Responding to violence and fear…

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You know what I am referring to. The news, your Facetwitter feed, even good old fashioned communication- it is full of the desperate events that unfolded in Paris over the last couple of days. Violence and murder done in the name of religion. Violence that grew like poisonous funghi in the shadow cast by other violence.

Events like this have the capacity to shape our age, for good or ill. Our response to it should be to preach caution, to encourage a sense of proportion and to remind people of history, so we might learn from it.

People of faith have a particular role to play here, given the centrality of theology as both framing narrative and ideological justification for unspeakable barbarity. The meaning of ancient texts has become so mixed up with tribal identity and weight of injustice that perhaps it is only from within religion that violence can be challenged. I know this as the hard, unyielding condemning religion I grew up with was transformed through thoughtful engagement with a different kind of belief.

Giles Fraser had this to say about the relationship between iconography and religion;

But, of course, these terrorists weren’t really interested in theology. They thought that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were insulting their human tribe, a tribe they called fellow Muslims. And maybe they were. But whatever else was happening, it was the atheist cartoonists who were performing the religious function and the apparently believing Muslims who had forgotten their deepest religious insights. For any representation of the divine that leads people to murder each other deserves the maximum possible disrespect.

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But back to the point- what should be our response?

I mentioned attempting to retain some perspective. It is so hard to do this when bombarded with so much infotainment/news coverage. Meanwhile extremes are shouted from the margins by those who have a different tribal agenda- Muslims are all evil, as is their religion; we are all under attack from immigrants in our midst; all religion is bad; Christians were right all along etc etc.

Let us remember in this white/anglo-saxon/protestant centric world we inhabit that across much of the planet human life is cheap. The deaths in Paris were tragic, dreadful, appalling. But Yesterday in Nigeria around 2000 people were killed in a different Islamic extremist attack that Amnesty International described as the “deadliest massacre” in the history of Boko Haram. Be honest now- did you know about this? How do you emotionally and intellectually respond?

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Then there are the lessons of even recent history (let us not even mention the dreadful colonial legacy that has far more to do with the creation of terrorism than religion ever could have).

Although we have to start there in a way. At the end of Empire, Britain had lived with terrorism for at least 100 years. The transition from colonial territory to autonomous nation has rarely been peaceful; too many artificial borders imposed on disparate peoples, with a history of being on different sides of the many colonially sponsored conflicts. Britain learned the hard way that conventional warfare is never the long term solution to insurgency and terror. Or rather we had to re learn this again and again, treading a path that is remarkably familiar; concentration camps, secret police, propaganda campaigns that leave no room for dissidents, and along the way many a blood bath; Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ireland etc etc. Eventually we had to talk to people. We had to turn away from violence and try to make peace in the face of all sorts of provocations.

Ah- but these conflicts were largely about geography, not about ideology, I hear you cry; modern terrorism has no obvious negotiation point; we can not walk away, because it is coming to us- our homes, our streets. It arises internally from our own ethnic minority communities.

I would suggest that there are more similarities than would first appear, it is just that like all post modern movements, terror has globalised. It has worldwide franchises, but power and motivation are still generated in the conflict zones.

After the attack on the World Trade Centre, America declared a war of vengeance. They were quite open about it at the time. Someone had to pay. First Afghanistan was invaded, with a narrative about evil regimes, then on far shakier evidence (later almost entirely discredited) Iraq. Hundreds of thousands died. The bulging prison camps became training grounds for new terror movements. Surveillance and a suspension of the rule of law was seen as justifiable and expedient. To support the war effort successive governments incited fear in a wider public who, in general terms, had probably never been so safe. Has it worked? Can we really regard the world, even the USA as a safer place, a better place?

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Here is Owen Jones writing about events in Norway in the wake of their brush with terror;

Three and a half years ago, the far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik bombed Oslo, and then gunned down dozens of young people on the island of Utøya. His rationalisation for the atrocity was to stop the “Islamisation” of Norway: that the Norwegian left had opened the country’s doors to Muslims and diluted its Christian heritage. But Norway’s response was not retribution, revenge, clampdowns. “Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity,” declared the prime minister Jens Stoltenberg. When Breivik was put on trial, Norway played it by the book. The backlash he surely craved never came.

Here’s how the murderers who despicably gunned down the journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo do not want us to respond. Vengeance and hatred directed at Muslims as a whole serves Islamic fundamentalists well. They want Muslims to feel hated, targeted and discriminated against, because it increases the potential well of support for their cause. Already, there are multiple reports of attacks in France against mosques, and even a “criminal explosion” in a kebab shop. These are not just disgraceful, hateful acts. Those responsible are sticking to the script of the perpetrators. They are themselves de facto recruiting sergeants for terrorists.

