Tough Words for Powerful Things

“A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.”

—  Jeanette Winterson

I have just discovered the searing, startling literature of Jeanette Winterson (so, so late to the party that the lights are on and everyone has stumbled blinking into the dawn) –  and in line with her excellent quote above, I am posting some great spoken word – poetry and prose – that offerspowerful reflections on migration, belonging and Britishness.

Mathematics, by poet Hollie McNish

The British by poet Benjamin Zephaniah

and the Migrant Manifesto by writer, commentator, activist (and my favourite football pundit), Musa Okwonga.

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In all honesty

Not that immigration is ever really off the agenda, but there has been a flurry of activity on the topic in recent days, particularly as the Tories continue to unveil increasingly desperate and unbelievable plans to reform EU immigration. Two articles, written by Matthew Parris in the Times and British Future director Sunder Katwala in the Guardian, really struck a chord with me, particularly as they sum up two sides of an argument.

In his article, Sunder argues that Britain’s pro-migration majority could be unlocked if they could voice their concerns without being condemned as racist – particularly as to be concerned about immigration does not automatically make you a racist. He cites some forthcoming research by British Future, that I look forward to reading, that shows that while most people are concerned about immigration, they recognise the contribution that migrants make the country. He implores the anti-racists to stop being so shrill about people who air their concerns about migration, because this shuts down the debate that everyone wants to have:

“There is clear evidence that there is an anti-racist majority in Britain, not just an embattled “anti-racist minority”.

Of course, it isn’t racist to talk about immigration – as long you do so without being racist.

That’s the debate people want. Anti-racists would have much to gain from that, if they stopped shouting almost as shrilly as the populist xenophobes – which only closes down the conversation that Britain’s moderate majority would like.”

I agree that the majority of British people aren’t prejudiced. But I have two problems with Sunder’s argument: false equivalence and insincerity (not from him, but in terms of these “reasonable concerns” that people have about immigration).

Yes, the anti-racists are muscular and rebut anti-migrant rhetoric robustly. Why is this? It’s not because we feel like we’re an embattled minority – but because we’re having to punch through a lot of noise. The virulently racist minority, despite their aggrieved persecution complex about how the jackboot of liberalism silenced and continues to silence their concerns about immigration, have their voices amplified and dignified by politicians and the majority of the media. They have a national platform. And while politicians bend over backwards to adopt the racists’ language and terms of reference for the immigration debate (also driving the news agenda and getting the front page headlines), they also cloak these concerns in a mantle of respectability and “common sense”. To the extent that – and here’s my second gripe with Sunder’s article – the root of their dissatisfaction, that apparently echoes everyone else’s,  isn’t even interrogated.

Because, while I do think it’s not racist to be concerned about immigration, it rarely finds its expression in the “moderate” way that Sunder longs for. Too often, it hitches its caboose to the overtly racist and prejudiced minority. And that- I think, is nothing to do with anti-racist counter-narratives, and all to do with the domination of what little public space there is to debate this issue by the frames, language and misinformation of the racist minority.

However, having said that I don’t think it’s racist to be concerned about immigration, I don’t think we ever scratch beneath the surface of that. It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it, the thought that any one of us may be harbouring prejudices? We often think of racism as the flagrantly prejudiced burning crosses/graffiti’d wall/violent attack variety, instead of its more common, nervy and slightly shifty and uneasy garden variety cousin.

Matthew Parris got to the heart of that with the most honest article on immigration I’ve read all year. He starts off by imagining a conversation with one of these “moderately” disgruntled anti-immigration types, in which the person identifies (as is often the case) pressure on public services and the indigenous population missing out as a key driver of her dissatisfaction with immigration. Parris then imagines that a politician suggests that she might solve the problem by putting aside a pot of money to help local authorities overcome any challenges and plan ahead to provide the services necessary for  a growing population, and to ensure that no one jumps the proverbial queue ahead of Brits (this doesn’t actually happen but that’s another story. It has become part of the anti-immigration canon now). Parris suggests that this person would probably still be unhappy, because, the truth is, the driver for their concern is fear. Fear of Other, fear of scarcity at a time of austerity, and sometimes, straight-up racism. Parris suggests this because we know from experience now that countering lies such as the one about access to services above with facts about the net contribution of migrants to Britain, and the rules for migrants with regards to benefits etc, has little to no effect.

