Friday, 31 December 2010

The Turn of the Year: 2010-2011

So the year draws to a close and this will be my last post in 2010, the 70th since I began this blog last February. And we are bombarded, as we always are, on television, in the newspapers, on the internet (including blogs like this), with retrospectives of the year gone by, with pictures and films and reports and discussions of what various people consider to be the important and significant events of the past year. Midnight will spread across the globe from the Pacific islands through Australia and Asia, Africa and Europe, the Americas and on to the Aleutians and Hawaii, accompanied by parties and fireworks and revelry as people worldwide put the past behind them and indulge themselves in the feeling of making a new start.

Astronomically, there is nothing special about January 1st; it is simply an ordinary day ten or eleven days after the winter solstice and two to four days before the earth’s perihelion (the day on which it is closest to the sun in its annual revolution). Both of these dates would be more logical for the beginning of the year, but the beginning of the year on the first day of the month of January, the month of the god Janus, the god of gateways, and beginnings and endings, usually depicted as a head with two faces looking simultaneously forward and backward, is a convention going back, according to tradition, around 2,700 years to the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius. While many cultures have traditionally celebrated the beginning of the year in the middle of winter, some others chose different dates, a popular one being the vernal equinox on March 21st. But the worldwide dominance of European culture in the past two hundred years or so has led to European conventions, including those of dating, being generally accepted globally and so, despite all inaccuracies and issues of cultural imperialism, most of the world accepts the convention that the year 2011 – itself based on an erroneous calculation of the year of birth of Jesus of Nazareth – will begin on January 1st.

So what’s to say about 2010, the year we’re so anxious to get rid of, the year we’ve used up, that beautiful clean sheet we presented ourselves with twelve months ago? Earthquake in Haiti, war in Afghanistan, floods in Pakistan, Obamacare, midterm elections, a new government in Britain, the World Cup in South Africa, the Love Parade deaths in Duisburg, Aung San Suu Kyi released, Liu Xiaobo given the Nobel Prize in the teeth of furious Chinese protests, financial crash in Ireland, Malcolm McClaren and Dennis Hopper dead, William and Kate engaged, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, Icelandic volcanoes and WikiLeaks and Gulf oil spills, the year cold at the beginning and cold at the end … another year, the same as any other, unique as any other. All the stuff that went through the news, that was deemed to be important and be talked about; reality TV and talk and game and so-called talent-shows turning up millions of instant celebrities, all scrambling for their fifteen minutes of fame and subsequently hustling to make as much money as possible from it as long as they are somehow marketable, pop stars and film stars, footballers and racing drivers and an elite of other sport professionals earning sums enough to keep tens of thousands in food for a year (and if they have to have plastic surgery or dope themselves to do it, well … it’s their choice anyway, isn’t it?).

For most of us these are just background noises most of the time, the big news stories like posters plastering the temporary wooden hoarding walls hiding ongoing renovation or development in the city, perceived at some level, occasionally perhaps even a cause for discussion or jokes or outrage, but shallow and unimportant compared with the intense everyday drama and stories of our own lives.
We all have our own personal perceptions and stories of 2010, the whole artist’s palette from ecstasy to tragedy with everything in between;
the first shared orgasm of star-crossed teenage lovers,
the unbearable death of a child,
champagne shared to celebrate a deal made worth millions,
the shocking pain of a blow struck in sudden anger,
the creative joy of a new piece of music written and performed,
the grinding hurt of a collapsing relationship,
the bursting pleasure of a heroin shot in the vein opening the way to sordid individual disintegration,
a family rejoicing over a birth,
the combined terror and pride of a young tribesman proving his manhood by shooting his first foreign soldier,
an old woman’s identity slowly vanishing into the confused and fearful half-world of dementia,
life and death and suffering and joy and fraud and justice and despair and hope.
And what should make all our billions of individual experiences and stories less significant and important than those of the great and the mighty, the rich and the famous, who play out their deeds and lives in the glare of continuous media scrutiny and commentary?

Nothing. Oh, they may have power over us and our lives may be influenced by what they do or do not do, or they may simply be avatars for our desires and dreams but in the end they too are only parts of the stories we make, the conceptual and emotional structures we construct to order and give sense to our lives.

At the end of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the supremely cynical character known as “the Criminologist,” who appears from time to time to offer a commentary on the proceedings, quotes a short verse:

“And crawling, on the planet's face, some insects, called the human race.
 Lost in time, and lost in space... and meaning.”

It’s all very funny of course and fits into the film perfectly, but, in reality, the Criminologist is wrong about one point, that of meaning. There is meaning enough or, rather, the possibility of meaning – but that meaning is our own to make. We do not always succeed, particularly in the face of suffering but even here, should we not have the strength or inclination to find our own meaning, there are enough communal, prefabricated models to which we can take recourse if we so choose or have already chosen to satisfy our human desire and need for sense in this way, for such, fundamentally, are all the religions and philosophies on offer. I do not judge them here.

I will simply state that it seems to be a fundamental characteristic of our human nature to structure and order our experiences and perceptions, both individually and on all our social levels, from the shared stories of relationships and families to national and international myths, sagas and identities. And an important part of this structuring is the temporal one, ordering events and occurrences into seasons and years. This allows us, even as we realise that life is an ongoing journey and that most of our stories are unfinished and still being told, to organise ourselves and our lives and everything that is happening or has happened in them (or at least give ourselves the illusion of such an organisation).

