Archive for October 2012

Dr. Denis Mukwege: Not a Great African Martyr

Dr. Denis Mukwege, of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a truly great human being.  From all accounts that I have so far read and heard of him, he is tireless, inspirational and selfless.  And that is what is so worryingly familiar about his narrative.  The very real danger, unless entirely clear steps are taken, is that he will end up as yet another Great African Martyr.

Two days ago, Dr. Mukwege survived an attempt on his life.  A group of armed men burst into his home, held his two young daughters and their friend at gunpoint, and killed a man who worked for him.  It is fair to conclude that he was targeted because of his extraordinary work.

For the last decade and a half Dr. Mukwege and his colleagues have treated around 30,000 women for violent sexual injuries sustained during his country’s brutal internal conflict. The founder of the world-renowned but poorly-funded Panzi hospital has also travelled the globe as an advocate for women’s rights, and it is due to his outspoken nature that someone now seeks his life.  To take but one example, please read his short and powerful address to the United Nations on September 25 this year, where he eschewed easy platitudes and instead spoke of the unacceptable state of affairs in the modern DRC:

“This has been going on for 16 years!  16 years of errancy; 16 years of torture; 16 years or mutilation; 16 years of the destruction of women, the only vital Congolese resources; 16 years of destruction of an entire society.” (My italics.)

The rest of the piece can be seen at this link. Yet, as can be seen above, whilst many salivate over the material wealth deep within the DRC’s soil, Dr. Mukwege correctly recognises that a country’s true wealth will always be its people.  Such a vision is compelling and rare, and must be nurtured as far as possible.

The fact that Dr. Mukwege narrowly escaped with life should throw all of his exceptional efforts into into the sharpest focus.  Few people are renowned for their medical skills, their campaigning and their compassion.  Dr. Mukwege is renowned for all three.  There are two simple steps that the international community, whom he criticised elsewhere in his UN speech for their “fear and lack of courage”, must now take to protect him and his unique gifts.  First, they can provide him and his family with appropriate security for as many years as he needs it.  Secondly, they can provide him and colleagues with unrestricted funding, or “core support”, for their hospital in Bukavu for the next few years.  It is only with this certainty of both safety and financial resources that his essential work can continue unabated.

The Great African Martyr is a shadow that hangs over much of the continent’s recent history.  So many of its most-loved sons and daughters were brutally murdered before they had a chance to complete their humanitarian deeds, for which Africa today is undoubtedly far poorer.  The most resonant memory to my mind is that of Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was bludgeoned to death by Idi Amin and his henchmen in the Seventies.  But there are so many others.  People who struggled on against the odds whilst the world looked on anxiously, but ultimately from a comfortable distance: and whom, when they each met a demise of unutterable cruelty, the world then mourned and for the most part gently forgot.

This cannot happen to Dr. Mukwege.  He cannot be someone whom we wistfully remember at dinner parties and conferences for years to come.  His rightful place is not as some premature photo on a dusty mantelpiece.  No.  We have had too many Great African Martyrs, and he will not be another.  The women who he has helped and will carry on helping need him far too much for that: Africa needs him far too much for that.  So I propose that the legacy of this attempted assassination should be that he lives until old age, happy and healthy, with the money and the safety that he needs to fulfil his mission.  All in favour, please say “Aye”.

Pride and Prejudice: Kick It Out, Ferdinand, Ferguson and the FA

The story is now so well-known that I will not dwell on it too long.  Yesterday, Rio Ferdinand, in defiance of his manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s wishes, refused to wear a Kick It Out T-shirt.  His refusal was due to the fact that he, like his fellow protester Jason Roberts, felt that football’s authorities were not doing enough to combat racism within the game.  Since Kick It Out – whose work is tireless, but whose remit and influence is sorely limited – derives the overwhelming majority of its funding from the FA, the PFA and the Premier League, Ferdinand identified them as the symbol of his discontent. Ferguson spoke afterwards of his embarrassment at Ferdinand’s refusal to toe the party line, and of his intention to punish Ferdinand. Whether that punishment will take the form of a fine or a fierce talking-to is still anyone’s guess.

A widespread view is that Ferguson – who, it must be noted, steadfastly supported Ferdinand throughout the Terry case – has got this call wrong, in that he has put his own pride ahead of Ferdinand’s anger at the FA’s perceived weakness in dealing with prejudice.  I will add two points here.

First, the protest that Roberts and Ferdinand are making appears to be against the enabling of racism by football’s institutions.  That is a far more difficult animal to tackle than racism from the crowds.  A monkey chant is readily identifiable by audio or video.  It is easy, comforting and cathartic to unite against the monkey chanter because the monkey chanter is outside football.  He or she is in the crowd and can simply and summarily be excluded from the game.  But what – and here is the more uncomfortable question – if there are those in senior positions in the game who actively or passively enable racist behaviour?  Joleon Lescott has not worn a Kick It Out T-Shirt since 2007, when he was at Everton. This is not because he is angry at racist chanting from the crowds.  This is because he felt that the authorities should have been stronger in dealing with Emre, the Turkey midfielder then at Newcastle United, who allegedly directed racist abuse at Joseph Yobo, Lescott’s fellow defender.  In this case, for which Lescott provided written evidence, Emre escaped punishment.  Lescott has found far less support or publicity for his stance than those who support the wearing of Kick It Out T-Shirts.  But it may be that his stance is of equal importance.  What is more, given that football is a self-regulating sport, there is no organisation with the independence to defend his position tirelessly.

Secondly, it is notable that high-profile black and mixed-race players, either still playing or as pundits, are themselves divided over the T-shirt controversy.  Viv Anderson, the first black footballer to play for England, and Ian Wright believe that no-one should have boycotted the T-shirt.  David James, whilst criticising the “anti-racism industry”, believes that the FA were too slow to deal with the John Terry affair, particularly in the light of the revelation by the Crown Prosecution Service that they did not delay the FA from taking speedier proceedings against John Terry.

I wonder whether there is something of a generational divide between Britain’s ethnic minority footballers: between the older guard, who remember racism as being far more overt and shocking, and the younger crowd, who have emerged into a world where most of football’s demons with regards to race have been swept aside (or, cynically speaking, under the carpet).  I wonder whether the older guard look at the younger group of protesters and think, “it was far worse in my day; toe the line and build on the advances that we painstakingly made.”  And I wonder whether the younger ones think, “yes, but we have more freedom today to say what you couldn’t.  The time for biting our lips is past”.

The older guard would have had to deal with colleagues who were initially either racist or ignorant but who have over time become loved or trusted friends.  They would have had to help these colleagues to work through their prejudices, a process that would have taken great patience and which in any case would have been necessary for the furtherance of their careers. As Bob Hazell, the former professional footballer for Wolves, Leicester, QPR and Port Vale tweeted earlier today, “me & my generation spoke about ‘ignoring it’ and ‘it inspires us to play better’.  We never spoke of feeling hurt devalued and fucking angry.’”  Back then, that was just the way things were.  They had to compromise.  The younger crowd would have grown up in a world where racism was not the norm, it was abhorrent, and so are more confident to call it out.  They have not had to compromise nearly so much.  In that context, why should they engage in what they see, quite literally, as an exercise in window-dressing?

T-Shirt or Not T-Shirt: Kick It Out and Jason Roberts

The key symbol of racism in football this week is not the handshake, it is the T-shirt.  Jason Roberts has refused to wear his Kick It Out T-shirt this weekend in protest that the organisation has not done enough to combat racial discrimination in the sport.  As the Reading striker told BBC Sport, “I’m totally committed to kicking racism out of football but when there’s a movement I feel represents the issue in the way that speaks for me and my colleagues, then I will happily support it…I think people feel let down by what used to be called ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’. People don’t feel like they have been strong enough.”  Roberts’ announcement comes a week after David James castigated anti-racism groups for trying to justify their existence by exaggerating the issue.  All in all, it has not been a good few days for Kick It Out.

The organisation may then have been grateful for Sir Alex Ferguson’s support.  In a press conference today, the Manchester United manager criticised Roberts, saying that “I think he is making the wrong point…Everyone should be united, with all the players in the country wearing the Kick It Out warm-up tops…”  He added: “I don’t know what point he is trying to make. I don’t know if he is trying to put himself on a different pedestal from everyone. But he really should be supporting all the rest of the players who are doing it…”When you do something, and everyone believes in it, you should all do it together. There shouldn’t be sheep wandering off. [My italics]”

Ferguson’s metaphor is an interesting one.  Roberts would rather not be the sheep who blindly followed an orthodoxy he did not share.  He would rather, one suspects, be the sheep that many argue that England’s Danny Rose should have been earlier this week, by walking off in the Under-21 game against Serbia after receiving racial abuse.  Ferguson’s call for unity is a powerful and timely one, but it must be viewed against Roberts’ own frustration, which is overwhelming.  His view is that football’s authorities have been too slow and too soft in dealing with the recent Suarez and Terry cases, and he believes Kick It Out to be primarily at fault.

I have worked with Kick It Out – whose name has been changed to address all forms of discrimination in football, not just racism – and I have found them to be a very smart, very diligent group.  We worked together on a campaign to address homophobic chanting at football matches, and the experience was a revealing one, for two reasons.  First, though they had a series of excellent ideas, they were working within very considerable constraints: they were only granted a small five-figure sum for a promotional video.  Secondly, they were operating on something of a leash.  That same video, carefully crafted with the assistance of advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, was then pulled at the last moment by the FA, who were apparently worried about its controversial content.  The only reason that the video ever saw the light of day was that it was leaked to BBC Newsnight.

Kick It Out therefore operate in an atmosphere of caution and confinement.  As they have stated today, “certain myths and misinformation about Kick It Out’s remit have been laid down…We are not a decision-making organisation with power and resource as some people think, and can only work effectively in the context of these partnerships” [My italics].

The last sentence says it all.  In its own words, it is “a small campaigning charity” working in partnership with football’s leading authorities.  There are only seven of them.  Last year they had a budget of just over £450,000, of which £330,000 (about 73%) was provided by the FA, the Professional Footballers’ Association and the Premier League.  Kick It Out does not have the influence and independence to speak unbridled truth to power.  Nor was it ever meant to.  Roberts’ important contention is that the current system is ineffectual; the football’s governing authorities cannot be trusted to regulate themselves, and are in need of more robust checks and balances.  Kick It Out are unfortunate in that their success in gaining visibility has made them the public emblem of all efforts to fight discrimination in football; and that they are thus the unlucky anvil on which Roberts has chosen to beat out his point.


Abortion, where left-versus-right is wrong

Mehdi Hasan, the social commentator and political director of the Huffington Post UK, has written an article about abortion which has prompted me to make an immediate response.  After some thought, it is the premise of his piece with which I take an issue, framed perfectly by its title: “Being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty”.  It saddens me that a view on abortion, whether for or against, is considered to be a badge of political allegiance.  It is so emotive a matter that to frame it as a matter of left-versus-right is reductive, and, I think, quite wrong.

The key source that Mr. Hasan quotes in his post is that of Christopher Hitchens, who wrote of left-wingers and their “’Me Decade’ possessive individualism”.  Mr. Hasan enlarges upon this theme by writing of left-wingers who ‘fetishise “choice”, selfishness and unbridled individualism.”  The tone of these quotes – “unbridled individualism”, “Me Decade” – imply that to support abortion is to support narcissism run riot: that the Left’s obsession with personal autonomy has created a monster where the majority of women have abortions as a casual lifestyle choice.  From my limited knowledge of this issue, this stance is very far from the reality.

So often – too often – on the issue of abortion, I hear people comment “But what about the unborn child?”  I have never known a woman considering abortion who has not thought, long and heart-breakingly hard, of the unborn child.  I have never known a woman who has not thought deeply about the life that they can give that child, with all the surrounding circumstances that still make being a woman, and doubly a mother, in today’s society so difficult.  I have never known a woman who has taken that choice lightly: who has not acted with an astonishing bravery when choosing to have an abortion.  To have an abortion, after all, is to say goodbye to a child you will never meet; which, when all is said and done, is perhaps the loneliest of all walks that a human being will ever take.

A round-up of my writing this week.

Just thought I’d post a very quick round-up of my writing this week.

I started off by doing a piece for MSN on Europe’s spectacular and improbable Ryder Cup win, and considered whether we should consider scrapping Black History Month in UK schools.

I did a preview and match report of Manchester United’s visit to Romania to play CFR Cluj; in between those, I wrote a post on the excessive speed of the Government’s proposed reforms to the disability benefit system. Finally, I put together a pretty random musing on “communication as the new wealth”. It’s been a diverse week as far as writing goes, and therefore great fun.

The Golden Age of contact – communication is the new wealth

A few weeks ago, when I was having lunch with some friends, one of them expressed a sentiment that stayed with me.  “Writers are working-class now”, he said, or words to that effect.  What he meant was the widespread slashing of journalists’ rates meant that a career which once promised a comfortable middle-class lifestyle was now about as remunerative as any number of low-paid office jobs.

Several writers, particularly novelists, will have read the above paragraph with a shrug.  They may have little sympathy with journalists who are feeling the pinch, for they will never have known a time when they had excess income to be squeezed.  In any case, perhaps this period of a few decades, where many writers have lived very well off their scribblings, is an anomalous one.

A couple of days after that lunch, I picked up a copy of Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto, which I have been slowly working my way through, and found the following section. “The low strata of the middle class”, I read, “all these sink gradually into the proletariat…partly because their specialized skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production.” (My italics.)

Marx and Engels wrote this in 1848, but it is just as relevant for writers (and, indeed, musicians) now: the Internet, that revolutionary new method of production, has with its rampant piracy apparently rendered worthless many hours of artistic toil.  However, the Internet has done a curious thing.  At the same time as it has vastly diminished financial returns, it has given writers a different kind of wealth: the wealth of reach.

I happen to love communication in all its forms – be it writing, speaking, performing or public relations – and I happen to be alive at a time when the tools of communication have never been more powerful.  For that, I count myself wholly fortunate: if successful use of these tools represents “the new wealth”, then I have more of it every day.   With the emergence in recent years of social media, it could be said that we are in “the Golden Age of contact”, where it is increasingly possible to get in touch with anyone anywhere who has an internet connection.  (I wonder whether that Golden Age will turn out to be so golden after all, but that is a subject for another day.)

For now, though, I am still in the phase of marvelling that a piece of writing that I type at my desk and then publish on my blog can soar out around the world in seconds.  This is a mundane miracle of which countless writers in the times before ours would have been envious, at the very least.  I find myself responding to this miracle in feverish fashion, endlessly producing new work, as it has always been my dream to do nothing more than create more and better ways of expressing what I feel to be right and wrong in the world around us.  I am delighted with this new wealth, and in it I greedily revel.

Not the Paralympic legacy: belief and benefit cuts

Belief is a uniquely potent force.  There is something exhilarating about having certainty in your progress towards a goal: of being convinced that, regardless of the obstacles in your way, you are on the correct path.  Successful athletes, as we saw at this summer’s worth of Games in London, have this self-belief in abundance.  So too do politicians: but, in their case, this rigidity of purpose can have consequences that are not merely heart-breaking but deeply damaging for many thousands of people.

With that in mind, I look at Iain Duncan Smith’s proposed reforms for disability benefits with a degree of alarm.  The responsibility of balancing the welfare budget is a weighty one, but Mr Duncan Smith’s approach seems to rest more upon principle than statistical analysis.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph in May, he spoke of the Coalition government’s plans to reduce the number of disability benefit claimants by 500,000, resulting in a saving of £2.24billion.  His self-help philosophy, if somewhat bluntly expressed, is intended to be empowering.  “It’s not like incapacity benefit,” he said of the new proposals, “it’s not a statement of sickness. It is a gauge of your capability. In other words, do you need care, do you need support to get around. Those are the two things that are measured. Not, you have lost a limb.”

With the Paralympics not all that far in the rear view mirror, Mr Duncan Smith’s outlook sounds ironically consistent with the theme tune of that superb tournament: that people with disabilities are Harder Than You Think, and therefore don’t need so many of your tax-funded handouts.  It’s a seductively simple premise, but it looks to be at variance with the facts.

The most recent figures from the Department of Work and Pensions are of particular interest.  In their annual National Statistics report, “Fraud and Error in the Benefit System”, we see that a very small proportion of welfare claims for incapacity are fraudulently made: 0.3% for Incapacity Benefit (to be replaced by the ESA, or Employment and Support Allowance), 0.5% for Disability Living Allowance, and 3.9% for Carer’s Allowance.  Given that most people entitled to these benefits are apparently not “gaming the system”, the planned cuts of 20% seem unnecessarily severe.  Beyond the widespread fury, there has also been helplessness, and a very great human cost in terms of damage to mental and physical health.

Mr Duncan Smith’s concern is that assessments for these benefits are being made too widely and too infrequently.  However, as in other areas of its austerity programme, the Government looks to be moving too hastily in a corrective direction.

This is apparently indicated by the results of the assessment process, where almost 40% of those found ineligible for the ESA have this finding overturned on appeal.  Mr Duncan Smith is determined that people with disabilities should not “fester” with benefits that they do not need: but his determination appears to have driven him down the wrong road.  There is a petition calling for the urgent review of his proposals, which is already 50,000 signatures strong and which can be read and signed by clicking here.

This summer, politicians and commentators alike said a great deal about what a Paralympic legacy would look like.  I would argue that such a legacy entails a greater empathy for people with disabilities and for those who support them: an empathy which, in their current form, the Government’s plans do not represent.


Should we scrap Black History Month?

The moment is upon us again. It’s Black History Month. For the next thirty days, historians, poets and other artists of African and Caribbean descent will descend upon schools across the country. We will talk and teach of the great and varied pasts of our ancestors. And increasingly I wonder if this is how we should be going about this.

Black History Month seems, at first glance, to be an odd concept. After all, some might argue, there’s not a White History Month, is there? We don’t set aside a four-week period to celebrate the wholesome achievements of white folk. Why should we do it for black people? And most of the history taught in Black History Month seems to be about African-Americans. What about the black people in Britain? The whole idea is irritating and unwieldy. Shouldn’t it just be scrapped?

To respond to that last question first: yes, maybe it should. And that’s because black history is far too important to confine to one intensive month of study. Africa is often referred to as the “cradle of civilisation”, yet any meaningful study of it is largely absent from our nation’s history books. Many of the continent’s pivotal figures, both at home and in the diaspora, were people whose names I only learned after I had left school, if not university: Angela Davis, Patrice Lumumba, Harriet Tubman, Thomas Sankara, Samori Ture. We don’t learn of the old empires within Africa, of the trade that ran through Timbuktu, of the states just as influential in their time as European states are today. We don’t learn about Haiti, and Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the Windrush: we don’t learn about the contributions of Caribbean soldiers to the Allied cause in World War One.

Why does this matter? Because – and I apologise for stating the obvious – history gives us a context from which we interpret the present and interpret the future. Congo is often seen as a hopeless warzone where the armies of seven nations run amok, tossing bloodied diamonds into the back of pickup trucks as they hack away at rival tribes with machetes. But we would be far more optimistic about Congo, far more sympathetic to its predicament, if we had spent time throughout the school year looking at the sheer horror, the unparalleled barbarity of King Leopold’s time at its helm. The legacy of Leopold, not so much a lofty monarch as a slaughterer-in-chief, is largely untouched by our curricula. The study of his impact on Africa alone would take up a month.

During Black History Month – and during the rest of the school year, for that matter – we also learn very little about the British Empire. This strikes me as strange. We read so much of the prominence of Britain on the world stage in the 20th century, but we spend almost no time looking at the 19th century, and how it earned that prominence. We are taught about the Commonwealth, and about the independence of African nations, but we are never really taught in depth about the powers from which they were given independence.

Black History Month has an African-American focus because it was African-Americans who had the idea of educating themselves and others about a people’s largely untold story. The stories of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks are only one magnificent chapter in a much more complex narrative. It is time, I think, to teach “Black History” not just as a once-yearly journey through the works of Linton Kwesi Johnson and Bob Marley, but to set these figures in a broader cultural context: to teach Black History not as a marginalised subject, but as part of world history, throughout the school year. If we are indeed looking longingly at Martin Luther King’s dream not only of racial equality, but of true mutual acceptance, then this would be a wonderful step to take.