A friend of mine was speaking to me recently about death, specifically one’s own, the shock of realisation, which prompts me to see if I can put my thoughts down on all this stuff sufficiently succinctly (I leave you to judge. Done me best, m’lud).
We are all well acquainted with the general principle of death, of course, what with the news, relatives and friends killed or dead of disease, the common message of all religions (it’s coming, be prepared), and the cooked meat those of us who are carnivores eat. But it doesn’t ring true for us humans until (at least, in my experience) sometime during one’s fifties or sixties. That’s when the idea of your own death goes from being something you know to be true to being something viscerally Real. And all about You.
Yep, for us all one day that once distant destination hoves into view, just tipping the furthest of one’s far horizons in the beginning, as for the first time you realise deep in your heart and (for all I know) soul, that this all must end for you one day. Really end. Dead.
“Victory Over The Grave”
Christianity, the dominant religion of the northern hemisphere cultures, has always had a hard time with this. Christianity teaches that God is good and Death holds no sway over his followers (all signs to the contrary notwithstanding, but hey). Despite this promise, Christians recoil from death. They have a crucified man become reincarnate as their central image, the promise of God that he will make up for all this awful life we live, don’t worry, trust him. Etc. I expect this is in large part because it is a religion of people who live in some of the hardest environments in a difficult world. Life is fatal, and quite painful in the process. Let there be some recompense awaiting us.
Believers in an eternal afterlife, meaning that state of being alive and themselves forever, much as they are now on earth, only perfected in the process, whatever that means (a concept that is unique to the Arabian-European cultures, incidentally), take comfort in the thought that they’ll get their compensation there. It is to be noted that the most common visions of heaven are pretty much of the north of Europe with better weather and only pleasant people to deal with, lions lying with lambs and so forth. The religions of the equatorial and sub-equatorial cultures, apart from some low level heavens more or less equivalent to the Christian concept of Purgatory, generally offer oblivion as our last reward, becoming absorbed into “The Timeless Being”, a state we are to be sure will be bliss, as in Samadhi, or Nirvana, Godhead, and other such names. All religions, come to think of it, seem to agree you wind up in bliss, howsoever achieved, when you’re dead, which is nice to think, don’t you agree? You may have read my earlier blog about my ideas about the northern and southern hemisphere cultures, in which case you’ll know I think it’s a lot to do with the weather. Life in the north has always been tougher, freezing winters, drought ridden hot seasons, all that. It not only makes people generally look on life as a struggle, but also look for a reason for putting up with it, some kinda justice in this damn world, even if they have to be dead to enjoy it. Heaven is the obvious reward to offer, and Christianity dutifully sets about doing that.
Of course, to such secularist agnostics as me, the most significant fact of this or any belief system that mankind has come up with, is that we would not, in all probability, have heard of Christ, for instance, if the Emperor Constantine had not recruited him to his cause when attacking Rome, a war he won (hence Emperor), thanks be to Jesus, so he claimed, Hallelujah, and here we are, a Christian culture whether you believe in god or not. Just think, without Constantine we might all be Mithraists to this day.
Mithras (not sure what the bull is about)
A lot of Mithraism was incorporated into Christianity in any case, both Jesus and Mithras are said to be born of a virgin, ascended bodily into heaven, carried out miracles, raising the dead and so on; and for the first five hundred years of Christianity, Christ was portrayed as clean shaven and golden haired, like Mithras, and no doubt after the tradition of Alexander the Great. Thus are iconic images made, out of power, and the need to communicate with and govern mostly uneducated, uninformed people. As Brexit and Trump perhaps prove (we have Plato and Rome to thank for this), the people should not be trusted to rule sensibly, best to leave politics to the professionals; Divine Right and all that. Reigion is a useful tool in establishing this.
Which brings me to the present day. An interesting and as far as I know not much (if at all) remarked aspect in the recent US presidential election campaign is that neither candidate mentioned God or much about religion except endorsing the constitutional right to freedom of belief and so on. For the last couple of decades, God has been pretty much front and centre, as Americans might say, in their politics, especially the presidential race. God started getting in the conversation in the 80s, and was a sine qua non this century, so much so that early primary candidates have been known to claim God told them to run.
Religion was commandeered by politics as the way to control the citizens, my guess would be during the formation of primitive society in the lead up to the Iron Age, but anyway for at least 1700 years in Europe and its diaspora (the Roman Emperor Constantine used Christianity to motivate his army around 350AD – he claimed he saw Jesus leading him into battle). Since their cultures pre-date the European by millennia I’d assume politicians, kings, warlords and their ilk got their hold on religion much earlier in Asia, Arabia, the Persian Empire, and Africa. Islam, one should add, stands alone in this phenomenon of organised world religions, as the only religion for which both the spiritual inspiration and the political manipulator were the same man, Mohammed.
Why do I think about such things? Apart from the fun, as a French philosopher once remarked, to be had from discussing unanswerable subjects, it is because I believe there are two central arenas in which the battle for the future of our democratic societies will be fought: the first, between the polity, our society as a social organisation, and global corporations (another time); and the second, between religion and secularism. I mentioned the recent election because one might expect a demagogue to use religion, as it has always been used in the past, and is used to this day by the demagogic/theocratic governments of the Islamic world, closest to home being Erdogan in Turkey, and as it has been used to varying degrees in America since its inception. And, of course, Europe, pretty much until the end of World War 2. But now Trump makes it without a word on the subject, certainly no hand to his heart proclamation of faith. A good sign, I like to think, in the otherwise murky promise of the man…
This usurpation of our search for meaning and guidance in our lives to serve political purposes is a sad end for the ambitions of those people who first attempted to explain the inexplicable by describing their ideas on god or whatever it is. I always liked the Hindu answer to “What is God?” – “Not this; not that”. Or as the 12th Century Christian mystic Meister Eckhardt wrote “Everything you say about God is wrong.” The definition, as it were, of god is that it is beyond definition. This should apply to atheists as much as believers. How can we possibly know one way or the other? I’m with Iris Diment on this: “But no one knows for certain, and so it’s all the same to me/ I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
Everyone has experienced an exceptionally fortunate coincidence, that it is tempting at least, to attribute to an intervening god or spirit (or fairy, leprechaun. I could go on). No doubt it is comforting to hope said god will also see you through the bad times (I like the story of the footprints in the sand). But, of course, there’s no down to earth good reason not to dismiss it as mere chance, as life itself may be, though I’ve read that the plethora of coincidences that led to carbon based life are legion to the point where one might think Someone fixed it.
