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Billy King shares his monthly thoughts
Hello again, I hope you are in good form after the ‘summer’ (the inverted commas are for those of us in Ireland whose ancient Roman name, Hibernia, translates as ‘Winter’). After great dry weather in the early part of the coronavirus lockdown, it was another typical Irish summer – a few warm days here and there, more typically two or three seasons in a day, and well below average sunshine. Our courgettes and tomatoes have definitely already decided it is autumn, dying back substantially somewhat earlier than they should; this means that the ‘courgette-based diet’, well-known by vegetable gardeners at this time of year, will end earlier than usual. Sín é. C’est la vie. So on with the autumn show.
Well, did you read that Bregman book on human nature, or Stefania Gualberti’s review in the last Nonviolent News? Do you take a generally benign view of human nature or do you prefer to ride a Hobbes horse? Or do you Rousseau the day that you did?
However I would like to add my cent/penny’s worth of comment in relation to nonviolence and human nature. Nonviolence and pacifism are often portrayed as naive and shallow, a severe misreading of human nature, and bound to be taken advantage of by ruthless individuals or entities, state or non-state, who will grind you into the mud if you don’t stand up them with violence or militarily.
This shows a profound ignorance of nonviolence. Let us take Nazi regimes in Europe during the Second World War. They knew how to deal with violence; reprisals and repression. They didn’t know how to deal with nonviolent resistance that would cause them to lose face or support or where a violent reaction would cause more problems than they already had. Sue Williams has been quoted often enough in these pages saying that it is very disempowering for people trying to act nonviolently in very dangerous and difficult circumstances to be told ‘nonviolence doesn’t work’ – not least because it is the only thing that may indeed work.
The history of nonviolent resistance shows that it can work in extreme situations and certainly that it is not just a response which has a chance in liberal democracies or benign dictatorships. So what I would say is – whatever your view of human nature, nonviolence is appropriate. If you take the relatively benign, Bregman-type, view, well, nonviolence is obviously the way to go. But if you take a harsher view of human nature then nonviolence is still the way to go, not least because states and the powerful have the guns and need some kind of acquiescence to keep control, and it can subvert their system much more deeply and powerfully than violence.
Gandhi of course had his hierarchy of responses to injustice; inaction as the worst, then came violence, and then nonviolence. And choosing nonviolence is not only a moral issue, it is also an issue of being effective – however you see human nature.
Cypher and bandes dessinées
Full marks to Front Line Defenders for starting a digital mag [‘Cypher’, see news item this issue] which will work with ‘comics artists’ around the world to tell stories of front line defenders of human rights. It’s a great idea and I hope it works on an ongoing basis – and the intended monthly production schedule is very ambitious.
There is a problem in the English language with adult ‘cartoon’ picture books or strips as to what to call them. ‘Comics’ are not what they are. ‘Cartoons’ tends to bring up images of one-to-four frame visual gags or extremely short stories which are again humorous. And while the term ‘graphic novel’ is now accepted, what if the work in question is not, as in the case of Cypher, a ‘novel’ and fiction? And ‘graphic’ can also mean simply a description in words which is detailed and penetrating or harsh and uncompromising......so a ‘graphic’ novel could be simply a very descriptive conventional book with words.
Of course if you go into a bookshop (remember them? I hope you do) most of the ‘graphic novel’ stock will be about violent ‘superheroes’ and the like, and you will have to search a bit in that section for anything else. But there is likely to be some great material ‘there’ (somewhere) if you look, and much more than there used to be.
Serious work in this genre is making a bit of a breakthrough in English, though the French have long had political and other material in ‘bandes dessinées’ (‘illustrated strips’) even if they have more light-hearted and humorous material in this format – and of course that terminology does not necessarily imply ‘comic’. So what to do? Use the French term or translate it fairly literally? As with most things in life, there is no easy answer but I hope an accepted and acceptable term emerges for this important communication genre which deserves its day in the sun and a more prominent place as an art form in its own right. Meanwhile, check out Front Line Defenders’ Cypher.
A tale of two countries
Ireland is often compared with, and compares itself with, Britain. Britain is Ireland’s big neighbour and Norn Iron is still part of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, the creation of which took place almost a hundred years ago with the defection of the area initially known as the Irish Free State. It is natural to compare things with your large neighbour and in Ireland’s case its ex-colonial power. That comparison has often been in Britain’s favour in the past on many issues including relative poverty, social control and so on.
But things have changed. The UK or Britain or even England is the country that, should disaster strike, most Europeans are least likely to want to help. Its ongoing shenanigans (a word which might or might not have its origin in Irish though its likely country of origin is the USA) over Brexit have not endeared it to most Europeans and aware citizens of the world and have made people question their previous views of the country as one of sensible souls who usually do the right thing – whether this is a true perception or not. In the case of Brexit it is probably the ‘far right’ thing they are doing.
