Always after attacks like these some rush to help and some rush to hate. The helpers try to contain the blast, the haters help to spread it.
Archive for category Politics
We don’t know how many. We don’t know who. We don’t know why.
In this vacuum of information, anger is building.
Some of this anger will be misdirected, as people lash out in their pain and grief. That’s inevitable. Since the early hours of Wednesday morning, those living near Grenfell Tower, those who escaped from it, those who have friends and family unaccounted for, will not have slept, will have been obsessively checking phones and ringing hospitals and begging for answers, at the same time as they figure out how to cope without their most basic possessions, how to deal with the practicalities of life in this new chaos. Under that intolerable pressure, those we have heard speak have shown remarkable dignity and calm.
That may not hold. Even if the bigger questions cannot be answered immediately, there needs to be a more coordinated, coherent response to the desperate need to know the fate of those still unaccounted for, and to the practical questions about rehousing and resources for those left homeless. And even if those are the most urgent questions, the community needs to be convinced that the bigger questions – what caused the fire? why did it spread so quickly? why was the material used for the cladding in the recent refurb of a standard that is currently banned in the US and Germany because of its flammability? – will be answered without obfuscation.
Answers need to come, and come swiftly. And with them, practical help. Voluntary generosity has been overwhelming, and almost unmanageable – it must now be matched by an ‘official’ response. That official response must be generous, if it is to defuse the tension, the gut feeling that had the inhabitants of Grenfell Tower been white, been wealthy, the building would have been designed to be safe, and any refurbishments would have made it even safer.
We have in the last few weeks alone logged so many unnecessary deaths. The murders of (mainly) young people attending Ariane Grande’s concert in Manchester, and (mainly) young people in Borough Market and on London Bridge. And now unknown numbers of all ages, dead because a fire that started accidentally (as far as we know) spread with unimaginable speed through a high rise block of flats.
What those of us who have tried to honour the dead by recording their names and something of their story quickly discovered was that there is no such thing as an ordinary person. The three names that have officially been released from Grenfell Tower confirm that.
Khadija Saye was 24. A remarkable artist, her work is currently exhibited at the Diaspora Pavilion during the 57th Venice Biennale. Her death has been confirmed; her mother is missing, presumed dead.
Mohammed Alhajali was 23, and had been living on the 14th floor with his brother Omar. He came to the UK in 2014 and was studying civil engineering. Syria Solidarity Campaign said: “[He] undertook a dangerous journey to flee war and death in Syria, only to meet it here in the UK, in his own home.” The brothers had been due to join the Syria Solidarity Campaign on Saturday to take part in The Great Get Together, celebrating the life of murdered MP Jo Cox and marking Refugee Week.
Of the third confirmed fatality, what can we say? He was five years old. Isaac Shawo has been described by his mother as a “beautiful boy”. He was a pupil at Saint Francis of Assisi Catholic Primary School and lived on the 18th floor of Grenfell Tower with his parents and three year old brother Luca, all of whom have survived. He gazes out from this photograph, and one can read so many possibilities into that gaze. Possibilities that will never be realised.
Only three stories so far. There will be so many more. Their deaths are as arbitrary as those of the Manchester and London terrorist murders, even if no individual or group is as directly culpable. They should not have died, they need not have died.
We have to change, we cannot continue to value property over humanity, to dismiss ‘health and safety’ which has saved the lives of so many as ‘red tape’, to denigrate the poor, the unemployed, benefit claimants and asylum seekers as scroungers and skivers. We have to change.
David Lammy MP: “For your middle-class viewers, this is about whether the welfare state is just schools and hospitals or whether it’s about having a safety net. I get quite emotional as I say that. We need to live in a society where we care for the poorest and the vulnerable. And that means housing. It means somewhere decent to live. It was a noble idea that we built… and it’s falling apart around our eyes. That’s what it’s about.
You can’t contract out everything to the private sector; the private sector do some wonderful things, but they have for-profit motives, they cut corners. If you haven’t got the officers to check on the enforcement of buildings, don’t expect it to be done.
You know… are there fire extinguishers? Where are the fire extinguishers on every corridor? Where are the hoses? Are the fire doors really working? Where are the sprinklers? If you want to build these buildings, then let them at least be as good as the luxury penthouse buildings that are also being built.
But these buildings aren’t …. So you either demolish them and house people in a different way, or you absolutely refurbish them to the best quality that we can do.”
Jackie Long: “Do you think this says anything about the value that is placed on the life of people who cannot afford to buy their own property; to live in some of the nicer bits of Britain?”
