Thinly Veiled 


“After the agricultural revolution, human societies grew ever larger and more complex, while the imagined constructs sustaining the social order also became more elaborate. Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. This thereby created artificial instincts that enable millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture’”

Yuval Harari, Sapiens, 2011,

Our neighbours-but-one herald from Serbia. We have met them before on these pages and although they persist with the curious notion that the best way to successful communication is to shriek, squall and scream, they are generally okay chaps. Last year they built a small pavilion/outhouse in their garden. They marked this historic event by three successive nights of noisy celebration (and screaming).

On the second night, fortified by righteous indignation and some schnapps of dubious providence, I went round and asked them if they could keep it down. Polite as always and with glossy eyes, they told me that in Serbian culture when you put a roof on a building, you get, so to speak, hammered. I understood, I explained, showing an expertly executed sheen of sympathy to their traditions and their right to have a few snifters. But this is the second night running, I reminded them. You have had your party and raised the roof but now I’d like to have a bit of peace and quiet as would the neighbourhood.

“But it’s our culture!” they slurred, “it’s how we celebrate in Belgrade.” Yes, and in Viennese culture, when smiling incomers show scant regard for the social norms of the number one city by making an unreasonable and persistent racket, gangs of men get tanked up in the Beisl and then descend on your new roof and set fire to it.

Is what I didn’t say. Yet the experience had an enduring effect, leading me to begin to understand why when one is confronted by counter-intuitive or alien cultural practices at home, it can push people to reassess who they are and who they vote for. In that cultural norms are fundamental to people’s lives (even the ones who don’t admit it) and if they are perceived to be challenged, in any milieu or any cultural context, then it will inevitably ruffle a few feathers, even the plumage of social democrats like me.

I have been tolerant and left leaning most of my life, and I like to think I am tolerable (Mrs Barratt will confirm this). I embrace diversity – although never before I have had a cup of tea in the morning – and the obvious potential it brings. Although in truth, much like anyone else, my life is probably more monochrome than I would readily confess in spite of being inescapably under the cultural and linguistic cosh of Britain and Austria. (I nearly wrote Vienna but don’t believe the propaganda, there is no distinct Viennese culture unless culture is a nexus of whinging, complaining and moaning.)

But as these last few years in my frighteningly average street in red Vienna have played out, such events described above (they are never isolated incidents) have left me seriously questioning deep philosophical beliefs which until now I assumed were immutable. Mostly about the relationship between cultural freedom, the unremitting push of cultural change and in turn my attitude towards aspects of tolerance. It is not only troubling on practical level but also in terms of how I view the world. And as such I am suffering from a downdraft of doubt. Am I becoming less tolerant? Do I still evoke rational diversity? And, most worryingly, am I morphing into something more socially “conservative”?

It is a battle of the deep senses and I might not be immune. Yet seemingly I am not alone. No can say for sure who said it first (sources cite Edmund Burke, Victor Hugo or Oscar Wilde) but there is an old adage, “If you are not a liberal before 25 you have no heart, but if you are not a conservative in middle age, you have no brain.”

I am middle-aged but if anyone would be stupid enough to label me a “conservative” I would be more vexed than usual. Yet trying to wrestle with this has led me to realise that everybody has a story, good and bad which inevitably shapes their views of our immediate and not so immediate environment. If nothing more it is a reminder that none of us can escape this process of strain on values however hard we resist the temptation to simply acquiesce to the darker reaches of the soul.

In other words, in made me realise with more clarity than I envisaged, of the need and indeed importance to celebrate culture if you choose, but to do so in a way which does not show contempt for anyone else (or at best the accepted social norms of where you happen to find yourself). Relocate to another community, city or country but endeavour to adhere to the generally accepted rules of the club and not get your metaphorical todger out in the bar, waving it about because it is what you do at home.

Moreover, if you move across cultural districts, then leave the most corrosive social, cultural or political instincts, at the border. It will save a lot of hassle. And if you don’t like what you find, or you cannot temper your value and cultural system because you mistakenly believe in your unalienable right to inflict such a set of values on your hosts, then, to quote my old friend Alec, fuck off back home. Which is exactly what he did, leaving Vienna after he could no longer stand the inertia.

Which leads us, satisfactorily or otherwise, to facial coverings and the recent introduction of the burqa ban. According to official estimates, there are only about 150 women in Austria who wore the full face veil. Let’s be honest, this number is tiny. One has more chance of meeting someone who thinks Nigel Farage is handsome than someone wearing a burqa. Yet until the ban came into force at the start of October, I regularly saw two in my neighbourhood. One lady usually pushing a pram and the other often walking up my street with her partner (once she stepped aside to make space on the narrow pavement as I came past, while her man gallantly consulted his smartphone).

When the new law was mooted earlier this year in an interview in Austria’s leading daily failing news newspaper Krönen Zeitung, new Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said “The burqa ban is important because it is a symbol for the oppression of women”.

