Sunday, 23 October 2011

Lessons from the Baka Pygmies

The Baka are a tribe of Pygmies living in central Africa. These nomadic hunter-gatherers live in the central African forests and have one of the oldest surviving cultures in Africa, certainly older than that of their taller black neighbours living on the open plains. They are endgangered - more in danger than the whale (which makes me wonder why I have never yet seen anyone walking around with a badge declaring "Save the Pygmies"). But we should call them the Baka, not Pygmies. The name "Pygmy" was coined by foreigners, who have generally behaved despicably towards these people, which is why the Baka prefer to be known by their own name.

From time to time white people think there is a question that needs to be answered - the question of what it is that makes us different from (other) animals. The most common answer the white people come up with is that we are beings with Reason. In contrast to the animals lost in a world of thoughtless instinct, we can think rationally. How would the Baka answer that question? I imagine they would find it a very strange question because it assumes that we are set apart from the natural world, whereas they believe themselves to be a part of it. However, if pushed (because the white people are very good at pushing) the Baka could well answer: "What makes us different is our singing." Singing is a huge part of their culture, and they sing brilliantly. If they have to do someting as a group - say, going fishing - one of them will start singing, and slowly the others will join in.

Listen to the women singing HERE.

I have just been to the tax office - and the taxation system is one of the achievements of the rational mind. It was not a pleasant experience. It made me think of the Blake poem describing the marks of woe on the faces of the passers-by and the "mind-forg'd manacles" that Blake saw . The employees were at their desks - one each. The walls were white and blank, save for a large poster of a wild green landscape. No one was singing.

Of course our white culture still gives a place to singing. Two places, actually. There is singing as spectacle, which is also singing as commodity - as an industry. But to find communal singing among fully-fledged adult citizens, we have to go to the football ground. Do those songs bear any comparison, though, with those of the Baka?

Baka culture has very nearly been destroyed. While they were left to themselves the Baka and the other Pygmy tribes managed to sustain a way of life that dates back to way before the time of the Pharoahs. The whites and the Baka's black neighbours, the Bantu, have driven the Baka out of what remains of the forest, and forced them to live in villages. Paul Raffaele has written an excellent first-hand report of how the culture of the Baka and other Pygmy tribes has collapsed, suffering exploitation, harassment, neglect, disease and drug abuse.

We - as a culture, as a civilisation - can no longer sing, but surely we should be able to see the inestimable value of neighbours who still know how to live through song - neighbours who help to keep alive what we have lost. The Bantu, who consider themselves civilised, despise the Baka and consider the Pygmies the sort of thing that they can own. Are we any better? Are we doing anything to help the tribe survive in a world which is more threatening than anything that previously lurked in the darkest corners of their forest?

To see what we might be doing let's pop over to the UNESCO website where there is lots of material about protecting our World Heritage. Let's put "pygmy" in the search box. We find a page about a West African forest which is now a national park, where the pygmy hippopotamus can now live unthreatened, together with "11 species of monkey which are of great scientific interest". The park dates back to 1926, when it was declared a Forest and Wildlife Refuge by the French. It became one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites in 1982.

The pygmy hippo is safe. What of the Pygmy people, though? The UNESCO website has only three lines about them. Apparently a 3-day conference was organised in Gabon in 2002 to discuss how to "include the pygmies in the development process". The fact that "pygmy" is written with a lowercase "p" is revealing. There is no news of what conclusions the conference came to or what is being done to help the Baka and the other Pygmy tribes. UNESCO have, though, compiled a CD of Pygmy music, just so that it is not lost forever.

The forests, which are full of things of "great scientific interest", are to be protected by being made into national parks. What this usually means, though, is that the indigenous people are expelled, as the Baka have been in Cameroon. Presumably these indigenous people and their amazing culture are not part of our World Heritage.

Within the space of 6 years Paul Raffaele witnessed a massive erosion of Baka culture. Am I mistaken in thinking that it would be so easy to help them survive so that they could hold their own and learn how to resist the threats both from the white and the black worlds?

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Happy times at school

The sun is shining. The cat is stretched out asleep on the warm stones of the balcony. I am wondering if I haven't been a little too negative in the things I have written about school. I get up, walk through the sunshine and say to the cat: "No, I am not against school. There were some happy times." And the memory of one of them floods back.

When I was six and seven I was at a little school in Manchester: the St John's Church of England Infants School. It was quite a long time ago, in the days when children were given free milk in glass bottles with paper straws in the morning break and the toilets were outside in the playground. At the end of the school day all the other kids would noisily jostle out and head off home. I would walk down the corridor to another classroom where my mother was the teacher. There I would wait for a quarter of an hour or so while she tidied up after the day that had just ended or prepared for the day that was to follow. I would sit on one of the pupil's chairs or wander around the room and walk over to the large windows and stand and look out at the empty playground. Stillness and quiet lay everywhere like some huge warm blanket that one could hide under to escape the cold. Those were happy times.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Watching the hit and run

At the weekend in a narrow street in China a two-year-old girl was run over by a van. She lay bleeding and motionless in plain view in the road. The van driver drove away without pausing. A second van going in the opposite direction drove over the girl's already broken body. He, too, continued on his way. One after another 18 people walked by her. They carried on their way. The 19th person was a garbage collector. She moved the girl out of the way of the traffic and called the ambulance. The girl was still alive. She was rushed to hospital and operated on. The doctors could not save her.

