Monday, July 30, 2012

The ability of the human mind to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time is simply an excuse for hypocrisy.

The ability of the human mind to hold two conflicting beliefs at one and the same time is well known. This becomes more of a problem when it comes to the basic principles which form the foundation of a civilized world.

If we believe in a principle which opposes occupation and colonisation then that principle must be applied to everyone. Clearly nations which claim to be democracies who indulge in this will be condemned more powerfully than those who make no such claim. But the universal principle needs to be applied.

If we believe in human rights and rule of law then we should apply that principle everywhere and at all times. If apartheid is wrong on one count, it is wrong on all counts. If holding people under occupation and denying them freedom is wrong on one count, it is wrong on all counts. That is the point and power of principle.

Where we selectively apply principles because of personal prejudice sourced in race, religion, nationality, gender, age or any separative criteria, then we betray the principle itself and its place as part of the foundation of our modern, civilized and enlightened world.

Everyone hates to be discriminated against and that is what apartheid did in South Africa in the past and does in Israel today. Everyone hates to be occupied by another and that is the case in many places around the world today, including Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Tibet, Kashmir, East Papua, Chechnya and others. Most people take the view that if they were imprisoned in an apartheid State or held under occupation, that they would fight against it. And yet many of those who see it this way, also hold the conflicting belief that some do not have the same right.

Most people oppose invasion and occupation and yet too many supported America's invasion and occupation of Iraq in which nearly one and a half million have died. They supported the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and they support the continued occupation and colonisation of many countries. And yet, in principle, they oppose both occupation and colonisation and no intelligent, reasonably educated person could ever support apartheid. But they do!

South African Jews were in the forefront of the fight against apartheid in their country, although many also supported it; and yet most appear to support apartheid in Israel, not because it is just, decent or necessary; but because of religious prejudice. Israelis support it because of racial prejudice, just as white South Africans did.

Who would countenance occupation without resistance? Very few. The same people who glorified the British and Europeans as they fought against German occupation, are just as likely to demonise the Palestinians, Iraqis and Afghans for fighting against their occupiers. Double standards? Certainly. Irrational? Absolutely.

Americans defend their occupations as examples of fighting for freedom; so did the Germans as anyone studying the history of the Second World War could see. But one is wrong and the other is right? When it comes to principle that is not possible. Either there is a principle that invasion and occupation of other countries is wrong - particularly when they make no threat and are no threat - or it is not. In this day and age we say that it is,  so why the selectivity? Do people really not see the egregious hypocrisy of their position.

And apartheid in Israel. South Africans do seem to be fighting against this but ironically, Jewish South Africans are not. In fact quite the opposite. And yet most of them would say they support absolutely the principle of ending apartheid in South Africa. But not in Israel which occupies all of Palestine. Is there cognitive dissonance at work when people take such irrational and hypocritical positions? Probably. Because trying to point out the ludicrous paradox of their position in regard to a basis principle does not seem to get anything but a heated and even more irrational response.

In the modern age we no long believe that dispossession and colonisation is just or legal. But the world has supported Israel in doing just that for decades. If China invaded and sought to colonise Japan would we support that? Absolutely not. But somehow the principle is not applied to the Palestinians - nor in any truth to the Tibetans.

So how important is it to fight for and defend principles when they are so easily betrayed and ignored? Very important. As important as it always has been because there are some things which if not 'set right' will corrupt, corrode and debase.

Some things as a matter of principle are simply wrong. Followers of Judaism would argue that they have certain rights because of past suffering and that is why it is okay for them to commit war crimes and human rights abuses in a bid to maintain their occupation, colonisation and apartheid State. But even if one accepted this premise, that is like saying, the person who murders can be set free because he or she had a 'bad childhood.'

