Archive for category Politics
As I get older, I haven’t moved to the right, politically, not a millimetre. I haven’t reneged on the feminism that I embraced in my early twenties, or the anti-racism that I learned from my parents as a young child. I’m as idealistic as I ever was, despite all that I know, have seen, have learned in over half a century. But I’m less likely than ever to subscribe to any hard-line view on anything. I don’t reject all -isms – I have no hesitation in declaring myself as a feminist and as a humanist, but both (to me) are pretty broad churches (if you’ll pardon the expression).
One reason for this is empathy. I suspect that the more empathetic one is, the harder it is to sign up wholeheartedly to any ideology, because sooner or later one finds oneself looking into the eyes of another human being, signed up just as wholeheartedly to a different ideology, but yet with whom one feels affinity.
That isn’t to say that all values are relative and that ‘everyone’s entitled to their own opinion’ or any such vacuous non-thought. Just that all moral and political questions, every issue that rears its head and demands that one take a view and take a stand, must be viewed through that lens, the one that allows you to feel what the people on the other side might be feeling. You might not shift an inch, you might be confirmed in your own convictions but they will be tempered and informed by that insight.
In Caitlin Moran’s marvellous and deliriously rude novel How to Build a Girl, her protagonist says:’Perhaps I haven’t yet learned the simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.’
Just be kind.
I know, I know. Far too simple. But as a starting point, as a touchstone, it’s actually pretty radical.
Everything I’ve learned in my working life has suggested to me that departments, organisations of whatever kind, run better for a bit of kindness. A recognition that all of us, whether we’re the cleaner or the VC, are breakable, and that for all of us the world is difficult. That if people aren’t achieving what we expect them to, a bit of kindness, a bit of empathy, may unlock the reasons and enable us to see a way to help them. It’s not always going to work, and sometimes what the person needs and what the organisation needs is not reconcilable. But I absolutely believe – and this is based on thirty years experience of managing people, fifteen years of dealing with harassment cases, and nearly forty of being managed myself – that we have nothing to lose by being kind.
I’ve seen, and have been on the receiving end of, styles of management that pride themselves on being tough, that hide behind procedures rather than engage with people, that imagine that tacking the mantra ‘we recognise that this is a difficult time for you and that you may wish to ring this helpline…’ on to a message is sufficient to fulfil a duty of care. And I know how counter-productive these approaches are. They destroy trust, they batter confidence, they damage health.
Beyond the world of work, I see the viciousness of some of the current internecine struggles within the feminist movement, and I despair, because so much energy seems to be being expended on being unkind, on attributing the worst motives to the other side, and – or so it seems to me, from the sidelines – doing anything other than look into the eyes of another human being and recognising that they, like you, are breakable, and just being kind.
Of course I’m not daft enough to imagine that this approach will end the horror in Gaza, or in Iraq. It’s too late for kindness alone. But in the worst places, the most appalling situations, in the face of real evil, kindness can still do something powerful. In occupied France, the citizens of Le Chambon sur Lignon took it upon themselves, inspired by their pastor Andre Trocmé, to provide a hiding place for refugees, most of them Jews.
There does not seem to have been any coordinated discussion of whether or how they would do this. It seems to have developed organically – as people arrived, initially more or less at random, and then increasingly as word spread that this was a place where they might be safe, the community found space for them, worked out systems for alerting everyone to impending raids, trained up forgers and guides to prepare false IDs and to escort people over the border to Switzerland. Around 3,500 people were saved. A drop in the ocean, obviously, but there were others – in Nieuwlande in the Netherlands, the inhabitants resolved that every household would hide one Jewish family or at least one Jew.