And this is where the celebration of a New Year finds its own meaning and importance. At a randomly chosen (if collectively agreed) point, we make a symbolic act of ending and beginning. Janus is indeed an appropriate patron for such an act. In the continual revolution of this small blue dot (to use Carl Sagan’s wonderful description) which is our planet around its sun, which in turn is on its own journey through the galaxy and space in general, we mark a point and say, “Here it ends and here it begins again.” We allow everything which has happened to be consigned to a particular unit of time now past and turn over a new page, giving ourselves a new beginning, a new chance to do things again … and maybe do them better this time.

It is our right, for who shall gainsay us in this instinctive, deeply-felt expression of that optimism and hope which – despite so frequently momentarily experienced evidence to the contrary – seems to be an essential part of our human nature?

Let the wheel turn once more.

All is quiet on New Years Day …

Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas: The Star of Bethlehem

Given that I’ve already posted about Christmas, I hadn’t really planned to write about it again but sometimes my Muse has other ideas. I was lying in bed yesterday trying to sleep (I work a lot of nights at the moment and I don’t find sleeping during the day that easy) and I found myself thinking about the three wise camels men and the star (maybe it was just a side-effect of reading Allie Brosh’s hilarious blog about her childhood Christmas).

At the outset, let me first state my basic position on the whole Christmas story. As a trained historian and a former Christian who spent quite a few years studying theology, I don’t think any serious claims for the exact historicity of the Nativity accounts can be made. Our only sources for the Christmas story are the gospels of Matthew and Luke (Mark, the author of the earliest gospel, doesn’t seem to have known anything of it) and not even the most convinced Christian can argue that they are objective, unbiased sources. There are practically no independent sources which confirm with certainty any of the events describing the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (not Bethlehem!) in the gospels.

I will immediately add that I don’t think this discussion is important anyway. The idea of “objective truth” which we use, particularly with regard to history, was unknown 2,000 years ago and it’s not fair to judge the chroniclers of old by standards which developed long after they were born. Moreover, for Christian believers, it is the meaning and significance of the stories which is really the important thing. For non-Christians, or former Christians, the value of the Christmas stories are their use of deep symbols which may, perhaps, be seen as making statements about fundamental human truths (and you don’t even have to be a Jungian to find this way of thinking productive).

So, to come back to the Magi and the star of Bethlehem. For as long as people have been people, we’ve been fascinated by the night sky. The story of the wise men from the east brings the whole ancient tradition of astrology into the Christmas story. Fascinated by the movement of the stars, people have always supposed that the movement of the stars are intimately connected with events on earth. If the Son of God was born it was unthinkable that such an event would not be reflected in the heavens and astrologers would not notice it. So, for Matthew, obviously some did and acted on their knowledge. He has them coming from “the east,” as Persia was an area where, religiously, astrology had a long and respected tradition. Incidentally, less than an hour down the Autobahn from where I live, the bones of the Magi rest in Cologne Cathedral. They were discovered - along with hundreds of other sacred remains - by Helena, the mother of Constantine, who made a giant relic-hunting tour of what are now Israel and Palestine at the beginning of the fourth century. After her tour the children of thousands of con-men in the area went to bed well-fed for a long time, thanking God in their prayers, no doubt, for the largesse of the gullible Empress-Mother.

Unlike many people, I don’t believe in astrology (another thing I don’t believe in J). Its foundations are in terracentric views of the cosmos which we know today are simply not true. The patterns the stars make, and their movements – particularly in relation to each other – beautiful as they are, are purely coincidental, having only to do with the position of the Earth revolving around the sun, a star in the outer regions of one of the spiral arms of our galaxy. But – like our attitude to historical facts which I referred to earlier – this is knowledge which people two millennia ago simply didn’t have. As a result, it was just as logical for them to think that the movement of the stars reflected and foretold human events as that malaria was caused by bad air. The issue of why many people today still take astrology seriously rather than just regarding it as fun is a different one, but I won’t go into that here.

Still, there is something important in the meme of the wise men following their star; it says something to me about hope, about courage, about the willingness to accept the consequences of one’s convictions and act on them, wherever it may lead one – even if that is into uncertainty and danger.

And, having left astrology behind, I have another hope looking at the stars. Somehow, if we don’t succeed in wrecking our planet and destroying ourselves in the next century or so, we’re going to be out there too. Living in space, living on other planets, planets revolving around other stars. Moving on, moving out, following visions and dreams. Following new stars which are all really only the same star the Magi followed – the star of courage and hope, the star of Bethlehem.

All who believe in courage and hope …

All who believe that the small things in life, like the birth of a child, any child, can be the most important thing on earth …

All who believe in peace …

All who find their way to this blog over the holidays …

I wish you all a very happy Christmas.

(two hours after original posting: Ooops, nearly forgot the music. I probably shouldn't do this posting stuff after working the night before going to bed! Here's a Chris de Burgh early classic - with yet another "alien" take on Christmas ...)

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Zenning Snow

It’s been snowing on and off (more on than off) in most of Europe north of the Alps since the beginning of December. This is quite unusual so early in winter although all the experts assure us that this allows us to say nothing one way or another about the theme of global warming; what this is has nothing to do with climate, it’s just weather.

