Archive for category Politics
On the 15th April 1989 I was nine, and I can remember playing a game with my younger brother Sean. We were in the bedroom of our house in Burscough, messing around on the bunk beds. At some point we wandered downstairs, to get a drink or a ‘Toronto Snack’ – a fruit salad like the ones I used to get at nursery in Canada when Dad was teaching there for a year and Sean was just a baby. In my memory we came into the living room to find him watching the television.
“Something’s happened at the match,” is what I remember him saying. I remember the green of the pitch and the blue of the sky and the people milling around on the grass. People running as they carried others on makeshift stretchers. A line of police. As the afternoon progressed we learned of the deaths. 10, 20…
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Once again I’m naming the dead. Listing the names of the latest victims of murderous fanaticism. But whilst the names of the dead in Brussels are emerging, gradually, and will be published in our news media as they do, I have trawled the internet in vain for the names of those who died at Grand Bassam, as I did for those who died in Ouagadougou and Bamako, in Ankara and elsewhere. I’ve found a few – usually those of foreign nationals – but only a few. I want to honour them too, they merit that as much as those who died in Brussels or Paris. But I don’t know who they are.
So if I list the names of those who died this week in Brussels, as I listed those who died in Paris, it is not because I think European lives are more important or that terrorist attacks on European soil matter more than atrocities in Africa, Asia, the Middle East.
What listing the names of those murdered in European cities does is to show the cosmopolitanism of those targets. The names tell their own stories of migration and mobility – those who travel freely for pleasure or work or family, as well as those who have travelled to escape desperate poverty, persecution or war. That’s exactly what Daesh hate, of course. That on those city streets those of every faith and none mix freely, travel together, work together, eat together, enjoy music together.
But whilst the attacks on Paris and Brussels are explicitly aimed at the western cosmopolitanism that epitomises the grey zone, ‘that place between black and white, where nothing is ever either/or and everything is a bit of both’, the majority of their victims are Muslim. After all, most of their murderous attacks take place in predominantly Muslim countries – Daesh hate those who espouse what they regard as the wrong type of Islam as much if not more than they hate those who espouse a different faith or none at all.
How we respond on social media to these atrocities does matter. It may be easy to retweet, like, share, sign and so forth but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. It’s not enough, of course, but for many of us it’s all we can immediately do.
So what do we say? Do we change our profile pictures to the flag of the country where the latest murders have taken place? Do we assert that ‘je suis/nous sommes/we are all…’? Again, it’s important if we do those things that we do them for Mali, Ivory Coast, Turkey or Pakistan as readily as we do for France or Belgium.
Whatever we say, we need to say and keep saying that refugees are welcome. Because even before the names of the dead or the backgrounds of the killers are known, the usual suspects here and in the US are telling us that we’re to blame for letting ‘them’ in. Even before we know who died, and who killed them, we’re told that it’s the refugees fleeing war and terrorist brutality who are the cause of ‘our’ losses. We have to reject that othering which is, after all, exactly what Daesh want. In their world everything is polarised, and most of humanity is that Other that can be slaughtered without compunction. As terrorists they want us to fear and to hate, and governments to react with repressive and prejudicial legislation, to drive people out of the grey zone and into crusadership or caliphate.
Of course we may well be afraid, however much we assert otherwise to show our solidarity with each other against the murderers. We will be angry, we should be angry, that so many lives are being taken, that such brutality is being unleashed on so many. But alongside those emotions, we need to inform ourselves, to try to comprehend. As Jason Burke says, in his important and fascinating book, The New Threat from Islamic Militancy,
Trying to understand does not imply any sympathy. It simply means we need to set aside our very natural anger, disgust and fear in order, as dispassionately as possible, to learn. We need, above all, to avoid the trap that the extremists have fallen into: that of shutting ourselves off, of closing our minds, of succumbing to the temptation of wilful ignorance. In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, victims, the maimed and the bereaved, always ask a very fundamental, very human question, ‘Why did this happen?’ We owe it to them to make the effort it takes to find the answer.
