History & Culture

Category Archives: History & Culture

History & Culture

Is Utopian PostCapitalism post-NATO post-Brexit Society Possible?

Economics & Society – the next big ‘ism

I hate ‘isms, whether capitalism or communism, neoliberalism or even postcapitalism. I also dislike ‘ities, whether cities or christianities – for there are thousands of incarnations of both. I prefer the land and environment of the countryside, not high-rise development living on top of each other, aspiring to the penthouse apartment, swarming like bees to a square mile of golden honey, gold handshake, gilded lifestyle of the 1 per cent. History has led us ever closer to each other in terms of where we live, with population expansion and the pressure to move towards the capitalist and industrialist means of production. Will the age of the Internet allow us to live out self-employment part-time creative dreams?

Norfolk Peoples Assembly Anti-Austerity Demo, Norwich Haymarket, 30 May 2015
‘Inequality’ – Norfolk Peoples Assembly Anti-Austerity Demo, Norwich Haymarket, May 2015

The EU – Peace & Prosperity in our time?

Will modernity bring or sustain peace? The European project, the EU, has been an ever expanding union in terms of peace, even prosperity perhaps, until the crash of 2008/9 affected us all as we shored up banks and capital but not people and livelihoods. Whilst the UK marginally voted to leave the European Union, assuming “Brexit means Brexit” as Theresa May so simply and yet evasively said, it is undeniable that however lumbering a bureaucratic behemoth ‘Brussels’ is, it has been on balance a force for good. The UK, well England in the main, recoiled nonetheless against ever increasing fiscal and foreign policy union.

NATO – “One for all and all for One”?

As with a nuclear “deterrent”, have defence pacts really saved us from wars? Arguably, NATO‘s 28 nations are neither at war with each other and would, in theory, defend each other against external aggression. In principle, at least, for Jeremy Corbyn has expressed his doubts and previously said that NATO only furthers capitalist self-interest and has had its time.

“I don’t wish to go to war. What I want to do is achieve a world where we don’t need to go to war, where there is no need for it. That can be done.” – Jeremy Corbyn

Who can disagree with that? Yet, the media focus is on the possible breaking of NATO Article 5 pledges instead. His words are idealistic rather than realistic but where would we be without ideals?

Capitalism and PostCapitalism?

In his 2015 book, Postcapitalism, Paul Mason argues, along with the OECD, that “the best of capitalism is behind us” and that with decreasing returns for the many inequality will rise 40%, as the few batten down the hatches. What lies beyond a breaking capitalism, not neoliberalism, for sure.

“Is it utopian to believe we’re on the verge of an evolution beyond capitalism? We live in a world in which gay men and women can marry, and in which contraception has, within the space of 50 years, made the average working-class woman freer than the craziest libertine of the Bloomsbury era. Why do we, then, find it so hard to imagine economic freedom?

Postcapitalism - Paul Mason, Penguin 2015
Postcapitalism – Paul Mason, Penguin (2015)

… All readings of human history have to allow for the possibility of a negative outcome… But why should we not form a picture of the ideal life, built out of abundant information, non-hierarchical work and the dissociation of work from wages?

Millions of people are beginning to realise they have been sold a dream at odds with what reality can deliver. Their response is anger – and retreat towards national forms of capitalism that can only tear the world apart. Watching these emerge, from the pro-Grexit left factions in Syriza to the Front National and the isolationism of the American right has been like watching the nightmares we had during the Lehman Brothers crisis come true.

We need more than just a bunch of utopian dreams and small-scale horizontal projects. We need a project based on reason, evidence and testable designs, that cuts with the grain of history and is sustainable by the planet. And we need to get on with it.” Paul Mason

Putting the Human where Capital once was

Norfolk Peoples Assembly Anti-Austerity Demo, Norwich Haymarket, 30 May 2015
‘No Cuts’ – Norfolk Peoples Assembly Anti-Austerity Demo, Norwich Haymarket, 30 May 2015

Humanism begins well, with human, but ends in another ism. An upside down society, as suggested by Jesus, where the last are first, the migrants welcomed, the poor ‘last hour workers’ paid well, the sick, disabled or mentally unwell treated with care, dignity, and respect, is possible. If, we choose to create it.

But it takes an ‘us’ not a ‘me’. So many recoil at immigration because of a perceived threat to self, status, employment, a drain on health or schooling. Yet migration is what history and evolution are all about, the development and expansion of humanity. Again, like humanism, humanity puts human beings first and then ends with an ‘ity’, another intangible unified concept, a utopian ideal that lumps us all as one, without recognising our differences, diversity and distinction – the very things that when accentuated create mistrust and tribal misanthropy.

I prefer the word humankind, for it is only in being kind, being kindred, perpetuating random acts of kindness towards our fellow human beings – recognising their ‘being’ and right to ‘be’ that we can coexist, cooperate and create a humane society together.

History & Culture

Olympic Games, Spirit & Ideal Reborn in Athens 1896, 120 years ago today

First Modern Olympic Games, Greece 1896

Olympiad 1896 First Modern Olympics, Athens report cover
Olympiad 1896 First Modern Olympics, Athens report cover

On April 6, 120 years ago, the Olympic Games, its spirit, and modern ideals, were reborn in Athens, Greece. They were not the first attempt, nor born overnight, and came some 1600 years after the last ancient Greek games which had run for nearly 1200 years every 4th year or olympiad. In 394 AD the Roman Christian emperor Theodosius banned all pagan festivals including the Olympics, despite New Testament metaphors drawing inspiration from athletics. It took a Frenchman, inspired by the traditions of several English towns and cities, in combination with the philanthropy of two Greek brothers – who rebuilt an all-marble sports facility on the site of an ancient Athenian stadium, to restore the Olympic Games that we know today.

History of pre-Modern Olympics Games

Several attempts to bring back the Olympic Games were made during the nineteenth century and earlier. Some were local and just used the Olympic name. These included the Cotswold Olimpick Games, near Chipping Campden in England, first organised by Robert Dover between 1612 and 1642.

220 years ago, revolutionary France launched L’Olympiade de la République, between 1796 and 1798 in front of 300,000 spectators in Paris. These games included a chariot race and were dedicated to la paix et à la fécondité – “peace and fertility”. The 1798 Games introduced metric distances and measurements for the first time.

Google Doodle 120th anniversary of first modern olympic games
Google Doodle for the 120th anniversary of first modern olympic games

In 1850 Dr William Penny Brookes founded an Olympic event at Much Wenlock, Shropshire, which, in 1859, became known as the Wenlock Olympian Games. Still continuing to this day, its aim was:

“to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock, and especially of the working classes, by the encouragement of outdoor recreation and by the award of a prize…”

Not to be left out, Liverpool held an annual Grand Olympic Festival between 1862 and 1867, including events in Llandudno 1965-1966. They were founded by John Hulley and Charles Melly, and were open to all local and international ‘gentlemen amateurs’, although the first truly national Olympic Games were held at Crystal Palace Park Cricket Ground and on the River Thames at Teddington, 31 July 1866. In 1869, Hulley also organised Britain’s first velocipede and bicycle races, at which the UK now excels.

Leicester, in 1866, also held a Grand Olympic Festival, on the site of the current University of Leicester, Fielding Johnson Building, but which was formerly the Leicestershire and Rutland Lunatic Asylum.

The forerunner to the British Olympic Association was the Liverpool-founded National Olympian Association, in 1865, which went on to inspire the International Olympic Charter. The OC outlines the “fundamental principles of Olympism” and rules of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Olympic Games, Athens

Spiridon Louis entering the Athens Olympic stadium at the end of the 1896 marathon
Spiridon Louis entering the Athens Olympic stadium at the end of the 1896 marathon

The 1820s and 30s had seen interest in a revival of the Olympic Games gathering momentum. In 1856 the sponsorship of Evangelos and Konstantinos Zappas was accepted by the Greek king to fund the restoration of the Panathenaiko Stadio, or “Panathenaic Stadium“, in Athens. This was not, in fact, the original ancient Games location, since the older panhellenic Games were held at Olympia, but instead, part of the Athenian Games tradition.  1859, 1870 and 1875, then saw the first modern Greek Olympics held.

