The silence of the learned

Where are the ‘best minds’ of our generation? Defiant Beat poetry has drifted to the fringes of living memory. Its prophets have long burnt out in drug-addled debauchery or been sanitised by the system at which they used to howl. Even those who did rehab are past retirement age. The rebels of yore are eclipsed by today’s leading voices – an urbane lot who know what to say and how to say it. As guests on news shows or opining in the papers, their views are influential. And their arguments can be stimulating, once the listener or reader is ready to question. Columnists, academics, luminaries of the arts, high profile social commentators interpret the issues of our times. Though it’s worth wondering what determines which topics they discuss and from which angles. Then to ponder the silent gaps in the script and what might lie behind these lacunae.

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Take debate in Ireland as an example. For several weeks the ethics of the Irish police force, An Garda Síochána, have been scrutinised. Scandals over the annulment of penalty points for road traffic offences and the inappropriate recording of phone conversations have exposed perturbing flaws in policy. The Garda Chief Commissioner has resigned. The Minister for Justice is trying to save his skin by fudging apologies. Inevitably, the controversy has filled hours of airtime and acres of newsprint. Fundamental principles have been violated. There have been allegations of police corruption, attempts by those in power to discredit whistle-blowers. But if you’re not one of the ‘pillars’ of the local community who may have had the liberty of evading punishment for dangerous driving, the relevance of this story seems quite slim. While the more serious threats to judicial procedure resulting from tapped phone-calls become moot when they’re plucked to tedium on radio by the doyens of the law. Mere mortals heave a sigh and tune out.

It’s not that we don’t find the whole scenario ‘disgusting’, to use what’s currently Ireland’s hottest adjective. Frankly, it’s that no-one is surprised. The latest Garda saga is just another offshoot of the culture of nudges and winks which bred the crisis in which the country remains mired. It’s little more than a sideshow to the nation’s unresolved economic problems. For, however the government spins its claims of ‘recovery’, unemployment figures are still appalling and their true extent is masked by emigration. There’s no upturn for families harried to breakdown by extortionist banks or for people on welfare who face increasing hardship. Never mind that health, education and social services have been shorn to bail out kleptocrats.

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Eminent economists have forwarded countless theories to explain Ireland’s collapse. Now they’re engrossed in predicting future risks. This burgeoning analysis has evolved into a profitable industry. It’s served as raw material for lectures, articles, books. Hyper-numerate professors and business hacks have been rebranded elucidators. Begone boring fustiness! They’ve morphed into slick panellists, comedy festival hosts. Teaming their sharp wits with a touch of cool, they bandy about ideas in marquees at boutique gigs. These guys (they’re almost always male) have got talent. I marvel at their knowledge and their red-blooded passion for finance. But aren’t they merely bolstering their careers? Bar the odd exception, are these authorities really aware of the ‘pain’ about which they’re handsomely paid to speak, though rarely share?

Here I’m not writing out of philistine disdain but as a woman flailing against the effluent of recession, trying to keep my family afloat. And I’m luckier than most. At least I’m grasping some sort of life-ring – a recent doctorate from Ireland’s top-ranking university. Well, so much for the league tables… Qualifications obtained in this era of austerity have become tickets for entry into, often unwaged, insecurity or for one-way flights to find work overseas. Still, with any education comes responsibility. The more you’ve benefitted from your learning and experience, the more you should see these assets as something beyond tools for self-aggrandisement. Right?

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Wrong! OK, clearly my research area isn’t economics. Judging by present standards, it appears a liability to have a social conscience. Maybe it’s due to the shift towards a more corporate than collegial ethos in third level institutions – the emphasis on marketing, the managerial structures that value those fittest to achieve goals measured in money or prestige. Or perhaps it’s always been that way… alumni of hallowed universities aren’t usually inclined to challenge the parameters that scaffolded their success. Even among students (myself included) who scraped along on ‘free’ fees and scholarships, it’s easy to forget that access to higher education is far from universal. Instead of contemplating this underlying inequality, it seems to make greater sense to study those who continue to be excluded. After all, advocating for the marginalised can lead to rich professional rewards.

