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Category Archives: Op eds and blogposts elsewhere
I have published my first op ed in Ha’aretz. The title is theirs not mine. It’s online here, the opening below.
Opinion Why Are U.K. Progressives Still Celebrating a Grotesque anti-Semite and Holocaust Denier?
When a publicly-funded community center hosted the Jew-hating Gilad Atzmon, it blocked anti-racists on Twitter who challenged the decision. For many on the U.K. left, the denial of anti-Semitism has become a reflex
Ben Gidley Oct 30, 2017 10:30 AM Continue reading
I am thrilled to have had a piece published in the brilliant new online magazine Wildcat Dispatches, entitled “Who is Allowed to be Human? ‘Bare Life’ in Aleppo and on the Mediterranean“. I wrote this very quickly and very angrily. It’s about the stripping of biographical life away from so many people in our world, drawing on Arendt and Agamben. Here’s the first section, which I entitled “The Musselmann” (readers of Primo Levi will know that is the term was used in the concentration camps to refer to the drowned, the walking dead).
In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith describes watching a film of a boat full of refugees being bombed by a helicopter “somewhere in the Mediterranean”. A “middleaged woman who might have been a jewess” sits in the bow with a little boy in her arms, screaming and hiding his face in her chest; she covers him with her body “as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him”. The party members cheer as the boat explodes.
Writing in the aftermath of World War II, Orwell and his readers would have seen, on newsreels in the cinema, the harrowing images of barely alive survivors of liberated camps such as Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald; of groups of stateless ‘Displaced Persons‘ drifting across Europe for years after the war ended; of boats full of Jews in the Mediterranean denied ports because of the fear of contagion or that they might be carrying terrorists, or sunk by British forces to prevent them reaching Palestine.
These camps and boats are the images invoked by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben in his concept of “bare life”: zoological life denuded of humanity through the state’s violence. He drew on Hannah Arendt, who had herself experienced internment as a refugee and had written in 1958 that “The chief characteristic of [the] specifically human life […] is that it is itself always full of events which ultimately can be told as a story, establish a biography […] bios, as distinguished from mere zoé”. Eric Santner names zoé stripped of bios as “creaturely life”, when human life “assumes the cringed posture of the creature”.
In the last few years, we have seen many – far too many – examples of such violently imposed creaturely life. Globally, well over 7,000 migrants– maybe as many as 10,000– have died trying to cross borders in 2016, including nearly 5,000 in the Mediterranean. On the route from Libya to Italy, one migrant dies for every 47 that make it. We have grown used to seeing images of people crammed into boats, or bodies stranded on beaches, but we rarely hear their names.
In Syria, whence many of Europe’s refugees are fleeing, the government has besieged rebel communities for five years, using starvation as a form of warfare; residents have struggled to maintain a liveable, biographical life as barrel bombs fall from helicopters day and night. The UN long since gave up counting the dead – when the toll reached a quarter of a million in 2014. In the latest phase of the war, we have watched – or, more often, turned away from – families in an East Aleppo reduced to rubble, sleeping in the snow before being packed onto buses by their aggressors and transported to unknown destinations.
I strongly recommend you spend time with the rest of Wildcat Dispatches, including the Wildcat Statement on Aleppo, Sarah Keenan’s “Another Refugee Dies at the Hands of the Australian Government“, Emma Patchett “On forced evictions and a never-ending winter for the Roma in France“, Gavan Titley’s “Filter Bubble – When Scepticism of the Mainstream Media Becomes Denial of Atrocity” and Mark Boothroyd’s “Aleppo Falls, and Humanity Falls With It“.
Last year I invited to give evidence to Louise Casey’s review of integration policy for the government. The report of the review has now been published.
Although the evidence base presented in the report is quite strong, most of it does not come from academic research, but rather from thinktanks or other policy literature. Among the academic research that is used, however, is Gemma Catney’s important work on the geographies of integration and segregation, and Sundas Ali’s work on second and third generation Muslims in Britain.
There has been a lot of commentary on the review, much of it critical. Leah Bassel’s piece for DiscoverSociety is especially worth reading.
