I am Brian Wilson: or ‘The Good Immigrant’

13.12.16 – I need to stop writing posts and then not putting them up so that they all start with this stilted smattering of time-hops…but here is one about ‘the deserving’….

8.11.16 – In the wake of this absolutely shit-shower of an election, I have a blog post reflecting on representation and ideas of the ‘deserving’.

“Vignettes move us. The bigger picture just seems to make many of us fearful. We can still be touched by a story of desperation and hardship…”  – (Michael Buerk in BBC’s Moral Maze, 27.10.16)

I went to see Ken Loach’s new film last night, which I inexplicably kept thinking was called “I am Brian Wilson” rather than “I, Daniel Blake”. Weird.

Vignettes move us. The story of one man, the woman he befriends in the Job Centre and their struggle with the State, can reduce some to “a shivering wreck… awash with tears, aghast with anger, overwhelmed by the sheer force”, whilst they leave others skeptical of the extent to which they address the bigger picture. There are questions here about representation which I’ll come to in a bit…

This morning I was looking on the website Migrants Organise, and followed a link to a Moral Maze programme which was exploring the topic of migration. The chief executive of Migrants Organise, Zrinka Bralo was the first ‘witness’, presenting her case in the debate in question, which was triggered by the closure of the refugee camps in Calais.

It struck me that the criticisms of the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ echo those of campaigns such as ‘I am an Immigrant’, and that what these debates centre on, is the question of deserving versus undeserving. 

Discussing the 65 million refugees that have been recorded by the UN at the end of 2015, Michael asks Zrinka:

“…and these 65 million, they’re all really deserving cases are they, I mean, they’re all people who are in fear of their lives are they, rather than, say, economic migrants?” – from the BBC’s Moral Maze: Moral imagination and migration

Here, Michael Buerk puts to Zrinka the question of how we know who is a ‘really deserving’ case. This really reminded me of part of the conversation I had last night with the pals I went to watch the film with, in which someone brought up the criticism that Daniel Blake is the ultimate ‘deserving poor’, with no vices and few flaws. Blake is a warm, lovely man in his 50s, who has recently had a heart attack and is unfit for work, which the DWP fails to acknowledge. A widow and a carpenter, he lives alone and carves fish whilst listening to the shipping forecast, which his late wife recorded on cassette tapes. He gives unquestioningly to Katie, a woman he meets at the Job Centre, and they develop a close friendship, centred around sharing; time, food, skills.

There are parallels to be drawn here to the ‘I am an Immigrant’ campaign, which was “a celebration of the immense contribution that immigrants make to UK society”, and saw the distribution of posters around the UK which featured photographs of immigrants in the UK and a short profile about what their contribution to society was.

i am an immgirant.jpg

from the website: www.iamanimmigrant.net

“Why do we have an obligation to take people who have simply chosen to come to the United Kingdom?”

“in many cases, the United Kingdom is where they might feel comfortable, where the minimum wage might be higher”

Here, Michael challenges the idea that ‘us British’ should be obliged to take people into the country who have chosen to come here for whatever reason that may be, citing the desire to ‘feel comfortable’ as one motivation.

There are a couple of things here; firstly, how is he defining ‘choice’? A knotty concept in relation to migration I felt he oversimplified matters hugely. Secondly, in alignment with one of my findings, the search for home is in part the search for a place where one feels comfortable and safe, and if people want to feel comfortable, who are we to stop them? I’m just reading an article by Sara Ahmed in which she criticises the way that writing about ideas of ‘home’ often polarises home and away, or familiar and strange, comfortable and uncomfortable. I think that the quest for familiarity doesn’t necessarily override the values of interacting with difference, in fact, many of the women I interviewed talked about the way that strange things, places and customs had become familiar to them over time and interaction with them. My point here I guess is that feeling comfortable is often important for feeling at home in some way, and I don’t think this is an invalid ground from which to make the decision (‘decision’) to move somewhere. (Read Ahmed’s article though, it’s really interesting)

The problem is that the climate of austerity leaves people with few resources to draw on themselves, and so leaves many in a position where they already feel there is not enough to go around (because at the moment there simply isn’t – #itslikethatcheralloveragain) and so the fear is directed towards those they perceive to be coming to the country to claim what little benefits there are, which actually many are not entitled to anyway (asylum seekers receive only £35 a week). This is fuelled by further squeezing of resources, and the spewing of lies in the media. Again, the question of representation arises…



Nikesh Shukla‘s edited book, ‘The Good Immigrant’ tackles this question head on, through the voices of 21 writers from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.“What’s it like to live in a country that doesn’t trust you and doesn’t want you unless you win an olympic gold medal or a national baking competition?” the back cover asks. Each author explores a different element of this experience, from a broad range of backgrounds, and lines of work.

