17 December, 2014

Civilization would be a good thing......maybe we should try it sometime!

 When asked what he thought of western civilization Mahatma Gandhi replied that it was “an interesting thought” and it “would be a good idea” -  a comment that must have ruffled a few feathers in the final days of that “high point” of British Empire and civilization the Raj. I have thought about this quote on several occasions in the past week or so as we race towards Christmas – surely another of the “high points” of “western civilization”. In the mad, hurly burly of the Christmas run up we have witnessed once again the unacceptable face of our “civilization”.  Black Friday saw us binging on excess and in addition scrambling and fighting in shops to get a bargain. This was soon followed by an all-party report on the rapid growth of charity food banks warning that Britain is stalked by hunger caused by low pay, growing inequality, a harsh benefits sanctions regime and social breakdown. And, as an add on to this, when I pick up my newspaper, watch TV or listen to the radio it is not long before I am aware of the inequalities in our land especially at this time of year; appeals from charities for us to support their efforts in providing aid and assistance to the many who are in some sort of need especially at this time. All this has, of course, in recent times been given a sharp focus because, we are told, we live in an unavoidable age of austerity. We have been living beyond our means; economies must be made is the new mantra of all the political parties.
The good Baroness with her bargains - ready for the poor!

It is only a week or two since Chancellor George Osborne set out his budget plans which the pundits suggested will mean savage cuts for us all but will disproportionately hit those most in need. Following this Conservative Peer Baroness Jenkins  helpfully advised us all  that  'We have lost our cooking skills. Poor people don't know how to cook.....I had a large bowl of porridge today, which cost 4p. A large bowl of sugary cereals will cost you 25p.'  And then, in the past few days, the Minister with responsibility for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, posited that child benefit should be limited to a family’s first two children. This, Smith, suggested, would “save money” and prompt “behavioural change”. As Polly Toynbee commented in this morning’s Guardian “There can rarely have been a better fit for Ebenezer Scrooge than Iain Duncan Smith.” Toynbee went on to remind us that Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol asks, “Are there no workhouses?” he is told that many would rather die than go into one. “If they would rather die,” Scrooge replies, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”. This, it seems, is Christmas message of these austere times. As we increasingly are obsessed with money (or lack of it), the haves and the have nots and our obsession with the new religion – economics – the screw seems to be increasingly turning upon those who can least defend themselves. The message of Baroness Jenkins is clear – the poor can do more to help themselves. And Duncan Smith’s position is even more worrying. In his comments about “behavioural change” he is going back to the 1974 vision of Conservative minister Keith Joseph who suggested that “A high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world … Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment. They are unlikely to be able to give children the stable emotional background, the consistent combination of love and firmness … They are producing problem children … The balance of our human stock, is threatened.”  From this position there are only a few very small steps to a world that few would like. We are potentially into some serious stuff here – we should all be very, very afraid and worried at what our "civilization" is quietly turning into.  
Duncan Smith - ex Guards, ex-University of Perugia (Sorry,untrue, it wasn't
THE university in Perugia but a small college which he left after only
a few months and without gaining any qualification -  he fibbed on his CV and
was caught by the BBC). Ex-College of Management (Ooops! sorry again, another
"porky"* on his CV - he only attended for a few days and gained no qualifications).
He is, however, a senior member of the government and lectures the less
fortunate on their "behaviour" and how they must not cheat or play the system
by claiming things for which they are not entitled. Well, I suppose he would know.
  [* "porky" =  cockney slang for "pork pie" = "lie" ]

But we are not, it seems, very afraid for we increasingly accept all this as the norm. Such was the outcry at Joseph’s comments in 1974 that he lost the contest for the party leadership. Today Duncan Smith’s comments in the same vein hardly raised a whisper of outcry, such is the state of our modern “civilization”.  We have become accepting of our unequal society and we have taken on board the message that there is “no alternative”. The screw must be turned and sad though it is, it seems we are comfortable that some will suffer more than others. It is the way of things. It can’t be helped. There has been a deafening silence from politicians of all parties when there should have been outrage.

