My Nazi Legacy: official justice and moral judgement

My Nazi Legacy: official justice and moral judgement

A couple of weekends ago in The Observer, there was an article, 50 documentaries you need to see, introduced by Nick Fraser, editor of the BBC’s Storyville. The following night the Storyville slot on BBC Four featured an outstanding documentary concerned with history, guilt and justice directed by David Evans in which human rights lawyer Philippe Sands – whose family, all but one, were Jews murdered by Nazis at Lviv – accompanied the sons of two prominent Nazi leaders on a journey across Europe and into the darkness of the past shared by all three men. Continue reading “My Nazi Legacy: official justice and moral judgement”

‘My story isn’t about Auschwitz, it’s about life after Auschwitz’: Goran Rosenberg

‘My story isn’t about Auschwitz, it’s about life after Auschwitz’: Goran Rosenberg

With Holocaust Memorial Day imminent (details at the end of this post), Goran Rosenberg’s deeply moving memoir, A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz, compels us to think about why it is important to maintain the memory of the Holocaust – and to contemplate its meaning today. Continue reading “‘My story isn’t about Auschwitz, it’s about life after Auschwitz’: Goran Rosenberg”

Something happened on the day he died

Something happened on the day he died

Something happened on the day he died
– David Bowie, ‘Blackstar’

Three things we learned this past week connect in my mind. First came the news that Bowie had died, followed by a huge national outpouring of sorrow and loss. A day later it was revealed that the number of people attending Church of England services each week has dropped below 1 million – less than 2% of the population – for the first time, with Sunday attendances even lower at 760,000. Finally, amidst widespread condemnation, leaders of the Anglican communion meeting in Canterbury agree – in the words of Giles Fraser – ‘to punish its American franchise for the temerity of marrying gay people, sending out the message to the LGBT community: you are a problem, and we will establish our unity on the basis of your exclusion’.

The meaning of these stories, it seems to me, is that they reveal how British society has changed in the decades since Bowie first stunned viewers tuning in to watch Top of the Pops on 6 July 1972 to see him in the persona of Ziggy Stardust performing ‘Starman’, arm draped around Mick Ronson’s shoulders, pointing a finger at us all and singing, ‘I had to phone someone so I picked on you-hoo-oo’. Continue reading “Something happened on the day he died”

Ai Weiwei at the RA: Everything is art. Everything is politics

Ai Weiwei at the RA: Everything is art. Everything is politics

Ai Weiwei’s work is not unusual in drawing upon the artist’s own life experience for inspiration, but there is none of the solipsism of Tracey Emin’s Bed in his art. Ai Weiwei’s installations, sculptures and videos – which I saw last week in his powerful, moving and deeply serious exhibition currently at the Royal Academy – affirm his  unwavering commitment to human rights and freedom of expression.

Everything is art. Everything is politics.

Continue reading “Ai Weiwei at the RA: Everything is art. Everything is politics”

From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story

From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story

Last week, at Budapest’s Keleti station, the Observer’s Emma Graham-Harrison mingled with the refugees hunkered down on the concourse there. In today’s paper she retells eight of the stories she heard from those fleeing persecution and war. This is one of them. Continue reading “From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story”

Ai Weiwei in the chapel at YSP: ‘The art always wins’

Ai Weiwei in the chapel at YSP: ‘The art always wins’

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‘Iron tree’ by Ai Weiwei outside the chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

At Yorkshire Sculpture Park they recently completed the renovation of a sandstone chapel built in 1744 for the owners of Bretton Hall, the Palladian mansion that stands at the heart of the estate now devoted to art. The chapel was a place of worship for the owners of the estate and the local community for over 200 years until it was deconsecrated in the 1970s. Enter it now and you enter a contemplative space occupied by a new installation by Ai Weiwei, a profound and meditative work by an artist whose government has strictly limited his travel and confiscated his passport.

Fairytale – 1001 Chairs consists of 45 antique Chinese chairs dating from the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), each one different and yet arranged so uniformly in nine orderly rows in the nave, each chair occupying an identical, rigorously-defined space so that they seem to lose their individuality. And this is exactly Ai Weiwei’s point.

Unable to travel to Yorkshire, and working from plans and photographs of the chapel, Ai selected 45 chairs from a project displayed in Kassel in 2007 for which he brought (metaphorically) 1001 Chinese citizens to Kassel for 20 days, representing each person (otherwise unable to travel outside China) with an antique chair. Ai Weiwei chose 1001 to make a point about the collective and the individual: 1000 is a mass, one is an individual.

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Ai Weiwei, ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

In the chapel you are invited to choose a chair and sit.  You are handed poems to read by Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing (1910-1996).  For this is art that is both deeply political and more meditative than any other work by Ai that I have seen. The tranquil space, with its plain stone floor and bare whitewashed walls invokes stillness.  As sunlight slants through the unembellished windowpanes, Ai’s Fairytale Chairs and his father’s words combine to provoke thoughts about power, privilege and the freedom of individual.  The chapel is a refuge, a sanctuary in which thought can take wing.

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The individual: detail from ‘Fairytale-1001 Chairs’ (photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

Each of these chairs is a valuable antique which once would have seated a privileged member of Chinese society, and now might be bought at a great price and leave China to stand in the room of a wealthy individual on the far side of the world. To be invited to sit on a chair like this is a freedom not granted to our Chinese contemporaries. These chairs were once the preserve of the privileged, but now – through Ai Weiwei’s intervention – as the crowds of visitors to the YSP sift through the chapel and sit for a moment’s contemplation, they represent democracy.

Society allows artists to explore what we don’t know in ways that are distinct from the approaches of science, religion and philosophy. As a result, art bears a unique responsibility in the search for truth.

Ai Weiwei’s work repeatedly draws attention to unethical government policies. He gained international attention for his collaborative work on the design of Beijing’s National Stadium,nicknamed the Bird’s Nest, built for the 2008 Olympics (he later said that he was ‘proud of the architecture, but hated the way it was used’). His work has often been angry and controversial, including the series of photographs in which he gave the finger to the Chinese government and other international leaders, and breathtaking installation in Munich created from 9,000 children’s backpacks which was his protest over the thousands of students killed when their schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (he blamed the death toll on the Chinese government corruption that permitted shoddy construction).

For nearly a decade, Ai has been harassed, placed under constant surveillance, and sometimes imprisoned. In 2011, state police seized him, threw a black bag over his head and drove him to an undisclosed location, where he languished for 81 days in a tiny prison cell. He is now banned from leaving China and his home remains under constant surveillance. Despite these restrictions, Ai has continued his criticism of the Chinese Communist leadership – which he regards as repressive, immoral and illegitimate – in works that demonstrate a deepening concern with autocratic power and the absence of human rjghts.  Were it not for his international celebrity and the worldwide protests last time he was jailed, Ai would probably be in prison like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence.

Ai’s political activism and confrontational art stem from a tumultuous childhood. In the chapel I sit for a while and read poems by his father, Ai Qing, one of China’s most revered poets, who was imprisoned by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party in 1932.  It was during the three years he spent in jail that Ai Qing began to write poetry. During the Sino-Japanese war (1931-45), swept along by the rising storm of patriotism in China, Ai Qing travelled to Yan’an, in northern China, the centre of the Communist-controlled area. He officially joined the Party in 1941, and was once close to Mao Tse-tung, who talked to him on several occasions about literary policy. His poems from this time reveal an empathy with China’s poor and their harsh existence.  One of the poems I had been given to read was ‘The North’, written in 1938 in Tongguan; this is the last stanza:

I love this wretched country,
This age-old country,
This country
That has nourished what I have loved:
The world’s most long-suffering 
And most venerable people

Ai Qing’s poems celebrated the natural world and the lives of ordinary people – and the Communist cause, as here in these lines from ‘The Announcement of the Dawn’, another poem available to read in the chapel:

For my sake,
Poet, arise.

And please tell them
That what they wait for is coming.

Tell them I have come, treading the dew,
Guided by the light of the last star.

I come out of the east,
From the sea of billowing waves.

I shall bring light to the world,
Carry warmth to humankind.

Poet, through the lips of a good man,
Please bring them the message.

Tell those whose eyes smart with longing,
Those distant cities and villages steeped in sorrow.

Let them welcome me,
The harbinger of day, messenger of light.

Open every window to welcome me,
Open all the gates to welcome me.

Please blow every whistle in welcome,
Sound every trumpet in welcome.

Let street-cleaners sweep the streets clean,
Let trucks come to remove the garbage,

Let the workers walk on the streets with big strides,
Let the trams pass the squares in splendid procession.

Let the villages wake up in the damp mist,
And open their gates to welcome me …

Ai Qing joined the Communist Party in 1941, and for a time was close to Mao Tse-tung, with whom he would sometimes discuss literary policy. When Ai Qing returned to Beijing in 1949 he was already a cadre in the new government, and began to concentrate his talents more and more on writing poems in praise of Mao Tse-tung and Stalin. Then, in 1958, he wrote a poem that extolled the virtues of a culture that celebrated rather than repressed multiple voices. For this he was publicly denounced as ‘a rightist’ and exiled with his family to a re-education camp, where he was humiliated, beaten and forced to clean toilets for nearly two decades. Ai Weiwei  was one year old and spent his early years in the camp, then another 16 years in exile before the family was allowed to return to Beijing in 1976 following the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution.  In an interview with David Sheff in 2013, Ai Weiwei recalled the years of exile:

I’m a person who likes to make an argument rather than just give emotion or expression a form and shape in art. I became an artist only because I was oppressed by society. I was born into a very political society. When I was a child, my father told me, as a joke, “You can be a politician.” I was 10 years old. I didn’t understand it, because I already knew that politicians were the enemy, the ones who crushed him. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But now I understand. I can be political. I can say something even though we grew up without true education, memorizing Chairman Mao’s slogans. I memorized hundreds of them. I can still sing his songs, recite his poetry. Every morning at school we stood in front of his image, memorizing one of his sentences telling what we should do today to make ourselves a better person.

Another poem by Ai Qing that I read as a sit in the stillness and light of the chapel at the YSP is ‘Wall’, written on a visit to Germany in 1979.  These are the opening and closing stanzas:

A wall is like a knife
It slices a city in half
One half is on the east
The other half is on the west

How tall is this wall?
How thick is it?
How long is it?
Even if it were taller, thicker and longer
It couldn’t be as tall, as thick and as long
As China’s Great Wall
It is only a vestige of history
A nation’s wound
Nobody likes this wall
[…]
And how could it block out
A billion people
Whose thoughts are freer than the wind?
Whose will is more entrenched than the earth?
Whose wishes are more infinite than time?

Ai Weiwei has selected three more works for the chapel. ‘Ruyi’ (which means ‘as as one wishes’ is a vividly-coloured porcelain sculpture in the form of a traditional Chinese sceptre of the same name, used by nobles, monks and scholars for around 2,000 years. Ruyi denoted authority and granted individuals the right to speak and be heard, ‘thus enabling orderly and democratic discourse’.

