“Migrations, more than ever before, will play a pivotal role in the future of our world”. At present, however, migration is affected by the “loss of that sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters on which every civil society is based”. Europe, for example, seriously risks taking this path. Nonetheless, “aided by its great cultural and religious heritage, it has the means to defend the centrality of the human person and to find the right balance between its twofold moral responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens and to assure assistance and acceptance to migrants”.
Pope Francis Fratelli Tutti (40)
Until now it is fish and subsidies bedevilling our inglorious EU non-membership. But migrants are coming back in our news. They may soon be back in our ferries if Priti Patel has her way. It seems an age since 2016 when the spurious threat of the EU enabling millions of Turks to move to Britain was used to discredit free movement of people. But the burning of Moria refugee camp holding 12,000 people on the island of Lesbos brought the EU’s own internal crisis to a head. How should responsibility for migrants be shared?
Here in the UK, Government, Brexiteers and their tabloid advocates inhabit the echo chamber they created where asylum seekers and undocumented migrants seeking a better life are framed as a bi-product of criminal traffickers, or as mere numbers and migration itself as an ‘existential’ threat . A good year for the Home Office is when migrant numbers drop. A good story for the media in August this year was when 1,500 people in dinghies landed on the Kent coast, providing some colourful footage and a ‘crisis’ headline. Similarly pictures of Moria refugee camp at Mytilene in its grey abandonment and charred ruin, probably torched in despair – another Greek island we won’t be holidaying. But the fire also raised the question why responsibilities for migrants are not being shared amongst EU members.
Ending the free movement of people from the EU into the UK was supposed to solve problems not create them. But the need for workers from abroad with a range of skills has not gone away. The UK faces growing problems staffing social care, a persistent shortage of NHS medical staff, not enough brickies, and a lack of seasonal agricultural labour that has left produce rotting in the fields. Meanwhile Priti Patel as Home Secretary is formulating a harsh national policy against unplanned migration with no apparent concern for the wellbeing of future undocumented arrivals.
Unlike Britain which never had a Christian Democrat Party, much of the EU has been somewhat influenced by Catholic - and Lutheran - values. Amongst the EU’s smaller nations, many would point to the influence of the Irish as leaders in the life of the Commission and Parliament. Amongst the large nations Germany and France have dominated. The million, mostly Syrians, let in by Angela Merkel, a Lutheran pastor’s daughter, are now beginning to contribute to life in Germany. Ursula Van der Leyen, a bilingual French-German speaker, veteran of Angela Merkel’s CDU cabinet, now President of the Commission is an exemplary product of this culture. ‘Saving lives at sea is not optional”, she said in her recent State of the Union address. “And”, making clear her other preoccupation, “those countries who fulfil their legal and moral duties or are more exposed than others must be able to rely on the solidarity of the whole European Union”.
Pope Francis often enters the fray promoting Christian values. Here he is talking to Jesuits about migrants in September 2016: “each of them has a name, a face, and a story, as well as an inalienable right to live in peace and to aspire to a better future for their sons and daughters”. They are “no different”, he said, “than our own family members and friends”. Perhaps it is because Catholics believe the Holy Family left their country as refugees fleeing Herod’s violence that the Church is in a polite stand-off with the fallen angels of governments and their policies towards migrants and refugees. Perhaps it is a simple matter of proclaiming Christian values.
But on migration, the EU Commission is failing to hold the line between concern for the human rights of the individual refugees and migrants against accommodation of the populist concern to keep them out. A concern which seems out of proportion to the actual amount of migration taking place. In 2019 some 4.7% (about 21 million) of the population of the EU were – already - legally resident non-EU nationals. The member states received 2.6 million new arrivals that year. Asylum applications were 698,000, down from their 1.28 million 2015 ‘crisis’ peak. There were only 142,000 illegal border crossings, compared to 1.82 million in 2015-2016. Yet 1,500 arrivals from France to our shores two months ago caused something akin to panic.
Bear in mind that migration retains its corrosive capacity to undermine the European project through arousing nationalist and populist intransigence. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has just lost a case taken by the Commission to the European Court of Justice on the detention of refugees on the Serbian-Hungarian border. The Czechs, Poles and Hungarians, accustomed historically to people coming into their countries as brutal and destructive invaders, have pulled up the drawbridge and are unlikely to budge. Their bishops, on the whole, have sympathy with their government’s reluctance to receive and integrate refugees despite contrary direction from the Pope. A fault-line in the EU is widening.
To deal with it, a couple of weeks ago, the Commission of the European Union produced a German-inspired policy proposal for member states, a New Pact on Migration & Asylum. It is a comprehensive document which deals systematically with migration, asylum, integration and border management. Despite protestations of concern for fundamental rights, and the principle of non-refoulement (the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to persecution), the goal of the proposal is to restore the crumbling cohesion of the EU by reducing migrant numbers.
The New Pact proposes that ‘processing’ at borders is to be made more efficient and speeded up with the aid of an expanded FRONTEX, the EU border and coastguard agency. States that don’t want to welcome refugees are given the option of taking responsibility for their removal from Europe. Proposing ways to increase the number of ‘returns’ (read deportations) is clearly a response to populist pressure. Attempts to warehouse people in third countries, on ferries, distant islands, anywhere they can be detained legally in limbo are set to continue.
The UN declared 2016 the deadliest year for civilian casualties in Afghanistan, 11,418 killed or injured. But deportations from UK, Germany, Greece, Sweden and Norway (with big differences in numbers sent back) rose between 2015 and 2016 from 3,290 to 9,460, many to Afghanistan and conflict zones. The figures do not indicate concern for the plight of returned migrants and failed asylum seekers. In response nine major Europe-wide Christian organisations set out a concise protective set of “Recommendations for Humane Returns Policies in Europe”. No sign of it having made any significant impact on the New Pact document though it must certainly have reached the Commission. Nor any sign in the New Pact’s management model of attention given to increasing opportunities for legal entry except possibly the future creation of a EU agency for asylum. Meanwhile The UK is formulating its own national immigration policy negligent in its provision for the welfare of undocumented arrivals, its inhumanity intermittently breaking cover.
The New Pact now has to pass through the EU structures. It deserves to be mauled in the European Parliament. Scores of reputable international organisations working with refugees have already condemned it. It tries to fulfil one value championed by Popes, that of ‘solidarity’, but solidarity between those privileged to live in the European Union. It ignores the Global Common Good. It is cruel and it won’t work.
See also TheArticle 02/10/20
On 7 October 2016 the Washington Post printed the story of Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, recorded boasting to a TV host about his lewd behaviour with women. The leading lights of the Republican Party went into damage limitation discussions that included the possible dumping of Mr. Trump. According to super-star journalist Bob Woodward, Vice-Presidential candidate Mike Pence let the Republican National Committee know that he would be willing to take Trump’s place. He was up for it. But Trump brazened it out. Four years later America’s Evangelical Christian Vice-President must be wondering if God is having another try at making him President.
Would it be so bad if Pence became the Republican candidate? It depends where you stand in the USA’s culture wars - but there will certainly have been many viewers who will have watched his performance against Kamala Harris last night, and who would have liked what they saw. Pence is in many ways a personification of Middle America, a good Catholic lad, altar boy at St. Columbus Catholic Church in Columbus, Indiana where he attended the parochial school, and one of six children in an Irish-American Democrat-voting family. They weren’t poor but by Washington standards not rich either.
