Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Haldumulla Mud Slide

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It is nearly ten years now since I was getting anxious phone calls and messages from people worried about what had happened to us when a huge tidal wave hit Sri Lanka on St Stephen’s Day 2004. I am touched once again by enquiries from people all over the world as they follow the news of the terrible events in Haldumulla. After many days of torrential rain, a mudslide descended on Meeriyabeddawatta around 7.30 a.m. with a deafening noise devastating an area of about 20 acres where 317 people had lived mostly in collections of line houses that is the normal accommodation for workers on tea estates. Badulla District Secretary Rohana Keerthi Dissanayake said that the slide destroyed about 60 line rooms, two houses and a kovil (Hindu temple).

 

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I am not reporting from the site of the disaster but I have gathered information and images from various sources. As I write, the situation is still confused with varying numbers of casualties being given in the Sri Lankan media. The UNP-led Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union General Secretary K Velayutham told Ceylon Today that “some 440 people have been buried underneath the earth slip. Children who went to school and some families who left the place and evacuated to other areas escaped”. The Island newspaper reports that 150 have been buried alive.

A deadly landslide hits village in central Sri Lanka

A joint rescue operation is underway with the army, police, air force and the district administration participating with all their resources in search of survivors. Security Forces Commander of the Central Province Major General Mano Perera said five bodies were recovered on October 29. The operations were hampered by continuing heavy rain. “In one line there were 100-120 houses housing about 50-65 families. It’s believed that 100 -160 corpses will be recovered in the coming days,” he said. Army Media Director Brigadier Jayanath Jayaweera said, initially 200 Army personnel were rushed to the scene within 45 minutes of the disaster. “There were 500 Army personnel; including 50 Air Force personnel assisting the government officials, who are inspecting the scene to build temporary shelter for the affected persons as their houses were completely destroyed. He added that the Army will extend its support to the people and other officials assisting
the injured and displaced persons.

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Two camps were set up at Ampitikanda and Koslanda to provide shelter to people living in vulnerably areas close to the Meeriyabedda estate and some 100 people are being sheltered there at present.

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A contingent of more than 500 army soldiers have been  conducting rescue operations with the help of other agencies and moved sections of displaced people into two common halls in Koslanda, army said.

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They said the Army was busy preparing meals and other requirements of those affected at present.

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Air force spokesman Gihan Seneviratne said a BEL 212 helicopter was on standby in Nuwara Eliya because the adverse weather had made it impossible to get to Badulla.

 Wing Commander Seneviratne said a M17 helicopter was also on standby at the Ratmalana domestic airport for any emergency.

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There is a vivid video here: http://www.dailymirror.lk/emergency/55355

Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said that his ministry had issued warnings but the victims had not heeded them and there were two other mountains nearby prone to landslides. Perhaps they were afraid of losing their jobs. Cabinet Ministers WDJ Seneviratne and Mahinda Samarasinghe said they would investigate why the plantation company employing the workers who perished had the years not acted upon warnings given by the National Building Research Organization (NBRO) with regard to landslides in the area. The Ministers said that a programme should be established to prevent such a tragedy from recurring and said that the government was preparing a national nation pinpointing areas prone to landslides.

Haldumulla is in the Badulla District of Uva Province. We also live in the Badulla district but our house is about two hours drive from Haldumulla. We pass through the town on our way to Colombo. Even when we first took the trip twelve years ago, Haldumulla knew about tragedy. There was a house that we passed on the way, which had been destroyed by a rockslide in which all the inhabitants had perished.

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On a more recent journey, in August, we noticed that the roads were littered with asbestos roofing sheets. These are very heavy and it would take a mighty wind to take them off a house and transport them many yards and break them on the road. We usually stop to buy fruit from a woman in the area. She was very distressed because the cyclone had destroyed her house and her business. Luckily, there was no injury to her or her husband or children. She became even more emotional when we gave her some money to repair her property.

In our immediate vicinity, there was a lengthy drought, which meant that people in the village had to queue up to collect their water from a government water bowser. For some time now we have been suffering from torrential rain every day. The irony now is that people are still without water despite the immoderate amounts coming from the sky. The very force of the rain is causing landslides and breaking channels and pipes that normally take water into homes. The embankment at the bottom of our garden collapsed and is blocking the drainage of our neighbours below. We immediately hired someone to fix this but work cannot start work until the rain stops- which it shows no sign of doing.

Our house is in the middle of a tea estate. We have often commented that the plantation company is risking erosion through the way estate workers cut and weed on the slopes. They are destroying the root systems that hold the soil together. Even without abnormal weather conditions there are often landslips along the main roads. Access to our home from the main A5 road between Badulla and Passara has always difficult because about a quarter of a kilometre of estate road has not been maintained. That road is now a river.

Our situation is not nearly as bad as those poor people in Haldumulla are suffering but if the rain does not stop, it could well become as bad. A level-2 warning has been issued asking the public to be alert to the possibility of landslides, rock falls and cut slope failures. The level-2 warning covered Badulla, Bandarawela, Ella divisional secretariat divisions and Ella-Wellawaya Road, Haputale- Beragala Road, Beragala-Wellawaya Road, Badulla-Spring Valley Road, Passara-Lunugala Road and Etampitiya-Welimada Road. We are on the Badulla-Passara road. The Railway Department said that the train service on the Badulla-Colombo track had come to a standstill after a massive mound of earth had fallen on a locomotive and the track between Ella and Demodara on Tuesday night.

Here are some pictures of conditions in and around our garden. It is not nearly as horrific as Haldumulla but there is still cause for concern. Duty Meteorologist Nadee Rupasinghe said that over 100 mm of heavy rains could be expected countrywide until November 1. “There may be temporary localized strong winds during thundershowers. General public is kindly requested to take adequate precautions to minimize any damages caused by lightning activities.” Strong winds are not unusual but one can never get used to them.

These are pictures I took in the last few days of the road we have to drive down to get food, cash and alcohol.

 

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Channel 4 – Once Again!

A version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday October 29 2014.

Colman's Column3

 

 

 

Last week, I wrote an article commenting on the news that Channel 4 had been nominated for an Emmy award for its documentary about alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. Callum Macrae, who directed the programme, read the article and made contact.

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My Position

 

Before I address Mr Macrae’s specific points, let me summarise my general position. I am a foreigner who has lived permanently in Sri Lanka for twelve years. I have tried, in a small way, to contribute to the welfare of the country by becoming involved in my local community in Uva province. In spite of what the rabid trolls on Colombo Telegraph might say, I do not have any connections with the government. Because I am a foreigner, I have no emotional attachment to SLFP or UNP (or Fianna Fail or Fine Gael or Sin Fein).

 

When I first came to Sri Lanka, there was a cease-fire and people had a taste of peace. I thought it was safe to live here. I was dismayed when Mahinda Rajapakse was elected president because he had a reputation as a hardliner. I was further dismayed when the government decided to go for the military option against the LTTE. Dismayed because I knew that it meant civilians would be killed; dismayed because I did not think the SLA could win. My compatriots Martin McGuinness and John Hume advised against the military option and I bought the received wisdom that such conflicts could only be ended by negotiation.

 

I now know that I was wrong. The LTTE was firmly against negotiation and used cease-fires to regroup. They had to be defeated. They were defeated and Sri Lanka is a far better place today than it was when I first arrived.

 

Mr Macrae’s Objections

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  1. The Emmy nomination is for a programme made in 2013 not for the first Killing Fields programme broadcast in 2011.
  2. “He [Padraig Colman] also seems to have taken a fair amount of his information from the book Corrupted Journalism – the anonymously funded and written book which was so carelessly written and which has been so completely discredited.”
  3. “Mr Colman claims over and over again that we failed to criticise the LTTE “.
  4. “Why doesn’t Padriac (sic) Colman actually address the evidence around the death of the child Balachandran Prabhakaran? “
  5. “He is also silent on the fact that even since then further photographic evidence has emerged again showing prisoners (including Isaipriya) alive in the custody of identifiable SLA soldiers.”
  6. “Because Mr Colman appears to be defending a government which claimed throughout the last few months of the war, not just that they had a policy of Zero Civilian Casualties – but that in practice not a single casualty had died as a result of government action! Now Mr Colman is arguing about whether the fact that the UN said during the war that at least 7000 had died (which they did) and that in the light of more information they revised that figure upward considerably.  But how does he explain the government’s claim of zero civilian casualties. There is not a word on that”.

My Response

 

Let me now deal with Mr Macrae’s points:

 

  1. I thank him for the clarification. Channel 4 are still using the title The Killing Fields, thereby making a ludicrous link with what happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. There have been previous awards and nominations for these Channel 4 programmes, including one for the Nobel Peace Prize (previous winners of that include Kissinger, the EU and Obama; previous nominees include Hitler, Stalin and Theodore Roosevelt). My critique was aimed at the Channel 4 project as a whole. I do not think it is contributing to peace in Sri Lanka.
  2. I published criticisms of Channel 4 before Corrupted Journalism was published. The authors cite me several times in their endnotes but I also detected my influence in the sections on churnalism and factoids. In Channel 4’s immediate response, Ben de Pear flippantly called the book a heavy tome even though it is merely a 222-page paperback. Mr Macrae has pointed me in the direction of a more serious response to the book. This also refers to the book as “hefty”.
  3. “Mr Colman claims over and over again that we failed to criticise the LTTE”. I have read and reread various drafts and versions of my article. I do not say even once that Channel 4 failed to criticise the LTTE. That said, I think that viewers who do not know the historical background will come away from these programmes with the impression that it was SLA committing all the atrocities. Mr Macrae needs to make a programme with vivid visual images of children massacred by the LTTE. Perhaps he could make a programme calling for Adele Balasingham to be tried for war crimes. She gave cyanide to 13 year old girls and is, I understand, now living comfortably in New Malden.
  4. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Wittgenstein. The idea of a 12 year old boy being executed is indeed distressing. I was silent on the subject because I had nothing useful to say, no special knowledge to add. I would certainly not defend it. People who have not remained silent on the topic have reminded us of the young Buddhist monks executed by the LTTE at Anuradhapura or the 147 Muslim boys and men slaughtered while at prayer at Katankudy mosque. Perhaps Mr Macrae could make a film about those incidents. Did the government not provide Prabhakaran’s parents with pensions and medical care? Did the government not airlift Daya Master to hospital for heart surgery and then give him transport back to the war? The widow of Colonel Soosai, leader of the Sea Tigers, was captured along with her children, by the Sri Lankan Navy in May 2009. She said: “The Sri Lanka armed forces have treated us very well and afforded us all the facilities we never had before that. Today we are living happily with my children who are continuing their education well. My parents are also living with me. The story about certain LTTE leaders coming to surrender raising white flags is a fairy tale.”
  5. I am silent also about the circumstances surrounding the death of Isaipriya because I have no special knowledge on the subject. I do know that she was not a civilian non-combatant.
  6. Mr Macrae seems a little muddled about what I have written about civilian casualties. I have not been silent about the numbers of civilian casualties. I have written many articles on this, some of them lengthy with extensive footnotes. In these articles, I have said quite clearly that I think the idea of zero civilian casualties is ridiculous. Mr Macrae misleads himself by mistaking me for a defender of the government.

