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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Editorial 224: November 2014

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Remembering and forgetting

It is remembrance season in Britain and Ireland, remembrance that is of wars fought by the United Kingdom. In general there are many different issues in how we relate to the past, and how we use the past to bolster our positions in the present. Whatever our politics, we are almost certain to read the past and the present in the same way. If we see the present from a view of building peace and establishing social and economic justice, at home and abroad, then we are likely to view the past in terms of how it contributed to, or failed to contribute to, what we wish to see in the present and future. If we see the present from an establishment or military-strategic point of view then our reading of the past will be rather different, and gauged to issues primarily of stability and security for our country.

There is however an issue of intellectual honesty for us all in this. Do we take all parties into account? At home do we look at the position of haves and have nots, and the position of different ethnic and interest groups? On the international scene do we take a nationalist or internationalist perspective? In other words, do we view the position taken by our country as the primary frame of reference, or do we temper that with a strong dose of other countries’ positions and the good of world as a whole? Because what is the point of only taking ‘our’ country’s point of view? We may decide it is right, we may decide it is wrong, or even inbetween, but if we cannot be critical of our own country then we are narrow nationalists and any contribution we are likely to make to the wellbeing of humanity will be more accidental than intentional.

Remembrance of wars past is an issue that we have dealt with at differing times in these pages. The ‘Remembrance’ season – and it is now a ‘season’ in length rather than a day or a Sunday – in this part of the world comes annually. But it does not get any better. Arguably it has got worse. Some of the issues to do with the red poppy and remembrance were dealt with at a recent meeting in Belfast on the topic British television presenters, or even interviewees, are now obliged to wear a red poppy. The fascinating thing, as mentioned by Ben Griffin of Veterans for Peace, is that while those appearing on television are obliged to wear them, on visiting a BBC radio station he found only one person wearing one. The obligatory nature of the exercise on visual media (’the term ‘poppy fascism’ is a bit over the top but you will understand the meaning) could be said to be reminiscent of leaders in Soviet Russia wearing their communist lapel badges, or the stars and stripes badges of USA politicians following 9/11.

Red poppies only remember British war dead. This is clear from the message of the Royal British Legion who see themselves as the custodians of remembrance. It is also clear from the installation of red poppies around the Tower of London marking a hundred years since the start of the First World War – it is the 888,246 British military war dead of the First World War that are remembered, no one else. Veterans for Peace in the UK, however, laid a wreath at the cenotaph in London a year ago with 90% white poppies and 10% red ones representing the proportion of civilians killed in modern warfare compared to the proportion of soldiers.

But it is not just the fact that red poppies only commemorate British war dead that is an issue (and not remembering civilians at all). It is also that it is closely tied in with promotion of the British military today, and the recent wars it has been sent to fight. Sometimes it is almost unclear what is being promoted – remembering the dead of the past, or supporting the military of the present. The tie in with the British government and establishment is clear when you see the launch of the poppy appeal this year taking place at the British intelligence and spy headquarters, GCHQ Cheltenham.

It is right that we should remember all those who have died in wars. It is right that in Ireland we should remember those who fought and died in any cause, whether we agree with that cause or not. But in moving from a position of amnesia regarding war dead in British forces on the part of politicians in the Republic, and in Ireland in general apart from unionists and some with British army links, the pendulum has almost swung the other way around that the Republic is being coopted into a form of remembrance which is not remembrance but forgetting – forgetting the awful nature of war and the prominent, negative role that Britain played in leading to most of the wars concerned.

We should remember all those who died but we should not remember exclusively the war dead of any country, not even our own country (whatever that might be). But we should also remember in such a way that we commit ourselves to work against war, to avoid war in the future, to work for peace, justice and world equality without war. If we are looking for a suitable symbol it is certainly not the red poppy which says nothing about avoiding future wars and is associated with the British army, past and present. It can be about the white poppy which is a symbol of remembrance and commitment to working against war in the future.

Of course any symbol can be seen as divisive and people can have their own reasons for identifying with a particular symbol, e.g. seeing the red poppy as a symbol of the struggle against fascism. Some might see the white poppy as the ‘opposite’ of the red. Some might wish to wear both – one for remembrance, one for commitment to peace. But looking at it from the point of view of peace and nonviolence it is difficult to see how the red poppy can be redeemed as a symbol that anyone with those interests at heart might wish to wear, certainly unaccompanied by a white one.

