“I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth, and I am a citizen of the world.” – Eugene V. Debs
So it turns out that Eastern Europe is a pretty racist place. Almost immediately after teams started practicing in public, reports streamed in about fans making monkey noises to unsettle the black players, and some English players even reportedly told their family members and fans not to travel with them to Poland and the Ukraine for fear of verbal abuse (or worse). This kind of news is, sadly, predictable at this point, as even within the English Premier League there is constant pressure on those who are not White Dudes. Who is currently the most popular homosexual player in the EPL? Oh, right, I can’t name any, because coming out is still considered a career-ending move, even as the English FA moves to stiffen its penalties on “racist abuse.”
But along with the steady headlines about the racist taunts suffered by many players so far in the Euro 2012 tournament, one instance caught my attention for its possible ripple effect of philosophical implications: the reports of Russian fans waving a “Russian Empire” flag, which was noted for symbolizing offensive “far-right sensibilities.”
The flag, which was not shown by any of the agencies reporting its appearance at the match between Russia and the Czech Republic, is, as far as I can tell by an online search, the typical tri-color of Peter the Great with the Byzantine double-headed eagle and St. George crest on the upper left canton. (If this is not the flag in question, please correct me. Were they flying the Romanov flag? Without images I’m left to guess, but regardless, the point remains the same.)
I assume that those flying such a flag are anti-Soviet, jingoist monarchists (or does the hammer and sickle just carry different connotations to them?), or else adherents to some hollow notion of ethnic or cultural “purity,” much like the English Defence League followers and their St. George’s cross, which for them carries a different meaning and serves as the emblem for a different, not-so-secret code, even though it’s of course also the national flag of England.
And speaking of crosses, this use of flags by insular factions is also reminiscent of right-wing groups in the Southern US flying the St. Andrew’s cross (always a cross, of course), also known as the battle flag of the Confederate States of America. As if the cross wasn’t offensive enough (what is Christianity if not the attempt at a celestial empire?), the “stars and bars” carries a historical and cultural weight apart from its actual use by Confederate armies. The battle flag is now mainly used as code; to let cultural or linguistic “enemies” know that they’re not welcome and to let those who share the group’s xenophobia know that they’re not alone.
But to bring it back to the Ukraine and Poland, the question raised by the many uses of these symbols is the following: Doesn’t the regular Russian tri-color, and indeed all national flags of former or current empires, already carry far-right sensibilities?
Think for a second about what a national flag implies: a codified hierarchical bureaucracy, a nation-state with rigid borders, figuratively and literally, a system of meta-narratives and myths about the (racial) superiority of the group in question, and, of course, a standing military (flags’ utility is primarily battlefield-related, or else to stir up “patriotic” sentiment in order to put people on that battlefield). Even (or especially) the flag of the United States, which was for a brief stint the symbol of a violent extrication from a tyrannical global empire, is now flown above military bases in uncountable foreign lands. If we’re getting technical about it, isn’t Old Glory an “empire flag”?
Furthermore, isn’t the subtext of any international tournament a certain posturing of geopolitical power, each country strutting like a preening peacock? Isn’t the tournament already a nationalist/imperial display? I mean, one would be hard-pressed to find any country anywhere, but especially in Europe, that hasn’t had an empire, fought against an empire, imploded into a civil war because of the effects of empire, or all of the above. With the run-up to Euro 2012 playing on these cultural and historical sub-currents, (when Capello stepped down, the British FA was pressured to find a manager for the national team that was “sufficiently English,” if you recall) is it any wonder that fans “take it too far” with offensive displays? Aren’t these displays just the logical extension of the tournament itself?