Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Ranciere on Populism


Writing in LibérationJacques Rancière talks about populism and French politics today.

The People Are Not a Brutal and Ignorant Mass


Not a day goes by without the risks of populism being denounced on all sides. But it is not so easy to grasp what the word denotes. What is a populist? Despite various fluctuations of meaning, the dominant discourse seems to characterize it in terms of three essential features: a style of speech addressed directly to the people, bypassing representatives and dignitaries; the assertion that governments and ruling elites are more concerned with feathering their own nest than with the public interest; a rhetoric of identity that expresses fear and rejection of foreigners.

It is clear however that there is no necessary connection between these features. The republican and socialist spokesmen of former days were certainly convinced that there was an entity known as 'the people' that was the course of power and the prime interlocutor of political discourse. This does not involve any kind of racist or xenophobic sentiment. No demagogue is needed to announce that our politicians think more of their career than of the future of their fellow citizens, or that those who govern us live in symbiosis with the representatives of big financial interests. The same press that denounces 'populist' tendencies provides us day after day with the most detailed evidence of this. On their part, heads of state or government who are called 'populist', such as Silvio Berlusconi or Nicolas Sarkozy, steer well clear of propagating the 'populist' idea that elites are corrupt. The term is not used to characterize any well-defined political force. It denotes neither an ideology nor even a coherent political style. It serves simply to draw the image of a certain people.

For 'the people' as such does not exist. What exists are diverse and even antagonistic images of the people, figures constructed by privileging certain modes of assembly, certain distinctive features, certain capacities or incapacities. The notion of populism constructs a people characterized by the fearsome combination of a certain capacity – the raw power of a large number – and a certain incapacity – the ignorance ascribed to the same large number. For this purpose, racism, the third feature, is essential. It is a matter of showing those democrats always suspect of 'idealism' who the underlying people truly are: a mob inspired by a primary drive of rejection, which targets at the same time those in power, whom it denounces as traitors out of a failure to understand the complexity of political mechanisms, and the foreigners that it fears from an atavistic attachment to a context of life threatened by demographic, economic and social development. The notion of populism presents an image of the people elaborated in the late nineteenth century by thinkers such as Hippolyte Taine and Gustave Le Bon, frightened by the Paris Commune and the rise of the workers' movement: that of ignorant crowds impressed by the sonorous words of 'agitators' and led to extreme violence by the circulation of unchecked rumours and contagious fears.

Is this epidemic unleashing of blind crowds led by charismatic leaders really a contemporary phenomenon in countries such as ours? Whatever the complaints voiced daily about immigrants, and particularly 'young people from the estates', they do not find expression in mass popular demonstrations. What is called racism today in our country is essentially the conjunction of two things. On the one hand, forms of discrimination in employment and housing that are practiced to perfection in aseptic offices. On the other, government policies that are in no case the consequence of a mass movement: restrictions on immigration, refusal to provide residence papers to people who have worked and paid taxes in France for years, undermining of nationality by birth, double penalty, laws against the Islamic scarf and the burka, official targets for expulsions from the country and the dismantling of travellers' camps. The aim of these measures is essentially to render the rights of a section of the population precarious in terms of both work and citizenship, to constitute a population of workers who can at any time be sent back where they came from, and of French nationals who are not assured of keeping their status.

These measures are supported by an ideological campaign that justifies this restriction of rights by the evidence of failure to exhibit certain features that characterize national identity. But it is not the 'populists' of the Front National who have sparked off this campaign. It is rather certain intellectuals, supposedly on the left, who have found the unanswerable argument that 'these people are not truly French because they are not secular'.
Marine Le Pen's recent outburst is instructive in this respect. All it does, in fact, is condense into a single image a sequence of discourse: Muslim = Islamist = Nazi, which lurks almost everywhere in supposedly republican writing. The 'populist' far right does not express any specific xenophobic passion emanating from the depths of the popular body; it is a satellite that turns to its profit the strategies of the government and the campaigns of distinguished intellectuals. The state maintains the permanent sense of insecurity that blends together the risks of crisis and unemployment with those of ice on the roads and formamide, to culminate in the supreme threat of the Islamic terrorist. The far right gives flesh and blood to the standard portrait found in ministerial decrees and the prose of ideologists.

And so neither the 'populists' nor the people as presented by ritual denunciations of populism actually match their definition. But this is no worry for those who wave this phantom about. The essential thing for them is to amalgamate the very idea of a democratic people with the image of the dangerous crowd. And to draw the conclusion that we must all place our trust in those who govern us, any challenge to their legitimacy and integrity opening the door to totalitarianism. 'Better a banana republic than a fascist France' was one of the more sinister anti-Le Pen slogans in April 2002. The present harping on about the mortal dangers of populism aims to give a theoretical foundation to the idea that we have no other choice.