This is not a Chinese phenomenon. Not so long ago in Boston a 78 year old man tried to cross a busy main road. His first name was Angel. He was hit head on by a car sending his body high in the air to land on the road where he lay bleeding. The driver did not stop. The scene was recorded by a nearby traffic surveillance camera on the highway. The old man's body was in the way of traffic. Nine cars slowed down and drove around him. They did not stop. A man on a scooter circled around the man before driving off. Some passers-by stepped off the pavement to get a better look. No one went to his aid or tried to stop the traffic. Quite by chance, a police car drove by, stopped and called the ambulance.

I recently read a long article by an academic arguing how peaceful the world is now compared to the distant past. The article presented statistics and graphs showing the decline in bloodshed. To be honest, I could not read the article. There was an obvious tone of self-congratulation, not for the author personally but for us as.. as... as what? As a civilisation? As people who are now so much more civilised than our forefathers back in the middle ages when a public execution was certain to gather a large crowd? How much more civilised are we if we can see people suffering and just stand and stare and do nothing?

I recall footage of a scene in the states after a passenger plane had just crashed into a river only metres from a highway bridge. The bridge was low. It was lined with a large crowd who had gathered. A helicopter was hovering overhead, dangling a line for a woman who was in the water. It was winter. The water was freezing. The woman tried to hold onto the line. She couldn't. It seemed clear that her arms were too injured and she was too overcome by the crash and the cold to hold on. She was going to drown. What was shocking was that it took an absolute age for one man on the bridge to run down to the river and dive in to save her. Only one man made the effort. Everyone else stood and watched.

And tonight we will turn on the news (if we can bear it any longer), and we will see more images of suffering and avoidable distress, and we will sit and watch and wonder if it might be a nice idea to have another slice of pizza before we go to bed.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Fuck Yeah Revolution

The crisis is deepening and in places here and there people are taking to the streets. At the forefront in the US is the Occupy Wall Street movement. There is an excitement among groups on the far left that here is a movement from the grass roots that could acquire historical dimensions. The movement at the moment is a loose association lacking any clear leadership. You can see people from the far left, though, elbowing their way forward clutching the blueprint that would transform the motley crowd into a spearhead for a genuine revolution.

I want to find out more about the budding leaders. I find snippets of statements excitedly posted here and there on the web. One I find on a website with the title “Fuck Yeah Marxism-Leninism”. Every page on that site repeats at the top the following quote from Chairman Mao.
A Communist should have largeness of mind and he should be staunch and active, looking upon the interests of the revolution as his very life and subordinating his personal interests to those of the revolution; always and everywhere he should adhere to principle and wage a tireless struggle against all incorrect ideas and actions, so as to consolidate the collective life of the Party and strengthen the ties between the Party and the masses; he should be more concerned about the Party and the masses than about any private person, and more concerned about others than about himself. Only thus can he be considered a Communist.

Mao Zedong

Perhaps it is a coincidence but the colour scheme of the website is black and white – a stark and dramatic contrast. Appropriate since for Fuck Yeah Marxism-Leninism everything is black and white. The Party is good. The private person (at least insofar as she might insist on a life that is independent of the Party) is bad. The masses are good, so anyone who is not with the masses must be bad. Communists are good; the rest are bad. A life of principle is good; a life shaped by attachments to things and people and places is bad. The future is good; the past is bad.

The philosopher Theodor Adorno said something about the philosophy of history – about the sort of thing also known to those of us conversant with the post-modernist lingo as the grand narrative – the sort of sweeping summary of history that any movement needs in order to have an idea about where it has come from and where it is heading. He said that grand narratives need to be construed and denied. It strikes me that the same needs to be said of the political party that might help us move forward: it, too, must be construed and denied.

The problem is that that idea of construing and denying something at the same time finds no place in a black and white, fuck-yeah view of the world.

I left a comment to this effect on the Facebook page of Jay Rothermel. I don’t think Jay has any direct connection with the Fuck Yeah website, it was just that his FB page included a link to that site, which was how I found it. Jay replied to my initial comment thus:
Adorno spent most of his career writing off the working class in the imperialist countries as bought-off and stupefied by consumer culture. And no one today needs to affirm the party mentality that I or Fuck Yeah Marxism-Leninism have expressed in our blogs. A united front means striking together against the common enemy, not being in programmatic agreement on everything, or even most things.
Jay clearly has a more nuanced view of the Party, but still the mentality is the same. There are the good guys (the working class) and there are the bad guys (the enemy). Of course, if we are to fight for something better, we will have to have a view of who or what we are fighting against (let's call that the enemy), and inevitably it will be a simplification of a situation whose complexity we cannot do justice to without becoming paralysed – a paralysis that would simply allow the false status quo to perpetuate itself. But we need to be careful because some kinds of simplification have lead in the past to people with good intentions being sent to the gulag.

