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Saturday, 14 October 2017

ESSAY: What is the place of referenda in 21st century democracies?

I mentioned a while back that I've spent a lot of this year writing essays. A lot of this year has also been dedicated to discussing referenda and what their purpose is or should be. In bringing the two together, I've decided to share this essay I wrote for a Law competition. I really enjoyed researching it, mainly because although I'd had the opportunity to study referenda in my politics lessons before, I got to look at the diverse approaches modern democracies have made of them which was fascinating. Read on to see what all this research led me to think about referenda:


When the results of the EU referendum were first broadcasted in the early hours of the 24th June 2016, what prevailed was an electorate uncomfortable with its own power for change. Whilst The New York Post spoke of “Power to the People”, French newspaper Libération wished the British public “Good Luck.” Britain’s modern democracy is now seemingly stuck in a paradox; what was an instrument of freedom for some, promised sharp apprehension for others. The consensus on referenda no longer exists, contrary to 20th century opinion of them as a manifestation of fascism.[1] In the ensuing uncertainty some allege that referenda should have no place in current society, and yet to do so is to deny the electorate one of the vital methods of amplifying their voice. As government legitimacy is threatened by political disengagement, referenda offer to remind citizens of their essential role in the democratic process. There are fundamental social and constitutional decisions that should not be left for elected representatives to decide, but must be returned to the very people whose livelihood they threaten. In recognising the weight of authority provided by referenda, governments must be prepared to stringently regulate their use in context of the technology-driven societies we live in today. Consequently, it is the duty of politicians to ensure the citizens they represent are fully informed and aware of the decision they are undertaking, free from a biased and vindictive rhetoric. Without these regulations, a referendum can be nothing more than an aggressive dispute with no certain conclusion. However with educated and cultivated discussion, referenda have the potential to give the electorate the ability to provide answers to the most pressing issues facing current democracies today and collectively strengthen their societies.
The most encouraging quality of referenda to twenty-first century democracies is their promising solution to the supposed apathetic climate surrounding politics to date. There is clear evidence we should be concerned with the public’s political engagement, with the turnout to the 2015 General Election standing at 66.1%, which is poorer than the 20th century low of 71% (excluding the 57.2% turnout at the start of the First World War).[2] This was addressed in 2006 in the POWER inquiry’s report on disengagement, which identified that the British public were not apathetic but simply unwilling to engage with formal participation as much as with informal participation.[3] In democracies, such disengagement threatens not only the effectiveness of political discussion but also the legitimacy and mandate of the governments that citizens elect to represent them. It is an acute problem that will only worsen as the public continually turns to petitions, pressure groups and ‘clicktivism’ (the advocacy of social issues through social media) to engage with politics. Accordingly, the POWER inquiry advocated the increased use of referenda as one method of increasing formal participation and addressing the potential crisis being faced. They suggested that by using referenda citizens could be directly given the opportunity to influence the verdicts that will shape the future of their country, something they feel they lack currently.
Therefore, it seems that referenda are critical for democracies to combat the increased disengagement countries are faced with today. However, crucially there is not sufficient evidence of this occurring to suggest that there should be steady use of referenda. In particular, Switzerland, which incorporates direct democracy into its constitution, has not observed a rise in political participation. In 2015, Electoral Participation stood at 48.5% according to statistics from the National Council Elections, a much lower turnout than at British general elections.[4] It must be acknowledged that the two are wildly different political cultures and systems, which limit the extent as to which such a comparison is useful. However, it should be noticed that this lack of involvement with referenda in Switzerland has been seen in the United Kingdom too. In 2011 a referendum was held proposing the use of AV to count votes at general elections, receiving a meagre turnout of 42.2%.5 Similarly, a referendum on devolution in Wales in the same year had a turnout of only 35.63%.5
Whilst this suggests the impact of referenda on political engagement to be limited, attention must be directed to how turnout differs based on the topic of the referendum. More recently turnout has been greater, with the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 receiving a turnout of 84.6%,5 whilst the EU referendum had a turnout of 72.2%.[5] Correspondingly, Switzerland, which has been traditionally recognised for low turnout due to common consensus, has experienced spikes in participation on issues such as the abolition of the Swiss Army in 1989 (69.18%)[6] and in 2001 when voting on joining the EU (55.79%).[7] These are all major constitutional –and often controversial- issues, establishing a common ground upon which the public is adamant in having its voice heard. Therefore, to ensure the most effective use of referenda, it is matters of critical interest to the nation that must be focused upon.
Despite this, an indiscriminative approach to referenda topics risks compromising a nation’s ability to govern successfully. In 2009, the Economist ran an article branding California “The Ungovernable State”.[8] The state utilises ballot initiatives that whilst intended to devolve power to the people, have plunged California’s economic state into turmoil. By allowing citizens to propose their own legislation, the majority of propositions aim to cut taxes or implement greater spending, meaning the budget has become completely unbalanced. 1978’s infamous Proposition 13, a prime example of the disorder caused by such a system, was passed with the intent to reduce and cap property tax –and also implemented a requirement of a two-thirds majority before any future increases- but in doing so has left the state reliant on income and capital gains taxes, unable to raise the money it needs to sustain public spending.
