Sunday, 24 October 2010

Modern Epilogue - The Descriminating Individual

I: Fairy Tales (all photos in part I courtesy of John Harrison)

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid,
And the marshals and cops get the same,
But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool.
He's taught in his school, from the start by the rule,
That the laws are with him, to protect his white skin,
To keep up his hate, so he never thinks straight,
'Bout the shape that he's in, but it ain't him to blame,
He's only a pawn in their game.

In this talk (I do not intend to lecture here), I am going to discuss some of the themes explored in my story, ‘Modern Fable’.

Briefly, ‘Modern Fable’ tells the tale of Tom, a teenage member of a far right group in a provincial northern town. Tom meets a genie, a genie who can erase from history any section of humanity Tom wishes. Yet as he gets rid of first Pakistanis, then Arabs, then Asians, humanity regresses to the level of the Yahoo. Finally he erases all Africans, humanity ceases to exist and only Tom remains, trapped on a prehistoric world of his own making.

Now, the advantage in telling a fairy tale is that certain narrative conventions can be circumvented without the need for extensive explanation. In the land of fairy tales, geese lay golden eggs; monstrous beanstalks sprout from magic beans overnight; and even the sky can come crashing in. Yet the main reason in choosing a fairy story is that racism, like all forms of arbitrary prejudice, is childish. And naïve. And unevolved. It is based on no real accounting of the world. No interaction or data gathering. It is based on the follow-the-leader mentality of the herd, a lack of introspection, ill conceived notions, half heard conversations, and tall tales. It is something we should have outgrown, unlike fairy tales, by age 12. And in that sense it is the ideal medium in which to illuminate the intellectual slavery inherent in judging others purely in terms of their ethnicity.

We all like a good yarn. Here’s one I heard the other day. “It concerns a woman…”

“living in a terraced house, who is awakened one night by a scuttling above the bedroom in the space between the roof and rafters. Imagining there are rats in the roof, she urges her husband to go and investigate. He squeezes through the trap door… and stumbles across a Pakistani sleeping on a mattress. But that is not all. There is a series of mattresses the length of the street, each containing a sleeping Pakistani. They were said to have gained access through a single Pakistani household at the end of the street and to have been wandering around freely.”

The preceding passage is taken from ‘City Close-Up’, Jeremy Seabrook’s 1960’s study of the working classes of Blackburn, Lancashire. Believe me, this tall tale was still doing the rounds when I lived and worked in the town and it hadn’t changed in thirty years. It persisted until quite recently in local lore when the mass demolition of said terraces made the lie harder to maintain. Seabrook recounts hearing the same tale repeated in Birmingham and Manchester:

“Each time I was told this story, it was said to have originated in a different (and named) street in the town. Nobody could identify the protagonists. It was invariably told to the storyteller by a friend who personally knew the individuals concerned, but who remained always at one remove from the actual informant.”

A description which could be equally well applied to any urban legend. Like an urban legend, it plays on our basic primal fears. The Pakistani hiding in the attic, he's the escaped lunatic on the roof of the car, the husband's decapitated head in his hands; he's the Yucca plant full of eggs that hatch, releasing thousands of tarantula babies, each ten times as venomous as the adult. Of course, the tale of the escaped lunatic is an old fashioned campfire story. And tarantulas lay their eggs underground and are caring parents, not prone to abandoning their brood. The young are no more dangerous than the adults, who aren't particularly venomous to humans anyway. Coincidentally, this is a tall tale I have also been told in Blackburn.

More than merely a primal fear, this story plays on a regional fear, for an Englishman’s home in his castle, and what true Englishman would not become incensed at the threat of foreign invaders squatting in his keep? What conscientious family man hearing this story could help but fear for the safety of his wife and children? It is a tale designed to strike terror and fury into the heart of the hearer: To swell the mindless ranks of the far-right: To dehumanise both victim and audience alike.

