Monday, July 13, 2009
1. The sun setting over a still sea, woven to silk, and the swimmers, silhouttetted wading back to the shore like merman returning to land.
2. My brother playing rugby, pausing mid-stride, hanging static for one single second, and then changing course
3. Manhattan, at night, seen from the Brooklyn Bridge: pure kinetic energy and human aspiration.
4. My mother, on her wedding day.
5. Lake Como: the jagged lines of the mountain and the smooth ones of the lake, drapped in blue, purple and white light.
6. Wheat Field with Cypresses by Van Gogh, in the National Gallery
7. The Backs, Cambridge in mist, at 5 am.
8. The Masai Mara: its biblical expanse and improbable animals
9. An Eve Arnold print of an old Chinese Woman - the dignity and humane wisdom of her face.
10. The jellyfish at the Boston Acquarium, like clouds of souls.
Please share yours...
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
This weekend I was reading the FT, which in recent months has been an exercise in watching the devout flounder at the exposure of their gods as idols. Two articles struck me for opposing reasons: Martin Wolf declaring that governments werent spending enough, that the stimulus packages were too small; and Matthew Engel writing about being in Northern Ireland on the border. If the first was an example of how quickly thinking can radically change direction when a paradigm shifts, the second was an enraging example of how persistent old attitudes can be. Its tone and portrayal of the 'Irish question' was so antiquated that it would not have been out of place in a nineteenth century pamphlet on the Papist threat.
The article declared that 'the time-honoured British task of keeping its neighbour quiet is still not complete'. Sharing a border with Republic, it argues, not only exposes Britain to the risk of terrorism from the IRA, or 'Ireland's latest murderers', but also to the risk of smuggling, which 'has been a way of life', and the incompetence of Irish officials whose response to a passport, he posits, is "Oh Jaysus, here's another of them bleedin' things, where's the fella wit' the steps?". The tone of exasperation is most pronounced though when he declares that the Celtic Tiger seemed to constitute 'an era when Ireland seemed to have had the Irishness sucked out of it - papism having been replaced by mammonism' but alas it was nothing more than a chimera. The sum total of this portrait was to equate Irishness with lawlessness, incompetence, buffoonery and Catholicism.
Recent events - the corruption at Anglo-Irish Bank, the demise of the Celtic Tiger - have seemed to confirm this portrait to the outside world and show up how the brief 15 years of prosperity were an exception, a fluke and one, many argue, that was not of our making. The same author today in the FT in an article entitled 'Prosperity just a blip for old Ireland' said the boom was 'essentially construction led'. An English banker once told me, not having picked up that I was Irish, that the Celtic Tiger was purely demographic - because 'they're breeding like rabbits'. Another common argument is that it was solely the result of EU money.
None of these arguments acknowledge that the causes of the boom were many and that some of them were luck but others were simply hard work. Having a young population helped, but it wasnt just that they were young but also well educated, hard working and English speaking. EU money and membership was vital but it was coupled with smart policies. Property, in the last few years, did play a big role but it was not the driver. The boom began in the mid 90s due to a huge export drive, built on 30 years of investment in human capital. Ireland was lucky that these many things converged at a particular moment to produce a period of unprecedented prosperity, but - as with most overnight successes - it was built on many years of hardship and hard slog. Equally we have been deeply unlucky that it all unraveled at a moment of unprecedented global crisis, but we were also the architects of our own troubles. Crony capitalism did become a feature of the boom and we let that happen. As ever, the causes of the boom and the bust were not singular, partly the result of our actions and partly the product of greater forces . Falling back on old stereotypes to make sense of reality - that's not just racist, it is incredibly simplistic thinking and very poor journalism, a failure to grasp the dialectical nature of culture and human experience. It is the kind of the thinking that has led us into crisis not only in Ireland but globally.
I would be the first to admit to and adamantly point out the deplorable and dispiriting characteristics of the Irish people. Often, I think we are a small minded, insular, petty people, who do not ask enough from ourselves or our leaders, we put mercy above justice, we protect the 'cute hoor', we sit on the fence on moral questions that demand a stance, we are deeply anti-intellectual. But equally Irish people can be among the most spirited, warm, decent, generous and witty. From this Island have hailed great boxers and great poets, saints, scholars and swindlers. There are many more than forty shades of green. As with all people and all peoples, we are both and all of these things. To focus only on either facet is myopic and naive. So on this St Patrick's Day I celebrate Irishness in all its complex, infuriating and elevating richness.
