By John Charles Dyer, UK Correspondent
17 Jan 2013. Parliament back benchers debated ATOS’ performance of Work Capability Assessments for those receiving benefits based on disability. It was more damnation hymn in round than "debate." All sides of the Commons’ several sides laid out in detail the many failings of the Work Capability Assessment process conducted by ATOS under the direction of the Department of Work and Pensions. Many -- including Conservatives -- demanded that the government dump the contractor if not the entire programme.
Then Mark Hoban rose to speak.
Mark Hoban is the most recently appointed Minister in charge of the government’s programme. Hoban allegedly attended the debate to listen and respond constructively. Hoban’s reply, however, more resembled Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s “Speech at the Front Door” at Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama. Where Wallace snarled, Hoban sneered. Hoban’s reply simply wasn’t up to the standard of the debate either in quality or tone. It was an anti-climax after so many clear, impassioned, thoroughly researched and documented -- and sometimes awe-inspiring -- backbench speeches.
Muttering I returned to U-Tube
I had been listening for sometime to Sweet Honey in the Rock. This remarkable group and its music embodies the challenge, the energy, commitment and courage of the American Civil Rights movement.
Theirs is a type of music that has been a part of my life since I was a small child. My parents had been missionaries in the West Indies. My mother’s fondest lifelong dream was to replicate that experience in Africa. It was not to be. She nearly died from Malaria shortly before I came along. My father loved his time in the West Indies. He was blessed with a remarkable voice. The spirituals and gospel of choirs almost exclusively "of colour" -- sounding much like Sweet Honey in the Rock -- resonated within my parents' souls and in our home. It -- and the sense of connected mission -- helped bind the family together.
American Civil Rights Movement
The music of Sweet Honey in the Rock reconnects me both to my roots and to that very special time in American history called the Civil Rights movement. 15 January would have been Martin Luther King Jr’s 84th birthday. As the world knows, he became the inspiring and unifying face of the American Civil Rights movement. Almost uniquely eloquent, his “I have a dream” speech etched itself into the consciousness of a generation.
It's sometimes easy to forget the utter courage it took to surmount odds and challenges any impartial observer in 1955 would have called insurmountable. But the Civil Rights movement did make a difference. For sure, things are still far from perfect, but they’ve certainly improved since 1955.
In 1968 an assassin gunned down Dr. King. The next day my father recounted from the pulpit that he believed G*d had called him to the ministry in order to preach the dissolution of the British Empire. He had often wondered why G*d had called him to America. Now he knew. There was not a dry eye that day in a congregation in one of the few communities in California that voted for George Wallace for President that very year. The family payed dearly for that moment in the years ahead.
A lesson for the British working class, poor, disabled and their advocates
Working Class Britain has a problem but many who are working class in Britain don’t even realize it is their problem. It's the government’s War on Welfare (or to translate into American, War on Social Security). Welfare is something different in America. The government in the UK is busily dismantling what we in the US would consider the insurance aspect of the Social Security System, the Social Security for which British workers for generations worked and, yes, died during World War II. Not only is the government dismantling it, in so doing it is throwing more people into an already glutted job market, reducing further already reduced wages and hours. So Working Class Britain is seriously affected but many actually support the dismantling.
Those who are poor -- especially those who are labeled “disabled” -- their advocates and indeed the entire “working class” could learn a lot from the American Civil Rights movement. I know there are differences. I know I must speedily acknowledge that the challenges faced by black Americans were and are uniquely difficult. Similarly, the poor, the disabled, the working class of Britain face challenges which in their own way are also uniquely difficult. I do not want to diminish either by reference to the other. The point is, the circumstances afflicting both are bigger than politics and egos, calling for a response bigger than politics and egos. They call for a cooperative and committed social movement that sadly must swim against a powerful current.
The American Civil Rights movement teaches the value of commitment, determination, faith, courage, shear doggedness and vision. Its history highlights the value of hands linked together. This last is particularly important to advocates for the poor and those labeled "disabled" who from time-to-time sometimes suffer from “which end of the egg” debate over strategy, tactics, representation, credit, word choice and motives.
I have a dream
Nothing so lofty as a calling brought me to Britain. But since my arrival the reconnection with my roots, the values clarification of its politics, the extremity of the government’s far reaching and radical programme and its terrible consequences in the real lives of real people I know and love have worked a transformation akin to a calling.
I am no Martin Luther King Jr, but like him, I have a dream. I dream that one day para Olympians will be celebrated for their achievements and the profound triumph of the human spirit they represent -- not held up by cynical and self-serving politicians as proof these achievements represent the minimum standard for all people who have been labeled “disabled.” I dream that all children, rich or poor, from working families or from idled families, will one day sleep in their own warm beds in their own warm flats, eat groceries purchased at the grocery, not handed out at the food bank or served at the soup kitchen. I dream that “the poor” will one day no longer be “the poor” and “the disabled” no longer “the disabled,” but “countrymen” -- as they deserve.
I dream that those of our children who are not members of The Club may look forward to a decent life where they can reasonably fulfill their ambitions or still lead decent lives even when those ambitions fail. I dream of a decent society that has rediscovered both its society and its decency.
Utopia Dyer? No. I don’t believe in Utopia. Nothing is ideal if it isn’t also real. It is real. My generation lived it. We have only forgotten -- both sides of the pond -- in the salivating greed of runaway finance, the baubles of consumerism, the daydreams of Neo Liberalism, the panic that has -- ever since the crash of 2008 -- gripped both sides of the Atlantic, driving us steadily over the cliff into the abyss of austerity like herding Lemmings.
I have a dream. I have a firm grip on it. In the words of Sweet Honey in the Rock, “ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round.” Going to keep on walking until it’s done.