Amanda Palmer
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Amanda Palmer: Playing the Hitler Card

We live in an age of endless, foaming outrage. The only answer is to try to feel empathy for other people, no matter who they are.

“You can’t play the Hitler Card,” said Neil. “Godwin’s law: once you play it, you’re out. Trust me.”

“But it’s different. Hitler’s the example people use. That’s why I’m using him.”

“Don’t do it.”

“You’re missing the point. If I’m talking about people talking about absolutes, I’ve got to use him.”

He looked at me with that polite, British look he uses when he knows I’m wrong.

“If you must use a Nazi as an example, darling, you’d be better off using Mengele. He was the one who did unthinkably gruesome experiments on pregnant women and their babies.”

“Thank you for that lovely image.” I looked down at my swelling belly. “But that’s not a meme. You don’t ‘play the Mengele Card’ . . . Most younger people probably won’t know who that is.”

“He was the villain in William Goldman’s Marathon Man.”

“Don’t change the subject. This isn’t about books. This is about Hitler.”

Neil sighed. I sighed back. This conversation was going nowhere.

 

****

“Playing the Hitler Card”, otherwise known as “reductio ad Hitlerum”, is the point in a discussion “where someone compares an opponent’s view to those of Adolf Hitler or the Nazi party”. Godwin’s law states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

Both Neil and I have been engulfed in our fair share of what we refer to as “internet kerfuffles” and we now discuss online PR tactics in the way that other married couples discuss whose turn it is to drop the kids off at school.

“Honey, your blog defending this person’s honour is really noble but if it kerfuffles, do you have time to deal with the three days of Twitter and Tumblr backlash?”

“Not really, I’m insane with deadlines.”

“Oof. Then don’t post it. You don’t have the time or energy to kerfuff this week.”

 

****

Everyone’s tired of internet outrage. It has got to the point where we censor ourselves so carefully to avoid kerfuffling that we might as well get off the internet altogether and go back to plain, old talking in cafés and pubs, because those places are where people can actually be honest. Erika Moen, who draws a sex-positive web comic called Oh Joy Sex Toy, wrote a blog recently about a handful of female celebrities who had had their naked phone selfies stolen and distributed. She wrote a friendly reminder to people that if they wanted to protect their identities from hackers while taking naked selfies, they should consider not including their distinguishing tattoos, or, obviously, their faces. She then got an outraged email from a long-time fan, calling her out as a “face shamer”.

People on the web are addicted to ­outrage. It’s become an epidemic but nobody seems to know quite what to do about it.

I look at Monica Lewinsky’s Ted talk about the “price of shame”, the US journalist Lindy West’s befriending of her worst troll and the inexplicable harassment-vortex morass that is Gamergate and I also see a widening conversation about the reality and effects of hatred. If there’s a theme in the backlash to the backlash, it is this: to defuse the Outrage Generation, we need better empathy skills.

A few years back, I endured a relentless ten months of internet controversy and I quickly learned the red flags, symptoms and lifespan of an average kerfuffle. There are two-day kerfuffles and two-week kerfuffles. There are kerfuffles that stay contained on Twitter and those that spill on to the blogs and, worse still, into print media.

The year 2012 began with my Kickstarter Kerfuffle (when I crowdfunded an album through online donations), which evolved a few months later into the Volunteer Musician Kerfuffle. Just as those were dying down, the spring of 2013 brought the Poem Kerfuffle, which started when I sat down to reflect on the harrowing days following the Boston Marathon bombing, which happened a few blocks from my apartment.

After the lockdown, Neil and I drove from Boston to New York and back, listening to the radio news non-stop as the ­horrific manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers crescendoed and exploded. We heard our friends on the radio – one of them had a son who had been friends with Dzhokhar, the younger brother. She had been at a backyard graduation party with him. Both of them had gone to high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near our house.

Dzhokhar was 19.

I wondered how he felt.

The poem I posted on my blog was a stream-of-consciousness sequence that connected the feeling of being trapped in “the bottom of the boat” (the location in which Dzhokhar was ultimately found, not far from the house I was raised in) and my flailing sense of helplessness in the face of overwhelming pain and tragedy. It was about my parents, my inability to
leave Boston because of a friend’s battle with cancer, my fragile marriage and my mundane indecision.

Before I uploaded it, I showed the poem to Neil, my personal kerfuffle filter. His red flags didn’t wave. He recognised the poem’s ingredients and commented on the punctuation and we set off for lunch. I called it “A Poem for Dzhokhar”, posted it and read the first few comments. The readers seemed to like it.

