“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
I felt compelled to write this after Charlottesville, yesterday’s terrorist attack on Barcelona, and in advance of the far right marches this weekend which I fear will bring more violence. It’s highly personal, and explains how I’m trying to navigate my way through these events.
Last Saturday I bought a copy of “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and A Culture in Crisis” in which JD Vance, who grew up in rust-belt Ohio, tells the true story of what regional, social and class decline feels like for America’s white working class through his own experience of growing up in poverty, domestic violence and abuse. But it’s also a deeply personal story of the influence Appalachian values had on the young Vance, of the triumph of hope over despair and of accomplishment over learned helplessness.
In reading this book, I hoped it would help me to understand why Trump enjoys the level of support he does. Because as we all know, frankly it baffles me. I also hoped the book would give me a glimpse into what prompted people in our once proud and still devastated British communities – mining, manufacturing, steel working – to vote for Brexit, an outcome which has the potential to ruin our economy and immeasurably worsen the standard of living of those who can least afford it.
Reading JD Vance’s memoir was also uncomfortably close to home.
Like JD Vance, thankfully I had other influences on me.
For Vance this was his wider family and community. For me, this was school, books and the TV programmes I watched. Daft as this might sound, The Streets of San Francisco and Charlie’s Angels taught me that good always triumphs evil. Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, What Katy Did and The Diary of Ann Frank offered spirited, empowering female role models. Both gave me hope that life could be different.
Education was my route out of my circumstances. I worked hard at school and kept my head down until the time came to go to university, and carve my own destiny. That, like Vance, I forged a different path to the narrative of my childhood is in large part due to the role of stories. An avid reader, my head was full of stories.
I later discovered that Robert McKee, one of the world’s foremost thinkers on story believes story calibrates a moral compass in our brains. He says it’s “from story we learn what to value in life, what’s beautiful and what’s banal, what to live for and what to die for.”
Absorbed by JD Vance’s story and my own uncomfortable and rarely discussed memories, I didn’t watch the news until Sunday morning. It was only then I learnt of the tragic events unfolding in Charlottesville.
I don’t know what I found most shocking about these events.
- That a 20 year old man, who should have had his whole life ahead of him, was so filled with hate that he would ram his vehicle in to a crowd of people protesting peacefully, killing a 32 year old woman, and injuring 19 others. 5 critically.
- That Heather Heyer should be so shockingly murdered, and her family, friends and community left bereft.
- That a group of thugs – because let’s call them what they are – incited such violence, hatred and bigotry.
- Or that the leader of the free world would take 2 days to fail to condemn the thuggery for what it was – white supremacy and extremism – and stand up resolutely for the indivisibility of equality and tolerance before the law. And as if that weren’t bad enough, to revisit the topic in Tuesday’s bizarre press conference, only to make the false equivalence between those thugs with the courageous Americans of Charlottesville who had gathered to stand up to the racism, anti-Semitism and doctrine of violence that won the cheers and Nazi salutes of the alt-right hordes to whom Trump felt such loyalty.
This should be axiomatic: there are no ‘fine’ Nazis.
The ‘Tuesday comments’ affected me in an entirely personal way. My country, aided by its allies, fought a war to overcome the threat of tyranny and persecution in the form of Hitler, his henchmen and his enablers. 6 million Jews. and very many others, died in the most chilling example of man’s inhumanity to man. Millions of troops, Brits serving alongside soldiers from more than 20 other countries including the US, either died, had life altering injuries or were wounded in what has often been described as history’s most savage and devastating war.
My grandfather served in the navy, in the submarines. Thankfully he returned unharmed.
For 70 years, since the end of WW2, a consensus held across the democratic world that seemed so obvious it barely needed stating. It declared that some ideas are beyond the pale, that certain beliefs are taboo because they are unconscionable.
I grew up believing that, while there would depressingly always be fascists, there would be no debate on Nazism. And like everybody else, I expected the post WW2 consensus that built the peace to hold.
I, probably like you, thought we had moved on.
Right now I don’t know where the US is headed. None of us know how this (and Brexit) will play out. This scares the s**t out of me because of the pivotal role America plays on the global stage. And it makes me immeasurably sad on a personal level because the US, as embodied by the moral values we collectively instill in its President, represents fundamental decency, opportunity and global leadership. I’ve wanted to live there since I was ten, avidly watching The Streets Of San Francisco.
But what I am clear about is that this is a moment of moral clarity. This is not about politics or policies. Left or right. It’s about what’s right and what’s wrong. What we stand for. Our values. Our sense of decency. Our shared common humanity.
No one who lived through WW2, or whose families saw similar mobs rising up and ultimately collaborating in the murder of their family members in Hitler’s Europe, could view Trump’s performance without a degree of fear. The same must be true for African Americans who have watched mobs lynch their family members and seek to deny them the most basic rights. And for people of Muslim faith who have too often been tarred with the same brush as so called Islamic terrorists.
So what are we to do?
We enjoy free speech because of the sacrifices of those who came before us. And the willingness of allied nations to help protect our families, our friends, our communities and our way of life. But with free speech comes responsibility.
It seems to me that small individual acts of courage are required. What courage looks like for each of us is different. I’m no longer the powerless little girl I was, and I’ve got the freedom to speak out freely in my typically feisty manner. Not everybody has that same freedom.
Individual acts of courage come in many different forms.
This is not a political issue; it is a moral one. Therefore, silence is not a virtue; it is cowardice. It is unwitting cooperation with the enemy.”
Speaking up is not without its challenges.
My heart weeps.
But weeping is not enough. Now is the time to step up our individual acts of courage.
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