Sunday, 6 April 2014

Is it Homophobic to oppose Same Sex Marriage?

The first same sex marriages in England and Wales took place this week.  It gave an ideal opportunity not just to celebrate the love of the people getting married, but for those who disagree with marriage equality to have one last blast at airing their views about how wrong this all is.

Catholic Voices, for example, has been keen to get its members media time on the subject.  The group
was co-founded by Jack Valero, a member of Opus Dei.  CV purports to represent the views of ordinary British Catholics*.  It has put out various items on the issue, such as this blog post, which at first glance seems reasonable enough.  However, breaking it down, in it they say that by allowing same sex couples to wed, there has been an "evisceration" of marriage.  That word generally means "disembowelment": removing the internal organs of an animal.  According to them, when two men or two women enter together into a legal, civil marriage, these are not proper weddings, but instead are a "parody" of the real thing.

They predict that:
  • all civil marriages will become insignificant and incoherent; 
  • marriage will be weakened; 
  • the state will be beset by groups wanting recognition of polyamorous and "other kinds" of sexual unions.  
Their claim is that society must rebuild itself.  You may agree or disagree with these quite serious claims about the effect of opening up of marriage to same-sex couples, but I'm interested in the question of whether being opposed to same-sex marriage is by definition homophobic.

Is it Homophobic? 

Well, I could answer this question in fewer than 140 characters by nicking Sean Jones QC's tweet below.  It's just brilliant and gets straight to the heart of it for me:

Catholic Voices take a quite apocalyptic stance about the effects of marriage equality, particularly when you strip away their attempts to be reasoned and reasonable.  Sean's tweet covers other less dramatic positions of people who simply don't "like" the idea of same sex marriage but haven't really formulated why.  I'll go on below to look at the matter in a bit more detail below, and explain why I agree with him.

The Word Homophobia

The first thing I'm going to do is to try to move away from the use of "homophobia".  It's an interesting word, first coined in 1969 to describe the "mixture of revulsion and apprehension".  It was also called homosexual panic.  I think back then that probably was the reaction of plenty of people (particularly straight men) when faced with people attracted to the same sex.  No doubt it is still the case for some now.

However, what most people naturally mean when they use the term is something akin to racism or sexism, which is directed at LGB people.  The word covers a whole range of negative feelings that range from antipathy or mild prejudice, through to actual violent contempt.  It can include phobia, but on most people's usage it doesn't actually by any means require fear.  I therefore understand why some get hung up on that aspect of the word, particularly when they try to give it its literal meaning.  I'm therefore going to use the term "anti-gay" in this post instead of homophobia here.

Just like any prejudice, anti-gay feeling and behaviour cover a huge spectrum of words and activities.   Someone who calls gays "poofs" in a tweet is clearly not in the same league as those who beat up, attack or kill gay men because of their hatred (19.3% of all hate crimes in the US were incidentally motivated by sexual orientation bias).   By having your position on same-sex marriage challenged as being anti-gay, it does not mean that the person doing so is suggesting that you're in the same category as someone who engages in violent assaults.  It's perfectly possible for you to know, and even like, some LGB people, whilst believing the law should rightly discriminate against them and to seek to deny them the rights that heterosexual people enjoy.   That really should be obvious.

Also, as with racism, you can of course feel that you're entirely not anti-gay, whilst behaving in such a way that others would agree falls into that category.  Those affected by your prejudice certainly don't have an absolute monopoly of determining what is and what is not anti-gay, but they are often in the best place to assess the effect of it because of their day to day life experiences.

The Symbolism of Marriage Equality

Let's be clear that in the UK the huge legal injustices facing same-sex couples were not the driving force in LGB people arguing for marriage equality.  Civil Partnerships had already meant that almost the same legal rights were available to civil partners as to those marrying.  In this the UK differs to many other countries around the world.

The matter of marriage equality was foremost one of equal treatment, dignity and principle.  Marriage is of course an entirely made up thing: a social construct that humans have created and defined.  It's a concept, not a tangible "thing".  It is however an important institution from which we collectively have agreed certain rights and responsibilities should flow.  This change in the law on marriage was about the State saying "your unions are equal".  It's about the State sending out a signal that "you are equal" after many, many years of state instituted discrimination and wrong treatment, and in the context of ongoing social prejudice. 

It was extremely important to many LGB people, myself included, to win this battle.  I'm enormously glad we did.  The symbolism was absolutely enormous.  We have already moved from a society where, growing up as a gay teen in the 80s, my only point of reference to homosexuality was parody characters on Are You Being Served, and hearing how homosexuals were dying of a "gay plague".  Instead we have an incredibly positive affirmation of same-sex unions by a Conservative prime-minister who himself had even voted against the repeal of Section 28.   This is enormous.

Again, Sean entirely gets it:

I cannot emphasise enough what it represents to have the option of marriage available to me personally, and to know the positive effect on the next generation of gay teenagers growing up in an environment where the State recognises their relationships and treats them as equal.  What an amazingly positive change and healthy development in our society.

Being Anti-Gay

It's not terribly hard to set out tests for whether someone is expressing an anti-gay position.  Here are a few examples:
  • Do you believe that LGB people should have fewer or different civil rights to straight people?
  • Do you believe that civil marriage between an LGB couple is a parody of "real marriage"?
  • Do you believe that LGB relationships are only worthy of separate recognition by the State and LGB people should be satisfied with that?
  • Do your views and words tend to upset, offend or hurt a sizeable proportion of LGB people?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, I'd say there's a good chance you're being intrinsically and inherently anti-gay.  It really is rather difficult for you to argue that is not case.  I think, with respect**, you'd have to be quite thick to not get this point.  If you were saying black people should have fewer civil rights, people would rightly say you're being racist.  Here, you're saying things that are anti-gay, and if you had your way the effects of this would be laws that discriminate against (i.e. treat differently) LGB people.  You're being anti-gay.

And if, remarkably, you still haven't got the point that you're being anti-gay by arguing I should not be allowed marriage equality, then consider this.  In 1967 the US Supreme Court overturned the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which had prohibited inter-racial marriages.  Similar rules existed in other states.  Imagine if, instead, the court had permitted blacks to enter unions with whites, but it created a "separate but equal" institution called "inter-racial partnerships".  Would you argue that mixed race couples should be content with it because it gave all the same legal rights as "ordinary" couples AND this position is not racist?  I think people would label you as racist on this issue, with justification.  I see no difference with stating that LGB people should put up with the separate but (almost) equal institution of civil partnership is being anti-gay.

Please do think about this if you're stance is "I'm not anti-gay, but I don't think they should be allowed to get married."  Really think it through and realise what you're saying.

Baffling Denial

We've had plenty of examples in history of laws related to marriage that discriminate against any given group.  The 1701 Act of Settlement was anti-Catholic.  It said that anyone who became Roman Catholic or married a Roman Catholic was excluded from the succession.  The Nuremberg laws of 1935 were anti-Jewish and prohibited non-Jews from marrying Jews in Germany.  I've already mentioned the ban on whites marrying blacks in some US states.

In each of these cases people were, I believe, consciously aware that the policies discriminated against a particular group.  They felt it was right to do so and put forward justifications for this.  This country faced what it considered to be a serious threat from Roman Catholicism in the early 18th century.  Millions of Germans supported the discriminatory Nuremberg laws as necessary to protect the "German nation".  People who argued for segregation knew they were backing a racist policy.  They wrongly thought it was correct to do so in the interests of social harmony.

