My personal election day as a citizen without a vote – and its aftermath

The day of the election on 8 June I had to travel to Leeds. I thus passed ‘my’ polling station early in the morning, feeling reassured that some voters already went in and came out. As this is only theoretically ‘my ‘ polling station, as I am only allowed to vote in local elections, I passed it with as sense of regret for being denied a vote in the country where I pay my taxes and whose politics are about to decide the boundaries of my European citizenship. But then, I did not even have a vote in the referendum that (indirectly) triggered this latest round of going to the polls. ‘We will vote for you as well’ a friend tweeted me on the this occasion – and to be honest, I am lucky to live in a constituency where my non-vote would not have made a difference, as the capable local Labour MP won on overall majority easily (and Remain also carried the day then, when my future was more directly at stake).

When I returned from Leeds in the early evening I was exhausted – as one is on these occasions when one sits in windowless rooms and has meetings the whole day. I thought I check the news at ten, the exit pools, results will be clear by then, and go to sleep, as a two-day workshop would start early the next day. Well, at four in the morning I still found myself sitting on the sofa wide awake, glued to the TV, even if a bit jaded by then – admiring the BBC election night team and in particualr Laura Kuenssberg who all looked as fresh as when they started the broadcast and where able to provide analysis on the hoof as if sleep was an invention they simply did not need.

It has been a long time since I sat with such excitement in front of an election broadcast – and concerning an election that I had no direct stake in, in a country that may not allow me to be here in the future. Exchanging tweets and texts with friends near and afar whenever another blue seat turned red, often in the most unlikely geographical settings, we were all a united and happy bunch for a few hours. Of course there was the Scottish vote which left many of us slightly concerned, but still.

It all felt great for a night and half a day – that one could enthuse young people into politics, that one could campaign for a politics ‘by the many not the few’ and actually win, at least in theory. A sense of hope and protest against a ‘truth’ propagated by an elite that used ‘the people’ as a projection of their own phantasies of power, an elite that was not likely to pay the prize for the disastrous direction it was about to take the country into.

But two days later, the hangover set in. Yes, Labour did fantastically well and its campaign based on people’s real concerns was vindicated. But Teresa May is still the PM, and her leadership based on autocratic control coupled with incompetence in many areas is bound to be augmented by her new bedfellows from the DUP. Yes, Labour did fantastically well, but it still lost the election. Maybe it is true what some commentators have said, that a movement is in the making, a movement of people newly engaged with politics. And maybe it will be enough next time to take control of the country and change its direction. But the momentum could also simply ebb away, we shall have to wait and see. It might also well be true that Labour would have carried the vote on the day had the campaigns been a few weeks longer – certainly a sense of almost inevitable momentum was observed on the campaign trail – even though many on canvassing duties who saw this momentum first hand still did not quite believe they would run the Tories so close this time, which in itself tells a story.

Looking at where the reality of a hung parliament has left us, maybe a second turn to Scotland can give us some hope. While still being slightly perplexed about how so many Scottish voters turned to the Tories to voice their discontent, Ruth Davidson referred to something that I always felt should be behind a decision to go into politics, a spirit of public service. She stated that there are interests bigger than the party, such as the country, and LGBT rights in her case. Whatever she may mean by the interest of the country – things could have been very different if her own party would not have put its internal divisions and power battles before the interest of the country and its people, from the Brexit referendum to the snap elections and the dynamcis in between.

And that is not the end of it by any means. A possible deal of any kind with the DUP just continues a story bound to end in disaster – but many in the Tory elite could not care less it seems. A minority government being held hostage by a fundamentalist fringe party is bad enough. But in the process potentially jeopardizing much of the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland is criminal. I lived in Dublin in the early 1990s, and often crossed the heavily guarded border into the North then. One occasion in particular has stuck in my mind: On a rainy Friday afternoon, I arrived at a British checkpoint on my way to Donegal, having taken the route that partly passes through Northern Ireland. In front was a (Southern) Irish car already waiting, the British soldiers manning the checkpoint sat there drinking tea and making jokes, but not attempting to check the car and let it through. It turned out the Irish family in the car was on the way to a wedding in Donegal – and they had the bridal dress with them. The soldiers enjoyed making them wait – for no reason, simply because they had the power to do so. It was appalling – they even offered to let me trough, having a car with German number plates – but I refused, deciding to show solidarity with the increasingly anxious Irish family. We sat there for about two hours in the rain, and were then allowed to pass without even a glimpse into our cars. That was how bad things were then, not that long ago in history.