Of course the bottom line is what does it matter? The only way to confirm the truth of any sort of existence beyond this universe is to be dead, at which time it won’t matter to anyone else but you (and possibly not you either). Religions, human beliefs in the supra-natural in general, all encourage kindness and social respect – Love thy neighbour, as Jesus put it. One way or another they all aim at harmony among people (this acquiescent atmosphere being why it is so useful to our rulers). This is enough, it serves us here, which is all we can know, after all.
Unfortunately, at the hands of a lot of us mere mortals hoping to outguess their god, the definition of “people” has been interpreted as meaning fellow believers, often to the mortal detriment of the remaining so-called non-believers. This is entirely the fault of political manipulation. Mohammed has been the most recently “quoted out of context” of the great religious founders, but he has only himself to blame. He was a politician, a war leader to boot, so one cannot be surprised if the Q’ran occasionally encourages killing enemies of Islam/Mohammed, it probably served his military purposes. But let’s not forget the Q’ran also contains the founding thoughts of a great religion of compassion and charity. Go figure. The New Testament doesn’t have a word of encouragement to kill non-believers but Christians have been happy to slaughter in the name of their god nevertheless, and generally assume he is on their side in any conflict. As also Islamic fundamentalists in our current blighted world.
ISIS fighters demonstrate their confident belief in their righteousness.
So perhaps the issue is not god but the idea that the way to solve our differences is through violence and death, and how religion has been twisted to serve our earthly needs and desires. I can’t imagine any god with even merely a passing interest in us would be happy with this. Not to say I expect such a god to hold human life above all other forms of life. If there is some all-encompassing force that holds this universe together, then surely it has the viruses and bacteria to look after too, and besides, the fact is, nothing can be allowed to live forever in this universe, if only because, as we know, the sum total of matter in it is finite. We have to die to provide the material for life.
And so on it goes, tra-la…
We’re hand-rearing a lamb. He is the latest immigrant to our household, joining two cats and two dogs.
The first to come is the elder cat. She arrived on our kitchen windowsill (left there by a local rogue with a fecund cat of his own) at Christmas 2004. We call her Miss Bickel, in honour of her impersonation of Travis Bickel in the final shot of “Taxi Driver”, that quick flick of the eyes, the head snapping to some tiny movement. She is our native inhabitant in the animal community and she shows it.
She has absolutely no time for intruders, and has demonstrated her disdain and hostility to each of the succeeding animals to arrive here. Nowadays she sleeps on her own smelly pillowcase in a point of vantage that keeps her out of the common crowd, while able to take a swipe at them if they annoy her or get to close. Interestingly, in this ridiculously extended metaphor, she is black and white.
She was followed by the second cat, called Jack because he has only one eye. Miss Bickel reluctantly allowed this intrusion, and goes so far now as to eat at a common bowl with him, and they can be seen occasionally touching noses as they pass in the grounds. Jack is fat, more or less blind but adequately equipped with his other senses to get around OK. He is entirely tolerant, happy to be touched or licked or even butted by the dogs and lamb.
The next arrival was the first of the dogs. Miss Bickel disappeared for a week before coming home, hissing, lashing out (but not contacting) with her claws, before retreating to the highest cupboard top in the kitchen, and glaring down at this invader. Michael Benson, known as Mikey, is half Jack Russell terrier and half Labrador (admittedly, a conjunction it is hard to visualise), an Asiatic golden brown and built like a tank, long and strong, a fast runner who is determined to catch a bird in flight one day (we doubt it).
After a week we realised we had a choice between getting his twin brother or losing all of our shoes, so we duly brought home Benjamin Benson, known as Benji, a small terrier (more terrier than Mikey) with some Collie blood and so deeply black that for the first few weeks we kept stepping on him if he was lying in shadow.
These two are very happy together and at ease with the world. Jack soon took to sleeping in a huddle with one or other or both of them.
Miss Bickel skulked around, killed small creatures in the garden and scowled at everyone. She enjoyed certain privileges involving our laps in front of the television, and our bed in the morning. This seemed to satisfy her need to feel privileged as the original native.
But then came the lamb. I won’t explain the whole story but we ended up responsible for saving him from an early death and then, as the Cheyenne say, if you save a life you become responsible for it for the duration. He is called Holly because the German teenager who found him while strolling on our land thought he was a she. Miss Bickel gave up coming into the sitting room in the evening, confronted as she now was by two dogs and a lamb taking up all the space in front of the fire. Jack was happy to find a space in this melée.
Holly has grown up with the dogs for brothers, and me as his mother, since I was feeding him for those crucial first ten days (my wife was away visiting one of our daughters). For those first few weeks he slept with one or both of them in their basket in the kitchen, or in front of the fire in the sitting room, and followed them around outside. Now he sleeps outside (there are limits to our tolerance of lamb pee and poo. Sheep don’t housetrain) and mostly spends his days grazing around the house. The routine is to wake me with a few baas outside my window (we have learnt a lot about the language of sheep, there is a broad range of sounds for different requests), join in the frenzy of breakfast feeding time, and then rest for a while in the basket for old times’ sake while I have my breakfast and start writing (he’s there now, ruminating, mouth churning away on regurgitated grass).
Holly is probably the one who has made the most adjustment to his native nature in order to fit in with the community he has joined. He is mainly sheep, but he likes the breakfast association, and if, for instance, the dogs go running and barking to the gate at the noise of a car and he happens to be nearby, he’ll run after them. Sometimes we all go for a walk together. Yesterday when they were all in the kitchen, all three confronted a visitor who came to the door. As far as the community goes, while dogs and cats are well aware of each other and have been for millennia, they don’t generally mix with sheep, so Holly is the most alien of them, and they have variously reacted to that challenge. Holly has tried to be as doggy as he can but is happy being a sheep in his own little world most of the time. Miss Bickel is definitely a cat and wants us all to know it, the dogs are dogs, more concerned with their pointless hunts than anything anyone else is doing, and Jack doesn’t think about such matters, just sleeps.
