Then They Came for Me.
"Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it's right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn't it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started talking, until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we aren't guilty/responsible?"
Martin Niemoller, in his speech for the Confessing Church, Frankfurt, Germany, 6th January 1946.
The German Lutheran Pastor, Martin Niemoller, (please forgive the absence of an umlaut over the "o"), from whom the above quote is taken, is perhaps most famous for his poem, "First They Came...", which deals with the rise of the Nazis and the apparent lack of protest against their evil policies. The poem's main theme, then, is how persecution can be allowed to flourish amidst apparent acquiescence, raising the issue of guilt and responsibility amongst us all. The poem in its entirety reads as follows: "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— / Because I was not a Socialist. / Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— / Because I was not a Trade Unionist. / Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— / Because I was not a Jew. / Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."
In these pages I have talked about what I see as the demonization of a certain element of our own society, namely those who, for whatever reason, claim benefits. The right-wing press and our current incumbents, to my mind, have created a steady stream of propaganda, often portraying those receiving what are now rather insultingly termed, "handouts", as lazy, feckless, work-shy, scrounging, or downright fraudulent, which in turn seems to have justified the instigation of cuts to the welfare system. I have, at times, berated this tendency to blame our economic ills on the most poor and vulnerable in society, and it wouldn't be the first time that I've sought to compare this process with how the Nazis dehumanized elements of their society, paving the way to the truly chilling final solution. Indeed, might benefits claimants be the untermenschen of our times? Many would say that this is wild overstatement, and perhaps even insulting to those who lost their lives or survived the holocaust. However, while I know that a direct comparison can't be made, I do, as it were, see echoes of such tyranny in today's Tory Britain, albeit to a lesser degree. How, for instance, do you justify the persecution of certain elements of society? It seems to me that you begin with, as the Nazis did with the Jews and other groups, a process of dehumanization, thereby somehow rendering the suffering of such people unworthy of any concern.
All this has been on my mind because I've recently been assessed for the benefits I receive. As we all know, the government has sought to reassess everyone receiving such assistance from the state. Those claiming DLA or Incapacity Benefit, like me, have been forced to go through this process, as the benefits we receive are honed and changed, DLA being replaced by PIP, and Incapacity Benefit by ESA.
The only things is, many people are finding this process unfair and unnecessarily draconian. In my own situation, the award of DLA (Disability Living Allowance) was originally said to be for life, but with the introduction of PIP (Personal Independence Payment), which has replaced DLA, this appears no longer to apply, and at a recent assessment for PIP, I scored a grand total of zero points. A score of 8 to 11 points qualifies you for the standard rate of PIP, with a score of 12 or above qualifying you for the higher rate. So, it seems that my diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, together with various other physical problems, such as a congenital heart defect which has meant I that I need a pacemaker, sleep apnoea largely due to weight gain, which in turn has largely been caused by the medication I take, and hypertension, counts for little in the mind of the almighty DWP.
I know of quite a few people, though, who have similar mental health problems to my own, that have been awarded zero points on their initial application for PIP, only to have such decisions overturned, either through what is termed a "mandatory reconsideration" or appeal. I therefore hope that my case will prove to be the same, but in the meantime I face a period of uncertainty.
What is certain, though, is that such changes to the benefits system are having far reaching consequences. For some, the sheer anxiety of the assessment process is proving difficult, for others, who have had their benefits withdrawn, it is resulting in a worsening of their conditions. In some cases, people have taken their own lives or, such as in the 49 cases recorded by the DWP themselves, they have passed away, their deaths being connected in some way to the changes being wrought in the system. Only this morning on BBC news, it was reported that there has been a sharp increase in homelessness and people living in temporary accommodation, with many blaming shortages in social housing, rising prices of private tenancies, cuts to housing benefit and indeed, the cuts in benefits in general. Such news was met with the usual government response, namely that they are pumping money into solving such issues, and indeed that they intend to "eliminate" homelessness altogether. One wonders exactly how they are going to do this, given the changes and cuts they have initiated, and indeed, such language took on, for me at least, something of a malevolent air. Talk of "eliminating" the problem of rough sleeping leaves me wondering just what methods will be used to vanquish the issue, given the already appalling lack of concern for such unfortunate folk.
I also find that there seems to be a very particular narrative being peddled about the nature of illness and disability, perhaps enhanced by our now celebrity Paralympians. This narrative would seem to suggest that if only one works hard, is dedicated and follows one's dreams unflinchingly, then anything is possible. The onus of responsibility then moves away from wider society and onto the individual. People get the impression that disabilities can be overcome if only one applies oneself. This, to me, is just yet another myth, designed to reduce sympathy for those who simply can't, through no fault of their own, get better or cope better.
So, it would seem that with my assessment, and perhaps more like it on the horizon, they've finally come for me. But as I raise my voice to protest, is anyone else speaking for me? Is the relative silence of the media on such subjects becoming deafening? Are we, either intentionally or otherwise, fostering an attitude which says, as in Niemoller's quote, that "these... sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others"? And as we all sit around and do nothing about it, can we say we aren't in some way guilty also?