When I was back in Belfast a few years ago for the first time again, by then the Good Friday agreement in place for a number of years, I was thrilled what a vibrant and ‘normal’ city it had become. In the early 1990s it was common to walk out of a pub facing the machine gun of a British soldiers pointing at you – just in case and to show who was in charge. Now it did not feel different from Manchester or any other UK city on a Friday night out, and a joy to visit, even with some of the ‘peace walls’ still in place and restricted crossings in some parts of the city at night.

The potentially imminent deal with the DUP reminds me of how contingent political progress can be – it takes the UK government as an independent arbiter in Northern Ireland politics out of the equation, a role that has been crucial in setting up a devolved government in the first place. The last words thus fittingly shall be with Fintan O’Toole, the Irish columnist, who wrote one of the best pieces on the British elections I have come across thus far for the New York Review of Books. Under the title ‘The end of a Fantasy’ he analyses it as a process where phony populism collided with the real thing – leaving everybody in limbo. A highly recommended read found here.

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Solidarity in times of the Trump presidency: ways of telling counter-narratives and practice solidarity

The two days during which the G-7 leaders held a summit in Sicily, Italy, on the second day joined by the leaders of a number of African countries, I was in York at the inaugural conference of the University of York Migration Network organised by Maggie O’Neill and Simon Parker. Italy’s prime minister Paolo Gentiloni, the host of the G-7 summit, had deliberately chosen Sicily as the location for the summit: Sicily, through its proximity to the African continent, is one of the places where the fact that the movement of people is perhaps the key issue of our times that requires imaginative solutions to avoid more unnecessary deaths on stingy boats is there for everybody to see. Well, almost everybody – with the person obviously oblivious being US President Trump, who apparently chose not even to listen to the simultaneous translation when Italy’s prime minister spoke about the need to address the migration issue and developments on the African continent in different ways than hitherto done (Trumps spokesperson later tweeted he had a small earplug in his right ear). In the end, his inability to recognise compromise as the art of politics prevented the final communiqué from pointing out the positive contributions of migrants, supported in this allegedly (and unsurprisingly for a politician totally obsessed with migration targets, however far removed from reality) only by British PM May.

Thus the final statement of the summit talks about borders and the right to protect those, not as Italy had hoped stresses the positive impact of migration nor calls on industrialised nations to create more legal channels for migration as one effort in reducing the journeys of people on flimsy boats. Not that the EU itself is a shining example of a more human and solidaristic approach to those stranded at its shore – as I have written about elsewhere. But countries like Italy (and many others) have also been brave at the forefront for a more humane solution, through their coastguards and in encounters of everyday assistance.

While those events unfolded in Sicily, making it clear to everybody who after the first initial shock about the Trump presidency thought four years will pass and things will not be that bad after all, that things indeed will be that bad and much worse is likely to come, I was in York at this conference with the pertinent title: Ways of Telling: Methods, Narratives and Solidarities in Migration Studies. For two days we discussed, listened, watched and read about multiple ways in which the voices of those who are on the move, who claim citizenship and belonging, enact it or are denied it, make themselves heard and visible, with us, against us, facilitated by us. We engaged with the potentials and pitfalls involved in participatory methods, and their potential and limitations when it comes to challenge or even change power structures and contest (il)legalities.

My personal highlight of the two days was the performance of The Tin Ring by Jane Arnfield, a performance that tells and acts out two versions of parts of the life story of Zdenka Fantlová, one of the very few survivors of the Holocaust still alive. So many more versions would be possible to tell the story of Zdenka, and Jane’s brilliant performance brings the power of storytelling in all its facets superbly out in the open. Every person who comes by land or sea to the Europe they imagine as a save heaven also has those multiple stories in them, often they remain hidden and at other times something sparks them to life. A photograph maybe, a piece of theatre, or the wish to perform one’s own story for others, be it through film, literary works or in any other form of artistic and creative engagement. The York conference was so rich in the manningfold ways in which such encounters can happen and reminded all involved that behind each migrant journey often is the single simple wish to lead a life in dignity.

