Tag Archives: politics

The Weight of History

 

in the distance you can see the chimneys that are all that remains of barrack upon barrack.
The beautiful weather added a surreal edge to the experience.
 
Auschwitz exerts a gravity of its own. You can travel to Kraków without visiting it, but you’ll remain aware of it, the many signs advertising tours tugging at you, reminding you of the black hole of history, lurking just beyond the horizon.

A friend of mine told me, when I mentioned that I intended to visit the concentration camp, that they couldn’t bear to do so. I can understand that. I’m not the most sensitive person, but even I can’t help but feel unease at the incomprehensible nature of what happened there. Still, I wanted to go, to be part of the effort to remember and not forget, and so I did.

(Apologies is some of the below is upsetting.)

That the visit was on the warmest, sunniest day I’d experienced in years was somewhat incongruous. In fact, the whole start of the tour, around the original Auschwitz I camp, felt a little off at first. To sanitised, too carefully restored and preserved, too occupied by tour groups. I was beginning to wonder if I was missing something. Then we reached the room full of human hair.

In one of the restored barracks buildings, fully half of a long room was taken up by a mass of human hair, taken from the scalps of the dead, with traces of Zyklon B still detectable when the Soviets liberated the camp. In further rooms were the dead’s belongings: eyeglasses, coats, suitcases with names written on them, shoes, children’s shoes. As much as anything else, the weight of these objects lay in the fact that they were the only remaining scraps of evidence that the Nazis hadn’t gotten around to destroying or using

We had been meant to see these first – a long queue meant that our guide took us around those more sanitised buildings first. Like some of the concentration camp victims, I was lulled into a false sense of security, feeling that seventy years since the camp was liberated had deprived it of its power to shock. Preserved behind glass though it may be, it still reaches out.

A mile or two down the road from Auschwitz I is Auchwitz-Birkenau. Dreadful as it was, Auschwitz I was in effect a trial run – Auschwitz-Birkenau is an order of magnitude larger and was the place that the Nazis applied industrialised methods and an inhuman level of detachment to their “final solution.” Here, though they tried to burn and demolish the traces of what they’d done, can still be seen the ruins of the crematoria and the shells of the barracks that housed the dying and the doomed.

Auschwitz I retains the indelible image of all that the Nazis took from their victims. Auschwitz-Birkenau demonstrates the scale to which they brought that collective sin. Moreover, it’s the decaying nature of Auschwitz-Birkenau that lends a final reminder of reality: this is not a preserved exhibit in a museum. This is a place where more than a million people were murdered. It needs to be remembered and I’m glad I visited, though that visit will stay with me.

If there was one thing that I missed, it was some sense of why this happened. Auschwitz preserved the “how,” but it makes less effort at showing how a nation can slide so irrevocably into horror. How centuries of looking down on Jews and other “others” curdled into contempt and hatred. How political leaders could take that hatred and bind it to a “solution” that led step by step to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

At a time when Europe and the U.S. are convulsed with fear of immigrants, and when our politicians are advocating ever more draconian measures to deal with this problem, we need to remember where that path leads. We already have them in camps, after all. We are hearing calls for them to work for their keep, to earn the right to live among their betters. It’s a reasonable proposal, isn’t it? It always is, at the start.

Advertisements

Closing Down Dissent. Or Satire. Or Anything, Really…

I'm not really trying here, am I?
Shakespeare says NO! (via Wikipedia)

Ah, the joys of following the Northern Ireland news. Every so often, you get served up the kind of insanity that only the combination of parochial religious zealotry and a genuine 17th-century mindset can provide.

This week, it seems that the DUP councillors in Newtownabbey, evidently nostalgic for the days of the Life of Brian controversy, elected to force a shutdown of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), just a week before performance time. Because, hey, there’s nothing more important going on in Northern Ireland than a slapstick play that might put a few religious noses out of joint.