The dogs want to be friends with everyone. They are utterly indiscriminate, though they’re ready to sound vicious and their play can turn quite horrifying sometimes, they’re a couple of fighters. But their hearts are in the right place. Benji stares at Miss Bickel if he can, challenging her to come and play. It seems he will never give up though clearly she offers no hope of ever doing so.
Jack is like someone who came to these islands with the Vikings. A different strain, if you like, but so much a part of the house as to feel secure and unthreatened by any change so long as he gets his two square meals a day and the chance to sleep on the chairs.
And then there is our native, Miss Bickel, indifferently hostile to everyone. She is our racist. There is something almost pure about such hostility and suspicion. It makes no distinction, is not unduly aggressive, just that “them darkies” attitude to anyone basically, who is not a black and white cat. She gives the least attention to Holly. She seems to think he is too outrageous even to react to him. She doesn’t even turn her head if he passes.
Why is difference such an issue? It is becoming the main point of contest and the weakest flank of the Stay campaign in the UK referendum. It is a constant of American social news, in fact, the ghetto-isation of America is its saddest and most confounding failure as a society. A Texan pal once said to me “America is a melting pot… Full of rocks”. But the world is becoming that. There does not seem to be a country that isn’t “dealing with” immigrants. Statistics have proven over and over again that immigrants are a net gain in any economy. The entire history of Britain is based on first immigration from the rest of Europe, and then emigration to the farthest corners of the earth. Without this movement of people there would be no America, no Australia. (I’m not arguing the rights and wrongs of this. Anyone who does should consider whether it is perhaps time we forget all that bad stuff and focus on the world we live in now, however it was formed).
We’ve come a long way since it was a surprise to find another community living in the next valley. The internet and the ubiquity of media in the world means there are no cultural surprises left. You know what the varied peoples of the world look like, and if you have watched any documentary report from some distant land for more than five minutes you’ll know that, as said before in this occasional blog, the vast majority of human beings like to love and laugh; are kind to each other; are curious about the world in varying degrees; and work and eat and sleep. We all have our unique priorities, our occupations and hobbies, our lifestyles, and our luck in love and work, but our basic needs and desires are very similar.
And this much we have in common, as do the animals in my home. We all want to get on with our lives in peace, at liberty to be ourselves without interference from ruthless idiots with weapons or overweening governments. May that day come..
Recently I have been following an online discussion group at a site called Quora.com. It has led to an outcry at the way that the history we have available for discussion, the way history is told in the world, is so damn Euro-white man-centric.
Well, it would be – we wrote it. I do not mean this in some “history is written by the victors” way, but literally, Europeans wrote their histories down; the African, Australian and American native peoples did not, certainly not in such intense detail. You have to be European to care enough to do that.
The cultures of the southern hemisphere below the desert strip from North Africa to India, didn’t write much down, but relied on images and song or story telling to record their histories. For the thousands of years the European, Arab, Persian, Indian and Chinese peoples wrote down their histories, with the exception of the Mayan and Aztec nations, who developed a fairly complex hieroglyphic system, nothing was recorded in those other continents. These opposing attitudes to historical record and its meaning make for two very different viewpoints from which to gaze upon the world and learn to understand it, even down to what you think is worth understanding.
I have spent much of my life staying or living in countries all across the southern hemisphere, and it doesn’t take long to see the vast cultural differences between those cultures that developed in the northern hemisphere and those that developed around and south of the equator. As said, there are many similarities from simple family love to a sense of harmony to reasons to get angry. But it is in the public world of ordinary social interaction that you can see societies as they operate the complicated business of living together. The cultural style, if you like, of the northern hemisphere, I somewhat coyly like to suggest, is in part a product of the weather, of course made complex and elusive over the hundred thousand years or so that Homo Sapiens has been active in the world, as far as we know (Creationists, just ignore that and carry on reading), but starting from that basic circumstance of life in the north. It gets damn cold and it gets damn hot. The cultures of the north spent those first ninety or so millennia driven into their caves for shelter, forced to live through four to seven months of freezing weather and hardly any food to be found, all crammed into a damp stone walled cavern. They had to think ahead, to plan, to store supplies and make fur coats. And they had to find things to do to while away the hours, so, in time, they got to painting on the walls, and probably telling stories to the rhythm of a drum, caveman rap about famous hunts, with illustrations on the wall behind. And eventually they got around to building virtual caves they call houses and castles and palaces, and writing vast books on all the different kinds of insects in the world and how to make a hydrogen bomb. And filming everything.
Meanwhile, down in the warm, moist climes of the tropic and sub-tropic continents, most notably Africa and South America, all you had to do to eat was go for a walk, with a weapon for meat or just your bare hands for fruit and berries. The only shelter you needed was from the rain and things that could kill you, and the danger of either didn’t last too long, even monsoons are gone in weeks, and lions just walk on after a while. All societies have much in common, we all have stories and music and ethical theories and social systems and ways to get high on a Saturday night, whatever the weather or other cultural influences.
Europe changed the world when it started revolutionising it, but people are never so dumb that they can’t clean up a mess once the messer has gone, and it seems to me most of the world keeps what it likes and dumps the rest, and the European peoples do the same vice versa.
It has been by no means one way. The southern cultures have hugely influenced the European cultures. The social influence I notice in particular, as an historian by hobby, is the sense of social interaction in southern hemisphere cultures that is so much warmer and physically intimate, a certain lightness of spirit, and an easy-going relationship with each other, even in the face of dreadful difficulties. Europe has come from a careful dance of social manners, grim determination and customary morality that in the last two or three hundred years has been changed beyond recognition. The difference in the methodology of social interactions between European and southern cultures is for me most succinctly demonstrated in the way that we don’t understand why Africans don’t say please and thank you, and they don’t understand why we do.
The interesting, one might say amusing, thing is that Europeans never seem really to learn to integrate into African society in Africa, but Africans don’t take a month to figure out how to live with Europeans in Europe and elsewhere, though it might take a few days to realise how important we think time is.
