Hatari hold up the Palestinian flag during the recap of the acts at Eurovision 2019

Cats, pigeons, and a history of protest: Why we need to politicise Eurovision, the Olympics, and mass shootings

Displaying the Palestinian flag during the recap of the acts, Iceland’s Hatari ruffled more than a few feathers. Indeed, it prompted swathes of online commentators to demand that Eurovision remain apolitical. Should that be so — is it best — is it even possible?

Bruno Cooke
May 31 · 17 min read

[C]onsider this: many normal values we cherish in Western society today — like same-sex marriage, right to due process, freedom of religion — people at one time had to fight for, through being indefatigable in protesting the establishment and demanding change.

— Laurence Watt, The Richest Magazine

“Don’t politicise Eurovision”? It already has been, it already is

There are those who insist that Eurovision remain simply about entertainment — that it remain apolitical. This position has as its foundation the notion that it is not yet political, that it has been, was — up until the point at which Iceland’s maverick quartet Hatari displayed the Palestinian flag to an audience of 180 million Europop lovers (or, at least, abiders) — not political.

But there is evidence to the contrary, decades of it. Luxembourg’s 1961 entry, about lovers facing prejudice, was about persecution on a personal level; Israel’s trans singer Dana International, who won in 1998, contributed to the discourse surrounding gender identity. Identity is political, whether you are oppressor or oppressed — whether you want it to be or not. In 2014, Conchita Wurst became a gay icon and, following this, Ireland’s 2018 performance featured two male dancers acting out a same-sex love story. This year, France’s trans performer sang about marginalisation. For years, Eurovision has served as a platform for highlighting social and political issues.

More overtly political acts have also featured prominently at Eurovision. In 2016, Ukrainian singer Jamala won with a song about the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union in WWII. The following year, Ukraine banned Russia from competing at all — politics, fairly deployed. (Russia’s way of undermining the political act was to dress it up as an amoral one: they sent a woman in a wheelchair to represent them, and spun the story so that Ukraine appeared as the tyrant, refusing access to the disabled) It might be easy to admonish Ukraine on grounds of not trying hard enough to rise above, but if the playground big-kid annexes your peninsula, what are you going to do? Politics is inevitable.

Australia’s induction in 2015 signified “a world where issues and beliefs, rather than borders, are important” — if beliefs and principles are to be the fundaments upon which a Eurovision family is born, is it not important to reaffirm and reform that ethical code? Such were the motives of Dana, Wurst, Jamala and Jean-Claude Pascal. Breaches of the code must be questioned.

The often cited purpose of Eurovision is to connect, transcend borders, subvert the myth that difference = conflict, that adjacent = opposit[e/ng]. It “gives visibility to identities and ways of being that you never see” (Dr Ruddock, quoted above) — its aim, to harmonise, is a noble one, which it achieves through disruption of the status quo, challenging patchy ethical positions and unifying people by establishing a progressive ethos. It provides a platform for progressive notions and catalyses social change through exposure, focusing the world’s attention on social issues that need progress — LGBT perception and prejudice, body positivity (France 2019), the notion that milkmaids are chaste and prudish (Poland 2014), and so on.

It is my belief that a platform whereon countries, who would otherwise be in conflict with each other (or indeed currently are: Azerbaijan-Armenia, Turkey-Armenia, Georgia-Russia, Ukraine-Russia, etc.), can compete on a level playing field, is inherently political — if only because of the decision to give the combatants a chance to participate. Giving Saudi Arabia a slot on a show defined by its unifying moral codes would be incredibly political. It would be equivalent to saying ‘we, as a community, respect the way you conduct yourselves enough to join our contest’.

Let’s keep entertainment entertaining—“don’t politicise this”—Olympic precedents

The politicisation of mass entertainment events is not without precedent. It occurs frequently in the sporting world. Think back to the Olympic Games of 1980, or indeed of 1936, ’56, ’64, ’76, ’84 and ’88. These did not exist in a political vacuum — they were not without reason, nor without effect.

