Symbol & Subtext

I see that Saul has already written on this. Consider this a companion piece.

The reaction to the following election-day tweet led its sender, a member of the Labour shadow cabinet, to resign this week:

That cost someone a shadow cabinet position? Huh?

OK, let’s see if I can figure this out. In the image I see three things: (1) what looks to be an apartment building (the British media calls it a “terraced house“), (2) three St. George’s Crosses, which will be familiar to any fans of international football as the flag of England, and (3) a white van. The text, “Image from #Rochester,” seems wholly inoffensive. How on Earth could this tweet possibly offend people so much that they would call for, and ultimately get, a politician’s resignation?

I first encountered the tweet in a BBC article titled “Labour’s Emily Thornberry quits over ‘snobby’ tweet, which contains reactions like these:

The resident of the house, Dan Ware, said Ms Thornberry – the MP for Islington South and Finsbury – was a “snob”.

“I’ve not got a clue who she is – but she’s a snob,” he told the Sun. “We put the flags up for the World Cup (in 2014) and will continue to fly them.”


Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander said Labour leader Ed Miliband had “not held back” in expressing his dismay with the MP’s actions.

“Anyone who wants to stand for election and be successful next May has to start with a fundamental and deep respect for voters,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.

“The anger Ed (Miliband) felt when he saw that tweet reflected his understanding that we need to earn the support of people around the country.”

These quotes gave me something to work with, but it wasn’t until I got to the very end that I started to have a real sense of what was going on, when I read this:

But [UK Independence Party leader] Mr Farage suggested the episode reflected broader attitudes within parts of the Labour Party.

“The Labour Party hate the concept of Englishness,” he told the BBC News Channel. “They have done for a very long time.

“New Labour can’t even stand the concept of patriotism. They think the flag somehow is unpleasant, backward-looking and nasty. People like Emily Thornberry would rather we had that blue flag with 12 stars on it that comes to us from Brussels.”

Another British media source, The Guardian, gave me still more of a clue:

John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, said Thornberry had insulted voters. He told the Today programme: “It is the juxtaposing of the white van and the England flag … It is normal life for many of us. It is normal Labour values.”

At this point I was pretty sure I had it figured out, and a bit of poking around the online conversations about the tweet across the pond suggests that I was right. There are three subtextual strands at work here, and to an American with little exposure to British politics and political culture, they were compeltely invisible. The first strand, and the most obvious of the three, is the age-old class divide in England, and middle class snobbery that has become associated with the Labour Party. Thornberry is a Labour MP representing the Islington South and Finsbury constituency, a mostly wealthy part of Inner London, and is herself from Islington, a wealthy neighborhood that has been home to some of New Labour’s most prominent politicians. A quote from the Wikipedia article on the constituency suggests that it has a reputation for class snobbery with a New Labour political bent:

Its dinner tables are routinely maligned as the natural habitat of the hypocritical, well-off, ostensibly liberal “chattering classes”.

So the photo is of a working class home in a working class neighborhood, taken by a Labour politician from a wealthy neighborhood.

The second strand is the flag of St. George, which is actually the intersection of two strands. As I said, those of us who follow international football will recognize the St. George’s Cross as the flag of England, because it is associated with the English national team. During their matches, fans wave it in the stands, and it’s used in broadcasts, along with the abbreviation “ENG,” anytime the team’s scores are displayed. It used to be prominently displayed on the team’s kit (that’s their uniform, for you non-soccer folks), even, though now you have to really look for it. This association, as well as recent indepdendence movements in other parts of the UK, have led many in to see the St. George cross as a symbol of English pride and nationalism, particularly among the working class.

It is not a coincidence, then, that one of those speaking out against the tweet in the BBC article was Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP is a right-wing nationalist party that frequency uses the English flag as its symbol. The party is most popular in working class areas, and in fact its candidate won the election for MP in the constituency representing Rochester, where the photo was taken.

The other part of this second strand is that, because of its association with English nationalism, the St. George’s Cross has come to be seen by many, particularly in the middle class, as a symbol of working class racism (anti-Muslim racism, for example).

Finally, the third strand is the white van. I would have thought the van would be the least relevant aspect of the image, but it turns out it’s quite important, as the quotes above show. In the UK there’s a well-known “White Van Man” stereotype that has come to represent negative attitudes toward the working class in general.

Perhaps with these streams in mind we can at least begin understand why the reaction to the tweet was so swift and so severe. In that one seemingly innocuous image, three subtextual streams collide: the middle class snobbery that has become associated with the Labour Party meets working class nationalism and perhaps racism meets a common stereotype of the working class, and together they form a toxic mixture. All from a picture of an apartment building with a van and three English flags, with the hashtag “Rochester.”