My stays in foreign lands have often been for months at a time, giving me the opportunity to get to know people properly, and I have never been anywhere where I did not meet a great majority of happy, helpful, welcoming people. I really do not understand the problem that so embroils racists of every colour. the African and Asian cultures have influenced and altered European culture enormously, more I sometimes think, than Europe has influenced those cultures, or perhaps I mean deeper changes, changes of heart, not just economic systems. In any case, considerably more than the average European knows or acknowledges. Europe’s gift to the rest of the world has been, it’s true, largely weapons and greed, but it was also “railways and the telegraph”, as then Governor General of India Lord Dalhousie said, and there has also been much that is good in European culture, if we only start with medicine, though the world generally agrees that it would also include law, literature, theatre and cinema, art, and yes, written history, and a lot more besides – microwaves, fridges, cars – and music goes everywhere, doesn’t it?
We can make this world work, but both sides have to face up to the resentment and fear, and that means learning to understand and celebrate the differences and find the similarities. Not to misrepresent or malign the political reality and its arduous often cruel history, it reminds me of my break with my parents as a teenager, and the lingering hurts of my childhood. In the end, you just have to let go, forgive them everything and become who you make yourself, who you are and no one else to blame.
The fear that has caused the extraordinary rise in spending on security around the world, but particularly in the USA, the fear that allowed the US Government under President George W. Bush to bring in the awful attack on personal freedom and privacy known as The Patriot Act, the fear that allows the NRA to confound all critics and statistics in its determination to have as few controls over gun ownership as possible, cannot simply be the result of the infamous 9/11 attack in 2001.
It isn’t only about the fear of terrorism.
For one thing, while many will ignore the statistics (and in any case they become irrelevant once you are the victim), it has been said that the odds of your getting killed by a terrorist are roughly equivalent to the odds on your winning a lottery jackpot three times in your lifetime. Meanwhile, the odds on getting killed in a road accident in America are thousands of times higher, higher even than getting shot by an assailant (criminal or cop). The odds on getting struck by lightning or crushed by falling furniture are higher than death by terrorist. You are four thousand times more likely to drink yourself to death, five thousand times more likely to die through a medical error. And so on and on.
But should you fall its victim, terrorism has the distinction of being aimed at you for no personal reason at all and without any fault on your part. This makes death at the hands of terrorists somehow worse than any of the possible accidental deaths we all risk every day. This is an understandable fear, but it has been massaged and encouraged beyond its natural potency.
It has been a policy of the US Government under both presidents since that fateful autumn day to maintain a sense of fear in the American populace, it has been used to create the permanent war that George Orwell predicted would become a weapon of government, to justify the so-called war on terrorism and the enforcement and wide use of the powers given by the Patriot Act, and the media have been eager supporters of this fear mongering. TV is filled with police shows, the news is all about the worst of America, and movies like American Sniper build on the idea that every citizen of the countries that the US has invaded are dangerous. The outside world is dangerous.
The Republican candidate Donald Trump has proposed banning all Muslims from entering America, such is the fear he knows he can pander to (I don’t think he is a fool, far from it, a cynic of course, and an opportunist, but not a fool, so I doubt he genuinely shares the fear he likes to stoke). He says he wants to Make America Great Again, but offers to do so by shutting all its doors and hiding behind them, quivering like someone trapped in one of those ridiculous panic rooms.
But it might be timely to recall that the worst terrorist attack in America before 9/11 was the bombing of the FBI Headquarters in Oklahoma City by a white supremacist American citizen, Timothy McVeigh. 168 people, men women and children, died, hundreds more were injured.
Back in the late 1990s I met a Texan, a charming man, who described his arsenal to me, a variety of handguns, assault weapons, machine guns, sub-machine guns, grenades, the list was mind-boggling. He told me he kept it, like McVeigh, as a defence against the FBI in particular, and the Federal Government generally. Presumably he still keeps the arsenal (if no one has shot him yet or he has shot himself by accident – another major cause of shooting deaths in America), but now probably defends his decision by saying it is a defence against terrorists. I have heard Americans claim they keep guns as a defence against invasion. Apparently the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are not buffer enough. Maybe they expect the Mexicans to invade. Or the Canadians (but they never would surely?).
I’m getting flippant. There is a much older and deeper cause for American fear than any of the events of the past twenty or thirty years. In the Great Plains states, the descendants of the original settlers are only a couple of hundred years at most since their ancestor pioneers were staking out their homesteads and defending their families against hostile native Americans and marauding outlaws, not to mention wild cats, snakes, and other dangerous animals. A gun was a necessity for survival, even without the attacks of human enemies. I live in Ireland and I have friends who still keep their grandfather’s gun, after the dangerous days of the civil war of 1922-24. Such memories die hard.
I don’t buy the Second Amendment argument, either as a political argument (it was about a civil militia armed with muskets, not individuals with assault weapons), or as the primary reason why Americans want to hang on to their guns. It is a much more primitive thing. You only have to watch a 1950s Western movie to see that the gun, the idea of killing, was seen as a legitimate and effective way of dealing with aggressors and as the rightful defence of the individual against a hostile world. As Gene Hackman, playing Wyatt Earp’s father in Kevin Costner’s movie, says “There’s only family. The rest are strangers”. Meaning dangerous and not to be trusted. Gun ownership is not only a right, it is a personal safety issue. One can only say it must be awful to have so little trust in your fellow citizens. We have gun crime here in Ireland, of course, but it doesn’t feel imminent.
By contrast, the British have not had a civil war for almost five hundred years, and if we had kept our ancestors weapons they’d only be useless curios by now. And I’ve never met a Frenchman who fears he might be dragged off to the guillotine. It is the fear of strangers that seems to lie at the heart of why Americans are so scared. The outside world, even the world beyond their home state. Only 15% of Americans have passports, and 30% of Americans have never left their state.
Another factor in what drives middle America’s fear might be the understandable insecurity and fear of those first pioneers, the homesteaders of the 1870s and 80s, attitudes since handed down generation to generation, harsh religion, harsh judgements, tough attitudes. They were largely the poor and dispossessed fleeing the cruelties and deprivations of Europe. Education was rare among such people, and these days their descendants are often openly proud to be ignorant, distrustful of scholarship and sophisticated critical thinking, the wily ways of “city slickers”.
