I’m squirming at a photo of this spoon I carved from a bit of ash. Nothing about this piece is any good at all. If I were gracious, I’d call it asymmetrical. But, really, it’s lopsided. The walls are thick, clunky. Neither the shape nor lines of the handle inspire grace.
Share this now?
I think not.
I’d rather no one ever sees this. Unfortunately, I believe that particular spoon ended up in someone’s kitchen. Three years ago, I’d been carving for a while, and I was excited by this monstrosity. I saw the smooth finish, the places where I’d managed to carve away dodgy grain without too much tear out. I wanted to share it then – foisting my barely-shaped bits of wood onto patient, kind friends.
I couldn’t see all the flaws. Hell, I didn’t even know what I’d need to make a spoon like this work. To be fair to my past self, a year or two before this so-called spoon, I had only just picked up a carver’s knife. I didn’t know how to keep a blade sharp. The bits of wood I scratched about with weren’t even recognisable as spoons. Before then, I didn’t know how to carve anything.
Today, I fed two spoons I wasn’t happy with into my fire. They’re actually quite symmetrical, and the handle sweeps fairly elegantly from grip to tip of bowl. They wear a proper finial, and they’re fairly comfortable in the hand. But, I can see where I’ve gone wrong, and they’re not good enough to keep. I wouldn’t give them to anyone, and I certainly wouldn’t sell them. The bowl’s bevels don’t line up, and I can’t tweak them further without removing enough wood to ruin the shape. So, into the fire they go.
It’s fine, though. There are sixteen eating spoons I’m happy enough with to keep. I can see several I could improve, and I’m pretty sure what I’ll do next to change some of the minor faults. I’m better at this now.
They live in a bowl I recently turned on a pole lathe in my front porch. This bowl is my fifth or maybe sixth. It’s the first that’s even and turned out more or less the shape I wanted. The others went into the fire. I’m excited by this bowl, and I want to share it.
In 2020, Facebook will pop up with a photo of this lovely bowl: “Share this now?”
I hope I’ll squirm, saying: “I think not.” I’ll wish that bloody bowl had ended up on the fire, and that Facebook’s memory algorithm could go hang.
I hope this, because I’ll know how to hold the tricky hook tools so they don’t gouge into the surface too badly. My new bowls will look elegant, and I’ll see minor flaws to sort in the next one. I’ll know how to fix my mistakes, and the next steps will be clearer.
I’ll be better at this then.
My craft somehow informs my politics.
“Hey, remember this idea you championed 20 years ago? It sucked.”
You’re right, it did. But, we’re better at this now. We squirm at old systems – outmoded models and beliefs. But, to be fair to ourselves – at least a little – that was the first time we’d tried that. Before then, we didn’t know how such a plan would work.
We can see our mistakes, but we can also see how we’ve adapted. We’re better at seeing what’s wrong now, and we can see some next steps. We can do better, and we want to make those changes.
In 20 years, we’ll read our old material from way back in 2017. We’ll squirm. We’ll see our flaws, and wish we’d done things differently. We’ll laugh at what we called progress back then.
This is a response I gave during a Facebook discussion about an article discussing Gravity Payments’ CEO implementing a high minimum wage for his employees. We talked a bit about how this isn’t socialism, and I ended up writing this.
I think the culture of executive greed (being seen as a straightforward good for the world) is toxic – and we’re seeing the poison take hold. I’m not a huge fan of autocratic socialism – or any system that’s too quenching of liberty. In fact, I see society – or the social space – as our shared responsibility. It’s what makes it a democracy, right?
So we need to put limits on the greed of the few to make their living off the backs of the many. It’s where capitalism has started to – no. Not started – has absolutely demonstrated that it’s in contention with liberty and democracy.
I tend to be a capitalist in matters of economics, but the engine that runs capitalism is meant to be competition and fairness. Fairness only seems to work when we set limits. The state is what we make it, so when “the state steps in,” that should be the collective, democratic foot it steps with. This is in contrast to a state that looks to interfere with personal liberties. This is supposed to be the battle cry of the American conservative, but the most interfering social policies seem to come from that quarter now. Maybe the corruption of power has altered the trajectory in the last few decades?
