Tag Archives: community

Holocaust Memorial Day 2013

There’s a garden in Jerusalem, at the Yad Vashem institute, in which an avenue of trees commemorates those who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. I find that idea powerful, that in a bustling city at the epicentre of religion and politics and geopolitical tensions there’s a place for contemplation and peace and history.

It exists within a wider context, of course, a context of tragedy and horror and violence. It’s right to remember those who survived, the heroes who saved others, but the bigger story is that of the millions killed, industrialised slaughter and the vicious, brutal explosion of racism and xenophobia. I visited Yad Vashem years ago; it’s a place that changes you. I remember a room full of candles and pictures of murdered children. It wasn’t a room to simply walk away from.

More people died than were saved; it’s that simple. We memorialise what happened, not just because of it’s horrific history but because it happens again and again and again, in Rwanda and Cambodia and Bosnia and Darfur, and maybe if we keep remembering, sooner or later we’ll take the damn hint and it won’t happen again.

And yet remembering the rarer stories of the rescued and the rescuers remains important. Holocaust Memorial Day coincides with National Storytelling Week, and maybe telling stories of survivors and rescuers will, if not prevent another genocide somewhere in the world, strengthen reactions to it, light beacons of hope.

So I’ve blogged about Irena Sendler and Astrides de Sousa Mendes before, and then there’s Leopold Socha. A Polish sewage worker, Socha, his wife and a colleague hid a group of Jewish refugees in the sewers under Lwow – a year after the end of the war, Socha was killed saving his daughter from being hit by a truck. I think it’s safe to say that he’s my new hero.

But while I’ve heard of these, and while Oskar Schindler is a household name, I know less of the stories of the death, survival and saviours of gay people and Roma and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Trade Unionists and… The Holocaust is overwhelming in its scale, terrifying in how communities seemed to collapse so suddenly, neighbours colluding in putting the people who lived next door on trains to death camps. The reasons for this – fear, propaganda, malice – all seem painfully inadequate, but they serve as a reminder – these things can ultimately only happen when communities turn against each other. A military can bomb a town, sure, but to operate an infrastructure of identification, registration and murder? That requires communities to turn toxic.

And maybe that’s a reason to remember the Righteous Among the Nations; this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme is ‘Communities Together: Build a Bridge’, and stories of survival demonstrate how various individuals fought to maintain those communities, not simply labelling those around them as Jewish or Gay or Gypsy or Tutsi, but as people, friends, neighbours; a community.

It’s so easy for communities to fracture: a few cynical political and media comments and suddenly attacks on the disabled are on the rise; suggest opening a mosque in certain places and see what reaction you get. It’s terrifying, but the capacity to run that infrastructure I talked about earlier is never as far away as we’d like. “It couldn’t happen here” is only true until it actually happens here.

The stories we tell define our communities; let the stories of the Holocaust, of all the other genocides we watched on the news, act as warnings and testimony, yes, but also as inoculation. Let’s tell stories, not lies; let’s build bridges, not camps.


Blog Action Day 2012: The Power of We

I want to write great, inspiring things about community. Really I do. It’s just that the last few days, my faith in this sort of thing has taken a bit of a beating.

I mean, my commute is roughly an hour each way, which is fine. However, last week the main road on which I travel was closed due to a burst water main, meaning it took me nearly four hours to get home. I could live with that – it’s not fun, but hey, sometimes water mains explode – but the complete lack of consideration displayed by other motorists was shocking, with cars pushing into the queue at the last moment and generally bumping an already nightmarish commute down a couple more levels of hell.

Okay, silly example maybe, but it shows what happens when the Power of We gets pushed out in favour of the Power of Me. It turns out that eccentric British radio and TV personality Jimmy Savile was systematically sexually abusing young girls for forty years without being caught; now it turns out that plenty of people knew or suspected it was going on but turned a blind eye. It was pragmatic. It was the culture. Community broke down.

I won’t even start on trolling.

I know this is a negative way of starting a blog that’s intended to celebrate the power and importance of community, but I think it’s important to remember that community, society, the corporate We isn’t just about projects and clubs, it’s about a way of thinking, a way of thinking that means we actually work together instead of ignoring crimes and becoming jerks the minute we sit down behind a steering wheel or a keyboard.

That way of thinking is a powerful thing. My wife and I got married in August, and our wedding is a fantastic example of the Power of We. Friends did our catering, made our cake, took photos and moved chairs and decorated and arranged flowers and… Well, it was a genuine example of a community – no, a few different communities – coming together and making our big day special. I might moan about inconsiderate commuters, but when I do, all I have to do is look at my wedding photos to get a wake-up call: sometimes community works. Heck, most of the time it works, that’s why we have a society, that’s why we have sub-cultures, that’s why, when a bunch of people rioted last year, communities in London had organised clean-up crews by the next morning. They held their brooms in the air and proclaimed that chaos wouldn’t win.