Being of the left and having grown up reading enthusiastically about things like the Solidarity movement in Poland and having gone from door to door in Birmingham helping to raise money for the striking miners, my sympathies are definitely with the workers. Jay’s reference to the working class prompted me to add the following comment:
I once worked as a porter in the British NHS before it was torn to pieces, and I worked with a bunch of guys who were the most stereotypically red-necked, fuck-yeah, working-class people I have ever met. I wouldn't say they were stupefied, but I would say they were damaged. I am also damaged. Adorno was aware of how damaging it is for people to be confined to the role of worker or to the role of intellectual. I would fight for a world less damaging. It wouldn't be a fuck-yeah world, though.
One of the difficult things we need to do is to see and admit the way in which we are damaged. Only then will it be possible to glimpse the vague outlines of a better life – a life that is less at war with itself – more reconciled. If we insist that the only problem is with the enemy who are over there on the other side of the barricade, the chances are that after all the enemies have been shot we will find that we have just replaced one kind of damaged life with another.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

All you need is love and an iPad

Before John Lennon sat down in 1967 to write the lyrics for “All you need is love” I doubt whether he had been reading Hobbes’ “Leviathan”, but the question that Lennon was implicitly answering in his song was actually the exact same question that Hobbes set out to answer some 300 years earlier: What might bring people together – and hold them together - in a peaceful society where life would not be nasty, brutish and short? Hobbes’ answer was fear and prudence. Lennon disagreed. All we need is love.

But a love of what, though? Here are three objects of love.

Did Lennon have any of those in mind?

The song repeats a number of words. The word most often repeated is “you”:
…nothing you can do that can’t be done,
Nothing you can make that can’t be made,
No one you can save that can’t be saved,
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.
It is all about you, so the message (or one of the messages) is: Learn to love yourself.

One doesn’t normally associate pop with metaphysics, but “All you need is love” has a metaphysics. Lennon is implying that there is an immutable order in the universe that determines what can be done and made and saved, and that determines where we are meant to be. The implication is clear: to properly love ourselves we need to love our place within that big cosmic order. So this is not a narcissistic love of our appearance or status. Rather it is a love that goes beyond the superficial realm of appearances.

However, perhaps it is a mistake to look too closely at the lyrics. There is nothing you can sing that can’t be broadcast, and when it is broadcast it might take on a slightly different meaning from the one you had in mind when you sat alone writing the lyrics.

John Lennon’s song was first broadcast as part of the first big international TV show, which was called “Our World” and which occurred on June 25 1967. The event was originally conceived by the BBC. The idea was to do what could be done with the new telecommunications satellites – satellites that made it possible to link up different broadcasting companies around the world so that people in different countries (31 were able to receive the signal) could watch the same TV programme at the same time. It was broadcast live with participants from 14 different countries. The participants included people like Maria Callas and Pablo Picasso. The Beatles got the last slot in the two-and-a-half-hour event, and in the end their piece proved to be the most memorable.

It is worth watching the first few minutes of the broadcast as it was seen by viewers in Canada.

The presenter makes the obvious point that what is connecting people around the world is the technology of the “completely new communications age”. He is filmed in the control room so that viewers can marvel at the vast array of technology that has been amassed there.

That YouTube clip is an interview with Marshall McLuhan, who was then the biggest talking head with something vaguely interesting to say about the communications age. The interviewer is a bit of a loose cannon. After pointing out how the broadcast is supposed to bring the world together he suggests to McLuhan that perhaps the new technology actually achieves the opposite: a new divide opens up between those who have access to the programme on TV and the majority of the world in 1967 who had no hope whatsoever of singing along with John Lennon and the rest of the Beatles. Marshall McLuhan completely misses the point of the question and thinks he is being asked about an older generation in the West who don’t feel at all excited about pop culture and TV. For me, that is no accident. Among those infected by the excitement about the shiny, new hi-tech world the human being in all her unshiny humanity gets forgotten. The human beings who are supposed to be united in Our World fade into almost complete obscurity, overshadowed by the technology that is said to be uniting them.

In the end, the message in Lennon’s song proved weaker than the message in the medium itself. The world is no more united now by the sort of love that Lennon envisaged than it was then. There is, though, a pseudo unity around the world with all of us who are sufficiently affluent owning the same high-tech hardware. This gives us something in common, but it doesn’t really unite us. We are no closer to learning how to love ourselves and our world in a way that would prove once and for all that Hobbes was wrong – that we can overcome the worst instincts in ourselves and establish an order that is not based on fear and compusion and petty self-interest.