Ai Weiwei, Map of China, 2012. Courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photo Jonty WildeMap of China, 2008 made from wood reclaimed from Qing dynasty temples

Ai Weiwei, ‘Map of China’, 2008 (photos by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

Map of China is a massive piece, carved from wood reclaimed from dismantled Qing dynasty temples.  On the wall opposite are displayed two timelines. One consists of some of the terrible dates in China’s history in the last 100 years: the estimated famine deaths across China (five million in 1928-30; 10 million in 1943; 25-45 million after the end of the Great Leap Forward in 1961); troops opening fire on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Beijing in 1989; the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Sichuan province, killing tens of thousands in 2008.  In a parallel column are listed dates very personal to the artist: 1932, his father, the celebrated poet Ai Qing, begins to write because he cannot paint while imprisoned as a member of the League of Left Wing Artists; 1958, Ai Qing interned in a labour camp as a “rightist” with his family, including the baby Ai Weiwei, where he spends the next 16 years cleaning the village toilets.

Then there are recent dates from the artist’s own life: 2008, artistic adviser for the Olympic stadium; 2009, project to publish all the unacknowledged names of child victims of the earthquake, and cranial surgery following assault by police; 2010, house arrest as ‘Sunflower Seeds’ opens at Tate Modern; 2011, accused of ‘economic crimes’ and imprisoned for 81 days, his Shanghai studio demolished. The most recent date simply reads: ‘2014, passport confiscated’.

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Ai Weiwei, Lantern, 2014 (Photo by Jonty Wilde, courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park)

Upstairs is ‘Lantern’, carved in marble excavated from the same quarries used by emperors to build the Forbidden City, and more recently, to build Mao’s tomb. For some years the Chinese authorities have surrounded Ai’s home with surveillance cameras and every step he takes outside is recorded and monitored. In a gesture of mockery and defiance, Ai  began to decorate the CCTV cameras with red Chinese lanterns.  Then he began to carve the ‘Lantern’ series from marble. In this way the ephemeral becomes permanent, or – as Ai has said – ‘The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.’

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Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013

One tree, another tree,
Each standing alone and erect.
The wind and air
Tell their distance apart.

But beneath the cover of earth
Their roots reach out
And at depths that cannot be seen
The roots of the trees intertwine.
– Ai Qing, ‘Tree’,1940

Stepping out of the chapel into the sunlight you are confronted by one of Ai’s most recent works – the six-metre high ‘Iron Tree’, the largest and most complex sculpture to date in a tree series begun in  2009, and inspired by pieces of wood sold by street vendors.

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Ai Weiwei: ‘Iron Tree’, 2013, details

The work has been constructed from casts of branches, roots and trunks from different trees. Although like a living tree in form, the sculpture is very obviously pieced and joined together with large iron bolts.  ‘Iron Tree’ comprises 97 pieces cast in iron from parts of trees, and interlocked using a classic – and here exaggerated – Chinese method of joining, with prominent nuts and screws. The work ‘expresses Ai’s interest in fragments and the importance of the individual, without which the whole would not exist’.

Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential.  Simply put, aside from using one’s own imagination – perhaps more importantly – creativity is the power to act.  Only through our actions can our expectations for change turn into reality.
– Ai Weiwei

Footnote

It’s 25 years since a million protesters demanding democratic freedoms gathered in Tiananmen Square, only for the protests to be brutally crushed.  Good piece in the Guardian by author of Beijing Coma, Ma Jian who took part in the protests and is now exiled.

See also

 

The Speech: King’s ‘I have a dream’ 50 years on

The Speech: King’s ‘I have a dream’ 50 years on

King

‘Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.’
– Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail

‘That day, for a moment, it almost seemed that we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance: perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not forever remain that dream we dreamed in agony.’
– James Baldwin

I’ve been reading Guardian writer Gary Younge’s new book The Speech: The Story behind Martin Luther King’s Dream, published to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 28 August 1963. It was a book I had to read, because the summer of 1963 radicalised me and defined my politics for the rest of my life.

In that regard, I was brought up short by Younge’s observation early on in his book that in its immediate aftermath, it was not obvious that the speech would have any significant political impact. While it served its purpose on the day, inspiring those who heard it, the speech did not figure prominently in the media reports of the event.  Younge quotes Drew Hansen who also wrote a book about the speech, The Dream, as stating:

At the time of King’s death in April 1968, his speech at the March on Washington had nearly vanished from public view. There was no reason to believe that King’s speech would one day come to be seen as a defining moment for his career and for the civil rights movement as a whole… King’s speech at the march is almost never mentioned during the monumental debates over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which occupy around 64,000 pages of the Congressional record.

That gave me pause for thought: when, actually, did I first read, or hear, King utter the ‘I have a dream’ passage that, in my memory, I associate with that summer when, 15 years old, I was inspired by the civil rights movement, and followed news of terrible events such as the brutal suppression of the children’s march in Birmingham, Alabama, the murder of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing?

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The March for Jobs and Freedom photographed by Leonard Freed

1963 was one of the few years in which I ever kept a diary, and in it I find that I have recorded each of these events, as well as the March on Washington itself.  Interestingly, though, on 29 August, although I note the news of the march and Martin Luther King’s presence, there is no mention of his speech, let alone ‘I have a dream’. Of more interest to me at the time is the fact that Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter Paul and Mary performed, and that the trio had sung Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.

So when did I first read or here King’s words? There is no way of knowing this now.  In the Guardian archive, I discovered that newspaper’s two reports of the event on the following day.  The front page story made no mention of speeches, let alone ‘I have a dream’, and no mention of Martin Luther King.  Oddly, the report does not record the presence of any named black leader – only that ‘among the first to arrive was George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi movement’.  Another report on page 9 by the same journalist does record that ‘the leaders of the main organisations which have sponsored the march delivered brief addresses’, but mentions no names and does not record any of their words.  Newspaper of record? Quite astonishing, really.

All this reveals how unreliable memory can be, and how, in the case of an event as ‘historic’ as King’s ‘dream’ speech, its historic nature may not have been immediately apparent. It no doubt inspired those who were present that day, but at what point were his words widely disseminated?

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The March for Jobs and Freedom photographed by Leonard Freed

In his book, Gary Younge sets out to explore the appeal of King’s speech, and the different ways in which it has been interpreted from the afternoon on which he made it. Drawing on his own interviews with civil rights leaders and activsts including Clarence Jones, who wrote the first draft of the speech, Younge reveals how the speech was written, and how as he delivered the speech King departed from the written text to extemporise its most memorable segment.  This short book does an excellent job of setting both the march and the speech in the context of what  Younge identifies as a ‘pivotal moment’ when the movement to end segregation evolved into the demand for black equality.

Activists Marching to Lincoln Memorial

The crucial backdrop to the March on Washington and King’s speech was the way in which segregation in the South, for so long accepted as the norm, was being openly challenged and brutally defended in 1963. Again, I remember how as a teenager at the time, as well as being enthralled by the bravery of civil rights activists, being astonished and appalled by the actions and statements of men like ‘Bull’ Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham who turned the jet hoses on the children, and George Wallace, Governor of Alabama (who said, ‘I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’).

As positions hardened, writes Younge, ‘key players who had learned to live with segregation – the federal government, business interests, liberal whites, conservative blacks – were forced to reckon with the arrival of a new order.’ In few places were these developments clearer than in Birmingham , Alabama.  In one of the most racist cities in the South, segregation  – in schools, libraries, hotels, lunch counters, water fountains and toilets – was strictly enforced and violent attacks on the homes of black activists were commonplace. In May, Martin Luther King had joined protesters sitting in at lunch counters across the city.  He had been arrested and jailed, placed in solitary confinement where he wrote his crucial Letter from Birmingham Jail on toilet paper.

With so many adult protesters in jail, and funds for bail nearing exhaustion, the movement turned to children to keep the protests alive.  On the first day, just under 1000 were jailed, most of them children.  On the second day the city powers turned hoses ‘powerful enough to rip the bark off a tree from thirty yards’ on the kids.  The images of the brutality went around the world.  I remember my own shock on seeing them as a 15 year old.

Children protesting in Birmingham 1963

Birmingham 1963 sprayed with fire hoses

As the protests continued, King and his associated agreed a controversial deal with the city authorities to bring about desegregation of lunch counters. It was a deal that inflamed the racists, and the following evening a bomb ripped through the motel where King had been staying (he had already left).  Rioting followed in the town and martial law was imposed.  This only highlighted growing divisions within black politics, with the deeply-held principle of non-violence adhered to by King and the civil rights movement challenged by those who argued that they were for violence if, in the words of Malcolm X, ‘non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem just to avoid violence’.  The issue was moving beyond desegregation to the broader question of white supremacy and how to challenge white people’s hold on the power structure.

On 11 June, soon after President Kennedy had made a televised national address announcing legislation to end segregation, Medgar Evers, field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi, was shot in the back with a bullet fired from a behind a bush as he stepped from his car outside his home. Hearing the news, Bob Dylan immediately set to writing the awkwardly challenging lyric that he would later sing at the Lincoln Memorial: ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’.

In his book, Gary Younge places the ‘Dream’ speech in the context both of the events that heightened tensions before the March on Washington, and what unfolded in the years immediately following:

King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech occurred at a pivotal moment. He was the most visible face of a demand – ending legal segregation – that seemed at the time not only plausible but inevitable. As long as the movement focused on that specific goal, all the protests, arrests, and even deaths that occurred along the way had a clear purpose; his speech, and the march at which it was delivered, reflected a general sense of optimism that things would change for the better. However, once that struggle had been won the question of equality remained unanswered, leaving the coalition splintered and its aims either diluted or redirected to goals evidently much harder to attain and more difficult to define.’ None of these developments happened immediately or evolved evenly. Far from it. King’s star continued to ascend for a short time even as the fortunes of those he sought to lead waned. At the end of 1963 Time magazine named him Person of the Year; the following year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Meanwhile, on the ground, the movement continued to advance. The Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 registered swaths of new Black voters in the most racially hostile state of the Union. A year after that would be the Selma to Montgomery March in Alabama, demanding voting rights and Johnson’s commencement speech at the historically Black college Howard, in favour of affirmative action. Nonetheless, as the decade wore on, the mood of African Americans was increasingly infected with cynicism, despair, and even despondency. At a meeting in Chicago in 1966, King was evidently shaken after being booed by young Black men in the crowd. He later recalled:

I went home that night with an ugly feeling; selfishly I thought of my sufferings and sacrifices over the last twelve years. Why should they boo one so close to them? But as I lay awake thinking, I finally came to myself and I could not for the life of me have less than patience and understanding for those young people. For twelve years, I and others like me have held out radiant promises of progress, I had preached to them about my dream. . . . They were now hostile because they were watching the dream they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.

On the evening after the march, Malcolm X said to Bayard Rustin: ‘You know, this dream of King is going to be a nightmare before it’s over.’  The nightmare began on Sunday 15 September when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. The bombers had waited for the church’s annual Youth Sunday, and the explosion tore out the church basement, where children practiced their parts for the ceremony. Four girls were killed: three 14-year olds and one 11-year old. The bombers had chosen their target for its charged symbolism. The church had been a rallying point for civil rights activities through the spring of 1963: it was where the students who were arrested during the 1963 Birmingham campaign’s Children’s Crusade were trained; and it was where civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr, Ralph David Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth had inspired activists with speeches and sermons.

Gary Younge sees the consequence of these events in these terms:

At a rapid clip, the centre of gravity of Black politics migrated from the South to the North, from rural to urban, middle age to youth, God to Mao, and from integrated, interracial non-violent struggle to race-based, black nationalist militancy that accepted violence as a possible strategy.

