Knuckle-dragger Nation

I’ve been very lucky these last few days.  On Thursday I was part of a panel at the Royal College of Art in London discussing culture, cultural identity and political crisis in a ‘borderless world.’  I was blown away by the passion, eloquence and thoughtfulness of my fellow panel members and so many of the students who participated in the talk back.  It was inspiring and uplifting to be amongst young people who were willing to grapple with the dire political predicament in which we all find ourselves, and so determined to find creative responses to it.

On Friday I took part in a discussion on ‘Paper Borders’ at my old university SOAS. Once again I found myself surrounded by men and women with a moral conscience, who were disturbed and alarmed by the humanitarian consequences of Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ and trying to think their way towards alternatives to the dystopian nightmare unfolding across the European border regime.

These debates and discussions were as far removed from the surface of British national politics as it is possible to be.   Look at the newspapers over the last fortnight and you will see tabloids working themselves into a lather of righteous indignation at the possibility that 14 teenage refugees might not be teenagers.  Fourteen people.   And still these paragons of journalistic integrity think they are justified in going into attack dog mode, insinuating – yet again – that our noble generosity is being taken advantage of by devious pseudo-refugees and NGOs colluding in our national destruction.

Make no mistake about it, these claims were intended to make people hate, and they immediately produced the usual spittle-filled outpourings that we have come to expect, from knuckle-dragging trolls who seem incapable of understanding that if you are under eighteen you are still a minor even if you look older – or that fourteen refugees is a less than impressive act of national generosity.

Much of this vitriol was directed against Gary Lineker, who had the temerity to suggest that the attacks on these fourteen refugee kids was not that generous at all.  Lily Allen also got some of the same for apologizing on behalf of the UK for its treatment of refugees at Calais.  One London taxi-driver refused to pick her up and told her to ‘find an immigrant to drive you’.

Then there was parliament refusing to uphold the legal rights of EU nationals – proving that the majority of its MPs shared Liam Fox’s description of EU citizens – that is living men, women and children – as ‘bargaining counters’.   And more than 100 Labour backbenchers who preferred to let Saudi Arabia go on bombing Yemen with British weapons because undermining their own elected party leader was a higher priority.

And then on Friday, we had British newspapers calling three British judges traitors and ‘enemies of the people’ because they ruled that – who would have thought it in a parliamentary democracy? – parliament should be able to oversee the UK’s exit from the European Union.  We learned from the Daily Mail – a newspaper that seems to be moving closer towards its pro-fascist past with each passing day – that one of these judges was ‘openly gay’ – a fact that has no relevance at all except as an invitation to homophobic hatred.

Such hatred was not lacking, because hell hath no fury like a certain kind of Brexiter for whom ‘sovereignty’ is only significant if it means that they can do exactly what they want without any scrutiny or legal brakes of any kind.  Naturally there were calls for the judges should be hanged.  From the Ukip Society Facebook page we learned that most leading opponents of Brexit were Jews or influenced by Jews.  We could read charming recommendations such as ‘ Open Hitler’s gas chambers: Jews know the way in‘ and ‘ Rothschild. Soros. Rockefeller. Warburg. Du Pont. Morgan.  ALL JEWS.  It isn’t a coincidence they run the world.’

Oddly,  such observations received little attention from the British media or the MPs who had previously been so concerned about Labour’s ‘antisemitism crisis’.   The vile racist and sexist abuse directed at Gina Miller – the Guyana-born British citizen who had the immense courage to remind the country that its elected representatives should have a say in how the country exits the EU – was impossible even for the Sun to ignore.

Miller was brutally trolled, with all the licence that Twitter and social media have given to the knuckle-dragging troglodytes who are determined to transform the UK into a racist swamp.  She was threatened with rape of course – de rigeur for these brave keyboard patriots whenever any woman sticks her head above the parapet.  One Facebook user declared  ‘Who’s going to help me rape this b****? Sign up here’ – a post that even offended the Sun, regardless of the malignant role played by this newspaper in whipping up the hatred against Miller and the three judges.