Panel of Experts –Completely Discredited

In The Uncorrupted Truth, Mr Macrae states: “But our findings have also been separately confirmed by the UN Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka appointed by Ban Ki Moon. The Panel found credible allegations associated with the final stages of the war. Between September 2008 and 19 May 2009, the Sri Lanka Army advanced its military campaign into the Vanni using large-scale and widespread shelling, causing large numbers of civilian deaths”.

The Marga Institute described the report as “tendentious”. Credible allegations are not the same as established facts. “On the basis of reasonable assumptions, the Panel could have built on the UN estimate of 7,721. They reject this estimate saying ‘it is likely to be too low’ and ‘many casualties may not have been observed’. The Panel opts for a much higher estimate of 40,000 without indicating the basis for this estimate…There is a strong impression left that the Panel is not satisfied with a low estimate as that would call into question its interpretation of government strategy”.

Corrupted Journalism

I have read Mr Macrae’s detailed rebuttal of Corrupted Journalism. I do not intend to deal with it in detail myself, partly because I do not have the time, space or expertise, but mainly because, just as it is not my job to defend the government, it is not my job to defend Engage Sri Lanka. When I read about the book in the Sri Lankan press, I groaned at the naivety of setting such great store by the views of AA Gill. I read the book carefully and, like many others with whom I have discussed it, I found it fairly substantial. I understand why Mr Macrae does not agree.

I urge my readers to examine Mr Macrae’s case at:

www.channel4.com/microsites/…/The%20Uncorrupted%20Truth_R7.pdf

Mr Macrae is highly offended that Engage Sri Lanka should accuse him of corruption. However, he dismisses any criticism of the Channel 4 programmes as sinister and portrays himself as the underdog, despite the fact that his work has received much publicity all over the world. Everyone but Callum Macrae has ulterior motives. He knows nothing about me (and misspells my name) but calls me a “defender of the government”. He suggests I am being petty for questioning the number of civilian casualties bandied about. I have written many times about GOSL’s PR ineptitude. Sometimes they just cannot win He asserts that Engage Sri Lanka are dubious because they are anonymous and mysteriously funded. He swats away other critics because they write for “pro-government” publications. Don’t take points made in Lies Agreed Upon seriously because it is a Sri Lankan government propaganda film. SLA’s attempts to clear its name can be discounted because, well, they would say that wouldn’t they?

Then What?

 After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

TS Eliot Gerontion

Mr Macrae has fashioned a good career from covering the Sri Lankan tragedy. There is no mileage in him making a film about how things have improved here. I do not have Channel 4’s resources and have no chance of making a good career from arguing with Mr Macrae. I urge my readers to watch all his Channel 4 programmes and to read The Uncorrupted Truth. I will now move on and devote my time to writing poetry and erudite articles about philosophy and nature and posting pictures of cute puppies and kittens on Facebook.

Before retiring from the fray, I would like to pose the question: what is the purpose of these Channel 4 programmes? Is this regular drip-feeding of horror stories likely to make the lot of any individual Sri Lankan, Sinhalese or Tamil, any better? What would satisfy Mr Macrae? If the government punished individual soldiers for specific crimes, would that suffice? I doubt it. Does he want Gotabhaya Rajapaksa or Sarath Fonseka to stand trial? Would he be satisfied only if President Rajapaksa were put in the dock? As this is not likely to happen, are we to look forward to programmes on The Killing Fields in perpetuity?

 

Robert Lowell Part 4

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday October 26 2014.

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For the Union Dead

Lowell’s next book of original verse For the Union Dead (1964) was widely praised, particularly for its title poem, which invoked a poem by his friend Allen Tate, “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” Lowell built upon the loose, personal style he had used in Life Studies. He wrote about a number of historical figures in “Lady Raleigh’s Lament,” “Caligula,” “Jonathan Edwards in Western Massachusetts”. He combined personal and public concerns in “Fall 1961″ which addressed Lowell’s fear of nuclear war.

The title poem, “For the Union Dead,” is a 17-stanza eulogy to the white leader of the first all-black troop in the Union army. The narrative is a chain of associated images, beginning with a child’s view of the Boston aquarium, and moving to the tearing down of the aquarium and the building of car parks in sight of the statue of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who was a colonel of the Union Army during the American Civil War. Shaw commanded the 54th Infantry from Massachusetts, the first all-black infantry. He was killed, along with many of his men, in the Second Battle at Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina in 1863. Shaw was related to Lowell.

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Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

The nation has entered an irreversible decline into crass commercialism.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,

giant finned cars nose forward like fish;

a savage servility

slides by on grease.

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The Old Glory

In 1964, Lowell also wrote three, one-act plays that designed to be performed together as a trilogy. The first two parts, “Endecott the Red Cross” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” were stage adaptations of short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the third part, “Benito Cereno,” was a stage adaptation of a novella by Herman Melville. The Old Glory was produced off-Broadway in New York City in 1964, directed by Jonathan Miller who lived in the same building as Lowell at the time, witnessing one of his manic episodes . It won five Obie Awards in 1965 including an award for “Best American Play.” Most of the reviews were very positive but others have felt that Lowell merely reorganised the prose of Melville and Hawthorne rather that intensifying it into convincing poetry.

Near the Ocean

With Near the Ocean in 1967, Lowell returned to writing more formal, metered verse as well as loose translations. The best-known poem in this volume is “Waking Early Sunday Morning,”

No weekends for the gods now.  Wars

flicker, earth licks its open sores,

fresh breakage, fresh promotions, chance

assassinations, no advance.


Only man thinning out his kind

sounds through the Sabbath noon, the blind

swipe of the pruner and his knife

busy about the tree of life …

 

Pity the planet, all joy gone

from this sweet volcanic cone;

peace to our children when they fall

in small war on the heels of small

war – until the end of time

to police the earth, a ghost

orbiting forever lost

in our monotonous sublime.

 

This is now thought of as a key ‘political poem’ of the 1960s.

Notebook

During 1967 and 1968, Lowell experimented with a verse journal. In an “Afterthought”, he wrote: “This is not my diary, my confession, not a puritan’s too literal pornographic honesty, glad to share private embarrassment, and triumph. The time is a summer, an autumn, a winter, a spring, another summer; here the poem ends, except for turned-back bits of fall and winter 1968 … My plot rolls with the seasons. The separate poems and sections are opportunist and inspired by impulse. Accident threw up subjects, and the plot swallowed them–famished for human chances. I lean heavily to the rational, but am devoted to surrealism.”

Steven Gould Axelrod wrote that, Lowell was trying to achieve the balance of freedom and order, discontinuity and continuity, that he [had] observed in [Wallace] Stevens’s late long poems and in John Berryman’s Dream Songs”. He hoped to capture “an instant in which political and personal happenings interacted with a lifetime’s accumulation of memories, dreams, and knowledge.”

Caroline Blackwood

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In 1970, Lowell left Elizabeth Hardwick for a new life in London with the British writer Lady Caroline Blackwood. Caroline Blackwood was a well-known figure in the literary world because of her journalism and her novels.

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She was also known for her high-profile marriages, first to the artist Lucian Freud, (that did not last long) then to the composer Israel Citkowitz. During the mid-1960s, Blackwood had an affair with Robert Silvers, a founder and co-editor of The New York Review of Books, who stayed close to the family thereafter. According to Blackwood’s daughter Ivana, both Silvers and Ivana suspected that Silvers was her biological father. On her deathbed, Blackwood revealed that Ivana’s biological father was the screenwriter Ivan Moffat, the grandson of actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

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Her third husband Robert Lowell, described her as “a mermaid who dines upon the bones of her winded lovers”. Her anxieties, alcohol-related illnesses, and late-night tirades exacerbated Lowell’s own mental problems. Their son, Sheridan, was born on 28 September 1971; and, after obtaining divorces from their respective spouses, Blackwood and Lowell were married on 21 October 1972.

Between 1970 and 1977, Lowell compounded the injury he had done to Hardwick by frantic shuffling between England and America, unable to decide which woman he wanted and needed.

 

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History and For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin

Interacting with a lifetime of personal happenings did not always have happy consequences. The confessional mode could cause hurt and many questioned Lowell’s ethics. For Lizzie and Harriet, included poems that described the breakdown of his second marriage and contained poems that were supposed to be in the voices of his daughter, Harriet, and his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. The Dolphin (1973), which won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize, included poems about his daughter, his ex-wife, and his new wife Caroline Blackwood whom he had affectionately nicknamed “Dolphin.”

Many responses were negative. Lowell admitted to having incorporated (and altered) private letters from Hardwick into poems for The Dolphin. He compounded his crime by giving public readings of these poems. Elizabeth Bishop chided him privately, accusing him of “infinite mischief”. “Art just isn’t worth that much.” Adrienne Rich publicly criticized Lowell calling the poems “cruel and shallow.

Day by Day

Lowell published his last volume of poetry, Day by Day, in 1977, the year of his death. In May 1977, Lowell won the $10,000 National Medal for Literature awarded by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and Day by Day won that year’s National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. Anthony Hecht said that “[Day by Day was] a very touching, moving, gentle book, tinged with a sense of [Lowell's] own pain and the pain [he'd] given to others.” In the final poem, “Epilogue,” Lowell reflects upon the “confessional” school of poetry with which his work was associated.

But sometimes everything I write

with the threadbare art of my eye

seems a snapshot,

lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,

heightened from life,

yet paralyzed by fact.

All’s misalliance.

Yet why not say what happened?

Helen Vendler wrote that critics who found the book a failure were disappointed because it was so different from any of his previous volumes. She wrote, “Now [Lowell] has ended [his career], in Day by Day, as a writer of disarming openness, exposing shame and uncertainty, offering almost no purchase to interpretation, and in his journal-keeping, abandoning conventional structure, whether rhetorical or logical. The poems drift from one focus to another; they avoid the histrionic; they sigh more often than they expostulate. They acknowledge exhaustion; they expect death.”

Death and Reputation

In 1977, Lowell died of a heart attack, reportedly clutching one of Lucian Freud’s portraits of Blackwood, in the back seat of a New York cab, on his way back to Elizabeth Hardwick.