In 1978 aged nineteen, following a not uncommon religious trajectory, Pence was called at a Kentucky evangelical music festival to ‘give his life to Jesus’. During the 1990s he described himself as an evangelical Catholic but began attending the Indianapolis Grace Evangelical Church, one of the mega-churches, with his wife. There is nothing phony about his faith. His support for the full raft of social conservative positions on sexuality is sincere. He follows Billy Graham’s advice, not attending events serving alcohol without his wife and not travelling alone with another woman (an old rule incidentally for Catholic priests).
Folksy Reagan and responsible Bush senior at that time did not seem so vastly different from the Democratic Party. He began his political career in 1988 as a Republican by losing the election for a Congressional seat to the Democrat contender. In 1992 Pence began trying to reach a wide audience in Indiana by anchoring a local radio Conservative talk-show. Like Trump a media profile did the trick. In 2001 he was elected to the Congress to represent Indiana’s 2nd congressional district and moved on to become Governor in 2013.
After 2009 when the Tea Party Republicans emerged as a force, his earlier religious conversion became a more important political asset. He happily hitched his waggon to the Tea Party movement and described himself as “a Christian, conservative and Republican in that order”. During 2015-2016 he backed Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Southern Baptist with a similar evangelical school background and views, for Presidential candidate and then talked Trump into selecting him as his running mate, quite an achievement.
During Obama’s two terms as President the evangelical caucus within the Republican Party felt themselves discriminated against by ‘anti-religious’ Democrats and the Washington elite. When Pence tried to enact legislation in Indiana enabling businesses to refuse services to gay customers, pressure from several quarters forced him to amend it. Pence’s argument that this was a matter of religious freedom did him no harm amongst conservative evangelical and catholic voters. Neither did his support for school prayers, his attempts to curtail sex education and his advocacy of censorship of pornography. In the words of Richard Land, President of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, Pence was ‘the 24-carat-gold model of what we want in an evangelical politician”.
But what could be expected from a 24-carat gold evangelical politician? The grim expression on his face while Trump rambled on behind podium after podium gave some indication that he has not found the role of abject, loyal Trump defender pleasant. But in public he espouses the full litany of right-wing Republican or Trump positions, from Climate Change denial and support for the gun lobby to opposition to immigration and ‘Obama-care’. He has voted accordingly. Far from dealing with his personal faith in the manner of John F. Kennedy, dissociating public position and policy from private religious belief, the evangelicals around Trump see the White House as the engine room of the United States’ salvation in a permanent conflict between the children of light and the children of darkness.
The religious contribution to the Trump team’s ideological armoury is not negligible. In 1996 Pastor Ralph Drollinger and his wife Danielle founded Capitol Ministries “to create disciples of Jesus Christ in the political arena throughout the world” at the same time insisting: “we stay away from politics and concentrate on the hearts of leaders”. The pastor leads a weekly Bible study in the White House for the President’s entourage. This is the religious world Pence inhabits. Dollinger believes that the USA is in dire straits and doesn’t think it can be turned around ‘if we don’t have almost a benevolent dictator’. Who can he be talking about?
The other deeply worrying aspect of the evangelical influence in the White House is how much Pence – and Pompeo as Secretary of State – conflate their faith assumptions with foreign policy. Israel features both in the Bible and within the critical geo-political problems besetting the Middle East. Christian Zionism brings the two together with Israel at its heart. But relying on biblical verses on Israel such as ‘those who bless her bless us’ as the rationale of US policy shows scant regard both for how to read the Old Testament and how to frame a Middle East policy. Even worse, the role of Israel in the Book of the Apocalypse and in the final war before the Second Coming of Christ it describes encourages potentially catastrophic belligerence towards Iran.
It is surprising that during the radical papacy of Francis Pence may now be signalling a return to the Catholic fold. He had a long, one hour, and apparently warm meeting with the Pope in January this year. Were the ballot box and the ‘Chinese virus’ to bring him to the Presidency, let’s hope that, if a nuclear war between Israel and Iran threatens, he doesn’t believe it’s the end of the world and he will be beamed up to heaven in The Rapture.
And let’s pray that he goes back to the boring-old Catholicism he learnt at St. Columbus Church School where faith and reason go together.
‘We shall be as a shining city on a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.’ Words of the Puritan lawyer, John Winthrop, in 1630 as he sailed to America in the Arbella on his way to becoming Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The city on a hill is not shining brightly today. Both political parties in the USA have been hitting the dimmer-switch on democracy. The level of voter suppression practised by the Republicans has recently amounted to a war on the young, the poor and, especially the non-white, voter. This has included, quite apart from gerrymandering, making registration as difficult as possible, selective cancelling of voter registration, making black citizens access to the polls intimidating and time-consuming and finding creative ways to invalidate likely opponents’ votes. Add to this in 2016 a bombardment of advertisements, influenced by personal data, targeted at African-American votes to deter them from voting. Doubtless to be repeated. Trump is now deploying the full repertoire of voter suppression, and more, to stay in power.
Since 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was passed, denial of the right to vote based on ‘race, colour or conditions of servitude’ has been prohibited. But in many states the Fifteenth Amendment was honoured in an ‘unremitting and ingenious defiance of the constitution’. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 Voting Rights Acts which came at the price of much African-American blood-shed and sacrifice during the civil rights movement allowed the Federal Government to regulate electoral practices in 16 states. These were mostly in the Deep South, where fewer than half of the state’s ‘minority voters’ were registered to vote. Any future Jim Crow voter measures would have to pass ‘pre-clearance’, scrutiny by the Federal Government’s Ministry of Justice. Voting rights seemed more secure.
In 2013 and partly by way of reaction to Obama’s Presidency, the case of Shelby (a county in Alabama) v Holder (the Federal Attorney- General) reached the Supreme Court. The court found 5-4 that the protective pre-clearance clause in the 1965 Act did not apply in contemporary circumstances, opening a Pandora’s box of Republican tricks to reduce the number of African-American, young and poor voters, and finding procedural ways not to count their votes when they did vote.
The magnitude of the voter suppression that the Republicans have been trying to perpetrate is not immediately apparent. A kind of noble patriotic omerta reigns. Defeated US politicians do not shout about the illegality or injustice of their opponents’ electoral practices. After he lost his challenge to George W. Bush, out of respect for the Supreme Court, poor Al Gore slipped into the ozone layer of public life without a peep. Condemning unlawful electoral practice is simply not done at least not by Democrat leaders. Trump has no such scruples.
No omerta, though, for Greg Palast, a zany, trilby-hatted ferret of an investigative journalist who has been down several holes and come out with a rabbit the size of Wallace & Gromit’s Were-Rabbit. Palast’s How Trump Stole 2020, a popular- press collage of outrageous cases of electoral malpractice illustrated by Ted Rall’s cartoons, is a treasure trove of hard won data on voter suppression from several states including the key swing states of Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin. The Republican enemies of democracy featured are the former Governor of Ohio, Jon Husted, and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, along with the then Secretary of State for Kansas Kris Kobach.
There are two major ways of removing large numbers of voters from electoral lists. First to claim they have moved out of state or county and the second that they are double-registered. One of the biggest scams was invented by Kobach. He produced a list, spread across states, of 7.2 million potential alleged ‘double-voters’ - people with names common amongst ethnic groups such as Jackson, Brown, Mohamed and Rodriguez. Hence Trump’s repeated tweets about electoral fraud. The list was used for cross-checking names, allegedly recurring in different states, and then purging them on the grounds they had moved out of county or state while remaining on their original register. And this linked further to listing ‘inactive voters’. This was taken as evidence to show that those claimed to have not voted in two previous elections had moved house out of state or county. This contravenes the 1993 National Voting Registration Act which says failure to vote is not a reason to cancel a registered voter.