Saturday, January 31, 2009
And yet I came away unsettled, even disturbed. Because, much as the film celebrated the humanity of its subject, it denied the very same quality to those who fought against him. Anita Bryant and John Briggs, who campaigned to have gay rights repealed and gay teachers in California fired, were portrayed as ignorant, arrogant, Bible bashing bigots - the very antithesis of Milk. And while of course the instinctive reaction of anyone holding liberal views to someone who equates homosexuality with pedophilia is repulsion and condemnation, the minute you strip such people of their humanity you do to them exactly what you accuse them of doing to others. We cannot only empathize with those with whom we agree. The far greater and more important challenge is to find the humanity in those who are not likable, who commit heinous acts, who hold obnoxious views, who dare I say it - blow themselves up for their religious beliefs. Finding their humanity is our only defense against becoming what we purport to oppose.
The last film which I saw with Sean Penn did just that: it found the humanity in someone who your instinct told you to abhor - a murdering rapist. Dead Man Walking, which I finally got around to seeing this summer, was for me an example of one of the supreme ambitions, even duties, of art: it told a story that enabled the viewer to empathize with a character who all our social conditioning has told us to see as inhuman. Although right until the end we did not know whether or not he had committed the crime, and even if he hadn't he was a troubled character, at the last, regardless, his pain and anguish and terror of death were so visceral that you could not but feel for him, could not but be moved to compassion and pity.
I thought for a long time afterwards about how this film in particular and art in general manages to achieve this feat. And I think that it is simply this: it finds the nodes of emotions that we have all felt and uses these as the poles through which to route the connection between viewer/reader and character, a circuitry that enables us to imagine being in someone else's shoes. At a reading this week by Irish Writers protesting the situation in Gaza, one read out an extract from a conscientious objector during World War I in which he made an appeal to rationality as being that which fundamentally separates man and beast. But in many ways this is wrong (or at least only half the truth): that which makes us human is our ability to feel love, hate, shame, anger, hope, despair, our ability to express these emotions in our stories and our art and most crucially of all our capacity to imagine what it must be like to be in someone else's place . None of us has taken another's life but we have all done things that we are ashamed of and we can project this outwards and so grasp the enormity of guilt and remorse that Matthew Poncelet must have felt. None of us has had to sit in a room, handcuffed, and say goodbye to our families, but if we were in that position we would probably feel an impulse to crack a joke. And though none of us have been on death row, we have all at some point felt fear of death and so can imagine the terror of knowing that at a set, appointed time we were going to cease to be. It is this capacity - to feel ourselves and to feel for others - that is ultimately what makes us human. And it is the commonality of that capacity that unites us.
My objection to identity politics is that it denies this. At one point in Milk, after the landmark defeat of Proposition Six, Harvey Milk declares that this is 'a victory for all the us's out there' - the African Americans, the Latinos, the women and the disabled. But setting up binaries of 'us' and 'them', so that 'our' victory is 'their' defeat is so clearly destructive that I feel bored even making the point. Much as it is understandable to emphasize an identity when that identity is used to discriminate against you as a human, it creates a dialectic that drives both sides to the extremes. People often comment on the polarized nature of American society - the liberal havens on the coasts and the deeply religious and conservative interior. But this is no paradox - they feed off each other. And much as I celebrate the victory of the gay rights movement and the hope that it brought, casting it as a victory of the 'us's' rather than a victory of us all is almost as divisive as the acts of discrimination it sought to overturn.
Saturday, January 3, 2009
I am far from being an expert on Northern Ireland. Coming from the generation that grew up mostly in the period of peace and having only the dimmest memory of the bleak days when the first item on the news was always the latest IRA/loyalist atrocity, I have no more knowledge about the conflict than any other averagely informed Irish person. But recently, in talking to two above averagely informed compatriots about just how we managed to get from 'Never, never, never' to Ian Paisley sharing power with Martin McGuinness, some interesting lines of thought emerged.