The extraordinary thing same sex marriage issue, though, is that many people are in utter denial that by seeking to keep marriage from LGB people that they are being at all anti-gay.  Catholic Voices do it in their article.  They say that they are offended by "jeers" that they are homophobic or bigoted for taking the stance they do.  Here's a Catholic Priest, Father James Bradley, who says we live in "dangerous times" because of this and this is "not the path of a civilized society".

Quite how he reaches this point I'm not sure.  He's entitled to his view that I should be discriminated against by the State and to put forward what he sees as his compelling faith based reasons for this.  People will agree or disagree with them.  But to deny that anyone who takes a position that is by definition anti-gay is being anti-gay makes no sense at all.  It is not dangerous to point this out, and it is not uncivilised to do so.  It is only uncivilised if it's accompanied by abuse, but that's not what I'm doing.  I'm simply stating something which should be quite evident if you use some logic.

The Roman Catholic faith teaches (Catechism 2357) that homosexual acts are "acts of grave depravity" and are "intrinsically disordered".  It says that they are "contrary to natural law".  They do not "proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity".  "Under no circumstances can they be approved".  It talks about same-sex attraction being a "trial" for homosexuals.  This is as inherently anti-gay as it gets.  With these teachings, it is a virulently anti-gay religion.  The Catechism then talks about treating these poor homosexuals with "respect" and not unjustifiably discriminating against them (justifiable discrimination is by definition okay according to the faith).

Why should I not point out that all of the attempts to deny me civil rights come from an inherently anti-gay set of religious views?  They are entitled to their beliefs and can argue them as much as they like, but I will not accept that whilst doing so they are not being anti-gay.
Just as a side-note, we have always to remember that there are many Christians who take a different viewpoint to the one above.  The Church in Wales last month issued a report by the standing doctrinal commission which stated the following:

Isn't that beautiful?  A very recent poll found a majority (53%) of Americans now support same-sex marriage, with support amongst white Catholics even higher, at 58%, and amongst Hispanic Catholics at 56%.  Perhaps Rome will catch up with the huge number of its own members who don't support its anti-gay position.  Don't believe that it doesn't or can't ever change its policies on fundamental issues either: that's demonstrable historic nonsense.  To give one example, the Catholic Church banned the charging of interest on loans during most of its existence.  It said the practice was "detestable to God and man, damned by the sacred canons and contrary to Christian charity".  The doctrine was enunciated by popes, expressed by three ecumenical councils, proclaimed by bishops, and taught unanimously by theologians.  People who lent for money were refused the sacraments and Christian burial.  Then, in the 19th century they changed the rules and, hey ho, allowed it. Such is the immutable Word of God.

It Bothers Them

Now, back to the curious point about those being anti-gay denying that they are in fact so.  If you point this out to them, wow does it bother them.  They want to have their communion wafer and eat it.  NO, they are motivated by God's word and love and nothing about their anti-gay stance is at all anti-gay.  They trot out the words that everyone is created in God's image and is worthy of human dignity.  It's "love the sinner, hate the sin, and go out and campaign loudly for the State to actively discriminate against the sinner in civil matters."  They get most upset when their anti-gay stance is called out as such.

A few of them are obviously and offensively homophobic.  The ostensibly reasonable Catholic Voices piece contained the slippery slope argument about "other sexual unions" being recognised.  These words are a bit nebulous and they don't spell out what is meant with that.  Given the piece has already considered straight, same-sex and polyamorous sexual unions, I can only assume it refers either to bestiality, paedophilia, or both.   Considering the union of two people of the same sex with screwing animals in the same context is a bit anti-gay isn't it, even it if wasn't overt?

This Catholic convert and former monk below, who calls gay men "LGBT perverts" and "poofs", is much more direct:

And YET, it bothers the donkey-loving former monk to be called anti-gay.  He's been off recently on a long rant with a doctor I follow about how he worked with gay men in the 1980s during the Aids crisis, preaching abstinence.  Because of this, and despite his anti-gay tweets, he maintains he isn't anti-gay.  This is, to me, very baffling psychology.

A Fifth of Britons wouldn't go to a Gay Wedding

Just to wrap up, it was widely reported (BBC, Guardian, Telegraph etc) that a recent poll showed 68% support for marriage equality, with a minority of just 26% who actually object to it.  That result must have hurt those opposed to same-sex marriage, with their claims that the majority of the population is opposed to it.  26% opposition is actually quite a remarkable figure.  There actually aren't many contentious political issues (HS2, fracking, EU etc) where just 26% of the population are opposed to something.  It shows surprising and heart-warming consensus given the public hasn't even had time to get used to the change yet.

Rather than emphasise this positive point, most of the press however highlighted a subsidiary finding in the poll that a "fifth of Britons (22%) would turn down an invitation to a gay wedding."  Father Bradly, above, said the findings of the survey reflected the reality that people remained "deeply uncomfortable" with being honest about their true feelings on the meaning of marriage.

I actually wouldn't be at all surprised if 20% of the British population would respond in a poll that they would not be comfortable attending a Muslim wedding.  People can be very uneasy and/or prejudiced towards groups, particularly when they have had no personal contact with members of it, and have soaked up negative stereotypes from the press and elsewhere.  If this were the case, a sensible approach might be to accept that prejudice of all sorts is deeply engrained in our society and to ask what can be done to justify it.  I certainly wouldn't argue that it means that Muslim people shouldn't be allowed to marry by the State, because people are personally "deeply uncomfortable" with going to one of their weddings and we need to pander to that prejudice.

Some Gay People Get Married. Get Over It.

The really GREAT thing is all this is over, or it should be.  Those seeking to be anti-gay about marriage have lost their argument, the vast majority of the population supports marriage equality, and this is the last opportunity for them to air their anti-gay views with anyone taking any kind of notice. 

I believe it's been a particularly disastrous week for the likes of Catholic Voices in getting their anti-gay viewpoint over and attempting to win hearts and minds.  Some attempts have led to enormous mirth online, and it's been really quite amusing watching it unfold, and see it bite them back on the arse.  The opponents of marriage equality appear, in my view, to be increasingly isolated, bitter, unreasonable, and often hysterical in their predictions. 

I hope this is my last blog post on the subject.

Love wins in the end.

* Christian Voices is in somewhat hot water at the moment when one of their Speakers, Paula Thompson, an architect, put out an anti-gay tweet regarding Mozilla that spoke of "normal people".  In response a person in the US agreed with her and added "All fags are mentally ill and need to be exterminated".  She retweeted this hate-filled statement to her 1100 followers with no indication that she objected to the contents of the tweet.  She further agreed with a tweet that said "Homosexuals do not want tolerance.  They want to dominate with their sick, deviant life style choice".  Finally a tweet came to light before she was a Catholic Voice in which she said she hoped the IRA would bomb an abortion clinic in Northern Ireland.  It was after that they recruited her as a speaker.

Catholic Voices apparently has the "blessing" of the Catholic bishops in the UK. They apparently "can be relied on to express authoritatively the Church's positions in ways that are succint [sic], compelling and reasonable."  Make your own mind up how those tweets fit with that.  Genocide and sectarian violence.  Paula has since resigned, which has conveniently led Catholic Voices to say it's nothing to do with them any more.  Neither she nor Catholic Voices have offered any form of apology to the anti-gay tweets.  The issue of whether this constitutes illegal hate speech is currently with the Police.

