Hitchens, Peter: “The Abolition Of Liberty”

During a recent exchange with a good friend, I criticised Sam Harris for the logic that he employed to form his position on the longstanding conflict in Israel. You can read my thoughts on that here: https://orbitalmick.wordpress.com/2017/05/20/sam-harriss-inexplicable-defence-of-israel/

As we conversed about what makes a good thinker, I posited that Harris could not be classed as such because of the degrees of intellectual dishonesty and/or willful ignorance that permeate his position on Israel. Although I agree with Harris more than with Peter Hitchens on virtually every topic, I consider Hitchens the superior thinker. In The Abolition of Britain, the logic, facts and reasoning that he uses to reach his opinion are beyond reproach. Each topic is expertly argued and backed up with copious relevant facts and statistics.

Disclaimer: Hitchens writes about British society and, being Irish, I do not have a deep knowledge of the United Kingdom. However, some of the observations here are applicable to Irish society. One of Hitchens’ central conclusions is that “government has supplanted God and can solve all dissensions”, which is difficult to argue against: the postmodern division of people into social structures has resulted in the focus being taken off the individual.  Writing in 2003, at a time when he was warning of the dangers of the UK becoming embroiled in the disastrous Iraq war, Hitchens characterises the modern leftist movement as having learnt to “leave the institution standing…but revolutionise its culture by more subtle means. Such an approach allows the left to win elections while appearing to be conservative”. This astute observation reminds me of Chomsky’s description in Who Rules the World? of how the, supposedly, leftist Bill Clinton “outflanked George H.W. Bush from the right” in the 1992 US presidential election.

Hitchens questions whether prisons should be there to punish or to serve as punishment in and of themselves, especially when violent, modern criminals and terrorists can use force, but the state cannot.  Is society tough enough on criminals? “The convicted criminal should suffer for his crime and be known to suffer…he should do hard physical work…picking up litter” and lose other rights, such as access to a telephone. It is difficult to argue with Hitchens here, as the balance has shifted towards the rights of the prisoners and not the innocent people who rely on an effective justice system to ensure that their personal liberty is protected. Hitchens is also incisive on the lax reasons that society has begun accepting from offenders. “Criminals do not offend against their fellow human beings because they have too little self-esteem but because they have too much,” he writes, and it is absolutely true. All too frequently, we observe the social status of criminals paraded as a mitigating factor when faced with the consequences of their crimes. The obvious problem here is that once you let a social structure, be it class or any other, justify immoral actions, then it will lead a wholescale, mass “understanding”, or worse, justification, of crime which is exactly what has transpired. Hitchens writes of the experience that the great Bertrand Russell had whilst in prison for six months in 1918: Russell memorably said “I found prison in many ways quite agreeable”, and it was an example of exactly whom society should not have aimed prisons at – namely famous intellectuals. If we cater for this type of prisoner, which is increasingly what has happened, then we eliminate the deterrent for would-be offenders.

In calling for a complete “remoralisation of society” Hitchens notes that prison conditions were softened up as “the kitchens had already adapted to the twenty-first century’s fads and necessities, with two kinds of vegetarian and one vegan menu”. I am not so sure that I would describe opting out of the mass torture and slaughter of animals as a fad, given that they are routinely murdered in the cruellest, cheapest manner. People taking a principled stand against this abhorrent fact of modern life are to be commended because, as Peter Singer has written, “In suffering, animals are our equal”. Perhaps the modern prison system could teach the prisoners about the cruelty that we force these creatures to endure, which might increase their empathy for animals and inspire them to reconsider how they treat their fellow human beings. Hitchens believes that “vegetarian diets, anti-bullying campaigns and therapy cannot be the right answer”. The references remind one of Trotsky’s sneering attitude to the topic in Terrorism and Communism when he wrote that “we were never concerned with the Kantian, priestly and vegetarian Quaker prattle about the sacredness of human life”. Educating prisoners about the cruelty we dole out to animals may just lead to a more peaceful existence on our planet.

The Abolition of Liberty is highly informative.  For instance, I was familiar with the term “Screw” but not its interesting etymology: “Between 1895 and 1921 Ruggles-Brise made great changes in the local prisons, where most minor offenders then served their terms. When he took charge, convicts still had to turn useless cranks, slowly grinding stone to powder, in their cells. These cranks could be set tighter or looser by a screw on the outside of a cell-hence the name “Screw” still given to prison officers”. I also enjoyed learning that the menial prison task of “oakum-picking”, the pulling and fraying of pieces of old rope to form mattress-stuffing fibre, begat the expression “money for old rope”.

Hitchens holds the introduction of ID cards in 1940 as an example of the British state intruding too far on the individual liberty of its citizens. It is a topical subject in Ireland, as our government seeks to introduce a not-dissimilar form of national identity card. Since the book’s publication in 2003, the need for the state to justify itself is even greater, given the increased digitisation of our lives. The less information a state has about its citizens the better it is for all concerned. ID cards were initially introduced to enforce conscription in the United Kingdom and Hitchens makes the salient point that nobody ever asked the question about what use the Germans would have made of the ID cards if they had won the war! Many of us in peaceful Western democracies have come to view the state as a benevolent actor yet what if it ceased to be so and used its increased power it has against us? Hitchens’ words ring true today as I ponder Ireland’s unnecessary dabbling with ID cards: “The real reason for the introduction of cards had always been the state’s natural instinct to increase its power over the people at every opportunity”. Think of what Snowden uncovered about what the US – and the UK- governments were doing with the digital information that they had acquired. The state has to justify any increase in the power that it wants. With ID cards, Hitchens is correct and the burden cannot be carried.  When they were abolished in 1952, the “English love of privacy (which) separated us from most of our continental neighbours” was reintroduced.  “The temptation to use information improperly is great, and is best limited by making sure that those who hold it know as little as possible”. These crucial words bring to mind the corruption in Ireland in 2017 when members of the Gardaí tried to smear a whistle-blower with false accusations. Why on earth would we give our government more unnecessary power? In the digital (or any) age, it is not a risk that citizens in a free society should take.

Hitchens remarks on the incredible increase in reported crime, from 103,000 cases in 1921 to 5,200,000 in 2001. This is an astronomical escalation, even when one accounts for pretty well any possible variable one can think of. Hitchens believes the increase is in part down to society treating its criminals too well, stating that the “single most serious mistake made by modern democracies is to imagine that criminality can be contained or discouraged by being more considerate or kinder to criminals” and that “by sucking all personal responsibility out of the population” it has made criminality a matter of fortune and not “self-discipline”. Once this takes place, he writes, the left will inevitably “reach increasingly for the crude bludgeons of authoritarian rule, curfews, surveillance, confiscations, and limitations on the liberties of all to control the licence of a criminal few”.

Hitchens also deems the British courts too lenient. In the United Kingdom in 1999, 7,000 of the 37,000 convicted of burglary were let off with a warning and it is obvious that “too many laws and regulations give privileges to defendants”. This is evident in Ireland, too, and it is a change that has taken place surreptitiously, which nobody seems to have considered may not be in our collective best interests.  In 1901, the United Kingdom’s population was 32,000,000 with a police force of 42,000. In 1991 the population was 50,000,000 with a police force of 125,000. Consequently, the police force had the requisite numbers to do the job. However, Hitchens diagnoses the British police force as having lost its way. He contends that although it was established in 1829 to prevent and deter crime, this has evolved to merely responding to crime after the fact rather than attempting to stop it in the first place. I cannot disagree. On a micro scale, I have some experience in the area as I work in retail. Prevention is absolutely the correct strategy. That the British people did not even get a chance to vote on such a momentous change in direction speaks volumes for how clandestine some gigantic changes in society truly are. Hitchens believes that when the British Police force began to hire more female officers and university graduates that this accelerated the philosophy of reactive non-engagement with the public, as the physicality of being a nasty old bruiser on the beat was gone, and that this resulted in criminals being undeterred. Specifically, Hitchens notes that this change “nurtured the idea that the police are mainly a detective and record keeping organisation, rather than an active prevention force” and that it changed the police force into being more elitist than was necessary. Hitchens coins a great term for this new reactive style: “Fire brigade policing”, which is accurate when considering the effect that it had. I disagree with Hitchens on the number of female officers because equality of opportunity is essential in a fair society. However, I take his point that any officer, male or female, needs to be on the beat and physically capable of deterring crime.

On the modern epidemic on the crime of drug taking, Hitchens writes that “This feeble (non-enforcement) approach to the drug issue is yet another result of the elite’s rejection of absolute right and wrong”. The word “elite” here implies that it is only a tiny minority who consider taking drugs an acceptable form of recreation. I disagree as it is evident that thousands of people take drugs every weekend. Hitchens argues that this is as a result of lax enforcement. This is true to an extent, yet the demand for drugs is similar to that of alcohol, cigarettes and unhealthy foods. It is an economic fact that where there is a demand there will be a supply. At present this supply is illegal but enforcement will not stop it. Moreover, why does the state have the right to dictate what substances people should take? If you truly believe in personal liberty, then you have to accept that the state does not have a right to make this moral decision on your behalf. Legalise, regulate and tax drugs.  Nothing will change until we accept that the demand is there and will not go away. One country that I have visited that does regulate the supply of drugs effectively is Japan but, again, it is a question of how much demand is stymied. On the flip side, Hitchens raises the excellent point that drug users steal to fund their drug habits, which causes an increase in crime. This is true. I suggest we get tougher on the actual criminality. Personal liberty is acceptable up until the point that somebody takes another individuals liberty. Hitchens writes that “Drugs are the enemy of the moral society in which effort is rewarded by exaltation and success in this world” because they rob people of their ambitions. Again, there is a lot of truth to this idea, but it is possible to use drugs occasionally and recreationally as part of a sensible and moral life.

Hitchens uses Alaska’s 1990 overthrowing of the previous 1975 legalisation which decriminalised cannabis as proof that it did not work for them. Fair point. He cites John Stuart Mill’s idea that freedom should not stretch to include that which harms, which is true. However, the key point is who gets to decide what harms us? Only the people in a sovereign nation-state can, nobody else. Most certainly, the state cannot make this moral decision on our behalf without first consulting the people.

“It is the state that is answerable to us,” writes Hitchens, and I stand in full agreement. He quotes Orwell’s excellent insight that “all of us have private things we wish to hide” as proof that the state should not intrude too far in the lives of its citizens. It is immensely refreshing to read somebody who thinks cogently and deeply about his positions and who does not conform to the general groupthink so prevalent in modern liberal democracies. As evolution naturally stretches and reinvents the fabric of society, Hitchens notes that “change was generally seen as good, new automatically better than old”. This is far from an idle point: all major changes should be thoroughly examined before being introduced. When we fail to do this then we will end up with the debacles such as the current one in the United Kingdom where “the police have permanently withdrawn from the streets and are unable to detect or prosecute most crimes”. In no society, now or in the future, will this be successful. We need to think critically and decide together, in a democratic fashion, about which direction we want society to move in.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Morrison, Toni: “Beloved”.

Morrison’s Beloved, set after the American Civil war in the mid-nineteenth century, chronicles the evil effects of slavery on African Americans in the United States. It is a world so brutal that our protagonist, Sethe, kills her own daughter to try to save her from the barbarity – yet the daughter refuses to disappear and haunts Sethe and Paul D throughout, in the same way that the memory of slavery torments the collective American psyche.  The theme of guilt is unwavering and none of the characters can discard their experiences, including Paul D when he sleeps with Beloved and is utterly racked with shame and remorse.  Paul D is afraid to kick Beloved out because the “territory is infected by the Klan” after the civil war. The most important theme is the egregious impact that the racist violence had: “white folks were still on the loose (and) whole towns wiped clean of negroes. Eighty-seven lynching’s in one year alone in Kentucky, four coloured schools burned to the ground, grown men whipped like children, children whipped like adults, black women raped by the Ku. Property taken, necks broken, he smelled skin, skin and hot blood”.

“Not a house in the country that ain’t packed with the ghost of some dead negro,” says Baby Suggs. It is difficult to comprehend the bed of corpses that the US laid the foundations of its future economic success on. “Ain’t no nigger a man,” writes Morrison and it remains baffling to square the US Constitution’s 1776 declaration that “All men are created equal” with the contemporaneous subjugation of millions of its own citizens. Morrison reveals the horrific intricacies that such a system creates as Sethe ponders, “would it be all right, would it be all right to go ahead and feel, go ahead and count on something? She couldn’t think clearly”.

African Americans had no prospects in the US at the time: “The future was a matter of keeping the past at bay”. Sethe was not permitted to get married and was pawned off with a pair of earrings. Baby Suggs, the oldest generation of African American, “announced to Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years as a slave, and ten years free, that there is no bad luck in the world such as white people”. Paul D is emblematic of the generation that, while winning its freedom, had to travel to free states to live and emotions run when he first sleeps in Sethe’s bed linen after years of sleeping rough. The tears he sheds symbolise the nearing of the end of slavery.

African Americans are so dehumanised that Mr Garner, Sethe’s master, thinks that Baby Suggs is Jenny. He does not even know her name and nor does he care. When he continues and asks her why she answers to it, she sadly replies that she would answer to anything.

The process of not viewing African Americans as individual people is essential to people believing that they can own other human beings and it is an awful moment when Paul D “discovers his price”. The first time he buys a turnip “his first earned purchase made him glow”, yet the moment underscores just how dreadful a state African Americans were made to live in.

Morrison adroitly captures the vernacular of African Americans. Phrases such as “Girl who you talking to?” and “I can’t explain it to ye no better than that” demonstrate the omission of words in sentence structure as a reflection of the characters’ lack of agency in the social structure. “Tell me your diamonds,” says Beloved to Sethe instead of “Tell me about your diamonds”.  Another interesting one is “Imma get to Boston”. Even though the sentence does contain “I”, the fact that that it coagulates with “Am” is instructive of the fact that the language of African American speech removed individuality.  Morrison’s use of character names is on point too, the best of which being “Stamp Paid”. Say no more on that one. The world of slavery leaves Paul D being best able to communicate non-verbally. Whilst on the porch with Sethe, he is so afraid to open up about his past that he said that he could not say it but could sing it.

“Beloved” is a harrowing journey through what Morrison refers to as “the nastiness of life”. A Hobbesian nightmare, a brutal world where Paul D warns Sethe not to get too close to her own child, Denver, as there was a good chance that she would lose her. It is inconceivable in 2017 to imagine having to live with that uncertainty. Denied their future, the present was no better: “Slaves were not supposed to have pleasure deep down”. White slave masters created a system whereby their African American slaves asked themselves “How much is a nigger supposed to take? All he can”. The cruelty was so deeply entrenched that a “schoolteacher beat (them) anyway to show that the definitions belong to the definers, not the defined”. Thankfully, authors like Morrison are changing this very definition. If there is one redeeming thought in the entire book it is that some folks believe that “Human life is holy, all of it”. Theist or atheist, those are words we can all live by.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged | Leave a comment

Pinker, Steven: “The Language Instinct. How The Mind Creates Language”.

I started to read this a couple of times and struggled, finally getting to grips with it during some downtime on holidays on a couch in Copenhagen. Pinker adapts and updates Chomsky’s theory that language is innate, thinking of it more as an instinct developed over time. Pinker proves this, as much as it is possible to, by giving examples of how people with Williams syndrome who are incapable of tying their shoelaces can simultaneously be extremely talkative. How? Because language is a specific and uniquely human part of our brains that is designed for us to communicate. It is difficult to think of another way in which this would be possible. Pinker writes that no tribe has ever been discovered without having their own language, which he deems evidence of our inherent human instinct to use it. He compares watching nature documentaries and observing the beauty of whale noises to human language. I went into The Language Instinct with the naïve preconceived notion that Pinker would be poking fun at bad grammar throughout. Not so. In fact, the opposite is true, as Pinker rails against those who insist on good grammar, offering the wonderful example of how when we listen to whale noises we do not critique any grammatical rules that the whales might have. (Although, I would argue we might critique it if we knew what those rules were!) I love reading and writing but I find sticking to strict grammatical rules somewhat tedious.  This book was so much more than that and I am going to discuss Pinker’s ideas here . . . if I can just keep my grammar in check for a bit!

Pinker proves that there is an enormous gap between thought and language by observing that we almost all frequently experience feelings of “that’s not what I meant!”, which rings true. He rallies against the notion that language comes before thought: “sometimes it is difficult to find any words that convey a thought” and “People do not think in English or Chinese or Apache; they think in a language of thought”. Language is a vehicle for expressing thoughts or “Mentalese”, as Pinker calls the language that is in our heads. “Knowing a language, then, is knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words and vice versa”.

Pinker writes of the “close parallel between the principles of grammatical combination and the principles of genetic combination” in an interesting musing on the degree to which language is innate to human beings. Did it evolve, or have we always had it? Pinker argues that both are true. Interestingly, because grammar is extremely complex and contains millions of different rules, what Wilhelm von Humboldt described as “making infinite use of finite media”, which would be impossible for a child to learn, it is proof that some of our language instinct must be innate. How else could we pick up the subtle differences that the most powerful computers cannot? William Faulkner’s longest ever sentence, at 1,300 words in the Guinness Book of Records, proves as Pinker writes that “The infinite use of finite media distinguishes the human brain from virtually all the artificial language devices we come across, like pull-string dolls, cars that nag you to close the door” and that, really, we utilise a “discrete combinatorial system” to make sense of grammar.  A crude version of this would be a “word chain device”, except that Chomsky’s famous example of the sentence, “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” highlights how the brain can have perfect grammar and syntax but make no sense. Pinker also cites how our brain can decipher Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. So, while some people have posited the theory that language is essentially just a large word chain, Pinker highlights how these are merely “amnesiac” whereby they only work in remembering short sentences and would not have the capacity for any Faulkner madness.

Whilst analysing rules for noun phrases and verb phrases, Pinker notes how the same principle applied in different ways, is consistent across all languages, writing that “Super-rules suffice not only for all phrases in English but for all phrases in all languages” therefore “If this (Chomsky’s) theory is true it would help solve the mystery of how children’s grammar explodes into adult-like complexity in so short a time”. Pinker discusses the concept of the “auxiliary, a word that expresses layers of meaning having to do with the truth of a proposition as a speaker conceives it…an auxiliary is an example of a function word, a different kind of word from nouns, verbs and adjectives” that is interlinked with Chomsky’s “deep structure” theory or “D-theory” as it became known. Pinker wrote that “Syntax is a Darwinian organ of extreme perfection and complication. Syntax is complex, but the complexity is there for a reason. For our thoughts are surely even more complex, and we are limited by a mouth that can pronounce a single word at a time. Science has begun to crack the beautifully designed code that our brains use to convey complex thoughts as words and their orderings”. Although difficult in parts, I found this book a fascinating journey through the cavernous world of what language means.

“Speech perception is another one of the biological miracles making up the language instinct,” writes Pinker. That phonemes do not equate to the overall sound of the word begs the important question: why? Here, Pinker makes an important distinction that “Although language is an instinct, written language is not”. We are physically designed with a trachea which takes three months to form for new babies to speak and this is the only reason we have it.

Pinker writes that “Evolutionary theory, supported by computer simulations, has shown that when an environment is stable, there is a selective pressure for learned abilities to become increasingly innate. That is because if an ability is innate, it can be deployed earlier in the lifespan of a creature”. This is the reason humans find it difficult to learn a new language late in life. We are programmed to pick it up at the outset of life so that we can communicate. Once it has been learnt then it becomes less essential. Pinker likens it to borrowing a turntable to copy your old collection of LPs onto tape! “Though people modify their language every generation, the extent of these changes is slight: vastly more sounds are preserved then mutated”. He continues that “Some patterns of vocabulary, sound, and grammar survive for millennia. They serve as the fossilized tracks of mass migrations in the remote past, clues to how human beings spread out over the earth”. Moreover, similarities have been found between so many languages that a “hypothetical common ancestor language” is a real possibility. Sadly, some original languages are extinct and cannot be learnt so it is not possible to complete this thesis.  It takes 10,000 years for no traces of a language to remain in its descendants, which makes me worry about our native Irish language and how utterly crucial it is to keep investing in education to ensure our people continue to speak it.

So, “the basic evolution of grammar is wired into a child’s brain” because multiple tests have proved that children can pick up complex grammatical rules by the age of three when they cannot do anything comparatively even remotely complex. This proves that a certain percentage of language is innate. However, if language is innate then why don’t other species that we evolved parallel to, e.g. gorillas, not have it too? Pinker disproves the example of “Nim Chimsky” being able to learn a language. Modern Homo Sapiens appeared some 200,000 years ago and spread from Africa 100,000 years ago after Homo Erectus had spread from Africa 500,000 to 1,500,000 years ago, which proves that language is older than 30,000 years old as was frequently believed.

“The mental program that analyses sentence structure during language comprehension is called the parser” and it is an incredible human ability that, to date, AI has been unable to copy. This human parser has good judgement but a poor memory, unlike a computer which has the opposite. “When a person hears one word, any word related to it is easier to recognise, as if the mental dictionary is organized like a thesaurus, so that when one word is found, others similar in meaning are more readily available”. This parser is further proof that language must be in some way innate. Pinker’s The Language Instinct is a dazzling journey through the world of linguistics which sets aside the mundane task of analysing grammar and syntax and instead focuses on the ideas and concepts behind language.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Pen, Paul: “The Light Of The Fireflies”

“Any place where you are is much better than anywhere else” whispers a mother to her son, in a vain attempt to reassure him that his life imprisonment in a rat-infested basement is somehow justified and reasonable. Chillingly, we never learn the names of any of the characters in Spanish author Paul Pen’s dystopian The Light Of The Fireflies. The real lesson is the diametric opposite of the supposed wisdom doled out by the cruel mother: that although humans can adapt to unsafe, insecure situations, it does not mean that we should. The protagonist’s struggle to finally climb the ladder to freedom, despite protestations from his family, symbolises human evolution itself. We must keep trying to improve our conditions. Simon Bruni has excellently translated Pen’s novel from its original publication in Spanish and Pen builds the suspense brilliantly with short, taut sentences.

The isolation endured by the characters has deep and long-lasting psychological ramifications.  When the son imagines that a chick was born in captivity in the basement, it is a sign that his imagination was helping him to survive. The lack of freedom has affected him hugely. Despite the pernicious lie invented by the grandma, the son’s ability to imagine is crucial to his ability to believe in a better life. The son also has a jar of fireflies, emblematic of how humans find light in the darkest situations. On the surface, Pen’s novel is extremely grim but scratch the surface and it is the story of survival and beating the odds.

Art is a key theme throughout. The family watch old Western movies on Betamax to pass the time. They also read a range of different books including, humorously, A Journey To The Centre Of The Earth. Even more apt is how the son uses a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, twice cited here, to jam a door to secure his freedom.

His sister’s attempts to commit infanticide and suicide have echoes of The Handmaids Tale and Beloved, in that they highlight the point at which the human spirit can be broken. We can only withstand a certain amount of brutality.

Christianity plays a key role in Pen’s story. Grandma prayed with her rosary beads when she thought the baby may have been dead. The sister took the grandma’s rosary beads when she thought that she would tell her brother about her incestuous past. “Any punishment He has ready for me will be deserved,” says grandma after the innocent dead girl’s body had been discarded in the septic tank. The capitalised “H” for “He” is revealing and repeated numerous times.  “The One Up There” is a metaphor that, tellingly, the non-religious son used for God. The entire tale is emblematic of the human desire to know, our struggle to escape from the basement of ignorance into the light.

Published in 2013, The Light Of The Fireflies slots in with a slew of dystopian novels. What do they tell us about our global conscience? That there are clear concerns about our collective anthropogenic destruction of our environment.  Pen’s novel is cinematic and perhaps the director of the excellent Spanish horror movie “REC” may make a movie out of it. There are myriad intriguing themes to contemplate, one of which is how keeping secrets and dishonestly covering up our mistakes makes every situation worse.  In finality though, it is about the human desire to adapt and survive. Pen: “those unwilling to look beyond their own little world will be left in the dark”.

Aside | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Conquest, Robert: “The Dragons of Expectation. Reality and Delusion in the Course of History”

The Dragons of Expectation is the last book that Conquest, the brilliant historian of the Soviet Union, published before he died.  It remains a fascinating perspective of the twentieth century, in which Conquest dispels a myriad of myths in the tedious, seemingly everlasting, left-versus-right debate. For instance, he writes of how conservatives were the first to introduce limits to the working day and end child labour, debunking the notion that it is only the self-appointed progressives on the left who are caring, and describing how the left and right political movements have changed over time.  Conquest imbues each page with his masterful encyclopaedic knowledge of history. Whether you agree with him or not, it is impossible to read this and not come away thinking how perspicacious he was, the like of which the world now sadly misses. Conquest blazed a trail early in his career when he exposed the dastardly Ukrainian Holodomor, a history which is still fresh today, as evidenced by the 2010 controversy in Ukraine when Yanukovych termed the Holodomar a genocide while Yushchenko refused to do so. A similar controversy awaited Applebaum when she published Red Famine. Conquest got there first and helped to open the lid on the insanity of the Soviet Union, mostly before the fall of the Berlin wall, when Western leftists were still hooked by the promise of its potential. Conquest, like Orwell, rails against the misuse of words, in particular how applications of “totalitarianism” and “fascism” have become especially null and void, a point Arendt was crystal clear on in her exceptional The Origins Of Totalitarianism. This book was published in 2004 – goodness knows what Conquest would have made of the political exchanges on social media these days.

Much as language in the political lexicon today has been mangled beyond recognition, Conquest details how the original version of socialism and the co-operative movement instigated by Robert Owen was taken up by extremists and distorted into an authoritarian form of socialism and communism that discards the essential properties of democracy. This was the key mistake of Lenin, Castro et al: they believed that the infamous “dictatorship of the proletariat” was a sound basis for running a society.  Despite every instance of this authoritarian socialism failing, in Ireland we still have elected members of the Irish Dáil waxing lyrical about the Russian revolution in 2017, – we in the West have clearly not learnt these lessons. Conquest ridiculed the fact that Marxism is based on the belief that excess profit in capitalism did not go to the workers by comparing the results with what happened in other socialist “utopias”. He notes that comparatively in the USSR “the worker’s proportion of a factory’s finance was the lowest in the industrialized world at 30%” while in 1968 the Czech Republic Bata had workers earning less than the industrial average. Conquest described the word “revolutionary” as one which “exercises quasi-hypnotic powers even today over…inadequately sceptical Western intellectuals”. Indeed.

Conquest’s views on democracy challenge me as I rank it at the top of how we organise ourselves as a species: “Democracy is high on the list of blur-begetters – not a weasel word so much as a huge rampaging Kodiak bear of a word”. He identifies how the word and the system itself can mean drastically different things. He does not believe that wisdom is always to be found in the masses, citing Socrates’ imprisonment for politically incorrect speech as an early example of this, and says Athens was ruined “by voting for the disastrous and pointless expedition to Syracuse against the advice of the more sensible”.  He also points out that Hitler was democratically elected and that, if there had been a coup, it would have benefited the world.  He expands on Francis Fukuyama’s tenets that states need to be stable, ideally allow a plurality of views and, crucially, that the public needs to accept these mechanisms. It is a key point and critical to understanding why the neo-conservative utopian ideal of nation building and installing democracy in countries like Iraq were doomed to fail. The conditions have to be there for it to flourish. In his own words, “Democracy in any Western sense is not easily constructed or imposed”. One hopes that we have learnt this lesson.

Conquest’s attitude to colonialism is disturbing: “Much of Africa was far better off under the British rule”. This kind of cultural supremacy has lead us into extremely violent waters. Perhaps it is my Irish bias but any talk of British imperialism is to be avoided at all costs. Just think of where this leads to: “As to traditional British imperialism, I have argued elsewhere that though in the long run untenable, it contained and transmitted much that was positive”. As an Irish person, I believe I can take the liberty of speaking for the majority of the population on our small island and call this for the total bollocks that it is. I certainly dismiss his opinion that “a largely American imperialism could be broadened”.  Each country has the right to self-determination, free from other countries’ interference. Simple.

Writing in 2004, at the height of the success of the EU and long before Brexit heralded the beginning of its demise, Conquest held that the “denationalising European corporatist super state” would create a “decay of democratic or communal feeling in the citizenries”. It is too early to put the nail in the coffin of Europe but this was a prescient observation.  Conquest viewed that the “vast over-regulation of human life” would create a backlash. “It is divisive of European culture, omitting the Europe overseas”. Interestingly, he predicted that an Anglosphere may rise in its place.

Conquest was a published poet and he writes well about art: “the man who only knows about literature does not know even about literature”, although he had no time for some of the new-fangled forms of poetry and prose: “the more incomprehensible the poem the worse it must be”. He lays part of the problem at the door of there being simply too much art, using as evidence the fact that there were some one and a half million artists in the United States at his time of writing observing that all of them surely could not be producing top quality art. Fair point. Although as Camus noted in his wonderful Create Dangerously, perhaps this is what we in free societies should be doing.

Despite some worrying imperialist tendencies, Conquest was an excellent writer and thinker. He believed that extremism came on the left and right when people imposed their meanings and ideals on life and ignored any evidence that their view was wrong, referring to it as a “psychological phenomenon…a tribute to the power and persistence of the desire for tidiness and certitude”. This is why, to my mind, we must make it correct to be wrong. We do not have all the answers. In a lesson for the Twitter age, he sagely writes “let’s not be smug but let’s be rigorous” when reviewing history and trying to find the right way forward. It is an idea that Orwell nailed in Notes On Nationalism when he used the word to articulate the follies that the extremist mind could swallow when so needed. Conquest also defined liberalism better than anyone before or since: “A liberal is one whose aim is the furtherance of ever greater political liberty, freedom, and social justice”. Surely if we all believed in those aims and ideals, the world would be a better place.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

O’Callaghan, Sean: “James Connolly: My Search For The Man, The Myth And His Legacy”

As much an autobiography of O’Callaghan as it is a biography of Connolly, O’Callaghan discusses Connolly’s influence on his political development, which in part lead to O’Callaghan joining a Provisional IRA he loosely describes as Nationalist, anti-communist and Catholic. All this makes for a fascinating read.  The book charts O’Callaghan’s journey from joining the PIRA in 1972 through to his murder of an off-duty police constable and his later guilt over the actions which lead to him turning informer, such was his revulsion of the previous violent tactics. O’Callaghan came full circle and wound up hating his younger self. It is a fascinating portrait of how people become extremists and the importance of establishing a peaceful society.

O’Callaghan rails against Connolly’s extremism: “There is no room for compassion for other human beings; they are merely arts of his vision of how the world should be. The rich are despised because they are rich, the poor because they are too stupid or cowardly to fight. Connolly knows precisely what is wrong with the world and he is determined to make it bow to his will”. It is intriguing and relieving to hear an insider write of his violent past and denounce it. He frequently tries to articulate the exact nature of Irish Nationalism and leaves it to Fearghal McGarry’s excellent description that it was “A distinctive political tradition rooted more in an incoherent blend of Fenianism, Catholic Nationalism and Irish cultural Nationalism rather than the Republican principles of the American or French revolutions”.  It made me think about the uncomfortable elements of the Irish Rising that George Orwell described as a “crime and a mistake”. Connolly had written that “The struggle for Irish freedom has two aspects; it is National, and it is social”. History has shown it to be almost entirely national.

In the foreword to O’Callaghan’s book, Martyn Frampton describes how Connolly was “Ireland’s answer to Mao, Castro or Guevara” in terms of his communist beliefs.  Connolly was an avowed Marxist, which in 2018 would be problematic, yet the world Connolly lived in was a cruel one, with working people living in abject poverty and dying in collapsing tenement buildings. “Growing up in Cowgate in Scotland, it branded both class consciousness and Irish Nationalism into Connolly’s soul. It was a time and place of terrible degradation, poverty and daily humiliation”. The poverty in Scotland forced him to move to Ireland in 1896 and to America in 1903. Workers were treated disgracefully and were forced to work in dreadful conditions but in the early twentieth century, Marx offered a way forward. One can take issue with modern Marxism but at the time Marx’s predictions had not been disproven, the results of the Russian revolution had not yet come to pass, and the imagining of this better world was absolutely justified.

Connolly’s communistic bent may well have taken us into an undemocratic future, which we can be thankful did not come to pass – although even this is not certain, as when Connolly opened a cobbler’s shop “he advertised his services in the socialist papers, but soon found that even socialists wanted a decent service and great shoes” so perhaps he would have recognised the futility of the state controlling all enterprise. Then again, O’Callaghan notes that “there are copious records of Special Branch accounts of the relationship between the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Connolly Association in the public records in Colindale”. Connolly’s communist influences were to be felt years later when what hundreds of what subsequently came to be known as “the Connolly column”, led by Frank Ryan, went to fight against Franco at the same time as the Blueshirts went to fight for fascism.

O’Callaghan paints the history of Ireland before Connolly and the other six signatories declared Ireland independent in 1916 as arising from King James I‘s “civilising enterprise” of colonising Ulster in 1607, through the 1641 rebellion which killed 10,000 Protestants, to William of Orange’s 1690 defeat of King James II. The “civilising enterprise” highlighted how the British thought the Irish utter savages.  O’Callaghan recaps Robert Emmett’s 1798 and 1803 uprisings and explores how the failure of Daniel O’Connell’s peaceful protest may have made inevitable the violent nature of the 1916 Rising. Certainly, when the 1845 to 1849 famine caused one million deaths and emigrations, the Republic of Ireland must have seemed a long way off.

Of the Rising itself, O’Callaghan says that the “language of a military putsch” was used by the seven signatories to the Proclamation. This contentious issue is troubling, as is the thought that the majority of the Irish public did not support the Irish Rising. There are two ways to think about it: could Ireland have won her freedom peacefully through the ballot box or was violence inevitable? I tend to think that violence was inevitable, but this does not justify some of what occurred. For example, there were several innocent Irish people killed by the Irish Citizen Army. The very first death was Constable James O’Brien of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, shot in the head in cold blood. These are uneasy parts of our history and I do not think that the deliberate murder of an innocent Irish person is ever justified. O’Callaghan believes it too naive to consider it simply the executions of those involved in the Rising that changed public opinion so quickly and makes the interesting point that middle-class historians and academics influenced the perception of the Rising in a way that is not well-supported, as they were not revolutionaries themselves. Perhaps they misrepresented the resentment of the British on the ground.

O’Callaghan also details Roger Casement’s attempt to procure a shipment of weapons from the Germans. Casement’s story is incredible and one I read more about recently in Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost which I will review here in the future. Moreover, O’Callaghan highlights the civil war attitude from the Irish state to the IRA by quoting WT Cosgrave, “I am not going to hesitate if the country is to live, and that if we have to exterminate 10,000 Republicans, the three million of our people is bigger than ten thousand”. Once again, it is easy to judge living in a peaceful liberal democratic Ireland in 2017 but that statement is legitimising violence against Irish people. The fact that there were six times more Irish Nationalists killed during eleven months of civil war than killed by British from 1916 until 1922 is also thought-provoking. When the IRA began their 1939 bombing campaign in England, the Irish government interred, often without trial, many IRA leaders. Was this justified? One belief I think we can cling to in 2018 is that states should not be colonialists or imperialists and we should aim to be peaceful. Violence is only ever justified in a defensive capacity.

Connolly’s legacy remains enormous.  He founded the Irish Labour Party in 1912 with Larkin.  He was one of the first hunger strikers in Ireland.  O’Callaghan cites John Lennon’s 1972 Woman is the Nigger of the World as being appropriate for Connolly, given his wife’s “sublimation” to him and the dreadful poverty that she had to endure. Connolly was constantly at loggerheads with Larkin, as “both were thin-skinned egoists and eager to see slights where none existed”. O’Callaghan expands this theory of how the Irish left always seemed to be bickering when he writes of the “incestuous and squabbling world of what passed for the Marxist left in Ireland during this period” in the 1950s. This observation is still accurate to the Irish left in 2018 – now they are incapable of even naming a political party, as evidenced by AAA and PBP seemingly superior ideological purity to Labour. Left-wing politics has always seemed to be about purity to me, and about the search for utopia. It is frightening to think of the damage that Identity Politics will wreak upon the left.

Connolly will be remembered as an Irish Nationalist hero. His belief that “If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle unless you set about the organization of the socialist republic your efforts would be in vain” rings hollow today as we seem to be coping without socialism. O’Callaghan writes that “Connolly found his belief system in Marxism and was completely loyal to it, so loyal that he sacrificed everything, and would willingly have sacrificed everyone he loved for it”. He was an extremist, which inspired O’Callaghan to join the PIRA. While I think that Connolly had good cause to use violence in ensuring Ireland achieved self-determination, I do not think that we should be lionising extremists who advocated for unnecessary violence. This is not to say that Connolly fits this description, but it reminds me of Christopher Hitchens’ only positive comment about Che Guevara: that he respected somebody who had the courage to die for his convictions. I do not agree but I can respect the logic.

On the more modern struggle for a united Ireland O’Callaghan writes: “The same people who directed the brutality and slaughter for years now run Sinn Fein, and I for one am deeply suspicious of their motives…they have not expressed one iota of regret for the terrible things they have done.  Of course, people change, of course, redemption is possible. Instead, they lecture those who’ve never murdered, terrorized, robbed, cheated or lied, about the need for probity, transparency in public life, honesty and justice. To me, this is to live in a world where wrong is right and right is wrong”. The key word for me here is regret. O’Callaghan has admitted that the violent part of his past was wrong. He says that “too often we take the beauty of liberal democracy for granted”. I could not agree more. This is the only way that we have managed to peacefully coexist as a species. O’Callaghan, a man who read all of Connolly’s works and ascribed more fully than most to his Nationalist ethos, ends this book by writing, “I believe Connolly has nothing to offer the island of Ireland today”.

Aside | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Joyce, James: “Dubliners”.

Despite the fact that much of “Dubliners” takes place during the summer, it will always be a Christmas book in my mind, largely because of the “The Dead”. I usually try to read it during the winter. It remains a stunning portrait of Ireland at the turn of the nineteenth century when Joyce’s voice was pealing out a more liberal, secular vision for Ireland. When Mr and Mrs Cotter “piously” mourn the recently deceased Father Flynn in The Sisters, our narrator describes how “I felt my soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region”. Does the soul exist? The protagonist is indoctrinated by Father Flynn, who questions him about the type of sins that he commits, which result in him feeling “uneasy”. I make an assumption that the narrator is male, as I believe the story to be semi-autobiographical. That numerous narrators are nameless is revealing. Perhaps the characters who paint this picture of Ireland remain outside the moral reach of the church and feel that they would be ostracised, like Joyce, were they to publicly admit to their guilt and shame.  The sense that the protagonist in The Sisters is an outsider is strong and results in him being “wide awake and laughing to himself”. Elsewhere, in An Encounter, the priest rebukes the schoolchildren for reading stories about the American Wild West and not about religion. Joyce dreams of an Irish society where non-religious stories would not have to be “circulated secretly”. In this sense, Joyce was ahead of his time; a modern liberal living in a conservative age. Critically, Joyce used the term in An Encounter when he wrote how “every boy…has a little sweetheart…his attitude on this point struck me as strangely liberal in a man of his age”.

Robert Conquest defined what it is to be liberal better than anyone before him in his excellent The Dragons Of Expectation: “A liberal is one whose aim is the furtherance of ever greater political liberty, freedom, and social justice”. Having taken the position that religion has stifled political liberty, Joyce was also insightful in highlighting the plight of women in Ireland at the time. Compare, for example, Joyce’s emancipation of women with de Valera’s and the contrast is stark. In Eveline, our protagonist married Frank who “would give her life, perhaps love too”. Women merely existed. Society did not permit them sufficient autonomy to prioritise finding love. Consider, too, the fate of Polly and Mr Doran in The Boarding House when she threatened to “put an end to herself” after her affair was exposed. Joyce was pilloried in Ireland for writing such salacious stories, yet all he was doing was revealing that human nature would inevitably come to the surface. In A Painful Case, Mr Duffy’s “moral nature fell to pieces” due to his liberal attitude. Elsewhere, in A Mother, Mrs Kearney “knew it would not be ladylike to do that [complain]: so she was silent”. Joyce was lucid in his portrayal of women. To resolve her contractual dispute, Mrs Kearney involved her husband, who had “a small number of talents” yet did have “an abstract value as a male”. She is shunned for being so forthright and, despite the fact that she is the more capable person in her relationship, Irish society refuses to accept that she is competent. Joyce: “they wouldn’t have dared treated her like that if she were a man”. In The Dead, Joyce informs us of the misogyny present in the Catholic Church: “it’s not at all honourable for the pope to turn out the women out of the choirs that have slaved there all their lives and put little whipper-snappers of boys over their heads” solely because they are male and not female. Gabriel’s fit of petty jealousy at the end of The Dead, when he learns of Gretta’s earlier affair, is fascinating to think about. He exposes himself emotionally. Equally intriguing is Gretta, who has the bravery to speak openly in conservative Ireland of her previous relationships.

The writing in Dubliners is exquisite and remains the finest picture of Ireland ever drawn. The last paragraph of the “The Dead” gives me Goosebumps every time I read it. “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and all the dead.” Each sentence is written with immaculate care. The opening line of Eveline, “she sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue”, is typical of how lyrical Joyce’s prose is. Aside from the stunning beauty on display, Joyce’s major achievement in Dubliners was to capture the Dublin vernacular of the time. For example, in Two Gallants, Lenehan says, “Well that takes the biscuit”!  “She’s up to the dodge”, says Corley to Lenehan. Dodge! Joyce’s elegant ability to flicker effortlessly between sinuous prose and street language is breath-taking.  “I used to take them out, man, on the tram somewhere,” says Corley. This use of the word “man” is fascinating and captures the language of the everyman perfectly. “It’s a mug’s game,” says Lenehan to Corley, with a Dublin expression still used to this day. “Ah, poor Joe is a decent skin,” says Mr O’Connor in Ivy Day in the Committee Room. “It happened that you were peloothered, Tom” is said in Grace, the last story in the original edition of Dubliners. U feel as though I’m drinking with some of the characters in the back of Mulligans, so evocative is Joyce’s language. The English people conversing in Araby underscore the contrast between English and its Hiberno-English equivalent: “O, I never said such a thing!” “O, but you did!”’ ”O but I didn’t”.

As accurate a depiction as Dubliners is of Ireland, a sense of being European pervades the collection.  Joyce informs us that Dublin has a lot of Italians and in After The Race, the men who are celebrating “drank Ireland, England, France, Hungary, the United States of America”. There is a strong sense that to be Irish is to be European. Lenehan, in Two Gallants, speaks with a dash of French, “that takes the solitary, unique, and if I so may call it, recherché biscuit”. Mrs Mooney is referred to as “the madam” in The Boarding House. Ignatius Gallaher, in A Little Cloud, exclaims “here, garcon, bring us two halves of malt whiskey”. In The Dead, Aunt Lily and Aunt Kate both have galoshes and Gabriel notes that “everyone wears them on the continent”.

The geography of Ireland plays an important role. The schoolchildren walk the North Strand road after mitching off school in An Encounter before they “pleased ourselves with the spectacle of Dublin’s commerce – the barges signalled from far away by their curls of woolly smoke”. Wandering around Ringsend they “bought some biscuits and chocolate which we ate sedulously as we wandered through the squalid streets”. Joyce wrote that “Dublin is such a small city: everyone knows everyone else’s business”. Ignatius Gallaher and Little Chandler catch up on old times and go boozing together in A Little Cloud. There is also a pub crawl in Counterparts where the Scotch House “was full of men and loud with the noise of tongues and glasses”. Being colonised by the British changed Irish identity forever. “Irish is not my language,” says Gabriel to Miss Ivors. Moreover, she accuses him of being a West Briton for writing for the Daily Express.

Ultimately, Joyce felt he had to leave Ireland: “If you wanted to succeed you had to go away. You could do nothing in Dublin”. Expanding on this in An Encounter, Joyce writes, “Real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad”. Ulysses is often touted as Joyce’s masterpiece, yet Dubliners is the one for me. Laurence Davies writes that Joyce’s “reluctance to moralise, his fascination with sexual behaviour, his willingness to shock the pious” are all part of what makes him so great. Joyce is the quintessential early Irish liberal.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , | Leave a comment