I wrote two small thinkpieces on it. The first was published by the Sociological Review blog, entitled “Absent Experts and Public Debates About Integration“, in which I challenge sloppy conceptualisations of “integration” itself as well as draw attention to the value of qualitative and especially ethnographic research on how communities live together. This piece was re-published by the LSE Religion and the Public Sphere blog too.
Secondly, David Feldman and I wrote something for the Birkbeck Comment blog, on the importance of highlighting social justice and disadvantage in the integration debate (a point we made in our Integration, Cohesion and Disadvantage report in 2014).
All of my COMPAS blogposts, which I have featured on this website, have now been migrated to the new COMPAS website and archived in one place. Here they are, with links to the new permanent url:
Jul 1, 2015
After five years of coalition government, the impact of tighter controls on immigration is beginning to register. In a global index of how committed countries are to integrating legal migrants, the UK has dropped out of the top 10. [By me. Original at The Conversation.]
Jun 30, 2015
Since the introduction of the concept by then-Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins in the mid-1960s, integration has never been a priority for UK governments. [By me. Original at Left Foot Forward.]
I wrote this piece for Engage – read the original here. Scroll to the bottom for some updates.
In the last decade or more, working in British universities, I have witnessed the growth of a zeitgeist in which antisemitism is not taken seriously by people who, in every other way, would be regarded as exemplary anti-racists. It has become common currency among many anti-racist academics to claim that allegations of antisemitism are made in bad faith, that such allegations are a way of closing down criticism of Israel – a manoeuvre my former colleague David Hirsh has aptly named “the Livingstone formulation”. Continue reading
This is the opening of my latest COMPAS blog post. You can read the whole thing here.
The media monitoring project at the Migration Observatory has analysed thousands of UK news articles on migration from the last few years, showing which words are most often associated with migrants – and the same finding was repeated more recently specifically for Romanians and Bulgarians arriving in 2014. One finding was how often, across both tabloids and broadsheets, words suggesting water were used as a metaphor for migration, such as flood, influx and wave. In one recent example, Michael Fallon, a Conservative minister, echoing Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s, described “whole towns and communities” in the UK “being swamped by huge numbers of migrants.”
Fallon particularly mentioned England’s East Coast, and his comment was made as two coastal constituencies switched their votes to the anti-immigrant UKIP. It is interesting that it is in coastal areas where anti-migrant sentiment – the feeling of being swamped and flooded by migrants – is strongest. Oddly, though, these coastal areas typically have some of the lowest numbers of migrants in the UK.
Many of these coastal areas, however, face a very different and very real flooding risk. Research shows that our coastal areas are vulnerable to climate change because of rising sea levels and wave heights and accelerated coastal erosion. The deprived and “left behind” seaside communities which UKIP is targeting may be especially vulnerable because of their reliance on the coastline for economic and social activities, because of ageing populations, deprivation and isolation, which negatively impact on resilience and hamper adaptation.
These issues are hard to think about; many of us tend to bury our heads in the sand rather than face up to the enormity of the challenge of climate change. Perhaps thinking about immigrants is easier.
But for many communities globally, the flooding has already long begun.
The photographer Alessandro Grassani, in his work Environmental Migrants: The Last Illusion, has produced extraordinary images of Bangladesh, which give some hint of an idea of what it might be like to be flooded: to live life knee-deep in water, to earn your livelihood beneath the rising sea level, to have the waves literally at your door.
This is a short version of my latest COMPAS blog post. Read the whole original here.
This summer, it emerged that a young woman brought up near where I live in Lewisham, South London, had travelled to Syria to join ISIS. I spent some time reading her Twitter interactions with other young British women with ISIS ion Syria and Iraq. Most of the Twitter accounts are now deleted, but on the whole they were little different from any tweets by any South London teenagers: written in the familiar shorthand of social media conversation (“LOL”, “c u l8er”), accounts of shopping trips, mentions of best friends, complaining when the wi-fi was poor, comments on the weather. But the Lewisham woman’s profile picture was of an infant boy, presumably her son, holding an AK-47. Sparsely interspersed among the banal chitchat, were casual references to meeting Yazadi slave women or to beheadings. And, in one of the last posts before the account went offline:
Any links 4 da execution of da journalist plz. Allahu Akbar. UK must b shaking up haha. I wna b da 1st UK woman 2 kill a UK or US terorist
Foreign fighters in ISIS and other jihadi groups are regularly reported in the news media, and our politicians have been increasingly talking tough about them. But what do we really know about them, about their profiles and motivations?
