I spent many years at Glasgow University; six years as an undergraduate learning medicine and a further decade later on when I worked as a lecturer in the medical faculty. During this time, I learnt about many of the illustrious ex-alumni such as Joseph Lister, Tobias Smollett, William Hunter and A.J. Cronin to name a few. However, to my shame, I did not until recently know the name of perhaps one of its most important sons – James McCune Smith (1813-1865). If the University can be proud of any part of its heritage its role in this gentleman’s education is one it should cherish.
James McCune Smith was born in slavery but was emancipated at the age of 14. Despite this emancipation no University in America would take this intelligent young man as a student because he was black, and his emancipation didn’t mean the end of racial discrimination. Being exceptionally bright the African Free School in New York and Abolitionist societies in Britain arranged to pay for his transport and education in Glasgow University. His promise was confirmed when he graduated at the top of his class and graduated with degrees in 1835, 1836 and 1837.
He was the first African-American to obtain a medical degree. He undertook his internship in Paris before returning to America to set up practice in lower Manhattan and work as the resident physician at the ‘Colored Orphan Asylum‘. He was a prolific writer and active in political circles. Indeed, Frederick Douglass described him as “the single most important influence” on his life and another commentator at the time noted “As the learned physician-scholar of the abolition movement, Smith was instrumental in making the overthrow of slavery credible and successful“. He was the first black man to have an articles published in American medical journals and he established the first black owned and run pharmacy in the United States. Despite all his success no New York Medical association, nor the American Medical Association, would accept him as a member because of his race. Racial discrimination followed him, despite the many successes of the abolitionist and emancipation societies over the years, and he was buried in an unmarked grave by his pale-skinned children to escape racial prejudice.
Glasgow University is to open a new learning hub building and intend to name it in James McCune Smith’s honour. It is about time. Hopefully future doctors in training won’t remain as shamefully ignorant, as I was, about the history of one of our most important colleagues.
It was International Holocaust Memorial Day yesterday here in the U.K. . There was surprisingly little note paid to it and the fears that we could forget this monstrous horror in our history seemed more likely this year than before. Thankfully the BBC had shown the film ‘Son of Saul’ the evening before and I decided to watch this in order to think on the significance of the day.
It is unfortunate that this film is not better known. It is a stunning debut by László Nemes and hard to believe that this is a first film. Although there are a number of eminent films focussing on the holocaust, I think it is fair to say that none are as effective as this one in evoking a sense of the horror that this entailed. This film follows Saul, a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, over the last two days of his life.
The film is shot, almost entirely, in close proximity to Saul so that his head and shoulders almost fill the frame. We follow him as he makes his way through the hell in which he is living. This has a duel effect.
Firstly, due to the shallow depth of field much of what happens around Saul is out of focus and blurred. We can work out what is happening and know the depravity that is there. This gives the effect of placing us, like Saul, in the position of trying to not look at what is happening but being unable to ignore what is occuring all around.
Secondly, as Saul moves from place to place at the whim, and under the blows of others we share his feeling of loss of control. He moves in a sea of sounds; cries, yelps, barked orders and screams. Various languages are used and little is explained but everything is understood in brutal clarity. Saul’s face remains impassive and blank throughout most of the film , as the ‘learned helplessness’ and need to appear submissive act as his protection – internally against despair and externally against beatings and retributions. There are only a couple of short periods when his face shows feeling and the acting, by Géza Röhrig , in this regard is simply stunning – with minimal movement entire emotions are revealed.
During the two days, we share of Saul’s life, he is in a desparate quest to try and arrange the burial of a boy who survived the gas chamber only to be deliberately suffocated by a medical attendant. We are never really sure why the boy is important to Saul and why his body has taken such signifiance (Compared to all the other bodies, bluntly termed “pieces“, of which the Sonderkommandos disposed). But this little fragment of humanity, and link to his faith, give him for a period some purpose.
However, this sense of purpose does not necessarily mean hope. Unlike other films tackling this subject, such as Schindler’s List or Life is Beautiful, there is no respite here. There are people acting heroically in the face of overwhelming odds but there are no heroes hiding on the sidelines. There are few glimmers of light and while it does remind us that the human spirit can sometimes survive against all the odds it also, much more importantly, reminds us of the depravity to which mankind can descend. The increasing reports of antisemitism in the UK and on mainland Europe have made Holocaust Memorial Day more important than before. Films, like this one, may counter the danger of the passage of time making our memories weak and leaving us unaware of the true nature and danger of fascism. The first step in protecting ourselves is to ensure that we never forget.