Even now though, knowing the context, I have no emotional reaction to the image whatsoever. I understand the reaction, but I can’t experience it. The effect of the subtext is itself context-dependent: without those three subtextual strands being part of my lived experience, I can’t really comprehend the offensiveness of the tweet to many. I have to take their word for it, which is not particularly difficult to do becasue their experience is far enough removed from mine that I can easily fathom relevant differences. As a result, my initial failure to imagine any sense in which the tweet might be offensive, and my continued inability to fully grasp the offensiveness, provide a clear and, for me at least, edifying illustration of the importance of subtext and experience. The world for us, the tweet and the reaction to it remind me, is a complex of imagination and symbol that we frequently mistake for the Real.

I suppose it would be more difficult for me to recognize this lesson if I had lived in England my entire life but still didn’t recognize the subtext immediately. In that case I might very well think that the people who are offended haven’t lived a life that much different from mine: we all live in the same country, right? We speak the same language, watch the same BBC channels, understand the rules of cricket, and eat fish and chips (which is fish and fries; why can’t the people of England speak English?!). How could their experience be so different from mine, as we live alongside each other, that they would find something that immediately and unquestionably offensive and I wouldn’t at least get it, if not find it offensive as well? That seems impossible, right?

The Thornberry tweet should tell us it is not, in fact, impossible, and the next time someone tells us something that seems benign to us is offensive to them, perhaps we will remember Thornberry and her white van, St. George’s Cross tweet, and at the very least hesitate before dismissing their reaction.

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49 thoughts on “Symbol & Subtext

  1. This post is much better than mine.

    I am in the same boat and I suspect that it is because I am American. I get it but the emotional heat is still going way over my head and I need to replace the images with stuff that is more provocative to get close to the emotions.

    Though I did read that Emily Thornberry did grow up in a council-flat/working-class household and is not from the Middle Class originally.


    • The council-flat thing was part of her response: “I’d never seen flags covering a whole house. I grew up in a council-flat, and I never saw that,” or something to that effect (I forget which of the many articles I read that in, as I tried to figure out what the hell this was about). I think people took that sort of like the Hillary “We were poor” comment.


      • Ah, here it is:

        ‘It had three huge flags covering the whole house. I thought it was remarkable. I’ve never seen a house completely covered in flags.’

        When pressed that flying flags was commons, she said: ‘I was brought up in a council house and I’ve never seen anything like it.’


  2. I should add this: I may have been somewhat dishonest in the post. I knew, from discussion of the St. George Flag during the World Cup, that the national flag of England was seen as racist by many, and had become a symbol of the growing nationalist movement in England. Even with that, I still looked at that photo and thought, “Soccer fans who live in an apartment and drive a van. Why is that so bad?”


      • Yeah, I thought about bringing that up, but thought it might muddle things more than needed, since that was A.) the Union Jack, not St. George’s Cross, and B.) at that time Morrissey had already come under fire for other questionable things (the songs “Bengali in Platforms” and “National Front Disco”; as well as using photos of skinheads as his stage backdrop, all of which were taken together with the UJ imagery as problematic).

        Obviously the Who and the Jam had previously used the UJ flag prominently, but they weren’t seen to be flirting with racism/xenophobia the way Morrissey was seen to be (going all the way back to his “burn down the disco/hang the DJ” lines in Smiths, or his interview statement that “all reggae is vile”, which some interpreted as racist).


  3. I know it’s lazy of me but I wish someone could come up with an analogous image that would have been controversial in America. Part of the problem is that I don’t have a sense for how specific each of these images are; is the image of a white van intrinsically linked with classism? Are flags?

    The closest I could come up with is someone like DeBlasio tweeting this photo with the caption “Visiting #Tennessee”. But I still can’t imagine him resigning over it. Though based on what I’ve seen from The Thick of It, British MPs seem to resign all the time.


    • is the image of a white van intrinsically linked with classism?

      From the OP (with a handy link too):

      “In the UK there’s a well-known “White Van Man” stereotype that has come to represent negative attitudes toward the working class in general.”

      I don’t know if we have a flag here that would quite get at it, but if Hillary tweeted a photo of a big pickup truck parked in front of a trailer home that had a Gadsden hanging on it (“#Alabama”), I could see the same sort of kerfuffle.


      • Yeah, I saw the link but I was wondering more about how likely the average person is to make such a connection. I saw in the other thread you posted the statistics around 25%, so it’s clearly a much more common symbol than I thought.


