|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
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The death of George Floyd at the hands of police in the USA has sparked an international movement not just in anglophone countries but in some other places including Belgium (in relation to its atrocious role in the Congo more than a century ago, challenged so ably by Roger Casement). The issue of the continued existence of statues to slave owners and racists has been part of the debate but in reality only a small part of a much larger picture which includes how countries deal with their less than savoury past and, most importantly, how black and minority ethnic people are treated today (the two issues are obviously intertwined). In regard to the latter, many shocking stories have been shared, at home and abroad.
Racism is a peculiar phenomenon, for many different reasons. While we can clearly state there is only one race, the human race, differences of skin colour, ethnicity and background are taken by some as evidence of intrinsic superiority and inferiority. However, bizarrely, if we wanted to look at our origins and use racist thinking (we do not) we could say that native Africans are the most developed of all since, unlike those whose origins are elsewhere, they are 100% Home Sapiens without any traces of Neanderthal. However it should also be stated that contemporary anthropological thinking is unable to distinguish much if any differences between the intelligence of Home Sapiens beings and Neanderthal beings.
Racism leads to violence and unfair treatment. It stunts people reaching their potential and making their full contribution to society. It has a lasting impact not only on adults but also in a particularly cruel way on children. The continuation of racist thinking also helps perpetuate other right wing myths. Racism is not a problem of one particular place, country or class; it is a very widespread phenomenon, and even where attention is drawn to a egregious example of racism the correcting of that may be neither fast nor efficient (e.g. in Britain the injustices visited on the Windrush generation of black migrants are still not sorted).
In Ireland, there are many different issues to do with racism, but first a word or clarification about the past. There may not have been slave trading conducted from Ireland – and the fact that Belfast did not get involved is partly due to Thomas McCabe who vehemently protested against the setting up of a slaving company in 1786. But there were a significant number who benefitted directly (through owning slaves in the West Indies, for example) or through selling provisions, including clogs and food, to slave plantations. So while involvement in the slave trade as such might not have been part of the Irish experience, benefitting from slavery certainly did happen.
Talking about today, the direct provision system in the Republic for asylum seekers (scheduled to be replaced under the Programme for Government of the new coalition), and the position of Travellers, are two major issues. The lack of human rights manifested by the direct provision system is an affront to human dignity and well being and a gross abuse of people who have likely already suffered greatly before even getting to Ireland. And Travellers themselves tend to be blamed for many of the ills they suffer rather than the state.
White on black prejudice and violence is a major issue in Ireland. In Northern Ireland, the close relationship between sectarianism and racism, both partly rooted in fear of ‘the other’, is an ongoing concern. In both jurisdictions, although it would seem more in the North, it is even possible to have ‘white on white’ racism as in attacks, physical or verbal, on Polish people.
There were those, particularly from our immediate eastern neighbours, who in the past berated Ireland for being a poverty-stricken no-hope place. One aphorism from the past was “If the Dutch lived in Ireland they would rule the world. If the Irish lived in Holland they would drown.” This implied poverty was the result of laziness. Given the role which our immediate neighbours had played in making Ireland poverty stricken, that was a bit ‘rich’. Ireland, or Northern Ireland, was also derided for being ungovernable; the North is still not out of that particular accusation but given the total mess which said neighbours have made of their politics over the last number of years, and the resultant divisions, we may not hear too much more about that for a while.
Of course poverty or difficulties in governance in Ireland were nothing to do with some national character flaw. It was circumstance, particularly colonialism and its knock on effects, including trade restrictions, which was primarily to blame. What did not apply to Ireland should not be attributed to others. India was one of the richest countries in the world when Britain took control in the 18th century and when it relinguished that control midway through the 20th century it was one of the poorest; it had been bled dry. However it also needs to be stated that while there was a frequently violent anti-colonial struggle in Ireland, culminating in partition, there were many Irish people who bought into not only the British colonial mindset but in numerous cases also served the colonial cause.
None of us are unprejudiced, all of us have been affected by racist thoughts, either in how we are seen or how we see others. If anyone feels they are unprejudiced, we have often in these pages recommended the ‘First thoughts exercise’. Working in pairs, and alternating roles at a half way stage, each person picks a group or nationality which is controversial for them, let us say ‘X’. Their partner, in emphatic and fast mode, states ‘X’ and the other has to say the first thing that comes into their head. You can keep several politically correct thoughts in our mind but by the time you get past those thoughts in your head, you can be surprised at what your mind draws up. Of course saying even a derogatory or dubious term or thought does not prove that you approve or this – but it does at a minimum indicate that these thoughts and terms are tucked away in our minds.