This week Denmark’s parliament voted to pass a law which effectively bans Muslim women wearing either the Burqa or Niqab in public places. In this they have joined a number of other European countries in introducing such a ban ; France, Belgium, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland have similar bans, or partial bans, in some areas. The reasons given for these bans, including the most recent one, is always the apparently sensible need to have an uncovered face during some interactions for security or clarity of communication. However, despite the protestations that these bans are not aimed at the Muslim populations particularly it is clear that this is not the case.
The Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen was quite clear that he though these aspects of religious observance by Muslims were not welcome in Denmark when, in 2010, he said
“the burqa and the niqab do not have their place in the Danish society. They symbolize a conception of the woman and of the humanity to which we are fundamentally opposed and that we want to fight in the Danish society,”
I also think it is unlikely that any undecided voters could have mistaken the intention behind the poster used by the Danish Peoples’ Party who supported a stronger version of the law, including prison sentences, which quite clearly has Muslim women in its sights :-
It is clear that, despite all the protestations that these laws and bans are in place to improve communication and safety and that they have no particular religion in mind, these laws all stem from a desire to make life difficult for Muslim women in these countries. It is disingenuous to say otherwise and to try and present them acts of a liberal society.
Across Europe there have been many changes to societies and these have included the effects of mass migration. Cultures which were previously Christian now find themselves largely secular and populations which were previously homogenous are now much more mixed. While there are aspects of these changes which are welcomed and beneficial there are also many aspects which people find disadvantageous and worrisome. This is particularly so to the elderly and the working class.
The elderly see the erosion of faith and religion in their culture and the growth of new, and strange, faiths. Often these religions appear hostile to each other. The well published wars raging in the middle-east and the importation of terrorism to European cities will cause, more than just the elderly, to become fearful. And in this regard the term islamophobia may be correct, they do fear the growth of Islam, and are not reassured when they see the persecution of Christians in the Middle East or local police activity oin their capitals.
The working class believe mass migration has allowed their wages to be undercut and living standards to fall and made them fear for their and their families future. In times of stress they see their welfare states failing to meet the demands placed upon it and start to question whether it is being spread too thinly. Welfare states survive because we all feel “we are all in it together”, it is the governmental form of our collective identity, and it operates best when people feel a sense of social cohesion. We all want the best for our neighbours as we can understand them and their predicaments. However, as societies become increasingly diverse that cohesion is loosened and the willingness to share with those we don’t recognise as “like us” is reduced.
These groups, and others, think on the group level. They think about “them” not about the individual, not about their specific neighbour, not about A’ishah and Zarif and their kids next door. The more people know people from other cultures the less they fear them. Those who report the most hostility to strangers are those who have the least interactions with them. It is true to say that those living in the very diverse cities tend to have less xenophobic feelings to those living in small rural backwaters.
Day to day, first hand experience, does a great deal to counter prejudice and bigotry. Knowledge is the best antidote ignorance and the best source of knowledge is communication. Unfortunately communication in this particular area has been bvery poor. The major migration shifts were never discussed and now the problems people perceive, rightly or wrongly, are not discussed either. When attempts have been made to question aspects of migration which are seen to be adverse all too often the response has been to shut the debate down with cries that “You can’t say that. You are being racist“. While this does effectively shut down conversation it does not sort the problem. Those with concerns still have concerns but now know they are not allowed to discuss them. They know that they are no longer seen as part of polite society.
Unable to discuss their concern they have to try new strategies. They switch from unacceptable concerns (“I’m worried about my job prospects”, “I worry there are not enough maternity beds”) to proxy concerns “I think it is terrible the way these womens’ faces are covered” which allows them to attack the group without appearing to do so. This is what is happening with these clothing bans, although with very little that obscures the true intention.
As an aside, a further danger of this refusal to discuss these concerns, is that it actually creates the problem that is feared. If someone can’t discuss their worries, and feels they are defined as a racist for doing so, may come to think “I’m as well hung for a sheep as a lamb” and start listening to those who wish to foment racial tensions and divides. Much of the success of Brexit, Trump, and the populist parties in Europe can be seen as a popular response to a ruling class which will not honestly debate concerns – they are then forced to listen.
I fear that this Danish ban, and the others preceding it, are signs of the tension that arises from problems with our social cohesion. The European Court of Human Rights has allowed these bans as they (Denmark, Belgium, France) stating that it is reasonable to infringe the individual’s right or religious freedom for the sake of “living together” and “community values”. The hallmark of a tolerant society is that it people live together despite having different views of the world and different habits and behaviours. A tolerant society is one in which the minority is tolerated and not forced to bend to fit the majority’s wishes. The EHCR ruling flies in the face of basic Human Rights by supporting the idea that some individual human rights can be jettisoned for the benefit of the greater good. This approach is always fine when you are one of the majority. Those who support this strategy should consider their future. Their delight at banning the burqa might in hindsight seem misguided, if (although unlikely) 50 years from now the majority population were Islamic. Sometimes our mistakes are much clearer in retrospect.
This ban will also fail to do what we need. We need more integration and this only comes from communication. As we intermingle and interact with others we learn of each others beliefs and opinions. Through this we adopt and change, we integrate. Over time cultures live side by side and benefit equally from each other. I look at the many Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and other who are fully integrated members of my community. Certainly they practice a different religion but otherwise you could not tell them form any other member of our society. They are shopkeepers, doctors, plumbers, taxi drivers, neighbours, friends and , increasingly, family much more than they are Jews or Bhuddist or whatever.
These bans push us apart and cause us to see others as “them”. It increases the divides between us and increases the fears and worries that are there. If we really were worried about the woman’s role in Islam this is completely the wrong way to proceed. An observant woman is not going to abandon her faith just because of an ill-thought law. This law may mean that the woman doesn’t venture out now in public places and be less influenced by aspects of our culture which promote female equality and liberation. It may keep her in the home, where she is much more so under the influence of her cultural leaders. If we really wish to help woman relinquish the burqa the way to do so is by showing that living a good and moral life without is entirely possible and discussing the issue. Unfortunately you are unlikely to discuss things with people who seem to be attacking you.
You can not compel someone into a religion. Obedience is not observance. If we wish to see religious and moral beliefs change it will occur by example. By showing that an open culture is a successful culture, by showing that equality and religion and good bed-fellows, people may start to think. If your moral beliefs and religious ideals are superior to others then your life and actions will showcase them. You will become the example and encourage others to follow. Many people come to Europe because it is a liberal and tolerant culture. We must display that tolerance and openness if we want it to continue. This is especially important at times when we feel uncertain or afraid, it is when we are tested that our true metal is revealed. If we think freedom and religious expression are important we need to defend them. Not just for ourselves but also for others.
In civilised society we like to think that racism is a vestige of our barbaric past, a hateful thing which has no place in modern society. No-one would admit to holding racist views and we can presume that all reasonably minded people would consider racism a stain on their character. We know that it was responsible for the worst aspects of mankind’s behaviour and feel ashamed and sorry about it. While we know it should be a thing of the past we are still aware that it is encountered today and it continues to blight the lives of many. Few things are as unambiguously wrong, and potentially evil, as the belief that your race is superior to other races. It can be the first slipepry step on a slope that descends to barbarism. It is for this reason that we need to be vigilant and decry racism whenever it raises its head.
I was therefore distressed when I saw reports that there were calls to boycott H&M on account of a racist advert which I have included here. Normally I would not repeat a racist image or text but it is important in this case. I looked at the advert for quite a while trying to see the offense which was intended but failed. All I initially see was a handsome young man modelling a hoodie. I wondered if it was the association with the “hoodie” that was the problem but after reading the text and other articles I discovered that it was the slogan which was causing concern – “The coolest monkey in the jungle“.
The hoodie was part of a range that had the theme of animals and the jungle, some of the other hoodies had featured lions and giraffes and some had been modelled by young white kids. I discovered that the outrage was at the use of the word “monkey” in an advert using a young man of colour. Now lets be clear, the phrase “monkey” and “cheeky monkey” are commonly used to describe kids, especially boys, of any colour or race. It is an affectionate term and, at worst, the mildest of terms of opprobrium. I found it hard to see that this was an insult.
On reading further, it was clear that some people thought that this use of “monkey” and “jungle” was a slur on people of colour but one has to consider who has made this into a slur. It is inconceivable that H&M intended to insult its customers and estrange a large part of the buying public, especially as this advert was aimed at its South African market where they would be the majority of its customers. It would be for this reason that it had a young guy of colour as the model as previously they had been criticised for their lack of diversity in their models. Their intention would have been to be more diverse and more inclusive not to insult or mock.
This is reminiscent of when Benedict Cumberbatch said “I think as far as colored actors go it gets really difficult in the UK.” His intention had been to draw attention to the racism that exists in the media industry (Having just worked on the film “Ten Years a Slave”), but he was drawn over the coals and called a racist for the use of the term “colored”. No-one genuinely thought that he had racist intentions but some people thought that they could call out the race card and increase their own social standing.
This is what happened here. A number of celebrities saw the opportunity to use racism to further their own careers. Choreographer Somizi Mhlongo, the singer Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, known professionally as The Weeknd, Rapper Diddy, and others saw the opportunity for cheap self-promotion through calls to boycott H&M. In their minds there was a connection between jungles, monkeys and young men of colour even if no-one else had thought this. They started the calls for attention, not so much to fix and evil, but to praise their vigilance and to raise their own profiles. Their campaign was vociferous and in a very unpleasant twist lead to the mother of the young boy in the advert being at the receiving end of racist abuse.
If there was racist thinking here, it was in the minds of those that started the campaign against this advert. It was they that thought such unworthy thoughts and it was they that tried to use the issue of race to their advantage : no-one else. As the boys mother said :-
“[I] am the mum and this is one of hundreds of outfits my son has modelled. Stop crying wolf all the time, unnecessary issue here. Get over it.”
She is also right on the big risk here. We all remember the little boy who cried wolf so often than when the wolf really did arrive nobody believed him. When people call “racist“, knowing that this was not intended nor the case, they make it more difficult to be aware and ready when the real call to action arises. Repeated false alarms lead people to ignore the warning signs. Watching what is happening in the world, in America and the Middle East especially, we know that racism is sometimes just bubbling under the surface of our lives. We need to remain vigilant and campaigns like this are a dangerous distraction we need to be able to hear the signal over the static.
I’d be tempted to boycott The Weeknd and Diddy to teach them a lesson but given I never buy any of their products anyway I guess it would have a negligible effect.
Another atrocity, six innocent men gunned down, while at their devotions, 19 others injured and 5 remain in a critical condition. Again we are witness to innocent people, slaughtered as thy try to get on with their lives and again we know that wives have been left widowed and children fatherless for no reason.
This time, it seems highly likely that a young man with right-wing nationalist views (Alexandre Bissonnette) is responsible for this horror. If it is he, we will no doubt discover that he, like Dylan Roof and Omar Mateen and many others before him, was a warped young man unable to tolerate those he disagreed with, unable to tolerate those different to him. It is no surprise that these people choose their targets by features which mark out their group as different to his group; the white supremacist attacking those performing their religious duties while the jihadist identifies those participating in banned activities.
Terrorists from both groups are much more similar than they would like to imagine, both see themselves as warriors defending their group against the others or avenging wrongs done by the other group. While these are extreme members of their groups, this tendency to see politics and life in terms of groups is a major problem. It does not matter if the group is defined by religion or race, nation or class, heritage or any other tribal banding, viewing the world in this manner distorts our society.
Humans are intrinsically social animals. We don’t survive in isolation and instinctively seek out our fellows. Despite what dystopian films and novels may tell us, in good times and bad we band together to cooperate, help and trade. We find ways to be with others that is mutually beneficial. It is important to recognise that xenophobia and fear of others is commonest in people who have little contact with other groups. When we have to opportunity to mix and mingle we find ways to make this benefit both ourselves and the others and fear quickly dissipates. When we are left to our own devices we create an emergent order which is beneficial to all. This only goes wrong when we are grouped and ruled.
This is not simply the old story of “divide and rule” but rather “categorise and control“. When we are encourage to see ourselves as members of groups ( American, Christian, Black, Lesbian, Working Class, Welsh, Jewish, Islamic, Aryan, etc) we are encouraged to see the differences we have with others. We are encouraged to view others as being not only different but wrong and potentially threatening. We are encouraged to feel under threat and in need of protection. And in responce to this perceived threat, there are usually a group of people (politicians, clergy, kings, inspired leaders, etc) who will guard us and look after our interests. These are the people who benefit from this grouping, they now hold the power (and usually a great deal of the wealth) as they control how we may and may not interact to preserve our group. All their power comes from controlling spontaneous activity by individuals and disappears if people are allowed to interact freely.
Once in our groups we are encouraged to view all problems in terms of this. It leads to partisan and transactional politics. Our group is always right, the other always wrong. Our problems come from the malevolence of the other group. While watching the coverage of Quebec I noticed on social media the cheerleaders of each group swinging into action. Those on the alt-right ecstatic when it looked as if a muslim might have been involved (erroneously), the progressives cock-a-hoop at having another timely white nationalist terrorist just in time for the fight with Trump about closing borders. Our politics have descended into this. We are unable to discuss issues without this being along the lines of our group identities. This means we fail to develop and change as quickly as we might otherwise be able.
The Quebec tragedy will end up being defined as a battle between those fearing islamophobia and those fearing islamofascism. Left to their own devices, followers of different faiths would cooperate happily and beneficially. When they are individuals they find a way to coexist in a way that benefits all, it is only when they are pushed into groups that hatred such as this arises. It is leaders who lead us down these dark alleys of discrimination and violence.
Remember the men who lost their lives in Quebec, remember them as real people like you or I, remember them as fathers or sons like you or I, remember them as individuals. Don’t think that their religion makes what happened to them explicable in any manner, nor does it explain their murderer’s actions. Don’t force them into a group and don’t let yourself be forced into a group. When we stay as individual units we remain individually responsible and recognise that we have the same rights as everyone else. Maintaining this is our only hope of preventing future tragedies. The first step in murder and maltreatment is making the victim an exemplar of a group rather than an individual. The second step is removing our own individual responsibility by passing it to a higher authority. Don’t be pushed to take these dangerous steps.