Despite his crippling illness, which he knew caused him to hurt others as well as himself, Lowell was able to create a magnificent body of work, to become a revered public figure and to be loved on a personal level. He was invited to Kennedy’s inauguration and sent the President an inscribed copy of Life Studies. When JFK spoke to Lowell at the inauguration, he displayed a knowledge of his work. It was during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency that Lowell became a focus for protests against the war in Vietnam. Lowell publicly turned down an invitation from LBJ to attend an arts festival at the White House. It was a great embarrassment to Johnson when nearly every artist in the US rallied in support of Lowell.

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Seamus Heaney gave a memorial address for Lowell at St. Luke’s Church, Redcliffe Square, London on October 5, 1977. “He was and will remain a pattern for poets in his amphibious ability to plunge into the downward reptilian welter of the self and yet raise himself with whatever knowledge he gained there out on to the hard ledges of the historical present, which he then apprehended with refreshed insight and intensity”.

Liberalism – Lexical Ambiguity

This article appeared in Lakbima News on December 4 2011.

 

Liberalism has got itself a bad name in many and different quarters. Suren Raghavan, writing in the Colombo Telegraph, was one of the many criticising NORAD’s analysis of Norway’s contribution to Sri Lanka’s “peace process”. “The Peace Process was hegemonised by a naive liberal peace discourse. It gravitated around the liberalism II model of minority rights, right to self-determination and ethnic federalism etc. By which it pre constructed solutions at the cost of analysing the depth of the actual problem.”

So then, it was “liberalism” as much as the LTTE terror or Sinhalese or Norwegian politicians to blame.

Recently Rajpal Abeynayake had a look at liberal democracy as it is practised in the West and practised by the West – not always the same thing. : “Look at how the man who was touted as one of the most liberal and left wing members of the US senate turned out to be! Once he became president, he turned out to be a fine old Republican, in an articulate liberal’s clothing. Liberal democratic values never had so much premium however, because they are supposed to be what the Arab Spring and all that is all about. But then they go and kill Gaddafi, and people are wondering what the hell that was all about — that baying democratic pack of people ushering this new brand of tolerance?”

So here liberal and left-wing are conflated.

In North Carolina, a rich man called Art Hope, CEO and owner of Variety Wholesalers, a discount store conglomerate – that means he makes his fortune by selling to the very poor in North Carolina, products made by the very poor in China and elsewhere – has worked very hard to make sure the governance of the state suits his own extreme right-wing agenda. John Snow, (not the Channel 4 chappie with the silly socks, or the cricketer, or the man who discovered how cholera spread) a retired judge who had represented the Democrats in the state senate for three terms, found himself under vicious attack from the right. Snow’s deep-seated conservatism suited his constituents. He often voted with the Republicans – hardly a dangerous radical. ”My opponents used fear tactics. I’m a moderate, but they tried to make me look liberal”.

In the USA, it seems, liberal means radical, immoderate.

According to the right-wing think tank Freedom Center: “Liberalism just isn’t very popular in America”. The semi-annual Gallup political identification poll found a declining percentage of Americans, just 21%, adopting the ‘liberal’ label in 2020. By way of comparison, 42% of respondents called themselves ‘conservative’. Gallup noted in June that if the trend continued for the remainder of 2010, conservatives would boast their largest annual share of the American public since the survey started in 1992.

The word “liberal” has become a code word in certain circles in the USA for all the kind of things that right-wing conservatives detest. Right-wing Americans see ‘liberalism” as an obscenity and basically alien to the American Way. Left-wing Americans are afraid of “the L-Word”.

What we have here is a good example of “Humpty-Dumptyism”.”When I use a word, it means just what I want it to mean- neither more nor less”, said Humpty Dumpty. The posh term for this ploy is “stipulative definition”. Some philosophers call it lexical ambiguity.

Some definitions would be helpful.

According to Raymond Williams in Keywords: “Liberal has, at first sight, so clear a political meaning that some of its further associations are puzzling. Yet the political meaning is comparatively modern, and much of the interesting history of the word is earlier”. Williams was writing in 1976 and the situation has become more confused since.

One standard dictionary definition is “generous, noble-minded” which is clearly not apt for any context involving politicians. “Liberal democracy” is defined as “a state or system which combines the right to individual freedom with the right to representative government”. Surely, not even the Tea Partiers and Christian fundamentalists could object to that!

According to Professor Will Kimlicka in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy: “A liberal state does not seek to resolve these conflicts (different beliefs about the meaning of life), but rather provides a ‘neutral’ framework within which citizens can pursue their diverse conceptions of the good life. Liberalism, on this view, is the only human response to the inevitable pluralism and diversity of modern societies”.

Who could possibly object to this benign philosophy?

Raymond Williams notes that there is a long history of ‘liberal’ being used as a pejorative from all sides. Marxists in particular have used liberal as a bad word with connotations of weakness and sentimentality and lack of intellectual rigour. Because liberalism is based on individualist theories of man and society, it is in fundamental conflict with strictly social theories. Liberalism is anathema to strict socialists because it is the highest form of thought within bourgeois society and is the philosophy of capitalism.

Yes, that’s right capitalism.

Douglas Massey argues in Return of the “L” Word that sometime in the 1970s, liberals in the United States lost their way. After successes like the New Deal, they became arrogant. Faced with the difficult politics of race and class, liberals used the heavy hand of government to impose policies on a resentful public. Conservatives capitalized on this with a staunch ideology of free markets, limited government, and conservative social values.

In an interview with Mother Jones magazine, Massey argued that markets are essentially human constructions, and liberals should not seek to oppose markets with big government, but rather, ensure that these markets are working in the public interest. “The time has come,” he writes, “for liberals to tell the public that markets are not ‘free,’ but human-created institutions that citizens have a right to supervise and manage for their own benefit. Liberals need to abandon their lingering hostility toward market mechanisms, embrace them, and substitute a new rhetoric of ‘democratic markets’ for the false metaphor of the ‘free market’.”

Hang on! Didn’t ”liberal” used to mean laissez faire? Today, the dominant religion is liberal economics, which the Financial Times defines as “Another term for the classical theories of economics emphasising the concept of the free market and laissez-faire policies, with the government’s role limited to providing support services.” Neoliberalism, John Williamson’s Washington Consensus, which seeks to transfer control of the economy from public to the private sector and deregulate markets, has been the dominant religion of globalisation.

What Massey seems to be talking about is Keynesianism rather than liberalism as it is generally understood. Keynesianism is defined by the FT as: “optimum economic performance could be achieved by influencing aggregate demand through government fiscal (public spending and taxation) policy, not through the free market philosophy characterised by the classical and neo-classical schools.” FDR’s New Deal was Keynesianism in practice.

What the American right wing, as typified by such great intellects as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, mean by “liberal”, does not have to mean anyone as dangerous as a real communist or socialist of any kind. Let the unfortunate John Kerry stand as an emblem of liberalism. The right hated him because he spoke French, liked fine wines and had an extremely rich wife. He represented the hated élite, unlike GW Bush, who was also rich and privileged but affected folksy ways and was of limited accomplishment or intellect. Perhaps more important for these rightniks is cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Conclusion

Let Professor Kimlicka have the last word:

“Dire warnings about liberalism’s inability to contain the centrifugal tendencies of individual freedom can be found in every generation for the last three centuries, yet it appears that liberal societies have managed to endure while various forms of monarchy, theocracy, authoritarianism, and communism have come and gone… the basic language of liberalism – individual rights, liberty, equality of opportunity – has become the dominant language of public discourse in most modern democracies.”

Channel 4 and Sri Lanka

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday October 22 2014. It can be found on page 7 of the E-paper at:
http://www.ceylontoday.lk/e-paper.html
It was also reproduced by Sri Lanka Guardian:
http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2014/10/there-is-no-room-for-truth-in-world-of.html

There is no room for truth in the world of sound bites.

No Fire Zone: the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka

I was most dismayed to read an article by my friend and colleague Sulochana Ramiah Mohan on the front page of Ceylon Today on Wednesday 15 October. Sulochana reported that Channel 4’s No Fire Zone: the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka is one of four documentaries nominated for the International Emmy Awards 2014. This news comes at a time when I am considering making a submission to Sandra Beidas, at OIHCR. Her remit is “to coordinate work and activities and act as the main interlocutor with stakeholders and oversee report writing and documentation,” in relation to a UN inquiry into alleged war crimes in the last seven years of Sri Lanka’s war.

Channel 4 first screened The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka in 2011. Why is it being nominated for an Emmy in 2014? Is the nomination timed to coincide with Beidas’s investigation?

The Allegations

The main charges covered in the programme are:

  • The Sri Lanka army and air force targeted hospitals and civilians in the NFZs (no-fire zones) leading to 40,000 civilian deaths
  • Withholding of food and medical supplies from the north
  • Summary execution of prisoners
  • Rape of female combatants and civilians
  • Imprisoning of Tamil civilians in concentration camps.

Numbers

Jon Snow introduces the Channel 4 programme by citing the “Panel of Experts” report commissioned by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon. Callum Macrae, director of Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields said: “Channel 4 has been reporting on this throughout the past two years and the documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields represents the culmination of all that. Although the release comes not long after the Panel of Experts (Darusman), report was published, that was a coincidence and we were clearly researching at the same time. However, I think it’s significant that we both reached virtually identical conclusions.”

It would not be surprising that they reached similar conclusions if they were both using the same tainted evidence. The Channel 4 effort resembles the Darusman Report in the way it presents in a tendentious manner allegations posing as fact. The Marga Institute deconstructed the Darusman Report.[i]

When Gordon Weiss was UN representative in Sri Lanka he went on record as saying the number of civilian casualties was 7,000. This became the official figure quoted by The UN General Secretary’s New York spokesperson,  Michelle Monas, who told Inner City Press reporter Matthew Lee, “We have no way of knowing the exact count”. When Weiss left the UN and returned to Australia, he increased the figure to 40,000.

In his book, The Cage, Weiss quotes a press release by Navi Pillay in which she says as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Weiss gives this spin: “Critically, the civilian death toll Pillay quoted finally established a baseline that had some kind of official imprimatur and weakened government efforts to confine solid numbers to the realm of speculation and confusion”. Pillay’s statement did not take us out of the realms of speculation because she said “as many as 2,800 may have been killed”. That is speculation. What does establishing a “baseline” mean? Does it mean that because Pillay says “as many as 2,800 may have been killed” that gives Weiss licence to say 10,000 to 40,000 and Frances Harrison to say 147,000?

Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator challenged even Gordon Weiss’s lower estimate of 7,000 civilian deaths, made in 2009, Holmes stated in New York on 24 March 2009 that this figure could not be verified. In spite of this, Weiss throughout The Cage routinely talks of “between 10,000 and 40,000″, which is meaningless.

