I wrote this essay about my visits to Dachau concentration camp to punch the experience and the story it told deep into my consciousness, so that it will stay with me for the rest of my life. I hope I never go there again, but I have been there and I never want to forget. I’m publishing it here because lately there has been a lot of discussion about Holocaust denial. The Holocaust is a broader term than Shoa, which describes exclusively the Jewish experience. What happened in the Nazis concentration camps went far further than the attempted genocide of Europe’s Jews. And there’s no denying it.
I had always known about the Holocaust and thought I knew what happened, what caused it and who suffered in it. But I learnt there that the enormity of it was not clear to me nor had it weighed on me as much as it should until I saw this relic of it with my own eyes. Not just the numbers, the famous number, of course, the millions of Jews who died, but the breadth of it across German society, the great sweep of the Nazi determination to take control of mankind and re-order our social and individual destiny. According to the rounded down calculations of post-war research, since we will never know the exact figures, the Jews represent less than half of the total number of victims of the concentration camp system. Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, but another eleven million or so people were murdered in one way or another in those camps, Russian and Polish prisoners of war, as well as Roma, social misfits, petty criminals, homosexuals, and the mentally and physically disabled. Anyone whom the Nazis considered “untermensch”, “racially undesirable elements”, were slaughtered, the variety in the methodology of their murders unlimited. People died through the appalling conditions of life on the trains; in the camps they starved or were left to die of disease, particularly septicaemia and gangrene; they died in suicidal attempts to climb the fences of the camps; some, the most to be pitied, were tortured to death by the SS guards or at the hands of Dr. Mengele and his team; they were shot in the streets of their ghettos or on the grounds of the camps. And finally, after 1943, in a programme that was exclusive to the Jews, the Extermination Camps were purpose-built to carry out the so-called Final Solution, the gas chambers and furnaces of which we are all surely well aware.
I was working in Munich for most of 2006. It was my second time working in that city, but I had not got around to making the trip to Dachau during the first sojourn. Maybe I thought it would be depressing (it was) or boring (it was that too, in a way, but perhaps mind-numbing would be a better description). It isn’t far from the city, about twenty or thirty minutes from München Hauptbahnhof (Munich Central Station). It’s within the city limits, though when it was in use, from 1933 until 1945, it was outside the city, on the outskirts of the little town of Dachau, which has since become a suburb of the city.
It is one of the tourist destinations for visitors to Munich, advertised in the tourist literature. My first and longer visit was on a Sunday, one of the sub-tropical summer days that we had been having for a month or so (as it turned out, the last – the next day it began to rain, and it carried on raining almost non-stop for a week). I didn’t feel like sitting in my flat or wandering the streets and parks all day and it seemed like a good day for the visit I had been thinking for a while that I should make.
You take the S2 S-Bahn (Schnell Bahn – Fast Rail) to Dachau, sitting in one of those lovely wide-gauge carriages, not too crowded, cool and well ventilated, out of the centre of the city and into its suburbs. At Dachau Bahnhof you catch a bus to the camp. That Sunday the bus was full and the heat inside was absolutely stifling. I sat with my elbow resting on the sill and with the sun coming through the big window my arm was quickly coated in a layer of oily sweat. Every seat was taken and the standing room was crowded, even though it was a bendy bus with double the normal space for passengers; even though it was a baking hot day when any sensible Münchener goes down to the Isar river to bar-b-q and swim and generally laze around in the sun.
The buses ran every fifteen minutes or so, and as far as I could tell the flow of visitors never slackened while I was there. You could see them pouring in at the gate all afternoon (quite like the war days, in fact – the whole day was filled with ironies of this sort). On the bus I was in the company of tourists from Japan, Australia, America, the UK, and a number of Germans. There was a tour-guide on board, a very loud Australian, with a party of mostly Americans. I had to warm to him though, when he declared that Berlin is his favourite city in the world to his audience, which perforce included at least half the bus, though I presumed he only intended it for the group he was talking to. He certainly liked the sound of his voice, as I suppose a good guide should. Berlin is my favourite city too. Also, as we bowled along praying for the journey to end before we died of the airless heat (irony no. 2), he provided one rather interesting piece of information, giving rise to the first of the chilly thoughts that became the hallmark of my afternoon. As we passed a row of prosperous looking houses, freshly painted in a pale grey with white porticoes and architraves beneath their dark slate roofs, and fronted by well-kept gardens and hedges, he told us that they were built originally for the Schutzstaffel who ran the camp, the SS, as they are commonly known. These houses survived the American attack and are occupied now by a new petit bourgeoisie occupying a similar status in modern Germany to the one once occupied by that paramilitary bureaucracy of the Nazi state. You would think those houses might have been vengefully destroyed, if not by the Americans, at least by the duped (if they were) and shamed (which certainly they were) locals, but I suppose anger and vengeance end where good sense begins: why destroy a perfectly sound house if you can occupy it?
When you get to the camp the bus drops you at a bus shelter next to a large post-war plaque dedicating the site of the camp to the future peace of the world (the first of several similar sentiments expressed in bold memorials of cast iron, stone and bronze that you come across, dotted about the place). There are wide gravel pathways leading off in all directions through groves of low trees and hedgerows. From this moment on there are always stones under your feet, of various sizes, rough and straight from the earth, sorted into their sizes and used to mark out the various different areas, the paths and plateaux and the restored ground plans of the camp as it was in its heyday. I took a guess, correctly it turned out, and headed for the camp itself. The opposite direction led to a beer garden, intended perhaps for refreshment after your visit, but I didn’t feel like going there then or later.
The first you see of the camp is two thin railway tracks almost buried in weeds and gravel, which were once the end of the branch line that ran up from Dachau Bahnhof, stopping just short of the main gateway. The gates are set in an arch that runs through the centre of the old guard-house, a two storey building with small windows and a tiled roof. The gates are a lattice of cast-iron bars, comprising two large panels to allow the entry of transport trucks, with a smaller gate set in their centre for the passage of the prisoners. At the top of the prisoners’ gate, in cast-iron letters, is the infamous, cruel SS joke that was displayed at the entrance of all concentration camps: “arbeit macht frei” –. “WORK SETS YOU FREE”.
The low wall that surrounds the camp adjoins this building on both sides, and beyond, through the narrow gateway, you can see the side of another low building, the Administration block as was (the memorial museum now). You walk in, and, bearing slightly to your left, almost immediately you walk onto the Appellplatz, the Roll Call Ground. This was my first moment of actual shock. I don’t know what I expected, but it was not what greeted my eyes then. The parade ground at which edge I was now standing, is enormous, a great desert of white gravel stretching away in all directions, a glaring expanse under the sun that day, and beyond it the prison huts where I could just make out the tiny figures of tourists making their rounds. Perhaps it was the gravel, or the trees beyond the walls of the camp, but there was a scent in the air, that felt cold, like an olfactory reminder of the cruel past.
In 1933 the camp was established in an abandoned First World War munitions factory, but in 1937-1938 the prisoners were set to work tearing down the old factory and rebuilding the camp. The new campsite was designed to house 6000 prisoners. All the prisoners were kept in rows of barracks that stood on the far side of the Appellplatz. Each barrack block was originally designed to house 200 prisoners. By the end of the war, with some modifications in the layout, but with no increase in the overall ground space, the camp contained some 32000 prisoners, and the barrack buildings housed up to 2000 people each. At the beginning, between 1933 and 1938, the prisoners were mainly political, though some were criminals of one sort or another, and all of them were German. Later the intake broadened as the numbers increased. In the end, 200,000 people from thirty nations had been imprisoned in Dachau and its sub-camps over the years of operation under the Nazis. Of these, around 35,000 died there, of disease, malnutrition, suicide, or execution by shooting, or in the gas chamber or the crematorium.
The barracks are all gone now, their positions marked for the information of visitors by rectangular low concrete kerbs, filled with yet more gravel (I took a stone from the ground of the old medical hut, to keep as my own reminder of what I saw and felt there). These neat rows of rectangles are only markers, they are not remnants of the originals, which were simple wooden huts, built without any foundations, and soon collapsed and rotted away after the liberation of the prisoners and the abandonment of the camp. The loving restoration is a part of a determination on the part of the German people that one can only admire, to keep these places alive in their memories, and more importantly, their consciences (and also, the conscience of the world).
The camp itself was shoddily built and quickly destroyed. There are guide posters wherever you go, with photographs of whatever you are looking at, taken by the SS when they were running the camp. You stand on the Appellplatz and you know you are standing where those men whose pictures you have just seen stood, rigid with fear, standing at attention, sometimes for hours on end, knowing that any movement, any wavering, any slip at all, would get them clouted at least, quite possibly thrown into the punishment cells, or even shot. You walk the Prison Road as it was known to the inmates, that leads between the huts where they ate and slept, worked and died, and you are walking where they walked. Of course, this is always the case with historic sites, so I suppose the difference is those photographs that you just looked at a moment ago and can now picture as you walk. The sun blazed down and it was the same sun that spread typhus like wild fire through the prison population in 1943, and the same sun that baked them in the huts where the SS pretended to give medical assistance but in reality merely used the airless conditions to hasten the victims to their deaths. In winter as in summer, they exposed the inmates to the weather and used it to kill them if it could, or at the least to make their lives a misery. Their cure for scabies, when an epidemic broke out in the winter of 1944, was to bathe the afflicted in cold water and then force them outside in the freezing wind to stand naked for hours on the Appellplatz. Most of them died there.
Eventually I stopped walking around the grounds. At the far end of the site there are two memorials, one Jewish, a vast chimney-like structure half buried in the ground, made of hefty, dark grey granite blocks, and one a Christian chapel. For a moment they put an end to my musing. I realised that I wasn’t thinking anything that hadn’t been thought before, and here were the dedications in bronze plaques, written in German, English, French and Hebrew; the flowers; peace picked out in stones in the Jewish memorial; the plain wooden cross hanging over the altar in the chapel.
Then the Christian bell started tolling. I left and went into the only fully restored prison hut, a facsimile built for the edification of the visitors, so they can see something of the conditions in which the prisoners lived. The hut is divided into three sections, showing the arrangements as they prevailed in, respectively, 1933, 1939, and 1944. You start in 1933. The rooms are nothing but dormitories, rows of bunks, slats of wood walled in by low planks, too short for an average man, so they could only sleep curled up, could never stretch out. The bunks are about two foot wide, and there are two tiers of them. Along the backs, above the heads of the prisoners, there is a narrow shelf for their personal possessions, a curiously detailed little cruelty, as they were not allowed any personal possessions at all. Perhaps it was a design oversight by the carpenters who were not, after all, SS men, but in the strict efficiency of the place, that seems unlikely. Far more likely the shelf was put there to rub in their utter poverty. Everything is made out of pine, and in 1933 the bunk structures look sturdy enough, the floors are well laid, the windows fairly airtight.
I heard one of the guides say that the hut as we saw it now was much dustier and dirtier than it would have been when it was one of the several in the working camp. That was one of the means by which the guards found their excuse to harass the prisoners. Everything had to be kept spotlessly clean, all of the time, and the slightest thing out of place would incur their wrath. The beds were covered by bedspreads with a pattern of rows of small blue and white squares, and these had to line up exactly, bunk after bunk.
Along the length of the hut there are large posters of short extracts from various men’s memoirs, in four languages, with a photograph, sometimes of the author of the quotation, sometimes a general portrait of the prisoners living together. The extracts are taken from books published after the war, and they tell the details of cruelty, the minute to minute, hour by hour impositions and oppressions. There was no let up. The daily routine was to wake and make the beds; eat breakfast (never more than a thin gruel, sometimes just a slice of stale bread), wash their plates and cutlery, and then sweep and wash the floors. Then they were driven out to the Appellplatz for the roll call. Then to work in the workshops. At night they were taken back to the huts to eat and wash the floors again, as well as the bunks and walls. Finally a few hours of sleep before it all started again. The only break in this arduous routine was an hour in the afternoon, when they were allowed to walk up and down the Prison Road. Yet in their letters, their cards to each other, their dedications in their memoirs, even their paintings, all of which I saw later in the museum, they mention only good companionship and fond memories of conversations about politics and art, of history and culture; they write of concerts and good jokes. They do not mention their oppressors.
And all the while, every day, every hour, someone died nearby, or was beaten, or left out in the freezing cold, till they became inured to all the misery surrounding them and also their own. Of course, without that, how could they have kept sane, kept conversing, kept going at all? As one man wrote: “in peace time even a dead cat in the street will draw attention, but here we hardly noticed the bodies left to wait for the guards to take them away.” It is so sad, so dreadful, so impossible to imagine or picture, that in the end it is wonderfully uplifting, that they managed to remain so gracious and civilised in the face of such unrelenting brutality.
The recreated 1933 dormitory looked pretty cramped and uncomfortable. But then you go through to the 1939 section. Now the bunks have no dividing planks, they are lined up side by side, though they are separate bunks as such, but with no gap or partition between them. They are approximately 20 inches wide and a little over five foot long. They are piled three high, rickety looking structures that are designed to be taken apart so they can be moved and reassembled according to need. It is obvious that no one can sleep properly on these beds.
Then you go through to 1944, and there are no longer any bunks at all, but merely wide shelves, platforms, three levels, the topmost almost touching the ceiling, looking like a wooden sheep transport, where the prisoners were crammed in together, making space for themselves as best they could, stacked like animals. The photographs, and the quotations that have been put up on the walls tell it all in case your imagination cannot grasp what it must have been like to live in there.
I left and went over to the museum, which is housed in what were the main administration buildings, the only solid, brick and concrete buildings put up by the Nazis, and surviving to this day. Here all of the photographs are repeated, with more detailed descriptions, and accompanied by many more photographs, letters, paintings, and artefacts of prison life. This is where the gruesome pictures are, and the gruesome reports of perfunctory executions, of suicides, the piles of bodies left outside waiting for cremation. On and on. The awful truth behind these images is that the pictures were all taken by members of the SS, happy to record the effects of their work.
