Flashback Friday: How I didn’t become a politician in Germany…

There could be only one flashback post this week, when it popped up on my Timehop app yesterday that 3 years ago I flew out with some fellow University of Glasgow School of Education postgrads for a two week intensive programme in Germany. I have such good memories of the friends I made during that experience and this story is something my friends and I still laugh about.

Original Post: March 1st 2014

I feel I should explain something. There’s a woman in Germany called Prof Dr. Christina Völkl-Wolf and she is not me.

On our first day travelling to the university in Würzburg, we immediately began to notice posters with people’s faces on them. They reminded me of American car salesman ads – I don’t know why. During our guided tour of the city centre we saw even more and certain faces began to become familiar. Eventually I asked the professor from the host university what they were all about.

It turned out they were posters for politicians campaigning to be voted in the local elections which are this month.

One of the girls I travelled with has a tradition with her sister of taking pictures imitating statues. She had got me to take photos of her to send to her sister, and me being me, I joined in the banter.

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A couple of days later, I think cabin fever got to us (there were 42 of us sharing one kitchen, 52 of us in one room at the university for most of each day…) and we decided to get some fresh air by walking from the campus to the train station rather than taking a bus. Chariots of Fire was reenacted in a park. And we started posing next to the election posters.

We worried that maybe the folks in Germany would be offended, but it turned out they thought it was funny too (phew) so we did it a few times, as well as doing the statue imitations. At the weekend, we were free to go explore the region as much as we wanted. While I went with most of the Italian university group to explore Nuremberg and Bamberg, two of the Scottish group went with one of the Hungarians to explore Würzburg. When I returned they told me I had to see the poster they had found, and showed me on their phone the picture they had taken of it.

You have to get your picture taken next to one of these posters they said.

The next day, I went into Würzburg with one of my roommates and while walking up to the Fortress we saw one of the aforementioned posters. And I obliged.

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And then I made it my facebook profile pic, which got plenty of comments, the best of which came from my sister who said “HIMYM doppelgänger moment x” (How I Met Your Mother fans will understand). Yes. We had found ‘German Professor Laurie’, and she was a nominee for the city council.

One of my classmates was disappointed my hair hadn’t been straightened that day, so on the last night we took a photo of another poster we found walking back to the main station.

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I did check with the Würzburg students she wasn’t some crazy conservative,  because I was concerned I might be inadvertently promoting someone from the German equivalent of UKIP or something. They told me she isn’t though they didn’t know much about her.

So there you have it. Some say we don’t look alike at all, others think it’s a bit freaky! Good luck Christina, and serve your city well.

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The one where I ponder what we remember…

It’s been a terrible year. I was really sad to hear from my sister how the hate and incresingly right wing politics is spreading to Austria, and well…I think you’d have to be living in a cave not to know about what my friends in America have just gone through. I know a lot of people have complained about people protesting and holding rallies and vigils. Freedom is not guaranteed, and the things that the American President-Elect has promised to do is basically take away a lot of liberties from particular groups of people. There are already signs that WILL happen based on people he’s putting into office, so I think that people are right to be worried and use their voices. Not only that, for those who are genuinely afraid because of the awful things he has directed at them (or people that represent them), I hope it’s an encouragement to see that people are proactively saying what my Canadian-American friend has said in response to the events of this week:

I love you if you are Muslim. I love you if you are Black. I love you if you are Hispanic. I love you if you are gay. I love you if you are disabled. I love you if you are the victim of sexual assault. I love you if you are poor. I love you no matter what and will fight for you no matter what. 

And if he builds a wall, I will raise my children to tear it down.

It seems pertinent that on this week we have had the anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down and Armistice – a day we remember a ridiculous war that many young boys were cajoled into signing up for because they’d be ‘home by Christmas’. That was  followed by another world war that was started by a ridiculous politician that no one took seriously or thought would become their country’s leader. When he did he worked to  make people suspicious of people of a certain religion through media propaganda, and had the power to take full advantage of the groundwork laid.