In 1890, Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was inspired to found the International Olympic Committee after visiting the Wenlock Olympian Games. This led to the first international Games, of 1896, also at Athens. The top prize was actually a Silver Medal, rather than Gold.

1896 Olympic marathon
1896 Olympic marathon

There were just 9 sports and 43 events over 10 days, but, significantly, the marathon, actually run from Marathon, was won by Greek athlete Spyridon “Spyro” Louis in front of 100,000 spectators.

Women’s Olympic Games

Although Athens, was not dissimilar to the Games of Liverpool and Wenlock, it was still unlike our truly modern Games, in that women were excluded from their late-nineteenth century revivals.

De Coubertin was opposed to women competing, although in 1900 they were allowed to enter tennis and gold, and London in 1908 added the Figure Skating event for women, gradually women became involved. This was not fast enough for another French national, and rower, Alice Milliat, who founded the independent Women’s Olympics in Paris in 1922, continuing through to 1934, owing to the refusal of the IOC to allow women to enter track and field events. The IOC forced a name change in 1928 to the Women’s World Games, in exchange for grudgingly admitting more events for women at the Olympics.

Even in ancient Olympics, although separate, there were some female Games, such as those of Hera at Olympia which included a separate racing competition for women. Spartan women used to take part in sports and exercises, semi-clothed – with one breast exposed, like Amazon archers, leading to a “remarkable conjunction of homosexuality, feminism, and athletics” at Sparta. Plutarch suggests that younger Spartan girls and boys would compete and exercise in the nude alongside each other.

Ancient Olympic Traditions

Most of the ancient Olympics were competed in, naked – and only by Greek-speaking freemen. For a while, women were able to enter chariot horse teams, but not enter themselves. Furthermore, they could not spectate if they were married women. Stories tell of one chariot team owner being caught crossdressing as a man to enter the trainers area and watch her team which led to even trainers having to be in the nude. Even the word ‘gymnasium’, comes from the Greek gymnos, “naked”.

“The modern Olympic ideal is completely alien to the spirit of the Greek original, which despised women, slaves and foreigners and celebrated sectarian religion, nudity, pain and winning at any cost.” – Christopher Howse, Daily Telegraph, Athens 2004

Early-on, loincloths were outlawed among the competitors and the only thing allowed was a kunodesme, “putting the dog on the lead”, penis-strap, to stop it getting in the way. Many events involved the athletes covering themselves in olive oil – the mind boggles at the wrestling events!

“The attempt to link modern athletes and ancient athletes inevitably runs up against major cultural differences…we must never lose sight of the popular savagery of the pankration. Even in more conventional events, antiquity showed a tolerance, or perhaps a taste, that is utterly alien to the modern world.” – New Republic, 2004

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2016

The ancient Games included sacrifices to the gods, the effective wearing of knuckle-dusters in the boxing, and opportunities for music and the arts alongside the body-worship and savagery. The next Games in Rio, this summer, may omit the sacrifices and savagery, and the nudity, but will still put athletic bodies centre-stage. The modern Olympic ideal of the taking part being more important than the winning, is long gone. Instead, we have doping and bribery scandals, not to mention long-running issues over the place of intersex athletes and how to include and ‘define’ them, given that the Games now includes women in most of its events rather than the original’s men-only events. The IOC can’t make up its mind on the definition of male and female athletes (like Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand), leaving many intersex athletes out in the cold, censured, or even facing compulsory surgeries to conform to standardised sex ideals.

The mission of Olympic Spirit is to:

“build a peaceful and better world in the Olympic Spirit which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play – Olympic Spirit strives to inspire and motivate the youth of the world to be the best they can be through educational and entertaining interactive challenges. Olympic Spirit seeks to instill and develop the values and ideals of Olympism in those who visit and to promote tolerance and understanding in these increasingly troubled times in which we live, to make our world a more peaceful place.”

 

 

History & Culture

History of Pranking from ancient Rome & Persia to Medieval April Fools Day

April Fools Day, RIP Ronnie Corbett

Spoilers are okay after midday, but sadly it was no April Fools Day joke that the biggest little man of comedy, Ronnie Corbett, to whom even Miranda Hart “looked up to”, died at 85, yesterday – if only he’d held out another day the Internet would have been awash with April Fools lingering doubts. It seems appropriate to light four candles (aka ‘fork handles’) in tribute and say with him:

Ronnie Corbett
Ronnie Corbett

“It’s good night from me – and it’s good night from him.”

He was all about double entendres, misconstrued meanings, and great comic timing:

“West Mersea police announced tonight that they wish to interview a man wearing high heels and frilly knickers, but the Chief Constable said they must wear their normal uniforms.”
“We’ve just heard that in the English Channel, a ship carrying red paint has collided with a ship carrying purple paint. It is believed that both crews have been marooned.”
“There was a fire at the main Inland Revenue office in London today, but it was put out before any serious good was done.”

A History of Pranking

The job of kingship has historically been a stressful one, and alongside advisers and seers, royalty often had court jesters around to lower the tone and raise the mood.

April 1, All Fools Day
April 1, All Fools Day

In the late 14th century Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is set on March 32nd, a nonsense date, i.e., 1 April. Whilst this may be a copyist’s error, the tale itself is full of comic irony.

April 1st jesting is attested throughout the early 16th century in French and Flemish customs and several origin stories suggest it was due an end March to 1 January calendar change in Britain or France.

The first British reference is in 1686, and in 1698 people were tricked into going to the Tower of London for the annual “washing the lions” – a fake event that was still conning people as late as 1857!

On the eve of April Fool’s 1864, the Evening Star of Islington, London, announced that a “grand exhibition of donkeys” would be held the next morning at the Agricultural Hall. Next day, a large crowd gathered outside the hall until they realised that they themselves were the donkeys on display!

While it goes by the name of All Fools, April Fools’ or April Fool’s Day, as well as Poisson d’Avril “April Fish” in French, it’s been around much longer. In earlier times and different calendars, our current 1st April would still have coincided with the advent of Spring and the end to the darkness of winter. So it is a season to be celebrated and it seems from of old to have attracted festivities, pranks and jokes.

Ancient Persian Sizdah Bedar

Nowruz, the 13th day of the Persian New Year falls on April 1/2 and in Iran this is still a day for jests going back over 2500 years, possibly the oldest pranking tradition in the world. It is called Sizdah Bedar “13 Bedar” and may be part of the origin of April Fools but it is uncertain how it may have spread from ancient Persia. The 13th of the month Farvardin is celebrated as a day to “go out”, be-dar in Persian, and have fun outdoors and pray for spring rains, indeed at midday the defeat of the Demon of Drought by the Angel of Rain was celebrated. Zoroastrian beliefs that “laughter and joy symbolize the throwing away of all bad thoughts” account for some of the merriment on Sizdah Bedar. There are also some beliefs that Sizdah Bedar meant “13 going out/getting rid of” and unlucky 13 and all its bad luck was disposed of on this day.

Roman Hilarity

The Roman festival of Hilaria, held on March 25, also had similar themes of joy and jest. March 25, until a few centuries ago (the French moved their calendar and year-end in 1564) was New Year’s Day and part of a week-long festival until April 1. “The Day of Joy” (Hilaria) celebrated the resurrection of Attis, Cybele’s consort – Cybele was mother of the gods. The whole Agdistis, Attis, Cybele, Galli mythology and worship is full of interesting gender asides…

Modern Era

Back in 1957, before the British were so accustomed to pasta, the BBC’s Panorama programme broadcast a documentary hoax showing spaghetti growing on trees which convinced many, especially with the serious authority lent it by anchorman Richard Dimbleby!

The great spaghetti spoof harvest joke ranks no#1 in the Museum of Hoaxes top 100! Other hoaxes have included Alabama changing the value of Pi to a biblical value of “3” or Burger King making a “Left-handed Whopper”.

In 1976 National Humor Month was founded by comedian and author of 53 books on humour, Larry Wilde, Director of The Carmel Institute of Humor. “It is designed to heighten public awareness on how the joy and therapeutic value of laughter can improve health, boost morale, increase communication skills and enrich the quality of one’s life.”

Most newspapers carry at least one April Fool’s story buried somewhere in the paper and it is fun to guess which it is. Sadly, our crazy world means that many real stories appear to be jokes but are not.