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Reading Gary Younge’s book, images of the March came into my mind, some of them, I realised, from Richard Powers’ fine novel The Time of Our Singing, about a family defined by racism. This is the passage that I was remembering:

They gather at the base of the Washington Monument.  People pour in from wherever there is still hope of a coming country.  They rumble up from the fields of Georgia on broken-down grain trucks. They ride down in one hundred busses an hour, streaming through the Baltimore  tunnel. They drive over in long silver cars from the Middle Atlantic suburbs. They converge on two dozen chartered trains from Pittsburgh and Detroit. They fly in from Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Dallas. An eighty-two- year-old man bicycles from Ohio; another, half his age, from South Dakota. One man takes a week to roller-skate the eight hundred miles from Chicago, sporting a bright sash reading FREEDOM.

By mid-morning, the crowd tops a quarter of a million: students, small businessmen, preachers, doctors, barbers, sales clerks, UAW members, management trainees, New York intellectuals, Kansas farmers, Gulf shrimpers. A ‘celebrity plane’ airlifts in a load of movie stars – Harry Belafonte, James Garner, Diahann Carroll, Marlon Brando. Longtime Freedom Riders, veterans of Birmingham, Montgomery, and Albany, join forces with timid first-timers, souls who want another nation but didn’t know, until today, how to make it. They come pushing baby strollers and wheelchairs, waving flags and banners. They come straight from board meetings and fresh out of prison. They come for a quarter million reasons. They come for a single thing.

The march route runs from Washington’s needle to Lincoln’s steps But as always, the course will the long way around. Somewhere down Constitution are jobs; somewhere down Independence is freedom. Even that winding route is the work of fragile compromise. Six separate groups suspend differences, joining their needs, if only for this last high-water mark.

The night before, the president signs orders to mobilize the army in case of riot. By early morning, the waves of people overflow any dam the undermanned crowd-control officers can erect. The march launches itself, unled, and its leaders must be wedged into the unstoppable stream after the fact, by a band of marshals. There’s agitation, picketing, a twenty-four-hour vigil outside the Justice Department. But not a single drop of blood falls for all the violence of four hundred years.

Television cameras in the crow’s nest of the Washington obelisk pan across a half a mile of people spilling down both sides of the reflecting pool. In that half mile, every imaginable hue: anger, hope, pain, new-found power, and, above all, impatience.

Music breaks out across the Mall ~ ramshackle high school marching bands, church choirs, family gospel groups, pickup combos scatting stoic euphoria, a funeral jubilation the size of the Eastern Seaboard. Song echoes from staggered amplifiers across the open spaces, bouncing off civic buildings. A bastard mix of performers work the staging area – Odetta and Baez, Josh White and Dylan, the Freedom Singers of SNCC and Albany fame. But the surge of music that carries the marchers toward the Emancipator is all self-made. Pitched words eddy and mount: We shall overcome. We shall not be moved. Strangers who’ve never laid eyes on one another until this minute launch into tight harmonies without a cue. The one thing’ we did right was the day we began to fight. The song spins out its own rising counterpoints. The only chain we can stand is the chain of hand in hand. All past collapses into now. Woke up this morning with my mind on freedom. Hallelujah.

David Strom hears the swelling chorus in a dream. The sound bends him back upon his past self, the day that first took him here, the day that made this one. That prior day is here completed, brought forward to this moment, the one it was already signalling a quarter century before. Time is not a trace that moves through a collection of moments. Time is a moment that collects all moving traces.

David Strom, an exiled German Jewish mathematician, is remembering another moment of resisting racism. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the black contralto Marian Anderson to sing at the main concert venue in Washington DC because of the colour of her skin. The subsequent news reports created a storm of protest and prompted first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to withdraw from her membership of the organization and to organise an open-air concert on Easter Sunday 1939, when, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson sang before a crowd of more than 75,000 people and to a radio audience in the millions. In the crowd was a young Martin Luther King. In the crowd, too, Powers’s characters David Strom and Delia Daley, a talented African American singer, meet. They later marry – an illegal act in half the states of the union in 1939 – and have three musically talented children.  They make a brave but finally doomed attempt to bring up their three children ‘beyond race’.  Each attempts to come to terms with their mixed-race heritage in different ways; the daughter, Ruth, grows up to reject her parents’ vision and joins the Black Panthers.

On 28 August 1963, Marian Anderson again stood at the Lincoln Memorial, opening the afternoon’s proceedings by singing ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’.

Freed March
The March for Jobs and Freedom photographed by Leonard Freed

The central chapter of Gary Younge’s book is devoted to a close analysis of each section of King’s speech.  He takes us through the process by which the speech was written and continually refined in the 24 hours before its delivery. Younge tells how, for King’s entourage, this speech had to be different. He notes that although by 1963 King was a national figure, few outside the black church and the civil rights movement had heard him give a full address. Now, with all three television networks offering live coverage of the march for jobs and freedom, this would be his introduction to the nation.

March 63

King’s greatness as a speaker, said James Baldwin, lay in his ‘intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt or baffle them’. Clarence Jones was his speech writer:

When it came to my speech drafts [King] often acted like an interior designer. I would deliver four strong walls and he would use his God-given abilities to furnish the place so it felt like home.

King finished the outline at about midnight and then wrote a draft in longhand. One of his aides who went to King’s suite that night saw words crossed out three or four times. He thought it looked as though King were writing poetry. King went to sleep at about 4am, giving the text to his aides to print and distribute. The ‘I have a dream’ section was not in it.

Younge’s account suggests that King must have gone to bed that night worried. He explains that for King, the most important thing for him when delivering a sermon was having some sense of where and how he would finish: ‘First I find my landing strip. It’s terrible to be circling around up there without a place to land.’ The problem with the draft that he had prepared was that it seemed a lot stronger on take off than on landing.

As things turned out, Younge explains, ‘the way King ended the speech (freestyling) was far more typical of his sermons than the way he started it (tethered to a written text)’:

But given the enormity of the moment, he could not simply rely on his ability to find the right words at the right time. King was an extraordinary natural orator, but even he was not so confident as to believe his best strategy on such an occasion lay in extemporizing and hoping the Spirit would find him. ‘This was a different audience, a different time, a different place,’ says [John] Lewis. ‘This was truly history, and Dr. King knew it. We all knew it. We’d known it with our own speeches and he knew it with his. He was responding to the occasion. He was speaking not just to the massive audience before us, but to the president, to Congress, to the nation, to the world’.

Martin Luther King Jr -March on Washington1963

On the day, King began by following the written text finalized in the early hours:

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Younge notes that immediately King utilizes a favourite rhetorical device that he will employ several times in the speech: anaphora, or repeating a phrase at the beginning of successive clauses:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.

But 100 years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

Then comes the passage built on the metaphor of the promissory note – a metaphor, says Younge, that came from Clarence Jones, and was based on what actually occurred following the mass arrests in Birmingham that spring that resulted in the need to find a large amount of money at short notice to pay bail for a large number of people. Younge retells the story – one that involves Harry Belafonte, New York Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and the Chase Manhatten Bank.

And so we’ve come here today to dramatize an appalling condition. In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a cheque. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned. Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad cheque which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this cheque – a cheque that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Next comes the passage that talks of ‘the fierce urgency of now’, the phrase that Barak Obama would adopt during his first campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

A key section of the speech is a response to those in government, and in the white population generally, who would ask of civil rights campaigners, ‘when will you be satisfied?’:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights: “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied and we will not be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

King speaking

The speech is drawing to a close, and King is searching for his ‘landing strip’.  The night before the March, seeking advice from his aides about the speech, King had been told:. ‘Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream.’ It’s trite, it’s cliche. You’ve used it too many times already.’ As Younge explains, King had indeed employed the refrain several times before.  For his aides, this speech had to be different. It was going out live to the nation.

As King moved towards his final words, he had a sense, in Younge’s words, ‘that he was falling short’. It was then that Mahalia Jackson, who was standing behind him at the podium, cried out: ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin.’ King set aside his prepared text and adopted the stance of a Baptist preacher.  Clarence Jones turned to the person standing next to him and said: ‘Those people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.’

So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.

‘Aw, shit,’ King’s aide Wyatt Walker said, ‘He’s using the dream.’ Clarence Jones thought: ‘He’s off, he’s on his own now, he’s inspired’.  King had found his landing strip:

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.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

King’s speech – overlooked the following day not just in The Guardian but also receiving no mention in the Washington Post  – would eventually become one of the most celebrated in American history. That it has is largely due to the ‘Dream’ passage. James Baldwin in No Name in the Street probably put his finger on the reason why:
That day for a moment it almost seemed that we stood on a height and could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not for ever remain that dream one dreamed in agony.
Overshadowed by the ‘Dream’ passage, but just as fine is the ‘free at last’ coda:

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning: “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California.
But not only that.
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

The Black March In Washington For Jobs And Freedom
Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte

In his final chapter, Gary Younge assesses the legacy of King’s speech – in the context of the election of America’s first black president, but also the continuing racial inequalities and injustices of American society in a year that has seen the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of the teenager Trayvon Martin. Younge’s perceptive assessment notes how responses to King’s speech have differed ever since the moment it was given: how the speech has been interpreted in very different ways, and used to support various positions.  These are Younge’s closing words:

In the final analysis to ask whether King’s dream has been realized is to misunderstand both his overall politics and the specific ambition of his speech. King was not the kind of activist who pursued a merely finite agenda. The speech in general and the dream sequence in particular are utopian. Standing in the midst of a nightmare, King dreams of a better world where historical wrongs have been righted and good prevails. That is why the speech means so much to me and why I believe that, overall, it has stood the test of time.

I was raised in Britain during the Thatcher years, a time when idealism was mocked and ‘realism’ became an excuse for capitulation to the ‘inevitability’ of unbridled market forces and military aggression. To oppose that agenda was regarded, by some on the Left as well as the Right, as impractical and unrealistic. Realism has no time for dreamers. […] While it is true that we cannot live on dreams alone, the absence of utopian ideas leaves us without a clear ideological and moral centre and therefore facing a void in which politics is deprived of any liberatory potential and reduced to only what is feasible in any given moment.

With a civil rights bill pending and the white population skittish, King could have limited his address to what was immediately achievable. He might have spelled out a ten-point plan and laid out his case for tougher legislation or made the case for fresh campaigns of civil disobedience in the North. He could have reduced himself to an appeal for what was possible in a time when what was possible and pragmatic was neither satisfactory nor sustainable.

Instead he swung for the bleachers. Not knowing whether the task of building the world he was describing was Sisyphean or merely Herculean, he called out in the political wilderness, hoping his voice would someday be heard by those with power to act upon it. In so doing he showed that it is not naive to believe that what is not possible in the foreseeable future may nonetheless be necessary, worth fighting for, and worth articulating. The idealism that underpins his dream is the rock on which our modern rights are built and the flesh on which pragmatic parasites feed. If nobody dreamed of a better world, what would there be to wake up to?

In my next post I’ll explore the musical associations of the March for Jobs and Freedom.

Footnote 27.08.2013

Brilliant piece by Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman today on Tom Dispatch about the meaning of the speech for one who resisted Pinochet’s murderous regime. He concludes:

What would Martin Luther King say if he could return to contemplate what his country has become since his death? What if he could see how the terror and slaughter brought to bear upon New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, had turned his people into a fearful, vengeful nation, ready to stop dreaming, ready to abridge their own freedoms in order to be secure? What if he could see how that obsession with security has fed espionage services and a military-industrial complex run amok?