** not really

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Austria and the Past

Austria's one of the countries I've visited most in my life, around half a dozen times each year, and one I still find a bit of a puzzle.  It's the land of beautiful mountains, the Sound of Music [click on the link for everything you need to know about that], and Vienna.  Yet there's something I don't quite "get" about the place.   A lot of that, I think, is to do with the way Austrians relate to their past, which is what this blog post is about.

The Monument actually takes up a whole square
Last week I was in Vienna and I took the above photograph of the National Memorial to the Victims of War and Fascism.  It was inaugurated in 1988 on the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss of the country by Nazi Germany.   It's a big, prominent feature, right in the very centre of the city, behind the Opera House, at the entrance to the main shopping street.  You'd assume they chose the words quite carefully.  The plaque simply says:
"On this sport stood the Philipphof, which was destroyed during a bombing raid on 12 March 1945.  Hundreds of people who had sought refuge in the cellars of the building died as a result.
This monument is dedicated to all victims of war and fascism."
That's it.  Where to start.  Well, let's go back to some basics on Austrian history before we reach the reason why this is so jaw-droppingly unacceptable in my view.  You may have wondered why Austria, which speaks German, and is made up overwhelmingly of ethnic Germans, and shares very close cultural links to Germany, is not part of the country.  I shall endeavour to explain!

Ostarrîchi and all that jazz

The country traces its modern roots to about 996 when its name, which means "Eastern March" (a fortified area bordering the Slavic domains) was first mentioned.  It was populated by German speakers and became an independent duchy in 1156.  For over 600 years of this time it was ruled over by the Habsburg family, who were actually originally immigrants from neighbouring Switzerland.  See: this is what happens unless you have strong borders: first they come to do the underpaid jobs you don't want on hotel receptions; and next they're ruling the place, strutting around calling themselves Holy Roman Emperors and building magnificent palaces like Schönbrunn.  Vote UKIP and all that.

Austria was pretty shit at wars, losing a remarkably high percentage that it ever got involved in.  For this reason there's a HUGE monument at the Praterstern in Vienna to an utterly insignificant naval victory they won in 1866 against the Italians, in which two(!) Italians ships were sunk.  When you're rubbish at battles, you've really got to sex up the ones you won, I guess.  So, instead of fighting, Austria married off its royal children strategically and built up a great empire.  The Habsburg motto became: Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube (let others wage war; you, fortunate Austria, marry).

The vast, multinational empire was all fine and dandy until the political changes occasioned by the rise and defeat of Napoleon, and the rise of nationalism in the 19th century.  Austria occupied an odd position in German affairs.  The Habsburgs tended to be elected to the position of Holy Roman Emperor (ie. German Emperor) and so had a reasonably dominant influence in the territory we now call Germany.  At the same time they had a vast non-German empire, whose people would come to identify more and more with their national grouping as time went on.  Matters came to a head when the North Germans took on Austria in war, and of course won so rapidly the poor Austrians didn't even have time to get their Apfelstrudels out for breakfast.  If you've been paying attention, you'll remember: Austrians = "shit at war".

The once multinational, multilingual Austrian Parliament

Austria was pushed out of German affairs, the King of Prussia became Kaiser of a unified Germany (excluding some 8 million ethnically German Austrians), and Austria-Hungary, as it was now known, tried to hold together its dysfunctional empire of around 10 different nationalities.  On one level it was doomed to failure; on another view it was an economically booming multinational entity of 50 million people.  Its economy grew 75% from 1870 to 1913, for example, almost double the rate of Britain's, and faster even than Germany's.  Representatives from around the Empire addressed the Parliament in Vienna (above) in their own language, schools taught in their the local language, and State officials could use their own language at work.  Some would say it was heading very much in the right direction, and was a prototype for a central European Union.

Anschluss and Austrian War Criminals

World War One is of course the hot historical topic of 1914.  It all of course began when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry.  If you're a Blackadder fan, you'll know the poor Ostrich died for nothing too :(  Germany had given Austria-Hungary a blank cheque offer of military support, which given just how shit Austria was at fighting wars was possibly rather silly.  

The plaque commemorating Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the Imperial Burial Vault in Vienna is dedicated to "the first victim of WW1".  How interesting a spin that is, from the country that actually chose to declare war and invade Serbia a month after his assassination in Sarejevo.   I also read a fascinating little Q&A in a Vienna tabloid last week on WW1.  The first thing it said was "It's clear that Emperor Franz Josef was not solely to blame for the war."  This narrative of "it wasn't us" will return... 

When Austria pulled out of the war in October 1918, with its empire collapsing round its ears, followed by the collapse of Germany shortly afterwards, the question was, what next.  Now that they were free of their foreign empire, plenty of Austrians favoured union with Germany. However, the Allies were having none of it.  A referendum in Salzburg province indicated a genuine 99.8% support for becoming part of neighbouring Bavaria.  The victorious Allies would only apply the principle of self-determination when it suited them and strengthening Germany was not on the cards in 1919.  So, Austria became a "rump republic" just 1/8th the size it had been, once again outside and independent of Germany. 

Terrified Austrians look away in horror at the Anschluss. Oh.

In March 1938 the Germans invaded.  Well... that's how many Austrians tend to characterise it.  Given crowds lined the route of the panzers towards Vienna and the only thing that was thrown at them were flowers by the ecstatic onlookers, it's hard to see it as a military invasion in the usual sense.  I'm told that during the filming of the Sound of Music, the city of Salzburg's objection to decking the streets with Nazi flags were swiftly withdrawn when they were told actual archive footage would be used instead (thanks @chrisdaleoxford!).  Just 25 years later there would have been some very prominent, identifiable, red faces to be noted in the crowd.

Let's not sugar-coat Austrian involvement in the Third Reich.  They were in it up to their ears.  From the Führer Hitler, downwards to Adolf Eichmann (the major organiser of the holocaust who attended the same school in Linz that Hitler did, 17 years later), to Franz Stangl (commandant of Treblinka), to Amon Goeth (of Schindler's List fame), and to members of the Austrian ski regiments that the Third Reich newspapers proudly proclaimed had taken part in the invasion of Norway, the Austrians were hugely enthusiastic participants in the Reich.  The uncontrolled viciousness of anti-Semitic attacks in Vienna during 1938/9 actually caused the Nazis in Berlin embarrassment: the Jews needed to be robbed and encouraged to emigrate in an orderly fashion, not be beaten up so obviously under the nose of the world media.  One shocking statistic I heard is that the Austrians made up just 7% of the Third's Reich population, yet contributed 25% of the membership of the SS, and 40% of the management at the death camps.  

In other occupied European countries, there was a mixture of collaboration and resistance.  In Austria there wasn't collaboration: there was full on leadership and participation.  Austria was an integral part of the Nazi Third Reich.  There was absolutely no armed resistance: as the historian Guy Walters put it to me recently, the museum of Austrian Resistance in Vienna is the smallest one he has ever visited.

