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There is something in our evolutionary history that we seem not be able to shake off when we should. We all too easily become tribal and split ourselves into ‘us’ and ‘them’.
We can define ourselves by the groups we belong to, formally or informally. Work (including department versus department, team versus team), school, church, hobbies. All can help us form part of our sense of identity, but the danger is that we then regard those not in that group as ‘the others’. As if any of us defined ourselves by what we are not.
History is rife with examples of extreme consequences of putting people into the category of the ‘others’, different from us in some way.
The Nazis were an obvious example of this. Anyone who did not conform to their concept of what an acceptable human being should look like (both behaviourally and physically) was consigned to be one of the ‘others’, with the terrible consequences that followed.
And then there are the refugees. Another case of them being, in some people’s eyes, no more than the ‘others.’
How the ‘others’ live? Discuss…
Politicians are perhaps another example of people we can easily consider different from ‘us’. And that makes it much easier to consider them as fair game. I think it’s perhaps just another form of us wanting to be judged by our intentions rather than our acts, but judging others by their acts rather than their intentions.
And it’s perhaps in that context that I’m now seeing the storm in a teacup that was the Rifkind/Straw case. Someone decided that politicians were legitimate targets for a sting operation. There was, as far as I can see, no suggestion that the twelve politicians who were selected for this operation had previously done anything wrong which merited exposure. It looks much more like a fishing expedition to see what might come out of it. And what did come out of it? That they were considering how to earn a living after they had left parliament. That they were able to command fees which are out of the reach of almost anyone else. Certainly of anyone we might actually know – ‘us’. That they had properly disclosed their existing outside interests, which are allowed under parliamentary rules. And that they – like, I would suggest, every single one of us – said some things in a conversation which were ambiguous, capable of misinterpretation, or downright factually incorrect. Like Rifkind saying he didn’t earn a salary. He now says it was a silly thing to have said and that of course he was being paid a salary as an MP. But none of ‘us’ has every said something which stretched the truth a bit (or a lot), which sought to make us seem in some way better than we are. We just haven’t been recorded doing it. Unless you count the content of some CVs.
Was it a legitimate investigation for the media organisation in question to have run? I think it probably depends on your view of how to judge this. If it had revealed serious wrongdoing, I think we would collectively have concluded that the ends justified the means. And, implicitly, that lying and pretending to be someone else in order to get to a truth which would otherwise remain hidden, is justifiable in some cases. Which is not to say that it was right in principle, without knowing the outcome. And some might say that behaving truthfully trumps the question of the outcome which might result. It’s an age old debate.
Either way it is a far cry from the kind of work others have done. In my case, the man I know best in the area of undercover journalism is a German (surprise, surprise), Günter Wallraff. He made his living for decades by taking on the persona of a member of a societal group which we can so easily think of as the ‘others’. An alcoholic, a homeless person and as a Turkish Gastarbeiter. His book on the latter, Ganz Unten (Lowest of the Low) is one I will never forget. He experienced and recorded what it was like to be a foreign worker in (what was then) West Germany. It was not pleasant, and perhaps for that reason it has stayed in my mind every since. He was not without his critics, including those who considered his methods to be inappropriate (for which read unethical). The main German tabloid, Bild, later accused him of having been one of the East German Stasi’s unofficial collaborators. A court agreed with him that there was no proof that this had ever been true. Back to media ethics again. Ironically, Wallraff had also in the past worked (again, undercover) for four months as an editor at that same newspaper and had exposed some of the practices there. It was also the only newspaper that refused to allow me access to any of its journalists to explore their concept of media ethics with them. They were ‘too busy.’ Clearly more so than those at all the other newspapers. It said a lot.
Survey after survey shows us that we consistently believe ourselves to be better than the average in almost any area (I say almost because there might be an exception rather than because I know of any).
On the basis of the evidence I have of my own actions (even if not recorded for public scrutiny) I don’t think I could claim to be better than anyone else in not getting all tribal and letting my T-100,000 years man take over. But I am pretty sure the world would be a better place if we could move on from that place. We aren’t living in caves any more.
