Friday, March 30, 2007

"in dark times"

posted by k

So what would you do?

Imagine you come from a country where you thought your life at risk. Perhaps you had been threatened, raped or tortured. You were one of the lucky ones, you thought. You got out. You spent all your money on forged papers that would get you across borders and somehow managed - perhaps in a plane, perhaps in a ship, perhaps in the back of a lorry - to reach another country. It's a democracy which proclaims its commitment to human rights. You probably know at least a few words of the language and have some idea of the customs and the people. But when you arrive, you don't know what to do. You're as frightened and disoriented as anyone arriving in a strange place for the first time. For all the courage that got you so far, you're unsure how to cope in a strange place. The language you thought you knew from films and textbooks is letting you down. People speak fast, use words you don't understand and have a range of unfamiliar accents.

If you don't claim asylum at once, according to the rules and at the right place, you're in big trouble. Did you know that? Do you have any idea what the right place is? And you have to provide valid documents, such as the passport you left behind when you fled - or you have to explain in detail why you haven't got them. The officials are told to be sceptical. How do you persuade them to believe you?

There are leaflets to help - but did you know where to find them?

When you claim asylum, you will be photographed and fingerprinted. You may be sent to a detention centre. This could bring back memories of your bad experiences at home. You may experience terror, flashbacks, anger, fear. If you're lucky, your story will be believed. If you're lucky, you will be given a temporary right to remain. You will be asked to complete a complex, 20-page form including a statement of evidence. You can't do this in your own language unless you add a translation into the language of this new, strange country. And you have to get it right or you'll be sent back. You have ten days in which to complete it. And you need evidence of what happened to you: medical evidence, newspaper reports, testimonies, etc. Nobody told you to bring these with you when you left the country, and you may not be able to find a doctor or lawyer now, in haste.

If you applied for asylum quickly, you may get help with money and accommodation. This is important, as you aren't allowed to work. There's a pdf leaflet which gives advice on the conditions. (If you applied late or if you're disbelieved, you get nothing.)
You may be moved to another town and compelled to stay there. There may be no-one else there who speaks your language. Just as you were getting used to the accents of one place, you encounter new accents. The neighbours may be hostile. Many newspapers tell them that people like you are violent, dishonest scroungers. Expect to encounter suspicion and name-calling. You may be attacked.

If your application is turned down, what will you do? Not all lawyers are allowed to help you and those who will help need to be paid.

Where will you live?
How will you eat?

If you're lucky, there will be a charity to help you. You may find an organisation that is friendly and helpful. Maybe there's a warm room where you can sit and talk and play boardgames. But they don't have much to give. You get a bag of food every week and weekly spending money: £2.50 (£5 a week if you have serious health problems). If you read the appeals, you know that they are running out of money and the amount they give you may be cut.

You can't work. It's against the law.
If you beg, you may be arrested.
And you may be sent back to fear, imsprisonment, torture and death.

Luckily the country's parliament has taken notice. There's a report which talks about your suffering - and worse cases: children imprisoned, a cancer sufferer refused treatment, babies born into squalor. Surely in a democracy this will have an effect.

But the ministry in charge of your case says,
"We simply do not think that it is right that those without any right to be in the UK should be given the right to work or access other services."

You hear those words and you know what they mean. That's you - with no rights. No right to food, no right to accommodation, no right to legal help, no right to work, no right to medical treatment. You might think it means no right to live.

For further comments on this subject, please read Jenny Diski.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

"much too umble"

posted by k

Tiny Tim has a lot to answer for.

That bright humility and gentle forbearance offers an unlikely model to oppressed people: a little boy, on crutches, doomed to die of poverty, joyfully pronouncing, “God bless us, every one.”

Of course, Tiny Tim wasn’t intended as a role model; he's in the story to refute Malthus’ definition of the “surplus population” - a drain on the economy and allowed to die. Tim had to be virtuous and charitable because he embodied values beyond the economic structures of society. Scrooge is converted from Malthusian economics to charity.

Uriah Heep in David Copperfield illustrates the dangers of expecting gratitude and humility. His humility is a fake – a ruse to gain wealth and power.

But there’s still an expectation that marginalised people should display extraordinary gratitude and virtue. I don’t know how often I’ve been told that I shouldn’t give money to rough sleepers because they’ll spend it all on cigarettes, drink and drugs. If I were homeless, I reckon I’d like a drink or two – or more. I might even try drugs as a means of temporary escape. And if I were a smoker, I’d find it hard to give up my addiction while begging in an underpass.

There’s considerable criticism of the behaviour of asylum seekers. If I’d been tortured – or if members of my family had been murdered – I might be grateful to the country that gave me asylum. But I might find it hard remember the rules of politeness in a new country and a new language. I might even be so traumatised that I’d behave very badly indeed.

If I lived with prejudice on a daily basis, I’d become angry and suspicious. It wouldn’t turn me into a nicer person. Some saintly people endure prejudice without resentment. I admire them but I it’s not prejudice that made them so good. They are good people despite the prejudice.

