20 February, 2017

Contempt for what you have.

Hannah Arendt
Just over 40 years ago, German political scientist and philosopher the late Hannah Arendt wrote: "Totalitarianism begins in contempt for what you have. The second step is the notion: 'Things must change—no matter how, Anything is better than what we have.'Totalitarian rulers organise this kind of mass sentiment, and by organisng it articulate it, and by articulating it make the people somehow love it....... Totalitarianism appeals to the very dangerous emotional needs of people who live in complete isolation and in fear of one another". As a German born Jew who had grown up as Hitler rose to power and had fled the persecution of the 1930s and the holocaust war years she knew what she was talking about.

Through the 1930s and into the war years Arendt watched as Hitler and other fascist leaders moulded public opinion by infiltrating the free press, setting up ministries of propaganda and ultimately by the use of physical violence via groups like the fascist blackshirts or brownshirts against those who disagreed or challenged their ideas. The experience encouraged Arendt to write in 1974   “.....the moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please”.
Arnedt was not wrong in her analysis and it would certainly have worried her greatly that we stand today in 2017 at a point where we are witnessing in the UK, the USA and in some other European states – most notably the Netherlands and France – a repeat of what occurred in the interwar years.
Not 1930's Nazi Germany but the UK
in 2016
What we now glibly term the post truth era or the age of alternative facts hides a sinister trend on both sides of the Atlantic. The lambasting by Donald Trump of the media, the falsehoods put out by the Brexit campaign in the run up to the Referendum, the scorn and vitriol poured upon the judiciary by the right wing press in this country, the rise in hate crime and rampant nationalism are all reminiscent of pre-war times.  And what pulls all this together are Arnedt’s initial points – namely that “Totalitarianism begins in contempt for what you have. The second step is the notion: ‘Things must change—no matter how, Anything is better than what we have.”  This was precisely the message hammered home by Trump in his campaign and it was the same message put out in the UK by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and the rest: "we have 'American carnage' cries Trump or we are subject to 'faceless  politicians in Brussels' say Brexiteers - we must be free of it, anything is better than this". The same message is now being broadcast increasingly loudly by Marine le Pen in France and by Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. Against this back drop, just as Arnedt had witnessed in her youth in Nazi Germany and later recorded we are increasingly seeing in the UK and the USA and elsewhere the " [organising] of mass sentiment, and its articulation so that the people love it."
A seminal book -without doubt
one of the creators of the modern world
Richard Hoggart the author of the seminal work  “The Uses of Literacy”, an in depth study of the impact and use of mass media, would, too, have recognised this trend and been appalled. “‘We all need to remember, every day more and more, that in the last resort there is no such thing as the ‘common man’” he  wrote  in his book published seven years before the birth of Nigel Farage. “If we do not, we may in the end have allowed individual decision to slip away in our dutiful democratic identification of ourselves with a hypothetical figure whose main value is to those who will mislead us.” Hoggart, who died in 2014, at the age of 95, spent his working life urging us to watch out for men such as Farage and Donald Trump; “mass persuaders”, Hoggart called them, “whose cynicism and self-interest knew no bounds”. Hoggart, like Arnedt would have recognized instantly how those who follow the doctrine of the Trumps, the Farage’s, the Johnson’s and the Gove’s and who voted for them and their “Make America great again” or “Give us back control of our borders”  emotional propaganda – have been brain washed and misled; “deprived”, as Arnedt suggests, “of their capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please”.
Finally, Arendt suggested another dimension to this trend. "Since these mass persuaders tell us that things must change and must get better" she argued "the law of progress holds that everything now must be better than what was there before. But if you want something better, and better, and better, then you potentially lose the inherent  good in what you already have. The good is increasingly sidelined and perhaps no longer even being measured."  In short we  forget what it was like to not have the very goods and benefits that we today enjoy: Brexiteers tells us that things are so dreadful as members of the EU that we must leave and take back control; Trump tells the citizens of the USA their land is filled with “carnage” and they must make America great again. Professor Tony Judt in his “Ill Fares the Land” , however, is clear – we have, he suggests, reached a paradox and have forgotten why we wanted these beneficial things in the first place. The EU was established to bring peace and prosperity to a continent ravaged for centuries by wars; the welfare state across the world introduced so that citizens no longer had to struggle the deprivations of poverty, ill health, lack of education or insecurity; the great talismen of modern times: free education, equality before the law, human rights, equality of pay, gender and the rest, and the great freedoms such as that for religion or political belief were put in place for the equal benefit of all men and women. True, everything was not and is not perfect, things can always improve but ask someone who grew up in the 1930s or before and who fought for these things that we take so much for granted today and they will look at you askance  tell you that to go back to those far off days would be a very bad idea indeed.
Oswald Mosley and his blackshirts in the 1930s - with Brexit
and Trump, le Pen and Wilders we are close to a return
to this madness.
But, today, as Judt and Arendt suggest, we have forgotten just why we wanted these benefits in the first place; we have lost the ability recognise and to measure “the good” which we have, as we blindly follow the mantra of Trump and Brexit that things are so terrible  that  we must dismantle the very institutions and beliefs that gave us this paradise in the first place. We continually look for this mythical place where the grass is greener and in doing so neglect and increasingly despise that which we have. Trump tells Americans that Obamacare is to be ditched, that the public schools are to be privatised or that walls are to be built to keep out foreigners and millions cheer; Brexit politicians tell us that we must get rid of the Human Rights Act, privatise our NHS and set ourselves free from the constraints of Europe and throughout the land their unthinking acolytes  think  it sounds wonderful, the panacea for all life's ills. As nationalistic alarm bells ring across the free world, just as they did in the 1930s, we should all be very afraid. All those who march to the tune of Donald Trump or the Brexit politicians and who now mindlessly regurgitate their propaganda of isolationism, nationalism and extremism  are, as Arendt suggests, sad, desperate and dangerous cogs in a machine where “....totalitarianism appeals to the very dangerous emotional needs of people who live in complete isolation and in fear of one another.” 

