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…
Once again we are faced with the dreadful murder of innocents in a European city, and once again, with, in the media, virtually the sole exception of Jeremy Corbyn, politicians and journalists jump to use the word “evil” to describe this heinous act. Really, this word is bandied about too much, and it has no meaning in this context. If such men are evil, then what of all the people who kill in armed struggle, the pilots who drop the bombs, or perhaps worst, the stone cold killers who order the launch and target of the drones that kill women and children almost every day and have done for decades?
The fact is, misguided, misinformed, and, as Salman Abedi surely was, cynically exploited by the imams and commanders of ISIS and suchlike terrorist organisations, and their online propagandists, I believe that in his confused and angry young mind, he, as all his fellow Islamic terrorist killers among us, sought to bring home to us the visceral reality of having bombs going off in our own communities, our cities, our places of entertainment, killing our innocents, and thus our innocence.
For all I know, he was in a bate about our venal love of the pleasures of the body, our banshee music, and chose his target on that basis. It doesn’t matter. What really set him apart, what laid him open to the blandishments of those cruel deceivers who encourage the desire in their followers to kill infidels, I am sure (though of course I have no proof) was that, even as a second generation Libyan Englishman, he was still an outsider, on the edge of the major society in the only place he knew as home. If you are the head of HR of a company in the UK (except all things IT), how many people of southern hemisphere descent are at the top of your list when recruiting? How often do you invite such people into your home, make friends?
Not that it surprises me if the answer is not much, nor that I am any different, I grew up in the 50s and 60s, when multiculturalism was only just beginning to take root. It has taken more than half a century for West Indians to be seen as wholly British and part of the culture. Bharatis, Indians and Pakistanis, are close on their heels, their food has made it to the top of our national cuisine, and the subcontinent seems to provide the majority of our medical staff, and as said, there are loads of people from the sub-continent in the IT and media industries. But even as things progress (as they do, if erratically and slowly), everyone I have ever met or known well from those communities has stories to tell of racial rejection, and often enough out-and-out abuse. Most tell me they accept it with a shrug, unless it is personal or professional, in which case they are rightly indignant, but on the whole they’re used to it, sticks and stones etc. (Women have the same generally jaded expectation of male behaviour, but that’s a different subject).
This low-key, casual xenophobia need not be aggressive as such, and certainly in general doesn’t come close to the racial rejection any foreigner, not only European, gets in Japan or China or Africa, to name a few, but our media reportage, for instance, compounds the feeling that we simply don’t care as much as we should for the damage that is done in our names, when it is killing far-off Arabs and Afghanis, or Yemenis, or Syrians, or wherever modern weapons are turned on weaker fighters and the civilians who live nearby. Whole communities are being included in attacks against the terrorist threat, and as with the current assault on Mosul, it is civilians who suffer most of the maiming and dying.
But instead of seeing Manchester as a lesson to us of what is being done in those countries, we dismiss it as inexplicable, evil, the act of a madman (which it may well be, but that misses the point nonetheless), our journalists and politicians wring their hands and wonder how such people can sleep at night. Etcetera. But it is all too explicable, if never forgivable, and that applies to all sides.
Of course, as Irish politicians grew so fond of saying after leading us into financial ruin, we are where we are. Whatever the causes, there is a focused, organised, and well maintained campaign against the perceived enemies of Wahabbi Islam, and thank Whatever It Is or Isn’t, our security forces have been extraordinarily successful in foiling such plots. It is more difficult now to do their work and it should not be a surprise that this new breed of lone, internet-indoctrinated killer has arisen, ever since the Imam gave his order to use any means to hand to kill infidels, wherever and whenever you can. It is a testimony to humanity that a comparatively tiny minority of humankind takes up the cause. There are really very few people who will offer themselves in the futile struggle of these quasi-Islamic terrorists, when set against a world population of more than 7 billion.
Instead, take heart that the world is heading for secular government not theocracies, and the theocrats of Islam have no more chance of wielding great political power for much longer than the Roman Catholic Church had in the face of the capitalist revolution. I’ve written on this elsewhere, but the upshot is, in the capitalist revolution, we all become self aware of our economic and therefore political status, and that puts an end to people taking instructions from so-called moral leaders.
But until that day, we have a problem. Right now, as said, our rulers choose to deal with terrorism as they might deal with wasps at a picnic, but the only solution that I can see as viable in the long term must lie in preventing those sadly misled young men and women from giving their precious young lives to the dwindling legion of Islamic extremism. We need to start treating our settled immigrant population as equal citizens, our brothers and sisters, and not foreigners in their own land.
Jeremy Corbyn is up a tree as far as economics goes, and his wildly ambitious re-nationalisation programme is being so badly, not to say baldly, stated as to frighten the voters, but he speaks eminent good sense on the two futile so-called wars by which our governments keep us crouched down in fear, and waste our money and often our lives: the war on drugs and the war on terrorism. (I’ll get to drugs one of these days)
We need new thinking if we are to tackle the new world of technology, global community, the ongoing spread of information and disinformation, but above all, try to empathise with the devastating struggle of those weak, economically and socially deprived societies who even as I write this, are faced with the enormous destructive power of the heavily armed nations. We have to make a change in policy (this message too, goes to all sides).
As the Rev. Bruce Kent, erstwhile chairman of CND, once said, “A terrorist is a man with a bomb but no airforce.”
A friend of mine was speaking to me recently about death, specifically one’s own, the shock of realisation, which prompts me to see if I can put my thoughts down on all this stuff sufficiently succinctly (I leave you to judge. Done me best, m’lud).
We are all well acquainted with the general principle of death, of course, what with the news, relatives and friends killed or dead of disease, the common message of all religions (it’s coming, be prepared), and the cooked meat those of us who are carnivores eat. But it doesn’t ring true for us humans until (at least, in my experience) sometime during one’s fifties or sixties. That’s when the idea of your own death goes from being something you know to be true to being something viscerally Real. And all about You.
Yep, for us all one day that once distant destination hoves into view, just tipping the furthest of one’s far horizons in the beginning, as for the first time you realise deep in your heart and (for all I know) soul, that this all must end for you one day. Really end. Dead.