Ballot initiatives differ from referenda, as the latter do not allow citizens to decide what question is posed; yet California still maintains a clear warning on what could occur was the use of referenda so widespread. This has occurred in the UK in efforts to establish congestion charges in Edinburgh and Manchester where public approval was sought through the use of referenda in 2005 and 2008 respectively. In Edinburgh, £9 million was spent developing the charge proposals to no avail as public unwillingness to pay higher taxes saw them be rejected. Meanwhile in Manchester, the ‘No’ vote prevented necessary transport and infrastructure improvements despite Transport Secretary Geoffrey Hoon admitting there was no ‘Plan B’. Subsequently, referenda are not suited to the purpose of passing everyday legislation, where the expertise and experience of legislators is necessary to implement vital but sometimes contentious measures.
Regardless of the inherent problems in using referenda, for society to progress and for government to become more representative, the public should be able to vote on social issues as well. The governing bodies of modern democracies owe it to their citizens to be microcosms of the societies they represent. In doing so, they accumulate the vast ranges of opinion which develop from having greatly different experiences of life. Whilst diversity has increased it remains that even in the twenty-first century governments do not mirror their societies. This may not impact their ability to emphasise with the issues that impact underrepresented classes of people, but it does mean a majority of parliament has never felt the personal consequences of these issues. In Portugal, the first national referendum was held proposing the decriminalisation of abortion before 10 weeks in 1998. Having resulted in a ‘No’ vote, another referendum was held in 2007 passing the legislation successfully, reflecting the progression of social attitudes and political involvement. Contrastingly, in Northern Ireland abortion remains illegal unless the woman’s health or life is at risk, but opinion polls suggest the public wants change with 72% believing abortion should be allowed if the pregnancy is a result of a sexual crime.[9] The use of referenda would give the public the power to enact that change, and at the same time make the laws of the country more representative of the population in a way the government is currently failing to be.
Most importantly, we must analyse the use of referenda within the exact context of the twenty-first century. Undoubtedly, this is a technology-driven age. The domination of the Internet in Western society has bred a culture where politics cannot be viewed outside of the influence of both technology and the media. In his book The Rule of Law, Tom Bingham writes “In a modern democracy where the decision lies with the people, we must ensure they are fully informed and empowered to choose between conflicting opinions and alternating courses of action.”[10] Bingham applies this to freedom of expression, but clearly this is also necessary of referenda. In our societies where there has been an epidemic of ‘fake news’ and social media created ‘echo chambers’, it must be a prerequisite that before voting people are provided with sufficient, unbiased information to ensure a coherent discussion of the matter at hand. This may help with engagement but it can also ensure that the outcome of the vote is decided with complete consideration of its implications instead of opinions from insular social media accounts. In Switzerland, this is achieved by producing a booklet with “explanations by the cabinet” which provide a detailed but impartial overview of the different reasons for voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
Preventing the vicious fighting and divisive rhetoric that can occur over polarising issues is also essential. This defined the EU referendum, only serving to obstruct an informed debate from occurring as both the ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ campaigns resorted to fear-inducing tactics so as to pressure the electorate. The Leave campaign’s bus declaring that £350 million would be given to the NHS upon exiting the EU became notorious as the promise was quickly rescinded. Referenda need to be free of the negative rhetoric and manipulation that characterised campaigns on the EU vote, whilst politicians must be held accountable as representatives to the people to help them make the best decision possible. This does not require complete neutrality, but it does involve close regulation so as to generate a conversation, not a dividing conflict that fractures the nation.
Referenda are an intrinsic part of generating political involvement and enhancing our democracies in the twenty-first century, but they must be approached carefully to prevent an imperative debate from becoming the tool of populism. Democratic governments should take it upon themselves to institute reform of their use and prevent referenda from posing a question that they fail to answer. When the electorate votes there is no appropriate strategy or answer in place to respond to the outcome. The British electorate may have said “No” to the EU, triggering a historic shift within the constitution, but there was no “how”. The government was forced to acknowledge the lack of a concrete plan to fulfil the rule of the people, alongside a lack of national consensus on the country’s future. Referenda should not be proposed when the consequences are not clear; that itself is a violation of the government’s duty to ensure its citizens are well informed before they vote. To give the people the ability to rule, it is necessary to offer more than votes on arbitrary statements, but instead to develop direct democracy into more constructive forms such as citizen’s assemblies or public debates where a cohesive dialogue can occur. The greatest use twenty-first century democracies can make of referenda is to make them the conclusion, not the debate.