David Lammy MP: “This is a tale of two cities. This is what Dickens was writing about in the century before the last, and it’s still here in 2017. It’s the face of the poorest and the most vulnerable. My friend who lost her life was a talented artist, but she was a young, black woman making her way in this country and she absolutely had no power, or locus, or agency. She had not yet achieved that in her life. She’d done amazing things: gone to university, the best in her life. But she’s died with her mother on the 22nd floor of a building. And it breaks my heart that that’s happening in Britain in 2017. Breaks my heart.
Lammy refers here to Dickens. A tale of two cities, a tale of two tower blocks. Different worlds, existing cheek by jowl, not recognising or understanding each other. In Kensington, some of the wealthiest people in our land live alongside some of the most deprived. The top quarter earn at least £41 per hour, three and a half times the level of the lowest quarter at £12 per hour or less. Within the smallest borough in London, and the second smallest in England, we can see starkly and uncompromisingly the divisions in our society.
These words are from perhaps Dickens’ finest novel, Bleak House, as he marks the death of a nobody, a boy called Jo.
Is there any light a comin?”
“It is coming fast, Jo.”
Fast. The cart is shaken all to pieces, and the rugged road is very near its end.
“Jo, my poor fellow!”
“I hear you, sir, in the dark, but I’m a gropin — a gropin — let me catch hold of your hand.”
“Jo, can you say what I say?”
“I’ll say anythink as you say, sir, for I knows it’s good.”
“Our Father! — Yes, that’s wery good, sir.”
“WHICH ART IN HEAVEN.”
“Art in Heaven — is the light a comin, sir?”
“It is close at hand. HALLOWED BE THY NAME!”
“Hallowed be — thy—”
The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead!
Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.
I do not pray. At times like this I almost wish I could. But my faith is not in any god but in humanity. In the kindness of strangers, the coming together of communities in a crisis, the refusal to tolerate those who want to use such a crisis to disseminate hatred and suspicion. I don’t pray, but I hope, I hang on to my hope. And my heart hurts for the people of Grenfell Tower.
Today I woke to more news of horror. So close to home – just across the Pennines, a city where I’ve worked, where I have friends, a city whose history and culture I have studied for years now. And as I saw the first reports I wept, for the children who have been murdered and hurt and terrified, for the parents who are still desperately waiting to find out what has happened to their kids, or who are lost in unimaginable grief. My heart hurts.
Manchester is resilient. It has had to be. We all have to be in this dangerous world, if we’re to hold on to what really matters, if we’re to love and hope and laugh, if we’re to bring children into this world and bring them up to love and hope and laugh.
Whilst the usual suspects have been swift to inject their poison into social media, to encourage hate and violence in response to hate and violence, many more are trying to do the opposite.
Ian Dunt, on the politics.co.uk website:
Our response will be to try to contain the blast, by showing that the overwhelming majority of people remain kind, decent, and big-hearted. This is not a platitude. It is a political response.
But of course we feel anger. Of course we feel scared. Of course we feel loathing for the person who hated life so much that he could go into an arena full of happy, excited kids and commit mass murder.
The point is, what do we do?
If we let that anger be channeled into hostility to anyone other than the perpetrator and whichever group he claims to represent, they win.
If we let fear prevent us from living our lives to the full, or push us to allow our freedoms and the freedoms of others to be curtailed, they win.
Terrorists, of whatever political or religious persuasion, want to provoke fear and anger. As the UN defines terrorism, it is ‘intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act’.
In other words, whatever anger and fear we feel, however desperately sad we feel, we must not be compelled by their actions to do anything that is not in itself just, fair and right, nor to abstain from doing what is in itself just, fair and right.
When we (those of us who argue in this way, as well as expressing our solidarity via social media with the victims) are berated for just waiting for the next atrocity, I wonder what it is that we (or our governments) should be doing instead. What form should our rage take, that could make us and our children safer?
The voices of hate were quick to speak up, as always. They claim to be fuelled by righteous anger, but in their words there’s a hideous kind of glee. They call for action, but what they have in mind is closing the borders, or worse. The responses which would, of course, be exactly what the terrorists hope for, and would make us less rather than more safe.
