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The EU referendum divided the UK very deeply. Some people want reconciliation with their political opponents; for others the scars are too recent. I’m in the latter camp. A national political project requires people to think of themselves as being in some sense in community with their co-nationals and to recognize themselves as being under special obligations to those others, obligations that they don’t have to outsiders. But I now feel myself out of community with my co-nationals who voted differently. Of course, I’m not utterly indifferent to their well-being — they have their human rights after all, even though they might dispute that — but I don’t feel any enthusiasm beyond pragmatic self-interest for putting them ahead of distant others.
One reason for this is that I think of nearly all of them as racists and xenophobes. Since this is one of the most bitterly resented accusation, prone to trigger outbursts of indignation, some explanation is needed. So here goes. Most Brexiters don’t actively hate foreigners. At least I think and hope that’s true, so let me stipulate that it is. If active hatred were a necessary component of racism and xenophobia then it would follow that most Brexiters are neither racists nor xenophobes. But I don’t think such an active attitude is needed for the accusation to proceed. Rather, I have something else in mind.
Brexit triggered a wave of hate crimes against the many EU citizens living in the UK, and, indeed, against foreigners more generally and made the legal and social position of those people precarious. This was all predictable. The formerly silent haters felt that the vote gave them a licence to act. Leaving the European Union also leave EU citizen residents in a state of acute insecurity, unsure what their future status will be. Brexiters were nearly all, when they contemplated their vote prospectively, indifferent to these impacts or they failed to give them the thought they should have. Though some Brexiters now seem appalled at what they have wrought, they seem incapable of grasping the full complexity of the rights that need reviewing and protecting which go beyond residence and work but extend to family life, and many social rights. [click to continue…]
There’s nothing like a few unexpected days at home to allow you to discover new things, and the great find of the past few days — thanks to a tweet from Fernando Sdrigotti @f_sd — has been to watch (via Youtube, start here five programmes in all) some BBC documentaries about Albert Kahn and his Archives of the Planet, now preserved at the Musée Albert Kahn outside Paris. Born in Alsace, Kahn was displaced by the Prussian seizure of the territory in 1871 and became immensely rich though banking and investing in diamonds. But he was also an idealist, convinced that if the various tribes of humanity only knew one another better they would empathize more and would be less likely to go to war. In pursuit of this hope, and taking advantage of the Lumière Brothers’ Autochrome colour process, he sent teams of photographers to all parts of the globe and, before the First World War, caught many forms of life on the edge of being swept away by globalisation, war and revolution. (There’s quite a good selection here but google away.) Pictures taken around the Balkans, for example, depict the immense variety of different cultures living side-by-side at the time and then later we see the sad stream of refugees from the second Balkan War as they head from Salonika towards Turkey. Kahn’s operative document rural life in Galway, harsh penal regimes in Mongolia, elite life in Japan and a tranquil Rio de Janeiro with little traffic and few people.
Kahn’s hope for a peaceful world was lost in 1914, but we owe to his project many images of wartime France, particularly the life of ordinary people behind the lines. Postwar, Kahn was a great supporter of the League of Nations and, again, his operatives were on hand to document many of the upheavals of the inter-war years, such as the burning of Smyrna in 1922 (as Izmir, the city is once again crowded with refugees today) and the abortive attempt to found the Rhenish Republic in 1923. Many of the photographs are included in a book by David Okuefuna, The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn: Colour Photographs from a Lost Age (BBC Books, 2008). Sadly, Kahn was ruined by the Great Depression and died in Paris shorly after the Germans invaded in 1940. He seems little-known today, but there’s a lot of material out there that’s worth your time.
The Guardian today publishes a vast number of leaked reports from Nauru, one of Australia’s offshore processing sites for asylum-seekers (in reality, a camp for the indefinite detention of asylum-seekers). The reports, or “unconfirmed allegations” as the Australian government would have it, are a harrowing catalogue of physical and sexual abuse, and of consequences for mental and bodily well-being, often suffered by children. These places exist to appease an Australian citizenry hostile to the arrival of “boat people” who believe that such people — even those determined to be refugees by Convention criteria — are not their problem. Though Nauru is a particularly vile example, it would be wrong to think that Australians are alone in their attitudes to refugees and asylum seekers. Other Western governments are happy to do deals with other states beyond their borders to ensure that the wretched of the earth are out of sight, where they can exist as an abstraction, not disturbing the conscience of their own citizens. Human rights, together with other liberal principles like the rule of law, have become, for many liberal democratic states, the exclusive right of the native-born citizen or, at best, someone else’s problem, somewhere else.
I’d be interested to learn from people in Australia now, how much traction this latest leak is getting in the Australian media. A surf to the websites of the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald suggests not much.
This week’s picture is quite an old one, of the sculpture outside the then-new Bristol Children’s Hospital which is directly adjacent to the Bristol Royal Infirmary, where I spent a good past of the last week following an acute gallstone attack (with associated pancreatitis) last weekend. On the Thursday I had my gall bladder removed (which turned out to be slightly more complicated than anticipated) and by Friday I was home. I’m now resting and recuperating, but basically feeling fine. Some reflections on the experience below the fold.
