Another warning from history

A new book about Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and their role in the horrors associated with the events which led to the creation of Bangladesh is frightening. A Times Literary Supplement (10 January, 2014) reviewer writes of it:

Bass (the author) deploys White House recordings, including several new transcripts, to excellent effect, and although the bigotry and small-mindedness of Nixon and Kissinger are widely understood and known, the book contains enough material to make the reader sick. As Bass recounts in one instance, “Nixon bitterly said, ‘The Indians need – what they really need is a – . . .’ Kissinger interjected, ‘They’re such bastards.’ Nixon finished his thought: ‘A mass famine’”. The bigotry and rage are not limited to Indians, either (‘they’re just a bunch of brown goddamn Muslims’, Nixon says of the Pakistanis).*

There are three great realms of intolerance in this world – and probably always have been: cultural intolerance, religious intolerance and racial intolerance. Of the three, racial intolerance is the most irrational, blind and obnoxious. In these utterances of this supposedly wise and powerful duo we have all three mixed up together.

This is naked evil. There is no other way to judge it. A commandment forbids that we judge as evil the men who uttered these words and harboured these thoughts. But if this is the consequence of the political philosophy of realpolitik then that is an evil philosophy and we must call it such.

I don’t know if there is anything as genocidal as these remarks on record from the administration of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland which presided over the Irish Famine in the 19th century. I don’t think so. That these words should come from the mouths of an elected representative of a civilised people, and his learned and widely admired aide, is truly shocking. The prevailing laissez faire economic philosophy of the 19th century is offered as an excuse for government neglect of the starving Irish. It is a weak enough excuse. But what can excuse the racism, the callousness and the arrogance of these two – and how many more – in the middle last quarter of the 20th century, in living memory.

The grounds for disillusion – even disgust – with the political class are hard to cope with. Is it really true that “all power corrupts”? It seems that we should worry much less about absolute power than about power in its more ordinary manifestations. This is where the real rot lurks.

What is the antidote to this poison? Our only hope of escape from this evil would seem to lie in the spirit of these words:

People in every nation enhance the social dimension of their lives by acting as committed and responsible citizens, not as a mob swayed by the powers that be. Let us not forget that ‘responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation’. Yet becoming a people demands something more. It is an ongoing process in which every new generation must take part: a slow and arduous effort calling for a desire for integration and a willingness to achieve this through the growth of a peaceful and multifaceted culture of encounter.**

That is an excerpt from the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, recently given to the world by Pope Francis whom the incumbent successor of Richard Nixon is due to meet shortly. We can be sure that the White House has by now dealt with the dreaded leakage problem which opened the world’s eyes to what went on in the mind and heart of Nixon and his advisers. We may have mixed feelings about Edward Snowden and his ilk but there is an upside as well as a downside to their approach to ‘open government’. Do we really think that we now enjoy a purer, selfless and more just exercise of political power than we did half a century ago? We would be naive to think so.

In the modern state, even in states which proclaim themselves of the people, for the people and by the people, our only hope of integrity, honesty and dignity is in remembering and living by those words, ‘responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation’.

*THE BLOOD TELEGRAM: Nixon, Kissinger, and a forgotten genocide. Gary Bass, 475pp. Knopf. $30.
**Excerpt From: Francis, Pope. “Evangelii Gaudium, Apostolic Exhortation”, 220. 24-XI-2013.

Good news from Pakistan

Rimsha Masih has been acquitted, Agenzia Fides reports from Islamabad.   Rimsha, a Christian girl diagnosed with a mental illness, was falsely accused of blasphemy and arrested on August 16 and then released on bail on September 8. She was alleged to have burned some pages from the Koran.

The Chief Judge of the High Court of Islmabad, Iqbal Hameedur Rehman, issued the acquittal verdict and dismissed the complaint that contained the charges against the girl. The Court accepted the argument of the defence, based on statements made by three witnesses who accused the Muslim Imam Khalid Jadoon Chishti of fabricating evidence to frame Rimsha.

“This is a victory for justice in Pakistan “ said Paul Bhatti, Minister for Harmony and leader of the APMA (All Pakistan Minorities Alliance). Bhatti is Shahbaz Bhatti’s brother, the Catholic Federal Minister for Minorities who was killed by terrorists in March 2011 in Islamabad. “The verdict of acquittal for Rimsha Masih is dedicated to my brother, Shahbaz Bhatti, who was so committed to the innocent victims of the blasphemy law “.

Paul Bhatti, visibly moved after the pronouncement of the court, said  “Rimsha’s acquittal is great news. I am very satisfied. It is a historic step for Pakistan. It is a ruling that launches two clear messages to the country. The first is for justice. We have confidence in our judicial system. It is important to believe in the rule of law. The second is for those who have used or intend to abuse the blasphemy law for personal purposes. It is clear that from now on every abuse will be punished, and will prevent so many innocent victims.”

Rimsha’s defense team was led by a  Muslim lawyer, Rana Hamid. The Catholic lawyer on the team, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry said, “The court recognized Rimsha’s innocence and the plot against her. It is the first time in the history of Pakistan that a prosecution process for blasphemy has ended in this way. This ruling will set a precedent and will be very useful for the future but also for other cases of blasphemy present today in the courts. ”

Rimsha in protective custody being led to the court for her trial

Rimsha’s family, currently in hiding, who expressed “happiness and emotion for the end of the ordeal.”

