Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Thinking about the “G”-word

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 16 2015

http://test.ceylontoday.lk/51-87480-news-detail-thinking-about-the-g-word.html

Colman's Column3

“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’”

The purpose of language is to convey ideas as succinctly and accurately as possible under the aegis of a common understanding. Definition is crucial. We must define our terms logically, sensibly and consistently if we are to have a productive dialogue – otherwise we are talking at cross-purposes.

Way back in the mists of last century, I worked in the child protection field. The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) sent me a report alleging that 50 % of girls and 25% of boys under the age of 16 in the UK had been victims of child sexual abuse. This was shocking news. When I analysed the raw data of the NSPCC survey, a different picture emerged. One is horrified at the idea of innocent children being raped. However, one might be less upset at girls encountering a flasher or hormonal boys seeking out pornography. The NSPCC’s definition of sexual abuse of children encompassed consensual sexual relations between teenagers below the legal age of consent and obscene language. The NGO was pursuing its fund-raising agenda by propagating sensational statistics, which covered a wide continuum of behaviour. Reading the small print one could see that: “Sexual abuse takes many forms: explicit sexual talk; showing pornography; sexual touching; lack of privacy to bath or undress; masturbation; and sexual intercourse.”

The Northern Provincial Council passed a resolution alleging that successive national governments of Sri Lanka have been following a policy of genocide against Tamils in Sri Lanka.

What is genocide? The etymology is hybrid, coming from genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and -cide (Latin for killing). Has the entire race of Tamils in Sri Lanka been killed? Has there been any official plan or policy to exterminate Tamils in Sri Lanka? Is Humpty Dumpty a member of the NPC?

The word “genocide” did not exist until 1943. This does not mean that there was no genocide before that date. Many Irish people believe that Oliver Cromwell engaged in genocide. The ground for Cromwell’s actions was prepared under the Tudors in a manifesto written by the poet Edmund Spenser. In his “View of the Present State of Ireland” (1596), Spenser argued that starvation was the best way to control the fractious Irish. Spenser described how the starving Irish population would “consume themselves and devour one another”.

The Irish quite naturally resisted . Cromwell re-conquered Ireland with a death toll of possibly 40% of the entire Irish population. There was wholesale burning of crops and killing of civilians and many were sent to the West Indies as indentured labourers. A recent book, God’s Executioner by Mícheál Ó Siochrú, is a forceful restatement of the prosecution case that Cromwell’s campaign was genocidal. Cromwell’s programme achieved the almost complete dispossession of the Catholic landed elite. The native ruling classes were destroyed and replaced by the Protestant Ascendancy.

There was a plan. Hitler, Mengele and Baldur von Shirach might have learnt a thing or two from Sir William Petty (1623-87) – mathematician, mechanic, physician, cartographer and statistician – who devised a public-private partnership for “fusing science and policy”. Petty explored the idea of breeding the “meer Irish” out of existence by deporting 10,000 Irishwomen of marriageable age to England every year and replacing them with a like number of Englishwomen.”The whole Work of natural Transmutation and Union would in four or five years be accomplished.” Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal to lampoon Petty’s ideas. Swift suggests that impoverished Irish might profit by selling their surplus children as food for the rich.

Because of the famine that followed the potato blight of 1845, Ireland’s population fell by 25%.  One million people died of starvation and typhus. Millions emigrated over following decades. Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded workhouses where more than 200,000 people died. In his book Three Famines, Thomas Keneally, the Australian novelist who wrote Schindler’s List, quotes a contemporary observer: “Insane mothers began to eat their young children who died of famine before them; and still fleets of ships were sailing with every tide, carrying Irish cattle and corn to England”. The 1911 Census showed that Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million, about half of its peak population.  Broadcaster and historian Robert Kee suggested that the Irish Famine of 1845 is “comparable” in its force on popular national consciousness to that of the “final solution on the Jews,” and that it is not infrequently thought that the Famine was something very like, “a form of genocide engineered by the English against the Irish people”.

