when you come
we’ll see you well
see you safe at last
see you’re made
when you come
we’ll see you well
see you safe at last
see you’re made
Who don’t come from here
Fight for our votes
Before heading off there
To fight with each other
To be Ministers (well a few)
To tell their civil servants
Who’ve certainly never been here
How to make things better here
To pay their friends in business
(Who they’ll go and work for… when their time is up)
(And who certainly don’t pay their taxes here)
To go and deliver services here
To make their profits here
But not to spend it here
And to ensure
All our problems still remain here
So they can keep their jobs, their pensions and their houses
There, wherever that is,
Certainly not here
While all the time
What we really need
Is a welfare state that is based
Where local people
Solve local problems
Where local doctors
And local nurses
Run our NHS
Where local teachers
And local families
Run our schools
Run their own communities here
What will it take?
To get our power back
To get our belief back
Here, where we belong
Philosophers know that when you start talking about equality you can quickly get in a muddle. The truth is that we’re all different AND we’re all equal. In fact we’re all wonderfully different and without those differences our world would be a stale and deathly place. But we’re also fundamentally equal – which means we all matter, we all share the same fundamental value, each and everyone of us. In one sense equality means recognising that every single person, with all their differences, contributes to making the world a beautiful place.
Difference and equality feel like they are in conflict because we confuse equality with sameness; we focus on some particular variable aspect of our humanity and then we are tempted into promoting our self-worth by treating that difference as the most important measure of our self. Kids want to be the tallest, adults want to be the richest and football teams want to have most points at the end of the season.
We like to win – however meaningless the game.
And, of course, as soon as someone starts to win then someone else must inevitably lose. As the great Billy Bragg sings:
Just because you’re better than me
Doesn’t mean I’m lazy
Just because you’re going forwards
Doesn’t mean I’m going backwards…
This is the reason that Dante made Pride the First Deadly Sin. If you really believe you are better than other people then you are not only kidding yourself but you will often start to harm other people. You may be tempted to fix the rules of the game so that you’ll keep winning; you may encourage others to believe that they don’t count, that they’ve got nothing to offer and that you are entitled to your supposed superiority.
Game-fixing and toxic inequality is particularly rife when it comes to the distribution of the three great social forces: money, power and fame. The more a society fixates on any of these values then the more vicious that society will become and the more likely that inequality in that variable will increase.
Inequality begets inequality.
Inequality in money is the most obvious example.
If there’s a lot of inequality in money then those with lots of money gain many things – not just extra power and resources, but also the delusion that they are better than other people – combined with a gnawing anxiety that those advantages could be taken away from them. The greater the inequality the greater the sense you have have much to lose and the greater the temptation to fix the game to perpetuate your advantage. So the rich increasingly believe they deserve what they have and they organise society to protect and increase their advantage; to buy influence they buy or bribe the powerful.
Injustice begets injustice.
Sadly the natural result of this toxic inequality is not that people eventually wake up, get over themselves and start to share things more fairly. Inequality distorts the values of everyone.
For those in the middle it is much easier to blame the poor for society’s problems than to challenge the rich. Even worse, most of the poor themselves accept this distorted vision; they rarely reject the values that are imposed upon them, they rarely organise and fight back. Blatant nonsense about benefit scrounging, fraud by disabled people, the costs of immigration or the European Union can be found as much amongst the oppressed as amongst those who oppress them.
To simplify, in the form of a Haiku, it seems that the normal pattern is:
The rich blame the poor
The middle apes the rich and
The poor blame themselves
But there is hope.
Organisations like The Equality Trust hold out a torch and help us see what a self-destructive trap income inequality has become. We can start to see how income inequality has been exploited and inflated to the disadvantage of society as a whole. We can start to identify the disciplines that are required for people to live as equal citizens, welcoming difference, not seeking to exploit or abuse others.
It is clear today that even a relatively modest correction in income inequality would lift millions out of poverty and deprivation. Plato recommended that the richest should get no more than 5 times what the poorest get. As a beginning, this ratio would transform society and radically improve our society.
It’s also exciting to see the emergence of organisations like Acorn – local people self-organising to protect their social rights, hold landlords to account and fight poverty – or Citizen Network – an international community to promote equal citizenship for all. It is possible to reimagine our world and we can organise to make that vision real.