Fear, ignorance, and suspicion make easy bedfellows for violence and a shoot first, don’t ask questions approach to the outside world. I can remember when we loved everything that came out of America, from Rock n Roll to chewing gum to dishwashers, and big flashy cars. We admired their sense of honour and decency. Where has that gone? I have loads of American friends who are as horrified by the political changes of this century as I am, but they are, or so it seems, an increasingly isolated minority.
It’s a sad fact that America has lost the love and respect of most of the world. They deserve better. But it’s hard to love and respect a paranoid scaredy-cat.
I don’t like to make New Year’s resolutions. I heard on a radio programme yesterday that only 10% of resolutions made survive more than a few weeks or even days. However, going against my own advice, I’m making two this year: to learn French properly (I am, still no further on than I was when I took my A Levels back in the mists of time); and to write a more regular blog here. This second stands even less chance than the first but let’s see how it goes. Maybe I hope writing this will commit me to it, but as we all know, we don’t forgive anyone as quickly as we forgive ourselves.
Why do we put ourselves under such pressure? It’s about wild ambition and that adorable, honourable hope of humans to better themselves. I’ll give up chocolate, I’ll give up smoking, I’ll give up eating too much (or too little if you have a tendency to anorexia, I suppose), I’ll give up this or that perceived fault or bad habit. And so on. To make myself a better person.
Actually, I’m not sure that speaking better French or writing more of these little essays is going to make me a better person. Or you, reader, for that matter. What does make us better people? I’ve always said and hopefully passed on to my daughters (they certainly seem to have got the message) that all that really matters in life is love and work, the rest is mere circumstance. Love well and selflessly, and work hard at something that engages you. Most adults will spend something around half of their lives working, yet most treat work as a chore to pay for their free time. Do what you love, or love what you do, by which I mean, do it with dedication and all of your creative and intellectual ability. Insert platitudes here – life is short, this isn’t a rehearsal, no one gets a second chance, you only regret what you didn’t do, etcetera etcetera.
Which brings me back to the subject that occupied my last two posts, the ongoing struggle with terrorism, defined as a tiny minority pitting itself against the will and good of the rest and using whatever means it can to force a change no one but them wants.
What makes a terrorist? Or rather, what makes ordinary people decide to ally themselves with a terrorist movement, particularly nowadays, one that operates and is based far from them? What persuades them to turn on their unsuspecting neighbours and cause what eventually is considerably less damage than will be meted out in retaliation by the governments they oppose?
They will have come upon their propaganda on the internet, and anyway, we can all get some inkling of the motives of the major terrorist movements in the world, the so-called Islamists or Jihadists, who break every tenet of Islam and employ methods the Prophet himself specifically forbade, or the Aryan Brotherhood and other racist or separatist movements in the Christian world, who break all the laws their own Messiah Jesus also forbade.
And the real sadness is that it is all a futile campaign anyway. The Americans in particular but the generality of the Western or Capitalist states as well, are not going to give up on this easily, and they will not be driven from the earth because actually, they are mainly benign and they operate an economic system that is essentially the way the world has always worked, just better understood and more successfully exploited than at any time in the past. Truth is, most of us are happy with the world as it is, not looking for the kind of revolution these people claim to be instigating, any more than Communism worked in the end.
Of course, if I put this to a jihadist he’d tell me that one day the whole world will be an Islamic Caliphate, but all I can say is, point to one World Empire that actually controlled the whole world, and in any case, how long did it last? The Roman Empire hung in a little more than two millennia, but only extended across Europe and North Africa. The Egyptian Empire probably lasted twice that, but only occupied North Africa and Arabia. They were not worldwide by any stretch of the imagination (or definition of worldwide). In these later centuries the British Empire, which did actually come to a position where it might call itself worldwide, only lasted for a century (“The sun never sets on the British Empire” they used to say, till it set on it pretty much everywhere apart from Britain itself).
The Americans get all confused and embarrassed if you call their hegemony an empire, but whatever it is, it too is already waning, as the world economy moves away from manufacture and the exploitation of raw materials and difficulties of distribution, and wealth becomes more widely spread and shared. Oxfam and others predict the end of extreme poverty within twenty years or less. Nano-technologies and the internet and virtual communications will erode the structures that currently work to place the so-called developed nations over the rest of the world in terms of personal wealth and well-being. It will all be equally available so that only choice and taste will distinguish the various cultures. All nations will be developed, their will be no more Third World, or First World either.
The lesson of history is that all armed struggles end in negotiation and peace because, as said here before, the vast majority of human beings want only for today to be pleasant and tomorrow to be much the same. In these times of increasing (albeit slowly) well being for the great majority, these angry people, like our own dear armed Republican movement here in Ireland, will become more and more isolated from the communities they claim to be fighting for, and doomed to die out as the world the rest of us live in moves on and away from the days of horror and death. It’s just not the way we like things to be.
If they would care to make a new year’s resolution, I’d suggest they resolve to find arguments to replace their bombs and see if those work, and if they don’t, then forget it. Find someone to love and work to enjoy.
So Happy New Year Everybody, be it 2016 (Roman Calendar) or 1437 (Hijri Calendar).
There’s an old Seanachai tale they tell in Ireland, about a young couple and their children on a driving tour of the land. Their holiday coming to its end, they are trying to get to Dublin to catch the ferry home, but they’re lost. They stop and ask an old farmer if he can tell them the way to Dublin.
“Well,” he says to them, “if I was trying to get to Dublin, I wouldn’t be starting here.”
This latest atrocity in Paris is just one more incident in the war of attrition that is being fought between the scattered forces of militant jihad and the government forces who oppose them, the Western/ Christian/ Capitalist crusade as the jihadists would see it. Two implacable, and I would suggest, mutually undefeatable enemies fighting the permanent war that George Orwell predicted in 1984. Forget the religious angle. As usual, it’s all about power.
The problem, of course, is that everyone is in the wrong and they’re all in the right. It’s all a matter of point of view. Take for instance, the major, one might say seminal conflict in the Middle East, Israel and the Palestinians. Whether or not you accept the Biblical justifications of Israel’s claim to its current territory (and plenty of Zionists would like to lay claim to a lot more, to equal the land as described in the Old Testament), its creation in 1948 was an imposition on the Palestinian population who had been there for centuries and were forcefully dispossessed and displaced to allow the new State. My father was there, as part of the British Army enforcing the decree of the United Nations. He saw the anguish being caused then to the Palestinians (though he endorsed the right of Israel to exist), and it has yet to be assuaged.