We honour the dead by naming them, when we can. By refusing to shut our minds and our hearts – or indeed our borders. By asserting our shared humanity, that what unites us is so much greater than what divides us. By trying to understand.
The grey zone. It’s an endangered space, according to the murderous zealots of ISIS/Daesh/Islamic State/ISIL (I’m going to stick with Daesh, since I believe they really, really don’t like it). It’s the space where people meet, talk, think, and maybe change their minds.
President Bush said after the 9/11 attacks that there were only two options, to be with ‘us’ (the US and its allies) or with the terrorists. Daesh essentially agree – you are either with the crusade or with the caliphate. There is no middle ground.
And of course in some senses there isn’t, not when it comes to the massacring of innocents, wherever that takes place. No ‘of course I condemn the killings, but…’, or ‘of course it’s terrible but the French (or anyone else) had it coming’. No way. I am passionately, profoundly, unequivocally, unambiguously against everything that Daesh stand for and everything that they do. I despise their murderous arrogance, their callous indifference to human life.
But the danger of Daesh and their ilk is their absolute certainty. They define everyone who is not unequivocally, unambiguously with them not as mistaken or misguided but as the enemy. The Quran condemns those who take innocent lives, but Daesh see all who are not with them as guilty – corrupt and degenerate westerners in the ‘capital of prostitution and obscenity’, ‘deviant’ Muslims in Beirut, on and on and on. This year alone, they have murdered ‘crusaders’ in Afghanistan, Yemen, Turkey, Chad, Nigeria, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria…
Are they evil? Individually, I doubt it. We have to distinguish the organisation from the individuals who, as Umair Haque says, have themselves been conquered and brutalised by it. But they’ve been carefully taught, taught to hate, taught to kill without mercy or remorse, and by the time they’ve strapped on the explosive belt and picked up the Kalashnikov it is probably too late for them to be persuaded or deterred from doing evil in the name of an evil ideology. It’s not too late, though, for those who are attracted by the certainties of that ideology, or flirting with fundamentalism, if we can reach them, if we could sit down with them in the grey zone and talk, and listen. Lydia Wilson did that, talking to Daesh prisoners on death row in Kirkuk:
They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death from execution, or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life, but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal, and land-based, too. (Lydia Wilson, The Nation, 21 October 2015)
In the grey zone we can try to understand, and we can look into the eyes of another human being and draw on what we share whilst we explore what we don’t. The grey zone is full of the things that Daesh hate – music, art, football, laughter, friendship, conversation, love. The grey zone is where we live.
Justin Smith said of the targeting of the Eagles of Death Metal gig that ‘what the attackers hated in January [the Charlie Hebdo attacks], and what they continue to hate, is a sort of offense that we could not possibly promise to disown. It is the offense of happiness, of getting jokes, and loving oxymorons.’
‘life itself, the joy of living, was the target. … They did not attack infrastructure, politicians, military personnel, or sites of historical or cultural significance. They targeted innocent people, going about their lives, trying to make it through this difficult and complicated world with a modicum of fun and lightness. … It was, in every sense, an attack on multiculturalism; an attack on how we find happiness, outside the confines of a strict religious code of submission; an attack on the secular, enlightened spirit embodied by Paris’s vibrant, varied culture.’
Daesh tell us that the grey zone is on the brink of extinction, that it’s withering away. That’s what they want, of course, and that’s why we must protect it. Their intention in Paris was to provoke just that polarisation of views, to turn people against each other, to engender and encourage suspicion and prejudice, to make us afraid of each other. In Umair Haque’s words, ‘let’s be more courageous and wise than that’.