I do understand that changing one’s profile pic, claiming that ‘je suis wherever’, and all that, seems useless and inadequate. Of course those things in themselves do not change the situation. They’re easy to ridicule and dismiss. But as Stig Abell says:
It is easy to dismiss the commonplaces, the impossibility in using words to deplore the lack of words. But the very fact of reaching for words – of trying to talk about it – is an appropriate response. And, at moments of crisis and trauma, the use of comprehensible and familiar phrasing is itself a sign of something important: it is a bid for connection. Cliché demonstrates community, our intention to understand one another. It does not matter that “standing in solidarity” has no practical import, or that prayers may be just so much shouting into a void. It does not matter that there is unresolved tragedy in a violent world that makes consolation a commonplace.
Because by using cliché, we are trying to employ common currency, we are grasping for tokens – however smoothed by over-use – that we all recognise, we all can handle and share. We are using language to be inclusive. …
So we should abandon any knee-jerk response … to hashtags and platitudes, to prayers and placards. There are always words, even over-familiar and trite ones. And they tell us something about our desire to connect and collect ourselves, to take the time to try at least to “think of the victims and the families”. That desire is a good thing. Clichés are good things when pressed into the service of communication in the aftermath of the incomprehensible and the traumatic. They often reveal the good intentions we share, and they are more valuable than ever.
So I refuse to be embarrassed about the inadequacy of my own words. I believe that however feeble they are in the immediate aftermath of something which hurts my heart as much as this does, I can and must keep saying what I believe.
Daesh divide the world into Crusaders (that this definition includes pre-teen girls at a pop concert tells you all you need to know) and the Caliphate. George Bush used similar rhetoric after 9/11, telling us that we were either with the US or with the terrorists. I’m not proposing any equivalence of those two approaches, other than that this polarisation, this reduction of the complexity and diversity of life into two opposing absolutes, has done and continues to do immeasurable harm.
In the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks, Jonathan Freedland wrote about Daesh’s onslaught against the ‘grey zone‘ :
The grey zone is where I want to live. Islamic State hates it, that place between black and white, where nothing is ever either/or and everything is a bit of both. Those who have studied the organisation tell us “the grey zone” – Isis’s phrase – is high on the would-be warriors’ to-eradicate list, along with all those other aspects of our world that so terrify them: women, statues of the past, the pleasures of the present.
Specifically, the grey zone refers to the sphere of coexistence where Muslim and non-Muslim might live together. That’s anathema to the frightened young men of Isis, who yearn for a world divided on binary lines, with room for only two categories – them and the infidel. Such a world would be as clean and neat as computer code, with Isis the ones and the rest of us reduced to zeros.
I made my own contribution on this blog. Looking back now, I am not certain that my interpretation of the grey zone was correct. It may be that it should properly be defined as the place inhabited by Muslims who have not signed up for the caliphate and for jihad. For Daesh it is a state of hypocrisy, and their hatred of it explains why the vast majority of their victims are Muslims – the wrong sort of Muslims. So whilst their murderous attacks in Kabul, Baghdad, Ankara and so many other locations are attacks on the grey zone, Paris and Manchester, Brussels and Nice, were attacks on the Crusaders.
But we don’t have to accept any of their twisted, hateful definitions. The grey zone for me is where people of all faiths and none meet, talk, share music and food and laughter. It’s where in the wake of tragedy people of all faiths and none offer whatever they can – a free taxi ride, somewhere to stay, a blood donation. We must defend it.
We have to refuse to be bystanders when anyone – on social media, on the street, in the workplace – demonises or harasses Muslims or those who look as if they might be Muslims. We have to have conversations across the various divides of age, ethnic background, religion, politics – find out what other people think, share what we think, find the common ground. We have to counter and debunk the lies that are routinely told about refugees, immigrants, Muslims, and the propaganda that xenophobic political movements such as the Front National, EDL/Britain First etc. and their equivalents across Europe will make of the Paris atrocities.
None of this will stop Daesh. I’m not sure what will. How do you stop someone with an explosive belt and a Kalashnikov, who cares nothing for the lives of the people they will mow down, and nothing for their own life, indeed who is ‘seeking to be killed’ in order to gain martyrdom? Perhaps we cannot afford to be pacifists in any absolute sense. These are the moral quandaries that face us and perplex us, and we cannot take refuge in absolutes, because absolutes are a huge part of the problem.
We’re all looking for a ‘magic bullet’ to use against this big bad. There may be political and/or military solutions (just as likely, I’m afraid, there will be political and/or military reactions that will hurt Daesh’s victims more than they hurt Daesh itself).
For myself, what I want to do most of all is to fight – not with Kalashnikovs but with words and the way I live my life – for the grey zone.
Because the last thing the grey zone is, is grey. It’s every colour under the sun. And it’s beautiful.
Enjoy your life.
Make it count.