What would he say if he could observe how that fear was manipulated in order to justify the invasion and occupation of a foreign land against the will of its people? How would he react to the newest laws disenfranchising the very citizens he fought to bring to the voting booths? What sorrow would have gripped his heart as he watched the rich thrive and the poor be ever more neglected and despised, as he observed the growing abyss between the one percent and the rest of the country, not to speak of the power of money to intervene and intercede and decide?

What words would he have used to denounce the way the government surveillance he was under is now commonplace and pervasive, potentially targeting anyone in the United States who happens to own a phone or use email? Wouldn’t he tell those who oppose these policies and institutions inside and outside the United States to stand up and be counted, to march ahead, and not ever to wallow in the valley of despair?

See also

Oddly, despite the fame of Martin Luther King’sI have a dream’ speech, you will be hard pushed to find a full version of it – video or text – online. That is because King himself secured the copyright to his speech in the months after he made it – reputedly in a bid to use the proceeds to support the civil rights movement.  King’s family now own the copyright, which will expire in 2038.

But there are other valuable videos that offer an insight on the March. YouTube has a remarkable TV debate, featuring Marlon Brando, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Joseph Minklelwitz, and Sidney Poitier, talking about the Civil Rights movement. It took place on the day of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was hosted by David Schoenbrun and broadcast by CBS.

The March on Washington in Photographs: US National Archives documentary

Whistleblowers and drones

Whistleblowers and drones

Information is power.  But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.  Those with access to these resources … have a duty to share it with the world.
– Aaron Swartz, Guerilla Open Access Manifesto

When I was a kid in the fifties I read a short story (by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, I think) set in an American town where the citizens were spied on in their daily activities by machines that hovered permanently above the streets.  A little later I read Orwell’s 1984, with its telescreens in every apartment that watch and record individuals at all times, while written correspondence is routinely opened and read by the government before it is delivered.

These writers were astonishingly prescient of processes that we now know are routinely used, not only by authoritarian regimes, but, more disturbingly, by many governments that proclaim their adherence to democratic principles, due legal process and respect for human rights. The period we’re in may come to be seen as a watershed moment, when the extent to which democratic politicians are prepared to sacrifice principle and morality became crystal clear.

edward-snowden-guardian

These thoughts are provoked, obviously, by the files handed to The Guardian by Edward Snowden detailing the extent of the American state’s surveillance of its own citizens, as well as those of allied European states; but also by recently seeing the documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and reading pieces in the London Review of Books that discussed the implications of America’s ‘drone wars’.

At the very moment when Bradley Manning’s trial for passing classified material to the website WikiLeaks was drawing to a close, Edward Snowden provided the Guardian with top-secret NSA documents revealing the extent of US surveillance of phone and internet communications built in the shadows in the aftermath of 9/11. On 12 July, Snowden made this statement:

A little over one month ago, I had family, a home in paradise, and I lived in great comfort. I also had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize, and read your communications. Anyone’s communications at any time. That is the power to change people’s fates. It is also a serious violation of the law. The 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution of my country, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous statutes and treaties forbid such systems of massive, pervasive surveillance. While the U.S. Constitution marks these programs as illegal, my government argues that secret court rulings, which the world is not permitted to see, somehow legitimize an illegal affair. These rulings simply corrupt the most basic notion of justice — that it must be seen to be done.

I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. And that’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build, and it’s not something I’m willing to live under. America is a fundamentally good country. We have good people with good values who want to do the right thing. But the structures of power that exist are working to their own ends to extend their capability at the expense of the freedom of all publics.

Snowden was still sheltering in Moscow airport when I went to see Alex Gibney’s documentary film about WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.  Like many big-screen documentaries these days, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, has high production values, photographed and edited like a feature film, with an original score and cool graphics that give the film the semblance of a spy thriller.

Some I was with at the screening were put out by Gibney’s portrayal of Julian Assange. Gibney tells the story of Assange’s formative years as an activist and young hacker and draws on interviews with WikiLeaks staff and followers who supported WikiLeaks in its crusade – all of whom are people that Assange has subsequently fallen out with.  There’s one voice missing in the Gibney interviews – that of Assange himself, since Assange withdrew his cooperation from the film.

Julian Assange, leader of WikiLeaks, holds up a copy of the Guardian with a front page article that used leaked Pentagon data. during a press conference in London on July 26, 2010.  The
Julian Assange holds up a copy of the Guardian front page with the WikiLeaks story, 26 July 2010

When we discussed the film afterwards, the criticism my friends made was that it over-emphasised the Swedish rape allegations, and failed to consider both the possibility that they had been engineered by US agencies, and the danger that Assange faced of being rendered to America if he had not legally challenged extradition.

Certainly, Gibney does dwell on the rape allegations, as well painting a picture of Assange’s increasingly erratic and egotistical behaviour at the head of WikiLeaks.  But I suspect that Gibney’s portrait is a true one, leaving the viewer  simultaneously compelled and appalled by a character who is brilliant but flawed. Gibney presents a powerful account of Assange’s early successes – for example, how he was instrumental in leaking the documents that revealed the extent of Icelandic bank irregularities.

The fact that Assange fell out with Gibney and withdrew from the filming proved, I think, significant for how the film has turned out.  For, without footage of Assange talking, Gibney has had to focus more on the story of Bradley Manning, and in many ways this is the more compelling drama.

Gibney tells Bradley Manning’s story powerfully – how the conscience-stricken Army private reached his momentous decision to pass to Wikileaks the of the biggest leak of all time – 700,000 classified files,  including the video footage of a US gunship in Baghdad killing two children, two Reuters journalists and several others who happened to be standing nearby.

manning-supporters-march-in-san-francisco

The story of Bradley Manning, his intense isolation and psychological problems, has an emotional pull that Assange’s just doesn’t possess, however worthy.  When you come out of the film what lingers in the mind is Manning’s isolation and his betrayal by the hacker Adrian Lamo in whom he confided and placed his trust. The heart of the film, in dramatic terms, comes when Gibney reproduces their web-chats on screen, turn by turn. Just words on the screen – but it packs a hefty punch.

'He desperately needed to talk' ... above, a passage from Bradley Manning's infamous online chat, rendered in We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.
A moment from Bradley Manning’s online chat with Adrian Lamo, as portrayed in We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.

Gibney, presumably to offer some balance, includes interviews with various figures from the US government and security services.  It’s one of those who, confusingly, gives the documentary its title when he candidly says, ‘We steal secrets. We steal other nations’ secrets’. This was before we knew what Snowden’s leaks confirmed.

Another moment in the film points towards the link between WiliLeaks, Snowden and the intensifying drone war being conducted by the US by remote control on targets across the Middle East.  The then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton states that the work of WikiLeaks is, ‘not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community: the alliances and partnerships . . . that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity.’ What she was getting at is the American government’s belief that certain of the documents unleashed by WikiLeaks resulted in an almost unparalleled shift in global power and in stability in the Muslim world. For example, one of the diplomatic documents leaked revealed the greed and corruption of the Tunisian president, sparking the uprising that inaugurated the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.

But it’s not just a question of revelations that destabilise your allies; the Snowden files reveal just how far the American government is prepared to go in order to identify those who might pose a threat to the US.  This summer, articles in the London Review of Books have reviewed recent books examining how such information might be used – to kill, without judicial process or any formal declaration of war, individuals deemed to be a threat to US interests.

In ‘Like a Mosquito’ (LRB, 4 July 2013) Mattathias Schwartz, reviewing Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill wrote:

Distinguishing between civilian and militant has become a post hoc body-sorting argument. As viewed through the drone’s crosshairs, the ciphers on the ground are neither civilians nor militants: they could be called ‘civilitants’, some of whom have been rendered killable not by who they are or what they have done but by where they happen to be.[…]

In a signature strike, a person is made a target not because of their identity but because of certain ‘signatures’ – criteria associated with terrorist activity. They could be called pieces of circumstantial evidence. An early report in the Washington Post gave a loose description: signatures are ‘patterns of behaviour that are detected through signals intercepts, human sources and aerial surveillance … that indicate the presence of an important operative or a plot against US interests’. Kevin Heller, a professor of law at the University of Melbourne, has used media reports to compile a list of 14 likely signatures. Five, he found, are legal under international law. Five are dubious. Four are illegal. These four are: ‘military-age male in area of known terrorist activity’; ‘consorting with known militants’; ‘armed men travelling in trucks’ in an area controlled by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula; and ‘suspicious camp’ in an area controlled by al-Qaida.

Schwartz went on to note how monitoring a person’s Internet activity has become crucial to identifying such ‘signatures’:

Meanwhile, the US is doing what it can to blur the distinction between the sniper on a rooftop and the sniper Googling where to buy his first gun. The two cases can be made into one with the ‘broader concept of imminence’ outlined in a US justice department white paper leaked this February:

The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack … does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future … the nation may have a limited window of opportunity within which to strike in a manner that both has high likelihood of success and reduces the probability of American casualties.

So, armed with information culled from the trawls through Internet use conducted by the National Security Agency (as revealed by Edward Snowden) the Americans go in for the kill – even eliminating their own citizens. (See, for example, ‘US drone strikes: Memo reveals case for killing Americans‘ on the BBC News website). In the process, it’s likely (as Bradley Manning’s US gunship video clip showed) that innocent people will die.   In his review of Scahill’s book, Schwartz offers a telling quote from a source in US military intelligence who told Scahill: ‘If there’s one person they’re going after and there’s 34 people in the building, 35 people are going to die,’

Tribesmen on Sunday on the rubble of a building destroyed on Oct. 14, 2011, in an American drone strike against suspected militants in Shabwa Province in southeastern Yemen.
Men on the rubble of a building destroyed in an American drone strike against suspected militants in southeastern Yemen.

A vivid illustration of that statement comes in a New York Times report of a drone attack in Yemen on 14 October 2011:

Late last August, a 40-year-old cleric named Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber stood up to deliver a speech denouncing Al Qaeda in a village mosque in far eastern Yemen. It was a brave gesture by a father of seven who commanded great respect in the community, and it did not go unnoticed. Two days later, three members of Al Qaeda came to the mosque in the tiny village of Khashamir after 9 p.m., saying they merely wanted to talk. Mr. Jaber agreed to meet them, bringing his cousin Waleed Abdullah, a police officer, for protection.

As the five men stood arguing by a cluster of palm trees, a volley of remotely operated American missiles shot down from the night sky and incinerated them all, along with a camel that was tied up nearby.

Why has the use of drone warfare spread so widely and so fast?  Why does the United States not round up, render and imprison those it suspects of harbouring terrorist inclinations – as they did in the decade after 9/11?  An answer is offered in The CIA, a Secret Army and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti, reviewed by Stephen Holmes in the LRB (‘What’s in it for Obama?’, 18 July 2013).  Mazetti’s case is that ‘the CIA and the Pentagon have opted to hunt and kill suspected enemies in order to avoid the extra-legal tactics of capture and interrogation adopted under Obama’s predecessor’.  In other words, as Stephen Holmes acidly remarks:

The administration doubled-down on what look suspiciously like extrajudicial executions, faute de mieux, after shuttering Bush’s black sites and deciding not to send anyone else to Guantánamo, where approximately a third of the hundred detainees on hunger strike are receiving a macabre form of Obamacare through tubes in their noses.

Holmes adds that Mazzetti’s ‘unspoken and perhaps unspeakable explanation’ for Obama’s escalation of drone warfare, is that the members of the intelligence establishment ‘were afraid they could be held legally responsible for engaging in torture, a felony under American law’. The suggestion is that Obama’s shift to killing suspects from drones has been driven ‘by rumblings of rebellion at the CIA, where fear of being hung out to dry by bait-and-switch politicians is legendary’.

