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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Billy King

Number 243 October 2016

[Returned to related issued on Nonviolence News]

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts –

Well, September was a very reasonable month weather-wise, and allowed me to do a bit of catching up at home on some of those 91.5% of things that I didn't get done in the summer, in this case partly the painting of windows and window sills on our abode, which needed attention. Not done yet but getting there. I'm getting plenty of practice climbing and standing up ladders. Though it is starting to get colder for standing up ladders. 'Take me to your ladder' as they say. And thankfully I still haven't got a ladder in my tights, that might prove a bit difficult not to say painful.

Sweet move in Sweden
Good news from Sweden that tax breaks are planned for repairs; VAT on repairs from anything to bicycles to washing machines could be halved from 25% to 12%, and people would be able to claim back half of the cost of repairs from income tax. This is a proposal from the ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, see here. The moves could become law by January 2017.

This makes brilliant sense. In our throwaway culture, it is often cheaper to buy a new product rather than have it repaired and yet this is the antithesis of green living. If it costs to be green then it will remain the prerogative of the really dedicated and those who can afford to pay more. However, make or allow green policies pay and of course most people will opt for the best of both worlds, saving money and being green. At the moment EU countries would be obliged to charge some VAT, but how about repairs being VAT-free? Higher taxes on new goods might not go down well with many consumers but could complement lower taxes for repairs, and might encourage consumers to try to avoid products with built in obsolescence – and manufacturers to build more durable products.

As they say at the bicycle repair shop, re-cycle. And if people think that all this might cost a bit more, at the moment our throwaway culture is costing the planet.

Natural killers?
So what do you make of the idea that humans are predisposed to murder. Primates did kill primates, at least a few of them did, and do. At the dawn of humankind some research suggests up to 2% of deaths were human-on-human killings. If this is the case, in what way is lethal killing part of our make up?

There is debate on this issue, and even stronger debate on the ramifications for humanity today. Douglas Fry of the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the US said "the findings show that social organization is critically important in affecting human violence". Too true. There are societies where humans killing humans would be virtually unknown, and there are societies where it is all too common. And, as part of the thread following the article reflects, 90% (or more) of the killing is done by 50% of humans, i.e. males, so what is the story with females, and what is it that makes men more likely to be killers,

In my understanding there is a lot of ropey history and anthropology on the topic of humanity and violence. It is certainly not my aim to say violence is not part of some of our evolutionary history, just as I would say it is pointless to try to minimise the role violence has played in Irish history, for example. But what about the 98% of early humans not killed by others, and, as today, I would make the presumption that many rejected violence as a means of problem solving or, indeed, as a means of creating further problems.

If humanity is pretty similar in its approaches 'then' and 'now' I would say throughout there have been people who tried to avoid violence and sought to resolve issues without the use of violence. Most traditional societies have traditional conflict resolution methods – many based on a circle type meeting of elders - so it is not unreasonable, indeed it is highly probable, to think that stone age societies also had methodologies for dealing with conflict beyond the stone axe or the big stick.

Those who study traditional narratives and stories can work out, through the language and construction, roughly how far back they date. So perhaps it is possible to study traditional conflict resolution methods, such as the jirga and so on, and extrapolate backwards from those. So maybe we could see a headline some time about humans being natural mediators and dealers with conflict.

White Helmets
Whatever and wherever the conflict, there are people who will respond non-violently, and in a humanitarian way where that is the best option or nothing else constructive is possible. This is the case with the White Helmets (Syrian Civil Defence) in rebel-held areas of Syria which have received a lot of nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, and more generally They won the Right Livelihood Award in September. Of course, given the nature of the Syrian conflict there are allegations of bias - that they are hand in hand with Al Qaeda - but my take on this is simply that this allegation is because they are based in rebel-held areas who are under attack from the Syrian regime, and in any conflict helping 'enemies' in any way is always considered traitorous.

They are unarmed civilians who go to rescue anyone they can after bombardment and destruction. They are very under-resourced and under-equipped for their task of rescuing people in incredibly dangerous situations but they do it. They respond and work to save lives, no questions asked, and in many cases inspired by the Islamic teaching that to save one life is to save all of humanity (incidentally, the same epithet appears in the Jewish Talmud). It looks like in Aleppo they may have been directly targeted by Syrian and Russian bombs, and upwards of a hundred and fifty have been killed through their work. No, they are not a solution to the multifaceted Syrian disaster but it would seem they are an indication of the best of humanity at work in incredibly difficult circumstances.

The saddest song
There would be some competition to find the saddest song in Ireland and in the Irish tradition. It would also depend what you mean by 'sad' because that is open to a multitude of interpretations.

Thankfully the rather sad (sic) myth, sometimes quoted, that in Ireland "All our wars are merry and all our songs are sad" is not heard much anymore; it was a rather despicable myth anyway. Yes, there are many songs which are sad in Ireland but the idea that our wars were 'merry', in any possible understanding of that term, is a complete and utter fallacy, I'm not sure whether that particular myth or concept existed beyond its rendering in (and subsequent quotation from) G K Chesterton's "The Ballad of the White Horse" (1911), a poetic account of King Alfred the Great of England:

"For the great Gaels of Ireland`
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad."

For anyone but particularly for an Englishman to allege that Irish wars were 'merry' in any way is a rather strange concoction and fantasy, even within the licence of poetic drama.

But, on to my nomination of a possible competitor for the title of saddest song in modern Irish songwriting, at least sad at a personal level and in a haunting and poignant way. It is a song which I am surprised more artists have not recorded. It is "McKeown and I" which I know from Rig the Jig's 'Stormy Brew' album (2002) and written by Mickey and Cormac MacConnell.

Both lyrics and melody I find haunting, The "I" of the song progresses through life from tenement to reformatory to prison, and it is that steady progression which is part of the sadness reflected. As a boy he builds a sandcastle with McKeown (note surnames are used in the song, implying institutionalisation), builds a scarecrow in a reformatory with 'O'Neill', and then a pure white snowman in prison again with 'McKeown', and this innocent activity contrasts with the fact they are locked up long term.

While the song and album are available (the song is available online and Claddagh Records list the album), I couldn't find the lyrics to check them but here's my take on the chorus:

"We're men of straw,
We're men of sand,
Our castles crumble,
Never meant to stand.
We're two born losers,
Sure to failure we've become,
We're snowmen built
For melting in the sun."

For me it is a perfectly constructed ballad with the imagery of building – from sandcastle to scarecrow to snowman – providing the narrative while some sparse but evocative details of their disastrous life are filled in through the background. Very powerful and affecting. And for me it's very sad at the human level and, while presumably fictional, it is also indicative of what happens when someone isn't given a chance in life.

Before I go I wanted to comment on Chelsea Manning and the US treatment of her. I see their treatment for someone who is imprisoned and suicidal like her is to put them in solitary confinement, yes, I can see that will really work to lift someone's spirits and make them less suicidal. Cruelty and vindictiveness take many forms.

That's me for another month, the winter is a-comin' in and that too has its advantages, such as being warm and cosy at home while the cold winds and rains come, or indeed getting warm striding out in the cold. I just hope I'm not still standing up a ladder.

See you soon, Billy.

Who is Billy King?
A long, long time ago, in a more innocent age (just talking about myself you understand), there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train' and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor around with you).

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).

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