Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Taking My Country Back

When I was at school studying Hitler's rise to power for GCSE History I remember thinking that thank goodness we had learned from the past. It was a time of hope, the years that followed saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, glasnost, Nelson Mandela's freedom and the end of apartheid in South Africa. With the optimism and arrogance of youth I truly believed that we would never go back to a time where we would allow politicians to create a climate of fear due to differences in skin colour or religion. How naïve I was.
This week saw a major UK politician, Nigel Farage unveil a poster shamefully reminiscent of Nazi propaganda that was clearly designed to stoke fear of outsiders. A poster that showed hundreds of desperate refugees, a picture that should invoke compassion and a horror of what a bitter war is inflicting on its ordinary citizens, was instead used to scare people into believing an invading horde was coming to take over their country.

Spot the difference

 This isn't the only example of course, last year the Daily Mail published a cartoon comparing Muslims to rats, again mimicking Nazi propaganda and there are constant newspaper headlines suggesting migrants and refugees are invading the UK.

Just a small selection of anti-migrant headlines

With such messages becoming rife in the mainstream is it any wonder that we're seeing a rise in far right groups? Of course these groups have always been among us, from Oswald Moseley's Blackshirts through to the National Front and BNP but they are slowly and surely becoming legitimised thanks to the drip feeding of hate from the likes of UKIP, rightwing newspapers, and politicians who would rather appease than oppose these views. When I was growing up the far-right was associated with hooliganism and ordinary people loathed their thuggishness. Now most people know somebody who has liked Britain First's Facebook page or shared one of their posts and it's far from uncommon to hear the refrain, "they have a point."
During this bitter EU referendum we've all seen the comments about taking our country back. Many people will mean back from what they see as EU interference and bureaucracy but it's obvious that others mean something far more sinister. They want the country cleansed, back to what they see as its rightful Anglo whiteness, Eastern Europeans, POC and Muslims sent "back to where they came from." Somehow this has become more acceptable rather than repellent. I will be voting to Remain this week, I cannot and will not support a Leave campaign that instead of building a fair and responsible case against the EU (something that was entirely possible) has instead relied on lies and xenophobia. I will not be complicit in giving hope to far-right extremists and allow them to believe this is their time. I've seen their Facebook pages, I've seen their hatred, not only towards immigrants and POC (particularly but not exclusively Muslims) but also towards those who oppose them. I've seen them accuse people of being traitors, tell women they should be punished by rape, call the LGBT community unnatural perverts and talk longingly of bringing back concentration camps and gas chambers.
I want my country back, the country that stood up to fascism, the country that when it joined what was then the EEC dared to hope, the country that I know can be welcoming, inclusive and a refuge to those in need. A country where we celebrate our differences because they are all a part of what makes our shared humanity. We are better than this. So no, I don't believe everybody who will vote Brexit is racist but I will not let fascism become our friend. As Jo Cox said, "there is more that unites us than divides us." That's the country I want.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The shameful legitimisation of hate

I first wrote this post yesterday morning but felt I had to update it following the shocking murder of MP Jo Cox in Birstall, Yorkshire. Not all the facts are known about her attack and death yet but it is looking likely that she was the victim of a politically motivated act of hate. Her attacker has been named as Thomas Mair and it is alleged he was a member of far right groups, the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) who monitor hate crimes and racist activities in the US  also report he paid for literature that demonstrated how to make homemade bombs and guns.

Much is being made in the Press of his possible mental health issues. It cannot be stated too often that mentally ill people are at far more risk of being the victims of violence than of being the perpetrators. However, a man with an unstable mind doesn't live in a vacuum. Just like the rest of the population, Mair will have been bombarded with anti-immigration propaganda, like millions of others he will have been told that immigrants and refugees are to blame for the country's ills. Is it any wonder then that a fragile mind is driven to a despicable hate filled act by despicable hate filled words? Witnesses to Jo's murder have alleged he shouted "Britain First" as he stabbed and shot her. It is not known whether this was a direct reference to the far-right group but we shouldn't be surprised if  the violent language used by nationalist groups has resulted in murder. When UKIP unveil a poster depicting refugees as an invading horde, a poster sickeningly and shamefully similar to Nazi propaganda, are we really surprised that people become consumed by rage? Farage may not be directly responsible for Jo's murder but by knowingly creating an atmosphere of fear and mistrust he may well have blood on his hands.