I’m also a Christian, and I believe that the separation of church and state doesn’t exist to keep people of faith out of the public space. It gives the churches (and temples, mosques, and skeptics’ cafes) freedom to speak the truths they see; and for me, that is against greed. I don’t understand the logical steps between Christianity and hard-core capitalism. Sure, there are some fair things in that system which work well: you earn a living, and can make yourself better off – theoretically.
But “greed is good”? Tell me how that works when you get your camel through a needle.
Friends very often ask whether I feel myself to be American or whether I’m English yet; and I find I always stammer a bit, and hedge.
Do I feel like an American?
I don’t know.
I spent the first 18 years of my life in Colorado, so you could say I’m definitely American. But it also means that every post 18-year-old thing I’ve done has been carried out on foreign soil. My childhood was American: Thanksgiving, baseball, and some kind of vague but persistant instinct to salute and tear up when I hear the Star-Spangled Banner.
But my adulthood has been British: married life, university, career and (the more I think about it) mindset. Even using the word “foreign” is difficult: I often think of the US as a foreign country. I say “we” when I talk about England playing rugby, but also “we” when I think I’m correcting a misconception about America. I’ve caught myself saying “we” meaning “Americans” and “we” meaning “Brits” in the same sentence. I suppose I’m grateful I don’t also have to say “oui” to include my family name in my confused national identity.
Politically, I seem to see the US as something foreign, something other than mine. And I’ve felt this recently like no other time while watching stories about the “Tea Party,” and the bludgeoning of the American progressive movement at the previous mid-term elections. I supported Obama two years ago almost entirely because I saw him as the best candidate for America’s perception abroad. Europe does not understand conservative America, it cannot see the charm in folksy anecdotes and it cringes when Sarah Palin speaks. It’s as foreign to the rest of the world as a pungent delicacy or disinclination to queue. So, regardless of what I may or may not consider to be reasonable US domestic policy, I can see that certain aspects of American culture do not translate well. Obama translates well: his administration simply makes more sense to the rest of the world, while still being hopefully and enthusiastically American.
A conversation on Facebook brought this into focus when a friend asked how America is perceived abroad. I hope that my own position might help others understand both cultures better, but I’m also more aware than ever that my own perception is confused. I hope what follows might help both of understand America from outside.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the way the US is understood is that it isn’t, but people feel they do. Through TV, music, film and multi-national organisations (Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC etc), many people in the UK think they are familiar with American culture. This is probably true in reverse: through music, TV formats, film and a vague feeling of historical connection. Through media, ideas like: rich, racially-tense, belligerent, generous, loud, capitalistic, introspective, neurotic, extraverted and untraveled are associated in the British mind with America.
This sense of familiarity can make it difficult to explain that the US is extremely heterogeneous. Its political, racial, cultural, historical and geographic differences would make the average European’s head spin. These are differences a European would experience through travelling across different countries, not through a single nation. It’s hard to express adequately to a British audience how far apart say: Seattle and New Orleans are culturally, or that New York City is hugely different even from the rest of New York State (though this may resonate with London, which is also very different from anywhere outside the M25).
But, there is something about being American, about resonating with a strong national ideal that is certainly seen. The US is paradoxically very American, despite its diversity. There’s a patriotism and an optimism that is understood but is confusing: it’s admired and distrusted at the same time.
American foreign affairs have been watched with extreme discomfort and apprehension: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were extremely controversial in the UK. Tony Blair’s decision to take the UK into combat without the remit of the UN was seen as following too closely in America’s wake. A lot of the satire here from a few years ago featured Tony Blair as a self-conscious lacky to George Bush’s violent and bumbling foreign policy.
Social divisions within the US are noticed but not understood. Coming from a relatively poor part of the US, it’s difficult to hear people talking about rich Americans as if there are no other kinds. I don’t know if this is something that’s completely part of the stereotype, but it’s probably safe to say that although the US is certainly relatively rich, the difference between rich and poor are huge and not necessarily understood outside the States—or inside, for that matter.
