November 28, 2014

YOU MIGHT BE A WHITE VAN MAN IF...:

A Collision With 'White-Van Man' (Kenan Malik, 11/28/14, NY Times)

Rarely can such an unremarkable photo have such heavy political repercussions. Last Thursday, a senior Labour Party member of Parliament, Emily Thornberry, tweeted a photo of a rowhouse in Rochester, Kent. It showed three flags of England draped across the facade and a white van parked outside. Her caption said: "Image from #Rochester."

This seemingly innocuous message was freighted with political meaning. By the end of the day, the tweet had become headline news, and Ms. Thornberry had lost her job as the opposition's chief spokeswoman on legal affairs.

Why such a rumpus?

The flag of England (the Cross of St. George) and the white van have both become symbols of working-class identity. They are, for many, markers of racism, philistinism and social conservatism. The flag is as closely associated with far-right groups and with football fans as with England as a nation. "White-van man" has become an archetype of the self-employed tradesman, assumed to be xenophobic, hostile to immigration and dismissive of liberal values.

The phrase has the same kind of resonance as the term redneck in American culture. And like redneck, this cultural shorthand implies a snobbish contempt for the masses.

As it happens, Ms. Thornberry is a member of Parliament for the North London borough of Islington. In British political iconography, it stands for the liberal metropolitan elite -- the polar opposite of white-van man.

Posted by at November 28, 2014 7:36 PM
  

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