Dec 02 2010

The Only Boss I Ever Liked

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 20RCN @ 9:36 am

Now I been lookin’ for a job but it’s hard to find
Down here there’s just winners and losers
And don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line

Atlantic City, Bruce Springsteen

It was nearly three decades ago, in May 1981, that I first saw Bruce Springsteen (aka The Boss) in concert at the Playhouse in Edinburgh. Prior to the gig I had heard much about the energy of the performances that he created with the help of his backing group, the now legendary E Street Band.

I’d bought the records and I’d liked what I’d heard. Indeed, I had bought my first Springsteen records in 1973, when most of America didn’t know who he was. But could he truly replicate the energy of those pieces of vinyl live in concert and live up to the reputation for live performance that followed him around?

Back in the early ’80’s the music industry was, and let’s be honest, it still is an entity which thrives on a staple diet of hype, distortion and downright lies. Was the fuss surrounding Bruce Springsteen just one more piece of record industry bullshit, I wondered?

Thinking thus, it was with no small degree of trepidation that I approached the concert at the Playhouse. In the end I really shouldn’t have worried. Three-and-a-half hours after Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band took to the stage on that far-off evening they left it, cheered to the rafters. Hype this was not.

The man rocked!

And for the next three decades he has continued to rock.

Springsteen was born in New Jersey in 1949. After leaving school he played in various bands before being signed to CBS records by John Hammond, a music industry legend, having signed such talents as Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan to the label..

Springsteen’s first two albums, Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent And The E-Street Shuffle were both critically acclaimed but they did not sell well, a situation which led to Springsteen becoming known as Hammond’s Folly at CBS.

The snipers at CBS had to bite on their own bullets, however, in 1975, with the release of his third album, Born To Run. It is one of the all-time classic rock albums. With its release, a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful rock ‘n’ roll singer called Bruce Springsteen was catapulted into the big time. Such was the furore surrounding the release of Born To Run that he even appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously.

However, just as it seemed he had made it all the way to rock super-stardom his career stalled as he became embroiled in a lengthy lawsuit with his former manager.

It would be 1978 before he would release his fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. To promote his fifth album, The River, he undertook his first world tour in 1980/81.

By the end of that tour, including the aforementioned Edinburgh gig which I witnessed, he was being hailed as the new king of rock ‘n’ roll. But Bruce Springsteen was about to prove in a most remarkable way that there was more to him than just a good rock ‘n’ roll show and songs about fast cars.

Just as the rock world was proclaiming him the next big thing he seemed to turn his back on it all. Though he had been out on tour in the real world for a year and more, or maybe even because of it, when he returned to the United States he looked inwards at what was happening where he lived.

In 1982 he released Nebraska. It was the bravest artistic decision that Springsteen ever took. There was no band backing him, instead he presented to the world a largely solo acoustic album which took everyone by surprise.

On Nebraska the Spector-like wall of sound production, the sweeping cityscapes and wild romanticism in the music and lyrics of Born To Run are all gone, replaced by dark tales of characters sidelined by the USA of the early 1980’s and Reaganomics.

The record is populated by the misfits, the rejects and the unwanted of American society; they are characters who, sentenced by the system that they lived under and being possessed of no special talent were born to fail, excluded by birth from the American dream.

There’s a place out on the edge of town, sir,
Risin’ above the factories and the fields.
Now ever since I was a child I can remember
That mansion on the hill.

In the day you can see the children playing
On the road that leads to those gates of hardened steel,
Steel gates that completely surround, sir,
That mansion on the hill.

In many of Springsteen’s songs from the early to mid-1980’s the lyrics reflect the economic times that he lived in, and listening to the older recordings provides an insight into those times, allowing reflection on the ways in which the world has changed (or not, as the case may be) since those songs were originally written.

In 1980 Springsteen released his fifth album, The River. The title song opens thus,

I come from down in the valley where, mister, when you’re young,
They bring you up to do just like your daddy done.

OK, English teachers and grammatical perfectionists out there, take a minute to get over the verbal mangling at the end of that one. Then everyone take another minute to mull over what life was like in 1980 and compare it to what it is like now.

When The River was written back in 1979, many young people leaving school actually did follow in the footsteps of their fathers. If you were poor and working class being born in a mining community meant that being a miner was your likely fate.

Then there were the shipyards, the steel towns and in Dundee, my adopted home-town, generation after generation worked in the city’s jute mills, till after the second world war when some diversity of occupation was possible as many foreign companies located in the city.

But Dundee and many other cities throughout Scotland were about to find out that multinational companies and corporations investing in them was not done through any sense of altruism.

If you drive into Dundee from the north on the A92 and turn right at the Scott Fyfe circle on to Dundee’s inner ring road, the Kingsway, and proceed to drive its length to the other end at the Swallow circle, you will drive through an industrial graveyard.

Dotted along the five-and-a-half miles of the Kingsway are the sites of the post-war sunrise industries which located in Dundee — Timex Milton, ABB Nitran, Valentine’s, NCR, Timex Camperdown, Levis — each factory at one time a beacon of hope for a brighter future, but now all either vacant sites or shopping centres, each one now nothing more than a tombstone along the side of the road of Dundee’s forced march into globalisation.

A forced march into a world where capitalist multinationals in thrall to globalisation shipped jobs abroad to where the goods that they produced could be manufactured cheaper, a world where loyalty from international corporations to loyal work forces had no place as shareholders had to be satisfied and profits maximised.

Nitran, Valentine’s, NCR, Timex, Levis.

Some went easy.

Some went hard.

But in the end . . .

. . . they all went.

To this mix, add Dundee’s jute industry, fast approaching its death throes. By the time that Dundee’s industrial holocaust had burnt itself out swathes of its post-war housing schemes had become like ghettoes in some places as those who would once have found employment in those industries self-medicated themselves to temporary and repetitive oblivion with the drink or narcotic of their choice in order to escape the empty awfulness and lack of hope in their lives.

Maybe those jobs hadn’t been great, especially in the jute mills, but they had provided expectations among the young of Dundee of at least some kind of employment when they left school.

With that certainty gone they would no longer follow in the footsteps of their fathers, and their fathers before them. They would no longer be brought up to “do just like your daddy done.”

In the song My Hometown Springsteen observed,

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more.
They’re closing down the textile mill
Across the railroad tracks,
Foreman says, “These jobs are going, boys,
And they ain’t coming back
To your hometown . . .

Springsteen may have been making observations about life in the United States, but the song found a sympathetic echo on the streets of Dundee.

Bruce Springsteen’s seventh album, Born In The USA was released in June 1984, a few months into the miners’ strike, Britain’s most bitter post-war industrial dispute, during which Thatcher unleashed the full force of the state to crush the miners.

Across the Atlantic her ideological soul mate, Ronald Reagan, was decimating American industry, and both had set the (wrecking) ball rolling on a course which would see car plants, steel mills and much of the manufacturing base destroyed.

Born In The USA was Springsteen’s most commercially successful record and all sorts of craziness followed its release as everyone jumped on the bandwagon, including Ronald Reagan, who was campaigning for re-election as president in 1984.

On a stop at Hammonton, New Jersey, he hijacked Springsteen for his own political ends as he told an invited audience, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in the songs so many young Americans admire, New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”

It was several days before Springsteen responded to Reagan’s adoption of him. On stage on September 22, he told the audience, The president was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favourite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.

He launched into a song from the Nebraska album, Johnny 99, the protagonist of the song having lost his job when the local car plant had been shut down. In desperation he had been arrested for trying to commit a robbery. At his trial he tells the judge from the dock,

Now, judge, judge, I had debts
No honest man could pay.
The bank was holding my mortgage,
They were gonna take my house away.

Springsteen was to revisit the theme of de-industrialisation in his 1995 solo album, The Ghost Of Tom Joad, in particular on the song, Youngstown. It tells the tale of a young man who returns from war in Vietnam to a job in the steel industry in the town of Youngstown, Ohio.

Well, my daddy worked the furnaces,
Kept ’em hotter than hell,
I came home from ’Nam, worked my way to scarfer,
A job that’d suit the devil as well.
Taconite, coke and limestone
Fed my children and made my pay.
Them smokestacks reaching like the arms of God
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay.

Someone worshipping a beautiful sky of soot and clay makes for an interesting situation for eco-socialists. Knowing as we do the effect of pumping vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, would we ourselves be forced to close down the coal mines and steel mills, even though they provided the very means of existence to many?

Surely the difference would be that we would handle any closures and subsequent redundancies made to protect the planet in a humane manner by creating jobs in renewable technologies for the out of work miners and steel workers.

For the record, I nearly wrote in a more humane manner in the previous paragraph, but stuck with humane manner instead. The word more is comparative and its use would have implied that there was some degree of humanity about Thatcher and her attitude to the miners and, indeed, the whole working class.

There wasn’t!

The central character of the song is another who went on to become someone who ended up going down the road of doing just like your daddy done. Like his father before him he has returned from war to a job in a vital industry.

But he will be the last of his family to do this. His children will not do just like your daddy done. The third verse of Youngstown is a mournful requiem for the steel mills of that Ohio town.

Well my daddy come on the Ohio works
When he came home from World War Two.
Now the yard’s just scrap and rubble.
He said, ‘Them big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do’.

Both he and his father had unquestioningly served the state well in time of war, but his father’s life and his own were worth nothing to American based multinational corporations in time of peace when they found somewhere that steel could be made cheaper.

With the release of Born In The USA in 1984 and the world tour which followed it, Springsteen became one of the biggest rock stars on the planet, but celebrity and fame posed for him the question that all international rock stars face with their vast wealth and jet set lifestyles. How do you stay in touch with where you came from?

Some don’t even try. Others preach about saving the world from the stage during their concerts, all the while moving their tax affairs offshore only to end up wondering why they still haven‘t found what they‘re looking for. It seems that Springsteen is at least aware of the dichotomy that exists in his situation.

Following a three-month world tour with Peter Gabriel, Sting, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N’door, sponsored by Amnesty International and promoting the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Springsteen split from the E-Street Band. It would be eleven years before they played together again in public.