From maps and explanations and the documentary they show in the museum cinema, you learn that Dachau was merely the centre of the local hub of activity. There were other sub-camps nearby, some run independently, some as annexes of the main prison at Dachau. They were built to take the overflow of the increasing population, as the Nazis imposed their ideas of social order and racial purity on their newly conquered subjects. A third of the prisoners were Jews and they undoubtedly suffered horribly at the hands of the SS, but so did the other two thirds, the gypsies, homosexuals and prisoners of war from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. When it was built in 1933 the 6000 or so prisoners between then and 1938 were German citizens, many political prisoners, incarcerated for their communist/socialist beliefs, but also homosexuals, gypsies, the physically or mentally impaired, and a few ordinary criminals. In 1933 it was the gypsies who were, if anything, the most despised. To begin with, at least, and perhaps one could say at heart, the Nazis feared the Jews, for their economic and political power, though they did not admit openly that it was (is) fear. The gypsies, the disabled, the homosexuals they feared no more than dogs running loose in the city, to be gathered up and disposed of for the sake of public harmony. They loathed them, but they hated the Jews.
Among the prisoners of war who came after 1941, they loathed the Russians the most. So much of post-war history, rooted in Stalin’s paranoid fear and distrust of the West, was born of the destructive cruelties of the Nazis during Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Mother Russia, and the horror that spread throughout the USSR as a result. In Dachau, Russian prisoners were routinely executed, sometimes by firing squads but frequently as targets for practice on the camp’s shooting range. No one knows how many Russian prisoners were shot overall, but it runs into hundreds of thousands. The Jews, whom they purported to despise and blame for all the ills of the earth, they didn’t shoot, at least not often, and, by the standards then holding, not many. Those they did shoot were the recalcitrant ones, or the ones that happened to annoy one or other of the guards on a particular day, or the few who tried to run for the wire, and those probably only did that as a form of suicide. My research is by no means complete, but as far as I have been able to determine, no one ever escaped from Dachau, or any of the other concentration camps.
So I asked myself, why did they go to all this trouble to keep them alive at all? Why not simply slaughter them, as eventually they began to do, starting with the drawing up of The Final Solution in 1941, though that did not really getting going until 1943 and 1944? The answer, it turns out, falls into two parts.
The first was that they actually weren’t sure of public support for such a policy. It is notable that, whether they were deceiving themselves or not, the German people living in Dachau denied all knowledge of the deaths at the camp, though the smoke from the crematorium would surely have swept over the town at times. If they lied it was from shame. It was one thing to imprison the vagabonds and political enemies of the State, and, of course, the ever-despised Jews, but it was another to kill them off, to murder them en masse, and in fact, the Nazis went to quite considerable lengths to conceal what they were doing once they started. Dachau was in Germany itself, and the use of the crematorium as a place of cold-blooded murder was a late development. At first they let disease and other causes do the killing. The great extermination camps like Auschwitz were built outside Germany, in Poland and Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Russia and elsewhere. When the war did end, whatever may have been their level of self-deceit, the civilian population of Germany was generally horrified by what was found in the concentration camps, the heaps of shoes, clothes and teeth, the infested huts, the piles of rotting bodies. This was not what they had voted for, not what they wanted to be remembered for, and it has remained a shame to them even to the generations born so long after the war that they hardly know its history. But they do know about the concentration camps.
The second part is for me the colder, the more awful somehow. They didn’t shoot them because they didn’t want to waste the ammunition, and while they starved them and beat them, they also worked them. Right up until their liberation, in Dachau the prisoners worked for the German armaments industry. They made bullets.
I learned later that on my first visit I had missed a central part of the camp, and though I had no desire to see it, I felt that I must go back, and eventually did so in early November. Some of what I saw belies or at least tempers what has gone before, some is to be expected from the nature of the camp as I have already described it. I add these last comments as a postscript because that is how I experienced it.
When I got off the train at Dachau Bahnhof the sky was low and overcast and the air was close to freezing. It had been snowing the week before, but now it was drizzling slightly, the morose damp of early winter. The bus was nearly empty, a few couples, some of them locals on their way to various intermediary stops, myself, and a noisy bunch of American military, as they called themselves (from later comments, it seemed they were in the USAAF), young men and women in civvies, jeans, trainers and wind-cheaters. These young Americans were rowdy and a little drunk. They weren’t obnoxious so much as rambunctious and insensitive. They did not appear, to my sober and censorious mind, to be quite in the right mood for a visit to the concentration camp – “Is there beer at the concentration camp? There better be beer at the concentration camp, ‘s all I’m sayin’…” said one of them on the way. They were loud, broadcasting their conversation, chatting for a while to a fellow passenger they had evidently just met on the bus, about their camp in Germany, their time in Iraq (“Eye-Rakk”, as the Americans pronounce it), calling to the driver to tell them when to get off, laughing uproariously at the things each other said, and so forth.
Two young Turkish boys near me chuckled and made jokes about them. The middle aged German couple next to me stared resolutely out of the window. I did much the same. The Americans were behind me. As we approached the camp it occurred to me that it would not shock me if I turned around and saw that they were wearing grey uniforms and heavy jackboots. It wasn’t that I thought they were particularly fascist or heartless or cruel. It was simply that I realised how easy it had been for the SS to recruit the guards, to find enough insensitive, ignorant young men and women to carry out that appalling work. The prisoners brought with them to the Dachau camp and deposited in the library many books that were prohibited by the Nazi regime, but the illiterate guards never spotted them. They were country boys, given a reprieve from the front line of the war in return for keeping guard over people even lower in the Nazis’ social scheme than themselves. A premonition of Abu-Ghraib, perhaps, but no more so than all the atrocities of war across the whole of history, atrocities that cannot be avoided once you tell men that it is, after all, all right to kill and maim. After that, it is just a matter of leadership to set the limits on what the men will accept is allowed. Set the limits, or remove them entirely.
At the camp I knew where I was going. I went through the gate and crossed the Appellplatz, heading for the far left hand corner of the camp. There is a gate there, with a bridge across the perimeter ditch that runs along the inside of the fence and a second bridge across the narrow canal that flows along that side of the camp. These bridges were added after the war. A short path takes you past the Russian Orthodox chapel, through a gate in a low wall and so into the courtyard of The Large Crematorium, a low brick and plaster pavilion with a tall rectilinear chimney at its centre, reaching about twenty metres into the air. A sign tells you that Dachau was never officially an extermination camp, never intended for the purpose of mass murder, but how else to describe the efficient and systematic killing of people in groups of up to a hundred at a time? In the context of The Final Solution, perhaps the toll at Dachau was small beer, but as I wandered through the simple building, which is split into sections, each one a step in the process of murder and disposal, it felt like nothing but a factory of death.
The prisoners chosen on any particular day were told they were being taken for a shower, and then marched outside the main prison and round to this place. On arrival, their journey through the building began with the disinfection cubicles, a row of narrow concrete corridors with a heavy steel door at each end. The doors are thickly painted in a blue-ish grey. The cubicles are on the left-hand end of the building, separated from the rest by a narrow open platform that the prisoners crossed after being disinfected. From there they stepped into the Assembly Room, a plain room with a concrete floor and walls, with space enough for a hundred or so men and women. Once the whole group had been assembled there they went through to the Disrobing Room. Standing in that cold grey room, one imagines the prisoners, still anticipating a shower, quietly jovial as they undressed, joking about this or that one needing a shower more than most perhaps, and all of them glad of the break from the rigorous camp routine. How the SS kept the truth from them is hard to imagine, but I suppose the smell of cremating flesh that must have wafted over the campsite would only have been associated with the endless train of death within the camp from sickness and punishment, not murders occurring beyond its walls and fences.
From the Disrobing Room they went into the Shower Room. This is another simple rectangle of concrete walls, with a lower ceiling than the preceding rooms, but in here the floor is tiled, with drains set into the floor, and shower heads in the ceiling. The heavy steel door shuts behind them. They wait for the water to come flowing down on them. But it does not. Instead two vents in the wall let in clouds of Zyklon-B, prussic acid gas, the invention of the Nazis for this very purpose. The acid burns into their lungs, burns their eyes, and sears their flesh. Within a few long and agonising minutes, all of the prisoners are dead.
As should be expected from the smooth running, bureaucratic efficiency of the SS, the next room was for stacking the bodies. The Body Room, as it was called, is narrow, its concrete floor poorly laid and uneven. It is merely an annexe to what comes next. The crematorium is the tallest room in the chain, at the centre of the building, beneath the chimney, with a stone floor and no ceiling beneath the steeply pitched roof, which is supported by sturdy wooden beams.
Four brick kilns stand in a row, separated by wide corridors for ease of maintenance. They are linked by a system of pipes to the chimney. A notice tells the visitor that the ovens were capable of cremating up to four bodies at a time. The kilns are built out of red fire bricks, the doorways are protected by a heavy steel plate that was raised and lowered on a simple pulley system. One man could operate it, while others loaded in the bodies. This was done on a kind of stretcher contraption made of steel, with long steel poles to push and pull them in and out of the furnace.
Fixed to the roof supports, crossing the length of the room in front of the kilns, is a long, heavy wooden beam with thick iron hooks set into it at intervals of a metre or so. This was used to hang some of the prisoners, saved from the gas for this special cruelty. As they slowly strangled to death they could see and feel the furnaces that would soon receive their remains.
Outside the building, to which the visitor hurries to feel at last the cool breath of fresh air, there is a garden lying in the shade of the surrounding trees. Along its perimeter stands a crude earth and stone wall. The area below this wall is divided into sections by low hedges. Each of these sections was the site of a pit where the ashes of the cremated dead were shovelled. Immediately facing the crematorium the first two of these have been converted into memorials to the victims of the camp. Along from them there are two larger sections, about six or eight metres wide and perhaps four metres deep from the path to the wall. Stone plaques explain that the first of these was a pistol shooting range and the second an execution area. Prisoners, primarily officers of the enemy armies, most of them Russians, were executed either by being used as targets on the pistol range, or by being taken to the execution area and made to kneel along a shallow “blood ditch”, now just a shallow dip filled with grass and weeds. Here they were shot in the back of the head, so that their bodies and their blood would fall neatly into the ditch.
At the furthest corner of this part of the garden, the farthermost point of the Dachau Concentration Camp, there is one last ash pit measuring no more than four or five metres square.
It is marked with a stone plaque. It reads: “This is the grave of many thousands”.
I know it’s unusual of me to write twice in a week, but it occurred to me that the last one might seem rather too focussed on my small world (Covid-19 is with us, we all know, nothing to see here, move along). This is especially so when I remember, helpless as I am here in Europe, that we are facing the looming events of next week in the USA. The Americans are about to vote for the next President in an election that is going to be very messy, probably inconclusive for several days if not weeks, and almost bound to feature bloodshed. For the last three-quarters of a century, since 1945, we in the lucky democratic west have lived in the belief that our elections are open and fair, as well as being the only way in which we have any say over who will comprise the membership of our governments and their oppositions for a period of years.
There is therefore something profoundly disturbing about the current situation in America, where a rogue President has been sowing the seeds of distrust among Americans in such a way that neither side has much confidence in and no affection for the other side, and he has persuaded a large number of Americans that they cannot believe their media, their pundits or anyone who doesn’t agree with them and him. Most especially, he tells them they should not trust the results of the vote. I mention two sides because this is an essential flaw in American politics, that effectively you have to be or at least vote Democrat for left of centre ideas, and Republican for right of centre ideas, and both parties have found themselves trying to marshal everything from that centre of the American political spirit all the way out to their furthest extremes.
Third parties, the Libertarians for instance, haunt the centre ground. Libertarians are mostly liberal about social laws, conservative for fiscal policies, and generally, they represent the American political spirit that resists all forms of government power, but nothing so much as Federal Government power. They’ll support Marx’s idea of a “government of things” and nothing more, and personally, I find I am more and more inclined to their way nowadays. In Ireland I might even find a Libertarian politician to vote for, and if enough of us do it, he or she could get a seat. In America, Jo Jorgensen, current Presidential contestant for the Libertarian Party, doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting the job. She can’t even get a seat in either the House or the Senate. In Ireland and many other European countries she’d be in the parliament by now.
This makes this year’s vote for President of the United States hugely influential, There is no sense or even intention of holding the course, maintaining the equilibrium of the ship of state and suchlike ideas of keeping the speed of change gentle, no cross party compromise, no negotiation at all, that went out of the window in the 1980s with Thatcher and Reagan. That’s when the iniquitous Newt Gingrich started to campaign against any and everything the Democrats said or did and produced the infamous letter he entitled “Language, a Key Mechanism of Control” in which he defined the words to use to denigrate Democrats and the words to use to encourage Republicans. The politics of attack and denigration began then, and one might say inevitably, it has led to a President whose whole campaign and political persona is based on attacking and denigrating his critics, opponents and those he perceives as failed subordinates, or “losers” as he would call them. His Twitter storming is well known. It seems unhinged, but I suspect it isn’t. If he has mastered anything, it is social media and self-publicity. Trump shows little sign of caring for anyone but himself and his family, and this coupled with his childish dependence on relentless praise makes him seem an impossible choice for the sober role of President, and yet he appeals to a certain strand of the American spirit, and despite what the media often try to suggest, his followers are not all ill educated, redneck lunkheads from the boondocks. Serious economists, and people with their own good education qualifications vote for him, mostly for his policies, and some for his basic WASP positioning in the political landscape of modern America.
His awful manners and his attitude to women are not a problem to them, not that they approve of them, but that such things are simply irrelevant when choosing the person to embody the nation as its President. The Democrats and their supporters around the world may wish to act shocked by his boorish behaviour, but back in the mid-20th century politicians were not reported for their social behaviour. That was pre-Murdoch, and if I was predicting future history books I’d say the takeover of public morality by the Murdoch media organisation will be seen for the iniquitous force it has been. We all know now about the sainted President Kennedy and his predilection for new lovers. How would he have survived the Murdoch machine? Trump’s spectacular triumph was and still is in his ability to boast of his appalling misogyny and then get his rally crowds to laugh along with him. His fans have decided to ignore what they don’t want or don’t need to hear. This has given him the almost comical ability to attract the so-called religious-Right, that bible belt of fundamentalist Christians and their moral certainties, who have been persuaded to believe that he is sent by God, some believing he is the herald of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and all the rest of that pagan mumbo-jumbo they spout from time to time. I’ve lost count of how many times the Second Coming, the End of Times, Armageddon and the Rapture have been predicted, date set, crowds on hilltops waiting for the first glimpse, and then trailing home the following day with some lame excuse for why it didn’t happen. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and was happy to stop listening to them decades ago, but at least they never tried to pretend they could predict God’s will. These evangelists are prepared to come out and say God told them this and that. What happens to your belief when it turns out God lied to you? Anyway, I digress.