[1] Geoffrey Wheatcroft, 'Europhobia: A Very British Problem' (the Guardian, 2016) <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/21/brexit-euroscepticism-history>
[2] 'General Election Turnout' (UK Parliament, 2017) <http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/chartists/contemporarycontext/electionturnout/>
[3] Power To The People (The POWER Inquiry, 2006) <http://www.jrrt.org.uk/sites/jrrt.org.uk/files/documents/PowertothePeople_001.pdf> 

[4] Bundesamt Statistik, 'Politik' (Bfs.admin.ch, 2017) <https://www.bfs.admin.ch/bfs/de/home/statistiken/politik.html>
[5] 'Electoral Commission | Electoral Data' (Electoralcommission.org.uk, 2017) <http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/our-work/our-research/electoral-data>
[6] 'Votation Populaire Du 26.11.1989' (Admin.ch, 2017) <https://www.admin.ch/ch/f/pore/va/19891126/>
[7] 'Votation Populaire Du 04.03.2001' (Admin.ch, 2017) <https://www.admin.ch/ch/f/pore/va/20010304/>
[8] 'The Ungovernable State' (The Economist, 2009) <http://www.economist.com/node/13649050>

[9] 'Northern Ireland: Nearly 3/4 Of Public Support Abortion Law Change' (Amnesty.org.uk, 2016) <https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/northern-ireland-nearly-34-public-support-abortion-law-change-new-poll-0>
[10] Tom Bingham, The Rule Of Law (1st edn, Allen Lane 2011).



Sunday, 10 September 2017

5 Ways to Incorporate Your Love of Books Into Decor *

Books are wonderful, there's no question about that. Powerful, entertaining and moving, books can leave you with enough experiences to last a lifetime. But they can also leave you with enough decor to last a lifetime, believe it or not. Below are some of the ways I make sure my love of books is very clear to anyone who wanders around my house- how do you ensure your decorations reflects your passion for reading?

1. Play Around with Storage
My beloved books have been shelved almost all the ways you can think of. There was that time I meticulously sorted them into alphabetical order and that time I ordered them to fit the colour of the rainbow. I've displayed them on shelves, above my bed, in vertical stacks and horizontal ones. The point is, figuring out the quirkiest ways to store your books will guarantee endless fun... and maybe achy arms - but that's worth it, right?

2. Save Those Event Tickets
I have tons of pieces of paper that I have saved from train tickets to post-it notes. The best ones are from book events I've gone to, and I don't let them go to waste. By sticking them up on my wall I have a sweet reminder of the authors I've been lucky enough to meet and of the memorable experiences I've. For nostalgics like me, this is a must.


3. Get the Writing on the Wall
When I changed up my room, one of the first things I did is go on Etsy and get myself a custom made wall quote, so that on my bedroom wall is a line from one of my favourite poets, Fernando Pessoa. Finding a book quote to put on your wall is one of the easiest and most meaningful ways of personalising a room with your love for books. I 100% recommend it since mine has been up four years now!

4. Leave it to the Professionals
Good thing there are designers with a talent for this, right? Sometimes, no matter how many rainbow shelves you have or the number of wall quotes you've stuck up, imagination can run a little dry. If you're still stuck for ideas, Havenly has a bunch of immensely talented interior designers ready to help you out with their unique decorating ideas. Are you a bit of a minimalist? Try this. More in favour of contemporary designs? Check this out instead.


5. Find Your Favourites.... Put Them on Show!
I get it, asking you to choose your favourite books might be like asking you to choose a favourite child, but it's possible. Just remember that book with the gorgeous, gilded cover that you bought when you definitely weren't on a book buying ban, or that worn and torn novel that's been passed down in your family for generations. Put them on a coffee table or a desk and now everyone can admire your collection.


*This post has been written in collaboration with Havenly. All opinions are completely honest and my own.


Saturday, 12 August 2017

Is History Made by the Powerful? [ESSAY HELP + EXAMPLE]

If you've been wondering exactly what I've been up to the past year, a lot of it included writing essays for a few competitions I came across. This is one of them, discussing the statement "History is made by the powerful." Guidance for this kind of 2,500 word essay can be hard to find, especially when you're a sixth-former used to answering questions with (25 Marks) stuck on the end, so before the actual essay I've included three things I did or would do differently if I was writing this again.

1) Choose a topic that really interests you. Call me a nerd, but I love history, mainly because -as this blog shows- I love stories, and the ones that happened in the past are just as captivating as the meticulously planned ones you find in fiction books. I took the opportunity in this essay to talks about different areas of history that I hadn't had the chance to study before; two of these areas were somewhat personal to me, being part of Portugal's history, whilst the rest (the beginning of the Mormon faith and the rise of Communism in 20th century Europe) gave me the opportunity to explore and engage with new arguments. It's also a given that when you're writing 2,500 words (even more or less) you will not make it through the entire piece if your subject makes you want to fall asleep, so make your time and effort worthwhile!