Billy Bragg said on Facebook:
We have to be careful not to mirror [Daesh’s] warped logic by declaring that all Muslims are enemies of the state. To do so would be to play into the hands of those who sent the murderers onto the streets of Paris. Jason Burke, writing in today’s Observer, points out that one of the main aims of ISIS is to polarise society. He quotes writings in which they state their wish to “eliminate the ‘grey zone’ between belief and unbelief, good and evil, the righteous and the damned.” … As the National Front begins to exploit the Paris attacks to gain votes in France, we must all be very careful not to divide our communities into those who are with us and those who are against us. ISIS wants to poison our society. If we hope to defeat the terrorists, we must also be vigilant against those who would help them achieve their aim.
So we have to continue helping the refugees, because they are human beings who are desperate and afraid and who are fleeing the same terror that struck at Paris, and we have to stand up against those who would turn them away on all sorts of spurious grounds but particularly now because they might be terrorists.
Kate Norlock wrote on the feministphilosophers blog:
Note the immediate interest on the part of some powerful actors to close borders and prevent refugees from moving, and consider helping those refugees. France’s leaders are already stating their intention to respond to these attacks. I’m no politician and I don’t know what nations should do, but I know that some refugees are in Europe now because they were trying to flee deadly attacks like those in Paris. Don’t let tonight be a night that hardens hearts against refugees. Let tonight be a reason to reach out.
We have to refuse to be bystanders when anyone – on social media, on the street, in the workplace – demonises or harasses Muslims or those who look as if they might be Muslims. We have to have conversations across the various divides of age, ethnic background, religion, politics – find out what other people think, share what we think, find the common ground. We have to counter and debunk the lies that are routinely told about refugees, immigrants, Muslims, and the propaganda that xenophobic political movements such as the Front National, EDL/Britain First etc. and their equivalents across Europe will make of the Paris atrocities.
None of this will stop Daesh. I’m not sure what will. How do you stop someone with an explosive belt and a Kalashnikov, who cares nothing for the lives of the people they will mow down, and nothing for their own life, indeed who is ‘seeking to be killed’ in order to gain martyrdom? Perhaps we cannot afford to be pacifists in any absolute sense. These are the moral quandaries that face us and perplex us, and we cannot take refuge in absolutes, because absolutes are a huge part of the problem.
We’re all looking for a ‘magic bullet’ to use against this big bad. There may be political and/or military solutions (just as likely, I’m afraid, there will be political and/or military reactions that will hurt Daesh’s victims more than they hurt Daesh itself).
For myself, what I want to do most of all is to fight – not with Kalashnikovs but with words and the way I live my life – for the grey zone.
Because the last thing the grey zone is, is grey. It’s every colour under the sun. And it’s beautiful.
Enjoy your life.
Make it count.
And don’t let the murderers win.
PS I am aware that the term ‘grey zone’ was used by Primo Levi in The Drowned and the Saved to describe a territory of moral ambiguity, or the suspension of morality, specific to the world of the concentration camps. My use of the term in this piece is based solely on its appropriation by Isis as described above.
The truly great women of history are not celebrated as they should be. Look at the furore when a number of women campaigned to get one – one! – of our bank notes to commemorate Jane Austen, a writer universally acknowledged (pretty much) to be one of the giants of English literature. Whilst statues and street names grant immortality to men whose deeds have been pretty much forgotten and would hardly be celebrated today – ‘heroes’ of war and empire for the most part – very few women make the grade.
Josephine Butler certainly has been consigned to the shadows for far too long. She was once described as ‘the most distinguished Englishwoman of the nineteenth century’ (by Millicent Fawcett). There have been a number of books about her, and the Church of England commemorates her, appropriately enough, in prayer on a dedicated day in the church calendar. The University of Durham has named a College after her, and there’s a Josephine Butler Primary Campus also in Northumberland, her birthplace. But still, we should know more, we should celebrate this truly remarkable woman.
As her latest biographer, Helen Mathers, says, ‘her achievements had lasting impact. Her name deserves to be remembered by all who value women’s struggles to improve their lives’. Helen’s book both justifies that claim, and explains why she is so much less well-known than her contemporary, Florence Nightingale, for example.