November’s COMPAS Breakfast Briefing addressed these questions. Our experts were Rachel Briggs, a Senior Policy Analyst with our Breakfast Briefing partner, the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD), and Peter Neumann, a Professor of Security Studies at Kings College London, and the founding director there of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). The evidence was based on a series of important and innovative research projects at ISD and ICSR (listed at the end of this post), using social media analysis and face-to-face encounters with foreign fighters to build up a rich picture of their actions and their networks.
As is our usual practice, the oral briefings are podcast on the COMPAS site, while the discussion afterwards was under Chatham House rules. In this blogpost, I briefly summarise the key points from the briefings, and then discuss some of the wider issues touched on in the discussion, before finishing with links to information on ICSR’s and ISD’s work in this field. You can listen to the podcast here. Continue reading
This is an extract from my latest COMPAS blog post. Read the whole original here.
In a week in which a government minister described parts of Britain as “swamped” by migrants and “under siege”, it is clear that the language we use to talk about migration is vitally important.
Many commentators, especially those who are broadly “pro-migration”, blame the media for creating a public discourse of hostility to immigration through its use of inflamed language and scare-mongering statistics. Others, especially those who are broadly “anti-migration”, defend the media as simply responding to public fears and concerns, reflecting back an issue on which voters feel passionate. But what evidence is there about the content of media messages on migration?
Most of the research on this issue is drawn from fairly small samples of data: typically either just one or two newspapers or very concentrated timeframes. Now, however, in the age of “Big Data”, digital tools enable researchers to mine much larger bodies of material. The Migration in the Media project at Oxford’s Migration Observatory does just this.
This project was the focus of the launch of Series 5 of COMPAS’s Breakfast Briefings. As described in previous blogposts, our Breakfast Briefings are aimed to bring evidence to bear on policy debates relating to migration. The Migration Observatory’s Will Allen opened our series by providing an insight into how the media frames these debates.
Will presented a piece of research, co-authored with Olivia Vicol, in which all UK print media mentions of Bulgaria, Bulgarians, Romania or Romanians were analysed, in the year ending in December 2013 – that is, in the year leading up to the lifting of transitional controls on labour migrants from these two new EU states. A total of 4,441 news items – over 2.8 million words – were trawled to get a detailed descriptive picture of how the British media portrayed the issue.
With Douglas Carswell in the news today for winning UKIP its first parliamentary seat after his defection from the Conservative party, I dug out something I wrote about him in 2010 for Dissent. However, I noticed that when Dissent upgraded its site, all the punctuation and formatting on old blogposts went funny, so I’m re-posting it here, in the form in which I submitted it to them with a couple of small copy edits. I also added in a sentence (italicised) in the final paragraph, making it marginally more relevant to the UKIP bandwagon on to which Douglas Carswell has recently jumped. I’ll eventually re-post all my other Dissent posts here too.
I have no doubt that certain respectable forms of antisemitism, disguised as hatred of Israel, are endemic in large sections of the British left. This phenomenon needs exposing, and requires explanation, especially given the left’s earlier history at the forefront of the struggle against antisemitism and, indeed, against all forms of racism.
The explanation given by Tory MP, Daily Telegraph Briton of the Year 2009 and blogger Douglas Carswell, however, is not of much help. He offers his theory In a Jewish Chronicle op ed, “Why the British left hate Israel”. The first part of his answer is the left’s reverence for internationalism or, as he calls it, “supranationalism”, in which anti-national values such as universal jurisdiction and global forms of justice are given precedence over the nation-state. Israel, he says, is hated because it is such a stark example of national self-determination in a globalising world.
At first glance, this argument is compelling. There is a strong streak of internationalism on the left, best exemplified by Rosa Luxemburg, who, despite her Jewish roots, wrote that “there can be no special little corner in my heart for the ghetto: I feel myself at home in the wide world, everywhere there are clouds, birds and trees”. However, the mainstream of the left has always supported national self-determination too: Marx was a champion of Polish and Irish nationhood, and national rights were a key plank of Lenin’s worldview.