As always, much of these venom emanated from Ukipland.   One post on the Facebook page, Ukip – The Peoples Forum 2020, read: “Kill her! 2 behind the ear. Throw her in the garbage. Dustbin, whatever…” and “I hope she gets f*****g killed”.

Another observed that ‘Miller should be hung as a traitor.  Crazy total s**m. ‘

Weird how these would-be executioners get so hung up about swear words isn’t it? But let no one say that knuckle-draggers don’t have a sense of propriety.   And before you accuse me of snobbery towards the ‘white working class’, let me say that knuckle-dragging is not a class pursuit.

A posh accent and an Eton education don’t make you intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive or moral, as Boris Johnson continues to demonstrate almost every time he opens his mouth.  The hapless Lord Chancellor Liz Truss has not even had the guts to criticize the newspapers that depicted High Court judges as traitors.   Liam Fox continues to shamble around from one conference to the next with his fists very close to the ground without any indication that he actually understands the rules and obligations that he is trying to tear apart.

The great tragedy of our country is that it is not only responding to knuckle-draggers.  It is actually being led by them and no one can say they are leading us to a good place. So we can only hope that there are enough men and women of good will out there, like those I had the privilege to spend time with over the last few days, who can stop them and remind the nation that it still has a brain, and that it would a really good idea to use it soon.

One Day Without Us

Being a writer isn’t always the most dramatic kind of life.  Unless you’re out researching in the field, most of the drama takes place inside your head, and most of your day is spent looking at a computer.  This is pretty much how it was for me until the last day of the Tory party conference in Birmingham.  It would be something of an understatement to say that I had’t really enjoyed the proceedings.  Most of the time I tried to ignore them, but this became increasingly difficult, as politician after politician stepped forward with a series of jaw-droppingly spiteful policies that really made my skin crawl. .

Foreign doctors? No thanks. Foreign students? Get rid.  Name and shame employers who employ foreign workers – even though employer after employer insists that the British economy needs foreign workers?  Bring it on.  Depict people who call themselves ‘citizens of the world’ as unpatriotic and rootless outsiders?  Icing on the cake.

In a famous essay on the origins of World War I, Freud once argued that barbarism is kept in check by a certain set of moral standards that society establishes to control its worst instincts.  Individuals might feel certain destructive impulses, he suggested, but most people won’t give into them because they don’t want to be censured or criticized by the community they belong to.

This risk of censure, he insisted, is precisely what holds a civilised society together.  But these standards can also change – in wartime for example –  and then primitive and destructive instincts  that have previously been kept in check can explode into the open and create a new normality.

Here in the UK, Brexit has shattered many of the standards that many of us previously thought were taken for granted.  It wasn’t that people didn’t rip the hijabs off Muslim women in the street or screech at foreigners to speak English before the referendum – they did. But since the referendum large numbers of people – larger than we are prepared to admit – now feel entitled to do these things.  They now think it’s ok to tell foreign doctors that they only want a British doctor, to rant at strangers to go home, and recycle old racist taunts that many people had not heard since the 70s.

Rather than combat these tendencies, the cascade of xenophobic proposals oozing out of Birmingham seemed explicitly designed to pander to them.   This was not dog-whistle politics.  It was out-in-the open nastiness, a post-referendum nativist walpurgisnacht in which it was painfully and shockingly clear that the government is now prepared to pander to the worst instincts in the British population in order to manage the UK’s exit from the European Union.

In normal circumstances I might have expressed these opinions in a blog or ranted at the tv, but this time I did something different.  I wrote a brief Facebook post in which I asked what people thought of the idea of staging a mass day of action on the lines of the 2006 ‘One Day Without Immigrants’ protest in the US and a similar protest in Italy in 2010.  The essential idea of both protests was a 24-hour boycott, by immigrants and their supporters.

Some downed tools.  Some closed their restaurants and businesses.  Others took their kids out of school and didn’t spend money or go shopping.  The two protests took place in very different contexts, but their aims were broadly similar – to demonstrate the contribution that immigrants made in societies that were increasingly hostile to their presence, and which often marginalized or ignored their contributions.