The final communiqué of the G-7 was, had the Italian hosts had their way, to be a step in that direction – but now prolongs a conceptualisation that sees migrants predominately as a threat to security and national interest (whatever that term actually means). And while in relation to the other pertinent issue of our times, climate change, the G-7 in reality mutated to the G-6 against one, with only the US not making a commitment to stay in the Paris accord, on the issue of refugees and migrants no such split occurred: the praise for human mobility and ingenuity, and a praise of our differences as rich instead of a threat, is nowhere to be found.

Counter-narratives and counterpoint-artistic engagement as demonstrated by another initiative participating in the conference are thus so important, at all levels. Solidarities are called for – through activist art, but also in academic research. It is important to help explain the world and defend the values that should bind us togetehr, and academics are after all trained to do so. But it is equally important to change the world and counter the injustices and oppressions that the contemporary global order creates. In times like these more than ever. And the meeting in York was such a timely and in many ways uplifting occasion to think through how doing so better.

The University of York Migration Network has a website where people interested can subscribe to its newsletter. I attended the conference as the convenor of the Manchester Migration Lab that also has a newsletter and we hope to develop a longer term partnership between both networks and others. The next big event in Manchester is the International Conference World on the Move in late October 2017.

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Political space in Eritrea and beyond or: ethical dilemmas in antagonistic settings

With the publication of my latest article on Eritrean issues, a piece of research I commented on in an earlier blog that reflected on it being rejected as a paper to be presented at the 2016 International Conference on Eritrean Studies in Asmara, it seems timely to reflect on the conference where I did present an earlier version of the published article. Under the title: Eritrea at Silver Jubilee: Stocktaking on the nation-building experience of a ‘newly’ independent African country it solicited papers on Eritrea’s independence trajectory for a conference in May 2016 based on the assumption that in fact Eritrea at this moment in time had the worst government in its entire history. Thus it seemed clear from the outset that this conference was meant to be a forum that discussed the slide into oppression and potentially had an advocacy function – not least due to being held in Geneva, the city where a few weeks later the second report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COI) that would pronounce Eritrea guilty of having committed crimes against humanity was to be launched.

I, in retrospect rather naïvely, thought this conference provided the perfect opportunity to put into practice one of my ambitions in relation to Eritrean Studies: to contribute to bridging some of the divide between those who unquestioning support a government that has a lot to answer for in relation to curtailing freedoms of any kind, and those who vehemently oppose it and in doing so make use of questionable propaganda and intimidation tactics that are in essence similar to such deplorable tactics used by the Eritrean government and its supporters.

I thus submitted an abstract to the Geneva conference and did not expect to hear back, as in my submission I had also questioned the dictum in the call for papers that already knew the answer to 25 years of stocktaking: namely that Eritrea’s trajectory was one of disaster. But then it came, the invitation to Geneva, and with it a programme that on the face of it seemed full of interesting contributions.

The final programme included valued colleagues and friends, even if we might have ended up on different sides of the deep divide within Eritrean Studies. Throughout the two-day event debates and discussions were topical and civilized, something not often the case in Eritrean Studies circles. Social parts of the event were in addition joyful and amicable, and for any outsider the group that sat together at the dinner table in a Geneva restaurant would have looked like old friends having a good time. It in many ways not only looked but also felt like that, which made it even harder for me at an emotional level to accept that some of the people I shared food, wine and laughter with at night showed a ruthless determination to demolish any nuanced analysis of Eritrea with all rhetorical means at their disposal.

During the formal conference proceedings it became quickly obvious that the event was made up of a group of carefully-selected, broadly like-minded people with a clear agenda on one side, plus myself on the other. The conference was a small event of never more than around 30 people at any one time, opened by a Swiss parliamentarian who basically repeated the major allegations of the COI report. No mention was made of how deeply methodologically flawed the report is, but its too often unsubstantiated claims were taken for granted and set the tone for things to come – a quite worrying sign for a conference that claimed to be based on academic rigour.

I was asked very last minute to join a general discussion panel of three on day one. I was the dissenting voice, not only questioning the general assumption behind the conference but also in favour of for example renewed EU engagement with Eritrea that had been heavily critiqued by said Swiss parliamentarian, and the abolition of UN sanctions as the rationale on which those were imposed did not exist any longer, according to the UN’s own findings. The way the panel worked and was moderated by the conference convenor diluted what I had to say and misinterpreted it in multiple ways without leaving me room to object – and I increasingly realized that I was part of a stage-managed process whose purpose was geared towards some of the other invited listeners, few of whom were actually introduced.

