Archive for category Politics

More in Common

I’m glad I waited a bit before blogging about the outcome of the Referendum.  Anything I wrote on Friday would have been an incoherent outburst of grief and anger.  Not that I’m in a position to write a more informed and balanced piece now – we still, on day 7 of our ‘independence’, know nothing, and it appears that those who purport to lead us are no clearer than we are.  We have neither government nor opposition, we have voted to leave the EU but have taken none of the necessary steps to set that process in motion.

In this vacuum Nigel Farage presents himself as the voice of Britain, jeering at the MEPs, taking his revenge for having been laughed at for so long.  In this vacuum those who voted Remain earnestly debate whether to sign the petition for a re-run of the referendum, or to lobby for a General Election, or whether we’re worrying about nothing because nobody will actually press the red button, since nobody (other than Farage) actually wants to.  In this vacuum those who voted Leave are frustrated that nothing is happening, that the Remainers are still whingeing on about the result, and that the leaders of the Leave campaigns are rowing back vigorously on the promises made during the campaign.  Some of them are saying that they didn’t really mean it, that they’d vote to Remain if there was a re-run.  Some of them are saying that what they meant by it was that all foreigners should get out, now.

Meanwhile our European erstwhile partners are shaking their heads, and reminding us that freedom of movement is inextricably linked to trade deals and that we can’t have one without the other.  They’re reminding us that our membership of the EU is as the United Kingdom and therefore that if Scotland and Northern Ireland want to honour their population’s vote to Remain, they would have to break away from the UK which, overall, has voted to Leave.  Marine le Pen, of course, is rejoicing.

I’m not going to speculate about what happens now – there are people far better informed than me who are doing that and I’ll leave them to it.  And I’m not going to rant about or criticise those who voted Leave – they did so for many and various reasons, some at least of which I might respect and understand, however profoundly I disagree.  My response is a personal one – now that my emotions are less raw, I can begin to explore why I felt such grief, as well as such anger, and why I felt, and feel, afraid.

eu flag

In the early hours of Friday, having felt increasingly pessimistic as the results came in with such dismaying consistency, I saw that Sheffield had voted Leave.  That was when I felt that we’d lost, not just the referendum but so much more.  That was when I wept, and despaired.

I have always felt at home in this city – I’ve lived here for over forty years, and since I got here I haven’t wanted to live anywhere else.  I’ve always loved it – its hills, its greenery, its culture, its friendliness.  But in the light of that decision I felt as though I didn’t know it after all, wasn’t as much a part of it as I had believed.

Of course, the vote was close – Leave and Remain were separated by just 6,000 of my fellow Sheffielders.  But what it confirmed is that the city is polarised, more so perhaps than some of the other big northern cities.  We have one of the wealthiest political constituencies in the country – but nearly one-quarter of the local areas used to assess deprivation are in the most deprived 10%.  This polarisation has increased since 2010.  My Sheffield voted Remain.  But my Sheffield is dark blue.

IMD 2015 deciles

I don’t have a detailed breakdown of how different areas of the city voted.  But a new article by Charles Pattie, Professor of Electoral Geography at the University of Sheffield, has looked at data on the proportion of graduates, amongst other indicators, in different areas of the city.

All of this paints a picture of a city deeply divided; a city where class, education and opportunity have shaped the political understandings of its people. And although we’re still waiting on a demographic breakdown of the results, it’s highly likely that such divisions will have cut through the rest of the UK, too. The case of Sheffield shows that the fracture lines in British society do not just run between north and south, Scotland and England, or rural and urban areas. They run through every community in the country.

It’s still my city, my home.  Burt I forgot those fracture lines.  Those fracture lines are dangerous.  People like me tend to live next door to, work and socialise with people like me.  People like me hear from our social media contacts and our colleagues the echo of our own views.  We can be oblivious to how the world looks when employment is hard to find or insecure and when your wages aren’t enough to support your family, when debts are unmanageable and creditors importunate, when housing is inadequate and schools are failing, and benefits are sanctioned – and when the party in power tells you that you are a skiver not a striver, a scrounger rather than a hard-working tax payer.  We can be oblivious to how tempting it is to find scapegoats, the scapegoats offered up daily on the front pages of the Mail, the Express, the Sun (people like me don’t read those papers, of course).   We can be oblivious to how easy it is to believe that this daily struggle is the result not of austerity but of immigration, that others are not struggling but are being given an easy path to housing and jobs and prosperity. If we’re to heal we need to stop being oblivious, stop listening just to people like us.