In researching this blog I came across this from the “estimable” Baroness Jenkins: “I spent about 2 hours in Tesco last week, putting things into and out of the trolley, trying to work out where to save the odd pence or two to stretch it further.  Fine as a one off, but imagine having to work out every single penny every time you go shopping.  I was thrilled to find four HUGE potatoes (600g each) for a pound which will go a long way. Lunch tomorrow will consist of soup for 11.5p per portion – recipe as follows. 1kg bag of frozen mixed vegetables 65p; 2 stock cubes 2p; half enormous potato 13p; one onion 10p; can of baked beans 25p; 10 grams lentils 10p. Two slices of cheap Tesco bread (2p per slice) with very cheap own brand cheese spread (4p) and a tomato 3p (got another good deal at the market 40 tomatoes for £1.20) and finish off with custard (two packets at 6p each) and half a banana.  So reasonably nutritious and I hope filling, but it has been time consuming planning it and this is only day one.  Imagine having to plan like this every day?  Baroness Jenkins is right – “imagine having to plan like this every day..........”  Most of us do not have to do this, and would not like it if we had to; many however do have to suffer this day in day out. Instead, we  and the Baroness walk round the supermarket and pick things from the shelf with abandon, we have our little “treats”, we buy in bulk to get the best price, we use our credit cards and scramble with the rest on Black Friday to buy another flat screen TV, computer game, coffee machine or designer outfit that we do not need but which is “a bargain” or the latest “must have” object of our desires. And at the same time as we do this one of the elected “leaders” of our “civilization” Iain Duncan Smith speaks of “behavioural change” being applied to those who cannot live the life that most of us do. I'm forced to ask myself maybe it is us, the haves, who need the "behavioural change"

Although I might decry the opinions of people like Jenkins and Duncan Smith I am ready to accept that they are trying to be helpful – it would indeed be a good thing if we were all able to regularly use our cooking skills to create cheap, nutritious and “exciting” meals. It would, too, be a good thing if benefits could be more accurately focused to ensure that all members of our society received what they needed and wanted for “the good life” but that seems hardly the point. In the end we have to deal with the here and now and my reading of the situation is that our civilization is failing a significant part of the most vulnerable in our society. As I have oft argued before, times have changed even in the sixty plus years since I was a child. In those days and before there were different expectations for all. Yes, there was inequality but it was rarely so visible as in today’s world. I rarely if ever met or saw someone who was much better off than me so I was “happy with my lot” – I knew no different. People were not defined in the same way as today where materialistic possessions are the salient feature.  Everyone largely “made do”. Life, I believe, was simpler – harder maybe in terms of work - but with many more certainties. Few of us would wish to go back to those times for a variety of reasons but equally, as a society, people had fewer expectations. Today, our TV and newspapers are filled with “the good life” which is pushed at us incessantly. We are overtly and covertly reminded  of what we all need and are entitled to as part of the 21st century  good life. A cosmetic advert of many years standing tells women “go on, you’re worth it.......”. Watch the adverts between children’s programmes on TV and see how young minds are impressed with the desirability of the latest doll or toy gun or computer console. How does the family who are struggling cope with this as Christmas rears its head? How does the mother with little in her purse and a small child in hand walk through the supermarket or the shopping mall and see the latest “must have” or the glitzy adverts selling the good life and not hope and wish (and yes) expect much more than she has. It is nonsense to believe otherwise. In these contexts encouraging people who have little to be better cooks or devising policies that will effect behavioural change are not only unhelpful they simply further demonise disadvantage.

