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Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Haiti and Hypocrisy

Could you have located Haiti on a map two weeks ago? No, neither could I. I knew where it was vaguely, but had no knowledge of it other than it being one of those desperately poor nations of which our world has an abundance: one of those places that comes to mind occasionally when I say or sing that familiar repeated line in the Jewish liturgy: Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom... ‘May the One who makes peace/wholeness on high bring this peace/wholeness to us, to all of the community of Israel...’ – Then we sometimes add - in a spirit of all-embracing tolerance, optimism and naive hopefulness that allows us to feel good about ourselves as having a universalist dimension to our faith rather than a narrow ethnic particularism – ‘and to the whole world.’

Well there is no peace in Haiti. No wholeness. And no prayers of ours that can help (can they ever?). Of course the notion that these kind of natural events – like earthquakes and tsunamis - are so-called ‘acts of God’ is an absurd left-over from a pre-modern form of fear-based religious thinking. That ‘God’ is some kind of capricious external entity whose ‘hand’ intervenes wilfully in our history and in our natural world – like a child who builds a palace of toy bricks then sweeps them away with a tearful swipe of its angry hand – this image of ‘God’ is the one that Richard Dawkins so relentlessly and humourlessly dismisses. And in that respect I am with Dawkins – though I find that a sprinkling of humour as one demolishes the worn-out pieties of old usually does no harm. You can be an assassin with a smile on your face.

A smile not of mockery, or glee, but of camaraderie: ‘We are in this together – these questions of faith and doubt – let’s not pretend we believe when we don’t, let’s abandon worn-out thinking and what we are told we should believe, let’s grow up and explore these questions in a spirit of lightness of being, not heaviness of heart, let’s enjoy the adventure, the venturing into new ways of thinking, new ways of connecting to faith, new ways of exploring the profoundest questions about what we are doing here in the world, how it all hangs together, if it all hangs together in some way always beyond our comprehension: maybe there are ways we can glimpse the underlying mystery, maybe not – but it is the journey that counts, the journey wrestling with faith and doubt in a spirit of intoxicated gravity, good-humoured seriousness, where it matters infinitely, and it matters not a jot...’

So: no 'act of God' then. But a combination of how this planet is made – geology, and how it operates, neutrally, impersonally – and what we make in the human realm: economically, politically, socially. For what I have discovered in these last two weeks, between the tears at the torn-off limbs and my naive astonishment at the lack of basic resources – how could it be that Haiti had a grand total of just two fire stations in the whole island? – is that the island contains a people so poor (living on $2 a day on average), so lacking in leadership and basic infrastructure and material resources, that when a catastrophe like this occurs the society simply ceases to function - but that it needn’t have been like this.

I’ve learnt about – I’ve finally understood the context of – the decades of dictatorship (remember the Duvaliers, sponsored by the US?), the foreign-backed coups and American invasions to undermine leaders like the former Catholic priest Jean-Baptiste Aristide who, inspired by liberation theology, tried to bring in social justice and economic development that wasn’t beholden to the International Monetary Fund’s own dictatorial neo-liberalism.

I’ve learnt that in 1980 Haiti was self-sufficient in its staple crop, rice, but once America dumped its surplus on the island the rice-farmers had to move from the countryside to the flimsy slums of Port-au-Prince (we know, tragically, what that means for them now) and that in the last decade Haiti has been forced to import rice to feed itself.

It is surely a human outrage - a human-constructed tragedy of a different dimension – when we realise what has gone on over these last decades. As we send our money to help now - as we appreciate that whatever the history of the island, targeted donations are still vital - we can nevertheless still feel the outrage : that it need not have been as devastating as this, the earthquake. How many deaths there have been we will never know. How many deaths there would have been if different principles of economics and governance had been in place we will never know. But it would have been far less: in last year’s hurricane Haiti lost 800 people while neighbouring Cuba lost four. (Haiti’s infant mortality rate is around 80 per 1,000; Cuba’s is 5.8 – makes you think, doesn’t it?).

Anyway it makes me think that when one hears the old question ‘How could God allow such a tragedy?’ that the questioner is looking in the wrong place, and that the question itself is a symptom of a profound avoidance. Questioning ‘God’ is a child-like mistake. It is a category error. But questioning the greed and destructiveness immured in the human heart, questioning the way the human mind constructs abstract and inhuman theories of what is ‘best’ for other people, questioning the ways certain versions of the capitalist ethic can be destructive of human well-being, questioning our multiple collusions with the structures of Western geopolitics where they are false to the values of justice and compassion – this is where the questioning needs to be.


Compassion after the tragic event is all very well, but it's the easy option, sad to say. The response is wonderful, this generosity of the human heart - and yet, secretly, we know that the hypocrisy stinks to the heavens. We are our own worst enemies.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Kafka, the snow, the decade to come

So, the new decade has begun with a northern Europe-wide breakdown of the rhythms and routines of everyday life: snow, ice, abandoned vehicles, frozen fields, panic buying, power cuts, a threat to gas supplies – and in Germany, co-incidentally, a quarter of credit/debit cards malfunctioning, unable to adjust to the numbers ‘2010’, so unable to let people take money from ATMs. One way or another, a renewed awareness of our vulnerabilities, how much we are dependent on those weather gods and the vast hidden infrastructure of technology, as powerful and omnipresent as any of the invisible deities of old.