What that does not mean, however, is to continue with the mealy mouthed refusal to challenge racism.  Gary Younge makes this point powerfully:

Labour tends to condemn outright bigotry before clothing it in the cosy blanket of understanding and concern for the bigot.  It protests and then it panders.  It routinely points out that racism is bad, but is rarely brave enough to make the case for why anti-racism is good.  This leads to the worst of all worlds.  Racism and xenophobia are condemned but never challenged, which leaves those who hold such views feeling silenced and ignored, but never engaged.

Some of those who have been silenced, ignored but not engaged now feel legitimised and emboldened by the referendum result.  Everyone but Farage may have been insistent that the referendum was not about immigration, but the sub-text was often clear, and in the Mail, the Express, the Sun, it was not sub-text, not even text, but screaming headline.

Of course the recent spike in racist abuse may be in part down to more of these incidents being reported post-Brexit. But the accounts have something specific in common – the assertion that ‘we’ won, that ‘we’ have our country back now and that therefore ‘they’ should be packing their bags because ‘they’ will have to go.  No distinction is made between those who have lived here all their lives, whose families have lived here for generations, and recent arrivals.  No distinction is made between those who have come here thanks  to the EU’s freedom of movement and those who have Tier 2 sponsored posts here.  Because of the hostility to white European immigrants, no distinction is made on the basis of colour (although of all groups facing this viciousness, hijab-wearing Muslim women are probably the most at risk).  Either they have not yet realised that Brexit could never mean that EU nationals already here would be expelled, let alone that British citizens of non-British ancestry would be deported, or they do not care, their narrative is suddenly dominant, they have got their moment and are seizing it.

Why this sudden explosion? Paul Bagguley, a sociologist based at the University of Leeds, points to the gleeful tone of the racism: “There is a kind of celebration going on; it’s a celebratory racism.” With immigration cited in polls as the second most common reason in voting for Brexit, “people are expressing a sense of power and success, that they have won,” he says. “People haven’t changed. I would argue the country splits into two-thirds to three-quarters of people being tolerant and a quarter to a third being intolerant. And a section of that third have become emboldened. At other times, people are polite and rub along.”

It is this ‘celebratory’ aspect to the racism that is particularly horrifying.  It didn’t start with Brexit, of course, but those who might always have felt this way now feel they can express it.

It may die down. Or, if one wished to take a less sanguine view, as people realise that Brexit is likely to mean no reduction in net migration, that it will not result in anyone being ‘sent back’, they will be bitter and angry and rather than blaming the politicians who allowed them to believe such things in order to win their votes, they will continue to blame the migrants and the refugees in their communities.

And so we find ourselves talking about how we can counter racism on our streets, in our schools, on the tram and the bus, in the pub.  We wear safety pins in our lapels to indicate our support for those who are under attack and our willingness to stand with them, to stand up for them.

safetypin

Will this do any good?  Who knows.  But when someone launches a tirade of racist abuse on the bus, if I’m wearing my pin the first thing I will do is to look around to see if I have any allies.  If two of us stand up, I believe others will follow.   As to what we might actually do, that depends upon the situation.  The aim must be to defuse rather than to inflame, focusing on the victim rather than the aggressor, making them feel safer, letting them know the hatred is not shared by all of us.  But we do also need to speak, to let not only the victim but the aggressor and those who are fiercely staring at their newspapers or their phones and pretending they can’t hear or see what’s happening know that this is not right.

The thing is, I want my country back too.

