Sitting with ‘Yugosplaining’: explaining political experience I have and haven’t lived

A tale of two bars in 2016:

It’s the Saturday night of the Millennium journal’s conference on race and racism in International Relations, and four of us from our panel on race, Yugoslavia, India and Non-Alignment have walked up the back ways of Holborn in the October night looking for a place where we can sit and drink; a cramped, semi-underground Indo-Chinese cocktail bar has its back door open (I later found out it was called ‘Bollywood Stories’), and we settle around a small cellar table under the stairs, Srđan, Jelena, Aida and I, one candle flickering between us, contemplating what we don’t have to say out loud about the vote there’s just been in this country and the vote there’s about to be in the USA, and where what we know about what we don’t have to say comes from;

Four months earlier, it’s the day after that referendum, I’ve been away in Newcastle at a feminist international relations conference, up till 4.30 am until I couldn’t take any more of Nigel Farage grinning about bullets ten days after a white nationalist had shot Jo Cox dead in the middle of the street, and the group of us from my department who sometimes go for a drink after work have mutually agreed we need one tonight. We’re all white men and women from various parts of England, two from Hull, one from Derbyshire, me from the South (or maybe there are five of us, and our colleague who’s Australian is there as well); and soon after I’ve dropped my bag at home and found them in the large back room of one of the pubs near work, we’ve got on to constitutional implications, and I’ve said ‘Scotland’s gone’ without missing a beat; and someone or everyone says ‘Really?!’ because my consciousness has made a leap theirs hasn’t yet. (A few days later I think through all the resonances of constitutional fragmentation and ethnicised polarisation from the break-up of Yugoslavia that the atmosphere before and after the referendum is evoking, in an essay for LSE’s European Politics and Policy blog that comes out in one sitting about fourteen hours long: it comes to about 7,000 words.)

The astonishingly wise, frank, raw, and honest series of daily blog posts that Aida, Jelena and Srđan have edited all month at The Disorder of Things calls a foreknowledge based on living through the disintegration and destruction of Yugoslavia ‘Yugosplaining’:

At the time, the Yugoslav wars and their extreme violence were viewed by the West as idiosyncratic, isolated events, unrelated to broader process of political and economic transformation in the world – the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of communism. Indeed, they were just outright inconvenient for the world that celebrated the end of history. Yugoslavia, once deeply entangled with both the East and the West and even more so with the Global South, was all of a sudden isolated from history – including its own.

Yet now, as the West (and the allegedly democratized East) unravel under the weight of their own unresolved histories – and not just of the successive lost wars, financial crises or the pandemics – it seems that the ghosts of the 1990s are back to haunt us. Nationalism, ethnic and racial violence, populism, militias, lies and conspiracies can no longer be viewed as “the Balkan” phenomena. Instead, “the Balkans” now appears as the vanguard of a common catastrophe (Subotić, Hemon).

Concluding the series, they wrote yesterday:

The aim was twofold: first, to use the authors’ lived personal experience of Yugoslavia as a way of explaining our lived political experience elsewhere. Second, to reclaim the narrative of our own lives rather than be made subject to outsiders’ accounts.

Decades after its demise, Yugoslavia continues to act as an open wound. We live what Saida Hodžić wrote in her essay – “if home is a wound that splits open the world, the world neither stays open nor heals over.” Therefore, this series was not designed to explain what Yugoslavia was, what it meant to whom, who it included or excluded, or how it came apart or why. It was, instead, designed to explain our current moment – that world split open – through the experience of our past.

These are knowledges that, working in the Western academy, the contributors have seen painfully silenced again and again by Western presumptions about what happened in ‘the Balkans’ and what ‘the Balkans’ must have been like for it to happen there, as Aida, Azra Hromadžić and Saida Hodžić all painfully record.

I felt none of Yugoslavia’s break-up on my body. My experiences of the wars were mediatised backdrops to everyday pre-teen routine, as a racial- and ethnic-majority subject of a nation that was setting itself up as a humanitarian donor, diplomatic negotiator and conditional peacekeeper (which measured its contributions by the risk to British, not Bosnian, lives): a newsreader on my mother’s radio in the kitchen saying tanks had crossed the Slovenian border; the War Child appeal and ‘Miss Sarajevo’ on Top of the Pops; an Evening Standard headline about Srebrenica at the station, and footage of disarmed Dutch soldiers on the six o’clock news by the time I came home from school.

And yet the ways I’ve tried to understand how the wars became possible and what they did to everyday life have done something to my subjectivity, to the deep premises I know about how societies and international politics work, about how people come to see others as enemies, and the myths they tell about the future and the past.

As a PhD student, I wanted to understand how a music industry like Croatia’s could have separated itself from Yugoslavia so quickly, and how it had been part of transforming everyday public consciousness in the ways that the Croatian anthropologists and ethnomusicologists I’d started reading during my Masters had documented at the very beginning of the war. Stitching together the Croatian war of independence and its aftermath, day by day, over one long spring and two long summers in Croatia’s national library (year by year in reverse, so 1990 came last every time, and then it was back to the then-present with another newspaper or showbusiness magazine), the slippage of political deadlock into armed clashes into something ever worse was not the sudden blaze of Western book covers and documentary title screens; how would I know if this were only a few months away?

More of what I know about living through those years comes from deep listening. In my postdoctoral work, I interviewed thirty-odd Bosnians and other ex-Yugoslavs about the work they’d done as interpreters and translators for foreign peacekeeping forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, during and after the war. Some would have been direct contemporaries of Danijela Majstorović, who wrote about her own and her research participants’ migration in another of the Yugosplaining essays; we somehow missed each other during my research visits (we’re still not sure how). I must have been in Priština, where I’d gone to interview a former British military linguist for another strand of the project, just as former Bosnian interpreters were responding to a post I’d made in a Facebook reunion group about setting up interviews later in the year, when I was coming back from meeting an ex-KFOR interpreter someone had connected me to and the thought came to me: many of the people I’d been meeting had been languages students or languages graduates when the war came; so were most of my friends at the time; if something like this had happened where we lived [in a completely different global configuration of languages, statehood and power, of course; but that only came later], is this what we’d have done?

These are acts of imagination, just as everything I know about the region that used to be Yugoslavia is in some way a construction. It only sits inside my mind through scholarship; it does not sit in my bones. What do sit in my bones are the experiences and sensations of the scholarship itself – the work, the research, the presentations, the listening, the conversations, and all the imaginative backchannels that run while my frontstage does those things. Among the authors are friends, contemporaries, authorities, table-of-contents mates and tablemates, people to whom I strive to make my representations of Yugoslavia and its aftermath authentic and accountable, to whom I owe a responsibility to depict as much complexity as they can see.

In essays such as the piece by Dženeta Karabegović, Slađana Lazić, Vjosa Musliu, Julija Sardelić, Elena B Stavrevska and Jelena Obradović-Wochnik, writing as the Yugoslawomen+ Collective and using their own experiences as knowledge-producers and subjects who have waited to cross borders to think through how rhetoric about ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ migrants has changed since the 1990s, I hear echoes of dialogues that I’ve joined in as well in conference corridors and email exchanges, working through this last decade’s reckoning with racism and the global legacies of colonialism from where we each are:

The post-Yugoslav space from which people once fled, and from which they still continue to migrate, is now also known as a ‘transit’ zone for those fleeing ongoing violence elsewhere. The region once known for ‘the Yugoslav wars’ is now ‘the Balkan Route’, the EU’s imagined ‘Badlands’, the outer periphery where border security funds are channelled to prevent the onward migration of racialised ‘others.’ The so-called ‘Balkan route’ became an alternative once the sea crossings were deemed too dangerous; today, it has become so entrenched in the violence of EU’s border-keeping that just one monitoring group in the region has recorded more than 700 reports of police brutality and asylum denials, with 70% of incidents reportedly taking place in Croatia.

Countries of the former Yugoslavia, most notably Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, whose ‘good migrants’ have often managed to leave the region and arrive in relative safety to countries of the Global North, are now implicated in the EU’s border-keeping to the extent that they regularly participate in the violent ‘push backs’ of men, women and children from the EU’s external border. Their aspirations to ‘Europeanness’, understood primarily as EU membership, are exercised through the protection and legitimization of the European superiority, even though their own citizens’ mobility within the EU is limited. […] The region is, thus, simultaneously othered and implicated in further othering in migration discourses. These racialised and classed hierarchies of people on the move are perpetuated, despite thousands of people from the post-Yugoslav space continuously lining up in front of EU and other Global North countries’ embassies or looking for ways to get EU citizenship so they can migrate more easily.

Something has, or somethings have, committed all of us to perceiving Yugoslavia and the violence of its collapse, and the systemic violence emanating in all its global forms from Europeans’ enslavement of Africans and colonisation of Indigenous lands, as part of the same world.

(The very question of who feels able to write themselves into a ‘Yugoslav’ past is shaped by such power relations, as Vjosa noted at the beginning of the series when explaining why she had participated in it as an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo, and as Jelena, Srđan and Aida acknowledged in their conclusion: almost all its contributors came from South Slav backgrounds, and Yugoslavia’s failure to confront ‘the longer history of anti-Albanian bigotry’ in the region undercut its aspirations to ‘brotherhood and unity’ even before we weigh up how well it balanced the rights and interests of different South Slavs.)

Later in Azra’s essay, she writes of discussing her wartime experiences of being labelled as a Bosnian Muslim with inner-city Philadelphia schools, and trying to comfort disoriented students on her ‘Peace and Conflict in the Balkans’ class immediately after Trump’s election, as ‘openings’ that defy the ‘closings’ that have pressed on her in prestigious academic spaces: these openings are ‘transactions in sociopolitical life when “structures of feeling” were somehow transmitted and felt, almost understood, across the sociopolitical, geographic, and historical spectrum’. My own knowledge and I are the outcomes of many such openings, and are measured by them as well.

Three weeks after Srđan, Aida, Jelena and I sat together in Holborn, the US election result came in: overnight for them, first thing in the morning for me. Whatever else I’d been meant to do that day, the only thing I could do was write, a messy 3,000 words on coming to terms with how quickly queer people’s newborn rights could be taken away overnight, and why the result filled me as a queer woman with dread even an ocean away. (I re-used part of it when Cai Wilkinson was editing a special section of Critical Studies on Security and invited me to rework it as an essay I ended up calling ‘The filter is so much more fragile when you are queer’.

(One line I added to the piece for Cai has kept coming back into my head, this pandemic year: ‘There are people I know or used to know who will be dead in four years’ time.’)

My consciousness of my own nation and its past would not be what it is without learning about post-Yugoslavia for so long. Jelena (Subotić) writes, in her essay on citizens’ moral implication in the violence of Milošević’s Serbia or Trump’s USA, of our ‘larger, metaphysical responsibility as citizens who still benefit from structural racism or from structural inequality, or from structural anti-immigration policies. Even if we oppose them, by our own position in society we are implicated in them – an argument that goes at least as far back as Karl Jaspers’. To hope for a transparent reckoning with the past in Croatia or Serbia (I’d understood by the end of my PhD), it would be a double standard not to work towards the same in Britain – a country whose imperial and slave-trading past had systemic consequences around the world.

Knowing about post-Yugoslavia through the ‘openings’ I’d been part of for years, I suggested at the end of the queer in/security pieces, had made me more able to understand that Britain was not immune to the kind of authoritarian, nationalist future that now seemed to be coming to pass:

I know without having lived it that ethnopolitical conflict works like that.

The anxieties over ‘dilution’ or ‘undermining’ national cultural values that racists and xenophobes intensify in order to mobilise public support for restricting immigration work like that.

