On the rainbow flag and EU value tokenism

Writing for Social Europe in Beyond waving rainbow flags (2021-06-30), Evelyne Paradis notes the following about Hungary and Poland:

The political machinations in both countries are as well-trodden as they are clear. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, want to create internal enemies to distract from their own failures and thereby maintain power. The internal enemy they have largely created is LGBTI people, and now they are instrumentalising the same minority to turn their populations against the European values everyone in the ‘forward thinking’ part of Europe is defending. In using the rainbow flag as an instrument to castigate whole countries, we might thus unwittingly contribute to isolating LGBTI people in countries such as Poland and Hungary, rather than bringing people along in support of equality.

Evelyne Paradis makes a fine point about not penalising entire countries as that risks alienating potential allies to the cause of diversity and equality. Turning this issue into yet another power struggle between the supranational and the national levels would only undermine the position of those minorities who are already under pressure. It seems, however, that the European Union is keen on pursuing its divisive rhetoric as it serves its own agenda of ultimately concentrating more power at the top.

The creation of an enemy that functions as a distraction or catalyst for sweeping reforms is a well-known tactic that incumbent forces use. It is neither a modern invention, nor peculiar to Hungary’s and/or Poland’s political realities. The EU does that too, including in this case. The goal of its leadership and spin doctors is to portray the Union as a victim, with its vaunted values being under attack, cultivate a sense of emergency and present itself as the solution to the impending crisis.

In plotting a collision course with the governments of Hungary and Poland, the Western countries that are de facto leading the EU seek to issue a call for unconditional unity behind their platform. The invocation of the threat to so-called “European values”, which are presumed as unambiguous and touted as non-negotiable, sets the stage for an all-or-nothing conflict. While the pretext is the rainbow flag and its connotations, the overarching theme is one of picking sides in a polarised debate: being with or against either of the parties involved. Such is a means of indirectly silencing all other voices as well as deprioritising or disinvesting from policies that are perhaps inexpedient under the prevailing conditions.

When the complexity of politics is reduced to simplistic notions of in- and out- groups at odds with each other, we witness the cultivation of monolithic identities and their subsequent clash. Those ad-hoc allegiances engender—and operate along the lines of—pernicious binary reasoning, such as if you do not wish to wave the rainbow flag you are diagnosed, in splendid pseudo-scientific fashion, with some latent phobia, whereas if you are bearing the flag you automatically qualify as an uncompromising thinker extraordinaire, again without any sense of nuance whatsoever. More importantly, the topic at hand is formulated as a question that is supposed to be answerable and answered with a generic yes-or-no, with one choice being strongly favoured. A plain “yes” thus provides the authorities with open-ended consent to operate as they see fit.

Nuance matters greatly in societies that want to uphold genuine diversity. This starts at the level of ideas. If one is not allowed to hold views that are altogether different from the accept ones, or which are permutations between the established extremes of “pro X versus against X”, then we cannot expect plurality of form to be made manifest and be allowed to flourish. The subtleties of discourse and critical thinking are lost when we are forced to treat a spectrum of many possible combinations or variations as a field with only two options where only one is welcome.

While the cases of Hungary and Poland are known (and of many other countries in the EU, such as with illiberal conservatism in Greece), the progressive forces cannot claim the moral high ground of enlightenment while they employ the same tactics as those of their opponents. If pluralism is still lost in the cacophony of virtue signalling, then it does not matter how exactly we end up in a state of affairs characterised by intolerance of the dissenting opinions. For instance, does it mean that if we support the salient point of diversity in gender self-determination and sexual orientation that we must necessarily endorse every policy that the most fervent LGBT+ activists will put forward? Does a more eclectic approach that remains in favour of the overall cause but questions the efficacy, adequacy, propriety of individual initiatives or policy programmes qualify as “with us” or “against us” in this inane, age-old classification of the world as good versus evil? There is no logical or material necessity of the sort: one can support the principle but still be opposed to—or remain sceptical of—individual implementations of it. Yet binary thinking forces us to assume such a case as an impossibility or, worse, to treat it as a troublesome deviation from the norm, an undesirable aberration, that should be eliminated with extreme prejudice.