The 1980 boycott, called by President Carter in order to oppose the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, was the subject of heated and wide-ranging debate before it was implemented. Formally proposed by a Soviet dissident, the idea had circulated among human rights activists as a sanction for Soviet violations of human rights since the early seventies. During the 1980 Bilderberg meeting, opposing arguments were put forward: that the world would perceive the boycott as sentimental, not strategic; that it would serve as a powerful symbolic protest; and so on. A German speaker, thinking back to ‘Hitler’s Olympics’ of 1936, asked whether it was necessary even to wait for a US decision.

It would be difficult to argue that the 1980 boycott took place for ignoble reasons, or that it flopped. Politicising it was a positive step. Such widespread condemnation of a government’s actions puts those at fault under pressure, starkly silhouetted for the world to see.

Incidentally, it is also important to concede that not all boycotts gain ground for the righteous, or have obvious political goals in mind. The 1984 abstention organised by the Soviet bloc was retaliatory, and was conceived in conjunction with an illegal doping plan anyway, rendering it daft, obsolete, I don’t know — foolish, in some regard. The1988 boycott, of the South Korean Games, was the result of poor diplomatic relations, rather than a unified political agenda; and the 1964 boycott was insubstantial. These lacked success. However, the boycotts of ’36 and ’56 were of sound political origin, and played significantly into an overarching narrative.

If it cannot bridge a political black hole, it can at least expose it — the legacy of black power and the power of abstention

The Americans received their medals shoeless — to represent black poverty — but wearing black socks. All three athletes wore civil rights badges; Smith wore a black scarf around his neck and Carlos a string of beads to commemorate black people who had been lynched. When The Star-Spangled Banner struck up, they delivered the gesture that became front-page news around the world. With their heads bowed, Smith and Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist to represent Black Power.

— Richard Lewis, for The TImes

Pedagogy through protest — the world’s eyes were diverted to a single issue, in a second. This “human rights” salute brought the fact of racism and public lynchings to light for everyone, not just those in political circles. And think, more recently, of Kaepernick’s “unpatriotic” act, in 2016, of kneeling during the national anthem, which sparked a series of supportive actions. Acts like this, of silent protest, by players of international fame, give voice to the voiceless by deflecting the audience’s attention. It refocuses the public lens, and in doing so peacefully ruffles high feathers. Shockwaves throughout America.

The call for mass entertainment events to be apolitical is mirrored in cases of mass carnage, mass tragedy — mass death. A key difference in the latter is that it more obviously exposes vested interests.

Vegas shootings — “Don’t politicise this”

“We must put politics aside, stand up to the NRA,” Clinton tweeted.

“Don’t politicise this, you heartless hack,” responded Fox Business host Kennedy.

“Don’t politicise this”, Washington Post

Politicising the good, the bad, and the ugly — “Lone wolves” and politicisation as a defence mechanism

What “Don’t politicize this” often means is,
Don’t politicize this if the shooter belongs to me.

“Don’t politicise this”, Washington Post

What is it that makes two people of a clan? Ideology, religion, habits, colour? When Stephen Paddock, a retiree who liked gambling and country music, opened fire on a Jason Aldean concert on the Las Vegas Strip, he joined the ranks of America’s “lone wolves”. Only, the media didn’t know it yet.

Details about the shooter emerged slowly. In the interim period, he remained in Schroedinger’s box: a member of Islamic State; a rogue sociopathic Democrat; a packaged Brevik, here to present his manifesto. America’s newspapers lacked spin. They did not yet know whether this maniac was out to destroy the American ideal (i.e. a political agent, i.e. brown-skinned), or just mentally ill (apolitical, white). When it was revealed that he was a regular American — gym-goer, license-owner, ex-accountant, ‘one of us’ — Pence lamented the “senseless violence” and Trump offered his “warmest condolences”. Agenda was taken out of the equation. A crime committed by one of the clan is a tragic loss; the reverse is terror — politics.

Media outlets in Europe and the US sustain themselves on ignoring the political connotations of native assailants while politicising attacks by “outsiders”. These are non-members. Here the concept of clan originates in something to do with the way religion is practiced (as opposed to religiosity itself), but is easiest to pin down to simple skin colour. After all, ‘they’ are categorised as ideologically different, despite ascribing to many of the same religious tropes [Judeo-Abrahamic tradition: one omnibenevolent, omnipotent god; Jesus, Noah, Moses, the bible; bodily resurrection, judgment, and so on]; performing similar rites and ceremonies [marriage is good, abortion is bad]; enacting parallel behavioural codes [like excluding women from positions of power and treating outsiders with suspicion, infidels as unworthy, etc.].

