The Brits are getting their blue passports “back.” Never mind what they are losing in the way of trade deals, freedom of movement and development and research funding. The blue passport is back and it has caused unbelievable rejoicing among the pro-Brexit Right (a different animal entirely than the pro-Brexit Left, but that’s not our topic here). Likewise, on the other side of the pond, in the face of a tax-reform bill that represents the largest single upward redistribution of wealth in American history, the impoverished white working class — the very people whose supposed “economic anxiety” propelled a third-rate reality star to the presidency — are celebrating victory in the “War on Christmas.” Apparently, Scrooge didn’t need to bring all those presents: all Tiny Tim really wanted was to be spared the indignity of a multicultural “Happy Holidays.” Blue passports and “Merry Christmas” are Exhibit A in what can only be called The Unbearable Pettiness of the New Nationalism.
The common wisdom that has been, for ideological reasons, much too easy for all of us bleeding hearts to accept is that the dangerous, reactionary nationalism that gave us Trump, Brexit and chants of “White Poland” is born from the economic disenfranchisement of the traditional white working-class in North America and Europe. That, as victims of the free-market and neoliberal economic policies, they were pushed into the arms of bigots and fascists. That we need to have compassion for these poor souls and give them a fairer deal. That, once factories are re-opened, they will forget about a race war quickly. Promise.
Here’s the thing, comrades: the free market is our bogeyman, not theirs. This was never about economics; it was always about culture. If the plethora of polling data won’t convince you of that, well, then maybe the yokels’ widespread rejoicing over imaginary culture war victories in the face of economic calamity will make their true colors evident. These people don’t care about their economic future, they are too busy fussing over passport colors and automated holiday greetings. Because in these finer points, the New Nationalists get at the heart of what bother them so much: It’s the culture, baby. That’s why “English-only” legislation has been one of the pet projects of racialized working-class politics in the US dating back to the 19th-century. “I shouldn’t have to press ‘1’ for English” is the real problem these people have in the face of child hunger, environmental catastrophe and mass shootings. It is the real problem that has reliably brought out these voters for well over 150 years. Remember, Wisconsin and Illinois passed the first legislation mandating English-only language instruction in schools in the late 1880s. That is a year or two or 100 before NAFTA.
Which poses a problem for reconciliation. Because no amount of healthcare or job retraining is going to appease someone whose real problem is multiculturalism and a tolerant, liberal society. Nuanced policy debate is not the way into the heart of petty people. The end goal of New Nationalism is nothing short of imposing village ways on urban life. The blue passport of the English village in place of the red one of cosmopolitan London. A hearty, small-town “Merry Christmas” in place of the vague, anonymous and multicultural “Happy Holidays.” The right to be spared the horror of a customer service department phone message that reminds you that your language is only one of many.
Such pettifogging can only be answered with a resolute determination to not give way. And that means adopting our own nitpicking signs of resistance. I, for example, accept my students final papers in any language I can read, listed on the syllabus for ease. And you can do this, too. Be petty about the points of our culture we wish to defend. From holiday greetings to gender neutral mail-people. For we can also play this game, and as ridiculous as it seems, we should. Because the one thing the New Nationalists get right is that the war is won in the details, not with high-minded think pieces or laments for that closed car factory. So go forth, comrades. Find the itch. Scratch it.