Splinters: April – short essays on the here & now
This month: "Genocide is Not an Essential Service!"...
Family likeness... THE WEST IS WINNING: Pompeo's address...
Ten Seconds from Now... Evelina isn’t herself?
This month's splinters:
If enough of us speak up, we'll be able to protect honesty in public life.
“Genocide is Not an Essential Service!”
by Samir Gandesha
In contrast to previous Canadian PM Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau has promised a new kind of politics – “sunny ways,” as he put it. The new prime minister promised to take immediate action on climate change and also to amend the recently passed (and universally criticized) Anti-Terrorism Act, a piece of legislation that, as a leaked Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) memo would reveal, specifically targeted Indigenous and environmentalists’ resistance to development projects.
The most important of Trudeau’s promises was the one he made to First Nations across what Indigenous peoples call “Turtle Island”: that the government would adhere to the true “nation-to-nation” relations between the Canadian government and their leadership. In what seemed to be a truly historic step, Trudeau included in his cabinet the first Indigenous minister of justice/attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould.
So Trudeau’s hypocrisy, when he was recently exposed as having worn Black and Brown face in earlier years, resulted in a firestorm of well-deserved criticism. Yet this scandal only highlighted the comparative silence surrounding a much more serious issue. This was his government’s handling of the relatively long-standing antagonism between the hereditary leadership of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and TransCanada-owned Coastal GasLink (CGL)’s $4 billion pipeline for fracked natural gas through the ancestral territory of the Wet’suwet’en.
The pipeline would deliver liquified natural gas from the Dawson Creek area to a facility near Kitimat, British Columbia, in preparation for shipping to global markets. At issue here is the fundamental principle to which the Canadian government committed itself both in its stated adherence to United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), as well as to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC): that in all development projects that affect unceded territories, Indigenous nations must provide their “free, prior and informed consent.”
The Wet’suwet’en have for several years now struggled hard to defend their lands, building the Unist’ot’en Camp to prevent the CGL and the RCMP from accessing their territories. They have insisted not only on UNDRIP and TRC’s recommendations and Canadian legal decisions establishing the jurisdiction of their traditional governance structures, but also on the authority of Wet’suwet’en law under which all five clans have unanimously rejected the pipeline project. The Wet’suwet’en have also invited settler allies to come and join them on their territories and have engaged in myriad fundraising and educational activities.
What has been the response? The RCMP ramped up pressure on the Wet’suwet’en by establishing an “exclusionary zone” around the territory, allowing only the hereditary chiefs passage – other Wet’suwet’en members and the media were kept out. Such developments portended a human rights catastrophe of terrible proportions. It is for this reason that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has called for the immediate withdrawal of the RCMP from Wet’suwet’en territory, and for the right of the Wet’suwet’en people to continue in their actions to protect the lands, waters and futures of their people.
Indigenous youth of the Nuuchahnulth, Tla’amin, Sto:lo, Namgis, Heiltsuk, Lil’wat, Xwlemi, Qayqayt, Lue Chogh Tue, Shishalh and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Nations launched an occupation of the Office of the B.C. Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en. They stated that, “Indigenous people defending their lands from destruction are not criminal or disposable. As Indigenous youth, we urge you to uphold Indigenous rights and Wet’suwet’en law by advocating for the removal of CGL and RCMP from Wet’suwet’en territories.”
By February, a protest movement organising demonstrations, marches and days of action throughout Canada, was blockading major roads, bridges, railway lines and ports in support of their cause. Now in late March, during a Covid-19 public health emergency, all levels of government are moving to minimize physical interaction, and this includes the mandatory suspension of all “essential services.”
Pipeline construction continues
However, CGL pipeline construction continues. According to Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief, Dini Ze Smogelgem, the company “took advantage of the Covid-19 crisis and accelerated their project.”
As one of the Indigenous Youth leaders, Ta’kaiya Blaney, from the Tla’amin First Nation, recently stated,
“When you attack one, you attack us all… We, as Indigenous youth, know that what Canada is willing to do to Wet’suwet’en people is a demonstration of the measures they are willing to go to bulldoze and destroy Indigenous lands in the name of profit and industry.”
The government sanctioned continuation of the pipeline construction has led to the retort by Indigenous leadership, often in the form of a meme, that “Genocide is not an essential service.” Given the way in which European colonialism weaponized diseases such as small pox and used them against Indigenous communities, this rightly touches an inflamed historical nerve.
