The Color Wars


Anti-government protesters barricade a street in Kiev. (Photo: Sasha Maksymenko / Flickr)

I played for Green when I was growing up. That was my soccer team. We were divided up by color: Green vs. Red, Gold vs. Blue. The teams were chosen at random, but we became fiercely attached to our color. Friendships across color lines became strained. We talked of “Purple power” and the “Gold tradition.” For all I know, the league was run by psychologists testing the influence of ideology on child development. I loved being Green.

By contrast, the baseball teams in my hometown were sponsored by local businesses. The match-ups had an entirely different flavor: the dry cleaner vs. the diner. Adults back in 1975 might have found this arrangement vaguely ominous, since that was the year the movie Rollerball came out. In that glimpse into the world of 2018, war has been outlawed and replaced by corporate-sponsored athletic contests just as ruthless as the battlefield. None of us Little Leaguers, of course, took the field in those days with spiked gloves like the ones James Caan flaunts in the movie. We did, however, run around like little billboards for local businesses — though I can’t imagine that my striking out or repeatedly dropping fly balls in right field encouraged anyone to shop at the local hardware store.

We are only a few years away from the time that Rollerball imagined. War has not been outlawed. Corporations are more powerful than 40 years ago, but even though they certainly have grabbed the naming rights of many stadiums, they haven’t replaced wealthy individuals as the primary owners of sports teams. We are still some years away from gladiatorial contests between Lockheed Martin and Microsoft.

Colors, on the other hand, have remained a major way of dividing up sides. In Thailand today, the red shirts battle the yellow shirts. We have our own blue states and red states. A series of revolutions have pitted popular forces under the banner of a vibrant color against the gray bureaucracy of despotic government: Rose (Georgia, 2003), Orange (Ukraine, 2004), Blue (Kuwait, 2005), Saffron (Burma, 2007), Green (Iran, 2009), Rainbow (LGBT, everywhere).

The use of colors to identify the sides in a conflict is certainly nothing new. The U.S. Civil War was a contest between the Union blues and the Confederate grays. The Russian civil war following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 pitted the Reds against the Whites. The Cold War was only a minor variation on that theme, with the Reds arrayed against the Red, White, and Blue. We’ve drawn our colors from uniforms and flags and political parties. Sometimes, like during my soccer days, the colors seem entirely arbitrary. But that hasn’t lessened the passions involved.

Consider the current situation in Thailand. The color politics in the country are rather complicated. The royal color is blue. But King Bhumibol Adulyadej — who has been in power 67 years, longer than any other living monarch — was born on a Monday, which Thais associate with the color yellow. The supporters of the king, and by extension a more conservative order, have adopted the monarch’s birth color.

On the other side stand the supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a corrupt populist. The red shirts of the Thaksin side represent, depending on whom you ask: the people, the land, the nation, the blood shed during Thailand’s independence struggle, or perhaps all of the above. For ethnic Chinese in Thailand — and the Shinawatras come from an ethnic Chinese family — red also means good luck. For the left-leaning, red might also represent socialism.

The battle in Thailand is over the future of the country’s democracy. You might think that given their color — yellow was also the hue associated with “people power” in the Philippines in the 1980s — the yellow shirts in Thailand were massing in the streets of Bangkok in support of participatory democracy. As Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Walden Bello points out, you’d be wrong.

“Professional and highly educated people crowd the streets, and young people shout passionately against corruption,” Bello writes in Thailand’s Deep Divide. “Middle class liberals around the world easily find much they can relate to. But one thing about this movement bothers liberal analysts, including quite a few in the foreign press. The protesters appear to have lost faith in the key tenet of representative democracy: rule by people or parties elected by the majority of citizens.”

On Sunday, the yellow shirts tried to disrupt the parliamentary elections and succeeded in blocking the process in 69 out of 375 electoral districts. Indeed, with the main opposition party boycotting the elections, the yellow shirts prefer a different political solution: an unelected “people’s council.” The anti-government protestors are skeptical of democracy because the party of the current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra — Thaksin’s sister — was elected in a landslide and is expected to win again in this election by a similar margin.

It’s not just politics that determines which color you support in Thailand. “In addition to feeding its own population, and as a major exporter of food, the country has a strong industrial base near Bangkok which is generally controlled, or supported by, elements of the yellow side,” explains FPIF contributor Layne Hartsell in Thailand’s Protests and the Global Economy. “The red shirts, meanwhile, generally favor changes that would lead to closing the gap in wealth and power between the farmers of the north and upper classes in and around Bangkok.” Rice is the place where politics and economic intersect in Thailand. A corruption investigation into Yingluck’s involvement in the country’s huge rice subsidy program might complicate her political future.

Perhaps out of this conflict, a new combination of red and yellow will emerge: an orange revolution committed to economic growth for all and corruption for none. Oh, but that color seems to have already gone out of political style.

Jumpcut to Ukraine, a place where the color has drained out of the conflict. The Orange revolution was such a profound disappointment to most Ukrainians — it produced a government that was political inept, economically maladroit, and just as corrupt as it predecessor — that all talk of orange-ism has faded in the country. One revolution leader became a very unpopular president; the other became prime minister and now sits in jail on corruption charges.