The real danger next week is the steady undermining of public confidence in the integrity of the election and the sanctity and secrecy of their vote. Their own President has told them time and again that the vote cannot be trusted, that the absentee and other postal voting systems are open to fraud, even though the evidence is slim and flimsy and indicates only a very small number of incidents in the last twenty years. Louis DeJoy, the current USPS Postmaster General made an effort to ensure this was true by closing post collection boxes, and some Republican governors have limited the number of ballot boxes per county to make sure only people with cars and a job that allows them time off can vote.
There is one thing that used to stun me about the American Constitution that I have been learning a lot about in the past few years, and that is that the founders would put such a lot of power in the hands of the President. Well, it turns out this is a misreading. A lot of the Federal powers as they exist now, for instance things like the powers of Executive Orders, the powers of pardon and so on, were all created in subsequent Amendments (or simply became accepted practice over time), which went on being written for several decades after 1776, though no one seems willing to write an Amendment nowadays. The early Amendments were extensions of the Constitution as first conceived, so that they put in words the promises that were felt to require explication, for instance the famous 2nd Amendment Right to bear arms, which is now defined as the individual citizen’s right to buy any gun he likes, given some checks, though not at gun fairs in some States. One must remember that at the time, the 1780s, every gentleman in Europe was allowed to carry a sword, but only the King had the right to possess guns, a right which he granted to his armies and other lieutenants. The American right to own your own gun goes way beyond any right you may or may not have to use it. Nevertheless, this and some other Amendments can be seen to distort or alter or may be seen to obscure the meaning of the founders’ original intentions, and that is what gives the Supreme Court such a lot to discuss, not to mention the general public.
Meanwhile, another unique American institution that foreigners and quite a lot of Americans profess to be confused and shocked by is the Electoral College, the system set up to prevent a single state or combination of states from dominating the Federal Government forever by sheer force of numbers. It makes a lot of sense to its defenders and it seems stupendously dumb to its critics, depending on the subject under discussion and how the participants look at it. The main issue to prove it is dumb is the apparent dislocation of the popular vote from the final result, because all those popular votes are aggregated by the State’s Electoral College representatives, State by State, such that the popular vote has gone against the EC vote in the last three Republican Presidential electoral victories, G. W. Bush (twice) and Trump. Different states have different rules for how the EC should vote in the final College ballot, a few try to be proportionate to the popular vote, but most are happy to go with First Past The Post principle, and cast their vote as if their entire State had agreed unanimously, which must be very infuriating for those who are thus denied a voice. With a victory margin of 2.2% Trump was able to claim all 29 of Florida’s Electoral College, as if he had won 100% of the vote.
On the other hand, without the EC, the East and West Coasts would dictate the government of Federal America, all but unassailable by the other smaller states. I sometimes wonder if the Americans made a fundamental mistake in trying to form a single nation out of a continent the size of Europe (currently 38 nations, with separate legal and economic governance and each with its own language). Certainly this ungainly and highly provocative system doesn’t do them any favours, because it will never be put beyond discussion, every election is clouded by this controversy, which is never good, even when the popular vote nationwide matches the decision of the EC.
When I was a boy our mother used to say “Never write it down”, referring to your thoughts and opinions, because they can always be turned against you, given time. Written Constitutions are a fine example of this folly. I spend much too much time reading online discussions among impassioned American commentators, as they get more and more angry and frustrated by the other side, and as each side resorts to further and further extremes of insult and adamant defiance. Sometimes I sympathise with their refusal to listen to each other even as I wish they would, if only to bring the intensity down to conversation levels of civility, but that seems to be a lost cause now. President Trump is no help in this issue. He operates at shout level or FULL CAPS tweets to keep his closest followers frothing with delight, anger, euphoria, anger again…
Thus we come to the terror of next week. People are already bringing their guns and their anger and their bullying tactics to the polling stations, as the early voters get in line and try to avoid the crush of Election Day (According to the US Elections Project, as of 30 October more than 85 million Americans have already voted – BBC). It seems to me that whoever is the next President is going to find his hands full dealing with marauding gangs of either frustrated or triumphant Trump supporters dealing with their enemies as brutally as they can, and probably being confronted by gangs of their armed opponents from the rough end of Antifa and other such organisations. There are militias of every shade, and that’s just the ones we hear about. Who knows what will come out of the woodwork once the shooting starts.
A truly dreadful upshot of the Trump Presidency has been the rise of the assertion I often hear from self-professed members of the Right that if someone doesn’t agree with them and vote with them then they must surely “hate America”. America is a very young country and it is clear that they haven’t had time to settle their national identity. They haven’t even finished collecting their population. They extended the invitation to every struggling soul, and it turns out there are more of those than modern America is willing to take. It sometimes seems as if Americans of all parties and none cling to their separate heritages, and think they and their echo chamber are the only true Americans. Those who are voting zealously for Trump want the America they were told about when they were children, the story of the pioneers, all of them Europeans. They worry, as do many Europeans, that their culture is being subsumed in a multicultural society. Europeans may have the reasonable excuse that they are defending ancient rights and tribal heritage, but America is founded on immigration, and the famous promise of the Statue of Liberty, though they may not have meant it quite like that, is an invitation to the whole world, and the whole world has heard.
Opponents of that conservative view welcome the America they see being formed in the 21st century, they welcome change. They believe in their view as true Americans too. That is quite a chasm between the two stances.
This is not an argument Europeans need to have. As I say, of course there are some who argue about the current immigration numbers and the validity of the naturalisation process (though most embrace it for the enhancing results for our cultures), but the immigrants of the European nations who came during the last couple of millennia are not seen as “immigrants” any longer. A few hundred years has this effect, but America’s whole existence is hardly more than two hundred and fifty years or so. Our descendants here in Ireland, for instance, of the Vikings and French and Spanish and whoever else washed up here at one time or another, don’t have to assert their Irishness any longer. Modern America started out as a European idea, and a lot of the support for the xenophobe in the White House is from those Americans who want to preserve the Hollywood version of their early history. We have all seen those Westerns, the basic myth of the origins of modern America, the brave wagon trains of pioneers fending off the savage locals and outlaws and mountain lions, transforming the wilderness into a productive nation (as defined by European standards1), or the unruly cowboys riding the cattle trails and shooting up the towns. Did you know that approximately a quarter of all the cowboys herding cattle across the Great Plains in the late 19th century were freed slaves? What cowboy film have you seen where there are black cowboys among the extras, the background characters? In this century there has been some effort for First ADs to make sure they have a fully representative crowd in the background, but that was not the case when I was growing up, and those were the times when a large chunk of Trump’s base support were growing up. They fear for their future because they fear it will not resemble their past, and that’s frightening. For a hundred thousand years we have lived and died among a small community, our village or tribe. Then in the last three or four hundred years the Europeans have roamed the world and now we all live in a kind of worldwide community, but also our village or tribe. No wonder there’s problems, and America may be, as it often is, the crucible in which the future will be forged.
I don’t believe anyone will ever successfully set up a dictatorship in America, but right now we have someone who looks as if he’d like to, or at least to cement in power the oligarchy of wealth for decades to come. The only if potent defence against this is the very powerful sense built into the American Constitution that the people grant rights to the government, not the other way around. This definition of government is shared by all sides of the American political spectrum. The question is only how much power and of what kind should the people grant to the Federal Government.
Unfortunately much of this concept is undermined because the Americans, and in particular their Supreme Court, have allowed their government to become a plutocracy, financed by billion dollar corporations and other rich folk through Super PACs, so that apart from the occasional opportunity to vote, only the internet and crowd funding can assert the power of the citizens, the consumers who have to live under their government if they hope to oppose them, and even then it isn’t easy. Money was always the Big Idea of America, the land where anyone could get rich if they found the way, no class could corner the sources of wealth, nothing stood in the way of a free American except his own inclinations and efforts. In the 19th century and to some extent into the 20th that was true, but it isn’t quite so true any more. Sure, every year makes new American millionaires, but there is a structure of old money in America now, built up since the 18th century, and as exemplified by its political clout, it looks uncannily like the class system of old Europe (and modern Europe, if less so). The money in the world has got too big, the financial systems have become too complex, they are illusory. There is no direct correlation between the notional money in the various international markets and any tangible asset value. It’s all fiat, derivative, based on the endless promise of growth that is the founding belief of capitalism. There are no gold deposits to be found that have not been found and earmarked by big mining corporations, there is no more oil or gas to be found, it’s just a matter of extracting it. Everything that can be exploited is being exploited.
As a result, a vast underclass is being created, partially employed, usually frustrated, quietly angry, but hopeless in their powerlessness. Trump gave such people hope, he persuaded them that he would give them a voice. Actually, of course, he is the representative of the plutocrats, but his supporters are now so far steeped in their belief in him that if, to paraphrase the man himself, he shot a man on 5th Avenue in broad daylight, they would stand by him. If he has not brought back their coal mining jobs or their steel industry jobs, they forgive him.
I saw this man in a video taken at a Trump rally. His T-shirt shows the first term dates for the whole Trump family to become President for two terms, giving them a putative dynastic succession through to 2064 (President Barron Trump). This is the nation that overthrew the Royal Crown of Britain to escape such nepotist practices as the Royal line of succession. Now they have the most blatantly nepotist President in the world, now or ever, and that supporter wants the dynasty to rule for the next forty-four years (and would probably fill in the next generation if he knew their names).
This is not the recipe for a peaceful election and transfer of power, or even the peaceful continuation of Trump’s Presidency. He probably doesn’t think that far ahead, but next week we may see the result of his exhortations to his fans to feel angry, to get violent, to feel the need to grab the nation for themselves, and to repudiate everyone who doesn’t agree with them as “un-American”. We’ve heard it before and it is always an ugly idea. It is divisive and it has no positive outcome that I can see.
Sorry to end on a pessimistic note but I can’t think of a suitable alleviation. If you’re in a position to do so, vote for Biden. He’s not very inspiring, but he is a gentleman, he will seek reconciliation though it will be hard to find, and if nothing else, he’ll do for now.
1Chief Red Cloud of the Sioux Nations once said: “The white man calls it a wilderness. We call it home.” He also said one of the most perceptive and tragic things about the transformation of America: “The white man only kept one promise: he said he would take our land and he took it.”
A friend of mine recently told me to “grow some” in response to another of my futile attempts to talk him down from his conspiracy theory about the Covid-19 pandemic: that it is all a government plan to increase surveillance and social control and make Big Pharma rich. While I agree it is likely that government will always jump on any such opportunity and always has, and Big Pharma will undoubtedly make a lot of money (big online business already has), it is not the primary explanation for 188 countries reporting the same virus, which would imply millions of health workers of every rank pretending to be working 18 hour days, staying in their hospitals for months, and all those patients pretending to be ill.
A conspiracy of the media to sensationalise and scaremonger rather than speak carefully and with balance I would agree is happening, but it is no more than a zeitgeist rather than an organised conspiracy, and it has been going on for decades, more or less since the rise of Rupert Murdoch and his one great insight: we love to be scared (e.g. horror movies and fiction).
Media has been moving from emotionless factual reportage to sensationalised entertainment over the last forty or fifty years. There was a time when you could buy a single newspaper and expect to hear the whole story. Choice came down to editorial style, and of course, editorial position, but that in itself was very much confined to the Editorial pages, and were seen as precisely that, a reflection on the news reported elsewhere in the paper. Nowadays the whole paper is editorialised, it’s very demoralising.
My friend was hoping that I would grow some testicles, for those who missed the meaning of “Grow some”. At the time I said something dismissive about his attempt at wit (I had texted “Grow up” when he mocked the dying) and we left it there, but on reflection I have thought a couple of things. The first is that it is interesting that he should see the argument about how to deal with the virus as a test of my and presumably his masculinity (admittedly, this is a man with a goatee beard, so one can understand his uncertainty), a reference to what we used to call “brass balls”, a kind of “I will stand my ground” quality, a display of toughness and resilience, much like the chaps at The Alamo.
Secondly, it’s not that I think my friend is likely to die, or even catch the virus for that matter, but it is a risk we all run and are likely to run most of the rest of our days, like road accidents and air crashes and falling down stairs with a tray. As I see it, masks are the equivalent of seatbelts (which were heavily resisted in the beginning, and to this day a considerable number of road fatalities are people not wearing them), and I would expect masks to become as common here as they are in China and Japan, for example. As to social distancing, one can see the change already taking hold in the way people meet casually in the street.1 Most people are already wearing masks in places with a roof overhead, though for now I suspect they’re hoping it won’t be forever. They’re only waiting for the miracle vaccine of which we hear so much.
But we are living in the age of rapid distribution. It is the cornerstone of some of the greatest social changes that modern transport has brought about across the world in the last hundred years, the huge reduction in the numbers of people living without sufficient food, without medical resources, without some knowledge of the world beyond their immediate society, which is itself the simultaneous social miracle and political conundrum of our times.
Among other things, it gets diseases around the world like wild fire. How often do you take a trip by air and come home with a sniffle, maybe a cold or even flu that you probably caught at the airport or on the plane? We shrug it off because it is not a big deal, and a small if inconvenient price to pay for the glory of modern travel opportunities. Fortunately, most of the time there aren’t any novel viruses looking for places to stay, but there have been five or six epidemics in the last twenty years, some of which, Bird Flu and SARS for instance, made some headway before coming under control. Covid-19 was a comparative biggy, and it is hard to say what was the difference that caused it to spread as it did and changed the way the world reacted, though I think we have to accept that a lot has to be laid at the door of the Chinese culture of hierarchical fear, such that the local officials at the heart of the outbreak in Wuhan didn’t dare tell any senior authority, no one outside the hospitals in Wuhan in fact, and off it went.