Anyway, if you were in the past to compare political cultures you might have said that Britain’s was more developed with a greater sense of responsibility by politicians and less brown envelopes (bribes for those who don’t understand that term) floating about. Not any more. The Tories are busy doling out coronavirus contracts to their cronies. Senior British government advisor and éminence grise Dominic Cummings survived egregious flouting of the Covid-19 restrictions with justifications which would not convince the average ten year old.
However in Ireland political heads have been rolling over an Oireachtas (parliamentary) golf society dinner which did not observe previous or current coronavirus regulations. And one of the heads to roll was someone the Irish government could not even sack; Phil Hogan, EU trade commissioner (leaving a vacant position to Phil). And this happened even though his role was an important one in relation to the final denouement of Brexit negotiations between the EU and UK.
Mind you, Hogan’s economy with the truth (downright lies) in outlining where he had been when he should have been hibernating, I mean isolating, did nothing to pull himself out of the muck. When people had sacrificed much, for example not going to the funerals of loved ones because of Covid-19 health restrictions, well, there was bound to be more than mild indignation at not only significant disregard for said restrictions by the great and not necessarily good but also attempts to lie about it.
Thus in Ireland popular will and indignation brought about resignations and something approaching political accountability. Similar popular will and indignation in Britain had no effect. Some of that may be down to the fact that the UK has a single party government with a large majority compared to a three-party coalition in Ireland but I don’t think it is only that. You can draw your own conclusions (just get out a piece of paper and some coloured pencils). I wouldn’t want to extol Irish political culture too much but on this it appears to have the better hand (wash).
I watched most of a short BBC series with Lucy Worsley on the USA’s historical lies or distortions of the truth. The independence of the British colonies in North America that became the USA in the ‘war of independence’ was won from England because a) they had French naval support, and b) they developed a ‘standing’ army which they had not had before. Neither of these facts is widely known and it wasn’t, as US patriotic myths tend to say, plucky colonial farmers beating the Brits. Another programme took apart the civil war of the 1860s between the Union and the Confederates.
I immediately thought – I’d like to see a series looking at British historical fibs. Lo and behold there was one, but not really what I wanted as it was only dealing with ‘royal’ matters. This short series started off recently with the Reformation and detail about Anne Boleyn’s ‘Protestant’ influence on King Henry VIII who nevertheless remained an ‘Anglo-Catholic’ to his dying day. It’s not original but this programme did cover the link between the Reformation and Brexit, in particular English exceptionalism (in the case of the Reformation not being Roman Catholic and beholden to the Pope, but also not being Protestant in the Lutheran sense either) as well as the feeling of, and the creation of the concept of, ‘empire’.
However what I would really like to see – and it isn’t planned that I know of- is such a programme, or rather it would needs a series, examining the history of the British empire because there remains a gross disparity between how many or most British people see that experience, and how it is perceived in what were British colonies. The violence, the ill-treatment, the daylight robbery of resources, the unjust trading conditions, these tend not to be thought of and instead Britain is seen by most British as bringing ‘civilisation’ to the natives; this includes the colonisation of Ireland, as expressed to me by an 18-year old Protestant lad in Norn Iron during a history workshop I was facilitating. I think this is a much wider perception on the Northern Protestant side of the house.
The fact that those living in what became British colonies had their own civilisation, thank you very much, is not considered. Providing some railways (which actually formed a key part of colonial control) is not a fair exchange for enslavement. Dealing honestly with what the British empire entailed is a significant part of what ‘England’ needs to become a progressive European state rather than one where many people hanker after a golden past which never existed, and the non-acknowledgement that much historical wealth was plundered from other peoples.
When Boris Johnson said recently, condemningly, that Britain was going through “an orgy of national embarrassment” about its traditions and history he was actually referring to a very small chink of light in an armour-plated system of denial. While an ‘orgy of national embarrassment’ would be better than nothing, much better still would be shining a decent light, that you can see by, on some very dark places. Lest it be thought that this is holier than thou stuff, perhaps I can say that many in Ireland bought in to the British imperial project (including many of my own relations and forebears).
Going to be interesting to watch the final stages, and aftermath, of the US presidential election coming up in November (if defeated, will he go?). Back in early August Trump accused his POTUStential rival Biden as being “against God, he’s against guns, he’s against energy “ (i.e. fossil fuels). Now there’s a grate slogan fit for Trump: “God, Guns, Gas”. I am not sure exactly which or what God he favours however, beyond one that is violent, mean and vengeful. And what did God do to deserve being brought into the mess that is US politics, well, you can divine the answer to that yourself.
Anyway, there we go. Back to porridge – speaking of which as the cooler weather comes in I may just do that for breakfast. But what kind of porridge we will have over the winter, metaphorically speaking, well, that remains to be seen. Until we meet again, I wish you health and all the wellness you can get together, Billy.
Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman
pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little
about horses even if someone with a similar name is
found astride them on gable ends around certain parts
of Norn Iron).