Saturday, 27 August 2011

Humanity's Journey

So maybe Britain does a few things well. Search hard and long enough, and it’s just possible you find one or two. If I was to choose one such thing, I would choose its museums.

I recently had the pleasure of reading A History of the World in 100 Objects, the book based on the BBC4 radio series by Neil MacGregor of the British Museum. It is an attempt to tell humanity’s story through one hundred objects in the Museum’s collection, from cultures and civilizations all over the world through the great length of human history.

Because history is as much art as science, and archaeology even more so, it is of course only one rendition of that story, in the choice of items through which it tells it and the interpretations thereof. I found myself so engaged by it that I wrote a brief commentary on those objects myself, finding that to me, as to anyone, these pieces of human identity offer forth a unique conversation, speaking differently to different experiences, different understandings and different values. To do that properly, I felt it important to go to the Museum to look at these objects in person (as I would encourage anyone to do, as admission is free and the collection is a billion varieties of amazing). I forgot my camera but took some crappy-quality photos on my iPhone, and have a few examples to share.

The underlying message is extremely forceful: that wherever we come from, whenever we lived, we are all human beings, each on our personal journeys within that of humanity as a whole. Everywhere we have travelled, we can and have thought, felt, imagined, discovered, created and loved. Though humanity has come into terrible tribulations, our barbarity today is not our nature, not timeless, not inevitable – we are, and in every time and every place have shown ourselves to be, capable of better.

Click the photos for a better view!

This is one of my favourite objects, and surely among the most heartwarming and inspiring sculptures in the world. It shows Shiva and Parvati: reflects a Hindu conception of the godly which necessarily has both male and female aspects. It brims with happiness, a joyful love, the powerful, natural mutual fulfilment of both male and female power. It’s refreshing because perhaps the most calamitous flaw in human spirituality – above all in Abrahamic religion – is that when it comes to issues of relationships and sexuality, it becomes headless. It fears and is confused by what is so natural and wonderful a part of the human experience; and the negative moral charge, repressive gender constructs, heteronormative bigotries and bloodshed this produced is one of the human journey’s most devastating tragedies. But this sculpture is so positive and happy, exudes eternal friendship and the authentic warmth of the heart, welcomes you in; casts divine joy on male and female power alike and all aspects of their relationship, including the carnal. There is much we can learn from an example like this, and much hope we can take from it.

A throne made of weapons relinquished after the terrible Mozambican Civil War. I find it poignant at both extremes. On one side, it speaks of the horrors of that war and other African conflicts of recent decades, the descent of the dream of a better future after decolonization into madness unspeakable. On the other, it is that dream made reality: an end to the conflict, the repair and revival of shattered humanity, so forceful because the very instruments of corrupted slaughter have been retired and put to use in something peaceful and empowering of the human essence. It doesn’t show well in the crappy photo, but the left rifle on the backrest even looks to have a smiley face, as though the weapons themselves, as well, are free at last.

A piece of the Parthenon in Athens, more commonly referred to as the Elgin Marbles and best known for the furious debate as to whether they should stay in the British Museum or return to Greece. It’s a difficult argument to solve, because both sides are right. On the one hand, it is part of Greek heritage and belongs in Athens; on the other it is part of our common human heritage, its story a tale from our great journey involving the interactions of peoples from many different societies, so it is also a superb ambassador in the Museum’s attempts to present that story of universal humanity. It is a shame one marble cannot be in two places at once!

The entourage of a Chinese official in the Tang Dynasty, which accompanied him in death to keep him equipped for the onward journey, and show the bureaucrats of the afterlife how important this guy was. He’s got horses and camels to carry his stuff, military officials and mythical beasts to protect him and make him look prestigious, and civil servants to present the case on his behalf that he was a virtuous and important and all-round venerated guy to be given the proper respect and treatment. Isn’t it interesting, how almost all of our societies develop such solid certainties as to what happens to us after death, while the bottom line is that we simply do not yet know for sure?

The sandal label from an ancient Egyptian king whose view of order was apparently that it was something to impose through coercion and force. It shows him aggressively smiting a vanquished enemy on the head. Fuel for the Pessimists who arrogantly call themselves Realists? They uphold dogmas that life is all a merciless competitive struggle for domination, and assert that this is a timeless reality that has always been and shall never change. But that something happened says nothing about why it happened, or where it came from. Whether this callous brutality is what we are, or a complete corruption and breakdown of what we are, is a choice for which all human beings are responsible.

 An Egyptian sphinx, but with a cheerful-looking Sudanese face. It’s Taharqo, from Kush, who for a while ruled Egypt as pharaoh during an easily-forgotten period of Sudanese control of the ancient Egyptian empire. Like many people who cross from one identity group to rule another, he built his legitimacy by engaging, combining and drawing on the cultures of both. A lot of these episodes, like the Mughals in India and the Manchus in China, have produced periods of remarkable relative peace and tolerance. Why shouldn’t they? We are all humans, after all. Ethnic or international strife has no basis in nature.