The Real Life Amon Goeth, from Vienna, as played by Fiennes

From 1943, only when it became clear that Germany was losing the war, and food and other shortages hit hard, did the love affair at being part of the Greater German Reich began rapidly to wane in Austria.  Local party officials reported regular occurrences of dissent and anti-Piefke comments.  Piefke is a derogatory term for Germans still used by some Austrians: it's a bit stronger than the US term for northerners, "Yankee".  Let's go with "Fukcing Yankee", or similar.  Then, late in the war, came the Allied bomb raids: the centre of Salzburg was obliterated and around 30% of Vienna was destroyed.  In the end, Austria was on the losing side of yet another war (this time, fortunately, and of course!).  Finally the country was divided, like Germany into four zones of occupation.  This lasted ten years until the US, Soviet Union, Britain and France withdrew in 1955.  Austria was forever to remain a neutral country, and would never seek reunification with Germany, as part of the new Austrian State Treaty. 

So there's your long-winded answer.  Why isn't Austria part of Germany today, whilst say neighbouring Bavaria is? - a series of historical accidents.  It did not stop them, sadly, from participating fully in the worst chapter of German history imaginable.

The Myth of the First Victim

With newly re-established Austria finding its feet in 1955, many people turned firmly to the future and did not want to discuss the past.  To be fair, collective amnesia was a phase that many in Germany went through too.  The difference was that the Austrians had what they took to be official sanction for it in the words of the 1943 Allied "Moscow Declaration".  It had described Austria as "the first free country to fall a victim to Hitlerite aggression".  This was a blatant untruth, and was intended to encourage resistance in the country.  It followed directly with a warning that if Austria did not do so it would pay for it when victory came.  As we know, that resistance never happened.  Right up to May 1945 young Austrian men were dying fiercely defending the Third Reich.

In West Germany, by contrast, an intensive programme of civilian de-nazification had been carried out by the Allies, which just did not occur here.  It suited many Austrians, laden with personal or family guilt, and latent resentment for the terrible fate that had befallen the country from 1938-45, to buy into this myth of the first victim.  The Sound of Music is the perfect example of the sugar-coating/ total white-washing of the period of history.  You watch it and think "oh those poor little Austrians!" forgetting entirely about the sing-song Viennese accents ordering people off trains and into gas chambers.  Worse, the movie isn't even Austrian - it's a product of Hollywood.

Oh Julie: what were you part of?

In 1991, a majority of Austrians said it was time to "put the holocaust behind them".  Just consider for a moment how many holocaust and other war victims were still alive and suffering at that point.  A poll in March 2013 that was widely reported abroad showed three of five Austrians want a "strong man" and lead the country, and 42% think things were not all bad under Hitler.  46% (in 2013!) still thought of Austria as a victim.  

I suppose it's something, though, that 54% rejects the myth.  Given these figures it would be silly, and wrong, to say "all Austrians deny the past".  They clearly do not.  As time has gone on, there has (slowly) been a more honest and critical reappraisal of the situation.  Attitudes also vary according to which part of the country you visit.  Vienna has long been traditionally more social-democrat and, I think, open to own up to the country's history.  Even in sleepy, conservative Salzburg I met a woman who was spitting mad about companies celebrating their 60th anniversaries in 2008/9, when she said it was blatantly obvious they had been "aryanised" (i.e. stolen from their former Jewish owners).  The picture is nuanced, but it's fair to say that in general Germany has been admirably open at least since the late 1960s to talking about its past, whereas Austria has been remarkably reticent on the whole.

Does the Past Matter?

Well yes, I think it does.  An honest appraisal of the past is, for me, a key component in achieving a healthy, tolerant society.   The Jewish community of Germany is absolutely flourishing once more and is the fastest growing in the world.  At 120,000 it is the 3rd largest in the EU.  Munich's Jews are back up to pre-1933 numbers.   It's nothing short of a miracle that Jews feel safe and want to bring up their children up right across the country.  I absolutely believe this in part down to the way the country has dealt so thoroughly with the history of the Nazi period.  In Austria there is a quite different feeling.  The small Jewish community is centred in one district of the capital, it is predominantly Ultra-Orthodox and was for many years completely stagnant in size.  Repeated recent stories sadly point to Viennese Jews being wary of anti-Semitic attacks. 

The far-right Freedom Party of Austria regularly polls 20-25%; in 1999 when it entered national government as part of a coalition, it attracted diplomatic sanctions from the EU.  Germany (just like Britain) isn't a bed of roses when it comes to xenophobic tendencies, but in Austria these people have been polling big numbers for decades and actually taking part in local and national government.  Its leader was recently embroiled in a scandal over an overtly anti-Semitic cartoon that he published.

Open-minded, liberal friends of mine in Vienna acted angrily to the reporting of the March 2013 poll abroad.  They said Austria was being picked on and it really was time to move on - their kids were sick of hearing all this when they had nothing to do with it.  I'd have a lot more sympathy with this if the country had actually been through the process Germany has.  You are much more inclined to forgive when something has been honestly owned up to, rather than dealt with it in a half-hearted and sometimes completely dishonest way.  This is even more the case where almost half the population still today thinks of their country as a victim rather than a perpetrator nation.  Of course my friends' kids were nothing to do with the actual crimes: but they are part of the society in 2013 that answers these polls the way it does, and that votes the Freedom Party in.

Mauthausen in Austria: the cruelest of all camps?

I remember my first visit to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Linz.  It is widely known as the most gratuitously cruel of all the camps across German-controlled Europe.  The SS took pleasure in devising over 60 ways of killing prisoners, from forcing them to climb down a quarry wall whilst taking pot-shots at their hands (the "Parachute Jump") to the "domino effect" of prisoners carrying heavy stones up 180 uneven steps falling back onto the people below them.  There was a special exhibition on entitled "Austrians in Mauthausen".  This presumably was set up by whatever professional historians run the exhibits here.  I was excited to see this acknowledgement of the role of Austrian SS management and guards in this Austrian camp.  But no, it was an exhibit about political opponents and the handful of priests who had ended up there.  The last section was a huge celebration of the liberation of Austria in May 1945.  Wow.  Just wow.  Austrian kids will come here to be educated on the holocaust and they will leave with the impression the Germans came in, did it all, and left.  It's actually shameful.

"That" Monument

So we return to the monument in the centre of Vienna.  In a way it draws together all the strands of this post perfectly.  It purports to commemorate all victims of war and fascism, yet it makes no reference to the Jews, to the Gypsies, to the socialists, to the communists, to the priests, or to the gays.  Of the 40 million victims of the Second World War, it in fact only mentions one group expressly: the 300 or so rich Austrian inhabitants of the luxury Philipphof apartment complex who were killed in a US air-raid.

I feel quite strongly about the wrongs of the Allied carpet bombing of German and Austrian civilian targets (please read this post if you haven't already) but this "War and Fascism" monument.. it actually makes me vaguely stabby.  I believe it is right and just to acknowledge civilian victims, even in a perpetrator nation, and even if they were members of or supporters of the Nazi party.  They did not deserve to be summarily burnt or crushed to death in a cellar in this way.  But before that HAS to come acknowledgement of the other victims, and indeed this country's role in carrying out crimes against them.  That is entirely, 100%, lacking here.  Austria really can do better than this.

Monday, 23 December 2013

The Union Jack

I was visiting "home" (a place called Cowplain Cowpat in Hampshire, where I lived from 12-18) this weekend.  It isn't a village.  There's no centre.  There's a main road and a generally hellish suburban sprawl.  It contains the most aesthetically challenging (and desperately overpriced) bungalows, resplendent with wall-to-wall uPVC replacement double-glazing, tasteless garden decorations, prissy home "improvements" and pampas grass displays* in paved over front gardens.   There are caravans everywhere, and I actually quite like them in theory.  If you're from Cowpat and you're offended by this, well I'm sorry, but 6 years has scarred me and I'm still in recovery.