A telling encounter came in one of the breaks on day two, when somebody who had not heard my presentation introduced herself as working for the COI-team. She asked if the COI-team had not interviewed me. But when I answered I had never been contacted by the COI-team and would have been surprised if that had indeed been the case – as the COI-team did only interview people who were part of a known group of human rights advocates in line with its message, and did actively not engage with those known to have divergent views. When she saw her mistake she even blushed slightly.

Thus here I was at an event where I was officially introduced as a valuable participant in order to ‘present a range of opinions’, but to invited listeners it was made clear in a subtle manner that in fact the ‘truth’ about Eritrea as a vicious dictatorship was there for all to be seen, even though I might not have fully grasped it yet. Very skilfully staged and I only have my own naïvety to blame if I expected something else one could say, but it is not as easy as that. I do value much of the work that some of my fellow presenters spoke to, and of course there are multiple serious human rights issues that need addressing in Eritrea. I also like most of them as people. I thus found myself in an increasingly paranoid place, being instrumentialized by a group of people with whom I otherwise share common interests and analysis, up to a point at least. It almost felt like in Eritrea itself, when in conversations with government officials one can be told off as knowing nothing in the same breath as one can be commended on one’s engagement with and good work on Eritrea. But while such conversations might be the norm with government officials or others in power anywhere in the world, here I was among a group of people who in many ways were my peers.

I thus left the Geneva event with very mixed feelings. When I embraced a former Eritrean colleague who now lives in enforced exile and we departed with the words ‘maybe next time in Asmara’, I felt the sadness of the whole situation descend upon me. ‘Next time in Asmara’ would, realistically, only come about with regime change. I have over the years known too many people who for one reason or another cannot return to Eritrea while longing to do so, among whom very few would actually see in regime change per se a solution to their predicament. I have never been an advocate for regime change as brought about by outside forces with little accountability, not least because I have come to know and highly respect many Eritreans who carry out their mandate in government ministries or as party functionaries with courage and dedication. Now I wondered whether I had in fact been instrumentialized for such an agenda, at least partly and indirectly? Had attending the conference put me on the wrong side of the fence once and for all, made me an accomplice in an ‘opposition agenda’ I had little sympathy for? Most importantly, as ultimately I see my main ethical responsibility towards those whose life stories populate my research, and who engage with me because I refuse to take sides but ‘write what your research tells you’ as one of them put it, what would those who participated in my research say if that would happen? Would they feel betrayed in that I had indirectly used our encounters to foster a political agenda?

I needed not to have worried too much about being suddenly embraced by facets of the opposition. Shortly after the Geneva conference, I received a phone-call from a Swiss journalist with a genuine interest in Eritrea who wanted to understand what was happening from all sides. I was recommended to him as a quasi ‘government spokesperson’ – a phrase we both laughed off in a subsequent background conversation about Eritrea, and that – apart from myself – nobody would probably object more to than the Eritrean government itself. And, I should add, those who organised the Geneva conference did at least accept the presentation of my paper – unlike the Asmara conference roughly two months later, whose organisers felt to speak about personal aspirations and political space in Eritrea was too sensitive a topic and rejected it. ‘Next time in Asmara’ then, for perhaps a follow-up conference that proves the statement on the call for papers for the Geneva conference wrong, that a conference with an open and critical stance can only be held outside Eritrea? Wishful thinking? For the time being, certainly, but I am not prepared yet to give up hope.

I write this on World Press Freedom Day and the day before an event in London to honour detained Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak, who has been awarded the 2017 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. His destiny can serve as a reminder of what is wrong in Eritrea, as well as a call for engagement with the complexity of Eritrean history and politics.

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The politics of academic smear campaigns: reflections on a recent article about Eritrean trafficking networks in a Dutch newspaper

A few weeks ago I was asked by a journalist from the Volkskrant, a highly respected Dutch newspaper that I used to read when living in the Netherlands myself, to provide comments on the then still embargoed study on Eritrean refugees and the role of the Eritrean government in ‘trading’ those.

photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

The main gist of my comments was that the overall theme of digital technology in relation to trafficking was a timely topic – even if the case of Eritrea did not provide the best example to explore it, for many reason. In addition, I pointed out that the broad sweep of conclusions could not be drawn from the methodology employed, and some issues presented as facts were actually wrong or incomplete.

