I was at the BBC studios in MediaCity, Salford, this morning to take part in a radio discussion about immigration. Well, not about immigration itself, but the campaign currently being run by the Tory part of the government (their Liberal Democrat coalition partners are distinctly queasy about it) to show how hard they are regarding illegal immigrants.

Maybe it is a coincidence – and I know Godwin's Law might be invoked here – but yesterday was the anniversary of Zigeunernacht – the night of 2/3 August 1944 when the Gypsy Family Camp (The Zigeunerlager) at Auschwitz-Birkenau was ‘liquidated’. 2,897 men, women and children of Roma or Sinti origin were murdered in the gas chambers by the Nazis, their corpses being burned in pits. Of the 23,000 Gypsies imprisoned within the camp, it is estimated that around 20,000 were ultimately murdered.

Well, it all began with the corruption of language. That's how propaganda works. You change the associations and re-align semantics in order (often subliminally) to change perceptions and manipulate affections. So, yes, I have banged on about language many times before now – and, no, I am not suggesting that the government's current immigration campaign will inevitably lead to another holocaust. But, what I failed to get across coherently on the radio this morning is this:

  • We need a full, informed and intelligent public debate about immigration, and not the current polarised, nasty slanging match in which parties compete to be the 'hardest'.
  • We must distinguish between the 'issue' of immigration and the current campaign by the government. Immigration is a good thing and without it Britain would be stuffed. Our wealth has been created (for good and ill) by immigrants to this country in recent centuries.
  • It is a nasty little distraction to compensate for complete failure by governments to establish, monitor and run an effective immigration policy by targeting a few illegal immigrants with a crude campaign.
  • If effectiveness is important in evaluating any policy, then this one must surely be doomed. How many 'offenders' have turned themselves in so far? We are getting daily updates on numbers of 'immigration offenders' on the Home Office's twitter feed, so why not a daily update on the numbers of those handing themselves over?
  • Isn't it the great British addition to maintain that people are innocent until proven guilty? Then why are these people called 'immigration offenders' when they can only be 'suspected immigration offenders'? And how many of them are turning out to be people whose applications for asylum or right to remain are held up in the massive and endless backlog queues at the Home Office?
  • Net migration is not a problem. Yet, from time to time we hear that we are not getting enough immigrants to met the needs of our economy. Why are immigrants being targeted (and impugned as a financial and social burden) – and why is this being coupled with welfare costs or burdens on the NHS?

These are just some of the questions hanging around. The real issue, however, has to do with the motivation for this unpleasant political campaign. And it is political. It is a macho PR stunt that will achieve little, but cause real damage to language, culture and community. It relies on the sort of categorisation of 'sorts of people' that dehumanises them by association – thus rendering them subject to 'different' values of behaviour or treatment.

The point is that the campaign with the vans, the twitter feed and the selective picking on people at London stations (based on crude racial profiling – if you are not white, you are fair game for stopping and checking) contributes to a coarsening of perceptions about immigrants, regardless of whether they are legal or illegal. It increases fear on the part of immigrants, creates a culture of suspicion and 'anti-otherness', and achieves nothing of any positive purpose.

It all begins with the corruption of language and the confusion of issues. 'Illegal immigrants' morphs into 'immigrants' and the categorisation has begun.

Has any Home Office minister ever visited airport deportation centres and sat down with frightened people to listen to their human story? Aha! But, there's the rub: that would humanise the 'illegal immigrant' and make it harder to get rid of him/her.

If the government wants to address immigration, it should do so by sorting out a workable policy and ensure that those who do apply for asylum or a right to remain are treated humanely, efficiently and effectively – and, if appropriate, prevented from entering the country in the first place. To distract attention with displays of hardness has everything to do with political PR and little to do with reality – except for those whose reality is to be a victim of the campaign.

(And I haven't even started on a Christian theological anthropology of immigration…)

 

There is nothing like coming back from Africa to realise how pathetic is some of the stuff that goes for ‘culture’ in England.

This morning the Daily Mail has a whole report on a total non-subject that illustrates only how the writer of it must be illiterate. Which begs the further question of how the editor let it through. Here’s the link. And here’s the header:

Church of England’s official Twitter feed sparks row after ‘offensive’ joke about gay marriage and Katie Price

  • User asked what Church thought of Katie Price marrying for the third time. Church of England replied it didn’t have an official policy on Katie Price. But added that: ‘Jordan gets quite a few mentions in the Old Testament’.

Can the reporter tell us who thought the comments were ‘offensive’? Who and what were offended? And about what? And where might we find the ‘row’ that has been ‘sparked’?

Unbelievable.

