Monday, July 13, 2009

10 of the most beautiful things I've ever seen

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

Forty Shades of Green

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Tiger seemed to constitute 'an era when Ireland seemed to have had the Irishness sucked out of it - papism having been replaced by mammonism' but alas it was nothing more than a chimera.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

Finding Humanity on Film

Yesterday I went to see 'Milk'. There was much to admire in the film and many reasons to feel inspired by the story. Sean Penn was stunning in the depth and nuance of his performance and the man he portrayed shone with warmth, intelligence and unyielding integrity. His story was uplifting, despite its tragic end, for showing a man who fought the good fight against mindless prejudice, who began with a handful of supporters and inspired many more to join a movement, who persisted in the face of hatred and eventually won - small victories that paved the way to greater freedoms. You wanted all your elected officials to be more like Harvey Milk. You wanted to be more like Harvey Milk - a kind, passionate and deeply humane person fighting in a just cause.

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

War and Peace, and the path between

'Britain rejected secret IRA peace talks offer, 1978 archives reveal'. So read one headline in the Irish Times today. The other; 'Gaza braced for invasion as Israeli troops wait on border'. Thirty years after the IRA approached the British government to find a settlement, ten years after the Good Friday agreement, watching the carnage in Gaza on TV, I began thinking about war and peace, and how to get from one state to the other.

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.