Never Again, Again (Warning: distressing content)

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“It happened, therefore it can happen again. This is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen anywhere.” – Primo Levi

The events unfolding in Myanmar at present have all the worst ingredients of a tragedy after which we will solemnly intone “Never Again”. A complex history, a world distracted by other things, and, worst of all, geographical distance – which is a tactful way of saying that since neither the victims nor the perpetrators are European, the violence will probably be allowed to burn itself out, leaving only a gaping hole where the Rohingya should be.

Though its government disputes this, the Rohingya have lived in the area of western Myanmar called Arakan for centuries. The first mention of them in western sources was by the East India Company in 1799. Rohingya were central to the administration of Myanmar (or Burma, as it then was) until 1982, when the military dictatorship removed them from the list of “official” nationality groups. Since then their conditions have steadily deteriorated. As the organisation Global Citizen puts it, they are “unable to claim citizenship in a country that refuses to recognise them.” Forced Migration Review explains how forcing statelessness on people violates both the 1956 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the reduction of Statelessness. But we have known what statelessness means far longer than that. As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, statelessness means that people are consigned either to the law of exception or complete lawlessness. “Since [the stateless person] was the anomaly for whom the general law did not provide, it was better for [him] to become an anomaly for which it did provide: that of the criminal.”

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have both called for action amid growing concern since October, though some sources highlight that there has been violence since at least 2012. A United Nations report from February did not pull any punches. Based on interviews with more than 200 of the approximately 66,000 refugees to Bangladesh, the evidence they collected was clear.

“According to the testimonies gathered, the following types of violations were reported and experienced frequently in that area: Extrajudicial executions or other killings, including by random shooting; enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention; rape, including gang rape, and other forms of sexual violence; physical assault including beatings; torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; looting and occupation of property; destruction of property; and ethnic and religious discrimination and persecution.” (p. 40) 

What this means on a human level is, as always, perhaps beyond description if not beyond words. Even the bald breakdown of the testimonies makes for hard reading:

Extracts from a few of the testimonies follow. Please be warned, they are not subtle, though these are some of the least graphic. Page references are to the OHCHR Report.

“The day the army attacked my village, my father and I had just come out of prayers, when we heard sounds of shooting. We had just walked to a farm, where we were sitting and talking to the owner of the farm. While the firing was still going on, my father stood up, which is when a grenade came and exploded close to us, killing my father, the farm owner’s son, and severely injuring me and the farm owner.” (p.14)

 “I was in front of [my grandmother’s] house, playing with some other boys when the helicopter came. I was shot from the helicopter, other boys were too. Six or seven of us were hit by bullets from the helicopter.”

 “When my two sisters, 8 and 10 years old, were running away from the house, having seen the military come, they were killed. They were not shot dead, but slaughtered with knives.”

The report is equally blunt about the possibility that the statistics derived from these testimonies are just the tip of the iceberg. They emphasise not just that they are only reporting what they have testimony to support, but also that the sexual nature of the crimes means many victims are too traumatised or ashamed to speak of what has happened to them.

In terms of perpetrators, the report is clear that they include members of the Myanmar armed forces, border guards and police, along with ‘irregular’ units of armed locals, sometimes wearing borrowed uniforms. As is depressingly standard in such cases, witnesses knew some of these to be civilians because they were their neighbours.

The response from Aung San Suu Kyi, the former dissident, Nobel laureate and human rights activist who now de facto leads the civilian administration, has been disappointing, to say the least. In a conversation with Turkish President Erdogan, she blamed “fake news” and in a press conference she claimed the government was still trying to decide “how to differentiate terrorists from innocents.” A place to start might be asking them their age.

The UN report stops short of terming the persecution genocide, though it makes clear that the events constitute “[what] has been described in other contexts as ethnic cleansing.” (p. 42)

Definitions are both problematic and essential. For us to respond, we must name what is happening, thus fully bringing it into reality. By naming a crime, we identify it and can prosecute it. Genocide and ethnic cleansing, because they are definitions devised partly in order to suspend the normal rules of sovereignty, are likely to be applied too late: we only know for sure with the dreadful clarity of hindsight. Though one should always remember the macabre evasions of the Clinton White House during the Rwandan Genocide of 2004. A particular exchange between Press Secretary Christine Shelley and reporter Alan Elsner has acquired almost iconic status (some readers may recognise the dialogue from an episode of The West Wing)There is video of the exchange on YouTube.

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In fact, a State Department document very clearly stated “Be careful … Genocide finding could commit U.S.G. to actually ‘do something.'” As we know now, the cost of the ‘formulations’ was between 500,000 and 1,000,000 deaths in just under three months: a rate of killing which outstripped that of the Nazi death camps. At that rate of slaughter, all of the 2,000,000 Rohingya could be dead in six months. In Rwanda, the bodies of men, women and children clogged rivers as the world debated definitions. As a survivor who spoke to the playwright J.T. Rogers for his play The Overwhelming prophesied, the cycle of violence has not stopped: “Now it is two hundred percent safe here. But until when, I don’t know. Rwanda is like a fire underground: the killings will come again.”

There are always (frequently craven) reasons not to intervene. There are always (weak) arguments for waiting. There is no defence, however, for saying nothing. The preoccupation of British politics with the EU withdrawal process is crowding out any other discussion. This must stop. Sign the petition. Demand action. When the petitions committee reconvenes this month to start a new session, I’m going to start a parliamentary petition (if an NGO doesn’t get there first) to demand that our elected representatives are at least forced to consider what they refuse to act upon. For now, there is a change.org petition gathering signatures and a letter from the All-Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Burma. We know more than enough, about both genocide in general and this crisis in particular, to expect more than the silence the Prime Minister has so far responded with.

I want to finish with some words from the Nobel Lecture by Aung San Suu Kyi in 2012. Remember her acceptance of the prize in 1991 was made by her son: her lecture was made possible by the pressure from governments and thousands of individuals to free her from house arrest:

“To be forgotten. The French say that to part is to die a little. To be forgotten too is to die a little. It is to lose some of the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity. When I met Burmese migrant workers and refugees during my recent visit to Thailand, many cried out: “Don’t forget us!” They meant: “don’t forget our plight, don’t forget to do what you can to help us, don’t forget we also belong to your world.” When the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to me they were recognizing that the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world, they were recognizing the oneness of humanity. So for me receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means personally extending my concerns for democracy and human rights beyond national borders. The Nobel Peace Prize opened up a door in my heart.” 

A door in the heart should not wait for definitions to be confirmed before opening once again. Words will never be enough. But they may be a start.

Postscript: like many of us, I’m guilty at times of the delusion that things only happen when I’m looking. A friend of mine, a passionate advocate of and activist for peace, wrote this and I thought it should be attached to this piece: a reminder that terrible things are happening all the time and that the work of trying to stop them is constant.