As a nation we are vulnerable to many things in these changing and rootless times. Our chances of early death at the hands of an Islamic terrorist are absolutely tiny. Lots of other things that we live with every day will kill thousands of us; our lifestyles, our motor cars. There is a chance that our over consuming will be the end of our kind.

So let us pause, remember with respect those souls who passed and then try to make peace with ourselves and then with our neighbours.

Jar of peace

Remembering mass slaughter…

 

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100 years after the beginning of the first modern industrial world wide war, how do we remember?

The quality of our remembering seems to be very important as we humans require the same lessons over and over again if we are ever to learn anything. Empires rise insatiably and claw at one another ever more effectively.

Yet still there is a danger that we remember the dead only as some kind of noble sacrifice in a titanic struggle for goodness, freedom and the rightness of our national cause. But there is no rightness in Empire. For one to rise, another must fall. And there must always be casualties.

So how should we remember?

I found myself first moved by the Tower of London poppies installation, then deeply troubled by it. Troubled because it is one sided, one dimensional. It records only our dead, pouring out of the symbolic Tower of London, itself at the very centre of the old Empire, now overshadowed by the high rise monstrosities of the City of London financial buildings.

Blood should be gushing from the gutters thereabouts, not trailing in a delecate flush of elegant ceramic flowers.

How should we remember?

Perhaps the best way might be to consider a world without Empire. To imagine how we might strive for peace, not conquest. How we might evolve systems that share resources rather than exulting in avarice and subordinating all morality to economic growthism. Is an alternative really so impossible?

I heard a poem recently, written by a young German called lfred Lichtenstein, who was born in 1889 in Berlin, and studied law there until 1913, when he joined a Bavarian regiment for a year’s military service. At the beginning of World War I he was in Belgium, and was killed in action the following year, September 1914, in Vermandovillers. Lichtenstein had published only one small collection of poems, Die Dämmerung, published the year before his death.

In 1913, the year before the beginning of the Great War, he wrote this poem. Imagine it in the context of that river of British poppies;

Prophecy

Soon there’ll come—the signs are fair—
A death-storm from the distant north.
Stink of corpses everywhere,
Mass assassins marching forth.

The lump of sky in dark eclipse,
Storm-death lifts his clawpaws first.
All the scallywags collapse.
Mimics split and virgins burst.

With a crash a stable falls.
Insects vainly duck their heads.
Handsome homosexuals
Tumble rolling from their beds.

Walls in houses crack and bend.
Fishes rot in every burn.
All things reach a sticky end.
Buses, screeching overturn.

1913
—Translated from the German by Christopher Middleton

 

Tunnellers…

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Below the broken houses

Under these shattered streets

The earth lies like litmus;

Bright red

Made toxic by all the anger

All the layers of pain

Fresh young blood

Worms its way

Into each holy strata

 

 

A general declares for war

“Until we have located and destroyed each tunnel”

As if it might be possible to rid the earth

Of moles

Or earthworms

But both are fed by what falls from above

Death makes fertile soil

For tunnellers

Economic lie no.6; inequality of wealth creates incentive and effort…

(The last posts in this series are here and here. Post no.4 dealt with similar territory. These posts are part of an on going attempt to search for alternatives to the economic status quo, which I would contend is costing the earth at the expense of the poor.)

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A recent book by French economist Thomas Piketty (Capital in the Twenty-First Century) has taken the issue of inequality on directly. So much so that the book has become something of a sensation amongst the movers and shakers of the economic world.

To recap- the world is becoming increasingly unequal. This from The Guardian;

Inequality of wealth in Europe and US is broadly twice the inequality of income – the top 10% have between 60% and 70% of all wealth but merely 25% to 35% of all income. But this concentration of wealth is already at pre-First World War levels, and heading back to those of the late 19th century, when the luck of who might expect to inherit what was the dominant element in economic and social life. There is an iterative interaction between wealth and income: ultimately, great wealth adds unearned rentier income to earned income, further ratcheting up the inequality process.

 

…the period between 1910 and 1950, when that inequality was reduced, was aberrant. It took war and depression to arrest the inequality dynamic, along with the need to introduce high taxes on high incomes, especially unearned incomes, to sustain social peace.

 

Now the ineluctable process of blind capital multiplying faster in fewer hands is under way again and on a global scale.

Take a moment to think about this- the rampant growth in the wealth of a tiny super rich elite has now taken us more or less back to the division of wealth that would have been familiar to an Edwardian farm worker or mill worker before the first world war. A world of vast country estates and stately homes serviced by an army of domestics. This is the world we are heading back to it seems.

How did this happen?

