Thursday, 25 August 2011

We don't need this fascist groove thang

I'm white. No, I don't mean Caucasian (although that's true). What I mean is that my skin is really white. That's what comes of being descended from Celts and growing up on an island off the north west coast of Europe. So, during the last three weeks of a holiday in central Europe, my family and I did our best to make adjustments to our skin tone. We wanted to look more 'normal'.

It wasn't a great idea. We just don't have the required melanin. The open-air swimming pool was bathed in a brilliant white light as the sun bounced off our lustrous skin. Glowing aliens from another firmament. When not trying to dodge between sunbeams, whilst applying sun protection factor 50, we played the game look! he's whiter than you are. None of the females were as white as us. Some of the more time-served ones were positively mahogany.

This holiday destination, like so many others in Europe, considers a chocolate tan to be the ultimate fashion accessory. Then it proceeds to hold people with a naturally dark colour in disdain.

We didn't spend the entire vacation at the town pool. Much of our time was out and about, during which we couldn't help but notice the prominent posters of ongoing political election campaigns. Smiling, serious, smart, the candidates presented their cardboard selves for selection. Harmless, bland, unobtrusive. Except for a number of cartoon-like posters in red, black and white. I'd seen similar posters before, in a previous life.

The political party in question had a long and proud history of being criticised by the UN during every election and referendum campaign. I recalled the last poster of theirs that I'd seen several years previously. The national flag and, in the centre, a Sadam Hussein type fella ripping through the fabric. The motto beneath translated as 'Keep the Fatherland for our children'.

At that time a colleague, an indigenous member of society, had explained his favourite joke - Question: what do a cherry and a [insert choice of foreigner here] have in common? Answer: they're both best seen hanging from a tree. This attitude goes some way towards explaining why one third of the country's population support the red, black and white poster party. Needless to say, the joke didn't hit my funny-bone.

However, the message of the current posters was clear enough. Mass immigration by shadowy people of a dark hue. There was clearly a problem of an increasingly global society and the political party was taking a stance against this. A trip up a mountain seemed to confirm the attitude when, on a funicular railway, the only free seats were around three African travellers.
'There are three seats available here' the ticket collector called out to the crowded, standing white passengers, but none took up the kind offer.

That evening we met with some friends from the country just to the north. Same language, same look. They explained to me that I had it wrong, the mass immigration wasn't a racial issue. It had to do with the country's agreement with the European Union that had opened the labour market. Anyone from without the borders was, to some extent, persona non-gratis. As a foreigner, my former work colleague had been appointed factory director in a rural location of the country but found that several local landlords were unwilling to rent accommodation to him as a non-national.

Bearing this in mind, the political advertising imagery confused me. Xenophobia or racism? I decided to do a little spot of internet research.

Most infamously, the party in question had used a black sheep image to show loyal white sheep kicking the black out of the territory. The party policy being promoted was to deport foreigners that committed certain crimes, together with their families. (By the way, children born within the state to foreign parents have no rights of citizenship.) I began to get a feeling for what was going on. Foreigners are black in character, regardless of skin tone.

Another amazing poster was widely seen during a referendum to ban planning permission for mosque minarets (yes, strange but true). The image suggested that minarets were equivalent to terrorist missiles on state soil.

There was more to be discovered. A series of posters presented a swarthy, bearded man named Ivan S. variously as a burglar, paedophile and rapist, asking if the populace welcomed him as a newly naturalised citizen. All foreigners are heinous fiends, presumably.

So, you've guessed where we've been visiting? A country in the heart of Europe, where around one quarter of the population are foreigners, where one third of the population (mostly rural voters) solidly back the SVP / UDC that is behind the poster campaigns. The Schweizerische Volkspartei (Swiss People's party).

Yes, the land of chocolate and yodelling. Military neutrality, great riches, private banking (what were they thinking, offending the Arabs with the minaret carry-on?) and nifty watches. Mandatory bomb shelters for every house and apartment block, compulsory miltary service, each Swiss male trained in how to use a semi-automatic rifle. No exertions for the ladies, but they are a dab hand at flower arranging.

What do my Swiss friends think of the SVP? In the main, they're nauseated by them. Societal issues that are of concern to everyone are simplified into xenophobia. This presses buttons that make people feel uncomfortable.

So, what is the SVP's intention? To leverage the country's right-wing stance, exploit xenophobic aspects of the human condition for votes and maintain political power? These poster campaigns are simplistic, effective, clever. Around a third of Switzerland's 7.8 million citizens support the SVP, which has the largest share of the vote for any single party ever in Switzerland. Is the SVP a transitory, maverick entity or is this a crucible in central Europe?


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  1. Terrific post, Ruby. Disturbing, no doubt. Extremely so. When a party doesn't even attempt to hide its racism (and instead campaigns on it), and is as popular as the SVP, it's scary to think about where "the land of chocolate and yodeling" is headed. At least with your ghostly white skin, you're likely to be welcomed back there whenever you like. Just profess your love for Roger Federer and you should be fine. I'm a Nadal fan with Sicilian blood (and looks) so I may not be as welcomed. But don't worry about long as I can still get Lindt in the states, I'll be okay.

  2. This is a really interesting post, Ruby. Immigrants have always provided a very convenient scapegoat for politicians, and given the economic turmoil in Europe I'm not surprised that far-right parties have had a resurgence and don't feel the need to disguise their xenophobia.

    1. Hi Francene and thanks for stopping by. Yeah, it's always bubbling underneath the surface, but for some reason Switzerland tolerates open political racism.

  3. Hey Ruby -- Thanks for an important post... and it's not just Europe. There are examples of fascism rising in the Middle East, Asia and the Americas as well. I'm particularly troubled by the rise of the Religious Right, here over the past ferw decades to where they are in striking distance of dictating policy to the government elect. When the economy heads South, our species seems to need to point the finger, preferably not at the reasons, but at anyone who is different. And if they are a group, then we begin to believe they must be the culprits. We never seem to learn.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Richard. There's something in the human psyche that drives us to marginalise, blame and persecute. If we were all clones then it would focus on something like imperfect toenails, and be wrapped up in some perceived race, colour or creed idealism. At the risk of invoking Godwin's law, I heard an interesting radio interview with a historian about H (you know who) the other day. His view was H never believed in the ideal, it was simply a vehicle to power.