“Victory Over The Grave”
Christianity, the dominant religion of the northern hemisphere cultures, has always had a hard time with this. Christianity teaches that God is good and Death holds no sway over his followers (all signs to the contrary notwithstanding, but hey). Despite this promise, Christians recoil from death. They have a crucified man become reincarnate as their central image, the promise of God that he will make up for all this awful life we live, don’t worry, trust him. Etc. I expect this is in large part because it is a religion of people who live in some of the hardest environments in a difficult world. Life is fatal, and quite painful in the process. Let there be some recompense awaiting us.
Believers in an eternal afterlife, meaning that state of being alive and themselves forever, much as they are now on earth, only perfected in the process, whatever that means (a concept that is unique to the Arabian-European cultures, incidentally), take comfort in the thought that they’ll get their compensation there. It is to be noted that the most common visions of heaven are pretty much of the north of Europe with better weather and only pleasant people to deal with, lions lying with lambs and so forth. The religions of the equatorial and sub-equatorial cultures, apart from some low level heavens more or less equivalent to the Christian concept of Purgatory, generally offer oblivion as our last reward, becoming absorbed into “The Timeless Being”, a state we are to be sure will be bliss, as in Samadhi, or Nirvana, Godhead, and other such names. All religions, come to think of it, seem to agree you wind up in bliss, howsoever achieved, when you’re dead, which is nice to think, don’t you agree? You may have read my earlier blog about my ideas about the northern and southern hemisphere cultures, in which case you’ll know I think it’s a lot to do with the weather. Life in the north has always been tougher, freezing winters, drought ridden hot seasons, all that. It not only makes people generally look on life as a struggle, but also look for a reason for putting up with it, some kinda justice in this damn world, even if they have to be dead to enjoy it. Heaven is the obvious reward to offer, and Christianity dutifully sets about doing that.
Of course, to such secularist agnostics as me, the most significant fact of this or any belief system that mankind has come up with, is that we would not, in all probability, have heard of Christ, for instance, if the Emperor Constantine had not recruited him to his cause when attacking Rome, a war he won (hence Emperor), thanks be to Jesus, so he claimed, Hallelujah, and here we are, a Christian culture whether you believe in god or not. Just think, without Constantine we might all be Mithraists to this day.
Mithras (not sure what the bull is about)
A lot of Mithraism was incorporated into Christianity in any case, both Jesus and Mithras are said to be born of a virgin, ascended bodily into heaven, carried out miracles, raising the dead and so on; and for the first five hundred years of Christianity, Christ was portrayed as clean shaven and golden haired, like Mithras, and no doubt after the tradition of Alexander the Great. Thus are iconic images made, out of power, and the need to communicate with and govern mostly uneducated, uninformed people. As Brexit and Trump perhaps prove (we have Plato and Rome to thank for this), the people should not be trusted to rule sensibly, best to leave politics to the professionals; Divine Right and all that. Reigion is a useful tool in establishing this.
Which brings me to the present day. An interesting and as far as I know not much (if at all) remarked aspect in the recent US presidential election campaign is that neither candidate mentioned God or much about religion except endorsing the constitutional right to freedom of belief and so on. For the last couple of decades, God has been pretty much front and centre, as Americans might say, in their politics, especially the presidential race. God started getting in the conversation in the 80s, and was a sine qua non this century, so much so that early primary candidates have been known to claim God told them to run.
Religion was commandeered by politics as the way to control the citizens, my guess would be during the formation of primitive society in the lead up to the Iron Age, but anyway for at least 1700 years in Europe and its diaspora (the Roman Emperor Constantine used Christianity to motivate his army around 350AD – he claimed he saw Jesus leading him into battle). Since their cultures pre-date the European by millennia I’d assume politicians, kings, warlords and their ilk got their hold on religion much earlier in Asia, Arabia, the Persian Empire, and Africa. Islam, one should add, stands alone in this phenomenon of organised world religions, as the only religion for which both the spiritual inspiration and the political manipulator were the same man, Mohammed.
Why do I think about such things? Apart from the fun, as a French philosopher once remarked, to be had from discussing unanswerable subjects, it is because I believe there are two central arenas in which the battle for the future of our democratic societies will be fought: the first, between the polity, our society as a social organisation, and global corporations (another time); and the second, between religion and secularism. I mentioned the recent election because one might expect a demagogue to use religion, as it has always been used in the past, and is used to this day by the demagogic/theocratic governments of the Islamic world, closest to home being Erdogan in Turkey, and as it has been used to varying degrees in America since its inception. And, of course, Europe, pretty much until the end of World War 2. But now Trump makes it without a word on the subject, certainly no hand to his heart proclamation of faith. A good sign, I like to think, in the otherwise murky promise of the man…
This usurpation of our search for meaning and guidance in our lives to serve political purposes is a sad end for the ambitions of those people who first attempted to explain the inexplicable by describing their ideas on god or whatever it is. I always liked the Hindu answer to “What is God?” – “Not this; not that”. Or as the 12th Century Christian mystic Meister Eckhardt wrote “Everything you say about God is wrong.” The definition, as it were, of god is that it is beyond definition. This should apply to atheists as much as believers. How can we possibly know one way or the other? I’m with Iris Diment on this: “But no one knows for certain, and so it’s all the same to me/ I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
Everyone has experienced an exceptionally fortunate coincidence, that it is tempting at least, to attribute to an intervening god or spirit (or fairy, leprechaun. I could go on). No doubt it is comforting to hope said god will also see you through the bad times (I like the story of the footprints in the sand). But, of course, there’s no down to earth good reason not to dismiss it as mere chance, as life itself may be, though I’ve read that the plethora of coincidences that led to carbon based life are legion to the point where one might think Someone fixed it.
Of course the bottom line is what does it matter? The only way to confirm the truth of any sort of existence beyond this universe is to be dead, at which time it won’t matter to anyone else but you (and possibly not you either). Religions, human beliefs in the supra-natural in general, all encourage kindness and social respect – Love thy neighbour, as Jesus put it. One way or another they all aim at harmony among people (this acquiescent atmosphere being why it is so useful to our rulers). This is enough, it serves us here, which is all we can know, after all.