A climate of competition, in which personal gain is championed, can’t be conducive to dissent. The same also applies outside the education sector. Editorial slants are unlikely to clash with the interests of media owners, be these the state or billionaire tycoons. Consequently, issues of concern might be given a glib mention but not the probing they deserve. Recognised artistic endeavour is likewise largely confined to privileged circles. Themes demanding self-interrogation by those who engage with them often get no more than a superficial gloss. Polyphony, apart from the tokenistic leeway occasionally granted to voices beyond established cliques, is very limited. And, I suspect, not just in Ireland.

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What’s ‘in the news’ depends, to a substantial degree, on what attracts the focus of prominent critics. Discussion among these gurus frequently descends into political point-scoring, contorting statistics, and chattering about trivia which they deem to be of significance. In line with their perspectives and perceived audience, current affairs get calibrated. National topics take precedence over objectively ‘bigger’ stories further afield. International reports with domestic salience are prioritised over those which sound less relevant. Thus the impact on the price of gas in the EU can sex up a conflict that’d otherwise be neglected. Conversely, long-running, complex tragedies with unimaginable numbers of casualties don’t appeal.

Syria? Don’t talk about the war… It’s a stale subject. Why should our brightest spokespeople waste their genius on a situation that seems so irresolvable? It’s spiralled out of proportion, human rights organisations are now estimating over 150,000 fatalities. The UN has stopped counting. Death on this kind of scale is incomprehensible, even for the masters of comprehension. Also, it’s bad optics – too many disturbing images to foist on weary viewers. Apocalyptic pictures of Yarmouk’s starving or the naked corpses of tortured detainees draw gasps of revulsion, but apparently lack pathos.

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Whether it’s due to the world’s emotional numbness or its impotence, interest in the Syrian war has waned. Not without a dash of Islamophobic prejudice, it’s been dismissed as yet another Middle Eastern conflict. Furthermore, any search for a global response is marred by previous foreign incursions into the region, the legacy of Western belligerence in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the UN is neutered by the stultifying enmities of its key members. So the horror drags on… coverage reduces, donor fatigue rises. Poor neighbouring countries are left to cope with the vast majority of the 2.5 million Syrians who’ve managed to flee, while wealthy states fail to meet minimal quotas for provision of resettlement places. Things are even worse for the millions trapped within Syria. As António Guterres, the head of the UNHCR has said, ‘Syria has become the great tragedy of this century – a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.’ But who has listened to him?

The impassioned statements of Syrians directly affected by the war and of people who are aiding its survivors have been ignored by those who might be able to make a difference. By political leaders and their governments, but also by respected thinkers whose silence or specious disengagement has been conspicuous. Except for a bit of bluster over chemical weapons, it’s as if there’s an embargo on intellectual discourse about Syria. Where are our wise ones when it comes to showing solidarity with victims of war-crimes? The academics, both within and beyond the flourishing schools of ‘peace and conflict studies’ or niches in departments of history and theology… How many of them have written or spoken (and not simply for a pay cheque or publication in a peer-reviewed journal) about the fact that today, as slaughter happens, we turn away? Where are the writers and other artists whose work is so esteemed – is Syria beneath their lofty thoughts?

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What about students? Should coming of age not mean more than passing exams and passing out on drunken binges? Since the start of my activist days, as an undergraduate, I’ve been amazed at the absence of that ‘revolutionary spirit’ which I’d once believed was part of college life. But I know from agitating for Bosnia that all it takes is for one person to speak out… then friends get involved and word begins to spread. So my advice to anybody (slightly) younger than me is ‘dare to try!’ Even if you ignite only a flicker of awareness, you can singe prevailing apathy. And isn’t that more offbeat than participating in societies or activities which ‘look good on your CV’?

