Many societies in 2020 seem more divided than ever, especially as the noise generated by opposing views is louder, amplified by often anonymous voices on social media. It appears that those who believe that “might is right” use positions of power to bully more liberal views into submission. How can those who do not believe in aggression make their views heard and have them respected? There are surprisingly similar parallels between Britain, the USA and Russia.
|A street protest in Moscow in 2015, against the war|
in Ukraine and the killing of Boris Nemtsov.
For a small country, Britain prides itself on having had a remarkable influence on the development of the world. Britain created the largest empire the world has ever seen. It gave the world the most international language. And in describing its ruling body as “the Mother of all parliaments” Britain has apparently provided a template for governance.
We British pride ourselves on our tolerance, our cosmopolitanism and our sense of humour, not least our ability to laugh at ourselves in front of others. At least, we used to. Since the ill-thought-out and poorly run referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union in 2016 not only have divisions been exposed in our society but a green light appears to have been given to those who promote hatred, racism and intolerance to express openly their often vicious opinions.
Hundreds of examples have come to light of hostile behaviour, from crude, insulting and threatening messages aimed at foreigners, women and the vulnerable, to physical violence against those deemed to be weaker. Intimidation has taken on a new and uglier face than ever before.
A similar process has taken place in the same time frame “across the pond” in the USA. If Americans had any doubt that they were living in a parallel universe after the election as President of Donald Trump, this became obvious immediately after his inauguration, when his then spokesman, Sean Spicer, declared (with a straight face) that more people turned out for Trump’s ceremony than had for the inauguration of his predecessor, Barack Obama, in 2009. One glance at the aerial photographs of the National Mall showed this to be total nonsense; but Spicer wasn’t joking. Three years later, The Washington Post (which has been keeping a tally of the President’s lies) reckons that Trump has told over 16,000 lies.
The Brookings Institute maintains that there would seem to be a direct correlation between Trump’s lies and his aggressive and insulting behaviour, and the rise in hate crimes, especially in counties where Trump won the election by larger majorities. The only other occasion in the last quarter of a century when there has been such a spike in hate crimes in the US was in the wake of 9/11.
It may seem strange to compare the situation in Britain and America with that in Russia, where since Soviet times information has been heavily laden with propaganda and lies; indeed, the very word “disinformation” came into English from Russian. But it certainly appears as if both Trump in the US and the Conservative Party in Britain have been studying Vladimir Putin’s disinformation handbook, be it with outright lies (such as the claim over the crowds at the inauguration) or spurious claims, like the fictional £350 million which would magically go to the National Health Service should Britain leave the EU.
One area where Russia is more “advanced” than the US or Britain is in clamping down on dissenting views. Putin has learnt well the lessons from his Soviet past, when dissidents were imprisoned or put in lunatic asylums, and has even created what is, in effect, his own private army to deal with dissent and demonstrations. Rosgvardia, ostensibly under the control of the Interior Ministry, is now 420,000 strong and Putin relies on it to intimidate anyone brave enough to take part in a demonstration against his corrupt regime.
There may not be the equivalent of Rosgvardia in Britain or the US, but it is certainly the case that “dissidents” in those two countries need more courage now to stand up to the lies and intimidation fostered by their governments. Trump sends vicious and abusive tweets against anyone who criticises him and whips up crowds of his supporters to project an image of hatred and anger against those who think differently. On occasion such verbal violence spills over into physical violence.
And bigots in Britain feel empowered by the Brexit rage to send hate mail and messages, such as the one stuck up on doors throughout a block of flats in Norwich on the day Britain started the transition period towards leaving the EU, telling residents that they must speak only English in that block (a message written in ungrammatical English).
This outrageous and insulting message was met by local residents gathering at the block to celebrate their diversity. Such steps take courage. Few people have shown more courage than Gina Miller, who took the government to court over its plan to avoid putting Article 50, the bill to leave the EU, in front of parliament. Gina won; but at what cost? She has been subjected to the most vile abuse by the lunatic fringe – who feel empowered by the actions of certain politicians to spew out their filth.
As far back as the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke said that, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. This has been vividly illustrated since then in a number of places, perhaps most graphically in Nazi Germany. The extremes of the Nazis may not have been met yet in Britain, the USA or Russia. But if people of good will remain silent the triumph of extremism in these countries may be just over the horizon.