I live on the north-western edge of the so-called Mittelgebirge, the connecting chain of low mountains which run from west to east across central Europe from the Ardennes in Belgium to the Carpathians in Slovakia and Romania. This geographical fact means that any moist air coming in from the west, the north-west and the north is forced upwards in the atmosphere and the meteorological-physical result of this phenomenon is cooling which gives rise to precipitation. In layman’s language, rain. Quite a bit of it; the Duchy of Berg, east of Düsseldorf and Cologne and south of the Ruhr area, where I live, is one of the wettest in Germany. If the air is cold enough – as it is this year – this rain comes down as snow. On us.

Just weather, like I said. And, to be fair, all of northern Europe has got its fill of snow this December; on Sunday thousands of travellers were stranded at airports in London, Paris, Burssels, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, etc. and as I write, they’re still not all back to normal. But we have been particularly “blessed,” and in the past three weeks we’ve had nearly a metre of it all told – two or three heavy storms and a lot more falls of 2 to 5 cm. in between, and as the temperature has hardly risen much above the freezing point in all this time, very little of it has thawed away.

We get snow almost every year for a couple of weeks, so – unlike France, Britain and Ireland – we’re basically equipped to deal with it; the towns and counties have snow-ploughs and salt and grit spreaders and motorists are legally required to have extra winter tires for their cars. But being used to it and able to deal with it does not mean that it isn’t inconvenient in all sorts of ways.

One of the major issues from my point of view has to do with driving or, more particularly, parking. I live in a nice flat in an old building directly on the street and I don’t have my own parking space. It’s not usually a problem because there is enough room on the street and I seldom have to walk more than a couple of metres to my front door. Unless it snows. All that snow which the ploughs push off to one side to clear the street, all the snow which has fallen on the cars, all the snow on the sidewalk, it all has to go somewhere. So the more snow there is, the more snow is “parked” in metre and a half high piles on the side of the street and the less room there is for cars. And if there’s been a heavy fall of snow this means that you invest quite an amount of time and energy digging your car out of its parking space, clearing the space so that you get out of it easily and safely, drive away to do whatever it is you have to do and return … to find someone else has parked his or her car in the space you spent so much time and effort clearing. But it’s a public street, which means you don’t have the right to reserve a parking space, even if you’re the one who cleared it.

So, late Sunday morning, having had a long struggle with my lazy side which was insisting that it was weekend, that I’d been working a hell of a lot recently and that this was my first free weekend for quite a while, that it would be much nicer to potter around, surf the internet, read a book, etc., etc., I manfully pulled on winter gear and went out to dig the cars free. Cars, because my daughter, who lives with me, has had her own now for a couple of months too. I shut my lazy side up with the argument that it was better to do this now, without any pressure or stress, than to have to do it early the next morning. Lazy side reluctantly accepted this argument but continued muttering in my subconscious with the effect that my enthusiasm for the whole business was less than optimal.

It had snowed fairly heavily on Saturday night and, to make matters worse, my daughter hadn’t used her car for a couple of days so that it was hardly recognisable under a lot of snow. As an extra flavouring for the whole situation, the snow-plough had been through the street and shoved a half metre ridge of dirty, partly compacted snow to the side – between the cars and the road, in other words. Oh joy, I thought, this is really going to be fun! I took the snow shovel and started to move masses of snow.

And then, somehow, I can’t say after how much time, it happened … I was there, completely immersed in the simple job of physical work I was doing. The resentment at having to spend my precious free time shovelling snow in the cold was gone, the consciousness of the time it was taking had disappeared, all the other things which had been occupying my mind were absent. Just me and the job to be done, the work I was doing, were left and I was united with it; acting in the moment, thought gone, feeling gone – just the observation of the next shovelful, the judgement of how to take it and where to throw it, the doing of it and on to the next one. Time was suspended, the world was suspended, there was just me and the snow until there wasn’t even me and the snow any more, just the doing.

This phenomenon, the state of becoming one with the task you are doing so that the task and yourself and the goal of the work all disappear until only the doing remains was described as karma yoga in the Bhagavad Gita, at least two thousand years ago. It is the basic thrust of such activities as archery or pottery or flower arrangement (or motor-cycle maintenance!) which are taught by the Zen school of Buddhism. The same kind of insight is also at the basis of most serious martial art techniques. It is, at least to an extent, something which one can practice.

But it is also a kind of blessing which can come unbidden and is beautiful when it does so. After more than an hour I came out of the work-trance and both cars were cleared with enough snow removed and space made to drive them without a problem onto the street. My muscles were aching and I was drawing breath hard but I felt good and at peace. Part of it, no doubt, was the simple satisfaction of a job well done, but more was a lightness, a feeling of having let go of a lot of negative rubbish (just the ordinary, everyday stuff) which had been accumulating, a sense of being cleansed, an intimation of serenity and wholeness. Contented and in balance I put the shovel away and returned to my flat.

* * * * * * *

Two hours later it started to snow again …

The photos in this post were taken by Chiara Meier and are used with her permission

Instead of the usual rock music, here's a beautiful video of the northern lights, originally posted by Susan on her blog phantsythat. Watching it in the full.screen version can really be recommended!