Unfortunately, at the hands of a lot of us mere mortals hoping to outguess their god, the definition of “people” has been interpreted as meaning fellow believers, often to the mortal detriment of the remaining so-called non-believers. This is entirely the fault of political manipulation. Mohammed has been the most recently “quoted out of context” of the great religious founders, but he has only himself to blame. He was a politician, a war leader to boot, so one cannot be surprised if the Q’ran occasionally encourages killing enemies of Islam/Mohammed, it probably served his military purposes. But let’s not forget the Q’ran also contains the founding thoughts of a great religion of compassion and charity. Go figure. The New Testament doesn’t have a word of encouragement to kill non-believers but Christians have been happy to slaughter in the name of their god nevertheless, and generally assume he is on their side in any conflict. As also Islamic fundamentalists in our current blighted world.
ISIS fighters demonstrate their confident belief in their righteousness.
So perhaps the issue is not god but the idea that the way to solve our differences is through violence and death, and how religion has been twisted to serve our earthly needs and desires. I can’t imagine any god with even merely a passing interest in us would be happy with this. Not to say I expect such a god to hold human life above all other forms of life. If there is some all-encompassing force that holds this universe together, then surely it has the viruses and bacteria to look after too, and besides, the fact is, nothing can be allowed to live forever in this universe, if only because, as we know, the sum total of matter in it is finite. We have to die to provide the material for life.
And so on it goes, tra-la…
We’re hand-rearing a lamb. He is the latest immigrant to our household, joining two cats and two dogs.
The first to come is the elder cat. She arrived on our kitchen windowsill (left there by a local rogue with a fecund cat of his own) at Christmas 2004. We call her Miss Bickel, in honour of her impersonation of Travis Bickel in the final shot of “Taxi Driver”, that quick flick of the eyes, the head snapping to some tiny movement. She is our native inhabitant in the animal community and she shows it.
She has absolutely no time for intruders, and has demonstrated her disdain and hostility to each of the succeeding animals to arrive here. Nowadays she sleeps on her own smelly pillowcase in a point of vantage that keeps her out of the common crowd, while able to take a swipe at them if they annoy her or get to close. Interestingly, in this ridiculously extended metaphor, she is black and white.
She was followed by the second cat, called Jack because he has only one eye. Miss Bickel reluctantly allowed this intrusion, and goes so far now as to eat at a common bowl with him, and they can be seen occasionally touching noses as they pass in the grounds. Jack is fat, more or less blind but adequately equipped with his other senses to get around OK. He is entirely tolerant, happy to be touched or licked or even butted by the dogs and lamb.
The next arrival was the first of the dogs. Miss Bickel disappeared for a week before coming home, hissing, lashing out (but not contacting) with her claws, before retreating to the highest cupboard top in the kitchen, and glaring down at this invader. Michael Benson, known as Mikey, is half Jack Russell terrier and half Labrador (admittedly, a conjunction it is hard to visualise), an Asiatic golden brown and built like a tank, long and strong, a fast runner who is determined to catch a bird in flight one day (we doubt it).
After a week we realised we had a choice between getting his twin brother or losing all of our shoes, so we duly brought home Benjamin Benson, known as Benji, a small terrier (more terrier than Mikey) with some Collie blood and so deeply black that for the first few weeks we kept stepping on him if he was lying in shadow.
These two are very happy together and at ease with the world. Jack soon took to sleeping in a huddle with one or other or both of them.
Miss Bickel skulked around, killed small creatures in the garden and scowled at everyone. She enjoyed certain privileges involving our laps in front of the television, and our bed in the morning. This seemed to satisfy her need to feel privileged as the original native.
But then came the lamb. I won’t explain the whole story but we ended up responsible for saving him from an early death and then, as the Cheyenne say, if you save a life you become responsible for it for the duration. He is called Holly because the German teenager who found him while strolling on our land thought he was a she. Miss Bickel gave up coming into the sitting room in the evening, confronted as she now was by two dogs and a lamb taking up all the space in front of the fire. Jack was happy to find a space in this melée.
Holly has grown up with the dogs for brothers, and me as his mother, since I was feeding him for those crucial first ten days (my wife was away visiting one of our daughters). For those first few weeks he slept with one or both of them in their basket in the kitchen, or in front of the fire in the sitting room, and followed them around outside. Now he sleeps outside (there are limits to our tolerance of lamb pee and poo. Sheep don’t housetrain) and mostly spends his days grazing around the house. The routine is to wake me with a few baas outside my window (we have learnt a lot about the language of sheep, there is a broad range of sounds for different requests), join in the frenzy of breakfast feeding time, and then rest for a while in the basket for old times’ sake while I have my breakfast and start writing (he’s there now, ruminating, mouth churning away on regurgitated grass).
Holly is probably the one who has made the most adjustment to his native nature in order to fit in with the community he has joined. He is mainly sheep, but he likes the breakfast association, and if, for instance, the dogs go running and barking to the gate at the noise of a car and he happens to be nearby, he’ll run after them. Sometimes we all go for a walk together. Yesterday when they were all in the kitchen, all three confronted a visitor who came to the door. As far as the community goes, while dogs and cats are well aware of each other and have been for millennia, they don’t generally mix with sheep, so Holly is the most alien of them, and they have variously reacted to that challenge. Holly has tried to be as doggy as he can but is happy being a sheep in his own little world most of the time. Miss Bickel is definitely a cat and wants us all to know it, the dogs are dogs, more concerned with their pointless hunts than anything anyone else is doing, and Jack doesn’t think about such matters, just sleeps.
The dogs want to be friends with everyone. They are utterly indiscriminate, though they’re ready to sound vicious and their play can turn quite horrifying sometimes, they’re a couple of fighters. But their hearts are in the right place. Benji stares at Miss Bickel if he can, challenging her to come and play. It seems he will never give up though clearly she offers no hope of ever doing so.
Jack is like someone who came to these islands with the Vikings. A different strain, if you like, but so much a part of the house as to feel secure and unthreatened by any change so long as he gets his two square meals a day and the chance to sleep on the chairs.
And then there is our native, Miss Bickel, indifferently hostile to everyone. She is our racist. There is something almost pure about such hostility and suspicion. It makes no distinction, is not unduly aggressive, just that “them darkies” attitude to anyone basically, who is not a black and white cat. She gives the least attention to Holly. She seems to think he is too outrageous even to react to him. She doesn’t even turn her head if he passes.