It seemed to me that this would be a good idea right now,  at a time when similar sentiments were running rampant in the Uk both on the street and also at the political level. Within a few hours of my post, it became clear that many people felt the same way.  The post went quickly viral, and within a few days a group was formed with over two thousand members, and a broader discussion about the protest was unfolding across the Internet.

By the following Monday, One Day Without Us was firmly established.   It had a date – February 20 next year – and the nucleus of an organization.  It was receiving offers of help from individuals and organizations across the country, from a range of nationalities and political persuasions.  It had become the subject of national and international media attention.   By the end of the week at least fifteen groups were formed or in the process of forming in various towns and cities.

The idea of a mass protest has clearly caught a wider mood of indignation, despair and concern, following the national tragedy that has unfolded as a result of the referendum campaign.  Today some three million EU nationals, many of whom have lived here for decades and thought this country was their home, are now undergoing the painful experience of being described as ‘migrants’ – a word that has acquired almost entirely negative connotations in British vocabulary through decades of tabloid usage.   Some have already begun the extraordinarily convoluted process of applying to become naturalised British citizens. Others are preparing to abandon the country they thought was their home.

Many feel insecure and even despairing about their legal status and vulnerable in the face of the increasingly vicious mood of the British public, and a post-Brexit racism that makes no distinctions between EU national, between ‘migrant’ and ‘immigrant’, and which doesn’t care if you come from Poland or Pakistan.  Whether the xenophobes and racists see difference in skin colour, your language, your nationality or your religion – they have only one message for foreigners and people who look like foreigners – get out.  This is what happened in a London street only two days, when a gang of racists chased a young Portuguese woman down the street and told her to get back to ‘whatever hellhole you came from.’

Millions of British-born citizens – both Leavers and Remainers – are appalled and shamed by the alarming transformation of Brexit Britain into a xenophobic dystopia.   And that is why this emerging movement has taken off.  Its members all share the same common goals.  We want to remind the British public and politicians that immigrants have a past, a present and a future in this country, and celebrate that presence.

We don’t want to do this with a march.  These are extraordinary times, and we wanted to do something extraordinary to get our message out there.  Everybody involved in this project  is conscious that more dramatic, wide-ranging and inclusive was required than a single march or mass rally.  We wanted something entirely different; a peaceful mass protest, unfolding simultaneously in towns, cities, communities and workplaces across the country.  We wanted a demonstration of solidarity and unity that no one will be able to ignore, which might help burst the poisonous bubble that Brexit has created.

We know that some opinions will never be changed, but we also know that there are millions of people who are shocked and disturbed by the divisive and dangerous politics that are leading us all to disaster, and we urge them to join us on February 20 and make make One Day Without Us a day to remember.

 

 

 

Who let the dogs out? Brexit

More than two months after the Brexit referendum, the surge in hate crime and racism unleashed by the referendum shows no sign of abating, and the politicians who did so much to help bring it about continue to deny any responsibility for it. Farage has done this on various occasions, and now MEP and arch-Brexiter Daniel Hannan has joined the dismal chorus.  

Asked by Dermot Murnaghan on Sky News whether he felt there had been ‘an increase in hate crimes involving foreign nationals in the UK’,  Hannan denied that any such increase had taken place and accused Murnaghan of being ‘tendentious’ in his questioning.

How so?  Because, according to Hannan,   ‘ there has been for a long period a rise in the reporting of hate crime incidents because of the way in which the police have their websites and treat every report as an incident.  There hasn’t been any increase in the number of cases referred for prosecution and some of the cases the media have jumped on have turned out to have nothing to do with Brexit at all.’

Of course tracing a direct causal link between every instance of racist violence and Brexit is difficult, if not impossible, but Hannan’s denial of any connection at all is weak, self-serving and intellectually dishonest.  Police figures make it clear that there has been an exponential rise in the number of reported racist or hate crime incidents in the months since the referendum, which has nothing to do with ‘the way in which the police have their websites,’ whatever that means.