Kee mentioned the horror that is the benchmark for genocide in the 20th Century. There is no doubt that Hitler had long had a plan to exterminate all the Jews in Europe and he succeeded in killing six million of them. It is an affront to logic to give the name of genocide both to what happened to the Jews under the Nazis and to what happened to Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Raphael Lemkin (June 24, 1900 – August 28, 1959) coined the word “genocide”. Lemkin was a Jewish Polish lawyer who immigrated to the United States in 1941. He first used the word in print in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress (1944), and defined it as “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group.”

By Lemkin’s original simple definition, it would seem obvious that many Sri Lankan Tamils are using the word genocide incorrectly and mischievously. Whatever heinous crimes may have been perpetrated against Tamils in Sri Lankan the “ethnic group” has clearly not been “destroyed”. According to the 2012 census, there were 2,270,924 Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka, 11.21% of the population. Sri Lankan Tamils constitute an overwhelming majority of the population in the Northern Province and are the largest ethnic group in the Eastern Province. The current Chief Justice is Tamil and Tamils occupy many senior positions.

Lemkin took an interest in the subject of genocide while studying the killing by Turkish forces of 1.5 million Armenians. In 1913, a triumvirate of Young Turks, consisting of Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver and Ahmed Djemal, assumed dictatorial powers and concocted a plan to  create a new Turkish empire, a “great and eternal land” called Turan with one language and one religion. On 24 April 1915, Ottoman authorities rounded up and arrested some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople. There had been prior preparations. In fact, one argument for defining this as genocide is that it had been brewing for at least a century. In 1913, Turks disarmed the entire Armenian population. About forty thousand Armenian men served in the Turkish Army. In the autumn and winter of 1914, all their weapons were confiscated and they were employed as slave labour  to build roads or  used as pack animals. There was a very high death rate. Along the way, they were frequently set upon by Kurdish tribesmen, who had been given license to loot and rape. Kurds are seen today as victims of the Turkish state but they played a major role in the persecution of Armenians.

It is still dangerous in modern Turkey to talk about the genocide. Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk was accused of having violated Section 301 of the Turkish penal code, which outlaws “insulting Turkishness.” An optimistic feature in today’s Turkey is that many non-Armenians are prepared to speak out and many Kurds in particular are taking reconciliatory measures to atone for the crimes of their ancestors.

The simple definition of genocide – the attempt to exterminate an entire race-  has been expanded to cover a continuum that undermines the usefulness of genocide as a concept. Tamils who support the NPC resolution say that it fits the UN convention of 1948. According to that  genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group:

  • killing members of the group;
  • causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction;
  • imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • forcibly transferring children of this group to another group.

To say that the whole GOSL campaign against the LTTE was a genocide against the Tamil people is just plain wrong. To say that genocide has been going on since 1948 is ludicrous. It does not help victims of real child sexual abuse to bump up the statistics by including minor offences. While dirty talk might be unseemly and inappropriate, it is not the moral equivalent of raping a baby.  Action should be taken against sexual crimes and against violations of human rights. However, racial discrimination is not on a par with the extermination of a race. It does not help victims (Sinhalese and Muslim as well as Tamil) of the GOSL to pretend that Sri Lanka has had a Hitler or a Stalin or a Mao or a Pol Pot or a Cromwell or an Ahmed Djemal. (Although a successful Tamil businessman spoke to me vehemently in those terms about Dickie Jayewardene.)

Martin Shaw is a research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals and Sussex University best known for his sociological work on war, genocide and global politics. He is a frequent contributor to the website Open Democracy. I asked Professor Shaw about the question of genocide in Sri Lanka but he hedged and prevaricated. Commenters on Open Democracy have been critical of his writings on genocide. “What Shaw and his post-modernist ilk contend is that we should move in the opposite direction and expand definitions to points ad infinitum.”

Dr Rhadhika Coomaraswamy has been described as a brilliant scholar and there is no doubt that she is a doughty champion of human rights. She was the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict until 13 July 2012.  She wrote in response to the NPC resolution: “some Tamil nationalist lawyer has suddenly woken up to the fact that if we use the “G” word then there is a legal case for a separate state. This of course is a delusion of theoretical lawyers… Accountability for war crimes and human rights violations is a completely different frame of action than the claim for a separate state”. She continued: “We as a community have had enough of all this name-calling- genocide, traitor, nation- all that is just unnecessary hyperbole at this time in our history. There are so many problems that have to be solved through discussion and dialogue that affect people in their everyday life”.

