Splinters: October 2021 – sallies into the here & now
This month: The rationality paradox...
Real Problems, False Solutions I...
Can an old Viking tradition be advantageous in fighting covid?...
Ancient or Modern – it's the instruments that count...
Getting Byron wrong...
Whoever owns the youth: a Reader (Part Three)...
Visions can be sudden, revealing the life and death struggle in all our lives
If enough of us speak up, we'll be able to protect honesty in public life.
The rationality paradox
by Christos Tombras
Steven Pinker’s new book is all over the news these days. In our era of fake news, deliberate misinformation, superstition, post truths and alternative facts, the message of the book, as conveyed by its title, Rationality: Why it Seems Scarce and Why it Matters, appears clear and relevant. Rationality, described as “a kit of cognitive tools that can attain particular goals in particular worlds” ought indeed to be the “lodestar” of everything we think and do. And yet it isn’t. Something doesn’t work. Or at least it hasn’t worked. Resources for reasoning and information are abundantly available today and yet, people choose to ignore them, or use them in questionable ways. Why?
I haven’t read Pinker’s book, so I cannot say much about the answers he gives to this question. I have only found a small excerpt here. In it, Pinker uses the example of the San people of the Kalahari Desert to emphasise what he describes as their “scientific” mindset, which they have organically and successfully employed in order to sustain themselves for millennia in that rather inhospitable place. “They reason their way from fragmentary data to remote conclusions”, he writes, “with an intuitive grasp of logic, critical thinking, statistical reasoning, correlation and causation, and game theory.”
If they can do it, why can’t we? What stops us? That’s the paradox Pinker identifies.
Let’s call it the Rationality Paradox.
I have tried to approach such questions before. I don’t have a clear answer yet, but, to be honest, whenever I read about “scientific” this or that, my mind returns to an example my teachers in school were employing in their somewhat failing efforts to convince us of the merits of calculus. It involved foxes, rabbits, pursuit curves and a number of increasingly confusing differential equations. Apparently, this is what you need to do in order to follow on the steps of the fox chasing the rabbit. I had always found this rather amusing. Just think of the headlines: Rabbit escapes thanks to fox’s differential equation error.
In other news, the other day I came across Amy Coney Barrett’s recent speech at the University of Louisville's McConnell Center. Barrett, you will recall, is the newest addition to the Supreme Court of the US, chosen by D. Trump in late 2020 to take the place of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Judicial philosophies are not the same as political parties”, Barrett stressed. “It’s not my job to decide cases based on the outcome I want”.
A few days later another member of the Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas, expressed a very similar view. “Sometimes, I don't like the results of my decisions. But it's not my job to decide cases based on the outcome I want. Judicial philosophies are not the same as political parties”, he said, echoing Barrett’s turn of speech. That’s a relief, you might think. It should be reassuring that the members of the SCOTUS are humans but can still rise above human failings. Or so they say, at least.
They might be worried that we don’t believe them.
Some months ago, I wrote about Plato’s Protagoras and the innovative literary device he used, of the personified argument which would laugh at Socrates’ and Protagoras’ disagreement and gradual confusion of conclusions. In Plato’s view, premises are connected to conclusions with unique and traceable pathways, which the human intellect must follow – or else risk becoming the argument’s mockery. “This”, I wrote, “has been the hope and promise of modernity, namely the belief in the inherent rationality of the world, as such, and also of the human intellect qua observer in this world.”
Pinker, A. Coney Barrett and Cl. Thomas argue from this exact basic premise. They all firmly believe that the world is inherently rational and claim that “scientific” reasoning is our best compass for navigating its troubled waters. In other words, we are like the fox (or the rabbit), with the added benefit that we know about differential equations, what and how useful they are (admittedly less so when it comes to how to solve them).
So, how do we explain the Rationality Paradox? What makes people become blind, stops them from accepting solid evidence and clear inferences? What stops them from using their minds?
Granted, that’s not an easy question. For one thing, it’s not accurate that they don’t use their minds. They do, very much so, but not in the way we’d like. Perhaps the difficulty is ours, then. Perhaps it is that we are not able to present the problem, or paradox, correctly.