Translated from French by David Fernbach. Visit Libération to read the original article.

http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1226-the-people-are-not-a-brutal-and-ignorant-mass-jacques-ranciere-on-populism

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Translator's Note by Valerie Miles



Edmundo had begun outlining the novel when we met during our respective sojourns in Madrid; I was the associate director of Alfaguara, the imprint where he was publishing his work, and he was on sabbatical from Cornell. Anyone who has spent time in Madrid can attest to the vibrant social and cultural scene there, which makes it famously difficult for a visiting writer to  get any work done. But Edmundo’s enviable discipline prevailed, and I had the chance to read an early version of Norte in 2009

By then I had moved back to Barcelona, and he and Liliana Colanzi came to stay with us for a few scorching days in August. Poet Forrest Gander was also in Barcelona at the time, and with Aurelio Major we had a long, memorable Spanish lunch at the iconic Flash Flash and deliberated on some of the issues Edmundo was setting out in the novel, particularly the way in which the United States absorbs and domesticates the splendidly variegated Spanish-speaking cultures under blanket terms like “Hispanic” and “Latino”. In the process, it invests a cliché on the undocumented worker, since society is often incapable of appreciating the singular in human experience, lumping personalities into sweeping typecasts for easy classification. The novel as form, luckily, being a work of the imagination, and by virtue a subversive one, counteracts this trend by exploring the space of individual experience, celebrating particularity and disputing the kind of intellectual indolence that turns a language spoken by people from over twenty-one different countries and their respective traditions into a shibboleth. As Azar Nafisi wrote in The Republic of the Imagination, literature “enables us to tolerate complexity and nuance and to empathize with people whose lives and conditions are utterly different from our own.” So as I translated Norte, one of my first concerns was finding way to capture the diversity of their voices, to differentiate the characters clearly and not to domesticate them or their language into an easy typecast. They hail from different countries despite the fact that they have the Spanish language in common, and the two who are Mexican, Jesus and Martin, are from very different backgrounds, social circumstances, and generations.

Edmundo is a Bolivian expat, A Spanish speaker in an English-speaking country; I’m an American expat, an English speaker in a Spanish-speaking country. We share an appreciation for how easy it is to get lost in a foreign environment, for the things you forfeit and the things you gain. But what happens to immigrants who ae emotionally or mentally crippled? What happens to those who are forced to struggle against economic hardship and denigrating prejudices, especially when civic and governmental institutions, police forces and prisons, universities and health care systems all fail?


Edmundo was interested in mapping the lives of migrants who have gotten lost both physically and spiritually in the vast “North” as they scramble to find a better life for themselves. We kept the title of the novel in the original Spanish so as not to lose all the inherent cultural references that are immediately associated with the Spanish word. As it goes, if I tell you not to picture an elephant, you inevitably see a pewter-haunched pachyderm; the image of the word “North” conjures in an American reader’s mind is not the same one as if you read the word “Norte”. Meaning, it’s not about Canada, no. North is a cardinal location on a compass, but it’s also a space in the imagination.

In Spanish there’s an expression, “perder el norte”, which means to lose one’s way, to lose sight of a goal, to lose control, to lose the  sense where is up and where is down on a compass. A few of the characters in the novel are based on real people who were uprooted, rendered anchorless, who lost their communities and their way in the vast, hostile territory that is the United States. Just as the border can be porous both physically and as a metaphor, identity to can be fluid; there is always a linguistic and cultural bleeding out in both directions, nothing is fixed, everything is in flux  . . .

We met again at the Bogota Book Fair and a few more times in Madrid and Barcelona. Edmundo wanted to approach the translation as if working on a manuscript. Many writers find it excruciatingly tedious to go back over a novel that has already been published, but Edmundo chose to use this as an opportunity for another revision of the original, to continue polishing the ideas, sharpening the dialogue, tightening structure and some of the psychology that moves the characters along. So the American translation is not always a direct translation; it evolved as a result of this ongoing exchange into a new version of the original novel.

Our conversations began tangentially at first, not directly on formal considerations such as  the placement of dialogue but on the characters themselves, their emotional make-up, motivations, and how to strike the right tone for each voice. Ae they based on real characters or not? If so, who and how closely? What materials did I have to work with that would help me gather a sense of their inner worlds, their outer surroundings? We talked about the American writers Edmundo reads while preparing the novel: Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Bret Easton Ellis. We discussed how to balance the tenor in the episodes of extreme violence, emphasize the suspense leading up to these scenes, and keep a smooth, tightly measures timbre when describing the action, as he does in the Spanish.

I wanted to capture the slight linguistic estrangement of a Bolivian writer using Mexicanisms, Americanisms, and Argentinisms. He never falls into parody but is quite guarded against overplaying linguistic tics or pitches, though he sprinkles them in certain bits of dialogue to great effect. He writes in understatement, allowing the action to move the narrative forward, prioritizing drive and sense of pace, following a style predicated by Borges and Bioy Casares when writing as Bustos Domecq: the invisible narrator. The prose is largely free of adjectives, straightforward, close to the semantic tightness of the noir novel but sans winks to the genre’s parlance.

In Norte, Edumndo Paz Soldan uses a sort of backdrop storytelling technique that, like bas-relief, allows the voices of the characters to rise up in contrast when he moves in and out of their consciousness in free indirect speech. I’ve tried to maintain the effect when possible, but in order to keep the fluidity, and because it’s difficult to render accents without falling into caricature, some of the dialogue that was inside the body of the text has been restructures into direct discourse inside quotation marks. . .