Why is difference such an issue? It is becoming the main point of contest and the weakest flank of the Stay campaign in the UK referendum. It is a constant of American social news, in fact, the ghetto-isation of America is its saddest and most confounding failure as a society. A Texan pal once said to me “America is a melting pot… Full of rocks”. But the world is becoming that. There does not seem to be a country that isn’t “dealing with” immigrants. Statistics have proven over and over again that immigrants are a net gain in any economy. The entire history of Britain is based on first immigration from the rest of Europe, and then emigration to the farthest corners of the earth. Without this movement of people there would be no America, no Australia. (I’m not arguing the rights and wrongs of this. Anyone who does should consider whether it is perhaps time we forget all that bad stuff and focus on the world we live in now, however it was formed).
We’ve come a long way since it was a surprise to find another community living in the next valley. The internet and the ubiquity of media in the world means there are no cultural surprises left. You know what the varied peoples of the world look like, and if you have watched any documentary report from some distant land for more than five minutes you’ll know that, as said before in this occasional blog, the vast majority of human beings like to love and laugh; are kind to each other; are curious about the world in varying degrees; and work and eat and sleep. We all have our unique priorities, our occupations and hobbies, our lifestyles, and our luck in love and work, but our basic needs and desires are very similar.
And this much we have in common, as do the animals in my home. We all want to get on with our lives in peace, at liberty to be ourselves without interference from ruthless idiots with weapons or overweening governments. May that day come..
Recently I have been following an online discussion group at a site called Quora.com. It has led to an outcry at the way that the history we have available for discussion, the way history is told in the world, is so damn Euro-white man-centric.
Well, it would be – we wrote it. I do not mean this in some “history is written by the victors” way, but literally, Europeans wrote their histories down; the African, Australian and American native peoples did not, certainly not in such intense detail. You have to be European to care enough to do that.
The cultures of the southern hemisphere below the desert strip from North Africa to India, didn’t write much down, but relied on images and song or story telling to record their histories. For the thousands of years the European, Arab, Persian, Indian and Chinese peoples wrote down their histories, with the exception of the Mayan and Aztec nations, who developed a fairly complex hieroglyphic system, nothing was recorded in those other continents. These opposing attitudes to historical record and its meaning make for two very different viewpoints from which to gaze upon the world and learn to understand it, even down to what you think is worth understanding.
I have spent much of my life staying or living in countries all across the southern hemisphere, and it doesn’t take long to see the vast cultural differences between those cultures that developed in the northern hemisphere and those that developed around and south of the equator. As said, there are many similarities from simple family love to a sense of harmony to reasons to get angry. But it is in the public world of ordinary social interaction that you can see societies as they operate the complicated business of living together. The cultural style, if you like, of the northern hemisphere, I somewhat coyly like to suggest, is in part a product of the weather, of course made complex and elusive over the hundred thousand years or so that Homo Sapiens has been active in the world, as far as we know (Creationists, just ignore that and carry on reading), but starting from that basic circumstance of life in the north. It gets damn cold and it gets damn hot. The cultures of the north spent those first ninety or so millennia driven into their caves for shelter, forced to live through four to seven months of freezing weather and hardly any food to be found, all crammed into a damp stone walled cavern. They had to think ahead, to plan, to store supplies and make fur coats. And they had to find things to do to while away the hours, so, in time, they got to painting on the walls, and probably telling stories to the rhythm of a drum, caveman rap about famous hunts, with illustrations on the wall behind. And eventually they got around to building virtual caves they call houses and castles and palaces, and writing vast books on all the different kinds of insects in the world and how to make a hydrogen bomb. And filming everything.
Meanwhile, down in the warm, moist climes of the tropic and sub-tropic continents, most notably Africa and South America, all you had to do to eat was go for a walk, with a weapon for meat or just your bare hands for fruit and berries. The only shelter you needed was from the rain and things that could kill you, and the danger of either didn’t last too long, even monsoons are gone in weeks, and lions just walk on after a while. All societies have much in common, we all have stories and music and ethical theories and social systems and ways to get high on a Saturday night, whatever the weather or other cultural influences.
Europe changed the world when it started revolutionising it, but people are never so dumb that they can’t clean up a mess once the messer has gone, and it seems to me most of the world keeps what it likes and dumps the rest, and the European peoples do the same vice versa.
It has been by no means one way. The southern cultures have hugely influenced the European cultures. The social influence I notice in particular, as an historian by hobby, is the sense of social interaction in southern hemisphere cultures that is so much warmer and physically intimate, a certain lightness of spirit, and an easy-going relationship with each other, even in the face of dreadful difficulties. Europe has come from a careful dance of social manners, grim determination and customary morality that in the last two or three hundred years has been changed beyond recognition. The difference in the methodology of social interactions between European and southern cultures is for me most succinctly demonstrated in the way that we don’t understand why Africans don’t say please and thank you, and they don’t understand why we do.
The interesting, one might say amusing, thing is that Europeans never seem really to learn to integrate into African society in Africa, but Africans don’t take a month to figure out how to live with Europeans in Europe and elsewhere, though it might take a few days to realise how important we think time is.
My stays in foreign lands have often been for months at a time, giving me the opportunity to get to know people properly, and I have never been anywhere where I did not meet a great majority of happy, helpful, welcoming people. I really do not understand the problem that so embroils racists of every colour. the African and Asian cultures have influenced and altered European culture enormously, more I sometimes think, than Europe has influenced those cultures, or perhaps I mean deeper changes, changes of heart, not just economic systems. In any case, considerably more than the average European knows or acknowledges. Europe’s gift to the rest of the world has been, it’s true, largely weapons and greed, but it was also “railways and the telegraph”, as then Governor General of India Lord Dalhousie said, and there has also been much that is good in European culture, if we only start with medicine, though the world generally agrees that it would also include law, literature, theatre and cinema, art, and yes, written history, and a lot more besides – microwaves, fridges, cars – and music goes everywhere, doesn’t it?
We can make this world work, but both sides have to face up to the resentment and fear, and that means learning to understand and celebrate the differences and find the similarities. Not to misrepresent or malign the political reality and its arduous often cruel history, it reminds me of my break with my parents as a teenager, and the lingering hurts of my childhood. In the end, you just have to let go, forgive them everything and become who you make yourself, who you are and no one else to blame.