Let’s just clarify here: this is the Reduced Shakespeare Company that has been in existence for three decades and has been a fixture on the London theatre scene for much of that time. This is a show that has been around for nearly 20 years, winning awards, being performed around the world in numerous languages. And this is the DUP councillors standing up en masse and doing their best to bully the local arts board into shutting it down without a vote.

It would be funny if it weren’t so predictable. The combination of political power with the certainty of religious faith brings tends to results in the shutdown of dissenting points of view. Underdog sects and religions can favour freedom of conscience, but history shows that when the boot’s on the other foot, attitudes change. After all, when you’re in possession of the ultimate truth, isn’t it a public good if that’s the only truth that’s going to get promoted?

The trend towards secular government is one that took a long time to hit Ireland, and arguably it still hasn’t hit the North. Everywhere else, there has been pushback, in the form of Texas creationists altering school textbooks, Islamist efforts to marginalise secular Turkish youth, or a UKIP councillor linking gay marriage to recent floods. In Northern Ireland, the linkage between religion and the sectarian divide and the fact that parties from either extreme hold the whip hand means that it’s not so much pushback as an effort to hold onto power (something the Unionists have been doing for decades).

There’s no indication that anyone involved in cancelling the play had actually seen it, or had any interest in seeing it. Whether their chief interest was in “defending Christian values”, grandstanding for a few more votes or simply throwing their weight around, they both overstepped the mark in terms of their electoral mandate and completely undershot in terms of doing something of benefit for the people of Newtownabbey.

A Barricade of Bunting

20130113-142324.jpg
Hidden in the dazzle, the early evening protestors and their bunting.

In the end, it was a simple matter of stepping over a thin line of bunting stretched across the road. And then, later, walking through a line of mostly youngish men, hooded and masked. No one commented, or even looked my way. Even so, I felt my stomach knotting.

Why? There was no violence there, early on a wet night in Belfast, or later. (Though things did get hairy elsewhere and the next day.) The flag protests that have rolled across Northern Ireland for the past few weeks have been amply covered in the media, but this was my first direct contact with them. In place of brick and bottle throwing defiance, there was a slightly sullen matter-of-factness about the whole affair. Civil disobedience already turned into habit.

I’m not going to go into the justifications for the protests, which have already been covered elsewhere, except to note that few commentators on either side of the divide have dared to come out in support of violence as a response to putting a flag in a drawer as opposed to on a pole for most of the year. Unfortunately, both sides of the community in Northern Ireland are in the habit of launching the sort of street protest that inevitably leads to stone-throwing and worse. For the young and the hopeless, it’s better than dealing with the everyday grind.

So if I wasn’t facing violence, what was it that caused my stomach to curl in on itself? Some of it, perhaps, was a reminder of what I’d left behind. I’ve been in Dublin for a long time, and even when I lived in Northern Ireland it was in a relatively peaceful corner, where the Troubles mostly came in the form of daily news reports. In the North, old grievances run deep, and fears run along with them. Fear of the Other and what they might do if unchecked.

So the protests were a response to the apparent nationalist victory at getting the Union Jack taken off Belfast City Hall most days of the year. An effort by the loyalist community to throw their weight around, to prove to the police, nationalists and anyone watching that they could do so if they wanted. Swaggering is one word. Intimidation is another.

And it was that intimidation that my stomach was responding to. I’m not a violent person, and my first response to conflict is usually to avoid it. But when gangs decide to block passage along the Ormeau Road, as others did elsewhere that night, avoidance is no longer an option. Meekness works instead, avoiding eye contact and just passing by, hoping that the self-appointed big dogs have bigger fish to fry.

And where was I going that night? To Ravenhill, where an Ulster rugby team that has garnered the support of both sides of the community slogged their way to another victory in the rain. Among the flags there were plenty of Northern Ireland and Ulster banners, the best of which featured the Red Hand grasping a pint of Guinness. But no Union Jacks and no tricolours. We should all be so lucky.

