor Ekins and was therefore not in a position to give the transfer any further consideration.”

If it’s the case, however, that all collections need to be inventoried and anonymised to a professional standard before the archive can accept them, then an ethical question follows: does this mean that collections belonging to owners with less time, energy and resources to bring them up to this standard are less likely to be acquired, and does this mean that collections relating to people and groups with less privilege, thus fewer resources, are disproportionately likely to be turned down? If so, this would seem to suggest that acquisition policies would need to be more flexible in order not to perpetuate erasure. (The case of the Ekins collection is more complicated because it had previously been held by another university, and we don’t as yet know how it was archived there, why it didn’t end up being archived there after Ekins’s retirement, or how permissions and anonymisation were handled when the collection was being built up.)

More ‘flexibility’ in this kind of case would mean more calls on archives’ scarce resources, including archivists’ time and the cost of their salaries while the extra preparation work was going on. The cost of taking on the collection is therefore greater (and UVic is to be commended for funding the inventorying as well as the transport of the collection to BC). Yet it doesn’t feel as if this is a cost the LSE would have been unable to bear. I have to acknowledge that I don’t know precisely how the HCA is funded or how its own budget relates to the LSE budget as a whole; however, LSE as an institution has been capable of buying prestige office buildings in the Holborn area such as the Mobil Towers and the former Land Registry Office building on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and charges its non-EEA students some of the highest fees in the country. Although the leadership of Craig Calhoun, who replaced Howard Davies after the Gaddafi scandal, offered LSE an opportunity to ‘reassert itself as a centre of social justice, equality and fairness’, these hopes need to be backed up by action for them not to appear as empty branding promises.

From my point of view as a former student and a frequent target of LSE alumni fundraising, funding an archivist’s time to prepare the Ekins collection, or another collection in similar condition, is one of the most worthwhile things that LSE could use its money for. I’d happily have contributed to a public appeal to raise the extra funds if it couldn’t have been funded from existing resources, and I surely can’t be alone in wishing we had been asked. Equally, there might have been scope to approach the Heritage Lottery Fund (as suggested by a British social historian on Twitter), which includes archival collections among the types of project it supports. I don’t know enough about the decisions made by the HCA, LSE and the archive owner to comment further on this side of the case, but I’m left with a feeling that at some or other point acquiring the Ekins collection for LSE wasn’t made as high a priority as I’d personally believe it ought to be.

For wholly or predominantly cis organisations with self-declared ‘lesbian and gay’ interests dealing with trans-related material, there are further considerations. Unfortunately, there’s a long track record of mainstream gay and lesbian organisations reacting indifferently to trans concerns or deliberately deciding to exclude them in order to make it easier to achieve an objective that will benefit the cis people they represent. (The latest is the widespread celebration of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples Act) despite the serious obstacles it puts in the way of married trans people applying for gender recognition from the state.) Cis privilege means only hearing about this when a controversy brings it to your attention rather than because it has a personal impact on your own life (I regret to say, for instance, that I didn’t appreciate how deeply many trans people resent Stonewall until an incident a few years ago); but trans people know very well that cissexism or outright transphobia on the part of LGB organisations goes on. Because of this background, organisations with a progressive or radical remit – and the HCA would fall into this category – need to actively demonstrate that they’re aware of this form of privilege and working to undermine it, or trans erasure will continue – sometimes through ignorance rather than intent, but with the same outcome nonetheless.

At the moment, there isn’t any more information about the HCA’s contact with the Ekins archive beyond last week’s article in the Camden New Journal. My intention in writing this isn’t to single out any one person or organisation for blame, rather to express some of the reasons behind my unease that the current situation has ended up happening at all, and to raise some ethical questions that archivists and historians ought to be aware of, especially when we deal with the histories of people we have privilege over. Instances like this show all too well that, as Joan Schwartz and Terry Cook have written, ‘[a]rchives [...] are not passive storehouses of old stuff, but active sites where social power is negotiated, contested, confirmed’ (Schwartz and Cook 2002: 1, £). Through the negotiations and choices they make in this and many other settings, archivists shape the content and organisation of their archive. For Schwartz and Cook, this makes it essential that archivists acknowledge rather than deny their power over memory:

Archives – as records – wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies. And ultimately, in the pursuit of their professional responsibilities, archivists – as keepers of archives – wield power over those very records central to memory and identity formation through active management of records before they come to archives, their appraisal and selection as archives, and afterwards their constantly evolving description, preservation, and use. (2002: 2)

Part of this accountability, surely, must include thinking through how privilege might affect archivists’ conscious and unconscious decisions about what they collect and how they collect it. The result can be archives that are as inclusive, open and public as they could possibly strive to be: helping to make future histories and memories of the past as diverse as they, too, deserve to be.

