Archive for November, 2016
We’ve all observed Godwin’s law in action. “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1″—that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler.
We’ve all cringed at the crass hyperbole of comparing some minor injustice – or even some pretty significant injustice – to the Holocaust. We’ve all sighed at the historical ignorance of many of those who make the comparisons, wondering what on earth they do teach them in schools these days.
And of course it’s right that we should check ourselves, as those comparisons spring to mind, to ensure that if we do invoke Hitler, Nazism, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising or whatever it is, we do so mindful of the history, the scale, the world-altering significance and the uniqueness of those events.
But when we hear political rhetoric and recognise its echoes (whether the words are being used consciously or not), when we see tabloid headlines and recognise the way in which they are stoking and inciting hostility and prejudice, when proposals are made (firms having to gather data on ‘foreign’ workers, schools to gather data on the children they teach, registers of Muslims, etc) that remind us of the way in which the ground was prepared for fascism and genocide, of course we have to point this out.
This is not the same as accusing Theresa May, Amber Rudd or Donald Trump of being Nazis, or of harbouring plans for concentration camps. But as we have to keep on pointing out, fascism doesn’t start with that.
It will restore your honour,make you feel proud,protect your house,give you a job,clean up the neighbourhood,remind you of how great you once were,clear out the venal and the corrupt,remove anything you feel is unlike you…It doesn’t walk in saying,“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”(Michael Rosen)
And it arrives with the drip drip drip of the message about ‘the other’, the other who has the job that should be yours, the place in the housing queue, the easy access to benefits and to everything that you feel you have to struggle for. The other who is not only (somehow) both a scrounger and has nicked your job, but is a terrorist sympathiser, a rapist or a drug dealer. Or, conversely, is covertly running the whole show, the media, the financial institutions and so forth.
You’ve got to be taughtTo hate and fear,You’ve got to be taughtFrom year to year,It’s got to be drummedIn your dear little earYou’ve got to be carefully taught.(South Pacific, ‘You’ve got to be Taught’, Oscar Hammerstein II, 1949)
Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation what’s said in the Bible… Genesis 9, Verse 27. At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.(Mrs Pell, in Mississippi Burning, dir. Alan Parker, 1988)
We’ve grown used, sadly, to the vilification of migrants and Muslims, the self-evidently false narratives that are promoted on page 1 and whose repudiation (if it comes) is hidden in small type at the bottom of page 2. What’s more recent is the vilification of ‘experts‘ (to use the full designation, ‘so-called experts’). The self-appointed champions of the people, the defenders of the ordinary man or woman on the street, rail against the ‘loaded foreign elite’, ‘out of touch judges’, academics who have no idea of life in the ‘real world’. In reality, of course, these newspapers are owned by members of that very ‘loaded foreign elite’, and are probably rather less in touch with the real world inhabited by most of us as the most rarefied academic or judge.
More alarming still is the growing use of the term ‘enemies of the people’, and the accusations of treachery. The former is a phrase we know from history – the history of Robespierre, Stalin and Pol Pot, under whose leadership it tended to mean at best exile and at worst death. Charges of treachery have also traditionally carried death sentences and as such those accusations feel like incitements to violence – such as the murderous violence meted out to Jo Cox by a far right extremist who gave his name in court when first charged as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. This horrifying act, along with the spectacle across the Atlantic of Nazi-style salutes at far right rallies in support of the President-elect, and Ku Klux Klan endorsements of his proposed chief strategist, are warning signs – these views never went away, not altogether, but where they might have hidden in the shadows they are now in the light, unapologetic, emboldened.
What we do and what we say now is vitally important. We cannot let these views become normalised, we cannot just ‘see how it goes’, or assure ourselves and each other that these people don’t really mean it, they won’t go that far, they will settle down, or even that there are sufficient checks and balances in the system to ensure that they cannot carry out the worst that they promise.
In the 1930s there was the real chance of stopping Hitler. Had we known then what we know now, there might have been not only the opportunity but the will. We do know now. We know where that road leads, and we know that there are many points along that road where the progress towards war and genocide can be stopped, but that last time we left it too late. Last time we let it happen. That is, ironically, our best hope now. That there are so many people living who saw the worst happen, who remember what that evil looks, sounds and smells like, and who won’t be so readily reassured that it’s all ok. And those of us who didn’t live through it but who have read and learned and understood enough will be with them.
In 1940 the Jewish writer Walter Benjamin took his own life in the coastal town of Portbou in Catalonia, believing that his chance of obtaining a visa to the USA had gone, and that he faced arrest by the Gestapo. He was mistaken – others in his party received visas the following day and made their way to safety. Who can say what he might have contributed had he been able to hold despair at bay for just a little longer? But this famous passage indicates something of how he saw the world at that time:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
(Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, and Clarence, the Angel of Alternate History)
Rebecca Solnit suggests a different way of seeing things, inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life.