Knowledge is power, so let’s consider three more passages as cautionary tales against adopting scapegoats:

“Nearly all the people I interrogated had stories to tell. Whole villages, they said, had been put to fire and the sword. One man, whom I did not see, told an official of the Catholic Society that he had seen with his own eyes Germans chop off the arms of a baby which clung to its mother’s skirts.” (1)

“All Hutus must know that all Tutsis are dishonest in business. Their only goal is ethnic superiority. We have learned this by experience from experience.” (2)

“[T]hey are a sinister flood creeping upwards to engulf himself and his friends and his family and to sweep all culture and all decency out of existence.” (3)

Here we see where such tales lead us. (1) is taken from ‘The Times', 1914. It is a classic piece of propaganda (note the reporter had not actually met the eyewitness). Its aim was to portray the Germans as inhuman monsters, already in Belgium and but a short sea crossing from English shores, thus hastening enlistment into the British Army. The First World War was an entirely futile exercise to all but a few men, not involved in the actual fighting. Ten million died in the ensuing conflict of commerce and colonialism. All that it achieved was to lay the foundations for the next world war, where the enemy actually was monstrous. Further propaganda ensued, ensuring that millions more died in the gas chambers.

Modern propaganda is little different. Iraq's phantom weapons of mass destruction are the most recent, and least sophisticated, example of political misdirection, but there are many others. In 1999, for instance, Serbian atrocities in Kosovo were massively inflated in order to justify NATO's bombing of Serbia. I took part in the Amnesty International campaign calling on the UN to intervene, but it seems that in those post Cold War, pre 9/11 days, NATO needed a ‘conflict’ to justify its existence. Five thousand missing Kosovans were inflated to a hundred thousand, the spectre of Hitler invoked, and the bombs rained down. In fact, the majority of the ethnic cleansing took place after, and in direct retaliation for, those airstrikes. They ended when the west put economic pressure on Russia, which put economic pressure on Serbia, which withdrew its forces from Kosovo. If only someone could have thought of that in the first place!

(2) is the fourth of 'The Hutu 10 Commandments', published in 'Kangura', a Rwandan newspaper, in 1990. This and other demonising propaganda left a million Tutsis dead, slaughtered by their brainwashed neighbours. As with all such lies, it better described the ambitions of the authors than the intended victims. The editor of 'Kangura' was eventually convicted of crimes against humanity in 2003 and sentenced to 35 years in prison.

"He who fights dragons too long," warns Nietzsche, "becomes a dragon himself." It is a quote I will never grow tired of repeating. If we allow ourselves to be manipulated by dehumanising propaganda, then we are required to become as vicious as the enemy we seek to quell and can fast find ourselves hacking at our neighbours with machetes; blowing ourselves up in packed tube trains; firing up the ovens. "Sometimes I gotta ask myself what I feel about things." Bill Hicks once remarked. "That way I can get a closer reading of what's true." It's good advice.

And what of (3)? Time for a multiple choice question. (3) is a quote taken from which of the following:

(a) 'Mein Kampf' - Adolph Hitler
(b) ‘The Road to Wigan Pier' - George Orwell
(c) ‘Judaism in Music’ – Richard Wagner
(d) ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ - H G Wells

The answer is (b), although the other three have something in common. Richard Dawkins (of whom much more later), notes H G Wells's comments in a 1902 edition of 'Anticipations':

"And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black?...the yellow man?...the Jew?...those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is a world, and not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go."

I quote this as an aside: Beware of socialists, for they can turn fascist in an instant!

Back to (3): “[T]hey are a sinister flood creeping upwards to engulf himself and his friends and his family and to sweep all culture and all decency out of existence.” This is how Orwell describes the Middle Class attitude to the Lower Classes in 1930s Britain. It could equally be today’s editorial on immigration in any right leaning British newspaper. Here we find a new objection to racism. For you see, prejudice is cyclic and it is top down. The things I have heard said of Muslims are the same things I have read of people saying about Jewish refugees in the '40s. Before the immigrants arrived in Blackburn the town’s failing were blamed on the Irish. The loutish behaviour we now condemn our children for is little different to the actions Orwell notes were ascribed to working class ‘Hooligans’ a century ago. If your strata of the community is making accusations against the one immediately below it, you can be damm sure you’re being accused of exactly the same things by the one above you. And if you refuse to accept them as true of you, why accept them as true of anyone else?

