It starts at the top…

I remember when Great Britain joined what was then called the Common Market. Edward Heath was Prime Minister and he spoke French with a typical public schoolboy accent. I voted in favour. Sorry about that. Like most other people at the time, I believed the politicians, and felt that a common market in which to trade products and services would be a good thing.

I still believe that, but, as Skip said in last week’s Is it just me?, what is now called the European Union is as far from that as you can get. It is impossible to force people and cultures to fit into neat boxes, however many laws you pass and however huge a bureaucracy you create. The English are different from the French, the Germans are different from the Italians, and the Spanish are different from the Dutch. Doing trade with one another is one thing – but all this forced entente cordial is quite another. And now we are stretching credibility even further with the inclusion of another 10 countries!

I am all for countries trying to improve their economies, but “mark my words, there will be tears” as my old granny would say. As Skip pointed out – quite rightly – Portugal’s eagerness to accept European funds has only being exceeded by its propensity to flout EU regulations. I would imagine that some of these new countries, having studied the way things are done (or not, as the case may be), will leave Portugal standing in the ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ stakes.

While this enlargement of the EU is creating opportunities and a massive ‘melting pot’ where nationality is irrelevant, I fear it is also creating a volcano of racism that is going to explode – very messily – in the smug faces of the politicians who have put these deals together. As I said, you cannot put different peoples and different cultures into the same little box and expect entente cordial all round.

There was an interesting article in the UK paper The Guardian on May 5, written by Arab journalist Ahdaf Soueif. Under the title ‘This torture started at the very top’, the subtitle was ‘a profound racism infects the US and British establishments’. I have been appalled at the propaganda, accusation and counter excuses that have been flying recently as a result of the photographs of Iraqi “prisoners of war” published both in the UK and USA. Many of them are not actually prisoners of war – some have merely been snatched off the streets, we are told, and kept for up to a year for no reason, being humiliated and tortured along the way before being released without charges, apologies or explanations. Is this what we call liberating a country from a ‘terrible dictator who tortured his people’?

In his very interesting article, Ahdaf Soueif talks about the ways in which the behaviour of the soldiers on the ground is shaped by the behaviour of the politicians at the top of the ladder of responsibility. When top men in the US administration talk of “draining the swamps” and “killing the snakes” in the “uncivilised parts of the world”, is it any wonder that soldiers in Iraq talk of “cleaning out the rats’ nest” and joke about how many ways there are to kill people? He describes a photograph of an American soldier with two young Iraqi boys. They are all smiling and the boys are holding a hand-written sign, which says “Lcpl Boudreaux killed my dad, then he knocked up my sister”. The children obviously have no idea what this ‘liberating solider’ wrote on the sign when he asked them to pose for the photograph. I have read other articles where soldiers seek to justify their behaviour by saying that Iraq did not sign the Treaty of Something or the Agreement of Something Else. So that makes it alright to torture people, does it? Have we learned nothing in the last 2,000 years or more? Is an oil supply and contracts for the companies of the ministers in power really more important than the lives of families who have done nothing wrong?

All of this is, of course, getting huge exposure on TV and in the newspapers. Quite rightly, you may say – the world needs to know about it, let’s bring it out in the open. Fine, let’s do that. But have you any idea what an impact all of this negativity is having on us at a deeper level? How do you feel at the end of a typical news broadcast nowadays? Irritable? Drained? Depressed? I watched about 15 minutes of Sky News recently and had to switch it off. I could not stand it any more. I could feel it draining my energy. ‘You are what you eat’ is now commonly accepted – and believe me, it applies just as much to the diet of violence or so-called ‘reality TV’ that we are fed in the media as it does to the junk and nonsense most people shove in their mouths.

I believe that what is happening on the streets and behind closed doors of Iraq is merely a more extreme version of what is happening everywhere, everyday. It starts at the top, and it filters down – except what lands with us, the people in the street, is not filtered at all – it is just the unacceptable face of racism and greed.