So often I’ve seen commentators exhorting those defending migrants to drop the “dry” statistics articles and make an appeal to the heart. The truth is this – the statistics don’t work not because they’re dry but because the truth of the matter is besides the point. People are feeling a certain way and it’s not connected to reality. Parris suggests that the vast majority of people have not, in their own lives, been directly impacted by immigration, though they may worry about it on a macro level. That doesn’t mean that their feelings aren’t sincere. But just because you feel something (and I say this as a very emotional person) doesn’t make it real. Perhaps because the debate we’re actually having (on the supposed economics of it all, welfare etc) isn’t the real issue. Globalisation, insecurity, cuts to local services – we don’t discuss that.

And the fact that as the song in the deliciously mischievous musical Avenue Q goes, “Everyone’s a little bit racist” – well, at the very least we all have our prejudices – we don’t discuss that. We don’t interrogate why some of us just feel a bit bewildered by all the “difference”….on TV, in London…Britain…the 21st Century. It’s ok to feel that. But let’s be honest about how when we talk about immigration, we are often talking about a host of other things too. Things that make us feel a bit bad about ourselves. And perhaps the problem isn’t the Other, but lies a lot closer to home.

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Chasing Status

“Surprised Brits” is the phrase coined for long-term migrants and British citizens who have suddenly found themselves to have irregular status thanks to the tougher immigration regime. If you’re not a migrant yourself, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be in constant pursuit of papers. The right papers. Papers that change with government press releases, at least annually. To qualify for status one year, and then a few years later not qualify for an extension of the same status, even though nothing about you has changed. Britain always changes – or at least the immigration regime does.

That’s the case for some of these people, but for many more, who came to the UK as children, they assumed they were British – and are now finding out that they are not as British as they thought they were, even if it may be their home, perhaps even the only home they know.

Chasing Status tells the stories of this group: those who, after living most of their lives in the UK, find that following legislative changes they are suddenly unable to work or claim beneits. Having long taken their Britishness for granted, such people ‘can’t believe their nationality, much less their lawful presence, is being questioned’

This isn’t surprising. The hostile environment campaign is making life difficult for so many migrants – and Brits; it’s not just a case of legality, as Theresa May would have us all believe, but of family, community and dignity. Chasing Status is the name of the report by Legal Action Group (link above in first paragraph). It’s worth a read.

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Clacton II

So, he won. Douglas Carswell won his seat back as a UKIP candidate. It has been hailed as a grassroots uprising, the birth of four-party politics in the UK.

Grassroots? Carswell is establishment (and so is Farage but that’s a story for another day). Would UKIP have won if they fielded their own unknown candidate? Maybe. Maybe not.

Four-party politics? Now they have an MP. So do the greens.

Predicably, the media backlash has been personal – Farage has said something stupid (again), calling for HIV positive people who migrate to the UK to be excluded. Scaremongering, for sure, especially in these times of Ebola panic. But he tends to say something stupid on a regular basis, but it’s not made a big deal of until he rocks the boat a teensy bit too much. He should be roundly condemned for the statement, but let’s not pretend that this is a one-off or that the people voting for UKIP really care about UKIP policies or controversies, beyond the simple, reflexive EU exit and cutting immigration. Otherwise they’d be a bit perturbed at UKIP calls to privatise the NHS, among other crazy policies.

It *is* remarkable that UKIP have broken through to get an MP, but it looks less like a people’s revolution than the rearranging of the deckchairs in the crazy section of HMS establishment. But as narratives go, nuance isn’t as sexy.

