Sunday, 5 June 2016

A Mentality I Just Don't Understand

I've been agitated recently and in more ways than one. You may have noticed this if you follow my tweets which often give a clue as to what is currently animating me. But now it seems to me like several different thoughts actually turn out to be related. 

First of all, being from the UK, there is the current debate over if the UK should leave the EU or not. Like a number of notable cultural commentators on this (random picks: writer Irvine Welsh and comedian Frankie Boyle) I take the view that this is not necessary about those in charge of both the EU or the UK. These people are clearly equally as bad and equally as unpalatable. This is like asking yourself if you want a bad person from another country in charge or a bad person from your own country. Of course, you'd rather have a good person. But good people don't seem to go into politics and they certainly don't rise to the top. Yes, I'm a cynic but with good reason to be cynical.

I have steered clear of the public farago around this event with its stage-managed addresses and bullshit arguments. We have the spectre of leading government politicians, who are routinely impoverishing people and taking sides with the "haves" as opposed to the "have nots", people who think nothing of claiming thousands on their own expense accounts but will snatch a few pounds from the disabled that they need to survive in something that can barely be described as comfort, suddenly saying they are on your side and that the "elites" (a useful bogey term for whoever the bad guys are meant to be this week) are on the other side. You don't want to be siding with the elites now do you? By the way, these now apparent men of the people were all very well and privately educated and are all millionaires. But, hey, they still care about the little guy, they say. Sweet.

As many people have observed, the EU debate in the UK has been a lot of shouting about increasingly ridiculous and unsupportable claims and very little facts or genuine information. I doubt you could find 10 good British people who could even explain what is at stake. The OUT people don't seem to have any clue as to what they would do if and when they were out. They just know they don't want some foreigner making the decisions. The IN people don't necessarily even believe we should be in but they think they might be richer if we were. Compromises abound.

Yesterday, like many in Europe, I woke up to the news of Muhammad Ali's death. Ali was a star when I was but a boy. I was only born at the end of the 1960s and, until yesterday, was blissfully unaware that at the time I was being born Ali was actually banned from boxing altogether because he had refused to be drafted in the Vietnam War. I learned about this only yesterday as I delved into his life story and found out that Ali wasn't just a prodigious boxer with a knack for amusing witticisms but a man with beliefs who was prepared to act upon them to his own personal cost. The best years of his career taken from him by his refusal to be drafted, he spent time making speeches and became a civil rights figure. I saw many gushing tributes to Ali yesterday but not many of them pointed out that Ali was three things that some of these gushing tributers don't normally seem to be too fond of. Because let's tell it straight: Ali was BLACK. Ali was a MUSLIM. Ali was against war. As a number of black and Muslim tributes to Ali pointed out yesterday, don't let them sell you anything else.

Now the question is should we forgive someone like presidential nominee, Donald Trump, when he tweets about how Ali was a great champion and a great man? This is the same Trump who, a year before this tweet, had called out President Obama for talking about great Muslim sports stars. He seemingly thought there were none. Trump has had a lot to say about Muslims in the last year and most of it can be summed up as "Go away!" Is Trump aware that Ali was a proud Muslim, one who, so I read, regarded Islam as a faith of peace? What does Trump think about that? What do all these anti-Islam people in America who think Muhammad Ali (an arab name) was "a great man" think about that? What do they think about the Ali who said he refused to fight the Vietcong because they had never called him nigger (implicitly, unlike the many white men he regarded the war as being fought for)? What do the muslim haters and the black haters think about the Ali who refused to be defined by other people and who seemingly ignore the fact he was proudly black and proudly Muslim? I saw one Fox Sports reporter yesterday who actually tried to completely gloss over the fact that Ali was these things. But how can you do that when Ali himself did not? It seems to me that if whitewashing is anything then this is exactly what it is. Ali was not some generic human being. He, like everyone else, was a set of very specific things. And you can't ignore or brush over those things without attempting to erase or deny them. These are POLITICAL moves. I don't know if Ali ever spoke about the Black Lives Matter campaign but even a brief study of his life shows that he certainly believed it and he was far from ignorant or uninvolved in racial and religious matters. So if you discriminate against blacks and think Muslims are heathen killers trying to destroy your way of life do you get to call Muhammad Ali a "great man"? 

