Monday, 26 December 2011

My problem with "inter-community initiatives"

I've written before about the absurd urban myths surrounding Christmas. The idea that Christmas is being "banned" or "watered down" in the name of "political correctness gone mad" isn't just absurd - it's dangerous. As we saw when the EDL threatened demonstrations over it. But if there's anything that won't solve the problem, it's liberals doing online activism.

On Christmas Eve, the Guardian reported on the Happy Christmas 4ALL campaign, by a group called Phoenix: An Inter-Community Initiative for a New Centre Ground. Which almost immediately tells you how in touch it is with the hopes and concerns of working class people. The aims of their campaign, as described by the Guardian, are "counter[ing] such myths" as we see in the media as we approach Christmas and "highlighting participation by non-Christians in traditional activities." For example, their Facebook page "shows pictures of Muslim students taking part in a nativity play, while others highlight common religious beliefs shared by different faiths."

At the same time, they are "encouraging non-Christians to enter into the spirit of goodwill by getting involved in volunteering, particularly on and around Christmas day." Julie Siddiqui, vice-president of the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB), will be "volunteering at her local church in Maidenhead on Christmas Day." Others from the ISB "are helping out at Christian charities or non-faith groups like the homelessness charity Crisis at Christmas."

Ultimately, according to Vidhya Ramalingam from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, "the idea is to promote volunteering at Christmas and volunteering to take over the work of some Christian charities." Which is all well and good, as far as a charitable exercise to "mak[e] sure no one feels vulnerable." This might promote good will between charity volunteers from different faith groups and those who benefit from them - something which isn't lacking if this truly is "simply continuing the tradition over the years of non-Christian professionals in essential professions such as medicine volunteering to work over Christmas to relieve their colleagues."

But whether it will actually address the myths promoted by the tabloids, and the underlying concerns and insecurities that make it easier for people to believe them, is a whole other matter. After all, the people promoting such myths - and those believing them - are not those who regularly volunteer for charity out of Christian piety. The groups feeding off them like the EDL are not appealing to the devout. When you boil it down, this remains a class issue.

To labour the point, those who read the tabloids and truly believe that councils across the country are banning nativity plays because they offend Muslims, or whatever, aren't getting outraged because they really like nativity plays. They're getting outraged is because what they can see around them is life getting harder, the economy taking a battering, jobs growing scarcer and people finding it harder to get by. In a world of increasingly casualised labour, longer hours, less pay, where housing is scarce and many people have to rent and often move around more frequently, communities fall away. The working class culture that older generations remember is vanishing before their eyes. With the left all but absent from the poorer and more deprived estates, the only narrative on offer to explain that is the one which blames immigration - and the war on Christmas slides into that quite neatly.

In such a context, what does an online "campaign" saying that such stories are myths (but little else) and encouraging an increased level of middle class paternalism offer? The answer is, not much. You might reach people who regularly surf the net, but even then only if they're willing to move beyond the online comfort zones many people will have established. Those without internet access, whose main source of news is the Daily Star or the Daily Express, will be all but unaffected.

This is not to mention that, by not addressing the question of class and sticking with the presumption that people can be neatly divided into communities based on race or (in this case) religion, the campaign only feeds the sense of separation and "otherness" which feeds the narrative described above. It's all well and good to talk of "inter-community" dialogue, but you're still dividing people up and classifying them on the basis of these imagined, homogeneous communities in the first place. Cooperation and interaction becomes missionary, then, rather than a simple act of class solidarity.

There's no easy alternative to this, of course, but there are a few basic steps which can - and do - have much more of an impact. We can challenge ideas that have permeated our communities (real, geographical communities, not imagined racial or religious ones) by getting feet on the ground and leafleting estates. More so if this is a regular act within our own communities than a one-off publicity stunt we've parachuted in for. We can fight the sense of despondency and alienation that feeds into right-wing narratives by organising within our communities and workplaces, giving people a sense of their own collective power and fighting the real issues wherever they manifest. People don't need scapegoats when they have real answers to real problems.

I've no doubt that those behind initiatives such as Happy Christmas 4ALL are well meaning. But that doesn't mean it will have any effect. There are real issues that need to be addressed, but the answer is working class organisation and solidarity - not liberal paternalism and charity.