Politics

Reflections on my M.A.

On the last day of June my M.A. thesis was handed in. The extra time that is suddenly available to me as I await final results means I have been able to have a period of reflection. In particular I have been looking back on the past year spent here in Maastricht, and how the Masters course I’ve been on (one that focuses on the intersections of politics and society) has helped to shape me into a better, more prepared person that I was before.

The question of why I chose to do a Masters in Politics, and on top of that why I chose to do a Masters abroad comes up a fair amount. There are a large variety of reasons behind both, but they end up boiling down to two simple concepts; 1) I enjoy it so wanted to do more of it, and 2) I think it is important to constantly expose yourself to new experiences in order to be challenged and grow.

Politics fundamentally is about how people relate to power, and is something that I have always loved to delve into. It’s quite funny how much I enjoy it considering that until university I hadn’t formally studied it, and only did so because I made a spur of the moment decision in my last years of high school to put that down in my university guidance session instead of what I had always assumed would be my final choice of either History or English Literature. Still I had helped set up and run the Model United Nations programme in Sudan so it couldn’t be said to be a complete surprise.

As for doing a Masters specifically, I am an academically inclined person so it made sense to build on my B.A. and expand my focus to the societies that I currently live in, rather than just looking to Africa and the Middle East. In particular niche topics are where I excel, and Masters gives you opportunities to tease out these areas far more whilst training you in effective research methods. Indeed research for my thesis has been very rewarding as I made the (slightly masochistic) choice to conduct in-depth qualitative interviews which was incredibly complicated and difficult work, especially the transcriptions, but also enabled me to discover new information that doesn’t really exist out in the academic sphere, rather than just interpreting something that may have been looked over a hundred times.

That being said just because I enjoy the mechanics does not mean I’m not deeply concerned with where we are heading as a planet collectively.

 

The second of the two responses though is something that is far less individualistic as an answer. In general I find that British people have a reputation internationally for rarely leaving the comfort zone of the UK – sometimes even building mini British neighbourhoods in foreign lands – and never properly immersing in other cultures or languages (something quite interesting to note considering the vast legacy of empire). Sometimes this is for reasons out of an individual’s control, but in my case there weren’t these limiting factors so it made sense to step outside the bubble.

Both immigration debates and those around Brexit tend to be framed in an ‘us against the world’ way which really encapsulates this tendency. Even those wanting more co-operation emphasise an idea of British exceptionalism and superiority, rather than just slight cultural difference. Saying that you should participate in the world because you can lead the world doesn’t separate enough from the attitude of empire, nor does it encourage trying to understand others since if you’re at the top of the heap what can they offer to teach you?

Even in my case, being aware enough to have not considered any UK universities for my Masters, I have found that my horizons initially were not as broad as they should have been. When I arrived I was constantly exposed to conversations which didn’t centre UK politics (or Sudanese politics for that matter) since it was generally not the most relevant thing to day-to-day life. This was especially exaggerated by having an international group of friends who also wanted to discuss their own country’s situations.

Had I stayed in the UK it would be highly unlikely that I would have learnt about the similarities and differences of Finland’s left-wing Greens and the right-wing nationalist Finns Party, or how asylum policy and integration are constructed in the Netherlands, or about the interplay of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik and Orbán (and also the interesting detail that their name is a pun meaning both the “better choice” and “most to the right”). All these give you far more insight into politics not only on an international level, but also a national one as you can see general trends and how certain movements have played out in other contexts. I’m a better analyst of politics because of it.

Reflecting on this past year has really reinforced those two initial reasons for leaving in the first place. I have produced an M.A. thesis I put months of hard work into and I am very proud of all of the extra effort I went to to bring in new primary sources in order to produce something I feel is reflective of my ability. I have branched out further, know more about other small nations I would not have studied on my own free time, and I also now have certifications in elementary Dutch.

The next step is one that I’m not sure 100% which direction it will take me in. Yet I know that I will build on this degree, continue to engage with these political issues throughout the coming years, and take the new knowledge I have discovered with me when I do so.

Marginal No More; Reflections on the 2017 UK General Election and Polling

I was supposed to have voted yesterday in a high priority Tory-target marginal. Instead I voted yesterday as part of a majority of over 13,000. I watched as seat after seat was moved from a Labour held marginal to a Labour majority; from a Labour target marginal to a Labour gain; from a Conservative safe seat to a Conservative held marginal including seats held by prominent ministers, and in particular the case of Canterbury moving from a very safe Conservative hold to a shock Labour gain. Something big happened – in the short election campaign leftist messages cut through a hostile press, and voting turnout was up, especially amongst an engaged Corbyn-loving youth.

I was not expecting such a positive swell, even being the most optimistic of my friends. I entered the election hoping that there would be a pump in the Labour vote from 18-24 year olds yet ultimately believed that the parties would stay at roughly the same level, switching a few seats between them but with no substantial change. I did not think Corbyn would alienate Labour seats, but suspected he may not win over many people outside these areas. Still I appreciated politics done from a position of principle over likeability and thought that it was unfortunate that Labour’s internal politics had likely done some damage.