The first and still fundamental mistake, the first and lasting contribution to the insolubility of the situation, I believe, was the pushing through of the single State agreement by the Israelis at the UN in 1948, leaving the Palestinians outcast and stateless. The Israelis concern was probably to do with the restrictions a two state agreement would impose on what we now know were their future territorial ambitions, which were and for many, unfortunately including the ruling party Likud, still are based on the promise that they believe God gave them, which was, after all, the land they occupied for many centuries themselves, although more than two millennia ago. By leaving the Palestinians stateless they created an eternal enemy, and set up the permanent war they now fight with the militant wing of the Palestinians (and many other enemies besides).
But promise of God or not, the rightful, legal existence of Israel, given that there remain details to work out on boundaries, should by now be accepted as a political fact by all the world, and they, in turn, should recognise the right of the Palestinians to a State. The forced removal of the Palestinians was a hurt inflicted on them without acceptable explanation or compensation, in their eyes at least, but also in the eyes of many around the world, and thanks in part to the willful mistreatment by and alienation from their Arab neighbours (themselves caught on the horns of the dilemma of whether Israel should be acknowledged or not), they have been homeless ever since (a situation, one might add, one would think the Israelis above all would empathise with, having spent millennia without a home).
All the rest of the struggle in greater Palestine comes down to this simple insoluble issue: does Israel exist legitimately or not? Imagine if the most extremely frightened and insecure Israelis could sincerely believe that no one was interested in attacking them or taking their home away from them, perhaps then they might concede the right of the Palestinians to a State.
But this can only happen if first the Palestinian resistance, armed or merely intellectual, accept that Israel has the right to exist, and admit the futility of all their vicious little campaigns to fire random rockets at no specific targets, or, as currently they are doing, pick off a few civilians, police and soldiers, a tactic that only earns them and their innocent citizens awful retribution and nothing else but condemnation from the rest of the world anyway. If these two provisos could be fulfilled, perhaps then there could be peace. Fat, as they say, chance.
It all seems so far off, doesn’t it? I’ve never grasped the logic of violence as a way to solve problems, but I do know this: once it starts it is hard to stop. Killing resistance fighters is like scattering dragon’s teeth. Particularly in the kind of conflicts that we are witnessing now, in Syria and Iraq and bordering territories, each death throws up a family ready to avenge it. In the old days of massive armies in conflict, each representing the pinnacle of industrial achievement and wealth of their nation, war could be relied on to end. One day the money runs out. But in this low level, nasty kind of battling, it is all tactics and little or no strategy, because the central strategic aim is to fight an enemy you both know is never going to go away. Terrorism has no need of strategy, which is why it is hard to form a strategy to combat it. We are living in and and it seems must continue to live in a world of high visibility policing, widespread surveillance, kept alight by the occasional atrocity.
There is, however, one gruesome but possibly effective war to be fought and that is the war they’re fighting now against Islamic State, the misnamed heathen army of disillusioned young men and women manipulated by the usual crowd of men and women greedy for power and the trappings of wealth.
Islamic State presents us with an enemy we have not dealt with before, and the solutions are quite different. They are only a theatre of war in the larger conflict between the crusaders of the West, who meddle in the affairs of the Arab world because they need the oil, and the militant jihadists, avengers of those slaughtered by the forces of the West, or simply those never allowed to take their place in the societies in which they live, as downtrodden natives or as disenfranchised immigrants, caught between cultures and thus susceptible to the siren call of holy martyrdom or just good old bloody revenge.
Islamic State, as said above, is not Islamic. It has purposefully and blatantly disobeyed some of Mohammed’s direct decrees. But it is likely that many of their recruits are faithful Muslims. I have a problem with the Q’ran, should any Muslim be reading this, an honest, I hope, if possibly infidel, argument. It stems from this: with one exception, all the great world religions have had two iconic characters at their foundation. The first is the spiritual leader, usually a somewhat mystical figure, as might be Jesus, or Moses or others of the Prophets, or Buddha, or Krishna, or Rama and so on. (It’s interesting to me, if digressive here, how much these so-called avatars or sons or messengers of God have much the same things to say, and use the same metaphors). So-called religious wars throughout history and no less now, are only politico-economic wars dressed in the robes of God’s blessing to keep the troops steady. Our leaders only send our young men and women to fight for wealth and power, or to prevent someone else getting any. One may be sure God has nothing to do with their leaders’ motives.
The second religious iconic figure is the political leader. In the case of Christianity, this was the Roman Emperor Constantine, who recruited that religion to his cause when, as a General, he was preparing to take his army into Rome, an action forbidden since time out of mind to any Roman General. Judaeism had its great kings who established and ruled ancient Israel, David and Solomon being the ones we hear most of (unless you’re Jewish or a theologian), two of a number of leaders who spread the ideas and philosophies of their beliefs (you have to read the Old Testament to get the full picture). I confess I am shaky on the political early history of Buddhism and Hinduism, but you can bet there were kings and generals and their armies involved.
The exception is Islam. Mohammed was both the spiritual leader who provided the belief system and he was the political leader who spread the belief system through political and military means. Indeed, he was a great war leader, a conqueror who united the Arabian Peninsular (there’s more to learn, but you will have to read it elsewhere).
And he wrote the Q’ran as he went along. It is clear from the civilisations that have arisen out of it that the spiritual message of the Q’ran is as good as they get. As I suggested just now, in line with all religions, its message is the familiar one of peace and goodwill, consistent with the teachings of all mankind’s spiritual leaders, love God, be kind to your neighbours, raise healthy families (so don’t eat pork if you live in the desert and their diet is your bodily waste, for instance), don’t kill, rob, or harm anyone, all that sort of thing.
From a lot of personal experience I can say Islam is among the most consciously socially generous of all religions, lots of rules of hospitality and a general disposition to greet a stranger as a welcome guest. There is a wealth of text in the Q’ran that exhorts Muslims to treat their neighbours well and respect other religions, and the huge majority are faithful to this view of Islam.