By the time I turned on my phone after lunch, the poem had been discovered by the right-wing news sites and the blog had 1,000 comments. One website said it was “the worst poem ever written in the English language”. Even generally lefty Boston journalists wrote op-eds condemning me for daring to write such an insensitive poem at such a sensitive time. Too soon, they said. Too far. Too much.

 

****

What frightened me about the Poem Kerfuffle weren’t the attacks on my poetry skills. It was the realisation that I was more alone than I had thought in my stance on compassion, expression and how we use art to cope with tragedy. How dare you empathise WITH A MURDERER? My Twitter feed had filled up with hate so fast that I couldn’t even read it all. A television news programme referred to me as “a loser”. Someone told me that I should have a bomb shoved up my cunt. An emailed death threat came in, credible enough for me to talk to the police. One concerned Boston journalist found himself “wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far”.

Distinctions between empathy and jihad­ist leanings were quickly blurred; I was ­labelled a terrorist sympathiser. Some of my local friends told me that they couldn’t stand by “my support of the bombers”. But I wasn’t supporting their actions. I was imagining their feelings. I wasn’t totally alone, however. Most of my friends shook their heads in sadness about the misunderstanding. And slowly, over the next few days, I received a string of emails and voicemails from local Bostonians who wanted to tell me, in private, that they, too, had felt empathy and compassion and even concern for this 19-year-old kid. But they dared not say it aloud.

“He’s exactly my son’s age,” a friend wrote to me. “I can’t not imagine how he must be feeling. It’s heartbreaking. But you don’t blog those things, Amanda. That’s too much.”

Too soon, too far, too much.

I kept running the phrase in my head: “wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far”. What’s too far? Is there even such a thing?

I believe that to erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the possibility of human progress. Erasing the possibility of empathy also threatens to erase the possibility of art. We watch Oedipus Rex not because we celebrate and condone the concept of motherfuckers and father killers but because it is cathartic to see our worst nightmares exposed in a safe context. We do not cheer when the blade cuts deep. We weep. We empathise. And we put the play on over, and over, and over again. These differences are crucial. Empathy is not sympathy and compassion is not condonation. Stage blood is exactly that. We spill it, on the stage and on the page, precisely because we can do it without harm.

I am, perhaps, an extremist in this regard. But I am starting to think that the only true antidote to extreme hate may be extreme love, a radical empathy. Jihads of compassion. Crusades of kindness. A movement in which we attempt to love our enemy . . . Oh, hold on. Jesus already said all that. Wait – did it work?

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that it might. In order to practise extreme empathy, you have to be able to empathise with . . . well, anybody. You have to be able to imagine loving and feeling compassion for the worst of the worst. Last year, this philosophy got me into a bit of a tangle with the various editors of my memoir-manifesto, The Art of Asking, when I drafted a section explaining that, yes, you must feel compassion even for the worst of the worst. For Hitler. There. I did it. I played the Hitler Card. But does it still count if I’m using the card not to tear down my opponent, but rather to point out that neither my debate partner nor Hitler is truly my opponent? My editors shook their heads. Frankly, nobody will care, Amanda. Please, take it out.

They won. I took him out of the book.

It is painful to imagine the ingredients – familial, cultural, environmental and mental – that can lead a person to commit actions so atrocious and so unconscionable that we cannot speak of them. But I think it is necessary. As the world grows more extreme, more violent and more polarised, as we wrap ourselves into ever tighter filter bubbles of news and opinion, as we find it easier and easier to divide the world into black, white, us and them – as these things happen, this exercise in imagination becomes increasingly essential. Not just for the artists, the poets, the musicians and the playwrights. For everyone.

On 13 May, the jury in Boston began deliberating over Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s guilt and fate. I found myself thinking not about the rights and wrongs of the death penalty but trying to imagine how it would feel to spend days, months, years in isolation, hearing the screams and wails of the guy in the next cell who mutilates himself with razor blades and swallows nail clippers. Trying to imagine how it would feel to be strapped to a gurney as a fellow human being inserts a death needle into both of my arms. I found myself imagining what it must be like to take the witness stand to explain how I looked down to see my own bloody legs lying on the sidewalk ­beside me. And I imagined how it would feel to be on a jury, having to drive home every night after court, my head hitting my pillow knowing that I must, along with 11 others, cast a vote for someone to live or to die. I can’t imagine I was alone in imagining these things.

The Martin Luther King biographer Taylor Branch recently shared a heart-rending piece of history: the last words uttered by one of the three civil rights activists killed by armed Klansmen during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, as they made a road trip to get folks to register to vote. In the moment before he was shot on a dark Southern highway, he said to the Klansman: “Sir, I know just how you feel.”

