Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dale Farm, St Paul's, and a lot of mixed messages

Two items have dominated news in the UK in the past two weeks: the evictions from Dale Farm, and the closure of St Paul's.

What these two things have in common is protests; more exactly, occupations of land. While the circumstances surrounding each are very different, what is more interesting is the amount of varied opinion, and the outcomes, that have resulted from those protests.

The evictions in Dale Farm, to cut a long story short, are about the rights of Gypsies, and what status they have in this country. There were hundreds of protesters at the site to help fight for the Gypsies' "cause" (I saw what looked like a Gypsy "flag" for the first time in my life), and I imagine that many of those protesters were there to defend the right of Gypsies to maintain their way of life unmolested from the state. In other words, many of those protesters were, infact, fighting for an embryonic form of anarchism, that, they imagine, still exists in the Gypsy way of life. That is what many of the protesters seemed to be fighting for; but that core belief was wrong.
Gypsies can never be confused with anarchists, or simplify the Gypsies trying to maintain their "way of life" with the principle of trying to manage a society in a rational way without the need of government (a general definition of anarchism). The reason is this: Gypsies do not manage their situation in a rational way. They do not follow laws. They do not respect the rights of others outside their community.
An interesting comparison would be ancient ethnic communities such as the Native American tribes. These also used to be nomadic, and fought against foreign "civilising" invaders, who over many decades and centuries, lost their lands until they were reduced to "reservations" where they could maintain their way of live.
I say this is an interesting comparison mostly because it is totally opposite to the "way of life" that the Gypsies hold in Europe and in the UK. The only thing that Gypsies and Native Americans share is a general tendency to a nomadic way of life. But even the Native Americans learned to adapt. While their loss of territory was a tragedy few other cultures in recent human history have shared, they still were tenacious enough to hold on to their traditions and a well-defined sense of identity. Gypsies, on the other hand, seem to have only their nomadic life as a clear cultural marker. By definition, they are lost as a culture, literally as well as metaphorically.
But it is difficult for people who live in the countries where Gypsies reside (such as Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in Britain) to have much sympathy for them, and it's not hard to understand why. Not only did the Gypsies migrate to Europe from Asia, they brought their nomadic lifestyle with them. Such a lifestyle went out of fashion more than a thousand years ago in most of Eurasia; in the 21st century, it is utterly impractical.
I don't want to get into the rights and wrongs of nomadic lifestyle per se; any lifestyle choice may be possible if a person at least agrees to abide by the laws and respect the rights of others. But Gypsies are the "irreconcilables" of modern life; their attitude to life is little different to that of a Mongol from the 13th century. Perhaps Gypsies should just go to Mongolia (where there are still many who have a nomadic lifestyle even today); at least they would feel less out of place. Besides, there are only a few tens of thousands of them in the UK; in crowded Britain, they are an annual headache for councils around the country; Mongolia, by contrast, has hundreds of thousands of miles of open wilderness - a Gypsy's paradise.
Talking of rights, this leads me on to the other protest in the news: that at St Paul's. In the former, Dale Farm, the occupation was about land rights, and the council evicting the Gypsies to enforce its will for the sake of the local residents. In the latter the occupation was about the Financial Crisis, and St Paul's cathedral closing because of health and safety concerns; now there is a public debate about whether or not, and how and when, to evict the occupiers camped outside.
That, at least, is the simple answer. In the case of Dale Farm, public opinion was overwhelmingly on the side of the eviction; in the case of St Paul's opinion is more even distributed. There are those on one side who remind us that democratic protest is about being occasionally subjected to uncomfortable situations; this is a more than fair comment. Then there are those who say that the church is there to defend the rights of the needy, as the occupiers claim to, so support the occupation; this is another more than fair comment. There are also those who say that such an occupation outside St Paul's obstructs right of passage of others, for example, in and out of St Paul's and the environs; this is also a fair point. Then there are those in St Paul's itself (the dean who recently resigned in protest, not among them) who say that the cathedral must remain closed to prevent any accidents to people entering St Paul's; this is completely ridiculous.
It comes to something of the "health and safety gone mad" idea, when St Paul's cathedral closes for the sake of a few people possibly tripping up over some tents. To paraphrase the occupiers, what would Jesus say? Who in the clergy decided that these tents should prevent the cathedral losing the revenue of those thousands each day who cough up the 14.50? Who indeed?
Talk about the church getting its messages mixed up: I don't know whether to laugh or cry at the absurdity of the clergy's position. Will they blame the tents and "health and safety concerns" when they refuse to have a Christmas mass, if the occupation remains there for that long? I don't blame the people in the tents - I blame the idiocy of the clergy of St Paul's for using "health and safety" to provoke a public storm over an ingenious form of democratic protest.
It shows us how out of touch much of the church is with the concerns of real people, if it uses "health and safety" over some tents as an excuse to close the capital's cathedral. And it is doubly bizarre to see the media get its messages mixed up when they complain about the tents forcing the closure of the cathedral (without attacking the same "health and safety madness" operating from St Paul's cathedral), then accuse the occupiers of being "part-timers" (sorry, but maybe some of them may have jobs to go to after all?).
And the media accuse the occupiers of having no clear message!

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