Drawing on Mazzetti’s book, Holmes elaborates:

By the time Obama stepped smartly into office, the agency was apparently preoccupied by the possibility that ‘covert officers working at the CIA prisons could be prosecuted for their work.’ This dampened the interrogators’ enthusiasm for extracting information by physically and psychologically abusing their prisoners: ‘each hit the CIA took for its detention-and-interrogation programme pushed CIA leaders further to one side of a morbid calculation that the agency would be far better off killing, rather than jailing, terror suspects.’ According to John Rizzo, a career CIA lawyer, Obama officials ‘never came out and said they would start killing people because they couldn’t interrogate them, but the implication was unmistakable … Once the interrogation was gone, all that was left was the killing.’ Summarising his interviews with Rizzo and other insiders, Mazzetti concludes: ‘Armed drones, and targeted killing in general, offered a new direction for a spy agency that had begun to feel burned by its years in the detention-and-interrogation business.’

Land of the free? By curious coincidence, while these thoughts were exercising my mind, I was reading Martin Chuzzlewit, in which Dickens has a good go at skewering American hypocrisy.  Dickens wrote the novel after travelling to America with all the hopefulness of an English radical.  His disappointment at what he found fuelled the sarcasm in his description of American attitudes and the strange disconnect between the language of liberty, freedom and independence that resounded everywhere in a country where the right to carry a gun and own slaves was guaranteed in the constitution.  Dickens’ disillusionment – to a friend he wrote, ‘this is not the republic I came to see; this is not the republic of my imagination’ – echoes our own disenchantment with Obama’s presidency.

Aaron Swartz, internet activist
Aaron Swartz, who killed himself shortly before his trial for downloading academic journals.

I opened this post with a quote from Aaron Swarz, a tech whiz-kid and political activist passionately committed to internet freedom, civil liberties, making information and knowledge as available as possible.  In January he committed suicide at the age of 26.  When he tried to ‘liberate’ data from an academic website, US authorities responded fiercely with a prosecution that meant he faced a fine of up to $1m and 35 years in jail. What’s the connection with the foregoing?  As Glenn Greenwald wrote in The Guardian a few days after his death:

Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz so vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime that deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience. Others speculated that, as Doctorow put it, “the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them.”

I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times’ Noam Cohen for an article he wrote on Swartz’s case. Swartz’s activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles – namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it – and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information.

Meanwhile, Bradley Manning, arrested on 27 May 2010, detained for much of the time since in solitary confinement, tortured, and convicted in July of violations of the Espionage Act, awaits sentencing. Glenn Greenwald has argued that Manning is the most important whistleblower since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

Bradley Manning

Disturbing and yet inspiring footnote: Email service used by Snowden shuts down, rather than comply with a (secret) US government court order to access encrypted messages on its servers. Details here.

Further footnote: Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for passing hundreds of thousands of classified military documents to WikiLeaks on 21 August 2013. The sentence was more severe than many observers expected, and was much longer than any punishment given to any previous US government leaker. Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, commented:

When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system.  A legal system that doesn’t distinguish between leaks to the press in the public interest and treason against the nation will not only produce unjust results, but will deprive the public of critical information that is necessary for democratic accountability.

The news came in the same week that the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who wrote the series of stories revealing revealing the NSA’s electronic surveillance programmes, detailed in thousands of files passed to him by whistleblower Edward Snowden, had been held under anti-terrorism laws for nine hours by UK authorities as he passed through Heathrow airport on his way home to Rio de Janeiro.  As Simon Jenkins wrote:

It remains worrying that many otherwise liberal-minded Britons seem reluctant to take seriously the abuses revealed in the nature and growth of state surveillance. The arrogance of this abuse is now widespread. The same police force that harassed Miranda for nine hours at Heathrow is the one recently revealed as using surveillance to blackmail Lawrence family supporters and draw up lists of trouble-makers to hand over to private contractors. We can see where this leads.

I hesitate to draw parallels with history, but I wonder how those now running the surveillance state – and their appeasers – would have behaved under the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. We hear today so many phrases we have heard before. The innocent have nothing to fear. Our critics merely comfort the enemy. You cannot be too safe. Loyalty is all. As one official said in wielding his legal stick over the Guardian: “You have had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

Yes, there bloody well is.

Pussy Riot: punks with antecedents

Pussy Riot: punks with antecedents

On The Guardian website today Carol Rumens has chosen as her poem of the week Punk Prayer by the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, three of whose members have just been sentenced to two years in a prison colony for ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’.  Rumens has worked up her own version of the lyric which the three women performed in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour five months ago.

Rumens accepts that the performance was mildly shocking, but, she says, ‘loud, rude, up-yours protest is what punk is all about’. She treats the lyrics seriously – ‘they have something significant to say, which the careless translations slopping around the internet tend to obscure’ – and reminds readers that ‘the absurdity and dishonesty of the judgment … recall Joseph Brodsky’s trial, and also the fate of Irina Ratushinskaya, viciously punished, in part, for poems expressing her Christian beliefs’.

Rumens concludes:

How horrible to find that, post-perestroika, rampant capitalism and artistic repression are somehow able to cohabit. Pussy Riot have explained that their protest was not primarily against religion but against the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for Putin. The lyrics they wrote for Punk Prayer bear out the truth of this claim.

Here is Carol Rumens’ version of Punk Prayer – but do read her gloss on the words, too:

(Chorus)
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish him, we pray thee!

Congregations genuflect,
Black robes brag gilt epaulettes,
Freedom’s phantom’s gone to heaven,
Gay Pride’s chained and in detention.
KGB’s chief saint descends
To guide the punks to prison vans.
Don’t upset His Saintship, ladies,
Stick to making love and babies.
Crap, crap, this godliness crap!
Crap, crap, this holiness crap!

(Chorus)
Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Be a feminist, we pray thee,
Be a feminist, we pray thee.

Bless our festering bastard-boss.
Let black cars parade the Cross.
The Missionary’s in class for cash.
Meet him there, and pay his stash.
Patriarch Gundy believes in Putin.
Better believe in God, you vermin!
Fight for rights, forget the rite –
Join our protest, Holy Virgin.

(Chorus)
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, we pray thee, banish him!

Irina Ratushinskaya was arrested on 17 September 1982 for anti-Soviet agitation. In April 1983, she was convicted of  ‘agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime’, sentenced to seven years in a labour camp followed by five years of internal exile.  She was released on 9 October 1986, on the eve of the summit in Reykjavík, Iceland between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

While in prison, Irina continued to write poetry. While her previous works had invariably been concerned with themes of love, Christian theology and artistic creativity (not politics as her accusers insisted), the poems written in prison, were charged with questions of human rights, freedom, and the beauty of life.  They were written on soap until memorised and then washed away.

Give me a nickname, prison, 
this first April 
evening of sadness 
shared with you. 
This hour for your songs 
of evil and goodness, 
confessions of love, 
salty jokes. 
They’ve taken my friends, 
ripped the cross from its chain, 
torn clothes, 
and then with boots 
struck at my breastbone 
torturing the remains 
of hope. 
My name is filed 
in profile, full-face – 
a numbered dossier. 
In custody – 
nothing is mine! 
Just as you have 
no one, nothing! 
On the window’s grating 
here’s all of me – christen me, 
give me a name, prison, 
send off to the transport 
not a boy, but a zek, 
so I’ll be welcomed 
with endearments by Kolyma, 
place of outcasts, executions 
in this twentieth century. 
– 5 October 1983

I will live and survive

I will live and survive and be asked: 
How they slammed my head against a trestle, 
How I had to freeze at nights, 
How my hair started to turn grey… 
But I’ll smile.  And will crack some joke 
And brush away the encroaching shadow. 
And I will render homage to the dry September 
That became my second birth. 
And I’ll be asked: ‘Doesn’t’ it hurt you to remember?’ 
Not being deceived by my outward flippancy. 
But the former names will detonate my memory – 
Magnificent as old cannon. 
And I will tell of the best people in all the earth, 
The most tender, but also the most invincible, 
How they waited for letters from their loved ones. 
And I’ll be asked: what helped us to live 
When there was neither letters nor any news – only walls, 
And the cold of the cell, and the blather of official lies, 
And the sickening promises made in exchange for betrayal. 
And I will tell of the first beauty 
I saw in captivity. 
A frost-covered window! No spyholes, nor walls, 
And the cold of the cell, and the blather of official lies, 
And the sickening promises made in exchange for betrayal. 
And I will tell of the first beauty 
I saw in captivity. 
A frost-covered window! No spy holes, nor walls, 
Nor cell-bars, nor the long endured pain – 
Only a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass, 
A cast pattern- none more beautiful could be dreamt! 
The more clearly you looked the more powerfully blossomed 
Those brigand forest, campfire and birds! 
And how many times there was bitter cold weather 
And how many windows sparkled after that one – 
But never was it repeated, 
That heavily upheaval of rainbow ice! 
And anyway, what good would it be to me now, 
And what would be the pretext fro the festival? 
Such a gift can only be received once, 
And perhaps, it is only needed once.

In 1963, Joseph Brodsky’s poetry was denounced by a Leningrad newspaper as ‘pornographic and anti-Soviet’. He was interrogated, twice put in a mental institution and then arrested. Aged 23, Brodsky was charged with social parasitism by the Soviet authorities in a trial in 1964. His accusers called him ‘a pseudo-poet in velveteen trousers’ who had failed to fulfill his ‘constitutional duty to work honestly for the good of the motherland’.

At his the trial, this exchange took place btween Brodsky and the judge:

Judge: And what is your profession, in general?
Brodsky: I am a poet and a literary translator.
Judge: Who recognizes you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of humankind?

Brodsky was sentenced to five years hard labour and served 18 months on a farm in the Arctic Archangelsk region, three hundred and fifty miles from Leningrad. His sentence was commuted in 1965 after protests by prominent Soviet and foreign cultural figures, including Vladimir Yevtushenkov, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Jean-Paul Sartre as well as Anna Akhmatova.  Brodsky became a cause celebre in the West also when a secret transcription of trial minutes was smuggled out of the country, making him a symbol of artistic resistance in a totalitarian society, much like his mentor Akhmatova.

May 24, 1980 is a poem written on the occasion of Brodsky’s 40th birthday; this is his own translation:

I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages,
carved my term and nickname on bunks and rafters,
lived by the sea, flashed aces in an oasis,
dined with the-devil-knows-whom, in tails, on truffles.
From the height of a glacier I beheld half a world, the earthly
width. Twice have drowned, thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.
Quit the country the bore and nursed me.
Those who forgot me would make a city.
I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
I’ve admitted the sentries’ third eye into my wet and foul
dreams. Munched the bread of exile; it’s stale and warty.
Granted my lungs all sounds except the howl;
switched to a whisper. Now I am forty.
What should I say about my life? That it’s long and abhors transparence.
Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit.
Yet until brown clay has been rammed down my larynx,
only gratitude will be gushing from it.

Brodsky’s link to Anna Akhmatova takes us back to the era of Stalinist repression. Akhmatova’s poetry was condemned and censored by Stalinist authorities for its personal and religious elements.  She chose to remain in Russia, acting as witness to the atrocities around her. Her perennial themes include meditations on time and memory, and the difficulties of living and writing in the shadow of Stalinism.  She was a close friend of fellow poet Osip Mandelstam, who was sentenced to imprisonment in one of the labour camps of the Gulag where he would die.

