Grenfell: self-examination needed

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vladimir
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Grenfell: self-examination needed

Post by vladimir » Tue Jun 20, 2017 2:05 pm

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfr ... are_btn_fb

To win a prize that carries George Orwell’s name is a source of pride for any journalist. But it was impossible for me to accept it in a city struggling to come to terms with the horrors of Grenfell Tower without being forced to think about the relationship between pride and shame.
To think, too, about the kind of Englishness Orwell stood for and the urgent need to reclaim it. For what his work still tells us above all is that there is a great difference between national pride and national vanity. If Brexit is a moment of English national vanity, Orwell always knew that English national pride had to start with a sense of shame – with anger at the ignominy of a society that treats some people’s lives as worthless simply because they do not have enough money to matter.

Orwell’s name resonates around the world but it does so because he seems, at least to outsiders like me, so profoundly, wonderfully and characteristically English. He represents a great English tradition that is sceptical, egalitarian, independent-minded and gloriously awkward. It is a tradition worthy of any nation’s pride. England urgently needs it now – and so does Europe.

But Orwell’s patriotism was not rooted in “all the boasting and flag-waving, the Rule Britannia stuff” he so despised. It had nothing to do with wishful thinking about national greatness. He would have known how much money was saved by using cheaper but flammable insulation tiles on a tower block: in The Road to Wigan Pier he tells us straight away why no hot water system was installed in miners’ houses: “the builder saved perhaps ten pounds on each house by not doing so”. He would have written about Grenfell Tower with precision and searing clarity and with a coldness that did not conceal the savage indignation burning underneath. And he would have insisted that doing so was an act of genuine English patriotism.

A nation that allows a Grenfell Tower to happen has lost the sense of shame without which there is no genuine national pride. It is the same kind of nation that gives way to the vanity of Brexit. One of the things that underlies the great Brexit upheaval is the resurgence of English nationalism – there are Scottish and Welsh and Northern Irish Brexiteers, but they are peripheral to the real action. The problem with English nationalism is not that it exists – the English have as much right to nationalist sentiment as anyone else – but that it does not know what it should be proud of. It has been buried in other constructs: the empire, the United Kingdom, Britishness. When you don’t know what positive claims to make, the easiest way to define yourself is as a negative. To be Us is to be not Them.


Brexit is, in large part, an expression of this negative idea of identity: English is not immigrant, not European, not the saboteurs and enemies within. And after that? Not very much beyond a cartoon of John Bull standing on the cliffs of Dover waving his fist at bloody continentals. The vacuum is filled with post-imperial fantasies and delusions of grandeur, with belligerence and nastiness.

But England is better than that and so is Englishness. Progressives have been reluctant, for noble reasons, to talk too much about Englishness. To do so is to risk falling into white nativist fantasies that exclude those who are not sons and daughters of some imagined Albion. Johnny Rotten, that most Irish of Englishmen, hit a nerve when he sang: “There is no future in England’s dreaming.” But perhaps there should be – not just a future, but a present reality for the hard, tough-minded English dreaming of a George Orwell and for another England at least as real as the obnoxious caricature that is now in the ascendant.

This may, like all collective identities, be largely an exercise in invention. It may even be itself in part a caricature. Perhaps it is a matter of reoccupying a stereotype. If you ask foreigners – and many English people themselves – to sum up the English attitude in a phrase, that might be “no-nonsense”. One version of this stereotype is stalking the land: bluff, proudly ignorant, at war with the complexities and ambiguities of contemporary realities. But there is a better version. What is Orwell if he is not a great enemy of nonsense? He taught us that nonsense is the cloak of power, violence and enslavement.

His prose is one of the sharpest scythes ever whetted to cut down the cant and lies that keep power in the hands of the few and the obfuscations that obscure the consequences for the many. He forged it, though, from materials that were very English: a tradition of radical thought and expression that goes back through many centuries all the way to the peasants’ revolt and John Ball’s great sceptical question: “When Adam delved and Eve span/ Who was then the gentleman?” The no-nonsense English tradition that Orwell inhabited combines a clarity of thought and articulation with an understanding that if things are being obscured, it is because something shameful is going on. It uses the idea of national pride, not to bolster smugness and self-delusion but to stir outrage at these shameful things. It says simply: we English are better than this.

Even in these shameful times, it is important for an outsider – which as an Irishman I certainly am – to say: yes you are. England is better than the shrinking of its public realm of mutual care that has led to Grenfell Tower. It is better than the reckless game-playing of a buffoonish ruling class that has led to the self-harming gesture politics of Brexit. It is better than the show it is making of itself on the world stage, the tragicomic spectacle of a nation in which no one has the authority to negotiate its future.

It is, after all, a country in which Orwell sprang from very deep traditions and in which those traditions of honesty, courage, egalitarianism and scepticism are, in spite of appearances, vibrantly alive.

Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with the Irish Times and winner of the 2017 Orwell prize for journalism
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Re: Grenfell: self-examination needed

Post by StroppyChops » Tue Jun 20, 2017 3:48 pm

TL;DR - did you write all that by yourself?
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Re: Grenfell: self-examination needed

Post by vladimir » Wed Jun 21, 2017 1:35 pm

Update from The Guardian, Dickens would be angry

Over 170 years after Engels, Britain is still a country that murders its poor

Aditya Chakrabortty
The victims of Grenfell Tower didn’t just die. Austerity, outsourcing and deregulation killed them – just as Victorian Manchester killed the poor then.