Having done work with Survation, and so knowing how they conduct their interviewing and knowing their 2015 fatal decision to not release their last “rogue” poll, I did not react with complete dismissal to their polling or final call like some. However I was nervous about whether the clear boost they were showing in young people’s intention to vote would actually transfer into reality and flipped seats. Instead of having more trust that the result could be better than I anticipated, I fell into the cynical trap of assuming hope always equals a profound naivety.

It’s a huge problem on the left, but also just with politics in general the we think optimism is the sign of stupidity. We don’t want to get hurt and then mocked for thinking the future is a great place. To enable us to put on an intellectual veneer we act as if banality is common sense, and as if common sense is the supreme dictator of how politics works. Our logic says that if Corbyn is passionate and states more divisive positions he can’t be electable, ergo there will be a Tory supermajority, ergo everyone who says otherwise is a deluded fanboy.

Survation’s bet was an intriguing one – they knew they messed up last time and decided to stake their reputation on what seemed to be the one huge outlier of all the polling organisations, having changed very little overall in their polling methodology since 2015. Unlike YouGov whose tweaking lead to them wavering in their final poll back to a prediction of a 7% Conservative lead, Survation called the hung parliament. It suggests that what happened in 2015, aside from some places suppressing polls that didn’t fit the general trend, was one of analysis. Rather than assuming that people’s views were in flux, we assume the polls were just plain wrong. It is entirely possible that every poll from 2015 was an accurate picture of a nation that changed its mind. With Brexit the margins were so narrow that pundits calling it for Remain was generally down to the “common-sense” assumption that referenda will always favour the status quo. In effect this general election people were picking the most “common-sense” option and then assessing the validity of the polls based on what would lead to that answer.

If this election shows anything, it is that cynical posturing no longer applies. Hope is not utopian, and if we have a fear of appearing naive then our problem is a lack of imagination. People don’t want a country where there is no true opposition, and are willing to transform themselves into voters when given a party that can offer them that coupled with a strong chance at creating a large parliamentary group. The opportunities now that we can see politics is no longer a game of just appealing with bland centrism to a sliver of floating voters are ones I relish. I was wrong to be so fatalistic this election; next time I’ll try to be better.

Watching the Dutch Vote

One of the weirdest set of descriptions one finds when arriving in the Netherlands is allochtoon and autochtoon. These terms were used officially until November 2016 by the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) and the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). Loosely translated as “coming from another soil” versus “coming from this soil”, the category of allochtoon is sometimes further split into western and non-western. It seems to clash with the Dutch stated value of tolerance, by marking out some as almost fake Dutch.

It makes sense though, in a country that up until relatively recently followed an ideal of pillarisation. This posed that the Netherlands was built on a variety of pillars (Protestant, Catholic, Socialist), and each pillar had its own self-contained world of schools, universities, newspapers, and political parties. In general the Netherlands was primarily a mosaic model, rather than a melting pot.

Allochtoon as a word is fascinating because it reveals the inherent structure that you can find in most countries – where those who do not look like the majority are not perceived as true citizens in a lot of ways. These categories effectively serve to render non-white Dutch as never fully becoming Dutch, regardless of if they were born and socialised in the country.

It has been a week since the Dutch elections, and as it stands Rutte’s VVD will continue to lead in coalition, likely with D66, CDA, and an undetermined fourth party. In international media there has been much celebration over the fact that Geert Wilders’ PVV only became the second largest party, which is taken as proof that a populist ethnonationalist-tinged wave in Europe may be over.

Yet the celebrations mask the real threat that was always posed by the election; VVD victory. Or more specifically VVD victory when Rutte has specifically tapped into Wilders’ and others’ ideas of allochtoon with the VVD’s election campaign. The slogan became “Act normal” – normal being like native Dutch – with the implied “or go home” made explicit in his letter to voters. One of the most intriguing parts of the letter was the inclusion of calling ordinary Dutch racist in the list of undesirable behaviour, as if racism could not be a genuine concern within the wider society.

Wilders may have come second but, as I mentioned in my last post, the issue with those like him is that he succeeds in dragging the fight around cultural matters to more far-right perspective. Ethnic identities become subtle indicators of whether or not someone is worthy of being in a country automatically, or has to prove themselves. And more damningly some have and will continue to vote for policies which reinforce this.

One of the VVD’s campaign ads featured the term kopvodden, an insulting slur for hijab, as one of the aspects of a non-VVD voter. According to this ad VVD voters also do not put their “head in the sand” (one presumes about these cultural matters) but rather “use their heads”. Though the VVD website seeks to clarify that its use of kopvodden is merely about people who say the term, without the page of information next to it the advert does not come across as such. It instead seemed to be a straightforward dogwhistle campaign that plays on fears around immigration and Islam, whilst having enough leeway to distance themselves from explicit racism.

The Netherlands, much like the UK, poses itself as founded on values of tolerance whilst not engaging as much with how that it supposed to fit with its history as a former empire. The recent elections help with the movement away from dealing with that complexity and reevaluating notions of Dutchness, towards more simplistic narratives which propose that the real Dutch are under threat from outsiders.