Springsteen simply told the band that he would not be requiring their services for the foreseeable future, that he wanted time to pursue other ideas. He did, in fact, tour in 1992 with a new group of musicians, and in the song Better Days he bemoans the fact that

I took a piss at fortune’s sweet kiss,
It’s like eating caviar and dirt,
It’s a sad, funny ending to find yourself pretending,
A rich man in a poor man’s shirt.

Perhaps it is a dilemma with no resolution.

Twenty-nine-and-a-bit years on from that far-off night at the Playhouse in Edinburgh when I first saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert, so much has changed. The big industries in Scotland—the coal mines, the shipyards, the car plant, the steel mill—all now gone. Methil no more. Linwood no more. Ravenscraig no more. Ghosts that now only inhabit and haunt the memories of those of a certain age.

But yet, so much remains the same. Unemployment, war and poverty have not died. They are every bit as real now and every bit as awful as they were nearly three decades ago, the stench that follows capitalism around like some unshakeable bloodhound.

Regarding war, it must be said that Springsteen’s attitude towards his country’s foreign adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan could have been better. He toured Europe in the spring and summer of 2003 round about the time of the US (sorry, coalition) invasion of Iraq.

When he toured in 1988 he closed the first half of his shows with the Edwin Starr classic War flowing into Born In The USA. What a message he could have sent out with that ending to his 2003 shows. But it was absent. He did not come out against the war till much later. Neil Young, Steve Earle and the Dixie Chicks did it so much better.

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?

The River, Bruce Springsteen

Like a remake of a classic movie once more we are told that we are all in this together, as times of austerity forced upon us by a failed ideology threaten to engulf us in a tsunami of redundancies and cuts to vital services.

Once again the rich elite who took the profits in the good times tell us that we must pay for their greed and folly in the bad times. And, as in any movie remake, only the actors have changed. The plot remains the same.

Those who would have had us believe that it was the end of boom and bust have been proved laughably wrong. Neither has the end of history arrived, for history is still being written, and though the hand that writes the story of our current times has previously written it on more than one occasion it seems never to tire of recording the same tale.

If ever there was a need for a new hand on the pen which writes the story it is now—and it is a need for a kinder, fairer hand, a hand that would write a happier ending for those who lack the naked greed and blind ambition which has brought us to our present pass.

Badlands, you’ve got to live them every day,
Let the broken hearts stand, that’s the price you’ve got to pay.
Keep pushing till it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good.

Badlands, Bruce Springsteen.

Anyway, enough. On July 14 last year, I and 50,000 others turned up at the National Stadium in Glasgow to see Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band in concert. The question I asked myself prior to him hitting the stage was this. Here was a man just a few months short of his sixtieth birthday. Could he still hack it?

Thinking thus, it was with no small degree of trepidation that I approached the concert at Hampden Park. In the end I really shouldn’t have worried. Three hours after Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band took to the stage on that summer evening they left it, cheered to the rafters. The man still rocks!

I’m just a prisoner of rock ‘n’ roll.

—Bruce Springsteen.

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Dec 02 2010

Feed The World

Africa’s new global role for the 21st century?

Hands up anyone who thought that the G8 and G20 conferences were modern inventions at which the rich and powerful decide the fate of the world. It could be contended that they had a precursor one hundred and twenty-five years ago.

Between November 15, 1884, and November 26, 1885, the major European colonial powers met in Berlin at a conference under the leadership of the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

The stated aims of the Berlin Conference were promoted as controlling the slave trade and the furthering of humanitarian aims and ideals on the African continent.

The conference did indeed pass resolutions concerning the welfare of Africa and the ending of the slave trade. However, all of this was just so much window dressing. The true purpose of the Berlin Conference was to divide up the continent of Africa among the imperial powers in such a way that they would not come into financially expensive and wasteful armed conflict with each other.

And how they succeeded.

A look at a political map of the African continent will show some very strange boundaries, many of them long and straight, unlike, for example, Europe. This came about as a result of the Berlin Conference.

As the Berlin Conference divided the continent between the European colonial powers the borders that the conference decided upon did not follow mountain ranges, rivers nor even ethnic groupings.

Indeed, the arbitrary borders that the conference imposed meant that ethnic groups were split by those borders, a situation which continues to be a source of trouble which haunts the continent of Africa to this day.

However, nothing remains forever and, as time moved on, one by one the countries of Africa declared their independence from their imperial masters. But now, at the start of the 21st century there are fears that a new and very controversial form of colonialism is taking place in Africa, and again, as in the 19th century, it is the rich and powerful who are doing the colonising.

The 21st century’s version of colonialism is all about food. Vast tracts of the African continent are being bought up or leased for the production of crops for export.

Those buying or leasing the land are a mixed but not too surprising bunch. Among them are rich and powerful countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and India among many others, but also to be found are the usual suspects of capitalism, those you can find wherever there are opportunities for exploitation — hedge funds, pension funds, commodity traders, investment banks, multinational corporations, grossly rich individuals, &c., pretty much the usual collection of spivs and profiteers who will turn up like a shark unerringly following a blood trail whenever the poor are to be exploited for profit.

There are various reasons for the rush to what many have described as a land grab.

  • The global food shortages following on from steep rises in the price of oil in 2008.
  • The EU’s assertion that, by the year 2015, 10% of all fuel used for transport has to be obtained from plant-based biofuels.
  • Growing global water shortages also play a part..

To achieve the EU’s required 10% biofuel target it is estimated that an area half the size of Italy would have to be turned over to biofuel production, surely an obscenity in a continent where millions go to bed hungry each night.

Saudi Arabia has another good reason for outsourcing its crop production. It is one of the Middle East’s biggest wheat growers but recently announced that it intends to reduce domestic wheat production by 12%. The Saudis intend to make up the shortfall by purchasing/leasing land in Africa to grow crops on. This tactic will also help to conserve Saudi Arabia’s scarcest asset, namely its precious water supply.

Water, oil, food—the resource wars of our oncoming century.

With the world population estimated to grow to around 9.1 billion by the middle of this century and global demand for food likely to rise by 50 per cent, the lack of fresh land for cultivation domestically means that many developed nations are now taking steps to secure their food supply by growing crops in Africa for export to and consumption by their own domestic markets.

What makes Africa such an attractive agricultural opportunity for capitalist countries / transnational businesses? The cheapness of the land is one of the major attractions. As arable land grows scarcer in Europe and the USA, it can be purchased for around $350-$500 per hectare in Zambia. That same hectare in the United States would cost round about 10 times as much.

But land and its ownership is a contentious thing in Africa.

The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation believe that only about 14 per cent of land suitable for cultivation is presently being used. But very little land in Africa has documented ownership and much is community owned or even in some cases state owned. Even land that is apparently empty may be subject to intricate patterns of customary usage.

Yet governments in Africa are keen to sell and lease their land in order to provide income from what they see as an underdeveloped resource and also to bring employment to their countries. The reality of the jobs that will be created is that most of them will be as low-paid agricultural labourers or in the provision of security for the foreign investors. The corporations investing in these schemes are probably not head hunting new CEOs among Africa’s tribes.

International Land Coalition policy specialist Michael Taylor put it this way:

If land in Africa hasn’t been planted, it’s probably for a reason. Maybe it’s used to graze livestock or deliberately left fallow to prevent nutrient depletion and erosion. Anybody who has seen these areas identified as unused understands that there is no land in Ethiopia that has no owners and users.

It is estimated that in the last three years that 50 million hectares of land in Africa has been acquired, or is in the process of being acquired, by wealthy countries, individuals and corporations. To give a perspective on that figure, 50 million hectares is more than twice the area of the United Kingdom.

Ethiopia has over 13 million of its population dependent on food aid, making it one of the world’s hungriest nations. The Ethiopian government, however, in deals done with wealthy countries, corporations and individuals, is prepared to lease out three million hectares of its best land to them.

Nyikaw Ochalia, a native Anuak from Ethiopia’s Gambella region, in an interview in The Observer, dated March 7, 2010, stated:

All of the land in the Gambella region is utilised. Each community has and looks after its own territory and the rivers and farmlands within it.

It is a myth propagated by the government and investors to say that there is waste land or land that is not utilised in Gambella.

The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for centuries. There is no consultation with the indigenous population. The deals are done secretly. The only thing that local people see is people coming with lots of tractors, to invade their lands.

All the land round my family village of Illia has been taken over and is being cleared. People now have to work for an Indian company. The land has been compulsorily taken and they have been given no compensation. People cannot believe what is happening. Thousands of people will be affected and people will go hungry.

The Oromo people form about 50 million of the 80 million population of Ethiopia. In an open letter dated February 25, 2010, to Ban Ki-Moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, Haile Hirpa, president of the Oromo Studies Association, describes his people’s plight.

In the letter he tells of how the Oromos are being evicted from their land by the Ethiopian government and how their confiscated land is being sold to various countries, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, China, India and Egypt among them.

On March 4, 2009, the first food crop arrived in Saudi Arabia which had been grown in Saudi farms abroad. At the same time in Ethiopia the Oromo people were dying in a man-made famine.

Ethiopia, is, of course, by no means alone, and other countries affected by the new agri-colonialism of Africa include Uganda, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Sudan, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia and the Congo.

The Congo (DRC) has done a deal with South Africa whereby it will lease nearly one-third of its land to South African investment for a period of 99 years. If the South Africans use the same model for agricultural development in the DRC as they did domestically it does not bode well for the small-time farmers.

Millions of subsistence farmers and labourers in South Africa were forced to leave the land and move to the squalor of the townships of the big cities as their land rights were taken from them.

Again, the problem exists for the indigenous people of the DRC, and indeed, almost anywhere in Africa, that virtually no documentation exists to prove their legal right to the land, making it easy to evict them in the name of progress.

There is also a huge environmental cost to the deal between the DRC and the RSA in that any rainforest obstructing the deal will be destroyed. Any threatening protests are to be dealt with by the military.

None of this should surprise us, really.

The historical record of colonial powers and transnational corporations regarding showing a duty of care towards indigenous populations is somewhere on the spectrum round about the area occupied by the Easter bunny and the unicorn, that is, very imaginative but with not much actual basis in reality.

As foreign money pours in to buy or lease land from poor African countries a couple of examples, one from the past and one currently taking place on another continent, may shed some light on what might be expected to occur.