Aurora Borealis timelapse HD - Tromsø 2010 from Tor Even Mathisen on Vimeo.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Why Non-Christians can celebrate Christmas

This year, as every year in December, you can read loads of opinions attacking Christmas and the way it is celebrated world-wide. They take a number of forms; firstly there are the committed Christians who denounce the secularisation and commercialisation of what they regard as a Christian feast, on the other hand there are the radical secularists who question whether a modern society should be celebrating a Christian feast at all. The irony here is, of course, that two groups, who are otherwise at loggerheads with each other, actually argue (at least partly) in the same direction. Maybe that’s the first effect of the season of goodwill! In my view, they’re both wrong; short-sighted religious killjoys and humourless over-pc humbuggers.

Let me deal with the Christians first. I will cheerfully agree that Christmas is a Christian festival – because, around the fourth century C.E., Christians started celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25. There is no biblical evidence whatsoever for Jesus’ date of birth so they had a fairly free choice. There were a number of good reasons for choosing December 25 – the first being that it was based on an inaccuracy in the Roman calendar which put the winter solstice (actually December 21) on that day. The solstice is nine months after the spring equinox, which some regarded as the date of creation and thus a fitting day to celebrate the conception of Jesus. Moreover, the time at the end of December, and particularly the solstice was a general holiday time. The Romans celebrated the Saturnalia, a week-long holiday of feasting and giving gifts, starting on December 17, the solstice itself was the day to celebrate Sol Invictus (the undefeated sun), where the sun, having been almost defeated by darkness, triumphs and the days start to become longer again.

The winter solstice is, in fact, the core and kern of celebrations in the second half of December, particularly in Europe, prior to and independent of any Christian feast. It is, therefore, no surprise that many of the elements traditionally associated with Christmas have nothing to do with Christianity and are of pagan origin, mostly Germanic and Scandinavian. These include the giving of presents, the Christmas tree, Christmas stockings, holly, ivy and mistletoe, carol singing/wassailing and many elements incorporated in the modern Santa Claus myth. Five thousand years ago (five hundred years before the pyramid of Gizeh and a thousand years before Stonehenge), the Neolithic inhabitants of Ireland built the megalithic passage tomb mound of Newgrange. In a marvellous example of precise astronomical observation and exact engineering, once a year at the winter solstice the rising sun shines directly along a long passage to illuminate the inner chamber of the mound for around 17 minutes. The death and rising to new life of the sun at the winter solstice – a common theme in many religions – is practically celebrated in a deeply impressive fashion. In the middle of winter, when the days are so short, the weather so hostile and survival until spring so uncertain, people have for thousands of years celebrated hope and endurance by making holiday, feasting and giving each other gifts.

It is, then, completely understandable that Christians decided to celebrate the birth of the god-man at this time. The themes and memes surrounding the birth of Christ are complementary with the older themes in the cultures into which Christianity spread in Europe and this kind of religious syncretism is something quite common.

What is less easy to accept against this background, are the arguments of Christians that “their” festival has been hijacked or secularised (I could mutter something about those without sin and casting first stones, but I think I have made my point). Even the occasional attacks on the term Xmas and the campaigns to “put Christ back into Christmas” are profoundly unhistorical, given that the “X” in Xmas is really the Greek letter “Chi”, the first letter in the word “Christos” and a conventionally accepted abbreviation of the same.

I can, moreover, even sympathise with Christian criticisms of the unbridled consumerism involved in much of the celebration of Christmas nowadays – though not because it specifically offends against Christian teaching (and I would also observe in passing that a large number of Christians both propagate and participate in this orgy of consumption) but because it is unnecessary and in bad taste in a world where resources are limited and so many millions have neither the means nor the opportunity to participate in such excessive and superfluous gluttony.

But, leaving the lunatic exaggeration and frenzy of consumerism aside, there’s something basically positive about the idea of celebrating, feasting and giving mutual gifts in the middle of the hardest and most uncertain season of the year. It is an affirmation of the power of the human spirit, of the hope and assurance that spring will come, a refusal to succumb to pessimism and despair, a statement of faith in the best in our humanity. Of course we should be generous and loving to each other all year round, but this does not preclude expressing this in a special way on particular occasions – and what occasion is better than the period when the days are shortest and the cold nights longest?

The background behind all this is that Christmas is a festival of the Northern Hemisphere. I won’t go into this in detail again, as I have already written about it here, I will only comment that perhaps if I lived in Australia or South Africa – definitely if I lived in Southern Patagonia or on the Falkland/Malvinas Islands! – I would be thinking about the potential sense of celebrating Christmas in June.

Still, even if the claim to exclusive rights over Christmas made by some Christians can be shown to be seriously overstated, the Christian story is central to the way our cultural understanding of Christmas has historically developed and cannot be simply redacted away without losing much of what makes this holiday so special. Even for those of us who are not (or no longer regard ourselves as) Christians, the Nativity story contains wonderful elements, memes and insights, which fit in very well with the other themes of the midwinter festival. The one which strikes me above all is that of the preciousness of the fragile and the weak; birth in danger and under threat in inhospitable circumstances, the beauty of a baby unrecognised, even persecuted by the powerful but acclaimed by ordinary common witnesses (the shepherds), the royalty, divinity even, present in the wonder and innocence of helpless new life, the recognition and acceptance of which can bring peace on earth. There is very rich, deep human symbolism here, even if you don’t believe in the Christian man-god incarnation (or in God at all, come to that) and it’s well worth meditating somewhat on it – if such is your inclination – or just letting it work on you … atmospherically, subconsciously.