Hannan is right that such incidents preceded Brexit.   Long before the referendum, politicians and newspapers were portraying migrants and foreigners as feckless parasites who come here either to take ‘our’ jobs or batten off the taxpayer.  If you routinely criticize people for not speaking English in public and accuse them of being cultural usurpers or invaders, you can’t be entirely surprised when Polish migrants are physically and sometimes verbally attacked if they speak to each other, or when mothers are frightened to talk to their own children in their own language in public.

After all, some of our leading politicians and newspapers have saying for years that migrants must be like us or leave, and they’ve done this without a sliver of shame and without any acknowledgement that their words might have actual consequences for the men and women who they were directed against.

This steady drip-drip of contempt, disdain, paranoia and chauvinist poison has eroded decades of slow and often painful progress towards a society in which overt expressions of racism were not socially legitimate or acceptable.

So on one level the surge in post-Brexit racism is something that has been incubating for a long time.  But the referendum brought out into the open what had previously been covert and underground, to the point when too many people now feel legitimised and justified in persecuting migrants or anyone who looks and sounds like one.

The politicians who directed the campaign may not have wanted this to happen, but they deliberately and cynically inflamed the most primitive xenophobic and nativist instincts in the population, because they knew that these were the sentiments that would bring them victory.    They may not think of themselves as racists and xenophobes, but in moral terms you don’t really look that great if you aren’t a ‘genuine’ racist, but someone who merely uses racism and xenophobia to your own political advantage.  It’s nothing to boast about, frankly.

In his Sky Interview Hannan tells Murnaghan that he has no right ‘ to insult 52% of the British electorate by suggesting there is some connection between voting to take back our laws and being unpleasant to people who have made their lives here, I think that’s an extremely dangerous way of going.’

Not nearly as dangerous as the menacing forces that Hannan and his cohorts have helped to unleash.   And regardless of what he says, I will insult and condemn the politicians who made this happen, and never more so than when they have the gall to pretend that it was nothing to do with them.

 

Boris Johnson’s Big Day Out

Politically speaking, schadenfreude tends to be a consolatory emotion, whose pleasures are generally ephemeral and often sharpened by defeat.   Even so the humiliation of Boris John last week was worth the price of admission.     I’m referring, of course, to the car crash press conference in which Johnson appeared alongside John Kerry and found himself subject to some very sharp and hostile questioning that he clearly didn’t anticipate.

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The questions included gems like the following:

‘You’ve accused the current U.S. president, Barack Obama, of harboring a part-Kenyan’s ‘ancestral dislike for the British empire’ while claiming, I think, untruthfully at the time that he didn’t want a Churchill bust in the White House. You’ve described a possible future U.S. president, Hillary Clinton, as someone with “dyed-blonde hair and pouty lips, and steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.’ You’ve also likened her to Lady Macbeth. Do you take these comments back or do you want to take them with you to your new job as some sort of indicator of the type of diplomacy you will practice?’

And this:

‘You have an unusually long history of wild exaggerations and, frankly, outright lies that, I think, few foreign secretaries have prior to this job. And, I’m wondering, how Mr. Kerry and others should believe what you say considering this very, very long history? ‘     

Such interrogations don’t appear to be common amongst the US press corps when referring to their own politicians, let alone representatives of Her Majesty’s government, and Johnson hasn’t experienced many of them from British journalists either.   For some mysterious  reason, most journalists who interview Johnson seem to break out into smiles and giggles in his presence, as though some quaint and endlessly amusing and endearing toddler had just come bouncing into the room wearing a ‘where the wild things are’ playsuit.

It’s weird and – to me at least – inexplicable how often this has happened, and how rarely Johnson has ever been called out for anything he’s ever said or done.  Admittedly it’s not easy dealing with a politician like this, who doesn’t seem to care what he actually says beyond its immediate usefulness to him.  When Alex Salmond called him out for drawing dishonest and inaccurate conclusions from a paper that he’d never read, Johnson just tossed his blonde tousled locks and grinned sheepishly.

