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#EveryCanHelps? Why are we normalising foodbanks and poverty?

foodbanks

Over the last two weeks, twitter was littered with Conservative MPs posing at foodbanks, thanking the public for donations and showing their support for this vital service. On seeing the first one I thought this was a strange way to show compassion for those in need, given how the increased use of foodbanks is directly linked to austerity policies, the rollout of universal credit and is one of the issues raised by a recent report on the impact of poverty in the UK (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2018). The report states that spending cuts from austerity led policies have put Britain in breach of its human rights obligations and highlights discriminatory issues, as these cuts have adversely affected low income and lone parent families, ethnic minorities and the disabled. It recommends more investment in health, social care, education and housing, and a rethink of Universal Credit. In addition, a report by the United Nations has described current government policies as ‘punitive, mean-spirited and often callous’ in their impact on the most vulnerable, more alarming given we are still one of the richest countries in the world (UN, 2018).

The responses on twitter articulated what I was feeling, ranging from incredulity, to anger and shock. It is a strange state of affairs when politicians see this as a cause for celebration, but then, there is little else to choose from, in relation to policies introduced in the last two years. The cognitive dissonance between thinking this presents them as compassionate and caring about problems they have created is quite an achievement. But then, I also know I really should not be surprised – I never believed Conservatives could be considered compassionate and anything but concerned with their own interests and dismissive of those in need. When Conservative MPs received the memo to pose at foodbanks, I wonder how many refused? Or how many believed this would be accepted as an example of celebrating charity, because even at Christmas, we all too easily normalise this level of deprivation, and rationalise it as due to individual circumstances, and not structural inequalities.

 

The wording of the UN report is clear in its condemnation and recognition that in Britain, the government lack the political will to help those most in need, given that tax cuts signalling the ‘end of austerity’ have once again benefitted the rich, under the auspices of this wealth trickling down in the form of jobs and increased wages. However, the EHRC and UN reports have emphasised how these policies are disproportionately affecting those who cannot work, or can only do part time work, or who face discrimination and disadvantage, including employment opportunities and prospects. When foodbanks were first set up, I honestly believed this was a temporary fix, never did I think still in 2018 they would be still be needed and indeed, be increasingly used. I also never would have imagined they would be held up as an example of the good work of charities adopted as a PR stunt by the very people who have created the inequalities and harm we see today.

 

The small glimmer of hope is the protest in one of these pictures, and the responses via twitter which reflected how I felt. There was a clear backlash in Scotland, where it was reported that a record number of supplies were needed as Universal Credit was rolled out, and where there were calls to foodbanks and supermarkets to refuse to pose with Conservative MPs. Alas, my fear is beyond the twittersphere, most people can rationalise this as acceptable. After all, should we not celebrate charity and helping those in need at this time of year? Is this just an example of good will and thinking of others? Well, yes of course, and if these photos were simply asking people to donate without the MPs responsible being there, I would think most of us would perhaps be reminded we can do our bit to help, and we should. The presence of the MPs and acceptance of this as good PR is what really worries me, that people will still vote for a party which has been described as cruel and punitive and believes this sort of promotion makes them look good. The irony that our current Prime Minister once herself warned that the Conservatives were becoming the ‘nasty party’ is staggering. For what she now resides over are policies which are internationally condemned as harmful, discriminatory and callous.

 

The other slight glimmer of hope is some commentators suggest this stunt reflects rumours of a general election on the horizon, as while Theresa May celebrated the ‘success’ of negotiating a deal with the European Union, it seems this was short-lived once parliament began to debate the deal and may trigger an election. The UN report suggested that Brexit has been so much of a distraction for MPs and the public that we are not seeing domestic problems as a priority. I think for many there is a sense that once this deal is done, we can get on with resolving other issues. But for this government, I don’t think that is the case. I think for Conservatives, these negotiations and now parliamentary debates are a welcome distraction and a narrative which fits their lack of will to actually address the harms caused by austerity. A general election may bring about change and force MPs to confront where we are today as a result of political choices, but this depends on how we all really feel about poverty, homelessness, discrimination and disadvantage. I wonder if too many feel these are insurmountable problems, inevitable and therefore, beyond the abilities of government to address. But the UN and EHRC reports clearly tell us this is not the case. I hope we do get an opportunity to hold this government to account sooner rather than later. But most of all, I hope that more of us actually take up this opportunity and not allow what we see today to continue.