Because Josephine Butler, whilst epitomising many of the virtues expected of Victorian womanhood (piety, purity, motherhood and devotion to her husband), also broke all the rules. She went into places where respectable women should never venture, precisely because that was where she found the women she spent her life defending and supporting. Not only that but she spoke in public about their plight, about the abuses of the system which forced internal examinations – ‘steel rape’ – on suspected prostitutes in order to protect their male clients from disease, and the inequalities which trapped so many women in situations where prostitution might seem their only option. A contemporary journalist described her as ‘an indecent maenad, a shrieking sister, frenzied, unsexed, and utterly without shame’. She minded that, terribly.
Josephine was driven by her convictions to go on, despite the cost to her family, to her health, to her reputation, because she believed utterly in her crusade. She saw not only the immediate injustices but the underlying systemic ones that allowed these abuses to continue – the separate spheres for men and women which kept so many women ignorant and denied them a voice, the lack of educational opportunities, of voting rights, of rights for married women. And she was part of all of those campaigns – all of the movements which laid the foundations for the legislative and cultural changes which swept through the twentieth century.
But her support for the most despised of women was at the heart of her life’s work. She ‘made no distinction between “respectable” and “fallen” women’, identifying with those whose bodies were subject to abuse by men, the men who had forced them on to the streets in the first place and/or abused them whilst they were there, and the doctors who enforced surgical treatments to control them.
Helen Mathers vividly describes how Josephine’s own desolate sense of loss after the death of one of her children drove her to ‘find some pain keener than my own’. She wasn’t some pious do-gooder, despising the very people she set out to help – from the start she risked her reputation, her dignity, her health and her personal safety by going into the workhouse, sitting on the floor of the oakum shed with the women and girls who worked there (prisoners, or workhouse inmates) and talking to them, alone with them.
Her faith was integral to her campaign, and her marriage was essential to it. In many ways, George Butler was as remarkable as Josephine. He must have been dismayed, surely, by her campaigning, by the effects of her work on their sons, by the cost to her health, and the damage to his own career of having such a notorious wife. But he stood by her, supported her unshakably and she could not have done what she did without him.
If she were with us now, what would she be doing? She would be in Rotherham, and Rochdale, where vulnerable young girls have been abused on an unthinkable scale and ‘the authorities’ have turned blind eyes. She would be working with refugee organisations to help protect young women who arrive here after terrible trauma and find themselves destitute, or threatened with removal to the country where they were subjected to violence. She would be campaigning against trafficking and sex tourism. Wherever the struggle is, she would be there.
I wondered what Josephine herself might have wished for as a memorial to her achievements. A University College would certainly please her, and a day of Anglican prayer. She would be happy that the Josephine Butler Society continues to campaign on the issues closest to her heart. Would she want to be commemorated on a bank-note? Would she want a statue? Perhaps not, who knows. But for us, who have inherited the world that she fought for, but who see around us daily the evidence that her victories were not absolute, and that the fight must continue, it would be good to see reminders of her in Liverpool, perhaps, where her work really began. And if that prompted people to ask, who was Josephine Butler, and what did she do, then this book will provide the answers.
It’s a profoundly moving story, astonishing and inspiring. We can despair that the evils Josephine Butler poured all of her energies into fighting are still with us, or we can hope that there are and always will be people who will take up those battles on behalf of the most vulnerable, the excluded, the despised. As a humanist, I believe passionately that this is so, that knowing that this life is all we have makes what we do with it matter more, not less, that it can make us kinder, and braver. Josephine Butler was no humanist, believing that both the struggle and her strength to pursue it came from God, and in her honour I will, just this once, conclude with a prayer:
God of compassion and love,
by whose grace your servant Josephine Butler
followed in the way of your Son
in caring for those in need:
help us like her to work with strength
for the restoration of all to the dignity
and freedom of those created in your image;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Patron Saint of Prostitutes: Josephine Butler and a Victorian Scandal by Helen Mathers was published by The History Press on 11 August, 2014. ISBN: 9780752492094 It is currently available from all UK booksellers and will be published in the USA in November.
