National Democracy Week 2018

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It was last week. Yes, I missed it too. If it weren’t for an email I received with a couple of suffragette posters, I wouldn’t have known about it at all.

This inaugural week to pay tribute to democracy in Britain ran from the 2nd to the 8th of July. The date was chosen to mark the 90th anniversary of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act, which gave women the same voting rights as men. Women had gained the right to vote here ten years earlier, but that right was limited to women over the age of 30 who had property – in case you were wondering why we’ve been celebrating in recent months the centenary of women getting the right to vote.

I received my posters to celebrate democracy a few days before the start of the week. Vaguely curious, I put them aside, expecting to hear more about it through the media. But I saw nothing on it when I watched BBC or Channel 4. In the UK newspapers I typically read – The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, The Times, The New European – there were no reports or commentaries to do with National Democracy Week. Without some sort of reminder and with too many other things clambering for space in my head, I easily forgot about it.

I do wonder if the lack of fanfare or even interest in National Democracy Week had anything to do with what was going on last week. England winning a place in the World Cup semi-finals and the rescue operation for the Thai boys and their football coach trapped in a cave dominated our casual news talk – and they have nothing to do with democracy. In the middle of the week, democracy appeared in the form of freedom of speech when London Mayor Sadiq Khan gave permission to anti-Trump protesters to launch an angry baby Trump balloon during the US president’s visit. Whether such permission should be allowed is still being debated as I write. The week ended with our PM presenting her Brexit proposal to her cabinet ministers at a secluded day retreat at Chequers. This involved an elite group within a minority government agreeing to a proposal that they know will likely be rejected by the EU. To make this exercise in democracy even more futile, two days after agreeing to support the PM, two of the ministers resigned in disagreement.

Perhaps National Democracy Week decided it was best to keep a low profile.

National Democray Week 2

This and the featured image are the posters designed by Vicki Johnson.

Having realised that the celebrations had passed me by, I went to the government website to see what I missed. I clicked on ‘events’ and was sent to another webpage, where I could click on ‘events’ to find events in my area. That brought me back to the first page where I had clicked on ‘events.’ I was in a loop. What an appropriate analogy for our modern democracy. It appears I’ve participated after all.

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To Protest or Not To Protest

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To quote Albert Einstein, ‘If I remain silent, I am guilty of complicity.’

President Tr**p arrives in Britain on Friday the 13th of July. (Supposedly – he could cancel at any minute.) When I first heard about this visit some two months ago, my gut instinct was to appear outside Downing Street with a placard saying ‘Women of the World Against Trump.’ This sign would sum up a number of issues ranging from ‘grabbing pussy’ to cutting off overseas aid for women’s health.

But two months is a long time in the hate-filled-mud-slinging world of this US president. Since the announcement of Tr**p’s upcoming visit, the US has pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, the US Embassy has moved to Jerusalem (unravelling decades of diplomacy), some 2000 migrant children have been separated from their parents and put into detention centres, without tougher gun laws another 25 mass shootings occurred in America (including one yesterday at a newspaper in Maryland – hard to separate this from the anti-media atmosphere of this president), and now his Muslim travel ban has been given the go ahead. While all of this is going on, a slew of environmental protection laws are being axed. There’s simply too much to protest against and not enough placards to go around.

On the other hand, I wonder if I should show up at all. POTUS seems to thrive on attention, positive and negative. Since most of what he does is deserving of a negative response, I fear that giving him attention is going to produce more of the same. That is, we need child psychology for dealing with this man-child.

I also wonder about the power of protests. That sounds like a contradiction coming from me. Yes, of course, I was in London Saturday among the 100,000 plus anti-Brexit protesters demanding a people’s vote of the final Brexit deal. And it was a success. Our protest was the lead story on most of the news programmes that night and on the front covers of most of the newspapers Sunday morning. The initial analysis from the political pundits is that this protest sent a message to the minority of hard Brexiters in government and possibly the inert Jeremy Corbyn, along with jump starting some of those remainers who have given up the fight. That’s all fine and good.

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People’s Vote march 23 June 2018.

A protest against Tr**p is another matter. It’s likely to be on the news, but what kind of message is it going to send? There’s no single solid message or legalisation coming up (as in the case of Brexit) to be impacted or potential votes to be lost by protesting against him.  Tr**p has secured his Alt-Right base, held on to reluctant Republican support with tax cuts and corporate welfare and normalised his hateful and child-like rhetoric through saturation.

Returning to Einstein, I refuse to remain silent. But I think there are more effective ways than another street protest for confronting Tr**p and all his nastiness. From this side of the Atlantic, petitioning and writing to our own governments to stand up to this US president on particular issues is a start. So too is supporting the many NGOs, such as Amnesty International and NRDC (Natural Resources Defence Council), whose organised lobbies and legal teams have a fighting chance. With these ideas in mind, this time, I’m staying at home with my cardboard and placard stick.

Brexit Bullies

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No, this is not about The Daily Mail, Boris Johnson or David Davis. Nor is it about high-profile victims Gina Miller, Supreme Court Justices or Peers in the House of Lords. This is far more personal.