And so I will have no truck with those who want to banish the word “Christmas” and the Christian story from the midwinter festival, even if I don’t regard myself as a Christian. Personally I love the story, its deep echoing symbolism and its profound drama, and the questions regarding its historicity or theological implications don’t worry me so much any more. I will put up and decorate a Christmas tree, give and receive presents and sing carols – being moved by the old standards like Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Silent Night – cook a turkey and rejoice in the presence of my loved ones. I would even be prepared to make a Christmas pudding, only that my sometimes-much-too-German daughters regard it as an inedible abomination! This year, unless there is a major sustained rise in temperature (which the weather experts say is unlikely), we’ll probably even have a White Christmas. And I will continue to entertain and rejoice in that oldest and most wonderful of all Christmas wishes, “peace on earth and good will to all men.”

Christmas Eve: You may be interested in my other post on Christmas!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The American Dream

“We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age's most uncertain hours
and sing an American tune
Oh, and it's alright, it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed”

(Paul Simon, American Tune)

My life has been equally divided between two countries, Ireland and Germany (with a two year interlude in Italy, like a hinge between the two), but there is a third land which has had almost as profound an influence on my life in myriad ways and which I feel I know almost as well as the other two, although I have never physically been there. I write, of course, of the United States of America – and this feeling of closeness, even intimacy with the USA is something I believe I share with hundreds of millions, even billions worldwide.

It is not my intent here to write a panegyric to the US – there are enough of these being produced, mostly by US citizens, a phenomenon which can be variously described as patriotism, or as an exemplification of the brash lack of humility which so often manifests itself as a characteristic of a very particular American form of hubris. (Though, to be fair, this sort of ignorant self-aggrandisement is not an exclusively American phenomenon.) Characteristic of this is the very designation “American,” which, strictly defined, describes all the inhabitants of North, Central and South America but has been unthinkingly and unquestioningly appropriated by the residents of one country. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly evilly and provocatively pc, I take a perverse pleasure in using the term US Americans, partly because it seems to annoy many of those so described. But more often than not I find myself also succumbing to the conventional usage and I will continue to do so in this post (crying pardon from Canadians, Mexicans, Brazilians, Nicaraguans, Argentineans and all the others who have just as much right to the epithet as the inhabitants of the US).

Neither, however, do I want to write an anti-American philippic, of which there are also more than enough extant, with greater or lesser justification. Such instinctive, knee-jerk anti-Americanism is characteristic of that class in which I would generally be categorised (educated, European, post-60s, left-leaning liberals) and I will cheerfully admit to having taken such positions frequently in the past. Indeed, I will probably be guilty of taking them again in the future, although I will also immediately qualify this statement with the observation that their provocation usually has very concrete causes. But, if I am honest, I will readily concede that such positions are myopic, one-dimensional and, in the end, produce only parodies.

It is an expression of the value of the idea and reality of the USA that it calls forth, enables and tolerates such reactions. It is, in fact, the inevitable shortfall between the ideals which the US espouse for themselves and the reality in which they are imperfectly lived out that gives rise to this whole critical engagement. If you give yourself values such as freedom, equality and opportunity and then fail to live up to them in practice, you’re going to be criticised. More, this criticism and the creation of an environment of tolerance and confidence within which free opinions can be expressed without fear are themselves a very part of those ideal values which are constantly being lived out practically.

Which is all fine for the enfranchised and (hopefully) empowered citizens of the republic in which they participate. But where, Americans may ask, do others, non-Americans, take the right to comment on what America does, to loudly express their opinions on US matters, even to try to engage in debates and influence outcomes?

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
(First Amendment to the US Constitution, 1791)
[Explicitly declared to apply to the internet by the Supreme Court in its judgement of 1997, Reno v. ACLU]

Freedom of speech is one of the primary values expressed in the new experiment for human societies initiated with the American revolution and particularly since 1945, when the USA became a (perhaps unwilling and unwanted but nevertheless undeniable) major global quasi-imperial power, this freedom of opinion, including opinion about America itself, has a global dimension, since what America is and what it does has very concrete implications for the world as a whole …

Ah shit, no, this won’t do at all! I can write a reasoned, informed, clever, analytic post about America and I will get about as close to the reality as a picture of a loaf of bread can satisfy a starving man. So …

A new experiment, a confused European dream of expansion and freedom and rights and room, some of whose prerequisites involved the depopulation of half a continent and the importation of hundreds of thousands of slaves from yet another one, concretising and defining and refining itself in a forge of ideals and revolution and wars (including a civil war), a chance to do it again; do it new and do it bigger and do it better …

Military and economic might, dominating the world with Marshall Aid and Pershing Missiles, with Coca Cola and aircraft-carriers, with General Motors and GIs, with McDonalds and Microsoft and Marines, with B52s and Levis jeans, with napalm and chewing gum …

A powerhouse of hard work and ingenuity and cultural creativity, astounding and appalling and seducing and swamping the world with its concerns and expressions, its legends and stories; from cowboys to Capone, from Scarlett O’Hara to Lady Gaga, from Emily Dickinson to Bart Simpson, from Kerouac to Prozac (and can you hear Alan Ginsberg Howl!?)

