‘Kill the Bill,’ shout protestors in English cities.
‘Death to the farm laws,’ cry Indian farmers, in their protest camps.
‘New Jim Crow laws,’ denounces the President of the US himself, of the new election laws passed by the state of Georgia.
In the midst of a global pandemic, the world is in social and political ferment, and I’ve never had to think so deeply about what I want to write. I scribbled pages and pages with notes and ideas, but nothing came together, nothing coalesced. Nothing that I could write felt adequate for what’s happening around us. The nature of events in the world are so extreme and unbalanced, it feels as if we’ve reached a civilisational crisis. And if so, how is such a crisis to be answered?
All norms of decency have been trampled. ‘Lying proved to be a winning strategy for Johnson in the 2016 referendum campaign, the 2019 Tory leadership contest and the 2019 general election. He’s not going to give it up now. It’s part of the Trumpian playbook, which draws on Nazi communication theory.
When a state legislature passes a law criminalising the giving of food and water, to voters forced to queue for hours on end in scorching heat, because that same state legislature has provided the bare minimum of polling stations, the sheer inhumanity and malice of the lawmakers is hard to grasp; I guess we should remember the state of Georgia is still playing from the Book of Slavery and has now combined it with the Book of Trump. The original ‘Jim Crow laws’ were local and state laws passed by southern states in the US enforcing segregation. In India, the government appears to be playing from the Book of Big Corporations, the new farm laws handing disproportionate power to large corporations, even restricting farmers’ rights to normal legal process, by only allowing them to take grievances to a so-called conciliation board, and not stipulating written contracts between farmer and corporation, leaving farmers entirely vulnerable.
The whole point of a democratic government is to do good for its people. That is a civilisational norm. Politicians voluntarily put themselves forward for public office, promising to better people’s lives, and unashamedly declare themselves intellectually and morally capable of negotiating complexity and assessing competing needs.
Generally, governments pass legislation and people accept it. Unless it’s so inherently unjust, or persecutory of a particular group, so uncivilised in its nature, people’s revulsion and sense of injustice are fired up. Such as the cumbersomely named Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in the UK, (Police Bill for short) clamping down on the right to peacefully protest, even if the protest is by one, lone individual. For those of us who enjoy paradoxes, this particular one has a bitter quality, as the only way to protest against anti-protest laws – is to protest.
The right to peaceful protest has come down through the centuries and is respected by people across the world as a core human right, a civilisational value allowing ordinary people and citizens to seek justice and redress for wrongs they may have suffered, as well as to speak truth to power. Peaceful protest is the foundation stone of free speech, and no country can claim to be civilised if it suppresses free speech. Beautifully summed up by that well known quote attributed to Voltaire, “I wholly disapprove of what you say – and will defend to the death your right to say it.” Before the trolls race to their keyboards, let me make clear, there’s a distinct difference between free speech and hate speech – one empowers people, the other harms people.
It seems I’m not the only one in the UK, who believes we’ve reached a civilisational crisis; Peter Stefanovic@PeterStefanovi2 tweeted a few strong words about our government:
“We are all first hand witnesses to the harm that can be inflicted on a country by a Government with no moral compass, with absolutely no comprehension of right & wrong, a Gov’t of law breakers & truth twisters. The question is will we be complicit or will we stand against it”
An American friend of mine answered that question, as we chatted on a zoom call: a thoroughly law-abiding woman who believes in rules and regulations, but is so outraged by Georgia’s new ‘Jim Crow Laws’, she firmly declared her intention to protest and go to prison if necessary. No ifs or buts.
While I was writing this blog, the UK government dropped another bombshell on a weary country, setting Twitter ablaze and generating denunciations of an “utter whitewash.” The Report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, denies systemic racism (Stephan Lawrence’s family may beg to differ), and claims that Britain could be regarded as a “model for other white-majority countries.” Its critics accuse it of glorifying the slave trade and an insult to victims of racism.
A respect for facts, intellectual rigour, truth, and being fair, are key pillars of civilisation. When these pillars are attacked and distorted, we’re faced with a hard, rocky road; there’s no sunset for any of us to walk into. The Indian farmers who’ve lived in camps through a bitter winter, are now facing a blistering summer, but their resolve remains undaunted. The US state of Georgia is being taken to court over the new “Jim Crow” laws by civil rights groups. The UK’s Police bill has been put into cold storage till the autumn, such was the opposition to it. Let’s hope a genuine discourse begins between politicians and people, or not only will ‘Kill The Bill’ cries ring out again in cities across the world but greater unrest and turmoil could begin to simmer and erupt.