On anniversaries, we pause to take stock. And remember.
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Remembrance Sunday has always meant something to me because my grandparents lived through it. My grandfathers fought in the army and navy during World War 2. My great-great- grandfather died tragically along with many others coming home from WW1 leaving his daughter (my great-grandmother) an orphan.

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My great-great-grandfather who died on New Year’s Morning 1919 during the sinking of the H.M.Y. Iolaire

But now I wonder, as I look around and see history repeating itself, and many friends and family members getting annoyed by people getting angry about it are sticking their heads in the sand. “It’s not that bad…?” they say. These wars did not begin with a world leader suddenly dropping a bomb one day. The holocaust didn’t just start one day with no warning. Countries refused to accept refugees for the same reasons we are hearing now. Mussolini announced when he was running for leader of Italy that it should be Italians first, and he would make Italy great again. We were down with slavery – we built our cities on it. We have people on our banknotes that were pro-slavery. We took over countries, and made them fight in our wars…and we don’t see anything about it on much of our ‘Remembrance Day’ documentaries.

Have we focused so much on teaching our children in schools about the events of the war – trenches, concentration camps, bomb sirens, evacuees – that we forgot to explain how these country’s leaders got away with starting the regimes that we ended up fighting against in the first place? How much do we white-wash our history – and what effect does this have on our indifference to others?

History teaches us that freedom is not guaranteed. We take over countries. We kidnap people. We teach people that they are less human. We feed people stereotypes so that they fear ‘the other’. We arrest people for no reason because we have a badge. We make out that our God is someone He is not and that they’d want us to vote for a particular person who favours us over ‘the others’ or kill those who aren’t like us. We segregate our schools. Our hospitals. Our beaches. Our neighbourhoods. We keep people who look like our decided ‘ideal’ in books, TV, film, plays in..and if the others are in they are portrayed as the ‘baddies’ or stupid.

The little things do matter.

And so because the little things do matter, when we all do our little bit, and stand up where we see even the small injustices and misrepresentations…it all helps the bigger picture.

When we know our God is about love, and that His son was a Palestinian Jew, and once a refugee fleeing genocide. When we see all of life in all its colour in our books, our TV shows, news casts, films and theatre productions. When we teach all of history – not just the bits that show certain figures demonised or perfected. Perhaps then we all come to the table with a better grip on reality, less patriotism and more humility – no matter where we come from.

And perhaps we’ll be more on our guard and ready to organise…to prevent such atrocities like slavery, the holocaust, genocides, apartheid…from happening again.

 

The one where I get quite political…

Perhaps I should have posted a lot of this before now. Because…last week. Ohh…last week.

What the heck, UK? What the heck?

Well. Actually…what the hell England and Wales….

We had a referendum (yes, another one. Scottish people everywhere are feeling like our polling station is becoming a second home as we’ve had since 2014: a European Parliamentary election, referendum on independence, a UK election and a Scottish parliamentary election and the EU referendum).

I did fear the results. Many of my friends thought it was mad of me to think there was a possibility that the UK would vote to leave the EU. Living in Scotland where the benefit of the independence referendum was that our country became much more politically aware, and also much more able to see through the news media’s BS. My hope was that it would encourage our friends in England and Wales to follow in Scotland’s footsteps. But alas…it did not. Politicians of left wing parties betrayed the working class voters by breaking a key promise (Lib Dems and the tuition fees debacle) and we saw the continuation of Labour politicians really being so far from the roots of the labour party and extremely out of touch with the communities that have traditionally voted to represent them. Because they no longer felt like they represented them.

Enter…UKIP.

UKIP is led by a man who is quite frankly our Donald Trump. A character that if I described him, his behaviours, his rhetoric and the things that come out his mouth in public interviews, debates and speeches, it would sound like I was making it up.

But oh how they have as the underdogs taken strongholds while the main parties have been too busy fighting amongst themselves and one upping each other. They’ve reached out to the forgotten, underrepresented and disenfranchised….and they’ve told them. “We understand” and then fed them lies about why they have become disadvantaged.