If Tiny Tim had been made to wait in the rain while bus-drivers refused to let him on because of his crutches, he'd probably have smiled sweetly. If shopkeepers had been rude or insulting or thoughtless, he'd probably have drawn a trite moral. And without the intervention of ghosts, Christmas magic and Charles Dickens, nothing would have changed. I'm pleased to see that Elizabeth McClung at Screw Bronze! isn't taking bad treatment by Victoria Transit so lightly.

Human beings who suffer oppression, prejudice and discrimination have the same human rights as anyone else - or they should have. They are not required to become exemplars of virtue. We - oppressed and oppressors together - are required to change society. And sometimes, those of us who are lucky, may have to surrender a little of our comfort.

The asylum seeker who asks directions may struggle with English. The new hostel for rough-sleepers may be on the way to the theatre. The bus may be a couple of minutes late because it stopped while a woman steered her wheelchair into place. There may be bigger adjustments too: abolition of torture, food and clean water for all, redistribution of wealth, real democracy, a just society. These things cost. Most of us have some privilege or comfort we fear to lose. The advantages - wider knowledge, deeper understanding - have no obvious monetary value. But Dickens was right in this: some values are more important than economic success.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

"I confess!"

posted by k

When church services were in Latin, confession would begin with the word "confiteor". That's usually translated as "I confess" but it's a passive verb, suggesting something more like "I have been confessed."

Mohammed Sheikh Khalid has been confessed. You can read his confession in the transcript of his trial, though it's a pdf file so be careful opening it.

He's been confessed to all sorts of terrorist conspiracies: not just 9/11 but more terrorist plots than I can recall, all over the world, including planned acts that never happened such as the assassination of every U.S. president from Carter onwards and blowing up numerous bridges, power stations and tall towers. The trial transcript has omissions but subsequent reports have assured us there were other confessions too: apparently he killed Daniel Pearl with his own hands.

It's just too much. I don't believe anyone - even Professor Moriarty - could have done as much. I suspect that if he'd been asked who stole a cake from a tea shop in Chipping Campden last Thursday week he'd have confessed to that too.

He wasn't under oath, by the way.

Comments pages have plenty of people saying, "he confessed - you must believe it." He said he'd been tortured too. Do they want me to believe that?

I think he probably was tortured. I think he may have committed some of the crimes to which he confessed. But how can I know? There was no fair, public trial and no proper assessment of the evidence. Mohammed Sheikh Khalid didn't get to choose his own lawyer and the trial transcript shows that his English is imperfect.

Evidence gained through torture and confessions from people who have been confined and tortured over a long period are not reliable. The Moscow show-trials and the Reichstag fire trial had more claim to public justice. Even the McCarthy hearings were public and filmed. What happened to justice?

A post on Craig Murray's excellent blog explores this further and with more authority. I recommend you read it - and bookmark his blog!

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

"Stop all the clocks"

posted by k

Auden's poem "Funeral Blues" became famous when it was read, very movingly, by actor John Hannah in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Few people know that Auden wrote it in collaboration with the composer Benjamin Britten, who provided a parodic and exaggerated blues accompaniment so that it could be a cabaret song for Hedli Anderson. Fewer still know that a version the song first appeared in the obscure Auden/Isherwood play, The Ascent of F6, where it was used as the mock-elegy for a politician. It wasn't meant to be taken seriously although, as with all the best parodies, there's an undercurrent of serious feeling at odds with the mockery.

One of the subjects of The Ascent of F6 is the way people desire leaders and heroes who will tell them what to do. This was an urgent question in the 1930s with fascism on the rise throughout Europe and elsewhere.

As many on the right admired the "strong leaders", Hitler and Mussolini, some of those on the left idolised "Uncle Joe" Stalin. Leadership was in vogue; in a late 1930s essay, Cecil Day Lewis urged communists to follow the urgings of D.H. Lawrence in Aaron's Rod and promote "the will to obey".

History doesn't entirely repeat itself. However, it offers lessons. One lesson must be the duty of citizens to mistrust their leaders. But it's a lesson that hasn't sunk in. "Leadership" remains a popular ideal. The National College for School Leadership trains its members to inspire children, but is rather vague about what the results of that inspiration will be. The search for "role-models" has become a craze. I'd choose the fallibly human over the role model any time. Friendship is a better model for society than slavish obedience.

The desire for leaders is creeping into mainstream political debate. The "citizens' forum" set up by Downing Street - a typically phoney attempt to achieve endorsement of political aims by a carefully guided focus group - led a participant to make the widely quoted statement that "
we really believed that rather than the local people getting involved too much it was about getting the right leaders in place". And while the recent Commons debate on reform of the House of Lords resulted in the largest majority for a 100% elected second chamber, a call for a wholly appointed House of Lords was led by ex-Liberal leader David Steel.

Of course, there's something attractive about having a strong leader. It makes us feel safe and comfortable. It's like being a child again. But it's not safe and citizens should be grown-up human beings, ready to think and work and participate in their own democratic processes.

As talk about leadership continues, I want to think about how democracy can be advanced and extended - how people can have power in the processes that control and organise their lives. Even Members of Parliament don't have much power. That vote on the House of Lords didn't decide anything - it was purely advisory. And the involvement of 60 citizens in a focus group at Downing Street seems a pretty poor substitute for an election and public debate.

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