At the end of last week ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair pessimistically, and for me terrifyingly, said, when making a speech about the Brexit situation "In the long term, this is essentially [about] values: liberty, democracy, the rule of law. As the world changes and opens up across boundaries of nation and culture, which values will govern the 21st Century?.... The one incontrovertible characteristic of politics today is its propensity for revolt… Today, for the first time in my adult life, it is not clear that the resolution of this question about liberty, democracy and the rule of law will be benign."  Quite; if you are not worried then you  should be.

11 February, 2017

Quietly sipping our beer whilst the world teeters on the edge of dark times.

Travel, it is often said, broadens the mind. I’m sure that it does – the opportunity to visit other places, see other people who may have very different lives from one’s own or learn about other cultures seems to me to be a wonderful thing whether it be to see how people in other parts of one’s own country live or in the wider world. But over the last few days I have come to another understanding; namely that travel and seeing the wider world also allows us to assess and reflect upon our own place in the great scheme of things.

Pat and I have just returned from a wonderful week away in Lanzarote. We have increasingly become creatures of habit, staying at the same hotel each year and enjoying the sun and the chilled out life style of this lovely volcanic island. This year was especially pleasant – the sun never stopped shining and it seemed to us that the hotel excelled itself. Today, as I sit in my office watching the sleet fall from the grey winter East Midland’s sky Lanzarote seems a very long way away!
A quiet drink under a setting sun

Each year when we visit Lanzarote it is not long before I say, at some point, that the hotel and indeed the island itself must be very glad of the English and German pension funds. At this time of year, wherever one walks the tourists are, like Pat and I, very much senior citizens from northern Europe: Dutch, Scandinavians, French but above all Germans and English. The work and business provided by this huge influx of older people all with their pension pots must be a very real and important boon to the island’s economy and employment situation during these off season months.