It’s that humanity, those faces, that help me to remember what’s really important. We can look at Jimmy Savile or Rupert Murdoch and see how, over the last year, media, law and politics collapsed and allowed shameful crimes to be committed. But I can look at my friends, I can look at colleagues who were in Yemen and Tunisia when the Arab Spring took hold and see that communities can work together to create something amazing, something good.

It’s easy to be cynical; it’s harder, but more more powerful, to believe that things can be different. Or, as the Smiths once sang, “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate; it takes strength to be gentle and kind”.

And the Power of We shall stand.

What’s So Bad About Doing Good?


(Yes, that’s me pretending to steal a stuffed bear’s hat. It illustrates the point of the post. Almost. Sort of.)

Anyway, yesterday was Doctor Who Magazine day; I bought it of course, because I’m a big geek, and along with it I received a free copy of the Times. It was one of those offers WH Smith often does. As I took it, I noticed the banner above the headline: “The Power of Being Good”.

Now I know what you’re thinking: the Times is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, and therefore is part of an organisation that is currently considered to be… Well, not as evil as Hitler, but at least he’s been dead for sixty-six years. On the day that the phone hacking scandal reached new lows, what could a News International paper tell us about being good?

Well, the article starts off well, describing Norway’s response to the terrible murders over the weekend and the national concept of being good. Soon after it turned into a discussion about immigration (you’re shocked, aren’t you?), but the key phrase had already lodged itself inside my head: doing good.

Somewhere along the line, 1920’s America if my phone’s dictionary app is right, we decided that ‘do-gooder’ would make an effective insult. I’ve always thought that was strange; I get the idea that it refers to ineffectual or patronising or militant approaches to social improvement, but all the ssme, the words we use have power: has doing good become tarnished by the connotations of Do-Gooder?

(I guess it depends on the nature of the good being done – if you agree with it, it’s nice, if you don’t, it’s interfering do-gooding. Moral relativism on toast.)

I think we need to celebrate doing good a lot more than we do. Look at the news over the last week or so: a massacre in Norway, media/police/government corruption in the UK, US politicians determined to drive the world economy under a bus for no apparent good reason. But, as it’s easier to light a candle than curse the darkness…

  • I follow Edward James Olmos on Twitter because he was fantastic in the Battlestar Galactica remake, and discovered he’s a supporter of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an advocacy group dedicated to preventing the pollution of our waterways. They work through local chapters, so if this has piqued your interest, check them out! Tell them Admiral Adama sent you.
  • Voices for the Library are a group fighting cuts to library services throughout the UK. I naively thought I’d never see the day when public libraries were considered expendable but it’s here and the Voices team are leading the fight against it.
  • The Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for the East African famine is here;I don’t think anything needs adding to this.

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, once said:

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

I’m not even going to pretend I try to do this as often as I should, but it’s a lot easier to admire those who do than those who sit on the sidelines, eating popcorn and sneering ironically. When a lot of the institutions we once believed were permanent are revealed as corrupt and possibly transient due to the exposure of their malignant hearts, maybe doing good is the best weapon in our arsenal. And I guess this post is acting as an epiphany, because I don’t light candles as often as I want to; let this be the day I start.

And one day, when I’m gone, hopefully far in the future, I hope some nice person can stand up and say I contributed more than I sneered.




Love Always Wins…

…As an inhabitant of Oslo just said. I know how it sounds to cynical ears, especially in the light of the horrific events that struck Norway this weekend, in the shadow of a phone hacking scandal that’s exposed just how much the media we consume turns people into puppets for public amusement. “Love always wins” sounds hollow and naive and at odds with the realities of the world.

It’s not.

The alternative is hate winning – more phone hacking, more fanaticism, more 9-11s, more Utoyas. The alternative is us dragging ourselves further into the mire, obsessing over the next celebrity car crash, the next pointless death at the age of 27. We want to talk about the ‘real world’? Give that murderer in Norway a platform to spout prejudice, the chance for him to expound that manifesto of his that quotes the worst Muslim-bashing spouted by our discredited media, a bunch of columnists who want to mouth off without wanting to experience the consequences of their words.

Better to follow the quiet dignity of the Norwegian people, better to listen to their leaders who decreed that the most appropriate response to internal terrorism would be “more democracy”. Better to act like love always wins, even if you’re not convinced, but it’s not hatred that beats us in the end, it’s apathy and resignation and no vision to fuel a belief that things can be different.

We can win by standing firm but not fighting dirty, we can win by standing alongside each other in times of pain rather than looking for someone to blame, we can win by seeking the truth rather than being spoon-fed the distortions and conspiracy theories of the 24-hour news cycle. This is how we win.

God bless Norway; may you know that, in your time of crisis, you’re lighting a candle, an example to the world.