Even where the rescue of Jews was supported by governments and/or organised resistance movements, or inspired by an influential and charismatic leader within a community, it was hugely dependent on individual acts of kindness, on individuals choosing to help people rather than to obey orders or save their own skins. When there was no such structured support, individual acts of kindness were all that kept many people alive. Ronald Rosbottom’s recent account of occupied Paris says – rightly – that there is no record of individual police officers protesting or refusing to cooperate with the Vichy government’s plans to arrest and deport Jews. However, given that the police had detailed records, knew where all the Jews were, and had planned the raid meticulously, how is it that the total arrested and deported was so far below target? How is it that resistance groups were able to circulate flyers around the city warning of the impending raid? That can only have been because individual police officers decided to do what they could, discreetly, and pass on what they knew, and even as the round-up progressed, to create opportunities for people to hide or escape. What made them take this risk? Their actions don’t amount to much in the scheme of things, when compared with other acts of heroism, they’re compromised and limited in their effects, but it seems to me that they are examples of people trying, in an impossible situation, to be kind, In Yolande Mukagasana’s compelling account of surviving the Rwandan genocide, it’s striking how some people that she might have expected would help her turned her away, and others, who had no particular reason to help, did what they could, from choosing not to see or recognise her, choosing not to alert the interahamwe, to hiding and feeding her, whilst the killing went on all around them.
What made the difference? I find myself far more interested in what makes people do the right thing, what prompts those acts of generosity and kindness in situations where such things are dangerous, rather than what makes people do evil. We know that hatred is infectious, that it can be taught, that when it is fed insidiously into the language and images that we absorb without even realising, it can begin to seem normal. But generosity and kindness can be taught too, and can be just as catching.
Just as the people who go along with evil are not monsters, those who won’t aren’t saints. Some of them have religious faith, others don’t. Some have strong political beliefs, others don’t. Whilst those things may provide motivation, and may provide a rationale for doing the decent thing, I don’t think that’s a sufficient explanation, as this behaviour crosses all such divides, just as evil does. They may have a more strongly developed sense of fairness, that instinct that makes one feel ‘that is not right’. They may be more empathetic and find it impossible not to feel what it would be like to be hunted, threatened, vilified. But these are not purely innate qualities – we start off identifying unfairness when it is unfair to us, and as we mature we learn to extrapolate that to others, if we’re encouraged to do so. And empathy can be nourished, if it’s seen as something valuable, something powerful.
We need to nurture those qualities. We need people who give a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn, who care about other people because they are people, whichever side they’re on. And we need idealism, because that opens us up to the possibilities of hope, and joy, and people being the best they can be. To go back to Caitlin Moran, ‘when cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. … Cynicism is, ultimately, fear. Cynicism makes contact with your skin, and a thick black carapace begins to grow – like insect armour. This armour will protect your heart, from disappointment – but it leaves you almost unable to walk. You cannot dance, in this armour.’ And you can’t love either.
When we empathise, we can’t be deliberately cruel, because it hurts us to hurt someone else. That may not in itself be morality, but it teaches us morality. We know that harsh words cause other people pain because we feel that pain. We may cause pain in anger, but we regret it, it haunts us if we have done so. That doesn’t mean we’re always nice, that doesn’t mean we can’t have hard conversations with people, and tell them things that we know will hurt them, but the way we do that will be informed by our understanding of what it will feel like to be them, hearing this.
I’ve quoted this before, from Joss Whedon’s Angel:
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
So it’s not daft, soft, or naive. It’s vital, it’s difficult and it can be dangerous.
Just be kind.
Peter Grose – The Greatest Escape: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives from the Nazis (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2014)
Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl (Harper, 2014)
Yolande Mukagasana – N’aie pas peur de savoir (Robert Laffont, 1999)
Ronald Rosbottom – When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation (Little, Brown & Co, 2014)
It was sheer coincidence that in the week that Nelson Mandela died, and having been musing on integrity and courage, I read Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy. No obvious connection, one might think, between the death of a South African leader and a historical novel set in France at the end of the last century. Wrong.