A detailed discussion of numbers of civilians killed can be found in The Numbers Game: Politics of Retributive Justice, by the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka.[ii] I summarised that report on the Transconflict website and attended a seminar on it at the Marga Institute.[iii] There was a strong theme at the seminar of the need to acknowledge the size of the catastrophe. Those who are citing inflated figures are making a demand for reckoning based on the assumption that Sri Lankans did not care. That exaggeration in turn prompted a bunker mentality among the victors who were reluctant to admit to a figure of civilian dead for fear of a litigious reaction. After careful consideration, the IDAG-S concluded that the civilian death toll was probably between 15,000 and 18,000. This itself has been challenged by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, who points out that “only 6000 injured were taken off by the ICRC ships over four months, along with bystanders, suggesting that the figure of the dead would have been less.” The 18,000 figure includes civilians killed by the LTTE, the IDAG-S says, although “it is probable that more were hit by government fire than by the LTTE, the latter’s ‘work’ in this sphere was not small”. The IDAG-S estimate is, despite the ire of some critics, somewhat higher than some other calculations, even by Tamils.

Rajasingham Narendran talked to IDPs who had fled the last No-Fire Zone in April 2009 and later with IDPs at Menik Farm and elsewhere. He said: “My estimate is that the deaths — cadres, forced labour and civilians — were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute said “[approximately] 12,000 [without counting armed Tiger personnel] “.Dr. Noel Nadesan: ““roughly 16,000 including LTTE, natural, and civilians”. Note that Nadesan includes fighters and natural deaths. In any population, a number would die from natural causes of ill health or medical misadventure at child birth or operation. On 13 March 2009, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay issued a press release saying that as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, data “primarily based on figures released by the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net”, put the casualty figure for civilians inside Mullaithivu at 2,972 until 5 April 2009.

IADG-S considers that those who claim that 147,000 civilians were killed have moved “into the realms of statistical fantasy in ways that raise questions about their integrity / morality”. “It would seem that such spokespersons are motivated by moral rage and retributive justice. They seek regime change in Sri Lanka – a form of 21st century evangelism that is imperialist in character and effect.”

A more recent publication by the Marga Institute and the Consortium of Human Rights Agencies also deals with this issue. [iv]

 

Shelling Hospitals

Viewers would not realise that the LTTE possessed and used a wide range of artillery and mortars, including 152mm long-range guns, 130mm artillery pieces, 122mm artillery guns, 120mm mortars, 81mm mortars, 60mm mortars and multi-barrel rocket launchers. There is an odd statement in paragraph 94 of the Darusman report where it is acknowledged that the LTTE fired artillery from the vicinity of Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital (PTK) but that they did not use the hospital for military purposes. Channel 4 chose not to mention that LTTE fired from within the no-fire zones, often from the vicinity of hospitals and that the Sri Lankan army had fired back in response. They did not mention clear evidence that the LTTE shelled hospitals and shot their own people. Their own star witness Gordon Weiss says in his book that PTK hospital was hit by artillery fire on several occasions and that “a number of strikes appeared to be from Tamil Tiger positions”. Channel 4 gave the false impression that any government shelling within the no-fire zone was unilateral and unprovoked.[v]

 

Channel 4 suggests that was SLA’s policy to drive hundreds o thousands of civilians into harm’s way when the reality is that soldiers risked and often lost their lives trying to get civilians out of danger. Channel 4 repeatedly ignored the fact that the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the last weeks of fighting had been forced into the combat zone by the LTTE, who then brutally prevented them from leaving.

 

Rape

In Lakbima News June 26 2011, Namini Wijedasa interviewed Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. She put it to him that the Channel 4 programme called on viewers to make many inferences from the footage used. “It suggests, for instance, that women were raped, although it is not possible to determine from the bodies whether sexual abuse had, in fact, occurred.” The then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made an accusation that GOSL were employing rape as a policy. She later withdrew the allegation.

Heyns’s response to Namini’s question was : “I think the video has to be seen in the context of all the available evidence, which includes what has been investigated and published by NGOs and the panel of the Secretary General. The cumulative effect of the available evidence makes a coherent case that there is reason for serious concern about what both sides did during the war, and in particular what happened in the final stages, when the government gained the upper hand, and that there were no outside witnesses”.

“In the context of all the available evidence” seems to mean that if enough dodgy allegations are gathered together, they gain some credibility purely from their critical mass. This is something akin to those urban myths that gather moss on the internet. If a rumour appears on a lot of websites or blogs, it is quoted repeatedly and the mere accumulation is seen as proof.

Withholding Supplies

Channel 4 alleges that GOSL deliberately withheld food and medical supplies from the north. It is a little-known (in the west) and perhaps surprising fact that throughout the conflict, the central government tried to maintain a government structure even in LTTE-held territories. It continued to send food and medicine even though it knew that much of this would be siphoned off by the enemy. The doctors working in the embattled hospitals in the north attested that they had ample supplies.

Authenticity of Tapes

Another UN Rapporteur, Philip Alston, said his experts (Peter Diaczuk, an “expert in firearms evidence”, Daniel Spitz, a “forensic pathologist”, and Jeff Spivack, an “expert in forensic video analysis”) could prove the authenticity of the images used by Channel 4 showing abuses by SLA soldiers. Alston conceded that there were some “characteristics of the video which the experts were unable to explain” but asserted that “each of these characteristics can, however, be explained in a manner entirely consistent with the conclusion that the videotape appears to be authentic.”

Alston’s “experts” do not inspire confidence. Spitz’s father, who had held the post before him, appointed him Medical Examiner for Macomb County. Spitz achieved notoriety by ruling that an execution-style death was suicide, not noticing a bullet hole in the neck and a bullet in the jaw. Fredericks had no training in photogrammetry and has no more expertise than a layperson. He lied in court about his company’s ties to Taser, and supported a police cover-up. Spivack was a not very successful self-employed private investigator (he filed bankruptcy in 2003), with little verifiable work experience, and flaky credentials.

Unreliable Witnesses

An important witness in the Channel 4 programmes is referred to as “Vani Kumar”. The Channel 4 commentary at no point mentions that her real name was Damilvany Gnanakumar and that she was a Tamil Tiger whom Castro ordered to work in Mullivaykkal hospital. In London, she was women’s co-ordinator for the Tamil Youth Organisation, an LTTE front. In Kilinochchi, she was assigned to work with foreign media and was described by a former colleague called Prabakaran as a “news correspondent”. He said she had been trained to use firearms and wore a cyanide capsule around her neck. As long ago as September 2009, Gnanakumar was discredited. Channel 4 must have known about her past.

Semiotics

I am not an investigative reporter or an expert on authenticating videos. I have communicated with Siri Hewavitharana, the expert who questioned the authenticity of the tapes. I have had a lengthy telephone conversation with the lead author of The Numbers Game, which gives a detailed rebuttal of the figures used by Channel 4. I have participated in Marga Institute seminars on the topic. I do have some knowledge of semiotics and linguistic analysis. When I first saw the Channel 4 programme, many things about it jarred.

The title, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, is a major distortion as there is no comparison between Pol Pot’s ambition to send Cambodia to Year Zero and the efforts of a democratically elected government to deal with terrorism within its own sovereign borders. The director manipulates viewers’’ emotions throughout the film by means of images and music, as well as voice-over commentary.

Jon Snow introduces the programme by saying that at the war’s end “as many as 40,000, and possibly far more, civilians were killed”. That is meaningless. How can one say “as many as” and “possibly far more” in the same sentence?

Alston employs strange language to defend the authenticity of the videos. The unexplainable characteristics can be explained in a manner consistent with the conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Alston is not saying the “experts” have said the video is authentic. The unexplainable can be explained to fit a conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Even if they came out and said directly that the video was genuine and had not been tampered with, this is not proof that it shows Sri Lankan soldiers killing Tamils.

IDP Camps

The Channel 4 programme includes a solemn sequence about the brutality of life in the IDP camps. The director manipulates our emotions with sinister soundtrack music. The Emmy nomination allows Channel 4 to continue to peddle untruths about the camps. Here in October 2014, we know that the predicted mass deaths from disease or a policy of genocidal extermination did not happen. Today the camps are empty.

Even in 2009, Channel 4 should have known that these were not concentration camps. The camps had banks with ATMs, shops and schools with children studying for and passing exams. B Lynn Pascoe, UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs, visited the IDP camps in September 2009 and said, “You have a better story than is getting out today.” Mr. Pascoe stated that he was “impressed by the work done by the Army, the demining teams, the UN staff and the civil society” and that his team also witnessed the rehabilitation work that was underway.

Conclusion

Channel 4 used Gordon Weiss as one of its major “witnesses” but chose to ignore what he had written about the (generally) exemplary conduct towards Tamil civilians of the SLA. There is testimony from many surviving Tamil civilians about the risks that soldiers took to protect civilians. The Red Cross and Human Rights Watch also said this. Weiss, Tamil survivors, the Red Cross and HRW also made it clear that the LTTE were firing artillery from hospitals, using civilians as human shields and shooting those who tried to escape. Channel 4 mentions none of this. The first programme devoted only 49 seconds to LTTE abuses.

A book called Corrupted Journalism[vi] produced by a collective known as Engage Sri Lanka covers these issues in far more detail than I can do here. They have the good judgement to cite me on several occasions. Channel 4 spokesperson, News Editor Ben de Pear, attempted to rubbish the book but did not, in any way, address the detailed concerns raised in it. In fact, he makes it clear that he has not even read it. “I do not have this weighty tome in my hands, so I can’t react to everything it says.” This “weighty tome” is a paperback of 222 pages. It is also available online. Engage Sri Lanka’s argument is supported by 625 detailed footnotes, an eight-page bibliography and 12 pages of appendices. De Pear’s flippant response clearly indicates that he does not want to employ joined-up thinking and address detail.

De Pear hides behind a ruling by the UK regulator, which dismissed a complaint about the programme. “All three times Ofcom found in our favour, found our journalism to be balanced and objective and dismissed all Sri Lankan complaints. All other complaints made by the government were ignored by Ofcom.”

No, they did not. This is what Ofcom said:”While all subjects in news programmes must be presented with due impartiality and reported with due accuracy, in other non-news programmes there is no requirement in the Code for issues to be treated with due accuracy.” Ofcom, despite what de Pear claimed, did not find in Channel 4’s favour in the sense that it decided that they had reported the truth. Ofcom decided not to require Channel 4 to respond to the “detailed and lengthy concerns” raised in the complaint simply because it would be too expensive for them and it might discourage broadcasters from making controversial programmes.

Engage Sri Lanka commented: “a company generating a billion pounds of revenue and employing 800 people couldn’t afford the cost of responding to a legitimate complaint. Channel 4 then added that to have to respond to the complaint posed a ‘serious threat to the future of…current affairs television’ and had the potential to be ‘highly chilling of free expression’”. At the annual Hugh Cudlipp lecture a few weeks before the complaint, Jon Snow praised Ofcom.