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Shocks, Forks and Fractures

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The title story of The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon (Vintage, £8.99), 347 pp.) is a harrowing account of how an idyllic seaside afternoon in the 1970s turns to tragedy. In spare, compelling prose, Haddon describes the initial warnings as the rivets holding the pier together progressively fail. ("There is a faint tremor underfoot as if a suitcase or stepladder has been dropped somewhere nearby.") He describes in merciless detail the fracturing of a summer afternoon into fragments, neatly chronicling each death and the aftermath as normality slowly settles over those left apparently unscathed. ("None of the survivors sleeps well. They wake from dreams in which the floor beneath them vanishes. They wake from dreams of being trapped inside a cat's cradle of iron and wood as the tide rises.")

Haddon's prose captures the way in which trauma is observed from the inside: slowly, but too fast to fully register; completely, but only in hindsight. Another word for this is shock. As Naomi Klein has recently written, "A state of shock is what results when a gap opens up between events and our initial ability to explain them."

Britain in 2017 feels similar to the disintegrating pier in Haddon's story, shuddering as the rivets joining us to the EU are worked loose, the fissures in our society are thrown into ever-sharper relief, and international politics seem more and more threatening. It's the shock that many of us experienced last year in the sweaty early hours of June 24, watching the numbers move like a tide, rolling upward until, as the dawn broke, the result was confirmed.

Many of us experienced that feeling of shock again in November as we watched Hillary Clinton's chances of being President go from being assured, to doubtful, to impossible. A feeling which deepened in January as Trump's inaugural speech made clear he intended to govern as he had campaigned: boorish, aggressive, chauvinistic.

Most importantly, it's the feeling as we watched the flames sweep across Grenfell Tower. Knowing what the inexorable progress of the wall of fire meant – as human beings, unable to stop ourselves imagining ourselves in the place of those inside – but powerless to stop it.

It's a feeling I've revisited many times this summer, as different journeys have taken me past the tower: blackened and silent, the sun still catching on glass that has not been shattered, a grim negative of the neighbouring towers. ("A moment's weakness had caused this horror, the way a single spark from these struck flints bloomed into the fires that surrounded her.")

The footage from Houston this week has brought that feeling again. Watching the waters rise and the roads disappear beneath the floods should remind us that we are always vulnerable to the environment we build through and over (instead of around and with). The levees and dams have creaked and overflowed, and the bonds of society have proved correspondingly frail. Looting and unrest have necessitated curfews, as stretched civil authorities focus on the crisis. President Trump's response, ("The storm, it's epic what happened. But you know what, it happened in Texas and Texas can handle anything.") encapsulates the dogma of small government and its failure to appreciate the importance of collective action to avert rather than manage times of crisis. ("He's never thought it this way, that lives are held in common, that we lose a little something of ourselves with every death.") In situations like this, the heroism of individuals needs to be backed by the state rather than left to fend for itself. We cannot allow ourselves to be flattered for our self-sufficiency by those whose job is to prepare.

In India, Bangladesh and Nepal, far worse flooding seems to be producing a different reaction to similar problems. The Times of India shows crowds working with rescuers, bringing food and helping to clear rubble. At root, though, the complaints are similar too: "Why does nothing change? Why are we left to fend for ourselves when they had weather forecasts warning them of extremely heavy rainfall?" asked one Indian columnist quoted in the Guardian. The residents of Grenfell know the feeling, as did the inhabitants of New Orleans in 2005.

In Britain, meanwhile, we continue to make our own weather: working toward "freeing" ourselves from the EU. The Brexit negotiations have resumed and it's clear that this government is determined to ignore the reality that 27:1 make for unhealthy odds. On Ireland, on the single market, on the customs union, on free movement; the position of Her Majesty's Government is that cake policy must remain separate from eating policy.

A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said this week that the government was determined to try and discuss the future trading relationship alongside the withdrawal deal, despite the insistence of the EU that this won't happen. As any country that has negotiated EU accession could tell you, negotiating with the EU on these matters is not a negotiation as conventionally understood. In accession negotiations, the only question is when, not if, individual countries would accept EU law and regulation (this, by the way, is a powerful practical argument for remaining). In our case, we lit the blue touch paper by triggering Article 50 and now require all 27 member nations' agreement to blow it out again, even temporarily. British inability to understand collective behaviour is quite profound (at least among politicians, who are usually happy to talk about what they claim people want but often less keen to engage with what they need).

Internationally, meanwhile, the Prime Minister arrived in Japan at an interesting moment, her plane presumably virtually banking to avoid a North Korean missile. Asked about the escalating (or at least not subsiding) crisis in South-East Asia, she termed the launch "outrageous" and suggested that the UN Security Council should resolve the problem. Collective solutions are good sometimes, it would seem, though the structure of the Security Council gives Donald Trump (along with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jingping) a veto on any solution, so it's likely to be a question of state-to-state solutions in the end.

Haddon's stories have at their core an awareness that traumatic events alter our histories, both individual and collective. ("Today will be different, not simply shocking but one of those moments when time itself seems to fork and fracture and you look back and realise that if things had happened only slightly differently you would be leading one of those other ghost lives speeding away into the dark.") He skilfully evokes the sensation of escape and the chill of privilege it occasions. ("Everyone can feel the thrilling shiver of the Reaper passing close, dampened rapidly by the thought of those poor people.")

The stories also underline, however, that those forks and fractures are constructed of choice. Some choices are positive: in the final story, The Weir, a lonely divorcé rescues a young woman from suicide by drowning, forming a friendship that sustains them both. Mostly, though, the choices of Haddon's characters are negative. In Wodwo, Gavin, a venal middle-class TV presenter, shoots a stranger who interrupts a family Christmas. The stranger makes a macabre recovery, promising to return the following year: Gavin struggles to cope with his actions, becoming homeless before being found by the same stranger and sent back to his family home to interrupt the next Christmas. He approaches the same French window, seeing the changes wrought by the year in his family. And then they look up: he has become the stranger, even to himself. ("The intruder light clicks on. He knocks twice on the glass. As one his family turn to look at him.") What could he have done differently? What can we do differently? Who's making the choices? We need answers but first we have to ask the questions.

The Boy Who Cried Nazi

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Footage of Hitler reflected in a glass display, IWM 2016. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

As a blogger with a background in Holocaust Studies, Godwin’s Law (sometimes the authoritative-sounding reductio ad Hitlerum) presents some problems for me. As originally formulated by Mike Godwin in 1990, it runs:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.

While I appreciate that as a Holocaust scholar and educator I’m a bit of a niche market, this commonplace of Twitter put-downs raises some problems for me.

First, from my perspective, there’s the problem that since I’ve invested an awful lot of time and effort in trying to understand the Holocaust and the Third Reich, the likelihood of my seeing resemblances that others don’t is slightly higher than average. At a recent session run by Robert Eaglestone of Royal Holloway on the cultural impact of the Holocaust, he asked the group to identify resonances between the Third Reich and the Harry Potter books. He said there were eight. I got to ten at a rate that slightly alarmed my ‘pair’ – though this may have been the fact that a grown man is so familiar with the differences between Purebloods, Half-bloods and Muggle-borns. (I will obviously refrain from repeating what Malfoy calls Hermione in Chamber of Secrets.)