An Officer and a Spy is the story of Georges Picquart, one of the key players in the fight to win the freedom of Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason, and who suffered humiliation, disgrace and imprisonment himself along the way. The fascinating thing about this story, and where it differs most profoundly from that of Mandela, is that whereas Mandela, as a young black man in apartheid South Africa, was aware every hour of every day of the injustice that he confronted, Picquart was an establishment man, an army man, who trusted the chain of command and was trusted by it. But he reached a point when he said, ‘that is not right’, and from that point on, he did not stop, even when it appeared he might lose everything.
Picquart did not start by believing in the innocence of Dreyfus. He had no predisposition to see conspiracy, or prejudice, at work. He became uneasy, as he discovered tiny details which didn’t quite fit with the established version of events, but his crusade began when he realised not only that Dreyfus was innocent, but that the establishment knew this, and had no intention of doing anything about it, but would allow him to continue to suffer on Devil’s Island, whilst the real guilty party (also known to the powers that be) retained his freedom, his army post, his salary.
Picquart wasn’t motivated either by personal fondness for Dreyfus (he knew him, and didn’t like him particularly), nor out of lifelong principled opposition to the anti-semitism which allowed Dreyfus to be made a scapegoat and his guilt to be so easily believed (he shared the low-level anti-semitic assumptions of his era and his class, assuming that Jews put loyalty to their own kind above loyalty to the country they lived in). His heroism lies precisely in those facts. Once he suspected that an injustice had been done he had to know, and once he knew, he had to act. He was demoted, sent abroad to high risk postings, kept under surveillance, his mail opened and his family and friends investigated. He was himself accused and imprisoned, only vindicated when Dreyfus himself was freed. He never faltered.
I won’t reprise the story of the Dreyfus affair here, because (a) it’s complicated and (b) you’ll have far more fun reading the account in Robert Harris’s novel.
My own interest in it resides partly in its place in French history and culture. Two of my favourite writers played a part in the story – Emile Zola of course produced the famous article ‘J’accuse’, in defence of Dreyfus, and was convicted of libel and removed from the Legion d’Honneur as a result.
And reading Proust made me aware for the first time how one’s take on Dreyfus’s innocence or guilt defined one, and divided society – dreyfusard or anti-dreyfusard, pretty much all of his characters are self-declared as one or the other. As Boyd Tonkin wrote recently in The Independent:
In many ways, the Dreyfus Affair lends In Search of Lost Time its moral spine. For Proust the Dreyfusard, who organised a petition in support of the tormented prisoner on Devil’s Island and avidly attended the 1898 trial of Émile Zola for criminal libel after he published his famous denunciation “J’Accuse”, attitudes to Dreyfus not only split the social milieu he depicts down the middle. They test and define the mettle of his main characters. To the Proust scholar Malcolm Bowie, the case gave Proust his “great experimental laboratory”. It runs like a live wire through those seven volumes.
It clearly also is a fascinating episode in the history of prejudice and anti-semitism. The case played its part in the founding of Zionism as a political force, as Theodor Herzl said:
“if France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant ‘Kill the Jews!’ Where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated”
Herzl was proved right in the case of France, as only 36 years after Dreyfus was finally pardoned, and 7 years after his death, Jews were being rounded up on the streets of Paris, herded into transit camps and then into cattle trucks before being deported to Auschwitz. Then, as there had been during the Dreyfus affair, there were people who were driven by hatred, people who colluded in injustice out of fear or complacency but also, throughout that dark time, people like Picquart, who were unable to be passive in the face of such injustice and evil, and who risked everything to stand against it.
Robert Harris – An Officer and a Spy (Hutchinson, 2013)
- dreyfus still an affair (3quarksdaily.com)
It seems that everyone had something good to say about Mandela, the day that his light finally went out. Everyone admires, respects, venerates the man. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way.
There was a time when you would not have found politicians of all stripes queuing up to contribute their eulogies. There was a time when the evil, brutal apartheid system had its defenders outside of the extreme fringes of white suprematism. There was a time when some world leaders saw white South Africa as a bastion against Marxism, and opposed sanctions aimed at undermining the apartheid regime. There was a time when the public schoolboys in the FCS produced t-shirts saying Hang Nelson Mandela. (Some of them are in government today, paying their respects, and hoping that those past statements and actions don’t surface.)