The fear that has caused the extraordinary rise in spending on security around the world, but particularly in the USA, the fear that allowed the US Government under President George W. Bush to bring in the awful attack on personal freedom and privacy known as The Patriot Act, the fear that allows the NRA to confound all critics and statistics in its determination to have as few controls over gun ownership as possible, cannot simply be the result of the infamous 9/11 attack in 2001.
It isn’t only about the fear of terrorism.
For one thing, while many will ignore the statistics (and in any case they become irrelevant once you are the victim), it has been said that the odds of your getting killed by a terrorist are roughly equivalent to the odds on your winning a lottery jackpot three times in your lifetime. Meanwhile, the odds on getting killed in a road accident in America are thousands of times higher, higher even than getting shot by an assailant (criminal or cop). The odds on getting struck by lightning or crushed by falling furniture are higher than death by terrorist. You are four thousand times more likely to drink yourself to death, five thousand times more likely to die through a medical error. And so on and on.
But should you fall its victim, terrorism has the distinction of being aimed at you for no personal reason at all and without any fault on your part. This makes death at the hands of terrorists somehow worse than any of the possible accidental deaths we all risk every day. This is an understandable fear, but it has been massaged and encouraged beyond its natural potency.
It has been a policy of the US Government under both presidents since that fateful autumn day to maintain a sense of fear in the American populace, it has been used to create the permanent war that George Orwell predicted would become a weapon of government, to justify the so-called war on terrorism and the enforcement and wide use of the powers given by the Patriot Act, and the media have been eager supporters of this fear mongering. TV is filled with police shows, the news is all about the worst of America, and movies like American Sniper build on the idea that every citizen of the countries that the US has invaded are dangerous. The outside world is dangerous.
The Republican candidate Donald Trump has proposed banning all Muslims from entering America, such is the fear he knows he can pander to (I don’t think he is a fool, far from it, a cynic of course, and an opportunist, but not a fool, so I doubt he genuinely shares the fear he likes to stoke). He says he wants to Make America Great Again, but offers to do so by shutting all its doors and hiding behind them, quivering like someone trapped in one of those ridiculous panic rooms.
But it might be timely to recall that the worst terrorist attack in America before 9/11 was the bombing of the FBI Headquarters in Oklahoma City by a white supremacist American citizen, Timothy McVeigh. 168 people, men women and children, died, hundreds more were injured.
Back in the late 1990s I met a Texan, a charming man, who described his arsenal to me, a variety of handguns, assault weapons, machine guns, sub-machine guns, grenades, the list was mind-boggling. He told me he kept it, like McVeigh, as a defence against the FBI in particular, and the Federal Government generally. Presumably he still keeps the arsenal (if no one has shot him yet or he has shot himself by accident – another major cause of shooting deaths in America), but now probably defends his decision by saying it is a defence against terrorists. I have heard Americans claim they keep guns as a defence against invasion. Apparently the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are not buffer enough. Maybe they expect the Mexicans to invade. Or the Canadians (but they never would surely?).
I’m getting flippant. There is a much older and deeper cause for American fear than any of the events of the past twenty or thirty years. In the Great Plains states, the descendants of the original settlers are only a couple of hundred years at most since their ancestor pioneers were staking out their homesteads and defending their families against hostile native Americans and marauding outlaws, not to mention wild cats, snakes, and other dangerous animals. A gun was a necessity for survival, even without the attacks of human enemies. I live in Ireland and I have friends who still keep their grandfather’s gun, after the dangerous days of the civil war of 1922-24. Such memories die hard.
I don’t buy the Second Amendment argument, either as a political argument (it was about a civil militia armed with muskets, not individuals with assault weapons), or as the primary reason why Americans want to hang on to their guns. It is a much more primitive thing. You only have to watch a 1950s Western movie to see that the gun, the idea of killing, was seen as a legitimate and effective way of dealing with aggressors and as the rightful defence of the individual against a hostile world. As Gene Hackman, playing Wyatt Earp’s father in Kevin Costner’s movie, says “There’s only family. The rest are strangers”. Meaning dangerous and not to be trusted. Gun ownership is not only a right, it is a personal safety issue. One can only say it must be awful to have so little trust in your fellow citizens. We have gun crime here in Ireland, of course, but it doesn’t feel imminent.
By contrast, the British have not had a civil war for almost five hundred years, and if we had kept our ancestors weapons they’d only be useless curios by now. And I’ve never met a Frenchman who fears he might be dragged off to the guillotine. It is the fear of strangers that seems to lie at the heart of why Americans are so scared. The outside world, even the world beyond their home state. Only 15% of Americans have passports, and 30% of Americans have never left their state.
Another factor in what drives middle America’s fear might be the understandable insecurity and fear of those first pioneers, the homesteaders of the 1870s and 80s, attitudes since handed down generation to generation, harsh religion, harsh judgements, tough attitudes. They were largely the poor and dispossessed fleeing the cruelties and deprivations of Europe. Education was rare among such people, and these days their descendants are often openly proud to be ignorant, distrustful of scholarship and sophisticated critical thinking, the wily ways of “city slickers”.
Fear, ignorance, and suspicion make easy bedfellows for violence and a shoot first, don’t ask questions approach to the outside world. I can remember when we loved everything that came out of America, from Rock n Roll to chewing gum to dishwashers, and big flashy cars. We admired their sense of honour and decency. Where has that gone? I have loads of American friends who are as horrified by the political changes of this century as I am, but they are, or so it seems, an increasingly isolated minority.
It’s a sad fact that America has lost the love and respect of most of the world. They deserve better. But it’s hard to love and respect a paranoid scaredy-cat.
I don’t like to make New Year’s resolutions. I heard on a radio programme yesterday that only 10% of resolutions made survive more than a few weeks or even days. However, going against my own advice, I’m making two this year: to learn French properly (I am, still no further on than I was when I took my A Levels back in the mists of time); and to write a more regular blog here. This second stands even less chance than the first but let’s see how it goes. Maybe I hope writing this will commit me to it, but as we all know, we don’t forgive anyone as quickly as we forgive ourselves.