The list simply ignored differences in middle names, and those purging them failed to follow the recommended procedure of checking against social security numbers. Purges of this kind took place in swing states such as North Carolina.
Palast ferreted out the voter lists used by the Governors and Secretaries of State controlling elections and then had the names and addresses individually checked using accurate and current data held by Amazon and Ebay for deliveries. He discovered that Kobach was disseminating a list that was inaccurate on an epic scale. Following an earlier purge of half a million voters, Ohio’s Husted, during the lead up to the 2016 election, purged a further 426,781 voters. In the case of Georgia 340,134 of these ‘absentee voters’ still lived at their home address in the state or country they were alleged to have left. Those who moved house within their own neighbourhood or country were also struck off (the poor were over four times more likely to move locally compared with the average American). Overall, this eliminated 1 in 7 African-American voters. In early 2020, Georgia purged another 120,000 voters. Wisconsin trying the same game is fortunately running into legal problems. Its Supreme Court is hearing arguments in a lawsuit that would see 129,000 removed from the voter rolls on grounds they’d moved from their registration addresses. The nation’s top experts in address verification, including the official licensee of the US Postal Service, says that a minimum of 39,722 “movers”, mostly African-Americans, had not moved. Trump won Wisconsin last time by 23,000 votes.
The 2002 Federal Help America Vote Act created a ‘provisional ballot’ available to voters whose eligibility to vote is challenged. For example in some states a gun licence is a valid ID while a student’s university ID is not. Under the Help America Act a direct-mail form has to be sent them; the different boxes have to be filled in carefully and returned. This is exactly the sort of communication that’s likely to be binned, mislaid or accidently spoiled. If the document actually reaches the correct recipient and is sent back correctly, there is no guarantee the provisional ballot will be counted, and you can guess in which states they aren’t.
Now COVID has increased the electoral importance of postal ballots; it means voting according to instructions avoiding the many possible technical errors that can cause a vote to be rejected, and getting your vote counted – (eight states require double verification).* You can guess who will negotiate the electoral chicane most easily and who won’t. Given that Trump won 2016 by 74 Electoral College votes while Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million, and given Trump’s narrow victory in swing states still subject to voter suppression, Biden has a much higher hill to climb than the opinion polls indicate. And he won’t find a shining light at the top. Rather a President claiming massive voter fraud and determined to cling onto power at any cost.
As for the scale of voter fraud throughout the United States, the total number of documented cases of double voting in 2016 was four.
*For state control of postal balloting see “Letter from America: How to Rig an Election” 15/09/2020
See “The Scandal of US Voter Suppression” TheArticle 25/09/2020
Johnson pushes legislation through Parliament reneging on an international treaty. Trump denies that climate change is causing the devastating fires on the US West coast. Putin, we assume, is subverting the coming US Presidential elections by clandestine ‘active measures’. The insidious influence of the events shaped by Putin, Trump and Johnson is that it accustoms us all to the unacceptable and the unexpected. It becomes the new norm.
Who, other than a few cybersecurity experts, realised five ago that the KGB/FSB had long since been planning for a post-communist on-line war on democracy? Who imagined that 51 of 53 Republican senators would vote not to admit administration documents or subpoena witnesses at the impeachment trial of a US President? Who predicted that the Northern Ireland Secretary, following in the footsteps of a Prime Minister who illegally prorogued Parliament, would casually admit in Parliament that the UK would breach international law and that on hearing this the Attorney-General would fail to resign?
We are now routinely served up with a farrago of lies by way of explanation for such events, we watch the story eventually fall out of the headlines, and move on to the next attack on our values and the rule of law. That’s how things work. You gradually lose touch with reality. As Gandhi allegedly said when asked what he thought about western civilisation: “I think it would be a good idea”.
You might, I suppose, complain about Trump and Johnson being lumped together. Of course as personalities they have their differences. Johnson does not have an unhealthy fascination with authoritarian leaders. Trump is not the product of Eton. But the way they both came to power has significant similarities: flawed rival candidates and a split opposition, showmanship laced with repeated punchy populist slogans, a concept of truth, if they have one, reduced to what they believe the electorate might like to hear at any particular time. For ‘red wall’ voters read ‘rust-belt’ voters. And in power also similarities: an unprecedented capacity for lying, putting their own interests over or equating them with those of the State, a systematic attack on the institutional fabric of their countries, beginning on this side of the Atlantic, with the civil service, the legal system and the BBC.
Johnson, surfing on his 80 seat majority when he is not hiding, is causing grave damage to Britain. But Trump, in charge of the most powerful nation in the world, is in a different class. We know about his repeated and telling refusal to condemn Putin’s actions, however egregious, his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and from the nuclear treaty with Iran which had curtailed its nuclear weapons programme, his Israeli ‘peace plan’ which was a smokescreen for annexation of chunks of the West Bank. No less dangerous is what we don’t know, notably whether Putin has some leverage over Trump through the old KGB’s technique of kompromat. What we do know is that his erstwhile lawyer- fixer, Michael Cohen, was negotiating for a Trump Tower in Moscow at the very time Trump was claiming he had no financial dealings with Russia.
As the US Presidential election approaches, Putin’s attempt to undermine the democratic process in the USA, and his relationship with Trump, ought to be foremost in US voters’ minds. The hope once was that the report by FBI chief, Robert Mueller, published in April 2019, would decide the red-hot question whether the President of the United States had been coerced into relations with a foreign power contrary to his country’s interests. But the terms set for the Special Counsel’s report meant the scope of his investigation was strictly limited. Trump put enormous pressure on Mueller making it clear that any pursuit of his financial dealings crossed a red line, and the White House obstructed the investigation of his contacts with Russia. ‘Collusion’, widely suspected at the time, is not a legal term though Mueller found ample evidence of it amongst Trump’s close associates. In the words of Luke Harding’s* recently published Shadow State (Guardian Faber), this included ‘secret meetings, offers of dirt, encrypted messages, hints and whispers. The Russians comprehensively penetrated Trumpworld, we learned’. The Report could neither assuage nor vindicate the horrific security concerns this suggested since Mueller was required narrowly to prove co-ordination or conspiracy with State agents of a foreign power - and for that he could not find enough evidence.
Harding’s new book provides an in-depth explanation of why Mueller was fated to produce a report that pleased very few and solved nothing. Each of Shadow State’s twelve chapters provides a detailed snapshot of the Russian kleptocracy in action. Trump often uses the phrase ‘drain the swamp’ in his frequent attacks on US democratic institutions. Harding describes the inhabitants of a real swamp, the Russian State apparatus, the exponents of ‘active measures’ targeting the American voter, the intelligence agencies FSB and GRU and their ‘cut-outs’, oligarchs and organised crime, interacting with the seedy coterie around Trump, networking in murky financial and political waters for their mutual benefit. This book illuminates the counter-intelligence concerns which the Special Counsel felt obliged to sidestep.
It would be comforting to think that Trump supporters got to read this book. They really do need to be aware of the kind of waters in which their President has been swimming before they let anger at the ‘Washington elite’ overwhelm their decency. And all those former Labour voters who supported Johnson and want to give him the benefit of the doubt, should look at Trump to see what happens when you become accustomed to the unacceptable.
