An Election Abroad: GE2017

This year I get the particular privilege of organising my general election vote via proxy as my Masters thesis means there will not be time to go back to London to cast it in person. The functioning of a proxy has amused a lot of my colleagues, many hailing from countries where you simply go and vote in your embassy, who find it a hard concept that you would trust someone else with your ballot. Fortunately I do have trust in my proxy – it is the broader public that I worry about making their own choices in the polling booth.

Watching your country’s election from abroad is an interesting experience. So much of the minutiae of campaigning is lost, – no flyers stuffed through letterboxes, or vote canvassers, or – you only get the headline news. This, coupled with late night viewings of the debates, has given me a surface view of what is happening without the fluff that tends to go with it.

As a result the stuff which cuts through generates more intrigue since you feel more assured that this is likely the same messages that are reaching those who don’t really follow politics on a daily basis. Unfortunately this has utilised by terrorists – the dominant message the past few weeks has been pushing out is one of fear, and of the need for more securitisation which over time will help to erode a lot of the liberties I think are vital for us to continue to grow into a proper democracy.

It is no secret that I will be voting for Labour. I want priorities to be focused on the NHS, on a Brexit that does not alienate us from Europe, and I want governments that are committed to a more equitable distribution of wealth and the privileges that a lot of us, including myself, take for granted. Combating extremism requires a more holistic approach than just treating symptoms, and part of that is creating a society where everyone feels like a valued member able to succeed within its bounds.

This is not to say I am an uncritical voter, even with the change in leadership since my last discussion on voting for the least wrong lizard in the race. As it stands the mess of both the PLP and the Leadership these past few years has just continued my disappointment in Labour. Labour are the party I desperately want to love, and instead I’ve consistently found myself just viewing them as the best of the bad lot as a result of their inability to put aside petty differences and work to create a cohesive impression, especially at politically opportune times. Their policies, especially on universalism, align to a large degree with my own beliefs but I continue to have doubts on the ability of everyone there to carry them out.

Sitting down to watch the debates has cheered me a little. For once we had demonstration that there would be a strong defence of positions. When Corbyn answers a business owner who queried Labour over rises to minimum wage and taxes on private schools he appeals to the importance of tax funding to support the broader society, the needs of low income workers and the priority of caring for one’s neighbour over individualism. This is a significant departure from most politician’s tendency when posed difficult questions to just opt for the safety of “the customer is always right”, never wanting to be seen telling a member of the public that they have a full ideological disagreement.

For voters in a lot of areas Labour are the party that will offer meaningful change focused in a positive direction. Ultimately it becomes the first step to a reformed system, included a reformed voting system, that we desperately need. It’s an unfortunate truth that in our political system the link between your vote and impact is quite tenuous. Move a few streets one way and you might go from being one of an 8,000 lead to a crucial decision maker in a marginal constituency where a win was a mere 27 votes. I am fortunate that my vote is in a more significant constituency where I feel that I can actually shape the course of the next parliament.

So now we are here, waiting to find out which polling companies adjustments (or lack thereof) are the most suited to this moment in time. Whatever happens though I am content with my choices and the values I defend. If you share these values make sure you vote in defence of them too.

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How We Communicate With Abominable Ideas

The Dutch elections are to be held on the 15th March and Wilders may just get the majority of seats. He won’t be leader, but the tension of rising numbers willing to side with him means I’ve been thinking about the way that we as a society debate reprehensible ideas. We tend to feel the theatre of open debate will help, when all that happens is people like Wilders exploit these gaps. Later when opponents concede or ape particular points in a vote chasing effort he can present it as his whole position being secretly correct. It’s an effective manipulation.

There is a weird tendency I’ve seen where someone will argue against a position not understanding why the other person holds it. For instance an individual might argue for “shutting all borders to Muslims because they are terrorists”, and their opponent will argue “we can’t turn away refugees fleeing from wars caused by terrorists”. This is not going to sway anyone who thinks that every Muslim is a problem because it does not get to the root of their argument which is the intertwining of Islam and terrorism. We frame the fault in their statement as a lack of compassion, when really it is a faulty risk analysis and/or pure racist and xenophobic bigotry.