 

At the Marga seminar I attended, Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, opened the proceedings by answering the question: “Do numbers matter”. He acknowledged that, while even a low number of casualties was cause for anguish, citing large and inaccurate figures raised issues of the proportionality of the military response and the ethical position of the line of command. Continual recycling of spurious figures can only inhibit the healing process.

Civilians die in war. In a “civil” war where one side deliberately holds its own people hostage there are, regrettably, bound to be civilian casualties. It is clear from the testimony of even those critical of GOSL, such as Gordon Weiss , that SLA soldiers behaved well towards Tamil civilians and there is no evidence that they were under orders to be brutal. It would have been surprising if there had not been some atavistic and brutal reaction from some soldiers who witnessed horrible things happening to their comrades and lived under traumatic fear themselves. The IDAG-S conclusion states clearly: “Nothing in this survey denies the probability and the evidence that some extra-judicial killings of high-ranking LTTE officers occurred during the last days of the war. These actions need to be impartially investigated by an independent body, and where possible criminal indictments pursued against the perpetrators.”

There is a strong case for accountability and recognition of the loss of life. The current situation does not hold out much hope for genuine reconciliation. Naming and shaming on the basis of exaggerated numbers is not the way to persuade the Sinhalese community to recognise the loss of life amongst the Vanni Tamils. Bludgeoning them with inflated numbers could lead to a backlash.

Engage Sri Lanka make an excellent point in their conclusion. “Channel 4 seems oblivious to the fact that their dubious allegations about the conflict in Sri Lanka are artificially sustaining what remains of the LTTE, one of the world’s most ruthless terrorist organisations, and elements of the Tamil diaspora that continues to support it in pursuing unrealistic expectations”.

 

 

[i] www.margasrilanka.org/app/webroot/…/files/Truth-Accountability.pdf

 

[ii][ii] https://www.scribd.com/doc/132499266/The-Numbers-Game-Politics-of-Retributive-Justice

 

[iii] http://www.transconflict.com/2013/06/the-numbers-game-and-reconciliation-in-sri-lanka-136/

 

[iv] https://www.dropbox.com/s/tdxwntf7wu5andq/The%20Last%20Stages%20of%20the%20war%20in%20Sri%20Lanka.pdf?n=66191473

 

[v][v] LTTE artillery can be seen on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=lFDm5KVibmE

 

[vi] http://www.corruptedjournalism.com/

 

Robert Lowell Part 3

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of the Sunday edition of Ceylon Today on October 19 2014

elizabeth-hardwick-and-robert-lowell

Lord Weary’s Castle

Randall Jarrell praised the book in his essay “From the Kingdom of Necessity” in which he wrote, “Many of the people who reviewed Lord Weary’s Castle felt that it was as much of an event as Auden’s first book; no one younger than Auden has written better poetry than the best of Robert Lowell’s, it seems to me.” Austin Warren offered the explanation that the book’s title implied that “disaster is befalling the house, and the household, of aristocratic (Calvinist, capitalist) New England, which has failed to pay its moral bills to the ‘lower order’”.

In “Children of Light”, Lowell looks at how his forebears got where they are today:

Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones

And fenced their gardens with the Redmen’s bones;

Embarking from the Nether Land of Holland,

Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva’s night,

They planted here the Serpent’s seeds of light;

And here the pivoting searchlights probe to shock

The riotous glass houses built on rock,

And candles gutter by an empty altar,

And light is where the landless blood of Cain

Is burning, burning the unburied grain.

 

Lowell dedicated “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” to his cousin, Warren Winslow, lost at sea during World War II.

The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,   

Its open, staring eyes

Were lustreless dead-lights

Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk   

Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close   

Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,   

Where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose   

On Ahab’s void and forehead; and the name   

Is blocked in yellow chalk.

The poem takes as its epigraph St Thomas Aquinas’s idea of man’s superiority in the natural order: “Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the beasts of the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth”. The poem questions New England’s past sins of greed and destruction of nature, the plundering of the sea and the fouling of its floor with corpses. Lowell brings in Melville’s mythic creation to mourn present-day losses, such as those resulting from World War II, in imagery that echoes that of Moby-Dick: “The bones cry for the blood of the white whale.” In this poem, Lowell laments all that American seamen of the nineteenth century “lost / In the mad scramble of their lives.” In grim pictures of Moby Dick’s destruction, the poet questions how the destroyer of the great beast will hide his sin, which risks a God-hurled punishment.

Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are presented as the sources of salvation. The poem ends with a section called “Our Lady of Walsingham”. The poet describes veneration of Our Lady of Walsingham, an English shrine near Norfolk. The Slipper Chapel, where pilgrims have traditionally entered in bare feet to pray, honors a medieval saint, Lady Richeldis de Faverches, who saw and heard the Virgin Mary in 1061. Lowell describes the penitents walking barefoot down “the munching English lane” to the shrine where an inscrutable Virgin Mary sits, plain and expressionless and “too small for her canopy.” The “peace that passeth understanding” that is promised by Christianity is harsh.

Lowell’s ancestors are taken to task in “At the Indian Killer’s Grave” and he has the murdered Indian King Philip arise to condemn the Puritan elders to hell for having hurled / Anathemas at nature and the land. Lowell’s ancestor on his mother’s side, Josiah Winslow, waged a genocidal war against Philip’s people, the Wampanoag.

Philips head

Grins on the platter, fouls in pantomime

The fingers of kept time:

“Surely, this people is but grass,”

He whispers, “this will pass”.

 

Elizabeth Hardwick

hardwick

Elizabeth Hardwick was a formidably intelligent woman who came from blue-collar (but intellectual) stock and went on to be co-founder of the wondrous New York Review of Books in 1964. Even when she was a young woman , writers quailed before her acerbic reviews. She had enough intelligence to know what she was taking on; she married Lowell in 1949 when he was going through one of his worst manic phases.

In 1946, Hardwick met Lowell at a party in Greenwich Village. They met again at Yaddo, the writers’ colony in upstate New York, and married in 1949. Hardwick gave birth, at the age of 40, to a daughter, Harriet. In 1960, they returned to New York and settled in an apartment on West 67th Street where Hardwick lived until her death in 2007 at the age of 91.

Soon after meeting Hardwick, Lowell experienced a violently psychotic phase and had electric shock treatment in hospital. He was confined again when entered the depressive aftermath of the manic episode. After Lowell was released from the Payne Whitney Clinic, the couple embarked on a European tour during which he had a serious breakdown in Salzburg. Similar troubles happened throughout their marriage. Lowell gave in to many infatuations and was serially unfaithful to his wife. In 1970, Lady Caroline Blackwood, a member of the Guinness dynasty, smote him. Lowell and Hardwick divorced in 1972.

Hardwick paid a huge price for her love of Lowell. She accepted her fate with considerable dignity and a minimum of self-pity.

lowell and harriet

The Mills of the Kavanaughs

In 1951, Lowell published The Mills of the Kavanaughs. This did not receive unmixed praise. Randall Jarrell liked the shorter poems, but thought the epic title poem did not work. The people too often seem to be acting in the manner of Robert Lowell, rather than plausibly as real people act . . .I doubt that many readers will think them real.” Dudley Fitts used the term “Inoperable Particularity”. Fitts found the work full of “the kind of detail that looks significant, that one worries about as a possible symbol, and that is finally rejected”.

Philip Hobsbaum was more enthusiastic, calling it a” work of considerable distinction… verse of considerable suavity and flow”. William Carlos Williams liked it and Gene Baro found a new level of excellence in Lowell’s tight integration of idea, imagery and symbol.

Lowell hit a creative roadblock and took a long break from publishing.

Life Studies

His next book of verse, Life Studies (1959), which won the National Book Award for poetry in 1960, became the most influential book that Lowell would ever publish. In his acceptance speech for the NBA, Lowell divided American poetry into two camps: the “cooked” and the “raw.” These poems drew on the energy of Beat poetry and recorded Lowell’s break with Catholicism, soul-bearing confessions, and revelations of dishonour and scandal among the Brahmins. Because many of the poems documented details from Lowell’s family life and personal problems, one critic, ML Rosenthal, labelled these poems “confessional”. The label stuck and led to Lowell being grouped together with other influential confessional poets like Lowell’s former students W D Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.

“Skunk Hour” is set on an island off the coast of Maine. The first part of the poem takes place during the daytime hours. The second half of the poem takes place at night as the narrator drives up the hill in his car. The town is deserted and he abandons the rich seaside description for a darker, lonelier look at things. We see dark streets and foraging skunks. “Skunk” stands for Lowell’s mood.

bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was a very close friend. Lowell talked of marrying her, even though he knew she was a lesbian. The poet models its atmosphere, pacing, and focus on Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” which she dedicated to him in 1965. The poem caricatures the short-term vacationers spoiling the New England coast. The poet drives his car over a skull-shaped hill, an allusion to Christ approaching Golgotha. Approaching lover’s lane, he acknowledges the black mood by comparing parked cars with downed ships. He ends the fifth stanza with, “My mind’s not right.” A battered ego recognizes that “I myself am hell”.

A mother skunk at the head of a line baby skunks shows the absurdity of defiant animals scavenging in the heart of town.

I myself am hell,

nobody’s here–

 

only skunks, that search

in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

They march on their soles up Main Street:

white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire

under the chalk-dry and spar spire

of the Trinitarian Church.

 

I stand on top

of our back steps and breathe the rich air–

a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail

She jabs her wedge-head in a cup

of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,

and will not scare.

 

Lowell wrote this about the poem: “This is the dark night. I hope my readers would remember John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan and agnostical. An Existential night. Somewhere in my mind was a passage from Sartre or Camus about reaching some point of final darkness where the one free act is suicide”.

 

The English critic A Alvarez wrote of Life Studies:”Instead of contorting his conflicts into a baroque theology, Lowell exposes their beginnings in a series of ironic, and often tender, reminiscences about the family figures who loomed large in his childhood”.

Imitations

Lowell followed Life Studies with Imitations (1961), a volume of loose translations of poems by classical and modern European poets. In the book’s introduction, Lowell explained that his idiosyncratic translations should be thought of as “imitations” rather than strict translations since he took many liberties with the originals, trying to “do what [his] authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America.” TS Eliot liked it and insisted that ”Imitations” should be the title rather than “Versions”. The book won the 1962 Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize but critical response to Imitations was sometimes hostile. In the New York Review of Books, on December 4, 1969, Vladimir Nabokov condemned Lowell’s Mandelstam translations – “some of the quite unambiguous passages misinterpreted, or otherwise mangled, by Robert Lowell in his ‘adaptation’”.

Thom Gunn complained that all those writers “translated” in the book “speak with the unmistakeable voice of Robert Lowell. Preserving the tone of most of these poets is, in fact, the last thing he has done”. Although Gunn also says that Lowell makes Villon sound like Allen Ginsberg. Many critics were offended that Lowell had treated these great poets as his equals.