Last year saw organic giraffe milk being offered at Paignton Zoo, Dodo and chips being eaten in 18th century Bristol leading to their extinction, and Yoyo the macaroni penguin laying a golden egg – and, no, its name wasn’t the April Fool, Eudyptes chrysolophus is a yellow crested penguin drawing its name from an 18th century Dandy fashion dubbed Maccaronism, a “flamboyant or excessive ornamentation”.

Political Jokes

In modern times, there are comedians everywhere, including and especially in politics, well jokes anyway. There seem to be more fools trying to lead countries and even some comedians considering election, e.g., Sandi Toksvig, Eddie Izzard and in Italy, Giuseppe Piero “Beppe” Grillo.

If only Donald Trump’s views on abortion, women, Muslims, Mexicans, immigration, equal marriage, etc, were an April Fools Day joke, as it is he and his views are the joke that Democrats and rational people worldwide must hope fall flat rather than get elected.

 

History & Culture

JeSuisBrussels, Iskandariya, Lahore, SickOfThisShit, Everyday Terrorism

Everyday Terrorism & its Global Reach

First Brussels, now Iskandariya and Lahore, no wait, where are they? Iraq and Pakistan, so not Europe, well that’s okay then! It shouldn’t be normal to be unaffected by terror so long as it’s not in our back yard. The suicide bombs in a football match crowd south of Baghdad on Good Friday, killing 29, and on Easter Sunday in Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park, maiming hundreds and leaving at least 70 dead including 29 children, show that terrorism respects no religion nor nationality, sex, age or combatant status, since along with the bombs in Belgium, the victims were all civilians, women and children included. Whilst the Islamic State-supportive Taliban splinter group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility and that the target had been male Christians, the bombs did not discriminate.

“Christians were not the specific target of this attack because the majority of the dead are Muslims, everybody goes to this park.” AFP report

Pakistan’s experience of Terrorism

Pakistan sits unenviously 4th on the Global Terrorism Index, having suffered some 27,500 deaths to terrorist attacks since 2003. Three-quarters of those, over 21,000, were civilians. In December 2014, the Taliban parent group (TTP) killed over a 130 children in a Peshawar school, in Pakistan’s worst terror attack.

Increasing Terrorism?

Everyday terrorism in Iraq flag
Everyday terrorism in Iraq, over 200 dead in a dozen attacks so far this year

We’ve witnessed nearly 2,000 deaths to terrorism in the first three months of 2016, over half were innocent civilians. One index suggests that there is one casualty from terrorism every 15 minutes – you are still 36x more likely to die in a car accident.

2014 saw a 172% increase in civilian deaths as well as an 80% rise in overall deaths from terrorism compared to 2013. Since 2000, deaths have risen nearly ten-fold from 3,329 to 32,685 in 2014, almost entirely accounted for by attacks in these 5 nations: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria, where 78% of all attacks take place. Over 20% of the attacks were accounted for by Boko Haram alone.

Fewer than1% of all attacks occur in peaceful, democratic nations, around 0.5% in western nations – and of that, just 20%, i.e., 0.1% of the world total, is down to Islamic extremism in the West.

So far, in 2016, 14 attacks were of similar or worse scale to Brussels, especially in Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey. How many profile pictures campaigns or social media check-in options were there for nations outside of Europe? Actually, having friends in Turkey and Pakistan, in each case Facebook did activate the “marked safe” check-in feature for those atrocities. Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and others, experience terrorist incidents like Brussels on an almost daily basis, for them it is already sickeningly normal.

Is Terrorism the new Normal?

Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisationsays that “we [Europe] will have to get used to a constant terror threat”. He blames the easy recruitment of disaffected peoples by extremists on “migrant ghettoes” and their economic and social abandonment by the state:

“the more profound failure was to basically allow this situation to grow in the first place: to not engage with parts of the Belgian population that clearly were being abandoned. You essentially allowed a vacuum to rise in your own country. And that’s the root cause of the problem: Where you have a vacuum, that vacuum will be filled.

If you have a vacuum that consists of alienated, marginalized people from migrant backgrounds who are socially and economically deprived, then it is only a question of time. Of when extremists go into that, take advantage, and push their narrative — which is basically that society is against you, and you need to engage in war.” – Peter Neumann, Vox interview

The Washington Post, which also cites Neumann, is wrong on two counts suggesting thatterrorism [might] become the new normal in Europe“. Firstly, this is nothing new, the 70s and 80s were far from bloodless, even before the rise of Al Qaeda (1988), the Taliban (1994), Boko Haram (2002), Islamic State (1999/2014) and others. Secondly, the focus should not be on Europe alone, that only exacerbates our imperialistic western, first world, detachment from what happens elsewhere.

Tragedy World Map

Tragedy World Map - Mapamundi Tragico, Eduardo Salles
Tragedy World Map – Mapamundi Tragico, Eduardo Salles

The Mapamundi Tragico or “Tragedy World Map” was first created by Mexican designer Eduardo Salles, in April 2015, but epitomises the way we feel about terror in nations distant from our own. We are disengaged from anything but either the closest western victims or stray white holidaymakers killed abroad. Black lives, African lives, Syrian or Iraqi lives, just don’t matter.

By way of example, the Daily Telegraph report of twice as many people as Brussels killed in Lahore, was relegated to page 13 of a bank holiday edition of its paper.

Eurocentric (dis)ease

The very luxury of our European contentment -peace since 1945, and living a version of the American dream, is some of what has simultaneously attracted mass migration and extremist condemnation of the alleged ungodliness of enlightenment modernism.

Globalisation of Terror

France, Belgium terror, what about Turkey
Terrorism sympathy from France for Belgium. What about Ankara and Istanbul in Turkey? Or Syria, Iraq, Nigeria etc?

Less than a century ago we were still redrawing maps with colonial carte blanche or war-victor spoils, with total disregard for the ethnic and religious civil wars that might later ensue. The new normal is that terror knows no borders, Europe referendum or not. The ease with which ISIL has been able to declare a so-called caliphate and Islamic state that transcends recognised national boundaries, attracting alliances in North and East Africa across more than 11 countries, shows us that we cannot fight ISIS/Daesh in traditional ways. We have to step away from national concerns and be more international.

Hydra and Terrorism’s Evolution

Terrorism is like a cure-resistant mutating virus or a multi-headed myth and Marvel-like ‘Hydra’, where decapitating one head only leads to another more brutal rising up in its place. History shows that terror has been around for as long as we have had ideologies, religions, and, nationalistic expansion, civil wars or battles for independence.

“The tyranny of Isis terrorism will not always be with us. But history shows that a new militant threat will emerge” – Jason Burke, The Guardian

The Irish Easter Rising

This year is 100 years since the Irish Easter Rising when 320 civilian casualties out of 465 dead put a temporary hold on Irish independence/self-rule. Whilst Harry’s Game (1975) may have first espoused “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” the issue and pseudo-distinction has been around since time immemorial. Janet Daley writes today that:

“These terrorists aren’t religious radicals – they’re criminals with psychotic aims” – Janet Daley,The Telegraph

For me, the degree of civilian casualties is one of the markers of terrorism versus freedom fighter. The so-called collateral damage on ‘soft targets’ has sadly become more the norm, as innocents become the primary targets of extreme actions leading to state over-reactions and public states of fear. Fear that is incendiary to semi-closeted racism and Islamophobia, or that leads to a Brussels ‘March against fear’ being cancelled because of, well, safety fears.

Je Suis Sick of this Shit!

JeSuisLahore, Sick of this shit, Pakistan flag
JeSuisLahore, “Sick of this shit”, Iqbal Town, Pakistan

I wonder how many will notice or care about the innocent victims of the Iraq football match bomb on Friday or the Pakistan public park explosions today. It has become all too commonplace to be JeSuisCharlie and JeSuisEveryman on an almost daily basis. I am indeed JeSuisBruxelles, but also Ankara, Baghdad, Baidoa, Bodo, Dalori, Dikwa, Damascus, Homs, Istanbul, Kabul, Kouyape, Lahore, Meme, Mogadishu, Ouagadougou, Paris, and many more towns and cities. Today, I continue to be both Je Suis tout le monde and very much sick of this shit.