It is time to think start thinking straight and time to challenge the unacceptable acceptance of inequality. In the words of the Gang of Four:
To hell with poverty!
Let’s imagine our world,
Stopped still, without movement:
We all stay where we’ve come from;
No stranger turns up unexpected,
And we’re all trapped at home.
No Abel goes wandering with his herds,
King Cain reigns, planted in the ground.
And yes, some comfort can be found
In the same old gruel,
In the plain dishes of our youth.
Perhaps the Tower of Babel tempts us,
Ever rising skyward,
Still anchored in one place.
Here progress might be measured
By the backs upon which we climb.
Abraham will never leave,
Issac never marry
And Jacob never run away.
Our stories would run dry,
Our histories die out.
A world without movement ceases.
Hollow harmonies fall quiet.
Our world needs the traveller
To bring us something new,
To make our place a home.
We were all pushed out from Eden
To try and find a place on Earth:
To move, to build and welcome,
Strangers all, in alien lands.
For home comes only from the heart.
The child abandoned by his mother,
The mother beaten by her man,
The wounded soldier, and
The fleeing refugee?
Love certainly is needed.
But love alone,
Or love unguided,
May fail to hit the mark.
For we each need
To live a life
Of meaning, where hope can spring,
Where our presence takes on weight,
And where respect can be restored.
We long for citizenship
In heaven, or perhaps
Just along our street.
For the world may bear our absence,
But we know it could also be our home.
May we connect,
Like stars in constellations,
Offering guidance, and meaning in the dark.
May we weave a net for souls,
Haven or harbour, where love can work,
And reconnect us all.
Praised be doubt! I advise you to greet
Cheerfully and with respect the man
Who tests your word like a bad penny.
I’d like you to be wise and not to give
Your word with too much assurance.
Read history and see
The headlong flight of invincible armies.
Wherever you look
Impregnable strongholds collapse and
Even if the Armada was innumerable as it left port
The returning ships
Could be numbered.
Thus one day a man stood on the unattainable summit
And a ship reached the end of
The endless sea.
O Beautiful the shaking of heads
Over the indisputable truth!
O brave the doctor’s cure
Of the incurable patient!
But the most beautiful of all doubts
Is when the downtrodden and despondent
raise their heads and
Stop believing in the strength
Of their oppressors.
There are the thoughtless who never doubt
Their digestion is splendid, their judgment is infallible.
They don’t believe in the facts, they believe only in themselves.
When it comes to the point
The facts must go by the board
Their patience with themselves
Is boundless. To arguments
They listen with the ear of a police spy.
The thoughtless who never doubt
Meet the thoughtful who never act.
They doubt, not in order to come to a decision but
To avoid a decision. Their heads
They use only for shaking. With anxious faces
they warn the crews of sinking ships that water is dangerous.
Beneath the murderer’s axe
They ask themselves if he isn’t human too.
About the situation not yet being clarified, they go to bed.
Their only action is to vacillate.
Their favorite phrase is: not yet ripe for discussion.
Therefore, if you praise doubt
Do not praise
The doubt which is a form of despair.
What use is the ability to doubt to a man
Who can’t make up his mind?
He who is content with too few reasons
May act wrongly
But he who needs too many
Remains inactive under danger.
You are a leader of men, do not forget
That you are that because you doubted other leaders.
So allow the leader
Their right to doubt.
We fell asleep.
We forgot that they don’t take care of us, we take care of each other.
We forgot that it’s the rich who need the poor, not the poor who need the rich.
We forgot that politicians work for us, we don’t work for them.
We forgot that government doesn’t innovate, people do.
We forgot that government doesn’t create wealth, people do.
We forgot that government doesn’t know best, people do.
We forgot about citizenship.
We forgot about families.
We forgot about community.
We confused good with big.
We confused achievement with wealth.
We confused love with control.
We forgot that the welfare state was made by us, that it belongs to us and it needs to work for us.
It’s time to wake up.
These were no leaders, but they were first
into the dark on Dog Fox Field:
Anna who rocked her head, and Paul
who grew big and yet giggled small,
Irma who looked Chinese, and Hans
who knew his world as a fox knows a field.
