Monday, February 19, 2007

Book Review: Long Shadows: Truth, Lies & History

Long Shadows: Truth, Lies & History
by Erna Paris

first run on Bluegreenearth (go to Arts Review, then Archive 2001) 11.11.02

Softcover jacket, Bloomsbury, 2002 Erna Paris once gave a talk, in Toronto, entitled History, Memory and the Burden of Guilt. I think that this would make a better sub-title for this book, though the book is also about truth and lies. The history that Paris is concerned with is twentieth century genocide and ethnic cleansing. The lies she is concerned with come from perpetrators, victors, and victims. And guilt is a burden for members of each of these groups. How a society lives with and responds to these burdens is the true subject of Long Shadows.

Softcover jacket, Bloomsbury Books, June 2002

Canadian judge Rosalie Abella is quoted by Paris as saying that
"We still have not learned the most important lesson of all - to try to prevent the abuses in the first place. We have not finished connecting history's dots. All over the world, in the name of religion, domestic sovereignty, national interest, economic exigency or sheer arrogance, men, women and children are being slaughtered, abused, imprisoned, terrorized and exploited. With impunity."

This impunity has been slowly infringed upon by the post-Nuremberg development of international law. There has been less progress than one would like to see, but it seems that, in some areas at least, the progress has been real. Abella's statement above is never lost sight of by Paris, as she broaches the possibility of a positive future. Towards the end of the book, Paris addresses these changes in some detail. However, several hundred pages detailing the perpetration of crimes against humanity during the last century are a necessary prelude to understanding the reality and the limitations of any positive change that has occurred.

One method that has been used in handling the burden of guilt has been denial. In the case of the massacres in Nanking in 1937 both the perpetrator nation [Japan] and the victims' nation [China] have, for different reasons, chosen to deny the events ever took place. The victors' write the history books, they say. The Japanese denied war crimes in China for decades after the war there. The loser nation, however, also rewrote history for domestic consumption. This has happened often.

Ojections have been raised to the received wisdom of the German post-war history of the war, and to some aspects of the Jewish remembrance also. These are delicate areas, which Paris addresses with some tact. The second world war throws up questions about by-standers as well as perpetrators. She looks at the post-war evolution of German attitudes to concentration camps; of French attitudes to collaboration; and the self-doubt in Japan since their defeat. Selective history has often been part of the cause of the crisis points reached, and also of the remembrance of the events afterwards. This has appeared to be the case in many other areas than the Second World War. Paris also looks at post-apartheid South Africa, at post-Windrush America, and the fresher inhumanities of the imploding Yugoslav regions. But she also makes it plain that there are other books to be written as well. Although she has not the space to deeply investigate all atrocities she puts those that she is primarily concerned with into a context that includes Ireland, Chile, Rwanda, the Argentine, India/Pakistan, Soviet gulags, post-Soviet Russia, China's cultural revolution, Turkey's massacre of Armenians, and Kurds, Pol Pot, not to mention many other recent flash-points.

The painful subject of the Jewish Holocaust is always controversial. In addressing German attitudes to Jews in the early part of the twentieth century, Paris cleverly forms an informal framing narrative based on the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. This works very effectively, as the Jewish question was asked by Jews as well as Germans. Mendelssohn did not feel that total assimilation was possible, or desirable. He believed in a liberal pluralism that was mistaken by some as support for Germanization, but was really an attempt to realise the ideal of equality. Living peacefully together without assimilation proved impossible, but so did living together peacefully with a high degree of assimilation. The narrative exposes several instances of Jewish Germans being surprised when their neighbours turned upon them, because the Jewish burghers involved barely thought of themselves as different from the German burghers they had long lived alongside. The school Mendelssohn founded was, a century or so later, utilized by the Gestapo as a detention center for Jews on their way to Auschwitz. Moses Mendelssohn's tomb was levelled - but has been restored. The dream of integration bookends the failure of the German Germans in the neighbourhood to 'notice' or help their Jewish German neighbours. Since 55,000 Jews were passed to their end via the school it is hard to believe that their erstwhile neighbours did not know very well what was occurring there. Post-war, the few Jews in Germany appear to have abandoned any desire or hope to be German Jews - rather, they are Jews living in Germany. This distinction makes a good deal of sense in the light of the Holocaust.