The lesson of Liberia regarding exploitation of its rubber plantations is instructive. In 1926, the tyre manufacturer Firestone leased huge tracts of land at six cents an acre to harvest the sap of the rubber tree used in the manufacture of tyres. It is the largest rubber operation in the world yet there is very little benefit to the local communities and the use of child labour has been widely reported.

OK, it’s quiz time!

In 1926 Firestone struck a deal whereby they would pay 6 cents an acre to Liberia for land to grow rubber trees on. In the nearly eight decades between 1926 and 2005 there have been many major events and changes—the world has seen global conflict, man has progressed from flying in rickety bi-planes to walking on the moon and every home in Scotland now has an inside toilet. Bearing all this in mind, how much do you think that Firestone were paying Liberia per acre in 2005? Don’t forget to factor in 79 years of inflation as you work out the answer.

To make it a little bit easier the answer is multiple choice, so have a guess if you’re not sure. Was it:

  • (a) An appalling 10 cents
  • (b) A miserly 12 cents
  • (c) an astonishingly generous 15 cents

Ha Ha! Gotcha! Trick question!

Firestone continued to pay six cents an acre until 2005, when the price per acre was increased to 50 cents, then in 2008 it rose again to $2 per acre, still by any measure a huge bargain.

For a major international corporation to pay the same price for nearly eight decades to a poor African country for the use of its land is beyond exploitation, the word exploitation is simply not big enough to encompass the corporate greed involved in this shabby deal.

In an interview with finalcall.com in August 2008, Elmira Woods, who has Liberian roots, and is director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, an independent think tank and research institute based in Washington DC., said,

We know that Africa has been at the centerpiece of the global economy for five hundred years since the days of slavery.

From the time that we as African people were pushed into slavery to sustain the economies of the West until today, you have had the African economies, the resources that come from the continent whether it is steel or iron ore that creates the steel that comes from Africa, or it is rubber that you could not have the tires on the cars without, the rubber that comes from Africa.

These vital resources for the global economy come from the African continent. What has happened, just as in the days of slavery and in the days of colonialism, Africa is looked to as a place to extract the resource and not really to develop the people.

I think that there has been a sustained effort to under develop Africa, really for five hundred years.

So you have corporations whether it’s the big oil companies now, that are celebrating historic high profits and yet the communities on which the oil lies will have no schools, poor housing, inefficient or non-existing health care and no roads to speak of.

I mean complete degradation of these communities, in spite of the fact that oil has been flowing from some of these communities in Nigeria, for example, since 1956, yet the communities remain without any of the basic necessities of human survival.

This is the problem, especially multi-national corporations going after their greed, going after resources and not seeing the people. And just as it was wrong in the days of slavery, it is as wrong today, to have this type of exploitation of a continent.

Another example of how Africa’s indigenous populations should perhaps expect to profit from the current inward agricultural investment can be found across the Atlantic in South America, specifically Brazil.

The development of industrial scale farms dispossessed many of Brazil’s indigenous farmers as the Brazilian government opened up its huge savanna to soy production. US agribusinesses subsidiaries make vast profits and huge soy farms are owned and run by US farmers. In global terms Brazil is now an agricultural superpower, exporting soy, beef, coffee, sugar and much more.

However, despite this agricultural/economic miracle, 25 per cent of the population, that is 44 million people, live on a daily income of less than $1.06 per day. By any definition this is known as extreme poverty.

Brazil is expected to become the world’s fourth largest economy in the near future. That such an economy could have so many people in dire poverty tells us much about capitalist notions of what a successful economy should look like.

And yet, there is a chance that all the rich, powerful countries and various capitalist spivs currently exploiting Africa may yet have their best laid plans undone.

In July 2008 the giant Daewoo corporation leased 1.3 million hectares of land for the production of maize and palm oil in Madagascar. When the population heard of the plans violent protests broke out which eventually led to the overthrow of Madagascar’s government in a coup, and the cancellation of the deal. People power at work?

And there is another spectre haunting the world which may make many or even all such land grabs void. Climate change may yet wreak havoc on African land deals.

Consider this. Seeking to entice sheikhs to invest in buying land for crop growth the government of Pakistan held a road show in Dubai. They promised tax breaks and exemptions from labour laws and even threw in a 100,000 strong security force solely for the protection of their investments. All this, it should be noted, while Pakistan is at war with the Taliban.

Yet the events of July/August 2010 in Pakistan may prove a warning to all those investing or planning to invest in land deals to grow crops abroad for domestic consumption. Unusually heavy rains have produced floods of biblical proportions, made 15 million people homeless, and destroyed domestic crops in the fertile lands of Pakistan. Last week, on August 27, Pakistan suspended all wheat exports.

At the start of September, 2010, there were food riots in Mozambique after the government increased the price of bread by 30 per cent. The root cause of this massive increase was to be found far away in Russia. Due to wildfires much of the Russian wheat crop has been destroyed and a ban has been placed on the export of wheat.

Russia is the world’s third-largest wheat exporter and the export ban has created a global wheat shortage. This has led to a huge increase in the price of wheat on world markets. As a country which imports over 60 per cent of the wheat that it needs the poor people of Mozambique are being forced to pay the price for international capitalist markets.

As the world heats up currently fertile lands may be hit by drought, flood or some other extreme weather events.

If this were to happen would the distressed and starving indigenous population be forced to look on as any crops that survived but were grown on land purchased by outside investors were driven past them for export, accompanied by an armed escort? Surely something like that would never happen.

Was it just me or did anyone else just hear the mournful melody of The Fields of Athenry?[1]

At the G8 summit held in Italy in July 2009 the Japanese delegation tried to push through a code of conduct to govern land grab deals. Never mind any firm legislation, the proposed code of conduct proved too much for the other seven members to support. Eventually, Japan’s proposal was watered down to a promise to develop proposals on principles and best practices for foreign agricultural investment in land with partner countries and international organisations.

Did you have to read that several times before realising that it is so vague and wrapped up in gobbledygook that it is meaningless? Do you suspect that nothing will actually be done regarding regulating this new colonisation of the ‘dark continent’?

At a time when we are expected to pay for the folly of a rich elite’s reckless pursuit of profit through cuts to our vital services, who, reading this, expects that the same elite will pass up the opportunity to exploit the poorest on our planet? It beggars belief, given their past record, that they will pass up the chance of a profit because it might contravene humanitarian ideals.

Was that an echo rolling down the centuries that I just heard from the promises made at the Berlin Conference?

[1] The Fields Of Athenry is a song about the failure of the potato crop, resulting in the 19th century Irish Potato Famine. The failure of the crop that the poor depended on for sustenance meant that millions either starved or were forced to emigrate. During the famine grain was exported to England under armed escort as the starving Irish population looked on. Due to death and emigration the population of Ireland was reduced by one-third in the famine. When French and American ships tried to land with food and clothing to alleviate the suffering of the Irish they were met by British gunboats and diverted to English ports. There the goods were offloaded and reloaded on to English ships (at a price) to be transported to Ireland. Such was the length of the delays that most of the foodstuffs had rotted by the time they sailed for Ireland. Newspapers of the day, including The Times, published articles and editorials in which they claimed that the potato blight in Ireland was God’s punishment because they were a largely Catholic country.

The Fields of Athenry

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young girl calling
Michael, they have taken you away,
For you stole Trevelyn’s corn
That the young might see the morn,
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.

CHORUS

Low lie the fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly.
Our love was on the wing
We had dreams and songs to sing
It’s so lonely ’round the Fields of Athenry.

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young man calling
Nothing matters, Mary, when you’re free,
Against the Famine and the Crown
I rebelled, they ran me down,
Now you must raise our child with dignity.

CHORUS

By a lonely harbour wall
She watched the last star falling
As that prison ship sailed out against the sky
Sure she’ll wait and hope and pray
For her love in Botany Bay
It’s so lonely ’round the Fields of Athenry.

CHORUS

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Nov 14 2009

It was the worst of times, it was the best of us!

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 18RCN @ 8:44 pm

In this article Rod MacGregor looks at how the Danish people took effective action to protect their Jewish population from Nazi extermination

October 1, 10 p.m., 1943 Copenhagen.

Nazi occupation forces knock on the doors of the Danish Jewish population. In Denmark, the “final solution” to the “Jewish problem” is under way. The following morning, out of a population of between 7500 and 8000 Jews, only 284 are in custody, of whom 50 were later released, and only 202 deported. The rest, it seems, had vanished into the autumn night. Where were they? How had they seemingly just disappeared?

April 9, 1940 — In direct violation of a non-aggressiontreaty signed the previous year, German forces invaded Denmark (Norway was also invaded on this day). Quickly realising the military mismatch between the two countries, after a few skirmishes the Danes surrendered. In doing so they hoped to work out an advantageous outcome for themselves. Although this was a pragmatic stance by the Danishthe government, it was one that many ordinary Danes did not agree with, believing that their country should have put up more resistance to the Nazi invaders.

The Germans announced a protectorate and promised non-interference in Denmark’s internal affairs. In return Denmark, to some extent, allowed their industry and agriculture to aid the German war effort.

Hitler’s pet canary

There followed an uneasy “truce” between the Danish government and the German authorities, as the Danes supplied food for the Germans and the Germans, in turn, allowed the Danes to continue life much as before the invasion. Other than underground newspapers, there was very little resistance activity at this point, a situation which led Churchill to call Denmark “Hitler’s pet canary.”

For Denmark’s population of around 8000 Jews, life changed very little for them after the German invasion. They were allowed to keep their homes, businesses and assets, unlike in other Western European countries. Nor were they required to wear a yellow badge to identify themselves and thus isolate them from the rest of the Danish population, and they continued to hold religious services.

Reich plenipotentiary in Denmark, Cecil von Renthe-Fink, had some influence on this, concluding that to treat the Danish Jews as they did Jewish populations in other conquered territories would antagonise the rest of the population, and have a detrimental effect on Germany, as Danish agriculture supplied food for the Germans.

This did not, however, stop high-ranking Nazis planning for a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem” in Denmark. At the beginning of 1942 Himmler and Heydrich proposed that the Nuremberg anti-Jewish laws should be put into effect in all Western countries under German occupation. But Denmark still had its constitution and monarchy intact, and was neutral though under German occupation. Around this time the American press reported that the king of Denmark had threatened to abdicate if the Nuremberg laws were implemented.