Coupled with this is the inclination to point out that a position is discriminatory, which doesn’t make much difference if discrimination was the point of the speech in the first place. If people are not starting with the same base ideals as us chatting to them as if they are doesn’t magically change their opinion. Nowadays we see how these linguistic tick boxes are used against us, to re-frame arguments so that a racist can slip in ‘human biodiversity’ in lieu of ‘segregation’ and ‘racial hierarchy’.

Wilders himself frequently uses LGBTQ rights to batter the idea of Dutch Muslims, a trick he borrowed from his populist predecessor Pim Fortyn. Lamenting that discrimination against Muslims is wrong when they are arguing that Muslims are the cause of discrimination, or pretending that a nod to our conventions means they are on the right track, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding. They are dragging the discussion over to their frame so that we are left picking holes out of politeness rather than opposing the concept as a whole.

Defending principles on the grounds that they are important enough to be re-articulated without concession is essential, as is not discarding values just because your opponent discards them in an attempt to win them over (I’m looking at you people suddenly now against freedom of movement). Yet having these pointless back-and-forth “debates” in public is just giving these groups the chances they require if they are to expand.

Perhaps the key flaw in a lot of liberal thinking is the idea that concepts we find repulsive will remain fringe if we allow the ideologies to talk themselves out of existence. It assumes others will find what we perceive to be self-evident truths and so these concepts will never gain wider traction. Yet even if that may be the case sometimes, in situations where you risk severe losses to bigoted ideas why even take the risk of exposing more people to them?

Why allow debates about the rights of individuals to be reopened under the guise of public speech when we have already settled the answer? Ultimately it ends up undermining your point by sending a signal that certain principles are negotiable. Giving Fatima an advocate, or letting her speak for herself, in a public debate about whether she should have rights is an abhorrent position to wilfully put anyone in.

Sometimes I suspect that this problematic style of argument develops because our first introduction to political discussions are often with family, where certain conventions of respect are expected to be followed. It’s much politer in conversation to say “I see your point, but here’s the issue” than “That is a ghastly opinion to hold and I think that if you genuinely hold it you are an awful person.” Breaking out from the instinctive response to keep everyone on friendly terms takes work.

In other words proper resistance is the idea that we can’t just get along with everyone, and that there are a fair amount of people who are irredeemably awful. No public institution or talk show is required to host those whose views effectively portray a number of the population as subhuman. Debates are for whether pineapple on pizza is an abomination, or the best way to approach economic policy, and politeness in political talk is for great-aunts. When it comes to people with ideas like Wilders we should not give them the same consideration.

 

Beyond Scare Tactics

The EU referendum campaign is in full swing, and Turkey is a problem. From Vote Leave a new leaflet highlights not only countries looking to join but spotlights Turkey by shading in the bordering countries of Iraq and Syria. Turkey is a good political pick because of its strong association with both the migrant crisis and the movement of terrorists. This insinuation that if we don’t vote to leave the EU Turkey will overwhelm us with migrants and terrorists from IS has extended to discussing how we’ll become the victims of crime due to a supposed Turkish predisposition. It is a dog-whistle at its finest.

One could argue the reason Turkey is featured in many Vote Leave advertisements is that it is simply one of the EU candidate states – yet one of the intriguing parts about the decision to highlight Turkey is how hard it would be for Turkey to actually become an EU member. To give a brief overview Turkey has been an associate member of the EU since 1963, applied for membership in 1987, got candidate status in 1999, and finally had their (still ongoing) candidate negotiations start in 2005 which – regardless of anything else (such as opponents using vetos, arguments about geographical relevance) – cannot be resolved until Turkey opens its ports to Cyprus. In comparison Croatia applied for membership in 2003, started negations in 2005, and joined in 2013. For many the question is ‘if’ not ‘when’; Turkey joining the EU is a long way off and requires a lot of political manoeuvring. Billboards are using a very distant possibility to drive fears of terrorism and free movement of Turkish people, relying on unfavourable associations being brought to mind.

Watch out, the Muslims are coming.