And I wonder, what Gandhi would think of our twenty first century “civilization? I wonder, indeed what a civilization is?  My Oxford Dictionary tells me many things but it all boils down to one phrase:”an advanced stage in social development and organisation”. It also refers to issues of culture and the development of various artistic, religious, scientific and technological forms, the development of recording systems,  urbanisation, an increasing complexity of social and economic interactions, the development of some form of taxation system to ensure that the administration of the entity is able to function, people fulfil increasingly specialized occupations and careers to sustain the civilization, some kind of trade system  develops enabling all to gain what they require so that they might not only  survive but gain increasing access to ownership. And, perhaps, most tellingly, and as a result of all this, food surpluses in order that all the members of the “civilization” might be sustained. It is easy to see how this definition might encompass the Egyptian, the Mayan, the Roman, the Greek or any other of the societies that we regard as “civilizations”. How does it sit with our own I wonder? Well, clearly we fulfil many of the criteria – we are increasingly urban, people do fulfil specialized roles, we are indeed a treasure house of art, literature, scientific and technological development, we do indeed have taxation and administrative system, we trade and many of us acquire greater and greater wealth. And......yes, we have food surpluses - but some are not able to access these and have to rely on charity to live. It would seem impossible to not arrive at the conclusion that superficially we do tick all the boxes as a “civilization”. But for me there is another factor than these cold definitions civilization. The word civilization or civilized holds an extra dimension. It is a term which has some moral or ethical aspects. To be a civilized human being would, I believe, be to have some humanitarian aspects and humanitarian features such as kindness, empathy, sympathy – in other words someone who could not be described as a savage or uncouth or uncaring person......or "uncivilized". Yet in our “civilization” we increasingly see – and accept as an unfortunate by-product  of our way of life increasing numbers of people on zero hours contracts or being paid less than the accepted minimum wage which our society deems necessary to ensure a baseline for living. We see, in this land and civilization of plenty, increasing numbers of people having to resort to food banks in order to sustain themselves because our civilization is not providing them with the means by which to gain what they need. I read the other day that the UK is the sixth richest nation on earth and the fourth in Europe with the highest standard of living. We would, indeed, seem to be at the forefront of “civilizations” yet such is the inequality in our society that while some are paid less than the bare minimum deemed necessary to live others are paid eye watering amounts – and we accept it as inevitable. It is indeed Gandhi’s comment of many years ago come true: “There is sufficient in the world for man’s need but not for his greed” . Against this backdrop our elected leaders tell those in greatest need that they should help themselves by learning to cook and that our leaders will reduce the amount it pays the poor or disadvantaged by reducing  benefits in order that costs are reduced and “behavioural change” of the most vulnerable ensured.  Mmmmmm?
A food bank visitor here in Nottingham

As I pondered all these things over the weekend I read my weekly New Statesman magazine. As I took it from the polythene wrapping there fell out a leaflet – it was Christmas appeal from one of the major charities.  I idly read it – it spoke of providing a Christmas meal for homeless people, of providing a warm and secure environment for the cold days of mid-winter and of providing some basic services – advice, access to basic health screening, replacement clothes, a haircut and so on. It told me of a 37% rise in the number of people living rough on our streets during the past three years and of  77% rise in the number of rough sleepers in our capital city over the same period. Our capital city, acknowledged as one of the world’s richest yet most unequal places. A place where we were advised on TV only a few days ago by the crass celebrity Myleene Klass that a house costing £2 million is “like a garage”. London is now the home to vast numbers of homeless people, food banks and individuals/families living on the very edge. I read all these things and nodded sadly to myself – and was largely unmoved. I wasn't angry and I should have been - that is a measure of how far we have fallen.
There's no alternative - because we say so -
and we won't be doing our Christmas shopping
at the Westminster food bank. Pull up the
ladder George - we are all right - forget the Oiks!

Sadly, I reflected, I have heard it all before – I, like I am sure many others, have become accustomed to it, we accept as the unavoidable norm, it is no longer news – “the poor” as they say “are always with us”. To use that awful phrase much loved by American politician Donald Rumsfeld - a man, like Duncan Smith of so little intelligence and humanity - the poor are now largely "collateral damage". Chancellor George Osborne reminded us in his recent budget: “there is no alternative” – budgetary targets must be met and this means welfare, wages and living standards must be reined in. Get over it, "move on" is the subscript to all this. "You’re alright Jack, look the other way........" .and sadly, we increasingly do. Our civilization can no longer be a civilization based upon the actions of the Good Samaritan it is instead a society that Dickens would instantly recognise based upon the beliefs of Thomas Gradgrind, his notorious headmaster in Hard Times who was dedicated only to the pursuit of profitable enterprise and where charity and good works were an anathema for they had no economic worth and where cold facts, numbers and the balance sheet were valued above all.