Othering gives an excuse to sensationalise and scapegoat, and eventually impose sanctions, embargos, visa revocations, travel bans. This is the kind of rhetoric which, when put into a populist feedback loop, results in proposals of giant ludicrous ineffectual unnecessary walls, incitation of racial violence and actual fucking bombing.

One of mine or one of yours?

It is terrifying to discover that someone who aligns with so many parts of your own identity, in terms of religion, behavioural patterns, fundamentals and colour, turns out to be evil — we are so hardwired to blame others and to find the blaming of others normal. If this ordinary American middle-class man can fall to such depths, what can be said for me? Am I safe from myself?

Imagine being a Muslim in the West and being grouped, on a daily basis, with terrorisers and belligerents with whom all you share is a god. The narrative built up around you, over your head, is that your clan is to blame. That’s right, yours. This onslaught is existential in scope — monumental. It is an attack on your very identity. Coming to terms with a few white killers — in Norway, New Zealand, the US — and trying to get to grips with their motives, is apparently beyond the reach of many broadcast journalists. There remains a staunch dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’, inflexible, with opposing explanations, consolations and solutions for each.

This is why the rhetoric surrounding Eurovision 2019 was so irksome. Hatari chose to follow in large footsteps and joined a supra-clan of those who are willing to sacrifice anonymity, and receive criticism, to highlight an ethical blot. Except they are different to Smith and Carlos, whose salutes shook the sporting world over 50 years ago, because they are not members of the oppressed class they opted to represent.

If something is apolitical, it probably doesn’t affect you

Where do we get this idea that it’s possible to avoid making political statements? Well, if the police don’t spend much time in your mostly white suburb, protests of police violence are a spectator sport you can choose not to watch. If you can’t get pregnant, access to birth control and abortion is something you can ignore. If you don’t know any undocumented people, DACA seems like a political football with no relevance to your life. The only way to pretend that something is “not political” is to not have a stake in it.

— Skwarecki for Life Hacker

Skwarecki is right. Young men shrug off stories of sexual harassment until they hear one from their little sister. Fathers discredit testimonies from women all over the world, until they are told to imagine their little girl in those shoes. The personal dimension renders something political. The personal is political. Has this got something to do with why so many online commentators were offended by Hatari’s gesture? To those who are aware of but not concerned by the Occupation, seeing it brought up on international television may be a nuisance. So how come there are so many people, Icelanders included, who feel like it is worth mentioning?

Why these things should affect all of us

In short, because one day, we might need help ourselves. Having a group of people from thousands of miles away give voice to your cause at a time when you are voiceless might be a source of new hope. Secondly, things like this should concern us because politicisation is about the expansion of discourse to involve everybody, not just the political elite.

In Politicising Europe, Grande and Hutter ground their research in the ‘conceptualisation of politicisation as the expansion of the scope of conflict within the political system’. We are all used to having what we like to think is candid political exposure. We choose which newspapers to read, which broadcasters to ignore — irrespective of preference of alignment, we have some access to political discourse, through televised debates, newspaper headlines and magazine columns. We can contact MPs, start petitions and select councillors. Society is a political body, a politicised body. The media serves, in its way, to educate us, and give voice to us. It facilitates direct dissemination by political agents and provides a platform for large-scale political debate — it democratises discourse. In the developed, democratic West, we owe our freedom, autonomy and political agency to the fact that life has been politicised for us.

The issue is that we rely on imperfect messengers. Media corporations are heavily politicised entities. They twist events and apply lenses in order to advance a specific goal (increasing prison populations), stoke certain inflammatory feelings or merely discredit a political actor. By filtering the messages we receive, they influence our modes of thought and behavioural patterns.

How to avoid media bias — disobey, protest

Documenting something is in its nature a political act. Angle, spin, focus, emphasis: journalism is seldom free of bias. Therefore it is during something supposedly apolitical that a political message will be most honestly displayed. The people filming an Olympic awards ceremony are not briefed to make a documentary — they are told to record the podium. It is in politicising such moments that we expand debates “from closed elite-dominated policy arenas to wider publics”, and sidestep media spin.