The Holocaust is itself a contested territory. The East Germans painted themselves victims of fascism. The camps were also used to exterminate other minorities, such as homosexuals and Roma-Sinti [Romanies / gypsies], in huge numbers also [about 5,000,000]. Yet some Jews refuse to allow the term 'Holocaust' to apply to any other group than themselves. That this issue is largely uncommented upon is hardly surprising. People treat the post-war Jewish community as if they all personally were survivors, and fully expect - and get - accusations of anti-Semitism if they try to address the issue. Paris treads lightly here. But she refuses to allow 'lies' from 'her side', reflecting the even-handedness required if any international body can successfully mete justice in human rights cases.

The other side side of the coin is that some who question the Holocaust are denying it ever happened. The difficulties were illustrated by the trial of David Irving over his recent 'history' book. Some things he said were true. For example, he was at pains to note that not all the Jews who died in camps were gassed, since many died of diseases such as cholera, or of starvation. Yet in using such facts he was missing the point. It is all very well finding the gas-chambers a powerful symbol of the industrialized nature of racial war in Nazis Germany. It is all very well objecting to the exaggeration of this method of killing in order to create a mythic guilt to impose on both victor and vanquished for unrelated purposes. But, as other instances of attempted genocide indicate, having some deaths through complete neglect, rather than all through direct murder, makes the victims no less murdered. And makes it no less a holocaust. The arguments Irving built around these sort of facts became outright lies, leading towards a denial that the Holocaust ever happened at all - a position that is insupportable and immoral. Yet any rational discussion of these issues at all was already virtually impossible without the help of madmen who wish to outright deny the holocaust. The fact that lunacy exists on both sides of the debate is illustrated by Paris when she talks of the huge controversy raised by a Jewish historian, Hilberg, who suggested that the actual death toll was nearer to 5,000,000 than to the 'sanctioned' toll of 6,000,000. And surely the 5,000,000 non-Jews murdered are a part of the Holocaust also?

It has been argued that there is a moral imperative to give special emphasis to the Jewish part of this holocaust, as they were so consciously being exterminated as a race. This is an understandable point of view. But the repetition of the ethnic cleansing mentality since, and aimed at other peoples, must make some wish that a more universal human tragedy be recognised. For myself, the genocide of this people by the Nazis is quite universal enough a message.

Hilberg also broached the question of Jewish resistance, finding far less than some might imagine. Yet it is entirely reasonable, if one imagines that one does not have hindsight, to believe that to some degree the stories of what was going on would not easily be believed. Resistance may have been greater if the ghettoised Jews had had access to information about the fate of their peers - and access to armaments, too! The idea that the perpetrators were evil aberrations, however, is harder to support. Paris reports Hannah Arendt's conclusion that many of the Nazis were ordinary unimaginative dullards. The cases of Bosnia, and South Africa, seem to support this banal and, frankly, scarier proposition [I do believe, though, that the industrialized brutality of the Nazi philosophy was something new under the sun, and morally greatly more reprehensible than previous historically recorded mass murders]. That everyman is the enemy seems to be an immovable part of Israeli consciousness. 'Deserted' by all Europe in the Second World War, fears of a repeat were raised during the 1967 war with Egypt. The Jews who embraced the idea of Israel would have done so for many reasons.

Isolation seems a sane response if you really believe that everyone, ultimately, hated you for being who you were. The Lois Farrakhan approach to African-American assimilation seems wrongheaded to me, and by the same lights so does the Israel ideal. Not simply the fact that Jews now have a territory to call their own, if they wish to - but the fact that many seem to feel that living separately is safer. My own experience is that co-existing side by side with 'the other' breeds more understanding than separation can, and that the racism of neighbours is greater when they do not know you. You can [mis]direct your anger more easily at neighbours who are 'different' and 'unknown' than at the political and economic problems that are really the cause of your dissatisfactions. Difference can only be celebrated if you mix together. The inclination to separate completely, then, is one I distrust.