Then, bam. Dead. Given that his two friends were also shot and killed, you may wonder how we know. We know because the Klansmen who confessed to the murders shared that phrase in their testimonies. Those seven words apparently haunted them.

Frans de Waal, the Dutch primatologist, says: “Human morality is unthinkable without empathy.”

Here’s the thing: I did not and cannot know exactly how that teenage bomber felt. But I will dare to imagine. I must. I believe we all must. I believe it is only through the flexing of that small, frail, imaginary muscle of empathy that we will build the strength to erect a new human architecture on this fragile, fragile planet – a stronger one, one of connectedness and understanding.

Sir, I know just how you feel.

Wishful thinking. But perhaps. One day.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

Clive Turner/Maeve McClenaghan
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Inside the lives of the 78 people who died homeless this winter

Some died in doorways or in tents pitched in the snow. Others died in shelters or temporary accommodation.

In early March, the snow lay thick over the windows of Hamid Farahi’s car, obscuring the jumble of blankets, books and bags within. An entire life crammed into the passenger seat of a Peugeot 206.

Amongst the clutter was a prized possession – a letter from the office of Stephen Hawking. But 55-year-old Farahi no longer needed it.

Less than a mile down the road, Farahi had been checked into a hotel, the inclement weather forcing the homeless man out of the car where he was living and into a warm room for the night. It was there that he died. The cause of his death is still being investigated.

Farahi is one of 78 people the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found to have died while homeless this winter. This averages to more than two people a week, with at least ten people dying last month alone.

Despite many of these vulnerable people being known to the authorities, local journalists and charities are often the only ones that report these deaths.

The Bureau spoke to councils, hospitals, coroners offices, police forces and NGOs. Whilst there is a charitable network recording information on people sleeping rough in London, it found that there is no centralised record of when and how people die homeless in the UK. Therefore, its count is likely an underestimate.

And so today, the Bureau launched Dying Homeless, a long-term project to track and count those that die homeless on UK streets. 

It has already started to log some of the stories of those who have died homeless on UK streets. They include an avid gardener, a former soldier and a grieving 31-year-old who had lost both his mother and brother.

Some died in doorways or in tents pitched in the snow. Others died in shelters or passed away in hospitals after living on the streets. Many were rough sleepers, others were statutory homeless and staying in temporary accommodation.

The Bureau found that, since 1 October 2017, at least 59 men and 16 women have died – and in a further three cases the gender is not known due to lack of public information. The ages of those in our database so far range from 19- to 68-years-old. Fourteen deaths were of people 35-years-old or under.

The project has been welcomed by those working in the sector.

Petra Salva, St Mungo’s Director of Rough Sleeper Services said: “It’s a scandal that people are dying on our streets.

“St Mungo’s would welcome more nationally collated, robust statistics around rough sleeper deaths.”

Thames Reach Chief Executive Jeremy Swain said: “To systematically record the number of deaths of rough sleepers in order to gauge the scale of the problem and investigate trends will be of enormous practical value.”

Farahi’s car now sits unclaimed, on a quiet side road behind the car park of a huge Tesco shopping complex in Harlow, Essex. Four weeks on from his death and, instead of snow, the windscreen is covered with floral tributes. There are 11 bunches of flowers in all, most now withered and brown.

“They all appeared over the past couple of weeks”, said Adam Protheroe. A local businessman, Protheroe had met Farahi the year before and had come to know him well. “I’m back and forth from Tesco all the time getting stuff for the wife and kids. I just came across him, said hello, he was a friendly enough guy,” he said.

Farahi once told Protheroe he had studied aeronautical engineering in Bristol. His Facebook page registers a stint working in avionics for British Airways.

Once, he even applied for a graduate research position with Stephen Hawking’s office at the University of Cambridge. The Bureau saw paperwork confirming his application. Farahi told Protheroe and others he had made it down to the last three applicants.

But then, things started to go wrong.

“Someone conned him out of money and he ended up selling his pension to shark companies, that is what he called them,” Protheroe explained. “Losing that money was the start of the alcoholism I think, it alleviated the stress.”

Iranian-born, Farahi was also reportedly suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), from his time fighting for the army in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

People that knew Farahi years before told Channel 4 News he was not the easiest man to live with. He struggled with alcoholism for years and had to be removed from several properties. But many people in Harlow told the Bureau of their affection for him.

Chrissy Sorce works in a car rental hut, just five metres from Farahi ’s makeshift home. Her cigarette breaks would often bring her face to face with the homeless man. “At first I thought that’s a bit weird living there. He first arrived in the summer, and so I just started saying hello, ” she explained. Soon she was charging his phone for him or making him tea.