The weather might have a certain harsh beauty to it, even moments of inhospitable grandeur – dazzling modernist white on white, blurred edges of field and sky blending into each other, puffy laden hedges, careful wrapped-up walkers, carefree sledding children out of Breughel, defamilarised paths that are suddenly no-paths. Yet these, for me, are passing wonders. I’d already been musing on what this decade ahead might bring – so this week’s chaos seems almost too convenient a metaphor for thoughts about the decade to come, almost too apt a symbol with which to speak about my deeper concerns about these coming years.

Of course this notion of a ‘decade’ is a kind of fiction – a construct we use to stop time past dissolving into an undifferentiated pile of slush. We use the concept of a ‘decade’ to try to impose order on events, to generate meaning and gain perspective. And yet as artificial as it is to divide up history into chunks, as if it were a bar of chocolate, as long as we are aware of the artifice involved then the ‘decade’ can be a useful prism through which we can look back (or forward) as we try to create a narrative out of the confusion of events that slip by us, hour by hour, then suddenly year by year...

I’ve been reflecting on what it was like a century ago, in 1910 – and how unimaginable it would have been in Edwardian England, or Germany, or czarist Russia, in any part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, or the United States, to imagine what their new decade would bring to pass. Technological excitement was growing by the day: the aeroplane was still in its infancy, with Charles Rolls - he of Rolls Royce - making the first return flight over the Channel in April 1910 (and crashing to his death a few months later); then the first ascent to over 1000 metres that same year; and the first female aviator. On the roads, Henry Ford was producing 10,000 cars a day as the automobile industry began its imperious colonisation of the planet. The ‘kinema’ was still a relatively new wonder, still in the infancy of a revolution in mass entertainment and collective entrancement. And the 15 million European dead of the ‘Great War’ – the so-called ‘War To End All Wars’ – were youngsters dreaming of all these new possibilities of a world transforming itself in front of their hungry, eager eyes...

A truism to remember that the future is ever unknowable. Though still we scan the skies for what might come to pass. But the history of a whole decade is too much to imagine. Better to focus on the individual, an individual.

This year, 2010, I have decided on a project of my own devising: my own act of homage to slow reading ; and to the value of seeing the world through another’s eyes. I have decided to re-read - my first reading was as a teenager – my falling-to-pieces Penguin paperback edition of The Diaries of Franz Kafka (edited by Max Brod). The Diaries begin in 1910 and end with his death in 1923. But I intend to read them, and reflect on them a century on, in parallel to the date they were written, month by month, year by year. So, a thirteen year project - inshallah, deo volente, b’ezrat HaShem.

Why bother with such a quixotic meshuggeneh venture? Who can ever really say? Maybe I will find out as it proceeds...I am not so wedded to the notion of having to understand things beforehand.

Meanwhile, the beginning of the journey is easy: I can see that 1910 occupies only 25 paperback pages out of 487. So, lots of gaps, plenty of time to get into the journey of accompanying this singular and extra-ordinary man.

The early pages are undated, which is a bit disorientating for my project. How many do I read at a time? The first dated entry, some pages in, is May 1910. So I have a few months grace, some time to burrow into the text and see what is there to be uncovered.

The onlookers go rigid when the train goes past. First sentence in the diary. A line drawn beneath it. (This pattern is repeated throughout this first page, later pages have entries accompanied by squiggled line-drawings).

‘If he should forever ahsk me.’ The ah, released from the sentence, flew off like a ball on the meadow. Second sentence. A line drawn beneath it.

What are these sentences? Observations, apparently at random: things that Kafka has seen, or heard, that have struck him as worthy of recording (and thinking about). Why these in particular? (And not those, over there?) What strikes us each day that we then ignore? What does it mean to pay attention to what we see, or hear? The onlookers go rigid when the train goes past. Why? What is frightening? Is it the speed? The technology? We think about our response when a speeding train hurtles through the station. Do we go ‘rigid’? Kafka seems to observe the contrast between the movement of the train and the frozen response of the onlookers. He shows us this scene through his own onlooker’s eyes. Vision is refracted: we see him seeing them seeing the train. Does this sentence, this word picture, have any other meaning than the literal? I turn it over in my mind. I'm looking at the world through his eyes. Yes, it’s an everyday observation - but as so often in Kafka, the words hint at something beyond themselves, something hidden and unsaid.

The decade begins with a moment of fear. Yet there is no reason to be afraid. Or is there? The train goes past, time moves on - and we, watching and waiting, our bodies are tense, motionless, as if something might happen. What might happen? No choice but to wait, and watch - onlookers ourselves - wait and see what comes to pass...

Listen to how people talk. The inflections of their words. ‘If he should forever ahsk me.’ The ah, released from the sentence, flew off like a ball on the meadow. Language seems to have a life of its own, as solid as a ball flying through the air. Words have their own autonomy, they move beyond us as we speak. Writers know this, fleetingly – but Kafka catches it. The tiny moment that speaks a larger truth.

As 1910 progresses through the mind and pen of Franz Kafka, I will look forward to reporting back from time to time. As 2010 progresses, beyond the frozen now, I am hoping its opening weeks symbolise nothing, augur nothing, hint at nothing. The shelves of the shops this morning were almost empty, the newsagent did not look up as I left my money: I could have been a ghost, from the past, or even the future.