[…] Studying the Yugoslav wars since my early twenties, when all that preoccupied me at the time they were happening was making sense of the confusion with which I entered my own queer teens: I know identities wax strongest, turn from individual to collective, description to politics, when people believe or are led to believe that that identity is why they’re under threat.

I know it through compressing acres of wartime newsprint into weeks of research, through collecting hours upon hours of memories, through years of friendship and listening and solidarity, all breaking down my own filter of it-can’t-happen-here.

But I’d also suggested that having grown up queer, knowing that my belonging to the respectable majority would only ever be conditional, had made that filter more fragile and perhaps helped me to feel the solidarities I do:

There are freedoms I have in England or would have in America, which I didn’t even expect to enjoy as a teenager but which my queer elders won for me. In doing so, I gained a strange kind of everyday security with an uncanny contingency underneath – which I could lose again in ways that, if they were proposed for straight people, would be the stuff of dystopia, ‘some Handmaid’s Tale shit right there’.

(Dystopia still happens. But it takes so many more guns.)

Did knowing these kinds of insecurity with my own body make me more detachable from the idea that the territory–nation–culture nexus I was born in should automatically be a place of safety, progress and inspiration to the rest of the world – an idea that has so readily slipped into many Westerners’ belief that their knowledge is the most authoritative on ‘Balkan affairs’? I am wary of saying that queerness alone is enough to create an alliance – and yet if anything in my life has predisposed me to step away from the Anglophone West being at the centre of the world, that must be what it must be. (Did failing to fit the norms of heterosexual and class success at a school that was supposed to train girls to join Britain’s institutions of power do that?)

Without directly experiencing the Yugoslav wars, my consciousness of history, politics and security – of what can happen, and how it starts, and where it ends – has still been Yugosplained. Jelena, Aida and Srđan warn in their concluding essay, as our mood seemed to when we sat together:

Yugoslavia also carries a message for our friends and colleagues in the countries we now find ourselves in – believe in your exceptionalism – at your own peril; ignore your past – at your own peril; do not listen to Others amongst you – at your own peril.

My thoughts sit there too. And that sits in my bones.

The space of an embrace: Eurovision’s affective communities in lockdown

This post originally appeared at the Music, Affect, Politics / Glasba, afekt, politika blog on 11 May 2020.

Shortly after lockdown in Italy began, Italian apartment-dwellers started joining in co-ordinated singing from their balconies, including the song that had just won the Sanremo Music Festival and was still officially Italy’s entry for the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest. When it became clear that that too would have to be cancelled, Eurovision fans rallied together on social media to bind their sense of community back together by watching past contents online.

Both these ‘affects’ of lockdown presumed opposite relationships to space and gathering together than those on which Eurovision and other live televised events have relied for their emotional power. To illustrate that, consider how each contrasts with the seemingly unlikely note of sombreness and sincerity that Ermal Meta and Fabrizio Moro brought into the Eurovision grand final in 2018 when they performed that year’s Italian entry ‘Non mi avete fatto niente’ (‘You haven’t done anything to me’) –a song commemorating the hundreds of victims of the urban terrorism which had added undercurrents of fear to the everyday experience of city life for millions of people in the mid-2010s.

Alone on stage against a background of deep red spotlights and digital projections of their lyrics translated into fifteen languages, Meta and Moro named the sites of recent attacks in Cairo, Barcelona, Paris, London and Nice, with imagery more graphic than casual viewers would likely expect from a contest with so kitsch a reputation, and appeals to tolerance and religious reconciliation that tested the boundaries of Eurovision’s rule against political messages.

Moro’s intense gaze at the crowd, and the tightness of his fist clenched around his microphone stand, even seemed to make visible the unspoken knowledge that audiences, performers and fans had had to suppress since the Bataclan attacks and the Manchester Arena bombing in order to enjoy any live spectacle at all: it could have been any working musician, and any crowd.

Two years later, the song that would have been Italy’s Eurovision entry, Diodato’s ‘Fai rumore’, was instead being sung in unison by Italian city-dwellers from their balconies, joining in one of the only physical forms of community with a group larger than their own household that was open to them now that the severity of coronavirus in Italy had forced the country into Europe’s earliest and arguably strictest lockdown.

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Non so se esistano parole per descrivere l’emozione che questi video mi stanno dando. Quando ho presentato questo brano ho più volte detto che era un invito a rompere il silenzio, a fare rumore, a far arrivare la propria umanità. Mai avrei pensato a tutto questo. La situazione a cui siamo costretti ci sta rimettendo in connessione con le cose davvero importanti e, paradossalmente, tra noi. Facciamo tesoro di tutto questo. Che in tanti abbiano scelto di manifestare la propria voglia di vivere, di comunicare, di rompere il silenzio con questa canzone, mi riempie di emozioni forti, mi fa piangere, cantare, come un pazzo, da questa piccola casa in cui sono rinchiuso, insieme a voi. Restiamo a casa, aiutiamo medici, infermieri e tutti gli eroi che stanno combattendo in prima linea. Ce la faremo, torneremo più forti di prima, più uniti, più consapevoli e non vorremo più farne a meno del nostro bellissimo rumore. 💪🏻❤️ #Repost @tg1_rai_official with @get_repost ・・・ Tra le canzoni che in queste ore uniscono l’Italia dei balconi c’è anche “Fai rumore” di @diodatomusic Sentite che meraviglia #instaflashmob #covid19 #andràtuttobene #iorestoacasa #restiamoacasa #restiamouniti #tg1 🎶

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In Meta’s and Moro’s song, as in the discourses of the many European leaders who had had to react to mass-casualty attacks in their countries and cities over the previous few years, terrorism appeared to be motivated by religious intolerance and a blow struck against what their words implied was a shared way of life (in a transnational community extending through Europe to Cairo, though marked specifically as victims of Islamist terrorism compared to the effect it might have had to name Oslo or Utøya as well): its targets were members of the public taking part in the city’s everyday rituals of sociality and joy, in bars and shopping streets and concert crowds.

Against the geographic enormity of the globe, with ‘galaxies of people dispersed in space’, Meta and Moro sang, ‘the most important thing is the space of an embrace’. This intimate, commonplace comfort is now, for up to half the world’s population, against the law to share with anyone outside their household, and denied to those living alone at all – while the terrorist has all but vanished as a source of outdoor dread.

The everyday emotional and affective experiences of living through coronavirus lockdown are unprecedented for those who have been fortunate never to have lived under extended state curfew or a wartime siege, or to have had disabilities restricting them from taking part in public life outside the home; the context of a global, seemingly uncontrollable airborne pandemic is new even then. Together with the anxiety and, for growing numbers of us, the grief that the virus itself has brought, and with what it has meant for any of our working lives, our everyday affects and moods are governed by the politics and economics of our intimate space – the size and quality of our homes, who we live with and how, the gendered dynamics of power and even violence within households, and the structural factors that stratify access to private gardens and other amenities by race and class.

Even more so than in other emergencies, there can be no such thing as a collective experience of coronavirus when some have lived through it with those emotionally closest to them and others will have spent months without face-to-face conversation or touch.

National and transnational media, nevertheless, continue to be driven by a guiding logic of addressing – or inventing – a collective community, which (as Benedict Anderson first noted about the readership of national newspapers) was always too large by orders of magnitude for its members to have ever personally met. Even as multi-channel broadcasting, social media and streaming television have fragmented the mass audiences that television used to count on, media scholars have looked to live events and festivals as the sites where what Angharad Closs Stephens calls the ‘affective atmospheres of nationalism’ (and transnationalism) are most likely to be charged, in person, through the screen and on the keyboard or the phone.

But what happens to the ability of live music and sporting events to bring collective communities temporarily together and invite them to share the sentiments brought out by particular representations of national and transnational identity – the very thing that Eurovision researchers have long argued the contest is famous for – when they have depended on gathering crowds, presenters, participants and technical crew together in sizes that could be banned for months or even longer?

As sports teams and national governing bodies began to pull out of international fixtures even before governmental travel restrictions started making them impossible (one of the last fixtures involving an Italian team, Atalanta’s Champions League match against Valencia in Milan on 19 February, has been blamed for coronavirus outbreaks in both Valencia and Atalanta’s home city of Bergamo), Eurovision fans grew increasingly aware that the live contest in Rotterdam’s 15,000-capacity Ahoy Arena would not be able to take place as scheduled in the middle of May.

During the early stages of lockdown, as celebrities posted stay-at-home appeals from inside their own houses and bands found ways to play together while physically separated (Dubioza Kolektiv, the Bosnian band ‘sick of being European just on Eurosong’, have been streaming their weekly ‘Quarantine Show’ from their homes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia), fans speculated whether Eurovision could still go ahead with remote presenters and the pre-contest videos for what was already a complete slate of songs. The European Broadcasting Union, in charge of Eurovision, announced the inevitable on 18 March, recognising that the size of the event made it too complex to postpone for later in the year.

While the annual Eurovision broadcast brings a temporary affective community into being through television and social media for the length of the contest, fandom (or the many fandoms that now criss-cross various online and offline spaces) sustains an affective community year-round – where keeping up with and sometimes travelling to national selections and pre-Eurovision events as well as the contest itself is an annual ritual, and fans forge friendships, relationships, work and study plans (my own PhD on Croatian popular music and national identity wouldn’t have looked the same if the scandal of Severina’s 2006 Croatian Eurovision entry hadn’t happened in the middle of my research). Fandom’s annual anchor being cancelled for the first time in its history, without even a scoreboard to argue about in years to come, was one more blow in a collapsing social reality.

That weekend, journalist and Eurovision fan Rob Holley organised the first of what’s become a weekly synchronised watchalong of a past contest, #EurovisionAgain, to help fill Saturday nights – because, ‘why not come together every Saturday night and share the moment anyway’? First up was the Malmö contest in 2013, where most fans outside Sweden had first encountered now-legendary presenter Petra Mede; Athens 2006, Moscow 2009, Vienna 2015, Dublin 1997 and Helsinki 2007 have followed, with their own online voting countdown devised by Ellie Chalkley from fan site ESC Insight (for which I’ve written a few times), and the EBU even co-operating to stream new high-definition versions of the 2000s contests and help make older finals temporarily available online.

(Eurovision’s social media channel has also been sharing #EurovisionHomeConcerts where recent contestants share versions of their own and each other’s songs, and a special show on the original date of the grand final will celebrate this year’s entries and ‘link Europe through other familiar songs from the past, performed in iconic European locations’ – to end with a joint performance of the UK’s last Eurovision winner ‘Love Shine A Light’, to be seen on most participating broadcasters except the BBC, which will produce its own Eurovision celebration instead.)

After trying to detach from social media for the few Saturday nights of the lockdown, I joined in #EurovisionAgain for the Helsinki rewatch, livetweeting and making a short video explaining some of the background behind Marija Šerifović’s historic win.

Even watching a contest for the first time brings complex layers of memory and imagination together into the meanings viewers make out of what’s on stage – from memories of other contests and social experiences around those ritual times, to impressions of past or future travel to countries and cities involved, and narratives about international politics that we or the media project on to performances to affectively connect them with identities of ours (the way that Conchita Wurst’s victory in 2014 immediately became bound up with narratives of ‘Europe’ as a tolerant, LGBTQ-friendly space contrasted against ‘Russia’, after the Russian Duma had passed the so-called ‘gay propaganda’ law in 2013).

