The war in Syria has now lasted longer than either the 1st or 2nd World Wars. While it continues, as the poet Wilfred Owen said, people will die as cattle. Owen died only days before the end of the 1st World War.
100 years ago this week, the 1st World War was finally ended. While some of us have paused to reflect, Donald Trump decided to say that barbed wire is beautiful. He’s wrong. It’s not. Barbed wire is violent. It’s the type of violence we get when politics fails. This might sound crazy in today’s divided world, but I actually still believe in politics.
My argument is simple. Politics is beautiful and its failure leads to violence.
In 1962 Bernard Crick wrote a book called In Defence of Politics. He defined politics as, ‘the negotiation of difference without violence’. I agree with Bernard. True politics is grounded in the ancient rituals of common life, not the divisive games of contemporary populism. Democracy began in the common spaces, the Greek agora, and the Syrian souk. Places where common rituals helped humans to negotiate their common good.
However, I think politics has become harder because we are losing the ‘civic literacy’ needed to empathize and negotiate with those who are different from us. In my experience, civic literacy is learned through the rituals of civil institutions. We learn civic literacy through the community rituals of faith, education, and labour, but the challenge is that this kind of membership has been in decline for a generation. The same generation in which technology, particularly the internet, has increasingly atomized our communities and commodified our relationships.
I started Local Welcome in 2015 with a mission to design inclusive rituals that develop civic literacy and digital infrastructure that strengthens civil society. I think ‘Civil Society as a Platform’, is one way to think about this, but a less nerdy version might simply be this; ‘Make membership great again’.
Politics is beautiful, but it’s also personal.
In 2013 I co-founded a Citizens UK campaign asking the UK government to resettled more refugees from the war in Syria. At the time, two million people were fleeing the war. Boats were sinking, children were drowning, and the UK had resettled only 254 refugees. After nearly 2 years of campaigning, the government agreed to resettle 20,000 refugees from Syria. I had left the campaign by the time we won, but I’m proud of the part I played.
I was born in Liverpool before the riots of the 1980s. When I was 2 years old my family moved to Algeria. My parents were earl grey missionaries by day who sheltered vulnerable migrants in the church compound by night. The Algerian independence war had ended. The sand and the souk were warm and familiar, but tensions were beginning to rise again. We were no longer safe, I developed asthma and my mum’s eardrum burst. We needed help. We couldn’t fly, so, at 5 years old, I crossed the Mediterranean on a boat to flee violence and ‘exploit’ the NHS. The boat didn’t sink. We didn’t drown. Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool kept me breathing, and once the sea water had dried off, I grew up drenched in privilege. We didn’t have any money, but I knew we could never really be poor. In 1990 dad joined the army as a chaplain and went to the Gulf war. It didn’t go well.
My dad and his dad were damaged by war. If you haven’t been to war or known people damaged by it, then it might remain an abstract idea to you. War is not a story to be remembered, it is a truth to be told. It is a lesson to be learned. We can heal, but we need to remember. When we forget the reality of war we are simply sleepwalking into suffering. Pain is part of life, but suffering doesn’t have to be.
I’ve learned a lot in the last 3 years, but one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to be grateful. I’m incredibly grateful to the many people who have supported me through the ups and downs, I’m grateful to, and for, the amazing team we’re building, and I’m grateful to the funders who have believed in us.
It’s taken me a long time to overcome my fears and start writing down my thoughts, so I’m also grateful to you for reading this. I’d like to start sharing some of the things I’ve learned so I’m going to try and make this a weekly ritual. Don’t worry, it won’t all be this heavy. Next week I’m going to write about a retired Bajan woman called Nancy, and Busta Rhymes doing a Stephen Hawking impression.
Until then, just remember; politics is beautiful, barbed wire is not, so let’s try to negotiate our differences without violence.