But it is not that simple of course. The German Jews did not find living amongst 'Aryans' to be a viable prospect. And, after Tito went, the various ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia certainly did not either. There is a conundrum in trying to avert the 'fear of the other'. If they are amongst you they may come to seem less other. If they are amongst you then you don't have to travel far if you wish to persecute them. If they are in a ghetto or state 'over there' you don't know them so well - this may mean safely 'out of sight, out of mind', or it may mean that they appear to be even more 'otherly'. And you can kill lots at once with bigger weapons, since they are no longer intermingled with your own people. The impulse to try perpetrators of hate crimes through international bodies, I believe, may help resolve this dilemma, but only if the bodies concerned have teeth, act, and are known to be impartial. And do you try the perpetrators, and those behind their actions, alone, or also those who did nothing to help?

erna paris"What happens to human beings when they are subjected to propaganda that consistently dehumanises an 'enemy'? What happens when the highest authorities and elites of a land call for the persecution of a minority? What happens when law is 'illegal' in a moral sense, as the Nuremberg Tribunal declared? What happens when good people say and do nothing?"

The German people had to have had more knowledge of what their regime was up to than any of them could be comfortable admitting. Many will have not helped out of fear, and this should not be underestimated, even if the culture is seen as being open to arguments of racial superiority. The old tale of the people who did nothing when they came to take the Jews, and did nothing when they came to take the gypsies... and had no-one to turn to when they came for them is in some ways too pat. Yes, of course we should intervene, but between a knowledge that if you help they'll take you right now [unless, inconceivably, when you rise your other neighbours rise with you, as appears to have happened in Berlin, Prague... in the eighties] and the belief that they'll never come for you unless you rile them, it is easy to see how 'discretion' can be seen as the better part of valour - at the time. The self-doubt of the German people since this has had many aspects, and is of a similar pattern to the self-doubt other peoples have experienced in like circumstances.

Some people were obviously directly involved and supportive of the regime. Some went along with orders, with only their word for it that they had deep doubts, rather than being wholeheartedly for the regime. Some will never forgive themselves [in her chapter on the former Yugoslavia, Paris relates a conversation she had with a young man who had been taught to kill and maim rather viciously. She asks him if he did it from fear or pleasure, and he tells her they had said they would kill him if he refused. She asks if anyone refused, and he says not. She asks him if he sees a future for himself, and all he says is that he wants to die]. Some have children or grandchildren who will never forgive them [whether they were pro- or just kept their heads down - and which to believe, son?]. Some of them, and some of their progeny, will resent the continual demonising of their people and might one day turn round and commit the same crimes again in anger at that burden of guilt that they are being 'made' to carry [as much by themselves?]. Some simply deny it ever happened, a method of coping that can all too easily also end up in resentment. There has recently even been a Jewish culture fashion in vogue in almost Jew-free Berlin!

This is perhaps the core of Golo Mann's almost Viconian thesis of inevitable cycles of German history. Outsiders have said it of them, but Mann is the son of Thomas Mann, and a German himself. His burden of guilt is manifest through a self-doubt projected to the nation. For him it may be debilitating, for others perhaps motivating - and for good or ill? Is this German historical pattern, if even real at all, genetic [racial] or 'merely' cultural? Can it be transcended, or must these cycles repeat? If they are doomed to repeat in some damned determinist fashion, does that render the old-fashioned 'Sins of the Fathers' argument valid in this case? Günter Grass also has expressed the old fear, that a Germany re-uniting would be a Germany giving the troops of the western Stadts back to their age-old Prussian commanders - leading to a return to nationalism. Paris quotes from a 1994 study of current attitudes in Germany:

"Twenty per cent thought Jews had 'too much influence' in German society; 31 per cent said Jews 'exert too much influence on world events'; 39 per cent thought 'Jews are exploiting the Holocaust for their own purposes'; 40 per cent believed that 'the Holocaust is not relevant today'; and a whopping 56 per cent (in the former West) endorsed this statement: 'In the aftermath of German unification, we should not talk so much about the Holocaust, but should draw a line under the past.' These negative attitudes existed in spite of high levels of factual knowledge, since 87 per cent could accurately define the Holocaust, and 92 per cent knew that Auschwitz, Dachau and Treblinka were concentration camps.