Fair comment comrade, if it can be proven. But Kurz is an opportunist like all like minded politicians and with an eye on the election, he was simply responding to the public mood of dissatisfaction with perceived migration and the influx of Muslims. And the full face veil is as visually deleterious as you can get in a country which still adheres quite strongly to a Christian view of existence. But at its heart the ban is a rejoinder to the corruption of culture or at least a culture under threat. And like all of Western Europe, the very notion of covering up your face – whether coerced or not – is just incompatible with western value systems (unless you go skiing, it’s very, very cold or you like hanging out in a gimp mask).

Generally speaking cultures can co-exist but in this case, whether for political gain or popularity or to reassert cultural superiority, it illustrates the limits most of us can handle. But we should not be surprised. Even in countries which espouse common value systems and fictional myths, the strains of inter-cultural mixing are evident everywhere. Just look at the iniquitous effects of over-tourism. Yes, it generates a ton of cash but the costs can be significant in a cultural sense, particularly to local populations and their highly-prized local identities.

This leads us in no small coincidence to the Alps. Tourism chiefs in Zell Am See in Salzburg are concerned that the strict no face coverings law could affect tourist revenues. The reason for this is that the region is a magnet for Arabs in summer – often wealthy Saudis – who come in search of rain and anything to buy as long as it is expensive, has no real intrinsic value and can be discarded before they return home. Of course, not only do they bring their money but their servants and their culturally confusing burqas.

And so, like all tourist meccas the tensions exist and each summer the stories about the “unconventional” behaviour of some Arab guests filter out only to be reported with zeal in the Austrian press. Now normally I would never pander to the potentially apocryphal from elements of the gutter but one of my neighbours comes from the “Pinzgau” and his parents still live in the lakeside town of Zell. And some of the stories he has shared have made me think that tourism chiefs would be more than happy to see the back of the Saudis and welcome the return of the Russians (or if they really have to, the Germans).

The tourist chief response is of course familiar. They need guests and their Euros. But the truth, a truth many vested interests might not admit, is that although most don’t really want to be under the cosh of “enforced” tourism, they will tolerate its money (up to a point). Indeed, it reminds of the classic Piefke Saga television show from the 1990s, depicting a small town in Tirol which was dominated by insufferable German guests and their much need tourist dollars.

Anyhow, since the start of the new law, there have been some mild indiscretions. Some involving burqas and foreigners but equally a man dressed as a shark outside the new Apple shop in Vienna (all forms of face covering are now banned in public except for medical reasons and special occasions like Halloween or Carneval). But six weeks in, things are largely quiet.

Broadly speaking people should wear what they want or at least have the free-will to wear what they want as long as it more or less fits in with social norms and legal milieu (a broad brush I agree,) it doesn’t upset children and I am on holiday a thousand miles away. So if you want to wear the equivalent of a ninja mask, then wear a ninja mask. If you want to walk round in a body-building posing trunks (even in winter), then walk round in posing trunks. If you want to ride the underground in fetish gear, then ride the underground in fetish gear although be careful when the doors close. But any hint of coercion concerning the subjugation of people who might struggle to resist through intimidation or fear, then I am all in favour of regulation (in clothing terms especially when it comes to kilts, lederhosen and sleeveless t-shirts). Because, let’s face it, there are always some idealistic, zealous bastards who have to bugger it up for the everyone else.

In other words, there will always be some man (the only woman who has ever coerced me to wear anything was my mother) who cannot be trusted and as such, like in a multitude of other facets of public life, we have to tolerate interference from the state simply to maintain the general consensus and the greater good whilst deterring the bastards who show contempt. In my mind it is a sacred principle allowing us to cooperate, stick together and heal division. Because without cultural norms or regulation, some of which will suit us and some will not, we are doomed.

Life is always a trade off. I live in house with a garden but I have to endure a git (the evolutionary psychological term) next door. The EU might not be perfect and at times, especially in recent memory it has procrastinated rather than showing true vision and unity. Yet its very foundation is rooted peaceful coexistence inspired by the horrors of two wars and as long as it places this concord at its heart, and crucially does not let people forget and become smug, then I can tolerate cross-border movement, the European Court of Justice and irrelevant edicts concerning the ingredients on restaurant menus. That was my little Brexit dig.

But two exceptions concerning the burqa ban which I have submitted to my government representative (although this may surprise her as it might still be Tulip Siddiq in north London or would be if I could still vote):

  1. Full face coverings to be worn by all passengers on the underground line 6 in the morning between the hours of 7.00 and 8.30.
  2. My Piefke neighbour who, every time he ventures outside, brings about a rapidly descending silence followed by the frenzied cawing of seven ravens of the apocalypse who live in his tree. Git. 

© 2017 RJ Barratt