January 2016 (supplement)
|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
Talks in a vacuum
The party talks in Northern Ireland which have been trying to move politics on have been taking place in a large vacuum so far as the public is concerned. Of course political parties will play their cards close to their chest, and the game being played is usually ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’. But it does make it difficult for the public to have any impact, and for a groundswell of opinion to develop telling politicians to get on with it – as happened to some extent with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Northern Ireland has a decision making problem at central level, and the failure to reach agreement in the Haass talks a year ago, or in the period since, reflects that. While initial noises from the British Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, were initially quite dismissive of the current opportunities for progress (and amazingly so for a comment during the process itself unless in exasperation or a strategy to challenge people), other comments since have not been quite so pessimistic.
Northern Ireland now has a legacy of issues which have not been dealt with. The next big challenge which Northern Ireland faces is economic, with cuts in funding of the kind that hit the Republic half a dozen year ago. How to resist these cuts in an effective manner, when London holds the (rather large) purse strings is a difficult one. But reducing corporation tax to southern levels of 12.5%, at a massive hit to the block grant Northern Ireland receives from London, is not a great idea without checks, balances and guarantees. Gambling on job creation from corporation tax reduction is very risky; people may take their profits and run.
We have dealt with possible changes in decision making at Stormont in these pages before. Developing better decision making certainly does not guarantee that wise decisions will follow but without a better decision making structure then there will continue to be a dearth of decisions. Northern Ireland is not a healthy society, in different ways (including indeed some aspects of physical health). The wrong decision making structures and the wrong decisions can help put back advancement out of the morass of the Troubles, the divisions that exists, and the many other economic and social problems which sit there waiting to be tackled.
Advances have been made in some aspects of how many societies think about violence. For example, so-called ‘domestic violence’ – usually men on women but in some cases women on men or men on men in interpersonal relations – was not a big issue forty or more ago but it is now in most western and many other societies. That is not to say this issue is now dealt with as well as it could be – it is certainly not – but that in general there is an awareness of the issue and the need for support and intervention. However with cuts to funding then services may actually have been getting worse.
In the international realm, western governments now know that their societies will not lightly sacrifice their soldiers in wars. Countries like the USA and the UK will still go to or engage in war or warfare at the drop of a hat but are much more wary about on the ground involvement which will lead to the deaths of many soldiers. That, understandably, does not go down well with the public. Unfortunately technology means that military intervention can now be done from the sky, by piloted planes bombing targets, or indeed by drones, e.g. the UK now intervening militarily against ISIS/Islamic State with drones controlled from Britain.
But what has not changed is the propaganda about ‘enemies’. We have seen it about Putin and Russia – not that the autocratic and corrupt Russian state should be admired but that western involvement in the coup in Ukraine, and in reneging on guarantees to Russia about NATO expansion in eastern Europe, is ignored. Russian behaviour in eastern Ukraine should rightly be strongly criticised but then so should western involvement which destabilised the whole situation in the region.
However we see the propaganda machine most strongly in relation to ISIS or Islamic State. Individual killings and beheadings by Islamic State receive massive coverage in the West. These are undoubtedly abhorrent and examples of extreme violence. But what analysis is there of western violence? None, or no critical voices are heard in mainstream media.
So let us look at two examples of western violence; the use of drones to kill suspected Islamist/military jihadist individuals, and US interventions in Islamic societies in general during recent times.
The Obama administration, in targeting 41 men who are Islamist militants has actually killed 1,147 people in drone strikes (Information from Reprieve in the ‘Guardian’). Sold to the US public as ‘precise’ and ‘surgical’ they are anything but that. 76 children and 29 adults have been killed in total in targeting Ayman Zawahiri. For another man, Qari Hussain, a deputy commander of the Pakistani Taliban, a number of drone attacks have killed 128 people, 13 of them children, who were not the target. “In Yemen, 17 named men were targeted multiple times. Strikes on them killed 273 people, at least seven of the children. At least four of the targets are still alive.” The figures here are only a fraction of the total killed in US drone strikes but the analysis shows that even strikes targeted at known individuals are killing many, many other people who have nothing to do with armed action..
Obama is the fourth consecutive US President to order bombs dropped on Iraq. If we look at the Islamic countries which the USA has invaded, occupied or bombed, here is the list in the last 35 years (from Andrew Bacevich in the ‘Washinton Post’, 3rd October 2014): “Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-) and now Syria.” This list does not include military interventions by US allies with their support, and excludes other forms of violent intervention.
The idea that military jihadist violence is the only reprehensible military action going on currently is totally wrong. But the west portrays itself as ‘civilised’ and military jihadists as barbaric. Many of the actions by Islamic State are contrary to any sense of humane endeavour – but this can also be said about US and western actions as well except that no mainstream western media are showing the barbarism of western actions. And that is certainly propaganda by default. In this case if you can define and situate ‘the enemy’ as the only violent ones, and yourself as a bastion of reason and sanity, pushed into moral actions by dint of necessity, then you have in this situation redefined violence and won the propaganda war.
The practical problem is of course that winning the propaganda war so far as the general population in the west is concerned is not winning the propaganda war with all Muslims and especially those who may have military jihadist tendencies, or be open to be taken in that direction. We certainly do not support anyone going off to fight with Islamic State, nor indeed with western state military. But many young Muslims have been driven into the arms of Islamic State not just by their own propaganda but by the clear hypocrisy of the west. The response from these young people may be misguided but part of their analysis may be right; western responses to the Muslim world have been appalling.
The other and greatest problem in western responses is for those societies on the receiving end of western violence. They deserve better and western responses tend to exacerbate the problems they are purportedly designed to solve.
Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
Christmas marks the birth of the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). It is considered by almost everyone as a time for celebrating all that is good about the human experience including health, wellbeing, joyfulness, sociability, generosity, forgiveness, and desire for peace between warring parties. It is a time of hope and new beginnings. In spite of this Christmas is celebrated in a manner counter to these sentiments, to take one example, the slaughter of innocents.
The innocents are the hundreds of millions of turkeys, chickens and pigs that will be the centre piece of the traditional Christmas dinner around the world. It is estimated that in the United States 22 million turkeys will be eaten at Christmas, ( www.urbanext.illinois.edu/turkey/turkey ) 10 million in the UK (The Ecologist 16 December 2010), and 700,000 in the Republic of Ireland (The Irish Independent, 3 December 2011). Christmas will also see a noted increase in consumption of all kinds including water, plants, metals and fuels with a corresponding increase in toxic waste, global warming gasses, loss of biodiversity and the suffering of those in low-wage economies. If this did not happen, if there were not an increase in consumption, shopkeepers, economists and politicians would consider it a bad Christmas.
If we took account of the negative impact of Christmas on the biosphere we would no more celebrate it than we would a riot in which amenities vital to all are torched and turned to rubble; or warfare in which the essentials for human life are systematically poisoned and destroyed including water, crops and shelter. Christmas, since the time of Charles Dickens, is mass make-belief sustained by the advertisement and entertainment industry and involves an unspoken agreement between producers and consumers to turn a blind eye to consequences and contradictions. As Eric Fromm, who spent his academic life analysing and critiquing the modernity mindset, wrote in To Have Or To Be? (1976):
“most people are half-awake, half-dreaming, and unaware that most of what they hold to be true and self-evident is illusion produced by the suggestive influence of the social world in which they live.” (p.47)
As in a grotesques fable Christmas is a prescribed happy time in which good cheer and wellbeing can only be realised through material consumption, gluttony and glitter as well as sitting through hours of banal Christmas-themed television programmes. This speaks of the failure of our education system, religious bodies and civic culture to nurture critical, creative and imaginative thinking that allows for the collective desire for renewal, the expression of appreciation and good will to be celebrated in ways that don’t involve the poisoning and eradication of the eco-systems which sustain life.
The manner in which Christmas is celebrated encapsulates the nature of our society’s dominant values and cultural norms. It is a testimony to the power of the herd instinct - the desire of people to be the same as everyone else, not to stand out or be thought an ‘odd-ball’. The desire to feel part of the great social mass is achieved at the sacrifice of knowing as in Eric Fromm’s use of the term, which is “to penetrate through the surface, in order to arrive at the roots, and hence the causes ... to ‘see’ reality in its nakedness” (P.47) Compassion is another trait that is selectively suppressed in order to feel part of what is considered normal. This collective disposition might account for why the Green Party which has viable economic, environmental and social policies receives so little electoral support in these islands and abroad. Radical positive change might have to wait until knowing and compassion has the stamp of normalcy, are considered cool.
On a positive note, the direction herds run can be changed and new life-affirming ideas can take root in the collective mind. As Owen Jones writes in The Guardian, 24th November 2014 “if we can build a society that encourages greed and sentiments which justify inequality, then we can also build a society nurturing solidarity, compassion and equality.” This view is based on the premise that if the selfish gene had prevailed during the course of our evolution humankind would be extinct. Is there time for us to “see reality in its nakedness” and be moved to meaningfully address behaviour that makes life a misery for many, such as the 850 million people the World Food Programme say don’t have enough to eat? Is there time to change behaviour, such as material indulgence as exemplified at Christmas, which promotes global warming and threatens a great variety of life on our planet?
Wishing all a happy eco-friendly Christmas.