We asked the question; what had to change for the British government, the Irish government and the two communities in the North to sign up to a peace deal? These were our tentative conclusions. For the British government, a key moment came at the end of the 1980s when the simple cost of keeping the North became clear. Apparently, strange though it may seem, there had never been a totting up of the expense to the British taxpayer of supporting Northern Unionism. When they worked it out, the scale of the drain began to change outlooks, particularly in Conservative quarters. Another crucial moment was the IRA bombing of Canary Wharf in 1996 - the financial elite made it clear to the British government that a resolution needed to be found - the City could not operate under constant threat of attack. There were undoubtedly many other pivotal moments and a slower process of incremental change that brought the British government from Thatcher's trenchant support of the Union to the more pliant attitude of Tony Blair, but the realization of the real economic costs were a crucial part. Changed perceptions of material interests changed mentalities.
For the Irish government, the shift required was in its conception of itself and its founding doctrine. Firstly, the civil rights movement and the Unionist/British repression of it called on Irish nationalism to act, and not just claim kinship with Nationalists in the North. Republicans in the South had to face the reality of what achieving a United Ireland would entail - and at that point, it would have required some form of military action against Britain. That reality called Republicans' bluff - because realistically there was no way they would rally to help northern nationalists if that entailed in any way endangering the Republic. Secondly, the IRA's decision to turn to anti-state violence forced a nationalism that had been born out of opposition to the state to reconceive itself as an establishment ideology. There are different rules and norms for states and non-state actors. Now that those who had formerly conducted guerrilla warfare against the British were in power themselves, they had to disavow the tactics they had formerly practiced. Not that the public stance of the government always reflected these shifts - they still postured in support of nationalists and were sometimes far too slow to condemn the IRA. But behind the scenes, as the government papers reveal, Irish Republicans had to re-evaluate their claim to the 32 counties and their defense of terrorist tactics to achieve it.
Finally, turning to the two communities in the North, our ideas were less clear. It is perhaps the hardest part of the jigsaw to put together because the stakes for them were highest. This was their lived reality and it is very hard, when you are outside of it as we are, to fully grasp what being in a conflict does to your ability to arrest its character and the avenues for its cessation. But some key points are clear. For the IRA to end their campaign there needed to be a real conviction that a political deal would be offered. Much as they denigrated the moral standing of their end with the means they employed, that end was a question of justice and had a concrete solution. Nationalists/Catholics had been systematically excluded from political power and disadvantaged economically. A recognition of this and a place at the table were crucial. For Unionists and Loyalists the challenge was to come to trust Republicans, that they would not again resort to violence once inside the process - a very hard thing to do when the ceasefire was broken on a number of occasions by mainstream and dissident IRA groups. A final key point was the fact that, ultimately, the key constituencies that needed to be coaxed along were those on the extreme ends of the political spectrum - the DUP and Sinn Fein. When offered real, viable political opportunities both responded positively. And though it was a long, tedious road with many setbacks along the way, it brought us to a place that was absolutely unthinkable even 15 years ago. This peace is far from perfect and it would be disastrous to become complacent but for the first time, in perhaps 800 years, we can plausibly say, our island is at peace.
