Friday, 31 July 2009

Vile viral verse

Last night I received an email "poem" from a friend, that had been forwarded many times. I read through it with growing dismay. It is written in a sort of broken English and holds a contemptuous tone throughout.

It was sent to me as


I cross ocean, poor and broke.
Take bus, see employment folk.
Nice man treat me good in there.
Say I need to see welfare.
Welfare say, 'You come no more,
we send cash right to your door.'
Welfare cheques - they make you wealthy!
NHS - it keep you healthy!
By and by, I get plenty money.
Thanks to you, you British dummy!
Write to friends in motherland.
Tell them 'come fast as you can.'
They come in turbans and Ford trucks,
And buy big house with welfare bucks!
They come here, we live together.
More welfare cheques, it gets better!
Fourteen families, they moving in,
but neighbour's patience wearing thin.
Finally, British guy moves away.
Now I buy his house, then I say,
'Find more immigrants for house to rent'
And in the yard I put a tent.
Everything is very good,
and soon we own the neighbourhood.
We have hobby, it's called breeding.
Welfare pay for baby feeding.
Kids need dentist? Wives need pills?
We get free! We got no bills!
British crazy! They work all year,
to keep the welfare running here.
We think UK darn good place.
Too darn good for British race!
If they no like us, they can scram.
Got lots of room in Afghanistan!

I responded to my friend, who is an expat in Manila, the Philippines (where she is a tireless voluntary worker for local charities, making forwarding this "poem" all the more astonishing, her husband is working there):

Ha ha very funny, just like British expats travelling the world to get better pay/standard of life/avoid taxes/make pensions go further/extend careers/better prospects/lazier life with home help/ or whatever.
I don't like this unkind 'poem'. Britain has many hard working legal immigrants who make our country all the better for their presence. Illegal immigrants in UK do not get 'welfare cheques' whatever they are (that's US terminology isn't it?). They often live in truly squalid conditions, and then get deported. Sorry, I don't think this poem is 'brilliant' at all. It's a nasty, sneering piece of work, and totally unworthy of you.
This morning after some research I discovered this nasty piece of work has some form. A few minutes googling uncovered many titles and many incarnations. It is known variously as the Illegal, Welfare or Immigrant's Ode or Poem, and it is a favourite on far right websites, like Stormfront in the UK.

According to this site specialising in disputing urban myths, this poem seems to have originated in Canada, and since it began circulating it has been adapted for American, Australian and British use, whilst the sneering tone of broken English and opportunism remains intact.

Behind it lies a story of how urban myths develop - that immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers or illegal immigrants are somehow 'better off' or receive more 'welfare cheques' than the citizens.

The circulation of this nasty verse has caused the resignations or sacking of at least three people; W.R. "Bud" Harper, Arkansas' top emergency official in 2003; Mark Newton, university security guard who worked at Manchester Metropolitan University; and in 2006, according to political correspondent Ben Russell of the Independent, Cameron was embarrassed and forced to suspend a former Conservative parliamentary candidate from the party bcause of this "racist email". Edward Davey, the Liberal Democrat campaigns chief, said: "It is totally unacceptable for elected representatives to be distributing this kind of material. Racism has absolutely no place in British politics".

A most interesting account of this poem came from this site, which begins with a disclaimer:

Please note that the verse does not represent my own views; it is a study into how such items spread and are recycled and the social comments to be found in them.

"Illegal" or "Immigrant's Ode" is, on the face of it, a nasty racist poem which has been in circulation for at least a decade. The first version I saw was Xerox-lore i.e. photocopied and passed on. I can't recall the date, but it was many years ago and targeted Asian immigrants(Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals) entering Britain. The 1980s were full of anti-Asian "jokes" and Xerox-lore such as this spread quickly. . According to older friends, its pedigree history goes back even further, with a version aimed at West Indian immigrants into Britain and possibly sung to the "Banana Boat Song".

The most common version on the Internet these days, seems to be the American version dated 1993. This is probably because the USA dominates the Internet and because the poem landed an aide of Colorado governor Bill Owens in a lot of trouble when he circulated it as a "joke". Owens was not the only one either; WR "Bud" Harper resigned from his post as the state's top emergency official after forwarding the verse by email. It was reproduced in part or in full in a number of reports - thus ensuring it spread even further. The target in the American case was Mexico, reflecting the problem of illegal immigrants crossing the border in the USA. The verse is written in a stereotyped pidgin English style.

According to some American friends, it is far from accurate since America lacks a welfare state akin to that in Britain. Even more tragically, railroad cars containing dead stowaways have been found in the USA - some having been parked up and left unopened for weeks or months. Far from being a land of ease, the USA proves to be a tough place - immigrants (legal and illegal) may find themselves exploited as manual labourers. Those present illegally can find themselves abused, but may be afraid to (or unable) to seek help.

There are many ways the poem could have moved from Britain to America: in a magazine, as a photocopy, on usenet (which has existed in some form or another for over a decade) or in an email. According to a contributor to the Stormfront White Nationalist Community, he edited the verse into an American form and sent it through cyberspace for the enjoyment of other white supremacists. Some versions have the term "white race" changed to "American race" since America is already a multi-ethnic society (British race in this version). The pervasiveness of computer technology means this claim, though plausible, cannot be substantiated. It could have been edited and disseminated by almost anyone on either side of the Atlantic.

More recently a version has cropped up in the USA referring to Pakistan . . and the same version also appears with Canada being the country receiving the immigrants. This has closer ties to the versions that have long circulated in Britain where there are large, and extremely hard-working, Asian communities in major cities.

An American reader might imagine references to Asian or traditionally Muslim countries to be linked to the "War on Terror" raging in the Middle East during 2003/4. In fact those references hark back to the British roots of this racist and odious ode. The verse also reflects how immigrant families often retained their traditional "extended family" where several generations, or two or more inter-related families, lived under one roof. Extended families had long since become unusual in white British culture. . The extended family and the need to settle among people with similar cultural values also became targets in all versions of this verse.

Though there are "economic migrants" looking for a welfare state to support them, many immigrants (many with excellent qualifications) take on jobs that a country's residents sneer at - jobs involving menial tasks or jobs which are simply low paid. In particular, these have included jobs which involve serving others in some capacity e.g. as domestic staff. Discrimination and prejudice closed other avenues of work. The willingness of many immigrants to work hard is not depicted as being due to pride and a strong work ethic, it was used to reinforce an image of worthlessness. Many supported no only themselves, but also sent money home to relatives. It is not surprising that they would want their relatives to join them and enjoy a better standard of living, not through scrounging (as the verse suggests) but through joining the family business. In Britain, the open-all-hours convenience store is an essential part of many communities and such stores are generally run by extremely hard-working Asian families.

As well as having racist overtones, the Immigration poem also pokes fun at the British welfare state which was perceived as handing out money willy-nilly. These immigrants were legal, hence the poem's title is "Immigrant's tale" or similar. Even today, many people feel that the British welfare state bends over backwards to help those new to the country, while failing "indigenous" people. This is what keeps the poem alive and in circulation as it is updated and revised to depict each new ethnic group entering the country.

This "poem" needs to be challenged every time it rears its ugly head in new versions. It spreads racist untruths about immigrants, and its jaunty style conceals hatred and contempt. There is no gentle way to deal with viral email.

Catch it, bin it, kill it, and tell the sender why.

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