2) Start with an argument, end with an argument. Essays like this one are meant to take on a clear line of argument which you sustain throughout. Make this evident in your introduction, and once again in your conclusion. Use detail and specific knowledge to supplement your argument, not the other way round. I think that this, especially when you're excited about the topic you're writing about, can be the hardest thing to get right, but with good focus and critical editing once you've finished your first draft, you'll be fine.

3) Stick to a structure. So I probably sound like your teacher here, but it's possibly one of the most crucial parts of your essay, and one that I would try to do better if I re wrote this. As someone who adores creative writing, I'm a fan of just letting myself write naturally, but when it comes to argumentative pieces of writing, it's often a lot more coherent and effective to follow through one argument or point per paragraph, developing it as you go. This keeps your various arguments distinct and allows you to create links between them more effectively instead of getting carried away and scattering points throughout the essay. 





“Dos fracos não reza a História.”

“The weak do not make history.”

Foregoing not speaking the language, the greatest barrier to understanding this age-old Portuguese proverb is a misunderstanding of what power actually constitutes. A crude analysis attributes it to bullets, banknotes and beliefs. Such an approach places power on a spectrum that defines it by the state in which it is found, thus ignoring its reliance upon the distinct places it may be found to derive from. In essence, power is the processes through which it is obtained. It is the factors that create it, that fester into military victories and harden into political ideologies. Thus, the question of what makes history is not answerable with the simple suggestion of ‘power’ itself, but instead with another question that remains: what provides power?
            Immediate thought seems to attempt to physically embody the course of power, but in defining it as the number of weapons amassed, territories exploited or men conscripted, it becomes too easy to erase the lone wolves of history. A significant portrayal of this remains Anibal Milhais, a Portuguese soldier in World War One, nicknamed ‘Soldado Milhões’ (Soldier Millions) for he was said to be as good a soldier as a million others.
Remembered for his performance at the Battle of La Lys, Milhais single-handedly defeated two German assaults by firing upon them with his Lewis machine gun and refusing to leave his post until he ran out of ammunition. Thus he allowed the retreat of the allied forces, convincing the Germans that they were attacking a heavily fortified unit instead of a lone soldier with a machine gun. Upon the German division deciding to go around his post, he became lost for three days and nights with nothing to eat or drink except the sweet almonds his family had sent him from Portugal, and yet was able to save a drowning Scottish Major who later ensured Milhais’ feats were known.
This example of empowerment is a vital portrayal of the fact power by definition is not limited to military strength. Despite there being 20,000 Portuguese men fighting at the Battle of La Lys, it was the bravery of a single man that allowed for allied retreat, and in that moment that single man was more powerful that the two German Regiments attacking him. Power in this situation is shown to not simply correlate with strength by numbers, but instead strength by character or in this case Milhais’ persistent bravery at a battle where the Portuguese division was demoralised and heavily depleted in both numbers and leadership. What was a severe moment of weakness for the forces ultimately became a moment of empowerment due to the actions of Anibal Milhais; that has made history.
Yet the story of Soldier Millions keenly ignores a pivotal detail.  Milhais was still physically empowered; he had a gun, he had bullets, and these gave him the power he needed to defeat his opponents. Such an example thus ignores the other courses through which power can manifest itself, in particular the kind that channels itself through a person’s essence.
Moving a little further into the history of 20th century Portugal provides the story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, another sole man who without the help of bullets or machine guns aided a vast number of refugees in escaping Nazi Germany during World War Two. Sousa Mendes was a Portuguese Consul under the fascist regime of Salazar, which at the time had issued Circular 10 and Circular 14. These were two immigration policies that made it very difficult for refugees to attempt to enter Portugal by making consuls unable to pass them visas without approval in advance from the Foreign Ministry’s head office. Sousa Mendes resisted such policies throughout the course of the war, and is thought to have issued around 30,000 visas to refugees, 10,000 of them Jewish. Even at the cost of directly disobeying the orders of a fascist regime, he dared to use his status to help those he knew were being abandoned by laws aiming to restrict immigration to Portugal.
However, if we classify power by the processes that generate it, then the question of where Sousa Mendes gained the power to motivate his actions still remains. Discriminately, his power must not be interpreted by his position of authority but by that which actually drove his actions, whatever was necessary to spur him into action. For Mendes, this was his religion. He spoke of his actions coherently and confidently, stating "I would rather stand with God and against man than with man and against God”[1] a testament to the way his Catholicism convinced him of his duty to save the lives of those he had the ability to help.
 The only sure conclusion to be taken from both the historical accounts of Anibal Milhais and Aristides de Sousa Mendes is that power is as much physical as it is ideological. Milhais may have derived his power from his bullets, just as Sousa Mendes used his visas as a weapon for good, but ultimately the physical consequences that resulted from their empowerment came from coherent ideas and ideologies. For Sousa Mendes, it has been identified as his religion but for Milhais it is more complicated. Overwhelmingly, if we consider the dire morale Portuguese forces experienced as they died for a conflict they knew nothing about, one would admit Milhais’ ideology to be born not from an inherent duty to the war, but to his role as a soldier. In fact, his behaviour correlates strongly with the motto of the Portuguese Armed Forces as it stands and stood then: “Em Perigos e Guerras Esforçado[2] or “Diligent in Danger and War,” a fitting description of Milhais’ conduct on the battlefield.
There are still reverberations of the power of ideology seen today, particularly so in the ever continual development of faith. This occurs even whilst religion classifies itself as separate from ideology, the two entities converging in their abilities to shape and provide power. Moving across the Atlantic, Joseph Smith and his followers are perhaps an excellent illustration of the ability of religious belief to drive the beginnings of a faith. Specifically, the Mormon faith was rooted in no archaeological evidence, but was instead founded on the allegations of Smith that he was led by an angel by the name of Moroni to find the Book of Mormon inscribed in sheets of solid gold, which was then translated from the original Egyptian through angelic machinery Smith claimed to be provided with. Successfully, he provided the faith that the new, illiterate inhabitants of the New World needed to believe in; the Old World was enriched with its role as a historical epicentre, and by convincing his followers that they were inheriting the very land which had been the Garden of Eden, he provided the exact kind of authority they needed to believe in to give them purpose in the world. In return for following Smith as the Prophet of the World, the new Mormons were given explanations for the world around them: they were provided with a new origin to secret mounds scattered in Ohio country, which dated back to the Pre-Columbian era; they were offered a renewed emphasis on faith-healing, a lifeline in a time where only crude medical knowledge was available, but also the universalization of polygamy was a defection from the rigorous puritanism which plagued social culture.  As Brigham Young immortalised in 1855, “ We have taken the poor and the ignorant from the dens and caves of the earth and brought them here.”[3]