Director Frank Capra’s move is a model for radical history because Clarence shows the hero what the world would look like if he hadn’t been there, the only sure way to measure the effect of our acts, the one we never get. The angel Clarence’s face is turned toward the futures that never come to pass. …the Angel of Alternate History tells us that our acts count, that we are making history all the time, because of what doesn’t happen as well as what does. Only that angel can see the atrocities not unfolding…. The Angel of History says ‘Terrible’, but this angel says, ‘Could be worse’. They’re both right, but the latter angel gives us grounds to act.
However things turn out, we may never know what difference we made, or might have made. If the threats that we perceive at present come to nothing it will be easy for us and others to say, see, we were over-reacting. If not it will be easy for us and others to say that our words and actions failed to achieve what we hoped. We could just as well say in the first instance that we helped in our small ways, collectively and individually, to defuse that threat, and in the second that things could have been worse.
Because we won’t have Clarence to show us the effect of our acts, all we can do is to do the best we can, to do the right thing, to call out evil when we see it, to draw the historical parallels with rigour and discernment, to speak truth in the face of lies and love in the face of hatred, to stand up for and stand with the people who are threatened by those lies and that hatred.
And in that spirit we think not of the man today imprisoned for life for a vicious murder motivated by hatred, but of the woman he killed, the woman whose life made a difference and will continue to make a difference, who reminded us that we have more in common than that which divides us, and whose family today have spoken out to assert the values that drove her:
We are not here to plead for retribution. We have no interest in the perpetrator. We feel nothing but pity for him, that his life was so devoid of love that his only way of finding meaning was to attack a defenceless woman who represented the best of our country in an act of supreme cowardice. Cowardice that has continued throughout this trial.
When Jo became an MP she committed to using her time well. She decided early on that she would work as if she only had a limited time, and would always do what she thought was right even if it made her unpopular. So she walked her own path, criticised her own party when she felt it was wrong and was willing to work with the other side when they shared a common cause. The causes she took on ranged from Syria to autism, protecting civilians in wars to tackling the loneliness of older people in her constituency.
Jo was a warm, open and supremely empathetic woman. She was powerful, not because of the position she held, but because of the intensity of her passion and her commitment to her values come what may.
The killing of Jo was in my view a political act, an act of terrorism, but in the history of such acts it was perhaps the most incompetent and self-defeating. An act driven by hatred which instead has created an outpouring of love. An act designed to drive communities apart which has instead pulled them together. An act designed to silence a voice which instead has allowed millions of others to hear it.
Jo is no longer with us, but her love, her example and her values live on. For the rest of our lives we will not lament how unlucky we were to have her taken from us, but how unbelievably lucky we were to have her in our lives for so long.
Katharine Inskip’s poem speaks to my heart today. She’s found words where I can’t.
I saw the spiral sweep
of planets born from dust
the snow-borne chill
of falling dreams
and rivers dried to rust
The grief, the pain, the shock, the fall
my child’s hand warm in mine
and footsteps, paired,
and hearts, and souls,
a robin’s song
a gentle word
while this winter grips our world.
I am bereft of words. I have not yet read the Rebecca Solnit book, but bought it a couple of days ago on Gerry’s recommendation. I think I will read that now, and take some time out from political analysis of what just happened. Think, understand, mourn – then organise.
So now we know what it felt like to be alive when Hitler came to power. That was my first reaction to hearing of Donald Trump’s devastating victory in the U.S. Presidential election. As Martin Luther King wrote in his letter from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, ‘Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.’ Coming after the Brexit vote, Trump’s win induces feelings of total despair.
I am devastated. I no longer recognise my country. How could Trump’s message of hate, misogyny, and racism resonate with so many people? I am baffled, and saddened. I’m afraid for the future of our country, and for the future of my friends. Will my LGBTQ friends still be able to marry the people they love? Will my husband get laid off? Will my Muslim friends get deported? Will the economy collapse? What will happen to the environment?…
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I’m not Daniel Blake. I’ve never been too sick to work, never had to claim Jobseekers Allowance, never had to do battle with the relentless bureaucracy of the welfare system, never been accused of being or assumed to be workshy or a scrounger, never been reduced to zero income, never had a final reminder through the post for a utilities bill, never had to sell my furniture in order to survive, never had to apply for jobs I knew I couldn’t take simply in order to avoid benefit sanctions.
I’m not Katie either. I’ve never had to choose between feeding my children and feeding myself, I’ve never had to think of creative ways of heating my home with bubble wrap insulation and tea lights, I’ve never been driven to shoplift or prostitute myself in order to buy shoes for my kids, I’ve never been evicted or had to live in a homeless shelter or rehoused hundreds of miles from family and friends.