 

 

Susie Atherton

Senior Lecturer in Criminology

Equality and Human Rights Commission (2018) The cumulative impact on living standards of public spending changes, available from https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/cumulative-impact-living-standards-public-spending-changes

United Nations (2018) Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, see https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23881&LangID=E

 

 

 

 

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San Francisco: A City of Contrast

Golden Gate Bridge

Haley Read is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first and third years.

Often when I visit different cities around the world, I notice that huge contrasts in the standards of life experienced by others are ‘plain for the eye to see’ within such small spaces.

What seems interesting is that inequality between the rich and poor are striking within western countries that are often perceived as being quite wealthy, ‘forward thinking’ and technologically advanced. This brings me to my recent trip to San Francisco, a city partly characterised by the beautiful red Golden Gate bridge which is situated near a beach where sun kissed, athletic and healthy-looking San Francisco residents seem to spend their free time socialising, sailing on boats, walking their pedigree dogs and playing sports. Of course, the view of the isolative Alcatraz prison to the East of the bridge dampens the illusion that San Francisco is a city which has historically upheld progressive and rehabilitative ideas. Whilst today, within this very same space, and more evidently, within a few blocks walk from this location, residents experience life in a very different manner. Many individuals are homeless, have significant physical and mental problems, the occasional prostitute hangs around attracting business and drugs are taken and offered out to passers-by. And on that very same red bridge many individuals attempt to and/or take their own lives out of desperation. So, for me, San Francisco exemplifies a city that is steeped in inequality.

In fact, a recent United Nations (2017) report points to high housing prices, the lack of social, educational and healthcare services for poorer Californian populations and tough responses to issues of homelessness and petty crime as being key to the increasing and continued levels of inequality within cities such a San Francisco. Last week in seminar sessions [CRI1007] we discussed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). What appears interesting here is that despite an international agreement that every individual should have a Right to Life, domestically, San Francisco’s approach to the provision of social and medical care for individuals results in the lesser quality and length of life for poorer populations. As in San Francisco the Right to Life is limited, as the city does not seem to be obliged to protect individuals who may die due to ill mental or physical health, the lack of medical insurance or the numerous experiences of poverty.

Prior to visiting San Francisco, I was quite excited to revel in its famous music scene and its picturesque charm. Yet, despite it being a fantastic place to visit that is full of eccentricity and character, the sombre tone of the city was made blatantly clear. I did however, leave feeling incredibly grateful for non-government organisations and communities who often provide for those who are viewed as being ‘deviant’ and not worthy of help. Such as the Gubbio Project, which, with the help of volunteers and public donations, provides Church shelter and basic provisions for the homeless. However, it is clear that a greater amount of support is required for the poorer residents of San Francisco.

 

Photo by Life Of Pix on Pexels.com

Criminology: in the business of creating misery?

foucault

I’ve been thinking about Criminology a great deal this summer! Nothing new you might say, given that my career revolves around the discipline. However, my thoughts and reading have focused on the term ‘criminology’ rather than individual studies around crime, criminals, criminal justice and victims. The history of the word itself, is complex, with attempts to identify etymology and attribute ownership, contested (cf. Wilson, 2015). This challenge, however, pales into insignificance, once you wander into the debates about what Criminology is and, by default, what criminology isn’t (cf. Cohen, 1988, Bosworth and Hoyle, 2011, Carlen, 2011, Daly, 2011).

Foucault (1977) infamously described criminology as the embodiment of utilitarianism, suggesting that the discipline both enabled and perpetuated discipline and punishment. That, rather than critical and empathetic, criminology was only ever concerned with finding increasingly sophisticated ways of recording transgression and creating more efficient mechanisms for punishment and control. For a long time, I have resisted and tried to dismiss this description, from my understanding of criminology, perpetually searching for alternative and disruptive narratives, showing that the discipline can be far greater in its search for knowledge, than Foucault (1977) claimed.

