Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

More on Torture

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday March 3 2015.

Colman's Column3

President George W. Bush : Look, I’m going to say it one more time…. Maybe I can be more clear. The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you. We’re a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books. You might look at these laws, and that might provide comfort for you.  —Sea Island, Georgia, June 10, 2004

There have been a number of reports on the use of torture by the USA. There was a heavily redacted 2004 report from the Office of Professional Responsibility in the Department of Justice. In 2007, the ICRC (Red Cross) published its Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody. The ICRC said in the introduction, “that the consistency of the detailed allegations provided separately by each of the fourteen adds particular weight to the information provided.” There was a Senate Armed Services Committee report from 2008 about how the military used torture. There was a recent Senate report, or rather an executive summary, on CIA torture. There have been a dozen reports on torture practised at Abu Ghraib.

There is still no comprehensive public report on how the executive branch made decisions about torture.  Former US Vice-President Dick Cheney described the recent Senate report as “full of crap”. Cheney will have none of the argument that GW Bush was ignorant of the methods used by the CIA. “He was in fact an integral part of the program. He had to approve it before we went forward with it. I think he knew everything he needed to know and wanted to know about the program.” At one meeting, John Ashcroft, then attorney general, demanded of his colleagues, “Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.”

These days we hear mealy-mouthed euphemisms, such as “alternative set of procedures”. The CIA, even after the damning Senate report, maintains that its “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not constitute torture. In the early days after 9/11, words went unminced. The CIA was already talking about torture before they even had a suspect on whom to practise.

The CIA did very little if any research about what kind of torture would work. There is no discussion springing from the need to torture particular people such as prisoners in hand who are unwilling to talk. Talk of torture itself started very soon after 9/11, when “high-value” detainees were not available.

When they did have someone to practise on, they went at it with a will. Abu Zubaydah, a thirty-one-year-old Palestinian from Gaza, was captured in March 2002 in Pakistan. Initially, he did provide some useful information  – that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks, and that José Padilla was plotting to become a  dirty bomber. However, that was down to the FBI not the CIA (although they claimed credit) and the information did not come from torture. Two experienced FBI interrogators who had fluent Arabic and deep knowledge about al-Qaeda used traditional “rapport-building” techniques.

The CIA had Abu Zubaydah in their clutches first but were too dumb to realise how important he was. Afterwards, they attributed too much importance to him, convincing themselves he was the third or fourth man in al-Qaeda. In reality, he was not even a member of al-Qaeda, merely  a travel agent for al-Qaeda.

FBI expert Ali Soufan objected strenuously to rank amateurs like former military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen taking over the interrogation.  FBI people who knew what they were doing without torture pulled out of the questioning leaving it to amateurs using a “black site” in Thailand. The CIA were diverted by their misguided conviction that Abu Zubaydah was withholding information about attacks that would have killed thousands of people. They believed they had to torture him so that he would reveal information to justify their use of torture. Their use of torture was because he had not revealed any such information.

They deprived Abu Zubaydah  of sleep for 180 hours and waterboarded him eighty-three times, the last two sessions against the strenuous objections of the on-site interrogators, who judged correctly that he was completely compliant: he just had nothing more to reveal. He was mostly naked and cold, “sometimes with the air conditioning adjusted so that, one official said, he seemed to turn blue.” Zubaydah told the story himself. When loud music no longer played, “there was a constant loud hissing or crackling noise, which played twenty-four hours a day”. “I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck, they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room. I was also repeatedly slapped in the face….”. They put him in a black box. “As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds.” Eventually, a doctor stopped the torture. “I was told during this period that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.”

Testimony from others who were tortured supports this. A clear method emerges from these accounts, based on forced nudity, isolation, bombardment with noise and light, deprivation of sleep and food, and repeated beatings.

CIA Director George Tenet regularly told the highest government officials specific procedures to be used on specific detainees. Shortly after Abu Zubaydah was captured, according to ABC News, CIA officers “briefed high-level officials in the National Security Council’s Principals Committee,” including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, who “then signed off on the [interrogation] plan.”

The CIA justified the torture of Abu Zubaydah as a success because their brutal techniques allowed them to alleviate their anxiety about how much he really knew. They did not get any more information through torture but eventually convinced themselves that he had no more information.

Articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times revealed a secret world of black sites, prisons on military bases around the world, into which kidnapped people disappeared. “We don’t kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them”. Extraordinary rendition meant the detainee shackled at hands and feet was transported to the airport by road and loaded onto a plane. Earphones would be placed over his ears, through which music would sometimes be played. He would be blindfolded with a cloth tied around the head and black goggles. The journey times ranged from one hour to over thirty hours. The detainee  and had to urinate and defecate into a diaper.

The US corrupted the world with this programme. A report by the Open Society Justice Initiative  shows that 54 countries, including Ireland, helped to facilitate the CIA’s secret detention, rendition and interrogation programme. They participated in by hosting CIA prisons on their territories; detaining, interrogating, torturing, and abusing individuals; assisting in the capture and transport of detainees or permitting the use of domestic airspace and airports for secret flights transporting detainees.

The CIA’s former acting general counsel, John Rizzo, was involved in the programme from the start until 2009. He had a career at the CIA since the 1970s and was a main author of the 2001 Memorandum of Notification to the president that gave the CIA broad power to torture. Bush (pace Cheney’s recent comments), according to the intelligence committee report, was not briefed in detail on the actual techniques until 2006. The original authorization for the torture programme seems to have come from the Memorandum of Notification, a presidential document drafted by the CIA itself and signed by Bush on September 17, 2001.

An internal CIA draft letter to the attorney general sought a formal declaration that there would be no prosecutions of torturers.  When the Justice Department’s Criminal Division refused to provide immunity, the CIA lied to the Justice Department and found lawyers who would do their bidding. John Yoo, the author of the original torture memo, told the Office of Professional Responsibility that he would not have judged waterboarding legal if he had known the truth about how brutal it was.

In 1994, the US signed the Convention against Torture. This not only prohibits torture but also requires that it be investigated and punished. On his second day in office, Obama announced plans to close the Guantánamo detention facility within a year and to end immediately George W. Bush’s authorization of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”.  Although Obama once famously commented that “we tortured some folks” and that “I believe waterboarding was torture”, he has taken no action against the torturers. There are obvious avenues for investigation and possible prosecution, though the Obama administration shows no interest taking them.

This avoidance means that, practically speaking, torture remains an option for policymakers rather than a criminal offense. CIA director John Brennan has explicitly refused to rule out the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques under a future administration. The message to future presidents facing a serious security threat is that the prohibition of torture can be ignored without consequence. Abusive security forces from around the world are likely to take heart from that precedent as well.

Michael White was lambasted when he wrote in the Guardian: “it is also a day of redemption for the American system of imperfectly accountable government and that country’s many enemies should remember that as they hurl bricks and demand the prosecution of offenders”.

In his recent book Pay Any Price, investigative journalist James Risen described two of the most consequential aspects of American national security policy after September 11: the organized torture of al-Qaeda suspects in secret CIA prisons and the mass surveillance of communications by Americans carried out by the National Security Agency. There is a third consequence- attempts to muzzle the media. The Department of Justice prosecuted and imprisoned about half a dozen press sources for disclosing classified information  about mass surveillance and torture.

At his first inauguration, Barack Obama rejected “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Fine words. Risen writes:  “The rush to transform the United States from an open society to a walled fortress, prompted by the 9/11 attacks and propelled by billions of dollars spent on homeland security”, has left little room for serious public debate about “how best to balance security, civil liberties and freedom of movement. It is no longer much of a debate—security always wins.”

Randall Jarrell Part Three

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday March 1 2015

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Pictures from an Institution

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Jarrell published his only novel in 1954 when he was 40 and teaching at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina. The unnamed narrator also teaches at a women’s college, this one called Benton. “If Benton had had an administration building with pillars it could have carved over the pillars: Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you feel guilty.” “At Benton they wanted you really to believe everything that they did, especially if they hadn’t told you what it was.”

Benton “reasoned with the students, ‘appreciated their point of view,’ used Socratic methods on them, made allowances for them, kept looking into the oven to see if they were done; but there was one allowance they never under any circumstances made — that the student might be right about something, and they wrong.”

Many assume that Benton is modelled on Sarah Lawrence College where Jarrell taught in 1946 but Jarrell told the New York Times: “Benton is supposed to be just a type … I’ve taken things from real places, but mostly have made them up.”

sarah lawrence

The main characters are the president of the college, Dwight Robbins, Gertrude Johnson a novelist, Gottfried Rosenbaum, a German composer and his wife Irena, a Russian opera singer, sociologists Flo Whittaker and her husband Jerrold.