But, and one cannot help but be tempted to think it may have been on those occasions when he needed to exhort his men to war, he also included (or Allah, supporting his ambitions, told him to include. Yeah right, as my daughter would say) reasons to kill their men, women and children when dealing with their enemies, the infidels.
Christians, stuck with goody-two-shoes Jesus, who never told anyone to kill anything, in fact prevented Peter from doing just that, largely ignore their belief in God and their eventual salvation when considering any political or military issues, and vice versa.Not so Islamic warriors in need of a guiding word or two. One can forgive Mohammed the war leader that he used his position as spiritual leader when he felt he needed (or Allah told him) to convince his people they had Allah on their side even while breaking his commandment, and in a very real, personal way – “He spoke to me.” Can’t argue with that, or anyway, certainly not if you’re a sixth century desert Arab warrior dependent on Mohammed to provide your daily bread..
But I am an agnostic secularist with a degree in history and life has made me cynical of anyone who makes power his or her ambition, so please forgive any trace of irreverence in these statements. But now such men are everywhere, it sometimes seems, and they don’t need big armies to make an impact on the rest of us.
So, armed with the selected texts, the plotters and leaders running the guerrilla war against the West and those in command of Islamic State have any number of ways of enticing the angry youths at their disposal, be it 24 virgins and a bowl of honey to an ignorant young virgin boy whose family perished in an air strike, or some other, be it more venal or more sophisticated promise of Allah’s approval that they should die now and take a few infidels with them.
[It does rather make one hope that Allah will be there waiting for them, that he might have the chance to explain that he doesn’t, indeed, could not possibly take sides in the inept and limited attempts of mankind to explain what he is, when, if he exists at all, he must by definition be much, much more than our feeble human imaginations could ever conceive. And please let him tell them he despises what they just did, then turn away from them forever to embrace their victims]
Of course there is a clash of religions in all this, but it is more a clash of cultures, between the individualistic secular capitalist peoples and the fraternal religious Sharia world. But it is also, and again of course, for we are human in the end, mainly a political conflict, a struggle for power and wealth. The one good thing that IS is doing is to bring together in one convenient killing field all the angriest, most bloodthirsty of those young recruits, and even among them there are surely those who are not so nihilistic or murderous. A determined strike against their forces would at least weaken their ability to attack the world, though needless to say it will throw up new recruits because civilians will die, warriors will die, and their heirs will take up the cause. But as long as it assembles into armies it can be fought and defeated. The war may not end yet, but this battle could.
As to the larger political issues, one thing that came to me out of the Paris bombings was this. The day after that heinous and cowardly crime, all of the media around the Western world was full of it. All day. In October, more than a hundred people were killed in two bomb explosions in Ankara, in eastern Turkey, but this did not rate the same attention.
Turkey is a candidate for EU membership, but the French are our ancient neighbours, Caucasian cousins. It could have been, and may well yet be London or Berlin or Rome. It has already happened in London and Madrid. But Ankara? Well, that’s a bit far off, too far to feel more than sympathy, but not empathy or real grief. But what about New York in 2001? That warranted worldwide grief and launched the sad state of affairs today, because they’re basically seen as more of our Caucasian cousins.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Those closest to us will cause us more grief and concern in their pain and death. It’s natural. Though we make haste to point out the multi-national, multi-cultural spread of the victims of terrorism, it is our basic nature to feel more when the attack is against our immediate cultural cousins.
Nevertheless, the ordinary, politically run societies of the world (and please God they should all be secular, the only sensible way to run a modern country, but in any case non-idealistic) must unite against those who would kill us because we don’t believe in their God, whose existence cannot be proved, like it or not, and we don’t share their political, judicial, or, in particular, their punitive system of administration.
Why is it a problem if we don’t agree with them? And why, for that matter, are the Western powers so damn determined to make everyone adopt that particular euro-centric political system they call Democracy? The lowest peasant in Saudi Arabia can demand an audience with the king and get it. It’s another way of thinking and we should be wary of telling other cultures how to live. I don’t even tell my own children.
This use of violence to solve our arguments has got to stop. Right now as said above, fat chance, but I mean it. Immediate threats and problems aside, the fact is, this is the world we live in. It’s a global institution, a global business, and like it or not, we’re all in this together. As you may have surmised by now, I am an ardent supporter of secular government. Let people believe what they wish to believe so long as they let others make the same decision, and let government be the administration of things, as Marx put it, an organising centre for the smooth running of our daily lives and nothing to do with the way we live or think.
It is my considered opinion that the vastly greater majority of human beings just want today to pass pleasantly and for tomorrow to be much the same as today, with a few interesting or tragic variations thrown in so we know we are alive. These armed struggles for power only upset that routine. The singer Donovan once wrote a song blaming it on the warriors, the ones willing to take up weapons and use them, the ones who obey the orders of those who hope to gain by war. Even they are a small minority among us. Why do we give them so much power? Well, we don’t of course. They take it and we don’t stop them.
Cowardice is one reason. The elephant in the room in all discussions of the affairs of the Middle East and its diaspora is Saudi Arabia. The governing powers there tacitly allow their citizens to support such aggressive, violent forces as al Q’aeda and Islamic State, as a bribe to keep them away from the Kingdom. The other smaller Arab autocracies probably also have some similar agreement with militant Islamic armed forces, though not all directly aid them.
They’re fools, of course. If IS has its way, Saudi Arabia will be to it what Russia was to Napoleon and Hitler, the last target, the crowning conquest, the one you deceive with lies and treaties until you’re ready to strike. And Islamic State won’t have the Russian winter to defeat them.
But it is not going to be easy to fully isolate the pockets of vicious jihadist militancy from the rest of the Muslim community. Apart from anything else, it is always, as they say in the desert, me against my brother, my brother and me against the tribe, my tribe against the world. No decent Arab would ever voice a straightforward condemnation of a fellow Arab in public. They may call on their brothers to cease and desist, be merciful and spare any more victims, but still not condemn the crimes of the past. It’s an Arab thing, I guess. We have to learn it and get used to it, like we’ve got used to West Indians never saying please or thank you because in those societies it is considered unnecessary, everybody him me brother.
If only that were true of all of us. Do you know that the species Homo Sapiens is the most closely related species on the planet? We are all of us, black, yellow, brown or pink-ish white, and all shades in between, the descendants of one single mating pair. The human genome proves it. As my brother David remarked when telling me this fact, “Perhaps that’s why we fight so much, if our own family is anything to go by.”