There was a time when it seemed hopeless, impossible that South Africa could ever be a place where the black majority and the white minority could live together, without bloodshed. For all the problems it has today, there are generations who are and will be born free, and for that Mandela must be thanked, because he was probably the one man who de Klerk could deal with, a man forged by his long imprisonment, who had mastered his anger and bitterness and who was prepared to risk the accusations that he had ‘sold out’ in order to win freedom for his people.
For all the reasons to despair – and there are many – we have to recall how far we’ve come, in my lifetime. I would not have believed, in my twenties, anyone who told me that, before I reached old age, we would have a black President in a democratic South Africa, where there had been no bloody civil war. That there would be a black President in the White House. That the Berlin Wall would have fallen. That gay men and women would be free to marry, in so many parts of the world and, soon, here. These things haven’t come about through violent revolution but through the Mandelas of the world, some well known but many quite anonymous, against the odds, in the face of the haters and the threats, insisting on justice. As Richard Stengel’s Time tribute to Mandela says:
deep in his bones was a basic sense of fairness: he simply could not abide injustice. If he, Nelson Mandela, the son of a chief, tall, handsome and educated, could be treated as subhuman, then what about the millions who had nothing like his advantages? “That is not right,” he would sometimes say to me about something as mundane as a plane flight’s being canceled or as large as a world leader’s policies, but that simple phrase — that is not right — underlay everything he did, everything he sacrificed for and everything he accomplished.
Gerry’s blog, That’s How the Light Gets In, marks the vindication of the Hillsborough victims, survivors and families with Dickensian reflections on injustice. RIP the 96, and massive respect to the campaigners.
Originally posted on That's How The Light Gets In:
I’m currently reading The Old Curiosity Shop and, in one of those curious coincidences without which Dickens’ plots would have ground to a halt, I read the following passage shortly after hearing news that the Hillsborough families are one step closer to justice:
Let moralists and philosophers say what they may, it is very questionable whether a guilty man would have felt half as much misery that night, as Kit did, being innocent. The world, being in the constant commission of vast quantities of injustice, is a little too apt to comfort itself with the idea that if the victim of its falsehood and malice have a clear conscience, he cannot fail to be sustained under his trials, and somehow or other to come right at last; ‘in which case,’ say they who have hunted him down, ‘—though we certainly don’t expect it—nobody will be better pleased than we.’ Whereas…
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So, the USA has voted to return its first African-American president for a second term. And now I’ve caught up on sleep and dried my eyes, perhaps I should step back and reflect.
It’s almost impossible, I suspect, for many of us to make sense of the tea party brand of Republicanism which, some commentators believe, was in large part responsible for Romney’s failure. How can we, from this side of the pond, comprehend the view that the healthcare system that Obama brought in – which falls so far short of providing what we in the UK have, still, and rely on so completely at so many points in our lives – is the first step on the road to Communism? How can we understand how so many Americans can, apparently, believe that Obama is a Moslem? How could the ludicrous statements on rape from various Republican spokesmen (gender specific term used entirely deliberately) have been taken seriously by anyone, for a nanosecond? And let’s not even start on guns – though I urge you to read a Yankee in Yorkshire’s blog post on that issue.
Reactions to Obama’s victory have in some cases not just verged on the apocalyptic but plunged headfirst into it. Warren Gibson, who teaches Economics at San Jose and Santa Clara Universities, claims that ‘Obama hates America’, that ‘His first term in office gave us numerous actions that exemplify his quest to bring America down.’ For him Obamacare is an atrocity, and the only silver lining to his re-election is that ‘it will hasten our Götterdämmerung’. Or take our own Melanie Phillips (please…), who writes that ‘America goes into the darkness’, and that his re-election will bring about World War Three, when his friends in Iran launch their genocidal war on Israel.
