Friday, August 11, 2017

Something there is that doesn't love a wall

Garrett Carr's book, The Rule of the Land, is quite simply beautiful. It is written with style, immediacy and depth. The author has a novel idea: to walk along the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and to map and describe the detail along his journey. He relates memories from his childhood traveling with his father across the border into the north to buy cheaper goods and then shuttle them back to the south through customs. His father and others risked such trips despite the 'Troubles' and the presence of British troops then at border posts. Now, as Carr undertakes his journey, he reflects on the history of the borderland and its future, challenged by Brexit.

He begins his journey by boat paddling into the Carlingford  Lough in the east and ends when he reaches Lough Foyle above Derry/Londonderry. In between these two seas Carr tells us the stories of Ireland. He relates conversations with borderlanders he meets along the way. He tells us stories of achievement and conflict both recent and ancient. He sketches and photographs landmarks from prehistory and modern industry. And he weaves all of these tales into a poetic odyssey. 

The borderlands have witnessed both tragedy and human ingenuity. And the forensics are there to prove it. All the facts lie buried and preserved in the bogs, which the author crosses during his trek. Seamus Heaney's observation of the bogs' role as a  chronicle of history is the Bard's truth. 

Since the end of the 'Troubles' with the Good Friday Agreement, the borders have opened. Best they should remain that way. As Carr muses at the outset of his journey, (my summary of the author’s words) ’If only the Lighthouse in Lough Calingford could turn like a spool and gather up the border's twisting black line across the island, it would be a benign act indeed.’

Buy, read and savor this book. Borders the world over beware.

David Hillstrom

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Reflections on the Six Day War 

As a young university student 50 years ago I had developed an interest in politics and global affairs. I was already opposed to the Vietnam War and the black sheep in my family on that score, although I still had two years deferment from the draft remaining. When the Six Day War began, l followed the news every evening to learn the latest developments and consider every perspective and nuance. 

I recall leaning solidly in favor of Israel. I can't say whether my leanings had been conditioned by the media or whether I may have been in awe, as were most, of Israel's astonishing military success. But I was clearly pro Israel during the initial days. Then one evening I happened to follow a BBC documentary on the history of the conflict. I was shocked to learn for the first time of the staggering migration of Jews from Europe after WWII. Yet despite those hundreds of thousands of Jewish migrants, the Jews remained a minority in Palestine. The Jewish community had lobbied for statehood and had begun guerrilla action against the British, who then occupied Palestine. When the UN General Assembly approved a partition plan hostilities broke out. What followed was a rapid expansion of the new state of Israel to encompass more then twice the land demarcated in the UN partition plan. Then hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled into Lebanon and Jordan as refugees.

This history is rarely shown any longer on the 'news.' Bits and pieces are occasionally referred to together with qualifying arguments and explanations that play down the facts. For me, however, from that day forward I realized that the history of modern Palestine was far less favorable to Israel than most people appreciate. The simple facts were that the recent Jewish immigrants to Palestine had seized far more land than they had ever been 'promised' and thousands of Palestinians had become refugees. I could no longer admire the Israelis, nor could I support the extension of that history resulting from the Six Day War. 

Perhaps most people reading this opinion article will already have branded me anti-Semitic. While I am not, I won't waste time trying to prove I am not an elephant. In fact this accusation has always confused me. Hebrew is a Semitic language, but then so is Arabic. Others may use a different racial slur and call me an Arab lover. Neither does that hold; I am an atheist with no preference between religious myths. All I wish to do is to examine the recent history of Israel / Palestine in order to make a reasoned judgment on events, the status quo and future directions.

Presently, 50 years following the Six Day War, Israel continues to occupy much of the land that it captured then. Israel also continues to build new settlements within the occupied territory on the West Bank in breach of international law and UN decisions. Of course Israel has its defenders and apologists, but how can one defend the fact of a 50 year occupation. I find myself humming Dylan's lyrics "How many years can some people exist / before they're allowed to be free."

Let's consider the arguments in defense of Israel. (1) The Jews were persecuted in Europe and fled to safety and to a dream of returning to the promised land. This is of course true, although the promised land is partly mythology (as of course most ethnic tales are) and partly ancient history. (2) Israel's statehood was approved by the international community. Since then the Jewish state has simply responded to Arab aggression in defense of their state. In fact this line of argument is deeply biased and not historically objective. But, even if one were to accept such arguments, how can one accept the facts on the ground?