Consequently, the power of ideology within religion was just as important in the persecution of the Mormons too. The same whole hearted acceptance of religion, polygamy and alternative history which enthralled the Mormon converts repulsed the general American population, who deemed them nothing but delusional individuals trying to impose their outrageous theories on others. In Missouri there was bloodshed, Smith prophesying the destruction of Jackson County, whilst in Illinois the growing political and socio-economic influence of the Mormons led to Smith and his brother Hyrum being thrown into jail and lynched upon their destruction of the printing press of a disbelieving newspaper. Effectively, the early beginnings of the religion were dominated by a battle of ideologies, or in other words, a battle of power.
The Mormons fought for their faith through a need for empowerment, yet for history to find its roots in this there must surely be a motivation which incentivises one to seek power. One theory would pertain that the aforementioned motivation derives from an experience of weakness prior to the moment of empowerment. The incentive therefore emerges from individuals revolting against their own weakness, and it is collective action in its various forms, be it a collective group who have all felt this same weakness or a nation of determined supporters. Therefore, arguably it was this crucial moment of utter weakness in the midst of persecution which provided the Mormon faith with the resilience to grow into the influence it holds today.
Enduring the burning of their houses, the extrajudicial killings of their leaders, and the loss of their place in society, around 16,000 Mormons under the determined will of Young made the journey westwards in freezing conditions and with little money or property, many dying along the way until in 1847 they finally settled in what would later become known as Salt Lake City. Effectively, the persecution of the Mormons brought on the manifestation of their power; the brute force of displacement manifesting a pool of self-reliance, which brought collective empowerment. Despite the questionable claims of Smith which the Mormon faith had been built on, effectively it was the imminent promise in their own beliefs which fuelled the need to succeed as a collective religion, creating an intense investment through the means of fund-raising, teaching their own children and essentially creating their own travelling but fully-functioning society.
The powerful are therefore those who gain and thus possess power, the use of the noun indicating reason to believe power is provided or gained. The verb ‘empowerment’ contains in itself the general consensus that power fluctuates and shifts; the very notion that one can gain power would suggest that one could lose it as well. The rise of Communism in early 20th century Eastern Europe is a prime paradigm of fluctuating power, characterised by the February and October revolutions that saw power shift from the autocratic rule of the Tsars to a liberal provisional government and finally a Bolshevik government. The February revolution was a product of bread riots that coagulated into mutiny and saw the social elite force the abdication of Nicholas II in an attempt to curb the mass insurgence of the lower classes, thus resulting in the monarchy’s loss of power as the Tsar’s brother refused to accept the throne. Consequently, the October revolution saw a coup led by the Bolsheviks further disturb the balance of power, upending the provisional government and forming the Soviet Union, a communist state. In the space of nine months, Russia had seen command drastically shift from one extreme ideology to another, moving from monarchs to comrades and perfectly exposing the sheer volatility of power.
Assuming that power is in constant motion thus leads to the supposition that power is distributed inconsistently at one time. Following the October revolution, the state established was in theory communist, based on the principles that all citizens are equal and work only for common advancement of the people, extracting what is necessary from a central pool and then repaying this by whatever means they have of contributing to society. However, whether lots of people may have the same degree of power at the same point is disputable; there maintains the problem that surely for one to be defined as powerful, the weak must exist in order to be comparable. In practice, this is the exact problem communism encountered. Lenin effectively established a rule of terror in order to maintain power, encouraging class warfare in order to force the compliance of the middle classes through intimidation so that a person accused of being a burzhui (bourgeois) could be arrested. At the same time, the secret police (the Cheka) eliminated any opposition to the communist state, ensuring Lenin established a dictatorship under the guise of ensuring the success of communism. The Russian population was left to watch silently as their fellow comrades blurred into the dictators they had once revolted against. Clearly, these very failings of a political ideology based on the maxim of equality amongst all suggest that equality of power is in practice inconceivable. Power, as an unstable entity, requires that its fluctuation must be defined by fluidity in its types and intensities, but in order to fluctuate it requires the strong and the weak to coexist in a dance of control during which power is just as easily forged as it is broken.
            There is no doubt that in establishing the need for comparison within the concept of power and the fact that it must constantly shift indicates that if history is power it is therefore also the power struggle. The shifts in power over the course of our human history express that what provides power, or ‘empowerment’, is what defines our history, both on a physical and ideological level. Such a suggestion inevitably leads to the conclusion that history is made by people wanting to exercise their power, which consequently signifies that it is overly simplistic to decide that history is either made by the powerful or the weak. This essay has considered several possibilities; those which are physically powerful, those which are ideologically powerful, those whose power has come out of weakness and those whose power has been taken and lost.
            Surely, however, there is one thing that over the course of the essay has been overlooked, and that is the fluidity of the statement itself. History is born, made and multiplied. However, perhaps the subtle difference is that history is not made but simply written by the powerful. The weak make history through their search for empowerment, much like the Mormons did whilst persecuted, but it is ultimately the powerful who write it, whether their power is existent or also born out of a search. Infinitely, this is the conclusion that must be reached, because at the end of their lives or at some point during them, Milhais, Sousa Mendes, the Mormons and the Bolsheviks were powerful in their own diverse ways. This power was crucial in order for observers to immortalise such influence in their writing. However, in the physical process of manufacturing history itself, they were not required to be powerful. History is not made by the powerful; it is the powerful who are a by-product of history.


