Slavery: Back in the news again

After my recent post about the removal of Confederate monuments, I had decided to leave this whole issue well and truly alone, believe me. But Britain loves to take a lead from America, whenever it can. Burger chains, Baseball Caps, and Halloween parties are all good examples of the British love of American ideas. This has now extended to copying the idea about removing monuments that cause offence. Especially those that can be identified with slavery.

This is the article that started today’s furore.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/22/toppling-statues-nelsons-column-should-be-next-slavery

Where we live, in Norfolk, they are very proud of Admiral Nelson. He was born here, and is celebrated in museums, street names, hotel names, and even on the county road signs, which proclaim “Norfolk. Nelson’s County”. But despite his reputation as the saviour of England during the wars with France, and his death in action on the deck of the flagship ‘Trafalgar’, it seems we are honouring a man of little worth. Someone who used his position in Parliament to oppose the abolition of slavery. His statue high on a plinth in Trafalgar Square is one of London’s landmarks, but we now find out we should be ashamed it is there. Of course, this was a long time ago, when we remember he was killed in 1805, but no matter. History is not what counts here, whether it is good history, or bad. We have grown since then, and learned to be better. Time to get his statue of of that plinth, and take down those road signs, surely?

Once again, I am reluctantly drawn into this argument, and cannot look away. I don’t know Afua Hirsch, though I am sure that she is a nice lady. She is a barrister, and a successful journalist, so I am comfortable in my presumption that she is well read, and highly intelligent. She has a background of an English father and Ghanaian mother, and was born in Norway. Interviewed on TV this evening she spoke confidently and with great assurance, defending her argument that we had to look again at memorials to anyone connected to slavery in any way, and remove them.

The reporter debated the issue with her, based on Nelson alone, and his reputation as an English hero. It was local news, I hasten to add, and not much happens in Norfolk. But he didn’t ask her the questions I wanted to ask her. He didn’t ask her about the once great Zulu nation, which was formed on slavery. He didn’t ask her about the African slave traders who sold their own people to western countries. I know it doesn’t make it any better that those places were involved in slavery. I don’t defend it, and it is unacceptable in any society, at any time. But it isn’t just about pre-Civil War America, or Imperial Britain.

He didn’t ask her if she had ever been to Rome, or visited the Pyramids in Egypt. Perhaps she has enjoyed a trip to Central America, to see the famous temples there, or ventured down to Peru, to marvel at the mountaintop remains of once great cities? All built by societies that had slavery at the heart of their very existence. A weekend in Athens perhaps, gazing at The Parthenon? Ancient Greece, the founding stone of Democracy, built on slavery. Or doesn’t that matter? Are they too far back to worry about? When does it end, and what is the cut-off date? Or does it only matter about black slaves from Africa?

I wanted to ask her all of those questions, because nobody else did.

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History Is Bunk

Many of you may not be aware, and many will not even care, but there has been a great deal of controversy in America of late. Besides the antics of Mr Trump, his cabinet, and his family, or the bluster and counter bluster with North Korea, something else has been going on.

Some states have decided to remove statues and memorials dedicated to people who served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, from 1861-1865. Famous generals like Robert E. Lee, and some statues of other officers, as well as memorials to fallen Confederates are being removed by the authorities. The reasons given for this vary, but the overall idea is to stop ‘glorifying’ people who fought in a cause that supported slavery. I could add quotes, or write all day about the many other reasons why that war happened, but there would be no point. It has become seen as a war against slave states, by states who did not support slavery, and that seems to be the end of it. In other places, the display on public buildings of the Confederate flag, the famous ‘Stars and Bars’, has been outlawed too.

Much of the reason for this backlash can be explained by the fact that Far-Right groups in the USA, including the KKK, and other White Supremacist organisations have ‘hijacked’ this flag, and used it for their own reasons. Also that these monuments are honoured by these same groups, some of which would like to see Secession from the Union happen again. It is claimed that the descendants of slaves, the modern day African-American citizens, are offended by having to walk past statues of Confederate generals, reminding them of the enslavement of their forefathers. The issue has been warmly embraced by Liberal white groups too, and pressure applied to get these monuments removed.