[*According to my boyfriend pampas grass is a secret sign between swingers to alert them to each other's presence.  I find this eminently plausible.]

Union Jacks on Flagpoles

The other thing you find in places like Cowpat is Union Jacks.  Before some pedant points out they're actually called Union flags, yes I know this, but everyone calls them Union Jacks, so be still.  The things are on flag poles in people's gardens, and they evoke a feeling of mild repulsion in me.  Exhibit One:

Union Jack Flying Outside Bungalow in Cowplain

"Mild repulsion": that's quite strong, I hear you say.  But why?  This is a very good question.  There's nothing wrong with the design of the flag per se: it's actually quite attractive.  It looks great emblazoned on the Team GB Olympic uniform.  It looks even better on Tom Daley's trunks.  If it's fluttering atop some government building in Whitehall, I've no issue with it.  During the Diamond Jubilee I even put up Union Jack bunting outside my cottage in Suffolk: I remember thinking that is was a fun, joyful display of national celebration, without any of the undertones that I can't usually abide.  Subjectively, the Union Jack is a lot more attractive flag than say, Albania's, which is really quite rubbish.  The colours kinda clash on that one.

Jubilee Bunting. Yes, I was one of THOSE people

Flags in Other Countries 

So I tried narrowing down why don't I like seeing the Union Jack flying from people's homes.  I thought about other countries I know well, such as Switzerland, Norway and Denmark, where you see their flags proudly fluttering all over the place on private properties.  There I don't see their flag as a negative thing at all.  Is it because they weren't imperial powers?  Let's face it, the Swiss flag isn't exactly connected with a long history of colonial oppression.  You're more likely to think of chocolate.  But no, it's not that.  The French flag flew over a huge empire, as did the Dutch.  Our own Union Jack wasn't connected with empire during my lifetime, so I have no real emotional reaction on that basis.

I wondered if it was just because it's my country's flag and that's why I had a negative reaction to it.  Nope... I'm actually half German, and grew up there before the hell of Cowpat.  I visit every year around a dozen times.  I quite literally know Germany better than the UK, and I'm equally at home there.  The sight of the Black/Red/Gold German flag flying in people's gardens (admittedly this isn't a common thing: they're still a bit concerned about that whole "look where nationalism took us last time" thing) doesn't bother me at all.

Daily Mail Xenophobia

So, let's cut to the chase.  It's all about the context.  On Whitehall the Union Jack is absolutely fine, just like an English George Cross looks lovely on a medieval Gothic church.  Flying from the back of a car full of drunken soccer louts the same flag carries different connotations.

When I see homes like the bungalow above, I can't help wondering whether the residents are either BNP or UKIP.  It simply comes across as racist and xenophobic to me.  I make assumptions about the owners, the fact they read the Daily Mail, and what their attitudes to immigration are.  There was that National Front chant "There ain't no black in the Union Jack" in the 1970s.  It screams of that to me, except the target possibly isn't black or Indian people any more, it's just or more likely to be the "new immigrants": East Europeans.  I can't imagine anyone who supports immigration as a healthy, useful characteristic of a vibrant society, shoving one up in their garden.  It makes me, as white British passport holder who was born in this country, feel vaguely threatened and unwelcome.  I wonder how Romanians and Bulgarians reading the bile pouring forth currently from the leader of HM Government would feel. 

It's precisely the fact that, unlike in Switzerland or Denmark where most homes have a flag pole, these things are relatively rare here that make me question what the owners are trying to say with it.  They're gone to considerable expense to buy and erect a permanent 15' high flagpole outside their home.   It's a completely deliberate act, if you like.   It strikes me as a quite aggressive, exclusionary thing to do.  An innocent, meaningless display of national celebration, like shoving up 99p made in China bunting at the time of the Jubilee, it is not.  I just don't believe it.  I can't see ordinary, middle of the road Tories having these flagpoles up - our flag has been hijacked by the more distant echelons of the political right.

Shout Out by a Racist

Now I tweeted something this weekend along the lines of "when I see a Union Jack outside a house, I wonder if it's UKIP or BNP who lives there".  Any regular user of Twitter knows that there's a body of UKIP fanatics who have a permanent search out against their beloved party, as well as any mention of Nigel Führage's name.   Within moments a conversation I was having with a friend was interrupted and I was hit with this charming invitation to his 1200 followers to send me abuse:

True to form, and confirming to me in large part everything I'd assumed about the type of people who do put these flag poles up in their gardens, I was called "scum", told that I was "everything that's wrong with this country", "obv. NOT British", that if I object to flying my own flag I should "go home"; and if I don't like it it, I knew "where the exit is" etc.

One guy said he flew the Union Jack to show his support for a "relative" serving his country.  My Father served in 3 armed conflicts and for 23 years.  He was shot at and nearly left my mother a widow at 23 years old.  Funny enough, though, he didn't feel the need to shove a bloody great flag pole up in our front garden.  I'm actually sure would have found it unbearably crass.  Likewise, he was the last person to become a fascist about people wearing or not wearing poppies around Remembrance Sunday.  Nevertheless, I who grew up in an army background (my grandfather also served in the Boer War, WWI and the home-guard during WW2; my brother was also in the army) was now a traitor for not liking to see Union Jacks outside bungalows.

The particular UKIP supporter who did the call-out, like others who attacked me, are outright hateful racists, as much as they sometimes like to deny it.  Take these choice recent examples from his timeline, for instance, aimed at Muslims, Slavs and Roma:

If you ask me what's "wrong with this country" (apart from the Coalition's policies of tearing to pieces public services, imposing damaging austerity and causing serious damage to health, educational and legal services) I'd say it is precisely this small-minded, nasty, spiteful culture of xenophobic hostility to immigrants.   If you ever want an acid test on what someone is like, trying asking them about their views on immigration - it really separates the wheat from the chaff.  

Nasty Man of Europe
I choose to live in Britain not least because of the famed friendliness and open-mindedness.  I'm enormously proud of this country's embracing of diversity, and the fact that in many respects we have become much more tolerant than at any other time in history.  The language of the "immigration debate" is appalling and undoes so much of this.  Heaven knows what it would be like to be an immigrant hearing it, or a potential immigrant reading about it.  I'm genuinely embarrassed that the headlines in the right wing press are being reported abroad, and it's causing people like the Bulgarian President to comment in such strong terms.   Britain really has become the nasty man of Europe on this subject, and that hurts.   Cameron is pandering to the hatred of UKIP and is portraying our country as an unfriendly, nasty little shit-hole.  He categorically does not speak for me.

There are so many reasons why immigration and openness is a good thing for a country.  Click on this superb piece by George Eaton if you want to see an excellent summary of some of these.    When leaders of the main parties are prepared to stand up and make the honest, cogent case for this, and when people stop wanting to see Britain as a white, Muslim-free, Slav-free, Anglo-Saxon country with a huge "CLOSED FOR BUSINESS" sign displayed at Dover, that's the day I might actually chose to put up a Union Jack in my garden.  I would have something really good to be proud of.

Until then I shall keep my distance from those who do, and avoid Cowpat for the foreseeable period.
And I didn't even get on to the evils of uPVC double-glazing.  I shall save that for another blog post :-)

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Colonialism and Homophobia

Today we discovered that the Supreme Court of India recriminalised gay sex ("sodomy") - a ruling which will have a potentially devastating effect on gay men in this country of 1.3 billion people. 