Many assume that Jarrell modelled Gertrude Johnson on the novelist Mary McCarthy. The two writers did teach together and McCarthy mentions Jarrell in her novel The Groves of Academe. In an unpublished lecture, Jarrell defended himself: “I’ve got used to delivering a little two-minute speech that could be entitled: 59 Overwhelming Differences Between Gertrude Johnson and  -oh, say Senator McCarthy …I’m perfectly willing to have people think Gertrude Johnson me, or part of me- the book’s designed to make them do that; but I’m not willing to have them think my poor ugly mouse is a pretty actual lady novelist”.

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Mary McCarthy at Vassar, 1933

President Robbins’s first impression of Gertrude is not flattering: “her features, as far as one could distinguish them, were undistinguished. Then one noticed that she had an obstinate Irish – or, perhaps, an obstinate apish- upper lip”. Gertrude is teaching creative writing at Benton between novels. She does not suffer fools gladly and everyone is a fool. “Gertrude’s bark was her bite; and many a bite has lain awake all night longing to be Gertrude’s bark.”

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Mary McCarthy in London, 1963

President Robbins is a former Olympic diver “who had not evolved to the stage of moral development at which hypocrisy is possible. To him the action was right because it was his.” “Morality, to him, was making a good impression on everybody, selling himself (that accurately ambiguous phrase) to everybody. He praised himself to his face just as he would have praised you to yours, except that he did it more modestly, with a kind of demure grace”.  Robbins has a public speaking voice that “not only took you into his confidence, it laid a fire for you and put out your slippers by it and then went into the other room to get into something more comfortable. It was a Compromising voice.”  “President Robbins was so well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins”.

Gottfried Rosenbaum, Viennese composer in residence, kind, witty and Jewish. His wife, Irena, is a Russian opera singer, downscaled by age to lieder. The Rosenbaums are refugees from Nazi Europe and know all about the failed hopes of ends-justifies-means radicalism. He quotes Nijinsky’s epigram “Politics is death”. He lives out a dream of private life without political demands. He composes proverbs of his own, one of which is: “Heaven gives us habits to take the place of happiness”.

Flo Whittaker is a selfless and righteous fighter on all public issues who neither noticed nor understood any private ones. She looked as if she had woken up by chance and “her clothes had come together and involved her in an accident. She lived before Original Sin, and could only make mistakes.” “The skirt looked as if a horse had left her its second-best blanket; the sweaters looked as if an old buffalo, sitting by a fire of peat, had knitted them for her from its coat of the winter before.” Flo was “the least sexual of beings; when cabbages are embarrassed about the facts of life, they tell their little cabbages that they found them under Mrs. Whittaker.” The narrator is, in his fashion, fond of Flo: “If I were a town, there is no one I should rather have by me in a disaster”. Jerrold is “every inch the sociologist” to whom everything “was the illustration of a principle”. “As he spoke, English seemed to have been dead for several centuries, and its bones to have set up a safe, staid, sleepy system of their own, in respectable secession from existence”. The Whitakers had a bulletin board in their house on which they plotted all the activities of parents and children”.

One cannot help feeling that the narrator (and Jarrell) is using Gertrude in a cowardly way.  She is making scabrous judgements vicariously for him but, in between his own corrosive comments, he writes about forgiveness and acceptance. Writing in the New York Review of Books in December 1999, Michael Wood described this odd approach: “Gertrude is effectively given the guilt of the narrator’s cruel jokes, as if she and not he were making them, so that he can trot around the novel in genial and creepy innocence”.

The narrator claims to like Gertrude. He sees good in Flo Whittaker:  “She saw people only in hundred- thousand lots, but she couldn’t help feeling for them sometimes, one at a time- so that I thought once more, in uneasy perplexity: how shall I feel about Flo? That figure of fun, that pillar of righteousness, that type of the age, that index of the limitations of the human being, that human being?.. ‘to someone I am Flo’”.

As I mentioned in a previous article Jarrell developed a friendship with Hannah Arendt the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism. In that book she wrote that society “introduces between the private and the public a social sphere in which the private is made public and vice versa”. She believed that the “perversion of equality from a political into a social concept brought the danger of creating a society where “every individual is ’normal’ if he is like everyone else and ‘abnormal’ if he happens to be different”.

Portrait Of Hannah Arendt

As I mentioned before, Jarrell kept successive drafts of Pictures from an Institution in a folder Arendt had given him, left over from her drafting of Origins. Gertrude’s novel might be expected to expose Benton’s faults in Arendtian terms depicting it as a self-enclosed socio-cultural system.

Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt Scotland 1974

Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, Scotland 1974

President Robbins “had the morals of a State; had, almost, the morals of an army”. A professor who had been away from Benton for several years says that he dreams about being back at Benton the way he dreams he is back in the army. This echoes what Jarrell had written in poems about the regimentation of military life taking over civilian life and academic life.

John Whittaker, the son of Flo and Jerrold, an enthusiast for Science Fiction since he was seven, tells the narrator what he thinks about the inhabitants of Benton: “Haven’t you noticed how they all talk just the same, and dress just alike, and read the same book…? And do you know why?…They’re androids”.

Jarrell uses Gertrude and Irena to convey to us some of his own views on the status of the US in the modern world.  Gertrude says: “Americans are so conformist that even their dissident groups exhibit the most abject conformity”. Gottfried is the character most kindly treated, and associated with everything in art that individualises: “To say that someone is typically anything is an unfavourable judgement. When Gottfried was least his kind he was most Gottfried”.

“Is an institution  always a man’s shadow shortened in the sun, the lowest common denominator of everyone in it? Benton was: the soldiers, as always, were better than the army in which they served, the superficial consenting nexus of their lives that was Benton”.

http://www.nation.lk/edition/fine/item/38660-pictures-from-an-institution.html

Triumphalism and foreign commentators

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday August 29 2010.

Some months ago, my fellow LAKBIMAnEWS contributor, Dayan Jayatilleka, was kind enough to mention my humble efforts in what he called “the prestigious Le Monde diplomatique”. In a series of short articles, I have tried to convey to the western world the complexity of what is actually happening in our country. Most comments on these pieces have been along the lines of “professional” and “unbiased”, although an article caused one reader to call me a government lackey and another to call me a regurgitator of terrorist propaganda. I received an e-mail addressing me as “you crazed Irish monkey, you IRA fugitive. You should be in a zoo or an asylum”.
The August 2009 edition of Le Monde diplomatique carried an article on Sri Lanka by one Cédric Gouverneur entitled The time of triumphalism. The editor of the English-language edition, Wendy Kristianasen, asked me for my views, unfortunately after the article was published.

 
She said: “It will be rather a statement of the obvious for you, but it is a good way to get the wider world interested in the country and its complex politics.”

 
My response was that it was unhelpful to get the wider world interested if the wider world gets interested in a distorted picture. Her response was : “I think, for what it’s worth, that the West knows very little about Sri Lanka, particularly outside of the UK. …Most ordinary people simply know that there was a long, difficult conflict. That’s all. Whereas what goes on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and particularly Israel, is widely reported on, in every detail, and closely followed. Every ordinary person has an opinion on those subjects, and may even feel him/herself to be an armchair expert.”

 
Cédric Gouverneur, wrote about Sri Lanka back in 2004: “Many observers would wager that the LTTE will evolve mid-term, influenced by the Tamil diaspora (accustomed to Western democracy after 20 years of exile) and their own pragmatic leaders, who are increasingly political and less warlike.”

He clearly got that horribly wrong!
In this latest article he raises several issues which need to be debated, and which have been covered in some depth in LAKBIMAnEWS and other papers, such as the plight of the IDPs, the militarisation of the north, the fear of colonisation of predominantly Tamil areas.

 
The phrase “the government, overjoyed at being able to divide the Tamils” occurs in the body of the text. I doubt if that is actually telling us anything real or useful. This phrase suggests that the Tamil inhabitants of Sri Lanka form a homogeneous entity. Tamils are already divided by differences of origin, class, caste, religion, income, status and political views no matter what the government does. It would be more accurate to say “The government, overjoyed at electorally annihilating the opposition”.

 
In the article, theories are developed on the strength of vox pop statements from unreliable witnesses. “This triumphalism has exasperated Tamils recently liberated from Menic (sic) Farm”. This is based on the comments of a man who is nostalgic about the days of the LTTE. But even he says : “I appreciate that since the shelling, the army has behaved well towards civilians. They want to win our hearts and minds.”

 
Shanti Satchithanandam’s views are cited and she is described as a “victim” of the Tigers. Others have described her as a Tiger supporter.

 
It is implied that Sinhalese were gullible because: “They truly believe the media’s line that their army freed the Tamils from the clutches of a criminal organisation.” Why should they not believe it?!
The article is riddled with factual inaccuracies. There many serious howlers in the historical timeline headed “Thirty years of civil war”. I will not bore you with all of them. The thirty years begins with 1815. “The British finish colonising the island, previously divided into three kingdoms – two Sinhalese, one Tamil”. The most egregious error is “December 2009. Rival candidates President Rajapaksa and the former chief of staff, Sarath Fonseka, dispute the election results”. How could they dispute the results in December 2009 of an election which did not take place until January 2010?