Let’s try another way then.
What makes people suspicious when they hear Amy Coney Barrett explaining that her Catholic faith should not be seen as interfering with her legal reasoning? Is it a justified suspicion? Perhaps yes, given the backstory of Barrett’s nomination. But then, how can we convincingly differentiate between this, “justified” suspicion and, say, the suspicion that is evident in the thinking of all those vaccine deniers and Covid pandemic “truthers”? Or of any similar other run of the mill conspiracy theory for that matter? Can we differentiate?
I reach the same dead end: it’s tempting to attribute conspiracy theories, credulousness, and post truths to sloppy thinking or ignorance alone, but it does not help to advance our understanding of such phenomena.
The rationality paradox requires reflection, not a sloppy explaining away.
Real Problems, False Solutions I
by Samir Gandesha
“Better to die by the hand of God than by an artificial vaccine.”
(Slogan seen at an anti-vaccination protest in Vancouver, Canada)
The global emergence of authoritarianism has, unsurprisingly, provoked analogies with the Weimar period. Yet caution must be exercised when reasoning by historical analogy. Capitalism has always embodied a sacrificial logic, and the deepening of such logic lies at the heart of its redoubled authoritarian potential today. But how are we to understand the logic of new forms of polarization based on the contradictions produced by neoliberal globalization? While we ought not so easily to be swayed by analogical reasoning, the European interwar period might yet hold some unexpected lessons for us today.
Accordingly, it is worthwhile turning to German sociologist, Max Weber’s account of rationalization and the responses to this phenomenon by thinkers of the German ‘conservative revolution’. Weber and his critical interlocutors can help us to grasp some of the key dimensions of the contemporary contradictions of globalizing neoliberalism, and the political polarization generated in its wake with the waning of a politics grounded in critical analysis of capital, class, and social totality.
Neoliberalism exacerbates the rationalization tendencies of capitalist modernization through heightened processes of institutional and ideological abstraction. This means the unceasing subordination of qualitative human needs and aspirations to the quantitative values of the logic of the market and dynamics of capital accumulation.
Such processes come under pressure in moments of crisis, giving rise to a fragmentation of the universalism that had historically underwritten the struggle for socialism, leading to aspirations to what could be called a ‘false concreteness’ centered on a form of identity on both the contemporary Right as well as the Left.
Each of these forms of false concreteness eschews universalism, and have thus contributed to the crippling polarizations of our times. On the right, this has taken the form of authoritarian ethno-nationalism. On the left, identity politics, far from challenging the neoliberal consensus, only reinforces its iron grip. In these ways, neoliberalism’s deepening of the increasingly abstract nature of social life under capitalism redoubles tendencies towards re-enchantment as a way of providing false solutions to real problems. This becomes clear in the anti-vaxx slogan that serves as the epigraph to this article. The choice appears to be one between a meaningful and a meaningless death.
The modern crisis of meaning
In his famous lectures ‘Politics as a Vocation,’ and ‘Science as a Vocation,’ delivered at the University of Munich in the midst of the ill-fated German Revolution, Max Weber sums up certain key themes of his research agenda. The most important of these are: the distinction between the value-relevance of politics versus value-neutrality of teaching and scientific research, the processes of intellectualization or rationalization and disenchantment, the relationship between the different spheres of value that were once closely integrated, namely: science, morality and art, but are now separate from each other and occasionally conflicting.
It is precisely such a differentiation of value spheres, in Weber’s view, that produces the modern crisis of meaning. Weber understood this in connection with Tolstoy’s novella The death of Ivan Ilyich, as the opposition between being satiated by life versus feeling tired of it, as the essential difference between a traditional society which still permitted access to concrete or immediate sources of meaning and an increasingly abstract and anonymous modernity based on an idea of progress that, nonetheless, culminates in a stultifying “iron cage.” As Weber puts it in his great study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which could be read as a direct commentary on our own neo-liberal order: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”
The choice appears to be one between a meaningful and a meaningless death.