It is always difficult and dangerous to try to generalize and apply 'lessons' from one conflict to another. Even though you can see Israeli flags flying in loyalist areas of the North and Palestinian ones in republican enclaves - such is the extent to which the two communities identify with what they see as their respective counterparts - there are obviously huge differences between the context and nature of the conflicts. However, if we are to find some points at which the universal emerges from the particular - and surely we must - then the conflict in the North can offer some insights. Firstly, for all actors, the material conditions are important determinants of mentalities. To understand the two sides' positions in this conflict you need to understand the physical and concrete realities that structure their reality and their perception of that reality. This is not to say that man is merely an opportunity maximizing, materialist being. But if you want to change mentalities, changing material incentives can be one of the best ways to do that. Just ask Ian Paisley, who called Catholics vermin until he was offered a chance to share power with them. Secondly, the nature of the actors matters. Israel is a state and Palestine is not and that fact to a large extent determines the modes of behaviour, as well as the symbolic and lived experiences of those involved. The fact of being a state conditioned how the Irish government responded to the conflict just as the status of being, by definition, non-state actors structured the actions of the IRA and loyalists. Bringing Sinn Fein within the state forced the party to change how it behaves, as it would the political actors in Palestine if it became a viable state. Finally, the experience of Northern Ireland suggests that where there is a legitimate grievance - as there is in Palestine - that must be addressed regardless of the tactics employed in its pursuit. Despite the clear moral imperative, there is also the simple strategic fact that a people's sense of grievance and exclusion can only ever be redressed politically, never militarily, and that this sense of grievance (whatever you think about its legitimacy) is what drives them to act. Building up the trust that breaks the situation out of a tit-for-tat game is an arduous, painstaking process but it can be done. And for it to be successful, it is crucial that those on the extremes are inside the process. At this moment, with war raging, peace seems like an impossibility. But there is a path between the two, albeit a long and difficult one.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
The, rather pagan, death match that seemed to be taking place between the snake and the dragon while the priest droned on about the miracle of Bethlehem, got me thinking from a child's eye view about stories. Earlier in the week I'd had a conversation with two psychologists about whether or not children can, from a cognitive point of view, deal with multiple stories. But they do so all the time. The story of a baby born in a manger who came to save the world nestles effortlessly next to the fable of a man who travels around the world in one night delivering toys to kids, which itself seems no more preposterous or believable than the tales of a sea sponge who lives in a place called Bikini Bottom (this is a reference to SpongeBob SquarePants for those who dont have under age siblings/cousins/a predilection for kid's cartoons). Children, without any difficultly or fuss, can do two things that adults struggle with; they believe in stories and they believe in many stories at the same time.
As we grow up, both of these abilities come under sustained attack. Santa is unmasked as an illusion, the stories of the Bible/Torah/Koran/Ramayana etc become quite preposterous by the light of rational day and books and films are clearly delineated into categories based on the degrees to which they relate to reality; fiction, non-fiction, based on true events. The lines harden between what is credible and what is not and jumping the fence, beyond rationality, requires faith. And in most cases sustaining that faith requires denying all other stories in their claims to validity. It is as though the leap required is so onerous that it simultaneously demands closing down on all the other alternatives.
These thoughts were mulling around my head when later, after a lot of secular materialism and frankly pagan eating, I watched 'The Nativity Decoded' - a programme on Channel 4 which promised to extricate fact from fiction in the story of Jesus's birth. Robert Beckford (who should never have cut his hair) pitted slightly sardonic historians against rigid representatives of the church. The former pointed to a more historically probable version of events (that included Mary being raped by a Roman soldier and Jesus being born at home in an underground area in Nazareth surrounded by women rather than wise men), while the latter defended the fluffier, more benign and mythic version that is re-enacted in schools at this time of year.
Many programmes and books of late have taken this line and the ammunition of the atheist is generally that there is no evidence and thus it is just a story. But, as any six year old with a plastic dragon will tell you, stories are all we have. The material and its meaning are different things and to link the two we need narratives. But equally, to prevent those stories from ossifying they must be recognized as such; stories - not literal truths but expressions thereof - allowed to evolve, open to reinterpretation and most importantly of all, not exclusive in their claims to meaning. This isn't something we need to teach children - it is something we could learn from them. Many stories, one world. And - note to Vatican - when the old story gets a bit boring, introduce a three headed snake into the equation.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
This was my second trip to Africa and sadly I think I have got to the point where I've stopped seeing. After prolonged exposure, at some point you normalize realities that at first seem utterly new and alien. There is only a relatively brief window of time to really grasp what is unfolding before your eyes, to contrast it with what you know, to become aware of all the implicit assumptions of your own culture and expectations by their absence in the new reality you face. I seem to have passed that point, so I watched others go through the process but felt none of it myself.
We spent an inordinate amount of time talking about mosquitoes and how to avoid being bitten by them. One member of the trip slept (in 30 degree heat) in full length pyjamas tucked into their socks and industrial size can of repellent in hand. We walked around in a collective cloud of DEET so strong you could see the insects hit the wall and simply drop. There was a lot of paranoia about food and going out after dark. And whereas when we turned up at an airport for an internal flight to find that it had been cancelled and we might miss our connection back to Amsterdam I felt the calm fatalism acquired from 6 months of plans not working out in India set in like a blessed opiate of the masses, most of the others became agitated and irritated with the local officials. When we finally did get on a plane, there were nervous jokes about the sign on the seat that said 'Use seat cushion as flotation device in case of crash'. And when we finally arrived back in surgically clean Skiphol airport everyone seemed to sigh with relief - no more DEET or hand sanitizer - we were back in regularized, standardized, predictable modernity.