 

Ms Kristianasen was not pleased when I drew her attention to these flaws. She said “I must ask you to commit yourself to responsible journalism”. Monsieur Gouverneur sent me an angry and abusive e-mail.
I urge you to read the article in full. Only paying subscribers to Le Monde diplomatique can access it on their own website (http://mondediplo.com/2010/08/05srilanka) but the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice (whose Advisory Council includes Noam Chomsky, Bianca Jagger, Jake Lynch, former foreign minister of human-rights beacon Algeria, Lakhdar Brahimi, and Edward Mortimer) have kindly reproduced it (historical howlers and all).

http://blog.srilankacampaign.org/2010/08/uncomfortable-peace-in-sri-lanka-time.html

 
I am not one of those who use the tu quoque argument and says westerners are not allowed to criticise Sri Lanka because the crimes of the west are worse. However, Sri Lanka seems plagued by foreigners dropping in for a few days, becoming instant experts and disseminating a distorted picture.
I urge LAKBIMAnEWS readers to study the article and engage in debate on it.

Complicity Part Three

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday February 24 2015

Colman's Column3

It Can’t Happen Here

book

Here, There or Anywhere?

In 1930, Sinclair Lewis was the first writer from the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Lewis published It Can’t Happen in 1935. This dystopian satire imagines a Fascist dictatorship in the US. The book serves as a warning that political movements like Nazism can come to power when people blindly support a charismatic leader. Although the book is out-of-print (I am working from a Kindle edition downloaded for $3.99) and hard to find, its themes will be quite familiar to Americans (and other nationalities)

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Contemporary readers would have seen the connection with Louisiana politician Huey Long who was preparing to run for president in 1936 elections when he was assassinated in 1935 just prior to the appearance of Lewis’s novel. Long’s career was used by Robert Penn Warren in his 1946 novel All the King’s Men. Later readers have noted resonances with the regime of GW Bush and Dick Cheney.

 

In Lewis’s novel, US presidential candidate Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is going to rescue the USA from economic depression. He first wins the Democratic Party nomination, ousting Franklin D Roosevelt. He then becomes president by promising to tax the rich, and stop big business from abusing the common worker.

 

Windrip is a charismatic politician: a great showman, but not comfortable with intellectuals. He is  swept into office on a tide of revival tent enthusiasm and anti-intellectual populism. Despite the reformist facade, Windrip is really the candidate of big business.  He speaks of “liberating” women and minorities, as he gradually strips them of all their rights. Blacks and Jews do not fare well under his rule.

 

Soon after his election, Windrip puts the media under the supervision of the military. William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day and model for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, directs his newspapers to praise the government. The president forces Congress to provide unlimited funding to the military and to pass stringent, unconstitutional laws. He establishes military tribunals for civilians, and denounces critics as traitors. The most loyal followers become a private army, the Minute Men, answerable to no one. The book documents a rapid decline into barbarity and charts an  implosion of American culture: thanks to the weight of mass media,  the desire for security and comfort, and  endemic nationalism, civil society caves in at the touch of a charismatic politician.

 

Windrip is less a Nazi than a con-man-plus-Rotarian, a manipulator who knows how to appeal to people’s desperation, but neither he nor his followers are in the grip of the kind of world-transforming ideology like Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin. The message is that such an ideology is not necessary and besides, the USD has its own ideology that already dominates the world.

 

It Happened in Germany

 

Sinclair Lewis shows that it takes great courage to resist a totalitarian dictatorship. It even takes courage to withhold enthusiastic support. The novel, and the history of Germany in the 1930s, demonstrate that ordinary people can be persuaded to do extraordinary things out of fear or because they benefited from the system. In Nazi Germany, doctors planned, supervised and participated in sterilisation, unethical experiments on humans, torture, euthanasia and genocide. Ordinary policemen and nurses killed in cold blood even when they would not have been punished if they demurred.


Britain’s Imperial Image

 

I was a child in Britain in the 1950s. Much of the literature I was encouraged to read in my pre-teens was about the benevolence of the British Empire. The Boys’ Own Paper gave us tales of adventure in Africa. The Children’s Newspaper was a successful publication which ran for 46 years. During half  of that run of over 2,000 issues it was edited by Arthur Mee, a patriot and devout Christian whose Children’s Encyclopaedia also indoctrinated us with British Imperial values. Lord Baden-Powell was regular contributor. How different were the boy scouts from the Hitler Youth which counted Pope Benedict and UN General Secretary  Kurt Waldheim among its members.

I once asked a friend (we must have been about eight years old) what he would like as a career. I was thinking about being a footballer or a comedian (Max Bygraves was my idol at the time). My friend said he wanted to be a District Commissioner. I had a vague idea from BOP that this was a commendable vocation, which involved civilising savages.

 

The British Imperial brand had been burnished over many decades. The PR set the British brand apart from the brutal behavior of other European empires in Africa: King Leopold’s bloody rule in the Congo, the German genocide of the Herero in South-West Africa, and France’s disgrace in Algeria. The British were, quite simply, different.

 

Despite that, we have seen how British soldiers and police behaved in an inhumane fashion during the British Mandate in Palestine, participating joyfully in torture, summary executions and generalised thuggery. British “exceptionalism”’,   “the British way”,  is clearly a delusion. Chelsea fans continue to behave like British soldiers in Palestine. British soldiers in Iraq continued to behave like thugs.

Neil Ascherson, in the New York Review of Books, described an encounter he had in Cyprus in the late 1950s with a man called Pordy Laneford from Kenya. Who had been a member of the Kenya Police Reserve, the paramilitary force recruited mostly from white settlers. “He explained to me how important it was to kill captured suspects at once, without waiting for the ‘red tape’ of trials and witness statements. ‘Killing prisoners? Well, it’s not really the same thing, is it? I mean, I’d feel an awful shit if I thought I’d been killing prisoners.’”

Ascherson wrote, “I had met other Pordys before, in different parts of the Empire. It was that schoolboy innocence which made them so terribly dangerous, because it was an incurable condition. They were worse, in many ways, than those compulsive sadists who emerge whenever licensed savagery is in prospect. For Pordys, torture was just a lark, a naughty sport like shooting pheasants out of season.”

“The myth that British colonialism guaranteed a minimum standard of behavior toward ‘natives’ cannot—or should not—survive the evidence of twentieth-century Kenya. In the field, the security forces behaved like Germans on an antipartisan sweep in occupied France. In the detention and work camps, and the resettlement villages, the British created a world no better than the universe of the Soviet Gulag.”

Many civilians took an active role in the torture of Mau Mau suspects and settler volunteers ran the concentration camps. Katharine Warren-Gash ran the women’s camps at Kamiti. There, suspects were interrogated, whipped, starved, and subjected to hard labour, which included filling mass graves with truckloads of corpses from other camps. Many Kenyan women gave birth at Kamiti and buried their babies in bundles of six at a time.

The “Hola Massacre” has become part of British, as well as Kenyan history. On March 3, 1959, 100 detainees in the remote Hola camp defied orders to go to work. When the prisoners refused to pick up their spades, a prearranged onslaught began. An hour later, ten prisoners had been clubbed to death and dozens lay dying or injured.

Can It Happen?

We are shocked to read that doctors in Nazi Germany could participate in experiments on living human beings and wholeheartedly carry out torture, sterilisation, euthanasia, and mass extermination.

The recently published US Senate report on CIA torture makes it clear that American doctors were enthusiastic participants happy to make a profit from inflicting pain. Two psychologists, Dr James Mitchell and Dr Bruce Jessen, were paid $81 million to design the torture programme, and medical officers and physicians’ assistants are cited throughout the report as consultants who advised on things like forcing detainees to stand on broken limbs and “rehydrating” via a rectal tube rather than a standard IV infusion.

Dr  Steven Miles is a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, a board member of the Center for Victims of Torture, and author of Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors. He has been studying doctors’ involvement in torture programmes since photos of the human rights violations at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were published in 2003. He maintains the website Doctorswhotorture.com, which tracks physician standards of conduct and punishments for doctors who aid torture around the world.

“The docs who get involved in this, number one, are careerists. They get involved for rank and career, and the regimes … extremely rarely coerce them. Instead, what happens is the regimes treat them as some kind of elite. The docs are generally not sadists. … docs seem to be entirely unaware, not only of the ethics codes, but also of the ineffectiveness of these interrogation strategies, that they never mount a protest.”

Public Complicity

During GW Bush’s presidency, Americans increasingly said they favored torture tactics, especially when they believed it would lead to vital information or save lives. Surveys showed that 47%   said the use of harsh interrogation tactics like waterboarding was “sometimes” or “always” justified, while only 22% said such torture tactics were “never” justified. Non-religious Americans were more easily convinced that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were, in fact, torture. Most Christians were in favour of torture. Non-religious Americans were one of the few subsets that opposed the torture techniques – and that includes breakdowns across racial, gender, age, economic, educational, and regional lines.