1916 and all that

Debate has been continuing, in the context of the Republic, as to whether the 1916 Rising was necessary to achieve Irish independence. John Bruton has been the most prominent figure in raising the issue and arguing that, no, it was not necessary and the nationalist movement would have got there without the sacrificial military gesture that was the 1916 Rising. He has also raised the question of whether the Rising met ‘just war’ criteria (thought the same could be easily be asked about the First World War), and whether a ‘just rebellion’ is possible and in what circumstances. Some ripostes focus on the nature of the British empire at the time. As with many such issues there has often been more heat than light, on all sides.

The first thing to acknowledge is that history is what it is, and what took place was the product of various forces at the time. History is complicated, often contradictory, and the task of the historian is to pick out the appropriate themes and seams. What happened in fact is that the relatively small military uprising against British rule was a complete failure, heroic or not, but British reaction ensured a sea change in Irish, certainly Irish Catholic, attitudes. There is the well known quote from British Army commander, General Sir John Maxwell, that in punishing and shooting leaders of the Rising, “I am going to ensure that there will be no treason whispered, even whispered, in Ireland for a hundred years.” It did not work out like that, in fact his action ensured that such ‘treason’ (to British interests) became mainstream.

But the other thing to stress is that, in acknowledging what happened historically and why it happened, and what the repercussions were, we are not obliged to take conventional sides. This may lead us into the territory of ‘what-iffery’ which can in turn bring us into lots of cul de sacs. We can, however, legitimately look at other historical examples of issues and campaigns, and what they led to, to use to think things through.

As believers in nonviolence we are obviously not going to say that a military rebellion was necessary. Those engaging in the rebellion did not see an alternative and there was none visible to them. However it is clear from the history of nonviolent action and struggle, often in very difficult circumstances, that non-military struggle was a possibility. We are talking about the country that invented the term ‘boycott’. We are talking about the country which, without a bullet being fired, in 1919 had its nationalist MPs transfer allegiance from Westminster to the Dáil in Dublin; this is a classic example of setting up an alternative political institution. When we look at Gandhian struggles in India, or civil rights struggles in the USA, we see that there are all sorts of possibilities for mass struggle on political issues.

So what we can say in relation to the independence struggle of the latter part of the second decade of the twentieth century, and the start of the third decade, is that military struggle was not essential to gain independence. It is highly unlikely that the British were going to ‘hand it over’ without a struggle – however that did not have to be a military struggle. But military means were what people saw and that was primarily what they used, on nationalist and unionist sides. Our conclusion here is similar to the emergence of violence, on all sides, in the Troubles in Northern Ireland; violence was certainly not necessary, on any side, but people (on republican or loyalist sides, as well as the state) did not understand the possibilities or extent of nonviolence.

It is also possible to disagree with the 1916 Rising but agree with some of the aspirations and motivations involved. Opposition to imperialism is admirable, along with a desire for self determination. A commitment to "religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens", is important, not least for gender equality. The fact the 1916 Rising manifesto “declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally” is vitally important as well. But how are these things to be brought about and what happened in reality?

It may be engaging in ‘what-iffery’ of our own, but we can ponder what might have happened had the independence struggle used nonviolent means. How would the struggle have evolved? What would have been the response of unionists? And what would have been the outcome for the whole island? If it had still resulted in partition, would both parts have been as conservative as they became?

However, beyond considering the might have beens of history, we can positively consider the might happens of the future. The future is still waiting to be constructed and this can be even more productive than deconstructing the past - necessary and all as that is to try to understand how we arrived where we are. It is part of our task to persuade people in general that nonviolent struggle is an option in difficult circumstances that may arrive in the future, as well as in the ongoing issues that we face today. If we are trying to write a positive history for the future then that is an essential part of our task.

- - - - -


Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Why Have We Made A Mess of Things?

Have you ever asked yourself why our species, although successful in many ways, has made such a mess of things? If a date can be placed on when the public became aware of global warming it would be 23 June 1988 when Dr. James E. Hansen in a testimony to US Congress warned that global warming as a result of human activity was under way and could “spiral dynamically out of control.” In spite of the 26-years since this wake-up call during which rigorous scientific study has confirmed that global warming is a reality and governments, corporations, civic bodies and whole communities have come to accept this we have not acted in a manner equal to the enormity of the situation. The prevailing paradigm is still that of economic growth, anything else is considered heresy.