An act of protest is a raw political event which cuts through the benign and tables a motion not into a sealed House (read: political vacuum), but in the real world. Emmeline Pankhurst and her British Women’s Social and Political Union fought for women to have the right to vote in public elections, by staging public demonstrations and taking part in direct actions, in public — politicising urban spaces. Martin Luther’s resentment of Catholic money-grabbing became a distinctly political act when he pinned his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, in 1517. This act of protest gave us Protestantism. The American Revolution was triggered by protestors throwing 46 tonnes of tea, sent by the East India Company, into the sea at Boston Harbour. Just as the suffragettes politicised gender, unions politicise labour, protestors all over the world have politicised race and millions have since politicised birth control, abortions, domestic violence and workers’ rights.

Typically, the oppressed stand to gain from protest. When they lack the ability to speak for themselves, it falls to the privileged class to speak up on their behalf. Pro-Palestine supporters demonstrated outside the Expo Centre, where the acts performed. Palestinians held “Globalvision”, an alternative event showcasing Palestinian singers, in an attempt to draw people’s attention the Israeli occupation. Such actions are noble and brave, but rely on attracting broadcast media in order to gain support. Relatively few outside of Israel and Palestine knew of them. Bringing the issue to the screen, which Hatari’s privileged position allowed them to do, took the message out to nearly two hundred million, plus the population of Twitter, and the broad sphere of news readers — sitting ducks, a captive audience.

A bigger audience = a bigger splash — the placement of protest

Protests fail all the time. Instrumental in defining the impact of protest is the media attention it receives. “Catching media attention is an essential goal of the actors that stage these events” — a protest “with no media coverage at all is a non-event” (Gamson and Wolfsfeld).

One such non-event occurred at this year’s ESC, when Ukraine’s nominee refused to play at the actual event. Her contract contained clauses which prohibited improvisation, withheld the right to do interviews independently, and required her to cancel a tour date in St Petersburg. Her stance, that she was “not ready to address [people] with slogans and turn my involvement in the contest into a promo-action for our politicians” was an interesting one.

In her statement, she said “I’m a musician, not a tool for the political arena”, but her abstention carried heavy political connotations. She received criticism for turning the national heat into “part of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine” — as Ukraine’s deputy prime minister wrote on Twitter. In arguing against her deployment as a political mouthpiece, she protested the overt politicisation of the contest. But rather than attacking the confluence of politics and entertainment, I read in her speech a refusal to be exploited — she was standing up for autonomy, freedom of speech and freedom of representation. Two further acts refused on the same grounds, following a “row over an anti-Russian gagging order”.

While this was more an act of defiance, it held some of the fundaments of protest — sticking to individual principles, holding ethics to a light, fighting for autonomy. The problem was that it was ineffectual because it lacked an audience. If the whole world had been informed in one fell swoop, the Ukrainian national broadcasting company might have tucked its tail between its legs and changed its attitude towards propagandising independent artists.

Protesting is a last resort

Faced with systemic inaction and blunt lies in the media, what we have to do is politicise. Only then will the world, represented by its audience members, see that tipping point has been reached. A call to end protests is a call to curtail freedom of speech — it is a call for censorship. The politicisation of mass entertainment events, of the streets, of schools and hospitals, of factories and coalmines, of the simple act of sitting on a particular seat in a public bus, demonstrates the bubbling up to the surface of a deeply embedded socio-cultural problem, which would otherwise go unnoticed or persistently ignored.

Protesting is never the first option. Workers go on strike not because they can’t afford a new car but because they can’t afford to eat; nurses and doctors don’t leave hospitals because they’re a bit hard up, they do it because their treasured health system is being gutted and left to dry. People the world over are not protesting against Israel’s occupation because it seems like a jolly thing to do on a Saturday afternoon — they are protesting because they have witnessed, read about and researched systemic injustice over decades, during which time the death count may be in the tens of thousands.

We cannot politicize unless it is to revel in the opportunities for demagoguery afforded us by events like those in Chattanooga, where soldiers — heroes now by default, whose killing must be avenged — were killed by the right religion, whose wages are death and whose practitioners must meet the same at anywhere at a thousand points on the globe.

