Pessimism interrupted

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A Guardian piece by Paul Mason titled As Mein Kampf returns to Germany, the world is awash with hatred has been on my mind this week. In it he cited a number of incidents that happened around the world in the early days of January, including mass starvation in Madaya in Syria and the sexual assaults in Cologne.

As the world’s attention was captured by Madaya, the Syrian town suffering mass starvation, supporters of the Assad regime began posting photographs of delicious food to insult those starving. When a Muslim woman stood in silence at Donald Trump rally, wearing a T-shirt saying “I come in peace”, she was ejected – Trump’s supporters baying insults into her face.

In Hungary the president, Victor Orban, called for Europe to abandon Greece to the next wave of refugees, erecting a fallback line of razor wire at the Macedonian and Bulgarian borders. Turkey, meanwhile, having pocketed £3bn of European taxpayers’ money, set about an armed assault on its own Kurdish ethnic minority. Oh, and Isis executed five people in cold blood.

Also listed among the “moral lowlights of Week One, 2016″ was what appears to have been premeditated sexual assaults on women by apparently foreign men in Cologne, that has prompted “a new outburst of the racism barely hidden behind German constitutional reality”.

This week I’ve also been speaking to someone who has spent a lot of time filming with the Greek far right party Golden Dawn, which has added to a sense of alarm – as Mason says, it’s impossible to view the “global rise of rage, ethnic conflict, victimisation and the curtailment of democratic norms” with anything else.

But what then? This week as I’ve been trying to build a solid work routine, I’ve been taking myself off to a cafe later in the day, sometimes to meet a friend and chat, and there, as we chat and people watch, it’s difficult to connect to what has  caused that alarm. But it doesn’t go away – and  realised that I was feeling quite bleak and hopeless when I was talking to a friend about the complexity of happened in Cologne, about our concerns that rape and sexual assault should always treated seriously and justice pursued, but also about the potential for the allegations playing into the hands of the far right.

Amid all the alarm about ‘criminal gangs’ and the influx of people who don’t share European values about women’s rights, the headline grabbing kindness of Germans who went out of their way to welcome refugees in the Autumn seems a dim memory. But when I told Debi that I was concerned that the voices of fear, the voices that say our way of life is under threat are becoming dominant, the voices of hate seemed to be winning the argument,  she effectively told me not to give up hope.

I was stopped in my mental tracks by her faith that there were too many people who didn’t think that way, and further bolstered by the story she remembered her mother telling her about seeing the dockers arrive in Cable Street to resist Oswald Moseley’s fascists. Her mother always became emotional when she described seeing the men stand shoulder to shoulder and the impact of the words ‘They shall not pass’ was palpable. It was an important reminder that people can act justly, kindly, nobly and with concern for others, not just their own interests.

Mason argues that  “our best shot at avoiding chaos comes from reinvigorating the institutions whose neglect lie at the root of the situation: the UN, the International Criminal Court, the Geneva conventions and national democracies encroached upon by arbitrary power and hereditary elites. And principles – such as privacy, the rule of law, restraint and proportionality.”

Acknowledging how “meagre” these forces have become  “when ranged against the emotive power of revenge, hatred, racism, and the public celebration of ignorance and irrationality” Mason concludes that they are “all we have”. But is that the case?

The conversation I had with Debi was an important reminder that it’s also up to people like us to decide on what kind of world/community we want to be part of, and to start finding ways of moving things in that direction. This requires far more than the politics of opposition, it needs vision and creativity, and hope. Surely we have to retain some faith in the power of the counter emotions of forgiveness, love, respect for difference and solidarity?

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