Knowing who we are and why it matters By William Bowles

29 May 2004

Awhile back I wrote a piece called “Listen to your ancestors” that in part was based upon my experiences of living in Africa for ten years (before being unceremoniously booted out by my former ‘comrades’). In part (although unstated) it was on reflection also about my immigrant roots here in the UK about which I have only the barest of knowledge. The issue of who we are, is very much about where we come from, if not literally then metaphorically. And it is also about our allegiances, something that once more – as the imperium stokes the fires of nationalism – becomes central to the struggle for autonomy (belonging and autonomy are synonymous).

But whose autonomy? And of course, where does my allegiance belong? The nation I supposedly belong to, my ‘class’, my ‘race’? Being a communist, a jew, an immigrant, means being on the ‘outside’ and as the world of the past dissolves/fractures under the impact of global capitalism, questions of identity take centre stage as we attempt to relocate ourselves in the welter of conflicting demands.

My lefty friends out there may wonder what this has to do with the ‘struggle’ but in a world of increasing alienation, where life itself is being ‘branded’ (now there’s a word to conjure with) and where history undergoes daily reinvention, the question becomes central and for one crucial reason – cut adrift, forced to rely on ever narrower ‘communities’ we find our lives fractured and divorced from ‘communalities of struggle’.

‘Race’, ‘gender’, ‘nationality’ and all the other fractions take on a paradoxical existence, for on the one hand, without such identifiers we are reduced to mere atoms of humanity yet ultimately such fractions disconnect us from the one humanity we ultimately all belong to.

And in another paradox, as the world grows smaller, so do the boundaries of our lives. So instead of filling the world we find ourselves closed off from it. Connected but disconnected much like the Web, full of unfulfilled promise. Much like the lives we lead, led by promise but fulfillment forever just beyond our reach.

My maternal grandparents, uprooted from some shtetl in Latvia or Lithuania and Bylorus, some unknown and forever a nameless place, forever beyond my knowledge, ended up in Leeds bringing with them a history lost to me except as transmitted fragments of memory, largely political and to a lesser degree, cultural.

So too my paternal grandparents, from rural England at almost exactly the same time, were uprooted and dumped equally unceremoniously in South London. These two families became enjoined and then along with millions of other families, fractured by an indifferent capitalism. Perhaps it explains my own restless existence, but not entirely.

Making sense of it
Perhaps the one thing we all share is unhappiness, a vague and formless ache that drives some of us mad and others into desperate consumption, whilst others retreat into a (re)invented past. The point being, all disconnect us from the reality of our actual existence and thus prey to carefully constructed fears, chief of which is the ‘other’.

This week for example, in a joint demonisation campaign, the USUK launched Abu Hamza ‘Captain Hook’, whose visage – the metal hook for a hand, the disfigured face, the ‘alien’ Muslim – an image that is almost primordial, onto a carefully prepared public.

Hamza then, is straight out of our nightmares, the kind that parents use to scare their young children with. So obvious yet so compelling, Hamza as they say is straight out of ‘central casting’.

Kept on ice these past months, he is rolled out at an opportune moment, so opportune that even the ‘liberal’ press has been forced to question the validity of it. So obviously a set up, Hamza is part of a larger agenda that only makes sense when viewed through the prism of a state made insidiously crafty by generations of manipulation of the ‘other’.

“Suspicions that the timing of the extradition hearing was a stunt to help focus attention away from the Iraq war were heightened when John Ashcroft the US Attorney General, held a press conference in New York to publicise the charges. His planned arrest was also leaked to the Sun’s political editor hours before it took place, ensuring a positive front page on anti-terrorism.”
Independent, front page 28/05/04

The Sun of course had a different constituency to reach, so rather than the question as a sub-head that the Independent carried on its front page “So is he a dangerous terrorist – or just a political pawn?” the Sun’s screeched “Hook Seized Today” and went on to describe him as the “one-eyed hate preacher and in a similar vein, the Daily Mail describes his “sermons of hate, dripping with anti-British and anti-American venom”. What I wonder, do they make of the ‘sermons’ to be found here?

But regardless, both the ‘liberal’ and the rightwing press carried news of Hamza’s arrest on their respective front pages. And whilst the Independent makes the ‘right’ noises (in line with its ‘liberal’ credentials) both are part of a matrix, each with its target constituency to ‘take care of’.

So the Independent’s questioning of the motives and timing of Hamza’s arrest:

“The obvious question is who told the Sun and why. Suspicion immediately fell on Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Home Office. The clue was in the author of the [Sun’s] story, Trevor Kavanagh, the paper’s well-connected political editor”

is set in the context of the need to be seen to be “tough on terrorism”. Terrorism being the key word, not demonisation of the ‘other’.

So if you get the feeling that you are being manipulated, it’s because you are. As I’ve pointed out, the Independent suggests it’s to divert attention from the disaster that is the occupation (”The latest efforts to silence Mr Hamza have all the hallmarks of a meticulously planned operation involving officials from both Washington and London.” P.4), and whilst this is true, to fully appreciate the significance of Hamza, it is important to realise that he belongs to the realm of the ‘other’ to which vast swathes of the world’s population have also been relegated. Divorced from ‘us’, they can be safely ‘taken care of’ without disturbing our shattered and stunted sensibilities.

Banal, even obvious? Yes but so was the ‘hook-nosed Jew’ or the ‘sponging asylum seeker’ or the ‘smelly Indian’. That’s the point. Without an internal reference to their condition we have no connection to their lives. The Independent used three pages of dead trees to reassure its readers that it ‘cared’ but did nothing to challenge the relationship between us and ‘them’ that the dominant culture (with the Independent’s help) has so carefully constructed.

And what the Independent also didn’t tell us was that an order was secretly signed into use by Ober Gruppen Fuhrer Blunkett that would remove the ‘problem’ of due process in order to dispatch Hamza to some dungeon in America. The order never saw the light of Parliament, was never scrutinised by our so-called democracy. But the Independent presented it to us as a “First test for ‘fast-track’ extradition” (P.5). No evidence is needed, all the US needs to do is tell the UK government why they want him (or anyone else for that matter). And for Thug Blunkett it just “cut[s] out…the paperwork [and] unnecessary delays”. The assumption is of course, that Hamza is guilty.

First they come for the hook-handed, one-eyed man then they come for you…

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