Jazz and Delta Blues, Swing and Country & Western, Rock n’ Roll and Hip-hop, the sounds of America define our global aural culture; Hollywood and American TV delineate our global dreams – John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Marilyn Monroe and Thelma and Louise, Meg Ryan faking an orgasm in When Harry Met Sally, Tarentino and The Matrix, Lassie and Flipper, I Love Lucy and Golden Girls, Get Smart and The A Team, Sex and the City and South Park

America’s heroes and superheroes and antiheroes, born of American experiences and fears and fantasies have long become global, Santa Claus and Superman, Bugs Bunny and Forrest Gump, Jessie James and Michael Jackson, Elvis and Oprah …

America’s world has become our world, our dreams been subsumed into the American Dream; Facebook has half a billion users and half the world seems to be twittering, American Idol has clones worldwide and the doings of Paris Hilton and Brangelina are more real to many than the shapes thrown by their own politicians.

Since the GIs stormed Omaha Beach, your wars have become our wars; we have watched Vietnam on TV and protested against it with you and gone through the heartrending reckoning with the wound you inflicted on yourself with it, through The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now and Oliver Stone’s attempts at cinematic self-therapy. We have seen the lessons your military people have learned from that and have consequently – with you – been witnesses of carefully stage-managed shock and awe …

And we watched with you, united in disbelief and horror nearly a decade ago now, as the planes hurtled into the Twin Towers and the towers fell, taking the last ragged traces of American innocence with them …

… inaugurating a new phase in the struggle for the American soul, a new discourse on the ever-changing meaning and interpretation of the American Dream; its value and relevance. For the 9/11 attacks were not simply a reaction to perceived injustice backed by and oppression committed by an overweening global superpower, imposing its systems and dominance on the world; but a blow against the Dream itself – a Dream seen as being invulnerably convinced of its own validity and superiority, and resented, more, hated as such.
In this, bin Laden and his sympathisers have had great success, for the invulnerability, the naïve security in the power of the righteousness and self-evidence of the Dream have been shaken.

Shaken but not destroyed – at least not yet. The idea that is America, the Dream that entices the world has been challenged and one part of the reaction to this challenge is to abandon aspects of the openness, the freedom at the heart of the Dream in order to defend it. So the debate becomes a matter of life and death, a fight for the soul of America, a discussion involving the whole world …

Well how dramatic! There you go again, Francis, analysing, producing rational constructions of momentous import. And what are they, really, if not just another expression of your own captivation with the American Dream? Investing everything with millennial meaning, seeing life as a Hollywood script, the good, the (somewhat) innocent threatened by forces of evil; existence and one’s very moral soul faced with challenges to be bravely surmounted in a drama of love and truth and glory, rising above one’s own limitations and weaknesses to struggle, to endure and, finally, to achieve the inevitable victory (usually with the help of a few faithful friends) – Luke Skywalker against Darth Vader!

It’s a dream we’ve all bought into, more or less, even – to an extent – those who oppose it, for they let their own positions be defined by that which they oppose. In the end, we all need dreams and hope is the strongest of all self-fulfilling prophesies.

And the good guys always triumph in the final reel …

There’s so much music I could have chosen for this, from Chuck Berry’s Born in the USA to Green Day’s American Idiot. In the end, I’ve chosen Paul Simon (and Garfunkel) as I did at the beginning of the post:

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Open Society and its Friends: WikiLeaks

“We must plan for freedom, and not only for security, if for no other reason than only freedom can make security more secure.”
(Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol 2, Ch 21)

This citation from Karl Popper’s seminal work defining the foundations of western societies (as we like to see them at any rate) sets the real context for the whole debate over WikiLeaks – a context which seems to have been forgotten by the many members of the political establishment worldwide who have loudly been expressing indignation at the actions of the website and those running it.

There is, of course, a difference between the high ideals and aspirations which are expressed in constitutions all over the world and the nasty cutthroat world of Realpolitik. It’s a jungle out there and principles alone won’t serve to protect you all that well. This is why states need armies and diplomats and all that other cool stuff.

But accepting this reality does not mean that principles, ideals and aspirations are not important, otherwise one ends with the Stalinist cynicism implied in his famous question about the number of brigades commanded by the pope. The basis of all modern societies, inspired by their first Enlightenment incarnations in the USA and France is that might is not right and that government is by the people of the people for the people.

One of the guarantors of these constitutional democratic principles is what is often called “the Fourth Estate,” a free press dedicated to the free dissemination of information which pertains to the public interest and comment thereon. Indeed, the very term “Fourth Estate” has itself its origins in the French Revolution. And this is what makes the issue of WikiLeaks so important.

What has WikiLeaks done which is so wrong? It has published documents which pertain to issues of the public interest, documents originating from (mostly US) government sources, sources in other words which draw all their legitimacy from the fact that they are elected by the people to act in their interests and to pay and oversee others to carry out particular tasks in the public interest and on its behalf. So basically, Wikileaks has been telling the public what the institutions of government have been doing in its name; a basic function of the free press and one which is necessary in any open society to act as a check against the abuse of power.

The arguments against WikiLeaks run along parallel tracks; firstly, the information they have published is confidential and therefore should not be reproduced in the public domain and, secondly, the publication of this information does actual harm – particularly to the USA and their interests as a state. I’ll address the second of these arguments first, as a reflection on it will lead logically to the first one.

