In recent years I’ve gotten more of my news online so I have managed to avoid Murdoch’s Sunday Times. Today (June 15th 2014) I read through the Culture and News Review sections while sipping my way through a cup of coffee. An article on India had a small box about Gandhi (the person, not the film), along with a helpful picture of Ben Kingsley playing Gandhi in the film, Gandhi. Let’s take a quick look at some of the other delights they had in store for me.
The “Culture” Section
One book review glowed with praise. It was a book on economics by a former banker and current advisor to Boris Johnson’s, a book that argues in the face of all evidence from everyday life that things are fine and we should carry on as we’re going. Another review of a book on the history of Baghdad criticised it for “not emphasising enough” how great British rule was, in comparison to a succession of bloodthirsty and lazy Arabs, Ottomans and Muslims. The last eleven years are skated over in a sentence.
“The Crescent and the Classroom”
The News Review section began with a long article on the shocking abuse of power and religious intolerance and usurpation that took place in a Birmingham school. What was more shocking than the horrible religious dogma being shoved down children’s throats at school was the way the Sunday Times treated the issue. There was no criticism of the academy system. There was no criticism of the Christian and Jewish faith schools which basically do what they like and indoctrinate children in a similar way. There was no acknowledgement that Muslims in the UK are a poor and marginalised minority – if misrepresented, this scandal could lead to witch-hunts of Muslims in education and further EDL-type paranoia.
Instead, there was a clear pandering to far-right, racist paranoia with the totally uncritical use of the phrase “Trojan Horse” that has been all over the media for days now. “Trojan Horse” suggests a siege and a conscious ploy and infiltration. In reality, the UK is not “under siege” by Muslims (UK troops have occupied Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years, not the other way round). The area the school is located in has a large Muslim population, so how can it be characterised as infiltration or a conscious ploy? The article uncritically defended the sensationalist, anonymous “Operation Trojan Horse” document, which claims that there is a conscious Muslim plot to infiltrate schools.
The article gave the impression that “radicalisation” is a terrible thing but rather than dealing with the issue of secular vs faith-based education, it presents the issue in a way designed to inflame community and religious tensions (the piece is entitled “The Crescent and the Classroom”). It shamelessly “radicalises” people against Muslims, rather than actually dealing with the issues.
The Undeserving Poor
All this was just a tasters’ menu for a truly horrible article by Eleanor Mills entitled “Africa needs you, Oxfam. Labour doesn’t.” The issue was that Oxfam had an ad campaign about poverty in Britain intended to “lift the lid on austerity.” It included the ad below.
Fair enough, right? These things contribute to poverty and make the lives of the majority of people much more difficult. There are 13 million people under the poverty line in the UK today. If you’re a charity opposed to poverty, it makes sense to talk about these things, right?
Apparently not. Various regulatory bodies got Oxfam into hot water over this, and they may be effectively fined. The issue? Well, they say, and Eleanor Mills says, that the problem is that it sounds too much like the kind of thing Ed Balls and the Labour Party are saying these days, and that means that Oxfam is engaging in party-political campaigning.
Of course, the UK Labour Party is very right-wing, has implemented austerity and will, in government, implement more austerity. This ad campaign does not particularly sound like the Labour Party. But let’s get what they’re saying straight: if several serious and pressing issues are raised by a political party, it is wrong for a charity to raise these same issues. Apparently.
The “party-political” cover
All this is a paper-thin cover, of course. Mills makes it clear why she’s actually upset. She explains that while she’s perfectly happy giving money to starving “Africans”, (the deserving poor, she might add), she is not happy giving money to help or to advance the interests of people in Britain who are struggling to survive (she might as well have said, the undeserving poor). She demands of Oxfam that if they want to talk about the causes of poverty in Britain, they should talk about “debt, addiction and chaotically poor lifestyle decisions.”
Is Mills trying to suggest that the vast rise in poverty in the UK in the last few years is due to an epidemic of bad “lifestyle decisions”? Did people suddenly get stupid and start reeling all over the place due to some zombie apocalypse-like contagion of idiocy? And would she argue that debt and addiction fall from the sky? Or worse, that they are simply the result of “poor decisions” on the part of the debt-ridden and the addicted?
No, the rich caused an economic crisis, which the poorest were forced to pay for. Bosses are raking in money at the expense of working-class people. You’re much more likely to fall into debt or addiction if you are poor to begin with.
But in place of these realities, which force you to think about the nature of society itself, a smug moral lesson is implied. If only everyone was as good at making lifestyle decisions as Eleanor Mills, there might be drastically less poverty in the UK.
The thing that angered me the most was not that Mills was coming out with old-as-the-hills Victorian lines of argument justifying class divisions and exploitation by criticising the vices of poor people. It was that Oxfam had been censored for daring to talk about the causes of poverty. They had been censored for highlighting poverty at home rather than poverty in distant countries. They had been censored for calling for political change rather than, what, more generosity on the part of the rich.
I know, I know – newsflash! The media are right-wing. I walk into shops and I see all the newspapers on the shelves, headlines telling people to be scared of migrants, scared of poor people, scared of people with a different sexuality, scared of foreign countries, scared of showing any human sympathy in case they’re taken advantage of. The Daily Express’ constant front-page warnings about a new ice age hitting Britain next week, about biblical floods and storms, expose what’s really going on. They’re not interested in telling us the news. They’re interested in making us scared, scared of everything – from our next-door neighbours to the four winds of the earth. Scared of everything except hunkering down and getting on with our lives and never sticking our heads up or our necks out. And we buy it because a part of us wants to be scared, because if we convince ourselves to be scared then it absolves us of all responsibility to act to change the world, to act on our natural feelings of human sympathy.
The part of us that wants to have a quiet life with friends, family, career and consumerism receives constant encouragement from these bits of paper which appear every day in every shop and supermarket, from these voices and images that come from every TV and computer and phone. Every day our sense of hope and humanity comes under brutal assault from a thousand directions.
Being scared of humanity goes hand-in-hand with a bovine subjection to forces and symbols beyond our control and understanding – the nation, religion, royals, celebrities, and above all, the free market and big business. That’s why Kate Middleton seems to be on the cover of the Telegraph every single day. That’s why the book reviewed so glowingly in the Sunday Times “Culture” supplement calls for economic decision-making to be handed over to unelected “experts” so that the “populist” demands of mere mortals for a decent standard of living are not allowed to intrude on the serene and correct “management” of the economy.
A parallel from history
But all this is nothing new. In Europe in past times, the theory of the “Divine Right of Kings” held that God had chosen the monarch and had appointed the superiority of the nobles and clergy who owned all wealth and power. All usurpation of power by “commoners” was predicted to lead to disaster. It was a time of subjection to mysteries and idols and superstitions. But it was in the material interests of the people not to believe this rubbish, and they had democratic revolutions. They started a new order which has brought huge benefits to the world. Compared to our ancestors three hundred years ago, most of us live much more comfortable and fulfilling lives under capitalism than we did under feudalism.
But capitalism has long since hit a brick wall. It has nothing to offer humanity, is dragging down living standards and wrecking the environment. Like our ancestors, we can cast aside the mysteries, superstitions, dogmas and fears that divide us from one another and keep us under the thumb of the owners of wealth. I hope that one day science, rationality, democracy and co-operation will rule over the economy, rather than greed, gambling, hoarding and exploitation. This is a position rooted in a belief, justified by history and experience, that the people can run and manage the economy and society themselves – the working class, those who create the products and provide the services, organised democratically. I mean people like you and me, not people to bow down before, not people chosen by gods or ordained by the market.