And indeed, it takes on different, enriched meaning when we recall that this pandemic can be directly linked to the Anthropocene and the human domination of nature.
All this is made eloquently clear by Wet’suwet’en Spokesperson Freda Huson:
“We are doing this to save humanity…. If we destroy the Earth, the Earth will recover; … we won’t. The Earth doesn’t need us; we need it.”
by Iain Galbraith
Nameless things would be similar:
The steppe is endless but the horizon offers a way out. The steppe-beetles appear as from nowhere and surround us in their hundreds of thousands, climbing our legs, biting with pincers, their millions of tiny legs stamping the ground with an unbearable roar. And here are my parents and siblings, my children and wife, extended family, friends, people I have known and forgotten, indeed everyone I have ever known, many of them long dead, all of them attempting to brush the assailants off their clothes and skin, running now as fast as they can through the crawling swarm. I turn, see my father fall, and by the time I reach him he is already buried, his eyes and mouth full, then my mother goes over, and many around me fall, and the steppe reaches as far as I can see. I did what I could and ran for the border where relief would surely be at hand. But there is no border, and I have failed to help.
Doctrine of the Similar:
Talat (not his real name) will soon be repatriated to Syria. He will return to his family in Aleppo, or what is left of them (family, Aleppo). Speaking of his time as a refugee, he remembers that when he felt lonely he would visit the family of one of his German classmates. "They were like my family", he said. Did he mean, "They were like a family to me"? But perhaps he just meant what he said. They resembled his family in some way, or reminded him of them, or behaved towards him like his family used to? We might not ask.
The conundrum his statement posed, however, including the sentence Talat might have said but did not, were written all over his interrogator's face. "Since they were absolutely not your family", the interrogator asked, "in what way were they like your family?" But the focus of incomprehension had by this time shifted. For what kind of answer did Talat's interrogator expect? Did he want to know if the German family corresponded in type or constitution to Talat's own family: father, mother, brother, two sisters? Or did he think Talat meant that both sets of persons had arms, legs and heads? Or did the interrogator think he was he talking about their humanity, their kindness and warmth? Meanwhile, another question had formed in the interrogator's mind: what is a family like? The problem is: for one entity to be similar to another, it also has to be different. But how do we know if we see likeness or difference? An emotion?
A celery stalk and a pen are similar, no? A tree-top and a plane? These become similar by our having to look upwards to see them. The poet might tell us that this is why two things can rhyme without sharing a phoneme. Similarities and rhymes may appear when we study the whole picture, or approach things from a certain angle. A word may rhyme with another word that appeared seven lines earlier, or with a word you think of when you read anther word. But what if we can't see the whole picture, or the angle is wrong?
Similarity (or likeness) is constantly appearing and disappearing in relation to changing frames, times constraints and opportunities. There is no similarity per se. Cups of the same batch, identical design and colour, may, under certain circumstances, become as dissimilar as chalk and cheese, or the latter, if the frame category supports it, become remarkably similar. What similarity, as we speak, is coming into view or retreating from sight? In a crisis the similarity of things can be apparent for a split second then become imperceptible for the rest of time. Or we may recognize a similarity that has not been seen for three thousand years. Sometimes the world consists of likeness that we perceive unconsciously, invisible because it is always there. Do we always see two eyes staring back at us when we look at the word lOOk? Or is that only today? How difficult it is to read.
On the Mimetic Faculty:
Have you noticed the children aren't saying "like" as much?
Actually we still say "like" but not when you are here.
And you say "like" too. Like: "there's never been anything like it in my lifetime".
That's a different kind of "like". I'm comparing things.
Actually I don't say it much, but I used to say it when I was thinking what to say.
So now you know what to say?
I was like: making it up as I went along.
You're not making it up now?
I didn't know if the thing I was saying was ok, if people were going to think I was ok.
You are ok.
Everything was different.
THE WEST IS WINNING: POMPEO’S ADDRESS TO THE MUNICH SECURITY CONFERENCE 2020
by Leonie Rushforth
Der Spiegel reported on Tuesday evening March 24 that a virtual meeting of the G7 nations had been unable to agree a joint statement on tackling the coronavirus because the draft circulated by the US referred to the pandemic throughout as the “Wuhan virus”, and Secretary of State Pompeo had refused to back down in the face of objections. The following day Pompeo stated on his Twitter account: ‘With the unprecedented global challenge of confronting the Wuhan virus, cooperation with our partners is more important than ever. Our virtual G7 meeting was productive; we’ll end this crisis together and continue to promote our shared values of freedom and good governance.”