They all in one way or another though, return to this question of ‘the Good Immigrant’. The burden, Shukla writes in the editor’s note, of striving to be a ‘good immigrant’ is one which grows tiring, and ever polarising of those who deserve and those who don’t. Are we not all flawed? Have we not all done things we regret? The problem of much anti-anti-immigrant campaigning is that it panders to this idea that in order for people to accept people coming into the UK from ‘over there’, they must have something to offer, to demonstrate their skill set and work damned hard to use it to make this country Great again. Like be kick-ass at baking. Even then, the Daily Mail will probably still write an article vilifying you for wearing a headscarf while you bake (health and safety, love). So in some ways, the antidote to this meritocracy, is perhaps not to simply show the ways that our economy benefits from incomers, although sadly this seems to be the most prominent approach, but rather to acknowledge the complexities and messiness of the human race, and understand that this makes us no less ‘deserving’ of help and support. I’m over-simplifying, but there is stuff to be said about the interplay between structure and agency, between the social and economic situations we are living in and the limitations this places on us to act as free agents.


I think a large part of the issue is that of representation. Ideas of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ are so complex and knotted that all the media and politicians seem able to do is place people in two camps, either those who ‘deserve’ help, and those who do not. In the case of people on benefits, this image is fuelled by programmes like Benefit Street and news reporting on ‘benefit scroungers’.

Michael: “I want to interrogate this idea that I think you have, that it’s the press and politicians who give us a bad feeling about migration and immigrants, is that true?”

Zrinka: “They are completely dehumanised, migrant is a derogatory term, it’s mostly commonly associated with illegal…we are talking about marauding swarms, and human beings”

Michael: “Right, I want to ask, have you ever met a bad migrant?”

Zrinka: “Of course I have, it’s not a personality competition.”

“Do you think we have a duty to represent those who are worried about immigration?”

Zrinka: “Of course, but you also have a duty to represent those who are not worried, and we don’t get a say.”

“Do you think the British people would be naturally pro-migrant if the tabloid press and politicians didn’t tell them otherwise?”

“Well, the British public is not stupid, so they don’t do things just because tabloids tell them to do, but I think it is a question of experience. So my experience has been, that people who don’t have any experience of migrants and migration, or meeting refugees are usually more afraid of migration, and that fear drives them to hold a very judgemental view based on wrong information.”

This idea is later challenged by the panel, who argue that British people are tired of this rhetoric that because they haven’t met a migrant, refugee or asylum seeker, they do not understand the reality of the lives they are leading. I think this is an interesting point; there is much to be said for exposure to difference and interaction with others, and I think there’s more there to be written about in terms of questions of integration and encounter which I won’t talk about here, but I think both Zrinka and the panel had fair points. There is plenty to be said about the lies which are spouted by media and politicians, that people do indeed draw on when making their case for why they might not want any more immigrants in the country, and there is much to be said for the role of interacting with the kinds of people they are talking about, and learning from them about their journeys, their lives and hearing about the huge instability which dictates their life, particularly if they are in the asylum system. But it is of course more complex even than this.

My background in anthropology, media and then visual anthropology, means that I come at these questions from a position of thinking about representation. Of course these issues can’t be addressed from any one standpoint alone, as there are many levels of power at play, and much interaction between structure and agency to consider, but I think much of the debate around ‘migrants’ and ‘benefit scroungers’ is heavily dependant on media representation. Of course, preceding this is a huge bundle of structural inequality and power play, austerity measures and xenophobic policy under a guise of constructing a British Nationalism, which these representations must be placed in the context of, and so it raises the question about where to start in bringing about change; do we begin to change representations of marginalised groups? Or do we work to change policy and structural inequality? I would argue that both have to occur at the same time and in conjunction with one another, the short term solutions scaffolding the longer term, structural changes. I don’t have a working model for this, and I won’t pretend I feel capable of doing this, but I think there is lots of great work going on already, as Zrinka says in the Moral Maze, they are just doing it more quietly.

I’m also not entirely sure where the question of representation fits in relation to structure and agency; there are clearly vitally important questions to ask about the control over representation, but there are also important questions to ask about how this fits into structural change.

Vignettes move us, the story of Alan Kurdi, the body of the 3 year old Syrian boy washed up on the beach, moved many, but perhaps in such a way that lost momentum once the initial impact of the image had left. They also can often show things which have already been occurring for a long time, and do not necessarily drive the narrative forward into suggestions for the future; but for many, it is through vignettes that we are connected – if even in a shallow way – with the lives of those the world over. There is still much to be done, and I think polarising these representations between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ undermines the complexities of the human race. It is the human face of these issues that is important to show, and to do so openly and honestly, with all the complexities, hypocrisies and flaws, is to honour this complexity whilst seeking to make shifts in the ways we think about, categorise and understand others in relation to ourselves.


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