 

 

History & Culture

Franz Marc, German artist, painter of not just cats & abstract blue horses

German Artist, Franz Marc, 1880-1916

The Tower of Blue Horses, Franz Marc, 1913
Franz Marc, “The Tower of Blue Horses”, 1913, (missing since 1945)

Bavarian artist Franz Marc died 100 years ago today on 4 March 1916 at the Battle of Verdun, despite an order to withdraw him as a prominent artist. With his love of horses, he appropriately signed-up as a cavalryman and also developed artist-inspired Pointillist painted camouflage for German artillery.

It was a First World War that he oddly believed in despite his art being proscribed as an entarteter Künstler, or “degenerate artist“, during the Nazi era, a quarter of a century after his death. That led to the removal of some 130 paintings from German museums in the late 1930s, some of which were only rediscovered in 2011 in the Cornelius Gurlitt art horde.

Franz Marc, 1910
Franz Marc, 1910

“Serious art has been the work of individual artists whose art has had nothing to do with style because they were not in the least connected with the style or the needs of the masses. Their work arose rather in defiance of their times.” – Franz Marc

Marc painted and drew well over 500 oil paintings, drawings and watercolours, as well as being a woodcut and lithographic printmaker, and whose works now appear on postcards everywhere. Whilst his father Wilhelm Marc was a professional landscape painter he was influenced by studies in Munich and Paris, and inspired by Vincent van Gogh and Expressionism.

Friendship with Wassily Kandinsky

The Last Judgement, Kandinsky, 1912
Kandinsky, “The Last Judgement”, 1912

He counted Russian-born artist Wassily Kandinsky as a friend and co-founder of the art collective Der Blaue Reiter, 1911-14.

The Blue Rider” comprised artists formed out of tensions with NKVM, also founded by Kandinsky in 1909, and the rejection of Kandinsky’s “Last Judgement” painting. Although “The Blue Rider” was a 1903 painting by Kandinsky he later suggested the movement’s name was derived from his love of riders and Marc’s enthusiasm for horses, and their shared love of the colour blue. The group folded with the deaths of  Marc and fellow artist August Macke in World War I and the return of Russian-born members to their home country.

The First Abstract Art Painting

Hilma af Klint, Chaos, 1906
Hilma af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction V – “Primordial Chaos”, painted 1906-07. From an exhibition at Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Although Kandinsky is often credited with creating the first abstract artwork in 1910, Tate‘s 2013 retrospective and The Serpentine Gallery‘s current exhibition (3 March-15 May) of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) would suggest otherwise.

She, yes – a female artist for Sweden was ahead of other nations in allowing women to study art and paint alongside men, was producing abstract paintings from 1906. Curator, Iris Müller-Westermann, describes Af Klint as an “outsider”, a “disturbing artist” who could “rewrite art history”.

Art, Nature, Spirituality & Cats!

Hilma Af Klint’s love of animals, plants, and their science, forged a bond between her art and the the natural world, and an evolution from traditional landscape to abstract art. Her non-traditional ‘occult’ spirituality also inspired her work.

“Today we are searching for things in nature that are hidden behind the veil of appearance… We look for and paint this inner, spiritual side of nature.” – Franz Marc

Franz Marc was also engaged by animals and wild colours that reflected inner emotion and spirituality not the natural world as seen on the surface. Thus his trademark blue horses, a red horse, yellow cow or even a purple hare, might be represented, though many of his earlier painted cats bore more naturalistic colours:

 Increasingly abstract cats in the art of Franz Marc, 1909-1913
Increasingly abstract cats in the art of Franz Marc, 1909-1913

Whilst not as obsessed and pursued by colour as perhaps Monet, nonetheless he imbued his use of colour with meaning and metaphor:

“Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow the female principle, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour which must be fought and vanquished by the other two.” – Franz Marc

He was looking for the “inner truth of things” and it was a quest that took him back to nature:

“Marc found this nature-oriented quest for spiritual redemption inspiring. His vision of nature was pantheistic; he believed that animals possessed a certain godliness that men had long since lost. “People with their lack of piety, especially men, never touched my true feelings,” he wrote in 1915. “But animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that was good in me.” By 1907 he devoted himself almost exclusively to the representation of animals in nature.” – Guggenheim

Marc had planned to train as a theologian but instead went into art and married artists, twice. His artistic depictions of the beauty and innocence of animals were painted against a contrasting backdrop of the years leading up to the First World War, a war that cut short his life and art career at just 36 years old.

Selection of Franz Marc paintings
Selection of Franz Marc paintings (click for more)

 

History & Culture

Holocaust Memorial Day principally affected Jews but also countless others

Holocaust Memorial Day, 27 January

Last 27 January I went to two Holocaust Memorial Day events. No I am not Jewish, nor were all the victims of Hitler’s Endlösung “Final Solution”, Mengele’s experiments, and the Nazi Aryan utopian dream – which was a dystopian nightmare for everyone else.

Bergen Belsen First Anniversary of Liberation 15 April 1946 "Israel and the World shall remember" © KatyJon
Bergen Belsen First Anniversary of Liberation 15 April 1946 “Israel and the World shall remember” © KatyJon

I did however study and teach Hebrew and aspects of Judaism in my past. I also visited the concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, when I was 15. Today marks the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviets and Holocaust Memorial Day.

One internee at Belsen was Josef Čapek from Czechoslovakia a Cubist painter, cartoonist, writer and playwright. He wrote the utopian play “Land of Many Names” and is credited by his brother as being the first to invent and use the word “robot”. He was critical of Hitler and Nazism and was arrested in 1939. Whilst interned he managed to write “Poems from a Concentration Camp” but died in 1945, shortly before liberation.

Escaping Hitler

Joe Stirling - Escaping Hitler by Phyllida Scrivens
Joe Stirling – Escaping Hitler by Phyllida Scrivens

Joe Stirling, A Jewish teenage escapee from Nazi Germany, whose parents died in Sobibór concentration camp, lives in Norwich and continues to tell his survival story. Recently published as “Escaping Hitler“, it is a reminder to people of the Nazi Holocaust and the triumph of the human spirit. Joe has led an interesting and fulfilling life since arriving in England and is part of the Human Library project where he regularly regales people of all ages with his wit and wisdom.

Genocide of the different and ‘deviant’

As an LGBTI person and outspoken human rights activist, I could well have ended up in a concentration camp alongside Jews, Slavs, Roma, disabled people and many more. Sexuality, mental health, religious non-comformism, criticism of the state, ethnic origin were all factors that could have had one sent to a concentration camp and/or exterminated by bullet or Zyklon B gas – as hauntingly revisited in Philip K. Dick’s novel and now Amazon series, ‘The Man in the High Castle‘. Yes, Hitler singled out the Jewish race for a very particular and poisonous genocide, but others suffered too.

Many people don’t realise that Romany gypsies, those with mental and physical disabilities, abortionists, Jehovah Witnesses, non-conformist pastors and clergy, certain intellectual opponents, communists, and tens of thousands of homosexuals were sent to concentration camps by the Nazis, of which there over 1000, possibly many times that number spread across occupied countries, at least a dozen of which were extermination camps – to remove Lebensunwertes Leben “life unworthy of life”, especially the Jews.

Hundreds if not thousands of people were experimented on by Mengele, with castration, forced sex change interventions, growth hormones. Those born different, disabled, intersex or twins, were especially targeted for his torturous experiments.

Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp
Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp

Homosexual Holocaust

Labelled vice, degenerate, a plague, gay and bisexual men, many of whom were also Jewish, ended up incarcerated, experimented on, castrated, or killed.

“We must exterminate these people (homosexuals) root and branch… We can’t permit such danger to the country; the homosexual must be entirely eliminated.” – Heinrich Himmler

Furthermore, in 1945, they were not released but transferred to civil prisons as their sexuality remained illegal until 1968/9. Paragraph 175 outlawing homosexuality had rarely been enforced until Hitler took power in 1933. Germany only apologised in 2002 to the homosexual community for what happened to them before, during and after the Second World War.

Labeled as Different, less deserving

Pink triangles, like the yellow star of David patch for Jews made by two yellow triangles, were sewn on to the camp clothes of homosexuals, but the same symbol also marked out rapists, paedophiles and other “sexual deviants”.