Then, just to show how reporters like this think how stupid and media-illiterate the audience is, he adds:

Apparently recognising that offence had been caused, the Church’s Twitter feed then posted to Just Skippy: ‘Glad we could be source of joy as well as – sadly – disquiet for you. Blessings.’

‘Offence’? ‘Recognising’? Good grief! Go back to school and learn how to read. Isn’t the response simply recognising that someone who disagrees with the Church of England’s stance on gay marriage isn’t happy?

This is actually a good story of how someone in Church House is engaged, has a sense of humour, and keeps things in perspective. It’s also a story of how crass the Daily Mail is in trying to make a story out of it.

 

It’s almost Christmas. My abject failure to send friendly (as opposed to official) cards can now be forgotten – apologies to all who wonder…

Christmas gets terribly wordy. I am all for sermons and addresses that awaken curiosity and tease the imagination, challenging the prejudices and expectations. Or, as excellent comedian Mark Thomas says in his book Extreme Rambling: “Anyone with any taste knows that predictability is the woodworm of joy.” S, I tweeted earlier some brief accounts of Christmas:

  • God among us, God with us, God for us.
  • Matter matters: the Word became flesh and lived among us.
  • God with us: we have seen his face. Painted in the gospels.
  • “Redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.” (Bruce Cockburn)
  • Only the curious get surprised: outsiders like shepherds and Magi…
  • The eternal breaks through into time. Time bleeds into eternity.
  • Light mugs the darkness. And there is nothing the darkness can do about it.
  • Hope looks despair in the eye… and doesn’t blink first.
  • Christmas surprises earth with heaven…
  • Oh come, all ye faithless…
  • God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So, there is hope. (David Jenkins)

That’s just for starters! Happy Christmas!

image

Cranmerbannerround

I was moved this morning to read Archbishop Cranmer‘s latest post. Having been blogging for ten months now, I have been giving some thought to why I do it and what possible value it might have. I don’t know what has caused Cranmer’s worrying melancholy, but his willingness to express it seems to me to point up something really important.

When you blog you create a community. Belonging to a community brings with it obligations and accountabilities. This means that Cranmer (whoever he or she is) explains himself to his community – and they have responded with generous affection and respect.

Cranmer attacked me pretty angrily last week and it didn’t make easy reading – not just the content, but the tone. But, he did me and us a service by strongly addressing the matters he did (and the conversation went on beyond his initial response and my later response to his criticism). My dislike for the aggressively ‘anti’ tone of his posts does not matter. But I guess writing the stuff he does probably comes at some personal cost.

But, it is this that makes blogging worthwhile: the blogger starts a conversation – sometimes by going over the top a bit on a particular issue – and then learns (along with other readers/contributors) as the conversation proceeds. Blogging is useless in a static world in which people refuse to learn or grow.

I was doing a session on ‘Blogging and Tweeting’ with some clergy the other day. Yes, I know: the other bishops teach stuff like doctrine, Greek, theology… They soar like eagles – and I sound like a budgie. But, during the session we addressed the fact that new media such as blogging have to be interactive. They thrive on ‘conversation’ – with writers offering not the final word on some issue, but the first word. I think this is why I would still want to use the term ‘a confident humility’ to describe how blogging can contribute to a wider conversation: you put your point of view, but then listen to what follows and learn from it. In my own case, I rarely emerge from a particular thread at exactly the same place where I began.

The ‘community’ which Cranmer has created is not just a virtual one – disembodied and ‘unreal’. It is populated by real people who see beyond the ‘fiction’ of Cranmer’s identity to love and respect the person. I wish him/her well. I just wish the anonymity wasn’t the barrier it is.

I once set up a Facebook page in order to see what all the fuss was about. People started to want to be my ‘friend’ and I started getting emails telling me that someone had ‘written on my wall’. So, I ran in the opposite direction, not knowing what my ‘wall’ was or why anyone would want to write on it. I have not been back into Facebook since that first venture.

Twitter logo 1I got signed up to Twitter after being persuaded that it was a good way of propagating this blog -and that not to be on Twitter would leave the blog ‘hidden’. So, I signed up, had a few bitty conversations, worked out how it works and then worked out how best to use it. But, now for a quick detour…

In today’s Independent Janet Street-Porter strikes a blow against Twitter and those who use it. Well, actually it is less a blow and more a savaging with a slightly damp flannel. This is what she says:

Since the G20 riots in the City of London and the highly controversial Iranian election, there’s a determined lobby trying to convince us that Twitter represents the ultimate in news gathering. For facts, we’ve traded reactions… But all twittering really delivers is the ultimate in mini-munchie banality. Instead of real emotion, in-depth opinion, considered arguments about why the NHS works, or the many reasons for not eating veal, what we get is breathless trivia…

Twitter works for the middle class, the middle-aged and for work-weary wannabe trendies because it lets them feel they’re part of a big happening club, when in fact all they are doing is exchanging mindlessness. If I want to know whether a show is worth going to at the Edinburgh Festival, or if Bonnie Prince Billy’s latest album is worth buying, I certainly don’t want a 140-character Twitter; I want an intelligent review written in real sentences, not some bastard lingo that’s the ugly love-child of texting and abbreviations.