The main author of the work, or rather, the co-editor but in the way the work was advertised the focus centred on her, is Mirjam van Reisen. I know of and have cited parts of her past work, as the Eritrean Studies community is rather small, but I have never met her in person. I was not the only person asked by the Volkskrant to comment, and my co-commentator, Jon Abbink from the University of Leiden, made some very similar comments to mine. He in addition stressed that much of the information provided by members of the Eritrean community abroad is done so with a clear purpose, thus needs to be properly interrogated and analysed.

Those who know van Reisen’s previous work are aware that her views on Eritrea are black and white: there is the truth, provided by refugees from Eritrea whose narratives have a higher moral authority than other accounts – and then there are the manipulative narratives of those close to and supportive of the government. Don’t get me wrong, organisations like the Young PFDJ employ quite nasty tactics to disturb open discussion and debate on Eritrean issues in multiple diaspora settings. But the same is true for those who critique the regime, only that the latter are often more subtle. This battle about who ‘owns’ the truth about Eritrea always extended to the academic community as well – as I have argued in a previous blog.

I first heard that the article in the Volkskrant on van Reisen et al.’s latest work had come out when I received an email from a friend, saying jokingly ‘I was not aware that you go to bed with the Eritrean regime’. It’s writer shortly after also sent me, as promised, a copy of the piece that was published in the paper’s 31 March print edition (a different online version is available here), and I was astonished to read van Reisen’s claim that I had ‘warm relationships’ with the Eritrean regime and thus could not be regarded as an independent researcher.

As a former journalist myself, I do not actually believe in allowing people to authorise interviews or give them the right to adjust what they may have said afterwards – and certainly in my own country this is not common. So I had no objections to not having seen the piece before it was published. But neither would I have expected that van Reisen was apparently allowed to intervene in that way.

For the record, I do not have ‘warm relationships’ with any regime, including Eritrea’s. I have relations of friendship and respect with Eritreans from all wakes of the political divide who I have often known for decades. Some are inside Eritrea, some work in various ministries or for the party. Others are inside Eritrea’s prisons and have not be seen or heard of for decades – and to one of them I dedicated a book on Eritrea in 2005. I also know the feeling to sit in the office of an Eritrean official and be lectured on the ‘truth’ about Eritrea while feeling a shiver going down my spine. And, simply due to the fact that I have worked in and on Eritrea for more than two decades, I know many families and friends torn apart by its politics, inside Eritrea, in the diaspora and among the swelling population of refugees.

People have different ethical beliefs and motivations. I fully respect those of my colleagues who refuse to travel to Eritrea, and have great sympathy for those who aim to do so but are denied the opportunity. I have chosen to continue to engage and while one never knows if a visa is forthcoming, if it is I never saw a reason not to go. I talk to everybody who will talk to me, and it is the job of a social science researcher to analyse and interpret those conversations, to the best of their ability – at least that is how I see it. I might get it wrong, as we all do at times, and would expect scrutiny of my work – not an attack on my integrity.

A friend urged me to make a formal complaint to the Volkskrant and insist on a correction or apology, as the article can be read as an attack on my academic reputation. I decided not to do so, as I have no intention of joining this personalised battle of who has the right to the truth on Eritrea fought by regime supporters and the human rights lobby that claims the moral high ground but in essence uses human rights as a political tool.

But I am still puzzled that van Reisen out of all people goes down the route of the smear campaign, refuting any critique of her work with personal insults – as she has been on the receiving end of such tactics by Eritrean regime supporters herself. But then, she is on the side where the moral high ground rests, or so she styles herself, thus those who do not agree with her must almost by definition be rightful targets – or so it seems.

In a final twist, the journalist who wrote the article gave me the last word. She ended her article with two quotes from my comments stating that the main battle in relation to Eritrea seems to be about ‘who has the right to the truth’. And this, rather tragically ‘will not help in any way to solve the problems of Eritrean politics and contribute to a better future for Eritrean wherever they live’. Ditto.

