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Can the compassion explosion brought by the refugee crisis stop a UK war on Syria?

Even now Cameron is planning to use the suffering of Syrians to justify bombing Syria and killing more Alan Kurdis.


WHAT an extraordinary week. After years of poor displaced people always being “migrants” and never “refugees”, of our elected representatives calling them “swarms” and our professional trolls calling them “cockroaches”, only a few months after 4 million voted for a party whose only real principle is “never let them in”, a sudden geyser of compassion has erupted.

People making runs to Calais are swamped with donations. People who set up fundraising pages are exceeding their targets 10 times over. And it’s coming from all sectors of society: a mate whose house is serving as the local drop-off centre is having his bell rung at all hours by middle-class parents, builders’ merchants, mechanics, even homeless people. It’s brilliant, baffling and profoundly important.

It’s far too early to call this a turning point, but the compassion explosion is compelling because it goes against all the dominant themes of modern politics.

It stands in stark contrast to the Iraq war, probably the single most depoliticising event of the 21st century, when 2 million people learned that it doesn’t matter what you do, your government will ignore you anyway.

This is the diametric opposite: popular pressure has forced David Cameron’s bitter and vindictive outfit to climb down and admit 20,000 people – a pitiful number compared to Germany’s 800,000 and not a single one from the survivors of the traumatic journey to Europe, but 20,000 more than they wanted to let in. If we keep pressing, that can be just the start. And the key to it has been shaming our leaders through our own actions, not waiting for them to do the right thing but showing them how to.

That return of agency, of individual and collective power to act, is a notable corrective to the second dominant theme of 21st-century politics: the insistence that we must comply with whatever markets dictate, that we are basically powerless to change the way we live. It’s that sense of “what can we do?” that holds us back from even trying to make the world a better place. But when we do act, in whatever small way, the sense of joy and fulfilment that comes from connecting with others and making a difference gives us a whole new sense of who we are and what we’re capable of.

Most of all, action connects us to other human beings, an ever more critical need as we live more and more of our lives virtually and online. When we drive a van full of supplies to Calais, or volunteer in a refugee centre, or open our homes to exhausted families for a few days, we meet these strange and alien creatures we’ve been repeatedly taught to fear – and we find that they’re funny, or interesting, or annoying, or all those things at once. In other words, that they’re just like us. We expand our sense of who we are, and of who other people are, and that is brilliant for both sides.

Because overcoming the fear of others that’s been drummed into us is probably the most radical thing we can do right now. Even more than contemptuous government or market dictatorship, post-9/11 politics has been based on fear.

Our elites cleverly manipulate the insecurity caused by their own capitalism, its ripping away of our safety nets and its destabilising of our jobs, and turn it into a fear of boundless terror attacks and hordes of grasping dusky migrants. But that fear can only be sustained by distance, by keeping people at arm’s length. Once you meet your fears, share a room or a cup of tea with them, they melt away.

Where will it go, the compassion explosion? Will it melt away as the photo of Alan Kurdi fades in our memories? It’s completely possible, of course. But my bet is that the genie is out of the bottle.

My bet is that as people rediscover the intoxicating sensation of actually being able to do something in real life instead of whining about it on the internet, they’ll want more of it. (And some of them will take real-life action against migrants, not for them – let’s not be fooled by our Facebook pages, not everyone feels compassion right now. But that’s what makes democracy interesting.)

And my bet is that as we realise that this refugee “crisis” is no crisis but the new normal, we’ll start to think about what is causing people to move across the Earth in such huge numbers.

That’s the next phase: to look at the causes of migration. Climate change. Western military intervention. The depredations of development banks and corporations. Propping up dodgy dictators in the name of stability. These are harder to fix than delivering bedrolls, but the key to it is to realise that western elites are intimately responsible for all of them, using our money, and thus if anyone can do something, we can.

Even now Cameron is planning to use the suffering of Syrians to justify bombing Syria and killing more Alan Kurdis. If we don’t connect the dots and begin to stop our elites doing the things that cause migration, we betray the millions of people who aren’t refugees yet, but assuredly will be.

Source: The Guardian

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