Black triangles were used for Roma, mentally ill, pacifists, anarchists and more. Later Roma badges were brown. Numerous other groups of people were classified, badged, and interned, or killed.

There was an outcry this week when it transpired that asylum seekers in Cardiff were being forced to wear coloured identification wristbands. If this were a music festival, and it were by age or event it would be quite different. After complaints the Clearsprings Group scrapped the policy.

Fear of difference drives prejudice. This week Trevor Phillips, former EHRC chair, has said that we should accept that British Muslims are “different” from the rest of society, and respect that, others have responded that we should not have to accept their difference.

Danube Jewish Monument, Budapest, Hungary
Danube Jewish Monument, Budapest, Hungary

A memorial, to Jews shot and dumped in the Danube in Budapest, 1945, is a poignant image that is also beginning to symbolise the plight of migrants and refugees from current wars and genocides. “Shoes on the Danube Bank” was created  by Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer and shows just the left-behind shoes of the Jewish victims. Empty shoes have come to symbolise both silent protest at the Paris climate conference, and the positive response of communities to asylum seekers by offering shoes, including in Budapest.

Ethnic Cleansing not uniquely Nazi

Sadly, history and Hegel teach us that men and nations learn little and we do end up repeating the mistakes of the past. That is why the Holocaust and other genocides should be remembered. It’s easy to complain about human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing when it’s happening but wisdom is spotting the signs that it is about to happen. That means highlighting the laws and language that begin to scapegoat and marginalise, to discriminate and criminalise based upon sex, gender, faith, health, colour, race and ethnicity.

We can already see it in the political invective against “a bunch of migrants” (David Cameron in PMQs today), Donald Trump and Sarah Palin’s calls for American Muslim expulsion, and in the extremist cleansing by Islamic State of Yazidis, Christians, gays and non-Sharia Muslims. Meanwhile Syria continues its own purge, Turkey, Saudi Arabia subtly try to target Kurds and Shia, Israel treats Arab Israelis and Palestinians as second class.

Remembrance may avoid Repetition

As Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Sadly, most often, history teaches us that we do forget, repeat, and only learn from it after exhausting all other possibilities, as Aldous Huxley, Hegel, George Bernard Shaw and Abba Eban, all said in various ways.

“The most effective way we can combat this intolerance and honour those who survived and those who perished is to call on each other to do what the survivors have already done, to remember and to never forget.” – Steven Spielberg

We need to remember the Nazi Holocaust, Stalin’s similarly large-scale ethnic expulsions in Russia, state eugenics policies, Polpot’s purge in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, or the ethno-religious cleansing policies of ISIS or Boko Haram, and many more genocides and democides besides. It has happened more than once before and could, if not, is, happening again. That is why we remember Holocaust Memorial Day, so as not to repeat.

“First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.”  – Pastor Martin Niemoller

 

 

History & Culture

Gandhi, Rustin, Tolstoy, Civil Rights & MLK, Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King Day

Today is Martin Luther King Day, celebrated on the third Monday in January since 1986 (Reagan agreed it in 1983), his birthday was on the 15th. Born in 1929 to a pastor and a schoolteacher, he himself became a Baptist minister and advocate for African American equality and social justice from the 1950s through to his 1968 assassination. He was instrumental in the bringing in of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Mahatma Gandhi & Non-Violence

King was inspired by the Hindu lawyer and campaigner for rights in South Africa and India, Mahatma Gandhi, and his principles of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience over and against armed uprising. Gandhi was also an advocate of religious tolerance but was in the end also assassinated, in 1948, by a Hindu nationalist. King managed to visit India in 1959.

Gandhi had succeeded in the 1920s in uniting Muslims and Hindus against the common enemy of the British empire. Yet by the 1940s an independent Muslim nationalism led to the eventual division of India and creation of a separate Pakistan.

Some of Gandhi’s more extreme pacifist views included recommending that Britain openly yield to Hitler rather than defend itself, and that the Jews should have willingly surrendered to the Holocaust as an act of collective suicide. He did not support the idea of the state of Israel gained through violence or Zionism, but only as something within the gift of the Arabs to bring about peacefully.

Gandhi’s principles meshed with King’s own Christian principles, as he said, “Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Another early source that energized King was the Christian anarchist and novelist Leo Tolstoy, who was also an influence on Gandhi.

Bayard Rustin, Gay Communist

Bayard Rustin was a sometime adviser to Martin Luther King and had also visited India, in 1948, not long after Gandhi’s assassination. He shared both Gandhi and King’s principles of non-violence. King’s involvement with him was discouraged by others due to Rustin’s former membership of the Communist Party and his homosexuality, which King had little problem with.

Rustin later became a gay rights activist, in addition to his earlier civil rights campaigning. In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rustin.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

The journey towards civil rights was more of a bus route, with lots of stops and delays. Rustin had been beaten and arrested back in 1942 for sitting in the second row of a segregated bus.

Thirteen years later, in March 1955, 15 year-old school girl, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on a in Montgomery bus. Due to Colvin’s unmarried and pregnant status the civil rights activists waited for a better test case and were rewarded with the defiance of the now famous Rosa Parks who was arrested later that year, in December, for also refusing to give up her seat.

The 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott ensued, which whilst planned by others was publicly led by King, and resulted in his house being firebombed.

“All men are created equal”

The path to equality culminated in the quarter-million strong 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, predominantly organised by Rustin. Despite its being unprecedented in size and diversity, it was boycotted itself by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam for being too soft and sanitised, promoting peaceful harmony and integration rather than strength and independent identity.

The iconic “I have a dream” speech, much of which may have been improvised on the spot, includes the famous and inspirational line:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'”

Whilst King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and indeed the Nation of Islam, fought for black equal rights, the case for full civil equal rights for “all men” continues. LGBTI equality, for example, has been the focus of the last decade of legal progress in the USA, something that Rustin fought for until his death in 1987.

King’s Assassination and Death

King was ever the optimist, preaching love over hate, peace over war, forgiveness over resentment.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

It was a belief that may have cost him his life, and not a little opposition from other members of the civil rights movement. After President John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, King said to his wife, Coretta: “This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.” Five years later, he did indeed suffer the same fate.

Black Lives Matter

Despite all the progress, the reality on the ground, is that black lives are still not considered equal. The last year or two has seen so many cases of unarmed black men being shot dead by American police officers that it is clear that stereotypes persist in the minds of many. 980 US citizens were shot dead in 2015 by police, 91 were unarmed and a disproportionate 37 of them were black.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

The laws may have changed half a century ago, but it is hearts and minds that still need to be won, in this generation and in every one that succeeds it. King may have been a pacifist, but he was not passive about change, and how it was to be accomplished:

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals…Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.”

History & Culture

Saudi Arabia mass executions & death sentences a Human Rights travesty

Saudi Arabia State Executions Escalate

2015 saw a rise in Saudi Arabia‘s public executions, some 157 people according to Amnesty International – there were 90 in 2014, 192 in 1995, the previous peak. Even more shocking was that 2016 began with 47 in a single day, on New Year’s Day, allegedly all ‘terrorists’ including prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Iran has threatened reprisals with molotov cocktails already thrown at the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Meanwhile even mainstream media commentary is now comparing the House of Saud to ISIS whilst Bahrain and United Arab Emirates (UAE) praised the message it sent to terrorists. Saudia Arabia has now ordered Iranian diplomats out and Bahrain followed suit, severing diplomatic ties, a day later, along with UAE and Sudan creating a new Middle East crisis.

ISIS Saudi Arabia Executions Any Difference via Khamenei
ISIS v Saudi Arabia Executions “Any Difference” asks Iran’s Khamenei

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Iran too, despite its own record executions, has compared Saudi Arabia to ISIS. Ayatollah Khamenei the self-titled “Leader of the Islamic Revolution” calling it a “White ISIS” and asking whether there are “any differences” between them.

Other atrocities apart, and excepting the variant methods of execution (Saudi still has stoning and flogging punishments, though often commuted to jail time, not to mention posthumous crucifixion), what is the difference between the continued practice of state executions by America, China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the so-called Islamic State, all of which have executed dozens of people a year. Iran has executed hundreds – perhaps a 1000 making its condemnation of Saudi Arabia somewhat hyprocritical. Pakistan has 6-8,000 people on its death row and in 2015 carried out 316+ executions a massive increase on the handful of 2014. Egypt (500+) and Nigeria (650+) have also been resorting to issuing death sentences (2014 figures).

