How Do You Respond To Atrocity?

Paris_5And in particular, atrocity that touches you personally in some way. Carried out against other cartoonists, other satirists. Of course I am going to feel that more closely than the murder of say doctors or teachers or soldiers. It is only human.

But it would not be right to come to a different conclusion or demand a different response just because I feel it more personally. Maybe I shouldn’t even be writing this, considering that I haven’t stopped to lament any other atrocities recently. However there are more reasons to speak out here than the merely personal.

So what sane and just responses are available to us? Not many. In an understandable show of emotion, mourners are protesting the right to freedom of speech. But while a violent attack on any form of media is censorship, the right to free speech was never really the issue. When Charlie Hebdo decided to republish the “Danish cartoons”, there was no serious question of it being illegal. The question was whether it was justified or wise.

Nor do I think did the killers believe that they were going to defeat free speech. They must be as aware as anyone that their attack is likely to provoke more insults against Muhammad than ever before. The sort of person who wants to blame everything on Islam is going to do so twice as loudly now – to show how acts of terror cannot influence them in any way…

I’d say “And that’s exactly what the killers wanted”, except – I wonder if the real motivation here was even that sophisticated. To be honest, this feels more like an act of crude vengeance. They took offence on behalf of an idea and attempted to murder a magazine. Uncontrolled, almost infantile rage, without objective beyond the emotional release of smashing the face that laughed at you.

How do you react rationally to the irrational? You can’t. The only right response is to not react. Neither bend nor strike back. You cannot appease blind rage. You cannot avenge it either.

As any decision taken right now will be a bad one, we should take this time to contemplate. The West’s relationship with the Middle East is going seriously down the crapper. Recent history – decades now – seems like a litany of horrific acts from both directions, with absolutely no indication of it de-escalating. Does it have to be this way, or can we change our hearts and minds – on both sides?

Some creativity is badly needed here.

Britain. What Is They? Who Are It?

640px-Nations_of_the_UK

The final result of the Scottish Independence Referendum is still some hours off, so I will avail of this last chance to speculate. What will happen to Great Britain if Scotland really does leave?

Well nothing. Great Britain is the name of an island, not a country. Not even the proper name for it in fact – the more historical one is simply Britain.

So where did the “Great” come out of? I get the impression that a lot of British people vaguely think of it as a title their country was awarded somehow. At a country show, presumably. I have even heard people who should know better espouse the folk etymology that Britain refers to the combination of England and Wales, which became Great Britain with the addition of Scotland. That is of course completely made up.

Great Britain is simply the English for the French name for Britain – Grande Bretagne – and might be more accurately if prosaically rendered “Big Britain”.

Little Britain in this instance being Bretagne – or as we call it, Brittany – a province of France that was settled by people from Britain and where a language closely related to Welsh is still spoken today, now and again. Somewhat ironically perhaps, these British colonists were actually refugees, fleeing from the foreign invader we now know as the English.

Well partly, them – to be honest they were being invaded from Ireland too. After the Romans withdrew from Britain it was basically a warrior’s free-for-all.

So Britain was called Great Britain merely to avoid confusion with the French name for a Welsh colony. It’s like an irony layer cake. But French was the dominant language of much of Europe – and indeed, of Britain – for many centuries, so the “Great” stuck.

And still sticks today, and becomes ever more sticky. It is now kind of embarrassing, used when they can’t think of an idea for a cooking programme, or for politicians to clutch when they have reached the absolute nadir of rhetorical inspiration. It is high time a way was found to retire the term. And if Scotland does ever leave, that would be the moment. To refer to what remained as Great Britain after that would sound like sarcasm.

But what else could the remaining country be called? Well the answer is obvious, and I’m surprised it didn’t come up more in the debate. It would of course be the United Kingdom of Southern Britain and Northern Ireland.

I think it has a ring to it, no?