All of this got me thinking about psychology. There is an implicit subtext in development that 'developing countries are lacking something, that the process of development is about filling in those gaps. I think part of my shock when I first went to the developing world was to realize that it wasn't merely a suboptimal version of the reality I was used to, like an outdated model from a few decades previous - recognisable but shoddier - but rather it was a whole different system, with different rules and ways of doing things. I was severely culture shocked - shell shocked - at first. It took a month to stop feeling miserable. It took two months to start laughing rather than crying at what seemed completely illogical (a traffic warden with a sign that says 'Halt and Go' on the same side for instance). It took three before I began to realize that it wasn't in fact illogical, it was just a different logic ('Halt briefly before you launch yourself into oncoming traffic and when you do go, go, go because they sure as hell wont slow down for you'). And it took the full six before I could begin to indulge in 'chalto hai' - relinquish the need to always be in control of time and circumstance, accept that I could not be completely the master of my own destiny, that risk was unavoidable but that usually, if you have some trust, things work out somehow. It was a psychological process - slowly wrenching my mind away from the pillars on which equilibrium normally rests: risk aversion, logical reason, understanding of my environment, and above all else - control.
In many ways, development is asking people to do the reverse journey: to alter psychologically from one mode to another, but crucially without the benefit of having their material conditions change first. It was relatively easy for me, with time, to adjust, because the reality was different, so I had to change and the psychological state I had to acquire was the one best, equilibrium response to the material environment I was in. Becoming unnervingly calm and fatalistic when you discover that all the roads are blocked with mud slides and you need to get back to Delhi to catch your flight tomorrow is the best psychological response. Accepting risk and not getting too stressed about mosquitoes is the only thing to do when you live in a tropical country. Relinquishing control is your only option when you step onto a decrepit bus taking hairpin bends over a precipice on the only road to your destination. Asking people to have different responses to the same conditions entails a considerable degree of psychological strain. But it's what the process of development does ask them to do - to become risk averse, used to standardization and legalization, accept extreme rationality, exert control, demand more from others and life etc.
In some way this dilemma was summed up from talking to a linguistics student in the University of Dar es Salaam. She explained how the fact that Tanzanians are multilingual means they are not completely proficient in any one language. They speak their tribal language at home until they go to primary school, when they start speaking Swahili. When/if they go to secondary they start English, which is also the language of instruction in university. She said the end result was proficiency, but not fluency in tribal languages and Swahili, and often quite a poor grasp of English (she estimated that only about 10% of students at university spoke English competently). From the point of view of development, a common standardized language is essential. From a personal point of view, the absence of the true fluency of a mother tongue seems, from my Anglo-centric, monolingual standpoint, appalling. It brought home the scale of the challenge and also the near barbarity of wrenching people from one system to another.
I don't want to finish on a completely anti-modern note. Travelling through the country side and seeing the desperate conditions in which people live, you cannot but want to see the material comforts of modernity. But sometimes it isn't acknowledged enough what you are asking people to do in that transition, how difficult it is to get from one state to the other and what is lost in the process. And how it delivers you to a place where your full Irish breakfast can be whipped out from under your nose for fear that, if consumed in large quantities for 30 years, you might, might suffer side effects.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Generally it's like talking to a group of hung over statues. I ask a question. They look at their shoes (almost uniformly Uggs and Converse). I rephrase my question. They look at their shoes. I show them the graph that shook me to my left core (the hockey stick with GDP per capita for the year 0 to now). They look blank. I say 'This is the single most important graph in economic history!!'. They look blank. I spend an hour explaining Sen's theory of famine to them and then ask who agrees with Sen's interpretation. No one puts up their hands. I ask who disagrees. Two hands go up. I tell the rest - over a hundred people - that they don't have to have to answer with a clear yes or no - the purpose of education being to raise you to a higher level of confusion. They look confused.