Von Renthe-Fink was advised from above “to find occasions to point out that it would be prudent for Denmark to prepare in good time for the final solution.”

But prudence (as seen by the Germans) was not, at this point in time, high on the agenda of the Danes, and when in June 1942 the Germans tried to pressure the Danes into introducing the infamous “Jewish badge” decree, it was reported that King Christian said that he would be the first Danish citizen to wear the badge.

Karl Werner Best was appointed Reich plenipotentiary to Denmark in succession to von Renthe-Fink, and Himmler thought that Best would be pliable as he was a former legal advisor to the Gestapo. But Best had left the Gestapo to escape from Heydrich, and when some anti-Jewish measures were proposed he pointed out that they would almost certainly cause a constitutional crisis and suggested that the only action which should be taken should be the dismissal of all Jews in the civil service (of whom there were thirty-one).

Counter-productive

Best, too, like von Renthe-Fink before him, believed that at that time and given the circumstances, it would be counter-productive to the German war effort to single out the Danish Jews for special treatment. He was also keen for Denmark to be seen as a “model protectorate”, an example of how life could be good under German rule. Basically, he didn’t want to rock the boat.

There followed a game of constitutional cat and mouse, with the Germans trying to find ways of implementing their final solution and the Danes resisting them. This was how things went until August 1943. On the fifth day of that month neutral Sweden renounced an agreement which allowed German troops stationed in Norway to use the Swedish railway system.

This had a galvanising effect on some Danes. The dock workers at Odense were inspired by the Swedish action and refused to repair German ships, and riots and arrests followed. On 9 August Scavenius, the Danish prime minister, threatened to resign if the arrested men were required to be tried by Danish courts.

Martial law was introduced at Odense and on 24 August, 1943, the German-occupied Forum Hall in Copenhagen was blown up by the Danish resistance. The following day all of Denmark’s shipyards were on strike.

The Scavenius government resigned on 28 August and the following day the German military commander, General von Hannecken, proclaimed martial law throughout Denmark. Danish defence forces were interned, while the Danish fleet either sought internment in Sweden or scuttled itself.

Even with martial law proclaimed, von Hannecken and Best could not take over the government of Denmark. Though the Danish government was no more, they had to deal with a Committee of Ministerial Directors, whose job it was to act on behalf of the absent Danish cabinet.

However, on September 8, 1943, Best asked for police reinforcements and assistance from the German army “so that the Jewish problem can be handled during the present siege conditions and not later.” On September 16, Hitler gave his approval and plans for Denmark’s “final solution” were prepared.

Best informed German naval attache Georg F. Duckwitz of the plans on September 11, and this was to prove a key moment in the events which were about to unfold. Duckwitz flew to Berlin two days later and tried, unsuccessfully, to have the plan cancelled. He flew to Sweden two weeks later to discuss the possibility of smuggling Denmark’s Jews across the Øresund, a narrow strait of water which separated the two countries.

Finally, Duckwitz, who had friends in Denmark’s Social Democrat party, sought a meeting with Hans Hedtoft, a leading member of the party, who later recalled,

I was sitting in a meeting when Duckwitz asked to see me. ‘The disaster is going to take place,’ he said. ‘All details are planned. Your poor fellow citizens are going to be deported to an unknown destination.’ Duckwitz’s face was white from indignation and shame.

October 1 (Ros Hahsanah or Jewish New Year) at 10 p.m. was when the operation would swing into action, the Germans figuring that most of the Jews would be at home on this particular day.

Hedtoft immediately warned C. B. Henriques, head of the Jewish community, and Dr Marcus Melchior, acting chief Rabbi of the Krystalgade Synagogue. So it was that on September 30, 1943, Rabbi Melchior stood before members of his synagogue in Copenhagen and warned those present of the Germans’ plans for the night of October 1. Those present were urged to contact anyone they knew who was Jewish and also to contact their Christian friends so that they could pass on information about the Germans’ terrible plan to any Jewish friends that they had.

Act of sheer humanity

So, when the Nazis knocked on doors and found no one there, where were the Jews? In an act of sheer humanity the Danish people had hidden them.

Some were hidden in hospitals, some hid with non-Jewish neighbours, people even walked up to Jews In the street and gave them the keys to their apartments so that they would not be at home when the fascists tried to implement their “final solution.”

What was truly remarkable about the actions of the vast majority of the Danish population was the spontaneity of their actions. They were not taking orders from any government, there was no centralised resistance plan to hide and save the Danish Jews from the Nazis. It was a case of “this far and no further” with their accommodation of the Germans. When the Nazis decided to single out one section of Danish society for persecution the Danes saw them not as Jews, but as Danes, and acted accordingly.

Courage and humanity

There are numerous examples of the courage and humanity of the Danish people in this most awful of times. A young Danish ambulance driver learned of the round-up on the day it was announced at the synagogue. He simply circled all the Jewish sounding names in the phone book and drove round Copenhagen warning them. When some became nearly hysterical because they had nowhere to hide he drove them in his ambulance to Bispebjerg Hospital. He knew that Dr Karl Koster would conceal them there. “What else could I do?” was the young ambulance driver’s reply when he was asked why he had taken this particular course of action.

At Bispebjerg Hospital Dr Koster hid hundreds of Jews, as arrangements were made to smuggle them to neutral Sweden, which was a tantalisingly short boat ride away. The psychiatric hospital and nurses’ quarters were teeming with hundreds of fleeing Jews, who were fed from the hospital kitchen. Despite the obvious dangers involved in this course of action the entire staff co-operated. Just one Nazi collaborator or sympathiser could have brought the whole escapade to a tragic ending. Donations flowed into the hospital from the Danish people to help in the struggle to save the Jews of Denmark.

Professor Richard Ege was later asked why he had hidden so many Jews in his building and replied, “It was a natural reaction to help good friends.” His wife commented, “It was exactly the same as seeing a neighbour’s house on fire. Naturally, you want to do something about it.”

An anonymous pastor put it succinctly when he said, “I would rather die with the Jews than live with the Nazis.”

It would be wise at this juncture to point out that this was not some glorified, high octane “Whisky Galore” style adventure, where the cheeky wee Danes ran around hiding human “contrabrand” from those pesky Germans. The consequences for anyone caught hiding Jews would, in all likelihood, have been every bit as severe as for the Jews themselves, should they have been caught.

Collaboration

While the vast majority of the Danes opposed the Germans, like everywhere they went, the Nazis had their sympathisers. After the war 40,000 Danish citizens were arrested on suspicion of collaboration with the Germans. 13,500 of them received some kind of punishment, including 78 who were sentenced to death (with 46 death sentences actually being carried out).

But this only serves to make the Danish peoples’ protection of their fellow Danes more admirable. Knowing that they had an enemy within who would betray them to the Germans, as well as the occupying Nazis, did not deter them from their spontaneous, humanitarian efforts.

But hidden as they were it would be impossible to conceal all of Denmark’s Jews for any significant length of time. Now they had to be transported to neutral Sweden. On September 30, Neils Bohr, the famous nuclear physicist, had been smuggled to Sweden, where he was informed that he would have to go to London to be safe from the Nazis. He refused to leave Sweden until he had spoken to the foreign minister. He informed him at the meeting that he could not leave Sweden until until the Swedes agreed to open their doors to the Danish Jewish refugees. When the foreign minister was uncooperative, Bohr insisted on seeing the king of Sweden. King Gustav agreed that Sweden would accept them. Bohr asked Sweden to announce this on its newspapers’ front pages and also in a radio broadcast to Denmark. Only after the broadcast did Bohr leave for England.

The Jews were smuggled out of Denmark and over the water to Sweden. Some made the journey in fishing boats, others in rowing boats or kayaks. Others were concealed in freight cars on the ferries between Denmark and Sweden. The underground broke into empty freight cars which the Germans had sealed after inspection, put the refugees in the cars and then resealed them with forged or stolen seals so that the Germans would not reinspect them.

In this manner, in a short space of time, Denmark’s Jews who had evaded capture were spirited out of the country. Some fishermen took money for doing this, while others only took money from the wealthy, but sadly, there will always be profiteers in any desperate situation.

As the rescue moved on, the underground resistance ousted the profiteers and became active in organising the exodus of the Danish Jews, providing finance, which came mostly from donations of large sums of money from wealthy Danes.

Not all went smoothly, however. At the port of Gilleleje eighty Jews were found hiding in the loft of a church, betrayed by a Danish girl in love with a German soldier, and the Gestapo was becoming suspicious of increased activity at Danish harbours, forcing rescues to be conducted from isolated coastal spots, while the Jews hid in the woods and cottages away from the coast while awaiting their turn to be rescued.

But the Danes‘ heroic efforts to help their fellow citizens did not end there. Those who were captured ended up in Theresienstadt concentration camp. This was bad enough, but Theresienstadt was not a death camp, though of the 360 sent there, twenty died on the journey and fifty actually in the camp itself. The Danish administration continually harried the Germans as to the fate of their citizens in a manner which no other country did, which probably accounted for the high survival rate of the Danish Jews compared to other countries.

Even when the Danish Jews returned to Denmark at the end of the war their experience was different to that of survivors returning in other countries. Quite often Jews would return to their homes to find them either occupied or looted, and it was made quite clear to them that they were not welcome.

When the Danish Jews returned they found their homes and possessions had been looked after by neighbours, even in some cases down to family pets being cared for.

Some historians make the case that Werner Best had informed Georg Duckwitz of the date of the Jewish round-up, knowing that Duckwitz would tell the Danes, others going so far as to imply that they actually colluded in the action. These are the arguments of academics long after the event. At the time the Jews of Denmark were in genuine and mortal fear of their lives and the Danish population had no knowledge of any background political machinations, real or not, when they spontaneously protected their fellow citizens from persecution of the worst kind.

Why were the Danes able to save their Jewish population when other countries could not, or did not care enough even to try?

One obvious advantage that Denmark had was a neutral country, Sweden, which agreed to accept the refugees, and was only a short boat trip away.