However, it is becoming increasingly evident that Foucault (1977) was right; which begs the question how do we move away from this fixation with discipline and punishment? As a consequence, we could then focus on what criminology could be? From my perspective, criminology should be outspoken around what appears to be a culture of misery and suspicion. Instead of focusing on improving fraud detection for peddlers of misery (see the recent collapse of Wonga), or creating ever increasing bureaucracy to enable border control to jostle British citizens from the UK (see the recent Windrush scandal), or ways in which to excuse barbaric and violent processes against passive resistance (see case of Assistant Professor Duff), criminology should demand and inspire something far more profound. A discipline with social justice, civil liberties and human rights at its heart, would see these injustices for what they are, the creation of misery. It would identify, the increasing disproportionality of wealth in the UK and elsewhere and would see food banks, period poverty and homelessness as clearly criminal in intent and symptomatic of an unjust society.

Unless we can move past these law and order narratives and seek a criminology that is focused on making the world a better place, Foucault’s (1977) criticism must stand.

References

Bosworth, May and Hoyle, Carolyn, (2010), ‘What is Criminology? An Introduction’ in Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle, (2011), (eds), What is Criminology?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 1-12

Carlen, Pat, (2011), ‘Against Evangelism in Academic Criminology: For Criminology as a Scientific Art’ in Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle, (eds), What is Criminology?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 95-110

Cohen, Stanley, (1988), Against Criminology, (Oxford: Transaction Books)

Daly, Kathleen, (2011), ‘Shake It Up Baby: Practising Rock ‘n’ Roll Criminology’ in Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle, (eds), What is Criminology?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 111-24

Foucault, Michel, (1977), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. from the French by Alan Sheridan, (London: Penguin Books)

Wilson, Jeffrey R., (2015), ‘The Word Criminology: A Philology and a Definition,’ Criminology, Criminal Justice Law, & Society, 16, 3: 61-82

Oh, just f*** off.

banksy

A strange title to give to a blog but, one that expresses my feelings every time I turn the television and watch politicians procrastinating about a major issue.  How else do I try and express my utter contempt for the leaders of this country that cause chaos and misery and yet take no responsibility for what they have done.

I watch Donald Trump on television and I’m simply given to thinking ‘You’re an idiot’, I appreciate that others may have stronger words, particularly some immigrants, legal or illegal, in the United States.  I will draw parallels with his approach later, how could I not, given the Empire Windrush disgrace.

A week or so ago a significant topic on the news was the gender pay gap.  The Prime Minister Theresa May was all over this one, after all it is the fault of corporations and businesses the pay gap exists.  No responsibility there then but votes to be had.

Within the same news bulletin, there was an interview with a teacher who explained how teachers were regularly taking children’s clothes home to wash them as the family couldn’t afford to do so.  Children were appearing at school and the only meal they might have for the day was the school meal.  Now that might seem terrible in a third world country but he wasn’t talking about a third world country he was talking about England.  Surprisingly, the prime minister was not all over that one, no votes to be had.

Within the same time frame there were more deaths in London due to gang crime.  The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary Amber Rudd were all over that one, well of sorts, but then it is a political hot potato.  The police and the community need to do more, an action plan is produced.

Then we have the Windrush debacle, tragedy and disgrace.  The Home Secretary eventually said she was sorry and blamed the civil servants in the Home Office.  They had become inhuman, clearly not her fault.  The Prime Minister said sorry, it was under her watch at the Home Office that the first seeds of this disaster were plotted and then hatched, clearly though not her fault either.  Got the right wing votes but seem to have lost a few others along the way.

What ties all of these things together; class structure, inequality and poverty and an unwillingness in government to address these, not really a vote winner.  The gender pay gap is someone else’s fault and even if addressed, won’t deal with the inequalities at the bottom of the pay structure. Those women on zero hour contracts and minimum wages won’t see the benefit, only those in middle or higher ranking jobs. Votes from some but not from others, a gain rather than any loss.

The fact that children exist in such poverty in this country that teachers have to intervene and take on welfare responsibilities is conveniently ignored.  As is the fact that much of the violence that plagues the inner city streets happens to occur in poor neighbourhoods where social and economic deprivation is rife.  The Windrush issue is just another example of right wing rhetoric leading to right wing action that impacts most on the vulnerable.

When the gender pay gap hit the news there was a senior figure from a company that appeared in the news. He said that addressing the gender pay gap by having more women in higher positions in his company was good for the company, good for the country, and good for the economy.

Judging from the example given by the country’s senior management, I have to say I am far from convinced. And yes as far as I’m concerned, when they open their mouths and pontificate, they can just f*** off.