Consider the recent political reaction to the financial crisis- austerity hits public spending projects aimed at the poorest sections of society, whilst at the same time lowering inheritance taxes, refusing to reshape the council tax and boast promote ‘business-friendly’ low capital gains and corporation tax regimes.

They can get away with this for one simple reason- we have accepted a myth as truth- the myth of the wealth-creators, whose aspirations to accumulate are the engine of our national success. Set this in the context of the other myth- that national economies operate like household budgets, and the sense of looming crisis has meant that the current government has been able to slash and burn, whilst letting lose the greed of the few.

But back to Thomas Piketty. He has carefully analysed data from about 200 years of capitalist expansion, and came to this rather startling conclusion;

Capital, he argues, is blind. Once its returns – investing in anything from buy-to-let property to a new car factory – exceed the real growth of wages and output, as historically they always have done (excepting a few periods such as 1910 to 1950), then inevitably the stock of capital will rise disproportionately faster within the overall pattern of output. Wealth inequality rises exponentially.

 

The process is made worse by inheritance and, in the US and UK, by the rise of extravagantly paid “super managers”. High executive pay has nothing to do with real merit, writes Piketty – it is much lower, for example, in mainland Europe and Japan. Rather, it has become an Anglo-Saxon social norm permitted by the ideology of “meritocratic extremism”, in essence, self-serving greed to keep up with the other rich. This is an important element in Piketty’s thinking: rising inequality of wealth is not immutable.

 

Societies can indulge it or they can challenge it.

Piketty goes further however- he argues that this indulgent greed, this ‘meritocratic extremism’ will be the end of Capitalism itself. Those of us familiar with the Marxian view of the progression of history will remember this- how eventually those of us with little will get sick of a society that requires us to work to maintain the wealth of the few.

Anyone with the capacity to own in an era when the returns exceed those of wages and output will quickly become disproportionately and progressively richer. The incentive is to be a rentier rather than a risk-taker: witness the explosion of buy-to-let. Our companies and our rich don’t need to back frontier innovation or even invest to produce: they just need to harvest their returns and tax breaks, tax shelters and compound interest will do the rest.

Capitalist dynamism is undermined, but other forces join to wreck the system.

 

Piketty notes that the rich are effective at protecting their wealth from taxation and that progressively the proportion of the total tax burden shouldered by those on middle incomes has risen. In Britain, it may be true that the top 1% pays a third of all income tax, but income tax constitutes only 25% of all tax revenue: 45% comes from VAT, excise duties and national insurance paid by the mass of the population.

 

As a result, the burden of paying for public goods such as education, health and housing is increasingly shouldered by average taxpayers, who don’t have the wherewithal to sustain them. Wealth inequality thus becomes a recipe for slowing, innovation-averse, rentier economies, tougher working conditions and degraded public services.

 

Meanwhile, the rich get ever richer and more detached from the societies of which they are part: not by merit or hard work, but simply because they are lucky enough to be in command of capital receiving higher returns than wages over time. Our collective sense of justice is outraged.

 

The lesson of the past is that societies try to protect themselves: they close their borders or have revolutions – or end up going to war.

 

Piketty fears a repeat.

His solutions- a top income tax rate of up to 80%, effective inheritance tax, proper property taxes and, because the issue is global, a global wealth tax- are difficult to imagine at present. The elite are too comfortable in their neo-Georgian luxury.

But if Pinketty is right, the seeds of destruction are at the heart of capitalism- and it is the result of greed.

Jesus would have a few words to say about this too I think…

 

Sorrow for those who die in wars is not the same thing as soldier-worship…

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Picture from The Guardian.

Another remembrance Sunday is upon us. Images of all those thousands who died like cattle in the first world war will flood the screens, along with a Spitfire fly past. Our more recent maimed young soldiers will be wheeled out, or teeter out on the carbon fibre blades that replaced their legs.

There was a great article in the guardian today which used the phrase ‘soldier worship’ to capture something of what tends to happen at these times. A quote;

We should not feel compelled to point out that those brave men and women are fighting in Afghanistan to secure our safety every time the military is mentioned. First, because it is not true that they are; and second, because such blustering at the merest glimpse of camouflage clothing is an obvious and embarrassing capitulation to dogma.

What is the dogma being referred to here? I would like to suggest that it is the myth of the hero-soldier, fighting for our freedom, our way of life, our nationhood. True reverence (or true worship) for the heroic sacrifice they make on our behalf is to elevate the soldier onto a public plinth. This is not necessarily the same thing as rewarding individuals, rather it becomes a political hermeneutic through which we view current wars.

We in Britain have been evangelised into this new religion to a certain extent by what happens in the USA. It seems to me that it is only a recent thing that the word ‘hero’ was used each time a soldiers were mentioned in this country; not so in the USA where ‘veterans’ are regarded as we might someone who walks in to a burning building to bring out children.