It also doesn’t help that, for the very good reason that they live in warm to hot climates and that therefore things go off very quickly in the heat, much of the world prefer to buy their meat live and slaughter it only immediately before cooking. It’s only my opinion, but I’ve noticed that all the rules of diet in kosher and halal cuisine make very good sense when you remember that the origins of those rules were laid down in the desert where those hot conditions reigned, and pigs were fed on the proceeds of the latrines. Mohammed obviously had a keen eye for sanitary behaviours. Halal slaughter is merely the fastest way to kill available at the time of writing the Q’ran. The tragedy for the victims of halal butchery, which can take up to two minutes to render the victim unconscious as they bleed to death, is that Mohammed didn’t have modern humane stun guns.2 to recommend and Muslims are very slavish about the instructions given in the Q’ran, as we know, though some do use methods to stun the animal before severing the carotid artery, the jugular, the windpipe and the oesophagus in one swift cut with a fine blade, as instructed.
Assuming there is no change in any of that in the near future, I think we’ll find ourselves confronting these pandemics fairly often, and will get used to the mechanisms of controlling it. What we cannot continue with, and on this my friend and I agree, is that it be dealt with by law and surveillance. There are freedoms which are fundamental to the European political consciousness, and I include America and Australia as Europe’s outliers. In fact such freedoms for the citizens and such power as the citizens have over their governments must not be surrendered, and in case anyone wonders why, look to the nations where control and surveillance are widespread, under the various forms of autocracy that exist currently in the world. To an extent all government is autocratic, inasmuch as we don’t get to influence their decisions, only, in the world’s democracies, the regular choice of whom to hand power to. A majority government in those parliaments is effectively an elected dictatorship, and sometimes they have been known to convert their position to assume total power. It can be done very subtly, and I can see where my friend’s suspicions are founded. I recommend “The Rise And Rise of Michael Rimmer”, a Peter Cook film made in 1970 and even more terrifyingly relevant today with the TV personality President in America and the bumbling humorist in the UK, and autocrats sprouting up all over the planet.
I’ve been talking to some people in China about Xinjiang, and at the same time I’m reading a novel by a Buddhist/humanist friend about life in Tibet in the 1950s3, shortly after the initial invasion and import of Han Chinese settlers to the mountain nation. Of course, settling was precisely the way in which the Europeans took over the Americas and Australasia, and it is how the French took over in England back in 1066, and at least the Chinese are trying in Tibet and Xinjiang to bring the people into their society, rather than the more genocidal approach of the Europeans settling in the colonies in the 19th century. I follow a blog site about Africa as well, and what is noted there is that the Chinese are far less inclined to speak to Africans as if they are all basically dim. They treat people as their equals, which is very seductive. What the Chinese really think of the rest of us is, of course, not something I know, but they used to call us “red barbarians”, if that is any kind of clue.
The question is, when do you stop listening to someone telling you what to do? The answer, it seems, is, when you know perfectly well what to do and do not need their advice. This applies whether you do in fact know enough or not, which leaves one open to all sorts of contradictory interpretations of events. We live with it every day if we let the online world get into our lives. It’s a bit like the warnings against smoking. There must now be very few smokers who have not heard of the dangers and yet they still smoke, and incidentally, it was the smoking ban in pubs and public spaces that everyone swore they’d never obey, and then everyone did. In the end, we are not fools (most of us anyway), and we don’t go out of our way to harm ourselves without having a calculated reason to do so: “I like hanging onto the side of a mountain six hundred feet above more rocks, so I’ll go climbing.”
The problem with masks is that it is, for now at least, mostly recommended for preventing oneself spreading the virus inadvertently in the incubation period. It does nothing to help the wearer (this is not necessarily true, there are differing opinions I won’t rehearse here). The social distancing advice is equally good or anyway equally indifferent for all participants in a gathering. The issue for now comes down to some extent as to how far are we willing to err on the side of caution. I don’t think this is a matter of macho-ness, but my own attitudes could well be to do with getting older. Some symptoms observed concerning this process include an increase of being prone to bouts of vertigo, and certainly, on a purely practical level, it is probable that my younger friend is in better health and virility in that particular area than I am. I on the other hand, am much more thoughtful ;). One thing I know is true, old age makes you cautious, for oneself and for one’s loved ones. My wife recently had open heart surgery, I won’t be taking risks while she is still in recuperation.
I also do not subscribe to conspiracy theories as a matter of (qualified) principle. There have been conspiracies in history, but rarely. They are extremely difficult to contain and control. More often there have simply been contingency plans drawn up that came to be used, and then it looks like it was the plan all along i.e. a conspiracy. The original plan for the attack on Pearl Harbour was drawn up by the Japanese High Command in 1897 or thereabouts, along with hundreds of other possible war scenarios. I expect modern armies are the same. It is not a conspiracy unless it is a secret and someone is getting deceived and probably harmed.
Just to round this off, and without prejudice, as the lawyers say, I read an interesting analysis of what drives conspiracy theory believers, one suggestion being that in their terror of things being out of control, they would rather think things are under control, even if the controller is an evil lizard man sucking the blood of babies or a greedy plutocratic government.
Meanwhile, my wife and I continue to live and generally isolate ourselves at home, where we work, eat, entertain ourselves and our cat and dog, and sleep, surrounded by fields and silence, with the Atlantic to the front and the Macgillicuddy Reeks at our backs.
1 Did you hear the gag about the Swedish? They’ve given up on the 2 meter distancing, and gone back to the usual 5 meters.
2 “Vets say unstunned cattle take about 20 seconds (but up to 2 minutes) to lose consciousness while they bleed to death], sheep six or seven seconds (but up to 20) and poultry seven or eight seconds, but all these times can be far longer.” James Meikle The Guardian 2014. Stunning is instantaneous, and humane if death is immediately brought on afterwards, without the animal regaining consciousness.
3 “Windhorse Warrior” by R. C. Friedericks – Nyogi Books India – ISBN: 978-93-86906-51-9
My wife flew home from London in late February 2020 on a flight on which a passenger was later diagnosed as having contracted the novel virus Coronavirus, later to be known as Covid-19. We had already decided that she should quarantine on the off-chance, because if you’re going to catch anything, one really good time to do it is during air travel. We planned to give it three weeks, as the incubation period of the virus was put at 14-28 days back then, though later they stuck to 14, but by the time the three weeks were over the government had ordered us all into precautionary behaviour, and us in particular into what they call “cocooning”, 24/7 house arrest for the vulnerable groups (we fall into two, old and underlying decrepitude), and so here we are, living in splendid isolation on the South West Atlantic Coast of Ireland, quite content.
The truth is, my wife and I have been living like this for years. We see each other in the morning and in the evening, only meeting if we go for a walk or shopping or some other engagement. Otherwise, we have our separate places to work or just while away the hours, whatever we choose. The key to any good relationship is surely the security of knowing that you can be alone when you want to be, a mutual respect for space and privacy, and this goes for corporations as much as for couples.
The only serious changes in our daily routine, such as it is (which is not very routine), have been the end of long walks on the beach (getting fatter) and having everything delivered (no petrol expenses or trips anywhere for two months). We live on a farm, so there is a general routine of exercise, stuff to do in the garden, a walk across the fields (about a quarter of the walk on the beach). We both work from home in our semi-retirement, really more pursuing hobbies than jobs, though we do get paid sometimes. In our cocoonment the support of strangers, the volunteers delivering stuff, as well as friends running errands has been humbling as well as gratifying. I love the Irish, their immediate instinct to look around and see where they can help their neighbours even as they make sure they are all right themselves. As demonstrated back in 2008, they’re great at saying, “Well, that party’s over, better clear up the empty cans and get back to work”. In the 1980s we used to say the party is still going if there’s half a can of lager left. The result is that the ranks here closed quickly when the financial collapse happened, the economy got through its troubles in double time, and now we have managed to suppress the virus with equal vigour and efficiency, though of course, the battle is far from over. In fact, I don’t think it ever will be again. We are living in the time of novel viruses.
A lot of the domestic distress that is reported during the current lockdown must be due in part to the unexpected shock of everyone being in the home all the time, every hour of every day, children in the sitting room, husbands in the kitchen, wives trying to work or just wanting to be alone while being nagged to service the household, because truth to tell, most of us are still putting most of the housework on the woman of the family. But it must also be true that lots of people found a new way of being at home, and have grown to like a lot of the effects. It is a common misconception that Darwin’s theory of evolution is based on the idea of the survival of the fittest. What he wrote is that the survivors are those who most readily adapt to change. The effects of the pandemic will be social change, but what and to what degree is open country right now, all futures remain possible until they happen, though we may wonder about it just the same.
Though my wife and I may joke that we have always lived in isolation, we haven’t. Last week they released the cocooned back into the wild. We went for our first beach walk in months on Tuesday. Thus we are beginning to go back to our earlier life, or as much of it as survives the changes wrought by this experience. We can now go out of our gate for journeys up to two kilometres and soon we will be allowed to go five kilometres from home for no better reason than to get away. We may even be allowed to mix with friends and family. If we have better reasons, so-called essential journeys are allowed, and I was told recently that includes buying a newspaper. Food is also an essential journey, but we will keep up the grocery deliveries until they tell us to get off our lazy arses, which will be when the R is 0 or possibly sooner, though I think I’d rather wait for an all-clear. We shall see. Perhaps they will keep the service going, now that it has proved so popular. Anything that reduces use of cars should be encouraged.
But all of this begs the question, what comes next?
One of our daughters shared a video of a young man reading a children’s book to his son set a few decades in the future. It was a charming if naive vision of a great lesson having been learnt, but it is the tragedy of humanity that it is the biggest bullies who run the system, and though capitalism has vastly increased the political and economic power of the Consumer i.e. the majority, it is still the oligarchy that holds crucial decision making powers. They will do their best to get us all back to the world as before, where they were getting ludicrously rich and powerful. Nevertheless, it must be assumed that there will be a social, political and economic effect of the lockdown over the next decade. In many ways it is only an acceleration of something that was already happening, the move to communications technology in the work environment, but it is also bound to have changed people’s perception of the life they live, used to live, and now intend to live.
I expect this new virus to recur every coronavirus season, perhaps remaining ten times more lethal than general ’flu or perhaps reducing, as each dose dissipates the future potency of the virus. I don’t know. It has managed to get around the world fairly rapidly and these things don’t fade away unless they literally run out of hosts. This can in theory be achieved by extreme lockdown. A lot depends on whether catching it means gaining life long immunity, but that would make it unique among coronaviruses, or so I have heard, but please comment if there are some coronaviruses that provide total immunity after one dose, like chicken pox or measles, which I believe are a different class of viral infection (with the same proviso, I’m not a doctor and I’m too lazy to Google all this). Probably more to the point is the fact which this pandemic only serves to emphasise that such novel viruses do occur, and they can spread very fast if we don’t trap them quickly. How to do that will preoccupy all governments after this.
Supposing that there will be a seasonal continuation of the infection, I expect we are not going to go for total lockdown next time around, or at least, according to how it persists, we will refine our behaviour to deal with not only Covid-19, but Covid-25 or 30 or whenever the next novel virus escapes. We have all learnt the lesson that George W. Bush learnt back in the early 21st Century and started the planning for dealing with a pandemic, an international network of early warning lookouts, expanded by Obama, but unfortunately for us all, dismantled by Trump a couple of years ago.
We have to face the fact that pandemics will happen, and we need a cogent way of living that allows for that and limits the effects. Compared to the Spanish Flu of 1919, we have done extraordinarily well so far with what will undoubtedly become known as the Chinese Flu of 2020, though we won’t have any proper grasp on the extent of this pandemic until the end of 2021 or later. Fortunately for us in Europe, we have the benefit of a Control experiment, because Sweden alone decided to go for the “herd immunity” path, while all the rest have gone for the lockdown and flatten-the-curve approach. The result this year has been that Sweden has had a death toll several times more than the rest of Scandinavia put together. They calculated that they could handle the medical impositions and that herd immunity would provide a better long term result. Their hope is that next year they will have far fewer than any of the other Scandinavian countries when they realise their economies can’t handle a lockdown every six to eight months and seek ways to keep the economy going without lockdown.
Coincidental to these events there has been a movement in the G7 economies to take a look at the priorities of capitalist business. The current ethos of capitalism is that the business serves its investors a.k.a. shareholders first and foremost. Put bluntly, they only do this to make money, and if there was a better way to make more they’d do it. A few years ago the CEO of a pharmaceutical company raised the price of one of their pills by 400% because, he said, “it is our moral duty to make money when we can.” There is no social connection, no empathy in this outlook. One can only wonder at his use of the word moral, but for him the process is a moral obligation – make money.
However, the higher powers of capitalism are aware that all business is dependent on the Consumer, and this I suspect is one reason why they have considered reordering the list of their obligations, starting with their customers, then society as a whole, and lastly the shareholders. According to Private Eye, a British magazine, in 2019 CEOs of 181 of the world’s largest companies declared “a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders.” Presumably the shareholders of significance are considering this from their position of dealing purely with money, a commodity with only one value for human life, it is the Esperanto of exchange, the instrument by which we conduct trade, and thus provide supply according to demand. And so the world goes round etc.
But now the Consumer – i.e. you and me and all us ordinary taxpaying citizens of the world – has just been through the pandemic experience. What will happen to us as we face into this new future potential that has been writ large though it’s been there for decades. Terry Gilliam’s wonderful 12 Monkeys is all about a pandemic in the age of 24 hour international travel and crowded spaces, and that is only one of a number of films that considered the possible effect of a novel virus getting into the population. Scientists have been trying to get the attention of government for decades. Well, now we have all been forced to confront the reality and that is bound to affect the way we deal with this and future novel viruses.