And don’t let the murderers win.
I didn’t plan to write about today’s events in the US. But I remembered that I had written something (pre-blog, via Facebook notes) on Obama’s inauguration, and on this blog in 2012 when he was re-elected. The contrast between what I felt then, and what I feel now, is almost too much to bear, too bitter. But to revisit my feelings then, is to assert that those values, those principles, those hopes which inspired me are still with me, unchanged, still strong if battered and bruised. I don’t know what lies ahead – I fear it. But the future isn’t written – it can be written, and we can be part of the writing. We have to believe that ‘the people have the power to redeem the work of fools‘.
So this is what I wrote on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. I stand by it, every word.
I can’t recall any moment in my life when the sense of hope and of new possibilities has been so powerful. I know that President Obama will do some things that I will disagree with, and that I will regret some things that he is unable to do, but he is a man of integrity and intelligence, courage and vision, a man whose vision of the world is not bounded by his own state or nation but who understands the developing as well as the developed world’s needs. It’s been a long time coming, but this extraordinary moment is here now, and I know I will be weeping tomorrow as I did on election night, thinking of Dr King, and all of the other martyrs of the Civil Rights movement, thinking of all of those who’ve worked and argued and struggled to make this possible. Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so that Barack Obama could run. Barack Obama ran so that we ALL could fly. Mr Obama, Mr President, I wish you strength, and courage, and the audacity of that hope you’ve inspired.
And in November 2012, when Obama was elected as President for a second term, I wrote this.
That day I listened to the Flobots song celebrating Anne Braden, a white Southern woman who threw in her lot not with the people she’d grown up with, gone to school with, lived next door to, but with ‘the other America’.
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.
Today it feels as if that is lost. As if we have all lost.
John Pavlovitz nails it here:
Let the record show that I greatly lamented the day of his inauguration, and that I promised to join together with other good people to loudly resist and oppose every unscrupulous, dangerous, unjust and dishonest act this new Administration engages in.
History has been littered with horrible people who did terrible things with power, because too many good people remained silent. And since my fear is that we are surely entering one of those periods in our story, I wanted to make sure that I was recorded for posterity:
I do not believe this man’s actions are normal.
I do not believe he is emotionally stable.
I do not believe he cares about the full, beautiful diversity of America.
I do not believe he respects women.
I do not believe he is pro-life other than his own.
I do not believe the sick and the poor and the hurting matter to him in the slightest.
I do not believe he is a man of faith or integrity or nobility.
I do not believe his concern is for anything outside his reflection in the mirror.
I believe he is a danger to our children.
I believe he is a threat to our safety.
I believe he is careless with our people.
I believe he is reckless with his power.
I believe America will be less secure, less diverse, less compassionate, and less decent under his leadership.
So what words can I find today? I feel, as so many of us feel, disbelief, revulsion and fear. I hope I am wrong to feel this so strongly. Hope, such as it is, lies in not only the numbers but the calibre of the people who feel this way, the people who are moved to protest, to assert that we need bridges, not walls, to march, to boycott – and who will go on opposing the version of America that Trump asserts.
We need heroes
Don’t put your fist up
Fight with our hopes and our hearts and our hands
We’re the architects of our last stand
(Flobots, Fight with Tools)
It’s been a funny old year. Not so much of the ha ha, either. Is there anything to be said that hasn’t already been said, better probably? I doubt it, but I can’t write about the books, films and other cultural pleasures of the year without acknowledging the seismic changes and alarming portents that it has presented.
Reasons to be Miserable:
Daesh initiated or inspired terrorist attacks clocked up more deaths and more terrible injuries than the mind can encompass. As always, most of these were Muslims, in Muslim countries, although our news media inevitably foregrounds the attacks in France, Belgium and the USA. As appalling as those murders were, on my very rough calculations, Iraq was the worst hit, with over 450 deaths, followed by Pakistan. I tweeted the names of the dead from Brussels, Nice and Orlando, but will never know the names of most of those murdered in Kabul, Istanbul, Jakarta, Baghdad, Ouagadougou, Quetta, Grand Bassam or Aden.
According to the UNHCR, the number of migrants dying whilst crossing the Mediterranean reached 3800, a record. Fewer are making that journey, but they are making it via the more perilous routes and in flimsier boats. Worldwide, over 65 million people are forcibly displaced, over 21 million are refugees, and 10 million stateless. The vast majority of those displaced are hosted in neighbouring countries in Africa or the Middle East. Six per cent are in Europe. Over half of the world’s refugees came from just three countries – Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.