Is it just me who feels a little uncomfortable every time I see the words ‘Help for Heroes‘?

I think I should be clear that I am NOT saying that soldiers should not have our respect, or our assistance in the event of injury. Even the shameful conviction of a Royal Marine commando this week for torturing then shooting a prisoner should not suggest that soldiers like killing people, or have universally lost their humanity. What it tells us rather is that war brutalises, damages and degrades everyone involved in it, even (and perhaps particularly) those who are victorious, all powerful.

In my years as a therapist in primary care, I saw a lot of ex-servicemen. The area around Bolton and Wigan has always been a big recruiting ground for the army in particular. I remember their stories, fractured and halting as they were, vividly. Mostly they were seen backwards through broken relationships, alcoholism, even prison. A man who had served in Cypress, unable even to describe the terrible things he has seen. Another man describing the slaughter of Iraqi conscripts in the first Gulf War. These were men for whom the war itself was almost the best part of them. But it was also the end of ease, comfort and self assurance. Part of this was always guilt for what they had done- sometimes personally, sometimes collectively, often just because they survived when others did not.

Are these men heroes? Some of them may well be incredibly brave, and had dreadful experiences. however, to continue to espouse soldier-worship does something to the way we view war itself. Despite telling human stories from war, it does not humanise war; it runs the real risk of idolising it. By viewing conflict only through the eyes of the mostly masculine gadget-laden machinery operated by our own heroic boy-adventurers is a remarkably effective way of taking our eyes of the nature of the conflicts themselves.

Think of all those war films- even the ones that are regarded as ‘anti-war’. Who are the lead characters? Whose life and death experiences hold our fascination? Almost every one of these films, brilliant and moving as many of them are, are long hymns sung in the church of soldier-worship.

A few years ago I wrote a post entitled Losing small wars, but not not learning lessons. I tried to outline some of the myths that we were being asked to swallow in relation to our current war making;

We have been brought up to view our own military misadventures as essentially good versus bad- the plucky resourceful Brit against the Towel-head/Hun/Jap/Red. We always triumph in the end- true character always does.

This ignores all the evidence to the contrary- the mounting body bags, the torture of prisoners, the resounding “NO!” echoing from the population of all these countries that we are supposedly liberating.

Then there is the stench of post imperialist self-interest, and the feeling of being manipulated by murky spinners of media messages- all of that gung ho ‘smart’ bombing and ‘shock and awe’-ing.

The discussion mentioned above identified some key myths that we really should watch out for (along with a few of my own suggestions)-

  • “Failure is not an option”- we will win. We. Will. Win. Or at least give it the appearance of victory.
  • “This year is the pivotal year”- as each one seems to be.
  • More money will win ‘hearts and minds’.
  • You can’t trust the locals.
  • The hero myth- glorious death. Dulce et decorum est.
  • War will solve our problems.
  • You can fight a war on terrorists by terrorising their communities in return.

The only way to humanise war is to understand that the enemy is flesh and blood too, has children, dreams, fears, irrational and rational passions and beliefs. We have to remember the hundreds of thousands of people, men, women, children, whom have died very un-heroic deaths in our recent wars. Whom have lost un-heroic limbs and have very un-heroic disfigurements.

In the meantime, this Remembrance Sunday, it is right to remember all those who died.

But let us not use the word glory– the first world war killed that one.

Neither let us use the word honour- their is no honour in war. World war two made this clear.

And as for the word hero, let us use this word sparingly and apply it most fervently to those who make peace in the face of violence.

The (dis)armed man…

Michaela and I went to see The Armed Man last night- a mass for peace written by Karl Jenkins, performed by the Cowal Choral Society, along with the Glasgow Concert Orchestra, with powerful moving images of war and suffering projected throughout. It made me think deeply about violence- something that spreads like bird flu- received then given, and just as you think it is over, it breaks out again.

It was a deeply moving end to a lovely weekend.

We had some guests in our annex, and ended up playing instruments and singing into the small hours on Saturday, as they were a musical bunch- Yvonne, and her lovely friends Alison and Raine.

My fingers get very sore after playing guitar these days as they have softened with lack of use- it reminded me that I should play more often, or lose something that is precious to me.

Which will unfortunately have to wait- I was playing cricket yesterday and was hit by a ball on the tip of finger, which despite my batting gloves is now swollen to slightly resemble that of ET. It was a great game though- we lost again, but both Will and I made contributions to a decent effort (15no and 20 respectively with a wicket apiece.) Our star batsman of the day had to retire when his hamstring twanged as he smashed 50 odd then tried a quick single.

All weekends should be like this. Here is a bit of Yvonne’s music to point us to the week ahead;