I’ve heard a lot of things about what folks down south have been fed about the EU. The folks who hadn’t been involved in the Europe wide campaign about TTIP, they were suddenly told about what we’d already prevented. Our NHS is in danger they told folks in England (funny, we never got that message up here in Scotland?). Your contracts would be better if it weren’t for the EU. There’d be more money for new treatments. Actually the opposite is true. The EU has created the working time directive which, for my generation and fellow medical school graduates meant as junior doctors they could fight against ridiculous working hours (they are still ridiculous, but not as bad as they once were). But a key element is that every European country has interpreted it into their own country’s law differently. And for the most part our contracts are crap because of global recessions, trade unions that aren’t as radical as they once were, greedy (and corrupt) people running everything and country’s budget choices. As for funding for research and new expensive drugs – we will now lose funding we get in addition to the country’s budget. The EU doesn’t take funding from our NHS. It adds to it through providing money to universities (often connected to teaching hospitals) for research and facilities to do said research. And as for the costs – go have a word with drug companies.

Education. How I have benefitted from the EU’s funding for education. I wouldn’t have my university degree without it. And as my friend said… “we wouldn’t have known each other if it wasn’t for the EU”.

Immigration. “You’d have a job if it wasn’t for the immigrants”. “There’d be more benefits for you if it wasn’t for the immigrants”. “If we aren’t in the EU we could control our borders better”. Firstly, we do have border controls between England and France – at the request of the UK. Secondly, Norway, who isn’t part of the EU still have to accept immigrants to be part of the common market. What this vote has actually created is an emboldening of fascists and racists who exist in our country. Hate crime has gone up in the last week at a rate I cannot believe.

Oh yeah, and um, I’m friends with some Leave voters. They aren’t all racists.

And on the subject of borders…Northern Ireland. Like Scotland, Northern Ireland voted to remain in Europe. You see, not too long ago, the EU (and others) helped bring about a thing called the Good Friday Agreement after decades of war and terrorism. I still remember having to get a background check to go to my friend’s wedding in County Down. I still remember the Manchester bombing. I still remember how regularly we had to vacate shopping centres next to government buildings because of bomb threats. Ireland is still part of the EU. Many Northern Irish folk identify as Irish, not British. Many Northern Irish folk work in Ireland and have a twenty minute or less commute. Lots of elements of that peace agreement are likely about to be taken away if we leave the EU. I think it’s very likely that if that happens…’the troubles’ will return.

On the subject of Ireland…there’s a petition going around that a lot of ‘Leave’ voters are unhappy about calling for a second referendum. Well, Ireland had a second ‘in/out EU’ referendum. And according to legislation, the fact that not enough people turned out to vote and the majority was so small (less than 2%) it does qualify for a second referendum. Add to that the fact that there do seem to be people who voted based on misinformation or (frighteningly) because they “didn’t think their vote counted” – so used to a First Past The Post system where many now vote tactically they forgot this was a ‘every vote counts’ type of vote. Same as the Scottish independence referendum.

So what now?

Well…we have a lot of work to do to prevent war. The result of this has created a situation in Scotland where we are considering another independence vote, and a situation in Northern Ireland that is well…a disaster waiting to happen. Not to mention emboldening right wing parties and movements that have been coming out of the woodwork in recent years across Europe. We also have Russia who would quite like to start a war…and weakened  unity across European countries I’m pretty sure won’t help.

We need to stand up against hate, and strive for unity. As Jo Cox said – far more unites us than divides us.

There’s an awful meme going around with young people (who had a very low turn out) complaining that the ‘old people’ voted against them and ‘have more of a say than I do’. The elderly have just as much of a right to vote, and they don’t get more votes than the rest of us. Perhaps we need to look at how we cross generations and learn about one another face to face rather than through what the media tells us about each other.