Saudi Arabia's human rights record on executions 2014, 2015, 2016
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record on executions 2014, 2015, 2016

Ironically, the Saudi Arabian national flag features a sword – the very means of public execution, before each of which verses from the Koran are read justifying the sentence. Offences can include atheism, drugs crimes, homosexuality, insulting Islam, and sorcery!

The Death Penalty

Whilst just over a dozen countries had abolished the death penalty 30 years ago, today over a 100 have ended the practice. Some among those that have kept it, though, have increased its use in recent years in the name of countering ‘terrorism’.

Death Penalty around the world, 2014, Amnesty International
Death Penalty around the world, 2014, Amnesty International

Thousands a year are sentenced to death worldwide but fewer are carried out, some 20,000 people are incarcerated under a death sentence, yet to be carried out. In 2014 over a 110 people in 9 countries had their death sentence reversed, leaving them exonerated as innocent. This is the biggest reason to end the practice. Three times as many countries commuted death sentences to other forms of punishment.

“The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it.” – Amnesty International

Twelve countries still use hanging and ten use shooting, only Saudi Arabia and Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) behead people, swift but brutal. US executions peaked at 98 in 1999 and have steadily fallen since to 28 in 2015, but over 3,000 remain on death row.

A Foreign Office spokesperson has commented, saying that:

“The UK opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country. The death penalty undermines human dignity and there is no evidence that it works as a deterrent.”

Perhaps the UK should criticise America, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China’s position on capital punishment, alongside Islamic State? As David Cameron was challenged to do and amongst excuses for close ties with Saudi responded with:

“We oppose the death penalty anywhere and everywhere” – David Cameron, October 2015

Executed Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr

Arrested in 2012 and sentenced to death in 2014, Sheikh Nimr had opposed violence calling instead for peaceful protesters to resist the Saudi state and police bullets using “the roar of the word” and non-violent agitation, though he was not opposed to celebrating the deaths of tyrants. Mohammad al-Nimr, his brother, was arrested for merely tweeting about the death sentence but has since called for calm despite his own son on death row. Al-Nimr was pro-democracy and against “murder in the name of God”.

“The [Saudi] authorities depend on bullets … and killing and imprisonment. We must depend on the roar of the word, on the words of justice”…We do not accept [force of firearms]. This is not our practice…We welcome those who follow such attitude…Nonetheless, we cannot enforce our methodology on those who want to pursue different approaches…The weapon of the word is stronger than the power of bullets.” – Sheikh al-Nimr

“The oppressed should unite together against the oppressors, instead of becoming tools in the hands of the oppressors. The Khalifa family [in Bahrain] are oppressors, and Sunnis are not responsible for their actions. These are not Sunnis, they are tyrants. The Assad family in Syria are oppressors, and Shiism is not responsible for their actions. Never defend an oppressor. It is never justified for someone who is oppressed to defend [another’s] oppressor.” – Sheik al-Nimr, 2012

Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr Crufixion

Ali Mohammed al-Nimr via Facebook
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr via Facebook

Ali al-Nimr, nephew of executed Nimr al-Nimr, was arrested when just 17 for participating in Arab Spring pro-democracy demonstrations against the Saudi Arabian government. He was subsequently convicted by confession under torture. He is now 21 but in 2015 he was sentenced to death by beheading and then posthumous public crucifixion. As of today over 1.5 million people have signed just one of the several petitions to commute or cancel his sentence.

The UK Government believes that it can “achieve most by speaking privately and regularly to our Saudi interlocutors” rather than publicly confronting its ‘ally’. The Foreign Secretary recently said that he did not expect Ali al-Nimr to be executed and Shadow Minister Hilary Benn  has called on him “to seek fresh assurances that he will be reprieved.”

However, by threatening death to so many, and carrying out more than previous years, it is easy for Saudi Arabia to mollify the West with a couple of concessions and reprieves without denting its religious and political ethnic cleansing of opposition.

Political Prisoners in Saudi Arabia

Islamic Human Rights Commission IHRCSaudi Arabia denies it has any political prisoners but unofficial estimates from human rights bodies including the UK-based Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) suggest that up to 30,000 are imprisoned for political crimes against the Saudi state.

Back in November 2011, after the fatal shooting of four Shias, Sheikh al-Nimr had called for:

“[the] release of all those detained in the [Arab Spring] protests, and all prisoners of conscience – Sunnis and Shias.”

Raif Badawi Flogging

Saudi Arabian political blogger and recent recipient of the EU’s Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought, Raif Badawi, is serving a lengthy prison sentence for “insulting Islam” and also received the first tranche of 50 or a 1,000 lashed whipping sentence. Subsequent installments have been suspended based upon his poor health, exacerbated by his latest hunger strike, these last three weeks which has led to a deteriorating medical condition.

Raif Badawi, 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought
Raif Badawi, 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought

Wahhabism and Saudi Arabian History

Saudi Arabia has a wealth of cultural and religious history, is the birthplace of Islam, home to Mecca, Medina and Mohammed. It is rich in oil and other resources but beyond poor when it comes to human rights, democracy, and accountability. It offers the West tokenistic concessions in exchange for continuing its own ruthless totalitarianism.

Its brand of Islamic belief is Sunni as opposed to Shia, and an extreme version of that called Wahhabism or Salafism. They are stricter forms of Sharia Law based Islam, literalist, anti-Western and puritanical. Jihad, whether missionary or military, can be seen as a legitimate expression as well as expansion of Islam against its detractors.

Saudi Arabia, Extremism and Terrorism

Dr Yousaf Butt, senior advisor to the British American Security Information Council and director at the Cultural Intelligence Institute, says of Saudi Arabia:

“…one thing is clear: the fountainhead of Islamic extremism that promotes and legitimizes such violence lies with the fanatical ‘Wahhabi’ strain of Islam centered in Saudi Arabia. And if the world wants to stamp down and eliminate such violent extremism, it must confront this primary host and facilitator.”

He goes on to quote Wikileaks and other sources that purport to show Saudi’s financing of terror groups, several thousand Saudis are alleged to be in ISIL’s ranks. More easily verified is the funding of extremist Wahhabism via mosques and madrassas worldwide.

Saudi Arabia’s Hypocrisy on Human Rights

This same country was recently chosen to head a United Nations human rights selection panel. If it weren’t so serious and concerning, this would be satire. What’s worse is that apparently the UK supported their appointment.

Whilst Saudi Arabia has appeared to give women token political rights in recent municipal elections, they still can’t drive. Restrictions on political dissent and freedom of speech continue unabated and punishments for religious disagreement, in particular Saudi’s Wahabi version of Sunni Islam. As a result Freedom House’s freedom index ranks Saudi Arabia bottom on all counts.

Saudi Arabia is also the largest market for the British arms industry along with billions of other business deal tie-ups. As a result Britain is unlikely to publicly condemn Saudi too often, human rights will remain compromised by commercial interest. Indeed, a senior Government minister today defended close links with Saudi Arabia arguing that they enabled us to “tell them what we think”. True and unhypocritical condemnation of executions can only come when America and other countries also end the death penalty. Equally, rightful opposition to Islamic State (ISIL) should be accompanied by calling state-sanctioned extremism by Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and others to account too.

History & Culture

Kristallnacht – European Xenophobia still a risk 77 years on

Kristallnacht Anniversary, Europe remembers

Nazis Smash, Loot and Burn Jewish Shops and Temples, New York Times, Nov 11 1938
Nazis Smash, Loot and Burn Jewish Shops and Temples, New York Times, Nov 11 1938

Tonight (9 Nov), around 10:30pm, begins the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “the night of crystal/broken glass”. People have termed the current “migrant crisis” the worst in Europe since the Holocaust. Hungary and other countries are reacting to the influx of mostly Syrian and Afghan refugees. How will Europe integrate and accept them all? Will far-Right groups grow stronger in response? 1930s Nazi Germany emerging from a background of economic austerity saw blame and scapegoating of Jews, Communists, Homosexuals, Gypsies and more besides. Kristallnacht is a demonstration of orchestrated violence by a people that a decade before had been one of the most forward thinking nations on Earth, who had allowed Berlin to become a popular city of jazz and queer expression, a place where Jews were once proud to be German.