As a matter of principle and freedom, rule of law, human rights and justice are matters of principle, we betray at our peril. Just as it was a matter of principle that we have universal suffrage; female suffrage; gender equality; universal education; an end to slavery - there are times when the principle must be applied for its own sake and for ours, no matter how upset people may get, how much they may oppose it, and how extreme they may become in defending their betrayal of principle.

When it comes to principle it is like 'white lies.' There are no 'white lies' there are just lies. You can tell yourself it is a small lie or a small betrayal of principle but it is not; it is a lie first and last and it is a betrayal of principle which weakens the foundation on which that principle stands.

From the moment that we become selective about basic principles of a civilized world, we squander the rights for which our ancestors fought and died and we betray our descendants who will inherit the world we have created. Either that is a world of principle to protect them and their descendants; or it is not. The choice is ours.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Oil on Canvas, Bushfire, Roslyn Ross, 2011.

We disappear in timeless worlds
when we do least expect,
reminding us that minutes tick,
because we say they do.
Delight can drive its way through time,
and pain can hold it close,
and time can feel both fast and slow,
though it does not exist.

They say time goes faster and more slowly depending upon what we are doing and how we are feeling and there are both scientific and spiritual teachings which would say that time is an illusion - a reality we create to better function in this world but not a reality in itself.

I remember reading the book by Oliver Sacks, many years ago, called Awakenings, describing his experiences with L-Dopa (sleeping sickness) patients. In 1966 Sacks began working with a group of patients, many of whom had spent decades unable to move or speak due to the devastating effects of the 1920's encephalitis lethargica. He tried them on a then new Parkinson's drug, L-dopa, with amazing results. In essence they 'returned to function' although sadly, the vast majority returned to their frozen state after the negative effects of the drug began to outweigh the benefits.

But the incident which had a profound effect on me was where Sacks told of a patient whom he would pass, numerous times a day, and see moving his hand from his lap to scratch his face, impossibly slowly, over the space of countless hours. When the patient returned and could communicate, Sacks asked him about this and he said that for him, the movement did not take hours, but seconds, just as it would in our world.
I actually found it comforting to think that despite their frozen state, how we saw their world was not in essence how they experienced it and perhaps, that too was the case for coma patients who lie imprisoned for days, weeks, months or years.

But my personal experience of being in a timeless world involved car accidents or near-car accidents. Time literally stopped, of that I had no doubt. In one instance I was driving on a busy freeway with my children then aged six and seven, and a truck in front of me lost a piece of timber which came flying off, heading for my car. I remember thinking clearly that I had to work out where to let this timber hit the car so that it did not hit me and cause an immediate crash, it did not hit the centre of the windscreen and possibly crash through to where my children were in the back and that meant I had to slightly swerve the car so that it hit the left-hand pillar, not the glass, where little damage would be done and I could continue to drive the car.

 And that is what I did and that is what happened. In that instant involving mere seconds when the long piece of timber flew off and hit our car, I had carefully, calmly and slowly thought about what to do. Since that time I have had the same experience on a number of occasions - always involving crisis and danger and always allowing calm, considered, slow and careful assessment which felt like minutes but was in fact barely seconds.

There is no doubt that time is not all that it seems, if indeed, it exists at all in the ways in which we believe.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Power and the prison of poverty

The more things change, the more they stay the same…..well, here we are another month on and while some things have improved somewhat in Malawi, there are indications that things may not have changed as much as one might have hoped.

Wishful thinking must have been invented in such places for desires often do not get far beyond wishes. There is word that some $8million dollars will be spent on re-furbishing the five palaces in the country and while those palaces may well be in need of a ‘little work’ it seems a strange allocation of funds in a country which remains one of the poorest, if not the poorest in Africa.