The Indian statute that prohibits "carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal" dates back to two years after the establishment of the Raj, namely 1860.  It is widely interpreted as referring to gay male sex.  My understanding is that lesbian sex continues to be ignored, as under Victorian British law - women are incapable of having "carnal intercourse" together.  The law has been criticised by Human Rights Watch to harass HIV activists, gay men and other LGBT groups.  It is in their view a "continuing threat to public health" as well as a violation of protections in India’s constitution for the rights to equality and to personal liberty.

The Indian Supreme Court

Before British colonisation there were differing, often far more ambivalent views towards homosexuality in India.  The obvious example of the Karma Sutra shows a very inclusive relationship towards all aspects of human sexuality.  This is a common theme in many countries around the world that became part of the Empire, specifically including Africa.  The outlawing of consensual same-sex male acts was an export of the British, along with their desire to Christianise indigenous populations.

I don't think the preceding paragraph is too controversial.  The question is then to what extent, if any, state sponsored homophobia today can be seen as a lasting legacy of British rule.  The Kaleidoscope Human Rights Foundation carried out a report in 2011 that identified some striking facts:
  • There is "state sponsored" homophobia in 40% of nations worldwide
  • Gay sex is illegal in 42 of the 53 Commonwealth nations (with India now included)
  • Non-Commonwealth states where gay sex is illegal make up just 24.5% of the total
  • So, as Kaleidoscope puts it "the Commonwealth has a big problem"
France legalised gay sex in 1791.  The Netherlands did so in 1811.  The experience of countries which were part of the French or Dutch empires is markedly different to those under British rule.  That is not to say that homophobia does not exist in those places - of course it does to some extent - or that it the British empire was the sole cause of it: consider, for example, Saudi Arabia.  But it is a fair, broad-brush generalisation to conclude that where the British were the imperial power, they brought with them legalised state sanctioned homophobia and this has clearly, by the numbers above, left a lasting legacy.

The brilliant historian and writer, Alex von Tunzelmann, put it extremely succinctly for me this morning - this is in her opinion an example of "internalised colonialism":

Earlier today Sunny Hundal picked up on a tweet of mine that quoted from the Guardian report of the Kaleidoscope report and commented that:

Note the "partly".  No one is saying that today's decision in 2013 is the exclusive fault of Britain today.  The judges were the ones who made their decision today - nobody else - and successive parliamentarians in India since 1947 who decided not to decriminalise gay sex are the ones who are responsible for the law still being on the books.  Sunny was, however, quite rightly pointing out that the British left behind a cultural legacy that continues.  The legacy of homophobia that was exported under the long period of Empire still shape attitudes and affects people.  I really don't see what is so contentious about that.

Louise Mensch apparently disagrees - along with various other right wingers who then joined in the fun.  I'm puzzled why this should evoke such a reaction - presumably it's somehow unpatriotic or offensive to suggest that Britain did some bad things and the effects of these linger on. 
Louise incidentally clearly missed the "partly" when she read Sunny's tweet. 

In response, I asked Louise whether she believed colonialism had left behind any positive enduring legacy anywhere.  Clearly it has: right wingers are normally ever so keen to point out the railways, education, infrastructure, church building and all that jolly stuff that Empire brought with it.   Yet Louise didn't answer.  I wonder why.  Perhaps it was because she knew she'd fall right into the trap of admitting that if it's possible and valid to praise previous governments for the legacy they've left behind, then one can also "blame" them.  It's two sides of the same coin.  Either Empire left some kind of mark that endures to a greater or lesser extent today, or it didn't.

It's fairly clear to me that decades, and sometimes hundreds of years, of Empire leaves a cultural legacy on a nation and on a people.  Some of this will be positive, some of it will be negative.  In the time since independence nations will make their own decisions and go their own way.  But to dismiss out of hand the finding that homosexuality is illegal in 42 of 53 Commonwealth states, and to fail to see any causation when it was Britain that introduced these laws is just a bit baffling to me.  

So to conclude, yes, Britain has moved on and I'm tremendously proud it has done so.  What it should be doing now is to speak positively to seek to influence its fellow member states in the Commonwealth to realise that what was considered acceptable in 1860 is not in 2013.  We - in part - created this mess.  I'd like to see us attempt to help clear it up, if that is at all possible.



Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Tom Daley and Dustin Lance Black

So the front page on the Sun is reporting that Tom's bf is the Hollywood screenwriter and director, Dustin Lance Black.  The rumours about the pair were already circulating back in October.  This very amusing and clever nudge-nudge piece reported it months ago.  Of course the first thing the Sun does is to emphasise that Dustin is 39 and Tom is 19.

All that tolerance and happiness for him couldn't last could it? Cue the homophobic subtext: gays are predatory cradle-snatchers who lead helpless young men "astray" etc. Never mind the fact that Tom is clearly an exceptionally intelligent, self-possessed guy who has dealt with the extreme media pressure he's been under since he was 14 in a phenomenal way.  Never mind that he's managed to put out an extraordinary 5 minute unscripted video about his feelings and sexuality with a level of maturity and eloquence that many of us never achieve.  No, he has to be some kind of victim in all this.

Whilst this picture was circulating (since identified in all likelihood as a fan) it was all "oooh, ahhh, aren't they cute?" / "aww look at them: pocket sizes gays" but that seems to be ending abruptly.  No, we can't deal with an age difference on top of his being gay.  Heaven forbid that our tolerance be stretched that far.  If the pair don't look like they could doe-eyed characters in a Disney cartoon, start the judgement.

Disney Gays: yeah, they're acceptable

Last night I pointed out that his grandparents, whilst broadly supportive, told the Daily Mail that they felt Tom was "too young for this kind of decision".  It's great they said they will always be there for him: wonderful in fact.  I asked, though, whether his announcing that he had a steady girlfriend that would have resulted in the same reaction that's he's too young for this "decision".   What decision, exactly, in any case?  Tom's said he still fancies girls.  The decision was to go public on his relationship, which he has every right to.  Straight people get engaged and married at 19, routinely.  You might think that too young, but would you as a family member announce it to the Daily Fail of all people?  To me, it just underlines the different standards that are still applied to young LGBT people.  Straight people can decide they're old enough for relationships, but there's still a view that you're doing something wrong if you're involved with the same sex, until you reach some undefined magical age.  Don't just blame it on the generational gap: my 80 year old Lutheran grandmother simply said "It's genetic, there's nothing wrong with that.  I read it in a magazine" when I came out. 

This exact same "it's not quite right" subtext is present in the discussion of his (alleged) boyfriend's age.  A 39 year old Hollywood male legend dating a 19 year old girl might get the odd comment, but really we can all reel off the dozens of heterosexual relationships that fit this mould and still get our approbation.  It's a handy way for people to let out their disapproval of the situation to comment on the age difference rather than to be overtly homophobic, I guess.  People are catching on slowly that the latter really isn't that on in 2013.

And be clear, if Dustin is Tom's boyfriend, he is going out with an absolute legend.  Here is an excerpt from his acceptance speech at the Oscars for his movie "Milk":

It's not just straights doing it.  I'm sure DLB will love to read the following tweet and the many other personally abusive ones you've put out this morning, given the media scrutiny he's under of this story breaking at the moment (whether it's true or not).

So, *LGBT solidarity to you* "Jane" of Queerights.

