Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Enough with the "random nutter" narrative

We reached peak desperation from the right-leaning media last week when the Daily Mail website ran the following headline in relation to Thomas Mair, the man convicted and sentenced to a whole life term for the senseless murder of Labour Party MP Jo Cox: "Did Neo-Nazi murder Jo over fear he'd lose council house he grew up in? Terrorist thought property could end up being occupied by an immigrant family - and the MP wouldn't help him."

Firstly, fear of losing your council house does not justify shooting and stabbing a woman in the street in broad daylight. Secondly, the headline is nothing but vile speculation. Thirdly, it is stunning that we are meant to feel sorry for a man who is a textbook terrorist. He embodies the definition of a terrorist as someone who uses violence in pursuit of political aims.

We didn't find out until his trial that he repeatedly yelled: "Britain First!" and "This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!" as he murdered Jo Cox. It is disingenuous at best to think he was merely expressing a desire to put British interests first. As he killed a 41-year-old mother of two in cold blood.

Britain First is an extreme right political party that has been very successful on social media, but not at the ballot box, because of people unwittingly sharing their Facebook posts about issues most people largely agree on, such as opposing animal cruelty or helping homeless veterans, without realising they are a racist organisation. And there are enough people out there who agree with their bullshit and give it traction online.

The fact that he appears to have acted alone, that he was a lonely man, has softened the hard right narrative about Mair. But terrorism is not defined by the number of people involved in the act. It is about the motivations and Mair's motivations were political.

Because he did not kill Jo Cox while shouting "Allahu Akhbar!", because he is a socially awkward white man, he is more easily dismissed as a lone wolf, a random nutter.

The "random nutter" narrative is appalling. It is deeply insulting to all the people in Britain who struggle daily with mental health issues and manage to get through each day without committing murder. It minimises the seriousness of Mair's crime, it is a sly and repulsive distraction from his true motivations.

Just because he was a man of few friends, it does not mean his actions happened in a vacuum.

When Mair's house was searched, police discovered books on Nazi Germany, Nazi memorabilia, newspaper cuttings about Jo Cox. In the days and weeks before he committed his sickening act of terror, he searched online for information on whether a .22 bullet could kill someone if they were shot in the head, the human liver and vertabrae, political prisoners, serial killers, Nazi Germany, murders committed by the Ku Klux Klan, Jo Cox's Twitter page, coffins, paupers' funerals, lying in state, the anti-semitic and white nationalist Occidental Observer, former Conservative MP William Hague, and Ian Gow, who was the last MP to be murdered.

Mair is part of the extreme right and his views came about in the midst of anti-immigrant sentiments screaming from newspaper front pages. Sure, he took this to extremes with a house of Nazi paraphenalia but he is a product of a culture where it is perfectly OK to demonise all immigrants without question, to quote poorly extrapolated statistics about issues such as "health tourism" and refugees.

Welcome to the post-fact world! And the post-fact mentality, so beloved of ridiculous, hate-filled caricatures such as Milo Yiannopolous, has led to a post-responsibility mentality. The likes of the Daily Mail would sooner concoct a load of tripe about a family of imaginary immigrants threatening to move into poor little Thomas Mair's council house than take any responsibility for the messages they spew out that contribute to racism in this country and reduce constructive debate to a load of ill-informed noise.

But if we are quick to dismiss Mair as a random nutter, as someone whose obsession with Nazism is reduced to a cute eccentricity, we do ourselves no favours as a society. Mair, and people like Mair, are dangerous, hate-fuelled people.

I know this because I am related to one such person. My uncle, Stephen Lewis, died of cancer in Australia last year. It was a tragic death for its pitiful loneliness even if I do not miss his presence in my life. But while he was alive, I would tell people that if he went on a rampage with one of his guns, I would not be at all surprised.

Like Mair, Stephen had a house full of books on Nazism. They were stored in an orderly manner on his bookcase, with labels about their specific topics written on masking tape and stuck to the shelves. He dressed in army camouflage. He lived alone for most of his adult life. When he did speak, it was often to say something misogynistic or racist or homophobic. He was, most likely, a closeted, self-loathing gay man who felt like he could not come out, despite one of his cousins coming out as a lesbian without negative repercussions in my family.

He used to write bizarre letters to my grandfather when he was living in a nursing home, suffering from dementia. My grandfather never opened his mail so it was usually my father or I who would take a look. His letters described me as a "mongrel bitch", he told my grandfather I was working as a prostitute in the family home and, chillingly, said I'd be a "good target for his new gun".

And, like Mair, he was a man who had no real friends. In a sad way, this gives me hope for both Australian and British societies. It is darkly reassuring that I live in and hail from a society where the man who dresses in army camouflage, hoards Nazi books and memorabilia, owns guns, and whose conversation veers constantly to the racist, the sexist and the homophobic is a lonely man.