I find it hard to get my head around such decisions and can only conclude that I do not understand how people think in this part of the world. Does such expenditure on such issues of ‘image’ and ‘face’ mean things here which they do not in the West? Do the people agree that it is a priority for their President to be housed as magnificently and comfortably as possible, no matter what they lack or suffer? 
Perhaps they do! Perhaps in the same way that people in Africa ‘tug their forelocks’ still at their version of ‘royalty,’ the chiefs and those in power, so too did the masses in the Western world centuries ago. It is hard to see it is much different to India where despite massive poverty and illiteracy and injustice the people appear to support billions of dollars spent on military hardware and nuclear weapons programmes, and, even more ridiculously, on a space programme!

When I have asked about such things I am told: ‘But this makes the people proud and pride is good for those who have little.’

But surely when one can choose between offering people a dose of pride or a roof over their heads and education for their children there are few who would choose ‘pride.’ What those in power really mean is they can sell the ‘pride’ factor to the people because they were never going to get what they deserved anyway so they may as well settle for pride. It’s a ‘warm fuzzy,’ no matter how ephemeral, in a world ‘ of countless ‘cold pricklies.’

But there is one difference! India is in fact a massively wealthy country and always has been. The reality of its poverty is a matter of choice, sourced in what is considered to be priority. Even Ghandhi said that if India wanted flushing toilets for all of its citizens it could have them, but clearly it was not a priority.

I am sure the Hindu religion also plays a major part in keeping people in their place and while Islam is a sizeable minority it remains a minority and those who fear for their future will always ‘toe the line’ more readily. But why does it work in Africa where religion does not teach that one is born into one’s ‘place’ in this world and if that place involves poverty and suffering then that is what you deserve?

Why do people stare into the gaping maw of poverty  which they know is worse than it needs to be because of the actions of those in power …and smile? Metaphorically speaking anyway.  Are they used to poverty? Do they no longer remember that things were better in the past, albeit under colonial rule? Is it better to be free and independent and poor where mistakes are made by your own kind than ruled by others and better off? Probably. Although it really is a ridiculous question because there is no choice.

This is not a rich country by any stretch of the imagination and while it was in better shape under British colonial rule, as were all African nations of that era, it has not been economically sound for most of its history. This is not an argument for a return to colonial rule. Such days have passed and rightly so, but just as in India one still hears people talk about how much better things worked when the British ran the country, so too, there is a memory of how Malawi was and how Malawi might be again, if sound and just government can be maintained.

But something always seems to get in the way of justice and the needs and rights of the people. What is that something which sees ‘self-serving’ rise to the top of the list of even the most intelligent, educated and decent people? I wish I knew but it seems always to be the way of Africa that those who gain power, very quickly, turn that power to their own ends and their own gains.

To add insult to injury this is a seriously religious country – either Muslim or Christian but each preaching the need to help others! But they are empty words and it is more of: ‘Do as I say, not do as I do?’

And I don’t believe it is a legacy of colonisation. If that were the case then any ex-colony would be the same and they most clearly are not. It has to be cultural and it has to be a mentality that one finds more often in places like Africa and India – these being the two where I have personal experience. Indian and African cultures are quite different except for the fact that they seem to accept injustice from those in power more easily. In India one could argue it is the caste system at work and a religious belief in the superiority of others and in Africa one can point the finger at the tribal system – a variation on the theme of caste – where those in power, for whatever reason, are believed to be deserving of honour. Except it isn’t honour; it is acceptance of their actions, however honourable or dishonourable they may be simply because they hold a position.

If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely then never more so than in such places. Demanding accountability from one’s government or leaders is an absolute if there is ever to be anything approximating justice for all. But people don’t! They complain, they condemn, they criticise and often in the most venal of ways, but they don’t actually seem to do much. Occasionally they riot and sometimes they organise protests but given that nothing ever seems to change it hardly counts as effective.

It took the peasants of what we now call the West centuries to learn how to demand their rights and some nations are better at it than others. But things seem to happen so slowly here that the learning progresses, if at all, at snail’s pace. At some level it is depressing. One can believe, as I do, that all works ultimately to the good and serves a purpose but to see things change and yet not change is disheartening. It is right and just to wish better for people; to want for them the freedoms and justice which exist in the ‘best’ of worlds, not a continuation of the same lack of freedoms and injustice which have dogged them for decades if not centuries.