The campaign run by the Goldsmith team against Khan during the London Mayoral race was another demonstration of scare tactics that rely on this “scary outsider” bias. The absurdity of painting Sadiq Khan – as much a radical Muslim as a plate of custard – as a terrorist sympathiser demonstrates clearly how little interest modern UK politicians have in even pretending to be for all people in their push to exploit wedges in society.

The mayoral race was important because it came down to the Conservatives either genuinely thinking that the political blancmange of Sadiq Khan was a dangerous man and sympathetic to terrorists, or they pointedly decided that public perception of Sadiq Khan and other Muslims by extension as regular Brits with a multitude of opinions is fine to sacrifice for some political gain. When the PM uses fancy footwork to say a man supports IS knowing that people will interpret this as referring to the terrorist group and not just the ideological concept of a state based on Islamic thought to legitimate false criticism of his opponent he loses credibility to govern fairly for all his citizens. With scare tactics you not only say a huge segment of your population are inherently dangerous, but you also say you have no interest in dealing with the divides in society if there is a chance for you to make a personal gain from it.

A calculation was made; Muslims won’t vote for us so it is okay to demonise them in the hopes that we win. And again with the EU Referendum a calculation has been made; let’s just play up these divisive fears to attract those who don’t know the nuances of Turkey and EU politics. Yet this gamble entrenches divisions that have real and harsh consequences to the actual population.

This is not an issue limited to one end of the political spectrum. Most political parties and groups in the UK are only interested in a narrow section of people they feel represent their voting base and frequently throw those deemed outside of this under the bus. Both sides of the EU debate are trying to out terrify the other with what will make us more susceptible to terrorists. I’ve heard someone discuss how “the Jews” don’t vote for Labour anyway so why bother dealing with antisemitism? Scottish voters are demonised for voting SNP and therefore there should not be a solid Scottish policy because they are not on “our” side anyway. Rural and coastal voters don’t get talked about as much as London and other cities. And god forbid the vitriol for those who don’t vote. Huge swathes of people get their needs ignored, or directly worked against in vote chasing, and groups of multitudes are portrayed as monoliths in order to appeal to those opposed to them. In the midst the actual humans of this country are forgotten.

If political groups only existed to win that would be one (still terrible) thing but the policies and words a political group chose not only shape the conversation around an election but become the spectrum for what is possible to be implemented and who gets to be involved. Once something outrageous has been said everyone else has to respond to it, lending it some legitimacy and further exposing it to the public. We need to respect people who wouldn’t ever vote for us and appreciate their needs as citizens even if we disagree with their thoughts. Turning around and using dog-whistles against huge parts of the population only succeeds in spreading both alienation and extreme misinformation.

A lot of people believe it is better to have a chance in power than to remain in opposition and therefore these tactics may be undesirable but ultimately worth it. But opposition – true opposition – is the process of calling that power to heel, and articulating the voice of everyone else. And democratic power is supposed to be about ruling with consideration of everyone, even those who won’t vote for you, rather than just a chance to rule to ensure that you continue to have a chance to rule to ensure that you continue to have a chance to rule ad infinitum. MPs are not there only for the people that voted for them, or even just the people that voted. They are there to represent the whole borough and that thought has to come first.

This is partially the fault of our political system being so heavily tilted to “not them” voting. Voters are either seen as our tribe or our enemies. When the not-we voters start to be generalised in broad descriptors – Muslim, Asian, Jewish, Scottish – it triggers an opportunity to make use scare tactics rather than generating good policies and working towards opening up a political system that will naturally draw in people in a positive way. This obsession with voters is creeping into other aspects which will permanently tilt how politics is played out, with constituency borders based not on the actual amount of people living there but on those who are registered to vote, as if those who don’t could never have concerns in their borough.

Wedge politics pushes people out of having an actual voice as politicians pander to only those whose votes they may win (and frequently ignore “safe” voters concerns). Each time there is a vote people are chastised for not participating (or recently for signing up “too late” to participate, as if becoming engaged is something we have to decide months in advance or else we don’t deserve it) which takes away the responsibility of groups to look at how to appeal to them beyond scare tactics. Politics is meant to be about articulating a vision of the future – the best way to serve everyone in a society. To create a consensus where we abandon that for power is incredibly dangerous. It’s a slow dull trundle to a backwards and unrealistic representation of society and one where soon only an incredibly small sliver of people will be competed for and thus become the only ones who politically matter.