The researchers said. “We believe that torture may have become a partisan symbol, distinguishing Republicans from Democrats, that demonstrates hawkishness on national security in the same way that being supportive of the death penalty indicates that a person is tough on crime”.

Goebbels successfully used media, that might seem primitive to us in 2015, to ensure complicity of ordinary Germans in the Nazi project. TV shows like 24 and Homeland serve a similar function. Stephen King, an admitted fan of 24, wrote, “There’s also a queasily gleeful subtext to 24 that suggests, ‘If things are this bad, why, I guess we can torture anybody we want! In fact, we have an obligation to torture in order to protect the country! Hooray!’ “

Well that’s OK then.

Brigadier General Finnegan believed the show had an adverse effect on the training of American soldiers because it advocated unethical and illegal behavior. In his words: “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about 24?’ The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”

 

Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were enthusiastic fans of 24.

 

 

More on torture next week

 

Randall Jarrell Part 2

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday February 15 2015. 

The totalitarianism of everyday life.

RJKittenMJ

John Crowe Ransom left Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1937 for Kenyon College in Ohio. Jarrell followed him and taught English at Kenyon for two years, sharing a dormitory with other writers who went on to gain some esteem: Robie McCauley, Peter Taylor,  and Robert Lowell. Jarrell went on to teach at the University of Texas at Austin from 1939 to 1942, where he began to publish acerbic and witty literary criticism and where he met his first wife, Mackie Langham, whom he married in 1940. In 1942, he left the university to join the United States Army Air Force.

After the war Jarrell spent a year as literary editor of the Nation, (not the one edited by that other poet Malinda Seneviratne) to whose pages he attracted poems and reviews from many of the best writers in America and England. His own critical pieces were acidly cutting. John Berryman joked with his wife Eileen that many people were holding on to their poems and praying for Jarrell’s early death rather than risk having their work shredded by his acerbic wit.

Jarrell was uncomfortable with urban life and claimed to hate New York’s crowds, the high cost of living, and status-conscious sociability and conformity. He left for the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina where, as an associate professor of English, he taught modern poetry and “imaginative writing.” He also taught at Sarah Lawrence College, which he would later make use of as a model for the mythical Benton College in his satiric novel, Pictures from an Institution (1954).

In his war poems, Jarrell wrote about the individual being absorbed into the machine that was the army. Army training turned boys into interchangeable parts. In “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” he wrote

 

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

 

In “Prisoners” he wrote  about captives loading and unloading as they,

 

look unexpectingly

At the big guard, dark in his khaki, at the dust

of the blazing plain,

At the running or crawling soldiers in their soiled

and shapeless green.

 

The prisoners, the guards, the soldiers- they are all,

In their way, being trained.

From these moments, repeated forever, our own

new world will be made.

 

 

Conformity

 

Karl Shapiro’s eulogy for Jarrell said: “our army never melted away…Our poetry, from the forties on, records the helplessness we felt in the face of the impersonal character of the age”.

 

Jarrell  wrote in a review that “when one considers the mechanism of the contemporary states – from the advertising agencies that turn out their principles to the aircraft factories that turn out their practice” one despairs. There were a number of writers mining a similar theme. David Riesman, in The Lonely Crowd, traces the evolution of society from a tradition-directed culture, to a culture that was “other -directed”.

 

Hannah Arendt

 

 

 

young hannah

 

Jarrell met Hannah Arendt in 1946 and the two became close friends. Her book The Origins of Totalitarianism  was published in 1951 but Jarrell would have been already familiar with her ideas as she had published essays in The Nation. Arendt discusses the transformation of classes into masses, the role of propaganda in dealing with the non-totalitarian world, and the use of terror, essential to this form of government. Totalitarian regimes seek to dominate every aspect of everyone’s life as a prelude to world domination. Arendt discusses the use of front organizations, fake governmental agencies, and esoteric doctrines as a means of concealing the radical nature of totalitarian aims from the non-totalitarian world. A final section added to the second edition of the book in 1958 suggests that individual isolation and loneliness are preconditions for totalitarian domination.

Jarrell wrote to Arendt telling her that she was his closest possible ally. She reciprocated by writing about Jarrell: “Whatever I know of English poetry, and perhaps of the genius of the language, I owe to him”.

She had written an essay about French Existentialism in The Nation in 1946. In it, she described how the existentialists tried to disentangle people from institutions, from attitudes that cause a man “to think of himself as president of his business, as a member of the Legion of Honour, as a member of the faculty, but also as father, as husband, or as any other half-natural, half-social function.” It was possible resist conformity: “We can rise above specialization and philistinism of all sorts to the extent that we learn how to exercise our taste freely”.

In her reporting of the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, which evolved into Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the phenomenon of Eichmann. She raised the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions and inaction.

Institutions and Identity

In  1951, in an essay called “The Obscurity of the Poet”, Jarrell wrote: “The truth that all men are politically equal, the recognition of the injustice of fictitious differences, becomes a belief in the fictitiousness of differences, a conviction that it is reaction or snobbishness or Fascism to believe that any individual differences of real importance can exist”.

As Stephen Burt wrote:”Jarrell’s poetry, criticism and fiction tried to imagine ways to save private life, individual experience. Jarrell’s defences of individuality against institutional or professional interests thus cast themselves a defences of taste”.

It was not just the big corporations that smothered individuality – the academy also corporatized  and imposed conformity and it did so even through the study of literature. Academic critics such as Kenneth Burke, Northrop Frye and IA Richards had an ambition to systematise literary criticism. TS Eliot also argued for a view of the literary that excluded the personal. Jarrell wrote to Robert Penn Warren in 1935 “the majority of my tendencies are not at all Eliotish and didactic”. Allen Tate warned in 1940 in an essay called “The Present Function of Criticism “professional ‘educationists’ and… sociologists…have taught the present generation that…the greatest thing is as adjustment to Society (not to a good society). Jarrell feared that Tate’s idea of a good society was one governed by elite professionals like Allen Tate.

This could be a dry sort of argument but Jarrell writes with emotional force about “the specialisation, the dividing into categories, of people’s unlucky lives”. His own criticism is far from that he describes as seemingly written ”by a syndicate of encyclopaedias for an audience of Business Machines. It is not only bad or mediocre, it is dull;  it is, often, an astonishingly graceless, joyless, humourless, long-winded, niggling, blinkered, methodical, self-important, cliché-ridden, prestige obsessed, almost autonomous criticism”.

There is no shortage of such prose in 2015. It is being excreted on a daily basis, not just from universities but from government and business and NGOs. What is sinister about this is not that it is simply a matter of inability to write clearly, or a foolish desire to impress by following a fashion. There is a deliberate aim to obfuscate, to exert power by using an esoteric mode of discourse that the unchosen ones cannot hope to understand. This is bad for democracy. Opacity, false complexity and meaninglessness serve a purpose. Cardinal Newman acknowledged the danger of precision: “Mistiness is the mother of safety. Your safe man in the Church of England is he who steers his course between the Scylla of ‘Aye’ and the Charybdis of ‘No’ along the channel of ‘No meaning’.”

Jarrell was trenchant about Stanley Edgar Hyman’s 1948 book The Armed Vision. According to Jarrell Hyman’s ideal critic would “resemble one of those robots you meet in science fiction stories, with a microscope for one eye, a telescope for the other, and the mechanical brain at Harvard for a heart”.

Jarrell wrote only one novel, Pictures from an Institution. Stephen Burt calls it “the most Arendtian of Jarrell’s productions” because it dates from the time of Randall Jarrell and Hannah Arendt’s closest friendship and deals with their shared concerns about “the social”. He kept successive drafts of his novel in a binder she had given him, left over from when she was working on Origins of Totalitarianism.

This does not mean that the novel is dreary and doomy. I have been re-reading it and find myself laughing out loud on every page. More about Pictures from an Institution next week.

Recommended further reading: Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life, by William H Pritchard and Randall Jarrell and his Age by Stephen Burt.

 

Complicity Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday February 17 2015.

Colman's Column3

 

Were those Germans unique?

 

Last week, I raised the question of how ordinary working class middle-aged men and women could embark on employment that involved the hands-on dirty work required by a programme of sterilisation, torture, shooting at close range and gassing of children, women, elderly people, disabled people,  Gypsies, homosexuals and Jews. The programme was planned by professionals such as psychiatrists and physicians and surgeons. The paper work was organised by middle class bureaucrats whose own teeth contained gold recycled from the mouths of the dead victims. Could it happen here or in England or in the USA, or were those Germans unique?