Is it fear which fuels corruption? A belief that if you do not look after yourself then no-one else will? After all, things have been better and then gotten worse and there are no guarantees. But surely if someone is intelligent, well travelled, educated and responsible they will know that self-serving leads to corruption and leads to slow if not fast social decay? Surely? But they seem not to.

I remember being told in India that if you were in a position of power, any power at all, and you did not make use of it for your family then you were shamed. Perhaps that is also at work here where ‘face’ is all and in many ways, as demonstrated, would put the Asians to shame. So much is about ‘face’ and the demonstration of power from the way one bows before or kneels to a chief and the lavish nature of lifestyle for those at the top of the ladder, not to mention the displays of sometimes epic proportions, shades of Cecil B. DeMille, for official functions and presidential appearances.

To be fair, the British still do the same thing with their Royalty and the Americans do it with their President, but in the main, such displays of pomp, power and presence are less rare in this day and age and have even less place when carried out at the stinking feet of poverty.
But it is what it is and in truth, at the end of the day, whatever I might wish, it is not my problem. I can do my small part and help a few to have a better life and that is it. The rest is up to them. There is a long way to go but people must want to go there and must be prepared to take the first step on that journey no matter the risk.

When you see how people live you cannot imagine them not wanting other but perhaps they do not. Driving down to Mangochie on Lake Malawi the other week, some three hours from Lilongwe, we passed through dozens of small villages. Mud huts with thatched roofs; herds of stupid goats wandering across the road; dry-dust compounds and snaking paths through tall grass and the endless lines of people walking, and sometimes riding bikes, on the sides of the road – this is life in poor Africa. The largest buildings are religious – a mosque here, a Catholic or Evangelical Church there; a Christian school or a Muslim school.

The other reality is that it is not just those in power who spend money on their own ends but the do-gooders, the religious ‘helpers’ of all persuasions, who pour more money into demonstrations of their ‘might’ with their churches and mosques, than they do into villages where the quality of life is basic, if not subsistence.

Perhaps poverty breeds a sense of powerlessness and for those who have dragged themselves from the very depths of it, also a sense of fear that what has been gained might be lost. It takes enormous courage to fight for justice and risk all when one acts as an individual, but perhaps it takes too much courage and far more than courage to fight for justice when you risk the welfare of your children. It is one thing to risk all your own and your life for a cause – but quite another to risk that of those who depend on you.
There is no denying that it takes remarkable people of courage and determination to bring about change but there is also no denying that it is easier to demand accountability and justice when one lives in a nation which can trust both the society, that means others beyond the immediate family, and those in power, as well as the political system which both provides power and protects us.

The stark reality is that when we take to the streets demanding change in the modern world, the Western world, we do not in the main, risk our lives or our security. Most developed nations provide a welfare safety net which will catch us if we fall and a political system which can be held accountable without  risk to our lives or our livelihoods. Sadly that is not how things work in what we call the Third World in general and Africa in particular.

Poverty is its own prison and perhaps those in power know that all too well. And the best way out of poverty is education. Africa would be better served if there was more focus on education and less on spreading religion. But self-serving is a human trait and is not particular to Africa!

Thursday, July 05, 2012

It is important to react with compassion and to judge the act, not the individual, or the nation, but it is also important to speak out against injustice.

It was the raising of voices which ended slavery; has helped to end wars; brought universal suffrage; defended the rights of women, children and blacks; changed our attitudes toward the mentally and physically handicapped and which push us on to a more enlightened world.

While all we can really change is ourselves, it behoves us, particularly those of us who live in free democracies, to stand up for justice wherever injustice can be found. When we do not speak out against injustice we betray not just those who are oppressed, but we betray ourselves and our deepest truth.