Just yesterday, I became drawn into a heated ‘blog argument’ on the issue, on the site of a very nice lady. I don’t intend to do that again, so no need to look away now…

So, why do I care? I am English after all. American history is for Americans to sort out, surely? Best if I kept my nose out, and let them remove what they want, without me antagonsing their citizens on the blogosphere. But I do care. I care because it is history. Not just American history, but world history too. I care in the same way that I cared when ISIS destroyed religious monuments in Iraq and Syria. When the Taliban destroyed ancient art in Afghanistan, or when the post-soviet Russians pulled down statues of Lenin. Taking away any memorial does not make the history go away, or become any more acceptable to future generations. Something else has to happen, before that is complete.

That something else is the gradual erosion of history by default. Not bothering to stock the books in the library. Removing the teaching of the period from the school syllabus. Forgetting to report on the anniversary of a significant event. It is so easily done, and has been done many times before. In a few generations, it is all forgotten, like it never happened. There is nothing left to remind us, after all. And what about the double standards? Slave-owning Andrew Jackson is on the US $20 bill, and his former plantation home is a ‘national monument’. (Jackson is to be removed from the currency, by 2020)
Mount Rushmore is built on land stolen from Native Americans who were driven off of it, and Florida’s Disney World was once home to the proud Seminole people. How do their descendants feel about those reminders of the desecration of tribal lands, I wonder?

Every nation has an uncomfortable past. My own country spent centuries conquering foreign nations, and reducing their people to little more than servants. But the history of that is still there to be seen, with the statues of colonialists like Cecil Rhodes and Robert Clive sitting proudly on their plinths. It doesn’t mean that the later generations were unaware of their shortcomings, and for all I know, may well provoke debate about their actions. Tens of thousands of people from an Indian or South African background walk past such monuments in London every day. Yet there are no cries to have them taken down. Trying to remove ‘inconvenient’ history is the first step down a very slippery slope that has no end. It was an American, Henry Ford, who once declared that “History is bunk.”

Let’s hope he is not proved right.

The Washington Circus

When Donald Trump became the President of The United States last year, he did so on the back of a lot of promises to the American people. Those who believed his promises tipped the balance, and he was elected. Perhaps the most powerful of those promises was the he would ‘Make America Great Again’.

Looking back over this new administration, it seems to me that he has reneged on all his promises. From building the ‘Mexican Wall’, to turfing out all the illegal immigrants, creating American jobs for American people, and that one about making America great again. He and his merry-go-round cabinet and administration appear to have achieved very little. He didn’t manage to repeal Obamacare, and has also made the running of the world’s most powerful country a laughing-stock. He did get in some spiteful laws concerning transgender people and abortion, removed his country from any serious attempts to cut pollution and fossil fuel use and has played a lot of golf. The shameless promotion of the members of his own family has left him wide open to accusations of nepotism and favouritism too.

Not since the confusion of Italian politics, or the pre-war governments of France, have we seen so much disarray in the running of a country. Trump has lost the support of many influential politicians in his own country, and his appearances on the international stage have been marked by his lack of statesmanship, and obvious lack of political experience. Pushing past other leaders of countries to get a good spot in a group photo, or stumbling over embarrassing speeches when centre stage. Rather than extricate his troops from conflicts around the world, he has presided over increases of boots on the ground, missile attacks, and threats of action against other countries. The promises to build the economy of his own country, and to adopt isolationist polices if necessary have all just faded away.

His use of Twitter during the election campaign was inspired. He connected with people using the social media platforms as they did. But he didn’t know when to stop. His Twitter tirades have assumed the style of a spoiled child, with a school playground mentality of name-calling and ‘yah-boo’. He has sacked the people best qualified to carry out important tasks in his administration, and replaced them with others unsuited to those roles. He attacks his own appointees publicly, and criticises members of his own party too.

On the BBC News today, an American political analyst was offering an overview of the recent events in Washington, and the defeat of the repeal of Obamacare. At the end of the report, the BBC presenter was chuckling. Thanking the analyst, he concluded, “well at least it is entertaining.” The American government has become something to laugh at. The President of the United States is acting like the chief clown in a Washington circus.

I wasn’t smiling along with him though. A circus might be entertaining, but it has no place in the running of the most powerful nation on Earth. A nation that could well take us all down with it.

Sporting sadness

I will start by admitting that I am no fan of sport, let alone Tennis. I haven’t followed Wimbledon since the ‘tie break’ rule came in, and we lost the thrilling games of yesteryear. Plus ‘Baseline’ tennis also bored me to tears, and I yearned for a return to those ‘serve and volley’ days.