Lower your gaze from the blackened husk of Grenfell Tower and you see the flowers and the signs decorating the streets. Many are photocopied pleas to help find the missing: 12-year-old Jessica, baby Amaya. Steve. Moses. Nestled among them are the others: scribbles and boards and A4 sheets reading Cuts Cost Lives and Corporate Murder, and People’s Lives Don’t Matter Under Capitalism.
This, Theresa May, is what a people’s public inquiry looks like. The sign-writers and passersby talking in the streets around Grenfell have grasped a truth that cabinet ministers are still fumbling towards: whatever and whoever a judge finds at fault – this procedure or that subcontractor – the true causes of the failures go far wider. They lie in the way Britain is run.
The Grenfell Tower fire was the end result of a disdainful housing policy

While in Victorian Manchester, Friedrich Engels struggled to name the crime visited on children whose limbs were mangled by factory machines, or whose parents were killed in unsafe homes. Murder and manslaughter were committed by individuals, but these atrocities were something else: what he called social murder. “When society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual,” he wrote in 1845, in The Condition of the Working Class in England.
Over 170 years later, Britain remains a country that murders its poor. When four separate government ministers are warned that Grenfell and other high rises are a serious fire risk, then an inferno isn’t unfortunate. It is inevitable. Those dozens of Grenfell residents didn’t die: they were killed. What happened last week wasn’t a “terrible tragedy” or some other studio-sofa platitude: it was social murder.
By all means, let’s wait for a judge to confirm the reports that the tower was covered in banned cladding, and that the 79 men, women and children confirmed to have died in the fire (at the time of writing) possibly did so for a grand saving of £2 a square metre.
But we can draw our own conclusions about whether well-heeled renters in a luxury tower would have received the contempt dished out to Grenfell’s council tenants after they published detailed reports on their homes being firetraps. Those local politicians who gave council taxpayers a sizeable rebate even while starving local services of funds have evidently chosen whose side they are on – and it’s not that of the families who have been made homeless.
The social violence documented by Engels wasn’t aimed at a particular person and wasn’t usually intentional. These were acts licensed by those in public or private sector authority, who decided the lives of poor people mattered less than the profits of the rich.The impoverished were merely the feedstock of the wealthy. The logic still applies today. It’s why the politicians and officials who will not countenance the use of empty private property to house victims of a major catastrophe are the same set who make it their business to kick council tenants out of their homes to turn them into private assets … to be left empty. The same attitude ties together the three strands that have created west London’s 24-story crematorium: deregulation, outsourcing and spending cuts.
The 19th-century industrialists who resisted the factories acts would recognise a kindred spirit in Boris Johnson, who has claimed “health and safety fears are making Britain a safe place for extremely stupid people”. The next TV interviewer to face the foreign secretary should ask him either to repeat those words or apologise for them. But the deadliest rationale came from David Cameron, who as PM wrote off the legal protections given to workers and consumers as “an albatross around the neck of British businesses”. I cannot remember a more brazen recent statement of profits before people.

Grenfell Tower fire: death toll raised to 79 as minute's silence held

To look after its properties, the council created the largest management organisation of its type in England – unfeasibly large, it turned out, and unaccountable to its own tenants. This was the £11m-a-year body that handed the £10m refurbishment contract to the builder Rydon. The best that can be said of such outsourcing – whether in managing flats or running council departments – is that the public ends up paying more for a service that’s worse. It allows big companies to profiteer from basic public needs, and to evade democratic control.
Spectacular examples of social violence, such as Grenfell, are thankfully rare. They usually occur out of public sight. This decade of austerity has been a decade of social violence: of people losing their cash income for not being disabled enough, of families turfed out of their homes for having more than two kids or a bedroom the state deems surplus to requirements. These are tales of private misery, of a person or a household behind a closed door plunged into stress, anxiety, depression or worse.
Last year I met a Parkinson’s disease sufferer, Paul Chapman, who after being put through a fitness-to-work assessment and having most of his benefits cut told his wife, Lisa: “I’ll clear off and I won’t take my tablets or my insulin. And it’ll be over then. I won’t be here.”
Others have told me of friends who didn’t only express such impulses, they acted on them. Their last days will have been soundtracked by a government deriding “skivers”. Years of public bullying and official harassment of the poor have funded the £93bn of tax breaks and bungs chucked at big corporations, property developers and outsourcing firms.
Austerity is at the heart of the Grenfell story. Think of the firefighters, who have seen stations closed and colleagues laid off by May, when she was home secretary. Consider the nurses treating the dying and the maimed, who will be on lower pay now than they were in 2009.
Most of all, remember this: the cuts made since 2010 were the poor picking up the tab for the venality of rich bankers. The two are jammed up next to each other in Kensington and Chelsea, one of the richest and most unequal patches of land in the world. Just minutes away from Grenfell, you can find a house for sale at £30m (albeit “in need of full modernisation”). The residents of the investment-starved Tower died last week did so partly because of the greed of their neighbours.

Philip Hammond hints government will ease up on austerity

To judge by the nods and winks since the election, May’s government is preparing for the beginning of the end of austerity. I’ll believe it when I see teaching assistants getting a pay rise or benefits for the working-age poor going up. In any case, it will be too late to undo the damage already done. In their book, The Violence of Austerity, the academics Vickie Cooper and David Whyte collect the evidence. Together with their co-authors, they record how the disability assessment process in England is “associated” with an extra 590 suicides. How cuts to local government funding mean that Liverpool council no longer has a single dedicated health and safety officer. How austerity has meant more people dying sooner.
Spending cuts, deregulation, outsourcing: between them they have turned a state supposedly there to protect and support citizens into a machine to make money for the rich while punishing the poor. It’s never described like that, of course. Class warfare is passed off as book-keeping. Accountability is tossed aside for “commercial confidentiality”, while profiteering is dressed up as economic dynamism. One courtesy we should pay the victims of Grenfell is to drop the glossy-brochure euphemisms. Let’s get clear what happened to them: an act of social murder, straight out of Victorian times.
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