7th March 2016
First Ladies, Gesture Politics & The Case For Actually Doing Something That Helps
Clarence B Jones was a young lawyer when he was approached to work for Martin Luther King. Jones did not want to see his life disrupted by other people’s problems, but his wife was adamant that her husband put the struggle for civil rights above their own quest for self-advancement. So the lawyer was taught the importance of actively helping others and he went on to contribute towards the speech that became “I have a dream”. Martin Luther King taught the rest of us that “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?’”
So what can we do?
As a teenager, I was horrified to learn about the evils that were committed, even in the modern world of my day, and of political prisoners and how they were treated. So I decided to read cases from Amnesty International and my young, perhaps naïve, self wrote letters, hoping that the human rights abuses would stop.
I went along to the local Amnesty International group to see what I could do. The people were very dedicated and welcoming and they spoke passionately about individual cases but I was shocked that their anger and venom was not directed at the dictators and regimes responsible, but at Tony Blair and Jack Straw! They, as the Prime Minister and Home Secretary, were failing to allow enough people into the UK to escape persecution. So it was the fault of the Labour Party!
I did not speak up as I should have done, but my thoughts were that it would be better for democratic countries to intervene in situations elsewhere, and ensure that the persecuted would be able to live safely and be free at home.
At least it was clear that I had to back up my beliefs, so I eventually became properly active in my local Labour Party. The party has enjoyed a huge increase in membership over the past few months, even though it has been reported that the figures have peaked.
I am not so sure that a bigger party has translated into a more effective machine for doing good. Unfortunately, we do not seem to have more members involved in campaigning to get the party elected, thus giving us the power to put our values into action.
It makes me wonder whether many of the new members would like to see Labour in government when so many seem content to just sit in meetings debating vexing issues of the day, or even just argue about what they should be calling themselves as a group. And so much time is wasted on social media echo chambers with the name-calling towards Labour members who are currently working hard in the hope of winning council, London and other elections.
It seems to be the way we do things these days. I do not know whether writing letters as directed by Amnesty International made a difference to any poor soul in a prison somewhere or not, but I did have to handwrite a letter and make a trip to the Post Office to feel as if I had done something. Now all you need to do is sit in front of a screen and click like, or use a hashtag in a tweet, to think you have made a difference.
When I remember Hillary Clinton in the White House, I think of her willingness to stand up for decent healthcare provision for all, even though it was at the expense of her popularity. I do a little reading, and I am reminded of how she pushed to put women’s rights in China and Afghanistan onto the agenda.
When I remember Cherie Blair and her impact, I think of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women which helps to empower women to lead independent and prosperous lives.
So what will I remember about Michelle Obama? I will think about the kidnapping of hundreds of female students in April 2014 from Chibok, Nigeria by Boko Haram. Michelle Obama appeared on screen holding up the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls and so did a lot of well-meaning people.
Mrs Obama also spoke on camera about the terrible plight of the girls and it seemed to me as if she felt that that was enough and somehow the rest of us should take on the responsibility for solving the situation.
“But what on earth can I do?!” I wanted to scream at her “You are married to the most powerful man in the world, tell him to go in there and sort it out!” I am sure the current First Lady of the United States has physically done a lot for various charities and causes, but I found infuriating the way she endorsed the easy resolve of one’s conscience, when she was in a position to do so much more.
Thoughts are with the family and friends of Nancy Reagan at this sad time, remembering her valuable work in the ‘Just Say No‘ campaign which helped young people say no to a life of drug addiction.
I can only hope that Mrs Obama’s successor will have the wisdom, experience and resolve to influence the next President of the United States to do something substantial when people need the democratic values of the free world. I wish the next Spouse of the White House, her or him, the courage to take action, especially where words are simply not enough.
By Paddington Baby