I want to wake up tomorrow in a country where people are kind, and tolerant, and decent to one another. A country where people – all people – can feel at least a little bit safe. I want to rub the sleep of neofascist nightmares from my eyes and find myself in a country where we do not respond to the killing of a politician by voting against everything she stood for. A country where we are polite to our neighbors. A country where we have dealt like adults with the embarrassing fact that we once conquered half the world, instead of yearning for a time when our glory was stolen from enslaved people a convenient ocean away and large parts of the map were the gentle pink of blood in the water. I want to go back to a Britain where hope conquers hate; where crabbed, cowed racism and xenophobia don’t win the day; where people feel they have options and choices in life and are less likely to press the big red button to bring the house down on top of us. I want my country back.

The country that Laurie Penny wants back is, she acknowledges, fictional.  But so is Farage’s – and which would we rather live in?  The country I want back was conjured up memorably and brilliantly in the opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympics. Funny, celebratory and bonkers, it gave us a vision of ourselves now, not as we used to be, and it set the scene for our collective joy and pride as a succession of medals were draped around the necks of our athletes, who themselves represented Britain now, in all its rich diversity.

That seems a long time ago and very far away.  But we have to try to find it again.  In Europe or out of it – we may not be able to reverse that decision, but we can work to make things better now, here, for all of us.  Meantime, remember:

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-saul/brexit-resist-the-simple-_b_10702820.html

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/29/frenzy-hatred-brexit-racism-abuse-referendum-celebratory-lasting-damage

https://secure.avaaz.org/en/uk_reject_racism_/?wLhJdab

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/06/i-want-my-country-back

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Faith

I do have faith.  Not in any god or gods, but in people.  Sometimes that’s hard to sustain.  It gets bashed about a lot, and this last week it has been kicked in the teeth and the guts.

Sometimes hanging on to one’s faith is an act of will.  I refuse to despair of humanity.  I refuse to believe that hate will win.

That’s not based on some rose-tinted view of the world, some sanitised suitable for small children version of history.   I am currently reading the late David Cesarani’s book on the Final Solution.  I have read so many accounts of the Holocaust and of the Rwandan genocide.  I know what human beings can do to one another.

But I also know, from those same accounts that there are always people who stand up to be counted, people who risk their lives to protect others.  I know there are people for whom love and compassion are such powerful principles that they will act upon them even when the whole of their society seems to be in opposition.  Everywhere that there is hate, there is also love.

The poison that seeps out daily from the front pages of some of our tabloids, that oozes from the comments below the line on any newspaper article about refugees/migrants, has its effects.  If people only ever hear that message, why would they not begin to believe it?  Who hasn’t been told, by a stranger or a family member, that we aren’t allowed to celebrate Christmas any more? (I was told that on Christmas Day, in a room filled with the usual festive debris, after a splendid traditional Christmas dinner, so there you go).  Or that Sharia law is now in force here, or that ‘they’ can jump the queue for housing, benefits, etc.  In the face of all the evidence, these lies take hold, as lies so easily do when they tap into deep insecurities and fears.  Insecurities and fears that are nurtured and fed every day.

In the face of the lies we have to keep speaking and showing truth.  In the face of hate we have to keep speaking and showing love.  In the face of the horrors that seem to happen daily – in Paris, in Kuda, in Orlando, in Birstall – we have to keep speaking and showing faith.

Keep on keeping on.

Sometimes – Sheenagh Pugh

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen:  may it happen for you.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day (E B White)

 

Theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man…

Sweet moderation, heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are between the wars

(Billy Bragg, Between the Wars)

We are building up a new world.
Do not sit idly by.
Do not remain neutral.
Do not rely on this broadcast alone.
We are only as strong as our signal.
There is a war going on for your mind.
If you are thinking, you are winning.
(Flobots – We are Winning)
The simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable.  So just be kind.
Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl
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.
Joss Whedon – Angel

We are, almost all of us, in the flesh merely odd shaped, damp-eyed vulnerable human beings in constant need of love. There is, we must remember, more love and unity than hate in this world. Sometimes it takes a death to force us out into the streets and admit it

Grace Dent

 

 

https://www.gofundme.com/jocox

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/big-walk2016

 

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27 Years

Under a Grey Sky

Memorial

On the 15th April 1989 I was nine, and I can remember playing a game with my younger brother Sean. We were in the bedroom of our house in Burscough, messing around on the bunk beds. At some point we wandered downstairs, to get a drink or a ‘Toronto Snack’ – a fruit salad like the ones I used to get at nursery in Canada when Dad was teaching there for a year and Sean was just a baby. In my memory we came into the living room to find him watching the television.