Others saw the book as a positive development in Lowell’s style and a step forward for poetry. Philip Hobsbaum said that the book had to be read as a set of original texts and that some of the poems are among the finest in the language. Michael Hofmann wrote that Imitations was Lowell’s most “pivotal book,” arguing that the book “marks the entry into his work of what one might term ‘international style’, something coolly open to not-quite-English.” Hobsbaum wrote: “The theme of Imitations, then, is a romantic one. Ennui spells death; mania brings enlightenment; suffering is the matrix of poetry. This is self-justification: quite as much as TS Eliot’s doctrine of impersonality, though at the opposite end of the spectrum.”

Also in 1961, Lowell published his English translation of the French verse play Phèdre by 17th century playwright Jean Racine. I saw a memorable production of this at the Oxford Playhouse starring Simon Ward and Barbara Jefford. Lowell changed the spelling of the title of the play to Phaedra. This translation was Lowell’s first attempt at translating a play, and the piece received a generally positive reviews. However, George Steiner wrote: “I submit that Phaedra has an unsteady and capricious bearing on the matter of Racine. Far too often it strives against the grain of Racine’s style and against the conventions of feeling on which the miraculous concision of style depends… To link this version with Racine implies a certain abeyance of modesty. But modesty is the very essence of translation. The greater the poet, the more loyal should be his servitude to the original”.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-75739-news-detail-lord-wearys-castle.html

 

The Art of Giving

Colman's Column3

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on October 15 2014

Last weekend, a woman from the village visited our home with her daughter. We shared some food and conversation and they left with a few items of food we had in the house. Later the woman said how happy the gifts had made the family. Although the family are fortunate in having a house and some land, their situation is not good. There is no regular income. The mother is a seamstress but the income from that is sporadic. The husband has mental problems. He does not encourage visitors to the house and sometimes locks the wife and daughter in the house and disappears. The daughter is epileptic, partially blind and there is some paralysis on one side. She is in her early twenties and the mother is in her fifties. Although we are not rich, we are able to make a difference to that family simply by paying for medication – only Rupees 1,500 per month – and pay the mother to do some sewing work for us. A little money makes a big difference if it does not have to go through the grinding bureaucratic mills of an NGO. We plan to use our medical contacts to find out if anything can be done about the daughter’s eyesight.

Making a Difference

I do not want to engage in what Paul Newman called “noisy philanthropy”. I write not to boast of my own saintliness but to give readers an idea of what an ordinary person can achieve by small acts of direct giving.

Last week, I challenged ethical philosopher Peter Singer’s idea of “making a difference”. Singer advocates regularly donating a percentage of one’s income to charitable institutions. He recognised that one could not always know how one’s donations were being spent. It seemed to me that this form of delegated compassion makes more of a difference to the giver’s self-esteem than to the welfare of the needy.

Delusion

 

Bhikkhu Bodhi edited a small book of essays called Dāna – The Practice of Giving. In his introduction, he writes: “The goal of the path is the destruction of greed, hate and delusion, and the cultivation of generosity directly debilitates greed and hate, while facilitating the pliancy of mind that allows for the eradication of delusion”.

One would not be eradicating delusion if one merely set up a standing order to pay a percentage of one’s salary to an organisation without finding out how the money is used. The Argentinian poet Antonio Porchia wrote: “I know what I have given you but I do not know what you have received”.

Singer’s writing in The Life You Can Save seems to me to fall short of his usual subtlety of thought. “The ultimate purpose of this book is to reduce extreme poverty, not to make you feel guilty.”  If I forgo some trivial pleasure and give the saved cash to some corporate body there is no guarantee that any benefit will result (except to the corporation’s employees). The most likely immediate result is that I will feel some kind of self-gratification from making a painless donation. Singer’s stated aim of eradicating extreme poverty is a big ambition and is several degrees of separation away from setting up a standing order from a bank account.


Corporate Humanitarianism

 

Andrew Carnegie wrote: “[O]f every thousand dollars spent in so-called charity today, it is probable that nine hundred and fifty dollars is unwisely spent—so spent, indeed, as to produce the very evils which it hopes to mitigate or cure.” Today it is much worse. Humanitarianism has become a billion-dollar industry. NGOs are huge corporate businesses ossified by management and career structures and bureaucracy. NGO workers can build up an image of saintliness as well as developing a lucrative CV.

Personal Micro-Funding

I have found ways to make my modest income work in a form of freelance micro-funding. We have had second –hand cell phones given to us and passed them on to three-wheeler drivers to help them in their businesses. I have provided cash to buy seeds to start a vegetable-growing business. When we were having our water pipes extended, we arranged for our plumber to put a water supply into a neighbour’s house. We put an electricity supply into other village houses. We have helped with cataract operations – these can be provided free but a small extra financial input can make the process more comfortable. On a trip to Colombo, we noticed along the route that a woman from whom we had bought fruit was distressed because a violent storm had wrecked her home and her business. We gave her money to replace roof sheets. Two Buddhist nuns run a little school, somewhat off the beaten track not far from our home. We reinforced their community work by helping with their building work and arranged a water supply for them.

Ecumenical Community Projects

There is a larger temple near our home. The high priest there has become a very good friend. He is very ecumenical and states “people are humans first”. Our Muslim neighbours take their children to his Montessori school and Hindu Tamils work for him and bow down to show their respect. He is now in his late 80s. Over the years, he has initiated many community projects such as providing a water supply to village houses; organising a huge pit into which waste is dumped to produce gas for cooking; establishing computer classes for local children; various job creation schemes such as growing mushrooms for sale were organised with the local catholic priest.

When we decided that we needed a new car, selling the old one was problematic. Our friend the high priest offered to buy the car as it would be helpful to take him to his diabetic clinic appointments and various official functions. We gave him the car free of charge.  The car itself has become a community project. A local mechanic, without charging, has put right many mechanical wrongs, spray-painted the car, and proudly added many little accoutrements and . The mechanic says he cannot ask for payment because we made a gift of the car.   A local builder constructed a new garage free of charge to house the vehicle and the completion of the structure was marked with a little ceremony with songs sung by small schoolchildren.

This gift had beneficial consequences for us. When we first came to live in this area, we felt some hostility and suspicion. After giving the car, we were greeted with smiles everywhere.

 

The Gift Relationship

 

Richard Titmuss, British social researcher and teacher, published The Gift Relationship in 1970. He compared blood donations in Britain (entirely voluntary) and the US (some bought and sold). Titmuss’ s conclusions concerned the quality of communities where people are encouraged to give to strangers. When blood becomes a commodity, he argued, its quality is corrupted (American blood was four times more likely to infect recipients with hepatitis than was British blood). Titmuss helped preserve the National Blood Service from Thatcherite privatisation.

Lewis Hyde also has examined the concept of the gift. He locates the origin of gift economies in the sharing of food. Many societies have strong prohibitions against turning gifts into trade. Hyde investigates the effect our delusion with the market economy has on our ability to give and receive. In a market economy, wealth is increased by ’saving’. In a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is circulation within the community that generates increase in connections and strong relationships. Here in Sri Lanka, it is the custom, among Muslims, Hindus and Christians as well as Buddhists, to provide dānes (the Pali word for giving).

Giving It Large

Some cynics might believe that the main concern of many philanthropists is less benevolence towards a community than self-aggrandizement and tax-avoidance or the assuaging of guilt. Michael Milken boasts of his philanthropy and is lauded for it, but expresses little contrition for the fraud – back in the days when “greed is good” was the motto- that landed him in prison.

 

Andrew Carnegie warned successful men who failed to help others that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Carnegie knew how to make money and he knew how to use it effectively. By the time he died in 1919, he had given away over $350 million ($ 494,200,000,000 in 2014 money) and he had established charitable organisations that are still active nearly a century after his death. Modern day rich givers like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have expressed a Carnegie-like wish to divest themselves of their wealth.

Greed and Giving

Those of us with less wealth than Carnegie and co. can also benefit from giving. We can perhaps benefit more, because we can have the satisfaction of giving to the hand and looking in the eye. Clinging to material goods makes people selfish, struggling to satisfy insatiable desires with transitory pleasures. Dāna is the very practical act of giving; caga is the generous attitude ingrained in the mind by the repeated practice of dāna. The word caga in Pali means giving up, abandonment; the selfish grip one has on one’s possessions is loosened by caga. When we decide to give something of our own to someone else, we simultaneously reduce our attachment to the object; to make a habit of giving can thus gradually weaken the mental factor of craving. Giving is the antidote to cure the illness of egoism and greed.

You do not need to be as rich as Bill Gates is or as well-connected as Bono. You do not have to send money abroad. You do not even have to give money. Awareness is the most important thing. Look around your own area, talk to religious leaders and doctors, talk to your neighbours. They will advise you who is in need. By giving of your heart as well as your money, you can save yourself, make a difference and improve someone else’s life, by giving with wisdom.

It’s a bargain!

Robert Lowell Part 2

 

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday October 12 2014

 

Go South, Young Man

Charlotte told Merrill Moore to get her son committed to an institution. Moore suggested that Lowell take a leave of absence from Harvard and study with Moore’s friend, the poet-professor Allen Tate who was then living in Nashville and teaching at Vanderbilt University.tate and gordon

It was agreed that Lowell travel south with Moore in spring 1937. On arrival, Lowell asked Tate if he could live with him and his wife, novelist Caroline Gordon,

gordon

and Tate joked that if he wanted to, Lowell could pitch a tent on Tate’s lawn; then Lowell bought a tent, set it up on Tate’s lawn, and lived in for two months. Lowell called the act “a terrible piece of youthful callousness”.

fugitves

After spending time with the Tates in Nashville (and attending some classes taught by John Crowe Ransom at Vanderbilt), Lowell decided to leave Harvard. When Tate and John Crowe Ransom left Vanderbilt for Kenyon College in Ohio, Lowell went with them and majored in Classics. He shared accommodation with other ambitious young writers: Peter Taylor, Robie Macauley and Randall Jarrell. Lowell graduated summa cum laude in 1940.

Catholicism

Lowell had converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism. This was partly in rebellion against his parents, partly under the influence of the work of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and French philosopher Étienne Gilson. Part of the reason for his conversion was his dark moods and what his first wife Jean Stafford (Anne Dick had faded out of the picture) called “fire-breathing righteousness.” Lowell left graduate school in September 1941 to work briefly at the New York Catholic publishing house of Sheed and Ward. By the end of the forties, he would leave the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, his particular brand of Catholicism shaped the character of his first two published books of poetry, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary’s Castle (1946).