We need to urge our elected representatives – MEPs, MPs, MSPs (or Welsh/NI equivalent) – to voice our concerns and hold them accountable. Are they one of the ones in hiding? Don’t stand for that. Have they revealed that their promises were ones they knew they couldn’t keep? Let them  know how you feel about it. We need to discuss how we go forward…do we definitely leave, do we have  a second referendum to check that the reality is truly what people want? What are the facts you want to know. What are the facts you wish you’d had before last Thursday…?

And to my American friends. You didn’t learn from us about gun control in 1997, but I beg of you, learn from the UK’s mistakes this week. I’ve seen a lot of you say you want to not vote out of protest, or stick to your party. Take a look at what your options are. Because if the UK learned anything this week, it’s that yes – it DOES make a difference. The repercussions can be huge on the culture you might create – which is actually more difficult to change than laws you may not like about guns and abortions. 51% of UK went along with the campaign led by our version of Donald Trump. An MP was killed by a man with similar views to the ones Trump has been spouting. People have been attacked on buses. Had hateful letters shoved through their doors. Kids have turned up to school with neo-nazi and right wing nationalist groups placarding their schools telling them to “go home” even shouting racist slurs at them. Some of you have memories of the days of the civil rights movement when similar things were happening in your country. My friends in Germany and Holland have grandparents who remember what it was like in the years leading up to the Holocaust. I don’t think it is taking it too far to say that there are eerie similarities to rise of nazism happening. So. Think about what kind of country you want to live in. Write to the party and the candidate you don’t like and see what can be changed to give you folks you want to actually vote for. Because you hold the power to keep the world from a very slippery slope.

Useful websites for UK folks unsure of the facts or who/how to contact your elected representatives

www.fullfact.org

www.theyworkforyou.com

Some words about hate, politics and love…

I’ve started writing several blogs this week. Each of them deleted before publication, because they were written in anger.

I’m genuinely scared we are going backwards in this world.

After decades of making progress towards equality for people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion…things are taking a turn.

At the weekend, 49 people were killed in a hate crime towards the LGBTQ community. I have many friends in that community. Friends that worried when I started going to church that I’d be banned from being friends with them. And then today, a terrific MP – one of the good ones who has stood for immigration, stood up for vulnerable children fleeing war, who has stood for peace, justice and diversity at home and abroad was brutally murdered – possibly for her beliefs – by a right wing nationalist while she was in her community doing her job, ready to listen to the concerns of her constituents.

And so this week, families and friends are mourning. Families and friends of people who welcome others. Families and friends of peacemakers. Families and friends of people who see what unites us rather than what divides us.

There are politicians and groups with extreme views. Yelling. Shouting. Spreading lies. Spreading fear. Taking exceptions and making them generalisations. To the point where the other week someone asked me advice because a woman was contacting everyone in her old church to try and get a pastor sacked because he was reaching out to a family of refugees who did not share their faith. According to this lady, this equated to supporting terrorism.

If all your friends look like you, think like you, follow the same religious/non religious belief as you…take a beat and reflect on that. It’s not good if that’s the case. Your mind will be narrower as a result. You will be more susceptible for believing propaganda and media nonsense branded as truth.

I’m not a sonnet writer, and I know Lin Manuel Miranda wrote this with Orlando in mind. It also fits today’s tragedy in Yorkshire too. To the families of those who were at Pulse on Saturday night. To the Cox family. I can’t speak for everyone else in the world, I can only speak for myself, but I stand for love. And hope with all my heart that love will always win over evil in the end. I’m angry for your loss, I’m sad about your loss, I wish with all my heart that you weren’t going through this pain.

Let’s stand up for love, peace and embrace our ability to create together a diverse world that has room for all of us, and our stories.

 

Quote of the Week: Politics and How to tell who is trustworthy

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This advice from Gloria Steinem’s mother is similar to what I’ve always advised young people to do. Whether it be when they are dealing with so-called ‘friends’ treating them in a crummy way, or looking at who to vote for in an election. Actions tell you more about a person’s character than what they say in the moment.

