Friday, January 27, 2006

The Hopes and the Hope-nots

For the last couple of years, the Militant Pine Marten has been conscious of a growing climate of fear or at least of anxiety in the West. This is possibly true elsewhere also, but as I have no real first hand knowledge of the collective emotional state of the developing world (and even that statement assumes that such a tremendously sweeping generalisation could ever have any value), I'll leave it aside for the purposes of this discussion. At first glance, it would appear that a high proportion of some of the most important problems facing our societies at the moment are to a great extent due to variations on the theme of fear being played in the background. I'm not referring here to intestine-knotting terror of course, just to the low-intensity highly pervasive forms of this most primal and debilitating of emotions. A good example would be what happens when you're walking down the street at dusk and a bunch of swaggering teenage boys in hoodies are walking down the same pavement towards you. Maybe you cross the road. Maybe you just avoid eye contact. Maybe you just decide to put on a blank facial expression, gird up your loins and walk through them. Whatever your reaction, you're slightly scared that their intentions are hostile, and you perceive a threat to some degree. Meanwhile, despite your best efforts to conceal it, the boys in question have perceived that you perceive them as a threat, which makes them feel that maybe they should be a threat, even if it isn't clear why, and anyway since you're clearly hostile to them, the chances are that they should indeed be hostile towards you. Suddenly, collective paranoia and prejudice has spawned a real antipathy. It's irrational, it comes out of nowhere, but the thought that there could be a threat leads to fear, that fear leads to suspicion, and in turn that generates a threat that has no logical reason to exist.

That example happens in some form a million times every day, in Tube stations on London, outside Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysées, everywhere, and it may seem innocuous enough, but it's one of the main causes of the much larger problem that in France is termed "l'insécurité", the widespread fear of crime, which is generally far greater than the actual prevalence of crime justifies. But this pervasive climate of fear is too tempting not to be exploited by politicians such as the Militant Pine Marten's betes noires Charles Clarke and Nicolas Sarkozy to introduce rafts of illiberal legislation to protect us or rather alleviate our collective fears, and of course on a larger scale it provided Bush and Blair with the means to persuade their electorates that they should be allowed to start a war. Exploiting collective fears in order to further one's agenda is hardly a new political trick. Indeed, just talking about it fuels the fear, which affords the Powers That Be greater freedom to pursue their goals, and the process is self-perpetuating.

However great tides of fear come and go, they can be dispelled quite easily, people can stand back, take stock, shake their heads and wake up. Underlying all that there remains, I think, a more discreet and yet powerful collective emotion that leads to division, apathy, hostility, and of course fear and violence: increasingly, people lack hope, and without hope it is almost impossible to try and improve anything either for oneself or for society and the world at large. Not believing that things are likely to improve leads to entrenchment and withdrawal. Returning to a theme dear to my mustelid heart, I believe that this is why the French electorate rejected to draft EU constitution last year. Surveys show that better off voters were professionally, and the higher their level of education, the more likely they were to vote in favour of the Constitution. Conversely, those lower in the pecking order tended to oppose it. However this had nothing to do with traditional divisions between Right and Left, Europhiles and Anti-Europeans. This was a difference of opinion between the Hopes and Hope Nots. People are worried by the fact that the EU opens up its member states with uncertain consequences. and whereas those in higher socio-professional groups feel ready to deal with whatever this form of globalisation may bring, those lower down want to protect their current status by turning inwards (these are generalisations of course). For the same reason, successive French governments have found it impossible to introduce meaningful reforms to the welfare system and employment legislation: most of the electorate has no expectation that the risks will lead to any improvements so they cling on to what they have.

This immobilism through loss of hope is by no means unique to France. In the UK for example, it's behind the fact that most younger members of the electorate don't bother to turn up at the polling station: they don't believe that they can change anything. If you're in the habit of not bothering to dispose of glass bottles in the recycling bin provided by the council because you think "what difference will I make on my own?", it's the same thing. Some of the worst culprits are the environmental miserabilists who have set about convincing us all that we're all going to die poisoned by radiation and drowned in melted ice caps, starved because we've eaten all the cod and bonobos. Their attitude indicates that for all their pious pontificating, they've actually given up any real hope of doing anything about it, making it all more likely that theirs are self-fulfilling prophecies. They've left all the hope to those who think that we can carry strip-mining Creation and that it will all turn out fine in the end (which it might, but it's unlikely).

What we need now is to break out of the cycle of hopelessness, despondency and self-fulfilling miserable predictions. It may be quite likely that things will end badly, but it's absolutely certain that they will be awful if no one tries to make a difference because they've given up believing that they can. Social justice isn't just about giving to the Have-nots. It's just as important to return hope to the Hope-nots.