Rewatching a contest adds temporal distance to those layers of emotional meaning, on both personal and collective levels. In 2007, I was entering the last year of my PhD, and starting to draft the articles on Eurovision and pop-folk music I published in 2008 without knowing what a snapshot of that particular moment in the cultural politics of European integration they’d become, or that I’d still be actively researching Eurovision as an academic thirteen years later as a result of them; Šerifović’s win, for viewers with feminist or queer awareness and some knowledge of Serbian politics since then, may well call to mind the ‘tactical Europeanisation’ of the Serbian state’s shift towards securing Pride marches in the 2010s and the appointment of Ana Brnabić as the region’s first openly gay prime minister in 2017.

In the middle of a pandemic, the emotional experience of watching a past Eurovision might also contrast what each of us and our communities took for granted then with what it has become impossible to do now, with no certainty about when or how gathering in public will be safe again or crossing international borders will be allowed. Like the spectres that Meta’s pleading hands and Moro’s clenched fist brought into the undercurrent of his performance, these are affects that have to stay beneath our consciousness in order to feel the joy we probably turn to Eurovision for.

But it is the ways viewers have created affective experiences and rituals with each other around the annual rhythm of the contest, through digitally mediated communities, which have let those communities invent new rituals even when no live contest can take place at all.

Shelter in place: the feminist and queer insecurities of ‘home’

This post originally appeared at The Disorder of Things on 30 March 2020.

The UK government message is plain, stretched out over socially-distanced podiums at press conferences: ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.’

Other national leaders and US state governors have similarly appealed to the public to respect emergency shelter-in-place or lockdown regimes, police are patrolling the streets to enforce orders for people to remain indoors, social media users have framed staying at home as a communitarian effort through hashtag campaigns such as Italy’s #iorestoacasa (‘I’m staying at home’), and celebrities are performing their contributions to public morale by sharing video messages filmed in their well-appointed homes.

But feminist and queer understandings of security remind us that even in a global pandemic home can be the least secure place of all, through the forms of structural and physical violence that manifest within.

Homes themselves will be worsening the health of those living in conditions which are too cramped to distance or isolate themselves safely, those suffering the mental health consequences of not having private space or guaranteed access to the open air, and those whose housing depends on informal agreements with arbitrary or discriminatory landlords in the midst of a global economic shutdown. All these circumstances, which can be seen as structural violence, are more likely to affect individuals who have been racialised into stigmatised minority groups, queer and trans people with limited access to employment protections, and migrants kept out of stable housing by the enforcement of the ‘everywhere’ or ‘polymorphic’ border.

The daily work of social reproduction that Juanita Elias and Shirin Rai foreground in theorising a ‘feminist everyday political economy’, meanwhile, is where those bearing the predominant burden of that labour may well experience the ontological insecurity that shortages of basic supplies cause. Beneath the immediacy of worrying how to feed one’s household amid the buckling of neoliberal just-in-time supply chains (their ties to international security detailed in Deborah Cowen’s The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade) is, for many, the ontological insecurity of understanding that an economic system one had taken for granted is no longer able to meet one’s basic needs, to the extent it ever could. Women in central and eastern Europe and the former USSR, gender historians such as Jill Massino show, took the brunt of dislocations like these both under state socialism and as that system broke down, while the work of Swati Parashar writes the household into security studies as a unit of analysis by showing how Maoist insurgents in India expand their support base among marginalised households.

Feminist and queer lenses on security, however, reveal that the home is not just where households manage the insecurities that face them from outside: it is also where relationships of power and violence within the household expose some members’ bodily and psychic security to the threats posed by others. Harriet Gray’s research on domestic abuse in military households, for instance, suggests that intimate partner violence may be even more prevalent in the military than it is for the one-third to one-quarter of women who will experience it in civilian life, and highlights the military family home as a site where idealised models of military gender are reproduced.

The escalating rates of intimate partner violence that Lepa Mlađenović and other feminists running Belgrade’s crisis hotline for female and child victims of violence noted during the Yugoslav wars was not only associated with male partners returning from the battlefield but also men becoming angry after watching alarmist propaganda on television. As gun shops in certain US states declare themselves essential services, studies such as Laura McLeod’s on efforts to improve gender security by reducing the number of small arms in Serbian homes remind us that the more firearms in private homes, the greater the risks that they will be turned on partners and children. Women whose gender interlocks (in the words of the Combahee River Collective) with other systems of oppression are, as ever, most vulnerable of all, and in the UK the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is already reporting cases of migrant women being forced into street homelessness after leaving abusive partners because their visas are marked ‘no recourse to public funds’. Activists in China, Brazil, Italy, Cyprus and elsewhere have already noted rates of domestic abuse rising after lockdowns are introduced. It is not hard to imagine how they will rise further the longer that sufferers’ everyday escape routes are closed off, and when male partners in conditions of food scarcity are enacting Iris Marion Young’s ‘logic of masculinist protection’, fuelled in settler colonial societies by the armed frontier myth.

Queer and trans youth with hostile parents, meanwhile, know all too well that home is no security and can often be an actively dangerous place. Those already estranged from their parents, in their home country or elsewhere, do not have the recourse to emergency accommodation in the family home that policymakers expect they might when jobs in the gig economy fold and college campuses close down. Those forced to remain in the family home through lockdown must suddenly adjust to being unable to escape family pressure to renounce expressions of sexual difference and gender non-conformity while losing physical contact with the places of security that friends, queer social spaces, specialist youth services, or supportive educators may have helped them make before.

Digital networks at least enable queer and trans young people with safe enough internet access in their homes to shore up their psychic security by experiencing validation, recognition and virtual interaction with their peers and online sources of support. Even accessing these, however, is more precarious when under the ongoing parental surveillance they are likely to experience in extended quarantine: the UK charity Mermaids, which supports trans youth and their families, added an emergency escape button to its website when the UK lockdown began (on the model of sites for women and children experiencing domestic abuse, which have used them for some time), and was promptly hounded by anti-trans campaigners who have been attempting to spread the belief that trans people are abusively grooming children under their parents’ eyes.

The interpersonal politics within the family home, particularly the pressure to live up to the wishes of a parent who ‘just wants you to be happy’ and not to spoil the mood by asserting the otherness one embodies or the critique one knows, are one of the main foundations of Sara Ahmed’s feminist critique. This has begun with her theorisation of happiness and other emotions (in The Cultural Politics of Emotion and The Promise of Happiness) and continues to inform her theorisation of diversity work in institutions and how organisations work to suppress dissent and complaint. These insights, just as applicable to the co-option of feminist agendas in international institutions as they are to the everyday politics of militarism or affect, are grounded in a knowledge from around the kitchen table that Ahmed shares with many individuals whose ability to step away from that table has been suddenly locked down.

The latent insecurity of the home, nevertheless, is still a source of immediate shelter unavailable to those whose access to any form of housing is insecure. Homelessness in IR is more a metaphor for feminism’s unwelcome reception in certain bastions of disciplinary IR thought (Christine Sylvester writes of ‘the standpoint of homelessness’ in Feminist Theory and International Relations in a Postmodern Era) than a subject of study; yet it is one of the most serious material insecurities facing the subjects of feminist political economy. Gender in its intersections with race and other oppressions structures housing insecurity whether one is a poor trans person living precariously on and off the street (at the centre of Viviane Namaste’s work and other studies of trans political economy, yet disregarded in most social policy) or a Syrian refugee ineligible for resettlement somewhere more stable than a refugee camp because he is a single man.

Almost every imaginable strategy that housing-insecure individuals might use to resolve their immediate accommodation crises is rendered either impossible or much more severely criminalised under quarantine restrictions, while the history of public health shows that authorities have routinely harassed sex workers and other workers in the marginal economy off the streets in the interests of hygiene (not least when commanders have judged the sexual health of soldiers under threat).

The conditions in which individuals who fall sick will be cared for, meanwhile, also exposes the inequality and contingency of ‘home’ within an international political economy of care – another sphere where the feminist study of political economy and of security come together once we acknowledge that the everyday security of the body is a matter of interest (if not, we might even suggest following Lauren Wilcox, the founding matter of interest) for IR. Migrant nurses who will be at the forefront of responses to Covid-19 in hospitals, and migrant domestic workers who will also be at that forefront when the wealthy sick are treated at home, leave their own families behind and submit to repressive visa regimes in order to sustain homes they rarely see, forming extensions of what Maliha Safri and Julie Graham call ‘the global household’; they are among the city-dwellers least able to isolate themselves from the risks of coronavirus, and in the case of domestic workers living in with their employers, among the most unable to escape abusive living situations.

The migrant who is undesirable until her labour becomes essential to what war-themed metaphors are troublingly characterising as a new healthcare front line is, meanwhile, just one of many such ‘unwanted im/migrant’ figures whose position in international politics Cynthia Weber reveals in Queer International Relations by using queer migration studies to show ‘how any attempt to posit home and homeland as secure ontological places is confounded by encounters with movement and queerness inside the home’.

When tragedy strikes, queer understandings of security also recognise that the families impacted by sickness and death are more disparate and diverse than any of the relationships recognised by the state. For many queer people, especially those whose birth families have brought them violence and insecurity, family is a social relation spread across dwellings, forged through networks such as alternative sexual subcultures, fandom communities or sites of queer of colour resistance like the ballroom scene, all far from the nuclear and monogamous units that states privilege with rights. The pandemic which has defined queer collective history since the 1980s, HIV/AIDS, not only accelerated the bitter rejection of heteronormative family forms in 1990s queer theory but also lent emotional urgency to some activists in marriage equality campaigns, knowing that marriage would at least have given them or others like them precedence over homophobic parents when it came to decisions about their lovers’ care.

The history of HIV/AIDS in queer communities, as Steven Thrasher wrote when the US lockdowns began, both testifies to the forms of care that queer chosen families had to build for each other in the face of public hostility and to the problem that taking up space with massed bodies is no longer a viable strategy for exerting political pressure when the deadly virus is carried in the air. A performative theory of assembly (as theorised by Judith Butler) in a moment of pandemic will necessarily, Thrasher suggests, be closer to models of disabled activism than methods of political protest with which most able-bodied activists are familiar, exercised through long-distance solidarities and expressed by individuals physically residing within separate homes.

The myth of the secure home on which the notion of security through staying at home depends is, as the black feminist thought of Patricia Hill Collins reminds us, an illusion obscuring the many ways in which the home becomes a space of violence and insecurity. Acknowledging this, as an everyday perspective on security makes it essential to do, has implications for the myth of the secure national home which, as Collins observes, is so often invoked in attempts to homogenise the public mood and naturalise the securing of the nation’s borders. It is a further irony of the politics of ‘home’ that the health of that metaphorical home is now threatened in several countries by charismatic male leaders setting their personal authority above scientific expertise to impede effective suppression of the pandemic, a further insecurity in what Marysia Zalewski and Anne Sisson-Runyan write of as ‘the grubby vortex of Trump-time’.

‘Who designed these uniforms—Tom of Finland?’: the real story behind these viral photos of Spanish soldiers

This post appeared on Prospect Online on 24 March 2020.

They are musclebound and tanned, with sage-green shirts open to the chest, bulges below their black leather belts, and chinstraps curiously slung along their chiselled jaws.

They are the elite troops of the Spanish Legion, and on an internet desperate to be distracted from pandemic lockdown, they are English-language Twitter’s latest thirst trap.

After the Spanish military was deployed to cities at high coronavirus risk, New York writer Jill Filipovic tweeted “Spain, hi, can you deploy some of that in our direction?” above photos of parading legionnaires. Thousands of Twitter users joined her in desire, some informed her of the Legion’s fascist origins, and others remarked on how homoerotic their uniforms seemed.

Yet the history of the Legion makes those three things no contradiction at all.