In the very year that Weber's lectures were published, Carl Schmitt came out with a book in which he takes direct aim at what he calls Political Romanticism. Schmitt's political and legal theory as a whole, The Concept of the Political in particular, responds to Weber's articulation of the crisis of political meaning that results not just from the domination of science and technology but more generally the process of formalization of reason within that novel structure of authority that, according to Weber’s typology, displaces both charismatic and traditional forms: namely, legal-rational authority. The authority of government is simply an outcome of correct procedures and rules.
In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt attacks the bourgeois liberal-parliamentary conception of politics as based on empty and inconsequential discussion and compromise and defends a form of political existentialism, which responds directly to the crisis of authority. With such a conception, Schmitt infamously defines what he calls ‘the political’ or the essence of politics as the ‘moment at which the enemy comes into view as such;’ the latter ‘threatens our entire way of life.’ Schmitt would go on to join the Nazi Party and become its Crown jurist, preparing the legal ground for Gleichschaltung (the total coordination of the state).
This month and next, these splinters are taken from the author’s chapter in a
forthcoming Socialist Register 2022 New Polarizations, Old Contradictions: The Crisis
of Centrism, edited by Greg Albo and Colin Leys (Winnipeg: Fernwood press).
Can an old Viking tradition be advantageous in fighting covid?
by Irene Peroni
“This is one for the team”, a young Norwegian father told a state TV reporter as his 12-year-old got the first dose of the anti-covid vaccine.
While governments are still grappling to find their (and our) way out of the covid crisis, it has become increasingly evident that many across Europe put individual rights above what some health authorities encourage us to do for the common good, i.e. protect our own as well as other people’s health.
This has forced some countries, such as France and Italy, to take draconian measures in order to convince people to get the jab. Such measures are widely perceived as coercive, illiberal and discriminatory, despite falling numbers of casualties and intensive care unit patients wherever vaccination programmes have been implemented.
Is extensive use of a “green pass” an invasion of privacy? Is it stripping us of fundamental individual rights? This is a heated topic which rages well beyond anti-vax groups. It involves politicians, opinion-makers, philosophers and lawmakers, confronted with a strategy never before implemented on this scale, and one that we will have to resort to again in future.
Western democracies often see citizens as “taxpayers”, who, in return for parting with a share of their income and abiding by laws, are granted a variety of rights such as freedom of opinion, law and order, free education, basic health care and, to varying degrees, social benefits.
But what are the citizens’ duties, and why is getting vaccinated not perceived as one? After all, we are amidst a deadly pandemic which has already killed more than 4.5 million worldwide, and we all agree that the virus spreads thanks to human-to-human transmission.
Norway is one of the countries which has suffered relatively few casualties as well as one where anti-vaxxers have barely been noticed. Of course some people refuse to get vaccinated, just as some refused to use face masks: but they have not tried to actively boycott either preventive measures, or the vaccination programme.
Watching that young father on the news, a peculiar Norwegian word came into my mind: it is yet another one of those Scandinavian notions that are hard to translate, just like “hygge,” the feeling of cosiness and well-being we all associate with things like lit candles and the smell of freshly baked cookies, or “sisu”, a Finnish concept that expresses courage and perseverance.
The word is “dugnad”. This custom dates allegedly back to the Viking period, and entails doing some free work for the community’s good, regardless of one’s role. Roll up the sleeves and get your hands dirty – whoever has children in schools or kindergartens needs to set apart a couple of days each year for painting and repairwork in and around the school building. This happens both in rich and poor neighbourhoods. Not taking part in it is frowned upon.
In the first phase of the pandemic, outgoing prime minister Erna Solberg drew upon this concept every time she spoke on TV. She used it to call on everybody to collaborate and do their best for everyone’s good. Dugnad is a form of unspoken duty – on a voluntary basis, but still a duty.
So the concept was, “there are a few things you actively need to do to fight this pandemic, on top of all the things we are preventing you from doing”.
Why has no other political leader resorted to a similar concept? Why are we always focusing on rights rather than obligations? Just try to google “citizens’ responsibilities”, and you will see that there is a fraction of the matches you would get by googling “citizens’ rights”.
