Archive for July, 2012

A convoy goes at the speed of the slowest boat

20 Jul

A few weeks ago I wrote about the distinctly mixed messages within the UK social attitudes survey. Nowhere is that more so than when we’re asked about the welfare state and in particular social security benefit.

Separating myth from propaganda is a particular problem when three things coincide. The first is recession or economic austerity; the second is a governing class who specialise in divide and rule; the third is a mass media who rather than inform or observe prefer to be proponents of propaganda. It’s the imperfect storm.

This is what we have in the UK right now, even allowing for reasonably progressive governments in Wales and Scotland, and the language used since May, when David Cameron’s affable toff image stared to erode, has been instructive. The big book of Dog Whistle Politics was dusted down and out trundled Iain Duncan Smith to describe people receiving Disability Living Allowance as ‘festering’; the word used to describe a diseased wound infectious to others or a state of active decay.

Sure enough, the slavering tabloid dogs chimed in with the usual lexicon of scroungers, work shy, feckless, supposedly living high on some non-existent benefits hog and once again we had the denigration of people who are not given a voice and are ruthlessly scapegoated by a society which gets it’s underwear in a twist about the guy down the road who has never worked, while super rich and corporate parasites ‘evade’ their responsibilities for literally billions of pounds in taxation.

Nor is this one-eyed approach just a symptom of a millionaire cabinet and a Pantomime Horse government out of touch with reality; although in many ways they are.

In the active demonisation of unemployed and disabled people we are witnessing nothing short of a deliberate ideological move to provide cover for cutting welfare expenditure, the sort of workfare initiatives we saw in the run up to the Olympics, and this week’s shameful closure of 27 Remploy factories, regardless of the fact that 85% of the Remploy workers who lost their jobs in 2008’s last round of closures are still unemployed.

We already have 8 unemployed people chasing every single vacancy, youth unemployment at socially dangerous levels and swathes of part-time or casual workers looking for full-time jobs. This sustained ideological move simply turns the screw against working people with the message ‘be grateful for what you’ve got, don’t cause trouble by joining a union or asking for a decent wage, know your place’.

Ghandi was the man who in the last century said that ‘a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable’. It’s an unfashionable view the ruling class have never shared, but he was right then and he’s right now.

Equality? Dignity? Respect? That’s so gay….

11 Jul

Fear, loathing and prejudice towards gay and lesbian people in the UK is much reduced in the 21st Century, but still widespread. A Tory-led government is making all the right noises about equalising marriage, opposition is left to a motley rabble of religious medievalists and saloon-bar bigots, but a dark core of prejudice festers in the corner. Despite holding what were described by a colleague as ‘robust, entrenched’ political views, I reconsider and challenge my own thinking on a regular basis. Attending the 2012 Pride Festival and TUC LGBT Conference made me re-evaluate not just how I arrived at being an active advocate for LGBT equality, but how this works in today’s society.

I grew up in a working class Paisley environment where all I knew about ‘poofs’ was that they were objects of derision and scorn. To call someone a ‘poof’ was to question their masculinity, something held dear by most young men in the West of Scotland – and, I suspect, young men making their way elsewhere in this complex world, desperately trying to fit in.

Not being a ‘poof’ meant being manly, and that meant liking girls, Rangers, aggression, smoking and rock music.

When I look back on teenage angst the priority for me was not standing out from the crowd in a way which would make you a target for violence or social exclusion. If I’d been gay or bisexual, I have no idea how I would have faced the world I inhabited. But for me I liked girls and these days I like women, one in particular – so my sexual orientation was never in doubt. How then, did I end up getting involved in campaigning for LGBT equality?

The answer lies in my own political journey and development as a socialist and a progressive. I became an active trade unionist within the civil and public services in the early 80’s and worked with a gay man who was ‘out’ to only half a dozen people. He eventually ended up as my deputy Branch Secretary.

That was the first spur to make me think seriously about sexuality because I came to understand that gay and lesbian people are attracted to the people they’re attracted to. That seems an obvious conclusion, but a prevailing myth, probably driven by a society remembering its own youth and wrestling with temporary, repressed or imagined same sex attraction, is that people choose to be gay or lesbian. This remains a fallacy parroted by many; as if people sit down and say to themselves ‘you know what, I’ve always wanted to give that a try’. No, sexuality is a spectrum, people are who they are. A gay man can no more change his sexual orientation than his height or eye colour and when straight society grasps this simple concept, enlightenment and some tolerance follows where none existed previously.

I’ll end by pointing out that LGBT equality is a question of fundamental human rights. I have seen some people, including people of faith, adopt a position of intolerance and disapproval of same sex relationships and attraction. But my own moral frame of reference sees respect for human rights and dignity and a belief in equality as rocks upon which to build a decent society. Intolerance or a wish to expound beliefs cannot ever be allowed to override the rights of our lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans brothers and sisters simply to walk this world in peace and safety.

Treating people as ‘others’ is the first step to dehumanising them and humanity has strayed down that particular path on too many occasions: we know where it leads and we also know that unless we respect the rights of others, we can’t expect others to respect our rights. It’s that simple.

‘You bid that they be removed? The stranger, with their children upon their back, their belongings at their feet, their family at their side? You bid that they be ‘removed’. Imagine you are the stranger with your children upon your back, your belongings at your feet, your family at your side. Imagine you are the stranger and then bid that they be removed – and show your mountainish inhumanity.’

Stephen Smith: writer

Rants, rambles and other assorted thoughts

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