Saturday, November 15, 2008

At Home and Contemplating the Enemy.

Ok some music to set the mood. For me to write and whoever is reading this to read (even if it is just me in 20 years time!) I am back in a country with fast enough internet connections to let me listen to and watch my youtube playlist. Youtube is a great source for music; live performances, different versions, occasionally some thoughtful comments. Two of my absolute favourites are a great version of "Something for the Ladies" by FotC and the amazing Janis Joplin in "Piece of my Heart". Most relevant for what I am going to write about though is this masterpiece by Bob Dylan, trying listening to it while reading this for extra effect.

I finally arrived home early this morning (Penny remains in Darwin where she is currently visiting Lichfield National Park "the place you can swim without been eaten by a croc"). Mum was at the airport to meet me, a familiar face finally after five flights! We stayed with my grandparents and then drove up to Arthurs Pass today after scoping around Christchurch for some of my things. Mum and Dad moved to Arthurs Pass while we have been away returning full circle to where they met over 30 years ago. It was a gorgeous day in the car, clear blue sky and patches of quickly melting snow high on the ridges. Outside the wind was rollicking, gresh and freen from well watered slopes and pastures. Mum and Dad have joined the community predator trapping programme. Dad and I walked their part of the line this afternoon, testing traps, putting new eggs in and securing the boxes. No stoats but I guess thats a good thing! Great to come home to such a paradise, a good place to contemplate the enemy.

I tried to understand the credit crisis, the challenges facing the new New Zealand government and what on earth Obama is going to do. I tired of it and stumbled over a gem. I linked through from the pretentious but worthwhile to this piece discussing a speech by Leonard Bernstein 20 years ago. To qualify things I know next to nothing about Bernstein. I associate his name with music, but I wouldn't know what sort or when. I learned from this article that he was Jewish, a pacifist and obviously quite a character. The rough synopsis is this; an aging Bernstein arrives late, bedraggled and tired from travel, but with an idea to share. An idea that has been stalking him, and growing on him during his travels. Bernstein has been encountering fear, “the enemy”. The enemy that collects our prejudice. The enemy that compels us to define and divide people. As President Bush might say "you are either with us or against us". Bernstein discovers fear as he travels through Europe with the Israel Philharmonic. Europe is tense after terror attacks in Paris. Fear rides with their security guards and Bernstein percieves the nature of this shadow. A metaphorical enemy without which they could not exist. It is the same enemy, Bernstein observes that “Jesus aimed at all his life, and Buddha too, and Freud; and Gandhi and Martin Luther King: trying to make this invisible creature unnecessary. Love thy neighbor as thyself. Turn that other cheek. "

This insight stunned me. I have been searching for a coherent understanding of four books read recently and think maybe this works. Maybe these books can be understood as a whole in the context of the pervasiveness and self-fulling nature of fear. I clumsily try and make this point below.

Voltaires Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West: John Ralston Saul I didn't get all the way through this book it turns to dross in the middle as well described by Pat Duffy Hutcheon. (I wonder if this is Puff Daddys serious pseudonym, sort of like Alistair McLean used to publish as Ian MacAlistair.) However it starts interestingly enough. After the dark ages where monarchs and monks ruled we had this enlightened period where we broke the shackles of these despots and created all kinds of beautiful things like democracy and scientific thought. We did this by not believing anything except what we saw with our own two eyes, or what people could explain to us using logic and concrete proof (a reasonable manner). This was good, except for the fact that the whole process was open to abuse by people that manipulate language and therefore reason for their own ends. As explained by Wikipedia the process led to,

"deformations of thought such as ideology promoted as truth; the rational but anti-democratic structures of corporatism,...; and the use of language and expertise to mask a practical understanding of the harm this causes, and what else our society might do."

I love that expression "deformations of thought", it makes me think of the dinner table in Braindead. But anyway the main example he uses is our societies justification of arms expenditure, which NATO currently manages to spend 1,049,875,309,000 USD on per year. I'm not going to argue with this, the arms race is a stain on our civilisation. We are sold militaristic ideologys, such as the need to use brute force when dealing with muslims, like we have no other option. The resulting human tragedys are described as "collateral damage" rather than massacre. Linking back to Bernstein it is interesting to contemplate the influence of "fear" both in the policy formation (where it rivals greed) and just how they can convince so many of us to let them commit these atrocities in our name.

"The Great War of Civilisation”: Robert Fisk. If there was ever a 'tour de force' this is it. Fisk describes his agonising career moving spatially and temporally through the battlefields of the Middle East; Algeria to Iran and unfortunately most places in between. Unfortunately because he only goes to places where the most horrible things happen. The themes in each theatre (the advent of reality TV hasn't done this phrase any favours) are depressingly familiar; the manipulation of fear to send armys to war and the polarisation and beastilisation of other groups (its ok to kill people if they are different and not human like). "Western" armys will bomb wedding parties in Afgahnistan, fire missiles into domestic airliners in Iran or at Ambulances in Lebanon, if a threat is percieved.

”Shake Hands with the Devil: Lt Colonel Romeo Dallaire”

Another Canadian I don't normally make a habit of reading books by Canadians) Dallaire was the leader of the UN Military force during the Rwandan Genocide. This is a book to make you sick to your stomach and ashamed of your civilisation. Today we see on the news violence in the Eastern Congo city of Goma. The final nail in the coffin at the end of the book is a description of how easily this could have been avoided, and how yet again Dallaire and Rwanda were shafted by the international community. Dallaire describes his belief in God,

I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists and therefore I know there is a God."

I'm trying to sniff this devil. Is that just the B.O of a sweaty African politican? Can a man, or group of men, be so important as to cause the massacre of nearly one million? Or is there something in all of us that is prone to participating or allowing our group to commit violence against another?

"Heart of Darfur: Lisa French Baker"

This, the fourth and last book I'll mention, is a personal account of the Darfur genocide by a New Zealand nurse, Lisa French Baker. Its far more restricted in scope than the others, Baker expressly recognises that she is only a nurse with no wider understanding of the political conflict. But this viewpoint gives its own insights. What I will mostly remember are the images of men with guns smiling while the sick and injured children and women flee. I will also remember the internal rivalrys and conflict amongst the aid team. In such a damaged country must we bring our own pettiness? This book shows how on the ground the great political conflicts are represented by evil and violence perpetrated by neighbours upon each other.

Apologies for the rough writing and reasoning, fortunately this isn't an essay, only a scruffy blog. I have at least commented on four books and made one point: perhaps fear comes before evil. Its worth a thought, although maybe not a couple of late nights computer time.


marcus said...

Welcom back Jamie (and Penny when she arrives). See you next month in the South Island.

Jamie said...

Hey Marcus,

yeah been meaning to reply to your email bro, will go and chase it down now that you've reminded me!