A pepper pot belonging to a household in Roman Britain. There were Roman, English and Christian aspects to these people’s identities and everyday lives; so how did these elements come together in how they thought of themselves? These are identity questions that are just as prevalent in Britain today. Much of it is because what we call the “British” are in fact an accumulated amalgamation of peoples from all over the world, who have migrated to the islands over many centuries: Romans from Italy, Anglo-Saxons from Germany, Jutes from Denmark, Vikings from Scandinavia, Normans from France, Romani and Huguenots and Jews and peoples from all the lands the British Empire went on to repress. All these and others are now integral parts of Britain’s demographic mosaic: the concept of “British” has effectively no ethnic foundation, is made of immigration, so the hostility to immigrants and BNP-style nationalism in present-day Britain is bizarre, and where it came from is anyone’s guess. All those trying to build a worthy Britain build it on concepts far more important than race.

And a few other objects (not in the list of 100) which caught my eye:

Gnome goes RAWR!

Hippopotamus from an African masquerade ceremony. The most bad-tempered and aggressive of all Africa’s big animals – I hear they kill more humans even than the big carnivores. Many skulls! And those teeth aren’t far from evoking the barrels of cannons.

The Ethiopians about to batter the aggressive colonial Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. See the empress on horseback in the bottom left, wielding a great big revolver. Apparently this work follows the traditional custom in Ethiopian painting by which the good guys are shown with a full forward view of their faces, while the bad guys are drawn side-on.

There’s loads more – I might post more at a later date.

And of course, if you like this kind of stuff, you can – and should – get the book here.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Reflections on Guyana

Fourteen years in Britain, for the most part miserable. While I must acknowledge the many worthy human beings whose paths have crossed with mine – relatives, academics, guild fellows, martial artists, and so on –  my time in Britain has been of alienation, bitterness and strife. But my impending departure to Japan is not the first time my irreconcilable differences with Britain’s attitudes and norms have led me to leave its shores.

In April last year (2010) I went to Guyana, aiming simply to get out of Britain and forge a destiny somewhere where it was actually possible – in Britain it was not, for I could not identify with that land and there were no opportunities.

Guyana was an adventure which cannot be summarised on one mere wall of text. Its duration was shorter than it might have been – four and a half months – yet within that time it concentrated enough impressions to counterbalance over a decade of British nightmares.

I sought to live and work amongst Guyana’s indigenous people. But half my time there was spent battling with its coastal bureaucracy in a sordid political climate, for the chance alone to get into the indigenous areas. When I did, it was thanks to the indigenous leaders themselves, specifically Sydney Allicock (below), quite possibly the most inspirational human being I have ever met.

 I taught English and Maths at the Bina Hill Institute until the end of the summer term, but I doubt I imparted on these Makushi communities a fraction of what they imparted on me. It is what they have to teach, in fact, that matters in this world.

Much of what is wrong in Britain (and in much of the commercialized world) can be ascribed to the severing of the two crucial bonds that make all human beings human. Each of us, no matter where we are from, is of the Earth; and so too are we social creatures. Our relationships with the Earth, and with each other, define us, and only when those relationships are healthy can we produce societies worthy of the term.

The political, economic and social models in places like Britain have sundered those relationships: we become atomistic, selfish, greedy, prejudiced, mired in arrogance and hypocrisy we cannot reflect on to see. We place ourselves before all our fellows and any concern of the Earth, and peddle contemptuous academic theories that this is but human nature, universal and timeless.

Theories that indigenous Guyana exposes as preposterous. There we have what the pessimists believe impossible: a decent society. A society where people are generally good: friendly, tolerant, curious, with a continual desire to learn, to improve, to make things better for everyone. It is not that they lack problems or challenges – indeed their present challenges may be their greatest yet. It is that they have the humility to understand that all societies have challenges, to reflect on theirs and thereby seek to resolve them in a way that works for everyone.

In Britain humans define themselves by what they have – accumulations of wealth and property, in competition with others. In the Guyanese interior humans define themselves by what they are. That is why the Guyana interior is more “developed” than the likes of London by any meaningful definition of the word.

They have the foundations that Britain has lost: the identification with other people, and with the living Earth on which they depend. So long as those foundations are intact, there is no limit to the greatness a society can attain. Forsake those foundations, and the only way is down – and when societies think most highly of themselves, it’s a long, long way down and the collision at the end will be all the more excruciating. But I had to see with my own eyes that this disaster is not inevitable, not logical, not “development”: that humans can do better than in the likes of London. In the North Rupununi, they do.

So why didn’t I stay? Were my choices concerned primarily with what I want as a person, I might still be there now and for years to come. But that could not be my journey: it was necessary, is necessary, to travel further, wider, find out more about what drives humankind to its madness. It is a journey that now leads me to Tokyo, to the United Nations University, where this goal necessitates that I be a human being first and an academic only second. As either, what I learned from the Makushi shall never be far from the front of my heart or mind. Humanity’s journey can be a good one; and wherever it is miserable or callous, that is not nature, but a breakdown thereof.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London - where dreams go to die

London is burning. Not on account of invading armies; not because of demons coming out of portals; not under attack by elementals of living flame; not due to some horrible accident in a bakery. These are the fires of London’s own broken humanity.