It is probably true that American culture contains something in particular that is difficult for the British to like: it takes itself seriously. I think that Americans generally have a higher opinion of their own culture than the British do of theirs. That’s not to say that Brits aren’t proud to be so, but that they seem to be more tempered and also make light of the foibles they know about. A lot of British humour, for example, is self-deprecating and makes fun of itself for how it must be perceived abroad. Americans more easily default to seeing the rest of the world as foreign, and seeing itself from another perspective is harder. This, even as I type it, brings out another conflict, however. It is probably more true of “middle America”—of the South, the MidWest and the Southwest—than it is of the coasts. But, I do think it is broadly applicable to American culture as a whole.
Some truths are better understood, but still only partially: America is seen as not caring about its poor because of its system of non-public healthcare provision and social services. It’s shocking to people that anyone would have to pay for emergency medical treatment, or be saddled with debt through misfortune. The American misunderstanding of socialism is seen as silly: anything socially beneficial is seen in the US almost instantly as socialism (this is something that’s at least true in the conservative parts of the US) and therefore evil. I don’t think most Americans know the difference between socialism and liberalism or progressivism. It’s not a distinction I made very well until far more recently than I care to admit.
It’s probably true that the average Brit knows far more about America than the average American knows about just about anywhere else. In a pub this very week, I overheard a conversation which ended with an old standby of fireside bollocks-merchants that happens to be unfortunately true: most Americans don’t have passports. America is introspective, putting America first, and not fully understanding that the rest of the world doesn’t really see it that way. It’s probably the case (I don’t have any statistics to hand) that more Brits have met Americans than Americans have met non-American.
People who travel to the US, or who meet many Americans will be more familiar with the complexity of being American. They may be likely to say that Americans are generous, hospitable, friendly and gregarious, as well as shockingly ignorant of the rest of the world. I have heard some hugely funny stories-one even included me, when one of my relatives asked my wife what language she spoke in London!
British travellers to America often talk about friendly waiters and portion sizes being shockingly huge. On my last trip, after ordering a steak, I tried to work out how they had mistaken my order for a single meal for a request to feed a family of four.
People can only see through the lenses they have access to, I guess, and the things that bring America into focus come through pop music, movies, large companies, TV and news. America cannot be ignored by the rest of the world: it’s too big and has too much economic influence. So it’s covered in world news, and it’s talked about in pubs. I think that through its huge presence, and by travelling more, many Brits probably do understand many of the differences I’ve outlined above. But I think that even many well-traveled Brits find it hard to see from the perspective of Middle America.
I’ve found it helpful writing this, because it’s shown me something very important about the way I think. I feel American sometimes, and feel familiar with it. But I don’t feel at home there or with the unqualified label of “American”. It’s very like walking past an old house: you immediately remember what it’s like to live there, but you don’t recognise the flowers or the dog. It’s under new management, and it feels odd to trespass.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote to my MP to raise concern for the so-called “washup” of last-minute legislation being used to push through the now highly-controversial “Digital Economy Bill.”
My reasons to write are several, and I will devote some more time to explain these later, but wanted to post my MP’s response verbatim (my address removed only.)
Philip Dunne, MP Ludlow
23rd March 2010
Thank you for your email of March 17th regarding extreme internet laws.
For nearly twelve years, the Government has neglected this crucial area of our economy. We believe a huge amount needs to be done to give the UK a modern regulatory environment for the digital and creative industries. Whilst we welcome aspects of the bill there are other areas of great concern to us.
We want to make sure that Britain has the most favourable intellectual framework in the world for innovators, digital content creators and high tech businesses. We recognise the need to tackle digital piracy and make it possible for people to buy and sell digital intellectual property online. However, it is vital that any anti-piracy measures promote new business models rather than holding innovation back. THis must not be about propping up existing business models but creating an environment that allows new ones to develop. That is why we were opposed to original clause 17 and are still opposed to clause 29 which props up ITV regional news with BBC License Fee payers money.