Sorrow for Paris, France, and Everyone Everywhere

Yesterday I stayed up all night waiting for news from friends. What happened in Paris is almost incomprehensible – large scale rapid and sporadic attacks, bombs, and then a hostage and siege situation. I send my thoughts and my love through a screen and feel so helpless.

Time has shifted how terrorism operates, now designed in the West to generate maximum hysteria and misinformation. I spoke about it briefly on Twitter. The attack was similar to the Mumbai Model where terrorists pulsed through the city creating a situation that is hard (perhaps one might even say almost impossible) for police to initially manage. Essentially it is guerilla warfare transposed to a Western urban policing situation where the cops are mainly trained to deal with local small-scale beats and large crowd control focused on protests. Hitting a huge variety of locations sporadically makes it complicated to capture gunmen at the beginning as policing is more designed for follow-up checks rather that interventions. This ensures dominance of the 24 news cycle, social media, and the theatre of watching an ever increasing death toll. After such an attack the number of gunmen vary wildly with different reports, and a general panic sets in for days as people worry about loose gunmen, second stages, and copy-cat attacks.

I spent last night staying away from most feeds, restricting myself to prevent feeling more tight and sick than I already was. Each new piece of information confirmed was a new bit of horror. Last night I furiously debating my fears over what different parties claims of responsibility might mean with regards to the MENA region. I spoke with people who said Friday the 13th was chosen for its symbolism, others that the important thing was it was the date for the France vs. Germany match, prompting speculation that Germany is “next” and that the plan was even designed to kill on a much larger scale but that parts failed. This is part of the play, to make it the topic for days and weeks as we worry about how our lives will slowly change, even those of us who are not in France.

In the coming days there will likely be “reprisal” attacks against those suspected of being Muslim and/or migrants. We have a duty to speak out about them too, on top of mourning the dead like we are now. The attackers – regardless of which group claims ultimate responsibility – want to drive this wedge further down, and to bait far right groups. And it will work, it always does. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks my mother begged me to promise that if someone approached me in the street I would speak Spanish and then run away.

They don’t just use bombs these days – they use our minds against us too. Terrorism tries to make us hate just as much as it tries to make us scared. This must be resisted most of all.

I Just Found Out Someone I Once Knew Joined ISIS and Now I Have Feelings

I was working on a different story to put out this evening but instead, during the course of my day, I came across the news that a former high-school classmate of mine has run off to Syria. I scrolled down the article of yet another collection of young people to cross the Turkish border and saw a face I recognised. It feels curious, this half-remembered person now etched forever online as a radical “Islamist” going to join a swathe of fighters in their cause to bring the glory of what they see as a true Islamic state. It is so foreign to the versions of Islam that – at least I think – we were both exposed to when we were young as the “real” Islam. I still don’t quite understand why, and that confusion is so much stronger than that I had after all the other similar articles I have read over this year.

As a friend remarked though, these things do take time. The conversion of someone’s beliefs doesn’t happen overnight – it is a slow process, and one that by its slow nature may go unnoticed, with the changes being too gradual to pick up the deadly shift in time. Perhaps they were yearning for adventure, acceptance, and the security of an authority figure? Perhaps they merely wanted to aid people in hospitals and ISIS/ISIL weren’t part of the equation when the decision was made? Perhaps everyone that goes to fight in Syria is just as inherently evil as the media makes out? We can’t look at intent and know it for certain. We just guess from the clues left behind.

Those snap judgements I can’t make, because I’m a product of an education and a time where dubious wars were waged through much of my childhood. It’s quite a general opinion that we maybe shouldn’t have gone into Iraq, and even during the lead up  to the conflict in 2003 there were large-scale protests against doing so in the UK. A common refrain we hear regarding young people who go out to Syria is that they are twisted because they should know how terrible these people are. Yet over time the media itself has become know to be less trustworthy, and in many cases is an establishment cheerleader so I can certainly see how a charismatic person can point out to those open enough that perhaps the West are simply smearing what they fear rather than being impartial. I obviously think that ISIS are awful, no doubt in my mind that they are a twisted and twist a religion that I have know through my life to be a wonderful source of humanity for many people, so I still think that people aren’t forgiven for not taking a moment to properly think about what they actually do and then not head out. However part of combating threats like these is understanding where they are rooted, and in a country where we are still in a scandal over the widespread sexual abuse perpetrated and covered up by both the media and political institutions there are certainly spaces for those with their own agendas to exploit that doubt.