 

Heimat

I have fond memories of a TV series I watched avidly in the early 1980s. There were, in all, 32 episodes written and directed by Edgar Reitz and the total running time was 53 hours and 25 minutes. The title was Heimat, which translates as “Homeland” but bears no relation to the American series of that name. The series eventually covered life in Germany between 1919 and 2000 by focusing on an ordinary family in the Hunsrück area of the Rhineland. Reitz claimed that he conceived Heimat partly in reaction against the American series Holocaust. Much of the success of Heimat as a West German television series was because of similar soap-opera qualities that made for the success of Holocaust. In Heimat, a small cast of well-defined characters enables us to identify with their suffering where statistics and documentation would leave us cold.

Twenty million people watched Holocaust when it was screened in West Germany. After each episode, a panel of historians answered questions from people phoning in. Thousands did so and many of them claimed that they were born after 1945 and had not previously known that their country had practised genocide. The German historian Alf Lüdtke wrote that the historians “could not cope” as they were faced with thousands of angry phone-callers asking how these things could happen or why they had never learned about them at school.

 

I recall that there was a pervading feel-good nostalgic charm about Heimat. How can this be when the period covered was one of horror and genocide?  The blacksmith’s son, Paul Simon, back from the war, builds the first radio in Schabbach. In 1919, Paul wins the hand of Maria, the mayor’s daughter. Ageing on screen from 19 to 82, though only 27-29 in real life at the time, Marita Breuer gives an astonishing performance. They have two sons, Anton and Ernst. The Simon family seems a happy. Then one day, in 1928, Paul just puts on his cap and walks away. Nobody knows where he has gone. Nobody knows why. Maria carries on bringing up the children.

 

A torch-lit march through the streets of the local town indicates that Hitler has come to power. Nobody in the Hunsrück seems to know quite how or why. There are now telephones and cars. Nazism, which presents itself in the city as the guardian of old German rural life appears in the countryside as a revolution of technological modernity.

The French Jewish writer Marek Halter alleged in an article in Le Monde that Reitz idealizes the war and trivializes Nazism. The century’s great and terrible events do  largely take place off screen. We see the sudden appearance of Nazi armbands in the village. A boy on a bicycle encounters a cheery soldier who is watching over the construction of what is clearly a concentration camp. An SS officer alludes guardedly to the Final Solution.

Did the Hunsrück villagers see more than these glimpses of Nazi barbarism? There was a somewhat irritating and arbitrary moving between black and white, sepia, full colour and one colour filter. It seems that the director’s intention with this was to underline that this is a film about what Germans remember and their memories are selective. They remember the 1930s as a golden age of prosperity in the countryside. Some things they prefer not to remember at all.

Mayer

 

Milton Sanford Mayer (1908-1986) was a journalist from Chicago and author of twelve books. Mayer was a Jew. He lived in Germany before World War II and was a conscientious objector during the war. After the war, he went back to Kronenburg and lived with German families, interviewing ten people to get perspectives on the rise of the Nazi party. Those experiences informed his book They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.

The ten interviewees included a janitor, soldier, cabinetmaker, Party headquarters office manager, baker, bill collector, high school teacher, high school student, policeman, Labour front inspector. “These ten men were not men of distinction,” Mayer notes. “They were not opinion makers…. In a nation of seventy million, they were the sixty-nine million plus. They were the Nazis, the little men…”

Mayer said he liked these people and they became his friends “They did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now [in 1951]. None of them ever knew, or now knows, Nazism as we knew it, and know it; and they lived under it, served it, and, indeed, made it. And none ever thought Hitler would lead them into war.” Before Hitler, most had no jobs – as they saw it Hitler provided employment. All ten interviewees agreed that Nazi rule brought them economic success, bound them patriotically and politically into a coherent cultural unit, restored the nation’s pride and gave all Germans renewed reasons for hope in the future.

All Germans already had permission to hate Jews. All benefited from the system. To be identified as an outsider or as a dissenter could mean social exclusion or even disappearance into a concentration camp, or a bullet in the head.

 

Grunberger

Richard Grunberger was an historian and teacher who was born in Vienna in 1924 and died in London in 2005. His monumental, but immensely readable, Social History of the Third Reich gives a detailed sense of the warp and woof of everyday life in Nazi Germany.

Grunberger argues that, after the social disorientation of the depression years, an infantile regression took place with unhappy adults wishing to return to the womb of community and conformity. This obliterated most of the normal social and political conflicts. “Their eager acceptance of this situation stemmed from misconceived notions of corporate self-interest, chauvinistic delusion and… subservience tinged with masochism”.

Life-long Democrat voters convinced themselves that National Socialism was the panacea they had been looking for all their lives. Whole professions such as the civil service and teaching felt an overwhelming compulsion to join the Party. After the 1933 breakthrough, there was a great surge in party membership. Older hands referred to this bottom layer as the “March violets”.

Even those who were not converted in their hearts would anxiously understand that mere passive avoidance of rebellion would not suffice. “The majority’s meddlesome conformity ensured that those of doubtful allegiance to the regime lived in a state of unceasing fear of anonymous informers, sometimes with an element of auto-suggestion”. The regime created a culture of denunciation. Every citizen enjoyed equality of opportunity for laying information against his social superiors. “This harnessed a vast reservoir of personal resentment and spite to the purposes of the state.”

The regime harnessed all areas of governance and polity to ensure that citizens conformed. “Under the Third Reich the institutions of order expired as surely as those of freedom”. The courts treated right-wing terrorism lightly and there seemed to be tacit establishment approval of conspiracy theories that blamed Jews for defeat in the war and every problem of the Weimar Republic. In 1937, the Ministry of Justice determined that for the purpose of “intensive interrogation” beating was permissible if a doctor was present. Some courts objected to confessions gained under Gestapo torture but Hitler overruled them. Because of indoctrination at school, (much “education” was regurgitation of propaganda handouts) and in the Hitler Youth, the young tended to be more conformist and even fanatical than their elders.

The business community was solidly behind the regime. IG Farben (Interessen-Gemeinschaft Farbenindustrie AG) a chemical industry conglomerate did particularly well under the Nazis, expanding its work force by 50% and its profits by 150%. Two-thirds of the Reich Office for Economic Expansion were IG Farben men. IG Farben supplied large quantities of Zyklon B to the gas chambers. At the Nuremberg Trials, 13 executives were imprisoned for terms ranging from one to eight years for their roles in the atrocities.

Workers were also induced to support the regime through new houses and cheap holidays- in 1938, 180,000 Germans went on cruises. The press, the cinema, the theatre all gave the population the same propaganda message. There was little protest from the churches.

Although few Germans shared the leaders’ rabid anti-Semitism, their image of themselves gained definition through the contrast with the Jewish anti-type and accepted Jew baiting as an integral part of the system, which was beneficial to themselves.

Grunberger writes: “In the entire history of the Third Reich no single body –civic, academic or even religious- ever made use of such opportunities it had for publicly protesting against the regime’s inhumanity.”

Götz Aly

 

In a recent book, German historian Götz Aly asks the question in his title Why the Germans? Why the Jews?  With the subtitle Envy, Race Hatred and the Prehistory of the Holocaust. Aly argues that even if most Germans did not initially agree with the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitic views, they signed up for a “criminal collaboration” between the people and their political leadership because it brought them economic and psychological benefits.

In  a previous book, Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State, Aly argued that the Nazi regime bribed and corrupted its subjects by offering  material gain wrapped in the idealistic guise of equal opportunity and social harmony for the German Volk . This was done through minimal taxation on Germans, the exploitation of the occupied territories and the slave labour of their inhabitants, and the confiscation of Jewish property throughout Europe. Many benefited directly and materially as Jewish jobs and property were  redistributed.

Aly exposes the involvement of self-proclaimed a-political technocrats who went on to success in the post-war world. One theme of Aly’s work has been to suggest a significant continuity between the Nazi era and post-war Germany. Many of the crimes committed in Nazi Germany were not the sole responsibility of ideological fanatics but  of the educated elites of German society whose “rational” outlook and approach to problem-solving were similar to the approach of Germany today.

Could It Happen Here?

 

As Goering said: “the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

 
It is easy enough for outsiders to exaggerate the actual relationship between man and state under tyranny, but from the inside, it is always made to seem justified, normal and seamless. As Matthew Hughes wrote about atrocities committed by British police and soldiers in Palestine:

 
“Servicemen were guided by a legal system that meant that they could accept the premises of their government that allowed for brutal actions, and they could do so with all the energy of good bureaucrats obeying orders—hence the phrase ‘banality of brutality’ in the title to this article, a tilt to Hannah Arendt’s study of Adolf Eichmann.”

 

Travel Broadens. .. ?

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday January 23 2011

I have long doubted the veracity of the old adage “travel broadens the mind”. Looking at the European tourists slouching around Bandarawela or Kandy in their peculiarly unflattering travel garments it seems more a case of “travel broadens the arse”.

I now prefer to follow Pascal’s maxim: “I have discovered that all human evil comes from this, man’s being unable to sit still in a room”. I endeavour to move as little as possible.