What really sickens me though is the way racism and xenophobia has been allowed to enter mainstream politics, encouraged by an increasingly right-wing Press. It has become even more obvious during the EU referendum and it comes as no surprise that as a result immigrants and refugees have been dehumanised. This video shows English and Welsh football supporters in Lille taunting what appear to be refugee children by throwing money at the ground for them to scrabble for. And this brutish arrogance, this is why Brexit terrifies me.

I know not everyone voting to leave the EU is racist but the sad fact is the overwhelming narrative from the strongest voices campaigning to leave is one that is encouraging xenophobia. In a country where thanks to a Government only to willing to blame others for their failures and their cruel policies, there has already been a frightening increase in verbal and physical attacks on immigrants, and this nasty, vindictive EU referendum has only made things worse. And what happens after Brexit? What happens when the knuckle draggers in this video realise the country isn't miraculously cleansed of immigrants, they still hear foreign languages spoken on public transport, they still see Muslim women in hijabs on the streets (because let's not pretend there isn't a heady dose of Islamophobia in their rhetoric, particularly with the fearmongering about Turkey joining the EU)? Their racism has been legitimised, already there are rumours their clown prince, Farage will be offered a place in Johnson's Government. They've won, they're in charge now, the country voted; immigrants out. Beer swilling louts chucking coins for desperate children is sickening but it's nothing to what they'll believe is their mandate, their crusade to cleanse the country should Brexit win.
And that, more than any economic argument, more even than fears over workers' rights is what terrifies me. Remain voters are often described as traitors, and unpatriotic yet it's this video that is being watched on news sites across the world. Is that what represents us now? Is that what we're supposed to be proud of?

I love living in this country. I love that we live in a democracy, imperfect though it may be. I love that most British people are kind, compassionate and giving. Just look at the responses to appeals following international disasters, or how communities come together after flooding destroys homes. I love our humour, I love our landscapes and our mix of diverse cultures, and I am immensely proud that we stood alongside other nations against fascism during the Second World War. That's why I hate what we are becoming, an insular and bitter nation, suspicious of foreigners, even those in greatest need. That's not my country. It's not just in Britain that fear and hate is taking hold of course. It was only this week we saw another act of terrorism, this time against the LGBTQ community when Omar Mateen killed 49 people and killed scores more at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. This has to stop. When we give too much credence to those who blame immigrants for problems caused by politicians, suggest refugees could be terrorists, and transgender people might be paedophiles, we are giving in to hate. Hate feeds hate which leads to violence and ultimately terrorism. Stop listening to people like Trump, Farage and Murdoch. Every suggestion that immigrants are ruining the NHS, that LGBTQ people are subverting our children, that Muslims are trying to inflict Sharia Law on us all, that refugees are just after our benefits, are drip-feeding us hate and making people angry. Stop them legitimising hatred. Embrace diversity, celebrate our differences because through them we learn. Love the fact that people choose to migrate here, to pay their taxes, to contribute to our culture. Be proud that refugees see us as a safe haven, free from the horrors they're fleeing. Learn about other religions, realise that fundamentalist believers are not representative and most people, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, Sikh, Hindu or Atheist do not wish harm on others. Celebrate love, whether that love is between a man and a woman, two men or two women. Love is love. Accept that what you learned about gender growing up wasn't the whole truth, that people have a right to identify as they wish and that they deserve our love, support and acceptance not our misplaced fear. We need to remind ourselves that to disagree doesn't have to mean to hate, that the name-calling and accusations aren't debate and will lead to nothing but more anger.
I don't know what will happen if the UK votes to leave the EU, I hope my worst fears aren't confirmed but right now I'm scared that like toddlers having a tantrum when things don't go their way, those who have been told that immigration is to blame will only react with more violence when they realise their pure blood utopia isn't going to be realised.
I am British, I am European and I am a human. It's that last group that should matter the most.