Today, the demonstrators in Kiev want the current, Moscow-leaning president, Viktor Yanukovych, to step down. In a gesture of compromise, Yanukovych offered the positions of prime minister and deputy prime minister to top opposition leaders. But that wasn’t good enough. After all, the police are continuing to beat, abduct, and torture protestors, killing three people so far.

Of course, the opposition is not entirely angelic either, with some genuine fascists elements lurking in the crowds. As with any mass movement, it’s a mixed bag. “A Ukrainian specialist on the European far right, Anton Shekhovtsov, who was there during the recent protests, says that while there is a real neo-Nazi and hooligan fringe, especially in a group called White Hammer, most of the so-called Right Sector activists see themselves as national revolutionaries fighting for independence from Russia,” writes Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian. In the wild East, as opposed to the wild West, the guys in white are decidedly not the good guys.

Having practically written off Yanukovych after he rejected a cooperation deal in favor of closer economic ties with Moscow, the EU is trying again. Together with the United States, the EU is mulling over a variety of different options to stabilize the Ukrainian economy and prevent the eastern border areas of Europe from spiraling into chaos. With all eyes on the Sochi Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin might be in a conciliatory mood. The EU, the Yanukovych government, and the protestors in Kiev have until February 23 — the end of the Olympics — to push through a deal while the world is watching the peaceable version of Rollerball and Putin is smiling for the cameras.

It’s very difficult to reduce these color wars to the simple black and white. The red shirts support more egalitarian politics and economics, but there is a taint of corruption to their enterprise; the yellow shirts are courageous street fighters, but they aren’t particularly democratic. In Ukraine, what had once been a unifying orange has become a muddle of ethnic and linguistic divisions, corrupt domestic politics, and geopolitical intrigue. In the United States, the politics of purple that Obama promised has given way to an even more polarized standoff between the red state (of mind) and the blue state (of mind), though the libertarian reds often seem quite bluish in their foreign policy and the dwindling bloc of blue dogs have quite a reddish tinge to their fur.

We complain that Twitter has reduced our discourse to a mere 140 characters. But colors can be even more telegraphic in their meaning. The combatants in the color wars defend their hues against the possible pollution of the palette. “When you’re a Green,” as the song goes, “you’re a Green all the way: from your first cigarette to your last dyin’ day.” Colors are powerful precisely because they package meaning so succinctly. Not surprisingly, corporations have been trying to cash in on the potential of color for brand loyalty: T-Mobile “owns” magenta, while UPS is attempting to corner brown. In a future remake of Rollerball — which will remove the bad taste in the mouth created by the pallid 2002 version with LL Cool J — Magenta will crush Brown, sending the losers to the hospital or the morgue and revealing the true hidden costs of corporate downsizing.

The clash of colors in the corporate and political worlds has many people reaching for the rainbow in response: why can’t we all just get along? There’s another possibility. You can opt out of the color wars altogether and put out your own flag, a white sheet, which could symbolize neutrality or peace or surrender, or all of the colors of the rainbow combined.

Me, I still have a soft spot for Green….

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • Artemesia

    re “there is a real neo-Nazi and hooligan fringe, especially in a group
    called White Hammer, most of the so-called Right Sector activists see
    themselves as national revolutionaries fighting for independence from
    Russia,” writes Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian.”

    Yaas, count on someone from the Guardian to write from the depths of his Hitler Derangement Syndrome ©, the disease so readily induced in the English by their addiction to Churchill-worship. It addles the mind.

    For those interested in the real facts and chronology of history, Germany was in turmoil and beset by thuggish gangs during the Weimar era, BEFORE the NSDAP came to power. Even tho “International Jewry Declared War on Germany” within a few weeks of Hitler’s appointment, the facts remain that NSDAP quelled gang violence, particularly towards Jews: Breitman & Lichtman write in “FDR and the Jews” that “Jews were NOT subject to physical violence … and no Jew was interned in concentration camps until after November 1938.” Breitman & Lichtman do not, however, explain why Jews declared war on a German government that was not only not harming Jews but was ensuring their security.

    Having got that wrong, all of subsequent history-telling has followed the same false narrative: NSDAP is NOT the definition of thuggery, except in the minds of those who need to shield an even more inglorious pattern of bad acts. Such as the British.

    So find some new analogies; the “neo-Nazi” descriptor for thuggery is historically counter-factual.

    • John Feffer

      I really hope that this is sarcasm. The Nazis protected Jews? International Jewry declared war on Germany? Your grasp of history is rivaled only by your appalling insensitivity

      • Artemesia

        No, it is not sarcasm it is fact, documented, published, historical fact. Try this for starters — (the website is not an “editorial comment,” just a source for the information).

        That NSDAP “calmed violence against Jews soon after taking power ” and that Jews were not subjected to physical violence or sent to concentration camps until late in 1938″ can be found in Brietman & Lichtman, “FDR and the Jews,” p. 1.