But my post today is about sadness. Sad at the desperation this country feels to achieve some acclaim, in modern sport. So much fuss today, about Johanna Konta. She is ‘representing’ Britain, and has achieved a breakthrough, to the Wimbledon semi-finals. Her success has been lauded as the first time a British woman has been through to this round, since Virginia Wade, in the equivalent of the tennis ‘stone age’.

How proud we are. How effusive are the commentators, and the excited news reports. Flags are flying high, British tennis is on the ascendant. Although she may be minced up by one of the Williams sisters, those automatons of modern tennis, it doesn’t matter. She is through, and we are almost ecstatic as a nation.

But hang on. Something is wrong here, surely?

This young lady was born of Hungarian parents, in Australia. She had an Australian passport, and played tennis for that country. Fair enough, she was born there. Johanna Konta, Australian tennis star. That sounds good. Well done to her. Australia has a great tennis heritage, and she should do well, given the right chances. But then her parents moved to the UK. Johanna went to Spain, to improve her tennis skills. So, Johanna decided to become a British citizen, just five years ago, in 2012. She then appeared as a tennis player for Great Britain. No longer Hungarian by the nationality of her parents, or Australian by the nationality of her birth. Suddenly, she is British, and our great white hope in tennis.

So, am I proud? No, quite frankly, I am ashamed. Because she is good at a particular sport, she is accepted immediately, unlike so many others struggling for a British Passport. Give her nationality, forget her Australian (and Hungarian) roots. She is as English as me. Hooray! Remember Zola Budd? I do.

As far as I am concerned, this is simply unacceptable. Sporting prowess should not equal nationality.

The Descent of May

Politics is a precarious path for a career, that’s for sure. Not so long ago, Theresa May was flavour of the month. The new strong woman, adored by many of the rank and file supporters, a better option than Thatcher; less abrasive, no annoying children, and smartly dressed too, in designer clothes.

Even though she hadn’t supported leaving the EU, she boldly threw her hat into the ring to succeed Cameron, emerging as the new leader with her own catchphrases, ‘Brexit Means Brexit’, and ‘Strong And Stable’. Even her enemies had to concede that she had a handle on things, and that she epitomised the Conservative ideology in a way that the public schoolboys preceding her never could.

Somewhere along the way though, it all went very wrong. Perhaps she was badly advised, or maybe the whole thing just went to her head. She could have waited out the term of the government, got on with the job, and led the negotiations around leaving the EU. But she wanted more. Personal approval, public affirmation of her leadership, and the possible destruction of any viable opposition.

So she called an election. One she was expected to win. One I thought she would win. I expected a Conservative landslide, the end of Jeremy Corbyn as opposition leader, and successive Conservative governments ruling unhindered until my dying day. All she had to do was to keep her nerve, and not disclose the reality of their policies. Say a few nice things, meet a few real people, including some who didn’t agree with her. Get her hands a little dirty on the campaign trail, and try to come across as someone behind the mask, and that iron grey hair.

But no. Instead, she decided to tell us what was best for us. The rich would continue to get richer, the poor could stay where they belong, and everyone in the middle would just do as they were told. She scolded her greatest supporters, the elderly, by taunting them with the prospect of selling their houses to pay for social care. She would not increase their pensions, and would means-test them for every benefit and allowance. As for the young, they wouldn’t vote anyway, so they could all shut up.

Why bother to appear on national TV debates, to argue her point? Why meet people in deprived areas that she didn’t want to associate with? Better to travel to nice comfortable places, where she would be welcomed by the wealthy and unconcerned. Better to give solo interviews to reporters than to face questioning from plebs about her policies. She didn’t need to do any of that, she was certain. Her victory would be enormous, the insiders and the pollsters had all told her, and she believed them.

They got it wrong, and so did she. She emerged with a tiny majority, and had to seek support of the far right DUP to prop up her government. Anyone else would have admitted failure, and resigned. At the very least, they would have gone back to the country with another election, apologised for their previous errors, and sought a bigger mandate. But she decided to cling on, to become an embarrassing figure, a female John Major, going from ‘The Grey Men’, to ‘The Grey Woman’. Then came the additional mistakes. Refusing to meet the victims at the site of the Grenfell Tower fire, and refusing to give interviews to the BBC journalists at the scene. As her political opponents showed their chops by hugging homeless victims, and helping to shift boxes of aid, she hurried back in her car to the studios of the BBC, to give a ‘personal’ interview with one chosen reporter.