 

Jean Stafford

 stafford and lowell

Lowell’s first wife, Jean Stafford, blamed Catholicism for the failure of their marriage. Her own Catholicism was “light-hearted…though she had serious moments about it.” Some of her closest friends remained unaware of her conversion. For Lowell it became a round-the clock obsession.

Stafford was twenty-two when she met Robert Lowell. Her father was a writer of pulp westerns whose pen names were Ben Delight and Jack Wonder. He was also a religious fanatic. Jean was an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, Boulder and won a one-year fellowship to study philology at the University of Heidelberg from 1936 to 1937. She first met Lowell at a writers’ conference in Boulder and later stopped by at Kenyon to visit him. When he made his first proposal of marriage to her, she told him yes, if he bought her another drink. Obsessed, he followed her east. “He wants you more than anything else in his life,” a mutual friend informed her. “It makes me sick because he is an uncouth, neurotic, psychopathic murderer-poet.”

In Boston, a drunken Lowell crashed his father’s car into a wall. Jean’s skull was badly fractured and her nose broken. Lowell tried to make his escape. They fined him $75 and took his licence. Lowell broke Jean’s nose again with a punch. She described her trauma in one of her best-known stories, “The Interior Castle,” and the disfigurement she suffered as a result was a turning point in her life. Nevertheless, on April 2nd of 1940, Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford were married at St. Mark’s in New York.

From the beginning, there was little marital bliss. Jean’s intellect intimidated most of Lowell’s friends. She was the only person they knew who had read Proust and could quote it. Lowell’s parents, especially Charlotte, disapproved, but then, Charlotte disapproved of all of Bobby’s women. Before he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector, Lowell had set Jean up with an apartment and she received his trust fund allowance of $100 a month. She found this hard to live on and told Charlotte so. Predictably, Charlotte was not sympathetic: “I hope, Jean, for your own sake, as well as for Bobby’s that you will see in the present situation an opportunity for courage, selfdevelopment, and integrity of purpose”.

One wonders what Charlotte thought when Jean’s first novel, Boston Adventure, was a huge critical and commercial success. The novel sold thousands of copies in its first printing, and the Overseas Book-of the-Month programme purchased and shipped thousands more to military personnel in Western Europe. The book made her enough money to buy outright a house called Damarascotta Mills in Maine. In October of 1945, Stafford wrote, “a house is really the only solution for anyone. And certainly for me, who desires to immobilize myself like an eternal vegetable.”

They entertained many guests at Damarascotta including Gertrude Buckman, ex-wife of Delmore Schwartz. Lowell and Buckman had an affair and talked of marriage. Stafford wrote about this in her short story “An Influx of Poets” in which Minnie Zumwalt is charming her way along the coast of Maine after her divorce from poet Jered Zumwalt. Buckman later recalled that at this time, Jean was drinking herself into stupor.

delmore and gertrude

Lowell and Stafford’s marriage ended in 1948 although they continued to correspond for many years. The following year he married the literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick.

Stafford wrote two more novels but her real forte was the short story: her works were published in The New Yorker and many literary magazines. In 1950, she married Life magazine staff writer Oliver Jensen but they divorced after three years. She had a brief period of domestic happiness with her third husband, New Yorker regular AJ Liebling, but he died in 1963. After his death, she stopped writing fiction. For many years, Stafford suffered from alcoholism, depression, and pulmonary disease. By age sixty-three, she had almost stopped eating and died of cardiac arrest in 1979.

stafford

Conscientious Objector

At LSU Lowell taught introductory courses in English for one year before the US entered World War II. While at St Mark’s, Lowell had written in the school magazine: “…not only the good that [wars] bring outweighs the evil, but also that they are essential for the preservation of life in its highest form”.

Lowell had volunteered for military service but was rejected. However, when he was called up in 1943, he refused to serve. He based his refusal partly on a newfound but principled pacifism, partly on political opposition to President Franklin D Roosevelt’s demand for Germany’s unconditional surrender. His conversion had strengthened his aversion to communism. He raised this point in a letter to Roosevelt and also condemned the Allied bombing of civilian populations.”Three weeks ago we read of the razing of Hamburg, where 200,000 non-combatants are reported dead, after an almost apocalyptic series of all-out air raids. This, in a world still nominally Christian, is news”.

He wrote to the President about “the betrayal of my country”. A major factor was the alliance with Stalin. He continued:”In 1941 we undertook a patriotic war to preserve our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor against the lawless aggressions of a totalitarian league: in 1943 we are collaborating with the most unscrupulous and powerful of totalitarian dictators to destroy law, freedom, democracy, and above all, our continued national sovereignty”.

As a conscientious objector, Lowell served five months in West Street Jail in New York City and in federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut, an experience he later described in poems such as “In the Cage” and “Memories of West Street and Lepke.”

These are the tranquillized Fifties,

and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?   

I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,

and made my manic statement,

telling off the state and president, and then   

sat waiting sentence in the bull pen

beside a Negro boy with curlicues

of marijuana in his hair.

 

A Jehovah’s Witness

 

… pointed out the T-shirted back

of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,   

there piling towels on a rack,

or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full   

of things forbidden the common man:

a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American   

flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.   

Flabby, bald, lobotomized,

he drifted in a sheepish calm,

where no agonizing reappraisal

jarred his concentration on the electric chair—

hanging like an oasis in his air

of lost connections….

 http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-75186-news-detail-go-south-young-man.html

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/thumb/epaper-images/37696.jpg

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/thumb/epaper-images/37706.jpg

 

Next week, Lowell’s first published book.

Plucky Little Belgium

This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of Echelon magazine.

 

Belgium is a strange concept, more of a vague idea than a real country. There is a joke that there is just one real Belgian, and he is the king, (currently King Philippe, who is married to a speech therapist). Everyone else is either Flemish or Walloon. General de Gaulle described Belgium as a country invented in 1830 by the British to annoy the French. The dominant powers in the 19th Century constructed a neutral state to prevent an invasion of England from Antwerp harbour.

For rich French people, including Gerard Depardieu, the idea of Belgium is as a tax haven. The village of Nechin – which has a street known as Millionaire’s Row – is less than two minutes drive from the French town of Roubaix.

There is a tired old joke about the only famous Belgians being fictional characters like Tin Tin and Hercules Poirot. Let us not forget Plastic Bertrand, born in Brussels of a French father and Ukrainian mother. There are major real Belgian talents such as Georges Simenon, Jacques Brel and painters like James Ensor, Paul Delvaux and René Magritte. Jonathan Meades observed that when you go to Belgium, Rene Magritte stops looking like a surrealist and starts looking like a devastating social realist.

Magritte often painted enigmatic men holding umbrellas. In his recent novel, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels, (the title of one of Ensor’s paintings) Dimitri Verhulst wrote: “the inhabitants of this kingdom value the anonymity provided so perfectly by an umbrella”. In the novel, Jesus Christ announces his return to Earth, and his selected point of entry is Brussels. The citizens of the Belgian capital receive the news with equanimity. There is no reason to get excited.

Centre of the EU Enterprise

One hundred years ago it was thought of as “plucky little Belgium”, a small powerless nation bullied by German military might. The country is about the same size as Maryland, with a population of 10,839,905 people on January 1, 2010. Today, it is the epitome of what EU haters hate about the EU. For Eurosceptics the name of the Belgian capital, “Brussels”, is shorthand for oppressive, anti-democratic, bureaucratic dictatorship.

Belgium was an early adopter in the European project. It was one of the six founder members of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951; in 1957, it was among the founding members of the European Atomic Energy Community and European Economic Community. Today Brussels is the home of the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the extraordinary and committee sessions of the European Parliament.

As well as 20,000 EU civil servants, Brussels attracts a large population of lobbyists, lawyers, and other professionals. The EU has brought an estimated 115,000 extra people to live in Brussels. These people tend to have few or no Belgian friends. There may be some resentment among Bruxellois because of Eurocrats buying up houses with their large tax-exempt EU salaries. People who had lived in Brussels for years suddenly discovered that the best idea to earn is to rent their apartments to the officials and leave the city.

Let’s Talk about the War.

Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg used to be the Low Countries. From the end of the Middle Ages until the 17th century, the area covered by Belgium today was a prosperous commercial centre. It was also a battleground between European powers. The British ‘invented’ Belgium as a neutral state, a buffer zone against the French. Britain intervened to defend Belgian neutrality when German troops invaded in 1914. Before the war, Belgium had one of the world’s most successful economies. The war displaced a third of the population and in the first months of the war, as many as a million Belgians faced starvation because of German requisitions. Around 6,000 Belgians were executed, there were as many as 60,000 military and 23,000 civilian deaths, 25,000 homes and other buildings were destroyed. One and a half million Belgians (20% of the entire population) fled from the invading German army.

Belgium as Oppressor

Belgium is a young country that grew rich suddenly during the industrial revolution, thanks to coal and steel. It also acquired wealth from looting the Congo. Plucky little Belgium was particularly vicious in Africa. Sir Roger Casement, a British diplomat executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Irish Easter Rising, exposed Belgian crimes in the Congo. King Leopold II of Belgium founded the Congo Free State, which covered the entire area of the present day Democratic Republic of the Congo and ran it as a personal fiefdom and business venture. Labourers were not paid but they were beaten, mutilated and murdered.

The province of Katanga seceded after Congolese independence from Belgium in June 1960. Belgium-based mining interests engineered the rebellion so that they could continue mineral extraction. Belgian settlers and former Belgian Army officers provided military support. Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba demanded that Belgian troops withdraw and, when they refused, Lumumba expelled Belgian diplomats. On October 6th, the Belgian Minister for African Affairs sent a cable that stated clearly that Belgian policy was the “definitive elimination” of Lumumba. Lumumba was, indeed, assassinated. A case has been presented that the Belgian government also had a hand in the killing of UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld.

Rwanda was also part of Plucky Little Belgium’s empire. In 1933, the Belgian authorities issued identity cards classifying every Rwandan as Tutsi or Hutu. In 1994, these ID cards helped Hutu to identify hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and kill them. The ethnic cleansing and genocide of twenty years ago were horrendous extensions of the trend that began in the 1950s under the Belgians.

Economy

Belgium was the world’s 15th largest trading nation in 2007. There is still a highly productive work force, high GNP and high exports per capita. Belgium’s main imports are raw materials, machinery and equipment, chemicals, raw diamonds, pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs, transportation equipment, and oil products. Its main exports are machinery and equipment, chemicals, finished diamonds, metals and metal products, and foodstuffs.

Poverty

Belgian Premier Elio di Rupo has questioned the EC’s commitment to austerity and has raised concerns about the best way for Belgium to balance growth and austerity. Political tensions have prevented him doing anything about this in practice. Between 1990 and 2009, the poorest 30 per cent of Belgians saw their share in net taxable incomes fall (from 11.2 to 8.3 per cent), while the richest ten per cent saw their share increase (from 27.3 to 31.9 per cent).