The riots of the last three nights are deeply saddening. There is nothing natural about human beings – especially young human beings – going on rampages, looting shops and setting buildings aflame on this scale. They do not walk from the ether and decide it is rational or fun to do so: not even they can benefit. They have been called hooligans, criminals, thugs with no sense of right and wrong. Some of them are, but these things do not spontaneously exist. They were not born that way: they became it. They are the product of a society that breaks their humanity.

I have lived in London for fourteen years, and was lucky to hold onto mine. Whatever ethics I might have, I did not learn them from this society but developed them in spite of it. London broke me, too; taught me the very meaning of agony and almost cost me my life. Though I recovered, my resentment at society’s arrogance will persist for a lifetime, and I have long understood that in this city I have no future to find or make – hence why my journey has led elsewhere, first to Guyana, soon to Japan. I am one of the lucky ones: able to find and fund a way out, if only just. Most are not. Before us now are the results of humans forced to subsist where there is no place for them.

Alienation. From the Earth; from fellow humans. That, I speak with regret, is what London can do. Too established is the mistreatment of and disdain for one’s fellow humans here. A crisis in relations between youths and adults: a punitive culture based on obedience, that most shocking of human inventions; on fear, not on love. “Seen but not heard”, and now they return the favour. Every human for him or herself. No jobs, but your own worthless lazy fault for being out of work. Breakdowns in once-loving relationships; constructed facades, selfish materialism, communication failures, a wound that bleeds forever: doors once opened never close. One’s hopes, one’s loves, one’s dreams, all to be cast to the winds, and where a human once stood, only a number remains. The number must struggle: and even to win the struggle is not to live. For many there is no “living” in London, only “existing”.

All these I have known or seen: but I have seen nothing. Nothing compared to what most of these Londoners endure. Ethnic dimensions; racism persists in the Metropolitan Police. But diversity is good for all within it: ethnic strife has no basis in sanity, and signals that something’s gone wrong. And then comes volatile fuel laced liberally upon the tinder: austerity. Cuts: cuts to humanity. Think education is costly? Try ignorance. The gleeful dumping of miserable deprivation, created by the greed of the strongest, upon society’s most vulnerable – above all its youth, least responsible, most defenceless. The betrayal of a whole generation. None of them chose to be born into such an order. No-one deserves to be.

The Conservative Party government is to be held to account for its part in this. These elites have no concept of causes and consequences. Blustering threats and condescending condemnation is but fuel for the fire. It is the arrogance and hypocrisy of elites that has stoked the rage of London so long. Looting, thuggery and violence cannot be justified – but who are these elites to condemn it when all they have done is exactly that? Austerity, bankers’ bonuses, MPs’ expenses, the rampage of the Murdoch empire and the corruption of the Metropolitan Police therein: what are these if not the looting of a nation, thuggery against the weak, structural violence inflicted by the strong on all the microbes beneath because it makes them feel good about themselves? What can we expect of youth, if they are the ones who must bear the costs of this, and all they see from authority – the same authority which believes it has a place to teach them and tell them what to do – is sadism, greed and contempt? The government’s patronising reproaches are the very stuff of double standards, as hypocritical as the Saudi king’s telling off of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Hope, care, respect and love: such things have faded from much of London, from the consciences of those who struggle through youth, ever railed at to show these ethics while receiving none in return, none to help them find meaning, no examples to follow. Where these things disperse from one’s soul, horrors flood in to fill the void. Until London awakens to learn that it has produced these horrors, the despair will continue. Unless it becomes a place where one’s gain is not another’s anguish, those horrors will consume us all.

One feels gratitude and respect to each person in London, especially in the afflicted districts, who has looked on this and responded not with blustering, but with thought and balance. They are what London should be, and there are plenty of them around. They, not the elites, are the ones who listen, who must be listened to. They who know that every consequence has its causes; they who think, who feel, and who would solve problems and help their communities, not pursue some inner rush of delight at throwing down punishments for the sake of punishments. They will fix London, make it a place which no longer shoots down the dreams of its children: because it is human to make dreams come true.

But I will not be around to see it. London has come and gone in my heart – nothing binds me to it, and I doubt ever will again. I prepare to embark on the next stage of my journey, my mad quest to unravel the ills of the world. I have learnt little of their causes from London, but much of what turns them from embers to conflagrations.

Let London be a lesson to all, that hypocrisy, greed and scorn for those less fortunate looses madness on all it can reach. All whose way is that of punishment, beware. If the underlying grievance is legitimate, punishment turns grievance to hatred, hatred to rage, and rage to barbarity that burns down all in its path. This I have known: this I have been, and one does not forget how it feels. The iron fist melts to slag in the fires of taunted injustice. Fight fire with fire and the world is reborn in flames. Take responsibility, think more, feel more, study and solve more problems, create better consequences. Set a better example.

Let London come to its senses, humanity return to those in whom it was broken; and all other cities be spared its fate. Humans must be driven the way of Britain’s youth no longer. Rule by love or rule by fear: what goes around comes around. Peace requires a foundation of fairness and kindness: order based on injustice will always crumble. We all have our choices to make, and we can do better than this.