‘I read the news today, oh boy’

 

NagasakibombThe English army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book

(Lennon and McCartney, 1967),

 

The news these days, without fail, is terrible. Wherever you look you are confronted by misery, death, destruction and terror. Regular news channels and social media bombard us with increasingly horrific tales of people living and dying under tremendous pressure, both here in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Below are just a couple of examples drawn from the mainstream media over the space of a few days, each one an example of individual or collective misery. None of them are unique and they all made the headlines in the UK.

‘Deaths of UK homeless people more than double in five years’ 

‘Syria: 500 Douma patients had chemical attack symptoms, reports say’

‘London 2018 BLOODBATH: Capital on a knife edge as killings SOAR to 56 in three months’

‘Windrush generation NHS worker lost job and faces deportation despite living in the UK for more than 50 years’

So how do we make sense of these tumultuous times? Do we turn our backs and pretend it has nothing to do with us? Can we, as Criminologists, ignore such events and say they are for other people to think about, discuss and resolve?

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Stanley Cohen, posed a similar question; ‘How will we react to the atrocities and suffering that lie ahead?’ (2001: 287). Certainly his text States Of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering makes clear that each of us has a part to play, firstly by ‘knowing’ that these things happen; in essence, bearing witness and acknowledging the harm inherent in such atrocities. But is this enough? 

Cohen, persuasively argues, that our understanding has fundamentally changed:

The political changes of the last decade have radically altered how these issues are framed. The cold-war is over, ordinary “war” does not mean what it used to mean, nor do the terms “nationalism”, “socialism”, “welfare state”, “public order”, “security”, “victim”, “peace-keeping” and “intervention” (2001: 287).

With this in mind, shouldn’t our responses as a society, also have changed, adapted to these new discourses? I would argue, that there is very little evidence to show that this has happened; whilst problems are seemingly framed in different ways, society’s response continues to be overtly punitive. Certainly, the following responses are well rehearsed;

 

  • “move the homeless on”
  • “bomb Syria into submission”
  • “increase stop and search”
  • “longer/harsher prison sentences”
  • “it’s your own fault for not having the correct papers?”

Of course, none of the above are new “solutions”. It is well documented throughout much of history, that moving social problems (or as we should acknowledge, people) along, just ensures that the situation continues, after all everyone needs somewhere just to be.  Likewise, we have the recent experiences of invading Iraq and Afghanistan to show us (if we didn’t already know from Britain’s experiences during WWII) that you cannot bomb either people or states into submission. As criminologists, we know, only too well, the horrific impact of stop and search, incarceration and banishment and exile, on individuals, families and communities, but it seems, as a society, we do not learn from these experiences.

Yet if we were to imagine, those particular social problems in our own relationships, friendship groups, neighbourhoods and communities, would our responses be the same? Wouldn’t responses be more conciliatory, more empathetic, more helpful, more hopeful and more focused on solving problems, rather than exacerbating the situation?

Next time you read one of these news stories, ask yourself, if it was me or someone important to me that this was happening to, what would I do, how would I resolve the situation, would I be quite so punitive? Until then….

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you (Nietzsche, 1886/2003: 146)

References:

Cohen, Stanley, (2001), States Of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, (Cambridge: Polity Press)

Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1967), A Day in the Life, [LP]. Recorded by The Beatles in Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, EMI Studios: Parlaphone

Nietzsche, Friedrich, (1886/2003), Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, tr. from the German by R. J. Hollingdale, (London: Penguin Books)

A Bloody Shame

tampon-495739_640

I find it fascinating that when I ask my students whether they watch or read the news the reply is generally in the negative.  Maybe part of the reason might be found in the fact that so much news resides only temporarily in our conscience before it is replaced by yet another item of news, ‘fake or not’ and we are bombarded with information churned out 24/7, minute by minute.  What is alarming is that important issues are reported on, sometimes in a somewhat perfunctory manner, and lost in the mix of other important and less important issues.

And so it is for an item of news that caught my eye just before Christmas.  I didn’t really think much about it until somewhere in the back of my mind I had a niggling feeling that just can’t be right. The news item, as I recall it, related to a protest outside Downing Street about women’s sanitary products.  A young lady led the protest about the lack of availability of the products for young people, or was it that V.A.T was being added to the products?  I just remember the banal comments made by some supporting actress and what I thought were somewhat distasteful banners being displayed. But on reflection all of this masked a serious issue, that of equality and Human Rights.  Part of the storyline behind the news was that some young women were not going to school at certain times because they could not afford sanitary products. I couldn’t even imagine the embarrassment this must cause for young ladies.  And then I thought about how it might affect other women on low or no income.