"On aura une maison
Avec des tas d'fenetres
Et si c'est pas sur
C'est quand meme peut-etre"
Jacques Brel

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

In which we learn where the Militant Pine Marten has been of late

As happened back in August, the Militant Pine Marten has been back to the woods to gather its thoughts for the best part of a month. I'm going to allow myself to be sufficiently presumptuous to assume that a couple of people somewhere out there have been wondering if I'd gone into hibernation or just moved on. I thought that after this long wait you may like to see where I've been.

This is the view from the woods just before sunset. As you can see, it was pretty cold.

After night falls, the woods are left to the roe deer and the pine martens, although most of them aren't very militant at all.

Here's a rare picture of some humans out early the next morning for some contemplation of their own. And a little hunting, just like me.

Eventually, the light started to fall, the humans went back inside, and the pine martens were once again given the run of the place.

And so now you see why the Militant Pine Marten couldn't bring itself to think of the world's troubles. That's what the trips to the woods are for: a little contemplation, a little hunting, a little unadulterated simple joy at the beauty of the world.

Merry Mustelid 2006!

Weightier matters will now return to the fore.

Non-civilian disobedience

It was with a degree of astonishment that I was jolted out of my slumber on Monday morning by General Sir Michael Rose calling for Tony Blair to be impeached on the Today programme. You may remember the general from back in the Nineties where he was in charge of operations in the former Yugoslavia for a while, and in that capacity used to appear on the news with some regularity, although I personally can't remember whether he was any good. I don't think that anyone was really very effective in that sorry episode, but that's not relevant here. What surprised me wasn't the call for Tony Blair to be held accountable for conning the UK into the Iraq war, that sort of demand has been quite common over the past three years. No, the interesting part was when he said that he would have refused command of such an operation, although he is now retired, and that active commanders should do the same by resigning, if not by simply refusing to follow orders.

Refusing to obey governments for ethical reasons is nothing new, it's just civil disobedience, but in the military this has traditionally been called insubordination, desertion or even mutiny. They used to shoot people for it. Civil disobedience is a vallid means to reassert the electorate's power over the State, but in a democracy it's generally assumed that the military is subservient to elected politicians, doesn't express opinions, it just acts as a tool of the State to defend its' citizens or implement various aspects of foreign policy. The military is the means by which the State exercises its' monopoly on violence. It's not supposed to do politics, that's what happens in countries with the sort of regimes that we don't approve of.

But at a more shall we say philosophical level, what Sir Michael proposes makes sense. After all, the military is composed of a lot of men and women who are expected to get themselves killed if the government asks them to. Let's also not forget that by and large, before this happens, they will have killed a lot more people on the other side, and these days those are mostly civilians rather than enemy combatants. So one way or another, democratically elected governments distribute a lot of death all round when they send the military to war. The same democratically elected governments wouldn't usually openly consider so much as giving one of their citizens a mild kicking, and that includes members of the armed forces, until such time as they are sent into a conflict.

The usual justification that is given is that members of the armed forces have volunteered to expose themselves to mortal danger whenever they are told to by their government. Which strictly speaking is true. But I think that in return, it's only fair to make sure that governments don't do that without a damned good reason, which doesn't include made-up scare stories about WMDs. So although it's often held as an incontrovertible truth that normal assumptions about the rights of the individual don't apply to the armed forces, actually, why shouldn't they? What's the worst that can happen if soldiers say no? People won't be killed? Damn. Since the Nuremberg trials, soldiers have no longer been able to use the fact that they were following orders as a defence against accusations of war crimes. They have a duty to disobey immoral orders, to act according to their conscience. Well since their supreme commander is in effect an elected politician, there's no reason why a soldier should have to put his life and that of the "enemy" in danger if he or she doesn't consider the justification compelling enough. I'm not actually calling for all the armed forces in the world to operate independently of their governments, there are after all plenty of examples of that being a pretty undesirable thing, but generally trouble results from armies doing things that they haven't been told to do, rather than not doing things. For instance, imagine of in July 1914, the Czar's heads of staff had just said "You know what, Nick? I don't think so. Niet. We're off for a think about agrarian reform instead".

The Militant Pine Marten is no great fan of the military: it's the whole suppression of the individual, unquestioning obedience, authoritarian killing machine aspect of the military that doesn't agree with me. To the extent that I refused to join the Mustelid Scouts when I was just a martenet - why on earth would anyone want to spend their spare time in a uniform doing what the older kids tell you? But if the military are going to openly recognise their duty not only to obey their political masters, but also to subject orders to the judgement of their consciences and to act on it, then I think that things are looking up.

During the enquiry following the sinking of the Titanic, most of the surviving steerage passengers testified that the scarce places in the lifeboats had been given to First Class passengers in priority. Amazingly, because of the society in which they lived, they found this to be perfectly normal. Hopefully in the near future, the idea of unquestioningly killing others and allowing yourself to be killed unquestioningly on the instructions of someone else will come to be seen as just as absurd.