Bu while Mair and Stephen live on the fringes of society, never quite fitting in, struggling to hold down a job or form meaningful relationships, it has become quite clear by some of the revolting reactions to the murder of Jo Cox that such men have their sympathisers, their apologists and their defenders.

When the hatred boils over into acts of deadly violence against innocent people and people excuse this hatred and violence, we have a real problem. To pretend it's not political is to solve nothing.

Photography by Garry Knight/Flickr

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Why I won't join the Fidel Castro grief orgy

Fidel Castro is dead. And I, for one, will not be shedding a single tear for his passing.

As a journalist, I cannot mourn the passing of a man who on the day of his death left behind a country ranked at just 171 on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. Cuba is ranked 171 out of 180 countries. It is dwelling at the bottom with other press freedom dumpster fires such as North Korea, Eritrea and Syria. It rates lower than Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

Just last month, Cuba arrested journalists who were attempting to cover the Hurricane Matthew disaster. Equipment was confiscated, and in the wake of harassment in recent months, some journalists have fled the country.

Raul Castro's calls for reforms in 2010 have been meaningless. The regime has almost 100 per cent ownership of all media outlets. Access to the internet for citizens is severely limited. Only around 5 per cent of Cubans have internet at home, all internet comes via the government-owned telco Etecsa. Opposition websites are blocked. There is no real editorial independence in Cuba. Censorship and threats to journalists trying to do their job are par for the course.

We will never know for certain how many people have been murdered under Fidel Castro's regime. The Cuba Archive has documented 3,615 firing squad executions since 1959. It's not on the same scale as the deaths under Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot or Mao but the mentality is the same - wipe out opposition and dissent through executions, a legal system without due process and labour camps.

Why would anyone who claims to chreish freedom, who is appalled by capital punishment, who believes in free and open political debate be OK with such repression, regardless of the scale?

"BUT FREE HEALTHCARE AND EDUCATION!" scream Castro's apologists.

Yeah, that's great as long as the educated, healthy people can actually fulfill their potential, travel freely, express their views freely, and enjoy access to a free press and a polling station once in a while. Have the apologists not noticed that plenty of countries have great educational and healthcare options and democracy? It should not be an either/or situation.

"BUT WHAT ABOUT THE US?!" the apologists yell.

It is precisely this non-nuanced, binary thinking that is turning the world into an idiocracy. It is possible to be angry about more than one thing. There is plenty to criticise the US over, especially in terms of foreign policy over multiple decades. But none of this will bring back the people who were on the receiving end of Castro's firing squads, or reunite families who have been separated, or bring peace to those who want to practice their faith without state repression.

People have risked their lives in dangerous sea voyages to escape the Castro regime. Yet it is stunning how many people who, I am certain, are quite rightly sympathetic to refugees escaping brutality, economic hardship and repression by sea in other parts of the world are seemingly unbothered by the plight of those who felt they had no choice but to leave Cuba. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

Instead, I stand with the people who are dancing on the streets this weekend. The mere fact that I can sit here in London and criticise both the US and Cuba, and indeed Britain, without fearing for my life speaks volumes. Make mine a Cuba libre.

Photography by Kevin Burkett/Flickr

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The simple conclusion from Brexit and Trump

As anyone who either didn't vote for Britain to leave the European Union, or didn't vote for President-Elect Donald Trump, or was not a fan of either one or both these notions tries to process what has happened in 2016, there is one very simple conclusion.

A lot of us are more conservative than we think, and people in general are, quite simply pretty damn conservative. These results are largely about inherent conservatism.

Of course, this should have become obvious during last year's poll-defying general election in Britain. The predicted knife-edge result in a David Cameron versus Ed Milliband contest turned into a pretty comfortable win for Cameron's Conservatives. The phenomenon of secret Tories was born, the people who could really only express their true beliefs in the privacy of the polling booth.

And then it happened again when Brexit triumphed. Secret Brexiters were also in our midst, people who again dared not mention their intention to put their cross in the "leave" box or even to tell this to a pollster, but did so when nobody was looking.

And then, just as Trump promised when he said his victory would be "Brexit plus plus plus", the polls turned out to be utter bunkum, and typing the words "President-Elect Donald Trump" still feels weird to many a journalist's fingers, my own included.

Of course, "conservative" is a broad term. There are social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, some people fit into both categories, others are one or the other. But, if we are going to be honest, there is an element of conservatism in a lot of us. 

It takes many forms. Some of them you may recognise in yourself, some you may not. This is the part of us that claims to be a feminist yet fervently checks the Daily Mail's sidebar of shame to mock a famous woman who has had the temerity to put on weight or wear an unflattering dress. This is the person who claims to be socially liberal but still makes fun of the guests on Jeremy Kyle. This is the old school, hard left trade union type who is also a fervent anti-abortionist. This is anyone who likes the security of a monogamous marriage. This is the eyeroll when one sees how much tax comes out of their salary and mutters to oneself that they hope everyone on benefits appreciates their hard-earned. This is the reason why TV programmes such as Benefits Street and Geordie Shore keep getting made. It is the maintaining of a sexist, racist, classist double standard that allows Trump, with his five children to three wives to run for president, but such a marital track record would have denied Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton the same opportunity. It is the part of us that thanks the troops for their service, gets their kids christened despite being agnostic at best, and judges people's sex lives.