      • It really is, from what I can tell, all three pieces tied together: Labour’s less than stellar reputation among the working class, combined with the use of the flag by the working class as a symbol of specifically working class nationalism, and on top of that, the van. Repeatedly on Twitter I saw, “It’s the van. It’s about the van.”


      • Yeah, I was trying to think of something that, in combination with a mobile home, would by itself symbolize snobbery.

        I can imagine that a Louisville or Lexington politician, especially a Democrat, tweeting a picture of a run-down Appalachian single or double-wide with a car on the lawn on blocks with the words, “Image from #Pikeville,” might get some heat.


      • .

        It’s worth noting that she didn’t resign her post as MP. She just left the shadow cabinet–and the shadow cabinet doesn’t really have a US equivalent. The closest thing to a US equivalent I can think of is that of a politician who’d been nominated to a post but not confirmed withdrawing their name–and that’s certainly something I can see happening after an equivalent gaffe in the US.


    • I’m not sure I can come up with a simple analogous situation in the U.S. Liberal snobbery is directed at the working class is an issue in this country, certainly, and I’m sure there are some conservatives here who can think of some examples of liberal politicians or pundits saying extremely snobbish stuff about the working class, but I’m not sure it’s easy to find examples of bare subtext when you’re so embedded in it.


  4. My obviously outdated impression of Islington is so different. Back when I lived in London in the mid-80s, Islington was generally regarded among my friends as working-class, rough-around-the-edges and quasi-affordable. Of the areas that weren’t out of everyone’s price range, it was considered more-or-less desirable because, while not necessarily an exciting or interesting place to be, it was fairly central (i.e., not too far from places that were exciting or interesting). It was perceived as being a lot safer than areas like Brixton, and it was a lot closer to central London. I had a friend who lived there, but I only went to his place once and never spent much time in Islington. (I lived in Earl’s Court — he and I worked together at Selfridges.) I guess Islington had all the ingredients for gentrification and I guess it has gentrified.


      • Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea are nowhere near each other. Chelsea is in the West 20s and ends well before Penn Station. Hell’s Kitchen is in the West 40s and 50s. Last I checked, this was true and I was in New York in January 2013 last.

        A better example might be how Bushwick became East Williamsburg or how people move to South Slope to be near Park Slope but have a more affordable apartment. Or they used to be able to do this.


      • and

        I think what Aaron is reaching for is “Clinton,” not Chelsea. Sometime in the 1990s or thereabouts there was an effort to rebrand Hell’s Kitchen as Clinton. IIRC, the name Clinton wasn’t just pulled out of thin air — I think it was some kind of official designation for the neighborhood, albeit one no one used. I lived in Chelsea from about 1987 through 2005 and for many of those years I subscribed to the neighborhood paper, The Chelsea-Clinton News (which became an amusing name during the Clinton Administration). The paper covered both hoods and was the product of a merger between two separate papers. I don’t think the Clinton paper was ever called the Hell’s Kitchen Gazette or similar, it was always “Clinton” something.

        I don’t know too much about the development of Hell’s Kitchen/Clinton, except that it was always working class or poor, which is pretty obvious from the abundance of tenement-style buildings. It’s most notorious for being crime-ridden, a hot-bed of organized crime, and an immigrant melting pot. It was heavily Irish and heavily Italian at different times. I believe it was heavily Latino in the 1980s, but I couldn’t tell you if it was more Dominican or Puerto Rican. It began gentrifying in earnest in the mid-1990s, as a lot of mostly white gay men got priced out of Chelsea. (Just as Chelsea began gentrifying in earnest in the mid-1980s as a lot of mostly white gay men got priced out of the West Village.)

        The name Chelsea comes from Chelsea Farm, the sale of which paved the way for the hood’s development. Chelsea Farm was, in turn, name after the Moore (no relation, alas) family farm in England. Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote ’Twas the Night Before Christmas inherited the farm and decided to sell, I think in the 1870s or 1880s or thereabouts. He partnered with developer John Gay and the two set out to build a respectable family neighborhood the middle-class could afford — hence, the abundance of charming but relatively modest brick townhouses. The one exception was along both sides of West 23rd between 9th & 10th Avenues. They built grander stone townhouses with more ornate finishings for wealthier people. The buildings were painted white because the block was supposed to recall Belgravia in London, and it was named London Terrace, but informally it was known as “Millionaire’s Row.” During the Depression, the buildings on the north side were torn down and the WPA funded the construction of a large apartment complex that covers the entire block between W23rd & W24th Streets & 9th & 10th Avenues. Because this building was designed to look like it would fit right in in London’s Knightsbridge neighborhood, it simply kept the name London Terrace. It has been a very desirable property for decades.