In terms of some of the documents published about the war in Afghanistan there may be some cause to worry that the revelation of actual military tactical and strategic information may have endangered some on-going operations, and even the lives of specific individuals. Realising this weakness, and realising that their strength was in the obtaining and publishing of information and not in the evaluation and redacting of it, the WikiLeaks people changed their modus operandi significantly during the publication of the Afghanistan documents and before publishing the second major group of documents, those originating in the US State Department, and obtained the cooperation of The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel to advise them and vet the material prior to publication. If there was actually a problem here, it has been dealt with by adding an instance of professional journalistic oversight.

The further question arises as to the actual concrete harm done by the leaking of diplomatic documents, originating from government sources, with the purpose of publicising them to the people who elected that government, to whom that government is responsible and from whom it derives its legitimation. It is certainly uncomfortable for the State Department to have the honest, plain-talking, confidential reports of its employees around the world publicised for all to read. But the real fault here lies not with WikiLeaks, but with those who put such documents in such a domain that their privacy and confidentiality had already been destroyed. The State Department files which WikiLeaks published were potentially available to up to two million US government workers. As David Rothkopf cogently expressed it, “if a 22-year-old moon-faced army private with a blank Lady Gaga CD in his hand can download a mountain of classified documents and make them public, I wonder how many other slightly more sophisticated actors have been siphoning out more important secrets more discreetly over the past several years.” There can be very little doubt that all the relevant intelligence agencies of the countries (and their political bosses) where, apparently, so much damage was done by the leaking of the documents, whether Iran or Russia or China or any of the others, if they are not completely incompetent, have long been aware of the contents of the documents anyway.

Yes, there was some embarrassment and there will be more, as more documents are published, but the real “harm” done was the exposure of the irresponsible way security procedures were organised within the US government apparatus and the possible future lack of trust on the part of diplomatic employees of the US throughout the world following the realisation that every undiplomatic opinion they state, every honest report they write may be available for the whole world to read. Candour, I suspect, can only be expected – if at all – in handwritten notes on edible paper, sent in the diplomatic pouch.

The primary question anyway is that of the extent to which confidentiality is necessary or even desirable in the dealings and actions of government. I would argue that the right to such confidentiality is a reflection of the trust which the sovereign people can place in their elected governments, exercising power in their name. Apart from a plethora of other issues, the documents published by WikiLeaks are yet another proof that practically all of our governments have proved themselves unworthy of such trust. As John Naughton put it recently in The Guardian:

“What WikiLeaks is really exposing is the extent to which the western democratic system has been hollowed out. In the last decade its political elites have been shown to be incompetent (Ireland, the US and UK in not regulating banks); corrupt (all governments in relation to the arms trade); or recklessly militaristic (the US and UK in Iraq). And yet nowhere have they been called to account in any effective way. Instead they have obfuscated, lied or blustered their way through. And when, finally, the veil of secrecy is lifted, their reflex reaction is to kill the messenger.”

And they’re not even making the pretence of putting on kid gloves to do it. Pressure put on Amazon and other IT businesses to remove WikiLeaks from their servers, on PayPal/Ebay and Mastercard to block attempts from ordinary citizens to donate money, the whole sorry spectacle of the attempt to get Julian Assange to the USA via a sexual abuse charge in Sweden (the precise nature of which seems to be a matter of debate among various Swedish legal officers), there to be tried for treason – if Senator Joe Lieberman has his way – and possibly sentenced to death.

I’m not for a minute claiming here that Assange is a saint. If he has committed crimes of sexual abuse in Sweden then the allegations must be investigated and he should be charged and tried for them. But this is purely a matter for the Swedish police and prosecutors, independent of any political influence. And if the Swedes take the independence of their judicial system seriously, this must now preclude them extraditing him to the USA, where the utterances of Senator Lieberman may have ensured that there is little possibility of him getting a fair trial, should he be arraigned for anything. If treason (for a non-American!) is the charge, then he could even expect the death penalty – reason enough for Sweden to refuse to extradite him!

Listening to Senator Lieberman, I feel very worried. There are two possibilities and both are frightening; either the senator really believes what he is saying, in which case he exhibits a stupidity and dangerous naivety frightening in a public representative of so many years experience, or he is indulging in a cynical, vicious, small-minded, vindictive witch-hunt. And to think that this man came within a few hanging chads of Dick Cheney’s job – truly, in retrospect, America in 2000 had the choice between typhus and cholera!

We are now in the tenth year since the attack on the Twin Towers. Watching the WikiLeaks spectacle unfold, I tend to think that the terrorists have achieved more than they dared to dream. Through the reactions of fear, siege-mentality and the dangerous indulged temptation to flail out blindly at almost any (rightly or wrongly) perceived threat, they have managed to strike a deep blow at the basic values underpinning western society; values like openness, accountability, the rule of law and due process, faith and trust in the power of integrity to face down fanaticism and terror. The political leadership in the USA has reacted precisely the way Osama bin Laden hoped and they are too stupid to realise it or too cynical to care.

In a better, more honest society, WikiLeaks would not be necessary. As it is, these people are vital and, thanks to the nature of the internet, they and many like them will be almost impossible to subdue. Unless, of course, the politicians are prepared to wage open war on the internet itself. There are signs that moves are afoot in this direction, but here, I hope and believe, the citizens will finally tell them they’ve gone too far. Moreover, given that large sections of the press, the conventional Fourth Estate, is under the private control of a few immensely rich individuals, with their own political agendas, we can indeed be thankful that the largely non-regulated, non-centralised internet provides both a platform and means for the publication and dissemination of the activities of our governments acting in our names. Or, as is promised in future leaks, the corrupt dealings of some of those financial institutions who have been given billions in public funding following the recent financial crisis, for which they themselves are largely responsible.