There is another way of saying this that you are much more likely to remember in years to come, because someone else said it better than I can. Martin Niemöller was a German minister who vocally opposed the National Socialists and spent (and survived) seven years in concentration camps. He wrote this poem. It says it all. In someone’s eyes, we are all the ‘others.’
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
You might have noticed that the last few weeks’ blogs have been longer, and covered thornier issues than running. This is partly because there is not always something topical which grabs my attention, but also because I like trying to understand these types of issues with sufficient depth to ensure that I have been challenged in my own prejudices and pre-conceived ideas. And this week, I caught myself in a huge set of assumptions.
I wrote the bare bones of a blog and then checked the facts. And the facts didn’t fit what I thought they would. The lens I was looking through was so warped that it took a while for the data to seep through and help me see the beam in my own eye. Don’t you just love mixed metaphors? That’s me trying to distract from the real issue here, which is not how to write English but the fact that I ignored checking the facts in preference for my own opinion.
Why did I do that? First, it was a practical issue. I was sitting on Portobello promenade writing it while LoLo was out sailing (for the first time). So I didn’t have proper access to the files I would need and was relying on memory and overall impression. As well as my prejudices. Second, because I was relying on the media portrayal of the facts to be accurate. We should be able to assume the facts are materially correct, should we not? But third – simply because I already thought I knew what the answer would be, the angle I wanted to take, the context in which I was seeing the case.
I am now going to allow myself another week to get to the bottom of the case I wanted to cover, which was the Malcolm Rifkind/Jack Straw case following an undercover media sting.
Of very immediate interest to me is the extent to which my assumptions and prejudices (yes, I know I keep using those words) suddenly kicked in and I assumed there had to be some wrongdoing behind the allegations being made against the two politicians. Because we all know that you can’t trust politicians, don’t we? And that the only thing lacking is some evidence for what we all suspect. After all, wasn’t there that whole thing with their expenses and moat cleaning and what not? So there must be more if only we knew where to find it. Or if we had intrepid journalists rooting out the truth. Modern day Woodfords and Bernsteins.
So rather than write about what I already ‘knew’ to be true, I have spent more than a few hours so far wading through the official report and have started on the several hundred pages of evidence from all sides of the issue. And that, I am afraid, all takes time.
But really my lesson so far is that while I think I am reasonable and rational in how I approach serious issues, I can so easily find myself better unfairly unobjective and believing I already know the answer.
Must do better. I hope to do so next week when I try to do the subject justice.
Germany’s constitution was born in a period of upheaval in the aftermath of the Second World War, the country divided in two, and conceived as a temporary set of laws, to be replaced when Germany was again united as one country. But years went by and that prospect became more and more remote. The “Basic Law” became permanent and when, over forty years later, reunification finally came about, it was adopted as the constitution of the new Germany. Berlin hosts a cross between a monument and a piece of art on which the constitution is written on a row of large glass plates.
The constitution reflects what was then the very recent history of the Nazis’ setting aside of human rights and the previous rule of law, and it still frames Germany’s attitude towards the world and itself today.
You can hear the echo of the concentration camps in the opening line of Article 1:
The dignity of the individual is inviolable.
Followed not by a caveat, but by ‘It is the duty of the state to protect and honour this.’
Similarly, other principles are outlined in bold statements.
All persons are equal before the law.
Freedom of faith and of conscience, and freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, are inviolable.
Persons persecuted on political grounds shall have the right of asylum.
This last provision is of course the one most topical, with millions of refugees from Syria and other countries seeking sanctuary for themselves and their families. We have Germany preparing to accept 800,000 refugees and the federal government providing billions of funds to look after these new arrivals. For the German leadership, this is a moral imperative. The Nazi period might lie decades in the past, but it will never be forgotten and shapes Germany’s attitude towards the rest of the world today.
Accepting this number of refugees is a huge step to take and we should not forget that it is not without risk, or indeed its own historical context.