*Luke Harding is an award winning investigative journalist who was Guardian correspondent in Moscow from 2007 until 2011 when he was deported.
See TheArticle 16/09/2020 'We have become accustomed to the unacceptable'
Citizen journalism gained respect through its reporting from war –zones. Portland, Oregon, with its liberal democratic ethos, is no war zone however much President Trump, posing as the upholder of law and order, makes it out to be one. Nor is this State about to conduct a fraudulent Presidential election. Others may be. Here is a recent letter from a woman friend living in Portland.
“I have become used to all those old white men surrounding Trump, but what irritates me is the blonde bimbos, all with the same figure and long blonde hair who are put up there as Press Secretaries, to answer questions, which of course is totally pointless because they just repeat the same old official lies from the White House. The misinformation about postal votes and the United State Postal Service (USPS) is a case in point.
At the moment, there is much justified outrage about what is happening with the postal service (USPS), which has trundled along well enough for many decades. About four months ago (May), the Board of the USPS, all put there by Trump, appointed a new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, a businessman best known for being a very large Republican donor to Trump's campaign with alleged conflict of interests from shares in a postal transport contractor. DeJoy promptly set about degrading the service by doing the following: banning overtime so mail carriers could no longer go out to deal with mail that was not able to be taken on the first round, and removing some of the large sorting machines in post offices. And he started to remove some of the blue mail boxes on the street where people drop their outgoing mail, which soon got noticed in rural States such as Montana and Maine. The reasons for all this destructive action are not mysterious; Trump hates vote by mail and almost every day spouts about how it creates voter fraud. It is predicted that many more voters in many States will want to vote by mail in November and of course if you can screw it up in any way possible, he will do so. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate Minority Leader, remarked that "Trump is trying to kneecap the USPS". I think it’s true.
Three weeks ago there was such an outcry that DeJoy has now backed down and stated in writing that no more changes will be made until after the election. On the other hand a lot of damage has already been done, both in processing capability and in the mind of the public. There is no commitment to put any of the sorting machines back in place. The House Democrats have now begun an investigation into Dejoy’s financial and fundraising dealings.
The big concern at the moment is best expressed by the title of an opinion piece in the New York Times, written by David Brooks. David Brooks used to be the paper's conservative commentator and is now usually referred to as a RINO - Republican in Name Only. Anyway his op-ed piece has the heading "What Will You Do if Trump Doesn't Leave ?" This is not just some wild left wing fantasy, but based upon the facts observed in other elections this year and previously. I will do my best to explain, though it is quite complicated.
This year, because of Covid-19, many, many States will have a large percentage of mail-in voters who do not want to go to the polls in person. Some states (Oregon, Washington and Colorado, and others) have been doing this for years, have a well-developed process and essentially deal with mail-in ballots quite rapidly, so that results can be declared the same night after the polls close or soon thereafter. In Oregon, which I know best, ballots are sent out to all registered voters with a quite large voter information brochure filled with candidate statements, several weeks before the election date. The voter fills in the ballot like a multiple choice test and sends it back. The election office routinely checks the voter rolls, the signature on the ballot and doubtless other items; this routine processing and checking can all be completed before election day and after the polls close, ballots are put through a scanner and votes are counted, but not until after polls close.
This is all very well but we have fifty different States, many with a track record of voter suppression, and each one has different rules, not to mention the fact that many of them have very little experience in handling mail-in ballots. In Oregon the ballot must be received by the election office before polls close at 8 pm. on election day. In some States, it is the postmark on the ballot envelope that counts, not the date received; others require a voter to specifically request an absentee ballot and by a certain date. In some states the election office is not even permitted to check ballots received versus voter rolls until after polls close on election day, so in those States the process has not even started. Obviously, this problem could be solved very simply by instructing the 'novice' states to follow a process used by the expert ones, but that is not about to happen. To me, it seems crazy that we have a federal election without federal rules, but that is the way things are.
Why does all this matter? The implication is that some States may take days, if not weeks, to finish processing mail-in ballots. And that might not matter except for the fact that Trump has been ranting about non-existent voter fraud to the extent that Republican voters are more likely to vote in person than Democrats. Hence, the mail-in ballots according to estimates might contain 75% Democrat votes and 25% Republican. So, if you think through what might happen in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina, the initial vote tallies based on numbers at the polling stations might show Trump with a significant lead, which diminishes day by day as the mail-in votes are counted. This so-called blue lag has actually been documented in some previous elections this year. You can imagine for yourself the type of things that Trump might say on Twitter if the initial poll counts show that he has won certain States, but in reality those States are just slow or incompetent in counting. So that is why David Brooks and a lot of other rational people in this country are concerned about election-day totals.
But time to get back to my laundry”.
See also TheArticle 11/09/2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed alarming things about our geo-politics, government and society including the danger of accepting inequality as capitalism’s collateral damage, how incompetent and unaccountable governments cost lives, and how bad we are at making timely coherent global responses to global problems. A virus has returned us to the original Greek meaning of the word ‘apocalypse’ as the revelation of things hidden rather than the spectre of protected bunkers stocked with water, food, and shot guns in American back gardens.
Abruptly we have become aware that ‘going forward’ we may not be going forward anymore. The message of How Everything Can Collapse by Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens* is that we must discuss calmly the possibility that the Anthropocene, the current geological period created by human beings, is currently set to end in collapse, possibly by the 22nd century. And collapse is ‘when water, food, housing, clothes cannot be supplied to majorities by services under legal supervision’. The book piles up the evidence for this assertion.**
How should we respond to such a threat? Survivalist or Denier, the authors insist, should not be the only two positions. Nor, in the midst of a global pandemic can this book be easily dismissed as catastrophist doom-mongering. COVID-19 has taught us what exponential growth in something bad looks like. And so ‘collapsologie’, emerging in France as a discipline with its own insightful experts, gives pause for thought. They can’t all be cranks.
Servigne and Stevens argue that we face worldwide several interlinked ‘systemic instabilities’ notably in bio-diversity, the environment, energy, climate change, economics and geo-politics. They believe that the earth reached the limits of its human ‘carrying-capacity’ in the 1990s and in a number of instances crossed crucial boundaries destabilising or destroying systems that keep us alive and well. Amongst the examples they cite are the thawing of the Siberian and Canadian permafrost, a possible sixth mass distinction of animal species, and the 20th century’s ten-fold increase in energy consumption and its 27 fold increase in industrial metals extraction. How many of today’s fishermen - and BREXIT negotiators - realise that for the same time spent at sea they are catching 6% of what their forefathers in sailing boats caught 120 years ago? We seem to be reaching simultaneously several limits and ‘tipping points’ that precipitate us into dangerous, interacting, irreversible processes.
Our predicament is psychological, political and ideological. Our brains are not geared up to deal effectively with long-term threats. They are protectively designed for immediate fear, fight, flight responses; flight when a sabre-toothed tiger comes into the cave or a terrorist into the shopping mall. Denial is an ingrained defence mechanism but if we can’t believe in the possibility of collapse before it happens we can’t prevent it. We saw this at the beginning of the pandemic when, despite clear warnings, stocks of protective equipment, PPE, proved to be inadequate.
Governments' lack of competence and accountability compound the danger. Wealth acts as a buffer from most misfortune. Personally wealthy political elites don’t feel collapse early enough to react in a timely fashion. Look at Trump and Bolsonaro’s track record on the pandemic and climate change. In authoritarian regimes such as China the reflex is to hide unpalatable truths.