I’ll finish this as I started, with a reference to Karl Popper. In The Open Society he quotes with approval a comment from Kant: “Kant remarked once in a very different spirit that the sentence 'Truthfulness is the best policy' might indeed be questionable, whilst the sentence 'Truthfulness is better than policy' is beyond dispute.” It is because the political classes have lost any respect for the value of truthfulness that the work of groups like WikiLeaks is so important. Our leaders and representatives really only need one thing to make the whistle-blowers superfluous. It’s called integrity.

Friday, 3 December 2010

The Tale of the Swallow

Looking back over recent posts, it struck me that this blog has become awfully serious lately. In an attempt to redress this, here’s a little story I heard many years ago.

Once upon a time there was a young swallow whose name was Hiro. Hiro had been born the previous year in summer and when autumn came, with all his friends and relatives, he had made the long journey south to Egypt to spend the winter in a little village above the Second Cataract on the Nile, returning to Europe when spring came and it began to really get too hot there.

Hiro had a wonderful spring and summer. Shortly after arriving he had fallen in love with a pretty young swallow girl called Delle, and together they had built a mud nest under the eves of an old barn. There Delle had laid her eggs and soon there was a lively batch of sparrow-chicks to be looked after, protected and fed and taught to fly. This was a job in which Hiro really came into his own, as he loved flying and was very good at it. He taught his children how to swoop gracefully to catch an insect on the wing and how to be sure to fly low when they felt that rain was coming. He showed them the best places to catch dragonflies at the nearby stream and even introduced them to his friend, the old trout, who lived in a deep pool under an overhanging willow.

Autumn came, the golden harvest was gathered in and as the days grew shorter, the swallow colony became restless. First singly, then in groups, the birds made a final swoop around the eves of the barn and took off to the south for the winter. Finally Delle spoke to Hiro,

“Darling, we really should be going. The children have to be shown the way and my feeling tells me it’s going to get really cold soon.”

Hiro felt very reluctant. “I know, but the autumn colours are really beautiful and besides, it’s not really cold yet …”

Delle became insistent but Hiro remained reluctant. Life around the old barn was just too beautiful to leave. In the end, he told Delle that she should leave with the children; he for his part would spend the winter in Europe and meet them again in spring.

“After all, the sparrows and the robins get along all right,” he argued. “I don’t think it’s half as difficult as everyone says.”

Delle realised that there was no chance of persuading him to go so, with a heavy heart, she set off for Egypt with the children. But, before she left, she made him promise that if it did become too cold he would follow them.

As she winged her way south, she hoped worriedly that he would have enough sense to act on that promise. “The crazy fool,” she thought. “He’ll probably turn up two weeks after us … I hope!”

That year there was a long Indian Summer and Hiro felt quite content for a while. If the number of insects was getting smaller, there were less swallows to compete with and so there was still plenty for him to eat. But Indian Summers, even long ones, come to an end, and one night a strong wind blew up from the north-west, carrying clouds of stinging rain with it.

Hiro huddled miserably in the lonely mud nest under the barn roof for most of the day and at dusk flew through the rain to the stream to consult with his friend, the old trout.

“It’s no use, Hiro,” said the trout, coming to the surface to snap at a fly. “I can smell winter coming and I wouldn’t wonder if there’ll be snow before too long. Winter is no place here for swallows. Even most of the flies disappear, and I’ll have to live mostly from my fat for the next few months. I only get by by doing as little as possible and for a flyer like you, that’s not an option.”

Hiro reluctantly realised that the trout was right. Thanking him and making his farewell, he resolved to be on his way the next day.

Very early in the morning, he swooped around the barn one last time and began his journey south. The rain had stopped and the sky had cleared during the night, but it had become bitterly cold, colder than Hiro had ever experienced before in his whole life. As he tried to make his way forward, his wings seemed to grow heavier and heavier and every beat became harder and harder. He couldn’t seem to get enough air any more and a great lassitude overcame him. He glided ever lower until he no longer had the strength to beat his wings any more and fell the last few feet onto a half frozen field where he lay exhausted, more dead than alive.

A cow came by, pulling industriously at the last shoots of grass. Her shadow moved over him and then she did as cows frequently do, lifting her tail slightly and letting a thick, liquidy cowpat fall, right over the poor hypothermic swallow, lying unnoticed on the ground.

Now, being covered in cowshit is not the most pleasant experience in the world, but the dung had one very positive quality; it was warm. The warmth thawed Hiro out and, realising that he was not going to die after all, he stuck his head out of the cowpat and began to twitter[i] in gratitude for the fact that he was alive. The cow, as cows will, took no notice of him and went on grazing.

Not so a passing cat. Hearing the twittering, she came to investigate. Discovering Hiro, she pulled him out of the cowshit and, holding him firmly with one paw, cleaned him carefully off.

And then she ate him.

* * * * * * *

There are three morals to this story.

Not everyone who shits on you is your enemy.

Not everyone who gets you out of the shit is your friend.

And … if you feel warm and happy up to your neck in the shit, don’t shout it out loud. In particular, whatever you do, don’t twitter it!

[i] I’m not making this up. According to Wikipedia, swallows officially twitter!:


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