The Assassination of Benazir Bhutto

Source: art_es_annaBenazir Bhutto

I saw it this morning, at about eight. I said, “Oh… my… God.” Benazir Bhutto, long–and probably accurately–seen as the best choice for prime minister of the troubled mess that is Pakistan, was assassinated.

For good or ill, it’s the most important political assassination I remember. I’m far too young to have experienced the deaths of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, or Robert Kennedy. Too young, too, to have seen the attempts to assassinate Ronald Reagan, or Pope John Paul II.

I faintly remember the death of Diana, but I didn’t understand and didn’t worry. Britain is a much more stable state than Pakistan has ever been.

Perhaps the best reference I have, and one I was coincidently reminded of as I wiled away some down time on the internet, is September 11, 2001. And surely the analogy fails in some ways–roughly 3000 Americans compared with about 20 Pakistanis.

But the 9/11 analogy succeeds in other ways. I am, as on that Tuesday in September, waiting desperately for a comfort that almost certainly won’t come. Vainly hoping that these deaths, like all those, will be corrected. That from somewhere the universe will say “Sorry, I screwed that up. Let me undo this terrible mistake.”

But despite my desires, there’s an almost unavoidable fact that neither God nor the universe believes in taking back ugly events. The Holocaust has still happened. The Crusades have still happened. Colonialism and slavery are still present in the history of the human race. Genocides and wars still happen today. Injustice, violence, and loss seem like house guests who don’t recognize how much everyone wishes they would just leave us in peace.

Perhaps I’ve been waiting for someone to explain to me the reason for all this. But The Economist, the crutch on which I depend to make sense of the world, didn’t do it any better than the AP. The calculations of a small group of determined souls makes no more sense than they did when I first heard the news. Or when I first heard about the World Trade Center.

Assassinations are perhaps the oldest form of terrorism. And I have little doubt that breaking Bhutto’s Pakistan’s People’s Party (the country’s largest), and Pakistan nascent hope for long-term stability were exactly the aim of the assassin.

It seems that all I can hope for on this December day, two days after Christmas, as I stare out into the swirling snow, is that someday this shock and despair will be unknown throughout the world. That peace and stability will be the only realities that anyone knows. A foolish hope perhaps, but one that I’m sure is worth having.

american society, USA, world

“There is almost no problem we can solve all by ourselves”

Source: cursedthingBill Clinton

Former President Bill Clinton was on Charlie Rose last Friday. He said a lot of interesting things, and though they also did a fair bit of rehashing tired arguments about the presidential campaign, it is a pretty good interview to watch.

Without question, the line that most caught my attention was this one: Mr. Clinton said, making what felt like a rather precarious jump, that the American people now know as they never have before that “there is almost no problem we can solve all by ourselves.” That America’s citizenry recognizes that the problems we face as a country: terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, health, and immigration, are all outside of the control of any single government, even the most powerful.

Though Clinton wouldn’t have been a good politician if he regularly denigrated the intelligence of the American people–as I sometimes think is appropriate–I do think he’s overstated the case. One doesn’t have to look very hard in this country to find people as convinced as ever that America has the right to impose its will upon the world. That its policy can and should be to unilaterally do whatever it wants, whenever it judges itself justified.

I have no doubt that those who easily forget that the United States is merely one country in a much larger world is shrinking and continues to shrink. But I find it incredibly hard to accept the argument that the whole populous has come to this revelation.

To be fair, Mr. Clinton is doubly right. More Americans than ever realize that their government doesn’t run the world, and every day a few more do. Further, he’s right in that the world is indeed a less “Amerocentric” place than at any other time since the Second World War.

Certainly, the attacks on September 11, 2001 shook a number of people out of the delusion that they lived in an impenetrable fortress from which they can run roughshod over the whole world and never face any consequences. Unfortunately, from there they went on to allow Mr. Bush to convince them that the wisest course to restore their illusory security was to depose Saddam Hussein–a hideous man no doubt, but hardly a grave threat to American security.

It is in Mr. Bush’s nearly-unilateral, (now known to be) misguided, and poorly executed invasion of Iraq that many Americans realized that they cannot persist as a hegemon. So too has Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Bush’s intransigence on climate change, and the many failed attempts to reform America’s broken immigration laws.

All of this has made clear that Americans do not have sole control over their own destiny. Though I hate the over-simplistic term, “the emergence of China” has clearly changed the world. For one, America’s recent economics hardships have been far more localized than many expected.