End of 2018 publications round-up

Some years there are a lot of small things, other years there’s one big thing. This was mostly a one-big-thing year.

  • Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-Conflict, Postcolonial? came out with Manchester University Press.
  • My article ‘Postcoloniality Without Race?: Racial Exceptionalism and South-East European Cultural Studies’, which expands on ideas from Race and the Yugoslav Region about how ‘Orientalism’ has been applied to studying ‘the Balkans’, came out in Interventions.
  • I have a short essay in Critical Studies on Security about the aesthetics of embodying different imaginations of war and violence, and the pleasures of identifying with stars and characters who embody them, in Wonder Woman. (With an extra 4,000 words of literature review, this could have been a full-length academic article – but then I wouldn’t have had time to write it last year at all…)
  • My book chapter on the complex place of the Military Wives Choir(s) in TV entertainment, patriotic showbusiness, and everyday military life came out in Veronica Kitchen and Jennifer G Mathers’s volume Heroism and Global Politics – with its origins in a blog post I wrote here in 2012.
  • Guest posts for Prospect Online on the Croatian president’s self-promotion during this year’s men’s World Cup, for History Today on the problem of gender non-conforming ‘cross-dressing’ soldiers in history, for E-IR on the international politics of music video, for Discover Society on postsocialism and whiteness, for Imperial and Global Forum on the ‘Windrush myth’ after London 2012, for the German Historical Institute’s History of Knowledge blog on the silent histories of enslavement behind celebrating ‘Europe’ at Eurovision in Lisbon (reblogged by ESC Insight), for LSE Engenderings on integrating gender into historical research, for LSE EUROPP on Brexit, colonialism and Bosnia, and for ESC Insight again on the queer politics of military kitsch.

In press for next year: a spin-off article from material that wouldn’t fit into Race and the Yugoslav Region about female pop-folk celebrity in south-east Europe, which has just been accepted by Feminist Media Studies; a review article for Contemporary European History about recent studies of peacebuilding in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo; a book chapter for The Palgrave Handbook on Languages and War where I reflect on interviewing ex-peacekeepers and interpreters about their work in Bosnia; and a contribution to a forum in New Perspectives on how postcolonial studies of postsocialism deal with class.

One or two more pieces on the aesthetic politics of popular culture and nationalism might also be ready by the end of 2019, not to mention the edited volume on ‘militarisation’, aesthetics and embodiment I’ve been coordinating this year.

Colonialism does connect Britain, the EU and Bosnia – but Britain is not being treated like a colony

This post first appeared at LSE EUROPP: European Politics and Policy on 19 November 2018.

Daniel Hannan MEP is not the first to compare the European Union’s role in international governance in post-conflict Bosnia-Herzegovina to the exercise of colonial rule. Writing for Conservative Home on 14 November, the day Theresa May sought the approval of her cabinet on the UK’s draft Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, Hannan joined other pro-Leave critics of the agreement by arguing that it would leave Britain ‘facing colonial rule from Brussels, of the sort the EU imposed on Bosnia following the Yugoslav war’.

In criticising the EU’s political and financial interventions in Bosnia since the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed in December 1995, Hannan might seem to put himself alongside such unlikely allies as the writers Srećko Horvat and Igor Štiks, who drew attention to the EU’s ‘monumental neo-colonial transformation of [the Balkans] into a dependent semi-periphery’, or David Chandler, who used the phrase ‘empire in denial’ to describe international state-building in Bosnia and elsewhere.

Yet the country he compares to Bosnia is not Kosovo, where movements of Albanians and Serbs have both resisted the EU’s rule of law mission, or Greece, where Marxist economists during the bailout crisis accused Brussels of pursuing ‘a new type of colonialism’ against the European south, but the United Kingdom, the EU’s second largest economy and the country which once ruled the largest empire in the world.

While Britain’s part in world history is as the agent not the subject of colonial power, and its relationship to the EU has existed in a very different balance to Bosnia’s, post-Dayton Bosnia and Brexit Britain can in fact be connected into a common history of European coloniality – though not in the way Hannan suggests.

The EU’s role in Bosnia

There are, to be sure, valid critiques of EU governance in Bosnia when seen through a postcolonial lens. One might cite the ‘Bonn Powers’ that Dayton’s ad hoc Office of the High Representative (OHR) possessed to veto or dismiss elected officials for breaching the peace agreement, which were vested in the EU from 2002 to 2011 when High Representative and EU Special Representative were a ‘double-hatted’ role.

The EU has been responsible for military peace support operations in Bosnia since 2004, ran Bosnia’s international police mission in 2003–12, launched a business development programme called the Compact for Growth and Jobs in 2014 as its response to popular discontent expressed in that year’s plenum protests, reformed Bosnian customs and security services in order for Bosnia to play its part in fortifying EU external borders, and sets the conditions Bosnia must meet to progress through its EU pre-accession strategy.

Insights from postcolonial studies, especially the adaptations of Edward Said’s Orientalism that for two and a half decades have been helping to explain the importance of symbolic boundaries between ‘Europe’ and ‘the Balkans’ in south-east European collective identities, illuminate the ways that international and local officials, intellectuals and media appeal to the idea of Europeanness in making political claims. The EU and other international institutions scarcely invented hierarchical constructions of rational, liberal Europe against the backward ‘Balkans’, but embedded them even further into Bosnian political culture because of the EU’s power to determine whether or not Bosnia had met its conditions for reform.

The linguist Danijela Majstorović, for instance, writes that discourses of Europeanisation in OHR press releases during the early 2000s (including the particularly interventionist term of the only British High Representative, Paddy Ashdown), ‘represented, legitimised and coerced Europeanisation’ when they issued from an institution with powers like the OHR’s, reflecting ‘problematic relations […] of dominance in a sovereign country.’

The promise of integration into the EU in return for successfully implementing reforms serving the interest of neoliberal capital, Majstorović and Zoran Vučkovac argue, stripped the Bosnian public of the democratic political agency to pursue socio-political alternatives and constrained any forms of collective political identification beyond the three ethnic identities enshrined in Dayton. While the EU itself did not draft Dayton, its influence ensured the Dayton system stayed in place.

Even the very idea of European integration and enlargement has been argued, by postcolonial scholars such as Dušan Bjelić and Piro Rexhepi, to disavow the colonial pasts from which today’s ideas of ‘Europe’ emerged. Casting the European Union as a wholly new phase in Europe’s history, Bjelić suggests, permits its leaders and the publics who identify with it to disavow the overtly racist discourses of civilisational superiority with which ‘European’ culture was imagined when possession of an empire was the making of a ‘European’ power. It is in investigating this form of exceptionalism and disavowal where deeper connections between the EU, Brexit and post-Dayton Bosnia truly start to emerge.

Brexit and colonialism

Nostalgia for Britain’s imperial past has, indeed, characterised most of the Leave side’s enthusiastic imaginations of the prosperity post-Brexit Britain could supposedly enjoy. Speculations about replacing the EU with the USA as Britain’s main trading partner or creating a common ‘CANZUK’ free trade and movement area connecting Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, depend on imagining a 21st-century Britannia that commands as much diplomatic and economic power as when it ruled an empire, and whose prospective allies need her much more than she needs them. CANZUK advocates’ arguments that the British public would favour migrants from these white-majority settler-colonial countries, which they imagine as culturally closer than the eastern peripheries of the EU, expose the core of whiteness they place at the centre of British national identity even though they are positing a closeness which is supposedly independent of race.

The intellectual debt this geopolitical fantasy owes to ideas of federalising the white settler empire at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Duncan Bell and Srđan Vučetić suggest in a forthcoming article, exposes how deeply the idea of the ‘Anglosphere’ is and always has been racialised – and shows what boundaries CANZUK advocates are setting around the sovereign political community who, in Leave discourse, are entitled to and exercising their right to ‘take back’ political control.

Exaggerated visions of Britain’s importance in the world have not only informed Leave campaigners’ promises about post-Brexit trade but even, as Gary Younge suggests, the government’s negotiating strategy since June 2016 – a miscalculation that Britain could lay down the terms of the deal to Brussels, and an absence of any script for what to do when that turned out not to be true. For Nadine El-Enany, Brexit is ‘not only an expression of nostalgia for empire, but the fruit of empire’ – a policy that could never have come about if Britain had confronted the racism that still structures its present, thanks to its imperial past.

What is at stake in positioning Britain as the subject of colonial rule, not the power that exercised it, in rhetoric that seeks to persuade readers who identify with glorious myths of British sovereignty that accepting the draft Withdrawal Agreement would amount to colonial domination?

Bosnia has, in fact, already served Hannan as an example of what he perceives as the anti-democratic nature of the EU on several occasions – including a speech to the European Parliament in February 2014 using the same anecdote about a conversation with the High Representative (‘the colonial governor, so to speak’) as evidence of the ‘eternal gulf’ separating ‘the Brussels official’ from ‘the democrat’. His stance on Bosnia and the EU dates back to at least 2002, when he used Ashdown’s dismissal of the federal finance minister Nikola Grabovac to ask in the European Parliament ‘whether democratic standards will really be fostered in the new country when an unelected foreigner wields such arbitrary power in this manner’.

Hannan’s comments suggesting Britain would now be treated the same way as Bosnia came after other Leave politicians who had aligned themselves with nostalgia for a so-called ‘Global’ (instead of ‘European’) Britain had described the backstop deal as subjugation ill befitting Britain’s standing in the world. Almost a year earlier, Boris Johnson (then still foreign secretary) had argued that accepting all the EU’s regulations during a transitional period after Brexit would leave Britain as a ‘vassal state’. He repeated the phrase while the Cabinet were debating the Withdrawal Agreement.

The leader of another Leave faction, Jacob Rees-Mogg, alluded to an explicitly racialised motif of humiliation in stating that signing the agreement would leave Britain ‘not a vassal state but a slave state’ – a remark that the Labour MP David Lammy immediately criticised on Twitter as ‘trivialising the abuses of slavery’, based on an ‘ignorant nostalgia for Britain’s Imperial past’. Slaves, in the ‘Rule Britannia’ myth of sovereignty, are the very thing that Britons shall not be – a framework in which it is more shameful to be enslaved than to acquire generations of wealth from the sale, oppression and labour of human beings who were.

Evoking post-conflict Bosnia as a warning of what global status would await Britain if the backstop is agreed not only, as Jasmin Mujanović wrote on Twitter, trivialised the memory of the 100,000 people who lost their lives in the Bosnian war. The argument’s very internal logic requires disavowing the colonial past of Britain and other European powers while expecting the reader to sympathise with the unjustness of colonial rule.

Genuine parallels?

The threat of Britain ending up in the same ‘colonial’ relationship to the EU as Bosnia touches the emotions of imperial nostalgia because it implies a massive national fall from grace in the global hierarchy of which countries control their own destiny and which countries exist to have their destinies controlled. Such racialised hierarchies of power and entitlement have been translated, since the formal decolonisation of European empires, into the centre–periphery relations which inform Western Europe’s dealings with the Global South but also the East, and South, of Europe itself. In British imaginations, Britain does not deserve Bosnia’s fate.

Neither, of course, did Bosnia – and the diplomatic context that determined how the Bosnian war could be ended was itself shaped by British foreign policy, when the government of John Major and Douglas Hurd insisted the war was a matter of ‘ethnic hatreds’ which the international community ought to contain, rather than forestalling Radovan Karadžić and Slobodan Milošević’s pincer movement against the Sarajevo government and its citizens while they still could.

