Freaky Friday

In  the Jamie Lee Curtis comedy Freaky Friday, a mother and teenage daughter wake up to find themselves trapped in each other’s bodies as a result of a magic spell.  Yesterday I underwent a similar but even more disturbing transformation.   On Thursday night I dreamt that Remain had won the referendum.  Early on Friday morning I woke up to find Nigel Farage crowing about ‘Independence Day’ and celebrating a victory for the ‘real, decent people.’

Over the next twenty-four hours, along with millions of my unreal and indecent fellow-citizens, I found myself trapped in a country that I didn’t want to be in, facing a horrible future that I couldn’t escape from.

No one can say the country was in good shape before Brexit.  Large swathes of the population were clearly not doing well.   Food banks; zero hours contracts; worsening labour conditions; wage stagnation; cuts and atrophied public services; pressure on schools and GPs surgeries; high rents; social cleansing’ gross social and regional inequality; a lack of affordable housing; a succession of paedophile scandals involving high-level institutional collusion; and the near-collapse of the British steel industry – it wasn’t Shangri-la and it wasn’t Jerusalem.

At the same time, the country wasn’t exactly hell on earth. .It wasn’t in recession. Unemployment was at a 10-year low (even if that outcome was partly due to a rise in part-time work and austerity-induced precarity).   Our much-loathed immigrants came here to work, not in order to drain the nation’s bodily fluids,  and they did so because there was work available.   Contrary to what many of us have been told, their presence, according to a 2014 UCL, was good for us, providing a net gain of £20 billion to the country’s public finances. Northern Ireland was not at war with the British government or with itself, partly because of the money provided to the region through the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation and other structural funds. .

As a result of Thursday’s decision, none of that can be taken for granted.   We now face the possibility of  a national and possibly international recession, at a time when the global economy has barely recovered from the last one.  We are likely to witness the breakup and collapse of the United Kingdom; the secession of Scotland; the disintegration of the European Union on terms set entirely by the far-right.   We might also see the collapse the Irish Peace Process and the Belfast Agreement, as EU funds disappear and the reappearance of Ireland’s neutral border reopens sectarian divisions that have been held in abeyance for nearly two decades.

After decades of painstaking agreements and negotiations that have made it possible for Britons to live,work and study anywhere on the continent, and for Europeans to do the same here, we now face the curtailment and elimination of these rights.  We face years and years of painful negotiations as a succession of almost certainly weak governments attempt to disentangle themselves from the agreements that their predecessors voluntarily entered into.

No one can say for sure how all this will turn out, but it is difficult to imagine that the dangerous clowns who led us into this mess can negotiate their way through its consequences, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that the final outcome will be worth the massive waste of energy and the turmoil and uncertainty that it is almost certain to engender. .

Already their efforts have divided and polarised the nation, after what is perhaps the dirtiest, ugliest and most dishonest political campaign in British history.   After decades of moving away from a society that once had signs up saying ‘No blacks or Irish’, this campaign has unleashed and legitimized toxic hatreds, prejudices and expectations that will be difficult, if not impossible to put back in the bag.

Brexiters – both left and right – would like to pretend otherwise – but xenophobia, bigotry, and outright racism have been the decisive components of this referendum, which produced the dramatic shift towards Leave in the last two weeks.  The fake promises from Boris Johnson to ‘heal’ the nation – the same Johnson who profited politically from Farage’s dogwhistling and engaged in it himself – would laughable if they weren’t contemptible.

This was a campaign in which an MP was murdered because she supported EU membership, supported refugees and immigration, yet more than half the population chose to vote for the exact opposite of what she stood for.  Faced with arguments from Nobel Prize-winning economists and political scientists who warned of the calamitous consequences of Brexit; they chose to follow instead a motley crowd of mountebanks, chancers, ideologues and demagogues who engaged in what legal expert Michael Dougan called ‘dishonesty on an industrial scale.’

These same politicians told the public not to believe in the ‘experts’, and when their arguments came apart they coolly, cynically and willfully stirred up fear and hatred towards everything foreign, whether it was ‘bureaucrats in Brussels’, rapist refugees, Turks or ‘immigrants’ in general.