And then, and then............. I read something else in the leaflet which did hit home and which suddenly “rattled my cage”. It made me feel very, very uncomfortable as I sat in my nice house with my flat screen TV, my full larder, my mobile phone, my central heating and my burgeoning collection of Christmas cards from family and friends all wishing me happy Christmas and sending me love and best wishes. It was something which suddenly made me realise just how well I had learned  to accept what is increasingly unacceptable. It was a small thing but so alarming to me. Yes, I understood that there were homeless people, that many had to visit food banks, and that many will not this Christmas enjoy the quiet pleasures and seasonal luxuries that I will take for granted. But then I read this: For many homeless people a visit [to one of the charity’s centres to enjoy a hot meal and receive support and advice] is the only time of the year when they will be called by their name”.  As I looked round at the Christmas cards displayed on our walls and as I looked at the pile of cards I was about to post to our family and friends it all suddenly hit home. Poverty, homelessness, food banks, austerity, unequal societies and all the rest of this sad part of our “oh so clever” civilization can boil down to this – that we have allowed to develop a situation where some of our fellow citizen and human beings are nameless for much of their time – unknowns, statistics. A society where charity food banks providing damaged or out of date food are just a small part of a terrible spectrum hiding much more telling and insidious aspects of our great western civilization.

I cannot imagine in my most desperate of dreams what it might be like to be so isolated that I am only rarely, if ever, called by my name. One’s name is the most basic manifestation of our self – it defines us and gives us credibility in our own eyes and those of others. It is what and who we are. If I add on to that the fact that I might also be homeless, devoid of possessions, hungry, cold, dirty, frightened, uncertain about the future, not in the best of health then I think I might feel that  I am a nothing, truly invisible, a non-person in our modern civilization. It is almost a dystopian 1984 type scenario alive and well in 2014. This is what austerity can really mean for many. And as I read these words I wondered how Baroness Jenkins’ pleas for the poor to develop their cooking skills or Iain Duncan Smith’s “behavioural changes” or George Osborne’s “there is no alternative” fits into this equation? They have a terrible callousness and irrelevance. We should indeed be very afraid and very angry at what we and our great society are becoming.

And, as I took out my credit card to make my on-line donation I looked again at our Christmas cards and was reminded of that first Bethlehem Christmas depicted on so many of them. Two homeless people on a donkey arriving in far off town where they are unknown and where there was no shelter for them until, at last, a kindly man or woman took them in. Maybe it was an act of charity for there is no mention in the Bible of the room rates for innkeeper’s stables! In the stable they perhaps received some kind of warmth, maybe some simple food –  maybe the leftovers from the inn’s kitchen – and a place of rest after their wanderings. Not a million miles is it to what is increasingly a part of life for many in modern day Britain  – and in many other parts of our great western civilization - where the disadvantaged all too often have to rely upon charity and goodwill for their sustenance. And I wondered if we have progressed at all?

Maybe, had Iain Duncan Smith travelled along the same route as Mary and Joseph, he would have castigated them for their lack of forethought: “You need to change your ways”, he would have said, “adopt a more sensible form of behaviour......You really should have taken out a private health plan so that you could book into the Bethlehem Birthing Clinic (PLC) on arrival rather than relying on some innkeeper’s kindness in a strange town where you knew perfectly well that everywhere would be fully booked. That way you would have been well taken care of  by an outsourced company and not be a burden to society  or a drain on the national exchequer” .  Duncan Smith would have told it to them how it is! And certainly, had Baroness Jenkins been present in the stable in Bethlehem she would have told Mary in no uncertain terms that she could easily make a good wholesome meal for herself, Joseph and new baby if she casseroled the hay and a few dropped grain seeds from the floor while Joseph caught the stable rat for a bit of protein in the casserole. And then, while the casserole was cooking, she could milk the cow and Joseph could sheer a couple of the sheep to spin some wool to make the baby’s shawl for such a cold night. “It’s common sense isn’t it” the good Baroness would say “didn’t your mother teach you anything”?

And I thought of another Gandhi comment: “Jesus is an ideal and wonderful......but you Christians are not like him are you!” Could anything be more true - I think not. Gandhi was right. Western civilization  would indeed be a good thing......maybe we should try it sometime.