The Government’s failure to introduce the Bill until the eleventh hour of this Parliament has given rise to considerable concern that we no longer have the time to scrutinise the many controversial and detailed measures outlined in their proposals. We fully appreciate these concerns. However in certain areas, including measures to allow website blocking in certain carefully proscribed circumstances, there has been substantial debate in the House of Lords. I also believe they should be debated in the House of Commons before we agree to them. Only if we are confident that they have been given scrutiny that they deserve will we support them.
IT is also worth pointing out that many of the fears about the Bill’s proposals are not entirely accurate. People won’t be discunnected from the internet without due process. And it will only be a small minority of people who consistently infringe copyright who are disconnected, not the average person who happens to have done so once or twice. Even then, they may be able to reconnect using another ISP immediately and without penalty.
Please rest assured that my colleagues in the Shadow Culture, Media and Sport and Shadow Business, Innovation and Skills teams will do everything in their power to work towards legislation that strengthens our digital sector and provides the security that our businesses and consumers so desperately need.
Thank you again for taking the time to get in touch.
At lunch time today, I learned from a tweet that UK Home Secretary, the Right Honorable Jacqui Smith will resign as soon as convenient to the Prime Minister. Most sources seem to cite the now cliched “expenses scandal” as the main reason, but also mention various moments of Home Secretarial chagrin.
My initial reaction was one of elation. “Finally, and not too soon!” is a sentence too easily thought about someone I think has done more to damage the UK than any one holding power in the last decade.
But this is not how I want her to be remembered. I do not want her to have gone because of a media-fueled feeding frenzy of shame for her expenses or her husband’s use of public funding to watch porn.
Maybe I should clarify?
Last February, I wrote a piece about the Home Secretary which still attracts concerned comments. It told my story of how her tough stand on immigration affects the legitimate, the law-abiding, and the defenseless rather than dealing with any perceived threat by illegal immigrants, migrant workers, or European nationals.
Jaccui Smith should resign because she used a misleading public story to back plans which bring shame and financial hardship to people.
One of the most controversial campaigns Ms Smith backed was one to introduce compulsory ID cards to the UK. She claimed that people would willingly sign up to such a scheme, and much talk of fighting terrorism with these bits of plastic ensued. This is a lie, really. People don’t want it—or, at least, the majority of people don’t seem to want to spend their money on them. Oh, yes. Not only is the scheme hugely expensive to the public, but individuals will have to buy them themselves. The card could cost £30, £60 or £93, depending on which confused source reported the cost . The scheme itself will cost the UK taxpayers around £5bn with an additional £375mn coming from foreign nationals, who will be the first victims of the programme.
The ID cards information produced by the Home Office itself reads, to this linguist at least, shockingly like propaganda. It produces press releases such as this one, which appear to show an eagerness which belies the fact that nearly every mention I’ve seen in media regarding the scheme has contained the word “Controversial”. It has proven so controversial, indeed, that the latest report I read showed that the Home Office seems to have changed its mind massively. This leads me to believe that the Home Office misleads, both in content and in linguistic implication through its own media.
Jacqui Smith should resign because her policy to introduce ID cards is not democratically supported, is questionable and expensive, and her promotion of the scheme is biased and untrue.
Jacqui Smith should resign because her principles do not include thousand-year-old fundamentals of basic citizens’ rights.
Not everything undertaken by Ms Smith has been terrible. Throughout a mixed career, it should be mentioned that she held her ground, proved resiliant, and handled difficulties well (until now). The Right Honourable Jacqui Smith, MP has been the UK’s first female Home Secretary, and no doubt worked very hard. However, this was expected of an MP, and a Home Secretary should handle her job well, which is why it is news when this has not been the case.
Ms. Smith has been forced out of office following news of the least-damaging scandal. Shame on the media for blowing out of perspective the theft of several thousand pounds in claimed expenses in the light of a proposed spend of £5bn to encumber citizens and ostracize legitimate foreign nationals. Shame on the reporting that claims her husband’s silly use of £10 to watch porn should take precedent for misleading a nation, trying to create and enforce draconian laws and damaging the reputation of a great democracy.
: It should be noted that the £93 claim is old, and that the Home Office seems to say most recently that the cards will cost £30 for early adopters and rise to £60 after two years.
