Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The press and sympathy

One of several questions raised by an exchange between George Monbiot and Hazel Blears is what 'ordinary citizens' really care about and why. Blears says she works on 'bread and butter' issues for the people in her Manchester constituency: education, jobs, health-care, a better future in their neighbourhoods and the like. She will not, or sees no need to, tackle HMG's relationship with Islam Karimov, and other 'complex' affairs in the interview.

Some of those seeking to build a bigger and more inclusive sense of concern around issues such as climate change look to the example of the anti-slavery movement in the British Isles in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. At that time, large numbers of ordinary people in cities such as Manchester, most of them without the vote, organised on behalf of people in bondage half a world away. Why was this?

In Bury the Chains, a tremendous history of the emancipation movement, Adam Hochschild suggests that there was a factor over and above the strength of its civil society that set Britain apart from other slaving nations such as France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Holland, Denmark and the young United States. Press gangs were almost continuously on the rampage in Britain, seizing men against their will for years of service in the Royal Navy. During the American Revolutionary War alone, for example, 'the press' kidnapped more than eighty thousand men, provoking bloody riots in at least twenty-two British seaports. "As with the outrage at Britons taken prisoner overseas," writes Hochschild, "more than a century of public anger at the press gangs strengthened the idea that violently capturing other human beings to put them to work was cruelly unjust - and could and should be fought against". This, he suggests, was a vital factor in making possible "the leap of empathy" to black African slaves.

Nothing remotely comparable to press gangs directly and immediately threatens the lives of ordinary people in developed countries today -- except, perhaps for Russell Brand and Jonathon Ross. Arousing masses of people to concerted action may therefore be even harder. That does not mean it's necessarily impossible, or that politicians cannot be proactive in moving against atrocity.

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