Hannan’s story about talking to the ‘High Commissioner’ (in fact ‘High Representative’) in Bosnia joins both men in an attitude of offhand detachment (the High Representative joking that if the Serbs and Muslims both thought he was biased against him, he must be doing something right; Hannan replying that if everyone was unhappy, he must have been doing something wrong). A similar indifference could be said to characterise the attitudes of both the Leave campaign and the government to the stakes of the Good Friday Agreement and the everyday realities of peace and (in)security at the Irish border. So detached a style of politics and peacebuilding has its origins in the entitlement with which colonial Great Powers took it upon themselves in past peace congresses to determine state borders and resolve competing national claims. Britain not only sat alongside continental European powers at these tables, but presumed to lead.

Where Britain’s prospects after Brexit might resemble post-Dayton Bosnia, above all without a deal, is in a much more everyday domain – the shock that travel restrictions, extended shortages of food and medicines, and permanent damage to standards of living might inflict on people’s sense of what used to be ‘normal’, and the sense of ‘stuckness’ that pervades Bosnian society two decades after Dayton, unable to weaken the entrenched ethnopolitical interests that hold the Dayton constitution in place and trapped in what Stef Jansen, Vanja Čelebičić and Čarna Brković have called the EU’s ‘waiting room’.

Yet an even more important, immediate parallel between Brexit Britain and post-Dayton Bosnia lies in the psychological blow struck to 3.7 million citizens of other EU countries living in the UK, forced to watch their sense of belonging in what had become their home country removed overnight and left in doubt over whether they would even be allowed to stay – amid the racist and xenophobic abuse that the Brexit referendum appeared to legitimise, persuading the perpetrators of a statistically significant rise in hate crime that it was now acceptable to tell speakers of foreign languages, people of colour, and Muslims to ‘go home’. The sense of licence and impunity that the Leave campaign and referendum victory released has troubling echoes of, even though its circumstances are not identical to, the atmosphere before the Yugoslav wars began.

Bosnia and the UK are not, and have never been, in the same structural position vis-à-vis the EU, and critiques of the EU’s ‘neo-colonial’ treatment of Bosnia and other countries on its internal and external periphery cannot simply be mapped on to the UK, a country that had the ability to influence EU policy in South-East Europe – and that won more concessions from the EU than any other member state. Instead, the true hinge of coloniality connecting Brexit Britain and post-Dayton Bosnia is the sense of imperial nostalgia and the myth of British exceptionalism which has always fuelled the imagination of the Leave campaign.

We are tomorrow’s gender history: integrating gender into historical research today

This post originally appeared at LSE Engenderings on 10 October 2018.

The faces are clean-shaven, the top hats are gone, and the photos are in colour, but the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995 had one major thing in common with the Paris Peace Conference in 1919–20 besides its participants’ power to turn maps of ethnic majorities into internationally recognised borders: all the figures around both negotiating tables were men.

At the workshop on Integrating Gender into Historical Research that History PhD students at LSE invited me to join earlier this year, this was a dilemma for diplomatic historians approaching gender for the first time, especially those researching periods when diplomatic services were closed to women: what do you do when all the individuals in your sources are male?

There, of course, is precisely where you start.

First, as four decades’ worth of feminists researching international politics have learned from Cynthia Enloe, scholars can ask where the women were. Behind the scenes of those ceremonial photographs from Versailles, for instance, how did the conference depend on women’s work?

Gender analysis reveals the maids who maintained the diplomats’ palatial spaces, the laundresses starching those collars, the entertainers they watched at night and the sex workers some of those men on business in Paris would undoubtedly have hired – not to mention the women’s movements lobbying to be involved in peace-making, or the wives who affirmed married diplomats’ senses of self as men with the authority to decide which nation-states and empires should rule over which people’s lives. And while the Dayton agreement lacked women’s voices, it was largely through ex-Yugoslav women’s mediation as interpreters that its male signatories made themselves heard.

Gender analysis shows historians they can question what factors made women so absent in their sources or the institutions that generated them, and what other sources might show women’s participation in diplomacy, war and peace.

But studying gender is more than a matter of ‘add women and stir’: historically-situated ‘regimes’ of gender, entangled with other systems of social identity and power, are frameworks that all individuals negotiate as embodied selves, and ideological structures for the institutions where diplomacy and all other human activity takes place.

Using ‘masculinities’ as a tool of gender analysis opens up even all-male institutions – perhaps especially all-male institutions – to a ‘gender lens’. How did norms of ‘manly’ conduct and behaviour, and taken-for-granted notions of authority and leadership as masculine domains, influence how diplomatic men framed and approached the Paris or Dayton peace conferences, and how could we read that from the documents they left behind? How were their imaginations of how states themselves related to each other gendered? How did perceptions of different national and imperial masculinities influence how negotiators related to each other or made territorial deliberations, and what embodied performances of national masculinity did they make themselves?

Setting diplomatic masculinities in the full context of coloniality, nationalism, territory, violence and identity in the 20th century, of course, requires seeing how those masculinities were simultaneously racialised. To the ‘Council of Four’ and their aides at Versailles, it seemed natural to enshrine ‘national self-determination’ as a geopolitical principle in Europe while denying it in the Middle East, Africa and Asia; and the ideas about civilisation, morality, hygiene, bodily normalcy and cultural reproduction that made that double standard feel natural were imbued with interdependent colonial constructions of gender, sexuality and ‘race’.

Besides what gender analysis can reveal in historical evidence, the fact that historians’ own gendered experiences have already formed them as scholars means that gender is always already present in analysing the past.

Women, and trans people whether they are women or not, have had to be more conscious of gender than most cisgender men, socialised not to perceive the sexist and patriarchal structures that put their experiences at the centre of the story. Race and other systems of oppression interlock with gender and sexuality to shape what individuals perceive and fail to notice: as a queer white woman, during my own History degree at LSE, I asked myself many queer students’ question of ‘Where might there have been people like me in the past?’, which led me into feminist International Relations and its study of gender and war – but whiteness stopped me noticing race, which would not have been the case in the same country for a queer woman of colour the same age.

The very skills of critical thought needed for historical and social research, nevertheless, equip (or should equip) scholars to see beyond their own positionality: one can ask what Joan Scott, Susan Stryker or Angela Davis would have said about one’s evidence without having to have lived the life of Angela Davis, Susan Stryker or Joan Scott.

Part of the actuality of integrating gender into historical research stems from the questions scholars bring into their research agendas from the rest of their lives – all the more so when feminist thought is part of their life already. My own ideas, and even terminology, for understanding my own embodied history of gender non-conformity and non-normative desire have been vastly expanded because of the transformations in queer politics and queer expression that have taken place in my lifetime; I would not have started questioning south-east Europe’s position in the global politics of race if not for the digital feminism of the 2010s. Flavia Dzodan’s writing on the coloniality of securing the borders of ‘Europe’, for instance, first made me question whether south-east European nationalisms’ aspirational ideas of ‘Europe’ also contained identifications with coloniality and whiteness even though these nations had been imperial subjects, not imperial rulers, in the past. Postgraduates and more established researchers, reading popular works that expose the global and the intimate pervasiveness of structural racism, or the past and present complexity of gender variance, are all the more likely to be driven to address such questions in their own research.

But another dimension of the actuality of integrating gender into historical research stems from the actuality of the politics that surround us – what future scholars will call the historical context of how gender was being struggled over in our own time.

Already a target of right-wing press campaigns and organised online harassment, gender studies teaching and research in several countries is now under direct government attack. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, for instance, has made George Soros (the founder of Central European University in Budapest) the scapegoat for everything that Orbán’s populist ideology imagines to have dragged Hungarian national greatness down – including multiculturalism, solidarity with Muslim refugees, feminism, and queer and trans liberation.

All these are important research themes for CEU’s gender studies department, a world leader in researching the connections between postsocialism and postcoloniality. Early in 2016, I visited CEU to hold a workshop on race and whiteness in south-east Europe which had a decisive impact on writing Race and the Yugoslav Region later that year, and also gave a lecture on the politics of LGBTQ rights and ‘European’ belonging in the Eurovision Song Contest. A future historian researching the Orbán government’s confrontation with CEU might use both those events, among many other activities, as evidence of the postcolonial and queer gender scholarship it since has tried to repress.

Orbán’s government has tried to shut down CEU for more than a year, taken control of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences budget (just before a pro-Orbán magazine published a list of social scientists doing Academy-funded gender and sexuality research, exposing them to harassment and implying they did not deserve to be funded by the state), and this summer proposed to ban gender studies degrees in Hungary entirely. A Bulgarian research team, meanwhile, reported that the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and education ministry had blocked their project on gender equality in education from a UNESCO funding programme, while right-wing media accused them of trying to introduce a ‘third sex’ into schools.

These are national manifestations of the transnational ‘anti-gender’ movement. Gender scholars across central and eastern Europe are already familiar with being called Soros’ lackeys or mercenaries when they challenge patriarchal ideals of gender and family or criticise genocide denial. The same triangulation may now be confronting feminist, queer and postcolonial scholars doing the equivalent work in the UK of unsettling hegemonic and right-wing ideas of gender, nation and race. In February 2018, the Daily Telegraph ran a front page accusing Soros of bankrolling a secret plot to persuade British voters to reject Brexit, a frighteningly anti-Semitic conspiracy theory to be on the front page of even a conservative national newspaper, implying Soros was exerting a sinister influence over society to turn it away from what it should ‘naturally’ believe.

Among anti-trans campaigners organising on Mumsnet, a few have argued that Soros’ Open Society Foundation, which has published briefs on young people’s access to gender recognition, is responsible for forcing schools to teach about trans equality. The arguments of the UK Independence Party’s children and families spokesperson that educators teaching primary school children about trans people are ‘messing with young minds’ are in essence the same discourse that persuaded the Russian Duma to criminalise the promotion of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ to under-18s in 2013. The spaces through which people and organisations committed to anti-gender politics learn from each other across national borders are sometimes public and formal, as with the recent World Congress of Families held in Moldova (where organising against trans rights was a major theme). Often, though, they – and the movements they oppose – are part of a shifting online terrain that future historians will have to recover using whatever platforms and data will have survived deletion, obsolescence and surveillance, processes that might yet make the digital record even more fragmentary than paper archives of the past.

This international anti-feminist and anti-queer mobilisation against ‘gender ideology’ as a pillar of today’s racist populism makes gender scholarship all the more contentious – especially gender scholarship that reveals how gender and other systems of oppression have been intertwined. As scholars, writers, learners, or simply as embodied selves, we are the stuff of tomorrow’s gender history – and the findings and conclusions of our own research, about international history or any other kind, will be part of future historians’ evidence about how gender was contested in our own times.

Things people on the internet have said to me for explaining why the staging of the Dutch Eurovision song looked racist

Before anything else to do with the international politics of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest was overtaken by the likelihood that Eurovision 2019 will be held in Israel (with reverberations that will link the call for a cultural boycott of Israeli state-funded arts to the spectacle of Eurovision for the first time), the most unexpected – and unnecessary – collision between Eurovision and the history of colonialism came when some fans noticed during the first live rehearsals that the staging of the Dutch entry looked… at best, uncomfortable. And, at worst, downright racist.

Some of my most recent research is about stereotypes and fantasies of race, blackness and Africa in European popular music – the first chapter of my new book Race and the Yugoslav Region traces them through examples from Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav pop, and refers to the work of Gloria Wekker, a black feminist in the Netherlands who uses evidence from historical media alongside her own observations of racism in Dutch society to debunk myths of white Dutch ‘innocence’ about race.