Returning for the Endgame

20111028-212856.jpg
Any resemblance to Michael D. Higgins in terms of baldness or stature are entirely coincidental but hopefully amusing.

Around the time I was setting off on my round-the-world jaunt, the race for the Irish presidency had yet to kick into high gear. David Norris’s candidacy had sparked some life into the proceedings, but all the drama was revolving around his campaign and his past statements. Well, while I was gone, the drama levels hit the roof and the media wailed about negative campaigning while happily enabling it.

Until Mary Robinson took the ball and ran with it, the presidency was mostly viewed as a meaningless sinecure, but it has since become a more visible post, in which the occupant is expected to represent Ireland both at home and abroad. As the first count draws to a close, the winner seems likely to be the veteran Labour politician Michael D. Higgins, who remained more or less aloof from a vicious fray.

With the caveat that I’ve been aware of the race in the last few months only in a distant, Internet-enabled way, here’s how it seemed to turn out for the various candidates, ranked by their current standing in the polls.

Mary Davis: When she entered the race, there were more than a few references to a third Mary in a row holding the presidency. While she came across as fairly competent and seemed to suit the independent, anti-party mood, Mary Davis never really stood out, and to finish last behind Dana will hurt a lot.

Dana Rosemary Scallon: She’s done this before, back in 1997, but she still seemed to be running the same 14-year-old campaign this time around. And Ireland is not the same place it was 14 years ago. Weird outbursts about media harassment and veiled claims of vehicular sabotage probably didn’t convince anyone who wasn’t already on her side.

David Norris: The early front-runner in the race, it was his entry that sparked the whole thing into life, generating excitement among many and anger among more than a few. The Daily Mail in particular laid into Norris with great glee, digging up some questionable comments and actions, but as with another candidate, Norris sabotaged himself with his inability to cope with the pressure in a “presidential” manner. It will be a great day when Ireland elects a president regardless of their sexual orientation, but Norris won’t be that president, at least this time around.

Gay Mitchell: The government’s candidate never seemed too enthused with the notion of being president, and the apathy of the rest of the country matched that. It was Fianna Fáil that was kicked out of office earlier in the year, but Fine Gael is the other half of the duopoly that’s run Ireland for most of its independent history, and such is the distrust of politics as usual that being the government candidate was as much a hindrance as a help.

Martin McGuinness: If Norris’s entry kicked the race into life, the entry of Martin McGuinness took it to another level. The most visible and divisive political figure among the candidates, he also generated plenty of excitement and plenty of anger. The question is whether he actually expected to win and take up a post that offers mostly symbolic power instead of his current position as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. As it is, he’s done Sinn Fein’s cause no harm, performed well enough to avoid negative comments, and played a key role in deciding the outcome of the race to boot. Speaking of which…

Seán Gallagher: The man who almost won it, until Sinn Fein took him off at the knees. A businessman and a television celebrity, he played the independent card hard and won a lot of support on that basis until it came to light that he was a lot deeper in the old Fianna Fáil culture than he claimed to be. He might even have survived that had he been able to deal with the pressure better than he did. As it was, he dodged, dissembled and complained, handing victory to the one competitor who maintained a statesmanlike demeanour throughout the whole thing.

Michael D. Higgins: Old age and guile will defeat youth and energy. Michael D. Higgins may lack stature and look older than his 70 years, but he has experience to burn and a long and varied career in politics and public service on which to base his claim for the presidency. The rise of Seán Gallagher as the alternative candidate almost overthrew him, but with the help of Sinn Fein and ultimately of Gallagher himself, he sailed over the finishing line well in front.

Focus and Inspiration

20111028-002915.jpg
Iron and Weeds

I’m counting down the hours to my return at the moment.* One last long transit will take me back to Ireland, via Heathrow. Hopefully the place will have dried out a bit by the time I get there. Should I be worried about my ground floor apartment?