There was a time when a devaluation of the American dollar was an absolutely terrifying scenario for world economics, but it hasn’t had the expected debilitating impact. As the world slowly decouples from the formerly-all-important American economy (and thus its government), this country, like Britain before it, will have to recognize that it is not the king of the world.

Love or hate the former President, he is right about that.

politics, USA, world

The Nuclear Dilemma

I’m rather certain that my favorite Republican presidential candidate during the 2000 election cycle was John McCain. I’m also rather certain that he’s my favorite this time too. It’s not that he’s perfect. Far from it. I’m well aware that he’s got flaws, and I’ve certainly taken issue with some of the things he’s said.

Lest we go too far into America’s political realities, let’s get back to nukes. But this is not about Iran, North Korea, or the kind of nuclear technologies that go boom. We’re talking about the significantly less frightening kind that just boil water.

Nuclear technology and environmentalists have never been friends. And so the idea that they’ll suddenly become so is unlikely. But John McCain is right about one thing: environmentalists need nuclear power.

To their credit some have come to this realization. Stewart Brand, who created The Whole Earth Catalogue, which The Economist described as “a path-breaking manual crammed with examples of small-scale technologies to enable individuals to reduce their environmental impact” that still has fans in environmental circles.

But Mr. Brand, like Mr. McCain, has embraced the importance of nuclear power to the greening of America. Also like Mr. McCain (and myself), he fails to see what’s so bad about nuclear power and the requisite waste storage. Again, The Economist:

For years, he held the orthodox environmental view that nukes were evil. He now confesses that this was merely “knee-jerk opposition”, and not a carefully considered opinion. His growing concern about global warming, which he calls “the single most important environmental threat facing mankind”, explains his U-turn in favour of this low-carbon but hugely controversial source of electricity.

The turning point came, he says, when he visited Yucca Mountain, a remote site in the Nevada desert where American officials plan to bury the country’s nuclear waste. … Although greens and other anti-nuclear activists oppose the Yucca Mountain project, Mr Brand says he realised that “we are asking the wrong question” about nuclear power. Rather than asking how spent nuclear fuel can be kept safe for 10,000 to 100,000 years, he says, we should worry about keeping it safe for only 100 years. Because nuclear waste still contains an enormous amount of energy, future generations may be able to harness it as an energy source through tomorrow’s better technologies.

Though I’m not as sanguine as Mr. Brand about the ease with which technology will reharness our spent nuclear fuel, I fail to see how opposition to nuclear power is anything but a knee-jerk reaction. Given the choice between filling even a few hollowed-out mountains with spent nuclear fuel or flooding a number of small island nations and coastal cities into nonexistence I think the choices is obvious.

Surely green power-generation technologies exist, and surely they’re becoming more efficient by the year, but they’re hardly ready to be the sole fuel sources for the world. The most well-known options–wind and solar–are both inefficient and far from dependable. It doesn’t take much to realize that without wind or sun they’d produce no power.

Nuclear power certainly is not a perfect technology, but it’s the most carbon-neutral and dependable option available. Power generation companies in this country and around the world realize this and are working to build bigger, safer, and more productive nuclear power stations (usually near existing ones, to avoid the “not in my backyard” problem). And though the most obvious allies for the power companies push to lower carbon dioxide emission are greens, they’re still the people most likely to step out and oppose it.

The issue of safety with nuclear power stations is still the foremost for most opponents. It’s worth noting, as I have, that compared with coal, nuclear is incredibly safe. The number of deaths related to the Chernobyl disaster is easily dwarfed by the number killed mining coal in China in a single year.

Certainly that doesn’t compare with the estimated zero killed by wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal power plants, but this is again ignoring the issue of viability as dependable producers of electricity.

Nuclear is hardly the ideal choice. Were completely safe and renewable energy a viable option in the next few years, I would readily support it. But it’s not. What’s currently available is the unsavory choice between fossil fuels and nuclear, and between those two nuclear is certainly the safer and more environmentally-friendly option. Until renewable sources of energy are dependable and efficient enough, I think nuclear remains the only acceptable stop-gap for a carbon-concerned environmentalist. The sooner that’s realized, the better.

personal, ruminations, world

The Mandarins

A few days ago I created a new text document on my desktop–the way I almost always jot down notes when I’m at the computer–and titled it “the mandarins” and put this inside:

I used to believe that the world was controlled by extraordinary individuals who were somehow different than people like me. I’ve come to realize that the world is filled with extraordinary individuals like me and run by no one.

