Flagging the Homeland Daily
Thursday 11 August 2016
A recent article in The Economist (‘Drawbridges up’, July 30th 2016) highlights a key ideological tension of our contemporary world. It is a world, the article suggests, that pits openness, internationalism, and globalization against isolationism, xenophobia, and closed borders. I read this article whilst on a flight between Stockholm and Barcelona. On arrival in Barcelona, thanks to the Schengen Agreement, I walked seamlessly into Spain (Catalonia, if you prefer), no passport, no lengthy wait in line required. In an instant, banal as this example may seem, I became aware of what is at stake should wall-builders have their way.
Back on the flight, as teachers will, I was thinking about how the article and its ideas could inform my teaching upon my (increasingly imminent!) return to school following the summer break. I have political preferences – who doesn’t? – but I am a school teacher, not a political proselytizer with free licence to agitate for my world view. Nevertheless, it is the case that the International Baccalaureate (IB) is a mission driven organization, and it is a mission to which I, broadly speaking, subscribe. Surely the IB’s mission does not translate to closing the door to the world.
I don’t think it does. I am of the view that a significant part of my role as an IB Diploma teacher is to promote international understanding as part of a wider process of stimulating tolerance and empathy for others. Dare I be so bold, my work involves stimulating social progress. Seen in this way, the IB’s mission, and my small role within it, cannot really be divorced from concerns I may have over things like the UK’s Brexit referendum decision (see this lesson) and the possibility of Donald Trump’s ascendency to ‘Commander in Chief’ (see this lesson).
My role as a teacher of English Language and Literature includes the obligation to encourage engagement with the world, and to teach young people something of how this world is constructed and represented through language. Crucially, how people voted in the Brexit referendum, and how people may vote in the upcoming US presidential election was and is dependent upon how social life is mediated. Let’s take Brexit as an example:
At the risk of being either wrong, or at least one-dimensional in my view, I think that the outcome of Brexit was strongly influenced by the tabloid press. I do not mean that the tabloid press in Britain evangelized for Brexit there and then and that the people – or enough people – listened. Rather, my claim is that the tabloid press, with its diachronic, jingoistic, grossly reductive historical narrative, made the voting patterns witnessed in Brexit highly likely, if not inevitable.
The demotic argot of the tabloid press in which it expresses a simple binary version of social and political life in Britain has entered the homes of millions for years – literally for generations – to become one of the most significant social educators (alongside television) in the UK. And it is a cruel irony that whilst the simplified, dichotomized narratives of the tabloid press make the world a simpler place to understand, the semantic maps they produce make it tremendously difficult for readers to empathize with ‘others’. Tabloid newspapers enter the homes and minds of millions in the UK on a daily basis. Whilst I am not snobbishly suggesting that readers of tabloids have no critical faculty (clever word play and idiosyncratic intertextual allusions, not least, suggest otherwise) I am claiming that the stylized communal idiom – the idealized voice of working people – helps create a binary community of ‘them’ and ‘us’ that is hard to resist.
That the stereotyped prose of tabloid newspapers is an act of vernacular ventriloquism hardly matters. It is a narrative of consensus and belonging – a story of plain common sense. It inscribes readers daily into a hegemonic account of what it is to be British, connecting contemporary events to past, sometimes mythical or imagined glories so that, for example, Wayne Rooney may be charged with inspiring the ‘D-Day spirit’ when he captains England in a football match against Germany more than half a century after the Second World War.
Galvanizing a national past, the tabloids create the British nation today. In the words of Michael Billig (Banal Nationalism, 1995) the tabloids function to ‘flag the homeland daily’. This rhetoric of national memory and belonging talks to revisionist versions of ‘the good old days’ as a conduit to understanding the present. And if the present is complex, fragmented, and intricate, don’t worry: The tabloids can explain. The explanation, whilst expressed hyperbolically, is straightforwardly binary; it is a polarized discourse of right versus wrong, dark versus light, right-minded versus mad, and old safe world versus new dangerous world.
And if there is a danger, it has to come from somewhere, right? So, blame ‘failing Brussels’, the politicians, and the Eurocrats. Blame deviant migrants, no longer just an external threat, but increasingly the enemy within. Blame asylum seekers, reified into the diseases they apparently carry. In fact, folks, welcome to modern Britain, welcome to the asylum.
Maybe I am also guilty of exaggeration – and, you may say, elitism – in making my case. But, looking at the demographic and regional breakdown of voting patterns in the Brexit referendum, I think there is some truth, at least, in what I claim. So, when I return to school and my students (is my holiday really over?), I will begin, as I always do, with the guiding principles of the IB’s mission statement and Learner Profile. From there, I will turn the focus to the tabloid press and their particular construction of social reality. I aim to promote critical thinking. I’ll try to remain dispassionate, but I know, somehow, that I will be advocating for a world in which we keep the drawbridges down.