This evening I sent this letter to my ISP in response to their support followup (I’ve removed the company name):
Please, please don’t give me a list of troubleshooting tips again…
The broadband router is attached directly to the test socket, therefore guaranteed by BT.
My microfilter is fine, and I’ve had different units at various times (of different makes and even colours); and, before you ask, I’ve got one on every phone line in the house.
I’ve reset the router in the past (though I’ve been informed that this can actually cause up to 5-days delay, it’s been more than a fortnight since the last reset).
My speeds are the same.
Nothing changes them.
I have nothing else running when I run speedtests, and have used multiple sites.
I’ve double and more checked all settings on the router itself, and have even switched SSID channels just for grins (no change).
I receive the same speedtest results on different more or less identical systems (OS X 10.5.6 each) though not at the same time, and receive the same result.
My iPhone also grows excessively sluggish between 5pm and bedtime.
My last ISP supplied me with a list of 13 troubleshooting tasks, and I completed them duly before each escalation… none of them resulted in any increase in speed whatsoever. The only thing I could think to do further is to construct a DIY parabola booster to increase the signal from the router to my Mac, though, since I write this from less than 3 meters from the router, I doubt that would help much either.
The speeds drop at peak times. That means there’s too much traffic for the infrastructure you supply. I’ve had no problem with (name of ISP) so far, and am fully aware that the West Midlands is low on its priority list (or, at least, BT’s list), and have come to terms with the low bandwidth that entails. However, you advertise speeds in my area (and have said in correspondence that you expect speeds in my area) to be at around 3MB/s. This is not true, daily.
Not only have my speeds routinely dipped below 1.5MB, but have even dipped below 500k on several occasions. I’ve not experienced “broadband” of that quality in years.
I appreciate your prompt replies, and hope you find whatever it is that’s causing this slow-down, though I can save you some trouble. It’s my neighbours, and their neighbours—all using limited bandwidth which you and other ISP’s continue to degrade by accepting more customers than you can supply.
This morning, after switching on the kettle, I set my laptop on the kitchen surface and shuffled through the BBC iPlayer’s “Factual” category—looking for something interesting to keep me company as I made my porridge and coffee. I stumbled across Question Time, and noticed that this special edition was being broadcast from the United States—something to do with an election? I was thrilled to discover the entire panel was American, with the notable exception of a personal hero of mine: British professor of history at Columbia University Simon Schama.
Things, however, did not go according to plan, and I was very soon restraining myself from damaging my employers’ Macbook with the wooden spoon I’d shortly before been using to stir my porridge. After realising that unless I switched off the iPlayer in short order, I’d either have to remove the spoon from the screen or from my clenched teeth.
I took a minute to reflect on my reaction.
As a quick introduction to Question Time, for my American readers—clearly something the audience at this recording had been denied—the format of the programme is straightforward. David Dimbleby chairs a panel of note-worthies, and selects from a series of questions submitted by the audience for the panel to answer one by one. It is a political programme which has featured many of the most important British figures including Tony Blair—while still Prime Minister. The panel usually consists of a politician or two, a political theorist or commentator (often an academic) and, often, a slightly more off-beat character such as Ian Hislop.
[blockquote type=”blockquote_quotes” align=”right”]Which candidate does the panel believe could and would restore America’s battered image abroad?”[/blockquote]
Dimbleby: Which candidate does the panel believe could and would restore America’s battered image abroad?”
Schama: “Barak Obama”
The historian then outlined his reasoning that the Democratic candidate’s heterogeneous past and perspective of global citizenship could only help America’s “perhaps undeserved,” tarnished foreign reputation. Specifically, Schama noted, the rhetoric of war as a last resort rather than an simply useful option could play an important role in diplomatic relationships.
One of the other panelists, this time from a more Republican-friendly platform, stated that he believed John McCain would fulfill this role more effectively.
Cheering, whooping, and a few boos.
The panelist then went on to outline why he thought the reputation of the US is not tarnished in some places abroad, and that many African nations actually admire American foreign policy. He also stated that Iraq could turn out to be a dramatic success. Each of the rest of the panelists then discussed their preferences and reasoning.