The point here, though, is that neither I nor Eaglestone is suggesting that one has to read Harry Potter either as a neo-Nazi code or a passionate anti fascist parable. We’re suggesting that ideas and images from the Third Reich, World War II and the Holocaust have woven themselves deep into our subconscious, both individual and collective. Eaglestone’s most recent work takes as its starting-point the words of the late Nobel laureate and Auschwitz survivor Imre Kertesz, who in his 2002 Nobel Prize speech spoke of the “broken voice that has dominated European art for decades”.

My work, as I have described before, is concerned with the ways the Holocaust has become a mythology – in the sense used by Roland Barthes of “a language in which one speaks” of other things. In this sense, resonances and echoes are what I look for. Sometimes this is educationally effective, as when pointing out the “magical thinking” in the term “brainwashing” which many students use to talk about attitudes to persecution amongst “ordinary” Germans. Some of the problems faced by those who attempted to try and apportion responsibility for the Nazi era can be seen in the comment by Barty Crouch Junior (while disguised as Alastor ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody) in Goblet of Fire:

Scores of witches and wizards have claimed that they only did You-Know-Who’s bidding under the influence of the Imperius Curse. But here’s the rub: how do we sort out the liars?

To be clear: I wouldn’t suggest anyone quoted this in their History exams, or that the world created by J.K. Rowling is simply a vehicle for allegory. There are, however, some obvious ways in which the Harry Potter books are (in Eva Hoffman’s phrase) after such knowledge. Rowling’s magical hierarchy is, consciously or otherwise, very similar to the race laws of the Third Reich. That such pseudo-mathematical pigeonholing of human beings is not confined to that era (look up the word octaroon) also means, though, that we have to ask why these atrocities have caught our imaginations, both cultural and individual, so powerfully.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t draw attention to the resemblances where they occur. Not least because it allows us to critique more problematic examples of Holocaust discourse, such as John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which is most intelligible as a sentimentalised garbling of Holocaust representations rather than a response to the history itself.

In addition to the presence of Holocaust consciousness in fiction, there is a long history of invoking the Holocaust to describe the present in ways that are problematic. Peter Novick, in The Holocaust and American Life (1999), wrote of the ways in which the Holocaust had been instrumentalised by different causes: right, left and centre. Michael Marrus (in his 2016 Lessons of the Holocaust) has also questioned whether “universal lessons” are easily drawn, arguing that “lesson seeking often misshapes what we know about the event itself in order to fit particular causes and objectives [with] frequent unreliable basis in historical evidence and their unmistakable invitation to avoid nuance.”

A quick google of ‘abortion holocaust’ (a target of Novick’s) provides a case in point. Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust attempts to mobilise support to restrict the rights of women through a twisted appeal to high school social studies. Its assertion that “Any person born after January 22, 1973 is a survivor of the abortion holocaust” is as mendacious as any Holocaust denial website but in its cadences and vocabulary mimics the rhetoric of Holocaust remembrance just as its website attempts to mimic graffiti. Their Twitter feed also provides examples of Holocaust discourse, as well as sub-Trumpian attacks on “fake news” and Hillary Clinton: dire warnings of what would happen (in their view) if a woman’s right to choose stretched as far as holding high political office.

In instances like this, Godwin’s Law is not just a useful reminder that comparison can be emotive rather than accurate or helpful. It’s actually an alarm for dishonesty.

But this doesn’t address the real problem of whether a particular group can be termed “Nazi” or “fascist”. It does, though, bring into focus that Holocaust discourse and imagery is employed in many ways that stretch the facts. I became concerned that I had broken Godwin’s Law last week in referring to the events in Charlottesville as a “Neo-Nazi” demonstration. Was I ramping up the rhetoric without sufficient basis?

In the case of Charlottesville it seems that there were a variety of extremists present. Its very title, “Unite the Right”, indicates that it was intended to bring together disparate factions. The cause around which they came together, the statue of Robert E. Lee, was an American one. Images suggest the Confederate flag was as popular as any – though unambiguously Nazi imagery was certainly also present.

This diversity of extremity has made the search for an umbrella term rather difficult, not helped by the White House’s struggle to formulate a response that reaches (let alone goes beyond) equivocation. Not Nazis or fascists or white supremacists, they insist, but the “Alt-Right”.

(Only yesterday, He-who-should-not-be-president has attacked the removal of these monuments as “the history and culture of our great country” being “ripped apart”. Rather appropriately, his stance on this could be a line dance: one step forward and two steps back.)

But what does that mean? Does “Alt-Right” denote something new and different or is it just a marketing exercise; a veneer of respectability over old nastiness?

Part of the problem is that defining what MacGregor Knox termed the “fascist minimum” is not straightforward, since far-right movements are much more locally specific than others. If as Roger Griffin suggests, “palingenetic ultra-nationalism” (the extreme nationalism of national rebirth) is a good working definition, then umbrella terms will always be difficult to find. An Italian Fascist was different from a German Nazi, and both were different from a Spanish Falangist. Insistence on local difference and superiority will mean that “fascist” is likely to be an adjective ascribed by others rather than a name chosen by the group or individual in question. Though I would also point to images from Charlottesville which suggest there were plenty of people apparently flaunting their fascist or Nazi beliefs.

On these grounds, I’m happy to describe “Alt-Right” as an American fascism: insisting on a vision of racial superiority and the restoration of a mythical past (former “greatness”) through violence while positing “degeneracy” (of others, of course) as the root of all that is wrong: thanks to Rebecka Klette for highlighting this element.

That these views find expression amongst those who feel economically dispossessed and disconnected, and/or threatened by progress in social relations, merely lends weight to the comparison. An apparent obsession with a particular version of muscular, military, anti-intellectual masculinity lends more. The first target of Nazi book-burning was the Institute for Sexual Science run by Dr Magnus Hirschfeld: fear of other sexualities was a major part of the Nazi profile. Finally, one should remember that links between these examples go both ways: eugenics and biological racism were essential parts of the American view on race and German “racial science” acknowledged the debt.

But does this still make the label “neo-Nazi” overly reductive and unhelpful? Perhaps, but here’s the rub. If “Alt-Right” is the label these people prefer, then I choose to find something else, something less palatable in Peoria. If “neo-Nazi” causes the biggest shrieks of indignation and the most absurd verbal gymnastics to refute it, then I’ll use that, on the grounds that it clearly touches a nerve. In this instance, I’m with Mike Godwin, who tweeted the other day: “Referencing the Nazis when talking about racist white nationalists does not raise a particularly difficult taxonomic problem.”

Sign at the Womens’ March London, January 2017. Photo: Jaime Ashworth. 

Historical comparison is never exact and always requires a light touch: the sign above from the London Women’s March does the job with admirable clarity and a touch of humour. Situations arise in unique combinations and contexts, the actors similarly unique. But as long as we recognise that, we can also do what humans do best: use lessons from the past to guide future action.

To address the title of this piece: it should be remembered that the boy who cried wolf was eventually faced with a wolf. I suspect that we may have come to that point: whether all of those who gathered in Charlottesville last week were programmatic Nazis is beside the point. That their agenda and actions were not immediately and roundly called out by those in power is the problem. Keep shouting “Nazi”: even Mike Godwin is ok with that.

Crisis of Illusions

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Image: Jaime Ashworth, 2017. 