It was with this thought in mind that I sat one evening as the sun was setting on the hotel’s bar terrace enjoying a cold beer and skimming thought the news from the UK and wider world on my smartphone. I read of the latest bizarre and worrying news coming out of Washington and the frightening machinations of President Trump but that paled rather into insignificance (no mean feat!) as I read, mouth agape, at the latest actions of the UK government and the wider politicians at Westminster. As the UK Brexit machinery rumbles on, and the positions harden I read that, amongst many other indefensible things, the government has decided to abandon the promised and agreed decision of a few months ago to take in some 3000 unaccompanied refugee children – children that everyone agrees are amongst the most vulnerable in the world. To date some 350 have been taken in and the scheme - known as the Dubs Amendment after its author Lord Alfred Dubs – is to be scaled down and closed. Lord Dubs was himself a child refugee and came to Britain as one of the Jewish children fleeing Nazi persecution on the famed Kindertransport when Britain took in some 10000 such children in the months leading up to the second world war. The reasons given for this scaling back seemed to be threefold: that we could not afford to take in too many, that if we did take them in then this would encourage more to come, and that as a nation we are already giving large amounts of money in various aid budgets to help with the wider refugee situation.
Lord Alf Dubs stands in the Calais refugee camp

As I read this, and of the many people such as the Archbishop of Canterbury who had protested at this decision by government I sadly looked around me at the other tables where there sat people like me enjoying their evening beer under a golden sunset; each of us well enough off to be able to do this. Whatever, the government might like to tell us for its own devious devices we in the UK are one of the richest nations by far on the face of the planet. Earlier that day I had read in my copy of the digital Guardian that sales of new cars in the UK is at a record high and as I thought about that I tried vainly to make sense of the claim that the cost to the nation of the Dub’s amendment made it worthy of scrapping. In the end, and as always, it is all about choices and as each year passes I am convinced more and more that the old adage is true: “Money has the loudest voice but the deafest ears.” 

But, of course, it is not only all about money. That is a convenient excuse. We pay a few billion into the fund for assisting those people from war torn countries – countries in the middle east that are war torn in some large measure because of our actions there – and somehow this salves our national or governmental conscience. On the same day that I read this news of the scrapping of the Dubs Amendment I also noted that many of the tabloids didn’t report it at all – far more important to them was the death of the socialite, celebrity and reality TV star Tara Palmer Tomkinson. Yet only as few months ago when child refugees were being drowned as they tried to cross the Mediterranean it was the tabloids who produced the heart rending photographs of these distressed children; tabloid campaigns were set up and social media sites fed on the emotional tales that the tabloids. But no more. The bandwagon has moved on’ Distressed child refugees no longer sells newspapers, the media – both social and news – now feeds the Brexit frenzy and the Brexit reading populace cry  “keep out the foreigners, control our borders, cut immigration”. Now tabloid readers would much rather learn about the unfortunate death of a dubious socialite known for her bizarre lifestyle and fashion comments than it would about the rights and wrongs of a very real world crisis.

The scrapping of the Dubs Amendment is undoubtedly part of the sea change that we have seen in the UK, America and the wider world which has brought the growth of jingoistic nationalism, racism and xenophobia. As the Conservative government force through the Brexit legislation they know that this is their hour; “the people have voted for Brexit” so Theresa May tells us and “we must take back control of our borders”. Even the Labour Party has given in to the logic and provides no form of opposition. On the same day that the scrapping of the Dubbs amendment was quietly and surreptitiously slipped into government policy, Parliament voted by large majority to accept the government’s plans for the UK leaving the EU; MPs who only a few months before were strongly anti Brexit and campaigned actively for the nation to remain as part of the European Union tossed their beliefs to one side, and voted with the government. Suddenly what only a few months ago was a huge majority of MPs who supported the UK remaining in Europe has become a majority voting for us to leave. Only a very few stood by their principles and voted against; clearly they all had one eye on their Parliamentary and Ministerial salaries, fearing defeat at the next election.  As I say, “Money has the loudest voice but the deafest ears.”
Nicholas Winton shortly before his death

And, against that back drop, that means that we exclude any easy targets like child refugees – they come penniless, with no useful skills, utterly dependent upon our munificence; in other words they are a financial liability, and to add to their ills they are not white Anglo-Saxon, speak a different language and worst of all, it seems, may not be Christians. In the Gradgrind, Scrooge like world of 21st century Brexit England that is one step too far: Charles Dickens writing a century and a half ago would have recognised the landscape, he condemned it so many times and it is now back to haunt us. The government know that in reality they are safe from real criticism; Mr & Mrs Joe Public like the idea of helping those in need as long as those in need as long as it is only tweeting, putting photographs of Facebook or maybe sending a few pounds to charity – in other words much the same stance as the UK government. “But”, say Joe Public and Theresa May, “don’t come to live next door to me, stay in your own back yard”. That is the long and short of it.