When the Dutch song, Waylon’s ‘Outlaw in ‘Em’, unexpectedly qualified from the second semi-final on the Thursday night, I spent two hours writing a Twitter thread on why viewers had been finding the performance racist, to help explain why some of them had felt discomfort without necessarily knowing why, and so that users who wanted to call attention to how it looked on their own feeds didn’t have to make the argument from scratch.

(Parts, at least, of Eurovision’s many overlapping digital fandoms are no stranger to conversations about cultural appropriation on the Eurovision stage – including the Native American war bonnet worn by the Dutch representative Joan Franka in 2012, the East Asian visuals problematically surrounding this year’s winning song, and the dancing gorilla that joined Italian favourite Francesco Gabbani on stage in 2017, apparently as an allusion to ‘the naked ape’. Early reactions in the same circles to how the four black men around Waylon, a white Dutch country singer, had been asked to dance were suggesting its impression was a different order of unacceptable altogether.)

Dozens of people since then have tweeted me to explain why I was wrong.

  • It isn’t automatically racist to have one white guy and four black guys on stage. (It isn’t, which is why, say, Swedish boy-band Panetoz, who have one white band-member and four black, haven’t made fans who notice racial representation on stage feel uncomfortable like this. But then their four black guys aren’t always arranged around their one white guy.)
  • It’s demeaning to the dancers, who are showing off their talent. (Has anybody asked them? How freely do they feel they can speak about racism on Dutch TV, if they want producers to book them again?)
  • Waylon thinks it suits the song, and the dancers think so too.
  • The producers chose the most talented dancers. They didn’t think about race.
  • I’m insulting Waylon.
  • I don’t know what the intentions behind the act were, so I can’t comment. (I don’t know. I do know how it was looking to viewers who remarked on it, which kind of matters in a competition where 50% of the points come from an international public vote.)
  • I don’t even know Waylon. (This is true.)
  • Waylon is a very kind man to his fans. (That doesn’t prevent someone staging a racist show.)
  • They don’t get angry easily, but it makes them angry when they read this nonsense. (It made me angry to be staying up two extra hours before I ought to catch an early morning train because nobody on the Dutch production team realised this looked racist. It would have made me angrier if I’d been a black viewer getting the message that Eurovision didn’t care whether the party includes me or not.)
  • I’m the one who’s creating the problem, by talking about it. (I feel like I know that one.)
  • Waylon is half-Indonesian, so this isn’t a white guy with black dancers like I said. (I didn’t know anything about his family background when I wrote the thread, describing the impression Waylon’s placement on stage makes as a white man. But in a contest where family heritage is often part of the narratives that contestants give to try and connect with the public, that part of Waylon’s background hadn’t reached me (we heard much more about his love of country music and the US country singers like Johnny Cash who had inspired him). Most viewers who didn’t already know him well as a singer would also be perceiving him as a white man. And we can still say, via the history of images of race, that a performance where he seems to be in control over four black men identifies him with images of whiteness. Also, anti-black racism expressed by other people of colour is a thing.)
  • Waylon is half-Indonesian, therefore he can’t be racist. (The same; also, anti-black racism expressed by other people of colour is a thing.)
  • I’m taking the song out of context: it’s about standing up for yourself (‘When they knock you to the ground, you ain’t gonna let nobody keep you down’). (The viewer hasn’t heard that when they see a bare-chested black man seem to lash out at the camera, the very moment they hear ‘knock you to the ground’.)
  • I obviously didn’t listen to the lyrics. (Obviously.)
  • The dancers are krumping because young people on the krumping scene use those moves to transform violence into dance.
  • If you don’t like it, don’t vote for it. (I didn’t.)
  • It’s four handsome black guys, spicing up a dull performance. (Do you really want to bring up the racial politics of spice now? Because we can if you want.)
  • It’s a shame I’m bringing up their skin colour, not how well they can dance.
  • Americans and Europeans aren’t the ones enslaving male African refugees in Libya. (Somehow, this is meant to have something to do with Europeans designing a dance routine that calls to mind racist stereotypes of black men.)
  • Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet don’t come at Christmas like I said, they come on the 5th of December. (OK, I had said ‘every Christmas’ there are protests in the Netherlands over the blackface of Zwarte Piet. The date is the least important thing in that sentence, I’d suggest.)
  • Zwarte Piet gets his black face from coming down the chimney to deliver presents, not because he’s meant to represent black people. (Here we go.)
  • The people calling Waylon a racist are the ones seeing colour.
  • I’m seeing racist things where there aren’t any.
  • Waylon wanted the best krump dancers, and they happened to be black.
  • If Waylon was black and the dancers were white, would I still be saying he was a racist?
  • Waylon wanted to be multicultural.
  • I shouldn’t be commenting because the UK has only ever sent white acts. (Not true, though the last UK featured act at Eurovision with a black band-member was in 2011 and its last non-white soloist was 2009.)
  • Finding racism in every little thing is more racist than that.
  • It’s a shame that I’m a lecturer.
  • I ought to get therapy.
  • It’s a shame that I’m a lecturer and not responding to the people who have calmly taken their time to inform me of all of the above.
  • A lot of quote-tweets in Dutch, which might have made their authors feel better, but didn’t make whatever they wanted to call me have much effect on me because I can’t read them. (That doesn’t mean I ought to get a free pass to make comments about the cultures of countries where I don’t speak the languages. Far from it – I need to be even more sure that I’m right before I speak, not less. But I was rather grateful that I couldn’t read them.)

I was cheered by this picture of a talking gammon.

 

I was also cheered by the number of tweets I got from people who did find the performance uncomfortable and hadn’t been sure why, or who had enjoyed the song but changed their mind after reading more about the context.

Especially those second people, who were open to seeing something they liked from a more critical perspective even in something they love as much as Eurovision, where fans identify so much with their favourite songs! YOU ROCK. Loreen, or your Eurovision patron of choice, would be proud.

loreengetting12points.gif

Things people on the internet have not said to me for explaining why the staging of the Dutch Eurovision entry look racist:

  • [Racial slur.]
  • Go back to your own country.
  • [Another racial slur.]
  • Any words the BBC wouldn’t be allowed to broadcast before 9 pm.
  • [Racial slur.]
  • [The same racial slur again.]
  • [Racial slur mixed with homophobic remark.]
  • Any of the bile that historians like Priyamvada Gopal get through the post.
  • Any of the death threats that black academics who speak out about race have been getting.

This is because I am not a woman of colour speaking up about the racism that blights her life.

Don’t forget, and face the shadow: what has Eurovision got to do with remembering the dead?

Late last year, some colleagues who were organising an international conference on memorialising the dead at my university asked me if I could contribute a talk about some of my research. Being in between two projects, I didn’t know what to offer them, until: Eurovision, I thought. I can talk about Eurovision.

Pointing the telescopes of queer politics, international relations or the history of nationalism at Eurovision has helped me explain things like why people get so bothered about ‘bloc voting’, what makes Eurovision political even though the rules say it isn’t, how Eurovision’s idea of ‘Europe’ tried to accommodate the financial crisis, how Eurovision and LGBTQ rights got entwined with each other, how they got even more linked together after Conchita Wurst won, how countries have used Eurovision to portray themselves as multicultural nations, how queerness and nationhood can work together at Eurovision in ways it might be harder for them to do elsewhere, and, most recently, the shadows of European colonialism that hang over celebrating ‘Europe’ in an annual song contest. Surely there must be something to say about remembering the dead?

The past couple of Eurovisions had included a French song commemorating the dead of the World Wars, Armenia’s entry marking the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, and the winning Ukrainian song in 2016 which narrated Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 with a heavily implied message about Russia’s invasion of Crimea. That would be more than enough. I wrote them up an abstract of the talk.

Then a song remembering the victims of urban terrorism won the Italian final, and France chose an entry retelling the rescue of a newborn refugee girl from the Mediterranean, where thousands of other refugees from Africa and the Middle East have met their preventable deaths.

What does Eurovision have to do with remembering the dead? In 2018, possibly, more than ever.

‘Performing’ national and European identity

Eurovision is a tradition, celebration, and a party; it’s also an occasion with a particular structure, which influences what viewers expect to see and how they make sense of the performances they watch. Each three-minute song, chosen by a national broadcaster and created by a team of musicians, songwriters and designers who might or might not come from the country they’re representing (that’s up to each broadcaster to decide), symbolically represents the whole of its nation when it’s offered up for a Eurovision audience, or put in front of what we could call a ‘Eurovision gaze’.

Each country’s votes, too, come through on screen as one national opinion: in fact, Eurovision compresses institutions and people into the image of ‘the nation’ voting, and ‘the nation’ taking action. Eurovision entries aren’t just competing on behalf of the nation, like in an Olympics or a World Cup, they’re literally ‘performing’ national identity (a phrase that Judith Butler first used almost thirty years ago to describe the everyday signals everybody in society sends about their gender).

(In fact, we could say athletes in an Olympics or players in a World Cup are performing national identity as well, forming or playing against spectators’ expectations of what a Russian or Jamaican runner will be like, or how ‘the Germans’ and ‘the Brazilians’ each play football…)

Eurovision entries perform national identity in terms of showing what national musical cultures are like, choosing how much national musical tradition or how much accomplishment in globally popular styles of music to display, choosing how to show off a national language or a singer’s fluency in global English, and even selecting what to represent as national tradition (more than one national Eurovision selection has ended up as a proxy face-off between two hotly-contested interpretations of what national cultural identity should be).

Eurovision entries quite literally ‘perform’ the nation – and that’s part of the spectacle viewers expect.

In the same way, producers, journalists and viewers all project transnational political narratives on to Eurovision too. In the early 1990s and again in the early 2000s, Eurovision seemed to symbolise the course of post-Cold-War European enlargement: broadcasters from the first ex-Warsaw-Pact countries started competing for the first time in 1993, as did three successor states of Yugoslavia, the only state socialist country that had taken part in Eurovision (in fact, keen to show how Soviet it wasn’t, Yugoslavia had been competing ever since 1961).

In 2004, the year of the EU’s first and largest expansion into ‘eastern Europe’ (plus Cyprus and Malta), Eurovision went through its own enlargement by adding a semi-final, meaning every broadcaster (symbolically, every country) that wanted to participate could send a song to Eurovision every year. Wins for Estonia, Latvia and Turkey in 2001-3 had added Tallinn, Riga and Istanbul to Eurovision’s map of host cities: Ruslana’s victory for Ukraine in 2004 kept up the cycle, with the small unanticipated matter of an Orange Revolution before Kyiv hosted in 2005.

Even though Eurovision isn’t organised by the EU or any other European political institution (the EBU is independent), viewers make sense of it through the lens of political developments – the reason ‘Europe-Russia’ relations get an added bite at Eurovision, where the contest’s strong LGBTQ connections run up against the ideology of state homophobia, biphobia and transphobia that Putin has chosen to stand for (and whose fiercest advocates in Russia don’t even want Eurovision broadcast there).

Eurovision organisers still insist – it’s written into the rules – that Eurovision is not a political event, and entries with political messages are not allowed. But what counts as ‘political’ at Eurovision?

It’s simple to say entries can’t promote political leaders or parties, though one or two have tried (including the disqualified Georgian entry from 2009 after the Russian-Georgian war, ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In’). Beyond that, we hit one of the biggest questions in cultural politics: what is political and what isn’t, and who has or claims the power to decide?

Is it political, for instance, to sing about protecting the environment or stopping nuclear war, which have both been uncontroversial themes for Eurovision songs, yet are also subjects of political protest? Is it political to bring a rainbow flag? Is it political to sing about a particular war in a nation’s history, on a broadcast that will also go out to nations it fought against? And we can even ask, if we’re thinking about commemoration: is it political to remember the dead?