As with all seemingly-profound insights I have, I quickly realized its flaws. The most glaring to me is how hollow this sentiment is in an authoritarian state. Perhaps those leading a state, Burma for example, are no more exceptional than their citizens but they are clearly and unquestionably running things.

The same can be asserted, to varying degrees, in all countries which currently exist. Perhaps George Bush doesn’t run the world, but it’s hard to deny that he could make life profoundly uncomfortable for almost anyone anywhere in the world should he be so compelled.

Though the idea fails to be easily reconciled to political reality, I don’t really think it was intended as a treatise on modern political realities. Much more so it was a way I viewed the world and average people (read: those that aren’t able to readily command large militaries).

Part of this is likely an outgrowth of the cultural zeitgeist. Like never before, previously average people can become knowledgeable, credible, and important experts on any topic. Perez Hilton, even if his expertise is incredibly trivial, does represent something of new paradigm. So does Wikipedia.

I also think it’s true that that text document represents a second end of parental infallibility. It’s a well-known and widely-understood stage of development: the revelation that your parents don’t know everything, can’t fix everything. This realization is similar. It’s the realization the much revered purveyors of culture and knowledge aren’t infallible and impossibly knowledgeable. They regularly make errors just like everyone else.

In this way, the document perhaps serves as visceral proof of my naivete. I’m okay with that possibility. I’ve known academically for some time that presidents can and frequently do make mistakes. So do CEOs, journalists, and academics. But the intellectual understanding of a fact is very different from active awareness of it.

Mostly I think the document was feeble attempt to convey one of my strongest conviction–which is perhaps both naive and mundane–that we’re all essentially the same. For a while this was my magic bullet, perhaps it still is. Somehow I was (and still am) convinced that if every person in the world understood this fact–viscerally not intellectually–we’d all live much better lives.

Maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m naive to think that we’re really all the same. Maybe it’s naive to think that everyone in the world could ever come to that realization. But as I said yesterday, naive and hopeless causes are my favorite kind.

american society, politics, world

Of Teddy Bears and Ignorance

By now you’ve probably heard something about a teddy bear in the news. But it seems to me that the way people understood the story had a lot to do with where they heard about it. So in the tradition of this piece, I’ve created two very different interpretations pared down from different news sources.

First we have, edited from Andrew Heavens’s story of last Friday, what I like to call “Crazy Muslims At it Again”:

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Hundreds of Sudanese Muslims, waving green Islamic flags, took to the streets of Khartoum on Friday demanding death for the British teacher convicted of insulting Islam after her class named a teddy bear Mohammad.

“No one lives who insults the Prophet,” the protesters chanted, a day after school teacher Gillian Gibbons, 54, was sentenced to 15 days in jail and deportation from Sudan.

At least 1,000 protesters shook their fists or waved banners or ceremonial swords and chanted religious and nationalist slogans after leaving Muslim Friday prayers. Banners called for “punishment” for Gibbons, and some protesters burned newspapers that contained pictures of the teacher.

Several hundred protesters made a brief stop at the closed but heavily guarded Unity High School, where Gibbons worked, but did not attempt to go inside. The school was guarded by five truckloads of police in riot gear.

The protesters marched from there to the British embassy where several hundred surrounded the ambassador’s residence, chanting religious slogans. There were no reports of violence.

Gibbons was charged on Wednesday with insulting Islam, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs because the class toy had been given the same name as the Muslim Prophet Mohammad.

Under Sudan’s penal code, she could have faced 40 lashes, a fine or up to a year in jail. But Gibbons was convicted only of insulting religion.

This is how most people I’ve heard talking about the story see it. This is terribly unfortunate because even Heavens’s piece contains some insight into the role the Darfur crisis may have had in the actions of the government in Khartoum and the loyalist protesters.

The second version of the story is stolen from The Economist’s coverage, and I’ll (verbosely) call it “West Misunderstands Khartoum’s Feeble Attempt to Exploit Religious Row”:

FOR anyone who is labouring to improve Christian-Muslim relations, or stop civilisations clashing, it is a painful setback: a well-intentioned Western woman who has volunteered her services as a teacher in a land stricken by conflict and poverty, only to find herself denounced by a local colleague and incarcerated in horrible conditions.

Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year-old teacher from Liverpool, was sentenced on Thursday November 29th to 15 days in prison for “insulting religion”, after allowing her pupils at a school in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, to name a teddy bear Muhammad.

When the story broke in the British press this week, it was widely reported that she might face up to 40 lashes, or six months in jail, if she were found guilty on all three of the charges laid against her. The incident happened in September and caused no protest among parents at the time. At one point the affair seemed to be spinning out of control as groups of angry men gathered outside the police station where she was held.

For Muslims in Britain and other democracies, the story was a deeply depressing one: so many of its features, including the fact that it happened in the run-up to Christmas, seemed almost calculated to resonate with British tabloid readers, who may not know much about Sudan or Islam (or any other faith) but have strong feelings about teddies, tiny tots and motherly teachers.

In more elevated western circles, it is becoming commoner to hear the view that Islam itself (rather than any extremist interpretations of the faith) is posing a challenge to western values that must be resisted. And if that view becomes more respectable, so too does a defensive Muslim reaction, which is often tinged with geopolitical grievance.

To observers who know Sudan, the whole affair seems to have become entangled with the broader stand-off between the government in Khartoum and the Western countries, including Britain, that have pushed for the United Nations to intervene in the appalling humanitarian crisis in Darfur. All diplomatic exchanges between the Sudanese government and Western ones, whether they concern refugees or teddy bears, take place against that background.

The Economist’s admirable piece goes on to discuss the role of capital punishment in Islam–worth reading if you’re interested. I should also point to another responsible (if almost as tardy as my own) perspective on this event form Anne Applebaum’s “The absurd Sudanese teddy bear controversy” at Slate.

What the difference between the two stories above makes clear is the painfully high cost the world pays for ignorance. The gap between seeing the “teddy bear row” as another example of Muslims doing crazy anti-Western things and seeing it as a desperate attempt by Khartoum to get as much leverage as it can to prevent outside intervention in Darfur is a big one.

Those who read the story the first way go away more convinced than ever about the massive threat posed to Britain or America by what many like to call “Islamofacism.” Those who read it the second way are essentially aware that the event, though ugly, is a product of the wishes of a fearful government and a few loyal supporters–nothing more.

I do think reporter for the major news agencies–Reuters, AFP, the AP–could do a much better job moderating the coverage of events like this, since their articles are read by the vast majority of laypeople. But I think it would be both unfair and short-sighted to castigate them for their occasional failings.

Mostly, I just wish that everyone–myself included–were more willing to withhold judgments on the things we don’t understand. And the complex geopolitics of Sudan and the diversity of Muslims are two things I certainly don’t understand. Perhaps hoping we can accept before judging is a lost cause, but I’m pretty sure lost causes are the only ones worth hoping for.

review, world

Review: Downfall

There has always been a great deal of idle speculation about what it is that people find so fascinating about Hitler’s Germany. My favorite theory–which hardly makes it correct–is that people want to understand what allows people to do such depraved things to each other. That people probe the Holocaust looking for ways that we can assure that such a thing never happens again.

For those seeking to viscerally understand the nuances of Nazi ideology and the causes of mass adherence to the doctrine of National Socialism, Downfall isn’t really for you. Downfall, an immaculate recreation of the tense final days inside Hitler’s Berlin bunker, is much more about the paternal role an ailing and potentially insane Fuhrer played in the lives of those who knew him most intimately. How these people reacted as the Reich crumbled, how they reacted to his suicide, how they surrendered to the Soviet forces.

Downfall made me feel more sympathetically toward Hitler than I ever thought I could, but it would be absolutely unfair and inaccurate to say that it is itself sympathetic. The film’s aim–at which is succeeds brilliantly–is to show the discomfort and weariness of the Reich’s powerful as their empire and dreams crumbled around them.

In doing so, in getting so close to these people for so long (the movie is 153 minutes), you can’t help but feel for them. Whether or not you’re convinced they’re good and friendly people, you have to recognize the unavoidable humanity of the characters being portrayed. Even Joseph and Magda Goebbels, who kill their six young children and then each other, drive home the unavoidable truth that even Nazis had feelings, even they suffered, even those who spent much of their lives trying to ignore and avoid such “weakness.”

Downfall is based on the account of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secratary from 1942 to 1945. The movie opens with the scene of Fraulein Junge’s interview for the position, in which we see a gentle and forgiving Hitler (played brilliantly by Bruno Ganz) who makes absolutely clear that this is different than the traditional caricatures of the man and his empire.

Some have critiqued Downfall for being nostalgic for the Germany that died with Hitler. I feel confident in saying that such ideas are both incorrect and insulting. The film does indeed encourage the watcher to sympathize with the followers who submitted to the myth of Hitler and found themselves completely lost when the grand plan for domination finally failed. But presenting these confused people humanely is hardly the same as presenting them as heroes.

So too has presenting Hitler as a person, rather than a caricature, gained the film some hostility. Here too I think it’s grossly unfair to argue that such a characterization is in any way a glorification. History and people find it convenient to see the mass-murders of recent history–Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and sometimes Slobodan Milosovic–as some other, some un-human. This simple separation and banishment is convenient, but its convenience is principally derived from its gross oversimplification of reality. As Dowfall‘s director, Oliver Hirshbiegel, said:

It is unbelievable that he could manipulate all these people. He only succeeded because he was a human being, and that’s why we have to show this. To show him as a human being. Everything else would be fatal. And it would be a historical mistake.

Downfall fascinating and compelling power comes precisely from the fact that it humanizes Hitler and his closest and most well-known co-conspirators. It allows that these people were human, whether they themselves knew or liked that fact, and had human feelings. Downfall‘s success is clearly illustrated be the controversy that has bubbled around it. Though I think its detractors have overstated the case, they are correct in seeing that humanizing history’s most notorious villains is an unsavory and sensitive business. But Downfall does it better than any film I’ve seen.

big ideas, fiction, personal, world

The Myth of the Magic Bullet

I’ve long been seeking one thing–a song, a poem, a quotation, even a book–that once found will magically save all people–save them from their greed, their fear, and their unnecessary antipathy for one another.

One day I met my anti-prophet, who told me this:

I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t exist, it can’t exist, and most certainly won’t. It hasn’t been made, it won’t be made, it can’t be made. Perhaps, having made these proclamations, it is incumbent upon me, the prophet, to provide good reason that such a claim is true.

Don’t forget that people still hate, kill, steal, and rape–literally and figuratively–other people. If a peaceful and harmonious world hasn’t arisen in the 5000 years of Abrahamic religion, in the 5000 years of Buddhist tradition, in the 2000 years of Christian practice, and the 1300 year since the death of Muhammad, religion certainly is not the magic bullet. Pogroms, crusades, jihads, and all stripes of fundamentalism show viscerally that religions are both the cause of and reason for a great deal of strife.

The secular heritage of science and the academy have always offered some refuge for those distrustful of religious strife. But it’s also hard to deny that some of the most intelligent people in this world are also the most driven to do things that are, at best, morally abhorrent. Hitler was no academic slouch–even if he was a poor writer–nor were the scores of scientist, Nazi and otherwise, who advocated for the eugenics-based policies of population control that only Hitler was ever powerful and audacious enough to carry to its deeply unsettling climax.

The public sphere–typified by democratic politics in most countries of the world–is hardly much in the way of grace giving. Surely democracy is a good form of government and when exercised in open societies it’s the very articulation of the desires of a society’s public sphere. But you don’t have to look far to see that politics, even the most open and democratic, leads to no small measure of strife and systematic unrest, both in its home and elsewhere.

But surely, you’re saying, the most grievous failures of monolithic institutions aren’t sufficient to mean that there can be no magic bullet. After all, most of the best ideas come from hermits, writers, and philosophers divorced from religion, the academy, and the public sphere. You are not wrong in think that, but your missing a crucial point. Those divorced from religion, the academy, or politics lack a crucial element in the magic bullet equation–a gun. Without a pulpit, conference stage, or spaker’s podium from which to spread their transformative message, they’re effectively impotent. Were they to ever create a bullet, or even some insight into how to make it, they would lack a mouthpiece through which to tell the good word.

There can be no change, for the world is lead by dreadfully dull paper-pushers whose very survival depends on sustaining the status quo. They’re both powerful and unwilling to accept even the smallest change. Their power disempowers the rest of us, who can aspire to no better than a peaceful life for ourselves. We can’t give others such a life, we just have to do our best to wrest one for ourselves.

Having listened to the anti-prophet, I wasn’t sure what to think. Part of me wanted to surrender immediately. To give in, say he was right all along and that I was a fool to hope for something different.