The Palestinian people were denied the right of self determination exactly at the time that The Jewish minority unilaterally declared the formation of their state. The Palestinians have existed in the occupied territories for 50 years now with no political rights and with severe constraints on their movement. How is this different from the South African Apartheid State? Why was the international community united against South Africa, but is not against Israel's policy? The apologists usually reply with two justifications. First, the Palestinians have engaged in terrorism and Israel has a right to protect itself. Yet, the imposition of apartheid policies amounts to collective punishment of innocent civilians, once again an illegal practice. Second, the Palestinians must accept Israel's right to exist before meaningful negotiations can proceed. Yet, in fact the Palestinian Authority has accepted and still negotiations are stalled and Israel continues building new settlements.

Yes, the Jewish people suffered the holocaust. And they were themselves oppressed for centuries within Europe and lived in ghettos and denied freedom and full political rights. That fact however does not confer upon them the right to occupy another population and to inflict on others those same injustices.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Review: Sapiens

A contemporary, scientific view of life on earth differs dramatically from the biblical perspective. To begin with the earth is not at the center of the universe. Nor, is it even at the center of our peripheral solar system. All right fine, you may say, we know all of that. But then, what if we were to stretch this new scientific perspective into an entirely consistent world view from the vantage point of the singular event 14 billion years ago (the Big Bang) that we now consider the beginning? The result of such a Cartesian discourse is a serious stretch for most. Yet, this is the journey that Yuval Noah Harari takes us on in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

The journey and the revelations will be disconcerting to many. Harari though is an excellent guide and his style, that of a non-confrontational story teller, palliates the bitter truth. That  at least is my view of his work. But then I am a fellow traveler. I wrote a book some years ago (2008), The Bridge, where I developed these same ideas and perspectives. To me it is most rewarding to see an historian of Harari's stature embrace such insights. I should confess here that I found myself speculating on how Wallace might have felt upon reading Darwin's publication. 

    And memories of the ebb and flow of ideas. (From The Story of Our People, a poetic drama by David Hillstrom)

Perhaps I should continue by simply stating the case: What are these common ideas? To start with the Big Bang was an absolute beginning. It is meaningless to ask what came before, since time and even space began with the singularity. Following the Big Bang billions of years passed before the earth was even formed. Billions of stars were formed before our own sun was born. The conditions on our planet earth happened to be favorable for the emergence of life (although we still have difficulty even in defining what life is precisely). Life forms then evolved for a few billion years more before we Sapiens appeared. There is no direction to evolution or purpose underlying natural events or human history. Nature has no discernible purpose. Step by step Harari guides the reader through this chronology of events. In fact he includes a timeline of the story as an introduction.

Harari goes on to explain that Sapiens then underwent a cognitive revolution through the development of speech and a greatly expanded consciousness. This cognitive revolution facilitated the growth of common myths that enriched the ability of communities to cooperate. For thousands of years though this cooperation remained at a local level. Once agriculture was invented further growth in the capacity for cooperation arose allowing a dramatic increase in social complexity. From that point on we enter the period of human history. Harari estimates that this cognitive revolution occurred about 70,000 years before the present, nearly 14 billion years after the Big Bang. The cognitive revolution has proven to be quite significant of course. Its impact has already reshaped life on earth (to the detriment of most other species). But, the inception of the revolution is inseparably bound together with the proliferation of myths.

Many authors have dealt with questions of mythology and contemporary religions  often with the intent of debunking unfounded beliefs. Harari examines this issue of social belief structures from a rather different perspective. First he expands the discussion to include much broader elements of social organization. All communities he says are fictive; they are imagined realities. Again, many will be comfortable with such arguments as a critique of religion. But how about race, or nation states or empires? Harari even offers the example of business corporations as fictive social structures. So, all social structures are ultimately based in fiction. Yet these fictions, these shared beliefs, allow groups to identify themselves as ‘we’ and to thus establish rules of engagement and cooperation. These fictions, therefore, permit the emergence of ever increasing degrees of complex interaction.

Harari pursues the human story up to the present and beyond. However, he deals with history at a macro level considering major trends. His book is not about the twists and turns of history or the details of specific periods or regions. Rather he observes trends from a satellite perspective, as though an alien observer, and points out the turning points, the paradigm shifts. Quite correctly, I think, he suggests that history has been a progression of empires. Then, with the industrial revolution and the colonial period about five hundred years ago "The entire planet becomes a single historical arena." The trend since then is toward a single empire or some form of international governance. Despite hiccup-examples such as 'Brexit' this looks like a reasonable deduction. But, at this juncture Harari and I part ways.

My personal inclination is to reflect upon how humanity might move from our current state toward a peaceful and just form of international governance. Harari observes that we may be incapable of reaching a consensus on the sort of future we want. Instead he looks for new discoveries or trajectories that will define our future, such as technology and genetic design. Humans themselves are today becoming gods capable of 'intelligent' design. But is rather impossible for us to predict how such new technology will impact the future. Regrettably he is probably right.