[1] Aristides de Sousa Mendes, http://sousamendesfoundation.org/aristides-de-sousa-mendes-his-life-and-legacy/
[2] Heraldica do Exercito (Forces Coat of Arms), http://assets.exercito.pt/SiteAssets/GabCEME/Heraldica_Exercito.pdf
[3] Brogan, Hugh, 2001: The Penguin History of the USA, Book 3, Chapter 12, Pg 235


Monday, 3 July 2017

"Children are just children where ever they come from." - Kate Milner on My Name is Not Refugee

What was your main motivation to create a book about the refugee crisis? 
        At the end of 2015 I was so incensed by the tabloid view that the refugees coming across Europe from Syria were an invading army of zombies out to destroy us and our way of life. I asked myself if there was anything I could do to challenge this.“My Name Is Not Refugee”, was my answer. 

How did you start as an illustrator?
        I was one of those kids who never got the message that they were supposed to stop drawing once they got to senior school. I just kept going. I have done print making, pub signs painting, graphic design and editorial illustration but after raising my own children I returned to study on the superb MA in children's book illustration at Anglia Ruskin. “My Name Is Not Refugee” was basically conceived in the last few weeks of the course. 

As the book says, you very deservingly won the V&A Student Illustration Award. What process did you go through in deciding which illustrations best portrayed the story you wanted to tell?
        There really was no process. I worked out the idea for the book while driving home from Cambridge one night at the very end of November 2015.  I begged my husband to stop me working on it, I’d been chopping and changing from one project to another for months and to start another book just 12 days before the end of the course was monumentally stupid. I simply didn’t have the time. My husband didn’t put up much of a fight. I drew the three images which are, for me, the centre of the book; a boy faced with food he doesn’t recognise, a boy surrounded by language he doesn’t understand and a boy sleeping on a train station then I sent them off to the V&A in passing while working frantically on a  project I had no hope of finishing by the deadline. Obviously I am very pleased I did but there was very little calculation involved.  

What kind of response have you had so far to your book?