According to the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions survey, 15.3 per cent of Belgium’s population in 2011 was at risk of falling into poverty. In Flemish-speaking Flanders, the wealthiest region in Belgium, this was 9.8 per cent, whereas in Wallonia, a poor French-speaking region, this was 19.2 per cent.

In 2012, nearly one in seven Belgians had a monthly income that was lower than the official poverty threshold (€1,000 for a single person or €2,101 for a couple with two children).Twenty-one per cent of the Belgian population is at risk of poverty or social exclusion, according to the new European poverty indicators.

An Experiment in No Government

During 2007-11, cultural and linguistic tensions resulted in the state being without a government for 589 days. In 2011, Elio Di Rupo became Belgium’s first French-speaking premier; He is of Italian origin and he is gay and socialist. Despite reforms, tensions remain; the formation of a coalition government took 18 months following the June 2010 federal election. However, the hiatus did show that the country could function with just a caretaker government and the civil service.

Federalism

Verhulst sees Belgium a pantomime horse of a country, puzzling to outsiders and infuriating to its inhabitants. Belgium is a federal state divided into three regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, francophone Wallonia in the south and Brussels, the bilingual capital, where the French and Dutch languages share official status. There is an ongoing political crisis, which may lead to the country splitting, as did Czechoslovakia. It is ironic that the country seen by eurosceptics as the seat of a federalist plot, may itself fall apart. This would provide encouragement to separatist groups throughout Europe. Wallonia is the poorer segment of federal Belgium. How will it survive without the efforts of the industrious Flems? Wallonia will probably need EU subsidies.

Conclusion

A persistent note in cisitors’ accounts is that Belgians are discontented and rude. Some might feel guilt at the barbarity of the Belgian colonial project. some feel uncomfortable about the presence in their midst of migrants from that empire.

 

To end on one positive thing about Belgium – it was Belgium that helped soul genius Marvin Gaye to recuperate, if only for a little while. A sojourn in Ostend gave Gaye the breathing space to reach one of his greatest achievements, Sexual Healing.

Plucky little Belgium is in dire need of some kind of healing. One wonders whether this will be possible given Belgium’s central role in the EU project. The EU project itself seems to be increasing the natural disgruntlement of its people.

On 28 July 2010, Plastic Bertrand finally revealed that he was not the singer of any of the songs in the first four albums released beginning in 1977 under the name Plastic Bertrand.

Philanthropy – the Last Refuge of the Scoundrel?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday October 8 2014.

I am not sure who originally came up with the phrase “Philanthropy – the last refuge of the scoundrel”. I first encountered it in an article published in October 2012 by the novelist Howard Jacobson on the subject of Jimmy Savile. Savile used his reputation as a philanthropist to sexually abuse children. I recently encountered a use of the phrase in a book by James O’Toole: Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness, published in 2005. James O’Toole is the Daniels Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Denver. O’Toole shows how a range of people embarked on quests that led them closer to achieving a good life based on awareness and values rather than riches and fame.

Aristotle: “To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.”

 

I recently became embroiled in an argument on Facebook about Otara and Odels. Someone who thought he was supporting my point of view wrote that Otara should be spending her philanthropic funds on people rather than dogs. Compassion is not a zero-sum commodity. Anyone who loves animals is likely to have empathy for people. People who are cruel to animals – GW Bush, Jeffrey Dahmer, Fred West, Prabhakaran- are likely to be cruel to people. A friend of mine who is engaged in practical hands-on animal welfare was sceptical when Otara embarked upon Embark, predicting that it was a publicity stunt. I chided her for her cynicism but there has been criticism of how Embark operated. We will see how it goes now that Otara has more time to personally supervise it.

 

Noisy Philanthropy

 

I do have issues with celebrity philanthropy. The late Paul Newman raised $150m for various good causes. He explained a dilemma: “One thing that bothers me is what I call ‘noisy philanthropy’. Philanthropy ought to be anonymous but in order for it to be effective, you have to be noisy. Because when a shopper walks up to the shelf and says, ‘shall I take this one or that one?’ you’ve got to let her know that the money goes to a good purpose. So there goes all your anonymity and the whole thing you really cherish”.

 

Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics

When I was working with my cynical friend on an animal welfare campaign, her daughter had the brilliant idea of approaching ethical philosopher Peter Singer for support. Peter Singer has a motto: “make a difference”. He certainly made a difference to the way I live my life. Way back in the 1970s, I read articles by Singer in the New York Review of Books that made me see things in a radical new light. His subsequent books Practical Ethics and Animal Liberation reinforced the message of the articles. Singer argued that the boundary between human and “animal” is arbitrary. He popularized the term “speciesism”, to describe the practice of privileging humans over other animals. I was rather disappointed when Singer asked me to remove his name from my mailing list. He was not interested in giving painless direct help for the welfare of animals by simply lending his name.

Outsourcing Compassion

In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, Singer argued that it is morally indefensible that some people enjoy surplus abundance while others starve. When one is already living comfortably, a further purchase to increase comfort will not have the same moral weight as saving another person’s life. Singer claims to donate 25% of his salary to Oxfam and UNICEF. He acknowledges that there are problems with ensuring that charitable donations are effectively spent.

In Joseph O’Neill’s latest novel, The Dog, the main character, X, is concerned about the working conditions of construction workers in Dubai. He deals with his concern by paying 37% of his gross salary to Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch. This sounds like a big sacrifice but it is a comfortable way for X to delegate his conscience. O’Neill makes blatant the bad faith of Singer’s thinking. Singer’s method of giving means that it does not matter whether the money does anything to relieve suffering or poverty but it certainly boosts the giver.

 

Bono – Mrs. Jellyby in a Ten-Gallon hat

Novelist Paul Theroux has noted the similarity between the secular saint known as Bono and the philanthropic Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House. Mrs. Jellyby tries to save starving Africans by financing coffee growing, making pianoforte legs for export and bullying people to give her money for those purposes. Theroux wrote in the New York Times on December 15 2005: “There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can’t think of one at the moment.”

Bono says at U2 concerts, “We don’t want your money, just your voice.” Bono wants you to give the government your money in taxes and spend it for him. Bono’s ONE organisation wants Western governments to spend tax dollars on development and aid programmes. Many voices, those of William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo the most eloquent among them, have argued that aid does more harm than good to the countries receiving it.

Theroux taught in Malawi as a volunteer Peace Corps teacher 45 years ago and knows the country well. Despite large amounts of financial aid, Malawi “has declined from a country with promise to a failed state.” “I would not send private money to a charity, or foreign aid to a government, unless every dollar was accounted for – and this never happens.”

In 2008, Bono’s ONE Campaign raised $14,993,873 in public donations — of which only $184,732 (or just over one percent) was distributed to charities. More than $8 million went to salaries for executives and employees at ONE.

In 2008, New Internationalist readers chose Bono as their Artful Dodger of the year. For many years, Bono’s home country of Ireland had not taxed the income of “artists”. Then the Government decided to set a cap of $200,000 a year – a fortune for most artists, but not for U2. Ireland is still a corporate tax haven and Bono would have done well enough had he decided to stay home. The Netherlands offered a more attractive deal, because of its link with offshore tax-havens in the Antilles. It seems that Bono wants ordinary people to pay through their taxes for his causes but does not want to pay tax himself.

Geldof

 

I was one of those caught up in the mass hysteria generated by Live Aid in 1985. I responded to Bob Geldof’s exhortations to pay up to save the starving Ethiopians. Live Aid turned Geldof from a has-been pop performer into a global charity superstar. Not everybody was impressed. World Music champion Andy Kershaw wrote of the Wembley concert: “It became clear that this was another parade of the same old rock aristocracy in a concert for Africa, organised by someone who, while advertising his concern for, and sympathy with, the continent didn’t see fit to celebrate or dignify the place by including on the Live Aid bill a single African performer.”

Alex de Waal estimates that the relief effort may have cut the death toll by between a quarter and a half. However, critics say that NGOs were complicit in the Ethiopian government’s “resettlement” of 600,000 people from the north while enforcing the “villagisation” of three million others. Donor governments and mainstream relief NGOs turned a blind eye while government officials raided refugee camps. This was a totalitarian scheme masquerading as a humanitarian effort. The conservative estimate of those dying en route is 50,000. MSF’s (Médecins Sans Frontières) estimate is double that. Asked about allegations that 100,000 had died in the transfers, Geldof said, “in the context [of such a famine], these numbers don’t shock me.”

Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s poorest countries. Whilst making a fortune for charity Geldof has also shown an aptitude for making himself rich. One of his companies, Ten Alps Communications is Britain’s fastest growing media, entertainment and marketing company. The company deals with some unsavoury allies, creating “branded environments” for BP, Glaxo Smithkline and Microsoft, and even the British Foreign Office. When Geldof tried to relive Live Aid with Live8, Nestlé, BAE Systems and Rio Tinto sponsored some of the concerts. Nestlé has been accused of benefiting from the HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa by selling more milk substitute products; Rio Tinto, the world’s largest mining corporation, has been condemned for human rights and environmental abuses; BAE Systems, according to Mike Lewis of the UK’s Campaign against Arms Trade, is “fuelling conflicts across Africa”.

Many people involved in the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign were not happy with Geldof. He chose to hold Live 8, without consulting the MPH organisers, on the same day in 2005 as the main MPH demonstration in Edinburgh, stealing most of the media coverage. Geldof praised Tony Blair and GW Bush for saving millions of African lives and promoted the Washington Consensus of free trade, foreign direct investment and privatisation.

 

 As with Live Aid in 1985, Geldof was criticised for not including any African musicians. At the final press conference that concluded the G8 summit in Gleneagles, the South African activist Kumi Naidoo acted as spokesperson for Make Poverty History gave the coalition’s verdict that: “The world has roared, but the G8 has responded with a whisper.” Geldof turned on Naidoo in front of the assembled media, attacking his statement as “a disgrace”. African civil society representatives went on television afterwards to make public statements dissociating themselves from Geldof’s remarks.
Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie was a practical philanthropist. He knew how to make money and he knew how to use it effectively. Carnegie established charitable organisations that are still active nearly a century after his death and he set the template for other philanthropists through his well-written thoughts on the theory and practice of charity. Carnegie urged the wealthy to provide for themselves and their dependents and then make it their “duty” to use the rest of their funds for their communities. He warned successful men who failed to help others that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Modern day rich givers like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have expressed a Carnegie-like wish to divest themselves of their wealth.

 

This echoes The Buddha’s aphorism about the wealthy man who enjoys his riches without sharing, digging his own grave. Those of us who are not wealthy would be advised to give directly to those in need rather than outsourcing to huge corporations or overweening rock stars. Make a difference to the poor not to the rich.

 

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