Pompeo delivered another version of his vision of shared values to allies last month at the 2020 Munich Security Conference. While President Macron chose to speak to the several hundred assembled politicians, bankers and CEOs in an hour-long dialogue with its chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, Pompeo took a few minutes to deliver a brisk speech from the podium. It was a bare 2,500 words long.
Pompeo’s speech and Macron’s dialogue appear respectively on the State Department and Elyseé websites but neither featured in the press in the weeks following the conference. The Washington Post was one of the few to acknowledge this year’s meeting had taken place, reporting that Pompeo’s key message The West is Winning ‘[was] a claim most attendees found risible…’. This may have been true, but Pompeo was speaking in earnest in a direct rebuttal of the MSC’s 2020 report, published in advance for discussion. Its title: Westlessness.
With a blood-chilling mix of bullying and bonhomie, Pompeo rejects the practised, diplomatic language in which the MSC report frames its analysis. In its place he offers something that purports to be plain-speech, the language of the Common Man traduced. It’s a point-blank refusal to engage with rueful wordplay and an angry refutation of what we used to call peaceful co-existence.
In place of the solemn spacious sounds of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Pompeo’s speech is a US Army Reveille – a wake-up call in a series of simple intact repetitive statements. No clauses. A grammar in which nothing is brought into complex relation with anything else. Take this sequence for example: Momentum is clearly on our side. We’ve got to do more. Don’t be fooled. We are in quick succession brothers, waverers, gulls. If we refuse refuge inside the first 6-word sentence, it’s a short step to the grim exhortation of sentence 2 and in no time at all we’re in the still smaller space of sentence 3, which admits no other perspective. By then we have lost all right of reply. The challenge Name me a moment when the weak and the meek have prevailed doesn’t require an answer.
Pompeo is a Tea Party Republican, a Christian evangelical, a Koch brothers man, above all an adept politician. In February, from the podium in Munich, he asserted America’s intention to protect its ‘sovereign rights’ and gave notice that it would recognise no restraint or limit. He identified enemies and invited the assembled leaders to step up: Look, I know it’s not without cost to be courageous, to stand up for our sovereignty. I get it. But it’s never been the case that this was free. He concludes with an account of his meeting with a ‘young, brave warrior’ in Ukraine, wounded in action: It reminded me that sovereignty is worth fighting for and that it’s real, that we’re all in this fight together. Until the rapture.
Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man was composed in 1942 at the request of the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Eugene Goossens. Goossens wrote to Copland:
"Its title is as original as its music, and I think it is so telling that it deserves a special occasion for its performance. If it is agreeable to you, we will premiere it 12 March 1943 at income tax time". Copland's reply was "I [am] all for honoring the common man at income tax time".
They agree ‘income tax time’, when the Common Man makes his contribution to the common good, is a moment in the year worth marking. In 2018, tax evasion in the US was estimated at $600 billion dollars and Pompeo’s mentors, the Koch brothers, feature prominently in lists of corporate evaders and avoiders. An IRS investigation into Bill Koch’s tax affairs was called off by Trump when he was elected in 2016, while his brothers David and Charles, who keep billions in tax havens like Luxembourg, have stated they support the abolition of all taxation.
The FBI kept Copland under surveillance for most of his life – as well as honouring the ordinary American at income tax time he opposed American militarism. He was investigated for Communist sympathies during the McCarthy period and was blacklisted.
The following statement is taken from Confidential Informant T-24’s testimony to the FBI in 1949:
COPLAND then went on to say that he is convinced that the present policies of the United States Government will lead us eventually into a third World War and claimed that there is a concerted effort on the part of the press and radio to convince the American people that nothing remains for us to do but make a choice between two diametrically opposed systems of thought.
At the MSC 2020 there were leaders and politicians prepared to think otherwise, as the closing paragraphs of their report made clear:
“…The West should be able to defend the international liberal order while accepting that global power shifts will bring competing models with which the liberal order will have to co-exist.”
Defending ‘the international liberal order’ has cost countless lives over the last 30 years, but this apparent commitment to stopping short of a third World War is worth taking seriously. If, as some expect, Pompeo runs for the presidency in 2024, we may find that it is all that stands between us and the fulfilment in flames of his prophecy: The West Will Win.
