The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Monday, February 12, 2007

In Which I Travel Through Snow to Meet a Baroness and Several Lords

Before I begin on the subject promised by the title, I just wanted to let you all know that I went to Dublin this weekend and have much to say about that, but as I went to the House of Lords on Thursday and that experience is long enough for its own post, I shall write about it first and the Dublin experience will come later. I have pictures of Dublin up on Flickr, which you can view by clicking on the animated picture grid on the left, a little ways down the page. And now, Parliament.

On Thursday, in the midst of a most delightful snow that had London in a rather amusing uproar, I went with my International Relations professor and a group of about 9 other students to the House of Lords. For those of you who don’t know, the House of Lords is the upper chamber of the British Parliament, the lower being the House of Commons. Therefore, the House of Lords is comparable to the U.S. Senate. My professor, Yossi Mekelberg, had been invited to speak to a House of Lords sub-committee which deals with foreign affairs. Specifically, the sub-committee is currently gathering information on what the EU’s foreign policy ought to be. He was called to be a “witness,” as they state it, on the subject of the Middle East Peace Process. Basically, they posed to him several questions and he gave them advice. Joining my prof in presenting evidence was Mr. Ahmad Khalidi, with whom my professor has worked in the past and likes a great deal. Mr. Khalidi was once an advisor to Yasir Arafat (but as my prof said, don’t hold that against him—good advice isn’t always taken) and is now a Senior Associate Member at St Antony's College of Oxford University. It was fairly obvious that the committee had invited both of them in the interest of getting two “balanced” viewpoints on the subject, since my prof is originally from Israel and has done work there, and Mr. Khalidi is Palestinian. I found it somewhat annoying that as usual, in matters concerning Israel & Palestine, everyone feels as though they absolutely must have representation from both “sides,” as though just because my prof is originally Israeli (both men, by the way, now consider themselves citizens of Britain) he will be intrinsically biased; but then, perhaps this is just me showing my ever-idealist card. Realistically, I suppose it makes sense to have equal representation on the issue at every turn, because bias does occur and of course, I always stand by my philosophy that there is no such thing as too much information (at least in the realm of public discourse and academia). But I digress.

I went to the House of Lords. Again, for those who may not know, the House of Lords is a chamber of Parliament, which means I went to the Houses of Parliament, which is that great behemoth of neo-gothic architecture most famous for its little clock. You might know it as Big Ben. As a further point of reference, this is the building that V blows up in V for Vendetta. Now that we’ve established that and you all have a picture in your mind, let me just say that I don’t think I could adequately describe the interior of the building (what tiny portion I saw) if I had all the time in the world and an endless supply of bionic hands that would be changed out at regular intervals. It was pretty much as elaborate, extravagant, stately, traditional, grand, and awe-inspiring as you would imagine. Enormous long chambers. Corridors lined with life-sized statues of former leaders and notable Brits. Marble. Stone. Stained-glass. Elaborately carved wood. We walked into the building through the entrance nearest the House of Lords chamber and traveled through a labyrinth of hallways and stairs until we came to a long corridor of carved wood paneling and thick carpet. We sat on benches outside the sub-committee room where my prof and his colleague were to speak, and while we waited there chimed a bell in a wooden box above our heads, signifying something or other. It was an actual wooden box, about a foot square, with the front carved out in a complicated lattice design so as to allow the sound through, and I could hear the mechanism working inside it the whole time, and then the sound of the bells chiming. It seemed like something that belonged in the 19th century, or perhaps the charmingly anachronistic world of Harry Potter. In short, it was something you’d expect to find in the House of Lords of your imagination. Thus far, London has not failed to fulfill my every expectation.

I shall have to run through the next bit more quickly than I would like or else you’ll be here all day. Either that or you’ll very soon get bored and go off to do something else, and that would be sad. Therefore, I will attempt to be brief, knowing I am doomed to fail.

