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Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Amy Winehouse, Norway and Somalia


Every day, worldwide, around 200,000 people die. Last weekend, hundreds of these were in Somalia and Ethiopia, or in the camps in northern Kenya where more and more starving refugees are turning up, looking for food. It’s been noticed and reported on by the world media, but it’s not up there in the headlines with the Greek bailout or the American budget crisis.

76 people died in Norway on Friday, killed by Anders Brehving Breivik. The bombing and shooting carried out by one right-wing fanatic dominated the world headlines.

Until Saturday, when the death of Amy Winehouse, a twenty-seven year old singer, addicted to alcohol and other drugs, took the top place in many newspapers and TV news reports.

The death of one person is experienced as a tragedy. The sudden, violent death of many is seen as a catastrophe. The deaths of thousands are perceived as a statistic, part of the way of the world.

Yet there are other differences between the deaths of Amy Winehouse and the massacre in Oslo and Utøya on the one hand, and the daily dying going on in East Africa on the other.

In the first place, there was little anyone could do to avoid the first two. Amy Winehouse was a tragic addict and addiction, particularly the polytoximanic form with which she was afflicted, is generally fatal unless the sufferer him or herself finally faces the consequences and takes that first necessary step – the admittance of one’s own powerlessness and the sincere decision to seek and accept help. Amy, unfortunately hadn’t reached that point before her body – in common with others such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin or Brian Jones, at the age of 27 – finally gave up under the strain of diverse poisons.

Anders Breivik, according to all the accounts up to now, seems to have been a solitary psychopath. While there has been, and will be, all kinds of speculation about what could have been done to realise how close this particular psychopath was to finally unleashing his particular version of horror on society, it remains a sad fact of life that a free society will always remain marginally vulnerable to such risks – as was the case with Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996, or with Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Difficult though it may be for us to accept, the very freedom which we regard as a fundament of our society gives rise to the space in which such perverted personalities can find room to develop and plan their atrocities. Most of them are, thankfully, too stupid or too obviously weird to allow them to carry through their planning and execution before they are discovered and stopped, but we will probably never be able to protect ourselves completely from the cleverest and luckiest of them; not without abandoning our basic principles of freedom and decency in favour of totalitarian state control (even if it worked, which it doesn’t).

The famine in Somalia (and, to a lesser extent, in Ethiopia and Kenya), in contrast, has been a tragedy which is twenty years in the making and which many of those familiar with the area have been foretelling for years. There has been no effective government in the country since 1991. The current crisis is the result of a combination of failing rains (something which frequently occurs in this region), the longer-term consequences of overgrazing and deforestation by subsistence farmers who have had no other choice it they wish to survive from day to day and political failure and corruption, ideological idiocy and a series of supremely hypocritical and morally bankrupt policies followed by all the local, regional and global powers who have ever been involved with the place – from the local Islamicist criminals controlling large areas of the country to the various world powers whose only basic interest is the protection of their shipping interests through naval patrols from desperate pirates operating from this wreck of a former country.

In the West, we bear a large part of the responsibility for what is happening in Somalia now. Our interests in getting fuel from the Persian Gulf and cars and consumer electronics from Asia securely to our markets mean that we are prepared to send warships to the Indian Ocean before the Somali coast without ever asking why desperate men decide to attack cargo ships in the first place. Because their country has been wrecked by colonialism and post-colonialism and, following the end of the proxy wars carried out worldwide between the US and Soviet Empires up to the end of the 80s, been left in chaos as easy booty for gangs, criminals and religious fanatics. If your whole society is controlled by criminals and offers you no security for yourself and your family, what should dissuade you from being criminal yourself, if that’s the only way to survive? The west is responsible at other levels too. The cost of food has been rising steeply for the past couple of years, partly because we have been prepared to pay more for renewable fuels to feed our greed for energy and thus encouraged farmers to grow cash crops for fuel rather than food. And this is only the tip of a rotten iceberg which also includes monoculture, agri-combines, gene patenting, subventions, big business, a hunger for ever more meat rather than vegetables and grains, etc. The wonderful results of a markets-driven global economy which leaves the poorest unable to afford to pay the current market price for subsistence food, even if it were available where it was needed.

It has happened before and we were warned that it would happen again if there weren’t substantial changes in the way we do things. And, like in 1985 with Live Aid and all the other reactions that time to the famine in Ethiopia, we will see reports of starving children on TV and will donate to the various NGOs and semi-official agencies, from the Red Cross and Crescent, to the FAO, to Médecins Sans Frontières. And some of that help will actually get to those who need it, despite administrative costs, and bungling, and corruption, and politics, and robbery. And next year or the year after the rains will come again and Somalia will fade once more from our public collective consciousness – until the next time.

The aftermath of the death of Amy Winehouse and the massacres in Norway may even bring positive results. If Amy’s death focuses more attention on the plight of addicts and some serious public discussion of the diseases of alcohol and substance addiction, then that will do some good. Norwegian public society has already spontaneously reacted to Breivik’s madness by spontaneously reiterating its commitment to the values of a liberal, humanistic, democratic society. The very horror evoked by the massacre – and the dangerous, crazy ideas which provoked it – will hopefully cause many in Western Europe to look again at their flirtation with the simplistic exclusivist racist pseudo-solutions offered by right-wing populists whose following has been increasing in the past decade. To realise that their societies have become irrevocably multicultural in the past quarter of a century and to see the future in dialogue and integration rather than exclusion and discrimination. To once more assert and affirm their commitment to pluralism and tolerance – and, in this context, to challenge sub-cultures (like the various Islamic-ethnic ones throughout Europe) to affirm their commitment to these values as well, without demanding that they give up their identities.

But I see little hope for any real change as a result of the calamity emerging in the Horn of Africa. Thousands will die, many more will suffer, some will be saved as a result of aid. But, unless we start to look at the way we run our world (or allow it to be run for us) on a much deeper level, it will happen again and again.

Globalisation has become an accepted fact in the past twenty years. But it means more than just being able to buy a cheap TV or smartphone, assembled from parts bought all over the world on the other side of the globe, being able to buy flowers cut yesterday in Kenya or eat strawberries in January. It also means that we are all interconnected, in all sorts of ways, with everybody else. And that means that we too are, at some level, responsible for the fact that those children are starving in Somalia. And that won’t change unless we realise that responsibility and do something about it.

Like demanding of our politicians and public representatives that they apply the principles they so often praise in our own societies to our international doings world-wide. Like looking at the values which really drive us as opposed to those which we profess. Like accepting – individually and communally – that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions and our inactions.

I’m not all that very hopeful.


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