Another theory is that the Germans were patchy in their willingness to pursue the final solution in Denmark. It was 1943 and the Germans had tasted defeat at Stalingrad and in North Africa. Did Karl Werner Best try to earn brownie points by not pursuing the final solution with too much vigour? Many records were destroyed and perhaps we will never know the real answer to this one. On October 4, 1943, however, he reported to Berlin that Denmark was now “Jewfree” although one can’t help but think that he was a little bit sketchy in his report about how this state of affairs had come to pass. To use diplomatic language he may have been “economical with the truth.”

Mass involvement

Be these things as they may, few Jews would have escaped from Denmark without the mass involvement of the Danish population in response to what they saw as an unacceptable act. Danish society had, over the centuries, developed what the Danes called livskunst (the art of living). Caring for one another, respect for individual and religious differences, co-operation, self reliance and good humour were the distinctive features of livskunst, and these undoubtedly shaped the Danes’ response to the Germans inflicting their “final solution” upon a section of Danish society.

How often as socialists do we talk of action from below, how often do we talk in praiseworthy terms of a movement from below? This clearly was the case in the rescue of the Danish Jews and as such, we as socialists can learn much from it. It astounds me that it took me five-and-a-half decades to hear of this story. The heroes and heroines of this tale were not necessarily socialists nor communists, although no doubt some of them were.

But whatever their political affiliations, in October 1943, the Danish people could not have acted in a more socialist manner. What could be more socialist than risking everything to protect a persecuted minority from a murderous regime?

Proclamation of the Danish Freedom Council

The Danish Freedom Council condemns the pogroms the Germans have set in motion against the Jews in our country. Among the Danish people the Jews are not a special class but are citizens to exactly the same degree as all other Danes . . . We Danes know that the whole population stands behind resistance to the German oppressors. The Council calls on the Danish population to help in every way possible those Jewish fellow-citizens who have not yet succeeded in escaping abroad. Every Dane who renders help to the Germans in their persecution of human beings is a traitor and will be punished as such when Germany is defeated.

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Mar 20 2009

Half truths, mistruths and anything but the truth— a brief history of a century of wartime propaganda

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 17RCN @ 4:31 pm

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

—Voltaire

The government of the United States had a major problem. It was April 1917, and on the sixth day of that month, eager to get into the First World War, they declared war on Germany.

Their big problem was this.

Although the American government was up for a fight, the American public was steadfastly pacifist. They saw the war in Europe as just that, a European war, nothing for them to get themselves involved in. Something clearly had to be done to get the population of the United States into a more warlike frame of mind.

On April 13, 1917, president Woodrow Wilson set up the Committee for Public Information, or the Creel Commission as it came to be known. The commission was headed by George Creel, a well-known muckraking journalist, the other formal members being the secretaries of war, state and the navy.

With the Creel Commission’s arrival, modern wartime propaganda in the media age was born. Its aim was to turn pacifist America into a society thirsty for war, to make patriotism and hatred of all things German the noblest aim of every American citizen.

In this the Creel Commission was spectacularly successful. Within months of its formation the American public’s mind was filled with hatred for Germany, German immigrants, anything at all German.

How did the Creel Commission manage to engineer such a remarkable turnaround in public opinion in such a short timeframe?

Quite simply, the Creel Commission understood how to use the media that was available to them (radio, telegraph, films, newspapers, &c.), and harnessed it to change public opinion, with appeals to patriotism and a huge disinformation campaign.

Blatant lies about German soldiers murdering babies and hoisting them up on their bayonets were spread, lies supplied by the British intelligence services, whose stated aim was to control the thoughts of the world (or more specifically at that time the thoughts of the influential intellectual and political classes of the United States). These lies were so powerful that they still persist to this day.

The Creel Commission distributed pamphlets, urging the public to keep an eye open for German spies and recruited the then fledgling Hollywood film industry to produce luridly titled films, such as To Hell with the Kaiser, The Claws of the Hun and The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin.

The Four Minute Men

Telegraphs, cables, radio, all were employed to turn the American population against Germany and all things German, but Creel’s real master stroke was the creation of a group of orators who came to be known as The Four Minute Men.

June 5, 1917, was the date set when all males would have to register for the draft. Many feared a repeat of the draft riots of the Civil War (one of the causes of those riots being a provision whereby those able to afford three hundred dollars could pay a substitute to go and fight for them).

One month before draft registration George Creel unleashed the Four Minute Men on the American public. Their first subject was Universal Service by Selective Draft. In movie theatres the length and breadth of the United States a slide was shown announcing the appearance of the local Four Minute Man.

He would deliver a speech which was never longer than four minutes, a speech designed to stir patriotism and anti-German feeling in the audience.

Four Minute Men were usually local professional men possessed of good public speaking skills, and from May 12 to May 21, cinema audiences were harangued by 75,000 orators, promoting the idea hat in honour of future draftees, registration day should be treated as a festival of honour.

The Four Minute Men were spectacularly successful. On draft registration day, ten million men signed up, where only two months previously no one had wanted anything to do with a European war.

The Four Minute Men went on from this triumph to address their audiences on such topics as Why We Are Fighting and What Our Enemy Really Is. They spoke at lodge and labour union meetings, lumber camps and on Indian reservations.

They operated in 153 universities, there were even junior Four Minute Men who spoke in high schools. By the time the war was over they had given 755,190 speeches to a total of over 314 million Americans. They reached more than 11 million people a month and were the First World War’s most effective form of propaganda.

With the United States finally in the war, and with ever-growing rumblings of discontent and fears of revolution on the home front, the writing was on the wall for the German war effort.

When Germany finally surrendered in 1918, many people on both sides came to realise the huge part that propaganda and the Creel Commission had played in the German’s ultimate defeat, not least among them an Austrian corporal with a funny toothbrush moustache who was to learn the lessons of the Creel Commission well, indeed he was to learn them to devastating, truly devastating, effect.

Right up to the present day the lessons of the Creel Commission are evident whenever states have to convince their populations of the correctness of their decision to go to war, or their support for one side over another in some conflict in which they are not directly militarily involved.

Ruthless

In the very recent past we have seen the Israeli propaganda machine at its ruthless best, defending the Zionist state’s armed wing, the IDF, as it behaved in a manner which would have drawn admiring looks from any playground school bully.

Whenever Israel was challenged or in any way criticised on the enormity of its actions in Gaza, the stock answer on our television screens from a string of literate, media trained Israeli spokespersons was that Israel had the right to protect itself from rockets fired from Gaza.

The lack of questioning of the Israeli government’s party line by a supposedly free media in so-called Western democracies shames those newspapers, radio and TV stations which failed to do so. No reporters were allowed into Gaza and in the hugely compliant mainstream western media, few even bothered to ask the questions, What have you got to hide? or even, But why are Hamas firing rockets into Israel?

Barely anyone connected to the mainstream media explored or attempted to explain the history of the Palestinian conflict, and there was very little mention of the fact that since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 they have mounted what in mediaeval times would have been called a siege of that city.

And while many may disagree with Hamas they are the democratically elected ruling party in Gaza.

Shamefully biased

While there was no chance of Israel losing militarily, there was even less chance of them losing the propaganda war in the west, thanks to the shamefully biased coverage that the savage attack on Gaza received from the compliant BBC and western news channels and newspapers. (I consciously use the word attack and not war, because war hints at some level of comparable military ability.)

No one, however, should really be surprised by the BBC’s compliance. Its attitude toward the Palestinians during the attack was augmented soon after by its shocking and disgusting refusal to broadcast the aid appeal for Gaza, which brought it condemnation from all sides. The BBC pleaded protection of its independence and impartiality, but the corporation is not now, and never has been, a neutral organisation.

Even in its early days, in 1926, during the general strike, it would not allow Ramsay MacDonald the right of reply to Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin. Lord Reith, the BBC’s first director, outwardly gave the impression that he was keen to defend the corporation’s independence and impartiality from the intrusion of the state, but in reality he was prepared to block any views being aired which did not chime with those of Baldwin’s Tory government.

Bearing this in mind, the shockingly biased reporting we viewed on our screens should not leave anyone open-mouthed with astonishment. If a crude rocket fired from Gaza fell on an empty school in Israel, this would receive equal or better coverage than the fact that weapons using the latest technology were falling on occupied buildings filled with real people in Gaza.

Propaganda, it would appear, is not just about stirring up patriotic feelings and creating hatred for the enemy, it can also work at a very effective level for the state by promoting one side’s view in a conflict while largely ignoring the other’s. It can also be a powerful manipulator of perception by what it chooses to omit to tell us.

Not that Gaza is the only example of state propaganda at work in recent times. In the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 we were assured that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction; there were sexed up dossiers designed to scare us; the Iraqi people deserved democracy and not some tyrant ruling over them; and that we were just the people to deliver that democracy to them.

Of course Saddam Hussein was an evil tyrant, but he did not officially become so in the eyes of the West until he invaded Kuwait and threatened the flow of oil to the west. Up to that point he had been a puppet of the west, had even been armed by them, basically allowed to do what he wanted in his own little fiefdom.

When he gassed the Kurds at Halabja in 1988 it didn’t cause too much of a stir in the western media, but once he stepped out of his little box and into Kuwait he became the devil incarnate. Following the first Gulf War there followed a long period leading up to the second, in which sanctions and propaganda were the weapons of choice.

Fever pitch

In the year leading up to the invasion in 2003, the propaganda reached fever pitch. The gassing of the Kurds at Halabja went from an event which had been largely ignored and became a crime against humanity, and the alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction was high on the agenda as a reason for invasion as Saddam was demonised by his former friends.

Sexed up dossiers flew in the face of the evidence of the weapons inspectors who had quietly but effectively been disarming Iraq since the end of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. The propaganda machine went into overdrive, and yet, it didn’t quite succeed, as millions took to the streets around the world to demonstrate against and oppose the planned invasion.

But they went and did it anyway (which is fair comment on the kind of democracy that we live in, and by extension also the one which was planned for Iraq). Of course, no weapons of mass destruction were found, but Saddam was overthrown and Iraq got its democratic government. Oh, yes, and western companies did rather well out of the reconstruction of Iraq.

However, the fact that so many people opposed the war in Iraq demonstrates that even the most vehement state propaganda cannot fool all of the people all of the time. And despite the age of the embedded war reporter being upon us, where reporters are given guided tours of the battlefield rather than roaming free to report what they see, still the truth of the horrors of war, and the things done in our name, occasionally seeps through.