Why do we put ourselves under such pressure? It’s about wild ambition and that adorable, honourable hope of humans to better themselves. I’ll give up chocolate, I’ll give up smoking, I’ll give up eating too much (or too little if you have a tendency to anorexia, I suppose), I’ll give up this or that perceived fault or bad habit. And so on. To make myself a better person.
Actually, I’m not sure that speaking better French or writing more of these little essays is going to make me a better person. Or you, reader, for that matter. What does make us better people? I’ve always said and hopefully passed on to my daughters (they certainly seem to have got the message) that all that really matters in life is love and work, the rest is mere circumstance. Love well and selflessly, and work hard at something that engages you. Most adults will spend something around half of their lives working, yet most treat work as a chore to pay for their free time. Do what you love, or love what you do, by which I mean, do it with dedication and all of your creative and intellectual ability. Insert platitudes here – life is short, this isn’t a rehearsal, no one gets a second chance, you only regret what you didn’t do, etcetera etcetera.
Which brings me back to the subject that occupied my last two posts, the ongoing struggle with terrorism, defined as a tiny minority pitting itself against the will and good of the rest and using whatever means it can to force a change no one but them wants.
What makes a terrorist? Or rather, what makes ordinary people decide to ally themselves with a terrorist movement, particularly nowadays, one that operates and is based far from them? What persuades them to turn on their unsuspecting neighbours and cause what eventually is considerably less damage than will be meted out in retaliation by the governments they oppose?
They will have come upon their propaganda on the internet, and anyway, we can all get some inkling of the motives of the major terrorist movements in the world, the so-called Islamists or Jihadists, who break every tenet of Islam and employ methods the Prophet himself specifically forbade, or the Aryan Brotherhood and other racist or separatist movements in the Christian world, who break all the laws their own Messiah Jesus also forbade.
And the real sadness is that it is all a futile campaign anyway. The Americans in particular but the generality of the Western or Capitalist states as well, are not going to give up on this easily, and they will not be driven from the earth because actually, they are mainly benign and they operate an economic system that is essentially the way the world has always worked, just better understood and more successfully exploited than at any time in the past. Truth is, most of us are happy with the world as it is, not looking for the kind of revolution these people claim to be instigating, any more than Communism worked in the end.
Of course, if I put this to a jihadist he’d tell me that one day the whole world will be an Islamic Caliphate, but all I can say is, point to one World Empire that actually controlled the whole world, and in any case, how long did it last? The Roman Empire hung in a little more than two millennia, but only extended across Europe and North Africa. The Egyptian Empire probably lasted twice that, but only occupied North Africa and Arabia. They were not worldwide by any stretch of the imagination (or definition of worldwide). In these later centuries the British Empire, which did actually come to a position where it might call itself worldwide, only lasted for a century (“The sun never sets on the British Empire” they used to say, till it set on it pretty much everywhere apart from Britain itself).
The Americans get all confused and embarrassed if you call their hegemony an empire, but whatever it is, it too is already waning, as the world economy moves away from manufacture and the exploitation of raw materials and difficulties of distribution, and wealth becomes more widely spread and shared. Oxfam and others predict the end of extreme poverty within twenty years or less. Nano-technologies and the internet and virtual communications will erode the structures that currently work to place the so-called developed nations over the rest of the world in terms of personal wealth and well-being. It will all be equally available so that only choice and taste will distinguish the various cultures. All nations will be developed, their will be no more Third World, or First World either.
The lesson of history is that all armed struggles end in negotiation and peace because, as said here before, the vast majority of human beings want only for today to be pleasant and tomorrow to be much the same. In these times of increasing (albeit slowly) well being for the great majority, these angry people, like our own dear armed Republican movement here in Ireland, will become more and more isolated from the communities they claim to be fighting for, and doomed to die out as the world the rest of us live in moves on and away from the days of horror and death. It’s just not the way we like things to be.
If they would care to make a new year’s resolution, I’d suggest they resolve to find arguments to replace their bombs and see if those work, and if they don’t, then forget it. Find someone to love and work to enjoy.
So Happy New Year Everybody, be it 2016 (Roman Calendar) or 1437 (Hijri Calendar).
There’s an old Seanachai tale they tell in Ireland, about a young couple and their children on a driving tour of the land. Their holiday coming to its end, they are trying to get to Dublin to catch the ferry home, but they’re lost. They stop and ask an old farmer if he can tell them the way to Dublin.
“Well,” he says to them, “if I was trying to get to Dublin, I wouldn’t be starting here.”
This latest atrocity in Paris is just one more incident in the war of attrition that is being fought between the scattered forces of militant jihad and the government forces who oppose them, the Western/ Christian/ Capitalist crusade as the jihadists would see it. Two implacable, and I would suggest, mutually undefeatable enemies fighting the permanent war that George Orwell predicted in 1984. Forget the religious angle. As usual, it’s all about power.
The problem, of course, is that everyone is in the wrong and they’re all in the right. It’s all a matter of point of view. Take for instance, the major, one might say seminal conflict in the Middle East, Israel and the Palestinians. Whether or not you accept the Biblical justifications of Israel’s claim to its current territory (and plenty of Zionists would like to lay claim to a lot more, to equal the land as described in the Old Testament), its creation in 1948 was an imposition on the Palestinian population who had been there for centuries and were forcefully dispossessed and displaced to allow the new State. My father was there, as part of the British Army enforcing the decree of the United Nations. He saw the anguish being caused then to the Palestinians (though he endorsed the right of Israel to exist), and it has yet to be assuaged.
The first and still fundamental mistake, the first and lasting contribution to the insolubility of the situation, I believe, was the pushing through of the single State agreement by the Israelis at the UN in 1948, leaving the Palestinians outcast and stateless. The Israelis concern was probably to do with the restrictions a two state agreement would impose on what we now know were their future territorial ambitions, which were and for many, unfortunately including the ruling party Likud, still are based on the promise that they believe God gave them, which was, after all, the land they occupied for many centuries themselves, although more than two millennia ago. By leaving the Palestinians stateless they created an eternal enemy, and set up the permanent war they now fight with the militant wing of the Palestinians (and many other enemies besides).