But I can see how it happens. I can see, and apparently those in power cannot, that a benefits sanction can mean that the Katies and Daniels of our land have no money, nothing at all, for weeks on end. They cannot, it seems, imagine that there may be nowhere else to go if your benefits are frozen or delayed, no emergency pot of money, no frivolous spending to be reined in, no family members to help out.
In the aftermath of the 2015 general election (and lord, how long ago that seems now), I wrote this, in relation to the Conservative manifesto pledges on welfare:
Hard work is an excellent thing. But to extrapolate from success and financial security being a reward for hard work, to poverty and failure being a punishment for idleness is unfair. No one achieves success and financial security without an element of luck. No one gets there without state help – for themselves or for their workforce and their business. Luck can suddenly desert any of us, and the line between security and penury is not as clear-cut as we may think. The narrative of homelessness doesn’t start in the gutter, it may start with someone in work, owning their own home, doing OK. Something goes wrong – they lose their job, fall behind on the mortgage and the bills, their family breaks up, their health begins to suffer. And that striver becomes a skiver, dependent on benefits in order to get by, or falling through the gaps altogether into a life on the streets. It’s not impossible, not for any of us.
Toby Young found himself unable to empathise, unable to envisage how ordinary, decent people could find themselves in that nightmare, sceptical precisely because the people portrayed on film are ordinary decent people, and not profligate wastrels, blowing their benefits on dope and flat screen TVs. He acknowledges that he is no expert on the welfare system, but that does not deter him from asserting that Loach has overstated his case, that what is shown as happening to Daniel and Katie wouldn’t really happen.
We’re asked to believe people who claim incapacity benefit are all upstanding citizens who would love nothing more than to earn an honest living if only they were able-bodied.
No, we’re not. We’re asked to believe that the system treats those upstanding citizens who need its help as if they are trying to get something for nothing, as if they are trying to cheat hardworking taxpayers out of their money by skiving when they could perfectly well work. We’re asked to believe not that every person claiming incapacity benefit is a Daniel Blake but that there are Daniel Blakes out there, trapped in the Rules, who have always paid their way, who struggle with the welfare system because they’ve no idea how to play it, and assume that it will be simple and fair.
Young says that
The two protagonists are a far cry from the scroungers on Channel 4’s Benefits Street, who I accept aren’t representative of all welfare recipients. … Katie, too, is a far cry from White Dee, the irresponsible character in Benefits Street.
So having acknowledged that Benefits Street is a highly selective representation of welfare recipients, he goes on to judge the verisimilitude of Loach’s characters by their resemblance to its inhabitants. The location for the programme was James Turner Street in the Winson Green area of Birmingham which Channel 4 describes as “one of Britain’s most benefit-dependent streets”. In other words the street was chosen because it was an extreme, a concentration of benefit-dependency (or, less pejoratively, benefit entitlement).
In contrast the makers of I, Daniel Blake researched many, many cases, talked to many, many people, to inform the narrative and flesh out the two main characters. People like Jack Monroe, who sees herself as ‘the lucky one’ who found a way out of the rabbit hole, albeit not unscathed by those experiences. And the film deliberately avoided some of the more extreme stories of suffering they heard in the course of their research, fearing that they would not be believed. And still the Toby Youngs and Camilla Longs and IDSs of this world complain that it ‘doesn’t ring true’.
I can’t claim first-hand experience of poverty or hunger, although my life has been far closer to Dan or Katie’s than it has to Toby’s or Camilla’s. I have been in debt, I have lain awake worrying about whether the next mortgage payment will take us over our overdraft limit, and I have done the sums to work out how long we could manage on a reduced income before we would have to sell the house. Things worked out, but they might not have done. I could have been Daniel Blake or Katie Morgan, I could still be, if everything goes pear-shaped, and the chances are you could have been, you could still be.
We have to challenge the rhetoric. Those of us who are strivers, hardworking taxpayers, must protest if we’re invoked to support attacks on those who allegedly choose a life on benefits. We don’t have to let them do this in our name.
And we have to protest, loudly and clearly, when the implementation of these welfare cuts makes people suffer, locks them into a miserable existence, a half-life, with no way out. Could they just ‘do the right thing’ and choose to be a striver rather than a skiver? Not if they have to make daily choices between heating and eating. Not if their health precludes most available jobs, not if the job they could get is impossible to reach on public transport, not if childcare is too expensive, not if they don’t have the skills or the qualifications, not if the training places or apprenticeships aren’t available…
If we care at all, if our hearts are not rock hard, if we have any capacity for empathy, if we are human, we cannot be complacent in our status as hardworking taxpayers when people are dying. Read this, and weep. Read this, and get angry.