This situation is well illustrated when one examines the position of Theresa May, our Prime Minister. As an MP May represents Maidenhead in the Thames Valley – her constituency has not taken one single child refugee of the 350 so far taken in by the now defunct Dubs Amendment. Yet, Maidenhead and the surrounding area is one of the very richest regions in the UK. It beggars belief that this area, a place of the country’s highest property values, of high end motor cars, of the country’s highest per capita income, and of the preferred place of residence of many or most of the country’s celebrities and captains of commerce, business cannot afford to take in just one child refugee. That very fact should make Theresa May and the other good burghers of Maidenhead and district bow their heads in shame.

But it doesn’t. Let us take the story a little further, for the depths to which those in power will now stoop knows no bounds.

Lord Alfred Dubs came to the UK on the Kindertransport in the months leading up to the outbreak of war in 1939. He was born a Prague and came together with 668 other similar children from largely Jewish backgrounds. The transportation upon which he came was the result of the work, often dangerous in the circumstances, of a young English stockbroker Nicholas Winton. Winton’s work lay largely hidden - he never spoke of it - until relatively recent times but eventually it was revealed and he became known as the English Oskar Schindler for his role in saving  so many threatened children. Dubs was one of those children. When he came to England Dubs grew up, had a successful career and became a Labour MP and minister. He now sits in the House of Lords and his Amendment, to assist the bringing of young refuges from the middle east, must have seemed to him to be absolutely right; perhaps he was trying to repay the huge debt that he himself had enjoyed.
The statue of Nicholas Winton at Prague
railway station.

Nicholas Winton, the brave humanitarian, who gave Dubs and 668 others their chance of life died in 2015 aged 105. He lived in Theresa May’s own constituency at Maidenhead. When his role in the Kindertransport became known he received numerous accolades: knighted by the Queen for "services to humanity, in saving Jewish children from Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia". He received the highest award that can be given in Czechoslovakia, the Order of the White Lion.  He received the freedom of the City of London and many other awards from various bodies. In September 2010, a statue of Winton was unveiled at Maidenhead railway station by Theresa May, his local MP depicting Winton sitting on a bench and reading a book and at Liverpool Street Station in London and at the main station in Prague there are  statues depicting Jewish refugee children – the one in Prague shows Winton carrying a child.

On Winton’s death in 2015 Theresa May spoke at his memorial service. She was the local MP, and a future PM – this was too good a photo opportunity to miss. Her speech was glowing in its tributes: Winton she told the mourners was  ‘....an enduring example of the difference that good people can make even in the darkest of times.......I hope that his life will serve as an inspiration for us all … and encourage us to do the right thing.’  

Indeed. Good people can make a difference. In dark times it is important that we all step up to the mark and make a difference. We should indeed all be inspired to do the right thing. Winton’s daughter, following the scrapping of the Dub’s Amendment this week wrote an open letter to Theresa May reminding the PM of her words at Winton’s memorial service: “As the world once again teeters on the edge of dark times, I ask you to remember those words...... Don’t sit there wringing your hands. My father had 5,000 children on his list to rescue and he managed to save 669. In his scheme of things he failed, but on the other hand there are 669 children who were saved and about 6,000 people alive today because he did that........He was the kind of person who, once he made up his mind that something was right and needed doing, wasn’t going to be put off. He was only 29 at the time, but nevertheless had that kind of stubborn certainty. He found likeminded people, got them on board, and between them they moved mountains......”
Theresa May talks of the right thing to do at Nicholas Winton's
memorial service - except she seems to have forgotten
what she said or how to do it.