It’s clear that some of those who listened to this siren song are already beginning to regret it.   Even Cornwall, which voted to leave, is now asking for the government to replace their EU fund.  They won’t be the only ones, when other regions discover that the EU actually gave them money as well as taking it.  For all the Christmas hamper promises that Brexiters made during the campaign, there is about as much chance of bailouts from the gaggle of rightwing libertarians and Tory free market zealots who brought you Independence Day as there is of snow falling in the Sahara.

It’s also questionable whether there will even be much wealth to redistribute.  China is already looking askance at further involvement in the UK financial services industry.   The EU has made it clear that the UK won’t get the same access to the single market that it had before.   The creepy fraud Farage has already been rowing back on the campaign promise that the EU’s mythical £350 million per week will go to the NHS.  Those pensioners who voted in such high numbers for Brexit may well see their state pensions decline.

And as for immigration – that great obsession of the British public, don’t expect miracles there either. Many of those who voted imagine that the 13 percent of the population that is immigrant will miraculously vanish.  But if ‘control’ over immigration means bringing numbers down to the ‘tens of thousands’, that won’t happen unless Britain withdraws from the single market.

Even then it will require even more draconian enforcement measures than those we already have to stop people coming and strip the rights from immigrants who are already here.  Expect tougher restrictions, curtailment of rights, exclusionary practices.  Expect an escalation of immigration raids, deportations, detention, ID checks etc, so our newly-independent nation can make that distinction between insiders and outsiders, natives and aliens, absolutely clear.

We might also expect an increase in street-level violence as the openly fascistic and belligerent chauvinists who welcomed Brexit see their hatreds legitimized.   There is also likely to be more anti-immigrant scapegoating as ever-more embittered sectors of the population watch the economy nose-dive  and their Brexit dreams turn sour.  We can expect an increase in verbal and physical attacks on people of colour and people with foreign accents who aren’t ‘like us.’

One of the great lies of the Brexit campaign was the notion that a post-Brexit government would welcome immigration from outside the EU – a promise that ignored decades of legislation intended to prevent entirely that outcome.  No one should hold their breath and expect this phony cosmopolitanism to be realised any time soon.

This is what we voted for on Thursday, even if we didn’t know it, thanks to a reckless gamble carried out by the most useless and destructive prime minister in the history of the country, a PR man who epitomises the arrogance and fecklessness of the British ruling class.

Some historical tragedies and catastrophes are not chosen but are inflicted by others. Like an invasion by a foreign army, say.  Others are the result of specific decisions taken from a set of options and possibilities that were also available.  The British public did not have to do what it did on Thursday, and I suspect that historians in the future will ponder for many years over the massive wound that the electorate inflicted on itself, and will struggle to understand rational reasons for that choice.   Some have described the triumph of Brexit as a victory of the ‘quiet people’ against arrogant Brussels ‘elites’.  Others have characterized it as a rebellion against the ‘establishment’ in this country.

Some sections of the left have seen Brexit as a revolt against neoliberalism and austerity. Never mind that the EU didn’t dictate the austerity policies inflicted on the country by two extremist Tory governments that used the 2007/08 crisis as a pretext for an all-out class war and an assault on the welfare state.   Never mind that many of the newspapers and politicians who supported that process are also part of the ‘establishment’ and the ‘elite’ that supported Brexit.

As anti-establishment rebellions go,  this was the political equivalent of shooting yourself in the head, or wrenching the wheel of a truck because you don’t like the direction of travel, simply in order to drive it off a cliff.

Of course there are many who don’t believe this, who think that Britain has recovered its national ‘destiny’ – as if there is such a thing.  The Daily Express – a paper that would have fitted comfortably into Nazi Germany, if you substitute the word ‘migrant’ for ‘Jew’ celebrated the triumph of its ‘glorious crusade’ today.

Brexiters may raise their glasses and jeer and tell me and others to leave. the country – I expect that we will hear a lot more of this kind of talk in the months and years to come.   Lexiters may dream of a brave new world of internationalist struggle, but I see nothing good whatsoever about the decision that was taken on Thursday and the politics that made it possible.

‘ Make good choices, ‘ Jamie Lee Curtis tells her teenage daughter in Freaky Friday.  On Thursday, the British electorate made a very bad choice indeed. Some of those who made it will be dead before these dreams and fantasies come crashing down.

The tragedy is that millions of people who didn’t make that choice will also pay for it, and will remain trapped inside a country that is now locked into a very bleak trajectory of conflict, disintegration, bitterness and anger that will dominate its politics for decades, and is likely to transform the country into something far nastier than many of us once thought possible.