Hunted with needles, exposed, unfed,
this time in their thousands they bore sad cuts
for having gazed, and shuffled, and failed
to field the lore of prey and hound
they then had to thump and cry in the vans
that ran while stopped in Dog Fox Field.
Our sentries, whose holocaust does not end,
they show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.
Les Murray, Dog Fox Field
This poem by the Australian poet Les Murray builds on the fact that in Hitler’s Germany the test for determining whether you could avoid the first gas chambers – which were built for disabled people – was whether you could construct a sentence from the words: dog, fox & field.
Some people know that disabled people were killed during the Holocaust. Few seem to know that they were the first and leading victims of the Holocaust. The technologies of death were developed on them and only later extended to Jews and many others.
I explore some of these ideas in my book The Unmaking of Man and I explore the parallels between our time and the years that led up to the Holocaust where the intentional scapegoating of disabled people, Jews and others flowed from economic anxieties, state and professional power and the abandonment of core moral values.
Disabled people, especially people with severe learning difficulties, are our moral guardians – they “show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.”
Love is born
With a dark and troubled face,
When hope is dead
And in the most unlikely place;
Love is born,
Love is always born.
Love is born by Michael Leunig
Thanks as always to John O’Brien for sharing this Christmas poem.
When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavoured,
is the cause of a human assault wave
by a crowd heavy laden with parcels:
each one his own king, his own camel.
Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,
caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.
Reek of vodka and resin and cod,
orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.
Floods of faces, no sign of pathway
toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.
And the bearers of moderate gifts
leap on buses and jam all the doorways,
disappear into courtyards that gape,
though they know that there’s nothing inside there:
not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,
round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.
Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas.
That’s what they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires.
Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding
chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.
Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.
He who comes is a mystery: features
are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may
not be quick to distinguish the stranger.
But when drafts through the doorway disperse
the thick mist of the hours of darkness
and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it’s right there:
The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same –
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your loan bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.
What prompts the melancholy key?
A long familiar melody.
It sounds again. So let it be.
Let it sound from this night.
Let it sound in my hour of death –
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for that which sometimes makes us lift
our gaze to the far sky.
You glare in silence at the wall.
Your stocking gapes: no gifts at all.
It’s clear you are now too old
to trust in good Saint Nick;
that it’s too late for miracles.
– But suddenly, lifting your eyes
to heaven’s light, you realise:
your life is a sheer gift.
1 January 1965 by Joseph Brodsky
I love this poem. I am sure most of us have felt the way he describes.
The epiphany at the end of the poem is tough. He realises that life is a gift, not just despite the pain, misery, fear and loneliness – but because of it. The gift of ‘sheer life’ is distinct from the many joys of life – and it is a gift we can lose sight of when we are full up with things – when we are happy, busy and in company.
When we reach ’empty’ – we may finally realise that there is something else – something that should be filled – sheer life itself.
God does not give us the right to exist – life is sheer gift.
What will we do with this knowledge?
The law’s been passed and I am lying low
Hoping to hide from those who think they are
Kindly, compassionate. My step is slow.
I hurry. Will the executioner
Be watching how I go?
Others about me clearly feel the same.
The deafest one pretends that she can hear.
The blindest hides her white stick while the lame
Attempt to stride. Life has become so dear.
Last time the doctor came,
All who could speak said they felt very well.
Did we imagine he was watching with
A new deep scrutiny? We could not tell.
Each minute now we think the stranger Death
Will take us from each cell
For that is what our little rooms now seem
To be. We are prepared to bear much pain,
Terror attacks us wakeful, every dream
Is now a nightmare. Doctor’s due again.
We hold on to the gleam
Of sight, a word to hear. We act, we act,
And doing so we wear our weak selves out.
We said “We want to die” once when we lacked
The chance of it. We wait in fear and doubt.
O life, you are so packed
With possibility. Old age seems good.
The ache, the anguish – we could bear them we
Declare. The ones who pray plead with their God
To turn the murdering ministers away,
But they come softly shod.
Euthanasia (1980) by Elizabeth Jennings
The poem imagines the psychological damage done by permitting euthanasia: the old and infirm now realise that the role of the doctor is not just to protect them from death. Suddenly – with kind and good intentions – the doctor has turned into a murdering minister.
