Sunday, 21 April 2013

America's refusal to accept multi-culturalism

Back in the UK, a standard Conservative talking point is the "failure of multi-cultural ism." This is essentially a rejection of the previous Labour government's suggestion that there might just be room in the country for other cultures, beyond a boiler-plate model of "Britishness" that looked more like the 19th century than a modern complex nation. But for all that multi-culturalism was thrown around as a political football, it is the reality in both my home country, and the country I now live in.

The United States is built on waves of immigration from all over the world. Often these groups of immigrants would gather together, usually forced to by the economics of the time, leading to concentration of their culture. Despite this the US seems deeply uncomfortable with the idea of these other cultural identities, in fact despite being formed from an impressive patchwork of backgrounds, the US seems wholly allergic to multi-cultural ideas. There is a determined effort to demand all Americans adhere to a template of "Americanism, " and to therefore classify all those who do not fit that mold as other.

With this in mind I think it is important to see the way the US is processing the Boston bombing. Honestly I think it came as a relief to many that they could identify the suspects as "foreign" despite the one they now have in custody being a naturalized US citizen who came here as a small child. Despite these young men spending their most formative decade in the United States, it is comforting for people to point at their Chechen  background and say "there it is, that's what was wrong. They weren't really american." Because Americans don't do things like this (except when they do, do, and certainly do.) While they may have been living in America, they may have legally been American, they did not conform to the cookie-cutter format, and thus are not allowed to be American.

I was discussing this with my wife the other day, and she remarked that when the7/7  bombings happened in London the real crisis within Britain was because they were British. Were were upset because we thought we were doing it all right. We had tried so hard to not do what the US is doing, to reject a broader definition of our nations culture, one that included many different distinct cultures. We were upset because every one of us had gone to school with a boy named Muhammad. We were inclusive of the people who carried out the bombings, and proud of it. So unlike the US, it was harder to neatly "other" them, they were Brits. Really we had to lean on a religious angle, but even then only by putting emphasis on the world "radical" whenever said alongside islam. We had to distinguish them from that nice Muhammad we all went to school with, because they were like "those" muslims, those muslims were British. No the attackers were those "other" muslims, the radical ones.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

A lesson in empathy from Justin Bieber

Bieber trying to work out what all the fuss is about.
Justin Bieber went to visit the Ann Frank Museum (you know this sentence can only end one way right?) and managed to offend the thinking world. Is anyone surprised? The terrible thing is not the inference that Ann Frank would have been a fan of a particularly annoying pop star, it is the flippancy with which the man stamps upon the feelings of so many. He does it without realizing (one hopes) through a serious lack of empathy not for Ann Frank, but for what she has come to symbolize for many people in the world. A young person whose writings survive long after her death, conveying her fears in an extraordinary situation along with her terribly mundane human concerns, is a figure we can all empathize with. But it is that matter, of our communal empathy and how it causes her to be precious, that Bieber ignored.

This leads me to the value of the study of history in our schools. These thoughts are concentrated by a recent hour long discussion on the subject with my employer, there are few things that focus the mind as much as justifying your employment. We have, thankfully, moved beyond the idea that history is the memorization of dates and names*, in the 21st century our relationship to knowledge has evolved sufficiently that this is a pointless waste of our children's time. Far more valuable to our young people are the skills for which history is an effective medium**

The key skill in this instance is empathy, not to be confused with interpretation. Interpretation, as a historical skill, governs a historian's ability to see any given event in history as existing simultaneously in multiple forms. A single event can, and will have, happened in multiple ways, all of which are accurate to a good historian. Like Schrodinger's cat the death of Harold Godwinson in 1066 can be both by an arrow in his eye, a sword blow from a norman Knight, and any number of other causes all at the same time. Because we only see history through the eyes of those who reported on it and passed their telling down to us, so, unlike the cat, we can never know the truth of how it happened. We are locked in a situatuion where all versions are true.