She then threw away any chance of redemption via that interview, by harping on about the same things, boasting about the £5 million in aid for the victims, but unable to tell the reporter when and how it will be given out. She refused to accept any government responsibility for ignoring safety warnings after similar fires, and repeated her prepared quotes like a broken record. She looked older already, the signature eye-bags bigger than ever, her posture slumped and defensive. The reporter eventually gave up, her voice tinged with frustration at the attitude from the leader of Great Britain.

Mrs May is on her way out of politics, that’s for sure. And she only has herself to blame.

Grenfell Tower: The London Fire

I watched this incident with more than usual interest. I worked in the ambulance station around the corner from this building, for more than twenty years. I have been inside on numerous occasions, to deal with the many 999 calls generated by such housing density in one place.

The area is North Kensington, close to better-known parts like Notting Hill, Holland Park, and Portobello Road, all accessed with an easy walk. Not far from that tower block, you will find houses that would cost millions to buy, alongside similar tower blocks in the same street. So, it is an area of great financial inequality, as well as one of the most racially diverse in London.

Blocks like Grenfell Tower once seemed to be the answer to clearing slums, and providing basic housing for ordinary working people and their families. After all, high-rise living is just as popular with the rich, who are willing to pay small fortunes for better-quality apartments in very tall blocks all over the city. But these blocks were not the same as those destined for the wealthy. They were built with costs in mind; rooms just big enough, the minimum level of outside space around them, inadequate car-parking, and a visible lack of safety features.

Inside, there were lifts big enough to take a coffin when necessary, but only a few people at a time. They didn’t always work either, which left the elderly and infirm trapped on higher floors, unable to manage the stairs. There was no ornamentation, no art on the walls, and no concierge to supervise the huge block. Much later, they became little more than a ‘dumping ground’ for the local council to house refugees, immigrants, and people discharged from mental health institutions. Inside the poorest standard of accommodation available, they placed the poorest and most vulnerable people.

Even during the much-vaunted refurbishment of this block, corners were cut, and costs saved. Warnings were ignored, alongside the pleas of those living there. It was never a question of if something like this was going to happen, rather than how soon it would. Since this tragedy, many questions are being asked, and the blame game has started in earnest. The council officials seek to exclude themselves from blame, by stating that they gave over the running of this property to a private company. The government ministers concerned seek to exclude themselves from blame, by putting the emphasis on the council itself. It has emerged that there was no contingency plan in place, to deal with such an event. It has also been stated that adequate fire precautions would have been ‘too expensive’. There is even the chilling likelihood that the number of fatalities has been deliberately played down, as many of the occupants do not have the language skills necessary to state their concerns.

Can you just imagine if this had happened in a luxury apartment block overlooking the river? Or maybe inside an iconic building, like The Shard? What if all those killed and terribly injured had been rich and influential people? Would they have had to try to occupy the council offices to get answers to their questions, or to arrange temporary accommodation? Those are rhetorical questions of course, and we all know the answers.

Poor and ordinary lives don’t matter. It’s as simple as that.

The UK Election: The Post-Mortem

So what are we to make of our election results?

Theresa May made some wrong moves, and threw away one of the biggest leads in decades.

The tax on property, to allow for social care in later life.
Big mistake.

Austerity policies.
Big mistake.

Not attending any televised debates.
Big mistake.

Underestimating the UK electorate.
Big mistake.

What about Jeremy Corbyn, written off, before the election?

He came across as sincere and passionate.
Huge positive.

He said things that people wanted to hear.
Huge positive.

He attracted the votes from disillusioned elderly people, and first-time young voters.
Huge positive.

Many people believed his Socialist rhetoric.
Amazingly positive.

He secured his position as leader of the opposition Labour Party.
Massive positive.

UKIP all but disappeared from the political scene, and their leader resigned. So much for the far right, in UK politics.

The Liberals had some gains, but nothing remotely significant.
Situation normal for them, after the fuss has died down.

Scotland rejected the second independence referendum, and the Nationalist path, with a loss of 30% of Nationalist seats.

Theresa May is unlikely to ride out this storm, and almost certain to either resign, or be ousted.

The knives are out in Westminster, and the sides are forming. She is in neither camp.

Corbyn cannot form a government, but a second election in the short term looks very likely.

That was one hell of a day, in British politics!