The ideological problem is economism, the politics of economic growth, ‘it’s the economy stupid’. All governments promise rising standards of living. And the developing world needs growth. It’s the big economies that are the concern. 7% annual growth in China – surely less now – should it resume and continue means that economic activity with all the global supply chains, energy use, soil depletion, carbon emissions attendant on it, would double every ten years and increase 32 times in fifty years. We await the first politician in power anywhere to admit publically that economic growth is part of our predicament.
I would like BBC’s Radio 4 ‘More or Less’ to investigate the statistics in How Everything Can Collapse but even if they proved only 20% accurate they would be shocking. But however accurate the statistics on which predictions are based the future impact of inter-connections between different factors is unknowable. In 2006 economists simulated the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic to determine what might be its contemporary impact on the global economy. They concluded an overall 12.6% drop in global GDP. The Spanish Flu epidemic lasted a little over two years. The World Bank’s recent estimate for COVID’s impact just in 2020 was 5.2%. Remember the world population was only 1.8 billion in 1918 and perhaps a third was infected by Spanish Flu. Assuming that 3% of those infected would die, the economists’ predicted 142 million pandemic deaths today. In 2008, the head of Exxon Mobil’s global emergency team, John Lay, estimated that in the event of a similar pandemic “if we can make people feel safe about coming to work, we’ll have about 25% staff absences”. Actual current levels of home working make the predicted level of absences look far too low. In short, on past performance, such predictions prove too inaccurate to justify fear that we are doomed or relief that we will dodge the bullet.
Sevigne and Stevens are clearly right that the school of business-as-usual is now obsolete. COVID has put paid to it. Yet, do world leaders really realise that we face more than a combined health and economic emergency and do they understand the magnitude of the change now necessary? These French authors are also right that the conjuncture of very dangerous interconnected and systemic man-made processes is a threat which we do not want to face. Governments in denial have responded to them inadequately or badly. Remember how successful the ‘Project Fear’ taunt proved.
We none of us know what’s round the corner. The implied inevitability of How Everything Can Collapse does not credit the possibility of the emergence of an unexpected remedy, change in governments’ leadership, a drop in population, how one catastrophe can slow the approach of another in the way COVID caused drastic reduction in polluting air-travel. We can’t though rely on muddling through and good luck. Sevigne and Stevens try to open up a conversation that avoids the extremes of apocalypse panic and a blind belief in progress. Please God they succeed.
This is not a book for bedtime reading. Nor is it a requiem for humankind. And, it should carry a warning that readers may need an injection of Dad’s Army or Father Ted after they put it down.
*Polity Press Translation from the original Comment tout peut s’effondrer Editions de Seuil, 2015
** But see https://en.unesco.org/courier/2018-2/Stop-catastrophist-discourse for a criticism of the way the book uses its evidence.
“What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young.”
Rudyard Kipling: “A Dead Statesman” 1919
For the next twelve months controlling the spread of COVID-19 will depend on sustaining major changes in people’s behaviour. The level of necessary compliance can only come from widespread trust and respect for the judgement and integrity of government ministers.
In my part of coastal Suffolk COVID-19 etiquette is impeccable. Everyone is well-behaved. This is not just because the population is retired and elderly with good reason to keep to the two - metres rule. Younger holidaymakers, laden with wind-breaks, picnics, mini-surf boards, buckets and spades, step into the road or the fields, to keep their distance. A polite ‘thank-you’ is the norm for the first to take avoiding action.
All accommodation close to the coast has been booked here. Camp-sites filled. Camper- vans spilling overnight into car parks. I estimate that there are three times more people enjoying Suffolk North Sea beaches than in former years. The demography is interesting. Couples with two children, one dog are the most common. The vast majority of visitors are in family groups, some bubbled or extended, like the large Muslim group from Walthamstow I met three weeks ago, first time out of London for five months, and a breakfasting group from West Sussex who had arrived at 5am to watch the sunrise.
The Suffolk coast is a different world from the South Coast with its Costa Brava-style occupancy, packed burnt-nose to nose, a few under sun-shades. If TV news shots illustrating how no-one is paying attention to government Covid advice tell the full story, the crowds on beaches like Bournemouth, Poole and westward consist mostly of 18-25 year olds with fewer vulnerable elderly. Mind you, Frith’s painting Life at the Seaside shows Ramsgate sands in the nineteenth century only a little less congested and with mixed ages, though considerably more clothed.
Dunwich, the mediaeval town ‘hidden beneath the sea’, inundated as currents and river changed course, has a special charm; its beach at 10 am on a sunny Summer’s day has, surprisingly, a touch of Seurat’s La Grande Jatte about it. The picture couldn’t be more different, the Seine not the sea, trees not pebbles, with a few huts for winding-gear, no-one elegantly dressed, but there is something similar about the light, the spaced placing of groups of people, the sense of leisure and time slowed, away from the urban bustle. Dunwich beach also has its fishermen, spaced according to fishing etiquette, further than COVID-distances, sitting meditatively in small encampments, rods pointing skywards, line just visible above your head. And plenty of toddlers captivated by hard-wired beach rituals: run down to the water’s edge, waves crash, spray, screams compulsory, scuttle back up the beach, repeat with bucket, collect water, pour into hole, repeat. Did Neanderthals do the same? Probably.
North of Southwold, this region’s best known beach, is Covehithe within weekend range of journalists from north London who, some time ago, began writing articles calling Covehithe something like “Suffolk’s Best Kept Secret” - which means it no longer is. The once quiet, little-known and secluded shore, reached by a path through high bracken and fields, then along crumbling cliffs, now is busy. All along the narrow path passing recesses have been cut into the surrounding vegetation for those who are ‘shielding’ and for well-behaved visitors. In the past, you could imagine the beach as the location for the final scene in Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston spots the charred head and torch of the Statue of Liberty emerging from the sand. Now it’s dotted with picnickers, sunbathers and swimmers.
At Covehithe you can still see marsh harriers cruising ready to grab baby sand martins sticking their heads out of their cliff holes, watching for their parents coming back with food. Or over the sea but close to the shore on quiet stretches, hovering terns hunting, dropping like stones, beaks first, to snatch out fish. A lone, anti-social, seal patrols this beach, black doggy head appearing as it surfaces to take a look at Homo Sapiens. In the early Autumn, long skeins of Canada geese practise slipstreaming low above the waves. Covehithe blissfully banishes Covid from the mind. Welcome back to the comforting old normal.
I am not working for Suffolk Coastal Tourist Information, or auditioning for a Nature Notes column, nor is my purpose to attract visitors, but simply to emphasise that advice on preventing the spread of COVID must take age and location into account. The contrast between the behaviour of visitors to this stretch of the Suffolk coast and behaviour in London, Birmingham and on the South Coast is striking. A short while ago, over one weekend, West Midland police had to shut down over eighty illegal gatherings (many of them ‘raves’) and I’m told by Londoners holidaying in Scotland that they were struck by how many people wore face-masks. Why these differences?
On the face of it, the main rule-breakers are young adults who are now recognised as major carriers of infection. They voted overwhelmingly against BREXIT, only to be ignored, were more activist about climate change, only to be patronised, and, in big cities and towns, see no chance of ever moving in to their own homes. COVID has brutally disrupted their lives and, along with BREXIT, will curtail their job opportunities. On the whole in the early weeks of lockdown they complied. The turning point came when Boris Johnson failed to sack Dominic Cummings for breaching government guidelines. Many young people decided ‘to hell with it’. If they are to be persuaded to keep the rules once more, they will need to trust government. In Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has retained that vital trust; infection rates, similar to Northern Ireland’s, are 377 per 100,000 against England’s 518.