The novel represents a foreigner’s view of the US. It’s the case with Fabian’s disgruntled opinion of American academia and with both Jesus and Martin’s third-person stor-lines: Martin’s story opens in the 1930S and largely takes place in California, Jesus’s in the 1980S in the north of Mexico, in Juarez, El Paso and other cities along the US border and Florida. Jesus speaks a lower-caste, urban, coarser type of Mexican Spanish, while Martin’s speech is more naïve and peasant-like, but in both cases their language is quick and flowing. Martin’s sentences are particularly melodic, the result of a sensitive if disturbed mind. The tension between these stories is that they represent two different ways of being; Jesus all motion and exploit, where Martin’s is stasis and introspection.

The third story-line that braids through the novel is that of the young, very talented Michelle and her profligate professor and lover Fabian. It’s the only story told in the first person. Here the conflict, the narrative tension, is found in the counterpoint between the creative act and destruction, authenticity and mendacity, truth and pure fiction versus imitation. It can be read as an analogy of the creative process, and it was important to clinch her voice  as a renegade academic and budding artist and not just some star-struck ingénue. She is infatuated with strung-out professor Fabian, and though she seems to passively allow herself to be sucked into the vortex of his self-destruction, in fact she exerts a subtle resistance the whole time. She’s observing something that fascinates her as a cat would observe a scorpion . . .



Friday, December 2, 2016

Platformitis by Edward Luttwak


  • The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of Darpa, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency by Annie Jacobsen
    Little, Brown, 560 pp, £12.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 316 34947 5
The development of a nuclear explosive device and two air-deliverable fission bombs by the Manhattan Engineering District of the US Army Corps of Engineers cost $1.845 billion, equivalent to the cost of a mere nine days of war. A much happier, and infinitely cheaper piece of research that also turned out to have world-historical impact was the development of a digital network between computers with TCP/IP communications protocols, better known as the internet. When the student-programmer Charley Kline sent the first instantaneous message (you had to print it out to keep it) on 29 October 1969, he inaugurated a new era; some months later Ray Tomlinson invented the first email program, using an @ address where such messages could linger.
That first computer network was funded by Arpa, the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defense. The same outfit, now known as Darpa, with ‘Defense’ tacked onto the start of the acronym, has achieved many other startling things over the years, from its support for the development of America’s first plastic and aluminium rifle in the early 1960s – actually a heroic struggle against the US army’s obdurate use of heavy steel and wooden stocks – to the development of Transit, the direct predecessor of the GPS satellite system that allows pilots and car drivers to find their destinations automatically, and enables the existence of the new self-driving cars, in addition to its many military uses. Another Darpa project was the Aspen Movie Map, a virtual tour of Aspen provided by the first hypermedia system (four cameras rigged on the top of a car taking pictures every ten feet). This technology was used to develop large-scale combat simulators which familiarise entire battalions with the place where they’re about to be deployed, and is now in everyday use. Other Darpa creations were more straightforwardly military, from penetration aid decoys that help ballistic missiles defeat interception attempts, to all manner of remotely piloted and robotic vehicles, including reconnaissance aircraft small enough to resemble large mosquitoes.

You might think there’s nothing surprising in all this: all sorts of scientific advances should be possible given the ample funds provided to this programme by the Department of Defense. But that’s the problem: the funds available are not ample, they are very modest by Pentagon standards. In 2015 $2.87 billion were allocated to Darpa, 0.0047 per cent of the year’s total defence spending, and its staff of 220 are a tiny band among the 700,000 civilian employees of the Department of Defense. How can technology-crazy America allow such a miserly allocation of funds and people?
The short explanation is that most of the money is reserved for the pseudo-innovations pursued by the uniformed services: the navy’s supposedly ultra-new aircraft carrier that retains an unchanged 1960s configuration; the F-35 jet fighter that offers thirty-year-old ‘stealth’ as its cutting-edge novelty; the new army tank that still looks very much like the 1944 German Tiger. The dominance of this sort of pseudo-innovation is a direct result of the composition of the US armed forces as an alliance of proudly separate services, each with its own traditions, institutional culture, career paths and – most important – iconic weapons.
The Pentagon’s RDT&E (research, development, test and evaluation) money is not allotted to Darpa, or some other defence-wide organisation that might develop new weapons, systems or platforms capable of delivering really major advantages, such as remotely piloted vehicles (drones). Instead, the money is parcelled out to the separate services, each of which spends almost all of its share on enhancing its own military role, and its own identity, by expensively updating the weapons traditionally associated with it. The US army spends most of its RDT&E funds ($6.5 billion in 2015) on armoured vehicles, as well as the armed helicopters that it has been using for decades. The navy’s RDT&E funds ($16 billion in 2015) are spent on aircraft carriers and submarines, except for the portion controlled by the Marines, whose favourites are the landing ships and beach-crossing vehicles associated with its amphibian vocation – even though there has not been one opposed amphibious landing in all the wars Americans have fought in the 65 years since the Inchon landing in Korea. Most of the Marines’ money goes on aviation: their separate identity requires them to use vertical take-off and landing jet fighters, which are unwanted by the US air force or navy and are exceptionally expensive. (The travails of the F-35 joint-strike fighter are caused largely by its vertical take-off version, which distorts the entire design.) As for the air force’s $23 billion, they are spent primarily on the quest for a new manned strategic bomber, whose crew must be recovered safely even after a nuclear strike, and on the F-35, whose unit costs are as phenomenal as its shortcomings.