We were in a relatively small room, about the size of a large classroom, with the Lords (of which there were about 10) and the clerks of the committee sitting in a semi-circle facing Yossi and Mr. Khalidi, with me and the other students sitting behind the witnesses. My prof and Mr. Khalidi gave excellent and informed testimony about the state of things and the realistic ways in which the situation can be improved or worsened. They both came with first-hand experience, as did many of the committee members. Of course, I expected the witnesses to be intelligent, well-informed, realistic, and sensible, because they are academics with real-world experience, and I trust that. The ones who amazed me were the Lords themselves. Perhaps it is my own youthful disillusionment with my government, or the fact that my President can barely form a coherent sentence, but I was shocked and delighted to hear the members of the committee listen carefully to the testimony, consider it, criticize it, make relevant challenges to it, and otherwise intelligently engage with the witnesses. They did not sit back passively and accept everything that was told to them, deferring to the authority of the specialist, but neither did they dismiss theories or suggestions that countered their own views or assumptions. They engaged with the information, filtered through it, and refined the points of the witnesses through criticism while still being extremely receptive to the views offered and appeared to honestly consider them. They were ever-respectful to the witnesses and expressed often their gratitude for taking the trouble to come to testify, and on short notice. They responded to the testimony intelligently, incorporating their own knowledge into follow-up questions and challenges. I realize I keep repeating the idea that they “engaged with the testimony intelligently” but honestly I’m still amazed. It was basically a real-life manifestation of my ideal governmental proceedings. Never in a million years would I have imagined that things were actually done this way. I don’t know if they’re done this way in the States, or even in the House of Commons (probably not), but seeing the House of Lords work in this way has restored my faith, at least somewhat, in what government can be. It really is possible to have representatives who earnestly search for the best solutions and attempt to put them into action.

My favorite member of the committee was Baroness Symons, and no, not just because she is a woman. Baroness Symons has first-hand experience working in Palestine, particularly I think on the ground dealing with infrastructure, like schools and hospitals. Throughout the session, Mr. Khalidi kept repeating his idea that Arabs see the EU as an organization that talks but doesn’t act, and passively sits back and writes checks in support but doesn’t really do much in terms of influencing events. Americans, he said, are the ones who Arabs see as the truly active entity, while the EU is viewed as relatively impotent. In light of this, he called for the EU to both get fully in the game, so to speak, and begin to take action, or else stop meddling entirely. He repeated this over and over, saying that the EU should be fully committed to aiding progress in the region or else it should simply not participate at all. He went so far as to suggest that the EU should stop sending funds to Palestine if it isn’t going to be truly committed. At this the Baroness got quite shirty. She criticized his point head-on, and was quite emphatic about the needs of the schools, hospitals, and other programs that help the average citizen, many of which, I presumed, would suffer if the EU withdrew funding. His point was one that I have heard many, many times from just about everyone around me on every possibly aspect of the subject of philanthropy, activism, or otherwise any other action that attempts to make the world better, whether it is giving change to a homeless person or voting for a third-party candidate. The argument is basically this: our efforts do not make a real difference, or, at least not a very big one, and so they are pointless. There is no point in giving money to charity because the small amount I can give barely helps anyone at all. There is no point in being an activist because no one else cares. There is no point in voting for a third-party candidate because it is impossible for them to win. Mr. Khalidi’s argument was the same: because of misuse of funds (corruption) the monies that the EU sends often do not reach their full potential, and because of the continuing conflict, the problems will never be solved simply by writing checks; therefore the monies are pointless and the EU should stop sending them. I like to call this argument the Lazy Cynic. This argument is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the attitude disgusts me rather violently. Obviously it did Baroness Symons as well, and though she was quite polite about it, she pointed out to Mr. Khalidi that she didn’t believe the cessation of financial support for poor and endangered people was part of the solution. I really wanted to cry “You go girl!” but as I was a student visiting a House of Lords committee room, I did not. I did, however, speak briefly with her afterwards and told her that I was in agreement with her and very much appreciated her contradicting Mr. Khalidi.

The session lasted about an hour and a half, and the Lords stated that they all felt they had learned quite a lot from the testimony and gained perspectives on the issues that they hadn’t previously considered. This made my heart happy. We were sent out of the room briefly, and then called back in and asked if we had any questions for the Lords. One student asked what would be done with the information gathered, and they responded that it would be compiled into a report and then presented to the House of Lords, and then to the EU, where it will hopefully influence Middle East foreign policy. Curious about the member’s personal interests after hearing the Baroness’ points, I asked if they chose to be on this committee or if they were placed there. It was a combination of both, but most of the members had a lot of previous experience (of course, they serve in the government for life) if not in the Middle East then at least in foreign affairs. They were extremely welcoming to us as students and quite accessible and open to questions. Once we left a few of the Lords shook hands with us in the corridor and asked us about ourselves, where we were from, etc, and I spoke briefly with the Baroness about the Lazy Cynic theory. All in all I could not have imagined a better experience, and it has almost made me want to go into politics, until I remembered that, since I was not of noble birth, I would have to do all the campaigning and pandering to the public and raising money and voting party line and all that rubbish. So I reconsidered. But perhaps I could work with an NGO, such as Amnesty or Oxfam, compiling human rights reports, testifying to the UN, and etc. My Human Rights professor is a lawyer with an NGO, and works to help represent those people whose human rights have been violated. Perhaps I should go to law school. Harvard is looking to boost their female enrollment… ::rubs hands together in an unsettlingly conniving manner::


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