The generation gap, reflected in national voting behaviour, is becoming a serious issue. At the last election fewer than 25% of 18-25 year olds voted Conservative against 56% of the over 55s. Voluntary compliance with COVID prevention from the young remains critical. If the Johnson government fails to retrieve respect and public trust it will cost more lives. There are no signs Johnson and Cummings understand this.
See TheArticle 27/08/2020
In Xinjiang, NW China, reports suggest that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposes forced labour, punishes any practice of Islam, loads blindfolded Uighur men onto trains for transportation, and sterilizes women; a million people are estimated to be imprisoned in ‘re-education/assimilation centres serving as internment camps where they are subject to interrogation and torture. Is the CCP involved in the ‘cultural genocide’ - or just plain genocide - of the Uighurs? Or should its other crimes provide the substance of indictments in international law?
In an ideal world the perpetrators of China’s alleged crimes against the Uighurs would be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. It won’t be the Muslim States which press for this to happen. And neither do passionate public letters, finely judged protests from democracies, Trump’s sanctions on complicit Chinese companies, appear to have achieved anything.
The rule of law remains central to the European vision. Does international law offer the Uighurs any hope of remedy? There are several legal possibilities. The charge of genocide is one of them. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, introduced the term ‘genocide’ into legal debate in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. His original definition of genocide was: “a coordinated plan of different actions aimed at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves”. Lemkin saw cultural genocide as a key element of physical genocide because it defined the identity of the group to be exterminated. Poland’s post-war trials referred to ‘cultural extermination’ and ‘religious and cultural repression’. Lemkin’s long campaign to get genocide recognised as a crime, his sheer perseverance, resulted in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the international treaty of December 1948.
The 1994 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the General Assembly in 2007 also looks applicable to the Uighurs. Article 8 refers to the “right not to be subject to forced assimilation” and, without using the words, spells out almost everything which would be understood as ‘cultural genocide’. Under the pretext of countering terrorism Uighurs in Xinjiang are experiencing violations of every aspect of Article 8 though of the Indigenous Rights Declaration (though the CCP might claim that the Uighurs originated in North-Central Mongolia, aren’t indigenous to China having arrived within the territory of the Han dynasty in the ninth century). With both ancient history and the definition of ‘indigenous’ contested, this particular UN Declaration would not provide the Uighurs assured legal shelter.
The UN 1948 Genocide Convention does leave the CCP vulnerable to claims that by using sterilisation and abortion they are imposing ‘measures intended to prevent births within the group’, an act ‘intended to destroy in whole or in part… a religious group’. Intention is notoriously difficult to prove. And the CCP already has a record of coerced sterilisation nationally as part of its ‘one-child’ policy. It might argue the need for national population control measures aimed at an ethnic group with a high fertility rate. Though it does appear that the intention of the CCP’s policy towards the Uighurs is to destroy their religious and thus ethnic identity.
Charges of ‘crimes against humanity’, violations of individual rights, have in the past been used instead of attempting to prove that mass killings were intended to destroy one particular group, and were therefore genocidal. But there was also a more general anxiety that focus on crimes against groups could undermine the foundation of individual human rights. This was one reason why, at the Nuremberg trials, November 1945-1946, Nazi leaders were charged with ‘war crimes’ - which included, amongst others, the charge of elimination of groups. The explicit use of the term ‘genocide’ occurred in the Nuremberg indictments under this heading of ‘war crimes’, but was generally soft-pedalled.
Speculating about the charge against China most likely to succeed if it reached court is one thing; bringing a charge another. Implementing the 1948 Genocide Convention requires international intervention overriding the UN’s foundational principle of national sovereignty, and has encountered many obstacles. After US troops had been killed seven months previously during military intervention in Somalia, President Clinton notoriously prevented US diplomats using the word ‘genocide’ during and immediately after the May 1994 Rwandan genocide because it implied obligation to intervene. The UN Security Council set up a special international criminal court in Arusha, Tanzania in November 1994 to try key Rwandan genocidaires. It took a long time but there were successful genocide convictions.
The establishment by an international treaty called the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998 was a turning point. The Americans did their level best to block it. I was at a Foreign Office reception when a panicky official rushed up to the senior diplomat I was talking to and, ignoring my presence, indiscreetly told him that Bill Clinton had been ringing, trying to get hold of Tony Blair. It was Clinton’s last-ditch attempt to get the UK to withdraw support from the ICC. The blanched senior diplomat made his excuses and rushed off. Clinton failed to budge Blair.
Establishing the ICC finally realised Lemkin’s war-time goal. Genocide became explicitly included as a fourth category of indictable crime in international human rights law. Since then the crime of genocide has established itself as part of the legal architecture international law. Radko Mladić followed Radovan Karažić, convicted in 2016, into the dock in 2017, with both found guilty by the ICC of the charge of genocide for the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Bosniaks, boys and men, and the forcible removal of women, young children and some elderly. In 2018 the Khmer Rouge head of state, Khieu Samphan and his deputy, Nuon Chea, were convicted of genocide. They were tried in a court with international and Cambodian judges, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, set up in 2006.
International relations have become coloured by the language of international human rights law even applied to the distant past. The German Development Minister, Gerd Mueller, visiting Namibia in August 2019 admitted “that the crimes and abominations from 1904 to 1907 were what today we describe as genocide”: 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama, some 75% of these peoples, were machine-gunned, their wells poisoned, civilians driven into the desert to die, by German colonial military forces. Against this background, King Philippe of Belgium has now spoken of the ‘violence and acts of cruelty’ in the Congo under Leopold II and there is now pressure from Black Lives Matter for reparations.
China today is destroying the culture, religion and identity of over one million Uighurs. Although 123 UN member states have ratified or acceded to the Rome Statute, China and USA, unwilling to cede any national sovereignty, have not. The Russians signed but never ratified and withdrew their signature when the court described the Russian presence in Crimea as an ‘occupation’. Who will dare to bring a charge of cultural genocide? China sits on the Security Council and can, and does, veto referrals of cases to the ICC. Germany and Belgium may be prepared to admit to old crimes, maybe even Britain, but China is not about to put itself in the dock.
See also TheArticle "The Uighurs: who will dare bring charges of cultural genocide?" 17/08/2020
“It feels as though the poor has no one to defend them. They don’t seem to feature in the national agenda. Their cries for an improved health system go unheeded..…It is not clear to your bishops that the national leadership we have has the knowledge, social skills, emotional stability and social orientation to handle the issues that we face as a nation. All we hear from them is blame for our woes on foreigners, colonialism, white settlers and so called internal detractors”.
This is taken from a powerful pastoral letter from Zimbabwe’s bishops that has hit the Catholic headlines this week. Though talk of ‘the Church’s prophetic voice’ is commonplace, we are unaccustomed to such forthright documents from Church leaders. It is easy to talk vaguely about peace, justice and reconciliation. Nobody takes much notice. Nothing much happens. But for African bishops living under corrupt regimes, their countries plundered, their freedoms lost, the choice is stark: to speak out or, by their silence, become complicit.