But promise of God or not, the rightful, legal existence of Israel, given that there remain details to work out on boundaries, should by now be accepted as a political fact by all the world, and they, in turn, should recognise the right of the Palestinians to a State. The forced removal of the Palestinians was a hurt inflicted on them without acceptable explanation or compensation, in their eyes at least, but also in the eyes of many around the world, and thanks in part to the willful mistreatment by and alienation from their Arab neighbours (themselves caught on the horns of the dilemma of whether Israel should be acknowledged or not), they have been homeless ever since (a situation, one might add, one would think the Israelis above all would empathise with, having spent millennia without a home).
All the rest of the struggle in greater Palestine comes down to this simple insoluble issue: does Israel exist legitimately or not? Imagine if the most extremely frightened and insecure Israelis could sincerely believe that no one was interested in attacking them or taking their home away from them, perhaps then they might concede the right of the Palestinians to a State.
But this can only happen if first the Palestinian resistance, armed or merely intellectual, accept that Israel has the right to exist, and admit the futility of all their vicious little campaigns to fire random rockets at no specific targets, or, as currently they are doing, pick off a few civilians, police and soldiers, a tactic that only earns them and their innocent citizens awful retribution and nothing else but condemnation from the rest of the world anyway. If these two provisos could be fulfilled, perhaps then there could be peace. Fat, as they say, chance.
It all seems so far off, doesn’t it? I’ve never grasped the logic of violence as a way to solve problems, but I do know this: once it starts it is hard to stop. Killing resistance fighters is like scattering dragon’s teeth. Particularly in the kind of conflicts that we are witnessing now, in Syria and Iraq and bordering territories, each death throws up a family ready to avenge it. In the old days of massive armies in conflict, each representing the pinnacle of industrial achievement and wealth of their nation, war could be relied on to end. One day the money runs out. But in this low level, nasty kind of battling, it is all tactics and little or no strategy, because the central strategic aim is to fight an enemy you both know is never going to go away. Terrorism has no need of strategy, which is why it is hard to form a strategy to combat it. We are living in and and it seems must continue to live in a world of high visibility policing, widespread surveillance, kept alight by the occasional atrocity.
There is, however, one gruesome but possibly effective war to be fought and that is the war they’re fighting now against Islamic State, the misnamed heathen army of disillusioned young men and women manipulated by the usual crowd of men and women greedy for power and the trappings of wealth.
Islamic State presents us with an enemy we have not dealt with before, and the solutions are quite different. They are only a theatre of war in the larger conflict between the crusaders of the West, who meddle in the affairs of the Arab world because they need the oil, and the militant jihadists, avengers of those slaughtered by the forces of the West, or simply those never allowed to take their place in the societies in which they live, as downtrodden natives or as disenfranchised immigrants, caught between cultures and thus susceptible to the siren call of holy martyrdom or just good old bloody revenge.
Islamic State, as said above, is not Islamic. It has purposefully and blatantly disobeyed some of Mohammed’s direct decrees. But it is likely that many of their recruits are faithful Muslims. I have a problem with the Q’ran, should any Muslim be reading this, an honest, I hope, if possibly infidel, argument. It stems from this: with one exception, all the great world religions have had two iconic characters at their foundation. The first is the spiritual leader, usually a somewhat mystical figure, as might be Jesus, or Moses or others of the Prophets, or Buddha, or Krishna, or Rama and so on. (It’s interesting to me, if digressive here, how much these so-called avatars or sons or messengers of God have much the same things to say, and use the same metaphors). So-called religious wars throughout history and no less now, are only politico-economic wars dressed in the robes of God’s blessing to keep the troops steady. Our leaders only send our young men and women to fight for wealth and power, or to prevent someone else getting any. One may be sure God has nothing to do with their leaders’ motives.
The second religious iconic figure is the political leader. In the case of Christianity, this was the Roman Emperor Constantine, who recruited that religion to his cause when, as a General, he was preparing to take his army into Rome, an action forbidden since time out of mind to any Roman General. Judaeism had its great kings who established and ruled ancient Israel, David and Solomon being the ones we hear most of (unless you’re Jewish or a theologian), two of a number of leaders who spread the ideas and philosophies of their beliefs (you have to read the Old Testament to get the full picture). I confess I am shaky on the political early history of Buddhism and Hinduism, but you can bet there were kings and generals and their armies involved.
The exception is Islam. Mohammed was both the spiritual leader who provided the belief system and he was the political leader who spread the belief system through political and military means. Indeed, he was a great war leader, a conqueror who united the Arabian Peninsular (there’s more to learn, but you will have to read it elsewhere).
And he wrote the Q’ran as he went along. It is clear from the civilisations that have arisen out of it that the spiritual message of the Q’ran is as good as they get. As I suggested just now, in line with all religions, its message is the familiar one of peace and goodwill, consistent with the teachings of all mankind’s spiritual leaders, love God, be kind to your neighbours, raise healthy families (so don’t eat pork if you live in the desert and their diet is your bodily waste, for instance), don’t kill, rob, or harm anyone, all that sort of thing.
From a lot of personal experience I can say Islam is among the most consciously socially generous of all religions, lots of rules of hospitality and a general disposition to greet a stranger as a welcome guest. There is a wealth of text in the Q’ran that exhorts Muslims to treat their neighbours well and respect other religions, and the huge majority are faithful to this view of Islam.
But, and one cannot help but be tempted to think it may have been on those occasions when he needed to exhort his men to war, he also included (or Allah, supporting his ambitions, told him to include. Yeah right, as my daughter would say) reasons to kill their men, women and children when dealing with their enemies, the infidels.
Christians, stuck with goody-two-shoes Jesus, who never told anyone to kill anything, in fact prevented Peter from doing just that, largely ignore their belief in God and their eventual salvation when considering any political or military issues, and vice versa.Not so Islamic warriors in need of a guiding word or two. One can forgive Mohammed the war leader that he used his position as spiritual leader when he felt he needed (or Allah told him) to convince his people they had Allah on their side even while breaking his commandment, and in a very real, personal way – “He spoke to me.” Can’t argue with that, or anyway, certainly not if you’re a sixth century desert Arab warrior dependent on Mohammed to provide your daily bread..
