Mau Mau apology time


‘Electric shock was widely used, as well as cigarettes and fire,’ says the academic. ‘A European officer had castrated him, first by crushing his testicles with pliers,’ says the activist’s memoirs. In response, the authorities say: ‘We understand the strong feelings… [this] remains a deeply divisive issue… and one on which historians continue to debate,’ and think that should be the end of it.

This, of course, was the news last week of a High Court case brought by a group of Kenyans demanding an apology and reparations for what Britain did in Kenya in response to the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s. Here’s a reminder: as many as 150,000 Kenyans were incarcerated in response to an uprising that tried to rid Kenya of white rule. The ‘Mau Mau Rebellion’ came after peaceful protest had been met with violence, as so often was the case in British-controlled Africa. The rebellion had wide support among the Kikuyu ethnic group, so Kikuyu were rounded up and put in ‘transit camps’, for what was euphemistically called ‘screening’.

As last week’s news, which featured recently released secret documents from the time, revealed, ‘screening’ was more often than not beatings and very often extreme torture. Crude castration and mastectomies performed with iron rods and knives, sexual and physical violation with sand, hot objects and broken bottles and beating suspects to death have been documented again and again as methods used by Britain in her colony to extract information about the Mau Mau ‘terrorists’.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been trying to get the case thrown out of court because, it says, in law Britain ceded any responsibility when Kenya gained independence. As one of the greatest Christian campaigners for justice of our age, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, argues, however: the legal responsibility may be in question but the moral one remains. Apologies must be made and damages paid.

Of course, the Mau Mau themselves were violent and committed awful crimes. The ethics of wars of liberation don’t often get discussed unless the powerful have sided with the ‘freedom fighters’ – otherwise they remain ‘terrorists’ and their motives are attributed to evil or madness. But when you read the accounts of what was done to those merely suspected because of their race in order to root out the ‘terrorists’ (this newspaper cannot print descriptions of such violence) you see the greatest argument against the logic that says: ‘sure, it’s unpleasant, but it needs to happen if we want to be safe.’ No, it does not. The Christian, with his emphasis on the golden rule, must imagine himself, his mother, his grandfather being sexually assaulted and beaten before arguing for brutal expediency. And we must, of course, oppose it.

But we must also understand that fear as a motivation to do evil is only part of the reason things like this happen. The other lies in the argument often made to justify the abuses of empire: ‘we sacrificed their liberties, their sovereignty and their choice, we gave them rough justice, but in the cause of civilizing them.’ We Christians have too often been complicit in this logic of empire.

But the Christian should keep in mind the Angel of Death on Passover night or the fate of those who tried to force Daniel to place a symbol of their empire above God to see how much the Lord values these ‘superior’ and ‘civilizing’ empires when they depart from his values and justice. We should think of the esteem in which we hold Pontius Pilate and the mechanism of crucifixion whereby our Saviour was tortured to death, whenever we try to justify Pax Romana. And we should remember that justifying brutality to maintain peace and security or only counting the lives of their own citizenry valuable was not unique to Rome, but practised by the torturing Pax Britannica in Kenya (to name one country) and has distinct resonance with the more efficiently torturing Pax Americana who refuse to count Iraqi dead. I look forward to the apologies.


September 11 reflection

I really hope it’s not ‘too soon’, but you never know. ‘Too soon’, of course, is the response topical jokes about catastrophes sometimes receive when the public mood is not quite ready for light to be made of whatever disaster, tragedy or scandal is being targeted by a comedian. It was also the response to several statements, articles and speeches written by very serious people in 2001, following the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on 11 September. Several columnists, activists and philosophers were vehemently criticized within the first few months following the September 11th attacks, for daring to ask certain questions or make certain observations about the events. And even now, as I consider bringing them up nine years later, I suspect some people will be muttering: ‘too soon’ and wishing I’d be quiet.

But that is simply because ‘soonness’ has nothing to do with why people objected then (as they do now) to certain things being said about 9-11. It’s the same impulse that makes ordinarily rational people object to a mosque being built near the site of the Twin Towers (in which a Muslim prayer room operated peacefully for many years). Because of the great number of people killed in that area, on that day, both have taken on a kind of sacred character for many. This is understandable for the friends and relatives in particular of those who died, but it should not preclude us from asking a question that several people were lambasted for asking nearer to the time: was there anything fundamentally more important about the people killed on September 11 than all other people?

Philosophers and critics who pointed out that while the events of September 11 were tragic and horrible they were not that out of keeping with what was experienced by the rest of the world were attacked for being outrageous, disloyal and speaking ‘too soon’. Is it still too soon now to ask why we still care so much about the 3,000 victims of that attack while even then we could hardly muster as much sympathy for the 20,000 who died in India that January? Is it too soon to ask why every civilian casualty in America should be venerated and mourned, while in our wars in the Middle East they should not even be counted?