She told the Bureau that after gathering many books on advanced mathematics and engineering he had to enlist the help of a friend, who stored them in her daughter’s garden shed because they could no longer fit in his car.

“You know he’s a person like anyone else. Everyone’s vulnerable aren’t they,” she said. “He was a very intelligent man, he had all engineering books, maths books you know. He was just left here, I thought that was really wrong.”

The number of people sleeping rough has risen sharply across the UK, increasing 169 per cent in England since 2010, according to the government’s latest rough sleeper count. Experts warn cuts to mental health and substance abuse provision, coupled with rising private rents and a lack of social housing, are now forcing increasing numbers into homelessness.

However, there is no central database logging deaths of those who die when homeless. There no obligation on councils or coroners to log the deaths. Not all deaths make the news.

But that does not mean they go unnoticed. The Bureau found that for those working in the sector, news of premature deaths can be hard to shake.

Wayne Hood, from the charity Streets2Homes, knows two other people who died in Harlow this winter. The families do not want the names shared.

Hood knows only too well the dangers of sleeping rough. Now a paid outreach worker, he first arrived at the Streets2Homes shelter when he became homeless in 2015.

These days he splits his time between helping those who arrive at the day centre, tucked away in a small industrial estate on the edge of the town, and the time he is out walking the streets, looking for those that need help.

“I have these flyers printed”, Hood explained, pulling a handful of A4 sheets out of his rucksack. In big, bold letters they read: “Homeless you are not alone”. In the corner of a storeroom are bulging plastic bags tied tightly at the top, full of toiletries, bottles of water and other essentials. These are the packs Hood hands out on his round.

“Street homeless is becoming very visible here now. It has definitely increased,” he said. “We have 28 registered rough sleepers that we know of here in Harlow. It is probably more like double that in reality”, he added.

People bed down where they can. In a small square of grass outside the local St Paul’s church, eight tents huddle in varying states of disarray.

“When the weather was bad in March, we went out to places we thought people might be. A couple of occasions we opened up the centre here too, on Friday and Saturday night when it was really cold. It was a case of people bedding down here on the day room floor,” Hood explained.

At the same time, 70 miles away, Robert Wallis was settling in on the floor of an emergency shelter too.

Six days before Hamid Farahi died, as 'the beast from the East' cold snap pummelled the UK, Eileen Wallis, a homeless woman, woke up on the floor of the Catching Lives drop-in centre and found her 41-year-old son Robert, who was also homeless, dead beside her.

Eileen told journalist Gerry Warren of KentOnline: “I woke up and reached out for his hand but it felt really cold. I realised he was dead but tried to revive him.

“I knew he was ill, but this came completely out of the blue and I am devastated. I have no idea what my future holds now.”

The centre, a squat rectangular building housed just metres from Canterbury East station, had been turned into an emergency shelter as the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol, a statutory requirement on councils to house homeless people in severe weather, prompted charities within the sector to open their doors.

“When the temperature is forecast zero [degrees Celsius] or less for three nights or severe wind, rain or snow, the council contact us and we open our day centre”, explained Graeme Solly, a Project Leader with Catching Lives day centre. “We had 47 nights of that this winter.”

The tables which usually line the hall were pushed to the side, the snooker and ping-pong tables moved back to make room for 15 people bedding down on mats on the floor. The centre was at capacity most nights.

"We are seeing a large number of rough sleepers, sofa surfers, and people who are vulnerably housed coming to our centre to seek advice", said Solly. Footfall at the Catching Lives day centre doubled between 2013 to 2015 and has remained around this mark since, he added.

Official figures show that, across the South of England, the numbers of rough sleepers has increased by 194 per cent since 2010, higher even than the national average.

Cuts to council budgets have had an impact on the care homeless people can access, said Solly.

With fewer options for referral to other services, staff at Catching Lives are left trying to support people as best they can.

Staff in the centre are still shaken by Robert Wallis’s death. Responding at the time, the centre’s general manager, Terry Gore, told Kent Online: “Every year we lose a number of clients, but we’ve never had anyone die inside the building before. It’s very sad for our staff, clients and volunteers.”

But Robert was not the only person to die while homeless in Canterbury this year. Less than three weeks later, the city saw another death.

Out on the streets of Canterbury, Sonya Langridge walks with a purpose, her years working for the navy evident in her powerful stride and eagerness to keep time.