Even if you follow the link to the EU portal saying “being an EU citizen gives you some important extra rights and responsibilities”, you will find it does not expand on the latter.
There is one fundamental, intuitive concept which nonetheless seems to elude whoever is refusing to get the jab in the name of their personal rights. It is “my freedom ends where yours begins”.
This aphorism (the wording might vary) is attributed to a variety of personalities in different parts of the world, ranging from Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German Enlightenment philosopher, to Martin Luther King. But it is such a universal idea that whoever said it, it is bound to have been said before.
Refusing to get vaccinated entails potentially infecting someone else – and in the worst-case scenario, even killing that person.
In a globalized world like ours, joining forces and collaborating on all levels is the only effective way to fight a virus that knows no borders.
Sacrificing some individual rights in the name of collectivism rather than preserving them inside an ivory tower that is about to crumble under the strain of this pandemic gives us a much better chance of getting rid of covid-19.
Ancient or Modern – it's the instruments that count
by Iain Galbraith
A tale of two cities, then, in this epoch of belief and incredulity, and a tale of two mayors: Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham, Mayor of London the first, Mayor of Greater Manchester the second. For both are powerful Labour figures, each of them a potential party leader, and both are aware of the ineluctable ruptures in the British body politic, the constitutional fatigue in century-old institutions developed for the command of Empire and distribution of its spoils. As Antonio Gramsci put it: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” But what of the new?
Sadiq Khan is a proud and pragmatic Londoner and the high head man in what, since 2000, has become the devolved Greater London Authority; Andy Burnham is a man of the North, eloquent devolutionist and visceral critic of dominant centralised government from Westminster. Each can be more or less opposed to the other when setting out his case for devolutionary equality. Sometimes they appear to use the media to further their dialogue.
Writing in the Guardian on 13 May this year, Andy Burnham said: "If you bring power closer to people, you create the conditions for involving more people in its use – and that is energising in a way that top-down Westminster politics can never be. This is why English devolution, as distinct from Welsh and Scottish devolution, is a potential gamechanger for British politics – and for the Labour party, if it chooses to seize it […] But breaking out of its London-centric ways must be real and immediate."
Less than a week later, on 19 May, Sadiq Khan, while visiting the Switch Mobility electric car factory in Yorkshire, seems to counter: “When I was signed-in for my second term I pledged to build bridges between London and the rest of our country and to showcase how London can help the national recovery and the levelling up agenda […] Too often, the need to ‘level-up’ cities and regions across the UK is wrongly presented as a need to ‘level down’ other parts of the country, such as London – but that is in nobody’s interest. When London succeeds, the UK succeeds and vice versa" (london.gov.uk/press releases/mayoral).
If Burnham allows caution to enter his prosecution, he can sound like an ironic reversal of Antony's dictum in Julius Caesar: I come to praise London, not to bury it. By contrast Khan's reluctance to "level down" London echoes T.S. Eliot's approach in Notes towards the Definition of Culture (revised in 1962). Eliot is writing of the "problem of 'regionalism'", where the "champions of local tradition […] often fail to make their own case." He goes on to discuss the role of "satellite" literatures, i.e. Welsh or Scottish, in relation to a "stronger" English one. While conceding the need to "investigate political and economic alternatives to centralization in London or elsewhere" he sees the success of all in the success of the stronger: "the satellite exercises a considerable influence on the stronger culture; and so plays a larger part in the world at large than it could in isolation." No requirement for a solo run here; the "local" culture is blazed abroad through the good offices of the Centre.
Mentioning Julius Caesar, I am aware it is time for the "Et tu, Brute!" question (whose side are you on?). In March this year there was a brief interruption in anti-pandemic measures and I was allowed to visit, in the Rhenish city of Mainz, an exhibition about Emperor Charlemagne and the "pillars" of Carolingian power. To put it briefly: in the first room I was very taken with a late-Roman collapsible chair, a portable seat of power. Charlemagne (742-814), whose empire covered a million sq km, had to rule his scattered peoples (between the Pyrenees and the North Sea) from the saddle. He was constantly on the move.