There are other things I could talk about here but I don't what this blog to get too long or complicated. Save it to say that it all seems to come back to something that I tried to compose as a tweet a day or two ago. This is to do with the mentality of some people that I just don't get. There seems to be an idea abroad with some people that the only people you have common cause with are what we might term "people like you". This can be defined in many ways and its not always obvious. Feminists have this mentality just as much as do rabid racists, for example. In the UK's EU debate we see this attitude manifested in that some people genuinely seem to think that only people who were born on the same piece of land as you are, in this sense, "like you". We shouldn't be ruled over by people from over there because we are from over here. Is it only me that finds this kind of thinking completely absurd? Does everything come down to a factor which, let's face it, none of us could ever have influenced anyway? No one decides where they get born but on this basis it is decided that my interests and Jean's from France or Jörg's from Germany or Michal's from Poland are different? This is baloney.

Those who think this way seem to have a very warped sense of reality for as I look out I can see very many people just like me in a political sense even whilst being different socially and culturally. But all too many people get these things mixed up. Yes, people from different places have different cultural traditions and different social understandings. But politically they might have exactly the same needs and politically they might be very much the same as each other. In fact, the differences politically may be more between themselves and the elites above them than between each other. Lines on a map do not stop people have common interests or aligned needs. Far from it. They don't even need to be from Europe. All the nasty foreigners (as some would see it) who are grabbing on to anything that floats and trying to reach our Promised Land have political needs the same as the rest of us who, through no fault of our own, were already born here. They need stability and security so that they can have a means to survive. Should anyone begrudge them trying to achieve it? The ultimate answer may not be that everyone lives in the same space. Indeed, it certainly won't be. But while the lights are on and fires burn to cook food in one place do not look down on those who have none of these things and head towards those who do. It was through no credit of our's who have that we are where we are. No god decided to bless us and curse the suspicious foreigner.

And so for this and other reasons I find the "pull up the drawbridge" mentality confusing. It all comes back to this "people like us" mentality and this is always the heart of most political issues. Our identity is focused too narrowly whether what we care about is the rights of women, a particular race, an ethnic grouping, a religious body or anything else. The focus always seems to be on the differences and not the similarities. These differences divide and determine who is to be heard and privileged and who is to be ignored and who deserves nothing.

So allow me to be radical enough to say that this is all bullshit. Its the differences that kill us, start wars, empower enmity and generally add to the shitty pile of miseries that we have to endure in life. Like the American philosopher, Richard Rorty, I see human betterment as a matter of every human being, not a few. I see the direction of human travel to be in forever WIDENING the category "people like us" so that whoever is in trouble or has a problem is a matter for us, so that everyone ends up being "like us". I see that if one person is in trouble then that is a problem for all of us. I say that no one should go to bed perfectly peaceful while anyone else cannot. I say that my good is bound up with everyone else's good. And theirs is with mine. I say imagine what it would be like if everyone actually believed this. I say that human beings need to get beyond tribalism, need to get beyond thinking that the good of me or those like me is at the expense of the them or those like them. So, sorry Mr Trump, the future is not in walls to keep all the good stuff for ourselves and to keep out the filthy foreigners. The truth is that building worthwhile lives everywhere for people so that lines on a map become irrelevant, so that life in not a lottery of where you were born or who you know, is what we should do. And, sorry UK people who want to leave the EU, the future is not in thinking that where your birth certificate says you were born says anything genuinely important about you or your politics. We are all citizens of the world. We are all cast adrift on the same planetary lifeboat.

So, sorry, I don't understand the mentality that says differences count and similarities, the most profound similarities of all, we are all human, don't matter. I say what are you thinking if you think this? I say that life does not have to be cast as a battle or a competition for resources. I say think differently, change your mind, wake up. I say that the fact we are different is one of the things that makes us who we are but it is NOT a reason to draw lines. I say that we can be different within an understanding that recognizes we are all basically the same. I say that we need to stop being lazy and simplistic.

Is anybody listening?

PS Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, is a useful guide here. In Star Trek the world has no countries and, incidentally, no money. Both innovations would solve a lot of Earth's current problems and be for our common good, common meaning everyone and not just the next privileged group. If we are to advance, Roddenberry seems to sense, we must end the tribalism and come together as one. People in many walks of life need to hear this message and take it to their hearts.

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