Written by bakercatherine

22 July 2013 at 1:22 pm

Posted in archives, feminism, history

The power of the catalytic image: Woolwich, Borovo Selo, and the dangers of collective guilt

leave a comment »

On the night of 1 May 1991, four Croatian police officers drove into the village of Borovo Selo, near Vukovar in eastern Slavonia, apparently to exchange the Yugoslav flag for a flag of the Republic of Croatia above a barricade that had been set up earlier that day by a recently-formed Serb militia in the village. Two of the four were wounded and captured when the militia fired on them during the raid. The next day, sixty fellow officers from Vinkovci entered Borovo Selo by bus in order to rescue the two men and drove into a pre-planned ambush at the entrance to the village. In the attack that followed, twelve of the Croatian officers were killed and their bodies mutilated. Horrific photographs of the recovered bodies were shown on Croatian television.

The Borovo Selo massacre amplified Croats’ fears of the rebellion against the Croatian authorities that had been growing in strength since the summer of 1990, when groups of Serbs had set up barricades across roads near Knin in another part of the country, Krajina. Armed incidents had already taken place: that Easter, a firefight in the Plitvice national park between Croatian police and rebels commanded by the Knin police chief, Milan Martic, had left one person dead on each side. The spread of violence into eastern Slavonia and the building of the Borovo Selo barricade Selo had come after the future Croatian defence minister, Gojko Susak, had fired rockets into Borovo Selo in what Laura Silber and Allan Little describe as ‘an unprovoked act of aggression’ against the local Serbs (The Death of Yugoslavia, p. 141).

Fear of where the rebellion and the countermeasures against it might lead had been growing since the Krajina barricades and the Plitvice gun battle. Yet even then, the visceral horror of the images from Borovo Selo seemed to change what it was possible to publicly say in Croatia. Journalists referring to the Serbs as ‘terrorists’ or ‘Chetniks’ – the nickname of the Serb royalist army during the Second World War, which had also massacred non-Serbs – became routine. In the field that I research, the entertainment industry, it was after Borovo Selo that the Croatian broadcaster stopped showing Serb musicians, even those such as the pop singer Zdravko Colic who had been acceptable as late as April 1991. After Borovo Selo, automatic suspicion of Serbs as national enemies could much more easily become ingrained common sense.

The video recorded on a smartphone in Woolwich a few minutes after the killing of Lee Rigby, a drummer in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, approaches the horror of the pictures from Borovo Selo. The hands of the man claiming responsibility for the attack are still covered in blood. Both force the viewer to imagine the brutality of the killing; both depict the murder of victims who were killed because they served their state. Both are far beyond what a reader could normally expect to see on the front page of a newspaper in a time of peace.

Although many British newspapers used a still image from the recording on their front pages the day after the murder, The Guardian‘s use of the image was perhaps the most shocking. Filling the front page with the image, as The Guardian often does, the newspaper confronted readers with the photograph and a quotation from the alleged killer’s speech: ‘You people will never be safe.’ When taken up by a national newspaper, even more so by one that considers its editorial identity anti-racist, the words come perilously close to suggesting that a people – however this is going to be defined – is under immediate, planned attack, the same argument that has been put forward by the English Defence League since its formation in 2009.

On the evening of the killing, a remark apparently originating with a Metropolitan Police source that the attackers had been ‘of Muslim appearance’ was repeated by the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson (a comment for which he subsequently apologised). The Home Secretary, Theresa May, referred to the killing as ‘an attack on everybody in the United Kingdom’. The combination of words, images and commentary circulating in the British media in the aftermath of Woolwich, laid over the public ‘common sense’ about terrorist threats in the UK that has been built up throughout the War on Terror and especially since the 7/7 attacks in London, risked turning what was known about the immediate events – the attackers had claimed to have carried out the killing ‘because Muslims are dying every day’ – into a conclusion of collective guilt: Muslims are to blame.

Talking about guilt and aggression in collective terms creates an atmosphere in which the obstacles to someone’s decision to use violence come down. It can suggest that violence in revenge won’t be punished; that it will be condoned; that it will be justified; even, sometimes, that it counts as self-defence. Among the Guardian staff invited by the reader’s editor to comment on whether the front page had been appropriate, one staff member spoke about their fear that the Guardian’s use of the alleged killer’s quote would bring about precisely these results:

As someone with very religious Muslim family members in this country I watch press coverage of events like these closely, and often with a fair amount of fear. My mum, though she is one of the ‘you people’ in Thursday’s headline, lives in fear that she will become one of the ‘you people’ of the EDL’s chants.