The Price Of Victory

Think of it as the world’s worst industrial accident

It’s a little weird if you tune into a British TV show around this time. Everyone is wearing red paper poppies in commemoration of soldiers killed by wars in general, and what is still sometimes called the Great War in particular. Strange, not just because they happen to be fighting one even as they mourn the tragedy of it all, but because debate rages over this conflict even today. Was it, as some argue, a stupid and pointless waste of human lives? Or as others say, an utterly mindless massacre of innocent people? We may never know for sure.

There really have been attempts recently to rehabilitate this war. It was once common to explain it as a tragic chain of circumstances. Surely such a terrible tragedy could only have been unintentional.

But it is becoming more common now to hear that, far from being accidental or tragic, it was a necessary and even heroic action to curtail the ambition of a warmongering Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Is that true? It certainly is a more positive way to see it.

The only problem is, it differs from the British propaganda of the time in almost no respect.

Yes, Germany had been getting more belligerent. Wilhelm was indeed a war-happy idiot, childishly envious of his cousin’s ships. His empire had been growing in wealth and strength rapidly since its formation nearly half a century before, and was eager for opportunities to flex its muscles. That opportunity came with what might otherwise have been a local Balkan conflict, as the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires scrambled for the territory of the (even more) moribund Ottoman one. Turning it into a Europe-wide conflict gave Germany a chance to elbow aside France and dominate the continent.

True enough. The only problem with this narrative is that the British in their turn were only too happy to escalate a European conflict into the first ever global war.

Having pioneered industrial manufacturing Britain was still the greatest power on Earth. It had however watched the rise of German industry, technology, and military might with trepidation. The imitator looked like it would one day outstrip the master. An arms race had being going on for over a decade and some believed that war with Germany was inevitable – and that therefore the sensible (if Machiavellian) choice would be to have one sooner rather than later. This is really the only way to explain why the largest empire in the world went to war over the invasion of Belgium. I mean think about it. They couldn’t have liked chocolate that much. Britain was eager for war. We often hear that they kept saying it would “all be over by Christmas”. What we forget is that they said this because they liked to think of the Germans as a bunch of primitives they could crush without much effort.

Without the entrance of history’s largest empire into the conflict, what would have happened? We can never know of course – hell, we can barely know things in the past that did happen, never mind ones that didn’t – but it seems more likely at least that France would’ve fallen and Germany would have been able to concentrate on a war with Russia that might have continued for years. I’m not sure if it’s even technically possible to defeat Russia. How would you know you had?

But eventually Germany probably would have gained hegemony in continental Europe. Big deal. And without its population devastated, Britain would have continued as a global power for much longer. The Russian revolution wouldn’t have happened, the US wouldn’t have had its first taste of global military intervention – or experienced the boom that turned into the Great Depression either. The conditions that gave rise to the Second World War would never have been in place. And of course, millions fewer would have died.

I think there are a couple or lessons here. One is that war is always inevitable if you want it to be. The other is that, it tending to have vast and profoundly unpredictable consequences, it might be better to hold off on war until you really do have no other choice. But that wouldn’t be a welcome message just now.

 

The Road To Finland

Svenska: Volvo Ocean Race 2008/2009, Stopover ...
Svenska: Volvo Ocean Race 2008/2009, Stopover Stockholm, SWE 3 + SWE 4 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I sit in the lovely Japanese Wa Café, passing time before my bus leaves, having my hearing loss enhanced by what might best be described as zombie Thin Lizzy. Bizarre to see a band effectively become a tribute act to itself. This is all part of the carnival for the Volvo Ocean Race. It’s not why I’m leaving town, but it is one reason I’m glad to be.

This isn’t resentment over the Occupy affair. It’s true that there is something uncomfortable about holding the final of a mega-expensive luxury yacht race in a country that has been plunged into almost unimaginable levels of debt. But I hope it does all sorts of good for local business. It could use all the boost it can get.