The trouble with ISIS is that the more we frame it as an issue of average Muslims, the more we create the sort of environment that recruiters work well in. If I feel accepted in a country it’s hard for me to take issue with it or seek a kinship outside of it – if alternatively people are blaming me for terrible things I have nothing to do with, I’ll start to doubt my country’s “kind” nature and perhaps start to doubt my country’s portrayal of those it claims are in the same group as me. Muslims are not ISIS members waiting to emerge from their sleeper positions. They’re just Muslims. Some belong to ISIS. Some occasionally drink hot chocolate with me whilst discussing the value of Beyoncé in feminism. Like, it’s a pretty broad category of thought to create a 2 dimensional caricature from.

I think the reason why I feel so odd right now is that it feels so much closer than it ever did before. Something I had been interested in academically has become flesh, and a small corner of a world I cherish has also become harder to defend from people with limited knowledge of both other cultural values and of all the small parts of my youth that they just want to see as insidious. The same people who say ‘Shari’a Law’ and fret about ‘Shari’a Courts’ not releasing that there are so many various interpretations of each of those which have altered over centuries, will now act like this person I once knew went down the only path a Muslim could go down.  And I will see this again and again until I just stop falling into these discussions.

For the Love of Politics

I love Politics. Really I do.

Politics is great because it replaces all of your boring anecdotes (I genuinely told at least three people last week that someone I knew had met someone with almost the same name as me, and I kept insisting that this was hilarious because reasons. I may have been mildly sleep deprived at the time) with something constantly evolving and vibrant. You can discuss the impact of the recent Greek elections on Europe or Labour’s policies in the upcoming election, or the viability of UKIP, or how combating Islamophobia may be more beneficial to the causes of LGBTQ+ Muslims than just criticising homophobic imams. And if the personal is political you’re in for even more of a whale of a time.

This is relevant because I am so enthusiastic in a world where people claim that the youth are disengaged. The “Russell Brand effect” is mildly redeeming our apathetic bodies in the minds of the media, but not really to the correct cause.

We grew up in a world of disappointments – Lib Dems, student fees, coalitions, lack of AV. Of course we’re not happy when we get this reality whilst at the same time sitting down to the idealism of Borgen, showing us a golden land across the sea where problems are solved by passionate – and sexy – leaders. Leaders who both understand the concerns of ordinary people (because they are ordinary people) and care. It’s a form of politics that looks so distant from our own, and as a result it’s not surprising that many people my age can’t understand why I, as a Brit, would care.

It’s still not enough. I keep not responding to things or engaging in stuff and it’s driving me crazy because I realise – out of uni – how much I miss analysis things on a regular basis. When friends discuss their joy at finally graduating I grab them firmly by the shoulders and yell “Don’t do it! It’s too bloody scary out here with all the dull adulthood. Scary and boring at the same time.” (DISCLAIMER: I may have done a Politics degree and be far more into this than other people)

We need more public debate in this country on a day-to-day, ordinary person level that includes nuances, rather than just an adversarial style of “with us or against us”. If you are going to go outside into the world, do engage and encourage others to do the same. Okay, they will possibly resent you a little – but hey! that’s what life is about. Politics is about people, and as people it really does affect you. And if you go down the rabbit hole enough you’ll realise that everything affects everything in a very tangible way. The intersections are what makes it come to life. Nuance is both complicated and the only way to look at the world.

In this upcoming election we (young people/the “yoof”/category 18-25) should be doing more than just voting – we should be chatting about things beyond the bad reputation of local politics and about the despair of international politics. We need to revel in what we love with other people. We need to make all our personal conversations (okay, maybe just 95%) about the political. And then do vote, even if it’s just a spoiled ballot to show that there are people out there who are engaged, despite the party system itself being awful.