Ten Seconds from Now
by Christos Tombras
At the 2013 performance of John Cage’s 4’33’’ at the Barbican, Lawrence Foster, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra live, opened the score, prepared his baton, and proceeded to do nothing for the next four minutes and thirty three seconds. I was quite amused, as I did not know that the piece, originally for piano, had been rewritten for a symphonic orchestra. I guess that in this current era of social distancing and lockdown, it could also be rewritten for no instrument at all.
Four minutes and 33 seconds of silence in an empty room.
Big deal, you would think, and in fact, this is exactly what my friend Patrick told me the other day when I showed him the video of the performance on YouTube. “Big deal. I can compose a similar, if not better, piece at any given moment. In fact–”, he reached for a sheet of paper, “I will do this now.”
On top he wrote: “Ten Seconds from Now”. Below that, “Tacet”. He gave me the page. “Here you are”.
“What’s that?” I asked. “What does this mean? What will happen ten seconds from now?”
“With ‘now’ indicating the moment it starts, ten seconds later the piece will come to an end”, Patrick said.
“‘Tacet’ is Latin for ‘in silence’.”
“Quite witty”, I said, “but it won’t earn you a place in the Pantheon of Music. You are a copycat here. John Cage has done it before. The idea of putting aside as silence a specific amount of time has happened before. It is not original anymore. Your ‘Ten Seconds from Now’ comes second, if you pardon the pun.”
“Not to worry”, Patrick said, “I am already thinking of turning it into a film. A silent film showing a black frame over a length of ten seconds.”
Guy Debord’s first movie, “Hurlements en faveur de Sade” (1952) employs the same idea. There is no image. Just a solid black frame, which becomes solid white when there is sound. The whole film is 80 mins long. The last 24 of them are completely silent (and black). I imagine that the idea wouldn’t work on a mobile device or a laptop. Not that it worked exceptionally well when it was first projected. According to reports, the audience became unruly and the screening was interrupted after just twenty minutes. Today, a film like that would have to come with a disclaimer, something like “This motion picture has been left intentionally black” – or something to that effect.
An intentionally black frame. Is it really intentional? How can one be certain? It’s difficult to know. Back in the year 2000, film lovers were perplexed by the first three minutes of Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark”. There was no picture. Just a solid black frame, while an orchestral piece evolved in the soundtrack, inviting, so to speak, the audience to dance with their minds in the dark – a reference to the deteriorating vision of the main character, played masterfully by Björk.
It didn’t work. Confused spectators began shouting to attract the attention of the screening room engineer to the technical “error”. When the film appeared in DVD a couple of years later, the three minutes of solid black had been replaced with some kind of colourful abstract artwork.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know what one’s intention is, both in life, and in art. I am not talking about the meaning of a work of art. Thousands and thousands of art criticism pages have been written trying to establish the one and true meaning of this or that piece, or the true intentions of this or that artist.
It’s all in vain. You’ll never get to the true meaning of art, if not for any other reason, because no one can have it. Not even the artists themselves. You might only be able to glean some meaning for yourself. But this won’t be the definite one. For starters, not everybody will agree. Even if they did agree, the artist themselves might be in disagreement. And all the professional critics, they would also disagree, one by one.
The most important aspect of art is not the meaning that it has, but rather the possibility of a meaning. Art is the opening up of a perspective onto a world. The work of art is the clearing from where a world may be visible, as Heidegger would have it.
In his short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939), Jorge Louis Borges speaks at length about a fictitious twentieth century French writer’s effort to re-write Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” in Spanish. The catch: Pierre Menard did not speak Spanish at all. Added catch, he had not even read Cervantes’ original. As Borges explained admiringly, Menard did not intend to copy Cervantes. That would be easy. He wanted to re-create the whole work, mot-à-mot, in seventeenth century Spanish. Still, it would be his Quixote. Not Cervantes’.
Pierre Menard died before he was able to complete his work.
On second thoughts, Patrick’s “Ten Seconds from Now” might not be such a bad movie after all.
Evelina isn’t herself?
by Rosemary Bechler
“I ran hastily up to two ladies, and cried ‘For Heaven’s sake, dear ladies, afford me some protection!’ They heard me with a loud laugh, but very readily said ‘Ay, let her walk between us;’ and each of them took hold of an arm…
They asked me a thousand questions… My answers were very incoherent, – but what, good Heaven! were my emotions, when, a few moments afterwards, I perceived advancing our way – Lord Orville! Never shall I forget what I felt at that instant …
At last without looking at me, in a low voice and hesitating manner, he said, ‘Were those ladies with whom I saw you last night, ever in your company before?’ "
Evelina in Marybone-gardens for the fireworks. (Volume 2, Letter XXI.)