        Wonderful. I remember showing it to one of my tutors, (after the deadline), and realising that she was moved by it. I had found the right words and pictures to get my message across. The book insists that the little boy at it’s centre is a just a child like any other child and what ever the mayhem going on around him he is not to blame.

What actions do you think readers can take to help those who find themselves having to flee their homes like in your book?

        Ask yourself what you would want from people around you if your life had been totally disrupted through no fault of your own and you had landed in a new country where everything was strange. Nothing difficult or expensive I imagine; a smile at the school gate perhaps, or an invitation for your kid to join the football game.

How do you want your readers to feel after reading your book? Is there a certain message you hope stays with them?
        Children are just children where ever they come from. It shouldn’t need saying but in this new age of right wing nationalism where we seem to want to lock ourselves up behind high walls and divide the population of the world into us and them, it is worth repeating. 


Kate Milner is the author of the new picture book My Name is Not Refugee. Published by Barrington Stoke, it is a wonderfully moving tale depicting the very real trials and obstacles faced by a young boy and his mother as they leave their home country. To find out more about Kate and her book, take a look at her website at katemilner.com.


Wednesday, 17 May 2017

WOMEN WHO INSPIRE ME: Sophie Scholl

Sophie scholl bust
Bust of Sophie Scholl, placed in Walhalla in 2003. Sculptor: Wolfgang Eckert” by RyanHulin is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The twelve long years that encompassed 1933 to 1945 mark one of the most oppressive and violative period of human rights, as the rise of National Socialism led to the deaths of approximately 11 million upon the twisted justification of manufacturing an elite race. Thus the story of Hitler’s attempted conception of an 1000 year reich is forever a chilling reminder of how we, as humans, can freely adopt a cycle of hate and obsession into our lives as Germany and the rest of the world failed to foresee the momentum such contempt would gain.
These were times which revealed the worst of humanity, where a pulsing stillness invaded the streets in solace with the suffocating fear of millions. Nonetheless, these were times when the best of humanity also flourished, bringing with it an inarguably potent strength that rooted itself in the fragile scraps of hope that were left; a promise that entire world was not yet poisoned.

That promise was found in Sophie Scholl, vital as it is to not only learn from the mistakes made in those twelve years, but also from the moving acts of courage that define what it means to be human more so than the wrongs committed. Born in 1921 to Magdalena Muller and Robert Scholl, a liberal politician and Nazi critic, Scholl grew up around libertarian views which meant that despite her initial enthusiasm, she soon saw past the illusion of new found abundance that had smothered Germany in the 1930s, particularly as society grew more restrictive and she found her freedoms to continually be controlled. By the time she reached university in 1942, Scholl was a firm opposer of the Nazi dictatorship and found the opportunity to express this through her older brother’s -Hans Scholl- newly founded White Rose Movement: an intimate, unofficial Anti-Nazi group who disagreed with the way the regime imposed upon the basic rights of the German people. Thus from 1942 to 1943, the group created six leaflets hoping to stir Germany into a much needed awakening of the need for revolution, their eloquent acts of defiance only ending when their spontaneous scattering of the 6th leaflet from the university’s atrium balcony led to a series of interrogations and trials that ended with the execution of Sophie, Hans and Christoph Probst on the 22nd February 1943.

Despite its painful ending, the story of The White Rose Movement and consequently, the story of Sophie Scholl, should not be seen as a tragedy, but rather a poignant portrayal of what it means to be young, to be curious, to question the world and not simply accept what you are told. Their acts are not a self righteous display of a defence of the weak, but an outcry against the infringement of basic human rights. They grow from a craving to speak the words they wish, to read what speaks to their souls, to write on a page whatever is in their mind, and predominantly from a strong empathy with every person’s desire to do so.

For someone so young, who had so much to live for, it would have been infuriatingly easy for Sophie to have succumbed to Nazi rule, yet with her actions, it is irrefutable that she has created a legacy for the young people who follow her. Undeterred by the fact she had barely made it past twenty, she took it upon herself to take a stand in the face of oppression, to fight for the freedoms of herself and others. Like her father had wished for her family, Scholl fought for everyone to be able to “live in uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that proves to be”, putting herself on the front lines of a war against the oppression of civil liberties; a war which threatens to wound us all but which many who are decades older than she ever got to be shy away from. Traudl Junge, Hitler’s last private secretary, admits exactly what Sophie Scholl symbolises:


I could see that she had been born the same year as I, and that she had been executed the same year I entered into Hitler’s service. And, at that moment, I really realised that it was no excuse that I had been so young.”