The Zimbabwean Bishops’ Conference have made their choice and, on 14 August published, “The March is not Ended”, a pastoral letter about the current situation in Zimbabwe. Drawing on Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah and Micah, and on Catholic Social Teaching The March is not Ended points to the gulf between a small elite which has benefitted from Independence, who think they have ‘arrived’, ‘ended their march for freedom’, and the suffering majority of Zimbabweans faced with a multi-layered crisis. This metaphor of ‘the march’ and biblical references, if properly understood, might not have created a Church-State crisis. But the forthright, detailed, factual description of human rights violations, apparent implicit support for public protest, and their description of the political, economic and social situation in Zimbabwe, did create just such a crisis.
The next day, 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, the Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Monica Mutsvangwa, responded by accusing the President of the Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Robert Nhlovu, of leading the country towards a Rwandan-type conflict, describing him as an ‘evil bishop’, and deliberately trying to isolate him by ignoring the fact that all the members of the Bishops Conference had signed the pastoral. Archbishop Nhlovu, who before being appointed to Harare was formerly Bishop of Hwange, comes from an Ndebele-speaking region where from 1983-1987 massacres had occurred, led by Robert Mugabe’s North Korean trained 5th. Brigade troops who killed some 20,000 Ndebele-speakers. The brief mention in the pastoral of these former human rights violations added to the government’s fury. The man who is widely thought to have masterminded the Ndebele pogroms, Minister of State Security at the time, was Emmerson Mnangagwa now President of Zimbabwe. He was the favoured candidate of the UK for the Presidency after the coup in 2017 which toppled Robert Mugabe.
Catholics and other Christians have found the courage to defy the government and support their leaders. The Catholic Professionals Network of Zimbabwe in an open letter emphasise that the bishops acted “collectively not individually and that the reference to Archbishop Nhlovu’s ethnicity – it was not the first tribalist attack on him from ZANU-PF – was “needlessly brought to the fore and is singled out for a venomous attack as if the pastoral letter was his own initiative or creation”. The Zimbabwe Heads of Christian Denominations Sabbath Call message in October 2019 had appealed for unity in the face of Zimbabwe’s spiraling crises. In 7 August this year The Platform of Concerned Citizens (PCC) deplored the insulting responses to the African Union’s concern about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and to a similar expression of concern by the ANC from South Africa. The Zimbabwe Council of Churches are now urging the government to retract its insulting response to Archbishop Nhlovu. The Catholic Bishops are not a lone voice but their message to Zimbabwean Catholics, read at Sunday mass, is by far the strongest and clearest.
How can anyone help? It is clear that Britain’s track record in the country means any protests will be dismissed by the Zimbabwe government. But the Church in Zimbabwe urgently needs tangible international signs of solidarity. This means more than statements of support from Churches around the world however much they are appreciated. The Archbishop clearly needs attention to his security. The Bishops’ Conference premises will need competent guards. This should not be seen as an in inappropriate form of funding from, say, Aid to the Church in Need, or Catholic development agencies. I was in Rhodesia when the Bethlehem Fathers Moto Press was burned by Ian Smith’s thugs and in South Africa when the Bishops Secretariat was burned out by apartheid agents. It happens.
South Africa is geographically in a position to intervene – it has a refugee problem from destitute Zimbabwean migrants - but there is little support for strong action elsewhere in the region. Zimbabwean opposition parties, however disorganized, need support from their sister Parties in the international community and particularly from the Commonwealth, or the last possibilities of democratic change will disappear. And instead of anger, abuse and calumny the Zimbabwean government needs to listen to those who love their country and cannot bear any longer to see it destroyed and its people impoverished.
See also The Tablet On-Line 17/08/2020
A whole generation of Catholics formed in the Young Christian Students and Young Christian Workers movement is receding into history. Guiding their practice was a very simple formula: See, Judge, and Act. It was proposed by a Belgian priest, Joseph Cardijn.
Catholicism is on the communitarian – not collective – end of a spectrum with individualism at the opposite end. Cardijn’s formula took seriously the different milieu, social contexts, that people live in and which affects them. People in factories, university libraries, or on sugar plantations have very different experiences of life. The Cardijn approach profoundly influenced the way Catholics - from bishops to landless agricultural labourers - set about analysing and trying to change society for the better.
The See, Judge, and Act, method became a valuable way of life for the lay apostolate, and a simple formula for analysis reflected in many official Church documents following the Second Vatican Council. ‘See’ meant asking the questions: what is happening, why is it happening, who is affected? ‘Judge’ posed questions such as what do you think about all this, what are your values, beliefs and faith saying about it? What should be happening? And ‘Act’: what would you like to change, what action will you take now, and whom can you involve? So Young Christian Student activists had an off-the-shelf method to communicate with Young Christian Workers in social movements.
Cardijn spent his life teaching Catholics how to engage with the problems of the day, how to bring about change, how to implement Catholic social doctrine. This, very briefly, is his story.
Joseph Leo Cardijn was born in November 1882 into a working class family in Schaerbeek, today a suburb of Brussels, and into the midst of a deep recession. His parents were concierges for an apartment block. The new baby was sickly and sent to live with his grandparents in Halle, a Flemish town south of the capital in the process of industrialisation with artificial-silk works, paper mills, glass works and a mining community. His parents later joined him there and his father, despite being illiterate, started in business as a coal merchant; Joseph remembered reading aloud to him from Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on capital and labour.
Joseph Cardijn earned his first pocket-money delivering sacks of coal in a hand-cart. He remembered feeling sorry for the young teenage workers he saw setting off to long hours in the mills and mines, and for his schoolmates, for whom debilitating labour awaited. Despite his parents’ expectations that he would shortly join his school friends in a Halle factory, he asked if he could stay on at school and then train for the priesthood. In the late eighteen nineties Father Adolphe Daens, who formed the radical Christlijke Volkspartei (Christian Peoples Party) - and was defrocked - had been an important influence on Cardijn.
As a seminary student in Malines, Cardijn was profoundly shocked by the hostility of his old friends, now factory workers or miners. They felt he had abandoned them for the clerical life and joined the owners who exploited them. Cardijn felt that his friends had turned away from the Church losing their childhood innocence and choosing vice. The death of his father in 1903, exhausted by a life of toil, deepened his sadness. Perhaps there was a touch of guilt. His choice of the priesthood meant that his father had lost his son’s help in the business so had not been spared the drudgery of manual work in old age. At his father’s deathbed he vowed to consecrate his priestly life to the evangelisation of the workers.
Rapid developments in Belgian national politics were occurring and the Malines Major Seminary was feeling the ferment beyond its walls. Christian Democrats were emerging and challenging the existing conservative Catholic Party. Seminary students attended a series of international conferences, 1886, 1887, 1890, on the plight of workers in Europe’s economic crisis created by the recession. They heard inspiring talks by the Dominican, Georges-Celas Rutten O.P., later to become general-secretary of the Confederation of Christian Trades Unions which was supported by Archbishop of Mechelen (Malines) Désiré-Joseph Mercier. Workers’ rights, they learnt, were of concern to Christians.
Cardijn’s thirst for knowledge as a seminarian, his energy and leadership, worried the Seminary Rector. Was he a ‘modernist’, attracted to the hotchpotch of ideas condemned by the Vatican in the 19th century? Archbishop Mercier sent him to the University of Louvain (Leuven) in August 1906 to study under Professor Victor Brants, a national figure who in 1892 had founded a department of sociology and economics, where he argued that Thomas Aquinas’ central theme of justice demanded ‘lower class representation’ in Parliament and mitigation of the impact on workers of the long depression of the 1880s. A month later, Mercier relented and approved Cardijn’s ordination, aged 23, as a priest.