 

Murder in Farageland

The brutal murder of Jo Cox has added a seemingly random note of tragedy and horror to this appalling, dispiriting and utterly venal Referendum campaign.  And the brave and dignified words of Cox’s husband and sister have only shown us how low we have allowed ourselves to sink during this wretched process.

Anti-intellectualism; complete disregard for evidence; hyperbolic denunciations of the EU coupled with an almost nihilistic indifference to the consequences of leaving; lies, prejudice; whining ‘ We want our country back narratives’ of national victimhood; the most rancid xenophobia, fear and racism – all these tendencies that were once considered un-British have become part of the poisonous and bitter debate that our feckless politicians have foisted upon us.

Now a promising young politician and the mother of two children had been murdered by a man who gave his name in court as ‘ death to traitors – freedom for Britain.’   No one can be surprised that the media and many politicians and political parties have focused on Thomas Mair’s abnormal personality rather than his politics.  We have heard, ad infinitum, that he was ‘mentally ill’ and ‘ a loner’ – as if ‘loners’ are somehow naturally inclined to kill MPs.

Of course this is what always happens when a white man carries out an act of political murder.  We don’t like to call them terrorists, because words like terrorist and terrorism are intended to construct and convey an image of politically-motivated violence as something utterly alien to us.

This otherness might stem from religion, from ‘extremism’ or ‘radicalization’.  We might imagine that it has something to do with race, culture or ideology or a combination of all these factors.  But what is always clear is that the terrorist has nothing in common with us and we cannot recognize anything of ourselves in their actions.  Even when the crimes of the terrorists are ‘rational’,  in the sense that they may have a political motivation or particular strategic or tactical aims, we like to imagine them as crimes aimed at ‘our way of life’, ‘our values’ or ‘our freedoms.’

The anathema heaped on the terrorist also helps create an imagined ‘us’.  It binds the state, government and population into a first person plural based on the assumption of our common decency, even as the Otherness of the terrorist enables us to torture, extradite and imprison ‘enemy combatants’, wage wars ‘to keep us safe’, or pore over Muslim toddlers in search of signs of incipient radicalization..

This is what terrorism discourse does, and this is what it’s intended to achieve.   But faced with men like Thomas Mair, Anders Breivik or Timothy McVeigh, we instinctively seek explanations in psychopathology, because we can’t believe that men who appear to be ‘like us’ can kill with the same merciless cruelty as people we know aren’t ‘like us.’

We can’t comprehend that an all-American boy and a Gulf War ‘hero’ like McVeigh would regard children that he kills in a kindergarden as ‘collateral damage.’  Or why Anders Breivik would gleefully massacre teenagers for political reasons.   We can’t imagine why a ‘quiet’ and ‘timid’ man like Mair would shoot a female politician and the mother of two children – unless we assume that he’s mad.

Mair may well have had mental health issues, but then so did Michael Adebowale, the killer of Lee Rigby and the fact that Adebowale was a borderline schizophrenic did not receive nearly the same level of scrutiny as Mair’s psychological condition.  Mental illness covers a very wide spectrum of conditions, and  however ill Mair was, he was also a fascist and a white supremacist, who was associated with an organization, Britain First, that has advocated the execution of ‘traitors’ guilty of ‘crimes against the country.’   He chose his target – an MP with a track record of defending the EU and refugees – for clearly political reasons.

So the killing of Jo Cox was an act of political murder, and responsibility for it – as far as we know – belongs entirely to Mair, but that doesn’t mean that his crime took place in a vacuum.   It took place during the extraordinarily febrile atmosphere of the referendum, when the nation is positively seething with fear and hatred towards the EU, towards foreigners, and towards refugees.

At its most extreme manifestation, this hatred emanates from the fascist and Nazi troglodytes on Twitter, who celebrated the death of a woman they called a ‘traitorous whore’ and many other things. Naturally Cox has to be a ‘whore’, because any politically-active woman will always be called such things by these Internet warriors.

It would be comforting to think that such hatred stops there, somewhere on the lunatic fringe where decent people would never tread.  But let’s not deceive ourselves.   In the wake of the murder there has been a lot of cuddly talk about how politicians should be kinder and more respectful to each other, but there has been a lot less said about the very unkind and disrespectful way in which politicians and the media treat the immigrants and foreigners who Jo Cox supported and publicly associated herself.