This is getting serious. I wrote a couple of days ago about the resemblance between the events of the past week and the summer of 1914: mostly suggesting that the isolation and unreality both the Trump presidency and the North Korean regime exist in contribute to attempts to ‘win’ Armageddon. As though a mushroom cloud could ever be something other than a Pyrrhic victory.

The neo-Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville (see picture below for evidence to support the name) and the subsequent limp dumb-show of concern from the White House lead me to suspect that the resemblance between the present United States and late Imperial Germany may go deeper still.

In 1961, Fritz Fischer, a professor of History at the University of Hamburg, published Griff nach der Weltmacht (published in English as Germany’s Aims in the First World War). In it he argued that Germany had exploited the crisis of 1914 in a deliberate attempt to become a world power. In a later book, War of Illusions (1969) he argued for Primat der Innenpolitik, the primacy of domestic policy: the idea that the German government, threatened by rising demands for democracy and especially by the success of the Socialist Party in prewar elections, used the foreign policy crisis to distract from domestic problems.

The idea that politicians use foreign policy to distract from or even solve domestic issues is by now a commonplace. From Nixon to Obama, US presidents have faced the charge that they have bombed their way back into the polls. Some have even been successful.

(Sidebar: any UK readers feeling smug at this point should remember the post-Falklands “khaki election” of 1983 and the “I support our troops” boorishness of the early Afghan and Iraqi campaigns.)

Fischer’s ideas have been subjected to criticism, most substantively on three grounds. Firstly that, while probably decisive, German actions in 1914 were reacting to a crisis that existed without them; secondly, that other powers (notably Britain) may have seen an opportunity to retard growing German influence; and, finally, that the document relied upon by Fischer was not produced until September 1914, after war had broken out.

Historical comparison requires a light touch. Situations are never replicated and lessons are learned. JFK, for example, was influenced during the Cuban Missile Crisis by Barbara Tuchman’s August 1914 which emphasised the need for clear thinking and communication during crises.

But the parallels are striking. An overprivileged and spoilt leader with a penchant for intemperate comments and no clear grasp of diplomatic realities (Trump’s tweets, the Kaiser’s Kruger Telegram). Domestic unpopularity and the need for a unifying external enemy. The sense that other powers are threatening to eclipse a power clinging on to hegemony by its fingertips: America first, Trump says, but first before whom?

None of these are necessarily novelties. Trump’s awfulness is blurring the memory of George W. Bush and his use of the military to play out a family feud in the desert of Iraq. The underlying problem of perceived American decline has been an American concern since before the decline really started, somewhere in the late 1960s. But now, in contrast to the late Cold War (when US dominance was ensured by the structural weakness of the USSR) there are several plausible rivals to the US: most notably China, which has intervened this week to remind both sides that they are bickering in its backyard and will pick sides based on who strikes first. The brief glow of pride in moving from a bipolar world (US/USSR) to a period of hegemony by default has faded as China and India rise, the EU has solidified into more than a trading bloc (if not a state, federal or otherwise), and even Russia has reacquired a measure of its former confidence.

So how does this link to the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville? Am I suggesting that they are part of a conspiracy to force the President to push harder? No, while shocked by his refusal to condemn them I don’t believe this was orchestrated in the crude sense: this is the third time such protests have been held. But the tenor of the Trump presidency since his inauguration has given them insidious permission to act out their fantasies.

In other words, they are in the grip of the same crisis of illusions as their president (chanting “Heil Trump” in some cases.) Their toxic attachment to the symbols of racial oppression is what got Trump elected and it’s the base to which he panders as his core support becomes his only support. His slogan of “Make America Great Again” allows his crowds to insert their own vision of American greatness to re-aspire to. Whether “greatness” signifies the genteel, syrupy savagery of the antebellum South (Gone with the Wind), the complacent vanilla of pre-desegregation suburbia (Mad Men), vacuous 1980s opulence (Dallas and Dynasty) or a post-apocalyptic redneck Reich (think Deliverance meets Mad Max) is up to the individual.

But all of these visions are pop-culture simulacra of things that either never existed or needed to end. And those shouting the loudest don’t know what to replace them with. The uncomfortable truth that their privilege was not just unearned but extorted from others just drives them further into fantasy. For all his bluster, Trump cannot deliver solutions that will address the problems of 2017 with the solutions of the 1930s. So he is left with what Fischer termed flucht nach vorn: flight forwards, from the economy, from healthcare, from (thankfully) failed immigration policy to…who knows.

Does Trump know the answer? It may be comforting to think he is simply #bereftofreason but the footage of him refusing to answer questions about Charlottesville told a different story. A man who tweets at the TV in the small hours of the morning refused to be drawn on the major story of the day. The much-tweeted commentary by the far-right drew attention to the lack of censure for them, characterising it as tacit approval. The blanks left in journalists’ questions are eloquent in themselves, as is Trump’s nonchalant body language ignoring them.

Remember this is a man who is so free with his opinions he started a nuclear crisis off-the-cuff. If he doesn’t speak, it means something. We must read into his silences that he is at least unconcerned or possibly actively pleased that his base is more concerned to preserve the legacy of the Confederacy than ask him to deliver, as long are there is an “Other” to disturb their nostalgia.

The exact nature of links between the Trump presidency and what its apologists term the “alt-Right” should be a matter for a Congressional grand jury and will be a concern for future historians. They may also try and establish links between this week’s events that go beyond them happening at the same time. They may even find them. What they will almost certainly ask is why those in all three branches of government did not do more to stop this. This is a crisis and requires the shedding of illusions by those who can stop this legally. Trump must be stopped.

Where were you when..?

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Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2017.

The current crisis over North Korea seems even more absurd when viewed through the umbrella of a pina colada. Gazing up at the palm trees, feeling the warmth of the Spanish sun and the breath of the breeze as I churn through paperbacks between swims, the idea of a crisis that threatens international stability seems very difficult to imagine.

Yet it is happening: thousands of miles away, a puffed-up incompetent is trying to bolster his ego with incoherent threats of the power and range of his nuclear arsenal. And apparently Kim Jong-Un is making some statements too. (Though I do want to know which ad agency focus-grouped #bereftofreason for the North Koreans: whoever it was, they scored, bigly. But then, as a character in Mad Men once observed, “Bombs are the ultimate product: they cost a fortune and can only be used once.”)

I have no way of changing whatever is going on in the Oval Office, but note that much of Trump’s rhetoric actually seems to be coming from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Since every day is a bad-hair day for the 45th US President, I assume the crisis stems from too much time in the sand traps: the only kind of bunker he should be allowed anywhere near, frankly. Or perhaps he’s having trouble swinging his wood. Either way, bringing the world to the edge of nuclear Armageddon is a drastic way to console himself.

But the golf club is a broader metaphor. A secluded and secure spot where the rules are predictable (if obscure), social interaction kept within limits (the faces on the website seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to his cabinet, being mostly male and white), and the most important qualification for entry is wealth. It’s effectively a womb with manicured lawns for the rich white male. The only difference between the golf club and the current White House is that the former clearly has balls (monogrammed with the Trump crest).