In my more mobile days, I visited India, Nepal, Thailand, Turkey, Peru, Morocco, most of Europe, the Pacific northwest states of America and British Columbia. My first long-haul trip was under the aegis of an upmarket package company. In their brochure, they were, albeit in heavily-coded language, marketing prostitution. Hotels in Thailand were described as “popular with bachelors”.

My later trips were, what might be regarded by some,  independent travel but, in fact, they were package holidays with dirtier hotels. In the wilder heights of the Altiplano one should not expect luxury, but a constant diet of dishwater and dog soup out of cracked plastic bowls palled. One does treasure memories and congratulate one’s adventurous younger self – drifting around in a malfunctioning boat in the middle of Lake Titicaca as the Bolivian navy (Bolivia has no coastline but does have a navy) passed by; learning that the Huancavelica police station had been blown up by the Sendero Luminoso the day after we had been inside it.

In the twilight of my years, I don’t want hardships or adventure. As I travel around Sri Lanka, I want comfort and cleanliness , if not luxury. Travelling from my mountain retreat to the Great Wen of Colombo can take eight hours and it would be good to be able to stop overnight at a comfortable and clean hotel but this humble desire has been thwarted.

My experience of a particular chain of hotels has not been pleasant. On my last visit to one of their hotels the food was simply inedible. Dinner on the first night was seer fish which was past its shelf date and had been microwaved from frozen, not grilled as I had requested. The second night we ordered chicken curry. The chicken was nothing but bone, cartilage and gristle.

The receptionist laughed when we asked if the room was clean and said of course it was. The room was not clean. There were cobwebs everywhere. The toilet and bidet had unpleasant stains on them. The shower did not work. An ash tray perched precariously on the balcony. It remained full of ash throughout our stay. Neither of us smokes. The table and chairs on the balcony were filthy.  I could see how a room a little further along was being cleaned. The boy was throwing the contents of ashtrays and bins over the balcony on to the ground. At one point he projected a red stream of betel juice over the balcony on to a tree.

Our afternoon snooze was disturbed by persistent hammering from the room next door and by a member of the “management” team shouting to a waiter across the width of the garden rather than taking the trouble to walk up to him and speak at normal volume.

The best feature of the hotel is the view which was not enhanced by mattresses, towels and bedding spread on the ground. The garden was strewn with paper plates covered in scraps of uneaten food. There had been a wedding the day before and no-one had bothered to clean up the detritus. The uneaten food was attracting swarms of flies.

All the chain’s hotels have had dirty crockery and stained tablecloths.

At least those dirty Peruvian hotels were cheap.

Over thirty years ago Dean MacCannell wrote a study of the phenomenon of tourism. His theme was that the middle classes of the west felt alienated from reality by their comfortably dull lives. Although they had been programmed to believe the fiction that everything centred on the individual, they felt the disjunction of living in a depersonalised historical epoch. If there was an authentic reality it must be elsewhere. If it was out there it could be bought.

Professor MacCannell employed Marx’s concept of fetishisation. Pure experience, which leaves no material trace, is manufactured and sold like a commodity. The tourist thinks he can buy the authentic experience which is located somewhere exotic beyond his normal experience. The tourist experience is built upon the fiction that it is outside historical time in a virtual world. Sometimes sex is what is bought without the responsibility of a human relationship.

The touristic world is filled with people who are just passing through a world furnished by the social production of highly fictionalised versions of the everyday life of traditional peoples, a museumisation of their quaintness. There is inevitably a tension between the moderns’ nervous concern for the authenticity of their touristic experience and the traditional folks’ difficulty in acting out someone else’s fantasy version of their life. Culture is tailored to suit those who pay for it, until, in the words of a Masai man, “We have ceased to be what we are; we are becoming what we seem.”

As Don de Lillo wrote in his novel The Names:

“To be a tourist is to escape accountability. Errors and failings don’t cling to you the way they do back home. You’re able to drift across continents and languages, suspending the operation of sound thought. Tourism is the march of stupidity. You’re expected to be stupid. The entire mechanism of the host country is geared to travelers acting stupidly. You walk around dazed, squinting into fold-out maps. You don’t know how to talk to people, how to get anywhere, what the money means, what time it is, what to eat or how to eat it. Being stupid is the pattern, the level and the norm. You can exist on this level for weeks and months without reprimand or dire consequence. Together with thousands, you are granted immunities and broad freedoms. You are an army of fools, wearing bright polyesters, riding camels, taking pictures of each other, haggard, dysenteric, thirsty. There is nothing to think about but the next shapeless event.”

Once I heard an American in a hotel in the Dolomites ask what she could eat. The receptionist said, “Here is the menu”. The American said, “Menu – is that Italian for food? How cute!”

Tourism turns people into commodities. There is a conceptual linkage between sightseeing, voyeurism and sexual exploitation.

Tourism is an extractive industry. Resorts are usually operated by foreign companies. Any local benefits that do accrue must be offset against the downside, such as the commandeering of scarce, clean, fresh water by resorts to the detriment of local communities.

Whatever about all that, if Sri Lanka really does want to attract quality tourists tourist hotel management will need to sharpen up their act and provide quality service and not just extortionate prices.

I brought my complaints to the attention of top management and they said they had immediately instituted improvements. That was 15 months ago. Soon I will be revisiting that hotel and will report my findings.

 

 

Complicity Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday February 10 2015.

Colman's Column3

Willing executioners?

hitleretc

A number of historians have asked, “How did ordinary people bring themselves to participate in torture and euthanasia in Nazi Germany?” Was this something particular to the Germans or could people of other nations be complicit in similar atrocities? Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis, in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, imagines a Fascist dictatorship in the USA.

 

Burleigh

In Death and Deliverance, Michael Burleigh studies the character, background and motives of those who carried out the mass sterilisation and euthanasia of German mental patients in the 1930s. In 1920, Karl Bonhoeffer, chairman of the German Psychiatric Association, acknowledged that the exigencies of war had meant that the profession “had to get used to watching our patients die of malnutrition in vast numbers, almost approving of this, in the knowledge that perhaps the healthy could be kept alive through these sacrifices”. This was a thin end of an evil wedge.

During the 1930s, Bonheoffer gave lecture courses to those charged with implementing the compulsory sterilisation policies introduced by the National Socialists. These policies were no secret. The Nazi government sought to involve the wider public in their eugenic measures by opening the asylums to public inspection. In 1935, over 2,000 tourists marched through one of the asylums in the Rhineland. From 1934, parties of a hundred or more regularly visited Eglfing-Maar in Munich.

Hermann Pfannmüller, director of Eglfing-Maar, was a fanatical Nazi and an advocate of “racial and genetic biology. He was amused when one visitor recommended setting up a machine gun in the asylum entrance to clear away the inmates. In 1989 in Potsdam, Burleigh himself watched propaganda films produced to promote euthanasia. The films educated audiences in the cost of caring for the mentally ill. These funds would be better spent on housing or food for normal people.

Sterilisation evolved into euthanasia. However, it is clear that mercy played no part in the killing. Between 1934 and 1945, 400,000 people were sterilised in the cause of eradicating “degenerative heredity”. Under the programme known as T4, daily murders became a matter of routine, with doctors falsifying death certificates to cover up lethal injections and starvation. The Nazis extended the concept of a “life unworthy of life” to include mentally and physically disabled people, Jews, Gypsies, and Homosexuals. Up to 350,000 were killed. The gas chamber technology used by the Nazis was developed when the large number of adult and child euthanasia cases required more efficient means than lethal injections and starvation.

What kind of people could do this kind of thing? The asylum administrators’ annual reports demonstrate what Burleigh describes as “a high degree of enthusiastic complicity”. The psychiatrists themselves were not noted for their intellect or ethics.

Even bureaucrats were not remote from the killing. Secretaries shared their offices with jars of gold teeth extracted from the slaughtered. All T4 employees were entitled to cut price dental treatment, which used gold from the mouths of their victims.  Most of the personnel engaged in asylum work did not have vocations as carers. Many of the murderers were women – doctors such as Mathilde Weber, who ran a “special” paediatric ward at the Kalmenhof, and hundreds of nurses. Burleigh writes that once one has abandoned stereotypes about medical professionals one finds “that these people were often bitter, frustrated, disillusioned, tired, underpaid and undervalued”. The long years they had spent in nursing inured them to suffering of others. Burleigh gives pen portraits of a few of these women, pointing out that it “was possible to refuse to carry out these policies; the only sanctions that existed concerned breaking the code of secrecy”.

Male orderlies tended to be from a lower social class and showed no evidence of a vocation for caring for the sick. They were labourers or drivers who had been made unemployed by the depression. Party membership and asylum employment provided social mobility, enabling minor functionaries to become camp commandants.

After the war, some of the Nazi eugenicists were executed. Many of those who did the hands-on killing  received light sentences. Most melted into the general population under new identities.

