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Lighting a Candle (Saturday Sound-off)

At our local supermarket check-out this morning one of my neighbours was in front of me in the queue. Shortly after I left I caught up with her and we walked together down the hill, chatting about the weather and recent developments in our small retirement community. When we reached the church she parted company with me saying that she was going to light a candle for a friend and went on to explain how very ill this person was.

As an atheist I regard the idea of lighting a candle in the belief that it might effect a cure or ease someone’s passage into the after-life as somewhat bizarre. But I would not publicly ridicule a person holding that belief or all followers of Roman Catholicism for that and other, to me, futile practices.

Like most Catholics, however, I do condemn some of the behaviours attributed to certain members of their faith in recent times.

Why am I telling you this? Because I am saddened by recent examples of antisemitism and Islamophobia in British political life.

Of course I condemn the heinous actions of some who claim to be followers of Islam. Be-headings, bombings and other terror related activities are evil. I also feel saddened by the way some in Islam treat their womenfolk. That does not mean I hold all followers of that faith in contempt nor to I have a problem with the way some choose to dress.

In the same fashion, I condemn some of the policies of the Israeli government. But I do not have contempt for individual Jews or for the way some Jewish men choose to dress.

In fact, I have a real problem with the whole concept of racism and religious hatred. I’m old enough to remember a time when it seemed to be taken for granted that people of obvious African ancestry were of lesser intelligence than white skinned people. To my shame I believed it for a while.

I now know that we are all the same under the skin. We are all equally capable of attaining the highest level of education and achievement. And we are all equally capable of being foolish and allowing ourselves to be duped by dangerous rhetoric.

For me the definition of racism is any suggestion that one ethnic group is superior, or inferior, to any other. That, of course, includes such notions as that of a “chosen people” or the belief that centuries of residence in a particular land gives an ethnic group the exclusive right to continue to reside there. When the then South African government tried, in the 1960s, to establish that principle, designating certain areas as ‘tribal homelands’, insisting that people of such ethnicity must have a special license, or ‘pass’, in order to travel to, and work in, other parts of South Africa, the majority of the rest of the world condemned the policy, and rightly so.

And yet, if I condemn the military occupation of certain parts of the Holy Land and the forced removal of those until recently occupying those lands in order to accommodate Jews, as I do, I am guilty of antisemitism. I refuse to be so labelled. As I made clear above, I do not associate all Jews with Israel and the unacceptable policies of it’s government. Just as, in the past, I did not condemn all white South Africans because of the policies of their government, only those who actively supported the policy.

It is all very complex and confusing but there is, for me, one over-riding fact in all of this: anthropologists tell us that homo-sapiens first appeared somewhere in the African continent. Since then our ancestors have migrated North, East and West. So, logically, the only ‘ancestral home’ for any and all of us is Africa.

DNA analysis of human remains from the past have shown that Europeans are the descendants of migrants and invaders over many centuries, suggesting that objections to recent arrivals from outside the continent are misplaced.

No-one should be ridiculed for his or her religious beliefs, however bizarre they might seem to you and me. Neither should anyone be prevented, solely because of his or her ethnicity, from living anywhere in the world he or she chooses.

If I was going to light a candle it would be for greater understanding of our shared humanity and less animosity towards those who look different from ourselves.

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Not At All Crooked Hillary

Just as the media are filled with news of a book about life in the Trump White House, I offer my review of What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

This was given to me as a Christmas present. I found it to be a fascinating read. I suppose I should qualify that by stating at once that I am a sucker for anything to do with politics, even American politics. Other people become ecstatic about sport, obsessing about the fortunes of a particular football team or tennis player. For me, politics is my sport; I care as much about government policies as others do about the application of the off-side rule. Newsnight and Question Time mean far more to me than Match of the Day ever could. So to read about the ups and downs – and in Hillary’s case it was mostly downs – of an election campaign, is a delight on a par with reading about Andy Murray’s Grand Slam disappointments and successes.