"...the negative numbers were... even higher for other minorities, such as Gypsies, Turks, Vietnamese, Africans, Poles and Arabs, only increas[ing] worries about xenophobia."

The Sins of the Fathers. So often, this is an unspoken understanding in hate crime conflict. A biblical conception, I have always felt it to be deeply spurious and inhumane. I can, however, also understand that culture at least, if not genetics, can make the 'sons' significantly similar to the 'fathers', even despite themselves. Ira Levin's The Boys From Brazil seems to me an interesting allegory on this subject. In his novel, Levin - emphasising the genetics end of the argument - appears to posit that a clone of Hitler can act for the good in the all-American setting he is raised in - but the tactics and glint in the eye of the boy when defeating the Nazis plot is slightly chilling and definitely reminiscent of the very people that he is dispatching. Tit-for-tat revenge killings across the generations... How many nations have been founded on such inhumanity? How many supposedly civilised countries still support sub-cultures with just this attitude? The sons of the father mentality is a greatly important obstacle to peaceful co-existence. Again, universal moral values expressed through an international body for justice seem a useful concept. But what level of moral values can be shared across a whole world? Once again we face the dilemma's, assimilation or separation? and, multiethnic culture as homogeneous or as morally relative and differentiated?

The French have also had to cope with their role in Jewish extermination. Under German control, in fact maintained by French police, the Jewish genocide continued there also. After the war a number of collaborators were tried. Thousands were executed, some under law, and some by mobs. But most French had stood by whether actively collaborating or not. Many who had collaborated got top jobs in the post-war administration, a fact covered up by the myth that they were all double-agents for the resistance, or were never collaborators in the first place. The collective burden of guilt and shame had to simmer for a couple of generations before even beginning to be aired properly. Here as in Germany coping takes many forms. Here as in Germany the present sees much overt racism - towards Arabs as well as Jews. The trial of Maurice Papon takes centre stage in Paris' analysis of the problem of history in France. Here the mental fiction of France the nation being in the head of Charles de Gaulle, while the physical place France did not somehow 'really' exist during the occupation, plays a role. As does the question of individual and collective responsibility. And is 'I was only taking orders' ever an acceptable argument? If so, when? Must you be in genuine fear of your own life if you disobey? How is that to be proved / measured? By well-publicized instances of punishments for disobedience? How much can the psychological fear of reprisal be assessed if an 'objective' context for such fear is missing? This question is universal in all the instances of oppression Paris looks at in her book.

The Papon trial did reaffirm the Nuremberg principle, "that the laws of a duly elected government may be contrary to the precepts of human civilisation, and that obeying such laws is not a legal defence". This position is not unproblematic, but it does seem to be a necessary point of view if any kind of universal human rights are to be acknowledged, and then protected across borders. The chapter on Japan illustrates some aspects of the problem with the principle put above. Paris seems to accept that Japanese culture has ingrained hierarchical command mechanisms far more successfully than most European countries have done. This makes individual blame for acts commissioned by the law of the state more difficult in some ways. The brainwashing is so much deeper. This appears to be the message behind the idea of the Kamikaze pilot, for example.

Nonetheless, the activities of Japan during the war in China, and the medical experiments carried out on captives, has generally been a suppressed subject in post-war Japan, causing some consternation amongst the younger generation. Tokyo still has shrines to its wartime heroes, in a way that Germany has not. The youth of Japan appear to be less controlled than their fathers. When they are repulsed by the activities that they learn their parents were part of, do they understand the cultural pressures? Do they forgive? As in both Germany and France, many of those controlling the government and administration of post-war Japan had been the same people as were in control during the war. Unlike the Europeans, though, the peace settlement had resulted in less structural changes to their hierarchy. This has taken a long time for the new global market culture to influence. From Paris' report, it still has not penetrated as much as one might have expected. But things have changed. When Hirohito died, many older people still felt deep loyalty for him, and had not changed in that regard over his genocidal policies during the war. The youth, however, are a good deal less respectful, having been shocked as the inaccurate nature of their schooling in recent history has slowly been revealed from without [the role of the internet as a force for dissemination of politically sensitive truths is not ignored by Paris]. The fact of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has not aided this realisation, as the Japanese understandably have deep feelings of victimhood in relation to the war. Dealing with the burden of guilt, though, is here to seen as an unavoidable and necessary part of moving on into a healthier future.

The American South has still, it seems, not made sufficient moves to deal with the fact of slavery in it's past. The white and black populations appear to be skirting around issues of guilt. Paris notes with regret that while many countries have memorials to those they killed (Germany having a number of Holocaust memorials, for instance), and while Washington has many memorials to past events, including, once again, the Jewish Holocaust, there is no memorial to the victims of the slave trade in this land of the free. The slavers descendants appear to be quite happy to rationalise the slave economy till the cows come home, insisting that they treated their slaves very well, as they were worth so much hard cash. As far back as 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville had noted the contradiction at the heart of the American constitution represented by slavery. He pointed out that slavery could not last "amid the democratic liberty and enlightenment of our age", and expected an end to it to be unpleasant whatever happened. Despite the Movement through the 1960's to make post-slavery African-American life more bearable, things are still bleak:

The Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, in 1998, "recorded that in spite of the emergence of a larger African-American middle-class and improving high school graduation rates, unemployment in the inner cities of America was at Depression-era levels, even though the general economy was improving. The child poverty level in the United States was four times higher than in Western Europe, and the rate of incarceration of African- American men was four times higher than it was in apartheid South Africa. A black child born in Washington or Harlem had a lower life expectancy than a child born in Bangladesh. The United States was not the racial cauldron it was in 1968, but race and poverty were still intertwined." Post-slavery African-Americans, then, are not doing so well. They are still persecuted. They have not been apologised to. They understandably ask for reparations, which they won't get, at least not the amount of money that has been believed owed to them.

Clothing featuring the NuSouth Flag
Clothing featuring the NuSouth Flag, which integrates two opposing symbols: the Confederate flag and the African-American colors of liberation.

The 'sins of the fathers' argument is working the other way here - the sons want compensation for the harm done to their forebears. This is a real problem, as the amount is several billion dollars, and the victims are all long gone. Except that the current generation are still victims of economic if not chattel slavery! Segregation is a popular concept here amongst many black people. As before, I have serious reservations about this, but understand the impulse all too well. The fact that the sixties saw blacks fighting just that, and the fact that South Africa has only recently just begun to move beyond just that... Surely segregation is still racist either way round. Paris quotes a black mayor in a Mississippi town, " '...when we pull back and say we want to educate our children differently, they say we are racist! We can't be! There's no way any of us can be racist, because we didn't have the power of the system and we still don't. It's who has the power in the system that counts when you're talking about racism.' I have heard this self-serving argument many times, and it incenses me. Racism is hatred for others based on inborn group characteristics, no matter who expresses it." I too have heard them, often from blacks in Britain about Asians, and sometimes the other way too. Occasionally I have heard the segregation and reparation arguments here as well. These issues are hard ones, with the traditional polarised arguments counting for very little.

The crises in Serbia over the last decade illustrate some of the complexities of the problem of different communities living together as one. Yugoslavs' lived together in one nation due to the Brotherhood and Unity ideology of Tito. As soon as he was gone, the region collapsed into the feudal grudge-ridden morass of the previous five hundred years. Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Jews, Christians... all were up in arms against each other, though apparently the impetus was primarily from the Serb [Christian] camp. Here, the Serb state indulged in the kind of lies most easily believed - big ones. The war crimes in the region during the second world war were laid at the door of the Croats alone; the Kosovan Serb 'Jerusalem' was contested territory that the Muslim Turks had stolen; etc. And, whoever fought whoever over ideology, "The most endangered 'ethnic group' was unarmed civilians, whatever their so-called nationality. They were the victims. And the aggressor was whoever was attacking them." The role of the west in brokering peace in Bosnia and Kosovo has been rather odd. The party of peace there seems to have been identified as Milosevic, the Serb leader who rabidly led the assault upon everyone else!

Segregation was, of course, the core of apartheid in South Africa. As with the nazis, the Afrikaner exclusion of other races, and religions, as inferior was a nationalist philosophy that produced horrors. Afrikaner attitudes to 'their' land are biblical in the Promised Land sense. It is not only, therefore, like Nazi lebensraum, but also like the Israeli state. If Moses says God wants his people to have this land laid out before him, then it must be alright to wipe out the non-Chosen people cluttering up his people's space. South Africans' defeated the 'inferior' Zulu people despite being out-numbered [though not out-gunned!] at Blood River. This event provided a biblical ur-myth for their nationhood. Thus apartheid set up reserves ['Free' states / homelands], into which the inferior 'kaffirs' could be shovelled.

"If our policy is taken to its logical conclusion, there will not be one black man with South African citizenship. Every black man will eventually be accommodated in some independent new state in this honourable way and there will no longer be a moral obligation on this parliament to accommodate these people politically." Though, naturally, the 'states' on offer were hardly free, and certainly not to be given any economic independence, or running water and roads come to that.

The attempts, post-Mandela, to address human rights abuses in South Africa have concentrated upon getting the truth into the public domain through public confessions rather than public trials. The liberationists were also asked to contribute their confessions for their crimes, though with little success. Paris is critical of this, seeing the refusal of ANC members, for example, to be truthful as a possible barrier to an early reconciliation of memory and guilt. She is not, though, willing to let that failure be interpreted as a sign that there is any moral equivalence between apartheid's racist crimes and the liberationists crimes while fighting for justice, while recognising that both engaged in criminal activity.

The suspicion remains, though, that the rise of meritocracy in the new South Africa was as much driven by the needs of the global market as by actual disapproval of the human rights abuses taking place there. The continuing fact of economic and social deprivation for blacks will remain fact for a few generations, as the schooling, and infrastructure to support the schooling, required in order that the black community join the meritocracy on equal terms is simply not there. Apartheid is still there in the culture even if the political system is changing. The confessions from many individual does not address collective guilt in the white community, which has a reality, even despite the fact that some whites should not be tarred with this brush. The way in which this group share of guilt is handled may well affect the possibility of a peaceful future in South Africa. Indeed, the concept of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission is in part a recognition of the possible difficulties ahead. To work, though, it surely requires co-operation from all sides, not just the former oppressors? Yet, if de Klerk and the National Party intend to identify all ANC and Inkartha admissions as somehow mitigating their own actions then this will not work, and the non-co-operation of the black factions so far makes more sense with this in mind [the peace process in Ireland can have the same said of it]. And the fact remains that the 'I was only following orders' defence, which Nuremberg achieved the demolition of, is at least tacitly condoned by reconciliation through the confession of evils carried out in the name of a political system.

The TRC posted statements on an internet site. One respondent, Andries William de Villiers, quoted at length by Paris, made this moving statement:

"And my ancestry has taught me, as nothing else can teach me, that our external appearance means nothing. We are all able to be good and kind and filled with love, and we are all able to be brutal and cruel and filled with hatred. I do not believe that all those who suffered discrimination under the policy of apartheid are virtuous. I do not believe that all those who lived silently enjoying the fruits of apartheid are evil. Not many people are cut from heroic cloth. We allow the mythmakers to rewrite the truth of our ancestry. We allow party hacks to sit on the judicial bench. We allow psychopaths to commit murder in the name of 'law & order'. We betray ourselves and our country...

"I confess that I took the easy road of silence... I am deeply sorry about, and bitterly regret, the damage done to my fellow South Africans. I ask - without any right to be heard - that the new South Africa learn from its past."