Browning

In Ordinary Men, published in 1992, American historian Christopher Browning looks through the archives and analyses interviews carried out in the 1960s with policemen who had the job of shooting Jews en masse. The Order Reserve Police Battalion 101 was a unit of just over 450 men from Hamburg, which had been used in 1942 to round up Jews from Russian and Polish ghettoes.

 

As well as collecting Jews for transportation to death camps, the reserve policemen also carried out massacres themselves. The battalion was responsible in Poland for the shooting of 39,000 Jews and the deportation to Treblinka of 44,000 more. In March 1942, some 75 to 80 percent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive. Eleven months later, 75 to 80 percent were dead–the result, Browning says, of “a short, intense wave of mass murder,” in Poland.

Browning concludes that these killers were not devils or Nazi fanatics or even virulent anti-Semites. These were ordinary middle-aged men of working-class background – 63% were working class but few were skilled workers. They were mostly dockworkers, truck drivers, warehouse or construction workers, machine operators, seamen, waiters. The majority were from a social class that had been anti-Nazi in its political culture.

These men were ordered to round up Jews, and if there was not enough room for them on the trains, or if they were unable to walk, to shoot them. Sometimes, they were ordered simply to kill a specified number of Jews in a given town or area. On July 13, 1942, the unit’s commander, Major Trapp, ordered his men to round up 1,800 Jews from the Polish village of Józefów and  to select several hundred as “work Jews,” and to shoot the rest- men, women, and children. Trapp told them that if any did not feel up to the task they could step forward and be excused. He wept as he gave the orders. Only a dozen men took the opportunity to hand in their rifles.

As the assignment continued, more found that they could not shoot women and children and they were released to  other duties. One said: “I myself took part in some ten shootings, in which I had to shoot men and women. I simply could not shoot at people anymore.” It was a dirty job. “The shooters were gruesomely besmirched with blood, brains, and bone splinters. It hung on their clothing”. The usual technique was to shoot the victim in the back of the neck. One man reported how “the back of the skull of my Jew was torn off and the brain exposed. Parts of the skull flew into Sergeant Steinmetz’s face. This was grounds for me to, after returning to the truck, to go to the first sergeant and ask for my release. I had become so sick that I simply couldn’t anymore”.

There was peer pressure – one who opted out said his comrades called him “shithead” and ‘weakling’- but there were no serious consequences for opting out. Browning argued that the men of Unit 101 agreed willingly to participate in massacres out of a basic obedience to authority, not blood-lust or primal hatred.

Browning wrote: “These men were not desk murderers who could take refuge in distance, routine and bureaucratic euphemisms that veiled the reality of mass murder. These men saw their victims face-to-face. Their comrades had already shot all the Jews deemed too weak to be deported, and they subsequently worked viciously for hours to prevent their victims from escaping from the train and hence the gas chambers awaiting them in Běžec.“
Critics of alltagsgeschhte – the history of everyday life- say that it draws attention away from the horrors of the Nazi genocide by normalizing the perpetrators. On the other hand, it can show the degree to which the criminal policies of the regime permeated everyday life. How would you or I have behaved in a similar situation – would you be a killer or an evader? Browning writes: “Explaining is not excusing; understanding is not forgiving”. The Holocaust took place because individual human beings killed other human beings on a large scale. The grass-roots perpetrators became “professional killers” in the sense that killing was their job.

 

Browning argues that it was not just Nazism or Germans that produced such men. There were American units in the Pacific that boasted of never taking captives. “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances,” he writes, “what group of men cannot?”

Goldhagen

 

Daniel Goldhagen and Christopher Browning have had a running dispute for some time. In his book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996), Goldhagen argues that the vast majority were complicit in the Holocaust because German political culture, developing over centuries, imbued in ordinary Germans a unique and virulent “eliminationist anti-Semitism”. According to Goldhagen, Germany had been “pregnant with murder” regarding the Jews since the mid-19th century and that all Hitler did was merely to unleash the deeply rooted murderous impulses that had been festering within the German people since at least Luther’s time. This was unique to Germany  and because of it, ordinary German conscripts killed Jews willingly.

 

Goldhagen disagreed with Browning’s argument that the killing carried out by Order Police Reserve Battalion 101 was done in the context of the ordinary sociological phenomenon of obedience to authority.  To Goldhagen, they were not “ordinary men”, but “ordinary members of an extraordinary political culture, the culture of Nazi Germany, which was possessed of a hallucinatory, lethal view of the Jews. That view was the mainspring of what was, in essence, voluntary barbarism.”

 

Goldhagen charged that every other book written on the Holocaust was flawed by the fact that historians had treated Germans in the Third Reich as “more or less like us,” wrongly believing that “their sensibilities had remotely approximated our own.”

The British historian Sir Ian Kershaw wrote, “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference,” Other historians have used the term “passive complicity” but largely agreed with Kershaw that there was a chasm of opinion about the Jews between the Nazi “true believers” and the wider German public.

 

In Part 2, It Can’t Happen Here, I will examine whether the citizens of Nazi Germany were so different.

Randall Jarrell Part One

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday February 8 2015

RJ1

 

The most heartbreaking English poet of his generation. Robert Lowell’s tribute to Randall Jarrell

I have been writing about a group of American poets who knew each other, competed with each other, and supported each other. I had a loose title for this series: The Mad Poets Society. Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke all had problems with alcohol and mental illness which made their lives often shambolic and difficult. At first glance, Randall Jarrell might not seem to fit into this category. He controlled his appetites more successfully than his friends did, avoiding their kind of public dramas; he eschewed alcohol and, most of the time, adultery. He was handsome, charming, witty, got on well with children and generally inspired affection and respect.

Nevertheless, in 1963, the year of Roethke’s death, Jarrell’s behaviour changed, probably because of what he himself called torschlusspanik (door-closing panic) – the metaphor I myself use for this is the realisation that the years left in one’s tank are rapidly diminishing. As he approached his fiftieth birthday, Jarrell started worryingly deeply about his age. After JFK’s assassination, he spent days in front of the TV, weeping uncontrollably. Medication made him manic; a change of medication made him depressive. Randall Jarrell was struck by a car and killed at the age of fifty-one on October 14, 1965. It may have been  suicide.

Early Life

Jarrell is sometimes thought of as a “Southern” writer, although he did not think of himself as such. True, he was born in Tennessee, on May 6, 1914, and spent portions of his childhood there. However, the family moved to Los Angeles in 1915 and he preferred California. After his parents separated, Jarrell’s mother took him back in 1924 to Nashville, where she had some prosperous relatives. Jarrell later told his wife Mary that in Nashville he was “covered in relatives”. He spent a lot of time in Nashville Carnegie Library where he said he regularly read “half his weight” in a week. “No matter how little time I had left, there were never enough books to fill it – I lived on the ragged edge of having nothing to read.”  In 1926, he returned to California to live with his father’s parents but went back to Nashville in 1927.

In 1932, Jarrell graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he studied with Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. Although he was influenced by the poetics of this group known as “The Fugitives” or “The Agrarians”, he was not interested in their conservative politics or their ‘Southern’ cultural ideas.

lowell

 

 

stevens

Early Work

Blood for a Stranger, his first book of poetry was published in the same year that he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, 1942. His early poetry is influenced, as was Berryman’s and Roethke’s, by WH Auden. It is apocalyptic, surreal, and lacks the wit and humour that Jarrell displayed in person. He came into his own with the works he wrote after joining the army. He soon transferred to the army to work as a control tower operator.   His second book of poems, Little Friend, dealt with fears and moral struggles of young soldiers.

Although he did not see active service, the war and military service prompted him to think at an early age about death.

army2

War Poetry

“Losses”

When we died they said, “Our casualties were low.”
They said, “Here are the maps”; we burned the cities.

It was not dying—no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: “Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?”

 

It wasn’t different: but if we died
It was not an accident but a mistake
(But an easy one for anyone to make.)
We read our mail and counted up our missions—
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school—
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals,

When we died they said, ‘Our casualties were low.’

They said, ‘Here are the maps'; we burned the cities.

 

It was not dying –no, not ever dying;

But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,

And the cities said to me: ‘Why are you dying?

We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?’

army1

War takes inexperienced young men and often kills them. There are shifting viewpoints in the poem but the narrator himself has nothing but high school with which to compare the huge monstrosity of war. He has losses without having had the time to have many gains. He does not have time for heroism and does not understand what sacrifice is or why it is him who is making it. I am reminded of Yossarian in Catch22; when he claims someone is trying to kill him he is categorised as paranoid. But of course someone is trying to kill him – this is war. When you cannot see your enemy, it is a peculiar, seemingly mad, idea that this stranger is trying to shoot down your plane and hurt you when you have never met him. Also in Catch 22, every time a pilot completes his quota of missions the quota is raised. The flyers must be haunted by the knowledge that the more missions they undertake, the greater the possibility of being shot down. Their lives are being used up like commodities. Because of 21st century technology, the bombing attacks on Iraq seemed as unreal as video games. Even in World War II, bombing civilians was impersonal. The cities down below are as artificial as targets in a training exercise. All over the world today, civilians live in fear of death by remote control by terrorist suicide bombers or IEDs.