I’ve been in New York for the last few days, stomping out familiar territory as I prepare to return. Although I’ve been here several times in the past, this time around I’ve tried to concentrate on doing things that I’ve never done before. Some are a little obvious, such as going to the top of the Empire State Building. Some are reminders of home, such as cosy pints in the Gingerman Pub. And some are things that I wasn’t even aware of last time I was here, such as walking the High Line.

An elevated railway converted to a linear wildflower garden that offers a unique vantage point over southwestern Manhattan, the High Line is an example of a community project that took a crumbling eyesore and turned it into something that’s not only an asset to the local communities but also a tourist attraction, luring in people who might not otherwise be inclined to visit these parts of New York. I first read about it in a National Geographic article, and that was enough to make me determined to see it and to walk it as I passed through the city.

The High Line is an example of community activism that has had a positive outcome far beyond what the threatened demolition of the line would have provided. Up in the air for the moment is the outcome of a rather more well known outburst of activism: the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’ve been coming across the offshoots of this movement as I’ve passed through the U.S., and I’ve been hearing about its spread across the wider world, but even here in New York it’s hard to say exactly what it’s achieved, or will achieve, beyond attracting attention to itself and drawing the occasional incident of police brutality.

There are a lot of theories in the media about the Occupy Wall Street movement at the moment. Many of them tend to focus on the fact that beyond protesting about the state of things, there’s little sense among the activists of a clear view of what needs to be done. It’s a fair criticism, but also inevitable: this isn’t a protest about something as simple as ending a war or preventing job losses. Ultimately, it’s about changing the way a small but very influential sector of our society works, and societal engineering is a difficult thing to plan, let alone to carry out.

I’ll be interested to see what comes of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Any number of commentators will tell you that something needs to be done if our notions of liberty and justice in society are going to be preserved in the face of an unbalanced distribution of wealth and influence, especially when those with all the money and the weight to throw around are fighting to retain what they have and perhaps gather more as the system creaks beneath them.

Occupy Wall Street may not have the answers. They’re unlikely to ever have as much focus as those who created the High Line. But they are at least asking questions and drawing attention to the need for someone in a position of power to take a longer-term view of where we’re heading. If nothing else, what they’ve done so far has reminded those with a knowledge of history that inequality tends to lead inexorably to unrest and revolution if not dealt with in a serious manner.

*Well, I was when I started this. I’m safely home now, and this is being posted late due to the habit of JFK and Heathrow airports of not avoiding gouging their customers for Internet access if they can possibly avoid it.

Catching Up

There's reality, and then there's "reality".Explanation to follow.

Time for me to do a bit of housecleaning. I’m in Nara, Japan, at the moment, having spent most of the last three days on my feet from dawn to dusk (it being slightly after dusk here at the moment), making the most of simply being in Japan and exploring the temples, forests and back streets of Kyoto, Uji and Nara. However, with Tokyo looming and the possibility that I might not have much time for, well, anything in the near future, I’m taking an hour or two out to put certain things in order. The first thing being my photos, which are rapidly becoming a massive, unedited collection, relatively useless until I sort through them.

The second thing being my monthly reviews, which are, oh, just a little bit delayed at present. So, without further ado, and compressed into a single post, here’s August’s reviews.

Cinema Reviews

Fright Night: A glossy 3D remake of a 1980s teen horror film, this skimps on the subtlety and heads straight for the gore, with gushes of blood and large pointy things regularly heading out of the screen and towards the audience. The cast throw themselves into the spirit of the thing, especially David Tennant as a sleazy Vegas magician and Colin Farrell as the even sleazier predatory vampire neighbour. It’s paper-thin, lacking any reason to exist other than to entertain, and on that level it serves pretty well – but only see it in 3D if you like having things pointed at you, as the rest of the film is too murky otherwise.