A Kindle edition is available from Amazon. Order a Kindle edition
Signed copies are available from the author at:
£11.50 + postage. Email email@example.com.
As I get older, I haven’t moved to the right, politically, not a millimetre. I haven’t reneged on the feminism that I embraced in my early twenties, or the anti-racism that I learned from my parents as a young child. I’m as idealistic as I ever was, despite all that I know, have seen, have learned in over half a century. But I’m less likely than ever to subscribe to any hard-line view on anything. I don’t reject all -isms – I have no hesitation in declaring myself as a feminist and as a humanist, but both (to me) are pretty broad churches (if you’ll pardon the expression).
One reason for this is empathy. I suspect that the more empathetic one is, the harder it is to sign up wholeheartedly to any ideology, because sooner or later one finds oneself looking into the eyes of another human being, signed up just as wholeheartedly to a different ideology, but yet with whom one feels affinity.
That isn’t to say that all values are relative and that ‘everyone’s entitled to their own opinion’ or any such vacuous non-thought. Just that all moral and political questions, every issue that rears its head and demands that one take a view and take a stand, must be viewed through that lens, the one that allows you to feel what the people on the other side might be feeling. You might not shift an inch, you might be confirmed in your own convictions but they will be tempered and informed by that insight.
In Caitlin Moran’s marvellous and deliriously rude novel How to Build a Girl, her protagonist says:’Perhaps I haven’t yet learned the simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.’
Just be kind.
I know, I know. Far too simple. But as a starting point, as a touchstone, it’s actually pretty radical.
Everything I’ve learned in my working life has suggested to me that departments, organisations of whatever kind, run better for a bit of kindness. A recognition that all of us, whether we’re the cleaner or the VC, are breakable, and that for all of us the world is difficult. That if people aren’t achieving what we expect them to, a bit of kindness, a bit of empathy, may unlock the reasons and enable us to see a way to help them. It’s not always going to work, and sometimes what the person needs and what the organisation needs is not reconcilable. But I absolutely believe – and this is based on thirty years experience of managing people, fifteen years of dealing with harassment cases, and nearly forty of being managed myself – that we have nothing to lose by being kind.
I’ve seen, and have been on the receiving end of, styles of management that pride themselves on being tough, that hide behind procedures rather than engage with people, that imagine that tacking the mantra ‘we recognise that this is a difficult time for you and that you may wish to ring this helpline…’ on to a message is sufficient to fulfil a duty of care. And I know how counter-productive these approaches are. They destroy trust, they batter confidence, they damage health.
Beyond the world of work, I see the viciousness of some of the current internecine struggles within the feminist movement, and I despair, because so much energy seems to be being expended on being unkind, on attributing the worst motives to the other side, and – or so it seems to me, from the sidelines – doing anything other than look into the eyes of another human being and recognising that they, like you, are breakable, and just being kind.
Of course I’m not daft enough to imagine that this approach will end the horror in Gaza, or in Iraq. It’s too late for kindness alone. But in the worst places, the most appalling situations, in the face of real evil, kindness can still do something powerful. In occupied France, the citizens of Le Chambon sur Lignon took it upon themselves, inspired by their pastor Andre Trocmé, to provide a hiding place for refugees, most of them Jews.
There does not seem to have been any coordinated discussion of whether or how they would do this. It seems to have developed organically – as people arrived, initially more or less at random, and then increasingly as word spread that this was a place where they might be safe, the community found space for them, worked out systems for alerting everyone to impending raids, trained up forgers and guides to prepare false IDs and to escort people over the border to Switzerland. Around 3,500 people were saved. A drop in the ocean, obviously, but there were others – in Nieuwlande in the Netherlands, the inhabitants resolved that every household would hide one Jewish family or at least one Jew.