And it is this inherent conservatism that leads people to say things like: "Give Trump/Brexit a chance. It might be OK, after all." and "We need to accept the result and move on." Even if they didn't vote for the winning outcome. But for everyone who tells the world to take a chill pill, to calm down, that everything will be fine, there are people fearful in the wake of both the EU referendum and the ascension of Donald Trump. The inherent conservatism that leads to glib calls for calm is almost always based in privilege, from the people who genuinely don't think the referendum or election result will adversely affect them in any way at all.

While there are certainly people from the black, Asian, Hispanic, LGBT and Muslim communities - oh, and women - who voted for Donald Trump, there are plenty of people from these communities who are fearful as to what the future holds. Based on Trump's awful rhetoric, these are not irrational fears. If any of these fears come true, such as mass deportations, travel bans for an entire religion despite it being made up of 72 sects, a rollback of reproductive rights, a daft wall, more inter-racial violence, a society where it is even harder to be take seriously as a sexual assault victim, and so on and so forth, will those who voted for Trump take responsibility? Equally, will everyone who voted Brexit take responsibility if everything truly does turn to shit after the hounds of Article 50 are released?

After all, personal responsibility is a popular principle among conservatives. Will the conservatives who voted for Trump or Brexit take responsibility if their desired utopia does not materialise? 

And it all makes a mockery of left versus right. The lines between the left and the right are now blurred but the inherent conservatism is still there.

The Trump vote was not, as much as Jeremy Corbyn would like to think so, a massive anti-globalist, anti-establishment wake-up call. Donald Trump, in sending jobs to China (and now his daughter, Ivanka, the only woman on his transition team, in sending jobs from China to the even cheaper workforces of Ethiopia) has benefited enormously from globalisation. Plenty of people, stereotypical establishment types, figured they'd do well under Trump and voted accordingly. Conversely, there was certainly an element of anti-globalisation feeling among many a Brexiter, from the hard left to the protectionist right as well. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn are all apologists for Putin's Russia, even though it is a profoundly undemocratic, anti-freedom regime. 

Disturbingly - and elements of the left and right are equally appalling here - there are calls for censorship of journalists and of all manner of media outlets, as well as stifling of peaceful protests. Like the post-Brexit slanging matches, there are gloating Trump voters taking the "we won, get over it" line, as if democracy begins and ends at the ballot box. These people don't want to be challenged by protesters or by the media. And there are plenty on the left these days who are also mad about censorship and won't rest until the BBC morphs into Pravda, Laura Kuenssberg is replaced by Naomi Klein, and the Morning Star is the only newspaper available.

And when you look at who voted for Trump, and realise that there are plenty of educated, wealthy people among them, and when you realise that large swathes of England and Wales voted to leave the EU, even in areas that have benefited enormously from EU membership, it is clear that generalisations about every person who voted in these directions are grossly unhelpful if there is to be constructive dialogue about any of these issues any time soon. 

But there is certainly an undercurrent of inherent conservatism out there and it tells me that a populist leftist movement won't necessarily win out on either side of the pond. 

Elections are won on the centre ground - or the perceived centre ground - in the UK. Right now, the Tories have convinced broad swathes of the electorate that they hold the middle ground. Hell, there are still people who think the NHS is perfectly safe under this government, despite another £700m of our money going to Virgin Care in Somerset while remaining free from the accountability of freedom of information requirements. Indeed, the NHS is a solid example of inherent conservatism again rearing its head. There is no shortage of people who claim to support the NHS but still blame immigrants if they cannot get a GP appointment, have no issue with unchecked outsourcing of health services to the private sector "as long as it remains free at the point of use" and would not bat an eyelid if services such as IVF, transgender healthcare, abortion and birth control, were not covered by the NHS. 

Meanwhile, it's not quite apples and oranges when you compare it all with the US - there would be a political home in America for many a British Conservative MP in the Democrats, for example. David Cameron, Anna Soubry and Justine Greening, for example, would not look out of place as US Democrats, and it is actually not too hard to imagine Hillary Clinton sitting on the green leather benches of Theresa May's Conservative government. On top of all this, I am unconvinced that an ageing, Jewish-often-perceived-as-atheist, self-proclaimed socialist, such as Bernie Sanders would win over enough of America to lead a government. 

None of this points to either Britain or the US crying out for a hard left alternative, as disappointing as many will find that conclusion. While there are certainly differences between British and American societies, both nations are, at heart, conservative. And this is what the opponents of Brexit and Donald Trump need to address if they are to make a real impact.

Picture by Chris/Flickr