And so I say we should take what Andy Burnham says quite literally. "If you bring power closer to people, you create the conditions for involving more people in its use" – only how? We can take Keir Starmer literally, too, who writes in his recent pamphlet for the Fabian Society of "completely rethinking where power lies in our country, driving it out of the sclerotic and wasteful parts of a centralised system and into the hands of people and communities across the land”.
We don't need to bury London; indeed we should never forget that many parts of London are as far away from "Westminster" as Ullapool or Hartlepool. But we do need the entire Elect and its good offices to leave the Palace of Westminster and get on the real road. Parliament (as well as imaginable institutions such as the Senate of the Nations, Regions and Councils) can convene anywhere at any time, in countless sizeable buildings up and down the land. If there be no building, the country that built Nightingale Hospitals can build Nightingale parliaments: to hear, as directly as possible, and to address immediately, the issues The People need them to address most – instead of speaking to one another in a faraway palace of people and places elsewhere.
Getting Byron wrong
by Chris Myant
The verses of the border ballad came steadily, the text from the Oxford Book of Scottish Ballads was well learned. We were under the laburnum tree from which I, my brother and sister used to jump 60 years earlier. It was a gentle June afternoon and my father was sitting out on the lawn they had cared for over all those decades, reciting from recall each verse of a long and gory tale of robbery and deceit. “It’s much more interesting than counting sheep when I can’t get to sleep,” was his justification for this cultivated feat of memory at the age of 94.
In his own earlier days, he had been “head of house” at his boarding school, Blundell’s in Somerset. In the papers he left behind was a letter to his mother from the head there about his refusal to inflict corporal punishment on other boys who had broken the school’s rules, a refusal that put him at loggerheads with the house master.
He had told me with pride of being in the London Tube during the war, wearing the uniform of an army doctor with the rank of captain, when a lieutenant stood and saluted in front of him. The younger man explained that, at Blundell’s, he had expected the traditional thrashing when instead he was condemned to learn a Shakespeare sonnet over night. He would be pleased to recite it again as that “punishment” had given him a lasting love of poetry.
It does not work for everyone. He did not ever say, but he must have been bitterly disappointed when I failed to bite at the bait of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold, Canto IV of which was a set text at English A level. I tried once or twice but I just could not make myself read the verses. It all seemed so absurd, indeed ugly.
That same sensation comes – this time with absolute justification - when reading Alfred Tennyson’s poem glorifying imperial slaughter, The Defence of Lucknow (“Blessing the wholesome white faces of Havelock’s good fusileers”), worse even than his Light and Heavy Brigade poems. But I was so wrong about Byron. With a world of literature, poetry and song to indulge in, why return to what I felt was a barren field? I did not do so until, looking online for an illustration to run with last month’s piece about machines and work, I stumbled across his first speech in the House of Lords on 27 February 1812, his denunciation of the rush to repression of machine breakers, the so-called Luddites.
What a poet was at work in that manuscript! Three days after that speech, the Morning Chronicle published anonymously his visceral four verses of Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill. A month later, the first two cantos of Childe Harold were published and, as he wrote, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”
The power of poetry
One can easily imagine the ode being sung, as was the popular custom, in the streets of his home city of Nottingham by those against whom the new law was directed. Over the rest of the century, the common people’s poetry was as much sung as it was read, whether it concerned struggle or leisure, work or love.
Tommy Armstrong, the Durham miner, came at the apogee of this tradition where everyone in his colliery community seemed able to use verse and song. Maureen Craik made his The Durham Lockout from 1892 a fine commemoration of the practice. Brushed aside by the onset of mass entertainment, recording and broadcasting, the way the power of popular poetic rhythm augments when set to music is something we can return to today with the best of rap coming from ordinary life’s experiences and desires, independent of the marketing requirements of Universal Music, Sony or Warner. This power is what has taken rap into every community across the globe.