Whatever they say, we can be certain that the militant jihadists and their supporters are vastly outnumbered by those same ordinary citizens in their nations that we all are. Hamas will exhaust its citizens and so will Zionist Israel. The Taliban, the multitude of al Q’aeda offshoots, Islamic state and its puppets, all of them eventually will become occupying armies, and as any American or British (or Roman for that matter) soldier can tell you, occupation doesn’t work.
If we’re honest, as we careen into the unknowable abyss of the future, we only have hope, but that’s always been the case, and we should reflect that, after all, this great, confused, beautiful, flawed family of mankind has 15,000 years of traceable history and we’re still here, if, as the song says, we’re still crazy after all these years.
The Microsoft Hololens – Mixing Reality with Computer generated images fixed to your surroundings
I have recently published an article that might interest you. It was written for an online computer graphics magazine cgsociety.org, aimed largely at the film and VFX industry and its community, but it reflects on new changes in communication technology that I suspect (and I am not alone) will impact on society over the next ten to twenty years as much as mobile phones and the internet have in the past couple of decades.
You can read the article here.
I hope you find it interesting.
And enjoy the day! Rory
Let’s not fool ourselves. Islamic State is not Islamic. They have broken every tenet of the Q’ran, not least when they fiendishly burned a man alive, an act specifically forbidden by the Prophet himself in the book. They are just another bunch of power-hungry thugs, like so many before them and no doubt not the last, but that is all they are. And they are very dangerous.
A war is coming. It has already begun. But it is not a struggle between Islam and Christianity, though that may seem to be the current battlefield. It is a struggle between Religion and Secularism and it is happening all over the world. For now, IS is lined up for the fight and hogging the headlines, with an assortment of Jihadists and opportunistic terror-lovers at their backs, but even Buddhists in South East Asia have taken up arms, and India is rife with religious prejudice, not to mention the now, hopefully, resolved Troubles in Northern Ireland.
It wouldn’t surprise me if sometime soon we see armed Christianity in the field against Islamic State, apart from any formal government military action, some bunch of Christian fundamentalists with guns (now, where might we find those?). We here in Ireland have already witnessed a Christian struggle, between sects in the North, though that is also and more importantly, an economic and class struggle. Of course, all of these internecine wars and civil unrest come down to that, economics and class, Marx did warn us this would be the case, but I think the struggle between fanaticism and laid back don’t-care-much secularism is the one we must resolve, especially since the fanatics are so much more prepared and willing. Maybe not a war, but a resolution of sorts, though, frankly, getting that without defeating Islamic State and its supporters in battle seems unlikely.
We in Europe and America, like many countries of the world, are democrats, and one defining quality of democracy is that it cannot be religious, it must be secular. Democratic Government is essentially about economic and social organisation, and while it may tend to uphold a moral code very much based in its society’s religious history, a democratic government should not enforce any purely moral laws. In a secular society, it’s none of their business. Any religious society, with a government that invokes religion to define and back its policies, is autocratic. It cannot help but be, because if you break the Law, you are not only a villain, but a sinner before God, and God, as we surely know, and certainly in the minds of his fanatical followers, is the Autocrat par excellence.
I live in Ireland, a country somewhat torn just lately, between being a religious society and a secular one. It is, frankly, something of a shambles. We get the bells of the Angelus at noon and 6.00 pm on our principal broadcasting station (radio and TV), and we get very complex and heated public debates on such things as the right to get an abortion and who runs the schools. The hard and seemingly immoral, or at the very least, amoral secular world is where we should be going. In that world everyone is free to harbour their own set of beliefs and theories, and to obey their own moral code so long as it does not harm others.
This of course is the fundamental flaw in the terrorist moral code. It has to be said, there is plenty of evidence in the so-called holy books, that God, under many different interpretations, is happy to line up behind a favoured person or society, but of course, we only have the report of said person or society that this is so. Put another way, someone usually won and they said it was God what done it.
It is difficult to understand how anyone could imagine a Creator or Overseer who likes to see us murder each other. I won’t go into eating habits, I hope St. Paul is right and the animal kingdom is there to help us survive and enjoy life. Or Richard Dawkins is right and it’s the bad luck of animals that we know how to kill and eat them without them killing and eating us, no blame. Killing and eating mammals, birds and fish are not sins, they are not illegal, they are the free choice of free citizens. Lucky us! There are countries where you can be arrested for eating forbidden food.
Will there be a war? I have seen some pretty striking images recently of extremely hostile young men using what I have always taken to be a blessing as if it is a curse, shouting “Allahu Akbar” at their perceived enemies in the streets of London. Unfortunately, being all secular and democratic and that, I am no more happy with discussing these things in terms of the communities involved than anyone. But communities are involved and we have to ask ourselves how we will deal with it. Otherwise, one possible form of the war to come is civil war. When do we realise that? When do we stand up to it? When do we admit it isn’t all going to work out nice and diplomatically? When does the anger and frustration and self-pity of those furious young men turn into explicit violence?
I’m just asking questions. I don’t have answers.
Click on the link below or copy it into your browser to see my latest article for cgsociety,org, about the making of a really lovely short 3D animation movie, with lots of videos to watch as we trace the creation of the Sonoma International Film Festival 2015 introductory film and talk to the creator, Keith English
Apologies for not posting here lately. I’ve been writing articles for CGSociety and what with other work, I just don’t have time for reflection on life in Ireland. Except to say it goes along swimmingly! Winter is upon us and the crisp cold air is invigorating, though it generally drives us all indoors.
These are the articles – They are a report on a very interesting event I attended last October in L.A.
Part 1 – Part 2 of my report from the Science of Fiction Festival in LA last October is now online – http://www.cgsociety.org/index.php/CGSFeatures/CGSFeatureSpecial/new_worlds_of_the_21st_century._exploring_rilao_part_1
Part 2 – Part 2 of my report from the Science of Fiction Festival in LA last October is now online – http://www.cgsociety.org/index.php/CGSFeatures/CGSFeatureSpecial/new_worlds_of_the_21st_century._exploring_rilao_part_2
Enjoy, and I hope to be back writing here soon.