Remember the pictures from Abu Graibh of the torture taking place there? Or the iconic picture of the little Vietnamese girl horribly burned by napalm fleeing her village? Or Seymour Hersh’s uncovering of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam?

Hersh was not actually in Vietnam, but uncovered the story by following a trail of rumour and stories around the United States. Which can only leave you wondering what the huge press corp actually in Vietnam were doing to fill in their time.

Even now, we are living through a time of war time propaganda, as our liberties are curtailed and the state places us all under increasing surveillance, all necessary, we are told, if we are to win the War on Terror.

As socialists, we understand that to win the current war on terror is actually quite easy, it’s just a matter of stopping invading other countries to plunder their resources. By making others feel more secure we thus increase our own security, it’s that simple. Resources thus saved could be used to fight the real wars on terror, such as the terror of the elderly, living on pittance pensions, having to choose between eating or heating their homes in winter.

However, I digress.

From the Creel Commission to the War on Terror, state wartime propaganda has tried, through various mechanisms and with varying degrees of success, to unite populations behind the state’s view.

Ironically, however, a side effect of the creation of the Creel Commission was to have devastating consequences for the left in the United States.

During the First World War, in the States, nearly nine million people worked in war industries and a further four million were in the armed forces. When the war ended, economic difficulties and labour unrest rose to the surface as war industries were left without contracts, leading to many being made redundant.

There were two main union/socialist groups in the United States at that time—The Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW or Wobblies), led by Bill Haywood, and the Socialist Party, led by Eugene Debs.

The Russian Revolution was still fresh in many minds and there was a widespread paranoia regarding anarchists, communists, socialists and dissidents. Following a string of bombings by anarchists, America was beset by fear, in what was to become known as the Red Scare.

Because the IWW and the Socialist Party had both been outspoken objectors to the war, this made them unpatriotic in the minds of much of the American population, and to be even loosely associated with them would arouse suspicion.

A shipyard strike followed by a general strike in Seattle in 1919 was wrongly attributed to the IWW. Charges that they were inciting revolution were levelled against them. Newspaper headlines across the country urged that the strike be put down. The mayor of Seattle guaranteed the city’s safety by announcing that 1500 police and the same number of troops were available to him to break the strike. The strikers, fearing they couldn’t succeed, and might damage the labour movement, called off the strike.

Demonised

All strikes in the next six months were demonised in the press as plots to establish communism, conspiracies against the government and crimes against society.

May Day rallies in 1919 in Boston, New York and Cleveland ended in riots and on June 2 another multi-state bomb plot was uncovered, all leading to an increase in tension, in which workers who went on strike were seen as enemies and fair game for persecution.

The Boston Police went on strike in September, as did the steel workers in a nationwide strike a few weeks later. The Boston police were sacked and replaced, and the steel strike ended without the workers getting any of their demands.

Strikers were branded red and unpatriotic as a general state of hysteria swept the nation. Colleges were seen as hotbeds of revolution and current or prior membership of a leftist organisation led to many secondary school teachers being dismissed.

The Justice Department formed the General Intelligence (or anti-radical) Division of the Bureau of Investigation. It compiled 200,000 cards in a filing system detailing radical organisations, individuals and case histories nationwide.

Thousands of alleged radicals were deported or imprisoned. Counsel was often denied, they were not allowed contact with the outside world and they were often beaten and held in inhumane conditions. (So, Guantanamo was nothing new in America’s history!)

On January 2, 1920, in 33 cities across the United States, more than 4000 supposed radicals were arrested. The New York legislature expelled five socialist assemblymen and 32 states passed laws making it illegal to fly the red flag.

Eventually, saner heads prevailed. Twelve eminent lawyers published a report detailing and condemning the Justice Department’s abuse of civil liberties. The decision to bar the socialist assemblymen was treated with disgust by newspapers and many prominent politicians of the day.

Newspapers came out against proposed anti-sedition bills, in which they saw the seeds of censorship, and business leaders realised that deporting immigrants (many of whom were wrongly branded communist) was leading to the loss of cheap labour. Finally, the Red Scare fizzled out.

Before it did so, however, the propaganda techniques created by the Creel Commission in wartime had extended its tentacles into peace time and dealt a major blow to the left in the United States.

It also gave birth to the modern day public relations business which, with its agenda of controlling the public mind, has never looked kindly on the left, neither in peace time nor in time of war. But it has never been able to quite kill the left off, either.

It should not be forgotten that around the time the Creel Commission was inciting a pacifist population to war that, on the other side of the Atlantic, John McLean stood in the dock of the High Court in Edinburgh on May 9, 1918, charged with incitement to mutiny and sedition, and uttered the unforgettable words, I stand here, then, not as the accused, but as the accuser of capitalism, dripping with blood from head to foot.

State propaganda may commit vast resources to induce their populations to approve of their military ventures, but by putting a socialist perspective on the facts we can always see through the lies and deceptions and shine a light on their darkness.

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Oct 26 2008

Man’s Best Friend?

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 16RCN @ 6:09 pm

This experience comes from leafleting during a council by-election in the Lochee ward in Dundee, but I imagine that what is described in this little ditty is transferable to anywhere that dogs lurk unseen, waiting to give their canine judgement on political activists of any persuasion.

For we, who politics inspire,
There is a time when we’re on fire.
Elections, they are always busy,
So much goes on we end up dizzy.
Hustings, meetings, stalls—all vital
But there’s a task which every night’ll
Turn each of us into a drudge,
Aye, leafleting’s a weary trudge!

There’s letter boxes, sharp it seems
As any shiny guillotine.
There’s stairs to climb that take your breath,
You puff, you pant, feel near to death.
Blasted by wind and soaked by rain,
You think to yourself, Never again!
But the biggest danger in the end
Comes always from a man’s best friend.

Some dogs keenly vent their wrath
The second that you’re on the path
That leads from garden gate to door,
They bark, they growl, they howl, they roar.
And from the noise they make you know
If up that path you should dare go.
Does it sound big? Does it sound small?
It’s up to you—your judgment call.

But there again, there is the hound
Which doesn’t make a single sound.
Behind the door he’ll silent sit,
Waiting for some dim half-wit
To put his hand through the front door.
What savage dog could ask for more?
He loves a fool who careless lingers,
And doesn’t, quick, withdraw his fingers.

The first you know’s when something slams
Against the door, it seems the jambs
Themselves, they must be near collapse
As Fido, furious, rabid, snaps
At your fingers, teeth bare, flashing,
To the bone incisors slashing.
And then, the bit that really narks,
The damage done it’s then he barks!

Your curses make the air turn blue,
It’s A & E next stop for you
As there you stand, your fingers bleeding,
An anti-tet and stitches needing.
Now here’s the thing that’s to be learned,
Like all good lessons it’s hard earned.
Leafleting that’s swift and brief
Keeps human flesh from canine teeth!

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Oct 15 2008

The Defiance Of Science

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 16RCN @ 7:45 pm

Rod MacGregor looks at science, secularism and the role of religion

In his book about oil depletion, Half Gone, Jeremy Leggett, one-time oil company high flier and former chief scientist with Greenpeace, tells of a particularly bizarre conversation he had with a lobbyist from the Ford Motor Company at a conference on climate change.

The man from Ford tried (unsuccessfully) to convince Leggett that, far from being four and a half billion years old, the world was, in fact, only 10,000 years old. Not only did he sincerely believe this, he also accused Leggett of being a disciple of the anti-Christ, then further informing him that pouring ever increasing amounts of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere did not really matter, as Leggett and all his fellow followers of the anti-Christ would be vanquished in the battle of Armageddon by the forces of God, after which they would ascend to heaven.

One thing that this outlandish dialogue between Leggett and the man from Ford does demonstrate is the resilience of religious fundamentalism.

Although the power of religion over the masses in western advanced societies has been seriously diminished since its mediaeval high point it would be foolish to think that it is no longer a relevant and powerful force in today’s world. In the United States, any politician with desires for high office ignores the Religious Right at their peril.

As science advanced and factual observation and calculation challenged faith based religion, the churches themselves did not just meekly accept that the game was up with the dawning of the age of reason. In fact, they fought tooth and nail in the face of the advance of scientific discovery and theory.

One of the most famous battles took place between Galileo Galilei and the Catholic Church in the 17th century. This particular fight had its roots in the previous century, when the Polish astronomer Copernicus had theorised that the Earth and all the planets revolved around the sun, opposing the then orthodox view that the Earth was at the centre and everything revolved around it.

Galileo

Galileo

This view was taken up by Galileo, an Italian physicist, astronomer and mathematician, who, among other things, invented the astronomical telescope. His invention allowed him to see the appearance of the planet Venus going through phases, thus proving that it was orbiting the Sun and confirming Copernicus to be correct.

Scientifically this was what we would nowadays call a breakthrough. But personally for Galileo, in his own time, it was a discovery which would cost him dearly, as it brought him into conflict with the Catholic Church and the Inquisition in the 17th century.

An explanatory word about the inquisition. Originally established in 1233, it was a tribunal, the purpose of which was to suppress heresy, originally by excommunication. It operated in Italy, Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire, and later extended its reach to the Americas. Following the Reformation, it was particularly active. Trials were held in secret, often under threat of torture, and punishments ranged from fines and flogging, through to imprisonment and death by burning.

In 1616 the Inquisition had heard from a committee of consultants that the Sun being the centre of the Universe and the Earth having an annual motion were absurd in philosophy, at least erroneous in theory, and formally a heresy. This was bad news for Galileo.

He was summoned before the Inquisition on several occasions, including one in 1633 when he was formally interrogated for eighteen days regarding his book Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems.

To cut a long story short Galileo’s clash with the Catholic Church and the Inquisition saw him endure house arrest, despite failing health, until his death in 1642. The Catholic Church did, however, eventually, and somewhat reluctantly and belatedly almost come round to his way of thinking when it finally conceded that he might, he might be right. This magnanimous partial acceptance took place in 1983!

Now, lest anyone thinks that this is an anti-Catholic rant, in the interests of balance it should be pointed out that the Protestants were actually on the ball regarding Copernican theory nearly eighty years before the Catholic Church let the Inquisition loose on Galileo.