In fact, it is the section of the left that has furthest extended this pro-nationalist tendency where hatred of Israel burns the brightest: the so-called “anti-imperialist” left, for whom Arab nationalism, Serbian nationalism, Venezuelan nationalism and indeed more or less any nationalism apart from Jewish nationalism are accorded sacred status. For the “anti-imperialists”, national self-determination is an absolute right – just not for the Jews. The anti-Zionism of the “anti-imperialist” left goes against the grain of Luxemburg’s universalism just as much as the ultra-nationalism of the Zionist right does. We need a different explanation for Israel-hatred.
Luckily, therefore, Carswell switches direction at this point. “The contemporary left,” he writes, “appears to meander behind the 18th-century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The founding father of cultural relativism, Rousseau contended that the primitive and pre-industrial were more noble than advanced Western society.” Again, superficially appealing: large sections of the left subscribe to various forms of cultural relativism which forgive all sorts of oppressive practices if those practices are committed in the name of “culture” or “faith”. Israel is hated, Carswell asserts, because it demonstrates the superiority of Western values, and therefore refutes cultural relativism. (He doesn’t explicitly say that Arabs are savage, but the implication is clear.)
However, although it is literally twenty years since I read Rousseau, this whole claim didn’t ring true for me, and not just because in my two decades on the left I have never heard anyone refer to Rousseau in a political conversation. Nor because I don’t see how Rousseau, who lived before the industrial revolution, could have preferred pre-industrial society to his own. Rousseau, in fact, did not use the term “noble savage”, but he did see humanity as innately moral, based on our universal human capacity for sympathy. Although Rousseau’s ideas have not been that influential on the British left, the broader Enlightenment insistence on universal values and natural rights is at the heart of the left’s historical project of social justice and human rights.
The point is not that Carswell is ignorant about Rousseau (knowledge of eighteenth century philosophy has never been among my criteria for judging parliamentarians); nor that he claims a knowledge he evidently does not possess (although intellectual honesty is a significant virtue in an MP).
The point is that the left’s Enlightenment roots once predisposed it towards universal (or, to use Carswell’s term, supranational) values. Nationalism is in fact one of the worst forms of cultural relativism: loyalty to the nation can be inimical to loyalty to the higher value of humanity, and nationalism can justify any crime so long as it is perpetrated for one’s own nation. That is why the “anti-imperialist” left, with its vicarious nationalism, betrays the universal values that are the true heritage of the left. In other words, the “anti-imperialist” left mirrors the retreat to nationalism of the anti-EU, anti-human rights and anti-universalist right. It is by recovering universal values – not by returning to nineteenth century nationalism, nor by seeing Israel’s neighbours as ignoble savages – that we can take a stand against the new forms of intolerance that mar some sections of the left.
This is my latest post for the COMPAS blog. Read the original here.
In my contribution to Migration: The COMPAS Anthology, which discussed the concept of integration, I concluded with a series of unanswered questions which I think researchers have a duty to address. In this blog post, I take up those issues in order to introduce recent and current research by COMPAS and other scholars that starts to address these questions. I argue that these efforts constitute the research agenda on integration in the coming period.
First, I asked, how can we go beyond the limits of methodological nationalism to understand the local scale at which integration occurs? As Michael Keith has argued, migrants move between countries, but people move between places. Thinking about each of the domains in which integration occurs, it is clear that they take place at different scales, and most often at a scale smaller than the nation-state. Integration’s “ground zero”, as Ferruccio Pastore puts it, is the local. For instance, socio-economic participation means participation in labour markets which are local, or at most regional, rather than national; social interaction means interaction in real neighbourhoods, streets, libraries, play parks and sports fields. Place matters; space shapes the possibilities and constraints that structure integration processes.
Building on pioneering quantitative research by the GEITONIES project, these questions of what happens at local level were at the centre of Concordia Discors, a study of eleven European neighbourhoods in which COMPAS participated. Concordia Discors showed that several features of location – including local narratives and historical memories, the commitment of local policy communities, features of the built environment and connectivity to the rest of the city – shape a range of forms of conviviality and tension. This requires further unpacking in sustained multi-sited research. Continue reading
This was published in the COMPAS Blog in May 2013.