Is it still too soon to genuinely ask the question: ‘Why do they hate us?’ without resorting to cartoon answers that assume madness, fanaticism or unadulterated evil and take no factors into account like the historic and economic oppression of Muslim countries by western powers or of the millions of children that had died in Iraq due to American sanctions and been deemed ‘acceptable’ by the US Secretary of State?

Is it still too soon to point out that American lives (and British lives, for that matter) are not nor have they ever been, more valuable than those of civilians or combatants in states with whom we are at war or in regions where our friends or companies commit misdeeds? Is it still too soon to ask Christians in particular to recognise this fact?

Is it too soon to compare the motives of the hijackers to the motives of those who pushed for the Iraq invasion for moral worth?

Is it still too soon to start comparing the numbers of dead in Afghanistan and Iraq, through military conflict and subsequent chaos, on both sides, to the numbers killed on September 11?

I’m not saying that all or even any of these questions would in any way justify the taking of human life (on September 11 2001 or any other day). I am also not saying that the dead from the Twin Towers should not be mourned, and that with respect and dignity. But the ‘war on terror’ continues. Iraq and Afghanistan will live for generations with the consequences of the actions undertaken by governments we elected in response to 9-11. If we don’t ask questions now, or some time soon, we never will. And we will make the same awful mistakes again.

The mantra of ‘business knows best’

Mantras are not usually popular in Baptist circles. But there is a mantra accepted by far too many Christians and non-Christians alike, a mantra whose chanted rhythms are becoming more pervasive by the day. It says: ‘Big business knows best,’ and it’s been echoing for decades throughout the western world. A recent amplification came from Tony Blair and it has found something of a devotee – no, a Swami in David Cameron (with side-kick Fakir assistance from Nick Clegg). If (to extend the metaphor), during the years of New Labour, Westminster became something of a flower-power teen’s bedroom of tentative occasional chanting, the Con-Dem government has turned it into an Ashram.

Everywhere, in almost every decision our new government takes, one hears it and variations on it: ‘Big business knows best.’ ‘Profits mean progress.’ ‘The private sector is our salvation.’ Businessmen are appointed to oversee restructuring of public departments and business principles deployed in spending public money. Indeed, big businesses will soon be running much of what used to be publicly owned. The chanting of the mantra has become so loud, so ubiquitous, that ordinarily balanced people, even economic ‘atheists’ seem to have got religion, at least in terms of believing in the mantra.

Even when discussing the war in Afghanistan, NATO last week complained that all the positive stories are missed by a negative media. Examples given on the radio included building projects and economic recovery. So much of the proverbial Kool-aid has been imbibed that we are really willing to see the destruction of homes and infrastructure (with the loss of life that entails) as a positive thing, because it is good for the business of reconstruction.

But let’s not be unfair. Big business does know best about some things. Making a profit, mostly. And if a profit is what you want, the big business world has some pretty good ideas to offer. But most of those ideas involve charging as much as possible for what you provide, cutting jobs or paying people the very minimum you can get away with to cut costs and focusing every decision about quality on whether it will, in the end, make more money.

This is all perfectly respectable within the narrow world of commerce. One would not run a family that way, though. Asking little toddler Jimmy how he has contributed to the family bottom line and regretfully informing him his services will no longer be required is something most parents would prefer to avoid. When a mother becomes pregnant a second time we don’t immediately commiserate because her costs have gone up. The very idea of applying big business principles to the family (at least exclusively) is obviously ridiculous. And yet, there are many in our government who believe that big business knows best for public services and parts of government. Their faith in the infallibility of big business is amazing. After all, the economic crisis was caused by big business, and their network, the markets. The oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico? A business called BP.

The high-priests of this mantra would have us believe that we have to choose between a world in which everything is run by big business or a totalitarian state. This is not true. Many things work better without business and don’t result in us becoming North Korea. The police are not privatised, ambulance and rescue services are not expected to make profits and making the fire department a business would obviously return us to a world where only those with money would receive help when they needed it most. It’s unthinkable in terms of burning houses. But when it comes to the lives of those who rely on public services most, we seem pretty open to it. I wonder if that’s the fault of the mantra, or just because we’re selfish and indifferent to change that is unlikely to threaten ourselves. Either way, as the Beatles eventually lost faith in the Maharishi, a little skepticism might be healthy about now.

The empire strikes mac

Some Americans have a shaky grasp of Scottishness. I saw this first-hand at a music festival in Scotland once. An American Rap group strutted onto the stage, gazed out over the crowd with its myriad of Saltires and lions rampant and shouted: “Hello, England!”

It did not go down well.