That’s how $45.5 billion are being spent this year but it takes a huge amount of research and development money to make just a little progress when all the parameters are set from the start. It’s for this reason that car manufacturers spend more than a billion dollars on turning out a new model only marginally superior to its predecessor: laws, regulations, tax regimes, the shape of the human body, the convention that cars have four wheels – all of this constrains innovation, just as the classic military platforms do. It’s only the advent of hybrid, electrical and fuel-cell propulsion that has allowed any innovation at all after decades of stasis. The US air force recently allocated $21.4 billion of its RDT&E funds, nine times this year’s total Darpa budget, to developing a manned bomber. Unsurprisingly, Northrop won the contract to replace the Northrop B-2 flying-wing stealth bomber designed in the 1970s (its only precursor was the 1946 Northrop XB-35 flying-wing bomber) with yet another manned flying-wing stealth design, as if all the intervening innovations starting with unmanned aircraft had never happened, and as if stealth-defeating radar techniques didn’t exist.
The US air force has never funded any innovative research: not ballistic missiles, since Wernher von Braun, who aimed at the moon but hit London, was employed by the US army after the war; not air-to-air tactical missiles, another German idea developed by the US navy; and not remotely piloted aircraft, at least not until the US navy successfully used some imported from Israel, which was also the proximate source of the only truly major innovation in jet-fighter design in decades: the helmet-mounted display, whereby all the critical data – airspeed, heading, altitude, targeting information and warnings – along with real-time imagery from infrared cameras mounted around the aircraft, are projected onto the visor of the helmet, allowing pilots to look through their own airframe with 360 degree vision.

Platformitis – the fixation on retaining existing configurations – is very costly and generates increasing vulnerabilities. Cars are still useful even if their basic layout has not changed in decades, but car drivers don’t have to fight their way past enemies armed with anti-car weapons developed to exploit car-specific vulnerabilities. The continued reliance on the cherished platforms of each service has resulted in the development of more and more lethal platform-killers, often missiles that are much cheaper than the platforms they can destroy. Ask the US navy how vulnerable its aircraft carriers are and you’ll be told not at all, because carrier task-forces have anti-submarine weapons against submarine attacks, anti-air weapons against air attack, and of course anti-ship weapons against ship attacks; but if Darpa were given the task of sinking aircraft carriers, it wouldn’t bother with any of those, but would instead use ballistic missiles to launch warheads that would plunge down at Mach 5 or 6 to cut right through the carriers, from flight deck to keel. That, by the way, is what the Chinese would do too. 
Annie Jacobsen’s book sets the stage by reviewing the major pre-Arpa innovations, notably nuclear weapons, computers and ballistic missiles, before telling Arpa’s story from its 1957 foundation. Early on she gets one episode wrong – and it’s an interesting mistake. She dates the Mutual Assured Destruction concept of the 1960s to the 1950s, and then gives credit to the once celebrated and now deservedly forgotten Albert Wohlstetter for the ‘second-strike’ concept: the insight that what deters isn’t a country’s inventory of ballistic missiles but the portion of it that can reliably survive a surprise attack. Actually, Wohlstetter worked on the basing of bombers, not missiles, and the essential insight wasn’t his but his wife Roberta’s: she re-examined the Pearl Harbor attack (her book Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision has been in print since 1962) and came up with two findings of enduring importance. The first is that surprise attacks succeed not because of impenetrable secrecy, but because the ‘signals’ generated by their preparation are obscured by the ‘noise’ of outdated, irrelevant and misleading information, amplified by wishful thinking. The remedy isn’t the mirage of ‘better analysis’, but deploying would-be deterrent forces in ways that are inherently resilient to surprise attack, even if they’re less cost-effective. The second finding followed directly from this: in Washington it was thought that keeping the US fleet at Pearl Harbor, halfway across the Pacific, would deter the Japanese from attacking US, British and Dutch possessions in South-East Asia, whereas the Japanese viewed the fleet’s relative proximity as an opportunity to destroy US naval strength with one blow. In other words, to deter Japan the fleet should have been kept in San Diego, well beyond Japanese reach. Not coincidentally, Albert Wohlstetter became famous for his 1954 Rand study, which taught the US air force that its nuclear bombers should be moved back to the US to deter the USSR, instead of being forward-based in Europe.

Arpa itself was the creation of Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy, who had sold soap door to door before rising ever higher at Procter & Gamble: his innovations there ranged from brand management via the competition of rival in-house brands to the now global phenomenon of soap operas. On 20 November 1957, only five weeks into his tenure, and only six weeks after the shock of the Soviet leap into space with Sputnik, he came up with the idea of creating Arpa to carry out ‘advanced research’ into space exploration among other things. He carefully avoided saying that the purpose was to circumvent the deficiencies of the services: the army, navy and air force all had their own space programmes, none sufficiently central to their concerns to warrant much money or attention, which is one reason the USSR won the space race. McElroy’s tact didn’t prevent the top brass – in rare unity – from trying hard to choke Arpa at birth. They failed only because the toppest brass of them all, Eisenhower, happened to be president.