We think it started during the EU Referendum campaign, when my David and I discovered that an egg had been thrown at our front door. Ours was the only house at that end of our long street with a Remain sign in the window. We didn’t think at first that the splattered egg had anything to do with politics. When we entertained the notion, we quickly dismissed it. After all, we live on a street with pedestrian traffic between the convenience store and the primary school. It was probably kids mucking about. We also reminded ourselves that we live in Ely, among other things a dormitory town for Cambridge with its universities and high-tech businesses – people who are likely to vote remain.

Those explanations have been reconsidered and our analysis has been rewritten in recent days after the rear windscreen wiper of our car had been torn off – no easy feat. It had happened during the night. But why our car when we’re at the brightly-lit end of the street? Straight away we suspected that this act of vandalism had something to do with the small EU flag in our front window – the only EU flag on our street and only one of a few in the whole town.

The gooey broken egg and now a part of our car. We were feeling targeted.

I’ve been on the wrong end of bullying before, once at a job and at other times in my own family. But my past experiences with bullying had some sort of logic to them, an acting out of envy, with the intention of removing me from the scene. That is, I held meaning in the lives of the bullies.

When an absolute stranger(s) attacks, one wonders why. Instead of acting out of envy, these aggressive brexiteers are likely acting out their anger that Brexit is not going the way it was planned or promised – the NHS is not going to receive more funds, in fact, it’s losing staff – the great trade deals with America and Commonwealth countries are laughably unlikely – problems with the Irish border could result in a fudged Brexit within the domain of the EU – to name a few.

The displaced anger is obvious, the intent less so. Do these vandals think that their actions will turn me into a brexiteer? Or are they trying to scare us into removing our signs and flags so as to not advertise that there is an organised movement against their views?

I filled in an online police report about the ripped off windscreen wiper. After giving all of the routine information – make, model, location, damage etc. – I was asked if I suffered any personal physical or mental injury. I ticked the mental injury box without hesitation. I was upset and shaken and felt vulnerable. This triggered another box to appear, asking if I wanted to join a support group. Really? Is there a support group for people who have had their cars vandalised? Or better still – is there a support group for people who have been bullied by brexiteers? This latter group I imagine would be full to capacity and I’d have a place on one of those notorious NHS waiting lists.

enemies of the peopleThere’s also the possibility that I’m all wrong. Our egg-stained door and damaged car could be coincidences and could have nothing to do with Brexit.  But in the socio-political climate we live in, an innocent explanation is hard to contemplate. I guess I’ve been writing about The Daily Mail and its political heroes after all.

Rosewater: another side of journalism

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Based on the best-selling memoir Then They Came for Me, Jon Stewart’s film about journalist Maziar Bahari serves as a reminder of how fragile freedom of the press can be. Rosewater chronicles the capture and imprisonment of the Iran-born Canadian journalist, who was arrested for filming protests in Iran against Ahmadinejad’s dubious victory over Mousavi. Bahari was charged with espionage and for 118 days underwent Kafkaesque interrogations and torture along with being held in solitary confinement.

For fans of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, there isn’t much humour in Rosewater. It nonetheless is aware of an entertainment value, taking mise-en-scène and cinematography into artistry. The narrative is also for a more discerning audience. Instead of following the formula of scenes cutting back and forth between the prisoner and his distraught family, we see the imprisonment through the eyes of the prisoner. As he doesn’t know what his wife or his colleagues are doing to secure his release, we don’t see any of that until quite late in the story and only when Bahari learns that Secretary of State Clinton is trying to get him out. A brief flashback follows, filling us in on the parallel story of family, colleagues and news coverage, mixing Bahari’s imagination with the true happenings. The same drama in the hands of another director, say Ron Howard, would have followed the more traditional formula and milked the family story, especially as the wife was pregnant at the time.

Bahari is just one among many journalists who have been arrested, detained, even killed for reporting events that expose flaws in governments or protests against them. We see this in Erdogan’s Turkey, in Iran, Syria, Myanmar and Trump’s America, to name a few. These cases of attacking the messenger are even more disturbing at a time when so-called democracies are accusing the media of producing fake news. Of course, we are bombarded with fake news, politically bias news and what I call propagandist’s news (as in The Daily Mail in the UK and America’s Fox News). As odious as some of these can be, they do have a right to express themselves. It just puts more demands on the public to fact check stories and to support the more reputable news outlets. I make that sound easier than it is – which brings me back to Rosewater and the case of Maziar Bahari. Journalism has become a more complex endeavour, a multi-sided object, where one side risks obscuring the other.

I conclude this look at another side of journalism by purloining a campaign slogan from Amnesty International – Journalism is not a crime.

Lincoln in the Bardo

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With few exceptions, the Man Booker Prize winner is not as good as half of its shortlist. I’m afraid for me George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo follows this rule. I say this with some hesitation because I’ve enjoyed Saunders’s short stories over the years and because at times the writing in Lincoln is nothing less than brilliant.

Lincoln in the Bardo deals with the true-life story of the death Willie Lincoln, son of the famous president. An exploration of grieving and beliefs about death, it’s set primarily in the bardo – a concept taken from Tibetan Buddhism for an intermediate state between death and rebirth.  In this bardo the reader encounters several subplots with a host of fictional (and some fictionalised) characters of which the child Willie Lincoln is one.