I expect we will keep up social distancing, or physical distancing as the Irish government more accurately, more kindly call it, and like the Japanese, we will get used to wearing masks in public, keeping our groups physically distanced, no more sitting elbow to elbow with strangers, everyone wearing masks, and finding disinfectant or hand washing facilities everywhere. Social events like cinema and restaurants and theatre will have to adjust the budget to deal with a general desire to keep a wider personal space than before. Gloves, they say, are less necessary as the virus isn’t getting in via your hand but when your hand, glove or no glove, touches your face and the little buggers go up your nose or into your mouth (or down your ear? Why not?). Viruses are a marvel of survival instinct, it’s their only motive for living. They look like World War 2 sea mines as they hunt down our cells and destroy them.
And then there is the world of work. I wrote an article a few years ago on “disruptive technology”, a term that refers to the technological innovations that have so thoroughly transformed the way society works since the 1980s, growing in social influence exponentially (though of course, history is full of disruptive technologies, it’s just that this one is ours). Alternate-States discusses current research plans and developments in an attempt to look into the future of what are known as Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality technologies (VR, AR, MR). The use of computer technology to add to or reproduce or create in an artificial environment reality.
Within this decade I predict we will see cinema quality graphics in all the virtual reality technologies, such as will encourage a significant shift to virtual experiences. Instead of sitting in a crowded theatre you sit at home with a headset like a pair of sunglasses and you think you are in an audience watching a play or a concert, while actually you’re home with a drink in your hand. Instead of flying with all of the infection risk of air travel we have secure virtual meetings for a large proportion of business and other meetings, in particular international political and business meetings, until face to face meetings are as rare as Government Summits. The main problem for now is the graphic quality, which is still poor and would make participants wary of trusting too much to the event, but new methods for delivering the internet and computer speed will conquer that certainly within the next thirty years, but I suspect the quality will be solid in ten years, not least because now we are going to put much more pressure on the technology to meet the demand of less social engagement.
The Consumer will make it happen. Imagine the time it took to go from the first horseless carriages to an economy and social process almost entirely dependent on motor transport, or the time it took to go from mobile phones as big as house bricks that only Wall Street actors carried around to the most essential internationally utilised social tool of the 21st Century?
I have no idea if we will slow down socially, but I expect we will if only because the economy will. The economy will slow because most of it is based on the local society’s need for supply, services and jobs. Businesses in future will need to accommodate pretty much permanent physical distancing, at both ends of the deal, with their staff and their customers. Turnover and margins will go down. Types of demand will change, with for instance, people more inclined to order in to the point where even the top restaurants provide a delivery service, with the rarity of table space chez le Chef driving up restaurant prices to compensate for the lack of footfall. Businesses will save on reduced premises costs, renting time in shared office buildings for the occasional week or two of working together, test kits at the door.
Cinema will become an event like theatre, both will have to cope with a shrinkage of seat space, and theatre will follow cinema in streaming productions in an effort to generate income. Theatres could multiply their output, because each production need only run live in studio once or at most a minimal number of times to provide a cycle of nuanced differences in performance before it is exclusively available online, and for both cinema and theatre, like restaurants, the in-house experience can be priced for rarity.
Commerce will always find a way to make money. They just have to adapt to changes in demand.
I can’t see how music venues can avoid crowding, so people will develop all sorts of fashion responses to the need to wear masks, and all of us will get used to a lot more washing and dancing if it isn’t disconnected enough already, will become a solo thing you do unless you know who you’re with, and anyway, that generation will mostly just hope they’re not the one that’s going to get it. I can’t see banning clubs, it will just go back ot the old rave scene, popping up all over the place. Social media, yay! Maybe they’ll have saucy unisex wash and/or shower rooms so the clubbers can wash before going home! There’ll be a lot more fainting (the masks constrict breathing, and you’re breathing in your own out-going breath), there’ll be special breathing spaces where you can sit and take your mask off, maybe pump extra oxygen in.
But more importantly, consent and trust will be ever more cautiously attained, so there could be a tendency for relationships to slow down (though lust will always be with us, of course). We might even go back to the long courtships and polite introductory periods of the last time society moved at these speeds, the 1950s or so and ever more so the further back you go. Some of the Right wing dreams of going back to the fifties might even come about. Politeness, kindness and patience are regularly concomitant with a slow lifestyle.
Of course, a lot depends on how people have taken to this time of living at home, of reduced social interaction, of self reliance and self entertainment. With or without work to do, it is a huge change from the usual run of life for the great majority of people in west Europe, where I live, when one or usually both of the adults in a family are out at work for eight or more hours five days a week. Did they enjoy these weeks of being at home, did they find a new look at life, or did it drive them crazy, and exhaust them? Children aside, because they will go back to school, masks on, the adults working at home will have the possibility of focus without travel. Some will build office sheds at the end of the garden so there is a walk to work, and some might even share a local space with other online workers, instead of going to company head office. Businesses might be able to reduce their office space, or share it as said above. There could be a change of use bonanza with office buildings converting some of their space to cheap flats, a help towards solving the housing problem.
I expect air travel will involve some sort of health clearance at the airport, during the security check, hopefully a highly efficient test system, and of course, we hope for a vaccine, but unless someone discovers a universal vaccine for all variations of the species of coronavirus I think we will continue with physical distancing and mask wearing, and a lot of work will go to home workers, a shift to AI manufacturing processes, and long distance goods transport. I hope to see a cleaner world, more quiet, less demanding.
As my wife said to me this morning, think how quickly we all adjusted to the 9/11 effect, from strolling up to the gate with ten minutes to spare, to queueing for hours at airport security, belts and coats off, laptops out, liquids in a bag, and lengthy queues. We all adapted.
Remember what Darwin said.
My brother, an ardent Brexiteer, complained to me recently that the Remainers were complaining that it might take weeks to get everything sorted, when in fact it will probably take months or even years, and surely that was obvious? Well no, it wasn’t at the time of the campaign and it isn’t now, except that the current logjam of political impasses makes it so. When it was being argued, the implication was that we’d get through the transition without much noticeable disruption, to be followed by the freedoms that were well broadcast.
I pointed out that for some people the next couple of weeks are pretty crucial, let alone months, and God forbid, years, and the fall in living standards will not be popular, no matter the future reward. We notice when our purchasing power goes down by 15% or more. The effect is limited to import and export trade, and 84% of UK trade is internal, but even a lot of that will eventually be impacted by a fall in the pound. The fact is, the leavers made it all sound like it would be fine and dandy, a smooth transition and a return to a UK that would feel good – Make the UK Great Again. I even saw a couple of pre-referendum videos of Nigel Farage and others suggesting we’d take the Norway or Switzerland deals, neither of which in fact work, as proved, and for the reason that they grant freedom of movement to all EU citizens, which was and still is a major issue for the Brexit voters. You’d think they might have noticed that. It’s that they didn’t know it weeks before the vote (unless they were deliberately hoodwinking us, heaven forefend). I know Brexiteers hope for a successful exit from the EU, and foresee a beneficial effect on the economy, and from the economic point of view (but solely that), I understand why, but really, one wonders what they must make of the process so far and the people they have entrusted with the task.
Would the vote have gone as it did if the Brexiteers had announced that the process would involve a steep dive in the purchase power of sterling, followed by months and possibly years of readjustment, but not to worry, it’s all going to work out fine (they could have used the Manfred Mann song as their anthem)? My position now is that, if leaving the EU is a good idea, we should have waited until the EU falls apart, because then everyone would be looking for a good outcome. Failing that, I do not think it unreasonable to expect that a workable plan would be in place in at least one person’s head before they went campaigning to have a referendum, let alone actually conducted one.
As it is, we now know there is no plan nor ever was one, and apparently not much chance of one any time soon. All they had was a bunch of ideas and possibilities, none of which had been properly researched or substantiated. Where I come from, Due Diligence is the first duty of management. Of course the EU cannot but do its best to make sure being out is worse than being in, at least as far as it can control that. As with the Free Market, it’s all about confidence and loyalty backed up with some fundamentals, for sure, but it is surprising how often that is the least consideration.
For the vast majority of us citizens the principal requirement of government is efficiency and continuity. The back and forth is all about who can make the better promises and offer the most viable economic plan. You’d think conservatives at least would understand that. Instead, in the Brexiteers we have revolutionaries. I say this because they share that ultimate source of failure, they require a switch of direction so swift no one feels it, and so complete all of its benefits will be immediately apparent. It doesn’t happen; never has, never could. The day after (literally) the Brexit vote one of my daughters met a neighbour who asked why the Polish builders in the street were still working. Ridiculous, right? But far too many people were thinking at that level. Karl Marx predicted that in a capitalist society, everyone would be politically aware, and in a modern western techno-democracy everyone has a way to express their awareness, and they certainly feel entitled to their political opinions. The trouble is, there is no threshold for forming opinions, everyone can do it, ignorance or stupidity are no bar. That’s why this should never have gone to a referendum. The people elected to do the job of arguing about and steering our society’s direction are paid to do that kind of thinking. Most people don’t have the time, let alone the inclination. All the blather about the lack of information during the campaign comes down to the fact that it’s all out there but outside the world of politics and government (if anyone does there) no one reads all of it, and only a few conscientious citizens read part of it.
If there had been a plan, say for it all to take a year, or even five years, we’d know where we stand. We might not like it, we might not be here if that had been said, but with a plan we would know where we stand. To start out with not so much as a note on the back of a fag packet is absurd, not to mention catastrophic. But let’s face it, even the sloppy ideas they did have are failing. Right now, Minister for Trade Liam Fox promised 40 new trade deals by the 29th March, but in fact he has got none in place yet, with a little over five weeks to go. WTO rules will kick in with all the default tariffs and drive everyone mad, though hopefully that time of chaos will finally knock heads together and things will move faster, a working trade deal will be negotiated with a reduced tariff, for instance, and we all will own up to the fact that there has to be a noticeable border in Ireland, and that the infrastructure needed will take months to complete, until which time it will be a messy business of closed roads, diversions, and queues. The UK do prove themselves a nation of shopkeepers in all this. For the Irish on both sides, that border has too much history for it to be suddenly a footnote to an international trade treaty, a mere matter of money. The Irish were fighting the British, and then a civil war, only a hundred years ago. The border will be a problem, no matter what is done.
The truth is, a bunch of rich folk who can deal with such losses (I’ll never forget the insouciant shake of the head a multi-millionaire Brexiteer friend of mine gave me when I asked if losing 20% of his income would hurt!) are making a very long term prediction of future prosperity, a look into the future of such an extent, as much as ten years, that even professional economists would fear to offer any certainty. And for this potential reward they will accept the misery of those for whom the market upheavals will be life-altering at the very least.
Such long term predictions are patently unreliable in any circumstances, and particularly now, when we are in the middle of a worldwide technological disruption. Who knows where anyone will be in ten years? Technology is moving at accelerating pace; democracy is descending into the cacophony of a zillion voices on social media; the temptation of authoritarianism, especially nationalist versions, looms before us, and we have an inexperienced American president, a sucker for flattery and ego-massage, who is dealing with two of the wiliest politicians ever to strut the world stage, Putin and Xi Jinping. America is the best defender of the freedom of the individual, a European cultural concept, but President Putin sees a way, at long last, for Russia to gain access to the Mediterranean and political hegemony in the Middle East, targets she has nursed for centuries. I expect Trump will turn a blind eye to more ex-Soviet territory taken over, in return for being left, among other things, to invade Venezuela, and being able to bring home the boys from Syria and Iraq, and possibly Afghanistan, the invading armies that got the whole mess started.
And it is interesting, is it not, that the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi has disappeared from public discussion. Extra-judicial assassination is a weapon Putin likes, and it is probable, surely, that all governments keep a black ops option in their pocket, and always have. But to get away with such a public and obvious murder complete with grizzly soundtrack, is new in the modern world, and beats even the attacks on enemies of the Russian State in London and Salisbury. The Crown Prince was probably given a sharp talking to, ordered to do these things more discretely in future, and told to stay out of sight for a while, which he has done, at least insofar as western media cares.
That’s the world the UK is Brexiting into. Ho-hum.
The Europeans, and their closest cousins across the Atlantic, the coastal states of North America, have been shocked in the last few years by the seeming plethora of gun attacks on civilians and other gun-related deaths in America, and are appalled that anyone can defend the general availability of assault weapons there, particularly the open and free market in guns to be found in some states under the protection of the 2nd Amendment of their Constitution and state independence in laws of local control of dangerous possessions, such as guns and cars, though there are some federal laws involved in both.
“Why, oh why,” the distraught people say, “do they need all those guns? What are they afraid of?”** I have been corresponding with Americans of every political shade, and have come to see that, first, it is futile to think the core group of gun owners will ever give up their weapons without a fight no government would want to instigate. Second, it has nothing to do with fear, and everything to do with family histories and a spirit of determined self-sufficiency, and as one correspondent put it to me, preparedness. The detail, the often gory scenarios they envisage when arguing their case seem ridiculous to my experience of the world here in south west Ireland, but that, I think, is because they feel they have to shout, as it were, metaphorically, to get their message across. I don’t really understand the worry one man had that he might be on a Chicago street and be threatened by a gun man. Such thoughts never occur to me. But this is to miss the point. American gun owners are mostly annoyed to be threatened with the confiscation of possessions they have been brought up to believe to be as essential to secure and civil living as owning a car or weatherproof clothes. It doesn’t make them dangerous, in fact, it makes them safer than most, because they understand and are highly aware of the deadly threat their weapons can pose, far more so than most car owners think about their equally dangerous cars.
The states of the Great Plains, Washington, Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, Utah and Wyoming, were only formed around 1890 and later, New Mexico and Arizona not until the early 20th century, and Texas is still officially called The Republic of Texas, and to this day, it has to be said, there is some uncertainty as to just how united they are to the rest of the states!
Before then those vast lands were open country with a wide variety of threats on offer to any European settlers hoping to make ranches and farms or build towns in the wilderness.
The great Sioux Nation Chief Red Cloud once said: “The white man calls it a wilderness. We call it home.” The difference between the two ways of life was an unbridgeable abyss. In the first two hundred years of contact the two cultures kept their distance. In 1850, most of North America was hostile territory for the incoming Europeans. From the start of the move west with the opening up of the great trails to Oregon, Colorado and California in the 1840s and 50s, for their survival the people who made the journey had to be ready to hunt for food, to fend off attacks by wild animals, not to mention roving gangs of outlaws on the run from the east and looking for the new lawless lands to the west where the gold was to be found. After the army entered the scene in the 1860s and with it the rule of law, to serve the need to establish secure settlements for the returning armies and for the new waves of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, the situation was changed forever. To quote Red Cloud again: “The white man never kept but one promise: he said he would take our land and he took it.”.
Modern America began with the settlement of the Great Plains and the end of any concept of a shared continent by treaty with its original inhabitants. Henceforth, America was essentially a European nation.
In the second half of the 19th century the Native American Nations saw the initial modest invasion by Europeans become a threat of their total annihilation as a self-determining culture. During most of the 18th century, the initial period of invasion and settlement on the North American continent the British and French in the East made treaties with the Nations and generally kept themselves to the east coast of the continent, with agreed boundaries and trading relationships. For a long time the Native Americans of the Great Plains had watched the settlers arrive from the safety of their back country, and when the occasional European came into their lands, so long as he or she treated them with respect, did not cross any local taboos or start any fights, they accepted them. Most of those early pioneers were hunters or traders, they weren’t looking to settle. The gold diggers, the peasant farmers and religious fugitives that came later were not merely hostile to the Native Americans’ way of life for moral reasons or ignorant fear of the unknown. They wanted them gone, and their buffalo too, to make the land available for farming and marketing. They saw the Native Americans as savages, and in return the Native Americans fought back savagely, for as long as they could. It was a ruthless war of attrition (I recommend “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” if you want to read this story in detail).
The last Native American to surrender was the Apache War Chief Geronimo, who surrendered on September 4th 1886, just 132 years ago (oddly enough, I checked this date on Google on September 4th 2018. I love serendipity!).
Until that day, the European settlers living in the vicinity of the Apache war parties he led had to be prepared to fight them off if they came looking for food and weapons (though there were some settlers who fed Geronimo’s men and befriended this intelligent, brave man, and no blood was shed). Geronimo was the last of a long line that began with the first so-called Indian Wars of the 1830s and 40s, in which the Nations were able to assemble large armies and outnumber, and often outmanoeuvre the invaders. They fought a desperate guerrilla war, and the settlers were caught in the middle of it and were often the first victims of Native American war parties.
Those first settlers were the great-grandfathers and grandmothers of families living today in those states. All of the American states are home to descendants of families that left Europe within the last fifteen generations: it’s a young country. Britain, for instance, has written records dating back through around five thousand generations, and was a polity for four or five thousand more before that. China has written records that date back more than twenty thousand generations. The powerful, courageous, independent spirit engendered by those American myth-makers is the crucible of their gun laws.
In gun owning families children are taught from an early age about guns, how to handle them safely and how to use them effectively. It is seen as a basic life lesson. Not only in America; even as an English child, I was given my first air rifle for my 12th birthday in 1958, and I fired my first target rifle and shotgun before I turned 14. Adult gun owners store their guns responsibly, and practice regularly, either hunting or on dedicated ranges (those FBI training-style pop up target urban layouts are very popular, or so it seems on YouTube). Much fun is had by all.
There is the swagger factor, of course, but even that has its basis in honest need. Watch any Western movie or read any history of the pioneers and you can see that in the burgeoning settlements and towns of the central and western states in the last decades of the 19th century people considered it necessary to be armed at all times, to kill whatever threatened them, be it rattlesnake or mountain lion, dispossessed natives or violent outlaws. Or cheating card players or lovers, but such town-based murders in anger were largely under the control of sheriffs and marshals by the 1870s. Out in the wilderness no one can hear you scream; you have to be ready to defend yourself.
Such traditions die hard. Maybe a day will come when Americans only own guns at European levels, or at least, only kill with them at European levels (Norway has gun laws not much different to American laws, but none of the plethora of bad news stories, apart from that man who shot all the students), but it won’t be soon, and it is pointless to hope it will. I expect cities will tighten possession and licensing laws and there will be better oversight of who can get hold of a gun, but there are more guns than people in America, so it wouldn’t be hard to find one if you want one. Laws or no, no government will entirely disarm all the world’s criminals, and there are sufficient laws to control the use of guns by non-criminals. The issue of mental capacity, licensing and so forth is one for discussion, but my own greatest concern for our American friends is the high rate of suicide by gunshot. One must wonder how many of those attempts would have failed if they had not had a gun to hand, and how many of those survivors would have learnt the lesson and never tried again?
I should add here that I have a certain sympathy with the American fascination with weapons. If I was an American I have no doubt I would own a gun or more than one. I consider them objects of beauty. Guns are like sharks, perfectly designed for a very distinct and limited range of purpose: in sharks to swim and eat; in guns, to fire bullets.
The Colt .45 1911, seen here, is my favourite (I have several toy versions) for sheer beauty of design, its compact sense of power and high precision accuracy. Shotguns don’t interest me, I like target shooting, which seems to be the main use the vast majority of American gun owners put their weapons to, probably more than hunting, a pastime largely pursued by the rural population.
Of course, it isn’t only for the day to day use of their guns that Americans cling to their weapons, or it would only be the rural population that would own them. Guns have the spiritual power of mythology for the Americans, but much more importantly, they represent a central theme of the American Constitution and characterise the raison d’être of the War of Independence.
The 2nd Amendment is the Constitutional expression of a deeply held and exclusively American idea of Freedom. George Washington wrote that the Constitution was designed to protect the “sovereign right of citizens”. At the time, the 18th Century, in every other European nation only the Monarch, the Sovereign, could own or license weapons, and they were generally limited to the ruling class and their guards and armies. Washington was making a very specific point: that in law there is no one above any American citizen, every American is legally and politically equal to all other Americans (well, that was the theory).
Above all that practical need to be armed, the first purpose and main reason that modern Americans, not often troubled by snakes and wild animals, still demand the right to own guns is as a defence against the tyranny of government. Europeans are in a poor position to criticise the Americans who are unique in their absolute rejection of, defence against; in short, their immunity from dictatorship. Europe has been ruled by tyrants for millennia; they produced a few destructive dictators in the last century and there are new ones arising here even today, just look at events in Turkey. Middle Eastern autocracy is of a different nature, but in all other European culture nations outside America and Australia, how differently might history have run if the people were armed against their governments? Whatever the answer to that, it is a core reason for owning guns to the majority of American gun owners.
This is a digression, but it is a curiosity of the American Constitution for me that, with this central theme of anti-tyranny in mind, they put so much executive power in the hands of one man, the President. I expect they did not anticipate the kind of divided, “we’re all right, you’re all wrong” rift in the political argument in America that we are witnessing there; nor that Congress might become, in the circumstances of one party holding a majority in both houses, a rubber stamp for the Executive. But even now, the President of America is a long way from being a dictator. A British Prime Minister has more power. In the British system of first past the post democracy, a government with a large majority is an elected dictatorship.
The point being that, even with both houses and a popular vote, an American President is no closer to being a dictator than the British Queen.
** I was told a good joke about this by a gun owner: An old lady gets pulled over by a cop for a broken tail light. When he looks inside the car he sees a Glock lying on the passenger seat and another in a clip on the dashboard. He checks the trunk and finds two shotguns and an AR-15.
“Jeez, lady,” he says, “what are you afraid of?”
“Me?” says the old lady. “Not a goddamn thing!”
If you’re interested at all you will probably know by now that the referendum was carried and the 8th Amendment is struck from the constitution, to be replaced by acts of law to be passed in the Dáil, Ireland’s Parliament. There was much consternation in the media, who were surprised, nay, even shocked by the weight of the vote to repeal the amendment.
The expectation had been that the hidden vote, the Undecided of all the polls, would largely be No voters, not wishing to expose themselves to ridicule from the liberal media. One element of this thinking was the feeling that the vote would be divided along rural/urban lines, and that rural folk are old fashioned, deeply religious and conservative and so would vote No.
But I live in deeply rural south west Ireland, and talking to friends and knowing the stories common among the community, it was obvious that everyone was fed up with the clear inadequacy of the amendment to deal with the issue of abortion in the conditions of modern life and the possibilities of modern medicine. One reason for the assumption is because, on the whole, the rural population tend to attend church fairly regularly, and whole towns will turn out for funerals, Christmas and Easter. Everyone assumed they would take instruction from the Church. But they don’t. Going to church and attending funerals and weddings and so on is a community act. The church is as much if not more fundamentally a place where you meet your neighbours. What you believe is no one’s business but yours (and, if you believe in It/Him/Her, God’s).
The Catholic Church has always turned a blind eye to people who err a bit from their dogma if it is to the advantage of society and especially, them. There’s the confession angle that allows the penitent to disburden himself from time to time, while living a civil and social life, and the death bed confession and final absolution has been the popular last retreat of many a “sinful” person.
Religion in any case – in every case – has been the instrument of politics and civil organisation and control for millennia, using the uncertainties of this life and the supposed influence of this or that god to limit the citizenry’s expectations and bolster the rulers’ position. It is probably the origin of government and politics, of social ordering by authority backed by power and might. Every world religion can point to a military victor as the kick off point when they grew out of being a small sect of believers and became a fully fledged religion.
The Christian Church got its break in 312 at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, when Emperor-to-be Constantine announced that Jesus had appeared to him above the enemy army, beckoning him to attack with the promise of victory. Blah, blah, blah. Just the kind of thing one would expect Jesus to do, “Come on, Connie, shed some blood!” After the battle Constantine claimed the Emperorship in the West, and granted complete tolerance to the previously persecuted Christians. He may or may not have become a convert himself, historians differs on this; it was all a long time ago.
The Romans soon adapted Christ as God (as opposed to philosopher or prophet) to accommodate their own Mithras, the god who had by then displaced all the ancient gods as the common belief system among the population, though the old gods kept their temples and followers. Both Jesus and Mithras were said to be born of virgins; both are said to have ascended into Paradise with their body intact. There are other coincidences. Before Constantine came along, Jesus was portrayed as blond and clean shaven, probably in the image of Alexander the Great, who had impressed everyone from Greece to India as a mythological figure. His was, presumably, taken as the face of the gods (“in Mine own image” etc.). Thus do these stories interconnect and develop.
All of the founding fathers of world religions, including Mohammed (of whom more in a moment) shared the general message best summed up by Jesus as, Be kind to your fellow humans and love God. St. Augustus once said “Love God and do what you like,” his point being that loving God and therefore not wanting to offend him (Him) would guarantee your good behaviour. It comes down to: you can expect other people to treat you pretty much as you treat them so be nice. Whatever I may feel now, I know that I owe a lot to those early lessons in my religion and this is a conundrum I cannot solve. Many religions are beneficent, including the Judaeo-Christian religions. It’s just that, if not unique they are certainly world leaders in the use of their god to excuse their murderous marauding and pillage.
On the whole, as you will know if you’ve been reading these blogs, I try to keep on the fence when it comes to all these belief systems, I am willing to accept that almost anything they say could be true, and I’ll go along with them till I learn that they’re wrong or right (I may have to be dead for this). The truth is, I simply cannot understand how anyone can say they know for certain what their God wants of us, why he put us here or even if he put us here, or what happens once we’re dead (and this goes for atheists too), let alone kill people for not agreeing.
But of course, as per the principle political purpose of religion, that last concession clears the way for war and invasion. Mohammed is an interesting exception to all the other founders of world religions. Where other religions have a great thinker, a supreme spirit as its figurehead, whose message is later picked up by a political leader and thus spread to unbelievers by killing or converting them, and incidentally also taking over their lands and subjugating their people for the leader, Mohammed was both: he spoke the message and he was the political leader in his wars to unite the Arabian Peninsula. The Q’ran is the most command based holy book of them all. He needed to keep those armies on their toes.
Nowadays, in the Christian world, the churches have lost most of their political power. Ireland is, or rather, was one of its last bastions, though religion plays a very sinister role in American politics still, and its political clout there looks like lasting. Around the world religion is being used by governments as a justification for repression, not least in the Islamic world, but in the Buddhist and Hindu world as well.
In Ireland, the referendum rang the final bell on the church for me, and quite possibly most of the population. No more sitting on a fence of tolerance and mild cooperation. Despite, among many other signs, the earlier gay marriage referendum (another shock for the church), the crestfallen face of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at the vote, revealed his total failure to see or comprehend the changes in the Irish psyche since the 1980s. And as if to compound this, we were told last week of another scandal, this one from the 1950s and 60s (the last Magdalene laundry closed in 1974), in the way the church performed its role of protector of babies born out of wedlock and their mothers, exposing yet again the church’s cold, cruel, methodical treatment of its congregation, utterly convinced of their superiority – “We know best what’s good for you”. All in all, we have had many lessons in recent years about the true nature of the men and women of the Catholic Church’s attitude to the people they see from their pulpits. In this case, they are revealed to have sold babies (i.e. exchanged them for a “donation to the church”) to American couples and falsified their birth certificates so they cannot trace their birth parents. How arrogant is that?
What it all adds up to is a history of maliciousness and hypocrisy, bitter spirits (many nuns and priests were forced into the church by their parents), a culture of authoritarianism mitigated only by the individual people who do adhere to the generous message of their God on earth, Jesus Christ.
One striking hypocrisy shown up in the referendum and brought to my attention by a friend is this: in the run up to the referendum there was much furious argument between the two teams about when exactly a fertilized egg becomes a human being. Our local TD here in Kerry, who admittedly is something of a national joke, maintained that it was from the moment of fertilization, sperm penetrates egg and Bingo! Others conceded it began at end of the germinal stage, which lasts about 14 days; others put it at the end of the embryonic stage, six to eight weeks; in the end it seems to have been decided (but the Dáil has yet to vote) that the confirmation, as it were, of the foetal stage, at around 10-12 weeks, marks the moment when a baby is a human being, entitled to the full protection of our human rights laws. The Catholic Church, of course, said no stage could be aborted, that we should assume the presence of a soul, and thus humanity, all along.
But if this is so, then why do they not offer mass or a funeral for a miscarried baby? In fact, they used to go so far as to make women who had miscarried present themselves in church to be “cleansed”. Incidentally, they are now telling those in their congregations who voted Yes to confess their “sin”.
It all comes down to the appalling, poisonous distortions the Judaeo-Christian religions have made of human sexuality. I would call it a heresy. It seems to me, if there is a God, sex is one of his most unalloyed gifts for our pleasure and joy that one could imagine. Sex is a method for bonding people to each other in a particularly intimate way, while also (incidentally) being an efficient system for reproduction. Why treat it as practically a sin unless you do your best not to enjoy it, and only do it for procreative purposes? It should be noted that there are no quotes from Jesus on the subject. When Pope Gregory was stripping down all the records of Jesus’s life and sayings, editing them down to the four books we have today in the New Testament, he can only have cut out alternative views to the highly controlling anti-sex tradition we know so well, as surely he would have left in anything Jesus said that did confirm the Tora on such things as homosexuality or sex in general. He told the adulteress not to do it again, so we can assume he agreed to monogamous marriage, but as to out of marriage or who should do what to whom, who knows?
It also annoys the hell out of me that the Church is quite happy to allow modern secular medicine to interfere in the fragile business of birth, to engineer pregnancies in previously barren couples, or to save children who would have died, even fifty years ago let alone a hundred and fifty. But surely, by the logic of their belief, this was God’s way of keeping the population under control? If we accept that we are going to live on this planet as independent beings and not accept it all as God made it, then we are making decisions that to an extent, large or small, that ignore his supremacy. The Church, whether it likes it or not, has been making “modern” decisions and changes to dogma ever since it became a world religion back in the 4th century.
Finally, in a modern individualistic capitalist society, people are just less inclined to be told what to do, and certainly not what to think, by governments or religions.
And here’s a funny thing: Pope Francis is coming to Ireland this summer, and he has promised that everyone who attends his masses will be given a “plenary indulgence”. This is a quaint Catholic concept, in which the Pope tells God to let the recipient off some of their due punishment in Purgatory. They can be collected, there are various ways of earning them, if I remember correctly (I was raised as a Catholic), so that, in theory, when you die and have made your way to your Judgement, you could listen to St. Peter read out all your sins and then hand him a bunch of these vouchers and walk straight through the Pearly Gates. It used to be measured out in days (I’m not sure if they put a time span on them now). The Reformation was caused, among other things, by the corrupt sale of indulgences, Martin Luther’s particular bête noir.
Subsequent to the Pope’s announcement Archbishop Diarmuid Martin announced that due to health and safety concerns attendance at the Pope’s masses will be ticketed.
So here we are again, exchanging indulgences for money! I’d like to think this heralds the second Reformation, and this time let it mean the church is forced to close down, sell all their worldly goods, and give the money to the poor. As I recall, that is what Jesus told them to do.
 from paragraph 3 – My favourite story of this was an English Duke in the 18th century who, when asked if he rejected the Devil and all his works, replied “This is no time to be making new enemies.”
As noted above, I live in Ireland but I am not an Irish citizen, so I do not have a vote in the coming referendum. Nevertheless, I do of course follow events and have thoughts on the subject, so for what they might be worth, I thought I would share them with you.
One of the main reasons my wife and I decided to live in Ireland is that there is still a strong sense of the importance of an inner, spiritual life of the individual in Irish society, even in the cities, that the craic is more important than money, that conversation is everybody’s art (I have never heard such speed of wit all around me as I have in Ireland), music is everyone’s joy, and there is a greater good to be found and nurtured in all things. This is a welcome counterbalance to the relentless drive of modern humanity to expand upon their ability to mess with things, to change the way the world works, to challenge the power of Nature with human ingenuity, and work themselves into the ground in the pursuit of material rewards, the trinkets of status and possession.
Personally, I don’t regret any of the advances made since the Age of Enlightenment that brought on this new attitude to creation and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, all of it in the latter half of the 18th Century, including the rise of Capitalism (Adam Smith published “The Wealth of Nations” in 1776). the Age of Enlightenment was the revolution in thinking that preceded, inspired and developed all of the socio-political changes in European culture over the next centuries, from the Industrial Revolution to the French and American Revolutions, to the Sexual Revolution, and on to the Technological Revolution we have been absorbing over the past sixty years or so, revolutions of entirely different natures but all representing the fundamental concept, that everything is not down to “The will of God”, that nature can be challenged and overcome, that it can be analysed and understood and used, well or badly, or any way we damn well please.
Herein lies the crux of the dilemma facing Ireland. On the one hand, it stands proud to proclaim the right to life of the unborn child, and deny abortion as a method of birth control or medical care; on the other hand, it is a 21st century society, with a liberal moral code, especially regarding sex (a revolution I endorse without reservation. I say to priests and nuns and other so called chaste folk, more fool you to give up on one of God’s best gifts!), and the influences of a multicultural society with all the varied attitudes to sex that entails.
Enjoying sex with no intention of pregnancy must be as old as sex itself, older than pregnancy if you think about it, and presumably produced unwanted pregnancies along with those more obviously not only unwanted but unwarranted pregnancies arising out of rape or incest. They were dealt with according to the custom of the time, no doubt, and now we have new customs to consider, not to mention previously unheard of advances in technique. There has been a change in the social attitudes of Western society to sex and its consequences ever since it became possible to avoid the risk of unwanted pregnancies through various forms of safe, effective birth control. For a start, a more liberal sexual code based on sex being most importantly the conduit of love and affection, and if you wish, mere desire. By this code, if all goes well, only at the end of the emotional process of mating, when the couple is truly in love in other words, does it include its role in pregnancy. Alongside this new liberal moral code there is the developing recognition of women as equal partners in society, not the chattels of men, but their equals. And last but not least, we have the advances in medical knowledge and technologies of the past century or two.
As well as the improved techniques of contraception, it also became medically much safer to abort a pregnancy or deliver a baby prematurely. Abortion too, though sometimes postponed until after birth, has also proved common to humanity throughout known history. The Greeks and Romans, for instance, are known to have accepted the practice of exposing new-born babies for a few nights to make sure they had the strength to survive childhood. It also became possible with the development of medical technology to monitor the development of the embryo/ foetus/ baby from the first two cells to the born child, and increasingly it is possible to predict many future outcomes, in the vast majority of cases a healthy birth, of course, but also including many life hindering or fatal outcomes, fates which can be averted sometimes by the same technological advances, well beyond their “natural” expectation.
I have to say, I abhor the way in which those who reject all reasons for performing an abortion have usurped the title Pro-Life. Who do you know who isn’t pro-life, for heaven’s sake? They should take a more honest position, of being simply Anti-Abortion, or in this case, Anti-Repeal, versus Pro-Repeal to make it fair. We could all understand that. No woman with this dreadful experience in her past that I have ever come across felt anything but deeply sad about the decision to abort a pregnancy, never forgot the day, or the years that have passed since, even when it is done to spare the unborn baby further suffering in the process of birth without amniotic fluid, for instance, or to remove a child already dead (which current Irish law obliges a woman to carry to term if her health is not threatened), or to save a woman or girl from despair. The issue is simply one of physical health, the Constitution’s 8th Amendment makes no mention of the mother’s state of mind.
It is always a child lost, no one should dispute that, or hope to hide behind the less empathetic descriptions “embryo” and “foetus”; or to disguise this awful, unwanted, undeserved aftermath of rape or incest, traumatic enough without the added burden, physical and emotional, of an unwanted pregnancy. It is possible for such psychological symptoms to be agreed under a more liberal programme, to allow, in effect, a termination of a pregnancy that would otherwise traumatise the mother. I and, I am sure, many other people would suggest to a woman considering abortion to give careful thought to the possibility of letting the child live and have its innocent life, to understand her fears and perhaps allay them, but I cannot judge the trauma any more than I can judge the physical and emotional feelings of pregnancy and giving birth. Fundamentally, the resolution must always be the woman’s decision, in consultation with whoever she pleases, doctors, friends, media columnists or priests, but that also applies across the board of all medical interventions, and is a point at issue in the debate. How much can the law impose restrictions on medical intervention? Is it up to her and her doctors alone, or is it up to the Government and Constitution? Or is it up to God? It should never have been brought into the field of law, as law would do well to keep out of morality, and in particular, written constitutions should be about the rights and obligations of the government and the people and not try to mould the national psyche. That will develop over time, and it will change, not always, in fact usually not entirely to the taste of the older generations (I am 71, so this is only a generalisation). Governments should stick to the facts as we know them. But here it is and now it must be decided if we are to change this situation.
For those of you who are not Irish, one upshot of the 8th amendment, passed in 1983, has been a steady traffic of Irish women to the UK to avail themselves of the more forgiving (the No campaign would say too forgiving) attitude of the law there, which effectively reflects the Irish government’s current offer, with some differences of course, but with the one major difference of having been in place for so long, practice has effectively adapted the law to itself. Really, if a pregnancy is something a woman feels she cannot bear, for whatever reason, she will probably obtain an abortion. It is felt that it is entirely a matter for the woman alone, and really, not even the business of government and law. I agree. Repealing the 8th Amendment will not make abortion compulsory.
This is the fear of even some moderate folk here. Whatever is passed, it will be hoped it will be fixed as the current law is fixed in the Constitution, and therein lies the rub, because once out of the bastion of the Constitution, the law becomes subject to perceived political necessity. I say necessity as opposed to whim, though that is another way of putting it, because politicians don’t put it any other way. For example, euthanasia of the commercially useless, old or young or in-between, is just the kind of thing fervent capitalist autocracies go for. Hitler made a good start on it – you will have heard of the 6 million Jews, but those camps also killed another 11 or 12 million “misfits”, gays, the mentally and physically disabled, gypsies, non-Caucasians, as well as Russian and Polish prisoners. I don’t have any statistics, but I can’t imagine much joy came from pregnancy if you could even achieve it in those camps, or if all pregnancies were ended as policy. Do we lose all respect for life if we once lower our guard, even a little? I don’t think so, but there is an element of the No Campaign that at least worries about it.
For many, the problem with the No campaign is its air of righteousness, its zealotry. There is always an aspect of gleefulness in people who condemn others for what they perceive to be transgressions of this or that rule of theirs, a kind of schadenfreude-in-waiting. If they are religious, which they mostly are, one often detects a dash of triumphalism – “Yah-boo sucks! I’m going to Heaven and you’re not”. I can’t imagine any definition of an omnipotent and/or omniscient intervening god that wouldn’t find such behaviour embarrassing in its followers. I’m not religious, but I do have a feeling that we are, if you like, observed, though I have no idea why or what is causing these feelings, or the strange coincidences and fortuities that engender them, and I certainly do not have a clue as to what might be the end result, particularly after death. Then again, I was raised a Catholic, so this could simply be conditioning. I am just as willing to believe that it is all just basic physics working itself out over the expanse of an extremely big universe. A happy coincidence if that’s it, I hope you agree.
However, assuming for a moment death isn’t simply lights out & goodbye and that some sort of afterlife awaits us in which a God is in charge, what will that be like, and more to the point, will we be judged for our perceived failings? Would you pick and choose between mice in a laboratory, if one was vicious and the other mild, or ants in a nest for that matter, to decide if one should be rewarded and the other punished? One would imagine that if we are to believe in such a mighty god, it would have to have an extremely broad view of the mass of detail in its creation. The best thought on this I’ve heard is that hell is in ourselves, who, having lived a vicious, venal life, cannot bear to face God and therefore turn our backs, forever facing into darkness. It isn’t Him doing the turning, we do our own judging. Or to put it another way, we create our own fate, here and beyond in the mystery of the infinite Is/ Is Not.
For all I know we will find ourselves in the fields of Elysium perhaps, or among vast crowds of the dead, or the modest like-minded assembly favoured by Hollywood and Christianity. Or (one of the ideas I have dreamt up when I had nothing better to do) perhaps we will wake up to a circle of friends asking if we enjoyed the trip and would we like to try another one. Carlos Castaneda, who spent much of his time wondering about all this cited his favourite graffiti, on a wall in San Francisco, “Death is the best trip of them all. That’s why they save it up for the end”. None of this suggests a vindictive god or a cruel afterlife.
But the basic truth for me is that I’ve never understood how anyone can claim to know for a certainty what God or Whatever It Is thinks or wants of people, or if there is an afterlife or not, or its characteristics and terms of condition if there is, let alone that such certainty entitles them to condemn or kill those people whom they call unbelievers for not agreeing with their views. Any Muslim thinking angry thoughts here should take a look at Verse 62 of the 2nd Sutra. Any Christian should look at anything Jesus reportedly said himself. Buddhists and Hindus agree with me that we cannot know anything for certain in a universe based on change. The Tora is way out there with the Q’ran for its cruel certainties and vicious punishments for transgressors and unbelievers, but it has its more tolerant passages (these Holy Books were the written constitutions of the world until we started writing our own in the 18th century). But pace Mohammed, a warrior and political leader (unique in this among the founders of the world religions), who is ambiguous on these subjects to say the least, the founding tenets of every religion as spoken by their spiritual patrons sound much the same: be kind and protective to each other and think about life as short with a long after story (more lives or eternal existence in a spirit world, depending on your religion). It is people who twist the words into hate, usually for political purposes, though sometimes, it has to be said, or so it seems, merely out of a fervent desire to take all the fun out of life.
Besides, I see hypocrisy here. If indeed we are obliged to submit to God’s will and His decisions, then shouldn’t people believing these things also ban all medical intervention for the duration of the pregnancy and, say, the first 5 years of childhood, allowing God to use his traditional methods of birth control? Instead, the Roman Catholic Church, historically embedded in the Irish national psyche (the referendum being one of many signs of this yoke being thrown off), holds to the most stringent abhorrence of contraception and abortion and yet allows IVF pregnancies and any amount of medical intervention to keep babies alive for as long as possible, no matter how that is done, however “unnatural”, or what kind of life it prolongs for the child. You may think God is all about humans or even a small section of them i.e. your religion, but my suspicion is that, should any such being exist, it must be as concerned for the virus that kills me as it is for me. It is the mother who cares for the child, and no one can care as much as she. That is the truth on earth, and that is the only truth we can truly affirm.