They never call it Bermondsey any more
A couple of weeks ago, in Bermondsey, South London with my colleagues Ole Jensen, Simon Rowe and Ida Persson, we met a man called Albert, at the entrance to his council flat. Born on Christmas Day 1926, Albert had lived his whole life in Bermondsey (apart from his national service at the end of the war, spent in Scandinavia). He had lived over half a century in his current flat, since it had been built as part of the massive post-war social democratic housing expansion whose legacy completely dominates the landscape of South London. He worked as a drayman at the Courage brewery, brought up three daughters and a son – and slowly watched his neighbourhood change almost beyond recognition.
The Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey was merged into the London Borough of Southwark in 1965. Its town hall had been bombed in the war, and Bermondsey no longer exists as an administrative unit. “They never call it Bermondsey any more”, Albert insisted. At its height, the docks employed huge numbers of men; the Peek Frean biscuit factory employed thousands of women. The docks closed one by one from the 1960s, the brewery closed in 1981, and the biscuit factory houses work units for creative businesses. The council estates are no longer sites of utopian hope but now carry the stigma of residualised poverty. A tidal wave of gentrification ripples down from the riverside, and the UK’s decade of mass migration has transformed the demographics. Continue reading
In a recent blogpost here, Sarah Spencer commented on the new OSCE Ljubljana guidelines on the integration of national minorities. The guidelines include probably the nearest I’ve seen to a clear definition of integration as we use the term at COMPAS:
Integration is a dynamic, multi-actor process of mutual engagement that facilitates effective participation by all members of a diverse society in the economic, political, social and cultural life, and fosters a shared and inclusive sense of belonging at national and local levels.
If we take that approach to integration seriously, there are a number of principles that need to be foregrounded, of which I want to address five in this blogpost.
Young migrants to London are keen to start their lives in the metropolis, but find that they are blocked by the toxic migration debate that is producing policies that are ungenerous and unimaginative.
Katrin was born in Bolivia. She came to the UK in 2006, originally on a tourist visa, but then applied successfully for a student visa. The application process has become very demanding – ‘we have to write our life’, she says. Her hearing for renewal, scheduled months after the process began, then shifted later, by which time her original visa had lapsed. Once her renewal was granted, it took her many more months to receive her new paperwork, during which time she felt as though she was in limbo.
Katrin’s story is taken from new research by sociologists Les Black and Shamser Sinha in the report A door to the Future? , part of the European project EUMargins, that documented young migrant lives in European cities. The UK sample was fairly small – thirty biographical interviews with young migrants in London – but produced a richly textured, intimate account of their experiences. The research methodology attempted to make them observers in their own lives too, and drew on photographic and diary records they themselves produced.
“Communities together not apart”, “Eric Pickles puts Big Lunch at the heart of effort to unite communities”, “Eric Pickles signals end to multiculturalism and says Tories will stand up for majority”, “Immigrants will be expected to speak English and champion British culture”, “Assimilation 1 Racial Justice 0”: it seems odd that such widely divergent headlines last week announced the same news item.
After months of waiting, and hints dropped in the blogosphere, the Department for Communities and Local Government has finally unveiled a new strategy for integration and cohesion, in the form of a paper entitled Creating the Conditions for Integration. The strategy suggests some significant continuities with past policy but also some major ruptures, and offers some cause for optimism as well as some cause for concern.
At the end of last month, on the eve of the congress of my trade union, the University and College Union (UCU), I wrote an article for the Dissent website Arguing the World. The article was about a motion brought by the National Executive (NEC) of UCU to boycott the Fundamental Rights Agency’s working definition of antisemitism (known as the EUMC Working Definition). In the article, I detailed some instances from the recent history of the union, including the accumulating scale of resignations of Jewish colleagues.
Since writing it, I have been surprised at the number of people who have contacted me, students and fellow academics, for whom my article articulated their own sense of growing alienation in the union. A few have asked me if I am now resigning. Continue reading