Akhmatova narrowly escaped arrest, though her son Lev was imprisoned on numerous occasions by the Stalinist regime, accused of counter-revolutionary activity. In her poem Requiem, written between 1935 and 1940, she describes waiting in line for hours outside a prison in Leningrad for news of her son. This is the opening of Requiem:

Not under foreign skies
Nor under foreign wings protected –
I shared all this with my own people
There, where misfortune had abandoned us.

INSTEAD OF A PREFACE

During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’.
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe
this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.

DEDICATION

Mountains fall before this grief,
A mighty river stops its flow,
But prison doors stay firmly bolted
Shutting off the convict burrows
And an anguish close to death.
Fresh winds softly blow for someone,
Gentle sunsets warm them through; we don’t know this,
We are everywhere the same, listening
To the scrape and turn of hateful keys
And the heavy tread of marching soldiers.
Waking early, as if for early mass,
Walking through the capital run wild, gone to seed,
We’d meet – the dead, lifeless; the sun,
Lower every day; the Neva, mistier:
But hope still sings forever in the distance.
The verdict. Immediately a flood of tears,
Followed by a total isolation,
As if a beating heart is painfully ripped out, or,
Thumped, she lies there brutally laid out,
But she still manages to walk, hesitantly, alone.
Where are you, my unwilling friends,
Captives of my two satanic years?
What miracle do you see in a Siberian blizzard?
What shimmering mirage around the circle of the moon?
I send each one of you my salutation, and farewell.

Pussy Riot may seem a long way from Akhmatova and Mandelstam, but as Carole Cadwallader wrote in yesterday’s Observer:

Don’t underestimate their bravery. The members of Pussy Riot whom I met, who put their balaclavas and colourful dresses in their bags when they go out to work or university, “like Batman”, were aware that bad things happen to people who dare to stand out in Putin’s Russia. Journalists die. Opposition politicians are beaten up. It’s no coincidence that Tolokonnikova, Alekhina, Samutsevich – Nadia, Masha and Katia – laughed and joked as they were sentenced on Friday. The trial was a joke.

They’re now going to pay the price. Russian women’s prisons are even harsher than the male ones. The women have been depicted on state television as evil satanists and their lawyers fear for their safety. It’s unlikely they’ll stay in Moscow; like Khodorkovsky, they’ll probably be shipped off to a far-off prison in Siberia away from family and friends, from their young children. It’s not a joke. It’s a brutal, nasty place, Putin’s Russia. And because of Pussy Riot, we all now know that now.

Ai Weiwei: throwing stones at autocracy

Ai Weiwei:  throwing stones at autocracy

There are a lot of cats hanging around Ai Weiwei’s  family compound in Beijing.  One of them has actually learned how to open doors.  In Alison Klayman’s superb first documentary, Ai Weiwei:  Never Sorry, Ai remarks that the difference between human beings and cats is that when cats open a door, they don’t close it behind them. Klayman’s film is a celebration of a subversive artist who turns resistance into a creative act. Continue reading “Ai Weiwei: throwing stones at autocracy”

Slavery, apartheid and morality

You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Peter Gabriel, ‘Biko’

There was a moment in a recent TV documentary about the Asante kingdom (located in present-day Ghana) when a Ghanaian academic, asked about the Asante proclivity for selling captives from neighbouring tribes into European slavery, said, ‘Well, we didn’t have any morality then’.  It didn’t sound right.

It was only later, watching a film about the international movement to boycott and isolate apartheid South Africa in sport, that I figured out what was wrong.

Of course the Asante of the 18th and early 19th century did have a moral code – it was just that, exactly like European morality at the time, it applied only to Asante and not to others.  Certainly there were those in the anti-slavery movement who argued that ethical standards on how we should treat human beings should apply not just to fellow-countrymen but also to those widely regarded at the time as belonging to inferior races – but they had a mighty struggle getting their views accepted.

One love 
One blood 
One life 
You got to do what you should 
One life 
With each other 
Sisters 
Brothers 
One life 
But we’re not the same 
We get to 
Carry each other
– U2, ‘One’

What gained traction in the 20th century (paradoxically, in a century of such great inhumanity) was the concept of moral universalism – that ethics apply universally, for ‘all similarly situated individuals’, regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality or sexuality.  For some, the source or justification of a universal ethic lay in Christian or other religious beliefs, in Enlightenment reason or socialist values.  Whatever the source, Noam Chomsky stated its meaning crisply:

One of the, maybe the most, elementary of moral principles is that of universality, that is, If something’s right for me, it’s right for you; if it’s wrong for you, it’s wrong for me. Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow.

Watching the current (brilliant) series of documentaries about the worldwide effort to destroy South African apartheid, Have You Heard From Johannesburg, I recognised a principle that drew countless numbers around the world, myself included, to protest on behalf of others we would never meet, but whose circumstances and treatment were judged intolerable.

Notwithstanding their European origins, . . .[i]n Asia, Africa, and South America, human rights now constitute the only language in which the opponents and victims of murderous regimes and civil wars can raise their voices against violence, repression, and persecution, against injuries to their human dignity.
– Jurgen Habermas

In South Africa, opposition to apartheid was led by the African National Congress, founded 100 years ago on 8 January 1912.  The ANC in its constitution and membership represented the ideal of universalism, being an organisation open to all, irrespective of race, colour and creed, its 1955 Freedom Charter stating that all should have equal rights, be equal before the law and enjoy equal human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, asserted the same principles globally. By that time, the idea that different peoples were endowed with separate rights was challenged by those struggling against colonial oppression or trying to build new nations.  The barbarities of war and genocide fuelled the yearning to safeguard rights within the nation-state, as well as limiting external aggression and war.  ‘It was imperative that the peoples of the world should recognize the existence of a code of civilized behaviour which would apply not only in international relations but also in domestic affairs’, said Begum Shaista Ikramullah, a Pakistani  delegate on the UN drafting committee in 1948.

This was impressive, given the experience of the previous decades.  The Encyclopedia of Genocide records that:

In total, during the first eighty-eight years of [the twentieth] century, almost 170 million men, women, and children were shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved,frozen, crushed, or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hanged, bombed, or killed in any other of the myriad other ways governments have inflicted deaths on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners. Depending on whether one used high
or more conservative estimates, the dead could conceivably be more than 360 million people. It is as though our species has been devastated by a modern Black Plague.

Michael Perry, in Toward a Theory of Human Rights by (Cambridge University Press) underlines the significance of the change that took place in the second half of the 20th century:

In the midst of the countless grotesque inhumanities of the twentieth century, however, there is a heartening story, amply recounted elsewhere: the emergence, in international law, of the morality of human rights. The morality of human rights is not new; in one or another version, the morality is very old.
But the emergence of the morality in international law, in the period since the end of World War II, is a profoundly important development.  Until World War II, most legal scholars and governments affirmed the
general proposition, albeit not in so many words, that international law did not impede the natural right of each equal sovereign to be monstrous to his or her subjects.  The twentieth century, therefore, was not only the dark and bloody time; the second half of the twentieth century was also the time in which a growing number of human beings the world over responded to the savage horrors of the twentieth century by affirming the morality of human rights. The emergence of the morality of human rights makes the moral landscape of the twentieth century a touch less bleak.

Coincidentally, in the same week that these thoughts were provoked by watching two TV documentaries, on Thinking Allowed Laurie Taylor spoke to Kate Nash, a sociologist from Goldsmiths College who was about to present a paper, Charity or Justice: What is the suffering of strangers to us? to a conference on Humanitarianism.  What is the suffering of strangers to us? What is it that makes us care for people we have never met and who have very different lives from our own?

Nash argues that such feelings can be prompted either from a sense of justice or an impulse for charity. Laurie Taylor asked her to explain the distinction.  She responded:

Charity is related to humanitarianism.  It’s the idea that we respond to the suffering of others because they are suffering – its basis is compassion.  Justice on the other hand is more a response in terms of common expectations: we respond to the suffering of others as we expect that they would respond to us, to help us out, because we share common conditions and because we share what’s sometimes called a ‘community of fate’.

Nash sees justice as rooted in the nation state – the ‘community of fate’ is firmly rooted in the nation, and our sense of commonality is based on the nation:

It’s a much thicker sense of commonality – that we belong together because of common language, common origins and common history. But generally, when we think about the suffering of those beyond our borders, with the exception of certain political movements, mostly what is being asked for is a charitable, a compassionate response.

That proviso – ‘with the exception of certain political movements’ – is important.  It reminds us of the crucial part played by campaigns from the anti-slavery movement to the anti-apartheid movement in advancing and solidifying a global vision of justice and human rights.  Nash argues that the media – including Internet and social media – will play a key role in strengthening support for international justice and human rights in cultural politics.  But to me it seems that the role of international solidarity campaigns will remain paramount.

The series Have You Heard From Johannesburg, currently being shown on BBC 4, is a superb, probably definitive, cinematic history of the worldwide struggle to isolate and destroy South African apartheid. Filmed by Connie Field throughout the world over ten years, it features interviews with many of the major players, and archive footage of the struggle, much of it never seen before on television.  An American series, it has been adapted for screening on British TV, with a different second episode.

That second episode looked at how athletes and activists around the world hit white South Africa where it hurt – on the playing field. Knowing that fellow blacks in South Africa were denied even the most basic human rights, let alone the right to participate in international sports competitions, African nations refused to compete with all-white South African teams, boycotting the Olympics and eventually forcing the International Olympic Committee to ban apartheid teams from future games. By the 1970s, only South Africa’s world champion rugby team remained, and citizens across the world took to the streets and sports fields to close the last door on apartheid sport.

In 1970, the struggle focussed on the Springbok tour of Britain, with protests such as the one outside Manchester’s White City ground.  A few months earlier, November 1969, Peter Hain had come to the Student Union at Liverpool University, where I was a student, to address a meeting and gather support for the demonstration (above).  Jon Snow, who was arrested on the demo, wrote about the impact of the movement in his account of his early years and his career in journalism, Shooting History:

It was Peter Hain, subsequently a Labour Cabinet Minister, who finally identified our cause. Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had spent the previous months preaching change through ‘economic engagement’ with the South African apartheid regime. Wilson and others had gone soft on economic sanctions, and the apartheid state was consolidating its hold amid calls from Nelson Mandela’s beleaguered African National Congress (ANC)  to black South Africans to burn their passbooks. British culpability and collusion with apartheid were clear, but what was Liverpool’s connection?  […]

In November 1969 Peter Hain, himself South African by birth, came north with his ‘Stop the Seventy Tour’ campaign. The South African Springbok rugby team were already in Britain, while a cricket tour was to take place in the summer. Hain’s ultimately hugely successful campaign recognised that sport was very close to the heart of the apartheid regime. It was the public, competitive and white face of South Africa. We might not be able to spring Mandela from Robben Island, but we could at least stop his jailers from playing sport in our green and pleasant land. Hain’s target was the Springbok match at Old Trafford in Manchester.

Some of the most dramatic moments in the film came with its account of how, in 1981, the epicentre of the resistance moved to New Zealand, where massive protests met the Springboks when they toured the country.  At Rugby Park, Hamilton, protesters pulled down fences before invading the pitch and ultimately forcing the cancellation of the game (above and top).