Worse, perhaps, than the blind ignorance about the age gap are the snarky gays who are attacking Dustin for not being "cute enough".  Oh GAYS.. are we really going to go there?  Not had enough judgement in your life that you need to ply it on to others?  Your verdict about his haircut, his age, his face really aren't that important.  What matters is that someone has come out and given an incredible role model to young LGBT kids around the world.  Whether the alleged boyfriend is cute or not matters to only one person.  And that's Tom.  What's more, for what it's worth, look at those pecs, you dozy twits :P

"Not cute enough": Gays, Everywhere

Tom is hugely in the public eye at the moment.  He must be acutely sensitive to negative comments.  Any relationship when you're 19 is hard work.  God, any relationship at any age is hard work, let's face it.  If Tom were going out with the "cute, ordinary boy" in the shopping centre, the difficulty for the pair of them to have any sort of a normal existence would be huge.  If he is with DLB as the reports suggest, he has someone who is used to media attention, the way the celebrity world works, and all of that pressure.  He is, by all accounts, an exceptional man.

If the story is true, I wish them both the very, very best.  Tom has done a remarkable thing.  He's a remarkable guy.  And he deserves remarkable happiness.  I hope whoever he is with will provide that and people will stop with the snarking.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Honey, I cancelled Christmas!

Are we sitting comfortably, looking forward to the Yuletide season, Christmas songs perhaps about to be put on, minds turned towards buying presents and putting up trees?  Let me begin!

Back in the 90s I had a friend in Germany, Silke.  I went across to see her and her family for New Year, and asked if they'd had a good Christmas.  Much to my genuine dismay they told me they didn't bother with it.  Instead they just had friends and family round just afterwards every year for a "Reste-Essen".  This is where everyone brought all their left-over food, and they had a get together to use it up.  On Christmas they did absolutely nothing.  No tree, no presents, no cards.

KEINE WEIHNACHTEN?  But, but... the Germans own this thing.  Almost all those fabulous pagan things that make little baby Jesus' birthday so special come from Germany.  These include carrying on the ancient pre-Christian tradition of worshipping trees, and celebrating the shortest day by lighting candles; not to mention Advent calendars, Christmas markets, Stollen, Glühwein, Santa Claus (okay he's a Dutch thing, but close) etc, etc.  German Christmases are just so very special.  I just couldn't understand it, and frankly it made me ein bißchen traurig.

Oscar contemplates Christmas
More confusingly, they were demonstrably a really happy, fun family, not a bunch of miserable sods who would do this for effect.  Nor were they either anti-religious, or on the other hand, members of some Protestant sect who rejected this as a "Papish custom".  They were ordinary agnostic Germans.

So, let's be clear that this blog is entirely personal.  I'm not advocating that Christmas should be "banned", or to ruin anyone else's fun.  I've just got to the point where this year, I utterly understand where Silke's family were coming from.  I've cancelled Christmas.  Let me explain!

We Have A Choice

Last year I had probably the best, most perfect Christmas of my life to date.  My boyfriend Ste came down to my cottage in Suffolk for 4 weeks, we bought our first tree together, nearly removed multiple limbs as we attempted to get it in its holder, baked things together, went ice-skating at Somerset House, cuddled the dog in front of an open fire, he made an incredible veggie Christmas dinner for us, and we visited his family in Liverpool on Boxing Day.  Short of snow coming down on the 25th, it was all as perfect and idyllic as a Christmas could be.  I loved it.

Perfection: Christmas 2012

This year, Ste is in Beijing studying and will have lessons on Xmas Day.  I'm off working in Austria on Boxing Day, flying out first thing.  My Mutti will be with my brother and sister-in-law in Germany again for the holiday.  So if I did do Christmas, it would be short, and it would be with friends who have taken pity on sad bastard me and invited me over.  I'll be seeing Ste when the Chinese New Year holiday starts and we're off to Australia/ New Zealand together.  That's our huge winter treat this year, not spending Xmas together.

Further, as I was standing in Tesco the other day contemplating all of these particular personal circumstances, staring at the tacky plastic tree leaning over with the exposed cables below, and the wrapped empty cardboard boxes to add "atmosphere", listening to the tinny piped music on repeat, it suddenly occurred to me - I really don't have to do this thing this year.  Just because last year was so good, and despite the general pressure to conform, I do actually have a choice each and every year.

Dear readers: we HAVE a choice!

Little Baby Jesus

I'm not a Christian, and belong to the ever increasing number of more than 54,000,000 people in the UK who don't go to church regularly.  I've therefore certainly no religious reason to celebrate Christ's birth.  In any case, we all know there's zero evidence that Christ was born on 25 December.  There were apparently shepherds in the fields when he was born, which doesn't happen in December in the West Bank, for a start.  The Bible actually doesn't give any date or day for his birth.  He may have been born anywhere between 6BC and 4AD, at any time of year.  It was only a couple of hundred years later, at the earliest in 273AD, that 25 December was fixed upon.  This conveniently coincided with the winter solstice, and the major pagan festival of the "birth of the invincible sun god".

Classy: Baby Jesus as a Gummi Bear

I get why Christians want to mark a symbolic day when their saviour was born, but I certainly don't need to personally.   It's also clear to me that if you're a believing Christian, you should probably be putting five times the effort into celebrating Easter than Christmas - but hey, that's your call.  Finally on this point,  the central message of Christmas is "peace and goodwill to all mankind".  It kinda strikes me that everyone should be doing that every day anyway: we don't need some day especially set aside to be nice, and then behave like little shits every other day of the year.

The Victorian Christmas: a real raison d'être

Next, it struck me that Christmas back in say, the Victorian age, was a rest-day in a time when people worked 6 days a week, and public holidays were very rare.  It was a day when people who had very little indulged themselves with special treats that were completely out of their reach normally.  A goose for lunch, for example.  Even during my father's lifetime he got oranges at Christmas, which his family couldn't afford during the rest of the year.  I'm fortunate enough to be materially very privileged, and I'll readily admit it.  Like many people in this country, there's very little I would serve up on the dinner table that I couldn't afford at any other time of year if I really wanted it.  I have 2 full days off every weekend, all of our public holidays, and like every worker in the EU, I'm entitled to 4 weeks paid holiday every year.

The point is my very fortunate personal position means that this "Victorian" aspect of Christmases past being a day off work when your belly was properly filled isn't a factor for me.  This is a big, significant change over the past 60 years and it applies to many in this country.  I'd love to say this is the case for everyone, but of course in Conservative Austerity Britain that increasingly isn't the case.  Pictures like the one below are unfortunately a reminder in 2013 that plenty across the country are heading back to the time where having a decent meal is actually something remarkable.

So depressing that this in Britain in 2013

Commercial Excess

Now let's got on to the commercial excess.  There's been a big consumer back-lash against Christmas music and displays in stores in early September, but there's still no denying there is the most hideous display of conspicuous consumption and utter tat on sale out there.  Just as in every single supermarket across the country, in our local Tesco the shelves are currently groaning under the weight of all the chocolate, the mince pies, the booze.  The over-indulgence turns the inner-Puritan stomach in me, especially knowing that people are genuinely short of basic food stuffs in my own country.  How great to come out the other side of Christmas without having to diet all through January because I stuffed my gob to excess all of December?  The thought of all the food and drink that will be consumed (and wasted) across the UK next month makes me feel faintly queasy.

The real spirit of Christmas! Stuffing yourself till you're sick.