Because after all, why should Johnson have to actually read something that he’s inaccurately quoting, and  it was awfully unfair and perhaps a little celtic and presbyterian of Sammers to come on all truthy and facty in what was just a bit of knockabout fun – using false arguments to advance his career whilst pretending to stand up to the European ‘dictatorship.’

Johnson clearly feels entitled to do things like this.  He sees himself as a national treasure and expects the nation to think the same, and too often -unfortunately for us – he’s been right..  The single exception was Eddie Maier’s velvety ‘ you’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you’ interrogation, but even then, accused of lying and trying to get someone beaten up, Johnson just grinned it out

Perhaps this cheekie chappie thing only works in England, because it clearly didn’t work for Johnson last week.  He looked and sounded shifty.  He exuded incompetence, self-regard, dishonesty, pretentiousness and bluster in equal measure.  One minute he was telling his audience:

“We can spend an awfully long time going over lots of stuff that I’ve written over the last 30 years … All of which, in my view, have been taken out of context, through what alchemy I do not know – somehow misconstrued that it would really take me too long to engage in a full global itinerary of apology to all concerned. “

Yep, it’s weird that suggesting that Barack Obama’s opposition to Brexit was due to some ancestral racial resentment of the British Empire can be ‘misconstrued’, isn’t it?  I don’t understand it at all.  But Johnson stuck with this line, declaring

“There is a rich thesaurus of things that I have said that have, one way or the other, I don’t know how, that has been misconstrued. Most people, when they read these things in their proper context, can see what was intended, and indeed virtually everyone I have met in this job understands that very well, particularly on the international scene.’

I suspect a lot of people on the ‘international scene’ are still struggling to understand how the hell someone like Johnson ever got appointed to his position.   Because that ‘rich thesaurus’ of lies, exaggerations and distortions does go back quite a way, to his stint in Brussels back in the early 90s, when his former colleague Martin Fletcher accused him of making up stories to pander to Tory Party xenophobes.

Even more pathetic than Johnson’s attempts to convince the assembled journalists that his remarks had been ‘misconstrued’ was his painfully inept stumbling towards the gravitas normally associated with the position of foreign secretary.   Even Philip Hammond managed to look the part – sort of. But Johnson doesn’t and can’t.   After all,   you probably don’t want a man who has accused the current president of Turkey of having sex with goats to be giving the British position on the Turkish coup and its aftermath, and the fact that Johnson confused Turkey with Egypt on two occasions during the press conference didn’t make it any better.

As he sternly reminded his audience:

‘We have very serious issues before us today we have an unfolding humanitarian crisis in Syria that is getting worse. We have a crisis in Yemen that is intractable and a burgeoning crisis on Egypt, and those are to my mind far more important than any obiter dicta you may have disinterred from 30 years of journalism.

Johnson is right about one thing: the world does have some very serious issues before it. But his press conference only revealed why he is so utterly and unforgiveably the wrong man to deal with them.   It’s not only that he’s a ‘post-truth’ politician for whom words are only ever ‘obiter dicta’ – remarks in passing, designed – in his mind at least – to be said and then forgotten.   It isn’t only that he’s a self-aggrandising clown with no moral compass, who will say anything to anyone in order to rise higher.

The problem with Johnson is this: removed from the protective embrace of a British audience that sees him as some kind of real person as opposed to robotic politicians we are used to, he is painfully and glaringly inadequate, incompetent and out of his depth.

That’s what Johnson looked like last week, and you can’t help feeling that a part of him knew it.   That’s why his public humiliation was much more than schadenfreude – it was the moment when one of the most disreputable frauds in British politics was revealed to the world to be… a disreputable fraud.   As Johnson might say ‘Mendacem memorem esse oportet’ – A liar needs a good memory.

He clearly doesn’t have one – or thinks he needs one. But last week, perhaps for the first time, he has discovered that other people do.  Let’s hope that it isn’t the last time.