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I’ve been feeling an obligation to write something on the post-referendum UK here at CT, but little inclination to do so. The result came as a punch to the gut, and everything since then has been a weird combination of deeper depression and insane hilarity as the dreams of the Brexiteers unravel. Still, we have a new Prime Minister and a new government, the basic contours of which are becoming clear. Mrs May has been chosen as a grown up, charged with charting a course through the reefs and shallows of Brexit to the fabled open water beyond (reports of which are largely based on unreliable traveller’s tales). So what sort of government do we have? One that is markedly to the left of the Cameron-Osborne version on matters of economic policy and markedly to the right on individual rights and citizenship. We’ve had May giving speeches about inequality, class and opportunity that are indistinguishable from Ed Miliband’s election platform and Philip Hammond (the new Chancellor) saying that, given low interest rates, we can borrow to invest in infrastructure projects. On the other hand, May’s record at the Home Office is one of some who thinks that “citizenship is a privilege and not a right”, who has floated the idea of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, who doesn’t think the rule of law applies to foreigners, and who was reluctant to guarantee the position of existing EU national residents in the UK. The quasi-libertarians who believe in free-market economics and gay rights have been dumped, Osborne foremost among them, to be replaced by social authoritarians like the disgraced Liam Fox. More inclusive and cuddly for good native-born citizens, an iron fist for the rest. The only incongruous note in all this, and one that undermines somewhat May’s image of seriousness, is appointing Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, a man who has insulted many world leaders personally (and entire countries) and who is know abroad for serial lying, adultery and getting stuck on a zip-wire wearing the Union Jack. Still, even that is of a piece with her tactic of putting Brexiteers (Johnson, Fox, Davis, Leadsom) in the places where the hard negotiating has to be done. They said leaving the EU would be a piece of cake, now they are expected to deliver.
Went to bed feeling optimistic, believing the late polls and the bookies, and turned the radio on at 4.20 to hear Nigel Farage gloating. A coalition of English and Welsh voters, advanced in years, low in education, and xenophobic in attitude, have enabled the worst and most reactionary people in British society, made it extremely likely that Scotland will secede, undermined the peace settlement on the island of Ireland, and destroyed the UK’s access to the single market. They have made it likely that their children and grandchildren will be deprived of the right of free movement within the EU. The pound is tanking and the stock market too. Imports will be more expensive, inflation will rise, house prices will fall but interest rate rises will keep the cost of being housed high. Immigration will probably fall, but not because “we” regained “control of our borders” but because immigrants come for jobs and there will be way fewer of those. Already we have the farce of areas of the country, like Cornwall, that voted for Brexit demanding that central government guarantee that the EU subsidies they get will be replaced. And then the horrible lying politics of the whole campaign, with Leave claiming that money saved on the EU would be diverted to the NHS (a commitment Farage repudiated within hours of the result). Little England with Wales is a poorer, narrower, stingier place. Cameron, the most incompetent Prime Minister in British history and the architect of this disaster is walking away, to be replaced by a hard right Tory administration under the leadership of Gove, May or the Trumpesque clown Johnson. People, we are well and truly fucked.
From the same stable as some of Harry’s recommendations, the song that I had always meant to post in this eventuality:
Peter Singer, consequentialist philosopher and patron saint of “effective altruism” has expressed himself on the question of rights to asylum and refugee status:
Singer has urged a rethink of global asylum policy. He wants to stop refugees able to travel to the country of their choice from being able to claim asylum at the expense of those unable to make the journey. He worries that the current system enables people to “somehow jump the queue” – adding that although Britain has a “moral obligation” to accept refugees, this does not include everyone who makes it to the UK.
“I don’t think Britain has a particular obligation to accept those who manage to set foot on British shores,” he tells i. “I think something needs to be rethought about this idea of the right of asylum as it’s now being applied.”
The same goes for his homeland, Australia, he adds, where the government is often criticised for not taking in more Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Burma. “Taking those who manage to get on boats to Australia provides an incentive to make these dangerous journeys during which some get drowned. [The refugees] in the UNHCR camps in Lebanon or wherever are in just as much need of a place to go as the people who are landing in Australia or Greece.”
Here, the perfectly valid point that the those in refugee camps in poor countries are just was worthy of help as those who arrive in rich ones is placed in service of the demonization of those who arrive in boats as “queue jumpers” and the endorsement of the ridiculous argument of right-wing politicians about “incentives” to make dangerous journeys. The reason people make those dangerous journeys is because the governments of wealthy countries, using mechanisms such as carrier sanctions and visa restrictions, have blocked safe and inexpensive routes of escape from dangerous places. They do this not in the service of a fair conception of the distribution of humanitarian burdens but because they don’t want to deal with the numbers and would prefer to maintain the existing unfair distribution where most refugees are in poor countries. Singer is correct that we can distinguish between the right to asylum and the right to settle in a particular place. Perhaps when the governments of wealthy states are willing to have a proper discussion about what a fair pattern of settlement would look like, we can also reassess other elements of the system. Pending that commitment to justice on the part of the wealthy, stigmatizing those who make it across from Libya, Turkey or Haiti as “queue jumpers” is the mark of someone who has lost his moral compass.