Theresa May has yet to reply or comment in any way. I suspect she knows that she has been rumbled. But I also suspect that she doesn’t much care – in wealthy Maidenhead her Parliamentary seat is safe and against the political backdrop of Brexit Britain she appears impregnable; the racist, xenophobic, flag waving jingoistic Brexit mob are calling the shots. The moral high ground has been lost and forgotten.... the “enduring example that good people can make even in the darkest of times....... which serve as an inspiration to us all...... encouraging us to do the right thing....” seems to have slipped from May’s memory or her party’s manifesto. It is a sad sign of the times in which we live that our PM, herself the daughter of a vicar as she often likes to remind us, seems unable to implement in any meaningful, way the  righteous actions or the aspirations that motivated the Good Samaritan in the country that she is now responsible for.

So, as I sat, at the end of a glorious day, sipping my beer on the bar terrace and watching the sun set over the Atlantic I looked at the other guests, all of us comfortably off, perhaps self satisfied and wondered just what kind of people we in the UK are becoming. What sort of people can spend more on motor cars than ever before but can still be unprepared to take in a few vulnerable people? What sort of people are we that we conveniently forget our previous beliefs and obligations as we have done with the Dubs Amendment? What sort of people are we that we can allow our politicians to forget the obligations that they have made on our behalf? What sort of people are we that can prefer to read about the unfortunate, maybe untimely death of a rich socialite rather than of the great issues facing mankind? What sort of people are we that we can allow our Prime Minister to conveniently “forget” the words that she uttered in a memorial service only few months ago?

And as I took another sip of my beer I sadly thought that the Good Samaritan would get short shrift in 21st century Brexit England. He would fail and be mocked on every count. The tabloids and social media would have a field day. Brexit England clearly does not “do” helping others in need. It does not “do”, as the Samaritan did, helping those of a different culture or nationality. It does not “do” taking hard actions in dangerous situations as the Samaritan did – it was easier to close the Dobbs Amendment down, it might lead to more benefit scroungers arriving at our rail terminals. It does not “do” meeting our obligations whatever the  cost – unlike the Samaritan who told the innkeeper to spend whatever he needed to care for the injured man and the Samaritan would repay on his return. No, should the Good Samaritan raise his head in Brexit Britain the Daily Mail, Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids and the right wing press would soon spot him as the left wing liberal that he is; they would soon have him in their sights for trafficking benefit scroungers or helping health tourists take advantage of our NHS.
The view from our hotel balcony -  a paradise but only a few hundred miles from where refugees are fleeing
from war torn countries. And our government seems keen to bury its head in the sand and renege on its responsibilities.

And as I sipped my beer under a cloudless evening sky another thought occurred. Less than a hundred miles across the ocean from where I sat on the bar terrace lies north Africa and beyond that the thousands of miles from whence many of these refugees are increasingly coming. At the moment it is war that is largely displacing these people but increasingly other factors – climate change, employment, the desire for a better life – are swelling the numbers. And we in northern Europe sit quietly and sip our beers, somehow believe that it will all go away and that we can, Canute like, halt the swelling tide. Does Theresa May and her Brexit followers seriously think that Little England can, in this global world somehow remove itself from this great and increasing movement of peoples. To believe so is a nonsense. We have to learn to live with it, manage it and above all do the right thing. Whatever Theresa May, Brexit or Donald Trump may think we in northern Europe and the USA will have to learn some very hard lessons; our pension pots, our new cars, our glitzy shopping malls and our spend, spend, spend mentality will not sustain us. The world and the world order is, in my view, entering a new phase. May’s closing the door to a few vulnerable children, Trump building his wall and imposing travel bans at his borders, the UK’s increasingly volatile and vindictive anti immigrant rhetoric will simply exacerbate the situation and show us up for what we are – mean minded, self interested and prejudiced. But, just possibly facing the hard questions and ultimately doing the right thing might just enable a better, more cohesive, more equal world to grow. Given the trenchant prejudices and lack of moral compass prevalent in Brexit England, however, I don’t hold out much hope; as I have noted increasingly in blogs over the past year or two both the UK and the USA seem no longer capable of even asking the question is it right or is it good or is it just or is it decent let alone framing an answer to these moral considerations. The result of that inability is witnessed in the current leadership of these two nations: Trump, the Republican Party and Brexit Britain led by an inept government - all of them incapable of distinguishing  courses of action that are not only in the best interests of our nations and the wider world but are also just and morally acceptable.