Rap has never got under my skin. Instead, sitting huddled shoulder to shoulder in a Hanoi theatre during a brief pause in Nixon’s “I want them to think I am mad” 1972 bombing campaign, the verses of Nguyen Du’s epic Truyen Kieumade every nerve tingle when presented in traditional opera and whispered along to by an audience that knew it by heart. So it is with Daniel Viglietti’s setting of César Vallejo’s Masa; June Tabor’s controlled emotion in singing Jackie Oates’ Waiting for the Lark; or Dominic Behan’s rendering of his cousin Brendan’s The Patriot Game.
In Hanoi, I wanted to give my comrades a taste of the way Shakespeare gets his words round the horrors of war, the moment when Hamlet sees “the imminent death of twenty thousand men” or Henry V explains for just a moment what the mayhem he craved would mean at the hands of “the blind and bloody soldier”. I found I had not done that necessary work of memorising if you are to recite poetry without a text in front of your eyes.
That head teacher’s letter from 1933 said that my father “has given himself a real missionary endeavour to help boys in the house get a spirit of kindness and consideration. He will leave a mark that a number of boys will be grateful for”.
Maybe if, instead of baulking at Childe Harold, I had been directed to read Byron’s The Curse of Minerva and its denunciation of Lord Elgin’s theft of the Parthenon marbles or, indeed, understood that he returns to the theme in Childe Harold, I, too, would have wanted to salute the one who had guided me.
Whoever owns the youth: a Reader (Part Three)
by Leonie Rushforth
S IS FOR SOLIDARITY AND SEATTLE TEACHERS
In June, the Seattle Education Association (SEA) passed a resolution expressing solidarity with Palestine and endorsing the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement (BDS). The resolution also demands an end to collaboration between the Seattle Police Department and Israeli military.
T IS FOR TECH TAKEOVER IN SCHOOLS
This month, October 2021, Cornerstone Academy Trust and Microsoft will - with Department for Education backing - host the EdTEch Festival 2021. EdTech - techonology in education - is big business and not only for Microsoft, especially if your school becomes a Microsoft Showcase School, like Broadclyst Primary where Cornerstone CEO Jonathan Bishop is head. Cornerstone’s net worth has increased by 97% in the last 2 years. Bishop, a speaker at EdTech 2021, provides this as part of his biography: ‘As a Microsoft Showcase School, Broadclyst is part of the Global Partners in Learning Programme. Jonathan’s Global Enterprise Challenge brings 20 schools from 20 countries together and was founded after a successful bid for funding through the Microsoft Pitch Competition.’ Meanwhile, via the Microsoft ConnectEd site you can nominate yourself to become a Microsoft Innovative Educator - or a Microsoft salesperson already embedded in a school.
U IS FOR UNOWNED YOUTH
London school children protest against corporal punishment in 1972.
And in June 2021, following the Israeli bombing of Gaza in May, some children taking part in pro-Palestinian protests in schools were interviewed and warned by police, and punished by exclusion. A number of them were interviewed on Channel 4 – the public channel currently threatened by privatisation.
V IS FOR VENTILATION
In the end the UK Department for Education conceded that children returning to school need protection from the virus. In a carefully worded statement in August the DfE promised CO2 monitors would be provided to all schools – just not necessarily in time for the return to school. There is no guarantee about timing at all in fact and, crucially, responsibility for ventilation is passed on to individual teachers:
“CO2 monitors will be provided to all state-funded education settings from September, so staff can quickly identify where ventilation needs to be improved.
Letting fresh air into indoor spaces can help remove air that contains virus particles and is important in preventing the spread of Covid-19. Backed by a £25 million government investment, the new monitors will enable staff to act quickly where ventilation is poor and provide reassurance that existing ventilation measures are working. The majority of c. 300,000 monitors will become available over the autumn term.”
There was no elaboration on what ‘acting quickly’ might involve if CO2 levels run high in a classroom where, for example, windows can’t be opened more than a couple of centimetres. Meanwhile, the CO2 monitor roll-out has yet to begin and cases of Covid in school children in the unvaccinated age group 10-15 are rising rapidly. In many places schools are belatedly reintroducing masks and restrictions while in Kettering, Northants, 6% of 10-14 year olds tested positive in the last week of September.