Eisenhower denounced petty ‘jurisdictional’ concerns, successfully asked Congress for funds, and Arpa was in business. McElroy’s choice as its head was Roy Johnson of General Electric, who left his $160,000 job there for $18,000 at Arpa. The chief scientist was Herb York, part-Mohawk, son of a railway baggage man, a Manhattan Project nuclear physicist with a practical bent, utterly unpretentious and fun to be with. Space exploration was soon taken away by the creation of Nasa, so Johnson and York focused on what was known as Project Vela. This had three parts: Vela Hotel concentrated on the development of high-altitude satellites that would be able to detect nuclear explosions from space; Vela Uniform on seismic sensors to detect underground nuclear explosions; and Vela Sierra on detecting nuclear explosions in space. These were truly sinister programmes from the viewpoint of York’s erstwhile mentors in the nuclear weapons business, among them Edward Teller, because they indicated the nefarious purpose of negotiating the prohibition of nuclear tests with Khrushchev – which was exactly Eisenhower’s aim.
By the summer of 1958, Johnson and York were ready to take a much broader look at possible projects. A gathering of 22 defence scientists was charged with identifying promising opportunities. One was the Christofilos effect: if a nuclear warhead was detonated in the upper atmosphere, charged particles would create a radiation belt, which could in theory be used to destroy incoming ballistic warheads by frying their fuses. True, thousands of nuclear explosions would be needed each year to renew the shield, but the idea itself was brilliant, as was the inventor, a Greek lift mechanic called Nicholas Christofilos who taught himself physics under German occupation. After the war, Christofilos started sending letters to US nuclear laboratories describing high-energy accelerators of his own design. The letters were eventually read, and he was hired by York to help build a really big accelerator.

The hypothesis that the Earth’s magnetic field would trap charged particles was tested in the Argus detonations of August and September 1958, which were set up with a rapidity unimaginable today, especially given that the test involved assembling in the far South Atlantic an aircraft carrier, a seaplane tender, a fleet oiler, three destroyers, eight helicopters, 21 fixed-wing aircraft, a dozen missiles, three nuclear warheads and thousands of servicemen, technicians and scientists. Argus was a partial failure (the missiles malfunctioned; the detonations weren’t high enough), but the tests confirmed Christofilos’s hypothesis. Similar tests carried out the same year demonstrated the damaging effects of the electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) caused by a nuclear explosion above the atmosphere on the communications and electrical infrastructure below. These were also shown inadvertently by a Soviet high-altitude nuclear test on 22 October 1962, which set fire to the Karaganda electrical generating plant 180 miles below, and overloaded lead-and-steel-shielded trunk power lines almost a metre below ground. EMP, in other words, has a much larger reach than blast, heat or radiation, which was a matter of great importance to weaponeers, until the post-nuclear age came along to kill off battle-planning with nukes. Christofilos soon got bored with his own ‘effect’ and diverted himself by trying to solve the riddle of communicating with ballistic-missile submarines without forcing them to compromise their security by floating antennae to the surface. He came up with the conceptual answer – extremely low frequency radio – and worked out all the engineering in full detail. It was thanks to him that the US navy was able to communicate with its Polaris submarines and their successors. 
Annie Jacobsen’s book doesn’t tell that story in much detail but she surveys many more stories on her way to the present-day Darpa. Natural scientists and engineers were joined by social scientists who tried to help the fight against the Viet Cong by way of psychological operations, success metrics and such. The engineers came up with a lot of things that worked in Vietnam, including almost silent scout aircraft, swamp boats, and the laser-guided bombs that made a large-scale impact in the Gulf War in 1991 – but the social scientists could only fail, because they had no way of contending with ideology. Computer engineers eventually empowered the social scientists, albeit in the guise of intelligence analysts, not to predict the behaviour of the members of al-Qaida, Islamic State, Boko Haram and so on, but to monitor networks of people. Their capability is impressive, but as one who works in this business professionally, I can testify that the loss-of-privacy/terrorist-finding trade-off is roughly a million to one: good enough at a specific time/place, but not everywhere all the time. So while I would be happy for the US services to hand over 90 per cent of their RDT&E money to Darpa, I would also shut down its social science stuff altogether.

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n23/edward-luttwak/platformitis

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Silence by Shusaku Endo



Yes, and that on this, the most important night of his whole life, he should be disturbed by such a vile and discordant noise – this realization suddenly filled him with rage. He felt that his life was simply being trifled with; and when the groaning ceased for a moment, he began to beat on the wall. But the guards, like those who in Gethsemane slept in utter indifference to the torment of that man, did not get up. Again he began to beat wildly on the wall. Then there came the noise of the door being opened, and from the distance the sound of feet hastening rapidly towards the place that he was.

‘Father, what is wrong? What is wrong?’ It was the interpreter who spoke; and his voice was that of a cat play with its prey. ‘It’s terrible, terrible! Isn’t it better for you not to be so stubborn? If you simply say, “I apostatize,” all will be well. Then you will be able to let your strained mind relax and be at ease.’

‘It’s only that snoring,’ answered the priest through the darkness.