I believe that to be the essence of Scholl’s story; a tribute to our moral consciousness and basic humanity to be able to distinguish right from wrong, and a reminder that every one of us has the ability and the power to oppose the violation of our freedoms, with no excuse. To me, she demonstrates that no matter my age, my gender, my nationality or any other trait, I will always have the ability to find the strength to do what is right, and make a difference, because as Sophie’s last reported words declare:


How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”


It is these words that paint the clearest picture of the girl Sophie Scholl was: selfless, just and free. An ordinary girl- a student who liked art, working with children and reading the works of philosophers and writers alike. She was like any other girl in Munich, any other student in Germany or the rest of the world, but what set her apart was her choice to reject the defilement of her humanity. Hence she is symbolic of the fact that what defines me is not who I am born, but who I choose to be.

We live in a world where our nature means there is always a new oppressor, always someone willing to exploit others for their own means. More often than not, there are too many unwilling to confront them, to stop them from unleashing an onslaught of hate and prejudice onto a world that already witnesses too much. Still there are people like Sophie Scholl who are willing to uphold the unparalleled compassion of humanity, who remind us that we can use each day to fight the world’s injustices and we must overcome our fear of doing so. She poses such an agonizing question in her last words: if we don’t, who else will?

When you are young, you spend your entire life dreaming of what you will do one day or of what you will at achieve. There is an unquestioned sense of impossibility surrounding the thought of making a difference at this age, a seemingly impassable barrier that no matter how hard you try you can not overcome. Sophie Scholl is to me, a symbol that even in the world’s darkest times, there will always be good to be found, and whether I be sixteen or twenty one or sixty five; that good can be me.

Strikingly enough, I’m reluctant to allege that Sophie Scholl would have liked what I have written here; she did not set out to be a hero, an inspiration. That, was simply a by-product of the actions she knew in her heart she had to take.



Tuesday, 7 February 2017

DEBATE: "This House Believes Feminism is Equality."


There must be two statements considered when asking whether feminism is equality. The first of these is what is feminism? Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the ‘advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of equality of the sexes’, it must be understood that feminism is not about female supremacy or male oppression, but about a larger social movement, which seeks to recognise that as human beings, we all have the radical right to be treated equally. Yet even I will admit this definition is somewhat out-dated; feminism is no longer as easily confined into a box, because as it stands now feminists fight for so much more than ‘traditional women’s rights’.

Even more important in considering this statement is the definition of what equality is. Too common is the response “I’m not a feminist, but I believe in gender equality” or “I’m not a feminist but I’m an egalitarian or humanitarian.” Perpetuating such a statement is to ignore what equality in this context means. You want men and women to be equal? Go ahead. 

For equality to exist as society stands now, men would have to experience the same levels of oppression that women do currently. This would mean that a man would not have yet been the President of the United States (but he could have won the popular vote), and only 15.6% of men would be professors at Cambridge, or 1 in 5 men from the age of 16 would have experienced some form of sexual violence. This is not equality, at least not as a feminist would have it, because it does not involve the erasure of prejudices so as to ensure the equality of all the sexes. The so-called ‘gender equality’ many claim to support actually involves dragging men down to the unequal standards women live at now.

Therefore, feminists, in their attempts to make women equal to men, actually aim to elevate the social standing of women so as make it the same as that of men and in doing so benefit men too. What is crucial is that many of the oppressions men face actually stem from the preconceived gender roles that society has established for women. Men are less likely to get custody of the children in court, because women are stereotyped as the home-makers, the maternal ones. Boys from a young age are taught not to cry or show emotion, because weakness is for girls and if you run or throw like one that’s even worse. Perhaps what is most defining, however, is that the people who fight against these detrimental social constructs are the feminists in the first place. It was the Feminist Majority Foundation that organised the “Rape is Rape” campaign which caused the FBI to change the definition of rape to include men. It is the feminist organisation The Representation Project that demands that the media change its representation of men, producing documentaries like The Mask You Live In which examine the effects of toxic masculinity on young boys and why the dropout rates for males are so high. In advocating the rights of women, true feminism advocates for the rights of men also, because it is only by ending our interconnected social oppression that we can progress into a truly equal society.


All of the above is still a highly westernised view of feminism. Today, Feminism has moved beyond the typical definition provided into a movement which considers that women are not a homogenous group. Women are made up of all different races, genders, sexual orientations, nationalities, social classes and a multitude of other variables. Arguably, ‘true feminism’ embraces intersectionality and acknowledges that women will face different forms of oppression depending on their varying identities. 

Feminism as such is so much more than the fight against sexism, but instead comprehends that society is a complicated mess where sexism, racism, homophobia and xenophobia all intertwine. However, as is found in any other social movement, political ideology or group of people in society, there is not always consensus as to how exactly this can be achieved. Admittedly, it is a feature of any movement that there will be disagreement, and there will be individuals who misuse the label for their own gain. But it is misuses like these that must be renounced and admitted so that the real inclusive and diverse nature of feminism is predominant. 

As was acknowledged on the signs of many marchers at the Women’s March this month with a quote from Audre Lorde, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are different from my own.”


This is the opening statement for a debate proposing the statement, "This House Believes Feminism is Equality."


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