The Christian Democrats saw the nascent Christian worker movement an ally in their opposition to conservative Catholic politics, socialist trades unions, and the Flemish language nationalists, the flamangants. The newly formed Catholic unions dedicated May 15th to Rerum Novarum, to rival the May Day celebrations of the Socialist unions. Such an organisation was the ultramontane Arthur Verhaegan’s AntiSocialistiche Werkliedbund, an anti-Socialist working man’s association formed in Ghent in 1891. In 1895 the Belgian bishops officially endorsed these ‘autonomous workers’ organisations’, the Catholic trades unions. This was the complex political world into which Cardijn was decanted as a young priest.
Up until – and beyond - the turn of the century in conservative Catholic circles nostalgic visions of Christian trade guilds and a harmonious corporate society were still powerful. But to keep pace with the Socialist unions, Catholic workers’ associations, were increasingly developing beyond mutual insurance schemes and palliative measures towards demands on employers, in the style of British trades unions. For a long while the Catholic unions retained a distinctive Catholic culture rejecting class conflict, emphasising respect for human dignity and the equal human worth of capitalist and labourer. This did not seem to impede their popularity. In Brussels between 1909-1913, Socialist Unions expanded from 8,000 to 18,000 members while membership of Catholic unions increased at a slightly faster rate, from 1,900 to 5,000. This growth was partly attributable to the appointment in Catholic dioceses of directors to new social secretariats. The dream of guilds was receding – but not extinguished.
There are cogent arguments that corporatist thinking and the creation of separate Catholic unions split the worker movement and weakened opposition to fascism. But there are counter arguments that union ‘pluralism’ encouraged competitive democratic procedures and ways of thinking. Catholic unionism did not encourage proto-fascist views in Cardijn. After a year at Louvain, he spent 1907-1912 as Vice-Rector and teacher at Notre Dame de Basse-Wavre school, an experience he described as ‘a providential misfortune’ and which drew him further into the realities of working conditions and the significance of the Socialist unions. His leisure time was taken up by visiting mills and co-operatives talking with workers. He had not forgotten his pledge on his father’s deathbed, and was not to be diverted.
In August 1911, Cardijn experienced the ‘best retreat’ of his early priesthood – his term - a visit to Britain’s unions towards the end of a violently repressed major transport strike, the first ‘bloody Sunday’, that had brought 3,500 troops to Liverpool on the orders of Home Secretary, Winston Churchill,. The young priest spent a fortnight in London at 425 Mile End Road, HQ of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside & General Labourers Union (DWRGLU), listening and learning, an experience that was to define his thinking and action. Cardijn was deeply impressed by Ben Tillett, founding member of the Independent Labour Party, general-secretary of the DWRGLU, and later Labour MP for Salford North, who spent time with him just after the London Dock strike had ended. “He [Tillett] wants first to create the strongest, the largest, the most united organisation in which he wants the workers of the whole world to feel solidarity of their interests and the unconquerable power of their union”, Cardijn noted approvingly. “Moreover he wants for every worker in particular to carry out a work of personal education, a work of moral and intellectual uplift so that each worker may feel the pressing need of more well-being and more justice”. In the 1920s there were strong echoes of Tillett within Cardijn’s passionate advocacy of the needs of young Christian workers. On his side, Tillett himself had been moved by Cardinal Manning’s personal support for him and the cardinal’s role as peacemaker in the 1889 dock strike.
In 1912 Cardijn was appointed as a curate in the parish of Laeken, North-West Brussels, containing 13,000 factory workers. Abbé Cardijn set out to know them. He formed clubs for working women where factory conditions were discussed. Three years later he was appointed director of social action for the Brussels area.
In 1914 after the German invasion of Belgium, Cardijn publicly condemned the deportation of Belgian workers to Germany. He was sentenced to six months in prison where he took the opportunity to read Marx’s Das Kapital alongside the Bible. He had a second spell in prison shortly before the end of the War. Meanwhile, he had diverted one of his women workers’ groups, mainly young seamstresses, a section of the League of Christian Women workers, into providing intelligence for the Allied forces.
Abbé Jospeh remained throughout committed to youth formation and this would also cause trouble. In 1919 he founded La Jeunesse Syndicaliste with three lay colleagues whom he had met in his parish at Laeken, Ferdinand Tonnet, Jacques Meert and Paul Garat. This new youth organisation was the precursor of Young Christian Workers (YCW); the name was changed in 1924 to defend against allegations that this was Socialism in a Chasuble. The period 1924-1925 was critical for the emergence of the YCW; by the mid-1930s it was becoming a worldwide movement. On the one hand there were the Christian Trades Unions, on the other the official Belgian Catholic Youth Association, the ACJB (Action Catholique Jeunesse Belge). For the bishops the idea of separating young Catholic workers into a separate organisation from the official national ACJB was anathema: ‘dividing the Body of Christ’. Cardinal Mercier supported this view though he respected Cardijn’s commitment to the Christian formation of workers. The ever resourceful Abbé Joseph, tacking between rival priorities, was in a difficult personal dilemma: he must have official approval for his new organisation. A visit to the Pope Pius XI was his last card.
In Rome, the story goes, Abbé Cardijn broke away from the crowd going in to a general audience and managed to beard the Pope in his private rooms. Pius XI was the son of a silk factory owner. Cardijn knew all about silk factories. And at this meeting the Pope revealed his passion for the evangelisation of the working class and his admiration for JOC/ YCW, almost certainly unaware of the disputes amongst Belgian Catholics that swirled around it. Pius XI later coined the phrase famous in the 1930s: “the Church needs the workers and the workers need the Church” which chimed exactly with Cardijn’s conviction. In 1935 the Pope gave his support to the JOC/YCW as an ‘authentic model of activism and social action’.
Cardijn had hoped his movement would influence the Socialist trades unions. By the mid-1930s the JOC had reached the Americas, Africa and Asia with, in 1938, an estimated 500,000 members worldwide. But it would be wrong to equate such numbers with influence within the secular trades unions. Gregor Siefer in his brilliant study of the worker priest movement The Church and Industrial Society wrote that despite the genuine enthusiasm of the YCW only a small avant-garde of the JOC successfully penetrated the secular worker milieu to any great extent. But the wider Cardijn methodology penetrated the whole of the Church in a remarkable way, particularly in Latin America, Philippines, and South Africa under authoritarian regimes where trades unionists were targeted by police and the military. The worker priest movement, on the other hand, also hanging loose from traditional parish ministry, ploughed a lonely furrow in Europe before being – ineffectually – banned by the Vatican.
The YCW had 2 million members in 69 countries by 1957 when a World Assembly, the first YCW International Council, brought 32,000 young members together in Rome. The See, Judge, and Act method was endorsed by Pope John XXIII’s Mater et Magister and Pacem in Terris in the early 1960s. Its emphasis on analysing the local context in the light of the Gospel became second nature to the progressive bishops of Latin America. And as students linked up with militant workers, things began to change radically led by the bishops of the NE of Brazil. This, was where Cardijn’s methodology had its most impressive impact and in no small measure, contributed to the formation of the Partido dos Trabalhadores PT (Workers’ Party) which took power under the Presidency of Lula da Silva in 2003.
Joseph Cardijn was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1965, two years before his death and burial at Laeken, his first parish. He made a significant contribution to the Second Vatican Council. The bishops and theologians preparing the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, (Joy & Hope), were explicitly instructed to use his See, Judge, and Act method of analysis. The process for his beatification started in 2013. In a time of fear and lack of historical humility, he has much to be remembered for and to teach the Catholic Church today.