W IS FOR WHOEVER OWNS THE YOUTH
In his great film The White Ribbon (2009) set in Eichwald, a fictional village in NE Germany in 1913, Haneke examines what he calls ‘the backstory’ to Nazism. The ribbon of the film’s title is tied by the Protestant pastor to his two children as public punishment for misbehaviour and as a reminder of the purity of conduct expected of them. In private they are punished and abused physically. All systems of authority in this society, represented by the baron, the doctor and the pastor, are violent and irrational – absolute systems beyond question. Obedience is exacted; independent will extinguished. Twenty years later, these are the children who as adults will support and assist the Nazi party as it establishes the third reich.
X IS FOR WRONG ON COVID IN CHILDREN
Y IS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE’S MENTAL HEALTH
Also in early May this year, at almost exactly the same time as children in detention were described as ‘detainees’, the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition wrote to express their grave concerns to the Secretary of State for Education, who had urged schools to ‘crack down’ on bad behaviour as children returned to school after months of lockdown. They used the words ‘distress’ and ‘trauma’ and called for a moratorium on exclusions.
Z IS FOR ZION, THE ELDERS OF & THE PROTOCOLS
A few months ago, a photograph of Jeremy Corbyn reading Michael Rosen’s much-loved story We’re Going on a Bear Hunt to a group of children was doctored online by a director of Labour Against Anti-Semitism. The original page Corbyn was reading from was replaced by the title of the notorious anti-semitic text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Michael Rosen’s subsequent objection and request for an apology was ignored.
Visions can be sudden, revealing the life and death struggle in all our lives
by Rosemary Bechler
Today, I want to salute my colleague, Paul Rogers, international security adviser to openDemocracy for the twenty years of steady vision with which he has endowed our platform. With typical humanity, 1,000 articles have calmly explored and analysed what he has always maintained and does so again this month, are the three vitally interlocking threats to survival: “an increasing rich/poor divide, environmental limits to growth, and a global defence culture that prioritized military responses to these challenges”. The best way to salute his achievement is to give you the link to his latest, generously containing his calculations for the next twenty. He has me eagerly pondering anew his call for “a transformed security paradigm that prioritizes conflict prevention.”
Umair Haque, writing in his Eudaimonia column this month has arrived at the same theme, but is far from calm. Entitled, Don’t Kill Me for Saying It – But Biden’s Presidency is Failing, Haque’s overview of Biden’s failures over the last six months is seething with lucididity and despair. On the AUKUS pact, for example: “ This is a bad, bad look for America… Three white nations… Making nuclear weapons… to fight against…the largest non white nation. For no good reason. Unprovoked.”
Reading these, how I miss the one happy flowering of the Cold War period, the peace movement it gave rise to. How on earth can our species or our planet survive without another such now? As someone who, proudly albeit briefly climbed through Cold War ranks to chair the UK’s National Peace Council, I remember fretting over CND preoccupations with nuclear weapons at the expense of enemy images and foreign relations it seemed to me, which is why many of us so welcomed END and the Helsinki Citizens Assembly. Now, mulling over these issues I have to concede that taken all together and viewed from 2021, whence I must also salute the courage, stoicism, not to mention – yes, sheer resilience! – of CND over these years, this wasn’t a bad call after all. No sooner has the thought occurred than Mary Kaldor, founding member of European Nuclear Disarmament (END) and co-founder of the Helsinki Citizens’s Assembly, is back on openDemocracy with a splendid wake-up call, addressing the terrible invisibility of the “forever war” in our midst which is against all our interests and yet is driven forward by the inexorable “malignant virus “ of the military-industrial complex. It is a physical relief to pursue her crystalline thinking again in this important book review. May I salute you too – Mary! So what can be done?
Then emails begin to arrive in my in-tray reminding me that this is the fortieth anniversary of Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. My friend Ann has promised to send me her account of her first visit. And here it is:
There was no plan to witness history, it happened entirely by chance. My mate Marsha and I had been talking of visiting Greenham Common for weeks. The fact that the missiles were due to arrive shortly, with a lot of speculation about the date, jogged us into actually organising ourselves to go and support the women who had then been protesting around the base for years. Fearing that the day the warheads were actually delivered might prove very violent, we deliberately planned to go a few days earlier. Marsha drove and we took chocolates and brandy, on the grounds that those camping out might be drowning in packets of soup and baked beans. It was a pleasant drive on a pleasant enough day and we began to look out for a coffee venue.