Even where the rescue of Jews was supported by governments and/or organised resistance movements, or inspired by an influential and charismatic leader within a community, it was hugely dependent on individual acts of kindness, on individuals choosing to help people rather than to obey orders or save their own skins. When there was no such structured support, individual acts of kindness were all that kept many people alive. Ronald Rosbottom’s recent account of occupied Paris says – rightly – that there is no record of individual police officers protesting or refusing to cooperate with the Vichy government’s plans to arrest and deport Jews. However, given that the police had detailed records, knew where all the Jews were, and had planned the raid meticulously, how is it that the total arrested and deported was so far below target? How is it that resistance groups were able to circulate flyers around the city warning of the impending raid? That can only have been because individual police officers decided to do what they could, discreetly, and pass on what they knew, and even as the round-up progressed, to create opportunities for people to hide or escape. What made them take this risk? Their actions don’t amount to much in the scheme of things, when compared with other acts of heroism, they’re compromised and limited in their effects, but it seems to me that they are examples of people trying, in an impossible situation, to be kind, In Yolande Mukagasana’s compelling account of surviving the Rwandan genocide, it’s striking how some people that she might have expected would help her turned her away, and others, who had no particular reason to help, did what they could, from choosing not to see or recognise her, choosing not to alert the interahamwe, to hiding and feeding her, whilst the killing went on all around them.
What made the difference? I find myself far more interested in what makes people do the right thing, what prompts those acts of generosity and kindness in situations where such things are dangerous, rather than what makes people do evil. We know that hatred is infectious, that it can be taught, that when it is fed insidiously into the language and images that we absorb without even realising, it can begin to seem normal. But generosity and kindness can be taught too, and can be just as catching.
Just as the people who go along with evil are not monsters, those who won’t aren’t saints. Some of them have religious faith, others don’t. Some have strong political beliefs, others don’t. Whilst those things may provide motivation, and may provide a rationale for doing the decent thing, I don’t think that’s a sufficient explanation, as this behaviour crosses all such divides, just as evil does. They may have a more strongly developed sense of fairness, that instinct that makes one feel ‘that is not right’. They may be more empathetic and find it impossible not to feel what it would be like to be hunted, threatened, vilified. But these are not purely innate qualities – we start off identifying unfairness when it is unfair to us, and as we mature we learn to extrapolate that to others, if we’re encouraged to do so. And empathy can be nourished, if it’s seen as something valuable, something powerful.
We need to nurture those qualities. We need people who give a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn, who care about other people because they are people, whichever side they’re on. And we need idealism, because that opens us up to the possibilities of hope, and joy, and people being the best they can be. To go back to Caitlin Moran, ‘when cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. … Cynicism is, ultimately, fear. Cynicism makes contact with your skin, and a thick black carapace begins to grow – like insect armour. This armour will protect your heart, from disappointment – but it leaves you almost unable to walk. You cannot dance, in this armour.’ And you can’t love either.
When we empathise, we can’t be deliberately cruel, because it hurts us to hurt someone else. That may not in itself be morality, but it teaches us morality. We know that harsh words cause other people pain because we feel that pain. We may cause pain in anger, but we regret it, it haunts us if we have done so. That doesn’t mean we’re always nice, that doesn’t mean we can’t have hard conversations with people, and tell them things that we know will hurt them, but the way we do that will be informed by our understanding of what it will feel like to be them, hearing this.
I’ve quoted this before, from Joss Whedon’s Angel:
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
So it’s not daft, soft, or naive. It’s vital, it’s difficult and it can be dangerous.
Just be kind.
Peter Grose – The Greatest Escape: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives from the Nazis (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2014)
Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl (Harper, 2014)
Yolande Mukagasana – N’aie pas peur de savoir (Robert Laffont, 1999)
Ronald Rosbottom – When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation (Little, Brown & Co, 2014)
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 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.