But the crowds! Lord Jesus and his pals, the crowds. It is like an extra Race Week in July. This may be the time of year when Galway’s business makes its money, but can they really not find a less cram-the-streets-with-loud-drunken-unpredictable-crowds way? It’s a topic I often reverted to in Microcosmopolitan; as a place with little elbow-room and even less good weather, what the hell are we doing trying to be an event tourism mecca? How about specialising in something more calm and relaxing – there’s real money to be made if you can establish yourself as the place that’s best at one certain combination of things. I suggest we make ourselves the global capital for librarians. Who practise yoga.

In flotation tanks.

We Need A Fiscal Compact

One size is not going to fit all

Sure we do. Just not this one.

It is good to have a clear plan for getting out of debt, and it is eminently reasonable to have a budgeting agreement between countries sharing a currency. We should all be playing by the same rules if we’re sharing the risks and benefits.

Just not these rules.

Let’s leave aside the pros and cons of the ESM if we can. Even if we never need it – and I don’t think we will – we should join it anyway; to support other vulnerable Euro members and discourage market speculation against the currency. We shouldn’t be looking at this mechanism as if we’re desperate to join. It’s a mutual benefit scheme that we should contribute to – if we can.

But if the price of joining the ESM is this Fiscal Compact, then the price is too high. And I don’t mean too high for what we get in return. I mean too high as in we can’t afford it, full stop.

Even if the ESM were a free rainbows and ponies club, even if membership entitled us to have cash sprayed over us from a hosepipe, we cannot join if we don’t have the price of admission. And we simply don’t.

We have a vast budgetary shortfall, imposed on us by the appalling financial mismanagement of the last government. Since then however we’ve been top of the class, attacking spending with a chainsaw, losing that deficit as fast as humanly possible. We’re suffering for it. We’ve seen employment, health services, education and welfare devastated. We gave away our pension reserve to save other people’s pension funds. But we have made exemplary progress.

The Fiscal Compact – which we join if this referendum is passed – requires us to redouble that cutting.

Look at the state of our public systems now. Imagine if we made cutbacks at nearly twice the current rate. I mean that, imagine it. What would it be like? What would you do, in a country like that?

Get out, mainly. Anyone who can will. We’re going to haemorrhage young, basically. The rest of us… Well, we’re pretty much buggered. We’re going to see an already shrinking economy fold like a ruptured Zeppelin, as further destruction of the tax base turns a nascent recovery into a plughole pirouette.

We’ll be another Greece.

Deficit spending can often be the wrong thing to do, a too-easy option in difficult times. But sometimes it is exactly the right thing, and it has paid off in the past. The Fiscal Compact however means that we can never do it again. No matter what the people vote for, no matter who is in government, even if we can borrow from other sources. It’s an economic straitjacket, one that no country could put on and still call itself free.

What’s more we have to force ourselves into that straitjacket, in far less time than is reasonable, humane, or indeed possible. If we pass this referendum we will be making a commitment that we simply cannot keep. We will be fined for being broke.

This Fiscal Compact was not designed for Ireland’s circumstances, but to stop major Euro economies like Germany and France from doing again what they did wrong before. It will punish us not for our sins but for theirs, prescribe diarrhoea medicine when we’re constipated, bring a wrecking ball when we need scaffolding.

Reject a treaty that will be our worst mistake since the bank guarantee.

A Cat Video (To Celebrate The French Election)

Our cat here will demonstrate the relaxed and optimistic feelings that are induced by knowing Sarkozy is no longer leader of France. Until she becomes distracted by her own tail.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah… The relief is palpable.

OK, it’s not exactly a revolution. The fact that Hollande won by just a few percentage points against the man who presided over some of France’s biggest disasters in decades is hardly inspirational. But he does stand for things that actually require standing for, like social equality and regulation of the finance industry. It is at least a crack in the panic-induced consensus of social sadism.

So maybe now please we can have some actual debate about the Fiscal Compact?