From Far Away

One of the reasons why I’ve struggled to write in the past few months is that this has been a year of transitions. A transatlantic, transcontinental move form London to San Francisco, and a career shift from full-time academic to something as yet undetermined but best summed up as “freelancer” have left me wondering both who I’m writing as and where I’m writing from – both crucial questions when it comes to thinking about migration.
Geography first. In the past six months I’ve acquired new identities. I’m now immigrant and emigrant.  I’m still a British citizen, but one separated by five thousand miles of space and eight hours of time from current affairs. The result is a disconnection. Among the most disconcerting experiences I’ve had is that of listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme from California at 10pm and realizing that tomorrow is already happening. By the time I wake up the next morning, it has happened. At first you race to catch up: but very quickly you become a spectator, watching politics at home unfold with an eight hour broadcast delay.  It can leave you powerless, watching with freeze-framed slow-motion horror from the other side of the glass as voters elect UKIP’s first MP.  It can leave you without a sense of perspective, detached from reality by the extremes of medial coverage. You find yourself asking would you, could you, should you ever return to live in a country that now seems to be largely populated by bigots and xenophobes, chasing migrants’ shadows, where UKIP might win not one but 30 seats?
More practically, it’s hard to know how to engage in long-distance debate.  Without those conversations over coffee or in the pub, without everyday exchanges in shops and buses, you’re left with nothing but your own convictions and the thin truths repeated in the media.  What can you add from afar?  Perhaps the answer is to switch focus, to write about the politics of immigration here.  After all, there are plenty of migration stories to tell in San Francisco too, about DREAMers and DACA and rent controls.  And I am undoubtedly part of at least the last of those stories.  But I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m an observer, a supporter from the sidelines at best. These are not my fights. This is not – not yet – my political community.  And somehow it feels less desperate, less urgent, than the news I read that makes me feeling England is slipping away.  Humanitarian crises on the border in Texas and Arizona leave me outraged: but they belong to another America a thousand miles away, and I am not a citizen there either. I’m an outsider, with neither the power nor the right to demand change. But nor can I be charged with responsibility for the failures of today’s American immigration policies.
And so I turn back to Britain. But Britain is still 5000 miles and a working day apart.
If that’s geography, what about occupation? I’ve long wrestled with the question of what academia’s for.  Oh, I believe in learning as liberation and the power of knowledge – of course I do.  But when increasingly our migration battles are being fought not on the power of facts but the strength of feelings – in blind disregard of existing empirical evidence – I can’t help but think that what we need are not more university researchers, but more advocates. The two need not be mutually exclusive: in the end the most powerful and persuasive arguments that build the foundations in fact.   But I’m not convinced we need more theory-heavy, technocratic, data-driven conclusions on the minutiae of migration as thousands drown in the Mediterranean or collapse in the Sonoran desert. Peer-reviewed journals are not a substitute for action. And so I’ve reached at least one conclusion: whatever academia’s for, I do know that – in its purest form – it’s not for me.   
The plan is still to write about migration – but over the next two years, to move slowly towards developing something akin to investigative reporting: a campaigning organization built on solid research. Ambitious? Yes. Vague? Maybe. Exciting? I think so.  But the real challenge is to work out what comes in between:  how to keep the authority of academic expertise without spending my hours jumping through the wrong hoops.  How to make sure I’ve still got something to say that’s worth more than an opinion.  And however certain I am that I want to leave my lecturing days behind, choice can be paralyzing.  Too many times in the past month I’ve thought about writing a blog, only to hesitate, uncertain about exactly who I’m writing as.
But that’s enough in the way of self-reflection masquerading as apology.  After all this over-thinking (all that academic training dies hard) I’ve come to the conclusion that if I want to be a part of the British migration debate – however dark its current direction – then the only real trick is to just keep writing.  Because once you refocus your gaze, you begin to appreciate the new perspective you can gain from a long-distance view, and from living migration yourself.  I can be emigrant, immigrant and local, activist and academic. 
So, to end: a paragraph on politics, with the promise of more to come.  That, after all, is what you’re here for. 
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has found themselves reading this blog that I’m no UKIP voter.  But there are members of my own family who are sympathetic to Farage, who like being told who to blame for austerity and alienation.  They are undoubtedly wrong to buy UKIP’s arguments. Xenophobia’s a cheap answer, and it’s an easy answer, but that doesn’t make it the right answer.
But here’s the thing: defending migration is not about denying UKIP voters the right to be angry. They are right to be angry. But they are being taught to be angry about the wrong things, and that is dangerous. We all should be angry: not about migration, but about the slow dismantling of the NHS, about the exploitation of low-paid workers (whether local or foreign), about growing inequality and stagnant poverty in our communities. But please, don’t believe for a second that banning immigrants will rescue you from this grim future.  UKIP may provide a temporary hit, the brief high of mob righteousness.  But if it is ever able to exercise real power, UKIP’s policies would leave Britain with the worst hangover of its collective national life.  In my next post, I’ll explain why.