Several audience members were then asked their views, and this is when my breakfast began to take a less supportive role in my morning. One man was asked who he’d like to see in the White House, and his emphatic response of “John McCain” brought whoops and cheers before he could speak more of his mind.
Unfortunately, however, he did speak more.
With a notably impressive display of condescending superiority, the gentleman in an expensive suit addressed Simon Schama, beginning with: “You’re a typical professor. You are it. With all respect, our country is not hated overseas, I’ve been to fifty-five countries…” continuing that the US “brings hope to people” and that it is not hated overseas. “We’re the most charitable nation on earth, as evidenced by George Bush, and all the work he did…”
[blockquote type=”blockquote_quotes” align=”left”]We are respected and loved by millions of people BECAUSE OF WHAT WE DO FOR THEM! AND WE DIE FOR THEM, AND WE DIE FOR THEM![/blockquote]
His tone then took on a challenging note: “with all respect, don’t talk about our country being villafied overseas, when we are respected and loved by millions of people BECAUSE OF WHAT WE DO FOR THEM. [emphasis his, as he shouted over the cascade of applause and the chairman’s attempts to direct the discussion.] “AND WE DIE FOR THEM, AND WE DIE FOR THEM.”
I was already impressed by this increasingly visceral outburst, when he capped his performance with a patronisingly disgusted gesture allowing the typical professor his reply. As Schama began his response, the suited gentleman continued his tirade, raising his voice over the top of audience and Schama… and it all continued to escelate until eventually, Schama was able to say “if I’m a typical professor, you’re a typical blowhard; let me finish.”
The spoon, by now, was nowhere near the pan, and I found myself gawping at the screen in irrational hope that the man would shut up.
The problem, from my perspective, is not about which candidate wins this election, nor from which side of an all-but-imaginary political fence one happens to stare through. The problem is the offensive-defence of American rhetoric. It’s pre-emptive, visceral, and primitive. It makes respectable-looking people speak without thought. It damages credibility, and makes the speaker look like a bafoon. And I remember it firsthand.
[blockquote type=”blockquote_line” align=”right”]The problem with this is that facts are tactical, discussion conduit, and people incidental.[/blockquote]
Having been raised in the States, I know the blood-pounding-in-the-ears nature of political discussion. The goal is to be right, absolutely; and to make sure anyone watching knows you’re the right one. The problem with this is that facts are tactical, discussion conduit, and people incidental It’s all a vehicle for your personal perspective (the right one) to be broadcast with as little ambiguity as possible. And this kind of debate might even lead to interesting dichotomies and contrasts if it wasn’t all done under the influence of adrenaline.
You see, from an outsider’s perspective, this suited businessman illustrated America. “We’re right!” “We’re the most charitable!” “We fought for you!” “We freed Iraq, goddammit!” and: “We’re not hated abroad! Don’t tell me we’re hated, don’t you talk about our country…” The logical element of the discussion is abandoned, and it’s down to bare-knuckles. “I can’t understand your words, man, cause my ears are throbbing, so I’m gunna SHOUT at you so I can hear my own damn voice!”
My response surprised me: I tsked, and muttered: “typical American, can’t see he’s trying to tell the world what it thinks.” I appreciated the irony of this hateful person insisting we’re not hated. I found the fact that a professor’s extraordinary career and the phrase “with all due respect” could be used as conduits for hatred actually quite funny. I would have laughed and enjoyed a British moment of personal, quiet exultation in the foolishness of the speaker if it hadn’t been for one thing.
The audience rose to this diatribe with a fervency of whooping, cheering, clapping and shouting. The whole place suddenly became a bowl of people shouting down the suited man, the panel, Dimbleby and each other. I stood gobsmacked in my kitchen—spoon dripping oats onto the cat—and begged God not to let any of my friends watch this.
I couldn’t watch it any longer; I switched it off and cried.
The thing that many Americans don’t realise, is that the rest of the world is watching what they do—but not out of jealousy or pride. Decisions and perspectives made in the country with the largest economy on the planet affect the rest of us, so we’re watching reasonably closely to get a glimpse of the future through the decisions being made now. And most of us can’t comprehend just how any decisions are made under the circumstances.