Empathy, on the other hand, is a historian's ability to place themselves in the position of someone from the past. To use all the available evidence to theorize on the feelings and motivations of that person. From this position they can attempt to understand why historical events came to pass. Why did Guy Fawkes attempt to assasinate the King? We can only use our skill of empathy to attempt to explain this action for a man whose existed as a persecuted and distrusted class. A foriegner, of a hated faith, who hears daily that his religious duty is to kill this Protestant anti-christ. Perhaps we can imagine what drove him to this desperate end, and in doing so gain an insight into the chaos that was the religious struggle of the period.

It would be nice to think that all humans develop empathy in equal measure as we grow, but I don't think that's true. I think it is more like a muscle; it grows as you use it. A colleague of mine said he thinks "liberals are just conservatives who haven't been mugged or raped yet." Rather I feel that conservatives are people who have not worked out their empathy muscle. Until they feel something for themselves, they are unable to imagine what it would be like for others. Rob Portman's recent change of heart on gay marriage shows a man suddenly confronted by a personal experience of injustice, suddenly he can understand why people have been so angry.*** Without the ability to understand the feelings of other, it is no surprise that conservatives do not grasp the need for a social safety net. They are doing ok, therefore the world is doing ok. In fact there have been two excellent examples of just this form of lack of empathy from Paul Broun and Saxby Chamblis.

To avoid this narrow worldview, it is essential our young people learn to exercise their empathy muscle. We must set them challenges that involves depth and understanding of the influences on people. There is no place for cold facts in the history curriculum, only endless questions. Paramount of these questions may well be "why did they do that?" And since interpretation tells us we will never know the answer, we can only attempt to understand all the forces acting upon a person, and place ourselves in their shoes. So I come to the crux of the Bieber-blunder, had Justin Bieber been able to place himself in the shoes of someone reading his post, who was not a devoted fan, he might just have realized that both societal forces of decency, and the powerful effect of Ann Frank's writing, were influencing much of the world to look on what he was about to write with abject horror.

*  Although Michael Gove is giving it his best shot at taking the UK curriculum back to it.****

** Also, as discussed on Melissa Harris-Perry recently, of value to our society as a whole. Don't we want the people around us to be able to empathize with us?

*** The fantastic "Tom the Dancing Bug" comic satirizes this point beautifully.

**** PS Gove, if even Niall Ferguson doesn't like your ideas, they must be shit.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Growing up scared

I realized some of my sexuality, like most people, in my pre-teen years. I have a hunch it's more of a realization for people who don't identify as straight; because it's the sudden discovery of a way you're different. (I had plenty of those, so another was hardly a shock to me.) But around 10-11 I had this nagging sense that I thought about boys the same way I thought about girls, nothing concrete, just a gut feeling.

I have to say, the thought made me very uncomfortable, and now how you might expect. I wasn't grappling with any sense of "wrongness," I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that, for all their faults, were incredibly open minded about such things.

No, I was scared because I thought I was going to die. Because in 1991 that's what happened to Freddie Mercury, and he was the only non-straight person I knew. Queen was about the only music my family could agree on, it was one of the only tapes in our car, and I listened to the Queen: Greatest Hits album on an almost constant loop. So when Freddie died I was heartbroken, but when I learned more I was afraid. The only thing I knew was there was this disease, and it killed gay people.

In the early 90's people were just dying in terrifying numbers, despite us having a better idea of what AIDS was, we still didn't seem to have any real hope of slowing the deaths. This was what we all grew up scared of, not the cold war, not terrorists, my generations specter was AIDS.

So today as I sat and tried to watch the fantastic documentary "How to Survive a Plague" I found myself weeping. Not just for the amazing work of Act Up, who I will always feel indebted to, but because I flash back to childhood fears. I am sure it was less scary for me, as a pre-teen growing up in the far-cast shadow of it, than to actually be on the front line trenches watching your friends die. I regularly read Joe Jervis' "I will hold you ten times" and wonder at the fear and heartbreak it captures. But for me, AIDS was the terrible boogeyman that was going to kill me.

But I also cry with relief, because thanks to so much work, especially by the Act Up protesters who refused to let this epidemic go unwatched, I can look at my two sons and know that their chance of dying of Aids is far smaller than mine was growing up. I also know that should one of them turn out to be gay or bi, they will never see a world where human beings are willing to sit by and watch them die, because of who they choose to love.