Luther himself said of Copernicus that The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside down, and he considered the words how and why to be dangerous and infectious questions.

We can see from this that in the hundreds of years from Galileo and the Inquisition right up to today with neo-cons in America and, till recently, Blair in this country, religion is by no means an irrelevance.

What, then, should our attitude, as secular socialists, be towards religion?

Consenting adults

Personally, in my own ideal socialist world, I would treat religion like sex. That is, let those of a religious persuasion do what they like, but let them do it in the privacy of their own homes among consenting adults. If they want to have prayer meetings or whatever with fellow believers of whatever faith, fine. And if they behaved themselves and their priests/imams/rabbis, &c., were not too meddlesome, I would even let them out once a year at Christmas/Ramadan/whatever for a bit of public worship.

The link with church and state would have to go, though. I wouldn’t go for an outright ban on religion as it has proved itself a stubborn beast where its eradication has been attempted, and an outright ban would give it a power that benign tolerance and state indifference would not. So, the question arises, does religion have any radical role to play in today’s world?

One thing springs to mind. Quite often, where there is political repression, populations will gather round a religion to express dissent. There are numerous examples of this, most recently the Buddhist monks of Burma, who took to the streets in protest at their own government in the absence of a political opposition. Other examples could include the Catholic Church in El Salvador in the 1980’s, and even the Islamic fundamentalism which replaced the Shah in Iran in the 1970’s.

But as socialists we should be careful about siding with any religion just because it opposes things which we as socialists, too, may oppose. Many religions come with baggage that should be unacceptable to anyone on the left. Should we have supported the ayatollahs of Iran simply because they were opposed to the Shah, a despotic and particularly vile puppet of American imperialism? How could we square away giving unqualified support to Ayatollah Khomeni with Islam’s approach to women, gays or the death penalty?

Or in El Salvador, how could we have unquestioningly backed the Catholic Church, given its views on abortion, homosexuality or birth control. While we may detest the autocratic, undemocratic regimes that these religions opposed, we could at best offer only limited support to them, given the power structures that are at their core.

These are, indeed, classic examples of why we should be careful about siding with our enemies’ enemies. They are not necessarily our friends.

But I believe that there is at least one very good and important lesson that secular socialists can learn from religious fundamentalism, albeit what could, perhaps, be described as a negative one. It is this. We, too, as socialists, have our fundamental beliefs; we, too, have our tracts that our (hugely) godless faith holds sacred. But we must be prepared to add to those tracts, taking into account changing times and different circumstances.

Different people in different areas of the world may respond differently to situations that they find themselves in. What works in a relatively wealthy first world country may be quite different in character to what will energise and attract people to socialist values in a third world country or in a country which, once relatively wealthy, has fallen on hard times.

In this context I would like to point up two examples.

In his book Heroes John Pilger describes, in an article written in 1985, the struggles of the Eritrean people for independence from Ethiopia. Since 1961 the Eritreans had, while at war with Ethiopia and in isolation, despite appalling poverty, built a society which was, of stark necessity, self-reliant, but one which also placed essential value on literacy and humanity.

No young Eritrean was allowed to become a fighter in their armed struggle until they could read, write and understand what they might very well have to die for one day. And though in a permanent state of shortage, any prisoners taken were treated according to the Geneva Convention. The Eritreans’ belief was that the young Ethiopians they were fighting against were themselves victims of the same system which was trying to obliterate them.

In the years from 1961 to 1985 Eritrea’s enemies defied ideology. Both imperial and revolutionary Ethiopia had waged war on Eritrea, which had been a pawn in a superpower chess game, with America and the Soviet Union, with their client states, Israel and Cuba, weighing in for good measure.

Pilger points out that even their dogma, which he describes as a mish-mash of basic Marxism, had been reshaped by years of war and betrayal. A teacher who had studied in Britain explained it to him thus,

It may sound preposterous to you, but we have no left-wing and no right-wing. These are European concepts which have no application in Eritrea, or probably anywhere in Africa. How can we possibly use these stupid terms? We have been let down too often. We are ourselves: and we have no political debts.

For the record, Eritrea achieved independence from Ethiopia in May 1993.

The second example is that of Argentina. In December 2001, the Argentinian economy collapsed, throwing a quarter of the workforce out of work.

Movement of Recovered Companies poster

Movement of Recovered Companies poster

Movement of Recovered Companies

Out of this industrial holocaust something remarkable emerged, known as the Movement of Recovered Companies. It is still not huge, six years on it covers only 170 companies and 10,000 workers, but what these workers have achieved is quite astonishing.

There existed a legal framework whereby the workers could, through time, expropriate ownership of the companies. This they achieved by occupying the shut-down factories and bringing them back into production.

Put like that it sounds quite simple, but the Recovered Companies movement is a tale of occupation, eviction and re-occupation, most of the time with intimidation and violence from the former owners and police always lurking in the background.

By far the most common form of control is by setting up a co-operative, where decisions are made by assembly, with everyone having their say. In one factory, in the middle of the floor are forty school desks, so that workers who have to keep the machinery working, can have their say as they do so.

But the interesting thing is that the people who occupied these factories and brought them back to life did not start from a political viewpoint. Their sole aim in the beginning was to earn money to feed their families. Many, however, become politicised by their struggles.

The left, when they turned up to offer their support, were quite often viewed with something approaching suspicion and the workers themselves did not want to be co-opted on to anyone’s political agenda. Indeed, in one factory they were eventually asked if they would mind supporting them from outside the factory gates!

As one worker put it,

We formed the cooperative with the criteria of equal wages and making basic decisions by assembly; we are against the separation of manual and intellectual work; we want a rotation of positions and; above all, the ability to recall our elected leaders.

Some on the left feel that the co-operatives fit too comfortably into what is still a capitalist system, and call for nationalisation of the co-operatives. As one worker pointed out, however, while not theoretically opposed to nationalisation at some time in the future to do so currently would mean having a right-wing capitalist as their ultimate boss.

An interesting argument.

Though different in nature, what happened in Eritrea and Argentina (one a war, the other an economic catastrophe) had a common thread running through them and that thread’s name was necessity, as people rallied to a common cause and left the political theorists either stranded on the sidelines or chasing events as they happened.

We must keep our minds open to new ideas, to new variations on familiar themes. Not to do so will leave us with nothing but rigid dogma. If we do not embrace change which enhances our core beliefs, however unexpected its origin, then two millenia from now (though, hopefully the revolution will have occurred by then) we would find future socialists quoting from ancient texts and Marxist tracts from the 19th century.

They will preach to an audience which will regard them with every bit as much incredulity as Jeremy Leggett could ever muster in the twenty-first century when conversing with an executive of the Ford motor company, quoting from tracts which were themselves written 2000 years and more before.

Adapt, adopt, evolve—these are the things which socialism must do (with integrity) if it is to stay relevant to the citizens of the future.

SSP Policy

(Agreed at Oct. 2007 Conference)

Conference resolves that:

  • 1. While religious schools continue to receive state funding, all suitably qualified teachers should be eligible to apply for all posts within them.
  • 2. Religious or denominational schools should be phased out as they result in separating children on the grounds of faith, which can only serve to alienate them from one another.
  • 3. That we wish to end the practice of collective worship in school assemblies.

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Oct 07 2008

Cartoon

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 16RCN @ 6:59 pm
by Rod MacGregor

by Rod MacGregor

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Sep 27 2007

The Highland Midge

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 3:39 pm

This is written for anyone who has ever suffered at the hands (or, more accurately, the mouths) of the Highland midge. Over the centuries the bear and the wolf have been hunted to extinction in the Highlands of Scotland, but it has never been remotely within the scope of possibility that its most voracious predator could ever be removed from that most remarkable of landscapes.

‘Neath oceans glides the great white shark,
In Africa, best fear the dark,
Where night is torn with eerie howls,
Where prides of lions, hungry, prowl.
There’s crocs from Oz, there’s snakes there, too,
They’ll bite, they’ll tear, they’ll feed on you.
But the greatest bloodfest of them all
Takes place ‘tween Scotland’s spring and fall.

By loch, in glen, on rocky ridge,
There lurks the evil Highland midge.
As sun descends this fearsome pack
In squadrons, moves in to attack.
With anguished yelps and flailing arms
Unwary tourists learn the charms
Of this fierce demon of the night,
Which doesn’t bark, it only bites.

The Romans came, they saw, they conquered,
Then thought, “Who lives here must be bonkers!’
History books, they don’t point out,
But I know it was the midge, no doubt,
That made them leave, and southbound haul
To build the dyke called Hadrian’s Wall.
Clans, battles, kings—all come and gone,
But the midge, it just goes on and on.

Old Scotland’s remote north and west,
Ruled by this savage, tiny pest,
Has stores that sell sprays, potions, lotions
All geared to the quite absurd notion
That if you buy them, then all day
They’ll keep the hellish hordes at bay!
Believe that, then you’re not too bright,
They still get through, and still they bite.

How horrid, awful, bad, it feels
Your face a mass of crimson weals.
The fat, the thin, the poor, the rich,
They all fall prey and how they itch!
The midge cares naught for class nor creed
It just sees all as one more feed!
To miss this slaughter just don’t roam,
Stay safe inside, stay safe at home.

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Sep 14 2007

When the Fighting is Over

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 2:55 pm

With casualties continuing to rise in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rod MacGregor shows imperialism’s disdain for working class lives

He’s five feet tall and he’s six feet four,
He fights with missiles and with spears,
He’s all of thirty-one and he’s only seventeen,
He’s been a soldier for a thousand years.

Universal Soldier (Buffy St Marie)

In Dundee’s Eastern Necropolis there is a headstone-free area known as the Poor Ground. As the name would imply, this is where the poor of Dundee’s past lie in unmarked graves, in stark contrast to the imposing headstones and memorials of Dundee’s Victorian industrial barons and merchant class.

Even in death, it would seem, equality can be an elusive concept—the prosperous proclaiming their earthly greatness for all to see, while many of those whose sweat and toil created for them their fabulous riches lie unmarked, unknown, forgotten.