In her book The Body in Pain, literary critic and philosopher Elaine Scarry wrote: ““It has often been observed that war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’. This accurate observation acknowledges that the act  of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’, is a deconstruction of the state as it ordinarily manifests itself in the body. That is, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation. ..He undoes the learning in his body as radically as he would if he were suddenly required to abandon the  upright posture and move on four limbs as in his pre-civilized infancy. .. Because his act of killing  does not itself contain civilization in its interior, the fact that it is being done for a particular civilization, the referent for his act, is re-established and carried by the appended  assertion (either verbalized or materialized as in the uniform), ‘for my country’.”

In Jarrell’s poem, as the point of view becomes blurred, the pilot’s own death becomes as unreal as the deaths of those foreigners (and pets and ants/aunts) down below.

“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”

ball_turret_gunner

Another war poem appeared in so many anthologies that Jarrell grew to fear that his fame might rest on it alone. “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is a mere five lines about the dangerous occupation of a B-17 gunner whose job entailed hanging upside down in a plexiglass sphere to engage enemies attacking the plane.

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

The distinguished American critic Helen Vendler wrote about this: “The secret of his war poems is that in the soldiers he found children; what is the ball turret gunner but a baby who has lost his mother?” The gunner wakes at birth, a cowering damp animal whose only purpose in living is to die for the state while sent out to  kill for the state. His  inconsequential life is compressed into five lines by skilful manipulation of time. The state shows its gratitude by impersonally hosing his bloody remains from the turret.

Jarrell’s people wake with a dark knowledge of their own death and an awareness of being helplessly trapped  by mighty forces. This kind of helpless frustration is  symbolized by  the separation of mother from child, or in the depiction of the  mother as the killer of the child. The murderous mother is identified with the state.

I will explore later the common theme running through Jarrell’s work of the fate of individuals oppressed by  institutions.

 

Language Is a Virus from Outer Space

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday November 6 2011

What did William S Burroughs mean when he wrote that language is a virus from outer space? He  argued  that language is infectious and exerts limitations and controls over people’s minds and  that the ability to think and create is  limited by the conventions of grammar and usage. Language is public behaviour which can be criticised. It can label and identify and categorise an individual. Linguistic factors influence our judgement of a person with serious consequences for identity and social survival.

Language can be divisive. India has (according to the 1961 Census) 1,652 languages, so it is not surprising that there have been language riots. Belgium with only two languages has also had language riots.

Language can be used to unite. Language is often an important part of nationalist struggle. In Ireland, the founding fathers of the Republic believed that language was intrinsic to the identity of the nation. Padraic Pearse believed the Irish school system raised Ireland’s youth to be good Englishmen or obedient Irishmen. Incidentally, Pearse’s father was a Brit  from Birmingham. The English put him before a firing squad for his part in the Easter Rising. Sean Mac Stíofáin, leader of the Provisional IRA in the 1970s, spoke fluent Irish with a cockney accent – his real name was John Stephenson and he was born in Leytonstone.

Brian Friel’s brilliant play Translations  deals with a wide range of issues, stretching from language and communication, to Irish history and cultural imperialism. A party from the Royal Engineers is working on new ordinance survey maps which involves turning Irish place names into English. The play focuses mainly on (mis)communication and language to tell of the desperate situation between these two countries with an unsure and questionable outcome.

There is no doubt that English as spoken in Ireland has a distinctive character. As Robert McCrum wrote in The Story of English,  “In England , the Anglo Saxons and the Celts hardly mixed. In Ireland the strange, and sometimes tragic, fusion of their two languages has made a culture, spoken and written, that is one of the glories of the English language. Irish English is the language of Edmund Spenser, Jonathan Swift, RB Sheridan, William Congreve, Oscar Wilde, JM Synge, WB Yeats, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett (I know he wrote in French but he still sounds Irish when translated into English!).

My impression is that, in Sri Lanka,  Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims do mix. I was surprised that someone sent to do some work for us could not speak Sinhala, only Tamil. This was surprising because he had always lived in a Sinhala-speaking area and relied for his livelihood on working for Sinhala or English speakers. I was even more surprised and mightily impressed that others of a similar background were fluently tri-lingual, even though their formal education was limited. My optimism about his usefulness was soon deflated when he spent most afternoons reading my English papers and throwing bidis all over the garden. I also found that his polyglotism allowed him to lie to me in three languages and the English dried up when he was posed with a direct verbal challenge.

It is a truism that language has been a divisive issue in Sri Lanka. Perceived discrimination against the Tamil tongue was a contributory factor to 30 years of war. In 1956, the Sinhala-Only Act enshrined Sinhala as the language of administration and placed the majority Sinhalese speakers in a dominant position. This was not merely a cultural matter but  had a serious economic impact because, in a polity where government jobs were highly prized,  it  reduced the opportunities for Tamils to succeed in the administrative services or academia.

Sinhala linguistic nationalism was directed as much against English as Tamil, but the Brits were not going to fight back. In the 1950s, the marginalised underprivileged classes saw the primacy of Sinhala as a blow against the privileges of the elite urban English-educated classes.

During the colonial period, Tamil as well as Sinhala politicians espoused the idea of swabasha (or ‘native languages’).  The pressure  for swabasha was not about inter-ethnic conflict but to a certain extent reflected class connotations and  was a protest against the privileges enjoyed by the English educated elite, but denied  to the masses educated in the local languages. According to Prof Sasanka Perera, politicians and senior civil servants in the 1940s discussed the establishment of local languages as Official Languages replacing English

Language had not become a divisive ethnic issue even at this stage. Even SWRD Bandaranaike’s SLFP stated  in its manifesto: “it is most essential that Sinhalese and Tamil be adopted as Official Languages immediately so that the people of this country may cease to be aliens in their own land….”.

The divisive nature of language has been countered by the invention of artificial (or auxiliary, as many enthusiasts prefer) languages (ALs as they are known in the linguistic trade). Several hundred ALs have been recorded (including Klingon). Esperanto is the best known and has been used by people as different as Pope John Paul and Michael Jackson. Although proponents  of invented languages see them as a key to a brave new world of mutual understanding, clear thinking and peaceful-co-existence, their fervent advocacy in iteslef can cause antagonism. Esperanto has been frequently persecuted. In the 1930s the organisation was suppressed and many members arrstrd and shot.

Why invent a new language when there are existing languages used globally? In David Crystals magisterial Encyclopaedia of Language (1987, revised 1997), in the top 40 languages, English came in at number two, behind Mandarin Chinese. Since then English has been overtaken by Hindi and Spanish. Tamil was at number 20 and has gone up to number 17, with 77 million speakers worldwide. Sinhala and Irish do not make it to the charts.

Back in the mists of history, Latin was the global language, first because it was the language of the Roman Empire, then because it was the language of the universal church. Today the English language dominates (whatever the numbers of speakers recorded in the charts). First because it was the language of the British Empire, then because it was the language of the American (and Hollywood Empire) and now because it is the language of the internet. Irish is moribund in the sense that, although it is kept alive by governments and cultural enthusiasts, the Gaeltacht areas are shrinking museums or holiday destinations. Irish, like Sinhalese, is not an international language. Unlike Sinhalese, Irish is not used as part of daily commerce or social intercourse.

Chelva Kanaganayakam writes in the Nethra Review, that in Sri Lanka: “The idea that the adoption of English would eventually erase ‘ethnic thinking’ is clearly simplistic”. One practical problem would be finding enough competent English teachers. Reggie Siriwardene wrote back in 1992: “Catholics and Protestants have been fighting each other in Ulster for a long time although they have no linguistic difficulty talking to each other”. Up to a point, Reggie. That very use of the word “Ulster” is a good example of linguistic problems in Ireland. Irish nationalists would froth at the mouth at the use of “Ulster” to designate the six counties that from the statelet of Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. Ulster is an ancient province of the island of Ireland and includes counties that are today part of the Republic. Even the use of the term “Northern Ireland” is avoided by some because it implies recognition of British rule. Also the northernmost county in the island is Donegal which is in the Republic. A government official I did business with in Dublin studiously used the term “the north eastern counties”. I once had dinner in Belfast with Chris Patten when he was minister for Northern Ireland. Patten (a Catholic) told how he had irked the Reverend Ian Paisley by using the term “Derry” instead of “Londonderry”.

 

Can we dream? In SRWD Bandaranaike’s time, English seemed to be the problem – part of the oppressive British imperial machinery. These days could English be the solution? Could English contribute to unifying Sri Lanka and helping it to better establish itsef in the global marketplace?

 

 

 

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