“Something’s happened at the match,” is what I remember him saying. I remember the green of the pitch and the blue of the sky and the people milling around on the grass. People running as they carried others on makeshift stretchers. A line of police. As the afternoon progressed we learned of the deaths. 10, 20…

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Naming the dead

brussels 2

Once again I’m naming the dead.  Listing the names of the latest victims of murderous fanaticism.   But whilst the names of the dead in Brussels are emerging, gradually, and will be published in our news media as they do, I have trawled the internet in vain for the names of those who died at Grand Bassam, as I did for those who died in Ouagadougou and Bamako, in Ankara and elsewhere. I’ve found a few – usually those of foreign nationals – but only a few. I want to honour them too, they merit that as much as those who died in Brussels or Paris. But I don’t know who they are.

So if I list the names of those who died this week in Brussels, as I listed those who died in Paris, it is not because I think European lives are more important or that terrorist attacks on European soil matter more than atrocities in Africa, Asia, the Middle East.

What listing the names of those murdered in European cities does is to show the cosmopolitanism of those targets.  The names tell their own stories of migration and mobility – those who travel freely for pleasure or work or family, as well as those who have travelled to escape desperate poverty, persecution or war. That’s exactly what Daesh hate, of course.  That on those city streets those of every faith and none mix freely, travel together, work together, eat together, enjoy music together.

But whilst the attacks on Paris and Brussels are explicitly aimed at the western cosmopolitanism that epitomises the grey zone, ‘that place between black and white, where nothing is ever either/or and everything is a bit of both’, the majority of their victims are Muslim.  After all, most of their murderous attacks take place in predominantly Muslim countries – Daesh hate those who espouse what they regard as the wrong type of Islam as much if not more than they hate those who espouse a different faith or none at all.

How we respond on social media to these atrocities does matter.  It may be easy to retweet, like, share, sign and so forth but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless.  It’s not enough, of course, but for many of us it’s all we can immediately do.

So what do we say?  Do we change our profile pictures to the flag of the country where the latest murders have taken place?  Do we assert that ‘je suis/nous sommes/we are all…’?  Again, it’s important if we do those things that we do them for Mali, Ivory Coast, Turkey or Pakistan as readily as we do for France or Belgium.

brussels paris turkey

 

refugeeswelcome_shirt_detail

Whatever we say, we need to say and keep saying that refugees are welcome.  Because even before the names of the dead or the backgrounds of the killers are known, the usual suspects here and in the US are telling us that we’re to blame for letting ‘them’ in.  Even before we know who died, and who killed them, we’re told that it’s the refugees fleeing war and terrorist brutality who are the cause of ‘our’ losses.  We have to reject that othering which is, after all, exactly what Daesh want.  In their world everything is polarised, and most of humanity is that Other that can be slaughtered without compunction.  As terrorists they want us to fear and to hate, and governments to react with repressive and prejudicial legislation, to drive people out of the grey zone and into crusadership or caliphate.

not afraid

Of course we may well be afraid, however much we assert otherwise to show our solidarity with each other against the murderers.  We will be angry, we should be angry, that so many lives are being taken, that such brutality is being unleashed on so many.  But alongside those emotions, we need to inform ourselves, to try to comprehend.  As Jason Burke says, in his important and fascinating book, The New Threat from Islamic Militancy,

Trying to understand does not imply any sympathy.  It simply means we need to set aside our very natural anger, disgust and fear in order, as dispassionately as possible, to learn.  We need, above all, to avoid the trap that the extremists have fallen into: that of shutting ourselves off, of closing our minds, of succumbing to the temptation of wilful ignorance.  In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, victims, the maimed and the bereaved, always ask a very fundamental, very human question, ‘Why did this happen?’   We owe it to them to make the effort it takes to find the answer.

We honour the dead by naming them, when we can.  By refusing to shut our minds and our hearts – or indeed our borders.  By asserting our shared humanity, that what unites us is so much greater than what divides us.  By trying to understand.

brussels wall

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/20/isis-binary-struggle-grey-zone-jihadism

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/15/terrorists-isis

https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2016/03/23/after-brussels-once-again-thinking-through-terror/

https://www.opendemocracy.net/nafeez-ahmed/isis-wants-destroy-greyzone-how-we-defend

We Can Never Beat Terrorism Until We Care About All Of Its Victims Equally

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/24/dead-brussels-ankara-baghdad-raqqa

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The grey zone

The grey zone. It’s an endangered space, according to the murderous zealots of ISIS/Daesh/Islamic State/ISIL (I’m going to stick with Daesh, since I believe they really, really don’t like it). It’s the space where people meet, talk, think, and maybe change their minds.

President Bush said after the 9/11 attacks that there were only two options, to be with ‘us’ (the US and its allies) or with the terrorists. Daesh essentially agree – you are either with the crusade or with the caliphate. There is no middle ground.

And of course in some senses there isn’t, not when it comes to the massacring of innocents, wherever that takes place. No ‘of course I condemn the killings, but…’, or ‘of course it’s terrible but the French (or anyone else) had it coming’. No way. I am passionately, profoundly, unequivocally, unambiguously against everything that Daesh stand for and everything that they do. I despise their murderous arrogance, their callous indifference to human life.

But the danger of Daesh and their ilk is their absolute certainty. They define everyone who is not unequivocally, unambiguously with them not as mistaken or misguided but as the enemy. The Quran condemns those who take innocent lives, but Daesh see all who are not with them as guilty – corrupt and degenerate westerners in the ‘capital of prostitution and obscenity’, ‘deviant’ Muslims in Beirut, on and on and on. This year alone, they have murdered ‘crusaders’ in Afghanistan, Yemen, Turkey, Chad, Nigeria, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria…

Are they evil? Individually, I doubt it. We have to distinguish the organisation from the individuals who, as Umair Haque says, have themselves been conquered and brutalised by it. But they’ve been carefully taught, taught to hate, taught to kill without mercy or remorse, and by the time they’ve strapped on the explosive belt and picked up the Kalashnikov it is probably too late for them to be persuaded or deterred from doing evil in the name of an evil ideology. It’s not too late, though, for those who are attracted by the certainties of that ideology, or flirting with fundamentalism, if we can reach them, if we could sit down with them in the grey zone and talk, and listen. Lydia Wilson did that, talking to Daesh prisoners on death row in Kirkuk:

They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death from execution, or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life, but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal, and land-based, too.  (Lydia Wilson, The Nation, 21 October 2015)

In the grey zone we can try to understand, and we can look into the eyes of another human being and draw on what we share whilst we explore what we don’t. The grey zone is full of the things that Daesh hate – music, art, football, laughter, friendship, conversation, love. The grey zone is where we live.

Justin Smith said of the targeting of the Eagles of Death Metal gig that ‘what the attackers hated in January [the Charlie Hebdo attacks], and what they continue to hate, is a sort of offense that we could not possibly promise to disown. It is the offense of happiness, of getting jokes, and loving oxymorons.’

The British Humanist Association’s statement says that

‘life itself, the joy of living, was the target. … They did not attack infrastructure, politicians, military personnel, or sites of historical or cultural significance. They targeted innocent people, going about their lives, trying to make it through this difficult and complicated world with a modicum of fun and lightness. … It was, in every sense, an attack on multiculturalism; an attack on how we find happiness, outside the confines of a strict religious code of submission; an attack on the secular, enlightened spirit embodied by Paris’s vibrant, varied culture.’

Daesh tell us that the grey zone is on the brink of extinction, that it’s withering away. That’s what they want, of course, and that’s why we must protect it. Their intention in Paris was to provoke just that polarisation of views, to turn people against each other, to engender and encourage suspicion and prejudice, to make us afraid of each other. In Umair Haque’s words, ‘let’s be more courageous and wise than that’.

Hijabi-Muslim-girls-hold-posters-reading-NotinMyName-during-a-rally-in-tribute-to-the-victims-of-the-Paris-terror-attacks-650x366Billy Bragg said on Facebook:

We have to be careful not to mirror [Daesh’s] warped logic by declaring that all Muslims are enemies of the state. To do so would be to play into the hands of those who sent the murderers onto the streets of Paris. Jason Burke, writing in today’s Observer, points out that one of the main aims of ISIS is to polarise society. He quotes writings in which they state their wish to “eliminate the ‘grey zone’ between belief and unbelief, good and evil, the righteous and the damned.” … As the National Front begins to exploit the Paris attacks to gain votes in France, we must all be very careful not to divide our communities into those who are with us and those who are against us. ISIS wants to poison our society. If we hope to defeat the terrorists, we must also be vigilant against those who would help them achieve their aim.

So we have to continue helping the refugees, because they are human beings who are desperate and afraid and who are fleeing the same terror that struck at Paris, and we have to stand up against those who would turn them away on all sorts of spurious grounds but particularly now because they might be terrorists.

refugee cartoon

Kate Norlock wrote on the feministphilosophers blog:

Note the immediate interest on the part of some powerful actors to close borders and prevent refugees from moving, and consider helping those refugees. France’s leaders are already stating their intention to respond to these attacks. I’m no politician and I don’t know what nations should do, but I know that some refugees are in Europe now because they were trying to flee deadly attacks like those in Paris. Don’t let tonight be a night that hardens hearts against refugees. Let tonight be a reason to reach out.

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. 

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/15/terrorists-isis

https://www.opendemocracy.net/nafeez-ahmed/isis-wants-destroy-greyzone-how-we-defend

http://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2015/nov/16/paris-attack-victims-lives-cut-cruelly-short

 

http://newsweekme.com/the-battle-within/

PS I am aware that the term ‘grey zone’ was used by Primo Levi in The Drowned and the Saved to describe a territory of moral ambiguity, or the suspension of morality, specific to the world of the concentration camps. My use of the term in this piece is based solely on its appropriation by Isis as described above.

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Patron Saint of Prostitutes – the extraordinary Josephine Butler

The truly great women of history are not celebrated as they should be.  Look at the furore when a number of women campaigned to get one – one! – of our bank notes to commemorate Jane Austen, a writer universally acknowledged (pretty much) to be one of the giants of English literature.  Whilst statues and street names grant immortality to men whose deeds have been pretty much forgotten and would hardly be celebrated today – ‘heroes’ of war and empire for the most part – very few women make the grade.

Josephine Butler - portrait.jpg

Josephine Butler certainly has been consigned to the shadows for far too long.  She was once described as ‘the most distinguished Englishwoman of the nineteenth century’ (by Millicent Fawcett).  There have been a number of books about her, and the Church of England commemorates her, appropriately enough, in prayer on a dedicated day in the church calendar.  The University of Durham has named a College after her, and there’s a Josephine Butler Primary Campus also in Northumberland, her birthplace.  But still, we should know more, we should celebrate this truly remarkable woman.

As her latest biographer, Helen Mathers, says, ‘her achievements had lasting impact.  Her name deserves to be remembered by all who value women’s struggles to improve their lives’.  Helen’s book both justifies that claim, and explains why she is so much less well-known than her contemporary, Florence Nightingale, for example.

josephine butler patron saint of prostitutes

Because Josephine Butler, whilst epitomising many of the virtues expected of Victorian womanhood (piety, purity, motherhood and devotion to her husband), also broke all the rules.  She went into places where respectable women should never venture, precisely because that was where she found the women she spent her life defending and supporting.  Not only that but she spoke in public about their plight, about the abuses of the system which forced internal examinations – ‘steel rape’ – on suspected prostitutes in order to protect their male clients from disease, and the inequalities which trapped so many women in situations where prostitution might seem their only option.    A contemporary journalist described her as ‘an indecent maenad, a shrieking sister, frenzied, unsexed, and utterly without shame’.  She minded that, terribly.