But suddenly the landscape changed, everywhere we might have stopped littered with ugly notices: “THE WOMEN OF GREENHAM AND THEIR SUPPORTERS ARE NOT WELCOME!!!”
Eventually we found a Little Chef willing to serve us. Sustained by one of their delicious fry-ups we re-embarked to spread our bounty to the noble women of Greenham. As we approached the noise became horrendous, helicopters flying very low, loads of them, and conversation out of the question. Parking and making our way towards the airbase, there it suddenly was, bleak and bare in a lush, green landscape. Putting cotton wool in our ears, we trudged onwards.
Closer-up the sight of the base was a shock, miles of barbed wire, pulled tight round menacing, high concrete posts. Then a second layer of wires, some of which seemed to be electrified. And behind these two grim fences, every few feet, a soldier, fully armed and pointing a gun at us. Each man looked like something out of a science fiction, grimfaced, helmet down, aggressively poised for action, totally hostile and almost totally inhuman. Naked power in the face of which we were totally helpless. Having spent time in Israel, this was like nothing I had ever experienced. I was used to seeing a lot of guns but this was different, it was so organised, all those men choreographed like a Busby Berkeley routine, only not smiling girls with lovely legs but big men with guns. In England’s green and pleasant land, it was a rude awakening to the realities of power: the muzzle of a gun and the point of a missile and no messing. Not a scenario that middle class girls raised mostly in peacetime were truly aware of.
We duly delivered the goodies amid the huge bins of soup, and though we could not hear what was being said, the delight was palpable. All along the outmost wire were messages and totems left by women, a baby's shoe, a photo of children, a poem, even the odd school report. The contrast between these small human reminders of life and the lines of aggression behind the fences, was touching and disturbing.
After about an hour, that was when I saw history made. The missiles had arrived, and the MOD had given out false information, false news. They had changed the day the warheads were delivered. The planes swooped down and landed. Moments later we saw the carriages open and out slid the massive, shiny warheads on platforms, surrounded by kneeling warriors, heavily armed like jaguars ready to pounce. As the warheads were driven away, there was silence from the hundreds of women surrounding the camp, maybe they did try to sing or chant protests, but the helicopters increased in numbers and noise.
It was impossible to stay there for long, the noise was intolerable and since by this time we both had splitting headaches and felt sick, we staggered back to the car. Later reports rumoured that low frequency sound was blasted out, which confuses the brain and makes people dizzy and vague. It certainly felt as though that was what was happening. Our respect and admiration for the women who had lived in the camp over long periods rose exponentially. A few hours in the presence of that level of male aggression and destructiveness, has left a lasting impression – although it all happened decades ago, an awareness of a kind of blackness at the heart of our society dawned.
The missiles were removed from Greenham long ago, probably babies compared to what is available in 2021. They may be out of our sight for now, but should not be out of our minds
Lives can be suddenly transformed by a vision as much as by a tragedy. I am thinking about the new and redoubtable feeder-movements that have been swelling the original ranks of this joyful commemorative Greenham Common week-end. XR, with its determination that there is no post-pandemic ‘normal’ to ‘return to’ until the world has grasped the challenges it truly faces; the amazing second or is it third wave of the Sarah Everard movement, in mourning for decent gender and sexual relations – which in the space of a few weeks has put combatting the hate crime that is misogyny onto the agenda of an entire nation, beginning with an implicated British police force – something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime; Black Lives Matter which has made it obligatory to unite families and communities grief-stricken at the terrible death of Sabina Nessa in this same burgeoning fold of protest against violence against women and girls.
Now I am ready to take up the gauntlet thrown down by Paul’s concluding words, calling for prophecy. I am convinced that the peace movement will be back! It will be more global! It will be more profound! And it still might win.
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