“It was incredibly difficult this winter,” she told the Bureau. “I normally go out to start my round around 6am but there were some nights I’d find myself lying awake worrying about people, so I’d just get up earlier and check they were okay.”

Sonya is an outreach worker with Porchlight, a homelessness charity which works across the entirety of Kent. “People will sleep anywhere that is safe, if they are sleeping in the town centre it is for safety reasons, where they know cameras are, they know they have someone watching over them, or equally you get the people that go out in the woods by the rivers, tuck themselves away there where they feel they are not on show, they feel safe when no one knows where they are- those are the worrying ones, those are the ones we want to keep our eye on for their own safety.”

One of the people on Sonya’s watch was Shelly Pollard, a 42-year-old woman who was well-known around the city.

Many nights Pollard would bed down in the dimly lit doorway of a record music shop, the grand city walls visible from where she sat. Women make up around 22 per cent of rough sleepers in Canterbury, according to Porchlight, higher than the national average of 14 per cent. Sleeping where there is light and CCTV can provide some form of security.

“She was here every morning. She was always just here in the corner in the sleeping bag, maybe with some cardboard, sometimes spare clothes, you’d just hear snoring,” shop worker Alex Furness told the Bureau. “You couldn’t really believe she’d died until you heard it from a couple of people.”

A short distance down the road, watched over by a bronze statue of poet Geoffrey Chaucer, candles and flowers lay in tribute to Pollard. By the time of publication, a GoFundMe page trying to raise money for her funeral had raised £1,360 of its £4,000 goal.

Sonya is still shaken by Pollard’s death. But there is no time for her to stop. She covers a huge patch and spends her days scouring the streets and woods around the city, checking in with those that are rough sleeping.

“Sonya is fantastic, she can get people to talk to her who would never open up to anyone else,” said Mike Barrett, Chief Executive of Porchlight. “She was keeping almost a daily watch on Pollard. Sadly now Pollard has passed away.

“Her death is an example of the end of a process that is not fit for purpose, which is destructive and immoral.”

Barrett can reel off a long list of things he thinks are causing the increase in homelessness in the area and across the country: cuts to mental health services, lack of regulations around private landlords, landlords refusing to take those on Universal Credit.

Those issues, he says, are compounded by funding cuts to homelessness services.

“The cuts have impacted to a point where some services have closed. Others are so diluted they can’t do what they were set up to do”, said Barrett.

“Years ago Porchlight had 28 outreach workers. In 2011 our budgets were cut by 75 per cent and we ended up with a team of four [outreach workers]. So the charity, our board decided to pump some of our own reserves into it and we’re still doing that. But we’ve only got a team of 11, ”said Barrett. “The whole funding environment has returned to what it was in the 80s,” he added.

The Homeless Reduction Act, which was brought in earlier this month, puts more responsibility on councils to prevent homelessness and provides some additional funds. But many in the sector told the Bureau they are worried it is not enough to counter the cuts that have already happened.

A recent survey of local authorities, by the homeless charity Crisis, found that 74 per cent warned that a roll-out of Universal Credit would significantly increase homelessness in their area. Nearly half also feared the lowering of the total benefit cap would significantly increase homelessness.

Farahi, Pollard and Robert died within weeks of each other. At least seven more people died while homeless in March too, according to the names compiled by the Bureau. The true figure is likely to be much higher.

Matt Downie, Director of Policy and External Affairs at Crisis, said: “The Bureau’s figures are a devastating reminder that rough sleeping is beyond dangerous – it’s deadly, and it’s claiming more and more lives each year.

“Those sleeping on our streets are exposed to everything from sub-zero temperatures, to violence and abuse, and fatal illnesses. They are 17 times more likely to be a victim of violence, twice as likely to die from infections, and nine times more likely to commit suicide. What’s worse, we know these figures are likely to be an underestimate."

“It is extraordinary and unacceptable that nationally data on rough sleepers is so limited”, said Jeremy Swain of Thames Reach.

Thames Reach, along with other homeless charities, has now pledged support for the Bureau’s Dying Homeless project.

Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it totally by 2027.

Responding to the Bureau’s findings, a government spokesperson said: “Every death of someone sleeping rough on our streets is one too many. We are taking bold action and have committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it by 2027.

“We are investing £1.2bn to tackle all forms of homelessness and earlier this month the Homeless Reduction Act, the most ambitious legislation in this area in decades, came into force."

Farahi’s death is still being investigated by the coroner’s office. Around a week after he passed away his hero Stephen Hawking died. Hawking was buried with ceremony 17 days later, on 31 March. Farahi is yet to be buried. 

His car sits, stuffed with his belongings, the only remaining marker of his life.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable