On the matter of freedom, liberty, and equality

The foundation of liberal democracies is that we are permitted to think freely. It is something that we who live in these, although not technically secular societies (such as state churches, like the Church of England, and in Germany, where Sunday — the “Sabbath” — is still a legally enforced day off), in practice we are free to choose our own beliefs. If they infringe no-body else’s right to freedom and a happy existence, we are able to think as we please. Our beliefs and thoughts are a private matter, unless we choose otherwise.  There are few laws limiting what we can or cannot say.

Those that do are in place to protect other’s rights to liberty and happiness. These laws, though, cover the impact these views have on others, rather than the mere thinking  of them. Being sexist or racist in your own mind is your business. If you discriminate in the work place, or are openly hostile to individuals that in your own mind you dislike for no reason other than what they look like or where they come from, then the legal system can come crashing down upon you viciously.

This is a privilege we all take for granted.

A further liberal privilege is that of freedom of action and opportunity. In countries such as mine — and many of yours — men and women are seen as completely equal in law. There are still societal, gender-based biases in both directions, but these are mostly social, not legal.

We can, though, go where we like, when we like. There are no laws saying that men can do this, but women can’t. No laws stating that boys go to school, but girls don’t. No laws prohibiting women from being lawyers, and no laws making it illegal for men to be caregivers for children or the elderly. There is a social stigma attached to men who work in traditionally feminine fields, such as childcare. Women have mostly succeeded in convincing the population that whatever a man can to do, a woman can do too. There are still some dinosaurs roaming the earth, but their numbers are dwindling.

Still, men, women, girls and boys, black, white, Asian, whichever religion they happen to follow (if any), are technically equal under the law. They then should be assessed on their merits (and demerits), when seeking employment, education, or any other benefit bestowed upon citizens/residents of any given nation. As is the law.

This is a privilege we all take for granted.

My final major privilege is key to understanding the world today. It is the reason for me sitting down and writing this.

As I sit in my warm Frankfurt apartment, there is a drizzly rain outside. I am safe, comfortable, and warm. The chances of an intruder are slim. I have three bolts on my front door, plus the door downstairs, and Frankfurt is a very safe city. I’m fairly confident that if I fell asleep outside, or passed out from a night of far too much beer, that my wallet would still be in my pocket. And pretty sure that I would wake up at all, for that matter.

I am confident that no gunfire will shatter my windows. I’m pretty damn sure that there will be no missile fire that will obliterate the side of my building, possibly taking my life and those of my wife and children. The chance of this happening is so low it is absurd to even think about it.

And yet I do think about it. Why? I guess as I’ve waffled on this far, I should say why.

Out of all the things I could think of, why would I conjure up, willingly, the image of my home and family being torn out of my life through the violence (as “Collateral damage”, to use that terrible euphemism) brought about by an argument I have nothing to do with? What good would come of that?

Simple. Empathy.

And that brings me to now, and the whole purpose of this essay. As I sit in my comfort zone, across northern Africa and the Middle East wars and sectarianism are tearing lives apart. Those with the means (as in money, and a presumed education that made that money possible), are seeking to leave these torn and persecuted lands. Leaving these places where the chance of a brutal death is very high. If it is quick, you are lucky. For many it is long and torturous, in spite of their innocence. Those fleeing this violence seek only those things we take for granted: Safety, Security, Freedom, Equality.

Those that make it to our shores, after their long and arduous journeys, find another, very surprising thing waiting for them. Europe has long shone its beacon of acceptance across the waters and valleys of the world. Whatever colour you are, whatever you think, whatever you want to do, you can have a place in our societies.

Instead of those values we promote, and their acceptance, they often meet hatred. Even in the numbers that support and welcome these people, there are many in the margins who hate them simply for being here; for being in a place they feel they do not deserve to be. In the mind of the xenophobe, the racist, the nationalist, a person of their origin can never belong, no matter how well they integrate into the society.

Our politicians, like British Prime Minister David Cameron, have referred to them in terms not usually used to describe humans; a swarm. That word is generally reserved for pests, or groups of flying insects that tend  not to be agreeable to human contact. (I for one wouldn’t like being around a “swarm” of bees)

Public figures, such as the vile Katie Hopkins: Writing in The Sun — a part of the British gutter press, that makes its name by topless ladies on its infamous Page 3, sensationalist “news” that is invariably unreliable, with facts twisted to suit their agenda, and celebrity gossip — described the refugees as “cockroaches”. This, to me, brings forth echoes of Nazi ideology, and their demonising of minorities as dirty and unworthy. But it has an even stronger correlation to the lead up to Rwandan massacre in the 90s. It treats them not as humans, but turns them into pests. And what do people do with pests such as cockroaches? Exterminate. Hopkins went on to suggest in the same piece, rather than using rescue ships to save people from the treacherous sea, she would use gun ships to solve the issue. The fact that a person has this view does not surprise me. That it was published in the best selling “news” paper in the UK does. Even with my knowledge of its place in the press.

But such a view as Hopkins’ is not to be taken lightly. If there is one within the media world who thought it, how many normal people also think it? There may be 100s of thousands of people who support the helping of refugees, but how many thousands are going to be tormenting them while they are here? These tormenters may not have guns, and the pain may be mostly psychological, but a person can only take so much hatred on the streets.

Her view, and her terminology, allows those who are not informed  (Sun readers, so…), not holding a worldly international view, to see these people with whom they already find it hard to connect with as even more distant. “They’re not people who need help, they’re a disease, a pest to be exterminated… we don’t want pests in our country.” So, the headlines which say on devastating regularity, “x00 die at sea”, “x00 feared dead after boat capsizes”, mean nothing to them. For many, I believe, it is a good thing. It means fewer succeeding in making the crossing to Europe.

But these are people: men, women, children. Families with hopes of just enjoying everything we take for granted. Their country has been ripped apart by war (something very few reading this could ever contemplate happening to them). It is something we have forgotten.

Not too many years ago, our continent was ravaged by war. Our children were refugees in their own country. People took them in. Those persecuted minorities during WW2, many fled west, to Great Britain or the United States. These people would have died were they not able to get to a place of safety. How have we changed? Or have we? Maybe we just paint history with a red sheen, tinting the war period of 1939-45 as a time when our brave British men fought hard against tyranny, alongside Commonwealth and American allies. We were a nation of heroes, fighting hatred. How could we have been hating at home? We remember the good things in the history books, not the bad.

So, in their journey to their safe haven, the main entry points have been Italy or Greece. Technically speaking, refugees should register in the first country they land. Once registered as a refugee, they must remain. This of course proves problematic. Greece, for one, is crippled because of the financial crisis, and severe austerity measures enforced by their EU creditors. An already crippled economy, they couldn’t possibly hope to cope with the scale of people seeking refuge. Or Italy? How many 10s of thousands landed in Italy? According to The Economist (Aug 29th 2015), about 270,000 boat people have reached Europe. How could two nations possibly hope to cope with that, particularly with one of them struggling cope even with their own finances just to keep basic services running.

But these demonised boat people face a continent of about 500,000,000 people. Within that continent, there are some of the wealthiest economies in the world. 270,000 people spread across the continent would barely make a mark. Of course we should not forget about the millions of displaced people who did not have the money to pay the people traffickers for their unsafe passage. Those millions living in camps in countries neighbouring the conflict zone, such as Turkey or Lebanon also need help. But, with the vicious reaction that some have faced (these countries’ own ignorant right wingers), are then choosing to make the journey onwards, rather than face torment, robbery, and violence at the hands of those people in a so-called “safe country”.

The refugees that most of the public are fretting about, though, are not the millions in Lebanon and Turkey (many seem to think that there are none there, in fact, assuming that all of the refugees fleeing the Syrian war and other persecution are heading towards Europe), but the boat people.

Most European countries seem to be resisting. Most resistant are the Eastern European countries, particularly Hungary. Hungary’s treatment of these people has been disgraceful. Penning them up, as a person from Human Rights Watch described, and “Treating them like animals,” or locking them up like criminals. That they entered Europe illegally is without question. But exactly what were they supposed to do? Apply for a visa at their local consulate?

David Cameron had as one of his main election pledges, drive down immigration. This is important, as this rhetoric that has been flying around for a long time, especially leading up to the UK General Election earlier this year. Scared by UKIP and the anti-migrant mob, all parties started parroting the same “Drive down immigration” drivel. This has muddied the water when it comes to the refugee issue. For years, people have been getting used to the idea that it’s okay to dislike migrants. They are people who just want to hop across the water, live on benefits from a generous social system, and get free healthcare that they never paid for.

Anybody who knows anything about the British benefits system knows that it is not very generous, particularly since the Conservatives have been running things (in coalition with the Liberal Democrats from 2010-2015, and now with a slim majority), but British nationalists are always convinced that people are knocking down our doors, sneaking in the back gate, just to get to our golden paved streets. It may be the case that some migrants enter the UK with the thought of an easier life, but not for the reasons the nationalists think.

Narrowly elected earlier in 2015, David Cameron and his cohort has been implementing severe cuts, under the banner of austerity (or “live within our means”, in Tory talk): cutting benefits, cutting funding, and cutting grants. This comes the crux of our nation’s problem, and a large part of the resistance stems from this.

Once refugees are accepted, they need to be housed.  Once housed, they need to be granted state benefits, as they are not permitted to seek gainful employment (except, in a very limited way, in some understaffed areas, such as nursing). Allowing them unrestricted access to employment would cause a different backlash, as there are already too few jobs for those already resident in the UK. Caring for these desperate people, from such desperate situations, while eroding those things they offer to British nationals also in desperation of course causes a backlash. In my view, however, just because the government doesn’t give a damn about the less off of our own people, it doesn’t mean we should stand by and see our government do nothing while people are dying, just trying to reach safety, particularly when they are fleeing from a conflict largely caused by our country’s actions in the region.

So, when they have exhibited a lack of care for our own nationals, why should they care about a bunch of scruffy dark people from the middle east and Africa? If a moral obligation to help those persecuted isn’t sufficient, would not the part they played in destabilising the region be reason enough to help? Maybe if they had a huge amount of oil and wealth they would be more inclined to step in and support them. People pushed out of their homes by violence and oppression very often just feel they are lucky to be alive. Riches to them are unimportant and mostly non-existent. Living with the freedom and liberties we all take for granted is all they seek.

I want to close this reflection with a discussion on equality. This is a matter I’m very passionate about and is reflected, overtly and covertly, in everything I have heretofore discussed.

Internationally, there is arrogance. There is a belief that our nations, those of European ancestry, are somehow superior to others. We have great opportunities, we have safety, and enjoy so many privileges. Many feel that if we help those fleeing persecution then ultimately we may infringe our own rights and privileges. The privilege of finding employment, the right to find a home, and housing a refugee family ultimately would mean that another family could not live in the same residence. Some feel that if a home can be found for a refugee family, then it should be found for a British family.

What is particularly interesting to me, though, is that most seem not to care about those coming from other perceived wealthy nations. Do you ever hear Britons complaining about the German family, or the American man, or the French student who moved in on their street? Or perhaps an American complain about Canadians? Compare that to what you hear about people coming eastern European countries, such as Poland, or Asian countries, or middle eastern countries. And think about what Americans say about those south of the border, from places like Mexico. The reception they receive is very different.

The question I pose is “Why?” Why should these fellow humans be treated so differently.

The first obvious reason is “race”. Even in supposedly non-racist people, there is a general subconscious fear and skepticism of anything unknown or different. This extends to subcultures that do not fit within cultural paradigms of the moment. A person’s skin colour, as well as other race related traits, instantly mark people as outsiders. Outsiders, by default, seem to be distrusted by many. They are liars, thieves, robbers, until they are proved to be otherwise…guilty until proven innocent, in other words. The complete reverse of the basic guiding light of our legal system.

Exacerbating this for those who lack an internationalist outlook, is the perceived difference in culture. Cultural difference, such as food and clothing, language and natural cultural norms (like thanking at a certain point in an interaction, or holding the door open for a person coming through a door behind you, are not universal). A black man in a business suit raises no eyebrows, as there are many black Britons. The same man wearing traditional dress from an African nation would be instantly marked as an outsider — “Not one of us” —  and therefore someone to mistrust until their innocence has been proven.

The foundation of this view is the Euro-centric view of our culture being the pinnacle point of civilisation. European culture has spread far, with our globetrotting Empires. Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, North and South American nations, were all founded by European cultures, no matter how distant they may seem today. This globetrotting often came at a cost to the “native” population of the country landed in. European firepower was strong, and overwhelmed any weapons the other civilisation would have had.

When there was conflict, there were slaughters.

Interestingly, though, Central and South American countries seem to not retain this European privilege. Could it be a racial issue? As British migrants set up home in what is now eastern North America, they shut themselves off, isolating themselves from the native population. In the south, however, the Spanish and Portuguese did not to the same degree. This resulted in relationships and breeding between the cultures. Nobody considers the European Spanish or Portuguese as anything but white. In the Americas, though, the racial divide is fierce.

It is these divisions that paint the foreigner as a person to mistrust. In such a wide and colourful world it is sad to see so many people perishing because they just seek the things that we all enjoy, and have as a birthright. A person with a worldly, international view understands that although we may have cultural and even physical differences, our humanity binds us together.

Ignorance of the world leads to an insular view. Insular views lead to nationalist, protectionist, and racist ideologies.

Our differences are only cosmetic… Inside, we are all the same.