      • That makes sense. There was an early governor of New York named DeWitt Clinton. His ancestral home could have been in that area. The Clintons were an old New York family.

        Hell’s Kitchen is where the Irish poor lived for many generations and then it went through becoming a neighborhood for other poor communities.

        Realtors always try and rebrand a neighborhood that butts up against an expensive one. Bushwick was bombed out place of real poverty for most of my life but around 2005-2006, realtors began to call it “East Williamsburg” to attract people who wanted to live in Williamsburg but could not afford it. It takes being a native to realize that East Williamsburg is not a real neighborhood name.

        My current SF neighborhood is safe but for most of the post-War era, it was one of the most violent neighborhoods in San Francisco. A place where you were not supposed to tread. The realtors gave it the moniker NOPA to make it more attractive to yuppie types who might know about the old history.


      • An acquaintance of mine worked in historic preservation in Detroit (of all places!) in the 1990s. He was working on a presentation for some conference about the urban dynamics that frequently result in a neighborhood influx of lesbians and gay men leading to broader gentrification. It’s a pattern that repeated itself in various neighborhoods in various cities from the 1970s – 2000s, including Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and Park Slope in New York, Back Bay in Boston, Boystown in Chicago, the Castro and the Mission in San Francisco, Capitol Hill in Seattle and (to a little lesser extent) the Hawthorne District here in Portland.

        For quite a while, this pattern wasn’t much noticed by heterosexuals who weren’t directly impacted by the influx, but he told me a story about two friends of his who went to look at an apartment in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood, which was already becoming known as an area popular with lesbians and gay men. They said that realtors were advertising available units heavily in the gay press and the realtor showing the apartment had every k.d. lang album on shuffle. So sometimes the effort to rebrand a neighborhood starts not with a new name, but with appeals to particular sub-culture and a lot of “Constant Craving.”


      • I understand the gentrification of Park Slope as not being part of an LGBT crowd moving in. Park Slope, Boreum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Carrol Gardens were the parts of Brownstone Brooklyn that got broken up into working class apartments during the 1920s-1960s and were largely inhabited by Italian and Irish working class families that fled during the 50s and 60s. A lot of Jane Jacobs fans started buying houses in the late 60s and early 70s because you could get an entire brownstone (that needed significant work) for 20,000 dollars. Now they go for several million. Park Slope was really early gentrification but it did not really take off until the 80s and 90s.


      • , Park Slope became very popular with lesbians in the early-1980s, though as I understood it most were buying or renting apartments rather than whole townhouses. When I moved back to New York in 1986, many of my peers (college grads from the early-to-mid ’80s were) actively looking in and/or moving to Park Slope — women especially, whether gay or not, because it generally felt safer than the East Village, where other more intrepid peers were flocking. But you’re right that over time the biggest trend across various Brooklyn neighborhoods were people buying townhouses, fixing them up and selling them for a hefty profit.


    • Its not condescension. We simply rare having an honest discussion about the pathology in working class white culture that keeps them on the Republic Party plantation.

      Instead of blaming all their dysfunction on liberal elites and urban people, maybe they would be able to rise above their situation by wearing shirts with sleeves, stop smoking meth and molesting their sisters, eating dirt, and spending all their money on pickup trucks and guns.


      • I got it as well, but what’s interesting is that he has to go far enough over the top for it to be obvious and work.

        I’d like to say that by the time he got to the sister-molesting, the point had been clearly reached, but frankly I hear that kind of stuff all the time from people who are dead ‘serious’. I mean they may act like they aren’t, but they kind of are. It wasn’t until we got to dirt-eating that I could be sure.


      • That’s because LWA is a traitor who’s bent on the destruction of our way of life.

        You know that was sarcasm because it’s me, but at Fox or WND, or from the mouth of Ted Cruz. that would entirely sincere and even relatively mild.


      • I figured, but given that I actually hear stuff like that regularly enough (renecks, hillbillies, and “white trash, along with the French, are some of the few remaining groups it is socially acceptable to insult), though perhaps not in such concentrated form, I wasn’t sure. I got the point (if we talk about this group the way people talk about this other group), just wasn’t sure the content wasn’t believed. The meth and the inbreeding I hear pretty much anytime I talk about the mountains back home. Pretty sure that’s all some people “know”of Appalachia.


      • This is why I just keep it to mocking the Irish. Irish people are drunk, Irish people are lazy, Irish people love money… it’s all good.

        The only thing you have to worry about is the fact that Irish people have a mean temper.


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