And the Wu Tang Clan (who are, themselves, nothing to funk with) have nothing on the American Senate, which last week ‘summoned’ Alex Salmond and Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill to answer questions about the Lockerbie bomber and BP.

Some commentators thought it was fair enough, that the pair should indeed answer questions about whether Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was freed in order to facilitate a Libyan oil deal for BP. Others felt that all necessary explanation had been given and that, since Megrahi’s release had been obtained on compassionate grounds, Scotland’s hands were clean and the head of government could stay put.

Personally, I just pictured any numer of my Scottish friends squaring up to an American senator, saying: “And who the hell are you, Jimmy?” I mean, not to be petty, but what gives them the right to summon anyone who is not one of their citizens? It’s bad enough when they lord it over the (primarily English) British government. But Scotland? Did they really think that the Scottish would have no inherent resistance to being pushed around by a foreign (mostly Anglo Saxon) nation that doesn’t think of Scotland as a real country? Haven’t they seen Braveheart? Didn’t they make Braveheart?

Let’s not be distracted, however. The fact that American politicians are actually going after a multinational corporation for its transgressions is a minor miracle. I’m even willing to overlook the fact that they are probably motivated by upcoming mid-term election jitters rather than a desire for justice. I’m even a little willing to ignore the fact that the American who shot down an Iranian airliner full of civilians (Iran Air Flight 655) in 1988 was never jailed, making their obsession with Megrahi a little hypocritical. But I would like to ask them to extend their sudden righteous anger to other multinationals. In fact, I’d like them to extend it to the way they deal with big corporations generally. Banning BP from offshore drilling for a few years because of its failures? Excellent. But what if they do it again? Does the American (or this) government have the guts (or haggis) to put repeat-offenders out of our collective misery? That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

an american empire? why, yes, actually.What would also be nice is a little less of that imperial hypocrisy. Because, unfortunately, the USA, for all its many good points (and one only has to look at Noam Chomsky, Magnum P.I. and Bob Dylan to be prompted to think of more) has imperial hypocrisy in spadefuls. And that should worry all Christians (particularly those obsessed with interpretations of Scripture that see Beasts and Dragons in globally dominant political powers), because our witness to the world seems so tied in with America, that most public ‘Christian nation’, which regularly engages in conflict and destructive economics to further its control of the world. And it’s not only our witness. Christians in this country should be particularly worried by last week’s news that Britain seems at some point to have gone from being an accessory to the USA’s programme of torture (under the auspices of ‘war on terror’) to active participant. It’s not that we should worry that God will judge the entire nation, in an Old Testament fashion, for the sin of torture. That is by no means certain. But we should worry that he will be displeased with us, because we have not used our position as voters in a democracy to ensure that justice is done and the innocent are not oppressed in the cause of catching the guilty. He has a thing about justice.

Rumpole and the ever-eroding liberties

There’s a great series of radio plays on the BBC iPlayer. Called Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, the first one is both amusing and profound (as well as being really good radio).

John Mortimer’s greatest creation faces the challenge of trying to defend a client who is not allowed to know the charges he is facing.

An excellent exploration of the idiocy and injustice inherent in much anti-terror legislation in Britain today, and funny to boot.

Because I Got High

from legaljuice.com

‘Weed, dude…’ The dope-head said to my friend, after he’d lost his train of thought for the umpteenth time, ‘It messes with your short-term… your short-term… um…’ and trailed off. ‘Your short-term memory?’ My friend asked, and the marijuana-smoker replied in the affirmative. True story. The ‘weed’ he was referring to was, of course, cannabis, and I was reminded of the exchange last week as I listened to news of the row between the government and their chief scientific advisor on drugs.

Over the last few years, the government has pretty much ignored the scientific advice on drugs. From deciding on its policy on Ecstasy without waiting for the findings of its scientific advisers, to reclassifying cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug, the government has demonstrated time and again that its objections to drugs are more social and ‘moral’ than scientific. This was borne out last week when Home Secretary Alan Johnson sacked Professor David Nutt, head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, because Professor Nutt had publicly criticized the government for ignoring the ACMD’s advice.

‘Ah!’ you say, ‘It all makes sense now! The pinko-liberal politics, the hippie attitudes to the environment and war, the beard… Jonathan Langley is clearly on drugs. And that’s why he’s about to defend their use, probably on the basis of hemp making good rope, just like a typical degenerate drug-addict.’

