I wanted to blog something for International Migrants Day. Not for the first time, Gerry’s wonderfulThat’s How the Light Gets In blog has done that better than I could. An inspiring piece, referencing the best film ever.
Originally posted on That's How The Light Gets In:
The path to utopia
Politicians and media whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria. Savage welfare cuts while the super-rich live high on the hog. Deepening inequality and zero-hours contracts. Rapacious banks and untamed corporations. Corporate greed gouging the common weal. In these austere times, like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, one can easily become discouraged. The joyous cacophony of community life in Bedford Falls can seem like a distant dream of the silver screen.
It was sheer coincidence that in the week that Nelson Mandela died, and having been musing on integrity and courage, I read Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy. No obvious connection, one might think, between the death of a South African leader and a historical novel set in France at the end of the last century. Wrong.
An Officer and a Spy is the story of Georges Picquart, one of the key players in the fight to win the freedom of Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason, and who suffered humiliation, disgrace and imprisonment himself along the way. The fascinating thing about this story, and where it differs most profoundly from that of Mandela, is that whereas Mandela, as a young black man in apartheid South Africa, was aware every hour of every day of the injustice that he confronted, Picquart was an establishment man, an army man, who trusted the chain of command and was trusted by it. But he reached a point when he said, ‘that is not right’, and from that point on, he did not stop, even when it appeared he might lose everything.
Picquart did not start by believing in the innocence of Dreyfus. He had no predisposition to see conspiracy, or prejudice, at work. He became uneasy, as he discovered tiny details which didn’t quite fit with the established version of events, but his crusade began when he realised not only that Dreyfus was innocent, but that the establishment knew this, and had no intention of doing anything about it, but would allow him to continue to suffer on Devil’s Island, whilst the real guilty party (also known to the powers that be) retained his freedom, his army post, his salary.
Picquart wasn’t motivated either by personal fondness for Dreyfus (he knew him, and didn’t like him particularly), nor out of lifelong principled opposition to the anti-semitism which allowed Dreyfus to be made a scapegoat and his guilt to be so easily believed (he shared the low-level anti-semitic assumptions of his era and his class, assuming that Jews put loyalty to their own kind above loyalty to the country they lived in). His heroism lies precisely in those facts. Once he suspected that an injustice had been done he had to know, and once he knew, he had to act. He was demoted, sent abroad to high risk postings, kept under surveillance, his mail opened and his family and friends investigated. He was himself accused and imprisoned, only vindicated when Dreyfus himself was freed. He never faltered.
I won’t reprise the story of the Dreyfus affair here, because (a) it’s complicated and (b) you’ll have far more fun reading the account in Robert Harris’s novel.
My own interest in it resides partly in its place in French history and culture. Two of my favourite writers played a part in the story – Emile Zola of course produced the famous article ‘J’accuse’, in defence of Dreyfus, and was convicted of libel and removed from the Legion d’Honneur as a result.
And reading Proust made me aware for the first time how one’s take on Dreyfus’s innocence or guilt defined one, and divided society – dreyfusard or anti-dreyfusard, pretty much all of his characters are self-declared as one or the other. As Boyd Tonkin wrote recently in The Independent:
In many ways, the Dreyfus Affair lends In Search of Lost Time its moral spine. For Proust the Dreyfusard, who organised a petition in support of the tormented prisoner on Devil’s Island and avidly attended the 1898 trial of Émile Zola for criminal libel after he published his famous denunciation “J’Accuse”, attitudes to Dreyfus not only split the social milieu he depicts down the middle. They test and define the mettle of his main characters. To the Proust scholar Malcolm Bowie, the case gave Proust his “great experimental laboratory”. It runs like a live wire through those seven volumes.
It clearly also is a fascinating episode in the history of prejudice and anti-semitism. The case played its part in the founding of Zionism as a political force, as Theodor Herzl said:
“if France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant ‘Kill the Jews!’ Where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated”
Herzl was proved right in the case of France, as only 36 years after Dreyfus was finally pardoned, and 7 years after his death, Jews were being rounded up on the streets of Paris, herded into transit camps and then into cattle trucks before being deported to Auschwitz. Then, as there had been during the Dreyfus affair, there were people who were driven by hatred, people who colluded in injustice out of fear or complacency but also, throughout that dark time, people like Picquart, who were unable to be passive in the face of such injustice and evil, and who risked everything to stand against it.
Robert Harris – An Officer and a Spy (Hutchinson, 2013)
- dreyfus still an affair (3quarksdaily.com)
It seems that everyone had something good to say about Mandela, the day that his light finally went out. Everyone admires, respects, venerates the man. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way.
There was a time when you would not have found politicians of all stripes queuing up to contribute their eulogies. There was a time when the evil, brutal apartheid system had its defenders outside of the extreme fringes of white suprematism. There was a time when some world leaders saw white South Africa as a bastion against Marxism, and opposed sanctions aimed at undermining the apartheid regime. There was a time when the public schoolboys in the FCS produced t-shirts saying Hang Nelson Mandela. (Some of them are in government today, paying their respects, and hoping that those past statements and actions don’t surface.)
There was a time when it seemed hopeless, impossible that South Africa could ever be a place where the black majority and the white minority could live together, without bloodshed. For all the problems it has today, there is are generations who are and will be born free, and for that Mandela must be thanked, because he was probably the one man who de Klerk could deal with, a man forged by his long imprisonment, who had mastered his anger and bitterness and who was prepared to risk the accusations that he had ‘sold out’ in order to win freedom for his people.
For all the reasons to despair – and there are many – we have to recall how far we’ve come, in my lifetime. I would not have believed, in my twenties, anyone who told me that, before I reached old age, we would have a black President in a democratic South Africa, where there had been no bloody civil war. That there would be a black President in the White House. That the Berlin Wall would have fallen. That gay men and women would be free to marry, in so many parts of the world and, soon, here. These things haven’t come about through violent revolution but through the Mandelas of the world, some well known but many quite anonymous, against the odds, in the face of the haters and the threats, insisting on justice. As Richard Stengel’s Time tribute to Mandela says:
deep in his bones was a basic sense of fairness: he simply could not abide injustice. If he, Nelson Mandela, the son of a chief, tall, handsome and educated, could be treated as subhuman, then what about the millions who had nothing like his advantages? “That is not right,” he would sometimes say to me about something as mundane as a plane flight’s being canceled or as large as a world leader’s policies, but that simple phrase — that is not right — underlay everything he did, everything he sacrificed for and everything he accomplished.
Originally posted on That's How The Light Gets In:
A Jewish shop in Berlin on 11 November 1938, after the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht.
On this night 75 years ago, the Nazis unleashed a series of riots against Jews in Germany and Austria. In only a few hours, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed. For the first time, tens of thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps simply because they were Jewish. This event came to be called Kristallnacht or Night of the Broken Glass, a reference to the shattered glass from shop windows that carpeted the streets of German towns.
As I only knew Norman Geras – Norm – through his blog, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to him on my own. He was one of the writers who inspired me to use this form to write about whatever mattered to me, and he was kind enough to invite me to complete one of his profiles.
I cannot speak of his life, except as revealed through the many entries on Normblog, and now through the obituaries that have started to appear. A life of conviction and passion, of family and friendship, of music and books and film, of cricket… His very last entry was a list not of books that you must or should read, but of ‘books you might enjoy’ – no browbeating or pressure, just the suggestions of a friend, who wants to share their pleasure with other people.
He also used his blog for a series called Figures from a Dark Time. This was a response to those who argue that we all go on too much about the Holocaust, that it’s all been said often enough. Each entry was composed of testimonies of individuals who were engulfed by that darkness, some who survived, many who did not, and some too who risked everything to help those who needed it. He wrote ‘contre l’oubli’, restoring to some few of those individuals their names and their stories.
atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale
- Norman Geras: 1943-2013 (blogs.independent.co.uk)
- In praise of Norman Geras (1943-2013) (nickcohen.net)
- Norman Geras, 1943-2013 (outsidethebeltway.com)
- RIP Norman Geras (samirchopra.com)
- Bye bye Norm (harrietdevine.typepad.com)
- Pioneering blogger Norman Geras dies of prostate cancer aged 70 (theguardian.com)
- Norman Geras: Rest in peace, comrade (blogs.spectator.co.uk)
Terry Pitts’ Vertigo blog reviews a fascinating and important new study of W G Sebald by Helen Finch.
Originally posted on Vertigo:
Part of the disorientation of Sebald’s characters can be viewed as precisely an attempt to go astray, to resist compulsory heterosexuality and to transgress the borders of Germany and Europe in search of a queer affinity that might provide a source of resistance to the straightening and oppressive orientation of bourgeois society and family.
Helen Finch’s new book Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life is an ambitious, thin book that contains a dense, closely argued “queer reading of Sebald’s work.” The result is one of the most important books on Sebald to date. I am sure that there are a number of Sebald readers, casual and otherwise, who will look askance at a queer reading of his work, but, as Finch demonstrates, the clues – both obvious and coded – are there in plain sight.