But there is much more to this book than an account of the 2016 presidential election and the mistakes she admits having made. This is a self-portrait of someone who has dedicated herself to a life of public service and of attempting to create the conditions in which her fellow citizens can prosper and achieve their full potential.

From radical student politics in the late 1960s, through advocacy for the under-privileged as an attorney, to her period as Secretary of State in president Obama’s first administration and, finally, her campaign to become the first woman president of the USA, she has never shirked from what she sees as her Christian duty to serve the greater good of mankind.

Those ubiquitous e-mails

There is a lot about the e-mail saga and the way it monopolised media coverage of the election, despite extensive evidence that she had done nothing wrong. All her predecessors at the State Department used their personal e-mail accounts for official business, as did her successor at first. When published, the e-mails showed only that she was someone who cared deeply about the welfare of the staff for whom she felt responsible. State secrets were not shared via e-mails on that account, nor anywhere else. And yet the media and her opponent refused to let go of the accusation that she was corrupt and dishonest. Finally, when the scandal seemed to have abated and her ratings were on the rise, the head of the FBI, for reasons best known to himself, chose to revisit the subject with unwarranted insinuations that made many voters uneasy about supporting her.

From unguarded remarks taken out of context, to decisions to respond – or not – to specific accusations from her opponent, she takes full personal responsibility for any short-comings in the campaign. And she is eager to learn, and to pass on the lessons learned, from these mistakes.

She was sustained throughout the campaign, and in her efforts to overcome the disappointment of failure, by her Methodist faith and the example of her mother, the product of a broken home, neglected by the grandparents who brought her up, who, nevertheless, grew up to experience the ‘American Dream’ and to pass on the same Christian values to her daughter.

I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like to have to listen to taunts of ‘Crooked Hillary’ and ‘Lock her up’ from her opponents, knowing she had done nothing wrong and sought only to better the lives of her fellow citizens. To her credit she has little to say about such things, concentrating instead on the policy proposals that never gained a proper hearing in the media, buried under the relentless e-mail fake news stories which she contends – she presents evidence in support of the claim – were orchestrated by Vladimir Putin and Wikileaks.

There will be many who will claim that she is part of the conspiracy by the wealthy elites to remove the hard earned assets of the poor. I believe that the opposite is the truth. When she says that her intention is to reverse that trend, I believe her.

Minority rights

As a Liberal I am in no doubt that there are two elites and that many on the political left fail to make the distinction. There is indeed an elite that seeks to amass great wealth with little thought to the people who are hurt in the process. Those are the corporate entities, and their owners, who fund the Republican Party in the USA, and advocate for Britain’s exit from the European Union, in order to remove, or substantially reduce, regulations intended to protect consumers and workers. They have the majority of media outlets in their corner. They deny the evidence of man made climate change as vigorously as they once denied the link between tobacco and lung cancer.

But there are, too, the ‘Liberal elites’ that the political right, supported by the bulk of the media, characterises as being out of touch with the realities of life as experienced by ordinary people, supporting policies that help minorities at the expense of the majority.

It is true that such individuals use their wealth to support a plethora of charitable causes and, in government, they do advocate measures that benefit the disadvantaged. But that does not mean they are not sympathetic to the plight of those who feel left out when minorities gain rights that others take for granted. As Hillary Clinton points out towards the end of her book, a way has to be found to demonstrate that seeking equality for all does not have to mean a race to the bottom. Rather, we need to make clear that lifting the downtrodden benefits us all in the long run.

I feel bound to add one other factor that looms large in the book, as it did through the campaign. Hillary believes herself to have been fortunate to have reached maturity at a time when the women’s movement was at its commencement. As a female lawyer in the 1970s she was a rarity, someone people came to look at out off curiosity. And much of her campaign strategy in 2016 seems to have concentrated on the significance of breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ and the idea that a woman could become president acting as an inspiration to girls and young women. I can’t help wondering  if that emphasis on the feminist aspect of the campaign put off some potential voters, both men and women, who are deeply suspicious of the movement.