Well, sorry to disappoint, but, I’m not a fan of drugs. I’ve tried cannabis a few times, and it’s just not my cup of (green) tea. I am, as my editor never tires of telling me, relatively paranoid when on nothing stronger than coffee. Smoking illegal herbage (while at university), nearly scared me to death. In fact, in my experience, most of the illegal drugs my friends have used have made them vacant, shallow, insincere and, well, stupid. Of course, that goes for many of the legal drugs, too. But if you asked me, I’d advise you to keep away from drugs.

drugs are bad, mkay?

from southparkstudios.co.uk

And that means absolutely nothing. Why? Because I’m not a scientist. I can recognise that my opinion on a subject I know little about is not very important. But, apparently, successive Home Secretaries cannot. Some of them may genuinely believe cannabis is dangerous (though this seems unlikely considering how many of our top politicians have admitted smoking pot earlier in life and going on to fruitful lives). More likely is that they are afraid of the social backlash against them if they take a reasonable, measured, scientific approach to all recreational drugs (including alcohol). A backlash from people like us.

Because, for Christians, this is not an issue where we can dispassionately criticize the government. We are one of the reasons the government ignores scientists when they try to say that some drugs are not as dangerous as others, that mental-health fears with certain drugs are nothing more than scare-tactics. We, people in churches, members of campaigning groups, ‘the silent moral majority’ that tabloids make so much noise about, are the ones who, directly or indirectly, demand that the government take a ‘hard line’ on drugs, for many different reasons of vastly disparate validity.

But if we really want, for whatever moral, spiritual or other reason, to discourage people from taking drugs, perhaps we should try telling the truth about drugs and basing our laws consistently on that truth. I know that sounds crazy. It’s probably just the booze talking.

Here’s an amusing anti-drug advert (I’d love to post the old Dennis LEary MTV one, but the only rip of it contains some of his other opinions, most of which are, well, stupid.):

Is Britain leftist? Ask a postman.

from socialistworker.co.uk

We’ve won! The Lefties and pinko liberals have finally taken over. You could tell by the reaction, last week, to the news that BNP chief-wizard, Nick Griffin, was going to appear on Question Time. Beyond the predictable lefty activist reactions, ordinary, mainstream people actually got involved. And properly freaked out. Radio phone-ins, blogs, newspaper columns and office coffee-points resounded to the sound of otherwise apolitical middle-classers denouncing the BNP in ways that made Joe Public sound suspiciously like George Galloway.

But never fear, oh conservative (or, indeed, Conservative) reader. Britain has not descended into liberalism or fallen into the arms of Marxist ideology. The vision of leftism sweeping the nation last week was just a mirage, a conscience-salving display by a populace that, like a grown-up hippie with a mortgage, likes to think of itself as a bit of a lefty more than actually behaving like one.

Because just as left-leaning newspapers produced posters making fun of how small Nick Griffin’s brain is (embarrassing) and right-leaning tabloids denounced his racism (hypocritical), the nation’s media showed its true political colours while covering last week’s strike action by Royal Mail staff in the Communication Workers Union – and those colours were not varying shades of red. Ordinarily impartial interviewers took for granted the belief that strike action in itself is a damaging, unreasonable and negative phenomenon. Otherwise intelligent commentators with a sense of proportion referred to their having to wait a week for internet hardware (delayed by the strike) as ordinary people’s ‘suffering’. And perhaps most remarkable of all, the Tories and Labour seemed to be pretty much on the same side: in opposition to the strikers.

Photo from socialistunity.com

The question is: why? It’s not like the nation has been crippled by strike after strike, causing constant upheaval to our lives. Royal Mail workers are not the bullies in this situation, either. They are overworked and facing privatisation (disguised as ‘modernisation’) which always means job-losses and a worse deal for both workers and consumers. The only power they have is in acting together. It’s not like the claims of government ministers and Royal Mail bosses of falling mail volumes are true (an excellent exposé of unilateral adjustments of figures and fiddling of statistics by bosses was published a week or two back in the London Review of Books and makes for fascinating reading) or even logical (can you say eBay? Amazon? Junk mail? Post ‘sent’ by ‘outside contractors’ that’s still ultimately delivered by Royal Mail posties?) It is just that the zeitgeist at the moment is pretty right-wing when it comes to strikers.

The reasons why could be debated in a whole book. But whether they are our sense of entitlement (outraged whenever we are even slightly put out), our culture’s hostility to those who seem ‘too political’ (as if that could somehow be a bad thing in a democracy) or just our subconscious belief that ‘the workers’ should be glad for whatever they get, because ‘beggars can’t be choosers’, Christians have a choice. We can go with the flow, side with the spirit of the present moment and accept, uncritically, the attitudes and viewpoints in which we are immersed. Or we can think for ourselves, applying God’s values, rather than those of the market or our privileged class, to issues in the news – hopefully siding with justice, mercy and the poor, rather than the forces of selfishness and expediency.

This originally appeared in The Baptist Times, under a different title.

Here’s a lovely video by Die Krupps about making a choice against fascism: