Saturday, 28 April 2007

Rising above racism

There was more trouble in Tallinn last night but the police, no longer distracted by the need to protect a big heap of metal, seem to have gained better control of the situation - only 100 arrests and no news of any fatalities. My blog inspired some interesting comments as well as a number of personal discussions on the topic.

I'd like to quickly apologise to any Estonians who feel my blog was a personal attack on them - it was not my intention to single them out as the racists of Europe - I am sadly conscious that racism is rife in every nook and cranny of our federation and little has been achieved in the past 50 years to improve matters. But because it is commonplace, does not mean it is morally acceptable or economically or politically sensible.

In the waiting room of my doctor's surgery in rural France a few years ago (aside: a sign on the wall offered free horse manure - enquire within), I read an article in a glossy magazine about racism in France. I learned that an astonishing 63 per cent of French people admit to being racist, are even proud of it. This was in stark contrast to the UK - where racism was not only regarded as a fatal character flaw but could also land you in big legal trouble. I grew up in a country (Ireland) which was uniquely unicultural because nobody wanted to immigrate to a wet and soggy island where there was no work and no money - even if we were the friendliest, most fun-loving people on the planet.

In the 80s, living in London, I felt my share of racist slurs - my 2:1 degree was poor protection against the dumb Paddy image, and my anti-war beliefs didn't help when the IRA were bombing mainland Britain. In today's London, the hitherto dumb Paddy is the guy on the mobile phone managing the building project, and the hod carrier is from Poland or perhaps Estonia. Where racism is concerned, pecking orders change over a generation or two it seems.

In France in the early noughties, I felt the whack of racism again in the lead up to the Iraqi war. As soon as Tones went off the rails in pursuit of his place in history, the shallow veneer of Anglo-French detente disappeared and it was all "roast beefs go home" from then. And, like most stupid people who shoot first and ask questions later, nobody bothered to ask if I was English before they thrashed my trailer tent on one occasion and burnt my car to dust on another. Nor did anybody ask my views on the war. Different towns, different perpetrators, same ignorance.

Escaping back to the UK, I got a new car and licked my wounds in a society where we Irish have risen towards the top of the social pile. Only to find new racial tensions erupting because of the perceived threats from terrorism and EU enlargement. It seems that there is nowhere to escape intolerance and fear of "otherness".

And what has this to do with the price of eggs or Estonia's current social crisis? By looking out we understand the inside better - as they say, travel broadens the mind. Estonia has made very brave and effective strides to shrug off its unhappy history, but it's never enough. I am not aware of any truly inclusive society, but if we don't all strive to that goal we sink into moral and cultural torpor and might as well close the curtains on the European experiment.

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