In the five days after Woolwich, 71 hate crimes against Muslims were reported to UK police forces, including the attempted firebombing of a mosque in Grimsby (covered, like Hull, by the area of Humberside Police). A hotline operated by Faith Matters and the Tell MAMA Project has received reports of 201 incidents, ‘up from a daily average of four to six’. The EDL mobilised an unclear number of members – possibly 1,000, possibly more – to march through Westminster on Monday, easily outnumbering the anti-fascist counter-protestors who must now regroup before another far-right march from Woolwich to Lewisham on Saturday.

Many things set the killing in Woolwich apart from the massacre in Borovo Selo. In the background to each event are very different histories of discrimination, settlement, and relative power relations within and around the states where they took place. Their short-term backgrounds are very different, too, with a number and severity of incidents in the locality of Borovo Selo before the massacre that had not, thankfully, occurred in Woolwich. The Borovo Selo massacre took place within an ethnopolitical conflict where different authorities were claiming state sovereignty over territory; the far-right appropriation of Woolwich is an expression of anti-immigrant racism.

What connects them is a brutal killing, a horrific image, and what becomes more acceptable to say in public after the killing and the image become known.

In an academic context I would use the idea of the ‘collectivisation’ of threat or even guilt to explain some of the reactions it was possible to hear as news about the killing in Woolwich spread, and the increase in talk about Serb ‘terrorists’ and ‘Chetniks’ after the murders in Borovo Selo. It’s a thought process where members of a collective group, in this case a majority, recognise a threat as directed against the whole majority and coming from the whole of the minority that the killers belonged to rather than the immediate group that carried out the killing – whether the members of the militia who planned the ambush in Borovo Selo or however many people will be found to have arranged the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich. And it is dangerous.

I started thinking through these parallels a day or two ago in conversation with bloggers @Puffles2010 and Sam Ambreen, who have both written about how the media’s sensationalisation of the Woolwich killing have increased the fear they feel as non-white people in Britain. Both refer to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian who was shot dead by police in 2005 who assumed, based on the colour of his skin, that he was one of the suspects for the 21/7 bombing:

[Nick] Robinson’s failure exposes a wider prejudice: the idea that you can judge someone’s religion by the colour of their skin. Once you get into that territory, you get into scenarios that cost Jean Charles de Menezes his life following 7/7. (@Puffles2010)

Jean Charles de Menezes was one of them. If we had any hopes of restitution post 9/11 (not from guilt but from between a rock and a hard place) the events of 7/7 dashed any chance of rebuilding the fearful paranoid Britain we found ourselves in. Menezes was not Muslim or South Asian, or an Arab. He just shared a similar tone of skin. What about his appearance made him look Muslim? Whatever it was, he paid with his life. (Sam Ambreen)

Sam also draws on my initial thoughts in part of a follow-up post she wrote after the EDL march on Monday. These writers, the Guardian staffer quoted by the readers’ editor, and many others, all have immediate reason to be afraid of being seen as part of a collective threat, and to vest those fears not just in the far right but also in the police. Ash Sarkar, in an update reblogged by Laurie Penny, wrote of her shock at seeing personal friends express hatred on Facebook when they heard of the attack:

I’ve seen people call for hanging, torture, extra-judicial killings, locking up/deporting all Muslims and attacks on mosques. These aren’t strangers on Twitter, but people I’ve grown up with: gone to school with, babysat for, and (in one case) kissed.

Hearing accounts like these (which deserve to be heard in full, rather than explained in a voice like mine – which, since I’m white and not a Muslim, can’t personally express the same degree of fear) points to a responsibility on the part of those of us who are being told we are collectively under attack not to contribute to collectivising guilt or threat any further if we reject the frame. The louder and safer the voice, the greater the responsibility.

Challenging hatred and the far right in the atmosphere that has become public with shocking speed since Woolwich seems a harder task, but also much more urgent, than it did before the Woolwich murder. Reading accounts of anti-fascist organising in Britain in the past, such as the Battle of Cable Street against the British Union of Fascists in 1936 or the resistance to the National Front in Lewisham in 1977, one wonders whether today’s movements would be able to organise similar numbers of people for action inherently more dangerous than the A-to-B marches that have characterised mainstream political protest in the 2000s and 2010s. At the same time, and just as urgently, we need to find ways to resist – and avoid replicating – the politics of collective guilt and threat that make direct violence more possible.

Written by bakercatherine

30 May 2013 at 10:42 am


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 46 other followers