My latest article on Eritrean affairs, Post-liberation politics and political space in Eritrea: Interrogating aspirations among educated youth, has just come out in the Journal of Development Studies. If interested please ask me for a copy.

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‘The will of the people’ – the slogan to silence all debate

After the attacks in Westminster this week, Theresa May mentioned in her aftermath speech that the attacker ‘tried to silence our democracy’. Well, in fact, it does not need a terrorist act to do so, as British democracy has been silenced in much more subtle ways since the ill-advised decision of one of its most incompetent Prime Ministers in recent times to hold a referendum in order to quieten unrest in his own party, which he could never fully control, and threats from UKIP, who almost ironically on the day when the EU celebrated its 60ths birthday lost its last MP.

The referendum was thus not called based on popular demand for it or ‘the will of the people’. It was subsequently won on false propaganda and claims that the EU is behind any unpopular UK policy measure, a majority of which have in fact been purely UK government decisions – but who cares about facts these days? Maybe to conceal the fact that no clear plan for the bright future promised by the new PM exists, who herself is not democratically elected in a real sense but let’s leave this aside for the moment, the phrase ‘the will of the people’ has become the ultimate weapon to shut up those who want an open debate, a say, a democratic process to implement a result that should be read as an ill-advised snapshot at a particular moment in time.

Let us remember: David Cameron made a ‘promise’ to hold this referendum, at a time when he was in a coalition government with the Lib Dems, and it never looked likely that the Tory party would win the overall majority that it subsequently did win in the next general election – thus he probably never expected to be called up on his gambit. But so he was, and he probably also did not expect that his mate or non mate Boris would come down on the other side of the fence – but as with all white-male-elite networks, whatever bad blood was spilled (mainly by shooting pheasants?), it was not bad enough not to team up in a fancy New York restaurant again recently – one making money out of his political ineptitude on a speaking tour, the other on some foreign ministry engagement.

A referendum that was non-binding then became what bound MPs, whatever their personal conviction on the topic – and after all, a majority of MPs is said to be against Brexit, but of course they would not dare defy ‘the will of the people’. Wait a minute – was Britain until recently not a parliamentary democracy, where ‘the people’ delegate the deliberations of important decisions to their MPs? And now suddenly, those MPs, elected not because they campaigned for Brexit but on different grounds, are forced into a straightjacket because otherwise they would betray ‘the will of the people’? Quite a few countries in the world have regular referenda on all sorts to decisions, it is a core part of the way their democracy works – most exemplary in Switzerland for example. But not only are citizens in those countries usually well informed about what they vote on, as there is a legal obligation to provide factual information. In addition, usually some mechanisms exist to arrive at a qualified majority, so barmy ideas that may do more harm than good have little chance to become law. Not so in this referendum, where populist tactics, helped by a hapless and incompetent Labour party in opposition, carried the day – at least in two of the nations that make up the United Kingdom, but when speaking about Scotland or Northern Island the ‘will of the people’ trope is hardly ever invoked by the PM and her entourage.

Instead, the current PM does not miss an opportunity to point to the UK as the most successful political union ever – failing to remember that parts of it were built on brutal colonial oppression, unlike the EU, whatever its faults, one might add. At the Unite for Europe March in London today, one protester stated that he was born with European citizenship and how dare one wanted to take that away from him. The answer of the Tory press, as always, is how dare the protesters defy ‘the will of the people’, but that they can shout as much as they like, they will not succeed. When the House of Lord –yes, maybe something of an anachronisms in this day and age, but part of the quirky way in which British democracy has worked rather well for decades – tried to at least put some common sense into the EU bill, not least in aiming to enforce a clear role for parliament – it too in the end bowed to ‘the will of the people’.

It is astonishing and frightening to watch the speed with which old institutions unravel and bow to the dictatorship of a PM who seems to think little of parliament but regards it as rather obsolete, as a force that weakens her hand in any negotiations – negotiations based already on parameters that were not on the table in the referendum, when ‘the people spoke’. If I were British, I would be very worried. Luckily for me, as a European citizen I can walk away from the mayhem any time. What comes to mind when looking at the present moment in UK politics is a painting by Paul Klee, Angelus Novus or the Angel of History, and the words the philosopher Walter Benjamin write about that painting:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, 1973:259

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The suppliant women and the perennial question: who will provide asylum and stand up for moral values?