Germany remains a country which even now has not properly decided how to treat the millions of Gastarbeiter and their families, the largely Turkish ‘guest workers’ who came to Germany from the mid-1950s onwards and helped rebuild the country. Contrary to expectations at the time, but entirely predictably, Germany became their home, even more so for their children, but the original workers are still not entitled to German citizenship along side their original Turkish citizenship. And these are people who have been living and working in Germany for the last 60 years.
Even before the latest offer of sanctuary, there was already concern in Germany that, rather than using, and where necessary, renovating existing accommodation – including the building I used to live in in Berlin – refugees were being housed in tents and other pre-fabricated structures, often very separate from where the rest of the population lives. The longer-term question is always how to foster acceptance and integration once the initial rush of generosity dies down, as it always does, and will do in this case. ‘Refugees welcome’ is a wonderful sign of intent, but making that intent something which will be of long term benefit requires early consideration of the practical consequences of immigration on this scale. And as climate catastrophe is one of the root cause of the present humanitarian crisis, this is just the beginning.
There have already been several cases of attacks on refugee accommodation in Germany this year, even before the Syrian crisis really became well known and the scale of refugee movements increased so dramatically. These attacks are perpetrated by a very small minority in the country but they are already reminiscent of similar barbarity in 1991 and 1992 when there was a series of attacks in Eastern German towns against foreign families.
At around the same time, there was a debate in Germany about limiting what had been that unrestricted right to asylum in the country, itself a reaction to the experience of National Socialism and its devastating consequences for the number of refugees both during and after the Third Reich.
The outcome of the political debate in the early 1990s was to add to the previous bold and unrestricted right to asylum several paragraphs of exceptions to the rule. Some of the exceptions were simply designed to aid the practical process of identifying refugees more straightforward and even now, Germany has made it clear that the offer of asylum being made applies only to refugees, not to those from other countries where they are not being persecuted or living in a war zone. Citizens of other EU countries were, for example, excluded from being able to claim asylum in the 1993 change to the constitution . But it was a move which was strongly challenged by refugee organisations at the time and challenged at the constitutional court (which upheld the legality of the changes).
Germany has had a lot of experience with the causes and impact of refugees, not least in the form of the consequences of its own actions in the 1930s and 1940s. But so have all the other countries in Europe at some point. Persecution and migration (for many reasons) have been part of the history of mankind since the dawn of time.
My great-great grandfather (I might be out by a generation) was not exactly a refugee, but certainly a migrant, moving from Ireland to Scotland during the potato famine. I have no idea how he was received when he arrived with what must have been a different accent, little money and looking for work. He changed our surname to make it sound more Scottish than Mahaffy. But within a couple of generations, there had been marriages, children and a sense of being Scottish. A success story then. I am sure there are other stories which did not end so well.
Members of the family I have known longest and best in Germany were also refugees after the war. They were forced to leave Bohemia, then part of Germany, leaving everything behind and walking hundreds of miles, some as young children, to a city which was foreign to them, where the German spoken was different and made them stand out as different, almost foreign. To this day, they can switch back to their native dialect and the cooking I grew up with believing to be standard German fare is in fact largely from that area. Those refugee children were also victims of the Nazi regime and found themselves in a part of Germany that didn’t want them, and found them an inconvenient reminder of the recent past, a past that many would rather not be forced to think about every time the children opened their mouths. But in time the children grew up and their families became part of their new society. Since then generations have grown up in the same city they moved to, creating their own bonds and links with their new home.
But none of that happens by accident, either in the past or now. There has to be a willingness to accept, even embrace, the differences in the newcomers, to share the best of our respective cultures and help them to be able to treat their new surroundings as a home for them and for the children who will grow up there, some knowing the country of their parents’ birth only through stories and pictures of happier times, others remembering all too well what it was they were escaping from and what it had cost to find safety.
In the end, we all come from migrant families. Some of us just got here a little earlier than others. And that difference is nothing more than blind chance. It could have been any one of us trying to escape on a boat or living in a camp, hoping for a better tomorrow, free from fear for their lives and with dreams for their children’s futures.