While our hotel is somewhat less exclusive than the Trump National, Bedminster, I can relate to the sense of security and predictability. I had a good breakfast, a nice swim and am writing this from a room just restored to pristine order by a smiling cleaner. I don’t want to leave, and can certainly relate to the rather remote view of the wider world that living in such enclaves year-round might engender. If asked to slide a paw out from the sun lounger to end life on Earth as we know it, it’s entirely possible that my first question would be whether I could order a cocktail with that.

But (thankfully) I’m not a world leader and the most complex choice I have to make this week is between varieties of cheese at the copious breakfast buffet. I am concerned, though, from my own recent tourist experience and looking at the reports of others via social media that we are shaping the world too much to suit the (relatively) affluent population’s notions of comfort and authenticity rather than engaging with the struggles of those around us.

Over dinner the other night, at a resort where every other vehicle seemed to be Italian and a phallus-replacement, African vendors passed among us at intervals trying to sell trinkets and knock-offs. Periodically they met to talk, their voices drifting over the sand, their shadows lit by flashing Minnie Mouse ears: their presence as disposable to many of the diners as the merchandise. They may have taken my refusal to engage in many ways, but essentially I was embarrassed (again) that people have to live this way.

In January, the body of a six year-old was washed up near Cadiz, though it didn’t receive the same coverage as the death of Aylan Kurdi two years ago. We’re not solving the problem, just ignoring it until it interferes with our summer holidays. There is footage this week of a boat of migrants/refugees landing in the middle of a tourist beach.

Across the world, the tension is rising and the spectre of another crisis is being evoked. This, we are told, is a rerun of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I’m reminded of the words of Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, describing the middle of the crisis in his memoirs:

It was a perfectly beautiful night, as fall nights are in Washington. I walked out of the president’s Oval Office, and as I walked out, I thought I might never live to see another Saturday

Similar hardware and strategic questions lend a superficial resemblance to Cuba: once again, the key question is whether missiles have sufficient range to reach an island target. To me, though, the current crisis seems much more similar to that of 1914 than 1962.

Firstly, the competence of the protagonists. Although JFK and Khrushchev both made mistakes, neither was unaware of the seriousness of the situation and measured their words and actions accordingly. In the back-and-forth of soundbites, threats and counter-threats, the US and North Korea are behaving like the monarchs of Europe in 1914: making policy on the spur of the moment and thinking they see how to ‘win’ Armageddon. Trump’s statement today that the US is “locked and loaded” reduces international politics to a bad TV cop show. Instead of taking tea at a palace, Trump is slicing into the rough in New Jersey.

Secondly, the complacency with which (from my bubble) this seems to have been received. Someone has put a giant chicken/Trump inflatable behind the White House, in the belief that the moment to tease an idiot is when he’s down. Or maybe they just want to be on the TV. When words and weapons are put together without thought, the result is bloody, as the leaders of Europe discovered a century ago.

Perhaps the answer is to give Trump a genuine bubble, in which he can be President of his own delusions in perpetuity, the burble of the (fake) news only just louder than the sprinklers. What seems certain is that if he continues in his current state of unreality while commander in chief of the most powerful military the world has ever seen, the end result will not be pretty.

The Menace of 45

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Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2017. 

There’s been a post circulating through my echo chambers on Twitter and Facebook the last day or so enjoining readers to refer to President Trump by some sobriquet rather than his name. (In the interests of fairness, its text is reproduced as an illustration below.) I think this needs to be opposed.

I should make clear before doing so that I respect the source: the daughter of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King would be worth listening to even if her mother’s words hadn’t been treated with such disrespect this week, along with the other brave woman persisting in being heard. There is much wisdom in what she says: I’m questioning its deployment by others as a deflection of outrage. It’s much too early to withdraw.

unnamedFirstly, the problem is his title. If Trump were in a post commensurate with his skills and aptitudes – say, Dogcatcher and part-time Village Idiot of Wherethefuck, Iowa (population 48) – he’d just be another of his voters, his misogyny and bad temper known only to an understanding television and a long-suffering dog. That he has the chance to shout his ignorance from the bully pulpit is exactly what’s so worrying rather than a side issue to be kicked into the long grass. The world must be acknowledged before it can be changed.  

People hating Trump being President is feeding his ego because it makes him feel important. His desire to feel important is what has brought us here. I acknowledge there is a circularity here. It is hard to draw attention to an attention seeker without giving him attention. He thrives on attention whether good or bad, so on some level, opposing him makes him feel just as wonderful as congratulating him does. 

But that’s no reason not to call him what he is. (And if the cost of calling him what he is, is making him feel a little bit more puffed up and preen his feathers, I can live with that).

Because the alternative is to imbue him with the magic of a taboo. He’s not Voldemort: he’s a dangerously unstable inadequate with the most powerful job in the world. If calling him President massages his ego a bit then at least his weirdly tiny hands are being kept away for a while from the big red button marked ‘Warning: ends all human life’. 

Calling him ‘The Menace of 45’ (as I’ve seen a few times) is also lending his inarticulacy an all-American grandeur that he conspicuously lacks. ‘The Menace of 45’ sounds like a movie starring John Wayne. The kind of square-jawed, lean-eyed man who wants to make ‘Merica Great Agin’: whose flinty eyes stare down the threat from beneath a stetson.

President Donald Trump, by contrast, is an obnoxious and boorish oaf in a baseball cap whose expression of vacuous and malevolent narcissism is more reminiscent of someone attempting to hold in a really, really bad fart on a big phone call. Or, more charitably, the non-speaking role in that notable presidential movie, Bedtime for Bonzo. 

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Ronald Reagan advises a young Donald Trump on the set of Bedtime for Bonzo (1951)

Much of the rest of the advice in the post is take-it-or-leave it. Emphasising that Trump is joined by a band of under qualified bigots and enabled by people so rapacious they make the velociraptors from Jurassic Park look like the cast of Fraggle Rock is good; more of that please. This disaster has been brought to you by a Republican Party which couldn’t scrape around the bottom of the barrel to find a better candidate: we should definitely keep reminding them that their spineless venality is part of the problem.

Absolutely do argue with those who support him, however. If we allow lies to go unchallenged we have lost. There’s no point checking your facts and then keeping them to yourself, nor is preaching to the choir likely to make much of a difference.

And as for remaining positive: if the news is bad, it’s bad. Commenting on the way the band is keeping time isn’t much use if the boat is sinking. Address yourself to change but let’s be clear: racists, bigots and idiots are taking the controls of the most powerful nation on earth. There isn’t a positive spin on that fact: the only way of finding a bright side begins with acknowledging what is the case. Anger and fear are bad, but power can be found in identifying what must be challenged, however depressing that is.

And by all means, support the arts: sensitivity, kindness and beauty are vital, as well as powerful forms of protest. The subaltern voice is never so audible as when it expresses through art what logic can only hint at.

And we’re all going to need a laugh, as well as reminders of what we’re fighting for. Many of the brightest moments at the march on 21 January were the witticisms. The Devil is a sourpuss: if you want to make him mad, laugh at him. 