If we set aside the simple decision to be made by believers in a higher power and an unswerving moral code of any shade, it must come down to what we think of ourselves within ourselves, in our hearts, the ways in which we form a responsible, protective, interdependent attitude to our fellow humans, guided, if at all, only by the ever more complex and often confusingly contradictory mix of philosophies and beliefs that we are able to access in our relentlessly communicating 21st century world, a pantheon of which humanism is just another member. The Irish, with the suddenness and force of revolution, have turned from their Pope and his bishops to become, for instance, the first nation to vote in a citizens’ referendum for the legalisation of marriage rights for all, regardless of sex or sexuality. The 8th Amendment referendum in similar fashion challenges the presumptions of the past. If they take this step, how far do the Irish voters want it to go? And what about the uncertainties and inconsistencies that new law always reveals? How much do we trust our politicians, in an era when we don’t tend to trust them much at all?
If the 8th Amendment is repealed and a new law is passed, I expect that law will still reflect the spiritual nature of the national character, assuming a proper debate in the Daíl follows repeal, something the media seems largely to ignore but which must surely take place. The referendum is only about repeal. The government have a proposal for a bill, but particularly in the interestingly mixed party houses of the Daíl and Senate, I doubt it will go through unopposed or unaltered.
I think Keith Field, a long time anti-abortion campaigner, quoted in the Times Weekend Saturday 5th May, hits it on the head when he says the government “shot themselves in the foot with the twelve week thing”. This entire debate has been clouded by the government announcing the proposed bill to follow repeal without making it sufficiently clear that the bill, as with all bills, must be debated before any new law is passed. They should have kept their mouths shut, not put out any hint, and let that discussion come after the amendment was repealed, but politicians are not good at long views, as we know. They were presumably responding to the fact that the so-called abortion pill works up to twelve weeks rendering any attempt to ban the use of the pill useless (you can and people do already buy them online). This is as suggested in the reports of the citizens’ forum and the Daíl committee, but even non-religious folk here, in vox populi radio and TV, and in my own experience, have a sense of life beginning earlier, when it comes to the matter of allowing abortion on demand. Life, instinct says to such people, begins with the beating of the heart and/or with the first signs of brain activity, or the first signs of independent movement. The heart starts to beat some time during the fourth or fifth weeks. The brain begins to grow at around that time, A 12 week foetus may only measure three-quarters of an inch, but it feels like, looks like, and has all the tools of human life, if it has them at all.
This above all is the question, of course. When is a foetus a baby? Is babyness, as it were, something that begins, as one Kerry TD suggests, from the very beginning of gestation, before even the embryonic stage, from the moment sperm meets egg, or does it only qualify when all of the final body is in place, on the verge of delivery? Or somewhere along that timeline? For example, the brain, which is, after all, what most significantly distinguishes us from other species and provides the seat of our identity, begins to develop around 4 weeks and completes its “ventral induction”, the phase that builds the basic structure of the Central Nervous System, at around the 10th week of gestation, which is the 8th week in terms of embryonic age, and by which time all of the organs have at least begun to develop, though it should be noted that the brain only achieves “default human function status” at around 30 weeks or so (daydreaming and suchlike semi-sleep states in breathing humans, which demonstrate the clear identification of an individual), the rest of the body taking a few weeks longer to prepare for birth.
In medical terms, the 8/10th week marks the end of the “embryonic stage” and the beginning of the “foetal stage”. If the vote is Yes and it comes to a bill before the Daíl, I would expect the most controversial part of the government’s proposed bill, allowing abortion on request for the first 12 weeks, to be limited to this stage of development, the end of the embryonic stage. I think that would suit better the temperament of the nation. If there is a No vote victory it will hinder Ireland’s efforts to put an end to its social and political hypocrisies for decades to come.
We will know by the end of this month.
I am aware that this is a very sporadic blog and I apologise for that, if it is a failing that disappoints you in any way. I should be writing something on a regular schedule, I know, to develop a readership, but I’m happy to think anyone reads these apart from me. I am currently writing two blogs for this site, and I expect I’ll publish one of them this month, hopefully sooner than later, but in the meantime, if you do enjoy reading my writing, you might enjoy some of the answers I’ve written for Quora.com – https://www.quora.com/profile/Rory-Fellowes – on history and politics and for some reason fame, or at least, I must have one time, as Quora continues to request answers from me on this subject, of which I know little. Algorithms, doncha luv ’em?! I answer questions that interest me, or if they make me cross. There are some troll-ish and/or silly questions there, but mainly there are some good discussions to be followed. There are usually several answers written for each question, and the comments carry on from there.
Enjoy the weekend.
These days one is encouraged to avoid admitting anything so dreadful as ageing, but the fact is, old or not, I am well past the fulcrum of my time alive, even should I prove a rarity of longevity. There are a few people alive today who are purported to be twice my age, but I doubt I’ll be among that number, too much a European in diet and habits. I have never made undue provision for living long so much as I have tried to live well, defined as a moderate balance of pleasures, devotions, duties, honour and kindness, along with, of course, a plentiful supply of faults and mistakes, under the overarching principle that life is all about love and work, the rest being the circumstances one finds oneself in, the variety of which is as broad as the sum total of human beings, past, present and future. There are six and a half billion lives being lived in this world at this moment. Mine is only one of them.
A few years ago (we’ll come to what I mean by this) I turned on the radio in the middle of an interview on BBC Radio 4. I never caught the names of either party, but some old chap in his late eighties was asked what he felt about old age. “Well,” he said, “of course one’s children have all left home, got families of their own, hardly see them more than two or three times a year, occasional phone calls… Most of one’s friends have died or they’ve disappeared into some remote old people’s home in the country, get a few Christmas cards. Few visitors. Mostly one is left to one’s own devices…” He paused. “These are the main advantages.”
(Another good answer to a similar question was given by Kirk Douglas when he turned 80 – “ Oh, I can do anything now that I could do when I was 18… For about 30 seconds.”)
Try as one might – try as I have anyway – no time of life can be fully understood until you get there. The issue of our subjective sense of time within the framework of the cosmic reality of Time seems to have something to do with it. In scientific terms, within the very nature of the universe, Time turns out to be a very precise procedure, measured by the succession of instances at which photons make the decision to stay the same, i.e. in wave form, or to change to particle form. In fact, it has been defined as 5.39116(13) x 10-44 of a second, i.e. very very short blinks, known as Planck Time, after Max Plank, who defined them. Planck time is the measure of how long it takes light to travel 1.616229(38)13 x 10 -35 i.e. a very very short distance. This is Quantum Mechanics. If QM is a blank canvas for you, as it is for me, theclaphaminterpretation.com provides a succinct if dense layman’s explanation of QM and some of the outcomes of its revelations (I declare an interest: the blog is written by my brother David). I might add that spending time reading about this sort of thing is another of the privileges of age. I don’t have any more time for idle recreation than I ever have had (perhaps less as I tire more easily than I used to), I still have work to do. It’s just that how my time is used is no longer of great importance so long as I’m happy with it. No one is calling the shots except me.
This is all very well, but the subjective experience of time is what we all live with. Taking account of the objective nature of time as given above, it seems to me subjective time intuitively takes account of the fraction of the total time of one’s life that any event occupies. When you are two weeks old, half a life time is 7 days. The subjective sense of that fraction remains the same throughout the rest of your life, it’s just that half a lifetime at 60 for instance, is 10,958 days. At that age a day can go by and you hardly notice it before it’s bedtime.
Then there is memory. Again, courtesy of conversations with my brother, I am told that while science is finding out a lot about how, and indeed, where the brain deals with experiences as transmitted to it by the body, the cortices where it makes sense, as it were, of the senses, we have no idea of how or where memory is stored. We know our memory is a great deal more prodigious than we are aware of most of the time. Unexpected recall of this or that event or lesson is a common experience. The interesting thing here is what we do remember and easily recall. All of our skills and so on, of course, and then the memories that feed our sense of self and educate our development. In other words, subjective memory.
Half one’s most significant, packed memories occur during the first quarter or so of life, largely, I would suggest, because the rate of change in your daily life is rapid and continuous, accelerating from day one, but somewhere around the early third decade, things level out for the great majority of us. Life (at least, so we hope) settles to fixed patterns that give an overall impression of calm continuity. Change continues of course, be it radical or moderate: something happens every day. But at the same time, with each passing day more and more of one’s life becomes repetitive, routine, habitual, as subliminal as changing gears in a car.
Until you get old. In many cultures elders are treated as honoured members of their children’s households. In most if not all Western democracies that tradition has been largely replaced by pension schemes and Old People’s homes. Not as nice, perhaps, but just as secure. In either case, it is generally possible in the last few decades of life to do what you want during the day (assuming you don’t have any unachievable desires by then).
It is very restful. Wake when you like, eat when you like, dress when you like. Get the chores done, get the work done, but basically it’s a 24/7/365 day schedule, so there are no deadlines except the ones you give yourself. Nothing is urgent unless it really, really is, mainly meaning matters of life and death. Even illness loses its effectiveness, something to be dealt with soon, possibly later today, but generally, just another duvet day, take a tablet and let it pass. I doubt my wife and I own a thermometer these days. You know when you’re ill, it is a measure of the difference between one’s permanent creaks and discomforts and an uncomfortable change in that status quo. As another of my brothers remarked the other day, “After 65, it’s all running repairs.” This could be taken as a disadvantage of old age, and I suppose it is, but for now, it is not impinging on my life to any great extent. I notice I get out of cars and armchairs in the way my father used to, lots of heaving and pausing, with grunts, and a kind of swaying moment of triumph when upright, but it is not a hindrance. It takes longer, but as said, I don’t care how long anything takes.
The rich could live like this in principle, in some cultures they still do live what is otherwise rightly called an idle life, but in Western democracies, it is now quite rare. 21st century Western (i.e. European culture) capitalism demands that everyone who can work should work. There’s a touch of Calvinism in European democratic philosophy, but it is also considered a capitalist imperative – bottom line (as capitalists say) productivity is all. This is why even the richest top cats of commerce live such busy, closely scheduled lives, diaries set out in ten minute intervals and so on; no holidays, no time off at all (no wonder so many look stern and unhappy a lot of the time, but that’s by the by). The lucky rich, sports and media stars, lottery winners and so forth, can get happy, they can enjoy the leisure time afforded to them (unless their fame and fortune is all a personality aberration in the first place, but that’s another matter). George Clooney, for instance, appears to be a happy man, intelligent, thoughtful, generous and kind, busy but not too busy, very much in control of his time. The likes of he and healthy pensioners like me have it very good, all things considered.
I should say here that health is essential, if one is to enjoy old age rather than endure it. Without health, meaning a reasonably (don’t hope for completely) painless freedom of movement and thought, subjective time works against you. Pain in particular stretches time abominably, as surely we all know. Certainly, health is far more of an issue than money, though money, as also we all know, while it cannot buy everything, pays for all our domestic comforts, be they necessity or luxury, so the more you have the better these things can be arranged. For those who don’t have a lot of money in old age, fortunately patterns are set, budgets are regular, there are no luxuries to be sought, not least because such luxuries as there may have been have long since become necessities. Barring any disruption, things tick along. There is time for contemplation. Hence this essay.
Forgetfulness is another thing with two sides to the coin. I’ve noticed that along with the slackening of urgency in everyday life, goes any sense of importance attaching to any event or obligation. Things level out. One is easily distracted, thinking of something else entirely, so one might leave a shop without taking the things you just paid for, or without your hat or stick or whatever. The experience of walking into a room without a clue as to why is common and frequent. At some point this may become something much worse, a health issue, the physical destruction of the brain in one or other form of dementia, and this is tragic and frightening. But before that, and often enough without that future outcome, memory becomes less controllable in old age, and less reliable. Any sort of memory might pop into one’s mind. Sometimes it is something that needs doing, sometimes it is an experience in the past, or some obscure fact, suddenly and inexplicably recalled. The many years of one’s past become like a pack of cards soaked in honey: some separate out, some are stuck together in clumps. How long ago this or that happened is not easily defined without reference to diaries or history books, or prolonged brain wrangling, none of which always produces a definite answer. Hence my comment earlier that I should explain what “a few years ago”, or “a while ago”, or “the other day” might mean. This is a perpetual source of infuriation to people younger than fifty or so. The truth is, there is no commensurate measure of time to go with any of these phrases. It could be last year, it could be twenty years ago. Heck, twenty years ago is only 1997. If I concentrate I can see that a lot has happened in my life and in the world since 1997. But if I don’t concentrate, but merely recall something someone said in 1997, it seems it was only the other day.
It is possible this is a mechanism to diminish the weight of time, time past and time left, by making it all inconsequential, dozens of days compressed into one reference, one memory, a holiday or a job summarised in the moment when this or that happened. And of course, there is the existential idea that the only reality we can truly experience is Now. And as we have seen, according to Plank Now is a very, very short span of time.
And so to Death, or rather, the dawning reality of the notion everyone accepts but don’t entirely comprehend until it is imminent, that this life ends for all of us. Old age brings this home in a way I know I cannot adequately describe, you will just have to wait and see for yourself. The knowledge sinks in that time is limited, for you at least. For the overshadowing truth of old age is that death is coming, it really is. There is no stopping it. No habit of health, no safety precaution, no temperament or philosophy can deter it. Maybe there’s a good amount of time left, could be two or three decades, but for sure, however long it may be, it is going to be a much shorter time than the time since you were born. I should say here, I have no anticipation of dying any time soon, but I am aware that for people any age over 60, dying is unlikely to cause any surprise or shock, possibly a feeling of it being younger than necessary, but hardly unnatural. We all know our death is an inevitability, but as old age approaches, that graduates from being a truth universally acknowledged to a visceral reality. The world won’t end, but I will.
Oddly (or perhaps not), there are comforting thoughts that go along with this. Much as I love my children and their children, I would not like to be still here when they get to my age. It would be wrong, not to mention an unconscionable burden for them. An ageing parent in need of succour is always a problem, but when you get to 60 or more, it must be a dreadful extra thing to deal with. And there is something rather pleasant about imagining them looking back on one as a fond (I hope) memory, perhaps a photograph or two, and some artifacts that are reminders of the life I lived, things I made or collected. There are good reasons for death, and they’re not all about keeping the population down.
Meanwhile, I am happy to think that though it is on its way, it is not yet, not yet…