Thinking that through starts to reveal what kinds of memorialisation get framed as political in European memory cultures and what don’t, and what kinds of memorialisation potentially can’t be memorialised in a space like Eurovision at all.

Coming home: personal tributes at Eurovision

A lot more remembering the dead goes on at Eurovision than people who don’t watch Eurovision would probably think. Indeed, as the contest’s own history has lengthened, one form of memorialisation has been paying tribute to famous Eurovision performers who have died: it’ll be surprising if the hosts of the grand final don’t commemorate the Swiss singer Lys Assia, who won the first Eurovision in 1956 and died this year aged 94. (At one point this winter, fans were fearing the contest could even be overshadowed by the loss of last year’s seriously ill winner, Salvador Sobral, who’s now recovering from a successful heart transplant.)

Another form is when contestants use Eurovision for their own personal commemorations, remembering a family member or loved one who has died in a way that a hundred million viewers will see. (Germany’s entry this year, Michael Schulte’s ‘You Let Me Walk Alone’, is inspired by Schulte’s complex feelings about his father’s death.) of his father.

Intimate backstories like these (if viewers know them) give a performance authenticity, arguably popular music stardom’s most valuable currency, and all the more so in a setting as competitive as Eurovision – even though, since the early 2000s, talent-show producers have turned personal grief into emotive plotlines for contestants so often that the dead or dying family member has also become a reality TV cliché.

In 2011, even the story of how Iceland’s song got to Eurovision was an act of memorialisation: the singer Sjonni Brink, about to compete in the national final Söngvakeppnin with his song ‘Coming Home’, died of a stroke in January, when the Söngvakeppnin heats were already under way. Six of his musician friends undertook to perform for him instead, and won.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apc_qJf3nws

Even as Brink had written it, ‘Coming Home’ was about a man who couldn’t wait to get home and see his lover to tell them all the things he wants to say, because no-one knows when their time’s going to run out; after his death, they became even more poignant, crying out to be interpreted as a tribute to the band’s close friend who had passed away.

But Eurovision has also been a space for collective memorialisation – and that’s where the politics really come in.

Don’t deny: facing the shadow of genocide and the World Wars

Commemorating the dead in a way that’s significant to a collective community is often about national commemorations, but could also be the imagined European and transnational public – or even the international queer public, remembering those they’ve collectively lost to HIV and AIDS. (Austria’s entry in 2007 obliquely commemorated the AIDS crisis by looking to the future as the official song of that year’s Vienna Life Ball.)

Collective remembering, linked to political communities, is where we’d expect more controversy over the politics of commemoration, and even whether a theme is appropriate for Eurovision at all – as two contrasting examples from 2015 show.

2015, when Eurovision was held in Vienna, marked the centenary of the Armenian Genocide and was continuing to witness the string of First World War centenary commemorations that would stretch all the way from 2014 to 2018 – or longer in nations where conflict didn’t come to a clean end with the Armistice.

An extensive Armenian public diplomacy initiative during 2015, involving celebrities of Armenian descent like Kim Kardashian, was campaigning for international public awareness of the genocide and for foreign governments to pass declarations recognising it as genocide, in a context where the Turkish state still operates a policy of denial. Armenia’s Eurovision entry commemorated it as well.

 

Genealogy, the group chosen to sing the song, united five singers from the Armenian diaspora in different continents with a sixth (Inga Arshakyan, one-half of the Armenian entry in 2010) who still lived in Armenia – even the group’s composition was a message of persistence and survival, drawing attention to why the Armenian people had been scattered around the world.

Originally, Genealogy’s song was called ‘Don’t Deny’. Their video, released in March, evoked the beginning of the 20th century and the theme of family in the performers’ outfits, its aesthetics of antique photography, and the pins with pictures of their grandparents that the singers wore. The song’s title, the group’s name, the lyrics’ themes, the video’s image, and the history behind them all combined to frame the song as commemorating the Armenian Genocide: would this break the rules against political messages at Eurovision? even though there’s no political content in the song’s words themselves. The ethnonational reading is almost unavoidable and has been very knowingly created. Did this break the rules against political messages at Eurovision?

Four days after the video appeared online, the songwriters announced a title change to ‘Face The Shadow’ (another image from the lyrics), though the chorus continued to begin ‘Don’t deny.’

 

 

 

 

 

This was Eurovision’s most controversial collective commemoration in the ‘modern’ era, at least at the time – but, deep into what the historian Catriona Pennell has called the ‘centenary moment’, it was far from the only one.

Hundreds if not thousands of local, national and international public memory projects in 2014-18 have aimed at commemorating and reinterpreting what the public remember about that conflict and its unprecedented scale of battlefield death, which made wartime bereavement a mass, shared, national experience: WW1 commemoration has found its way to Eurovision too.

In 2014, for instance, Malta’s Firelight had used the video for their song (also called ‘Coming Home’), to remind viewers across Europe that Maltese soldiers and prisoners of war had been involved in WW1, and their Eurovision performance had projected a floor of red poppies across the digital stage.

France’s entry in 2015 was Lisa Angell’s ‘N’oubliez pas’ – or ‘Don’t forget’, alongside Genealogy’s ‘Don’t deny’. ‘N’oubliez pas’ commemorated war and its effects on the human landscape, of France and/or Europe. Angell sings in the voice of a woman remembering her village that has been left in ashes, ‘swept away by history … erased from maps and memories, when they arrived, hidden behind their weapons’ (‘balayé par l’histoire … effacée des cartes et des mémoires, quand ils sont arrives, cachés derrière leurs armes’).

This is a village wiped off the map by mass warfare, in a year when centenary commemorations would have made the Great War come to mind for many viewers as the answer to what happened there and when. In fact, the song’s video had drawn its commemoration towards the Second World War with flashes of the American Cemetery in Normandy, blending the World Wars into one historical experience; the stage performance let it be read much more straightforwardly as WW1.

The song’s producers used the vast LED screen behind Angell to project the backdrop of an entire burned-out village behind her, then to show the village’s houses rebuilding themselves, and finally to surround her with an entire digital regiment of ghostly military drummers – circumventing Eurovision’s rule against having no more than six performers on stage.

 

 

 

 

Why was this highly symbolic, highly emotive, highly historicised presentation, with essentially the same narrative trajectory as ‘Face The Shadow’, not swept up in the same arguments about whether it was too political? Not because of its own content, I’d suggest, but because of the wider contexts around them: the memory of the Armenian Genocide is contested in international relations, but the process of Western European integration after WW2 – where nations seemed to publicly put WW1 behind them as a war that had been equally devastating on both sides – has produced an international political consensus about the meanings of the Western Front.

But what would happen if the themes and images of ‘N’oubliez pas’ were applied to a contemporary conflict, as they could equally have been? Eurovision would find out a year later, when Ukraine (which hadn’t participated in 2015, and picked its 2014 song before the Russian invasion of Crimea) made its first song selection since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began.

‘1944’ by Jamala, whose own heritage is Crimean Tatar, went on to win Eurovision 2016. The very title would have suggested, to listeners with even the slightest knowledge of  WW2 on the Eastern Front, that it would draw parallels between Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 and Russia’s behaviour towards Ukraine in 2014. Its first lines described strangers who ‘come to your house, they kill you all and say “We’re not guilty”’, in a context where it was important for Ukrainian public diplomacy to persuade foreign publics and governments that Russia was the aggressor in Crimea.

The first verse could just as easily have been about – and therefore was effectively about – Russian relativism and obfuscation over the violence in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and the lengths the Russian state had gone to not to seem responsible.

Making it known in interviews that her own grandparents had been among Stalin’s Tatar deportees until Gorbachev allowed the Tatars back to Crimea, and that they had only been able to speak on Skype sinxe 2014, Jamala brought her own embodied authenticity to the performance – not just as a speaker of Tatar (the language of the chorus) but a descendant of victims of forced deportation, which Tatars have campaigned to have recognised as genocide themselves.

 

 

 

Just as Genealogy had appealed for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, ‘1944’ allusively appealed to the audience to share its emotional narrative about Tatars’ and Ukrainians’ suffering in the past and present; it didn’t describe anything Lisa Angell hadn’t, except the killers who then say ‘We’re not guilty’. Musically, its wailing breaks gave its singer much more opportunity to express what viewers would hear as raw emotion – but the EBU would have been in a very difficult position if it had banned ‘1944’, given the precedents from the previous year.

Collective memorialisations like Genealogy’s, Angell’s or Jamala’s were particularly visible in 2014-16, but aren’t a new phenomenon at Eurovision: in 1976, Greece famously dedicated its entry ‘Panagia mou, Panagia mou‘ (‘Virgin Mary, Virgin Mary’) to commemorating Greek victims of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and Croatian and Bosnian TV both used their country’s first Eurovision entries as sovereign states in 1993 to draw viewers’ attention to the ongoing war in Croatia and the siege of Sarajevo.

The interactive experience of watching today’s Eurovisions and commenting on them on social media at the same time might make it easier for this form of Eurovision diplomacy to spread its messages – but Eurovision as a contest was giving collective memorialisation a platform well before 2014. Nevertheless, this is a moment where many Eurovision delegations have been realising that Eurovision can be a platform for public diplomacy through memorialisation of the dead – or at least some dead.

Mercy, mercy: whose lives and deaths can Eurovision remember?

Whose deaths are chosen to be memorialised – and by whom – are themselves political questions, which come down ultimately to whose lives society considers worth grieving or not… and these go on in the shadow of histories of racism, which are ultimately about who is and isn’t going to be considered human. Isn’t this kind of political theory a long way from anything to do with Eurovision?

Especially when two of this year’s finalist songs are acts of memorialisation concerning current political issues in Europe which are entangled with struggles over multiculturalism, it might be closer than it looks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The French song ‘Mercy’, by Madame Monsieur, is named after the refugee girl born on a Medecins Sans Frontieres boat in the Mediterranean. If we’re talking about Eurovision songs not being allowed to be political, MSF is one of the most politically outspoken humanitarian organisations in Europe by design, including on the question of rescuing refugees at sea. MSF’s name and logo are nowhere near the song’s presentation, and wouldn’t be allowed to be, but the whole entry is framed by its organisational values and its work.

Like one of Stockholm’s semi-final interval acts, ‘The Grey People‘, it starts to confront the reality that Eurovision is celebrating ‘Europe’ at the same time thousands of refugees are risking death to cross the borders that the European Union has fortified against them. It ends, like ‘The Grey People’, with an uplifting image of new life (reinforced when French journalists found Mercy in a refugee camp in Sicily earlier this year).

Meanwhile, the Italian song ‘Non mi avete fatto niente’ (‘You haven’t done anything to me’) by Ermal Meta and Fabrizio Moro offers a narrative of resilience against urban terrorism. The many sites of terrorist attacks they name in the verses include Cairo, Barcelona, a concert in France we probably understand to be the Bataclan, London, and Nice: placing one site in the Middle East might partly acknowledge (without completely subverting) the narrow boundaries of the ‘#PrayForParis’ style of hashtag memorialisation which often elicits sympathy for attacks in Western Europe, North America and Israel but not for the much more frequent attacks in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan than European cities even now. Presenting a list of sites without Oslo or Utøya, meanwhile, restricts the list to sites of Islamist not white nationalist terrorism even if the lyricist had only thought they were choosing cities that had suffered attacks in the same couple of years.

 

 

The video depicts sites of grassroots and official commemoration including street shrines and war cemeteries, opening out into a utopian hope that humans will stop hating and killing each other, with subtitles in fifteen languages (including Chinese, Turkish and Arabic) adding to the cosmopolitan effect.