A British diplomat in Germany, Sir George Ogilvie Forbes, at the time, wired home a prophetic warning the year before the outbreak of World War 2:

“I can find no words strong enough in condemnation of the disgusting treatment of so many innocent people, and the civilized world is faced with the appalling sight of 500,000 people about to rot away in starvation.”

This underestimate might have been an upper limit had nations reacted differently and earlier to Hitler’s atrocities. How we react to the modern European refugee crisis is the moral barometer of our generation. Germany is of course now leading the nations of Europe in taking in asylum seekers.

Nazi Mob Rule

Back in 1938, however, Germany witnessed an “orgy of destruction” as the then Daily Telegraph correspondent, Hugh Greene, wrote of what transpired in Berlin that night:

“Mob law ruled in Berlin throughout the afternoon and evening and hordes of hooligans indulged in an orgy of destruction. I have seen several anti-Jewish outbreaks in Germany during the last five years, but never anything as nauseating as this. Racial hatred and hysteria seemed to have taken complete hold of otherwise decent people. I saw fashionably dressed women clapping their hands and screaming with glee, while respectable middle-class mothers held up their babies to see the ‘fun’.” – Hugh Carleton Greene, Daily Telegraph, 11 November 1938

The downward rush to mob mentality was not universal and many were deeply ashamed of the pogrom, and some tried to help. The son of a US consular official heard the janitor of his apartment block cry:

“They must have emptied the insane asylums and penitentiaries to find people who’d do things like that!”

Sadly, the majority were quite sane. Inured by scapegoating hatred to a point of passive and then active involvement.

Kristallnacht destruction of Jewish property

Diplomat Shot - Nazis Aroused, The Detroit Free Press, November 8, 1938
Diplomat Shot – Nazis Aroused, The Detroit Free Press, November 8, 1938

Although it was the killing of a German diplomat by a Polish Jew in Paris that sparked the raids and riots on Jewish interests, that was just an excuse that the various Nazi factions had been waiting for.

All across Austria and Germany thousands of shops, businesses, and half of all synagogues were torched and trashed. Around a 100 people were killed. Jews were arrested, 30,000 shipped to concentration camps, and even blamed and fined for setting it off, being charged a billion Reichsmark (circa £250 million then) for “property damaged in the rioting.”

The sacrilege of the attack, including the destruction of 18 of Vienna’s 21 synagogues and nearly all the 200 or so in Germany, meant that it was an all out assault on not only the commercial but also the spiritual lives of Jews. Their national identity as Germans had already been stripped in the 1935 Nuremberg Laws when their German citizenship had been removed.

Anti-Semitism and European History

Kristallnacht synagogue desctructionThis level of anti-Semitism had not been seen since 12th-13th century UK and Europe when the blood libel allegations first triggered anti-Jewish violence, theft, murder and expulsion – mostly initiated in Norwich, England.

A less well-known massacre of about 100,000 Jews took place in 1648-49, in the Ukraine, when Cossacks rose up against the Jews blaming them for their Polish oppression.

A 2008 study on current anti-Semitic feeling in Europe, published in 2011, concluded that:

“The significantly strongest agreement with anti-Semitic prejudices is found in Poland and Hungary. In Portugal, followed closely by Germany, anti-Semitism is significantly more prominent than in the other western European countries. In Italy and France, anti-Semitic attitudes as a whole are less widespread than the European average, while the extent of anti-Semitism is least in Great Britain and the Netherlands”.

In all the countries studied apart from Italy, a majority answered that “Jews enrich our culture”. In Germany, nearly 70% said so, about the same as in Britain.

But nearly half of German respondents said that “Jews try to take advantage of having been victims during the Nazi era”. That’s compared to 22% for Britain, 32% for France, 40% for Italy, 68% for Hungary and 72% for Poland.

A separate study published by the German parliament in 2012 concluded that 20% of Germans held at least “latent anti-Semitism” – some sort of quiet, unspoken antipathy towards Jews.

History Repeats Itself as we do not learn

Sadly, as Churchill said, “history does nothing but repeat itself” and never learns from it. Similarly, as Santayana never said (he actually said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”), we are condemned to repeat it unless we teach and learn, and so tonight we remember. Something Judaism is good at doing.

Whilst the socio-political and economic ingredients may have similarities with the 1930s we now have the EU, instant media, stronger safeguards, and hopefully memory – bad memories at that, to remind us never to go there again. Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said “Memory is more significant than history” in an article in 2012 about the need for leaders to be great teachers.

Back in 2003, Sacks had delivered a lecture at the University of Cambridge on “Power and Responsibility”, in the subsequent discussion he drew attention to:

“the distinction between memory and history is crucial to Judaism. Three-quarters of the Hebrew bible is historical. Jews were, in Baruch Halpern’s phrase, “the first historians”. They were as J.H. Plum says in The Death of the Past the first people to see meaning in history, history as a narrative. Yet it’s very interesting to ask what the biblical word for history is and there isn’t one. When Hebrew was revived for the modern state of Israel and they wanted a word for history, they came up with historic, they chose the Greek word. Instead the bible uses a quite different word which appears 169 times, zachor: remember. There is a difference between history and memory; to be very crude, history is his story – it happened some time else to someone else. Memory is my story.”

Shifts in Society grow slowly at first then explode

It is sobering to note that 10 years before Kristallnacht the Nazi NSDAP gained just 2.6% of the vote in the 1928 German Reichstag elections, 2 years later that was 18% and after 2 further years the Nazis were the largest party and Hitler had 37% of the vote in the Presidential election. By 1933 Hitler was in coalition with Hindenburg’s DNVP and it took just months to suspend civil liberties in the name of protecting the people, ban trade unions – who were heavily “associated” with Communism, open Dachau – at first for just political prisoners, and on April 1 to initiate a one-day boycott of Jewish shops and businesses. Within less than 6 months Hitler banned all democratic opposition and declared the Nazis “the only political party in Germany.” By 1934, in just 18 months, Hitler’s coup received 90% support in a public plebiscite.

It took only six-and-a-half years for Hitler’s support to rise 40-fold from a small far right protest group to absolute dictatorial control. One would hope that it should be impossible now? Yet far-right groups have grown in influence again, as in 1930s Germany, on the back of high unemployment, austerity and spreading fear about difference, security and xenophobia.

A 2013 Guardian article, argued that we do not need to fear a European lurch to the far-Right whilst a 2014 article elsewhere and on Al Jazeera said the opposite after the far-Right did gain significant seats. The Guardian had played down any extremist showings of 7-21% in Austria, Czechoslovakia, France and Greece, among far-right parties and then enumerates the more limited 1-5% polled elsewhere. Quoting another report the writer dismissed “the far right [being] on course to gain 34 to 50 seats in the European Parliament, which is roughly 4% to 7% of the total”. In fact, the National Front is leading the pre-European election polls in France with 24%, a four-fold increase in just 4 years. UKIP has made not insignificant gains in the UK polls and potentially in the European elections.

Left Foot Forward (LFF) quotes Le Nouvel Observateur columnist Jean-Gabriel Fredet’s comment that, “Fear of immigration, crises of identity and recession combined have created a climate propitious to ultranationalist, anti-European ideology”. LFF comments: “Ironically, France’s [Front Nationale] FN has grown in popularity as the party has combined  anti-immigrant sentiment with the sort of anti-globalisation, anti-market rhetoric that is usually the preserve of the left. This explains why the French Socialist Party is losing just as many voters to Len Pen as the centre-right UMP.”

Far-Left parties, for example the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, Syriza in Greece and in Germany, Die Linke, are also making gains at the expense of centrist parties of all flavours.

End Scapegoating of Migrants, Jews, Muslims…

Hermann Göring met with other Nazi leaders barely days after Kristallnacht on 12 November to build on what had happened:

“I have received a letter written on the Führer’s orders requesting that the Jewish question be now, once and for all, coordinated and solved one way or another… I should not want to leave any doubt, gentlemen, as to the aim of today’s meeting. We have not come together merely to talk again, but to make decisions, and I implore competent agencies to take all measures for the elimination of the Jew from the German economy…”

We should be careful of any “economic” arguments that are made to “solve” the current migrant crisis, especially when immigrants actually make a positive net contribution to the economy by some measures, and in others are a zero-sum cost. The Guardian writes that “There’s plenty more space for humanity on this ‘tiny’ island.”