A group of women form the shape of a boat – one of those boats we are used to see in media pictures these days, unseaworthy but still trying to cross the Mediterranean from Lybia or other North African countries to Italy, or from Turkey to Greece, and too full of people. Like the boat that was once carrying Aylan Kurdi and the many others who perished like him. The women here are a group of multi-ethnic teenagers and young adults from Greater Manchester, waving poles with a white flag and wrapping black scarves around their bodies – to symbolise both, their hope for peace and asylum and their desperation if those are not granted (the scarves can be made into hoses to hang themselves).

The scene is the stage of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, and the women are part of a modern interpretation of one of the world’s oldest plays, written by Aeschylus in Ancient Greece around 2500 years ago.

The women as a collective and on their own make their case for asylum – they have escaped forced marriage to their cousins in the land of Egypt and taken refuge in the temple of Argos, accompanied by their father who also pleads on their behalf to the king of Argos, Pelasgus. Pelasgus is torn between his beliefs of what is right, his fear of the Gods, and the fact that if he lets the women stay, war with their Egyptian cousins who are bound to want them back will follow. The women argue, plead, threaten suicide and claim their rights, and ultimately convince Pelasgus. But he will not take the decision by himself – this is ancient Greece after all, the birthplace of democracy – it is up to the people (well, in reality the men) of Argos to do so in a vote. What Pelasgus does, though, is that in the way he narrates the choice to be made to the citizens of Argos, he ensures the vote will go in favour of granting the women asylum.

When the Egyptian men who want to forcefully claim the women back as their property arrive on Argos’ shores, the brave people of Argos defy them and stand by their vote to grant asylum. They send the invaders back – with words only this time but the Egyptians are bound to return and wage war – in fact, the suppliant women is part of a trilogy whose other two parts are lost, thus we don’t know how it all ends. This first play ends in a cliff-hanger: With an encounter between the suppliant women and the people of Argos that reveals asylum was granted on the understanding that the women eventually live the normal lives of the citizen of Argos – which includes getting married, the fate they had fled from. In the Royal Exchange the women seem to have the last word with a call for social justice, but we are never sure if they are really safe according to what safety means to them.

The play is mesmerizing in the way it is being performed, and sound and movement combined are almost hypnotic – a great feat made even more remarkable by the fact that, as in Ancient Greece, all women and other members of the chorus are lay people and only three professional actors were on stage. Throughout the play there were abundant references to the here and now, to Syria and refugees, to the meanings of democracy, and to the ways in which public engagement and discourse determine peoples lives.

Looking at the cast of the young women who really were the stars of the show, it also reminded one of the things that have become great about the UK: its diversity, ethnically, culturally – in spite of the racism and prejudices that always linger in the background as well. But in so many ways, so many of us ‘foreigners’ are here because there is a feeling that at least in its major cities, the UK is a place that does really strive on openness and on embracing (rather than eliminating) differences. Thus even if only mentioned indirectly – the play can also be read as the start of an elegy for post-Brexit Britain. A Britain that might not only close its borders to those who seek refuge, but become much more inward looking and over time much less diverse, ethnically, culturally and in everyday encounters. I saw the play on the day after the House of Commons had voted down any amendments to the Brexit bill, including those that would have granted EU citizens already living here the right to stay as a matter beyond doubt. As I listened to the way in which King Pelasgus spoke about what was morally right, and in doing so convincing the people of Argos to grant asylum to the suppliant women, I was reminded of all the lost opportunities during the Brexit debates. Almost nobody made the case for Europe as a moral project, a project based on a system of core values, in public speeches to counter the simplistic and exclusionary narratives that dominated much of the debate.

In so many ways, this brilliantly staged play could not be more topical.

The Suppliant Women is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until 1 April 2017.

A new movement that started in Frankfurt and has expanded to many European cities beyond, including Bath as the thus far only UK city, PulseofEurope, takes up the call to celebrate and mobilise for the values that bind ‘us’ as European citizens together – and will hopefully have a Manchester chapter soon!

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Performing the good academic at a US conference: time to re-think what is deemed important in academia?