It is called prejudice for a reason. It’s pre-existent, pre-programmed, it exists whether there are Pakistanis or Muslims or Asians or Africans or not. In fact there is only one person with whom those feelings have any resonance. Like Tom, who is there left to blame when all your other excuses have been found out?

Let’s hone in, because I want to focus on one example of racial childishness. I have heard many disparaging comments made against people of Middle Eastern decent, but most germane to the current discussion is this: They smell. A typical ‘joke’ goes, “Why do Pakis smell? So blind people can hate them too.” There are many others told like this, equally as unfunny and unpleasant, serving only to confirm the idiocy and inadequacy of the teller. And five minutes later that same person will be bragging about how northerners are so much friendlier than southerners. Five minutes after that, he’ll be slagging off Scousers or Mancs or anyone else that has irked him in that instant.

So, Pakistanis smell do they? I’ve always found this a curious statement. For a start, it’s a tautology: Everything smells. You mean people of a certain ethnicity give off a different odour to you? Well let’s counter that claim by returning to ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, for Orwell talks of “four frightful words... that were bandied about quite freely in my childhood. The words were: The lower classes smell.”

“That was what we were taught – the lower classes smell. And here, obviously, you are at an impassable barrier. For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling. Race hatred, religious hatred, differences of education, of temperament, of intellect, even differences of moral code, can be got over; but physical repulsion cannot.”

Racism is the act of making false pronouncements about those you keep at a distance and therefore know nothing about. Take one failing, one flaw of humanity as a whole and make it the exclusive domain of whosoever you wish to demonise. The lower classes smell. Pakistanis smell. The Chinese used to say that Europeans smelt like corpses. I’ve been on public transport when a group of builders have boarded at the end of the day and smelt that sickly sweet odour of sweat. At such moments I can appreciate Orwell’s comments, in a poorly ventilated carriage the stench is quite nauseating. Yet by taking the advice of Bill Hicks, I am led to one inescapable conclusion: It is human beings that smell. This is where lack of interaction leads to misapprehension, for your experience of an entire race may come exclusively from the man behind the counter in your local off licence. You credit his body odour to his ethnicity because our sight and smell combine forces to create a false impression, never considering that he might smell because he’s overweight, or has poor personal hygiene, or just that he’s man; or that, yes, he has a different natural odour to you because his culture dictates a different diet and his antecedents evolved in a different climate to yours. People from that part of the world have only started to live in Britain in any great numbers in the last few decades and you have not yet had the hundreds, the thousands of years to acclimatise to his people the way you have to all the other minorities that surround you. You’ve even fallen into the trap of categorising those minorities as a single, superior race.

I have yet to hear a serious objection to any group that didn’t, on closer inspection, apply to the whole. I know Asian families who live quite handsomely on benefits and I know white people working and claiming incapacity benefit. Moreover, tax avoidance schemes by large corporations cost the UK economy a hundred billion pounds a year, including the proprietors of the selfsame newspapers that demonise benefit fraud. Refugees are blamed for jumping the housing list, as if they’re the ones running the councils and housing agencies. Yet the houses and flats they are given are so dilapidated that only someone fleeing tyranny would lower themselves to live in them. The French are described as arrogant by the English, which is like the Swiss mocking Germany for its efficiency. And diving is considered the exclusive domain of foreign footballers. Again, not a failing of foreigners, but overpaid footballers who start to believe their own bullshit and think they can get away with anything. Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard are as guilty of this as Drogba or Ronaldo. These are the transparent excuses with which the narrow mind seeks to justify its pre-existing prejudices.

Before moving on, here’s one more passage which nicely draws together everything under discussion up to now: Of propaganda and cyclic prejudice; of scapegoats and becoming the dragons we have slain. It is told by the American historian, Howard Zinn:

“In the 1960s, a student at Harvard Law School addressed parents and alumni with these words:

‘The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might. And the republic is in danger. Yes! danger from within and without. We need law and order. Without law and order our nation cannot survive.’

There was prolonged applause. When the applause died down, the student quietly told his listeners: 'Those were words were spoken in 1932 by Adolph Hitler.’”

He who fights dragons too long becomes a dragon himself.

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