How we in Europe can reconcile notions of citizenship with our values at the time when seeming to do so leads to lose of political power may appear difficult, especially when there are genuine cultural conflicts that do sometimes arise. But through acknowledging that these values – tolerance, respect, freedom – must be new in light of the gravity of empire, then we become freed to tackle exclusionary structures which were built up at the same time. Though history is important, demonstrating the possibility of reinvention is more important when you want to make a country that does not see citizens from other origins as permanent impostors.

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.

 

2017, Year in Preview

2016 was quite the year – it seemed everything was shifting and that the best bet was always on the most undesirable outcome (at least for some). These past few months I’ve wanted to write about Trump, far right revivals, Castro, Austria, South Korea, the ongoing farce of Brexit, but the idea of adding to the noise without adding anything new felt a bit pointless, especially with actual Masters coursework I was supposed to be getting on with.

2016 was the year of everyone finally seeing the cracks in the walls, and the mould all over the ceiling. These were things that were already bubbling away, but each of us had selective blindness to some of it. I feared Brexit, but my sinking feeling about Trump I dismissed as excessive anxiety, reasoned out of by the sheer confidence of others’ predictions.

We’re now two weeks in to 2017 and I’ve already managed to fall into a freezing pond and set myself on fire for the second time in my life. And like a bad metaphor for the media’s understanding of the threat of Trump it took me a while to realise I was on fire because I was so into the show I was watching (who says millennials are easily distracted?).

2017, at least on a personal level, seems set to beat 2016.

Putting aside the increasing sense of doom, I don’t want to write 2017 off in the same hysterical way a lot of others are, declaring everyone will die and calling for some sort of Obama dictatorship. Yes, things are going to get worse but if you look at 2016 you can also find some good things that point to the way forwards. Sudan is an example of where protest has adapted to circumstances – instead of going out on the streets, people stay at home, showing dissatisfaction without technically implicating themselves in any anti-government activity. On a smaller level just looking through my social media shows me the way that people can pull together to help those in need in the intervening time between now and a future fix for all our messed up political priorities. You can host healing parties and socials where those from marginalised communities can meet, you can offer vital services at a discount, you can even just be making witty, insightful commentary on the news of the day.

In 2016 I discovered I was wrong about a lot of things, right about others, and most significantly I need to be more confident. For the past two years I’ve written some vague post around the subject of ‘New Years Resolutions’, regardless of if I actually had any. 2015 was trying to push out of my comfort zone and starting this blog, 2016 was trying some more and practising my Arabic, and 2017 is going to being trying harder, not only for my personal life but of those around me too. Maybe this will come about in a post-Masters political job, maybe I’ll do something on the side, but the solidarity which I feel is an important part of my leftist politics needs to be more overt than it has been in the past.

2017 is going to be tough. It’s the year of right-wing power, and more specifically the rise of a right-wing that has no time or love for people like me. It’s a year where basic things are going to be presented as shameful or threatening, whether that’s birth control in the US, standing up for immigration in the UK, being a refugee across the whole of the globe (if your news has only been dominated by the European “crises”, look at the regional issues stemming out of Myanmar alone), and countless other identities, political stances, or just plain old personal decisions.

2017 is a year where those of us on the left are going to have to reject that shame, on both a personal and political level. And true, it’s not going to seem like there’s much progress but it’s the same with fixing a house; you have to just start somewhere and keep going until it’s either patched up or collapses.

 

Hello Again!

I haven’t posted in a while.

This has been a keen calculation as much as it has been an accident of a very busy and emotional time in my life. I have wanted to wait for the push for more stability to die down so that I could properly reflect on where I wanted to focus my work. Of course, it is apparent that waiting for those times only really works when you can afford to separate yourself from the hectic situation you are in and so I got stuck in a circle of negative reinforcement.

In the intervening time huge changes to the political landscape have manifested. Across an ocean it becomes apparent that the Republican nominee for President will be either Trump or Cruz and both are riding a wave of huge resentment that has manifested into something that genuinely terrifies me. Over in the UK the EU referendum and the refugee crisis have trigged the outpouring a whole raft of similar views that some people have kindly articulated to me in person. I am not sure if these words were said as a warning to me to be one of the “good ones” or as a misguided compliment that they already thought I was. Alongside this Labour refuse to push forward a unified image of their party in order to better combat devastating measures that are being proposed and implemented in many different areas in our lives and I am worried about the future of the Left in general as it seems over and over again we never quite put up the best fight (myself included).

It appears that whilst I have been wringing my hands with existentialist and practical fears on a personal level, the world in general has grown more dangerous. I need to figure out where to stand on this, how boldly to go fight outside of just talking one-on-one with a stranger over a drink as to why their statement was offensive. I need to suss out which things are most pertinent to focus my time and mental energy on with regard to the “public me” and , most importantly, I need to decide what I am actually doing with myself in the long-term.

Hence the brief pause in output.

I am working on some things at the moment – more jovial items that I shall link to when they finally come out, but for now I will be aiming to focus here on longer and more explicitly political perspectives on events. Obviously I cannot (nor I think should) comment on everything however I will aim to post something at least once a month of substance.

In the meantime you can find me on Twitter

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.