Judging by the popularity of wildlife programmes on television, David Attenborough’s are an example, and the prominence the tourist industry gives to nonhuman nature in its promotional material, “Orangutan Spotting in Kalimantan” is a typical eye-catcher, it would appear that the last quarter of a century has seen a significant rise in the number of people who appreciate the nonhuman world. (Trailfinders, Asia 2014) Yet, the WWF’s 2014 Living Planet Index contains grim findings on the state of the Earth’s biodiversity. The report reveals that the number of vertebrates has declined by 52% over the past 40-years. This is catastrophic for the life forms in question, all of which have intrinsic value and a right to life. The loss has direct and dire consequences for humankind.

Tracy McVeigh writing about the report in The Observer, 5th October 2014, refers to Dr Nick Isaac, a macroecologist at the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Oxfordshire who says that “between 23% and 36% of all birds, mammals and amphibians used for food or medicine are now threatened with extinction.” Our economy is directly dependent on the health and predictability of nonhuman nature. This is well illustrated by the serious water shortage in the American West which is having a negative impact on agriculture. (National Geographic, October 2014) Prolonged water scarcity could lead to mass migration from cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Humankind even destroys eco-systems it reveres and considers holy. An example is the River Ganges in India. More than 420 million people rely on it for food, water, bathing and agriculture and tens of millions of Hindus bath in it every year in the belief that it purifies their souls. In spite of its religious status the river is subjected to mass pollution of every kind imaginable including chemical run-off from farms and industry, untreated sewage, of which approximately 1 billion litres is dumped in the river on a daily basis. Animal carcases are put in the river and every year tens of thousands of bodies are cremated on its banks with innumerable bodies left to drift in its current. The river also serves as a convenient disposal site for unwanted babies. Large stretches of the river are dead.

In spite of the readiness of countries to fight a war at short notice and willingness to spend trillions in doing so we failed to stop the spread of the Ebola virus which broke out in Meliandu, a village in Guinea in December 2013 which has now taken a firm hold in Liberia and Sierra Leone with an official figure of 13,703 people infected and 4,920 dead from the disease. (WHO, 27 October 2014) Criticising the response of the international community to the crisis, which has the potential to cause the death of millions of people, Donald Kaberuka, head of the African Development Bank described the response “as too little, too late.” (The Guardian, 16 October 2014)

Discrimination against females is a problem that most countries have not fully addressed. In the UK for example women on average receive 20% less pay than men.

Why do we make a mess of things when we have the evident ability to do otherwise? I proffer a view which is open for debate. In spite of our wondrous technological innovations and professed belief in equality and human dignity we are emotionally at an infant stage of development. This is evident in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and elsewhere when it comes to our sense of identity. Emotional infanthood is at the root of gross economic inequalities through our failure to acknowledge the transitory nature of things, a keen sense of which would likely lead to us treating others as we would like to be treated ourselves. If we did this we would not only eradicate basic needs but live more meaningful and satisfying lives thus negating the desire to fill existential emptiness with consumer products at the expense of the environment. Another infantile trait is that personal success is judged not so much by compassion, creativity, wellbeing and the simplicity of one’s life, but by how much we accumulate and how highly we are regarded by those with power and high social ranking. Hubris is such that most humans think they will live forever, albeit in a nonphysical form.

Our emotional infanthood is marked by our capacity to deny the obvious, thus tens of millions of Hindus bathe in and drink from the toxic water of the Ganges unwilling to accept that their “mother Ganga, rector of God, bringer of hope and purifier of souls” could make them sick. ( Our collective passivity to global warming, the loss of biodiversity and our slow response to the outbreak of the Ebola virus might have its root in the idea that ‘it’s not our problem’, which is a response based on the lack of ability to make connections and appreciate consequences.

We have yet to mature to a level that enables us to accept the idea that we are an integral part of the biosphere, wholly dependent on it and each other. The question is do we have enough time to emotionally evolve before we burn our house down, destroying ourselves and the life-forms that dwell within it?

Copyright INNATE 2021