How many times have people said ‘I love you‘ – yet their actions show that this isn’t actually true?

How many times has a politician made a speech – yet when it comes down to the vote they fail to deliver?

Yes, Ruth Steinem. You are right to advise us to always look at what people do, not at who they are.

The House of Lords has long been a controversial part of our political and legal system in the United Kingdom. They get to vote on bills (or amendments to bills), but we do not get a say in who gets to be one of those ‘Lords’. There is no method of keeping those placed there accountable.

And yet, on Monday night when 294 MPs disgustingly voted to not allow the UK to accept 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children – currently homeless, extremely vulnerable and fleeing conflict – it was yesterday that the House of Lords stood up and said: the vote was wrong, we need to allow these children into our country.*

These are some of the same MPs who commended Sir Nicholas Winton for the Czech Kindertransport – he saved 669 Jewish children arranging safe passage to Britain and homes for them there just before the outbreak of the second world war. They might have saved more if Franklin Roosevelt and his American government had not refused to take children as well. Sadly 250 children who were due to leave on 1st September 1939 never made it through as the Nazis invaded Poland. Almost all of them died in the war/holocaust as a result.

As the Scottish elections draw closer (I’ll be voting next Thursday along with all other registered voters in Scotland) I’m learning that campaign pamphlets don’t tell me much about the people I can vote for. Often they’ve been made by others and they are full of propaganda. What I’m finding telling is the way they act in public when they are not in the limelight at a rally or event or hustings. The way they speak on twitter about and to others. Last week I wasn’t sure where my two votes were going to go. That has most definitely changed in the last few days.

I am grateful that in 2010, I voted for an MP who was willing to stand up and vote against his party when it came to breaking a promise they had made to the British voters. On that same note, while they are not my MPs, I’m glad that there were at least 5 Conservative MPs who were willing to vote against their party on Monday and followed their conscience instead. That is what we need in our politicians. So well done Geoffrey Cox, Tania Mathis, Stephen Phillips, Will Quince and David Warburton for doing that. I just hope that come next week, voters in Scotland will be voting for people who will be willing to do what is right over simply following their party line if (and likely when) the time comes to do that in parliament.

*PS – If you are a UK citizen, and you’re as disgusted and angry as I was about Monday night’s vote, please do consider signing this official petition to UK Government/Parliament to tell them that you want them to vote to accept these children. As the Shadow Immigration Minister said “We can’t turn our backs on these vulnerable children in Europe, and history will judge us for that.

Quote of the Week 5: How to avoid criticism

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I’m in a strange new world at the moment. I’ve moved from studying at university to placement. These are the months where I shall (apparently) put all the theory I’ve been learning over the last 16 months and apply it to real life.

It is a world where pretty much everyone I work with is doing something. Cares about something. Have very strong opinions and not afraid to speak out about them. These are the people that know the names of all their local councillors, MPs, MSPs, MEPs, who sits on associations and committees. They are leafleting, speaking out and you’ll probably see them out and about at rallys and protests.

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It is the first time of my life when most of what appears on my facebook feed is political. Potentially controversial. And it’s rare for there to be a conversation about anything that is mainstream media (unless it’s to critique it).

It is inspiring, and I wish more of us were willing to make spending time in this world a priority. It is however, a challenge.

Firstly, it means engaging in sometimes difficult discussion. It means getting out of our comfort zones. It means being uncomfortable at times. It is likely that when you share your thoughts, your family and friends may disagree with you – and I’m sure that people will criticise you.

Of course, it would be a much more comfortable life to avoid criticism. We could stay in our bubbles and consume without thought. We could get up, go to work, earn money, spend it in ways that are convenient to us, and live almost anonymously. We can observe the things going on around us and be glad that we’re ok and ignore any injustices in the world outside our bubble.

But when we start to care enough to make choices about how we prioritise our time and how we spend our money and use any position we have to speak out against injustice or give an opinion about what needs to change to make this world a better place for everyone…people who are happy with the way things are – they are going to criticise us.