Suddenly the interpreter became silent as if in astonishment. ‘You think that is snoring.  .  . that is.  .  . Sawano, did you hear what he said? He thought that sound was snoring!’

The priest had not known that Ferreiras standing beside the interpreter. ‘Sawano, tell him what it is!’

The priest heard the voice of Ferreira, that voice he had heard every day long ago – it was low and pitiful. ‘That’s not snoring. That is the moaning of Christians hanging in the pit’. . .


Inside  the cell there came not the faintest sound. Only the pitch darkness where the priest now lay huddle up and through which it seemed impossible to penetrate.
‘I was here just like you.’ Ferreira uttered the words distinctly, separating the syllable from one another. ‘I was imprisoned here, and that night was darker and colder than any night in my life.’

The priest leaned his head heavily against the wooden wall and listened vaguely to the old man’s words. Even without the old man’s saying so, he knew that that night had been blacker than any before. The problem was not this; the problem was that he must not be defeated by Ferreira’s temptings – the tempting of Ferreira who had been shut up in the darkness just like himself and was now enticing him to follow the same path.

‘I, too, heard those voices. I heard the groaning of men handing in the pit.’ And even as Ferreira finished speaking, the voices like snoring, now high, now low, were carried to their ears. But now the priest was aware of the truth. I was not snoring. It was the gasping and groaning of helpless men hanging in the pit.

While he had been squatting here in the darkness, someone had been groaning, as the blood dripped from his nose and mouth. He had not even adverted to this, he had uttered no prayer; he had laughed. The very thought bewildered him completely. He had thought the sound of that voice ludicrous, and he had laughed aloud. He had believed in his pride that he alone in this night was sharing in the suffering of that man [Jesus]. But here just beside him were people who were sharing in that suffering much more than he. Why this craziness, murmured a voice not his own. And you call yourself a priest! A priest who takes upon himself the sufferings of others! ‘Lord, until this moment have you been mocking me?, he cried aloud.

“Laudate Eum [Praise Him]! I engraved those letters on the wall,’ Ferreira repeated. ‘Can’t you find them? Look again!’
“I know!’ The priest, carried away by anger, shouted lauder than ever before. ‘Keep quiet!’ he said. “You have no right to speak to me like this.’

‘I have no right? That is certain. I have no right. Listening to those groans all night I was no longer able to give praise to the Lord. I did not apostatize because I was suspended in the pit. For three days, I who stand before you was hung in a pit of foul excrement, but I did not say a single word that might betray my God.’ Ferreira raised a voice that was like a growl as he shouted: ‘The reason I apostatized . . .are you ready? Listen! I was out in here and heard the voices of those people for who God did nothing. God did not do a single thing. I prayed with all my strength; but God did nothing.’
‘Be quiet!’
‘Alright. Pray! But those Christians are partaking of a terrible suffering such as you cannot even understand. From yesterday – in the future –now at this very moment. Why must they suffer like this? And while this goes on, you do nothing for them. And God, he does nothing either.’

The priest shook his head wildly, putting both fingers into his ears. But the voice of Ferreira together with the groaning of the Christians broke mercilessly in Stop! Stop! Lord, it is now that you should break the silence. You must not remain silent. Prove that you are justice, that you are goodness, that you are love. You must say something to show the world that you are the august one.

A great shadow passed over his soul like that of the great wings of a bird flying over the mast of a ship. The wings of the bird now brought to his mind the memory of the various ways in which the Christians had died. At that time, to, God had been silent. When the misty rain floated over the sea, he was silent. When the one-eyed man had been killed beneath the blazing rays of the sun, he had said nothing. But at that time  the Priest had been able to stand it; or, rather than stand it, he had been able to thrust the terrible doubt far from the threshold of his mind. But no it was different. Why is God continually silent while those groaning voices go on?

‘Now they are in that courtyard’ (it was the sorrowful voice of Ferreira that whispered to him.) ‘There unfortunate Christians are hanging. They have been hanging there since you came here.’

The old man was telling no lie. As he strained his ears the groaning that had seemed to be that of a single voice suddenly revealed itself as a double one- groaning was high (it never became low): the high voice and the low voice were mingled with one another, coming from different persons.

‘When I spent that night here five people were suspended in the pit. Five voices were carried to my ears on the wind. The official said: “If you apostatize, those people will immediately be taken out of the pit, their bonds will be loosed, and we will put medicine on their wounds.” I answered: “why do not these people not apostatize?” And the official laughs as he answered me: “They have already apostatized many times. But as long as you don’t apostatize these peasants cannot be saved.”’

‘And you .  .  .’ The priest spoke through his tears. ‘You should have prayed .  .  . .’

‘I did pray. I kept on praying. But prayer did nothing to alleviate their suffering. Behind their ears a small incision was made; the blood drips slowly through the incision and through the nose and mouth. I know it well, because I experienced the same suffering in my own body. Prayer does nothing to alleviate suffering.’

The priest remembered how at Saishoji when he first met Ferreira he had noticed a scar like a burn on his temples. He remembered the brown color of the wound and now the whole scene rose p behind huis eyelids. To chase away the imagination he kept banging his head against the wall. ‘In return for these earthly sufferings, those people will receive a reward of eternal joy,’ he said.