The “All Pakistan Minorities Alliance”, an NGO led by Paul Bhatti, is now relaunching the plan to form a “Mixed Commission”, with Christian leaders, experts, lawyers and Muslim leaders who can examine in advance cases of alleged blasphemy. The aim is to prevent the abuse of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.

In Passing…Imagining a Better World

Two shivers ran down my spine last month. One was when I read something by a columnist in The Daily Telegraph commenting on her reaction to the news about the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s daughter. The other was the account of the three teenage girls buried alive in Pakistan to maintain the “honour” of their tribe. But I was brought back to some semblance of hope and optimism by the Canadian philosopher-historian-sociologist, Charles Taylor whose great book, “A Secular Age”, I’m ploughing through at the moment. It is a rewarding but demanding read.

Taylor, among other things, reflects in his book on the way our sense of morality has evolved over the centuries, indeed over the millennia, in which we have tried to live and work together as human beings in this world. Out of this reflection comes an awareness that while these two specimens of accepted “moral” behaviour that so disturbed me – the one a specimen of a primitive and backward tribal custom, the other a specimen of ultra sophisticated 21st century civilization – may always be with us as forms of behaviour, they can ultimately be consigned to the category of barbarism to which they belong.

Liz Hunt, writing in the Telegraph, wondered how good a “mom” U.S. Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin could be if her pregnant daughter Bristol was in some way not being given the choice of whether or not to bring her baby into this world. Taylor has devised a term, “social imaginary”, to represent the kind of images, visions, ideas we all have about our time in this world and they way we should live together. Think of what we mean when we say “I can’t imagine myself doing this that or the other” and you get an idea of where he is coming from. We think of ourselves “putting theories into practice”. Well he is using “imaginary” instead of “theory” because, he says – and he is probably right, – people live and act more on the basis of what they can imagine themselves doing than on theories.  For many in the western world the “imaginaries” (theories) they have can, tragically, with the greatest of ease encompass the killing of unborn living human beings.  This imagining allows, for example, that 17-year-old Bristol Palin, might take the life of her unborn child if, as Liz Hunt puts it, “becoming a wife and a mother at such a young age” just didn’t fit in with her other plans.

Such a killing might not be an “honour” killing of the horrific kind reported from Pakistan. It would pure and simply be nothing more or less than a “convenience” killing.  But why should we be any less disturbed by it than we are by the killing in tribal Paksitan? How different in fact are the western social conventions – enshrined in law in so many societies now – which readily accept the killing of the unborn from the conventions defended by the politicians of the province of Balochistan who in the Pakistan parliament defended the punishment of the three teenagers? Their claim was that the practice was part of “our tribal custom”. What was the girls’ crime? They refused to marry the husbands chosen by their families.

What light does Taylor’s theory of “social imaginaries” throw on all this? In essence we see that while the two societies in which both these acts take place – the ruthless and relentless slaughter of the unborn in one; the terrible but much less frequent honour killing of young girls who want to assert their independence in the other –  look worlds apart they are in fact no different from each other in real terms. They are only different in the “imaginings” of those who perpetrate them.

The encouragement I get from my reading of Taylor is in his reflection on how the process of change takes place in these “social imaginaries”. In it we can see how mankind and societies have moved from the social acceptance of forms of behaviour to non-acceptance and even revulsion and horror at the same behaviour.

The tribal chiefs of Balochistan are clearly at ease with the practice of their tribe – as were many of the “great and good” of the 18th century with the practice of slavery and the brutality of the slave-trade. Many of the “great and good” of our own time have no qualms about the mass slaughter in progress in hospitals and clinics across the western world. Indeed, for many, contributing to it could just be part of what “being a good mom” might be about.

What Taylor’s thinking suggests is that all this need not always be so and that moral sensibility does change if our “social imaginaries” can be changed. William Wilberforce effected the change in social imagination of his time and this was what brought the slave trade to its knees. Slavery sadly still exists but the “civilised” world at least has set its face against it and seeks to eradicate it. Sadly also, human beings will continue to kill each other, born or unborn, – probably until the end of time – but we can hope for a time when our imagining and our vision of how our society should be will always seek to prohibit such slaughter.

And a further consideration which I glean from Taylor seems to deepen the hope that we might have that rather than being on a slippery slope to more and more of this mayhem, we may in fact be climbing to a new flowering of the civilization of life.  The practice of abortion is not new. What is new – at least on the scale on which we have it now – is the legal sanction of the practice. It is now carried out in the name of every member of those democratic societies in which it is legalised.

But this very sanction has the effect of bringing the practice into deep and potentially disturbing focus and therefore can be the very catalyst which may bring about the moral revulsion which should be the natural and rational response to such slaughter of innocent life. A Royal Navy which protected the slave ships crossing to and forth across the Atlantic in the 18th century revolted the British people thanks to the work of William Wilberforce and his friends. In the 19th the Royal Navy became the agent for the abolition of that brutal trade. This is a process of change which can be brought into play again. Indeed it is already in play. We can hope that the day will come when the conventional “wisdom” which says that it is moral and proper for one human being to chose to terminate the life of another in certain given circumstances will have no place in the social imagination of anyone.