Drive: Nicholas Winding Refn delivers a detached and dream-like film, saturated in ’80s style, portraying a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman, seeking to live a normal life even as he deals with monsters. Ryan Gosling is almost mute in the role of the unnamed driver, who only reveals who he is when trapped by an attempt to do the right thing that goes terribly wrong. At times the long pauses and silences can seem pretentious, but there is substance under all the style and some fine performances from a notable cast.

Conan: Okay, I’ll admit that I saw this in Russian, without subtitles, and may have missed out on some subtleties of plot and character, but then Conan has never been a character who’s traded in subtlety. For all the extra gore, dirt, nudity and CGI, this isn’t too far away from the Arnie original, and its design work does a good job of portraying a world of terrible antiquity, even though the whole thing does tip over into cheesiness every so often. Jason Momoa offers an imposing physical presence in the lead role, even though he’s more pantherish compared to Arnie’s beefcake, but it’s questionable whether he or the film have made the character unique enough to earn a second run at a cinematic outing.

Book Reviews

Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins: The “Hunger Games” trilogy comes to an end with a war waged as much through public relations as violence, but one that is no less shattering for its participants for all that. Collins does not stint in depicting the brutal impact, both physical and mental, of being at the centre of this conflict on her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, as she learns the difference between those who wage war because they have to and those who wage war because it is expedient. Genuinely heartwrenching at times, it refuses to offer easy answers, and even its potentially cliched love triangle is played out in a believable and affecting manner.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Theroux: Replicating a journey he took three decades earlier, the author travels around Asia, revisiting old haunts as a curmudgeonly ghost, alternately enthralled and appalled at the changes and the things that have remained the same. Leavening his sometimes dyspeptic gaze is the fact that he’s willing to fall in love with a scene or a face at a moment’s notice. Ultimately, this is a book about travel, not tourism, and it’s far from being a guidebook of any kind, but it will be hard for anyone to read it and not wish to follow at least part of the way in the author’s footsteps.

The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood: Not so much a sequel to Oryx and Crake as a companion piece to it, telling of the end of humanity from a new perspective, this is the story of those whom that apocalypse was inflicted upon, even as they dealt with their own crumbling lives. Atwood takes a light touch in dealing with the eco-cult who dominate the structure of the book, leaving the reader uncertain as to exactly who is being laughed at, with the inevitable answer being everyone, at one time or another. Dark where it needs to be, humorous where it can be and human everywhere, this doesn’t have the impact of its predecessor, but apart from its overuse of coincidence, it’s a fine addition to the story.

Carter Beats the Devil, Glen David Gold: The jazz-age era of stage magicians is evoked with well-researched detail in this twisty thriller, focusing on the career of “Carter the Great” and its links to the foremost developments of the age. Carter is a suitably complex character for this well-crafted story, and although his personal issues are intertwined with the greater developments in the plot and the world at large, he always remains on the right side of self-indulgence. There’s plenty of detail for the reader to get their teeth into, but ultimately this is a satisfyingly straightforward tale of revenge, lost love and secrets.

In all likelihood, there will be very few September reviews. I’ve seen no movies and read only two books, but at least I have an excuse. I’ll make up for it when I get the chance.

Oh, and the third thing, related to that picture above? Martin McGuinness’s plans to run for president of Ireland, which is a news story that broke while I was somewhere in Russia, I think. Now, my viewpoint on Sinn Fein is somewhat biased by the fact that they aided and abetted a bunch of murderous bastards who kept the population of Northern Ireland (all of them, not just half of them) terrorised for three decades. If he’s willing to work to undo some of what Sinn Fein caused over the years, fair enough. But until and unless the party as a whole and he in particular can accept responsibility for what they did, I have no interest in seeing him become the personal representative of the nation that I’ve made my home in for half my life, and which is more than willing to claim me as a citizen.

All right, rant over. Japan is great in many, many ways, some of which I’ll be sharing soon, I hope. Heading to Tokyo tomorrow for yet more adventures, and then the grand tour of the U.S. to wrap it up. It’s been a long, strange trip already, and I’m only about halfway through.