With regard to Syria, anything I say here may be outdated before I press Publish, but there can be no doubt that we are seeing one of the greatest tragedies of our times unfold, and that war crimes are happening there which will be remembered with shame and horror.
I’ve been told to shut up about Brexit, that the people have spoken and they’ve said we must leave Europe and that’s that. As if democracy means that once the votes are counted, those whose views did not prevail must be silent or be regarded as traitors, as if, had the vote gone the way everyone (including Farage and Johnson) expected it to, they would have shut up and let ‘the will of the people’ prevail. Firstly, whilst a majority of those who voted said we should leave Europe, that is all they said. They were not asked and so they did not vote on whether we should leave the single market, what should happen about immigration controls, what trade agreements should be in place outside the EU, what would happen to EU citizens based in the UK or vice versa, what would happen to those employment and wider human rights and other legal provisions currently under the EU umbrella. And so on. All of that has now to be negotiated and worked out, and that’s a job for Parliament. How else could it possibly happen? If anyone thinks they understand how the EU works and thus what are the implications of hard or soft Brexit, they need to read Ian Dunt’s book – Brexit- What the Hell Happens Now? Dunt isn’t talking about the arguments pro or con Brexit, but about what could happen now, what the options are, what the most likely consequences of each option are, and so on.
The US election outcome was described to me by an American colleague recently as ‘somewhere between a mess and a catastrophe’. I am (for once) holding back from comment – I know how deeply this is felt by US friends, some of whom are now seeing fault lines in their families and friendships as some support what others find inexplicable and irrational. We’ve seen a bit of that here since June. A left-wing Brexiter said to me recently that his view was that the EU was so compromised and corrupted that we had to break it in order to fix it. My fear is that some things that get broken simply can’t be mended. Something of the same feeling seems to have prevailed in the US – and that’s one of the reasons why the arguments against Trump failed to stop him winning.
This is the year when I’ve felt closest to despair, for all the above reasons, and because the Labour Party, which I’d thought was my natural home politically, has been so ineffectual in opposition. I took the hard decision to resign my membership – I doubt that I will join another party, perhaps I have to accept that there is not, and never will be, a political party to which I could sign up without caveats and qualms. In that case I have to be led by my principles and values and be willing to back, vote for, work with those politicians and activists who seem closest to them, whether they be Labour, Green, Lib Dem, Women’s Equality or any combination of the above.
On the other hand…
The Hillsborough inquests returned their verdict, and concluded that planning errors, failures of senior managers, commanding officers and club officials, and the design of the stadium, all contributed to the disaster. The behaviour of fans did not. Thus the tireless, dignified campaign fought by the families, survivors and their supporters, was finally vindicated, fully and unequivocally. Read Phil Scraton’s Hillsborough – The Truth, updated in light of the inquest verdict, and Adrian Tempany’s account of that day and what followed, and his excellent book exploring the broader picture in contemporary football, And the Sun Shines Now.
Too early to say whether Standing Rock will turn out to be a victory for the Native American and other environmental protestors – but it was truly remarkable to see the army veterans who had joined them on the site asking for and receiving forgiveness for the long history of oppression and genocide against the indigenous peoples.
Too early to say, too, whether Gambia has taken a historic step towards democracy, or wheher the defeated dictator will be successful in his attempts to overthrown the result of the election. (Meantime in Ghana another peaceful general election brings about a change of government ).
Too early to say whether hard right parties in Europe will prevail, or whether the tide will turn against them before people go to the ballot, but at least the Austrian electorate rejected the Freedom Party’s presidential candidate in favour of a former leader of the Greens.
If 2016 leads us to expect the worst (after two nights spent sitting up waiting for election results which delivered the outcome we feared most, against the predictions of the pundits), then we have to remember that this does not mean that the die is irrevocably cast.
So, reasons to be anxious, reasons to be angry, reasons to be sad – but not reasons to lose all hope.
I’ve tried, throughout this hard year, to hold on to my own brand of faith. It’s not been easy, and it won’t be easy.
In all of this, though, I have found joy in family and friends, in working for Inspiration for Life and in our extraordinary 24 Hour Inspire, in books and film and music and theatre and opera and TV, in my PhD research, in walking in the lovely countryside on our doorstep. I’m bloody lucky, and I do know it.
If I’m going to sum up, somehow, what I want to say about 2016, I think I will leave it to Patti Smith, singing Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain, at the Nobel Prize ceremony. She stumbled, apologised, and began again. In her performance, and in Dylan’s song, there is humanity and hope.
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.
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.