A different perspective – on everything

Imagine growing up in a country, being taught a history of that country, experiencing that country in a certain way, and interpreting your world through those lenses. Then, many years later, everything changes.

Yes, that was the experience of many people who grew up in East Germany and knew very little different, except what they saw on Western television or heard about from others. And with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall next Sunday (yes, I will be there – of course), that might be worthwhile thinking some more about. And my book on the experience of East German journalists shows how, while many things changed around them, a new normality soon set in which in some ways was not that different in feel and approach from what they had seen in communist days (and for the pedants, East Germany was not a communist state, it purported to a socialist one, but the end state of communism was never reached).

However, the experience I described above was one I had recently and was much closer to home. It starts with a book. Most things in my life do. But before that, there was the Snowden experience which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Remember how I believe less and less in coincidences? Here’s the chain of events.

1. Go to Book Festival event which Luke Harding is speaking at (about Snowden and the implications of what he made public) – incidentally, did you notice that GCHQ just last week admitted that they have been accessing data on UK citizens and others, collected by the NSA and other intelligence services, without court orders…

2. Read Harding book and realise that the Guardian has changed from the paper I remember it as when I was at university. In fairness, it’s been a while since then and it’s allowed to change.

3. Spend some time on the Guardian website and see that they have started a “membership” programme, including a free option which allows you to see what events are coming up (in fairness to me, most of the events are in London so paying to be able to go them really isn’t sensible).

4. The first event – streamed live – is with Naomi Klein, who has written a book on climate change, called This Changes Everything (I have it, it’s next on the non-fiction reading list)

5. The event is chaired by Owen Jones, who wrote The Establishment.

6. I read The Establishment (well, 90%, I’m in the last chapter at the moment. I probably should have finished it before writing about it. Oh well.)

The official blurb about it talks about a “powerful but unaccountable network of people who wield massive power and reap huge benefits in the process.” That wasn’t what I got out of the book to be honest. What I read was an account of how the events I remembered over the last thirty odd years could – and in Jones’s view should – be viewed differently. It’s persuasive. Is he right? I don’t know – there was one section in the book where my day job gives me some insights which I wouldn’t expect a non-specialist journalist to have, and which would lead me to different conclusions, so it did make me wonder what others closer to some of the other topics he covered would thing of them. But that’s at most a minor criticism.

One topic discussed at some length is the view of “scroungers” which is promulgated with a degree of relish by much of the media. By “scroungers” we mean of course benefit cheats/fraudsters/whatever other derogatory noun you can think of. One of the main objections against these people is that they are supposed to be ripping us all off – “us” being the hard-working, hard done by, families. And this is costing us all fortune, causing us to run up national debt beyond anything we would have believed just a few years ago. And this must be stopped. Politicians fall over themselves to tell us how much they will cut from the welfare bill.

What Jones does is remind us of the stories we don’t hear so much about. Atos, the French company which was paid millions (well, more like a billion apparently) to administer the new eligibility tests for disability benefits. The lack of human decency (and common sense) in the tests beggars belief. And Margaret Hodge, scourge of wrongdoers of all hues, said that

“Atos stated in its tender document that it had ‘contractual agreements’ in place with a national network of 56 NHS hospitals, 25 private hospitals and over 650 physiotherapy practices to provide assessments. This turned out not to be true.”

We are, according to Jones, being systematically told that the real “scroungers” are the individuals in receipt of welfare. But how about the companies and individuals who are being paid vast sums of taxpayer money to adminster what were government services, or construct and run buildings and operations which the public sector would previously have run? And then, when it comes crashing down, to walk away from it? Jones gives numerous examples of the scale of the “scrounging” going on at the top levels of society, funded by the taxpayer and part of the ethos of “public sector inefficient, private sector efficient”. To which one might say simply “RBS”. Or “HBOS”. Private sector companies which, absent the public sector rescuing them, could have brought down the entire economy.

Jones’s arguments are much more far-reaching than those examples could illustrate. But he does paint a picture of a direction of travel over the last few decades which we largely have accepted as “right” and which has been endorsed and promoted by the mainstream political parties, the media, and individuals in charge of a range of organisations.

So I saw today’s Telegraph headline (front page) “Dear taxpayer, quarter of cash goes on welfare” and thought “I’m reading that article with a different perspective now”.

Books really do change the way we think. And it’s good to challenge the way we think.

And finally, this article from the Guardian, tying up what I learned from The Establishment with the fall of the Berlin Wall:

As the wall fell, checks on capitalism crumbled.

Maybe it’s ironic that my eyes were opened 25 years after those of the East German population – although I might argue that their eyes were pretty open before then, they just didn’t know what they could do about it. And that’s the last 10% of the book I haven’t read yet. I did say I should probably have finished it before writing about it!

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