To try to lower my blood pressure and prevent the early onset of heart failure, I at times try to focus on the comedic aspects of teaching, for there is entertainment a plenty. Sometimes when I stand in front of them I feel that if I didn't actually know that they were real people I would think they were actors in a mockumentary playing caricatures of themselves: the preppy debater, the bleached surfer dude, girls with the fake tan that is different shades of orange on their face and legs, rugby players who look like they've been inflated with a bike pump and the Chloe Bartlett Browns who are all berets and smart boots. I mock, but it suits my rather dehumanizing sense of humour that they all so neatly fit into their boxes. Which leads to the none-too-challenging game of guess the box when it comes to marking their essays. Which led in one instance to an entertaining moment when, in response to the following sentence - 'One has decided to analyse the following European states...after which one will conclude' it took all my self restraint not to write 'Are you...the Queen?' But perhaps my favourite quote was when a student, in a Brangelina moment for the Enlightenment thinkers, referred to one John Stuart Marx (and what a power couple that would have been). In fact at one fell swoop he had brought together the thinkers who embody the two ideals that western thought has always struggled to reconcile - freedom and equality! Or course when I gushed about this to him he looked confused and, I'll confess, just a little scared.
This is not to say that there are not moments that are really satisfying and when you feel that in some small way you have got through to them. One such incident happened this week. We were doing an exercise that involved role playing the outcome of the 2005 German election where they had to represent the 5 main parties and simulate coalition negotiations with each other and they just came alive. After half an hour of negotiations that slowly escalated in energy and decibel level, it culminated in cries of 'We want education! And if we don't get it we're walking pal'. They were of course referring to the education ministry but I chose to see it as an unconscious plea for erudition. It came down to two potential options - a grand coalition between the SPD and CDU or a grand left alliance between the SPD, Greens and der Linke. The choice for the SPD was clear - power (in the Grand left alliance) versus stability (in the grand coalition). The three members of the SPD weighed up their options. The Left party shouted 'We'll compromise on overthrowing capitalism if you give us Social Welfare!'. The SPD retorted 'Yeah but you're a bunch of losers'. I chastised them for unparliamentary language and asked for a vote. One goes for the Left Alliance, another for the grand coalition and the last girl, with the whole class hanging on her words, eventually goes for the Left. The Greens and the Left erupt into cheers and the course of German history is reversed.
And at times I find that I actually learn something from them. In doing the same exercise with a different group we began talking about the Irish parliamentary system, which in some structural ways is very similar to the German one: two large parties and a number of smaller ones. But here a grand coalition between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, though it would be by far the most stable, is never even on the table as an option. I asked them why. The obvious answer is history. They represent the lines along which opinion divided over the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the civil war but as time has gone on, the differences have become less distinct. This was as far as my thinking had ever progressed on the matter. But they raised some important points. From the point of view of the parties, going in together, given that they have no really meaningful policy differences, would only serve to highlight this fact and undermine their claims to being fundamentally opposed. Like a Republican in a balaclava and a thug who just likes to knee cap people standing next to each other in a line up (to pick a loaded simile). And from the perspective of the electorate, having two large parties who never consider going into coalition together at least guarantees (in theory) a more forceful opposition and the opportunity to alternate governments more decisively. After the last election and Lisbon, my faith in the Irish electorate had diminished considerably, but these students put forward thoughtfull points that made sense of something which I had never fully understood before.
Although Joyce said that the universal is contained within the particular, I don't want to engage in that most Irish of qualities; parochialism. At the moment when a paradigm has been shown to be flawed, the universal need is for big-picture, blue-sky thinking. It is a moment that begs questions of academia and universities about the ways in which they train people to think. For this crisis is the result of the failure of an ideology, a failure of thinking. And before that failure came the failure of critical thinking. Although there were many who warned about the dangers of unfettered markets and unbridled capitalism, not enough people were asking questions, weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of different paradigms and thinking critically - in other words doing the things that universities are meant to be training them to do. There are of course so many reasons why we are in the mess we are in and I would not have really learned anything from my 17 years of education if I did not admit to the complex, polyvalent nature of reality that rules out any easy, single faceted answers. But I do feel that one part of that solution is to teach the youth of the nation and the world to think more clearly, to ask more questions and interrogate their reality more rigorously. We need to expect more from them and put in the resources and effort to match it. Even if, for those of us teaching them, it means laying aside the comedy and taking them seriously.