‘Don’t deceive yourself!’ said Ferreira. ‘Don’t disguise your own weakness with those beautiful words.’

’ My weakness? The priest shook his head; yet he had no self-confidence. ‘What do you mean? It’s because I believe in the salvation of these people . . .?’

‘You make yourself more important than them. You are preoccupied with your own salvation. If you say that you will apostatize, those people will be taken out of the pit. They will be saved from suffering. And you refused to do so. It’s because you dread to be the dregs of the Church, like me.’ Until now Ferreira’s words out as a single breath of anger, but now his voice gradually weakened as he aid: “Yet I am the same as you. On that cold, black night I, too, was as you are now. And yet is your way of acting love? A priest out to live in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here .  .  .’

For a moment Ferreira remained silent; then he suddenly broke out in a strong voice: ‘Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them.’

Night gradually gave place to dawn. The cell that until now had been no more than a lump of black darkness began to glimmer in a tiny flicker of whitish light.
‘Christ would have certainly have apostatized to help men.’

‘No, no!’ said the priest, covering his face with his hands and wrenching his voice through his fingers. ‘No, no!”
‘ For love Christ would have apostatized. Even if it meant giving up everything he had.’
‘Stop tormenting me! Go away, away’ shouted the priest wildly. But now the bolt was shot and the door opened – and the white light of morning flooded into the room.

‘You are now going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed,’ said Ferreira, taking the priest gently by the shoulder.

Swaying as he walked, the priest dragged his feet along the corridor. Step by step he made his way forward, as if his legs were bound by heavy leaden chains – and Ferreira guided him along. In the gentler light of the morning, the corridor seemed endless; but there at the end stood the interpreter and two guards, looking just like three black dolls. . .





Sunday, November 27, 2016

You Love The Law Too Much by Martha Rayner


When I arrived at GTMO a week after Obama’s inauguration I did not anticipate the many ways in which he would continue on the same course as the Bush administration. Most disheartening to me and my client was the Obama administration’s  vehement stand against transparency. The Bush administration’s heavy redactions of critical information that resulted in Dark Pages would be surpassed by the Obama administration’s terribly effective efforts to use the law to hide the truth.

Upon my return from the wrenching interview with my client, I demanded the records of his secret detention and torture* from the Obama administration, including video footage of my client I believed might exist. Obama’s lawyers first responded by engaging in the pretense that they only relevant records were those involving U.S. custody, which meant when my client surfaced from dark (CIA) detention and became an ‘official” prisoner of the U.S. military, - whatever came before was not deemed ‘U.S. custody.” When I asked the habeas judge to order the administration to disclose records of detention that preceded military detention, Obama’s lawyers would neither confirm nor deny  such imprisonment and treatment had taken place and thus would neither confirm nor deny that such records existed.

The judge avoided having to contend with the messiness and toxicity that records of torture would inject into the legal proceedings he was striving to keep focused and narrow. He simply decided that the records of imprisonment and abusive and inhuman treatment were not relevant because, in light of Obama’s refusal to refute my client’s facts of torture, he would, as a legal matter, deem the torture to have taken place. This legal fix appeared to serve everyone’s interest. It certainly served the CIA’s interest by keeping its conduct secret. It ostensibly served my client’s interests by prohibiting  the government from contesting the fact that my client had been tortured. But this was directly in conflict with my client’s interest. He had an aching need for the U.S. to own up what it had done to him. He was, counterintuitively, forgiving of the CIA’s cruel trespasses on his health and dignity. What gnawed ay him was that the United States’ refusal to own up to what it had done. The Bush administration’s contention, to this day, that it did not engage in torture tears at my client. The Obama administration is complicit in its silence and strenuous efforts to stave off investigation and disclosure of our country’s crimes. Since he emerged from secret imprisonment into military custody everyone – military interrogators, FBI interrogators, officials in charge, guards and medical personnel- pretend that it did not happen. It has exacerbated my client’s trauma of torture to have it erased before his eyes.

This is the cruelty of the law – it is often not interested in what may matter most; relevancy looks  only to what matters to the law. The law permitted the United State’s government to hide the shameful and criminal details of its unlawfulness. The government would not disclose its records because the records would confirm my client’s memories and reveal more. For my client, the result of this legal wrangling left him stunned. It had the impact of Orwellian newspeak: if we do not speak of it, it did not happen. He could speak of it, but no one would listen – no one cared.

The fact is my client did not know all the facts of his treatment and torture. His ability to remember and recount was compromised by the very treatment imposed on him. Cruel treatment, sleep deprivation, methods designed to cripple his mind, and the use of unidentified drugs all impacted his memory. He knew the pain and damage it had caused him, but he did not know how even what may have been experienced by him as benign conduct was designed to undermine his will o and cause him psychological damage.

