Nice one, Banksy. But you shouldn't have to be Steve Jobs to count as a worthy refugee

The artwork needs a footnote; we owe Syrians more, no matter what they might do for our economies

"Apple is the world’s most profitable company, it pays over $7 billion a year in taxes", said Banksy, in a statement
"Apple is the world’s most profitable company, it pays over $7 billion a year in taxes", said Banksy, in a statement

The figure of Steve Jobs – hunched and harried, but with that familiar piercing glare – now decorates one of the Jungle’s hulking concrete walls. He wears a polo-neck, and carries in one hand an Apple Mac monitor. He has, it almost goes without saying, been painted there by Banksy. The meme is left for the viewer to make out: Jobs is, as a thousand Twitter posts remind, the most famous Syrian “refugee” in history.

There is something in those eyes that holds you. They are avian, the eyes of a predator – in Silicon Valley – transplanted to a place where most camp residents are prey: to border patrols, to barbed wire, to mud and rain and disease. What would once read as the hauteur of a polo-necked digital deity becomes the ferocity of a hunted man, spotted by police (and the bright white-yellow daubs that bring out Jobs’ face seem to put a torch in the viewer’s hand. We have interrupted him, sack slung over his shoulder, on the way to the Channel, perhaps – and are but one heartbeat away from ‘fight or flight’).

So visually it grabs. But politically less so. Banksy often makes politics as easy as one-two-three, and that works, in its own way, but it works best in the comfortable streets of West London – where residents can have their eyes amused by something cod-profound as they nibble on a caramel on the way to the hairdressers (I include myself here). Put Banksy in the real world, though, and he seems, beneath the pseudonym, forever 17.

Perhaps that is too sour. Jobs in the Jungle is a statement, meant to shock, and here I am, shocked. So maybe what the piece needs isn’t erasure, but a footnote. The idea that “there might be a Steve Jobs” among those living in the Jungle should be washed quickly away. It is pat. It is besides the point. Better treatment and faster asylum procedures are owed to the people in the Jungle because they are people; some saintly, some less so; some business-minded, some illiterate. As it is, we are too tempted by hierarchies of sympathy: starting from a base of ‘Syrians’, moving up to ‘Syrians with an education’, peaking at ‘Syrians who might turn out to redefine the world economy’.

Banksy’s statement might have been more profound if it had been an anonymous refugee fixed to the wall. Possibly a Kurd, possibly a Gambian, possibly an Afghan or an Iraqi. That same gaze to hold your attention. The figure’s anonymity itself would be a reproach: just another human being among the nameless mass, static, frozen, as stuck to Europe’s conscience as it is to this wall. (Walls, of course, built in a hurry to stop people like me getting close to people like you.) It should not take a celebrity refugee to have us face the humanity of people sleeping outside in the winter (and funny how, after being repeated so many times, that word “humanity” has worn thin). The West owes sanctuary to Syrians not because of what they might do for us, but because our governments can do so much for them.

Footnote over. One addendum. The last mean thing I have to say about the Banksy is that it aligns with the priorities of the Republican Presidential candidates, who only want to let in Syrians (and only Syrians), if they prove they can programme an electric car in two-hours flat, while singing The Star Spangled Banner, and pledging never to touch a gun so long as they live. But a positive PPS to end on. I’m still glad Banksy went to the trouble. Very much so.

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