But use Trump’s name. In the interests of terminological exactitude, we need to be clear. A spade is a spade; a turd is a turd; and a turd is the President. Don’t let anyone forget that, because if we do we lose any chance of defeating him.

This is a revised version of this post.

Normalisation and its discontents

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Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2014.

I like it when my musings on Twitter are acknowledged. The sense that you’re just part of a vast crowd baying at each other subsides and you glimpse the original purpose: to find new ways to connect. Many of my favourite tweeters and I have linked through debate and the recognition that their voice is worth listening to.

I also – I have to be honest – like the micro-massage of my ego that a ‘like’ or a retweet gives. ‘Oh, I might be making some sense is the thought that goes through my mind, though I appreciate that using cyberspace as an arbiter of sense is not a strategy without drawbacks.

But I was nonetheless pleased that a comment I made regarding the Trump presidency and fascism seemed to be picked up, albeit in a small way. To use the rather concerning metaphor of infection that tells us so much about the internet, I was barely communicable, much less viral.img_2470

My opinion, by the way is based on the work of Roger Griffin and Roger Eatwell, as well as twenty years of trying to understand the Nazi regime and its murderous policies. I was pleased that the comment was acknowledged and therefore curious when I received a fairly bald refutation in response.

img_2471I stopped for a while and considered what he had said. Was I becoming obsessed? One of those people who relies on third-hand summaries of second-hand accounts of made-up comments? Or could something else be going on? I retorted and await a response.

I was struck, though, that already the ‘reasonable’ voice is starting to be heard. We should be practical, it says. We should be realistic. We should be sensible. This isn’t fascism because it doesn’t threaten concentration camps or wear a uniform other than cheap baseball caps with a vacuous slogan.img_2473

In the Observer this morning, John Daniel Davidson attempts to argue that this is the hysterical reaction (his misogyny, not mine) of a liberal elite whose grip on power has been shaken by “millions of voters [who] have felt left behind by an economic recovery that largely excluded them, a culture that scoffed at their beliefs and a government that promised change but failed to deliver.” Perhaps if the Republican Congress had passed a better and easier ‘Obamacare’ things would be different. Instead, they shouted ‘Socialism’ very loudly until the cries from the emergency rooms they underfunded were drowned by shots from the guns they wouldn’t control.

In the Sunday Express, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey warns of “hysterical overreaction that poses a danger to the kind of constructive relationship we should have with the President.” The newspaper resorts to its favourite bromide in its headline: ‘Keep calm and Carey on’. For myself, the idea of the world’s only remaining superpower abandoning basic standards of truth and decency makes it impossible to keep calm and hard to carry on.

Meanwhile, a US court has upheld the suspension of the immigration ban introduced into law on Holocaust Memorial Day is unconstitutional. A wave of consumers protesting against strike-breaking by Uber seems to have led to its CEO resigning from an economic council advising President Trump. You could be forgiven for thinking that things are settling down, that perhaps the forces of reason are on the move, marching to their inevitable victory.

As a teacher currently dealing with the Nazi era and the early English Reformation, I’m struck by the way my students struggle with the idea of belief. Looking at the persecution of the Observant Friars by Henry VIII, one of my students looked up and, with the dismissive confidence that only teenagers can summon, asked: “What’s the big deal? Why couldn’t they just change their minds?” The idea that people might have believed in these ideas so passionately that they were prepared to suffer or even die for them was utterly alien, to be greeted with rolled eyes and a complacent assertion of modern (or rather, post-modern) superiority. It is this sense of ideology as a joke and the importance of the subjective over the empirical that has paved the way for ‘fake news’ and the peddling of ‘alternative facts’ by senior members of the Trump administration.

Looking at the Third Reich and its maintenance of a peacetime regime, students’ initial responses have (predictably) focused on the terror state. After absorbing the fact that the Third Reich could not have enforced security without the consent and collaboration of large numbers of its population, I have struggled against the notion of brainwashing, as though pervasive propaganda removes the need for moral choice.

Only as we have started to look in more detail at the crimes committed against Jews, Sinti and Roma, the disabled, homosexuals and people of colour have students really considered whether passive acceptance of propaganda is sufficient to explain silence in these things, let alone the cooperation that was required. Lists do not make themselves; doors do not unlock themselves; cars and trucks and trains do not drive themselves. A bullet can only be fired after a finger pulls the trigger. Claudia Koonz wrote in The Nazi Conscience that “what is frightening about the racist public culture within which the Final Solution was conceived is not its extremism but its ordinariness”.

The widespread lack of awareness (see the result below from a nationwide survey of secondary schools) that there is no recorded instance of any perpetrator being punished following a refusal to kill is an important social fact with implications for educators across and beyond disciplinary boundaries. People have choices: the consequences of the perpetrators’ actions and choices were neither remote nor hard to discern.

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Stuart Foster et al., What do students know and understand about the Holocaust? Evidence from English secondary schools, UCL Centre for Holocaust Education, London 2015, p. 163.

In February 1933, the Austrian-Jewish journalist Joseph Roth wrote to Stefan Zweig about the Nazi regime:

“You will have realized by now that we are drifting towards great catastrophes. Apart from the private — our literary and financial existence is destroyed — it all leads to a new war. I won’t bet a penny on our lives. They have succeeded in establishing a reign of barbarity. Do not fool yourself. Hell reigns.”

Roth died in Paris in 1939, an alcoholic émigré unable to find work. As I watch the way the media and others are circling to tell us what to think, how to be sensible, I’m reminded of the shattering end to Primo Levi’s essay ‘The Grey Zone’:

“…we too are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility: willingly or not we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death and that close by the trains are waiting.”

Yesterday, a friend of mine, the granddaughter on both sides of people who survived the Nazi era despite being marked for death as Jews, described how she was depressed by the constant flow of negativity, writing vividly of jogging through a Berlin forest to escape, finally stopping, hyperventilating into the icy fog of the morning. She concluded, though, by reminding us that “This may be bigger than us, but it is not stronger, nor smarter than our energies combined.” We keep shouting, keep focused on the truths that we can see are self-evident: that there were fewer people at the inauguration of 2017 than that of 2009; that there was no Bowling Green Massacre: this is not normal. We are not in the ghetto: though the lords of death may seek to reign they can only do so if we let them.

An earlier draft of this post disappeared without warning from the host server. 

Brexit: Now wash your hands

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I doubt I’m alone in having received an email from my MP last night explaining their vote to trigger Article 50. As my MP is Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit Secretary, his views – and indeed his speech – have been widely reported. I wanted to share my reply as a kind of protest against the failure of the Labour Party to do its current job and effectively challenge and hold the government to account. Voting for this makes that hard to envisage. One Labour MP reportedly told Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon that they “need a bath after that”: they appear to be their own shower. 

Dear Keir, 
Thank you for this email. I saw your speech in the Commons earlier today and was impressed as usual by your clarity, honesty and integrity. 

On the point at issue, however, I disagree. A majority of your constituents – myself included – voted clearly to Remain and I had hoped that you would follow suit, particularly since the government has a majority and there is no need to contradict the democratically agreed policy of the party – parliamentary colleagues such as John Mann and Gisela Stuart will likely ensure the electoral cowardice of the government achieves what pass for its aims. 