I’ve started with talking to my mother about decriminalising sex work. If I can organise the annual Christmas argument around that, then you guys can do anything.

Charlie Hebdo: Freedom to Defend Nuance and Anger

I don’t know exactly what I will say when people speak to me over the next few weeks about Charlie Hebdo. I know they will lean in, head cocked, as they do each time something like this happens, and ask me what I think about it. I will begin with ‘It is a terrible tragedy’ and, jumping in, their eyes will light up as they discuss the backwardness of certain groups. It always feels like an awful talk segment titled When Muslims Attack!, where the conclusion has be set and I am merely the speaker drafted in for “balance”. To defend nuance makes you an apologist for murder.

When I was in high school I ran the Model United Nation’s club. At the beginning of each session we would discuss the top news stories. It was an Islamic country and, by extension, most of our members were Muslim. One week we discussed the Danish cartoon controversy, an incident that I now mainly remember for the months we were unable to buy Lurpak butter.

People were angry but only a few admitted to actually seeing the cartoons in question; most relied on information and descriptions from news and social media which were not always accurate. In the interest of a factual debate I described the cartoons as best as I could. People were still angry, but this time their hurt was only focused on certain cartoons – those that seemed to set out to offend for no other reason than they could. The rest were bad jokes or just confusing. It was a heated debate about the moral right to publish such things. No-one was debating the legal right of a cartoonist to draw such things, nor was the protection of these people from violent reprisals in question. They were upset that in a world were there was so much miscommunication about Islam, newspapers around the world were declaring that the very essence of freedom was to perpetuate cartoons depicting it as barbaric, and then gleefully documenting the violent reactions rather than the dominant response of either silence or non-violent demonstration. They wanted freedom to also mean the freedom to consider treating them with respect by not publishing them.

Muslims, it seems, are not allowed to be angry. They are not allowed to have the nuance of opposing something they find offensive, protesting it non-violently, and opposing violent reactions. We celebrate the rights both to offend and criticise in general, but for a Muslim to be an active part of this system is to risk getting lumped in with those who do not believe in debate and engagement. The only correct responses to such a cartoon are apparently either unquestioning support or the acknowledgement that it is “just a bad joke”. Yet if we make it so that our definition of a good Muslim is one who believes only what “we” deem progressive then what does that say about us?

I know that I will spend the next couple of days dealing with people labelling those close to me, in the most thinly veiled terms, as animals because when they hear ‘Islamic extremism’ what they actually hear is ‘natural progression of a dangerous religion’. I know that I will get the joy of reading ‘Muslims and the West’ as if it is not possible to be both truly Western and truly Muslim. As if Western values are a separate entity reserved only for the non-Muslim (and let’s be frank – often white) amongst us. As if the many people sharing these cartoons now in a show of solidarity do not include Muslims in their numbers.

I believe that some of the cartoons from Charlie Hebdo I have seen in the past day, and the calls to reprint them everywhere, can make people feel like they are not part of our society. We are reacting to an event by being divisive – “fully support these things and prove you’re with us, or get out”. People may share (as they should rightly be allowed to) some of these cartoons, including the ones that shore up stereotypes of Islam as intolerant and violent, but in the small area I control I won’t add to that public perception. It is a path which can contribute to the escalation of looks I receive in airports. It means adding to that culture that has people arguing with queer Muslims about their ability to be queer Muslims, or dismissing the choices of women who wear head-scarves as being rooted in oppression. I practice the freedom I value in my choice to not add to this labelling of Muslims as guilty until proven innocent.

Let people be angry about cartoons – now and in the future – and let them make cartoons for people to be angry about as well. Recognise that people can deplore murder and deplore things that hurt them. People can and should be allowed to show their opposition to such a horrific attack in many ways. One of them is engaging in the freedom that enables Charlie Hebdo to be published and hopefully to continue to be published in the future (for press, even ones we disagree with, should not be stopped with the barrel of a gun).

People are people, and the press are press. They are all flawed. Let both be criticised through the freedoms we cherish, and let both be free from violent attack.