German Jews Pouring into this country, Daily Mail, 1938
German Jews Pouring into this country, Daily Mail, 1938

It comes as no surprise that the Daily Mail, in 1938 was complaining about the “German Jews Pouring into this country by the back door” and reporting a magistrate as saying how the law would be enforced “to the fullest” to eject them. Echoes of attitudes to the Calais migrant crisis?

Similarly, in December 1938, the Netherlands closed their borders to Jewish refugees arguing that it would cause economic pressures and would only “further fan the flames of anti-Semitism“. Despite SDAP pressure the then Dutch government opposed letting in more “undesirable” Jews to its “already densely overcrowded territory” as that would change the character of the Dutch “tribe”.

Party politics and economics aside, what we should be aware of from the lessons of history is the scapegoating of any minority, race, nation, diversity, disability etc., in the name of blame for current economic troubles. What we need is more immigration, greater integration and further interfaith understanding. Only then can we learn from each other and hopefully consign extremism, fear and terror to history.

[An older version of this article was published here in 2013 and on facebook.]

History & Culture

But it’s only a Flag? Nationalism, Identity & The Confederate Flag

The Confederate Flag – a stained or Stainless Banner?

The last fortnight has seen people simultaneously complaining about the flying of the “Rainbow Flag” and the “Confederate Flag” in the USA. In the UK, the “Union Jack” or more often the “St George’s Flag” of England has been hijacked for nationalist ends too. In the Scottish independence vote the “Saltire Flag” was flown for both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns and nobody objected to a strong sense of Scottish identity, so why not the American South?

Current Reactions to the Southern US Flag

In 2011, a Pew Research Center poll demonstrated that the majority of Americans don’t react to the “Southern Flag” and that 9% view it with positive pride, however, some 30% have a “negative reaction” when they see the Confederate flag.

Two years, later and a 2013 YouGov poll revealed 38% public disapproval of flying the flag in public places. Even more, around 44%, viewed the flag as a symbol associated with racism, rather than just 20% seeing it as symbolic of Southern pride.

Back in 1961, in the middle of civil rights and race activism, the South Carolina State Senate raised the Confederate flag on top of the Senate dome, where it remained until removed in 2000 when an alternate flag was instead flown from a flagpole in the grounds. It was this flag that was removed by protestor Bree Newsome on 27 June, this year. The flag, clearly, remains divisive.

Nationalism and pride

Nationalism is not a negative concept in itself, nor indeed are regionalism and localism. Being proud of your place of origin, wanting autonomy, independence, freedom, and asserting these things is not wrong. Even for a personal identity, rainbow flags and now many others, e.g., trans, non-binary, etc, are flown and worn at LGBT Pride events across the world. Flags unite, they are a banner under which to stand and draw people together.

But they can attract opposition too, and be used for aggression. Sometimes, going so far as to create a virtual or real barrier to keep people separate, outsiders out, spewing xenophobic bile about non-locals, inciting hatred and violence against immigrants, migrant communities, or those who are markedly different.

UK Independence and the Far Right

In the UK – Scottish, Welsh, and Irish independence are looked upon favourably in cultural and political terms but, somehow, English nationalism is seen as far right extremism – and many times, it is. The debate over English votes for English laws is the trade-off for giving more power to Scotland to avoid secession from the Union.

I remember the 1980s when Irish terrorism or freedom fighters, depending upon your definition, was still rife. When, even in Wales, the BBC‘s Not the Nine O’Clock News team ran the insensitive but funny sketch, “Come home to a real fire, but a cottage in Wales”, owing to the Welsh nationalist arson campaign against English second homes in Wales.

In English terms, we have witnessed the rise of a “Far Right” English nationalism: BNP, Britain First, EDL, UKIP etc. Hardly groups promoting English ‘culture’ but certainly fostering a “batten down the hatches” against ‘foreigners’ attitude. At public rallies they wrap themselves in English rather than UK flags, thus tarnishing the English St George’s flag.

William Thompson and the Stainless Banner

So, has the Confederate flag been similarly tarnished by the racist hatred of one warped young man in the Charleston black church massacre? Did it always and forever have the meaning of white supremacy? Some articles doing the rounds would suggest that it does, a “heaven ordained” white supremacy at that, according to its designer, William T Thompson.

Southern US Second Confederate Flag by William T Thompson
Second Confederate Flag by William T Thompson

Thompson was co-founder of the Savannah Daily Morning News newspaper in the 1850s and in the 1860s, along with one other, produced the design of the “Stainless Banner“, which came to be used as the Southern Confederacy’s national flag from 1863 to 1865, replacing the “Stars and Bars” which too closely resembled the ‘Yankee’ Union flag. Thompson said, in April 1863, that he opposed it, “on account of its resemblance to that of the abolition despotism against which we are fighting.” Many agreed that a flag that bore any similarity to the “Stars and Stripes” was wrong on the grounds of the South not wanting the emancipation of slaves.

The “stainless” aspect referred to the pure white field or background taking up the majority of the flag’s design. Though, later criticised and dropped for its association with surrender and truce, that element to Thompson and others represented the supremacy of “The White Man” and “the cause of a superior race”. Not far off Hitler’s ideology?

The American Civil War Battle Flag

Northern Virginia Confederate Battle Flag
Northern Virginia Confederate Battle Flag

It should be remembered though that the second Confederate flag (there were three and many modifications over the years) of Thompson included the now familiar Southern Confederate flag (white stars on a blue saltire cross on a red background) as its upper left element (where the stars and blue background are on the modern US flag). That flag element, also known as the “Battle Flag” was the banner of the Northern Virginian and Tennessee armies and several naval units. It was, however, never a united Confederate flag despite now being called the”Rebel Flag”, “Dixie Flag”, or “Southern Cross”, indeed, it is alleged that the cross would have been upright rather than diagonal had its designers not wanted to keep the Southern Jews on side.

How Symbols and their Interpretation change

Hindu, Jainist, Buddhist Swastika Symbol
Hindu, Jainist, Buddhist Swastika Symbol

Speaking of the Jewish people, a symbol of hate, the Swastika, was originally a symbol of benign fate and good luck in the Sanskrit language and religious cultures of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The Svastika or Gammadion Cross (based upon four Greek capital Gamma letters), Cross Cramponnée, or Manji, has been around for at least two millennia, if not ten (its first use can be traced back 10,000 years to a paleolithic settlement in modern Ukraine)!

The Nazis did not invent or invert it, they simply stole and reinterpreted it. Hitler allegedly believed the Aryan Germans were a supreme white tribe of Indian origins and semi-divine status.

Confederate Flag draped Statue of Liberty
via flickr in relation to Arizona’s action in 2012 to deprive immigrants of benefits

Conclusion and debate

Thus, though Thompson’s “Confederate Flag” had white supremacy links, the lack of white on the current flag bears no relation to that. It does, however, have associations with Southern independence and battle against the Union and what the North stood for, including an end to slavery. Hopefully, few would argue for the return of slavery now, whether some still consider African-Americans ‘inferior’ is another matter. It it, therefore, debatable whether the flag when displayed now still has the associations of the past. Now it is more likely to be flown for reasons of Southern pride and freedom from Washington’s centralised federal governance. If it is also used by minority white supremacists and a hopefully isolated and not to be repeated white ‘terrorist’ attack against a black church (others have been arson-attacked recently though) then it clearly has negative associations for a sizeable group of the US population.

Symbols and meanings do evolve, get reclaimed, and reinvented. Removing the Southern flag from buildings may seem like an extreme reaction and is a matter of some sensitivity to both victims of race/colour hate and to proud fliers of Southern identity – which in the majority, it is hoped, are no longer inherently racist. Bree Newsome believes it is time for change:

“It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.”

Debate is needed on this and how to go forward respecting individual freedom, collective identity, and historical issues. Is flying the flag, indeed any flag, a soon to be proscribed act? In the UK only today, a man was stopped and not charged for wearing an Islamic State black flag whilst walking through Westminster, London.