Here I am, at the International Studies Association (ISA) Convention in Baltimore. To be frank, I have never been a fan of those big conferences, and ISA is as big as it gets for the social sciences – almost 6000 people this year, we are told by the organisers. It is also the event one is expected to go to as a ‘political scientist’ year in year out – even if I myself, coming from an interdisciplinary department (or an interdisciplinary discipline, if that term makes any sense?) always find it rather tedious and often irritating when colleagues start a sentence with the phrase ‘as a political scientist/sociologist/geographer …’, as too often this then leads to boundaries that rarely advances knowledge or practice in a wider sense. And I admit, I have never been to ISA before, as I prefer more interdisciplinary – and more intimate – gatherings.

But here I am, brought here by a project located at the University of Manchester on Making Peacekeeping Data Work for the International Community, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK (grant number ES/L007479/1). Professionally, it all worked out fine. I was part of an interesting panel with the title Revisiting the Dimensions of Human Rights and Security: Insights from Foundational Principles and Cases and we had a brilliant discussant who had read and thought about all our contributions, academic practice at its best. I have met colleagues I did not see for a long time, and the panels I attended were all of high quality and provided much food for thought. I even had the pleasure to bump into a former PhD student at our department in Manchester, who not only presented his own new work but had organised a fascinating panel on post-development. This I have always regarded as the greatest privilege in my work as an academic and source of much enjoyment: to see past students blossom as researchers (or in whatever career they chose).

The city of Baltimore was showing itself from its nicest side, with brilliant sunshine and early spring warmth. But a feeling of unease has not left me throughout the conference with its rather grande title Understanding Change in World Politics, probably based on a diffuse feeling that in fact much of the event was far removed from the politics of everyday life here. The conference was located near downtown Baltimore, and when looking out of the window of my 8th floor room in one of the conference hotels, I could see the redeveloped harbour area glittering in the near distance.

As I am no fan of hotel food, I strolled around before breakfast on my first day to find an alternative. Not even two blocks from my rather posh conference hotel I entered a quite different world. Hardly anybody on the street was white; many shops are run down and many buildings boarded up. I entered a food market and bought a very delicious fresh fruit salad for breakfast – and again, when I looked around hardly any white person could be seen. Maybe it has become politically incorrect to speak about race or one’s skin colour – but that does not mean there are no deep divides exactly along those lines. Those dynamics were repeated when I boarded one of the great things about Baltimore, the free buses that on four routes cover most of the places where any visitor might wish to go. I think it is a great idea, exactly for such visitors, and potential attractions along its line are duly pointed put on the bus timetable map. But there were no visitors on this bus (apart form me on different occasions). Passengers again were mostly black, and I assume use this free service to get around town. Which is good in itself, as is the fact that this service exists (today in the morning news I heard the radical cut-back of the state is a key objective of the Trump presidency, thus how long any free services will exist might be open to question). Anybody I know from the conference would either walk when near enough, or get the service of one of the taxi-app companies. When asking people on the bus, who are all friendly and talkative, if they know anything about the ISA conventions, the answer is no, perhaps not unexpectedly (even if one bus route stops straight outside the convention centre).

Back at the conference, much talk is about counter-narratives, bottom-up, the local – and that of course is good in itself, but at the same time seems a rather strange performance of academic knowledge production, far removed from any ‘local’ (in itself a contentious term). What to do about all this, and the expectations of what makes a ‘good’ academic in an increasingly competitive environment? Expectations that include not only publishing in certain journals but also being ‘internationally known’, and the latter still mostly means having attended conferences in the US and been recommended by US academics, however anachronistic this may sound to many. I have no good answers and perhaps was almost quite lucky personally, having come into academia late and never with the ambition to rise up some pre-determined career ladder – I had a good professional life before academia and feel I can step away at any time, a fact that provides me with considerable freedom. My social highlight of the conference was perhaps a dinner with a group of colleagues who I had last met at an academic event in Copenhagen a while ago. That event was small in scale but brought together key people in the field, and thus allowed for deep reflections on what the key issue were. I have yet to be convinced ISA did do so in the same way.

Additional Information: I presented a paper entitled Dimensions of UN human rights prioritisation as a hindrance to conflict resolution and political engagement in the Horn of Africa, using the examples of Sudan (Darfur) and Eritrea. The paper was partly developed together with my colleague Allard Duursma. Feel free to email me for a copy of the presentation.

 

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