However ‘mad’ Mair may have been, that’s why he called her a traitor and that’s why he killed her, and the fear and hatred that made such an atrocious act possible extends far beyond the denizens of the fascist netherworld in their blood and honour t-shirts and their violent ‘self-defence’ knife classes in the Welsh hills.

You can find it emanating in more subtle and insidious ways from the political mainstream, whether from politicians or from the newspapers that millions read every day, that spew out  anii-immigrant and anti-refugee propaganda on an almost daily basis.  More than anyone else, it emanates from the Brexiters, and in the last two weeks these sentiments have reached a horrifying crescendo.

Recognizing that it was losing the economic arguments, the Leave campaign stepped up its anti-immigrant rhetoric within the last two weeks. To them,  ‘take back control’ meant taking control of our ‘broken’ borders.  We learned that refugees were rapists who endangered the security of British women.  We heard that 76 million Turks will soon be joining the EU.   In the same week that Jo Cox was shot,  Nigel Farage stood in front of a Nazi-like poster depicting an invading army of refugees – refugees he insisted were not ‘genuine.’

Farage also warned of ‘violence on the streets‘ if immigration is not controlled. Please don’t ask me to be kind and respectful to a politician who talks like that.  But instead of damaging the Leave campaign, arguments like this boosted its standing in the polls and gave it new momentum.    In effect, a large swathe of the public made it clear that it accepted and shared Farage’s views – or at the very least was not bothered by them.

That’s bad enough, but it is even more disturbing to consider that many of our fellow-citizens also share Mair’s fear and loathing of the foreign ‘invasion’ – even if they are horrified that someone would take such prejudices so far as to actually murder a politician.

But even though no one could have predicted such a thing could happen, it doesn’t seem entirely surprising now that it has.  Because we have allowed the likes of Farage to turn us into a morally shrunken nation from which the kind of courage and decency that Jo Cox demonstrated in her short career is becoming increasingly absent from our public life.

We have allowed ourselves to become fearful and hateful.   And we might not like to admit it, but both Farage and the ‘timid gardener’ Thomas Mair are symptoms of that transformation.

It’s not too late – yet – to become something else.   But we really ought to start soon.

 

Interview for In These Times

The Left Must Put Refugees and Migration at the Heart of Its Politics

Mathew Carr rebukes Europe’s inhumane and fear-fueled response to the refugee crisis.

Tom Ladendorf

The current refugee crisis is the worst that Europe has seen since World War II, and in many countries, it remains in the political center stage. As Syrian and other refugees continue to flee to Europe to escape violence and destitution, the EU has struck a controversial new deal to stem the flow of asylum seekers. Public opinion on the issue remains sharply divided, with those expressing solidarity with refugees facing a re-energized, anti-migrant far right. Meanwhile, countless refugees remain trapped in detention camps or stuck behind borders, living in destitution.

To unpack the rhetoric and policy surrounding the crisis, I spoke with Matthew Carr, whose book Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent offers an in-depth look at the crisis as it has unfolded in Europe. The book, which was reissued with a new afterword by the New Press earlier this year, provides on-the-spot coverage of everything from Europe’s militarized borders in Eastern Europe and North Africa to the marginalization and criminalization of refugees within Europe. Throughout, he makes the case for showing solidarity with refugees and treating migration as a humanitarian issue instead of a question of border control.

Terror attacks in Europe, like the Brussels attacks in March, suggest to many that security is a very serious concern when it comes to the question of accommodating refugees. How do you think a humane response to the refugee crisis can address these concerns?

You’re actually dealing with a very real threat for sure, a lot of it coming from inside Europe. Many of the people that participated in the attacks that we’ve seen over the last few years are French, essentially—they’re not refugees. We have to separate these issues. We ought to accept the fact that it’s impossible for any country in the world, and certainly in Europe, to protect themselves entirely against these threats. Therefore to suggest that somehow, the refugee flows that we’ve seen increase over the last couple years represents an existential security threat is overdone, exaggerated, quite often deliberately designed to misrepresent the issue.

What a response to the refugee crisis should be, as a crisis—a crisis of people seeking sanctuary in Europe because they’re fleeing wars, violence, and so on—the solution to me is to create safe routes for those people to get into Europe. And in fact, if you’re talking in terms of security, having legal, safe routes allows you to get a far better idea of who is coming than if you don’t have them.