The third episode dealt with the international reaction to the brutal suppression of the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976 and the murder of student leader Steve Biko – events that turned South Africa into a worldwide emblem of injustice. As most western governments refused to heed Oliver Tambo’s calls for cultural and economic boycotts, a new generation of young people – in South Africa and across the world – continued the struggle for justice.  I had not been aware previously of the significant movement in the Netherlands, original homeland of the Afrikaners, where activists such as Conny Braam (below) turned the tide of Dutch conservatism.

Returning to the Asante and their part in the Atlantic slave trade: that account came in an episode from the second series of Lost Kingdoms of Africa, presented by art historian Gus Casely-Hayford. There is a scarcity of written records documenting Africa’s past, Casely-Hayford presents a vivid account by drawing on the culture, artefacts and traditions of the people. Across the two series, Dr Gus Casely-Hayford has explored the rich and vibrant histories of 8 complex and sophisticated civilisations: the kingdom of Asante, the Zulus, the Berber kingdom of Morocco and the kingdoms of Bunyoro and Buganda in the current season, and West Africa, Great Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and Nubia in the previous one.

See also

Vaclav Havel: a hero who lived in truth

All of us … thought about freedom and injustice, about human rights, about democracy and political pluralism, about market economics and much else besides. Because we thought, we also dreamed. We dreamt, whether in or out of prison, of a Europe without barbed wire, high walls, artificially divided nations and gigantic stockpiles of weapons, of a Europe free of  ‘blocs’, of a European policy based on respect for human rights…We must not be afraid to dream of the seemingly impossible if we want the seemingly impossible to become a reality. Without dreaming of a better Europe we shall never build a better Europe.
– Vaclav Havel, President of Czech Republic, 1990

In 1978, the dissident Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, whose death was announced today, wrote the now-classic essay on resistance to totalitarian power, The Power of the Powerless in which he coined the term ‘living in truth’:

The original and most important sphere of activity, one that predetermines all the others, is simply an attempt to create and support the independent life of society as an articulated expression of living within the truth. In other words, serving truth consistently, purposefully, and articulately, and organizing this service. This is only natural, after all: if living within the truth is an elementary starting point for every attempt made by people to oppose the alienating pressure of the system, if it is the only meaningful basis of any independent act of political import, and if, ultimately, it is also the most intrinsic existential source of the “dissident” attitude, then it is difficult to imagine that even manifest “dissent” could have any other basis than the service of truth, the truthful life, and the attempt to make room for the genuine aims of life.

Milan Kundera once wrote that ‘Havel’s is the rare life that resembles a work of art and gives the impression of a perfect compositional unity’. Vaclav Havel was playwright, writer, intellectual, dissident, Frank Zappa fan and President of his country.  His career began in the realm of art and culture, traversed underground activism and ended in high state politics.

Havel was born in 1936 to a bourgeois family (son and grandson of wealthy architect-entrepreneurs on his father’s side; grandson of a writer who was an ambassador, then a government minister, on his mother’s): an privileged background transformed into penury and persecution after the communist seizure of power in Czechoslovakia in 1948. The family was stripped of its assets, for a time, his father was imprisoned, and Havel was not allowed to pursue a higher education after he completed his schooling in 1951.

Instead, his first job was as a laboratory technician, after which he studied at a technical college. Soon he developed an interest in poetry and founded a literary circle called the Thirty-Sixers, after the year of his birth. Havel was deeply influenced by the works of Kafka, even though his novels were banned by the communist government. After completing his military service, Havel joined the theatre, becoming a stagehand and then the resident writer for the Theatre on the Balustrade in Prague from 1960 to 1969. His first play, The Garden Party, was performed in 1963, and established Havel as a political satirist.

Like George Orwell, Havel satirised the ‘doublespeak’ of the official bureaucratic language of the communist regime, as this passage from his 1965 play, The Memorandum shows:

The Director’s office.  Large office desk, small typist’s desk, a fire-extinguisher on the wall, a coat-rack in the background. The stage is empty. Then Gross enters, takes off his coat, hangs it on the rack, sits at his desk and begins to go through his morning mail. He skims each letter, then puts it either into waste-paper basket or into out-tray. One letter suddenly arrests his attention. He glares at it and then starts to read it aloud.

Gross  (reads):  Rako hutu d dekotu ely trebomu emusohe, vdegar yd, stro reny er gryk kendy, alyv zvyde dezu, kvyndal fer tekynu sely. Degto yl tre entvester kyleggh: orka epyl y bodur deptydepeemete. Grojto afxedob yd, kyzem ner osonfterte ylem kho dent de det detrym gynfer bro enomuz fechtal agni laj kys defyj rokuroch bazuk suhelen. Gakvom ch ch lopve rekto elkvestrete. Dyhap zuj bak dygalex ibem nyderix tovah gyp. Ykte juh geboj. Fyx dep butrop gh –

(Hana enters . . . wearing a coat and carrying a vast shopping bag.)

Hana:   Good morning.

Gross  (without looking up):    Good morning.

(Hana hangs her coat on coat-rack, sits down at typist’s desk, takes a mirror and a comb out of her bag, props mirror against typewriter and begins to comb her hair. Combing her hair will be her main occupation throughout the play.  She will interrupt it only when absolutely necessary. Gross watches her stealthily for a moment, then turns to her)

Gross:   Hana –
Hana:   Yes, Mr Gross?
Gross (shows her the letter):   Can you tell me, by any chance, what this is?
Hana (skims the letter): This is a very important office memorandum, Mr Gross.
Gross:  It looks like a hotch-potch of entirely haphazard groups of letters.
Hana: It might look that way at first glance. But in fact there’s method in it. It’s written in Ptydepe, you see.
Gross:   In what?
Hana:   In Ptydepe.
Gross:   In Ptydepe? What is it?
Hana:   A new office language which is being introduced into our organization. May I go and get the
milk?
Gross:  There’s a new language being introduced into our organization? I don’t remember having been informed.
Hana:  They must have forgotten to tell you. May I
go and get the milk?
Gross:   Who thought it up?
Hana:  It seems to be a full-scale campaign. Elsie said it’s being introduced into their department, too.
Gross: Does my deputy realize what’s going on?
Hana:  Mr Ballas? Of course he does. May I go and get the milk?
Gross:  Run along.

Following the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 he was banned from the theatre and became more politically active. He was forced to take a job in a brewery, an experience he wrote about in his playAudience.  In 1969, Havel’s passport was confiscated by the authorities because his writing was considered subversive – as indeed it was, dealing as it did with the absurd situations of everyday life in the communist system.  He was placed under constant surveillance by the security forces.

Vaclav Havel’s new neighbours: clip from a BBC documentary in the 1970s

In the mid-1970s, Havel wrote two influential and important essays that came to form the bedrock of the dissident movement’s ideas. The first, written in April 1975, was an open letter to Gustav Husak, General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. In it, Havel argued for ‘the moral and spiritual revival of society, for the enhancement of the truly human dimensions of life, for the elevation of man to a higher degree of dignity, for his truly free and authentic assertion in this world’.

The Czechs and Slovaks, like any other nation, harbour within themselves simultaneously the most disparate potentialities. We have had, still have and will continue to have our heroes, and, equally, our informers and traitors . We are capable of unleashing our imagination and creativity, of rising spiritually and morally to unexpected heights, of fighting for the truth and sacrificing ourselves for others. But it lies in us equally to succumb to total apathy, to take no interest in anything but our bellies and to spend our time tripping one another up. And though human souls are far from being mere pint pots that anything can be poured into (note the arrogant implications of that dreadful phrase so frequent in official speeches, when it is complained that ‘we’ – that is, ‘the government’ – find that such and such ideas are ‘being
instilled into people’s heads’), it depends, nevertheless, very much on the leaders which of these contrary tendencies that slumber in society will be mobilized, which set of potentialities will be given the chance of fulfilment and which will be suppressed. So far, it is the worst in us which is being systematically activated and enlarged – egotism, hypocrisy, indifference, cowardice, fear, resignation and the desire to escape every personal responsibility, regardless of the
general consequences. Yet even today’s national leadership has the opportunity to influence society by its policies in such a way as to encourage not the worse side of us, but the better.

So far, you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of  outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; or deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity for the puny sake of protecting your own power.

Yet, even within the given limitations, you have the chance to do much towards at least a relative improvement of the situation. This might be a more strenuous and less gratifying way, whose benefits would not be immediately obvious and which would meet with resistance here and there. But in the light of our society’s true interests and prospects, this way would be vastly the more meaningful one.

As a citizen of this country, I hereby request, openly and publicly, that you and the leading representatives of the present regime consider seriously the matters to which I have tried to draw your attention, that you assess in their light the degree of your historic responsibility and act accordingly.

Vaclav Havel, Writer
8 April 1975

Vaclav Havel at his cottage in Hradecek in the early 1970s

In 1976, motivated in part by the arrest of members of the psychedelic band Plastic People of the Universe, Havel was a founder member of Charter 77 and helped shape the document which gave the movement its name – published on 1 January 1977 and signed by 243 prominent Czech intellectuals, forming a ‘loose, informal and open association of people… united by the will to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world’.

The government’s reaction to the appearance of Charter 77 was harsh. The official press described the manifesto as ‘an anti-state, anti-socialist, and demagogic, abusive piece of writing’, and the signatories were labelled ‘traitors and renegades’. Repressive measures taken against the signatories included dismissal from work, denial of educational opportunities for their children, suspension of drivers’ licenses, internal exile, loss of citizenship, trial, and imprisonment. Havel was sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment for subversion of the republic, and spent the years from 1979 to 1983 in jail. While in detention Havel wrote a series of letters from prison to his wife  in which he defined his political beliefs. These letters were later published as Letters to Olga:

26 March 1982

Dear Olga,
The moment is approaching when I will have served three years, and thus two-thirds, of my sentence, and this is certainly a reason for giving some thought to it. All things considered, it seems increasingly clear that my prison term is merely a necessary and inevitable phase of my life, and in fact it’s a little surprising that it was so long in coming. After all, for eleven years, if not more, I’d been more or less anticipating or assuming it would come. Of course I didn’t know when, how long and what the concrete reasons for it would be, but essentially it was clear that it must happen: the ‘mass’
of my spirit and the field of gravity through which I fly are such that my flight couldn’t very well have ended anywhere else. In fact looking back, it even seems to me that after those two unsuccessful ‘runs’ at it, I subconsciously did everything I could to ensure that the inevitable would finally happen. So the question is not whether it had to happen, but ‘merely’ how I’ve come to terms with it and what I’ve made of it. My grand plans (to study, write, ‘work on myself’, etc. in prison) have proved immensely naive, of course; I had no idea what it would be like here (despite having heard so much about it- but the experience may indeed be impossible to communicate to anyone else) .

And so of all that only one thing has remained: the chance to prove – to myself, to those around me and to God – that I am not a lightweight as many may have seen me, that I stand behind what I do, that I mean it seriously and that I can take the consequences . . . In  any case, it was a deliberate choice on my part and I can’t be accused of making a virtue of necessity after the fact. At the same time, I have no desire to become a professional martyr; my position followed quite
naturally and logically from the logic of the situation as it evolved, and from the inner logic of my attitudes and my work, in other words, from my own identity. To put it more simply: I had to act as I did; there was simply no other way.