Dr Coomaraswamy argues that it is time to abandon the victim mentality that lies behind the NPC resolution: “Let us regain our self -respect and our self-confidence, stand tall, look our Sinhalese and Muslim brothers and sisters in the eye, start acting as their equals and begin to build lasting partnerships.”

Randall Jarrell Part Four

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday March 15 2015

The Cruel Critic

NYer

After the Second World War, Jarrell achieved a measure of success, financial security, critical esteem and happiness. He married his second wife, Mary von Schrader, in 1952.

cat

For the rest of his life, he taught at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In 1967, Nancy Seletti wrote about  being taught by Jarrell at Greensboro in 1947/48. “He made us love good poems with the passion children give to toys which are not merely companions to them but talismen with which to face the world. He had, and conveyed to us, the professional magician’s delight in a brilliant accomplishment for its own sake.”

with students

She observed the cruel streak that others have discussed but claims he was never cruel to students.“It seems to me that Randall Jarrell was harsh and unfeeling only with those whom he felt to be his equals in sophistication or who, by placing themselves in the literary arena, made themselves the enemies of genuine excellence, the representatives of those powers, political, aesthetic, or intellectual which threatened the unique, suffering, not very virtuous individual being whom he loved with mingled pity, horror, and delight.”

bat

He was poetry consultant at the Library of Congress in Washington (a post now named Poet Laureate) for two years. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he was not writing so much original  poetry, he translated Faust, Part 1, a Chekhov play, and several of Grimm’s tales. Near the end of his life, he wrote children’s stories, among them The Bat Poet (1964) and The Animal Family (1965).  His children’s books, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, have been very popular.

sendak

Nancy Seletti described his appearance: “When he first came to us he seemed a rather queer bird, austere, forbiddingly heralded as both brilliant poet and devastating critic, but with a surprising naturalness of movement which reminded us of the childhood we were leaving behind, an ease which seemed to contradict his coldness. He had besides an extremely unacademic manner, and all in all there was something gnomelike about him, something not quite contained in everyday experience, full of sudden surprises and disconcerting impressions. We were a little afraid of him…”

frost

Stephen Spender said he,” looked at moments like a squirrel struggling through a hollow log, held in a cramped hole but with berry-black eyes shining through”. Paul Mariani, biographer of John Berryman, described the impressions of John and Eileen Berryman when they met Jarrell at the time that he took over as literary editor of The Nation in New York. “Tall willowy, thin, dark-haired, dark-eyed, half a year older than Berryman, a man of stunning contrasts, a hipster whose language was ten years out of date, a puritan who drove fast cars, a killer who could weep apologetically after his words had innocently sliced the heart from his victim”.

Photographs show him looking benign at home holding a cat, others wearing grey flannel suits, sometimes he is shown polishing the hubcaps of his Mercedes-Benz, others show him poised on chair’s arm with Alastair Reid and Robert Graves, in conversation with Robert Lowell. Jack Kerouac once visited the Jarrells and drank the house dry.

benz

More about that cruel streak: He said of one book that it seemed to have “been written on a typewriter by a typewriter”). Lowell balances this cruelty against Jarrell’s immense enthusiasms for what he did like. Conrad Aiken once publicly protested about Jarrell’s “sadistic” reviews of his work. John Berryman wrote: “Jarrell’s reviews did go beyond the limit; they were unbelievably cruel, that’s true. Conrad was quite right. But…he hated bad poetry with such vehemence and so vigorously that it didn’t occur to him that in the course of taking apart—where he’d take a book of poems and squeeze, like that, twist—that in the course of doing that, there was a human being also being squeezed.”

In 1961, Jarrell won the National Book Award for Poetry for his volume The Woman at the Washington Zoo. In his acceptance speech, he referred to his reputation as a cruel critic: “Sometimes I read, in reviews by men whose sleep I have troubled, that I’m one of those poets who’ve never learned to write poetry.” He tried to show his human side. “During these times the only person who helps much is my wife: she always acts as if I’d written the last poem yesterday and were about to write the next one tomorrow. While I’m writing poems or translating Faust I read what I have out loud, and my wife listens to me. Homer used to be led around by a little boy, who would listen to him: all I can say is, if Homer had ever had my wife listen to his poems, he would never again have been satisfied with that little boy.”