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The Truth Needs New Shoes

“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” – Mark Twain

Following yesterday’s rant about lies, damn lies and witches, I read three great articles that got me thinking about truth. And politics. (I know, I know…)

One Polly Toynbee on the Liberal Democrats and their difficulties in campaigning on their record in government while deriding the Tories (a bit like picking a few raisins out of an elephant turd – my assessment, not Polly’s). She makes the point that given public trust in them is so low, the Lib Dems could be daring – and tell the political truths that no one is willing to own up to. (see David Cameron cutting taxes on the way to abolishing the deficit, or Labour’s self-flagellating apology tour – grovelling about pretty much everything (immigration, a global financial crisis) but the stuff they should really apologise for (monstering asylum seekers, the War, etc.) She does concede that an unfettered Tory government would probably have done all sorts of things, like abolished the Human Rights Act and the BBC…but that “stopping the worst is their best claim, though what-ifs make thin gruel for campaigning.” My favourite line is: “Jeremiahs don’t get elected, says political folklore, but telling hard truths without necessarily having all the answers might be their route back to public respect.”

Two Joan Smith on the Tories’ anti-human rights agenda. It’s a great article looking at how human rights, like political correctness, has become the scourge of the right. And how ridiculous that is. Most alarming is her observations on the British Bill of Rights proposals:

“Don’t be taken in by the spin that they’re just replacing a messy piece of legislation with a sensible British Bill of Rights. Since Cameron’s speech in Birmingham, headlines have focused on proposals to turn the ECHR into an “advisory body” whose judgments are no longer binding on the UK. This would set a precedent for countries with terrible human rights records, including Russia, which has lost many more cases before the court than the UK. But that’s not the half of it. The Bill would apply only to British territory, according to a policy document published two days ago, so allegations of human rights abuses by British forces serving abroad could no longer be heard in a British court.”

Three A typical barn-stormer from Aditya Chakraborty: Cut benefits? Yes. Let’s start with our £85bn corporate handout. He fleshes out the issue of coporate welfare – a vague, little-reported, barely-understood but shocking issue. It also shows how language is so important. Who is scrounging now? To me, this article reminds me of US Senator Elizabeth Warren’s riposte to the “wealth creators” in the US: “You didn’t build that”.

“Politicians and pundits talk about welfare as if it’s solely cash given to people. Hardly ever discussed is corporate welfare: the grants and subsidies, the contracts and cut-price loans that government hands over to business. Yet some of our biggest companies and industries operate a business model that depends on them extracting money from the British taxpayer.”

 

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A very modern witch hunt

downloadI have  long list of books on my to-read list. At the moment I’m thoroughly enjoying Roxane Gray’s Bad Feminist, but now I’ve added the Penguin Book of Witches to my (constantly mushrooming) list.

The NPR review highlights that this is more than just an interesting trawl through history; the past has resonances in the present, particularly with regards to the reasons behind the witch hunts (in addition to a hatred/fear of women):

“Many of the scholarly conclusions as to what underscored the witch hunts are exculpatory, to some degree: it was agricultural ignorance, or it was a mold outbreak, or it was something else comfortingly remote from a contemporary audience.

And the most haunting truth that emerges in The Penguin Book of Witches is that there’s no such reassurance to be found. The reasons behind the accusations were certainly varied, but in their simplest form, the witch hunts happened when government seized the chance to prove its authority by persecuting those outside community protection.”

The review also touches on the difficulty of mounting a nuanced, counter-narrative to propaganda and critiquing government institutions, which made me think of the immigration and welfare debates.

I rant and rave all the time on these two topics because the government’s tone in these “debates” is downright offensive. It promotes the message that people on benefits (the majority of whom are pensioners or working poor) are “on the take” or lazy is a horrid throwback to a Victorian-style morality on poverty.

When it comes to immigration, government agencies – the Home Office in particular – paint caricatures of immigrants in much the same way, except they are able to steal jobs and welfare at the same time. Anecdotes are presented as trends or facts. Evidence is suppressed if it is inconvenient or misconstrued wherever possible.

That it’s the government doing this, with its resources and ability to influence and distort the media and public agenda, is truly dispiriting. It presents a real challenge to marginalised communities and civil society organisations to battle against, as the public mood is stoked and soured.

What I find revealing about both of these debates is that they are on issues that the government is struggling to assert its authority on. Some of this is out of its control. Globalisation means that people are on the move around the world, and despite the anguish of UKIPpers, it’s not one-way traffic (ask the Spanish about the transformation of places like Costa del Sol into British enclaves).