Most of us are, if you like, recovering racists – even those of us engaged in anti-racist work.
In the North, sectarianism in a certain way can be thought of as a form of racism, whether it be considering ‘Irish’ or ‘British’ identity as superior to the other. Of course we have, and are entitled to have, our own identity. But the idea that ‘our’ identity is automatically superior is nonsense. We may be attached to our identity, love and cherish our identity, and take pride in our national characteristics. We may never want to leave where we live because of our attachment to our identity, and swapping it for another identity might seem anathema. But if we feel we are therefore superior human beings then we are on a slippery slope to racism.
Many of us in Ireland have inherited racist views and these continue to be manifested in prejudiced and sometimes physically violent behaviour against people who look or sound different to ‘us’. Eliminating racism will not happen by itself. It requires persistent action by citizens and the state. During the coronaviruis epidemic we have heard much about the ‘R’ number; the average number of people whom a new Covid-19 sufferer will infect. But we can say that the ‘R’ number can also apply to ‘Racism’; are we on the way to eliminate this scourge of humanity or is it continuing to reproduce itself and perpetuate that terrible affliction on society?
A programme for government
There are a number of positives in the programme for government of the new Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green Party coalition in the Republic. The aim of a 7% annual decrease in carbon emissions is a major step forward in Ireland taking its responsibilities seriously after years of dithering and inaction. The retrofitting of half a million homes, and the major share of capital expenditure going to public transport (with around €1 million a day on cycling and pedestrianism) are other major green gains. The commitment to phasing out of the direct provision system for asylum seekers is welcome but twenty years too late (the time it was introduced). How soon what will actually happen remains to be seen.
However there are also negatives. Without tax rises, and the prospect of tax cuts being held open due to Fine Gael’s insistence, and no means of addressing inequality issues arising from green taxes (e.g. an increasing carbon tax), those who are the poorer members of society may be further sunk rather than being helped to swim. If it is the poor who bear the weight of green taxes then that is seriously regressive.
It is also obvious – as with the lead news item in this issue of ‘Nonviolent News’ – that on the issue of neutrality, violence, peace, and connivance with EU militarisation and with NATO, the new coalition is adopting a policy of no change to becoming simply another member-as-fellow-traveller of NATO. While an attempt has been made to restate – hypocritical - official policy on Shannon, this is simply another lie, or the continuation of the current big lie, and the US military will continue to use Shannon Airport unhindered and unchecked by the Irish state, and the state will continue its unnecessary and violent involvement in PESCO.
Article 29 of the Irish Constitution is effectively ignored by those who see the future in tune with the military two-step of EU and NATO. It states: “1. Ireland affirms its devotion to the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations founded on international justice and morality. 2. Ireland affirms its adherence to the principle of the pacific settlement of international disputes by international arbitration or judicial determination. 3. Ireland accepts the generally recognised principles of international law as its rule of conduct in its relations with other States.” We couldn’t put it better ourselves. But recent Irish governments have sought to circumvent this policy which is supported, as opinion polls show, by a very considerable majority of Irish people.
A positive future for Ireland on the international stage does not consist of being a drone (sic) for NATO and a militarised EU. It consists of a reaffirmed commitment to Irish neutrality, to article 29 of the Constitution, and a real 21st century imaginative application of ‘the principle of pacific settlement of international disputes’. Imagination and creativity have been exercised in the past so there is no reason to be subservient to the kings and kaisers of today. There is plenty of positive work to be done by a neutral Ireland which can contribute to world peace. But that requires the Irish government to drop its sleeveen (slíbhín – sly or a sly person) approach of pretending to uphold neutrality while actually cosying up to the powers that be, whether NATO, the EU or the USA.
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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column
“The last 150 years have seen a great holocaust. There have been more species lost in the past 150 years than since the Ice Age. During the same time, Indigenous peoples have been disappearing from the face of the earth. Over 2,000 nations of Indigenous peoples have gone extinct in the western hemisphere, and one nation disappears from the Amazon rainforest every year.”
Winona Laduke, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, 1999, p.1
The murder of the black man George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, sparked a spontaneous near-worldwide demand, under the auspices of Black Lives Matter, for black people and other ethnic groups in predominately white societies to be treated in a respectful non-discriminatory way. The campaigners, composed of a cross-section of society, not only want institutional reforms but a change in how the dominant culture views non-white people.
To this end they call for an honest narrative of the last 500 years of European history to be taught in schools and universities, be examined in the media and explored by the arts. The narrative should include all the horrors of colonialism including genocide, slavery, forced relocation and religious conversion, concentration camps and state sanctioned torture, the looting of the resources of subjected peoples, the elimination of their culture and language through legislation, forced schooling and material destruction.
The point campaigners make is that the mentality that drove the colonial enterprise, greed and the idea of exceptionalism, still prevails. This was demonstrated on the day before the murder of George Floyd when in Western Australia the mining company Rio Tinto blew up two 46,000 year-old caves sacred to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. It is standard practice for mining companies in Australia to destroy sites sacred to Aboriginal peoples as it is common for corporations to pollute and destroy the lands of indigenous peoples across the world.
It should be noted that racism is not only a case of some white people having a negative view of black people. I have come across racism in Sudan where some black northerners were profoundly racist towards people of darker skin who came from what is now South Sudan. I found it in South East Asia where many have a positive view of white people for no other reason than their skin colour. I also found it in the Arabian countries where many favour people with fair skin and relegate those with dark skin to a lower status. The caste system in India is racist. (*1) Racism is based on the idea that one is superior or inferior to those of a different skin colour, something which science demonstrates is patently absurd.
Another common absurdity is speciesism. This holds that humans are the superior species endowed with the right to treat every other species as a means to our ends. This belief is leading to the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth with 500 species of land animals on course to become extinct within the next 20 years (*2) and hundreds of thousands of all kinds likely to become extinct shortly afterwards. (*3) Belief in species superiority has led to climate breakdown and the wholesale degradation of the biosphere.
Equally absurd is the widespread belief, again based on exceptionalism, in unlimited economic growth. The crux of this idea is that we can transcend the physical limitations of ecosystems without incurring significant harm to ourselves. In this case ‘ourselves’ are the economically privileged who cannot but know that our consumerism and comfort is at the expense of the suffering masses, who coincidentally are mainly non-white. A study published in the journal ‘Nature Communications’, 19 June 2020, highlights the extent of responsibility the rich have for the destruction of the nonhuman world. It found that:
“the world’s top 10% of income earners are responsible for between 25 and 43% of environmental impact. In contrast, the world’s bottom 10% income earners exert only 3-5% of environmental impact. These findings mean that environmental impact is to a large extent caused by and driven by the world’s rich citizens.”
It is not surprising that the idea there are few limitations on what our species can do extents to the hubris of thinking that of all the species that have ever existed in the approximately four-billion years of life on Earth ours is the only one that is immortal. The belief holds that at the point of physical death humans supposed non-material entity is released from its anchorage and with no need of sustenance, support, connection or community goes on to exist for eternity, which is time beyond the expiration of the universe, and every possible successive universe for ever and ever.
As with challenging racism, sexism and other forms of exceptionalism there is hope that a critical percentage of the global population will reconfigure their view of their place in nature and internalise the credo of many indigenous peoples that all species are of equal value and individual members are people and deserve to be treated with the respect and compassion we aspire to treat members of our own kind. This view is supported by legislation in a number of countries. The most recent country to grant legal personhood to nonhuman beings is New Zealand when in 2017 it granted the River Whanganui the legal status of a person with the right to sue over issues like pollution. In 2014 it awarded the 2,127 sq. km Urewera rainforest the same legal status.
The wellbeing and flourishing of each human person lies in letting go of the illusion of otherness, be that another species, or people who are categorically different from ourselves in terms of colour, gender, age, religion and so forth. All human beings originated from the same distant ancestors, who along with all life-forms originated from the big bang of 13.8 billion years ago. Thinking otherwise is impoverishing and may result in the demise of all life-forms.
(*1) Jue Suraiva, The Indian caste system is based on racism, The Times of India, 2 February 2016.
(*2) Damian Carrington, Guardian, 1 June 2020.
(*3) Jonathan Watts, Guardian, 6 May 2019.