I've also genuinely no need of any presents, and really everyone who is close to me is in pretty much the same boat.  I find it completely depressing to have to waste money for the sake of it, rushing around looking for something that friends and family might potentially want, knowing they're doing exactly the same for me.  The crass materialism so turns me off.  I'd got to the stage where I'd rather have fewer "things" in my life than more.  I've expressly asked anyone who might get me anything this year not to please.  I won't be buying anything for anyone either.

Also what does all the cheap plastic made-in-China shite, and all the over-sized gift sets that are on display, remotely have to do with a traditional Christmas, or showing your loved ones that you actually care for them?  There must be the most grotesque emotional and financial pressure on families with kids, who start circling items in catalogues and making on-line wish lists in September.  I also have no idea how people afford it.  I know you don't have to go down this road with your kids, but when their friends get new X-Boxes, it must be pretty hard not to engage in the whole thing to some extent.  We've created a horrible situation as a society where kids expect so much and parents feel guilty if they can't or won't provide.

The Tyranny of Christmas Cards

Even before this year's decision, I long since stopped sending cards out.  Remember back at school where you bought a box set and handed out 40 of them, just so you'd get 40 back and think that made you popular?  It's a bit like saying you've got 28,000 followers on Twitter, but the only reason is that you're team-follow back and follow 28,000 yourself.  In the days before cheap phone calls abroad, free Skype calls, instant email and social media communication, a card was a lovely way of knowing that someone far away was thinking of you.  Nowadays when I get one, I look at it, think "ahhh" and it goes straight in the recycling bin.  Send me a tweet instead, please - it's far better for the environment and I'll really appreciate it just as much! 

I feel your pain, Ian!

Also, how EXPENSIVE is it nowadays to do this?  I always used to think it was a convenient excuse and they didn't really do it, but begin to understand why people say they're making a donation to charity with the cash.

Family and Friends

The final thing is to comment on the friends/family aspect.  It's a lovely, lovely thing to meet up with them, and if Christmas prompts you to do so, great.  But there is no need for this to be the occasion to do so.  Muslims, Hindus and Jews manage to see their families without Christmas being the impetus.  If anything the pressure to have a "perfect time" etc can lead to well-documented domestic stress and fractious family situations.

Compare American Thanksgiving: an occasion to take stock and be thankful for all the good things in one's life and celebrating that thankfulness openly.  Families and friends come together in an almost entirely commercial-free zone (let's ignore the Black Friday consumer orgy the following day) and are just "together".   That speaks to me so, so much more than the way Christmas in the UK has developed.

And what of those who have no family or friends that they can be with at Christmas?  All the images of how it should be must represent a real kick in the teeth for them and a reminder of their isolation.

Happy Yuletide!

So there we have it.  No tree for me this Christmas 2013.  No cards.  No booze.  No advent calendar. No stuffing myself with food.  No stressful battling with the crowds in Norwich shopping precinct.  No presents.  No excess.  How do I feel? Completely liberated from something that has frankly become hollow beyond belief. 

Again to be clear, I don't wish anyone else a bad time if it means something different to you: far from it.  I guess it's a bit like when I see the Diwali lights and see how special it is for many people - but this year I'm just not part of it.  That's not a negative thing: it's less "bah humbug" than "yay, humbug!" It's actually a positive decision for me.

[Let's be honest: like hell will he let me pull this trick again]

Will this continue?  I've no idea.  Ste will be back for Christmas 2014 and we've pencilled in being with his family in Liverpool, because he was away in China this year.  Those experiences will be far more special to me than a load of presents, 300 mince pies and 4 gallons of booze.  A non-commercially excessive, card free Christmas next year is therefore "on".

But for 2013, and whenever it all just gets too much in the future*, I realise I do have a choice, and it seems to be easier to make than I thought.  Maybe I'll do Christmas bi-annually, maybe the cancellation this year will be a one-off.  Maybe I'll never do it again, and Santa will never visit me again!  Who knows.

It's a little early, but on that note, Happy Christmas, boys and girls ;-)

* See caption to above photo. Who am I kidding.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Immigrants and Prejudice

My family are immigrants.  I think most people in this country share this.  My father's family came over from Holland in 1689.  My mother came much more recently: from Germany in 1963.  They're "okay" though - nice blond, Northern European types.

They're not the type of immigrants that people generally object to: never mind objectively what skill levels they have, these are the type of people who will quite obviously integrate, get educated, work and contribute.  Why? Well because they're nice, blond, Northern European types.  It just goes with the territory.  It's those dark skinned gypsies from Romania we need to worry about, or all those lazy Slavs filling up the benefits offices and claiming welfare.  They will never fit in or contribute.  If our family continues to follow German customs and speak German at home that's absolutely fine: we're not a threat, it's just part of our heritage!  But if an East European family doesn't fully "fit in" in this country, in every respect, it's time to point the finger and decry them.

Standard Mail image: E/ European Gypsies just have to be criminals
Never mind the facts.  Never mind every study showing that immigrants as a whole are net contributors in the form of taxes, less likely to claim benefits etc.  You can quote and quote the facts, but it seems some people will just never accept it.  And this, of course, is depressingly and deliberately exploited by politicians of all shades who try to get political support by pandering to this prejudice.

An Example from Twitter

Today on Twitter I experienced a really enlightening example of the above.  I chipped in to a conversation with a 22 year old guy who said that he "volunteered in a soup kitchen where the majority of the recipients are Eastern European on some form of benefit".  He then went on to say that "Foreign nationals do contribute especially those from Norway/Sweden etc. What's wrong with wanting them?"

He was portraying himself as reasoned, and reasonable - not an extremist in any way.  My simple, and I think perfectly apt response, to this was:
"Oh I've heard that philosophy before.  The "Nordic races" are superior to the Slavs. Let me just think where... Hmm"  
He said it was "idiotic drivel" for me to say this.  I don't see why: he was saying that only positive contributors to Britain should be allowed in, and had already divided this on racial origin grounds.  Norway/Sweden = good; East Europe = bad.  This is, I suppose, common-place enough, but what then happened was remarkable.  He quoted from an academic paper, three times, which he said showed those people who come from the "EU8" are much less likely to be in receipt of benefit than the EUA14. "Unfortunately the chances [of people being scroungers] are more likely" according to him.  The delightful thing here he was indeed quoting accurately from the report:

His problem was that he hadn't read what was meant by EUA8 and EUA14 countries.  EUA8 countries are the EU accession countries from Central and Eastern Europe that joined in 2004 i.e Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia etc.  EUA14 countries, by contrast, are the countries who were EU members prior to then.  Yep, that includes those lovely blond Nordic nations, Sweden and Denmark, along with the Netherlands, Germany and Austria.

So - you got it - he was quoting from a report that showed that migrants from Poland etc are less likely to claim welfare benefits in the UK than people from pre-2004 EU members, which happen to include Sweden. 

I'm sorry, but this utterly stinks.  It is a perfect example of how someone's prejudice sufficiently blinds them so that he or she interprets a report in exactly the opposite way to its reasoned conclusion.  This is done in order to reinforce what strikes me as a deeply prejudiced view, which he absolutely refused to accept he had.  He did, however, have the good grace to admit he was wrong when it was pointed out to him that he had massively got the wrong end of the stick. 

The "immigration debate" is polluted to the core with thinking like this, conscious and sub-conscious prejudice and misinformation.  It's so depressing and it needs to be countered a lot, lot louder than people are currently doing.