Part of me wanted to condemn him as a hopeless cynic. A man sure of nothing but the impossibility of anything worth doing. He was, after all, oversimplifying. Certainly the world hadn’t changed as much as I’d like over my lifetime, but some steps had been made. Poverty and hunger are less rampant than they were 20, 200, or 2000 years ago, and that’s certainly a change.

He did make me realize that I would probably never find a magic bullet. That no single thing is likely to suddenly make all citizens of the world come to their senses and stop hurting one another. He strengthened in my mind the resolve that change is always and necessarily gradual, but it’s absolutely not impossible.

The anti-prophet wasn’t completely wrong, but for now my optimism has won out. I hope it’ll manage to holdout for 5, 15, or 50 more years. But in my weaker moments I can’t help feeling that it’s easier to give in and give up than to hold out hope.

Keep Each Other Well

Professional Human Beings

I’m not even sure where I first heard the term “Professional Human Beings,” but it’s an idea I can’t seem to shake. I often think that the world needs more Professional Human Beings.

But I should be clear: this is different than needing more “professionals.” Professional Human Beings are people who spend their time being the best people they can be; “professionals” usually spend their time being stiff and condescending.

Inherent in the meaning of being a professional is the idea that you get paid, primarily for your expertise and skill. So, for there to be Professional Human Beings, I suppose I would have to find a way to pay them. Pay them for being the best people they can.

Maybe it would come from my pocket, though that’s unlikely given my current finances. Perhaps it could be a charity soliciting donations, like the Red Cross. Perhaps we could find a single rich man to back it. Perhaps we’d have to just give Professional Human Beings metaphorical money.

But then maybe Professional Human Beings wouldn’t need to be it’s own foundation. In some ways, I think we could say that there are already very similar organizations. Winners of the Nobel Peace Prize are generally people I would consider for inclusion in my group, are they’re already paid–at least as the prize currently works–for making the world a better place (whether or not they’re fostering peace in a traditional sense).

More locally, many television channels, for example, reward “everyday heroes.” Though these people aren’t generally paid when honored, the nomination and ceremony probably provides nearly as much validation as any amount of money would.

One of the hardest things about truly pursuing the Professional Human Beings idea is that it must, necessarily, make value and character judgments.

There are also volunteers in the United States being compensated for their good works, thus made professional. The Peace Corps is perhaps the most famous example of this, but the newer Americorps is a more accurate approximation of what I think Professional Human Beings should be.

One of the hardest things about truly pursuing the Professional Human Beings idea is that it must, necessarily, make value and character judgments. This is fraught with issues. Is a chronic philanderer who does a great work combating poverty and disease worthy of being a Professional Human Being? Is someone who is always kind and friendly, but offers no material relief to the suffering worthy of the title? These are just the most superficial of the pitfalls that such an idea has to face down.

Though these are real difficulties, the Nobel committee shows that they can be balanced, at least for an annual prize. Even though their choices are not always venerated, especially Al Gore among American conservatives, there is general agreement that their selection is both fair and worthy of praise.

Perhaps the most unsatisfyingly vexing question is why it is necessary to create a reward for Professional Human Beings. In short, it shouldn’t be and isn’t. It shouldn’t be necessary because all people should be good people, doing good. It isn’t necessary because the people that would be likely to become paid members of Professional Human Beings would probably do what they’re doing without the incentive. But it is possible that a few people would change behavior based on the possibility of acclimation or financial reward.

I’d count it as unlikely that I or anyone else will ever create a mechanism to reward Professional Human Beings. But I still like the idea.

review, world

Review: The Wind that Shakes the Barley

The first half of Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley can easily be seen as a justification for terrorism and a condemnation of torture–the obvious reading for an American in a country now more or less obsessed by the topics.

If justifying terrorism seems a hard thing to do, The Wind that Shakes the Barley makes it look easy. From the first scene, the occupying British look roughly like bullying incompetents, and fighting back through “terrorism”–it’s really a matter of perspective–is the only recourse that the boys from County Cork seem to have.

And surely the torture Mr. Loach displays is far worse than anything I’ve known this country to have done. Pulling out fingernails wish rusty pliers is likely far uglier than the results of extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, or psychological deprivation. But the brutality only serves to make the practice’s jarring pointlessness more clear.

Before we go too far considering the cultural implications, it would probably wise to explain the movie. The film follows a small contingent of the “old” Irish Republican Army–which was much less willing to kill civilians and innocents than the “new” IRA of the 1980s. Nonetheless, Loach makes clear that this nobler old IRA were still considered “terrorists”–chiefly, but not exclusively, by the British occupiers. Britain had controlled the island for hundreds of years, and though calls for Irish independence was stronger following the Great War, the British refused to give it any serious consideration.

At the center of the group of rebels are the O’Donovan brothers, Damien and Teddy. Damien’s much more reluctant than Teddy, who both leads their contingent and survives the brutal and unproductive torturing. Damien doesn’t join the fight until he–on his way to study medicine in England–sees a railroad man beaten by the Black and Tans.

Through the pair, the film’s chief theme becomes the savagery and brutality of such a fight for change. Violence comes not only from the British, but from the IRA, both against itself and the British. The film avoids much overwrought vilification of the British, and is careful not to glorify of the Irish fighters; all sides seem at times misguided and pained. Certainly the Irish gaggle, as the focus of the film, is more sympathetically portrayed than the rather anonymous British, but neither feels completely righteous.

Following the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921–about halfway through the film, the group of IRA rebels split. Teddy becomes a “free stater,” while Damien insists that they require full and immediate independence from the British kingdom. This seemingly inevitable fracture of the revolutionary group, and the brothers within it, plays out most dramatically, and give the film its real punch.

Overall, for one not well acquainted with Irish history, The Wind that Shakes the Barley is both challenging–the historical details are mainly left for us to interpolate–and worthwhile. If nothing else, Mr. Loach’s film is a reminder that terrorism and revolution are not often objectives pursued by united groups. They’re made by groups of individuals, rarely certain of the way forward, rarely certain of what they want.


The Serenity Prayer

When you look around at the world, it’s easy to be angry. There are socio-political problems all over: Darfur, Myanmar, Iraq, China, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Somalia… the list could go on and on. There are also the scourges of poverty and hunger that never seem to leave us. And the more mundane but pervasive problems of theft, violence, and murder. And this is not even to mention the lower-key but no less troubling problems of racism, (hetero-)sexism, ageism, religious intolerance, general carelessness, ignorance, and outright selfishness. In short, “man’s inhumanity to man.”

I’m not really convinced it’s wise to spend your life angry at forces you cannot control.

And though I don’t think anger at these things is bad–after all, these are ugly things–I’m not really convinced it’s wise to spend your life angry at forces you cannot control. Any single man or woman, despite their dedication, power, and time available, cannot end any single force listed above. Even the American president–arguably the most powerful man in the world–requires a large bureaucracy and a number of allies to change anything in a noticeable way.

This is not to say that you cannot work to change things on a small scale. You can, for example, share your conviction that the rest of the world must act to end the conflict in Darfur. If you share this widely and well, you’ll probably convince at least a few others of that fact. But if you set out with the impression that you alone will end the conflict, you’ll only end up disappointed.

One of my favorite reminders of this is the Serenity Prayer. Regardless of how you feel about the Christian God, the use of the prayer by Alcoholics Anonymous, or the controversy over it’s authorship, I think everyone can learn something from it. The version I commonly hear says:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Interestingly, Wikipedia cites the original version as follows:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

I think there’s a subtle and important difference between the two, but both are cogent explanations of the way one should act in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. Surely other people, religious or not, have said the same thing, but if they ever said it with greater brevity or beauty, I’ve not seen it.

One could rightly critique both versions of the prayer for not being completely clear about what distinguishes between “things I cannot change” and “things I can.” That would be “things that cannot be changed” and “things that should be changed” if you use the second version. I think that “things that should be changed” is a more useful idea on this account, though it is also less clear about the distinction between what one should and should not get angry and worked up about.

Certainly, you alone cannot end racism, but it’s a problem that should change, and one you can work on. I would find it impossible to defend the idea that you should permit it. Parents shouldn’t let their kids be (overtly) racists, friends shouldn’t let friends be racists, and maybe strangers shouldn’t let other strangers be racists. But trying to end overt racism is not going to immediately end racism everywhere, and maybe racism will still remain just under the surface. But you must keep trying to change the things you can.

I think there’s a troubling possibly, after hearing this prayer, that one could begin to accept all behaviors. After all, the behaviors of others are necessarily beyond my control. But by expressing a conviction that certain behaviors should not be tolerated, I can influence how some act. Only those who will let my opinions influence their behavior will change–but I’d be changing the things I can.

You alone will not change the world, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to change what you can. That is the valuable reminder of the Serenity Prayer.