— Jeb Lung, The Guardian

In short, we cannot politicise in support of Palestine, because they are not aligned with ‘us’, not adherents to the correct cultural traditions and behaviours, not of the right religion, not of our clan.

Building bridges through the arts

Israel’s 2018 winner likened a boycott on Israel’s 2019 Eurovision Song Contest to “spreading darkness”, as if making a stand in support of an oppressed population is akin to oppressing that population in the first place.

In a debate, featuring more than 150,000 people, hundreds of artists and over 100 LGBT+ organisations on one side (requesting, among other things, that the BBC cancel its coverage of the event), and 100 artists including Stephen Fry and Wolf Alice on the other, the numbers suggested a popular vote for the boycott — among the population of politically engaged Eurovision lovers, that is. The latter’s open letter cited bridge-building as fundamental to Eurovision, and a reason that a boycott was unwarranted. It stated the competition’s “unifying power” is “under attack”. Besides such ironic lexicon, presumably the attackers here are those silent protestors who recognise the inability of many Palestinians to protest themselves, and so choose to redress the imbalance.

The issue with the pre-Eurovision boycott-or-not discourse is, again, that it was conducted in minority circles. Leftist students, connected radicals and their supporters, in this case, amounted to a team of 150,000. Those who were already hooked onto the situation would check their news channels and read the article about the campaign. Others might check their Twitter feed and follow the link to an open letter, tire of reading after two minutes and forget what they started reading in the first place.

The clarity and poignancy of Hatari’s protest lay in its perceived spontaneity. It took us, the audience, by surprise (evinced by the audible gasp in the auditorium) — it had a visual impact, yet was understated, deadpan; it was not prescriptive, it did not implore or beseech, it merely represented; and it was not about premeditation, intellectual debate, or advancing legal discourse. It was about putting Palestine on the map for 182 million people, many of whom were blissfully unaware of the conflict.

Bridges need bricks and mortar — what comes next?

Laurels are tempting, hardies even more. Breaking point has been reached and the Israel-Palestine conflict has spilled over into the domain of mass entertainment — for better or for worse. It has joined the ranks of public lynch mobs, Nazism and the Soviet-Afghan War. There has been a great fuss.

But fuss is nothing unless it catalyses actual change, political or social change. For those who want to see a peaceful resolution on the West Bank and Gaza Strip sooner rather than later, it is paramount that Hatari’s display be only a step in the rising crescendo of outrage at the occupation. Large-scale declamations must follow, from governments as well as NGOs and individuals. The grounds of war must be challenged on all fronts — the populace must be educated — the citizenry must appeal to its authority.

Protest is powerful but limited. For Micah White, the co-creator of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Occupy was a “constructive failure” — a “failure that taught us something about activism”. It taught us that modern activism has been based on false assumptions about what is achievable through mass demonstrations.

The idea is basically, ‘Look, if we get a million or ten million or a hundred million people in the streets, finally our demands will be met.’ However, if you look at the last ten, fifteen years, we have had the biggest demonstrations in history. And the protests continue to grow in size and frequency, and yet they have not resulted in political change.

He argues that, rather than about pressuring politicians through synchronised public spectacles, activism should be about something less tangible, less predictable — less scripted. His call for Epiphany may seem quixotic, but it is grounded in realistic ideas. Activism and protest have the power to create a long-lasting, sustainable mental shift, as opposed to candle-at-both-ends forays into public spaces.

The biggest risk is becoming spectators of our own protests.

In a hyper-consumerist society, stories of protest get bastardised, retold and rehashed, causing ripples but no waves. The Occupy movement washed gradually away, #MeToo resulted in almost zero prosecutions, and Donald Trump is still the President of the United States. In the face of bad odds, White’s advice is to “never protest the same way twice”. I congratulate Hatari for taking me, among millions of others, by surprise. It is up to us to pick up where they left off, with another surprise.

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Visit www.onurbicycle.com for more tales from around the world — by turns political, humorous, anecdotal and bizarre.

Bruno Cooke

Written by

UK novelist/writer currently based in the Philippines, writing about long distance cycle trips, cultural differences and global politics. Visit onurbicycle.com.

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