Erna Paris addresses the question of justice in the last part of her book. Here she moves from the spirit of Nuremberg to the late twentieth century flowering of UN war crimes tribunals. I think that she is too optimistic, given that the former Yugoslav, and the Rwandan, conflicts both took place in areas that were relatively unimportant in US strategic terms, and that therefore it is relatively easy for the US-dominated UN to be seen to 'act' in those areas, sending a positive propaganda message to the world. However, it is possible to be too cynical. After all, the velvet revolution in the former East, and [some reservations aside] the collapse of apartheid in South Africa cannot be gainsaid. Paris makes this optimistic statement in her opening chapter:

"This unprecedented assault upon the impunity of the powerful, and the attempt to impose some form of justice (whether successful or not), are emerging as new benchmarks of international human rights at the cusp of the new century - along with growing pressure on governments to acknowledge past wrongdoing in the hope of creating a more just future."

Hardcover jacket, Bloomsbury Books, 2001 In 1948 genocide was given definition, "as 'acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group,' while other crimes against humanity concerned offences such as murder, enslavement, deportation, rape and torture committed during armed conflict and directed against a civilian population." The policing of these acts has been minimal until after the Cold War. At this point in time, post-Cold War international action against those who have committed crimes against humanity have been few. The areas where this has been encouraged are either of little economic importance to the US [Rwanda], or areas where an outright bloodbath might get in the way of US economic interests without intervention [South Africa], or where the peace initiative must be controlled by the US for their own dangerous reasons [Serbia]. The Balkans have been an historical sticking point for Europeans for centuries. As an accessway to the near and far east [the Silk Road] for Western European regions, and as an accessway to warm sea ports and the Mediterranean [the Bosphorous] for mid-European states, the territory has been hotly contested by several parties. The folk music of the regions, as exemplified by the French album compilations Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, reeks of the flux and conflict bringing many ethnic and cultural traditions together and then rending them apart over and over again. The US, however, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, appear to have lost sight of human reasons to wish justice in the region, apparently more concerned to keep the influence of Islam at bay.

Some cynicism is, then, required in assessing the 'evenhandedness' of post-Nuremberg international justice. Even at Nuremberg itself, some war crimes went unpunished - after all the victors had also committed atrocities in Dresden and Hiroshima & Nagasaki, to name only three. Yet the justice of the victors' was more fairly dispensed than was historically usual. We have seen the creation of new international tools to punish and to deter, even if their use has not become as second nature as one would wish. Let us hope that the future sees more positive action in these areas. Paris is optimistic about the future. I hope that her optimism is not misplaced, but am less hopeful than she appears to be. Some of the issues are far from resolved. As noted above, moral and philosophical questions over individual and collective responsibility are not black and white issues. They are harder than that to resolve, and there may well not be a general law for us to discover, only unique configurations to be judged anew with each future transgression by a nation or nations.

The US has too subjective a view to be trusted very far as the head of all 'international' ventures, a point made clear by the attitude of the citizens of LeVerkin, Utah, who recently declared the town to be a UN-free zone. The mayor and several councillors are opposed to the UN's attitude to human rights, environment, disarmament and population control - and their opposition is evidently merely US-centric, whether there are real issues to be discussed or not. I do not feel that this small act in a small mid-West town speaks for the Eastern and Western seaboards of the US on a deep level, but I do not doubt that it reflects deep beliefs outside those areas, and would evoke some sympathy even amongst some New Yorkers, etc. Whether this will be exacerbated by the events of September 11th, 2000, remains to be seen. The inclusion of homogenising influences as negative to international justice also has resonance for Americans, as the separatists' amongst both Black and White populations gain ground. The UN is against them, at least in principle, it would appear, depending upon the definition of 'force or intimidation' that is used in determining whether a crime is being committed. As long as the US are viewing a US-dominated UN as an extension of the Monroe Doctrine, and a UN that they do not control as a danger to be fought, then international justice can never be truly just. In global affairs the US are all too often seen as the victors, and all too often their justice stinks. Agian, in the light of September 11th, we can only hold our breath and hope that Afghanistan does not become yet another crime in the US foreign policy canon, though thus far all the signs are that it will.

I am not demonizing the US here, though. I merely use them as the most important example of another problem that is far from being ironed out in international affairs - international and criminal law, versus state sovereignty. This issue is addressed by Paris, and is of primary importance. In Britain, we have been very slow to agree to full signatory membership of the European Commission on Human Rights, largely because of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The government and army have committed what would regarded as crimes according the Commission, so we have an interest in maintaining a sufficient degree of state sovereignty to ensure that we can behave badly in the future as well if we see the 'need' to. Britain and the US have attitudes here that most states will share at heart, whatever lip service they give to internationalism. When they are pro-international justice it is usually because they have their own negative agenda to influence.

Two technologies that Paris sees as having an influence on future deterrence and resolution of human rights abuses and war crimes are TV and the internet. Not only do we see and read about events almost in real time, with access to data from the most insular country through common and relatively cheap technologies, but we also find that it is harder to morally distance ourselves from the events unfolding. We can even feel complicit in actions far away if we fail to respond in some way. It is this democratising element in the confrontation of international injustice that may help realize the hopes and dreams of people like Erna Paris - and myself. For all my carping, I would also like to see her vision realized. Our hopes and expectations dovetail around the issue of democratising technologies, and certainly any hope I have is focused there. Paris has produced a readable and moving book, which is also of great importance. I hope that it gets the wide readership it deserves, though the public perception that the topics addressed are too heavy is difficult to combat. But pictures [TV, internet, newspaper] say more to most people than text, so perhaps, read or not, the ideas and hopes Paris has will be realized anyway. The Americans long-term response to recent events may well hinder this process, holding progress up for decades. Let us hope not.

- Tim

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Communities Uniting for Climate Action Now!

This is an American venture. But today I went to a meeting in a recently built eco-house that is used for community events. The meeting was convened by Labour, but had representatives of all the major parties there, including the Greens, as well as other interested groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and Hastings Environmental Network, plus of course members of the public. It was standing room only, but as it is a small venue that means just over 100 so not amazing, but as the building is in an outlying district (Ore), not so bad either.

The message from the incumbant MP and the councillors is still too close to 'Business as Usual, with the odd tweek' for my taste (for example, the policies of more housing, a link road, and 'regeneration' are obviously sacrosanct and cannot be questioned). But the atmosphere is changing, the lip service is new, the co-option of Green and Anarchist positions never required before, so there is an upside...

Too little too late? is a worry for some, but frankly a self-fulfilling prophecy - and, in combination with the earlier "we don't have to worry yet" attitude, deadly. However, right now my concern is that there is no discussion of Contraction of the economy (coupled with convergence with poorer nations, perhaps); no discussion of avoiding the gaping hole between rich and poor becoming one between rich(ish) and impoverished; no discussion of rolling back capitalist ventures such as Private Finance Initiative which effectively mimic structural adjustment plans to developing countries by butchering welfare services by stealing their funds in the name of a 'free' market; or of nationalising core services such as transport, water, power, and last but not least food distribution (as the JIT system is going to murder millions of us when a real crisis hits).

Let's keep our eyes on the prize and not let the co-optive powers that be win out by taking the rhetoric without the action! They at least (here) seem to mean well, but the road to hell is after all paved with 'em!


Communities Uniting for Climate Action Now!

This April 14th, tens of thousands of Americans will gather all across the country at meaningful, iconic places to call for action on climate change. We will hike, climb, walk, swim, kayak, canoe, or simply sit or stand with banners of our call to action:

"Step it up congress! Cut carbon 50% by 2050"

500 Actions Nationwide!
The Step It Up Organizing Team Jan 31, 2007


In just over a month, Americans all over the country have stepped up to the challenge of forming a national climate movement. In 500 iconic places, communities will come together to demand, in a unified voice, strong action on climate change. We're astounded at the number of people who have dedicated some of their time to organize or attend an action on April 14.

We'll be canyoneering in the West, forming a human line depicting what high water levels might look like in Manhattan fifty years from now, standing together in a town park, on the steps of Churches and Synagogues, or on a college campus. Beyond just the sheer number of actions, and the masses of passionate people who are organizing them, the range of activities is exciting.

April 14 will prove to be a milestone in the climate movement, and you all are part of it. It's going to be great! Keep one eye on the Capitol and the other trained on your community—lets make sure this is BIG.

Keep up the good work, and thanks for Stepping It Up!