Value tokenism creates its own superficial normativity along the lines of the desirable against the deplorable. It is a role-playing game where one must appear to be on the right side of the divide, carrying all the appropriate paraphernalia and behaving in accordance with the demands of their role as a moral agent.

This expectation of performative conformance is clearly discernible in the shrewd advertising of otherwise for-profit, non-morality-driven corporations, such as Volkswagen, which present their logo against a rainbow-styled background. “Oh look! VW wears our colours. Let’s forget about its dubious track record on everything else and join forces.” It is easy to fall into the trap of short-term opportunism. When an unscrupulous car manufacturing conglomerate, or any mega-corporation for that matter, appropriates your symbolism, you know there is some ulterior motive involved or that something is amiss: perhaps they do it to get good press and to whitewash their past, which ultimately helps boost sales, or maybe your cause is not as revolutionary as you are led to believe. There is much to consider.

It is no longer about the substantive matter, which in our case is what happens to the daily life of LGBT+ people. The focus is on maintaining the facade that the EU has set up to gather still more competences at the supranational level and, ultimately, extend the reach of the handful of Western countries that are de facto running Europe.

[ Read: On the appropriation of Europe (2020-09-28) ]

We are forced to revolve around a single item on the agenda and are pressured to assume either of the extreme positions. Whether by inventing an internal threat or by shifting focus towards some perceived alterity, the intent is to set aside the complexity of actual political affairs, which can only be resolved through thoroughgoing deliberations, and turn it into a power struggle that is formulated as a clash of homogeneous opposites. Those who do not want to get dragged into the squabble, those who may prefer dialogue or who think that there are other issues that should not get lost in the noise, are silenced or outright stigmatised/targeted as some sort of heathens or heretics.

Which brings us to the EU’s claims on its righteousness. One cannot help but point at its worrying design flaws. How can we expect the supranational level to be a bastion of democracy and fundamental values when its own policy-making is not democratic to begin with? The Commission, which is the EU’s effective government, has a leadership which consists of appointed members. The European Council, which practically decides on the broad themes of EU policy, is an inter-governmental institution where the power balance between member-states tilts decisions in favour of the powerful countries, typically the Franco-German tandem. While each country has an elected government, there is no electoral process for the system as such, to the effect that there is a sovereignty mismatch between the actual power of the European Council and its legitimacy. The European Central Bank is unaccountable as no body in the entire EU architecture can challenge its interpretation of price stability and, thus, cannot impose conditions on the particularities of its policy.

[ Watch: On the nation-state, democracy, and transnationalism (2021-05-29) ]

[ Read: ECB independence: concept, scope, and implications (2017-04-02) ]

Value tokenism obfuscates the political calculus of expediency that drives decision-making. In the EU’s recent history, it was expedient to do whatever it takes to save the euro (e.g. grinding austerity, unaccountable quantitative easing, …) because that set of institutional arrangements, older and newer, guarantees a structural imbalance of power in favour of the supranational level. It now is expedient to use the rainbow flag as a catch-all for the simplistic “we against them” that Western Europe, else the tacit Kerneuropa (core Europe), implies when it assumes the role of the knight in shining armour who toils against the forces of mischief.

The EU’s greater objective is to concentrate ever more power in the hands of operators in the Brussels-Paris-Berlin nexus. It wants us to take its claims at face value and just hope it will always be a benevolent force, a driver for progress or whatnot, which will consistently exercise its omnipotence with responsibility and moderation. Not mentioning the EU’s inherent flaws while getting dragged into its value tokenism to uncritically pick sides is irresponsible. Granting it all the power it wants to be the guardian of whatever cause is in vogue, without fundamentally refashioning its architecture in the interest of greater legitimacy and accountability, is dangerous.