        “Appalling sensitivity??” What does that mean?

        • John Feffer

          Insensitivity. Your reading skills, as demonstrated by your selective quotation of sources, need some honing. The fact that the Nazis’ collective acts of physical brutality and genocidal extermination didn’t really get going until Kristallnacht in 1938 is irrelevant. Their anti-Semitism was abundantly clear from Mein Kampf through the 1933 elections and the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. So, yes, the NSDAP is the definition of thuggery. Indeed, “thuggery” is too polite a word.

          • Artemesia

            You are regurgitating cant, understandable since the world has been conditioned to it for ~80 years.

            1. “Selective reading of quotations???” Perhaps you are selecting out that which challenges your conditioning.

            The Jewish declaration of war on Germany was proclaimed in banner headline in numerous international capitals, followed by an extensive list of threats, that were carried out, that were disseminated through mass rallies around the world, that caused USA and German and, most notably, Polish, governments to

            3. If it is “irrelevant” that no physical violence occurred until 1938, how do you explain the fact that Jews declared an economic war on Germany FIVE years earlier?

            4. If you understood the history, you would recognize that anti-Bolshevik sentiment was a popular movement; it was not imposed top-down by NSDAP, it welled up from the masses, from the time of the end of WWI and the German revolution, all thru the Weimar years. Those Jews who were targeted by German mobs were immigrants from Russia and Poland who flooded into Germany during and after the Russian revolution and the war. And yes, NSDAP brought order to the popular unrest. This was done by creating employment opportunities for the German people.

            5. How do you account for this letter, by Gov. Martin Glynn, published in the American Hebrew magazine in 1919 — years before Hitler wrote Mein Kampf?

          • John Feffer

            what you call cant is, frankly, history. And what you consider a provocative recasting of history is, frankly, anti-Semitism. By all means criticize the thuggery of Soviet troops. By all means criticize the actions of Israel. But excusing the actions of the Nazis? It’s as embarrassing as Creationism and 9/11 Truther nonsense — but considerably more dangerous.

          • Artemesia

            I’m so glad you made that comparison, John Feffer; it is right on point.
            No, what you are reciting is NOT based on historical fact, it is an extension of the same propaganda that was used to involve USA in the war to begin with.

            Did you bother to check any of the links to primary documents? Would you like further references to primary sources, most of them the works or words of Jewish leaders who engineered the war on Germany — a war that did not have to happen, as A J P Taylor notes in “Origins of World War II,” and as Pat Buchanan argues with compelling evidence and logic in “Unnecessary War?”
            In addition, Herbert Hoover produced a 700-page memoir of FDR’s blundering entanglement of USA in the war with Germany; THAT did not have to happen either, Hoover argues persistently.

            Charles Lindbergh was quite right when he said, in Iowa, that three entities wanted war: FDR, Churchill, and Jewish leaders. Felix Frankfurter had a direct line to FDR and to Churchill, and also to Wendell Willkie: according to Richard Moe, it was Frankfurter and he alone who convinced FDR to run against Willkie, and according to Lynne Olson in “Those Angry Days,” it was Frankfurter who was behind Willkie’s career in politics and who influenced his switch from Dem to GOP — but on the same pro-war plank, contrary to the wished of the Republican party. In other words, Frankfurter engineered events so that whether FDR or Willlkie won, there would be a war.

            You may find those facts unpleasant, Mr. Feffer; I certainly do; but they are documented and unassailable.

            Braying “antisemitic” at any truth that impugns a Jewish actor becomes tiresome. Are there different standards of justice for Jews? Is there an asterisk behind the statement “All men are created equal” — * except Jews may not be confronted with evidence of their own bad acts.

            Check the facts before you come back and start calling names.

            Oh — about the Creationism comparison — Creationism bases its claims for the origin of the earth on the Genesis story. Evolution seeks to discern the origin of the universe. using scientific and enlightenment principles- observations of nature (evidence) to which logic is applied, and the theories derived can and should be tested by peers and subject to .negation.

            Similarly, history SHOULD be based on facts and evidence, to which logic is applied, is peer reviewed, and subject to negation/revision.
            But the holocaust narrative, alone in all the enlightened world, may NOT be revised, refuted, or even “peer reviewed.” It must be believed and recited as declared; that is, it is a dogma. And it must be assented to, or may not be opposed, under penalty of imprisonment & fine in many European states, and under threat of political, career, or social stigma, enforced by the US Department of State, in the USA.

            That sounds to me like the state enforcement of a dogma.

            What do you think?

          • Artemesia

            And if you really want thuggery, compare the behavior of Russian soldiers under (Jewish) Gen. Zhukov as they invaded Berlin, plundered, killed and raped 2 million German women, then went on to Poland and slaughtered as many as 7 million Poles. By this time, Berlin having toppled, of course, Germany was out of the picture. The Western Allies were also out of the picture: Eisenhower held the Western Allies away from Berlin and Poland while Stalin’s army rampaged. Berlin had been promised to Stalin by those heroes, FDR and Churchill.