“Poetry, art — these too are occupations of a sort; and I do not recommend them to you any more than I recommend to you that tonight, you go home to bed, and go to sleep, and dream.”

lost

Jarrell  was a hipster heavily influenced by Wordsworth. Jarrell’s last book of poems, The Lost World, published in 1965, explores the world of childhood, as did Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality.  In his Ode, Wordsworth feels that a glory has passed away from the earth. Jarrell shares that view that the immediate reality of habit and routine dulls the innocence of childhood, knowledge extinguishes ignorance until death deprives us of the finite pleasures of the world. Works of art can give only limited immortality. Childhood can only be recovered in a frustrating way through fallible memory.

The_lost_world_1925_poster

Jarrell, in the title poem of the collection, remembers living as a child with his grandparents, Pop and Mama, and his great-grandmother, Dandeen, in Hollywood. In the first section , “Children’s Arms,” Jarrell remembers when he was twelve years old passing the set 1925 film directed by Harry O Hoyt of the Conan Doyle novel The Lost World. A papier-mâché dinosaur and pterodactyl look over the fence. When he gets home, he picks up his bow and arrows, climbs to his tree house and begins a life of make-believe.

He also goes with his grandfather to the adult world of work, where he realizes that “the secret the grown-ups share, is what to do to make money.”

My grandfather and I sit there in oneness

As the Sunset bus, lit by the lavender

And rose of sunrise, takes us to the dark

Echoing cavern where Pop, a worker,

Works for our living. As he rules a mark,

A short square pencil in his short square hand,

On a great sheet of copper, I make some remark

He doesn’t hear. In that hard maze—in that land

That grown men live in—in the world of work,

He measures, shears, solders; and I stand

Empty-handed, watching him. I wander into the murk

The naked light bulbs pierce: the workmen, making something,

Say something to the boy in his white shirt. I jerk

As the sparks fly at me. The man hammering

As acid hisses, and the solder turns to silver,

Seems to me a dwarf hammering out the Ring

In the world under the world. The hours blur;

Bored and not bored, I bend things out of lead.

I wash my smudged hands, as my grandfather

Washes his black ones, with their gritty soap: ahead,

Past their time clock, their pay window, is the blue

And gold and white of noon. The sooty thread

Up which the laborers feel their way into

Their wives and houses, is money; the fact of life,

The secret the grown-ups share, is what to do

To make money. 

 

Soon after completing The Lost World, Jarrell  became mentally ill, first elated and later depressed. Stephen Spender described recordings of Jarrell reciting his poems in an “almost strangled voice, sometimes shrill with protest”. Jarrell often sounds as though he is about to weep. He slashed his wrists when his mind was troubled by a severe review. Joseph Bennett wrote of The Lost World in the New York Times Book Review: “His work is trashy and thoroughly dated; prodigiousness encouraged by an indulgent and sentimental Mamaism, its overriding feature is doddering infantilism”. Robert Lowell wrote to Jarrell to comfort  him: “Your courage, brilliance and generosity should have saved you from this.”

 

Recovering, he went back to teaching in the fall of 1965, then entered a hospital in Chapel Hill for therapy on his wrist. While there, and while walking at dusk on a nearby highway, he was struck by a car and killed immediately. The coroner’s verdict was accidental death, although the circumstances will never be entirely clear.

tribute

A book of tributes was published in 1967:  Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965 edited by Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor and Robert Penn Warren. Reviewing it Stephen Spender wrote: “The writers in this volume bear witness to his gaiety and happiness as well as to his grievances”.  Robert Lowell wrote, “What Jarrell’s inner life was in all its wonder, variety, and subtlety is best told in his poetry…His gifts, both by nature and by a lifetime of hard dedication and growth, were wit, pathos, and brilliance of intelligence. These qualities, dazzling in themselves, were often so well employed that he became, I think, the most heartbreaking English poet of his generation…Always behind the sharpened edge of his lines, there is the merciful vision, his vision, partial like all others, but an illumination of life, too sad and radiant for us to stay with long—or forget.”

 

If just living can do this,
Living is more dangerous than anything:
It is terrible to be alive.

 

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