There’s no point, though, in denying that the intelligentsia is extremely prone to educated deafness. It’s an ailment typically triggered by crises in places that are considered unimportant. Bosnia and Rwanda sparked outbreaks in the nineties. Now it’s again pandemic. Very few have adjusted their register to hear the wails of the persecuted in Syria or the cries of those caught up in emerging conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Reactions have been muted. The label ‘civil war’ has been employed to equalise blame and to justify the shrugging of erudite shoulders.

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Too clever to admit they don’t care much about Arabs or the inhabitants of Sub-Saharan Africa, the sages refine debate to ideological quibbling. But such dilettantish theorising does nothing to end mass murder or the torture and sexual violence perpetrated in campaigns of terror. These atrocities, which occur daily in Syria, require each of us who can to take a stand against them. And this demand should ring loudest in the ears of those who inspire, on campus or via broadcasters and publishers. It must resound with those who are regarded as our ‘best minds’. For it’s a call for them to say that, as human beings, we’re all interconnected. We’re not just individuals dealt arbitrary cards from fortune’s deck. Some of us are not more expendable than others. It’s finally time to stop the sacrifice of the silenced.

The Irish Syria Solidarity Campaign are organising events in Dublin on Wednesday 16th April, discussing the situation in Syria with one of the few academics who has devoted extensive time and thought to it, Dr. Thomas Pierret of the University of Edinburgh. These meetings, in Griffith College (at 12pm) and DCU (at 5pm), are open to the public and free of charge. Please see the poster below for details:

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Conquering happiness (or trying to…)

We don’t go out much, my husband and I. Three kids and financial constraints have all but smothered our social life. Newspaper reviews are fast becoming my only link to ‘culture’. Our film viewing is limited to the dwindling DVD selection at our near-bankrupt branch of Xtra-vision. The cinema is a distant memory and Netflix a post-austerity dream. But, every now and then, an event comes along that simply can’t be missed. Something like The Conquest of Happiness… An interpretation of the writings of Bertrand Russell by the Bosnian director, Haris Pašović, it was part of the Belfast Festival at Queens in October. Via a website based in Sarajevo, I’d heard about its performance in Derry a month earlier. And I’d been disappointed that we couldn’t make it there. However, after a tour of the Balkans, the show was returning to Ireland. Good reason to head northward. The children were delighted at the prospect of a sleep-over with their grandparents. While a night to ourselves was a rare thrill indeed!

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The production sounded intriguing. Its location promised no comforts – a skateboarding rink in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. The ‘peace dividend’ may have brought regeneration to this area, but the cranes of Harland and Wolff still loom behind it. Testimony to when ships, doomed or otherwise, made their maiden voyages downstream from this berth. The venue blended into its quayside environment. The woman in the box-office described it as ‘just a big warehouse’ – the audience was warned to wear warm clothes. Rightly so, for our breath rose before us, even in the dim interior. The theatre-going crowd seemed apprehensive at this unfamiliar format. Nervous laughs, shuffling feet, as we waited.

The start came as a surprise. We were ushered out of the building and led through muddy puddles to a re-enactment of the levelling of a Palestinian settlement. Occupied Territories. In a city that’s often split between east and west, with a powder-keg north and an affluent south completing its simplified jigsaw. Its reality, of course, is much more complex. We listened to a stern figure philosophising in front of a bulldozer. Some heckling… was it genuine or scripted? Whispers among the throng as we herded back inside.

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The show proceeded in a series of vignettes, played out on makeshift stages and the trailers of articulated trucks. Bloody Sunday in Derry, Chile under Pinochet, a Vietnam veteran admitting he’d killed ‘men, women, children… and babies.’ The Khmer Rouge’s reign of slaughter depicted by the disappearance of dancers. Local kids became the inmates of Terezín. Their songs preludes to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. An atomic bomb exploded on a screen. Uprisings were crushed. We were catapulted to the end of the twentieth century: Bosnia, Rwanda, the failure of the international community. Beyond, to the wake of 9/11… A historical helter-skelter threaded together by an actor who grew up in Sierra Leone speaking in the clipped tones of an English aristocrat.