I’ve just seen another clip of your speech again. You are a democrat and have the backing of party policy, your constituents and most importantly your conscience to lead you into the ‘No’ lobby tomorrow evening.
Respectfully yours,
Jaime Ashworth 

On Tue, 31 Jan 2017 at 19:58, Keir Starmer <keir@camdenlabour.org.uk> wrote:

Keir Starmer 

Dear Jaime,

As you know, the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill is before the House of Commons this week. Since many of you have strong
views on the issue, I wanted to write to you to set out my approach to this Bill. I apologise for the lengthy email – but none of this is straightforward!

Having campaigned across the country – with many members
from Holborn & St Pancras CLP – for a ‘Remain’ vote, I was
saddened and frustrated by the outcome of the referendum. For me and for many Labour MPs the Article 50 vote now presents an agonising choice and I have thought long and hard about the right course of action.

Although I am fiercely pro-EU, I am also a democrat. The Labour Party voted in favour of the Referendum Act, which paved the
way for the referendum, and everyone who campaigned knew the outcome would be decisive. Some have argued that the referendum was merely
advisory. Legally that is true, but the arguments are not just legal –
they are deeply political and, politically, the notion that the
referendum was merely a consultation exercise to inform Parliament holds no water. Equally the argument the leave vote was only 37% of those eligible to vote loses its strength against the argument that less than 37% voted to remain. Neither side can claim that those who did not vote would have voted either to leave or to remain. We simply do not know.
There is a wider point. Since I was appointed to my current role, I have travelled all over the UK – including to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. I have met groups and individuals, held public events, talked to businesses large and small and discussed Brexit with different political parties and
leaders. 

From this, the evidence is clear: As a society we are more divided now than at any time in my life. The divide is deep and, in some instances, it is bitter. Labour must play its part in healing that divide: it cannot do so if it refuses to accept the outcome of
the referendum.

That is why I have repeatedly said that although I wish the outcome of the referendum had been different, I accept and respect
the result. 

It follows that it would be wrong simply to frustrate the process and to block the Prime Minister from starting the Article 50 negotiations. I will not therefore be voting against the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill this week.

The ballot paper on 23 June last year did not, however, give the Prime Minister power to act as she sees fit or to change our domestic laws or policy. That is why I have tabled a number of Labour amendments that would significantly improve the Bill and ensure Parliament can hold the Prime Minister to account
throughout negotiations. I will be taking these amendments through for Labour in the House of Commons next week.

First, these amendments would ensure MPs have a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal – that means the House of Commons has the first say on any proposed deal before it is considered by the European Council and Parliament. This would strengthen the
House of Commons’ ability to influence the negotiating process
and mean that MPs could send the Government back to the negotiating table if they are unhappy with the proposed final deal.

Second, the Government should report back to Parliament
regularly during the negotiations so that progress can be known and
checked. Labour has also tabled amendments that establish a number of broad principles the Government must seek to negotiate, including protecting workers’ rights and securing full tariff and impediment free access to the Single Market. We will also try to ensure that the legal status of EU citizens already living in the UK is guaranteed before negotiations begin – a point that is long overdue.

It is also important to recognise that the triggering of Article 50 is merely the start of the process for leaving the EU, it is not the end.

Any changes the Prime Minister seeks to make to domestic law would need separate legislation to be passed through Parliament,
whether through the Great Repeal Bill or more widely. Labour will
argue throughout for a Brexit deal that puts jobs and the economy
first and protects vital workers’ rights and environmental
protections. We also totally reject the Prime Minister’s threat to rip
up the economic and social fabric of the country and turn Britain into a tax haven economy if she fails in her negotiations.

As Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU I have been very clear that Labour will hold the Government to
account every step of the way. 

I know that many members have urged me to reflect the
75% Remain vote in Holborn and St Pancras by voting against Article 50 and resigning my post in the Shadow Cabinet.

I see the argument, but that would prevent me pressing Labour’s amendments, it would prevent me questioning the Government relentlessly from the front bench over the coming years and
it would prevent me fighting as hard as I can for a Brexit on the
right terms. 

It would be to walk off the pitch just when we need effective challenge to government. I believe that would be the wrong
thing to do.

I know that not everyone will agree with my approach,
but I hope that my explanation helps.

All best,

Keir

Keir Starmer

Labour Member of Parliament for Holborn and St.
Pancras 

http://www.keirstarmer.com/

http://www.keirstarmer.com

Holborn and St Pancras Labour Party, 110 Gloucester
Avenue, NW1 8HX

On Holocaust Memorial Day, 2017

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It’s Holocaust Memorial Day today. The theme for this year is ‘How can life go on?’ I suspect many can relate to my growing alarm and sadness at the way the world seems to be twisting itself out of shape: questioning what ‘going on’ means.

For many at this time, ‘Going on’ at this time requires enormous courage – even more than usual – in the face of uncertainty and in some cases open hostility and violence. And I know that as a straight, white, middle-class male my position is privileged: I could largely ignore these threats if I wanted to.

I don’t encourage comparisons with the Nazi era as a rule: but the mendacity, arrogance and total disregard for truth that have characterised the Trump presidency thus far seem to me to justify them more and more.

Teaching my students about the Third Reich, we have reached the point at which we need to look at the question of resistance. Of when those who could pass by needed to stop; when petty advantage could and should have been outweighed by a duty to the other who is also ourselves. The words of Martin Niemoller are famous:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

But we’re also looking at the way the belief that they were alone stayed many hands from opposing what they felt to be wrong. As Emmi Bonhoeffer, the sister of the murdered Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said: “Resistance: we were like stones in a river as the torrent washed over us.”

We can, however, steer in the torrent, even ride it. The BBC journalist Nick Robinson tells of how his grandfather, a German Jewish doctor, was rung by an ‘Aryan’ patient to ask if they could have an appointment – but come in the back entrance to the surgery. His voice – his polished, professional, BBC voice – cracks with emotion as he tells the story, more than seventy years later. The patient wanted the treatment but not to take the risk that it would entail.  Many of us in the next while may be tempted by similar half-measures, similar compromises: by sending private messages of support or shaking our heads as we keep them down, out of sight.

But it won’t be enough. The rhetoric of the Trump campaign and the early moves by the administration indicate a desire to repress, to enslave and to torture that is chillingly complacent in its assertion of white, male, Christian identity. Shaking our heads won’t get the job done. Christabel Bielenberg – an Englishwoman who lived through the Third Reich and whose husband was arrested after the Bomb Plot of 1944 – wrote of how “each small demand for our outward acquiescence could lead to the next, and with the gentle persistence of an incoming tide could lap at the walls of just that integrity we were so anxious to preserve.” It is the characteristic of populism to try and make the private space so small that there is no room for dissent, and to reward inaction. 

We have to push back. The photos in this article were taken last Saturday at the London Women’s March: a carnival of peaceful, joyful opposition to the forces of compromise, with every kind of participant and every kind of cause emblazoned. (And yes, I realise a man taking pictures of women raises questions: all I can say is that I’ve tried to present powerful women in charge of themselves rather than passive subjects.)