There has been much in the news about equality for women recently, most notably around the issue of equal pay.  But this issue of sanitary products is even more fundamental. If you don’t have a decent education, how can you get into the work place, let alone achieve parity on pay?

The last time I looked, education was a Human Right.  I don’t think the basis of this was something along part time education according to certain times of the month.  Women did not ask to be put into this position and it isn’t something that afflicts men.  I bet if it did, sanitary products would be available in every public toilet for free and you could probably order your free delivery on line.

I’m not sure how it should work but if we believe in Human Rights and we believe in equality, sanitary products, or the lack of should not be allowed to hold women back.  There may be a cost but the payback would be tremendous.

More recently in the news, the Prime Minister, Mrs May, has been visiting China and according to the news had some difficult conversations about Human Rights records.  I would suggest that perhaps she ought to look closer to home.  And as for the media, perhaps some issues should linger longer to have a chance of embedding themselves in the public’s conscience.

Homelessness: Shedding an unfavourable light on a beautiful town!

Presentation1

Let me start by apologising for the tone of this blog and emphasis that what follows is rant based on my own opinion and not that of the university or co-authors of the blog.  On 3 January I was incensed by a story in the Guardian outlining comments made by Simon Dudley, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead’s Conservative leader, regarding homelessness and the impact (visually) that this could have on the forthcoming royal wedding. Mr Dudley commented that having homeless people on the streets at the time of the wedding would present “a beautiful town in a sadly unfavourable light” and that “Windsor is different and requires a more robust approach to begging” (Dudley, cited in Sherwood, 2018, online). Unfortunately, I am no longer shocked by such comments and have come to expect nothing less of Conservative leaders. I am however profoundly saddened that such a deep rooted social issue is brought back into the spot light, not because it reflects wider issues of inequality, disadvantage, poverty, or social exclusion that need addressing but because of a class based narrative driven by a royal wedding. Is Windsor really in need of special treatment? Is their experience of homelessness really worse than every other city in the UK? Or is simply that in an area with such wealth, and social connection, showing the world that we have a problem with homelessness is taking it a step too far. Whatever the reason, Shelter’s[1] (2017) tweet on the 29 December reminds us that homelessness is ‘…a crisis we are not handling as a country’.

As we approached the Christmas period it was estimated that children experiencing homelessness had reached a 10 year high with headlines like ‘Nearly 130,000 children to wake up homeless this Christmas’ (Bulman, 2017) marking our approach to the festive season. Similarly, Shelter warned of a Christmas homeless crisis and as the temperatures dropped emergency shelters were opened across London, contrary to the policy of only opening after three consecutive days of freezing temperatures (TBIF, 2017). Yet the significance of these headlines and the vast body of research into the homelessness crisis appears lost on Mr Dudley whose comments only add to an elitist narrative that if we can’t see it, it isn’t a problem. My issue is not with Mr Dudley’s suggestion that action is needed against aggressive begging and intimidation but with his choice of language. Firstly, to suggest that homelessness is a ‘sad’ thing is a significant understatement made worse by the fact that the focus of this sadness is not on homelessness itself but the fact that it undermines the tone of an affluent area. Secondly, the suggestion that the police should clear the homeless from the streets along with their ‘bags and detritus’ (Dudley, cited in Sherwood, 2018) is symbolic of much of the UK’s approach to difficult social issues; sticking a band aid on a fatal wound and hoping it works. Thirdly, and more deeply disturbing for me is the blame culture evident in his suggestion that homelessness is a choice that those begging in Windsor are ‘…not in fact homeless, and if they are homeless they are choosing to reject all support services…it is a voluntary choice’ (Dudley, cited in Sherwood, 2018). Homelessness is complex and often interlinked with other deeply rooted problems, therefore this blame attitude is not just short sighted but highly ignorant of the difficulties facing a growing proportion of the population.

Shelter. (2017) A safe, secure home is a fundamental right for everyone. It’s a crisis we are not handling as a country [Online]. Twitter. 29 December. Available from: https://twitter.com/shelter?lang=en [Accessed 4 January 2018].