A different view comes from an independent commentator, blogging as billericapolitics, who regrets Obama’s victory, but argues that it’s happened largely because the Tea Party extremists, or at least their social conservative platforms, do not and will not have popular support:
The Republicans need to re-brand and delete all social conservative positions from their platform. If the God freaks don’t like it, too bad. Let them stay home, vote Democrat or Republican as they wish. So called conservatives should be concentrating on small government, a strong military, a philosophically principled foreign policy, and a secular judiciary that ignores all religions and judges based on the facts and the rule of law.
There’s another strand of hostility to Obama’s second term, not from someone who wanted a Romney victory, but based on a deep anger with Obama’s foreign policies and the belief that the two-party structure sets the electorate up for a choice between two evils, where Obama is simply the lesser of the two. I understand where blackgirldangerous is coming from:
This is how the two-party system is set up. It’s a trap and we’re stuck in it. If we don’t vote for Obama, we’ll get Romney, and it will be bad. If we vote for Obama, we’ll get Obama, and it will be bad. Maybe not quite as bad on the surface. Which, I guess, is enough for a lot of people, especially those who don’t look beneath the surface.
Now, there are things that Obama has promised to do and failed to do, and there are things he has done which are indefensible, particularly in foreign policy terms. Those failures, those wrongs, grieve me. Where I differ from the above writer is that I see a profound difference nonetheless, a gulf, between the two parties that is not merely rhetorical.
I’m with KatranM, a commenter on Gary Younge’s sceptical article in the Guardian, who says that:
Most of us think that here is an intelligent man with the usual reprehensible but necessary political skillset, a progressive, one who dreams big about getting red and blue states to work together, but he hasn’t accomplished it because (a) it’s hard and (b) the GOP spent his entire term trying to destroy him by vilifying him and obstructing everything he did. But we know that doesn’t get him off the hook, and he disappointed us, too. He didn’t fight hard enough. He compromised — and we get the reasons why EVERYONE must compromise to accomplish anything in this polarized environment — unskillfully, gaining no compromise in return.
He did almost jack squat about the environment during the first term in office. He dropped the ball on immigration. He worried us deeply by launching the age of drone wars.
In other words, he’s our guy, he’s done a lot of good, and we believe he CAN do better, but we are keenly aware of his flaws and imperfections.
Get off your high horse. I would guarantee that 99% of those who voted for Obama don’t think he’s the messiah, or the Great Something Hope, or any of the marketing slogans, although it’s emotionally satisfying to thumb our noses at racism and get a rather decent guy and his family into the White House. But we know that’s an optional extra, not the essential reason we support — but still question — Obama.
I recognise in myself an idealism that can be naive, despite my 55 years on this planet. I recognise in myself a strong desire to believe in Obama, because he’s the first African-American president, because his very presence in the White House is such a powerful symbol of the triumph of the 60s civil rights movement, against the brutal and murderous racism that for so many is a living memory. I love the fact that his victory speech celebrates that America is ‘the most diverse nation on Earth’ and I want to believe in the vision he expresses even though I know that it is rhetoric that he will not live up to, and that the idea that ‘You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try’, to work hard, is not and never has been the reality. But watching the two camps last Tuesday night it was clear that they represented two different Americas.
Anne Braden tells how William L Patterson told her, in the early 60s, “You know, you do have a choice. You don’t have to be a part of the world of the lynchers. You can join the other America.” He said, “There is another America.”
And I’m paraphrasing a little bit, he said, “It’s always been here. Ever since the first slave ship arrived, and before. The people who struggled against slavery, the people who rebeled against slavery. The white people who supported them. The people who all through Reconstruction struggled.” He came on down through history of the people who have struggled against injustice. The other America.
On Tuesday night, the other America prevailed.
- Our Thanks to Mitt and Paul (ourfree50.com)
- The Party of Victory (warsclerotic.wordpress.com)