In fact, both videos make their appeals to a cosmopolitan and racially diverse public, with their multiracial crowds assembling at iconic places which add up into a map of an imagined transnational community, just like the opening videos of Eurovision finals themselves often do. The songs contrast each other, maybe, when it comes to the question of who speaks for the dead. The French song is written in the first person, as Mercy, who is ‘all the children the sea has taken’ (‘tous les enfants que la mer a pris’) -significantly, its agent of death is the sea, while the visa regimes and border security practices which meant the children had to cross the sea that way, and the policies that made governments insist on them, are so immutable they’re outside the story altogether. Its first-person voice does leave a white woman in the position of singing in the voice of a young black girl, and some viewers will question whether she ends up speaking over the girl she is professing to speak for.

Meta and Moro may be closer to their subject matter, as inhabitants of cities like the ones that have witnessed recent attacks, and more to the point as working musicians, aware that concert halls and stadiums have been favoured targets for ISIS-inspired and white nationalist terrorism. The last thing a musician might want to call to mind on an arena stage, you’d think, might be the Bataclan; even as a spectator, dwell on the concert attacks for more than a split second and the fantasy of Eurovision falls apart.

The presence of one vast group of dead, however, goes unmentioned amid the celebration of Portuguese navigation, maritime heritage and crossing cultures across the sea that has given Eurovision 2018 its slogan ‘All Aboard!’: the millions of enslaved Africans forced on to European ships between the 15th and the 19th century, in a trade that Portuguese navigators expanded at a very early stage. No Eurovision has ever been held in a site more closely connected to the history of the Atlantic slave trade (London probably comes nearest), and Lisbon has been confronting its own history of complicity in enslavement this year after residents voted to build the city’s first public monument acknowledging the slave trade at the end of 2017.

Indeed, the biggest silence of all might not even be around the memory of the slave trade but the memory of the connection between enslaved Africans and the refugees who have died reaching Europe today. The history of racism, which dates back to the discourses with which white Europeans legitimised the capture and enslavement of other human beings, lies underneath the racism and xenophobia that encourages EU governments to tighten the external border yet further and minimise the numbers of refugees who can settle in the EU.

Perhaps the dead who cannot be remembered at Eurovision are those whose histories would make the logic of its shared fantasy collapse: that Europe isn’t the place where politics can be set aside like the celebration invites us to temporarily imagine it can be.

Where did it all go wrong? The Windrush myth after London 2012

This post originally appeared at Imperial and Global Forum on 25 April 2018.

Six years ago, in 2012, the dramatised arrival of the ‘Windrush Generation’ provided many British viewers with one of the most moving moments in the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games. The dozens of black Londoners and the giant model of the Empire Windrush, which had docked at Tilbury in June 1948, entering the stadium during the ceremony’s historical pageant stood for the hundreds of thousands of black Britons who had migrated from the Caribbean to Britain, which was then still their imperial metropole, between 1948 and 1962.

The moment when the ‘Windrush Generation’ joined the pageant’s chaotic whirl of characters drawn from modern British social and cultural history symbolised, for millions of its viewers (if not those people of colour with more reason to be suspicious of British promises), a Britain finally inclusive enough to have made the post-Windrush black presence as integral a part of its national story as Remembrance or Brunel. Today, however, members of this same symbolic generation have been threatened with deportation – and some have already been deported – because they have been unable to prove their immigration status despite living in Britain for more than fifty years. The Daily Mirror’s Brian Reade was far from alone in wondering where it had all gone wrong since 2012.

What kind of British government would deport the children of the Empire Windrush? Not the openly fascist regime that the National Front took to the streets for in the 1970s, or that Alan Moore imagined taking control of a near-future Britain in his 1988 comic V for Vendetta (written at the height of the Thatcher years). Rather, as most of the British public only realised after the revelations of the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman connecting dozens of individual stories into a chilling pattern, the answer lies with the Conservative government of Theresa May.

Suddenly, in mid-April, public sympathy mobilised in support of the ‘Windrush Generation’ alongside an eviscerating parliamentary intervention from David Lammy MP, who has taken up the cases of dozens of black Britons who have lost jobs, been refused medical treatment or even been deported. Lammy’s challenge in parliament (and ongoing pressure through Twitter) would force the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to admit that the government’s actions have been ‘appalling’ in forcing potentially thousands of Windrush-era citizens to prove their right to reside in Britain all over again by requiring evidence none ever anticipated they would have to provide.

On 23 April, Rudd promised to help the Windrush generation ‘acquire’ citizenship by waiving application fees and test requirements, though Lammy continued to emphasise that their citizenship had been ‘taken away by your [Rudd’s] government, not something that your government is now choosing to grant them.’

Much of the white British public had not appreciated the harsh realities that black families had seen hitting their elder relatives for months until the plight of the ‘Windrush Generation’ became national news. The policy of extending border immigration controls into everyday life, which government officials themselves termed the ‘Hostile Environment‘, has caused dire consequences for this historic and symbolic group of citizens. Members of the Windrush Generation have lost their jobs because they could not show a UK passport; they have been charged thousands of pounds for NHS care under rules targeting ‘health tourism’; and some have even been detained awaiting deportation to countries they have not visited for fifty years. An unknown number of people, the immigration minister Caroline Nokes suggested last week, have even been ‘deported in error’.

The crisis has even been linked to at least one death. The mother of Dexter Bristol, a Londoner born in Grenada who died suddenly last month aged 57, blamed government racism and the ‘hostile environment’ policy for the stress her son suffered after losing his job and access to benefits: ‘My son is British. We didn’t come here illegally… No one expected this country to turn into what it is now.’

Why has public sympathy mobilised so quickly around this group when thousands of others, including younger migrants from the Caribbean, have been caught up by these regulations ever since Britain’s ‘everyday borders‘ started to tighten? Largely because the Windrush Generation is already a national myth that the British public had been invited to rejoice in celebrating – never more spectacularly than at London 2012.

Yet if the Home Office’s attack on the Windrush Generation feels like a shocking and disorienting reversal, this is because the ceremony’s triumphant story about Windrush was not even what the whole country believed in 2012 – rather, the difference between 2012 and 2018 is a matter of which narrative has had more power to be heard.

By 2012, Windrush had already been worked into many versions of Britain’s national myth – part of a liberal, ‘post-racial’ UK public commemorative culture, a mythic voyage at the beginning of a story about tolerance and progress where Britain’s colonisation of the Caribbean and its enslavement of the Windrush Generation’s ancestors could be absolved.

This progress, one must remember, had been hard-won. Black activists had had to campaign for years for Windrush to be taught in schools and marked by local councils, before public institutions began to take it up. Arguably, Windrush commemoration gained momentum after the 1999 Macpherson Report, which had popularised the phrase ‘institutional racism’ to describe police inaction after the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993; museum and heritage professionals’ own anti-racist engagement combined with the impact of Labour equalities legislation to make institutions keen to show they were serving a diverse community by marking Windrush as the turning point (or, more problematically, the beginning) of black history in Britain. Even though in 2012 commemorating Windrush might have seemed like consensus, when black history campaigns first gained pace in the 1980s it had been a radical demand.

Commemorating Windrush as part of Britain’s national narrative meant telling a story about Britain where black Britons belonged on the same terms as white Britons – a story about a Britain which was comfortable with having a Commonwealth not an Empire, and had moved on from the racism the Windrush Generation had endured when they were young.

Remembering how Britishness had supposedly become multicultural and racism had supposedly been defeated, by celebrating Windrush, participants were invited to join in the happy feeling of how far ‘we’ had come.

The London 2012 opening ceremony was a pageant of history-from-below that imagined a nation made up of its oppressed groups as well as its elites: groups like the workers of the Industrial Revolution, like the suffragettes, and like the Windrush Generation. The ‘mosaic history’ Danny Boyle, with scriptwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, depicted through the ceremony, alongside celebrations of children’s literature, the NHS and a modern-minded Queen, readily lent itself to liberal readings. The arts critic Charlotte Higgins, for instance, wrote of Boyle’s ceremony the next day that it was an ‘impassioned poem of praise to the country he [and ‘we’] would most like to believe in.’

The heritage of this mode of representation was demonstrably left-wing, dating back to leftist traditions of ‘radical patriotism’ (including pageants) from between the World Wars, and to the socialist principles that inspired historians like Raphael Samuel to suggest the heritage of ‘ordinary people’ could be a leftist way of linking the public with the national past.

Indeed, one thread even links Samuel’s vision of the nation directly to Boyce: Samuel edited a three-volume collection on Patriotism: the Making and Unmaking of British National Identity in 1989, assembling suppressed and everyday heritage into a national past, and a young Boyce contributed a chapter on the I-Spy books while researching his English PhD.

In 2012, the BBC’s broadcast of a ceremony tugging quirky cultural heartstrings to a cheering stadium made it feel as if the whole country was celebrating the spectacle of a creative, confident and multicultural nation too. And yet, it wasn’t; the story of London 2012 was already being contested on the night itself, when Conservative MP Aidan Burley tweeted that it had been ‘leftie multicultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones.’

Where public narratives are concerned, the contrast between 2012 and 2018 is not so much ‘Where did it go so wrong?’ as ‘Which narratives had the strongest platform then and now?’

And narratives about Windrush do relate directly to the fact that the Home Office has deported black Britons who came to the UK with British passports before their islands became independent, because national identity itself is a story about who belongs. Or rather, national identity is a story about who belongs unconditionally on the land inside the nation’s borders, and whom the hosts might graciously extend the right to stay.

The Windrush Generation who came to Britain, and the children they have had there, spent decades hearing racists like Enoch Powell and the National Front openly call for them to be repatriated. The slogan of sending black and Asian Britons ‘back home’, to the Caribbean or South Asia, implied that they had no right to belong safely ‘at home’ in Britain at all.

The very members of this symbolic generation who listened with dread as young people to the possible consequences of Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, had to relive the experience a few weeks ago when BBC Radio 4 had Powell’s words read in their entirety by a star actor: a broadcast that the journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and many other British people of colour argued only normalised Powell’s rhetoric, empowered the far right, and represented a ‘particularly jarring… resurrection’ just as the Home Office was ‘unceremoniously booting out’ some of the very people who had arrived on the Windrush or the ships that followed.

Today, when many of the Windrush Generation have retired – and some might have looked back and thought they were living in a better country than the Britain they had known in their youth – tens of thousands of them now find they cannot prove their citizenship to the degree that ‘hostile environment’ policies require. After all, why would they have needed to before, outside dystopian nightmares? Not only has that nightmare become a reality; it might also grow more chilling yet with the news that, as long ago as 2010, the Border Force destroyed thousands of the very landing cards that could have proved when they arrived in the UK.

Their situation has moved the British public so much more than other inhumane deportations because of the power of the Windrush myth itself.

Aidan Burley, tweeting in 2012, had wanted to turn the clock back on multiculturalism. So did the UK Independence Party, on the ever larger platform the BBC gave it after the 2014 European Parliament elections; so did many of the voices backing Brexit. In 2012, the idea that that progress could be thrown into reverse, and Britain in a few years’ time could become ‘more racist’ not less, was very far from most people’s minds apart from those who longed to make it happen.

Yet visa rules for non-EU citizens became even tighter than New Labour had made them; Brexit stripped 3 million EU citizens of freedom of movement rights they had never had to think that they would lose; and Caribbean-born elders are facing now what Powell and the National Front threatened them with in their youth. The threat to deport the Windrush Generation does not just disturb the myth of multicultural Britain that grew between the 1990s and 2012 – it has torn it up, and some have watched the reversal of the myth with glee.