But I am an agnostic secularist with a degree in history and life has made me cynical of anyone who makes power his or her ambition, so please forgive any trace of irreverence in these statements. But now such men are everywhere, it sometimes seems, and they don’t need big armies to make an impact on the rest of us.
So, armed with the selected texts, the plotters and leaders running the guerrilla war against the West and those in command of Islamic State have any number of ways of enticing the angry youths at their disposal, be it 24 virgins and a bowl of honey to an ignorant young virgin boy whose family perished in an air strike, or some other, be it more venal or more sophisticated promise of Allah’s approval that they should die now and take a few infidels with them.
[It does rather make one hope that Allah will be there waiting for them, that he might have the chance to explain that he doesn’t, indeed, could not possibly take sides in the inept and limited attempts of mankind to explain what he is, when, if he exists at all, he must by definition be much, much more than our feeble human imaginations could ever conceive. And please let him tell them he despises what they just did, then turn away from them forever to embrace their victims]
Of course there is a clash of religions in all this, but it is more a clash of cultures, between the individualistic secular capitalist peoples and the fraternal religious Sharia world. But it is also, and again of course, for we are human in the end, mainly a political conflict, a struggle for power and wealth. The one good thing that IS is doing is to bring together in one convenient killing field all the angriest, most bloodthirsty of those young recruits, and even among them there are surely those who are not so nihilistic or murderous. A determined strike against their forces would at least weaken their ability to attack the world, though needless to say it will throw up new recruits because civilians will die, warriors will die, and their heirs will take up the cause. But as long as it assembles into armies it can be fought and defeated. The war may not end yet, but this battle could.
As to the larger political issues, one thing that came to me out of the Paris bombings was this. The day after that heinous and cowardly crime, all of the media around the Western world was full of it. All day. In October, more than a hundred people were killed in two bomb explosions in Ankara, in eastern Turkey, but this did not rate the same attention.
Turkey is a candidate for EU membership, but the French are our ancient neighbours, Caucasian cousins. It could have been, and may well yet be London or Berlin or Rome. It has already happened in London and Madrid. But Ankara? Well, that’s a bit far off, too far to feel more than sympathy, but not empathy or real grief. But what about New York in 2001? That warranted worldwide grief and launched the sad state of affairs today, because they’re basically seen as more of our Caucasian cousins.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Those closest to us will cause us more grief and concern in their pain and death. It’s natural. Though we make haste to point out the multi-national, multi-cultural spread of the victims of terrorism, it is our basic nature to feel more when the attack is against our immediate cultural cousins.
Nevertheless, the ordinary, politically run societies of the world (and please God they should all be secular, the only sensible way to run a modern country, but in any case non-idealistic) must unite against those who would kill us because we don’t believe in their God, whose existence cannot be proved, like it or not, and we don’t share their political, judicial, or, in particular, their punitive system of administration.
Why is it a problem if we don’t agree with them? And why, for that matter, are the Western powers so damn determined to make everyone adopt that particular euro-centric political system they call Democracy? The lowest peasant in Saudi Arabia can demand an audience with the king and get it. It’s another way of thinking and we should be wary of telling other cultures how to live. I don’t even tell my own children.
This use of violence to solve our arguments has got to stop. Right now as said above, fat chance, but I mean it. Immediate threats and problems aside, the fact is, this is the world we live in. It’s a global institution, a global business, and like it or not, we’re all in this together. As you may have surmised by now, I am an ardent supporter of secular government. Let people believe what they wish to believe so long as they let others make the same decision, and let government be the administration of things, as Marx put it, an organising centre for the smooth running of our daily lives and nothing to do with the way we live or think.
It is my considered opinion that the vastly greater majority of human beings just want today to pass pleasantly and for tomorrow to be much the same as today, with a few interesting or tragic variations thrown in so we know we are alive. These armed struggles for power only upset that routine. The singer Donovan once wrote a song blaming it on the warriors, the ones willing to take up weapons and use them, the ones who obey the orders of those who hope to gain by war. Even they are a small minority among us. Why do we give them so much power? Well, we don’t of course. They take it and we don’t stop them.
Cowardice is one reason. The elephant in the room in all discussions of the affairs of the Middle East and its diaspora is Saudi Arabia. The governing powers there tacitly allow their citizens to support such aggressive, violent forces as al Q’aeda and Islamic State, as a bribe to keep them away from the Kingdom. The other smaller Arab autocracies probably also have some similar agreement with militant Islamic armed forces, though not all directly aid them.
They’re fools, of course. If IS has its way, Saudi Arabia will be to it what Russia was to Napoleon and Hitler, the last target, the crowning conquest, the one you deceive with lies and treaties until you’re ready to strike. And Islamic State won’t have the Russian winter to defeat them.
But it is not going to be easy to fully isolate the pockets of vicious jihadist militancy from the rest of the Muslim community. Apart from anything else, it is always, as they say in the desert, me against my brother, my brother and me against the tribe, my tribe against the world. No decent Arab would ever voice a straightforward condemnation of a fellow Arab in public. They may call on their brothers to cease and desist, be merciful and spare any more victims, but still not condemn the crimes of the past. It’s an Arab thing, I guess. We have to learn it and get used to it, like we’ve got used to West Indians never saying please or thank you because in those societies it is considered unnecessary, everybody him me brother.
If only that were true of all of us. Do you know that the species Homo Sapiens is the most closely related species on the planet? We are all of us, black, yellow, brown or pink-ish white, and all shades in between, the descendants of one single mating pair. The human genome proves it. As my brother David remarked when telling me this fact, “Perhaps that’s why we fight so much, if our own family is anything to go by.”
Whatever they say, we can be certain that the militant jihadists and their supporters are vastly outnumbered by those same ordinary citizens in their nations that we all are. Hamas will exhaust its citizens and so will Zionist Israel. The Taliban, the multitude of al Q’aeda offshoots, Islamic state and its puppets, all of them eventually will become occupying armies, and as any American or British (or Roman for that matter) soldier can tell you, occupation doesn’t work.
If we’re honest, as we careen into the unknowable abyss of the future, we only have hope, but that’s always been the case, and we should reflect that, after all, this great, confused, beautiful, flawed family of mankind has 15,000 years of traceable history and we’re still here, if, as the song says, we’re still crazy after all these years.