Josephine was driven by her convictions to go on, despite the cost to her family, to her health, to her reputation, because she believed utterly in her crusade.  She saw not only the immediate injustices but the underlying systemic ones that allowed these abuses to continue – the separate spheres for men and women which kept so many women ignorant and denied them a voice, the lack of educational opportunities,  of voting rights, of rights for married women.    And she was part of all of those campaigns – all of the movements which laid the foundations for the legislative and cultural changes which swept through the twentieth century.

But her support for the most despised of women was at the heart of her life’s work.  She ‘made no distinction between “respectable” and “fallen” women’, identifying with those whose bodies were subject to abuse by men, the men who had forced them on to the streets in the first place and/or abused them whilst they were there, and the doctors who enforced surgical treatments to control them.

Helen Mathers vividly describes how Josephine’s own desolate sense of loss after the death of one of her children drove her to ‘find some pain keener than my own’.  She wasn’t some pious do-gooder, despising the very people she set out to help – from the start she risked her reputation, her dignity, her health and her personal safety by going into the workhouse, sitting on the floor of the oakum shed with the women and girls who worked there (prisoners, or workhouse inmates) and talking to them, alone with them.

Her faith was integral to her campaign, and her marriage was essential to it.  In many ways, George Butler was as remarkable as Josephine.  He must have been dismayed, surely, by her campaigning, by the effects of her work on their sons, by the cost to her health, and the damage to his own career of having such a notorious wife.  But he stood by her, supported her unshakably and she could not have done what she did without him.

If she were with us now, what would she be doing?  She would be in Rotherham, and Rochdale, where vulnerable young girls have been abused on an unthinkable scale and ‘the authorities’ have turned blind eyes.  She would be working with refugee organisations to help protect young women who arrive here after terrible trauma and find themselves destitute, or threatened with removal to the country where they were subjected to violence.   She would be campaigning against trafficking and sex tourism.  Wherever the struggle is, she would be there.

I wondered what Josephine herself might have wished for as a memorial to her achievements.  A University College would certainly please her, and a day of Anglican prayer.  She would be happy that the Josephine Butler Society continues to campaign on the issues closest to her heart.   Would she want to be commemorated on a bank-note?  Would she want a statue?  Perhaps not, who knows.  But for us, who have inherited the world that she fought for, but who see around us daily the evidence that her victories were not absolute, and that the fight must continue, it would be good to see reminders of her in Liverpool, perhaps, where her work really began.  And if that prompted people to ask, who was Josephine Butler, and what did she do, then this book will provide the answers.

It’s a profoundly moving story, astonishing and inspiring.  We can despair that the evils Josephine Butler poured all of her energies into fighting are still with us, or we can hope that there are and always will be people who will take up those battles on behalf of the most vulnerable, the excluded, the despised. As a humanist, I believe passionately that this is so, that knowing that this life is all we have makes what we do with it matter more, not less, that it can make us kinder, and braver.  Josephine Butler was no humanist, believing that both the struggle and her strength to pursue it came from God, and in her honour I will, just this once, conclude with a prayer:

God of compassion and love,
by whose grace your servant Josephine Butler
followed in the way of your Son
in caring for those in need:
help us like her to work with strength
for the restoration of all to the dignity
and freedom of those created in your image;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

(Church of England Common Worship texts, 30 May, Collect)


Patron Saint of Prostitutes: Josephine Butler and a Victorian Scandal by Helen Mathers was published by The History Press on 11 August, 2014.  ISBN: 9780752492094  It is currently available from all UK booksellers and will be published in the USA in November.

A Kindle edition is available from Amazon.     Order a Kindle edition

Signed copies are available from the author at:

£11.50 + postage. Email helenmathers1@gmail.com.

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Just be Kind

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)

https://cathannabel.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/you-are-now-in-bedford-falls-2/

 

 

 

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