January 11, 1981
Four days ago was the first anniversary of our arrival in Hermanice. In retrospect, the year seems to have come and gone quickly. For the anniversary, I’ve made an important discovery (to be precise: it’s the most obvious and banal thing, and it seems important to me only in an entirely specific psychoneural context), and that is, that everything   passes; every crisis, depression, failure,  every complex and apparently insoluble situation – everything bad, in short – has ultimately one good quality; it is of finite duration and somehow it always – no matter how unlikely it seems at the time – comes to an end and must come to an end. This applies, I hope, to my stay in prison as a whole.

After his release, Havel continued to write plays, but was propelled more and more into politics by necessity.In 1978, he had written his second major essay, The Power of the Powerless, and this became the seminal text of the Czech dissident movement. In it Havel indicts ‘the lie’ upon which the communist regime maintained its power:

Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.

Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.

In the essay, Havel tells the story of a greengrocer to illustrate the mechanisms of the communist system in what had come to be known as the ‘period of normalization’ and the  philosophical basis for dissent in Czechoslovakia.  The greengrocer parable illuminates two crucial themes in Havel’s politics: public versus private, and truth versus lies.

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life ‘in harmony with society’, as they say.

The greengrocer probably gives little or no thought to the sign he daily puts in his window along with the tomatoes and cucumbers. The slogan very possibly does not represent those opinions he expresses in private. It is, nonetheless, a highly communicative action. So why does he choose to display the poster? Havel answers that the public display of
the slogan is a sign to the public and the regime; it is one of the prescribed rituals requisite for living in a communist society. The greengrocer’s message to the public and to the regime is not so much one of socialist enthusiasm as it is
one of obedience.

Havel then asks the reader to consider what would be the consequences if one morning, the greengrocer were to make
the decision to leave the sign behind the counter, perhaps at the bottom of a box of rotten tomatoes?

Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth. . .

The bill, Havel comments wryly, will not be long in coming.

He will be relieved of his post as manager of the shop and transferred to the warehouse. His pay will be reduced. His hopes for a holiday in Bulgaria will evaporate. His children’s access to higher education will be threatened. His superiors will harass him and his fellow workers will wonder about him. Most of those who apply these sanctions, however, will not do so from any authentic inner conviction but simply under pressure from conditions, the same conditions that once pressured the greengrocer to display the official slogans. They will persecute the greengrocer either because it is expected of them, or to demonstrate their loyalty, or simply as part of the general panorama…

The fact that the greengrocer cannot choose not to hang his sign with impunity suggests that the displaying of this sign is quite important to the authorities. The possibility of the greengrocer’s refusal to obey would constitute, for some reason, a considerable threat to those in power. Why should this be?  The greengrocer might be regarded as small fry: unimportant and powerless. Nevertheless, he has the potential to threaten the regime with an action as small as neglecting to hang a certain sign in his window. In fact, if all the greengrocers one day took down their signs, precisely this act would be the beginning of a revolution.  Here, Havel reaches the nub of his argument:

The greengrocer has not committed a simple, individual offense, isolated in its own uniqueness, but something incomparably more serious. By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co-exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety. . . .

In other words, the powerless greengrocer is not so powerless after all. On the contrary, he is quite powerful. Hence, he is responsible.

If living within the truth is an elementary starting point for every attempt made by people to oppose the alienating pressure of the system, if it is the only meaningful basis of any independent act of political import, and if, ultimately, it is also the most intrinsic existential source of the “dissident” attitude, then it is difficult to imagine that even manifest “dissent” could have any other basis than the service of truth, the truthful life, and the attempt to make room for the genuine aims of life.

In an introduction to Description of a Struggle: The Picador Book of Contemporary East European Prose (1994), the Czech novelist Ivan Klima discussed the significance of the role played by the dissident writer or artist in this period:

As the gulf between the arts and political power widened, artists, especially writers, began to enjoying growing favour with the public; on publication days long queues would form in front of bookshops from the early hours, banned writers’   books often circulated in hundreds of typewritten copies. Here, too, people often speak of the extra-literary function of literature beyond the Wall. Literature did frequently take on the functions of journalism or politics. This was not because it dealt with political themes – it was simply that in situations where civil or basic rights are suppressed, many forms of expression become political: unconventional language, a love story with no ideological message, historical writing with heroes other than those officially recognized, a critical picture of the ailments of civilization or moral problems which the regime refuses to recognise for it insists that everything which somehow complicates life is a throwback to the old era.

Asked once why Kafka was banned in his own country, I replied: ‘Because he was too genuine.’ My answer was taken as a joke, but it was meant seriously: anything genuine threatens a world built on deceit, in the Empire behind the Wall it became political discourse. Right until the end, regimes continued to react vitriolically to any such ‘political discourse’, persecuting and victimizing obstinate artists, putting them in mental hospitals or prisons, but  mainly just sidelining them, forcing them to adopt another livelihood. This frequently subjected writers to experiences they would never have had in a free society.

Deep   experiences do not make a great writer, but I am convinced that great literature seldom arises without it. Even pure fantasy needs to draw on real life, otherwise it is lifeless and forced. I have often thought that what this Empire deprived us of in terms of freedom, it returned to us in the form of experience.

Havel addresses demonstrators celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Prague, 10 December 1988.

By the 1980s, Havel had become the leading spokesman for the human rights movement in Czechoslovakia, and in November 1989 he formed the Civic Forum, the movement whose purpose was to unify the anti-authoritarian forces in Czechoslovakia and to overthrow the communist regime. In December 1989, as the events of the Velvet Revolution unfolded, that purpose was achieved.

Vaclav Havel and Alexander Dubcek prepare to speak, December 1989

Back in 1975, Havel had written, in Letter to Gustav Husak:

If life cannot be destroyed for good, neither, then, can history be brought entirely to a halt. A secret streamlet trickles on beneath the heavy lid of inertia and pseudo-events, slowly and inconspicuously undercutting it. It may be a long process, but one day it must happen:  the lid will no longer hold and will start to crack. This is the moment when once more something visibly begins to happen, something truly new and unique, something unscheduled in the official calendar of ‘happenings’, something that makes us no longer indifFerent to what occurs and when – something truly historic, in the sense that history again demands to be heard.

Images from the Velvet Revolution 1989

After his leading role in the Velvet Revolution that December, Havel was elected by direct popular vote as president of Czechoslovakia.

Havel after he took the oath as President of Czechoslovakia on 29 December 1989.

29 December 1989, Vaclav Havel was sworn in as President of Czechoslovakia. In May 1982 he had written to his wife Olga from prison:

An interesting thing: the person I still dream about most often is Milos Forman. Ever since I’ve been in prison, he’s never let me alone. What does that mean? Is it perhaps an incarnation of my ancient dream to become a film director? Or does he – the most successful of my buddies from my youth – wish to remind me constantly of what I have not achieved in life? God knows!

In his first address as president, on New Year’s Day, 1990 Havel said:

Let us teach ourselves that politics can be not just the art of the possible, especially if that means the art of speculation, calculation, intrigue, secret deals and pragmatic manoeuvring, but that it can even be the art of the impossible, namely the art of improving ourselves and the world.

In everything he had written he had insisted that morality should be at the heart of a new politics:

Experience of a totalitarian system of the communist type makes emphatically clear one thing which I hope has universal validity: that the prerequisite for everything political is moral. Politics really should be ethics put into practice … This means taking a moral stand not for practical purposes, in the hope that it will bring political results, but as a matter of principle.

For me, this perspective makes Vaclav Havel a heroic figure amongst the general run of political leaders.  He is a deeply attractive figure, having a loose, laid-back style, too.  Note that the high-minded ideals of the Charter 77 were spurred, in part, by the repression of a rock band.  Note, too, the photograph, above, of Havel as President in his office; on the bookshelf to his right a book of photographs by Lou Reed.

And then there’s the Zappa connection.  Havel had long been a fan of Zappa’s music and even credited his music as part of the inspiration for the anti-communist revolution. The Plastic People of the Universe were an underground sensation in the 1970s, and members of the group were convicted of ‘organized disturbance of the peace’ and jailed. The music of Frank Zappa’s and the Velvet Underground were a huge inspiration – representing freedom and independent thinking –  and were specifically banned by the government. Zappa in particular was hailed as a kind of revolutionary hero.

Soon after becoming President, Havel invited Zappa to Prague.  He arrived in January 1990, stunned to be acclaimed as a national hero by huge crowds of fans intimately familiar with his music through bootleg copies of his albums. Zappa and Havel hit it off immediately.  Havel appointed Zappa ‘Special Ambassador to the West for Trade, Culture and Tourism’ and meetings were held between Zappa, Havel, his finance ministers and the Ministry of Culture and Trade.

Two weeks later, US Secretary of State James Baker re-routed a trip through Europe to visit Havel. At the time, Czechoslovakia was seeking aid from the American Government. Baker’s message was short and simple: Havel could either do business with the United States or he could do business with Frank Zappa. Zappa’s career as an international trade ambassador was over.

Frank Zappa was one of the gods of the Czech underground, I thought of him as a friend. Whenever I feel like escaping from the world of the Presidency, I think of him.
-Vaclav Havel, playwright and President of Czechoslovakia

Frank Zappa and Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel’s presidency ended in 2003. As President he had steered the counntry through the break-up of Czechoslovakia, and seen the Czech Republic enter the European Union and NATO.  What makes Havel extraordinary is that he never lost his artistic spirit to the void of politics; rather, he remained modest and moral, strongly rooted in his philosophical beliefs and constantly working not only towards the good of his country, but the world as a whole.

In one of his last interviews with RFE/RL, Havel looked back, 20 years later, at the events of November 1989. He said it had become clear that sooner or later change would come, the only question was when. And that the student demonstration of November 17 had provided the trigger:

They couldn’t foresee how it would all turn out and that this would be the snowball that would trigger an avalanche. Of course, we didn’t know it either. By ‘we’ I mean the signers of Charter 77, the dissidents,” Havel said. “What was clear, however — and I’ve spoken or written about this before — was that sooner or later a snowball would start rolling and turn into an avalanche. No one knew what that snowball would be and when it would happen precisely. We weren’t soothsayers. But it was clear that sooner or later it had to happen.

In March 2011, Havel was interviewed by CNN about the uprisings in the Arab World:

It’s an epoch-making event. We don’t know what it will lead to, how it will finish up.

But there is one thing I find very interesting — there are thousands of experts at ministries, at universities, in science institutes, who specialize in the Arab world. Not one of them predicted that this would happen. More than 10 countries are now experiencing this revolt. There are many similarities with the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe, but also many “dissimilarities.”

There is one thing I would add — in the countries where it’s impossible to do a free poll, it’s hard to see what is happening below the surface. I remember that Western journalists were telling us for years: You charter-signers and dissidents are Don Quixotes. You are not supported by the working class or farmers or some serious political power. What kind of sense do you think it makes? I was saying: “Be careful. Be careful. What do you know about what’s happening under the surface of the society?”

Those are the things which someone, especially coming from the free world, would never expect to be happening. And all of a sudden, it explodes somewhere, it’s contagious, hitting other countries. And that’s similar to what was happening here 20 years ago

The interviewer asked, What do you hope is your personal legacy?

I would be glad if it was felt that I have done something generally useful. I don’t care much about personal fame or popularity. I would be satisfied with the feeling that I had a chance to help with something in general, something good. That history gave me that chance.

Excerpt from the film Citizen Vaclav Havel Goes on Vacation

A short extract from a documentary by Jan and Adam Novak which recreates (with irony) a little-known episode in Havel’s rebellious life: the decision to test the limits of the secret police by taking an extended ‘vacation’ to visit his friends across Czechoslovakia.

See also