Outside of the bardo lies the real world, told through the accounts of present-day historians and journals and memoirs of those living at the time. This genre mixing is a clever way of telling a story. But in order for it to work, the disparate parts, with their different voices and styles, need to be of roughly equal merit. For me, the accounts of Lincoln’s contemporaries were far more moving and interesting than the lives of most of the characters in the bardo. I found myself speed reading through the bardo in order to arrive at and savour the non-fiction passages.

The blending of fiction with non-fiction is an art. True mastery of this art formSaunders 1 can be found in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Digging up the Bones and closer to the non-fiction end of the scale in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. While Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo hasn’t reached its ambitions, it’s still a better, more innovative, read than much of what’s out there.

Brexit: Time for a People’s Vote

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Writing in anger is a lot like speaking in anger. It’s soon laden with regrets. With that in mind, I waited some days before writing about a couple of recent infuriating incidents.

Incident 1 – As I was handing out leaflets about a People’s Vote on the final Brexit Deal, one person angrily barked at me, ‘We already voted – it was democratic.’ To which I said, ‘So is this – that vote was nearly two years ago.’ As is often the case, this person stomped off in a huff before I could say anything more.

Incident 2 – When I mentioned to a friend, who had surprised us all by voting Leave, that I was supporting the People’s Vote campaign, he dismissed it, saying ‘it’s trying to overturn a democratic vote.’ I was offended by this suggestion that I wasn’t being democratic – so offended that I couldn’t answer to it, and I usually do answer to his comments about Brexit. While I tried to find my composure and words, the dinner table, full of chatter, quickly changed topic.

Thank the gods for blogs – here’s what I wanted to say.

What kind of democracy do we have in the UK? It’s certainly not winner-take-all. After a general election, the winning party isn’t the only party in parliament. As other parties win constituencies, they too are represented and have a right to debate and vote in parliament. Okay, we know that referendums aren’t quite the same thing.  But PM Theresa May has interpreted the EU referendum result in a way that alienates about half of the country, giving the losers nothing and referring to us remainers, us ‘citizens of the world’ as ‘citizens of nowhere.’ If the PM and the Brexit elite in her cabinet continue down the road to a hard Brexit, those who didn’t want any Brexit or who expected a soft Brexit have not had their voices heard. I have a hard time seeing the democracy in this – unless of course, the people can vote on the final Brexit deal.

Democracy, no matter how you define it, also didn’t end on 23 June 2016. Things have happened since then.  Trump has been elected. He’s a libertarian protectionist and cannot be counted on for a good trade deal. Nor can we count on the Commonwealth countries – India has already snuffed us on trade without a loosening of visa restrictions. As the Brexit wheels have started turning, trade deals aren’t the only items to start falling off the cart – the Irish border, the Customs Union and Euratom, to name a few. I don’t recall these points coming up during the referendum campaign and now they’re key issues. And let’s not forget that since the vote in June 2016, we’ve had a general election. Result: the pro-Brexit government lost its majority. Now we’re being led by a minority government being bolstered by a political party that most of us in the UK cannot even vote for – or more importantly, vote out of power. The only way to counter all of these changes is a people’s vote on the final deal.

End of rant.

Obviously my opposition to Brexit has generated a lot of anger in me. While anger is often an emotion that can impede reason and turn grown-ups into children, it can also be useful. I’m hoping that enough British voters, angry at being duped during the referendum campaign or angry at the minority government’s ineptitude at Brexit negotiations, can put their anger to good use and demand a final vote.

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Women, Power and Mary Beard

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FawcettThe Fawcett Society’s latest Sex and Power Index is a reminder that outrage and publicity aren’t enough. The study showed that in the UK, women currently make up just 6% of FTSE 100 CEOs, 16.7% of Supreme Court justices, 17.6% of national newspaper editors, 26% of cabinet ministers and 32% of MPs. I’m experiencing déjà vu. A few times a year, figures like this come out, whether from the UK, US or some international organisation. The women’s marches of the last couple of years and the media frenzy over Harvey Weinstein and #metoo seem to have had little impact when it comes to placing women in positions of power. This is made even more appalling by the fact that over the past decade women have surpassed men in numbers entering higher education – that is, we can no longer say that women aren’t qualified for such positions.

This brings me to Mary Beard, the Cambridge don and television classicist, whose recent book Women and Power: A Manifesto addresses this horrendous imbalance. While she gives some attention to modern examples where women in positions of power are treated differently and more negatively and sexually than their male counterparts – think Hillary Clinton – Beard looks mostly to history and ancient writings for the roots of misogyny and power relationships. She’s a master at relaying such accounts and the book is well worth a read.

But again, I experienced some déjà vu. Other feminist writers have pointed out the historical and institutional oppression of women. Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, to name a few.

I find some solace in the fact that Beard’s book has sold well and comes out at a time when a new generation of feminists is emerging. I do hope these young activists heed the advice on the back of Beard’s manifesto: ‘You can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.’