And of course, we are all old and infirm (only not just yet) and so we all begin to realise that our life is suddenly going to be much more conditional on the judgement of these compassionate professionals. Certainly, important rules will be put in place to keep us safe (or so they say): (a) we must really will our own death, and (b) there must be no hope of recovery. We can even hope that these new rules will be followed – most of the time.
But this new right – the right to be hurried to death – completely changes our moral status. We used to be sacred beings. It was wrong for others to kill us and it was wrong to kill ourselves. But in this new world we will merely be containers for experiences – shopping bags, ready to be filled with a variety of goods – of varying quality. Too many low grade experiences and we will be ready for death, but if we can maintain our experiences at a sufficiently high grade – well we have nothing fear – at least not yet.
Who judges the quality of these experiences? Well I am sure we still be allowed at least one vote on this; but it seems that others will now be asked to decide whether we are having ‘a life worth living.’ And if we are a little confused, if we lack capacity to cast our own vote, then what happens to our vote? Can we be out-voted? It would seems so irrational to protect the irrational from the fair and pleasant death that is now on offer – and after all – by definition such a life is hardly worth much. [Although again the question of whose definition does not always seem to get raised by the euthanasia enthusiasts.]
There is no recovery from life. Death is where we are all going – so what is wrong with hurrying things along a little when things get difficult? And although you may be happy now, you may be sad tomorrow – and vice versa. Nothing removes uncertainty like death.
In this new world death will come softly shod – but it will change everything.
The lucky man’s great good fortune
Ruins his children.
This was old wisdom.
Is it true?
Surely the father who breaks heaven’s law
Ruins his children.
The father who denies heaven’s right
Blinds his children.
The father who forgets to be humble
Crushes his children.
Evil begets evil.
But the children of the man who fears heaven,
They tread with care. They care for the good.
They are rewarded.
Rich pride mounts rich pride
And begets insolence.
Pampered insolence begets
And anarchy, where every man
Is the tyrant
Of his own conceit,
Begets all-out-war –
Striking at heaven and earth.
Justice lives in poverty.
She survives. She measures
What is necessary.
She honours what ought to be honoured.
She seeks out clean hearts, clean hands.
She knows what wealth and power
Grind to dust between them. She knows
Goodness and the laws of heaven.
From Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, translated by Ted Hughes.
The chorus sing of justice just before Agamemnon arrives, to be slaughtered. They see how the powerful, always believing themselves to be justified, in fact deny justice. And they see how all of this will unravel. Evil begets evil. Justice survives, even as it is ignored – it cannot be eliminated.
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
A Poem by Denise Levertov shared by John O’Brien
After two weeks writing about the Holocaust I was grateful to get John O’Brien’s reminder about this poem. The horror of what we have done to each other, and the sure knowledge that nothing has changed and we are still quite capable of every act of evil and more, is hard to accept.
We are not worthy, that is sure, and yet we live in hope that the incarnation was a sign that, despite this, we can still be redeemed.
There were six men of Hindustan,
to learning much inclined,
Who went to see an elephant,
though all of them were blind,
That each by observation
might satisfy his mind.
The first approached the elephant,
and happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
at once began to bawl,
“This mystery of an elephant
is very like a wall.”
The second, feeling of the tusk,
cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an elephant
is very like a spear.”
The third approached the elephant,
and happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
thus boldly up and spake,
“I see,” quoth he,
“the elephant is very like a snake.”
The fourth reached out an eager hand,
and felt above the knee,
“What this most wondrous beast
is like is very plain” said he,
“‘Tis clear enough the elephant
is very like a tree.”
The fifth who chanced to touch the ear
said, “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
deny the fact who can;
This marvel of an elephant
is very like a fan.”
The sixth no sooner had begun
about the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
that fell within his scope;
“I see,” said he, “the elephant
is very like a rope.”
So six blind men of Hindustan
disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
exceeding stiff and strong;
Though each was partly in the right,
they all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
John Godfrey Saxe
It may be that the treatment for attitude is experience. But what do we each experience? Our experiences are never the same. As Hannah Arendt argues: it is only when we allow different perspectives to come into view and when we try to understand and integrate those perspectives that we can then come towards some kind of ‘sanity’ (wholeness).