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The action swept the audience with it. The music roused and haunted – from the soloists to the choral groups, to the cellist’s dirge. My husband may have been the only one who could lip-sync to the hits of former Yugoslavia. But we weren’t alone in crying as they were transposed into clashing keys of torture. Though maybe tears flow faster at what we know is essentially unreal. Drama. By definition, a staged reproduction. A bunch of Belfast fellas driven away in a minibus falls far short of representing Srebrenica. It’s not My Lai we’re watching, or the Holocaust. We bought tickets for what’s labelled ‘entertainment’. Granted, of the ‘edifying’ kind, which means your toes grow numb from standing on cold concrete. Afterwards, you go for drinks or food… or home to bed, to families, to safety. More enriched than if you’d indulged in some escapist fluff. Perhaps more hypocritical… The cynics have a point.

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Yet, on the other hand, the performance stained. With its reminders – French complicity in the Rwandan genocide, American manoeuvring that treated Cambodia’s people as sacrificial pawns, Ratko Mladić rounding up men and boys while a blue-helmeted soldier stood aloof. The facts it threw out incriminated global institutions, respected powers, politicians, military personnel. Then, they accused us. Because, as onlookers, we also have a role and, most times, we’re the characters who ignore. And in doing so, facilitate. ‘Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing’ – thus observed John Stuart Mill, another pedlar of philosophy, in 1867. They speak a lot of truth, these sages.

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But can words, in our weapon-glutted age, conquer oppression? Is it not a luxury to be happy when suffering is rife? The title of Pašović’s show sounds like a misnomer in a world which Russell acknowledged to be ‘horrible’. It’s derived from a tome that’s been classified a self-help book written by a pacifist thinker. Yet Russell’s work focuses on active engagement rather than introspection. His sense of humankind’s connectedness, in confronting evil that often seems endemic, infuses the drama inspired by his ideas. So is The Conquest of Happiness a call to transform? Or am I just a sap who wants to believe that art can have social purpose? And would looking outward make us any happier? I’m not sure. Though it might be easier to live with than knowing we did nothing.

There were many questions I would’ve loved to have asked the director when we met him, very briefly, at the end. But the show was moving to London. And, even if he’d had time, his creation didn’t court deconstruction. It was too raw for subtle subtexts. The reaction it elicited went beyond the cerebral, the aesthetic. Its impact was emotional. Deep but unpretentious as Haris himself, in his leather bomber jacket and furry hat. Like a cuddly ex-airman whose panache glinted unexpectedly in the sheen of his bronze-lined scarf. We were star-struck, gobsmacked as he thanked us for travelling north to attend. The journey was his, after all. The privilege of being there was ours. We were grateful for the memories.

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Thoughts of conflict, past and present, filled the frosty skies over the lough. Triggering insecurities as we drove off… Can we risk getting lost in East Belfast, in the dark, in a southern-reg car? Why is the city centre so quiet on a Saturday night? Eventually, we found a Chinese restaurant, just before last orders. It was nearly empty and a bit too brightly lit. Though, as evidence of the diversity spreading through this divided town, it was a perfect place to stop. For our first chance in a long time to talk about what united us. Things we’d almost forgotten under the pressure of daily toils. The struggles that brought us together, from a spark of chemistry at a protest… We’ve still got to face them, whether or not they’re conquerable. But sometimes they give us strength and make us aware of our wider responsibilities. We all have chorus parts in the epic of human existence. In playing them to the full, maybe there lies ‘happiness’.

A version of this post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 29 November 2013

Official website of the show: http://conquestofhappiness.com/