My interview for In These Times.  You can read the rest here:

The Devils of Cardona: Publication Day

Today is the official publication date in the US for my first novel The Devils of Cardona, and it’s a date that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.  The novel comes out of my earlier history of the expulsion of the Moriscos Blood and Faith: the Purging of Muslim Spain, and its premise was partly inspired by a vicious outbreak of violence that took place between 1585-1588 in the Crown of Aragon, in the señorio (demesne) of Ribagorza in the Aragonese Pyrenees.

The violence began as the result of perennial tensions between ‘Old Christian’ shepherds or montañeses and Moriscos (Muslims forcibly converted to Catholicism) who cultivated the estates of the count of Ribagoza.  Every summer – as is still the case throughout the Pyrenees today – shepherds took their animals up into the  high pasturelands, and then brought them back down for the winter.

This annual transhumance often caused the kind of problems you might expect, as shepherds led their animals through cultivated lands and sometimes damaged crops. On occasion there were fights, quarrels and occasional murders.    In Ribagoza however,  the fact that most of the montañeses were ‘Old Christians’ who hated the Moriscos meant that these tensions soon acquired a religious dimension.

Moriscos in Aragon were often resented by the Old Christian population, partly because they were believed to be collectively engaging in crypto-Islamic worship – a view shared by the Inquisition and the Spanish Crown – and partly because they were regarded as privileged vassals of their Christian lords, who supposedly protected them from the Inquisition in order to exploit them more effectively.

In 1585 an Old Christian shepherd was murdered by Moriscos in the village of Codo.  This incident ignited an eruption of violence that spread across Ribagorza and beyond, as the shepherds transformed themselves in a ravaging bandit army that massacred entire Morisco villages and threatened to ignite an ethnic civil war-cum-crusade across Aragon.

The montañeses were led by an enigmatic and mysterious character called Lupercio Latrás, whose motives have never been made clear, and this is where  the plot thickens, because the señorio of Ribagorza was also the subject of a jurisdictional dispute between the Crown of Castile and the count of Ribagorza.  Some historians believe that Latrás may have been acting as an agent of the Crown, and deliberately inflaming violence in order to destabilise Ribagorza – the better to take it over.   Then there was the fact that relations between Castile and Aragon were already tense, and would ultimately oblige Philip II to invade Aragon during the alteraciones of 1593

The truth has never been revealed and probably never will be, and from a fictional point of view, that’s what makes it interesting.    My novel wasn’t intended to fill in the historical gaps, and it is only very loosely based on this particular episode.  It  also references other characters from the Morisco tragedy.     I named my main character Mendoza as a tribute to the Mendoza family, some of whose members were far more tolerant of the Moriscos than many of their countrymen, and whose proposals might have resulted in a different outcome to the brutal expulsion of 1609-14.

Cardona is a town in Catalonia, not Aragon, and has nothing to do with Ribagorza.  The character of the Countess of Cardona is a tribute to the Duchess of Cardona, who wrote a moving and impassioned humane appeal to Philip III in 1610 to protest the expulsion of Moriscos from her estates.

Those were some of the building blocks that I used for The Devils of Cardona.   It’s a novel about religion, greed, and politics, which uses the past as a basis for reflection about our present predicament.   When I first started writing it more than two years ago I wasn’t sure if i would even finish it, let alone whether it would be published.  Today it officially enters the world.   To those who are interested, I’ve done an interview for the Signature e-zine about writing fiction and non-fiction and other matters:

 

Matthew Carr’s debut novel, the 16th century comes bounding back to life in a thrilling tale that centers on a string of mysterious murders in a small Spanish town. Investigator Bernardo de Mendoza is sent by the King to smoke out the killer, only to realize he’s surrounded by a hostile community of Moriscos, Muslims forcibly converted to Catholicism and now bitterly living under the watchful eye of Spanish inquisitors.

The Devils of Cardona dances wonderfully on nails of suspense, and is richly informed by the research of Carr, a journalist and historian, whose 2009 book Blood and Faith uncovers the real-life expulsion of Muslims from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. For Signature, Carr discusses his writing and reading habits, the necessities of patience in writing (“because producing good writing is sometimes nothing more than a struggle against one’s own stupidity and inadequacy”), and he channels his favorite English teacher in offering some sound writing advice: “the only way to write [is] to abandon oneself to it completely.”

You can read the rest of the interview here: