Wednesday 28 August 2013

Martin Luther King today

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most inspiring pieces of rhetoric ever.

Injustice - what we more often call inequality these days - still withers. You can see it in communities throughout the country, where rich are separated from poor, and the poor lose all their aspiration, all their hope and all the possibility that their lives held when they were born. Inequality begets a lack of freedom which should concern every Liberal Democrat.

Rhetoric does not do well nowadays. There are two reasons for that. The first is that rhetoric itself withers in the age of the sound bite. Politicians are deeply and carefully controlled to stay on message because one word out of place could be misinterpreted. Risk aversity and the news cycle have conquered language. Everything has to fit into the news cycle and everything has to be tailored to a story structure that allows no more than a few seconds for each vapid comment. Set piece political speeches commit linguistic torture on English speech, written in sound bites, printed on the page one verbless sound bite. per paragraph in case the reader mixes them up.  The one thing Boris Johnson is good for is showing that the English language can still be used in meaningful, flowing sentences. If only others would follow his suit.

The second is that our society is less unequal than it used to be (though much more unequal than we like to think). Many would say that the great battles have been fought and won. People are no longer barred from voting because of their skin colour, people are no longer routinely lynched because of their skin colour, freedom is something that most of us can taste, though far more of us cannot than we are led to believe. There appears to be no need for rhetoric because we are persuaded that there is nothing wrong with the system we live in. But there is still plenty wrong, plenty wrong.

The need is still there, though it is shrouded over by the media trope of covering issues with stories about individual people. We are presented daily with a country in which whatever poverty, misery, destitution people have fallen into is seen as being their own fault, for being lazy or addicted. Every time we mention poverty, the right wing show a picture of children eating fast food in front of a 40” TV. Every time we mention hopelessness, they show a picture of a drug dealer. They never bother to go looking for the other side, the deep misery that we keep so many people in. They never go looking for the poison that Iain Duncan Smith is instilling in our benefit system; they never go looking for the places where the CAB issues printed instructions on what to do if you have no food and no cash; they never go looking in the hospital beds where disabled people are recovering from being beaten up for the horrible crime of being disabled; they never go looking on our streets for the daily casual sexism that sees women treated like objects (and it is still far too often the case that if she is raped she is believed to have asked for it). Such inattention seeps into every part of our lives. We slaughter over a thousand people on our roads every year. Every single one of those deaths is avoidable, most are associated with excessive speed, yet we still defend our right to break speeding laws. See the comments here.

But I suggest it is not the fault of the media; it is the fault of us as comfortable and hence not curious citizens. We don't press the media hard enough to tell us the real story. We condemn the various tabloids for their various excesses, and we go on buying them.

I saw the film Downfall when it was first released in this country. It centres on the character of Traudle Junge who was Hitler's secretary in the last two years of his life. There is a stroke of cinematic genius at the end. We have just had three unrelenting hours of blood, murder, destruction, gore, viciousness and fascism. The screen goes black, the soundtrack falls silent and we see a few simple words (I forget the exact phrase) “Germany surrendered on 8th May 1945”. The exhausted audience are picking up their coats, checking for their keys, looking at their neighbour and saying “Wow”. Then suddenly the screen picks up again, and we see the real Traudle Junge, as she was interviewed in a documentary near the end of her life. Like many, she was categorised after the war as a “young follower”, in other words not really a Nazi, just too young to understand the difference. That was a convenient way of getting Germany back on to its feet so that it could join in the next war, against Communism. She says (again I do not remember the exact words), “Afterwards we found out about the concentration camps, and the terrible things that were done. I was able to persuade myself that it wasn't my fault, that I did not know and there was nothing I could have done. But one day I was walking down (a street) and I came upon a memorial to Sophie Scholl (Sophie Scholl was executed by the Nazis on 22 Feb 1943 for distributing dissident literature). I saw that she was executed in the year that I began working for Hitler. And I saw that she was born in the same year I was. Then I realised that being young was no excuse, that I could have tried to find out.”  Nothing else is said. The film ends. That last sentence hits you right between the eyes and is left to linger in your mind as the credits roll.

The same is true for us today. We seem to need rhetoric of the calibre of Martin Luther King's to open our eyes and ears, to remind us of these truths, and our lives are the poorer without it. We live in the sixth largest economy in the world, one big enough to ensure that nobody goes in want of the material things they need to buttress their freedom, but it is an economy that is so unequal that many of our fellow citizens are not free. Most of us will do just fine without opening our eyes to the truth around us. But it is not enough to be comfortable, we must always seek the truth behind the newspaper headlines and the sound bite politics.

1 comment:

SuffolkJason said...

Excellent article. Perceptive and inspiring. I must watch 'Downfall'- despite your spoiler!

Recent events such as the 'Arab Spring' and the Snowden revelations have highlighted that democracy without universal human rights is not democracy at all.

Those above the poverty line tend to think human rights just mean freedom of speech, voting rights and the right to privacy. IMO the simpler, basic rights such as adequate nutrition, shelter, health treatment and education are more fundamental prerequisites to an effective democracy.