Sherwood, H., (2018) Windsor council leader calls for removal of homeless before royal wedding. The Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/03/windsor-council-calls-removal-homeless-people-before-royal-wedding [Accessed 04 January 2018].

The Big Issue Foundation. (2017) TBIF joins the Mayor of London’s Coalition to tackle rough sleeping [Online]. The Big Issue Website. Available from: https://www.bigissue.org.uk/news [Accessed 4 January 2018].

[1] a charity offering advice and support to those facing or experiencing homelessness

 

“A Christmas Carol” for the twenty-first century

Christmas Carol

The build up to Christmas appears more frenetic every year, but there comes a point where you call it a day. This hiatus between preparation and the festivities lends itself to contemplation; reflection on Christmases gone by and a review of the year (both good and bad). Some of this is introspective and personal, some familiar or local and some more philosophical and global.

Following from @manosdaskalou’ recent contemplation on “The True Message of Christmas”, I thought I might follow up his fine example and explore another, familiar, depiction of the festive period. While @manosdaskalou focused on wider European and global concerns, particularly the crisis faced by many thousands of refugees, my entry takes a more domestic view, one that perhaps would be recognised by Charles Dickens (1812- 1870) despite being dead for nearly 150 years.

Grenfell_Tower_fire

One of the most distressing news stories this year was the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower where 71 people lost their lives. [1]  Whilst Dickens, might not recognise the physicality of a tower block, the narratives which followed the disaster, would be all too familiar to him. His keen eye for social injustice and inequality is reflected in many of his books; A Christmas Carol certainly contains descriptions of gut wrenching, terrifying poverty, without which, Scrooge’s volte-face would have little impact.

In the immediacy of the  Grenfell Tower disaster tragic updates about individuals and families believed missing or killed in the fire filled the news channels. Simultaneously, stories of bravery; such as the successful endeavours of Luca Branislav to rescue his neighbour and of course, the sheer professionalism and steadfast determination of the firefighters who battled extremely challenging conditions also began to emerge. Subsequently we read/watched examples of enormous resilience; for example,  teenager Ines Alves who sat her GCSE’s in the immediate aftermath. In the aftermath, people clamoured to do whatever they could for survivors bringing food, clothes, toys and anything else that might help to restore some normality to individual life’s. Similarly, people came together for a variety of different celebrity and grassroots events such as Game4Grenfell, A Night of Comedy and West London Stand Tall designed to raise as much money as possible for survivors. All of these different narratives are to expected in the wake of a tragedy; the juxtaposition of  tragedy, bravery and resilience help people to make sense of traumatic events.

Ultimately, what Grenfell showed us, was what we already knew, and had known for centuries. It threw a horrific spotlight on social injustice, inequality, poverty, not to mention a distinct lack of national interest In individual and collective human rights.  Whilst Scrooge was “encouraged” to see the error of his ways, in the twenty-first century society appears to be increasingly resistant to such insight. While we are prepared to stand by and watch the growth in food banks, the increase in hunger, homelessness and poverty, the decline in children and adult physical and mental health with all that entails, we are far worse than Scrooge. After all, once confronted with reality, Scrooge did his best to make amends and to make things a little better. While the Grenfell Tower Inquiry might offer some insight in due course, the terms of reference are limited and previous experiences, such as Hillsborough demonstrate that such official investigations may obfuscate rather than address concerns. It would seem that rather than wait for official reports, with all their inherent problems, we, as a society we need to start thinking, and more, importantly addressing these fundamental problems and thus create a fairer, safer and more just future for everyone.

In the words of Scrooge:

“A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!” (Dickens, 1843/1915: 138)

[1] The final official figure of 71 includes a stillborn baby born just hours after his parents had escaped the fire.

Dickens, Charles, (1843/1915), A Christmas Carol, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co.)

The true message of Christmas

Xmas Card

One of the seasonal discussions we have at social fora is how early the Christmas celebrations start in the streets, shops and the media.  An image of snowy landscapes and joyful renditions of festive themes that appear sometime in October and intensify as the weeks unforld.  It seems that every year the preparations for the festive season start a little bit earlier, making some of us to wonder why make this fuss?  Employees in shops wearing festive antlers and jumpers add to the general merriment and fun usually “enforced” by insistent management whose only wish is to enhance our celebratory mood.  Even in my classes some of the students decided to chip in the holiday fun wearing oversized festive jumpers (you know who you are!).  In one of those classes I pointed out that this phenomenon panders to the commercialisation of festivals only to be called a “grinch” by one of the gobby ones.  Of course all in good humour, I thought.  