From Evelina, or, a Young Woman’s Entrance into the World by Fanny Burney, (1778).
It was a rather gloomy International Women’s Day this year, with unsurprising attention to the failure to tackle domestic violence across the world, a concern now deepened by the self-isolating necessities of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the UK run-up, Woman’s Hour had the bright idea of asking if we could turn to eighteenth century novels to find sexual violence treated in a way that was neither too titillating nor too frightening? Professor Bullard chose a slightly earlier passage from Evelina than the one above (Volume 2. Letter XV), where the heroine is again lost, this time in Vauxhall Gardens, and physically trapped by two successive groups of jeering profligates before she is delivered by the rake of this novel, Sir Clement Willoughby, who promptly takes her even deeper down the alleyways, into potentially more trouble. Bullard applauded the 24-year old authoress for summoning up the courage to go public with these “everyday experiences”, and for not objectifying the victim anew, but describing her assaults from Evelina’s point of view. Still, she added, appreciative students found it “a bit depressing” how little had changed since such indignant writers described the unacceptable 300 years ago.
* * *
But there is a richer harvest for the #MeToo generation, if they notice what is odd rather than familiar in this novel of manners. To begin with, Evelina Anville, our orphan heroine, is not exactly herself. The clue is in the Adam and Eve name and the question posed early on by her guardian, Reverend Villars. Will her ‘entrance into the world’ expose her as destined to remain trapped in the world of original sin strongly suggested by her ancestry – which regrettably includes a French waiting-girl in a tavern, and a fake runaway marriage with an evil English aristocrat – or will ‘Honourable love’ in the form of Lord Orville, chasten, preserve and reward her desire to go to London?
By his sheer capacity to recognise his heroine’s worth despite all appearances to the contrary, Orville translates the Reverend’s admirable qualities into a secular Enlightenment triumph, proving that despite her vulgar relations, Evelina may successfully step from the world of original sin into the world of benevolence. The novel achieves this by the dreamwork trick of resolving a contradiction – Evelina’s dual potential – with a paradox, when she falls ill from the evils of the world, thereby chastening her desire, and recovers into a new world and her just deserts.
Certainly Fanny Burney, who first published the novel anonymously, “wrapped in a mantle of impenetrable obscurity”, identified strongly with her heroine – but as the vulnerable symbol and weakest link of an aspiring middle class: “I have an exceedingly odd sensation when I consider that… a work that was so lately lodged, in all privacy in my bureau, may now be seen by every butcher, cobbler and tinker, throughout the three Kingdoms, for the small tribute of three pence.” Success of course brought new horizons. Nothing in the book itself, Fanny remarks in the Memoirs of her father, could be closer to romance than his proposal to tell the socialite Mrs.Thrale who had written it.
Nor was this intense interest in testing the ‘manners’ of aspiring young women in countless contrasting scenes like the two above, at all confined to women. Samuel Richardson kicked it off, and to read James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1765), you would have thought that his UK audience was packed with Richardsonian heroines: “I have often thought that, in some respects, there is not any creature so forlorn or so exposed, as a young woman, beautiful, inexperienced, single, almost wholly friendless, bred to affluence, left in dependence, perhaps in an indigence of which some wretch curst with wealth is willing to avail himself for the vilest ends…”.
This kind of prurience made Mary Wollstonecraft feel sick, and I have described elsewhere how Jane Austen revolutionised the novel rather than allow her heroines to sink into its stifling paranoia. But are we free of it yet? Every time a law court let alone a tabloid newspaper takes an undue interest in a rape victim’s mores, every time a woman is beaten up for reminding us of our own regrettable weakness within, don’t we hear the authentic echo of Evelina’s trial by novel?
A contemporary reviewer had another complaint: “We could wish her husband had not been a lord… the hero and heroine of every novel hardly ever fail, sooner or later, to turn out a lady or a lord.” Three hundred years later we may be better attuned to the happy endings that can be furnished by “every butcher, cobbler and tinker”, except in the field of governance, where we might legitimately enquire whether we don’t still depend too much on the Bullingdon boys of our time for rescue?
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