Twitter panders to all that is shallow and narcissistic in our society, reducing lives and experiences (like childbirth and death) to missives that last even less than the average British male’s attempts at foreplay…

Twittering about the pros and cons of the NHS reduces a complex subject to less than a soundbite or a jingle. Don’t tell me Twitter is brilliantly democratic and lively. It makes me angry that we’re so keen to stop talking in sentences, and are swapping having real conversations for knee-jerk reactions. If this is the future for politics, we’re in trouble.

Surely, if Janet Street-Porter has anything to do with the future of politics, we’re in serious trouble, as she promotes dismissive ignorance in sentences that might have been better left unwritten.

The real value of Twitter is not the boring narcissists who detail their every thought and every move. And Twitter is not the only home to boring narcissists. The real value of Twitter is not even the propagation of instant news at the cost of informed comment (which clearly isn’t what JSP gives us anyway) – yet the facility of instant communication to a wider community clearly has massive advantages in exposing the lies of the ‘powerful’ (look at the Iranian election in which technology could not be used to hide or suppress the truth). The real value of Twitter doesn’t even lie in the speed with which people can bait me for Liverpool’s defeat against Spurs yesterday – anyway, two can play at that game…

The real value of Twitter is that people post links to other sites where people write in proper sentences and give considered attention to things that matter. Twitter is a vehicle for an otherwise disconnected community to pass on sources of information or observation that might otherwise have been missed. The 140 characters are a means, not an end. Is that so hard for JSP to understand?

I would not have read some of the powerful and well-written stuff on blogs about the NHS if I hadn’t been tipped off by Glinner on Twitter. And I wouldn’t have noticed JSP’s silly article had I not been pointed to it on Twitter. (Which, I realise, does suggest a downside to the use of the medium…)

Which is why (I assume) the Independent uses Twitter to propagate its own news and comment – a medium JSP ignorantly thinks is worthless.

Just about to leave my office when I check the BBC website and get filled with gloom. Or should the breaking news simply explain my experience of the last few years? Some American professor has done some research and discovered that ‘reasoning, speed of thought and spatial visualisation all decline in our late 20s. Oh great!

Apparently our brains start to decline at around the age of 27 after hitting the peak of mental power at 22. This puts me almost 30 years into decline already. In fact, I’ve now had more years declining than I had improving.

Does this explain why I have now started on Twitter: I only have to worry about 140 characters at a time?

I need to go home and lie down in a darkened room.

human-brain-vis304784-ga

It is always silly to get into the numbers game, but sometimes you just can’t help it. So, when the National Secular Society has a hissy fit about the Church of England claiming to speak for the whole country and cites (without ever giving evidence for its claims) the ’emptying pews’, it is tempting to ask why there are over a million people in church each Sunday and only 3000 members of the NSS. We know numbers don’t prove anything much: Hitler packed them in at Nurenberg, but this apparent endorsement says nothing about the validity of his ethics.

Anyway, I was having a quick look at the sometimes-interesting online version of New Humanist magazine to see what recent dissing of the C of E has been going on. Much to my surprise I found the following reference to the C of E’s decision to Twitter its Lent stuff under the heading Twits from the Church of England: ‘I don’t know exactly when the C of E Twitter launched, and I’m not setting myself up for a fall by saying they won’t overtake us, but at the time of writing they have 201 followers to our 527. If you’re on Twitter and not following us, we’re on there as @NewHumanist – we promise there’ll be no preaching from our tweets.’ Two issues here:

c-of-e-lent1. Why do they think all we do is preach? And why do they think so many people are so stupid as to be preached at? Why do they have such a low opinion of people’s general intelligence and ability to form their own opinion? I think we treat people with a bit more respect.

2. Notwithstanding the disclaimer, there is a presumption that nobody will be interested in what the C of E might Twitter. So, I made a phone call to find out how many people are now following the C of E Twitter stuff. The answer? 1172. Which is double the 527 quoted by NS magazine. But, maybe their numbers have grown, too.

Anyway, it’s all good fun, isn’t it? But, I’m not sure who the greater twit is in all this.