When it comes to welfare, you can’t look at that without looking at the world of work and the fact is that too many people aren’t earning enough to live with dignity without a top-op from the government. I’ll leave it to economists to ascertain how much control the government has over that – but I’m leaning towards the fact that it has a big lever that it can use to make the markets work better for people  – no, for me the real striking similarity on both issues is that the government will not (cannot?) be honest with people about the issues.

Let’s go with “will not”.

They won’t say that we can’t (if that’s your gripe) stop immigration, but we can prepare better and make it work for the country, equipping local councils to deal with changing populations and the pressure on public services.

They won’t say that it has helped to build Britain as we know it and is key to continuing this.

They won’t say that most of the welfare budget goes to pensioners, and they are the ones who vote, so they try to tread gently there and come down harder on everyone else.

They won’t say that for some people, work doesn’t pay more than benefits and this is a problem with the WORK, not the benefits, if the assessment for what you need to live with dignity is a figure higher than what the private sector is offering in some cases.

They won’t say that benefit fraud is a tiny amount, compared to tax evasion.

They won’t admit that blame for the crash lies with the financial sector but that the public is paying for it – that they are the biggest benefits recipients of all, and they still get to profit and gamble with the blank cheque that we’ll always pick up the bill with a bail-out.

And so if you don’t diagnose the problem properly, your solutions won’t hit the mark. Furthermore, when your solutions inevitably fail (immigration cap as a case in point) you doubly disappoint and further undermine public trust in politicians. At the same time, you’ve talked up the problem to the point that it’s a perpetual crisis – a crisis that you now can’t address because the solutions (stop immigration!) are impossible in the real world.

So….you assert your authority. The best way to do that is a modern-day witch hunt.

 

 

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(really) Small Politics

“This is electioneering on the backs of Europe’s most vulnerable. Under these plans human rights would be reserved for only those people the Government decides should get them. This is a blueprint for human rights you would expect from a country like Belarus.” – Tim Hancock, Amnesty UK.

“Puerile” “highly problematic, to put it mildly” “unworkable”

These are just a few of the adjectives experts and lawyers have used to denounce the Tory plans to repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights unless they get certain exemptions. I can think of a few countries that would like to withdraw from various international conventions on human rights or to have special exemptions. Yeah… is that the company we want to keep? And while we are members of the UN Human Rights Council? While we presume to stomp around the world making speeches and dropping bombs in the supposed defence of human rights?

“Limiting the application of human rights law to ‘serious’ cases and making them subject to ‘civic responsibilities’ is really a way to restrict rights to people the Government likes. Rights will be rebalanced to fit with the ideological leanings of one section of the Tory party.” – Adam Wagner, human rights barrister.

Apart from the very real and chilling problems with the proposals, as explained by a number of legal experts (such as in this article by Democratic Audit), I find the short-termism of the Tories quite breathtaking. They just want to win the election, to hell with what they do when they get there. They don’t even seem to have a reason to get there other than they want to or feel that they’re owed a shot at the big time (I’d say the same is true of the other parties, apart from the Greens).

They’ll promise to withdraw from the EU, roll back the human rights regime, probably even bring back the death penalty if that’s what it takes. Some of them might then do that awkward thing where they campaign against their own proposal, but in reality what will probably happen is that given the chance they would just follow through – regardless of the consequences, regardless of the cost, to satisfy a demented but vocal section of Little England and its super-charged allies in the press. The contrast with the inspiring and fundamental debate that Scotland had just last month is breathtaking.

These policies are basically drawn up with Farage and the Sun in mind (and the crazy wing of the Tory party, which, quite frankly, is eating the rest of the party up anyway).  But we would all have to live with it. And there will be fewer avenues to address the lies of austerity and miscarriages of justice. I don’t want to have my rights and defined by a small section of the Tory Party, the Daily Mail and UKIP. Human rights are there precisely for those who are marginalised and vulnerable. The reason most of us never need to claim them is because we have them already, and we are fine. But the poisonous Tory rhetoric which saves its arrows for the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised (and, yes, even criminals, whose human rights we preserve because they are human not because they “deserve” anything) is creating a crueller, smaller-minded country.

This is small politics that makes moral pygmies of us all.

Populism dressed up as “common sense” leaves us all naked.