Until Americans are willing to put emotional defensiveness and denial aside from their rhetoric, there will be a continued decline in their perception overseas: regardless of political perspective, good deeds or noble willingness to sacrifice. And, by the way, America as a concept is hated by some people overseas. We need to deal with it, not shout them down or question their right to not like us very much.
And, the question came again to me: “Where are all the considerate, contempletative Americans I knew growing up? Where are the people who give more generously than any other nation? Where are the peace-makers and volunteers? Where are the AIDS workers, teachers, and nurses?” I only pray that when the hubris of the TV-talkers dies, the dignity I know lives on in the US is left standing.
Blogging about politics can be a bit of a mixed bag, so we’ll see how it goes. I want to avoid polarising talk, tabloid tactics, and FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt). Instead, I’d like to discuss the latest raft of changes which seek to make immigrants ‘more British’ before offering them citizenship.
First, and as a matter of context: I am an immigrant. I was born and raised in Colorado, USA, and have lived in the UK for the last 5 years or so. My national identity, however, is a more complicated matter. I resonate politically better with Britain than the United States. I admire more British personages than American (probably due to the fact that the only great Americans I can think to name are either dead or long dead…). I laugh at British comedians, and listen to Radio 4. I queue. I share the occasional withering glance with my fellow public transport passengers whenever a tourist declares loudly that something is cute or quaint. I even say: “Oh, excuse me, sorry” when someone else runs into me at Sainsburys, and I say “Cheers” or “Ta” even when someone should be thanking me.
This has put me in an interesting position at times. I have been part of conversations when the other party doesn’t actually know, or momentarily forgets, that I grew up singing The Star-Spangled Banner before watching baseball.
“Well, I think Americans are rude and ignorant”.
“Oh?” I say.
“Yes, they’re always going on about how small everything is and they don’t know where Somerset is.”
“I know where Somerset is, and I have been asked where Shropshire is by Londoners,” I reply.
“Oh, but you’re different. You’re not really American. You don’t have an accent… and you’re don’t think I’m cute.
Immigration in the UK
I get the feeling that many mainstream British ideas are fairly far removed from immigrants as people. There is a distinct themness about immigrants, and I think this notion is exploited by politicians and commentators who have to justify their cynical existences. Over the past five years, I have learned that immigration is ranked among education and health in the national psyche, and politicians who want need to be seen doing something can easily turn to immigration policy for support. This national concern for immigration is baffling. According to the National Statistics Office, less than 10% of the UK population were foreign born in 2006. (In the US, for the same year the number was nearly 14%). So, less than one in ten people in the UK are foreign born, and even fewer of those have recourse to public funds, yet this ranks among Education and Health?
I can see that there is cause for thought, cause for discussion, but not cause for concern. A study for the OECD stated: “the ratio of immigrants (no matter how defined) has grown steadily in all Western European countries considered, except Belgium.”1 So, immigration is definitely on the rise, and I don’t debate that. However, most of them have the sense not to move to Belgium so they can’t be all bad. The flip side of this is that immigration has actually increased the UK economic growth rate, according to the TUC. There is, I feel, cause for concern in that the general public does not understand immigration all that well as outlined by a brilliant article from the sometimes-inflammatory Independent: “Lies, Damned Lies and Immigration“.
Now, what has really got me angry is the new scheme from Jacqui Smith, Home Secretary, that immigrants will have to work harder to “earn their right to become UK citizens”. (Press Coverage: Telegraph, Guardian, Times and BBC) and it includes increasing the time before a migrant can be naturalised and an increased fee. Gordon Brown has also mentioned, according to Radio 4 reports and the Times (see link above) that immigrants should have to undertake community service to be introduced to the British Way of Life.
Let me explore that a bit:
It costs a fortune to immigrate to the UK. I am American, and chose to move to the UK for love –my wife is British. I like it here, but it is an expensive place to live. Tax is high, services are expensive, and it is required of an Immigrant to pay large sums of money every few years. I should mention that I have been paying UK income tax and national insurance despite being unable to access public funds for some of my immigration journey and that I attended a UK university after marrying and immigrating, and paid full fees (during the time, around £9k/year) so none of my education was subsidised by any taxes I have paid.
The cost of visas and fees is high, indeed. There is a cost for the initial visiting Visa to get married (currently £500) which lets you stay here for 6 months, without recourse to public funds. You then must apply for temporary residency (£395) which lasts for a couple years. Then, if you want indefinite leave to remain (and if you don’t, you’ll need to sort out alternative accommodation fast) it will cost you £750. I’ve paid each of them, one after the other every few months or years. The total: £1645, and I’m still not a citizen. If I want to become one, I still have to pay £9.99 for a book on what it means to be British (Ha!), £34 to take a citizenship test (which most UK citizens can’t actually pass) and a massive £655 for the application. Then I’d be invited to attend a citizenship ceremony at which I will be required to pledge an oath, and I haven’t found out if that costs me more yet… new total? £2343.99, and Jacqui Smith wants more. I see this as a combination of four distinct ideas, blended in a dangerous cocktail:
A genuine need for money to run immigration services
A cash-cow for a cash-greedy government
A political scapegoat for opportunistic political figures
A Protection Racket, where people who are legally seeking residence are exploited with the threat of having their life plans crushed
British Way of Life
What, exactly did Gordon Brown mean when he said he was thinking of having immigrants doing more in the community? I am assuming he did not mean most of the plumbing, or supplementing the taxes for an aging population. For clarity, let me say that these proposed changes will have no effect on the most discussed group of migrants: Eastern Europeans. They already have access to the country through the EU and do not need to pay all the clearance fees. So, making all the non EU migrants do community service will help them to understand what it means to be British? I would have thought a crash-course in happy slapping or under-aged drinking would have been more apt. How many British people do you know who do community service?The most illuminating illustration I heard about the preposterousness of this was a commentator on Radio 4 who pointed out that Abu Hamza (hook-handed, one-eyed favourite of the Sun headlines and controversial fundamentalist cleric of Finsbury Park mosque) could have been said to have been active in his community, and undertook volunteer work. Gordon Brown’s government has already implemented a Britishness test (see link in previous paragraph) which is so patronising and oblique I don’t know what it is for. Some of the facts you are expected to know (Taken directly off the test site):
Where have migrants come from in the past and why? What sort of work have they done?
Do women have equal rights in voting, education and work, and has this always been the case?(What does this have to do with Britishness? Do we need to know that we were tardy giving women the vote, that there is still a disgraceful gender pay gap or that women are under-represented in all aspects of public society? Surely we don’t want Migrants thinking about that too much?)
When do children take tests at school? How many go on to higher education?(This changes every couple years, drastically.)
Do many children live in single parent families or step-families?(Any ideas? Have a guess…2,672,000 dependent children in single parent families, according to the National Statistics Office. Bet you didn’t know that.)
How many people belong to an ethnic minority and which are the largest minority groups? Where are there large ethnic communities?
And finally, my favourite: Where are Geordie, Cockney and Scouse dialects spoken?(I’d have said North London, where you can hear quite a few more than that, just on one street!)
Is one extra year without citizenship going to make any difference to society? The people who want to become citizens have already been inundated with extortionate fees, made to feel unwelcome, and made to wait for more than 5 years for a passport and the right to vote. These people are already here, and cannot have broken any residence laws anyway. It will not effect illegal immigrants, assylum seekers, EU Immigrants, Non-doms (stupid name that sounds like condom every time a news-reader says it!) or terrorists. They will have been working and paying tax, and are likely to work in jobs not filled by Britain’s workforce anyway (According to TUC report). One more year without representation or a passport is an easy way for Jacqui Smith to appear tougher on immigration without changing the numbers at all. It is a meaningless gesture, which only benefits a small number of wealthy politicians seeking to look tough and adds months of difficulty for normal people.
1: “Labour market outcomes of natives and immigrants: Evidence from the European Community Household Panel”, Franco Peracchi and Domenico Depalo, OECD, 2006, p1, Quoted from TUC paper on Immigration, see hyperlink within text.