As I marched, I wondered if this mood of defiant optimism in the face of petulant negativity would be sustained. Whether I could sustain it. And then I looked at the four defiant women I was marching with: all of them have the Holocaust in their family histories and all of them recognise the importance of adding their voice. All of them see the need to keep shouting.
More importantly, though, the march reminded me of the truth in the quote of Martin Luther King that has been over-used this week: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” He said many other things and – as many have pointed out this week – was in some sense speaking of peace in a space created by more forthright techniques. But it’s true, nonetheless.

This week has reminded me of not just how I can do this – by encouraging and modelling the values of compassion, curiosity and exploration of moral complexity – but also why: because someone who is compassionate will feel for others; someone who is curious will ask questions; someone who sees moral complexity is more likely to be sceptical of simplistic explanations. But mostly because, in the words of the late Elie Wiesel:

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

These were the words that drove the Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations last year, when the theme was ‘Don’t stand by.’ Perhaps this was a kind of prophecy, a warning of things to come, a reflexive twitching in response to approaching thunder. Or perhaps the the time is simply out of joint. Whatever our answer, we must put it right. Love trumps hate, and if we doubt if we can change things, well: yes we can. 

None of the Above

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Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2016.

In David Hare’s play The Absence of War, about a privately charismatic Labour leader unable to connect with voters through a web of political advice and spin, a senior political adviser bemoans the diversity of opinion that is a feature of Labour politics. “It’s easy for the Tories,” he complains, “They’ve got money and power to unite around. What have we got? Bloody justice. And no two definitions of that are ever the same.”

While it might be argued that a progressive politics necessarily stems from vigorous debate informed by passionately held principles, the last few months have demonstrated the other side of that: an emphasis on ideological purity and groupthink at the expense of the party’s alleged political goals of either holding the government of the day to account (the job of the official opposition) or winning power to implement change (pretty close to a textbook definition of a political party). As a follower of two Twitter accounts (@GentlerPolitics and @LabourAbuse) devoted to chronicling the abuses of both sides, I can testify (with many others) to the intensity and abusiveness of the debate. It has, however, generated much more heat than light. While I regret saying this (but not as much as I will once this piece is available to comment on, I suspect) I can’t see how I can vote for either candidate.

Let’s start with Jeremy Corbyn. I didn’t vote for him, because I think that fundamentally he’s wedded to a political model that has passed its sell-by date and is temperamentally a (frequently principled and often right) rebel rather than a unifier. Poachers can turn gamekeeper but they have to be wary of shooting themselves in the foot. He has discovered the hard way why Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Brown and Milliband would all have preferred him to toe the party line at various points. For his supporters to complain about parliamentary disloyalty is as hypocritical as the actions of many in his Shadow Cabinet were craven as they fled the coop when they became afraid the liberal sheen was about to come off him post-Brexit. Though in fairness Corbyn has, in regard to Trident, proved himself capable of criticising his party’s policy while leading it.

And then there’s antisemitism. Ken Livingstone’s comments were misinformed and offensive, and the failure to respond decisively was damaging. The response in the Vice.com documentary to an article by Jonathan Freedland was frankly bizarre: describing it, without any obvious foundation or subsequent explanation, as “disgusting” and “subliminal” suggests some agenda I can only guess at but many others have concluded about. The figures for his appearances in support of the Remain campaign are contested, but his reluctance to appear alongside those he disagreed on other issues with – like David Cameron, Tony Blair or Gordon Brown – is clear and puts his relationship to Hamas and Hezbollah back on the table as indicating his point of view rather than (as claimed) his desire to explore issues with those he disagrees with.

As for the response to the incident… I think Shami Chakrabarti has done more than enough in her career to justify a peerage but her report was anaemic at best, as some of the abuse chronicled in the Twitter accounts mentioned above has shown. Corbyn’s remarks at the launch were incompetent rather than malicious, but suggested a failure to take the issue or the audience seriously. The offensive remarks addressed to a Jewish MP by an activist who was later greeted warmly by Corbyn reinforce the view of him as one of the following: a fierce holder of principles with very limited ability to maintain focus when an issue doesn’t interest him; someone who didn’t understand why the remarks were offensive; or someone who agreed with the sentiment. Any of these are deeply problematic qualities in a potential Prime Minister (which is what Corbyn allegedly is): sometimes, annoying and frustrating as it is, you do have to accept the premise of the question. To govern is to choose, but you can’t always choose the issues you govern on, or the choices available.

Choiceless choice leads neatly to the candidacy of Owen Smith. While he may offer an alternative, and is certainly the most defiant spectacles-wearer to run for major political office since, well, John Major, he shares with the former Prime Minister a kind of anti-charisma. Major’s fashion sense combined with Tony Blair’s hand gestures and just a hint of predatory scoutmaster is not an appetising package.

In terms of his policy views, his soundbite on Newsnight that “There are too many immigrants in parts of Britain” suggests that Smith needs to learn when the premise of the question does need to be challenged. His statement in the leadership debate that “The Prevent strategy, that is grossly undermined and under-resourced in this country, ought to be at the forefront of Labour’s policy, making sure we foster better community relations in Britain” is even more troubling. Prevent, which is the unholy love-child of Theresa May as Home Secretary and Michael Gove at Education, mandates (among other things) that teachers report potential radicalisation to the authorities. Salma Yaqoob has described in the Guardian how her son suffered sleepless nights after being reported for participating in a WhatsApp group and suggested that Prevent “fosters the very climate of division and fear in which extremism grows.” A senior member of staff at a prestigious home-counties FE college described to me at an interview how a talented student had been interviewed for ninety minutes about her plans to visit family in Iran and how, as one of the approximately 20% of British teachers from BAME backgrounds, he was profoundly uncomfortable with the policy and the barriers it placed between staff and students in reporting genuine concerns. A far cry from the “cohesive, integrated multi-faith society [and] parliamentary democracy” it claims to be defending. Smith’s support of Prevent suggests that he is more interested in raising the level of social control than addressing the root causes of social problems. It signals a mixture of opportunism and limited vision that is less the dawn of a new era than the dusk of liberal politics.

As Richard Pryor’s character discovers in the 1980s classic Brewster’s Millions, “None of the Above” is a seductive slogan. Many reading will suggest that I too have to accept the premise of the question and vote one way or another, or that I am making politicians scapegoats for problems that extend well beyond their – or anyone else’s – control. They may also ask how I intend to vote in a General Election: thankfully, under the present circumstances, I’m unlikely to have to worry about that for a while. In any case, living in a safe Labour seat occupied by an MP I respect, the democratic deficit is likely to work in my favour.

But the leadership of the Labour Party is not a contest that requires my participation in the way a General Election does: it is what Anthony King has termed the “democracy of the fervent few”. It is the job of political parties to present coherent, practical and reasonably attractively packaged policies so that I can exercise my right in a democratic society to choose who to vote for: in my case for policies that try to thread the (perhaps impossible) needle of retaining and advancing social justice without descending into statism. It is also a question of presenting the ability to execute policy; to legislate as well as agitate, with the compromises and attention to boring detail that entails. Democracy of the fervent few requires a fervour that neither candidate inspires, and therefore: I’m out.