 

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Party On

We’re just emerging from party conference season. Today David Cameron promised tax cuts for those who earn the most and the least, hot on the heels of George Osborne’s pledge to cut even more from welfare – but not pensioners, who make up the bulk of those on welfare (and who happen to vote), and not the disabled (though they’re still getting slammed by the bedroom tax. So…cuts will hit those who are already struggling so that “welfare doesn’t pay more than work” but there is nothing to address in-work poverty, which the Joseph Rowntree Trust has pointed out has grown. And for ethnic minorities, they found, it’s even worse.

Miliband forgot some stuff, but remembered some other stuff. Labour’s message, which emerged from the fog of conference, sounded to me like something-something mansion tax something-something hard choices something-something cutting child benefits. See…the problem here is, when the Tories are mean, they at least throw some tax cut candy in there. Labour just looks like it’s aping them. But what’s the point? As Sunny Hundal pointed out today, they are doing so to win credibility from a section of the press that won’t give them any, while sounding unconvincing and uninspired to the rest of us:

“The media’s attitude to Labour on austerity has been akin to Eurosceptics Tories with Cameron: forever demanding more concessions without giving an inch.”

UKIP meanwhile, were batshit crazy as always. Farage claimed that Cameron raised the terror threat level and recalled MPs to vote on bombing the “Islamic State” to distract from their conference. Yeah. But he still managed to make the political weather with Reckless’ defection and nabbing a Tory donor too. I still think that UKIP are allowed to influence the agenda in a way that is disproportionate to their number of MPs (to date, zero) compared to, say, the Greens. They will probably win in Clacton, but for a party that’s meant to be a grassroots insurrection, they seem to rely heavily on poaching MPs with ready-made support bases.

So far, so establishment.

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Rolling in the Deep

Since I finished my dissertation, I’ve been MEH. Sure, I’ve had thoughts, I’ve even started some posts, only to run out of steam after the first sentence. Maybe I was a bit burnt out….?

Then today, I heard Aretha Franklin ripping up Adele’s Rolling in the Deep and I couldn’t help but write a little something. Now, my critques: it’s a bit overproduced, in the way that producers seem to do when they have a legendary talent in the studio. It’s as if they panic about keeping a person relevant and current and forget that this person can actually sing. So… the production values are a little too slick. And others have raised the spectre of autotune. Perhaps a touch? But you can’t deny the best part of it….

Her voice. Aretha takes Rolling in the Deep, which I love anyway, and gives it edge and soul. I do love Adele’s pared-back (by comparison) version which is moving and defiant, but when Aretha sings:

Go ahead and sell me out and I’ll lay your shit bare/See how I’ll leave with every part of you/Don’t underestimate the things that I will do….

…you believe it. She brings out a deliciously threatening quality to the song (in the same way that Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ song Retreat gives me exquisite chills) until Aretha stalks through it and lets her voice into every nook and cranny of it.

I’m also not sure about the foray into Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, but her treatment of the song just has me in ecstasies. I’ll forgive that.

 

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Soft (Panda) power

I’ve finished my dissertation now, but thinking is like wading through treacle. The only thing to permeate the fog (as I come back to myself) is a very interesting articles on pandas.

Yes, clearly I don’t like pandas. This is well-documented. But I hadn’t fully appreciated how they were used as a diplomatic tool by the Chinese government, which actually rents them out to trade allies. Naturally, zoos get a bump in visitor numbers, but I hadn’t realised the animals were being rented.

The Observer article has a  great quote from researcher Kathleen Buckingham:

“A new phase of panda diplomacy is under way. Panda loans are associated with nations supplying China with valuable resources and symbolise China’s willingness to build trade relationships,” said Buckingham.

She likens the loans to Asian rulers’ traditional gifts to foreign powers of rare white elephants in the knowledge that they would cost a fortune to keep but ensure closer relations. “The panda may be the modern-day white elephant – a powerful emblem of the modern Chinese nation,” she said.

So – to recap, these furry white elephants (didn’t know that was the origin of the phrase!) are an expensive, but also unreliable (phantom pregnancies) diplomatic tool.

*ponders this* Yup – still don’t like them.

 

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