The Poor Ground is possessed of the solemn tranquillity common to graveyards, and on a pleasant day it is a calm and peaceful place to sit on one of the three benches that form a row on the northern edge of the area. Each of the benches has a plaque on it, and the inscriptions on the two westernmost make for an eye-catching and interesting read. They are as follows:

Peter Grant

Peter Grant

In memory of PRIVATE PETER GRANT VC Born 1824
He was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in India 16 November 1857.
He died 10 January 1868 and was buried near here.

And, on the other bench,

Thomas Beach

Thomas Beach

In memory of PRIVATE THOMAS BEACH VC Born 1824
He was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in The Crimea 5 November 1854.
He died 24 August 1864 and was buried near here.

Neither Beach nor Grant fared well after their brief flirtation with fame, and both were dead in their early 40’s, almost within a decade of receiving their VC’s. Thomas Beach left the army in 1863. He returned to Dundee, where he died in the Royal Infirmary on August 24, 1864, aged 40. The cause of death is believed to have been severe alcoholism.

According to a report in the Dundee Advertiser, dated January 11, 1868, Private Peter Grant (who at the time was still a serving soldier of the 93rd Regiment, stationed in Aberdeen) had been missing from where he lived since Friday, December 27, and had not been seen again till the previous morning. His body was removed from the river, near Craig Harbour, by a Constable Bremner.

Still pinned to his uniform coat was his Victoria Cross and his campaign medals. In the pockets of the coat were a fourpenny piece, a penny and a knife. He had been on a visit to friends in Dundee. The last sighting of Private Peter Grant had been in Wheatley’s Public House in the Overgate.

What the inscriptions on the benches at the Poor Ground tell us is instructive.

Despite being feted by the state, their country bestowing upon them its highest award for valour on the field of battle, that same state which honoured their courage so, in death abandoned them, not even caring enough to provide a simple headstone to mark the last resting places of those it had so recently proclaimed heroes, one of whom was, at the time, still a serving member of the army.

Indifference and callousness

Fast forward now from the mid-to-late nineteenth century to the first decade of the twenty-first century. On August 26, 2007, I am reading an article in the Independent on Sunday, the headline of which reads Our boys deserve better treatment than this.

I am habitually and instinctively wary of articles containing the words our boys. Usually, they are flag waving, shallow pieces of jingoism, designed to inculcate in the population the belief that all British foreign military adventures are benign, and to make us feel that there is something wrong with us if we do not support our troops.

Many thousands of us have, of course, been supporting our boys in the best way possible, urging prior to March 2003 that we should not attack Iraq, and calling for the withdrawal of the troops ever since the launching of that ill-thought-out foreign misadventure.

But the article in the Independent is highlighting the plight that our boys face when they are wounded, either mentally or physically. Two cases in particular are highlighted, each in its own way a shocking indictment of the indifference and callousness of the state which would send our young people into combat on a mixture of half-truths and downright lies.

On the Military Families Support Group website, one mother tells of her son, who is home on two weeks’ leave from Afghanistan. She discovered that he was suffering from a double fracture to the jaw, caused by a faulty rocket launcher, which recoiled into his face. Other than pain relief he had received no treatment at all for the injury.

It was not till his mother sent him to her dentist that the true extent of the injury was discovered. He was told at Selly Oak Hospital that as the fractures were, by that time, four weeks old, there was nothing they could do and he was sent back to Afghanistan after being told to eat only soft food.

The second case is, if anything, even more harrowing.

A mother tells how her 19-year-old son, an infantry soldier who served in Iraq, is haunted by witnessing a child sliced in two by a British bullet which was fired into a crowd in Basra. The memory of the boy’s father gathering up the pieces of his child, sitting on the curb and hugging them, torments him.

When the nightmares come he has to climb into bed with his mother and her husband. Before he can sleep she has to cuddle him and rub his nose as she did when he was a baby. Clearly, his mother says, he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but this young soldier has received no counselling.

Many who leave the armed forces fare no better. An article in The Scotsman on August 8, 2007, stated that as many as one in ten homeless people are ex-forces’ members. To put that figure into perspective, if it was proportionate to the size of the armed forces, Britain would have six million serving members in the army, navy and air force.

It is feared that the traumatised of Iraq and Afghanistan will begin to swell the number of homeless ex-service personnel in the not-too-distant future. Many will leave with alcohol related problems and find it hard to adjust to civilian life after traumatic experiences in the forces.

War crimes

At least, unlike during the First World War, we no longer execute those suffering from PTSD. In that most terrible of conflicts three hundred and six disturbed young men, many only boys really, were executed on the orders of military top brass and senior officers. Their sole crime was to have become mentally unwell due to the unspeakable horrors they had witnessed in the human slaughter house that was trench warfare.

Most of those who were executed were vulnerable, defenceless teenagers who had actually volunteered for duty, deliberately selected and found guilty as a lesson to others. Their heinous crimes included desertion (ambling around in a confused and dazed state, suffering from PTSD), cowardice (the same symptoms) and insubordination (some trivial incident that could be twisted into an excuse for trial, conviction and execution).

Regularly, these trials would take place one day (the accused would often have no defence), they would be convicted and found guilty on some specious charge, and they would then be shot at dawn the day after the trial.

The British commander-in-chief, General Haig, himself signed the death warrants of all those killed by their own side for the crime of being human, for the crime of being able only to take so much before becoming ill.

It is a war crime to execute the sick and the wounded.

Following allied victory, in 1919 Haig received the thanks of both houses of parliament, was given a grant of £100,000, and rewarded by a grateful state with an earldom.

Just over a decade after the end of the war, in 1929, the world’s stock markets crashed in capitalism’s great crisis.

For many who had escaped with their lives from Europe’s killing fields of 1914-18, who had endured the unendurable in places which were to become forever synonymous with savage slaughter on an industrial scale—The Somme, Paschendale, Ypres et al—a good day for them would be one when they and their families went to bed at night with full stomachs. Not for nothing were those times known as the Hungry Thirties.

From Victorian England, to the dark days of the First World War, to the present day, a pattern of neglect, and at times, sheer bloody-minded vindictiveness, emerges concerning the treatment and after-care of military personnel. Some might say, I believe harshly, that they knew what they were signing up for and take a hell mend them attitude towards them.

Economic conscription

Instead, it should be contended that, as in most things, prevention is better than cure, that these young men and women should never have been put in harm’s way in the first place.

Many of the troops now doing tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan will be young, working class, economic conscripts, lured into the armed forces with the promise of a trade and regular paid employment. They will see it as an escape from low paid, slave wage, short term employment, they will see it as a career.

But it is a career which, just as much now as it ever has been, can come with a lethal price. They are the young men and women denied a fair chancein civilian life by the market forces of capitalism, as well-paid jobs are shipped abroad, where labour is cheaper and health and safety not really much of an issue at all.

How ironic it is, then, that the youth of this country who take the queen’s shilling will, almost inevitably, end up shipped abroad themselves to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where, too, health and safety willbe perilous issues.

What, then, of the future? It does not bode well. Recently, to much rejoicing among the mainstream political parties and shipyard workers, the government announced that it was placing orders for two giant aircraft carriers, the largest warships ever to be built for the Royal Navy. The deal was touted as securing thousands of jobs.

But the implications of this alleged good news have a darker side. The building of these two giant warships tells us much about the government’s long-term perception of what Britain’s role in international affairs should be.

The military purpose of an aircraft carrier is not a defensive one. They are the long arm of imperialism, designed to facilitate the ability to strike anywhere on earth that their political masters deem necessary for the furtherance of imperial wars and ambitions, the chastisement of undemocratic dictators or any of the other familiar, oft-used excuses needed to unleash the dogs of war.

However powerful these ships are, the aircraft carrier is only one tool in the armed wing of imperialism. The chosen target’s population, having been suitably shocked and awed by aerial bombardment, and we from the comfort of our armchairs treated to video game TV news items showing surgical strikes by smart bombs, the dirty work still has to be done.

The task of enforcement and occupation, thinly disguised and euphemistically described as liberation, the bringing of democracy, etc., etc., will fall, as always, to the troops on the ground. It is they who will have to live with the day-to-day horrors of any occupation.

Some will be driven slowly mad by what they witness; others, tragically, will die amid those horrors.

In a letter home from Iraq a young nineteen-year old soldier wrote, I do not see why our lads have to die for something that will not make an iota of difference. Despite his tender years he had come to understand how rotten, how bankrupt his country’s policy in Iraq had become, had always been, how wasteful of young lives it was.

That young soldier was killed while on sentry duty in Basra.

We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung;
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth,
God help us, for we knew the worst too young!

Rudyard Kipling

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Mar 12 2007

Footprints on the Face

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 14RCN @ 3:11 pm

by Rod Macgregor

On a clear autumn evening I watched the moon rising,
It was big, it was bright, in its heavenly place,
How clever we are, I thought, we’ve walked on you,
And behind us we’ve left footprints on your face.
No wind will blow there to ever remove them,
No one will build over that desolate place,
Till time ends they’re there, a giant leap for mankind,
The greatest exploit of a wandering race.

Aye, we are clever, there is no denying,
We soar higher than eagles on silvery wings,
We talk to each other though vast miles divide us,
Seems every new day some new marvel brings.
Yet, smart as we are, we are not far sighted,
Profit being all makes our actions unwise,
We plunder the earth, take from it its treasures,
Then poison the oceans, the land and the skies.

Cut back, said some sage ones, ignored by the leaders,
Who, asked what was needed, would always say, More.
And so we kept ripping the black oil, the dark coal,
And everything precious from Earth’s bounteous store.
But the Earth was a live thing, and being mistreated,
Ever so slowly it counter-attacked
Against the humans who, clever but greedy,
Just kept on taking and gave nothing back.

Time now grows short, the rainforests vanish,
The ice is fast melting as the temperatures rise,
Four horsemen show face, is their time upon us?
No place is there now for the spin doctors’ lies.
We must listen well to those who would tell us
The old path is done, and is now out of date,
For if we do not, our days may be numbered,
And extinction could well be our ultimate fate.

The seas will rise higher, proud cities will crumble,
Slow aeons will crawl by and wipe out all trace
Of the creature who, in a blink of time’s eyelid,
Moved from the caves and reached out into space.
No worldly hint will remain of our presence,
We treated Earth badly, were laid in our place,
But still on the moon, forlorn, weeps one last sign— ’Twas our cleverest trick—footprints on its face.

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