Nonetheless it was strange considering that we live in a consumerist society that the festive season is marred with the pressure to buy as much food as possible so much so, that those who cannot (according to a number of charities) feel embarrassed to go shopping;  or the promotion of new toys, cosmetics and other trendy items that people have to have badly wrapped ready for the big day.  The emphasis on consumption is not something that happened overnight.  There have been years of making the special season into a family event of Olympic proportions.  Personal and family budgets will dwindle in the need to buy parcels of goods, consume volumes of food and alcohol so that we can rejoice.       

Many of us by the end of the festive season will look back with regret, for the pounds we put on, the pounds we spent and the things we wanted to do but deferred them until next Christmas.  Which poses the question; What is the point of the holiday or even better, why celebrate Christmas anymore?  Maybe a secular society needs to move away from religious festivities and instead concentrate on civic matters alone.  Why does religion get to dictate the “season to be jolly” and not people’s own desire to be with the ones they want to be with?  If there is a message within the religious symbolism this is not reflected in the shop-windows that promote a round-shaped old man in red, non-existent (pagan) creatures and polar animals.  

According to the religious message about 2000 years ago a refugee family gave birth to a child on their way to exile.  The child would live for about 33 years but will change the face of modern religion.  He promised to come back and millions of people still wait for his second coming but in the meantime millions of refugee children are piling up in detention centers and hundreds of others are dying in the journey of the damned.  “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).  This is the true message of Christmas today.

Happy Holidays to our students and colleagues.  
FYI: Ramah is a town in war torn Middle East

 

“Letters from America”: II

Lange-MigrantMother02

Having only visited Philadelphia once before (and even then it was strictly a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary with a quick “Philly sandwich” afterwards) the city is new to me. As with any new environment there is plenty to take in and absorb, made slightly more straightforward by the traditional grid layout so beloved of cities in the USA.

Particularly striking in Philadelphia are the many signs detailing the city’s history. These cover a wide range of topics; (for instance Mothers’ Day originates in the city, the creation of Walnut Street Gaol and  commemoration of the great and the good) and allow visitors to get a feel for the city.

Unfortunately, these signs tell only part of the city’s story. Like many great historical cities Philadelphia shares horrific historical problems, that of poverty and homelessness. Wherever you look there are people lying in the street, suffering in a state of suspension somewhere between living and dying, in essence existing. The city is already feeling the chill winds of winter and there is far worse to come. Many of these people appear unable to even ask for help, whether because they have lost the will or because there are just too many knock backs. For an onlooker/bystander there is a profound sense of helplessness; is there anything I can do?, what should I do?, can I help or do I make things even worse?

The last time I physically observed this level of homelessness was in Liverpool but the situation appeared different. People were existing (as opposed to living) on the street but passers by acknowledged them, gave money, hot drinks, bottles of water and perhaps more importantly talked to them. Of course, we need to take care, drawing parallels and conclusions across time and place is always fraught with difficulty, particularly when relying on observation alone. But here it seems starkly different; two entirely different worlds – the destitute, homeless on the one hand and the busy Thanksgiving/Christmas shopper on the other. Worse still it seems despite their proximity ne’er the twain shall meet.

This horrible juxtaposition was brought into sharp focus last night when @manosdaskalou and I went out for an evening meal. We chose a beautiful Greek restaurant and thought we might treat ourselves for a change. We ordered a starter and a main each, forgetting momentarily, that we were in the land of super sized portions. When the food arrived there was easily enough for a family of 4 to (struggle to) eat. This provides a glaringly obvious demonstration of the dichotomy of (what can only really be described as) greed versus grinding poverty and deprivation, within the space of a few yards.

I don’t know what the answer is , but I find it hard to accept that in the twenty-first century society we appear to be giving up on trying seriously to solve these traumatic social problems. Until we can address these repetitive humanitarian crisis it is hard to view society as anything other than callous and cruel and that view is equally difficult to accept.

 

 

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