I anticipated much better from the Obama administration since another executive order, issued just months after the inauguration, promised that the administration would “operate with an unprecedented level of openness.” But it got worse. Further litigation persuaded the judger that a narrow category of information from the period of Mr. Al-Kazimi’s secret imprisonment was “relevant”- his medical records – and should be provided to me. Rather than comply with the judges orders, Obama’s lawyers filed a document with a judge that I have never been permitted to read, despite having the appropriate security clearance to do so. From what I can piece together from the judge’s subsequent decision, which was eventually made public in a heavily redacted form, it appears that the Obama administration declared that our nation would be put at risk if my client’s medical records were disclosed to me –just me, not the public – me, a licensed lawyer, law professor, and a person deemed capable by the U.S. government to maintain the secrecy of classified and top secret government documents. Why, despite an elaborate system in place to facilitate habeas counsel access to classified information, was this specific and narrow set of information utterly off-limits?

And why were medical records – information about an individual’s health and medical treatment- deemed “classified” in the first place? The president controls the definition and designation of classified information. Under current executive orders, classified information must implicate one of several national security-related topics, such as military plans, foreign government information, and intelligence activities, and its “unauthorized disclosure” could “reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally  grave damage or serious damage to national security.” Therefore, my client’s medical records were deemed classified because apparently the “originating source” of the records determined that the contents [placed our nation at risk.

What could be in those medical records such that disclosure, to a security-cleared lawyer, risks causing such harm to our country’s security? It was chilling when Obama’s lawyers told me the records would never be disclosed to me, and they never have been.

My client once told me that I love the law too much. He did not say that to criticize me, but to help me understand that he needed refuge from the law. The process of attempting top obtain, from “the law” some semblance of stability and reasonable prediction of the future was harming my client- serving only to compound his fear and disorientation. The law’s promise to bring clarity, resolution, some semblance of predictability, and accountability failed – for him, there is no law. His “legal status” makes no sense, he is ostensibly detainable until the end of hostilities, but hundreds of others have gone home despite the government’s claim of continued hostilities. The Obama administration designated my client for prosecution, but no prosecutor has brought charges against him. Obama claims he intends top “close GTMO” before he leaves office, but his plan is to relocate GTMO to U.S. soil. He hopes to claim closure in hope of burnishing his legacy, eliminating GTMO as a “recruiting tool” and reducing the astronomical cost of imprisonment at this offshore military base,” but Obama intends to continue imprisonment without trial indefinitely and dump the problem on the next administration just as Bush did to him. For my client, the “rule of law” permits the U.S. to hide its crimes and it permits the U.S. to take away liberty without a trial for a wholly undefined length of time. There is, for my client, no law – when he will be released, who will decide it, and under what criteria is utterly unknown.



*including: confinement in a  dark cell the size of a grave, prolonged shackling, nudity with cold air blastings, beatings and sexual abuse and molestation, suspended by his arms for long periods, plunged in freezing cold water, dragged across floors, head bangings, sensory deprivation, bombardment with deafening music, forced to kneel in a position of subjugation, drugging, continuous threats by guards with dogs, sticks and rifles, trussings like an animal, diapering, blind-folding, wrapped in tape and transported to places  they knew not where. Not registered with the Red Cross, presented with no charges and given no lawyer.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Sicilian Vespers by Steven Runciman



Easter fell early in the year 1282, on 29 March. Throughout Holy Week the island of Sicily was outwardly calm. A great Angevin armada lay at anchor in Messina harbor. Royal agents toured the island commandeering all the stores of grain they could find and rounding up herds of cattle and of pigs, to provide food for the expedition [to Constantinople], and horses for the knights to ride, regardless of the peasants’ sullen resentment. The Royal Vicar, Herbert of Orleans, governor of the island, was resident in Messina, in the castle of Mategriffon, the ‘terror of the Greeks’, which Richard Coeur de Lion had built a century before. In Palermo the justiciar, John of Saint-Remy, kept the feast in the palace of the Norman kings. None of the French officials and none of the soldiers who commanded the forty-two castles from which the countryside was policed noticed more than the habitual unfriendliness shown them by the subject race. But amongst the Sicilians themselves as they celebrated the resurrection of Christ with their traditional; songs and dancing in the street, the atmosphere was tense and explosive.

The Church of the Holy Spirit lies about  half a mile to the south-east beyond the old city wall of Palermo, on the edge of the little gorge of the river Oreto. It is an austere building, without and within. Its foundation-stone was laid in 1177 by Walter Ophamil, or ‘of the Mill’, and the English-born Archbishop of Palermo, on a day made sinister by an eclipse of the sun. It was the custom of the church to hold a festival on Easter Monday, and on Easter Monday of that year people came crowding as usual from the city and the villages around, to attend the Vesper service.



There was gossiping and singing in the square as everyone waited for the service to begin. Suddenly a group of French officials appeared to join in the festivities. They were greeted with cold, unfriendly looks, but they insisted on mingling with the crowd. They had drunk well and were carefree; and soon they treated the young women with a familiarity that outraged the Sicilians. Among them was a sergeant called Drouet, who dragged a young married woman from the crowd and pestered her with their attentions. It was more than her husband could bear. He drew his knife and fell on Drouet, and stabbed him to death. The Frenchmen rushed up the avenge their comrade and suddenly found themselves surrounded by a host of furious Sicilians, all armed with daggers and swords. Not one of the Frenchmen survived. At that moment the bell of the Church of the Holy Spirit and of all the churches of the city began to ring for Vespers.

To the sound of the bells messengers ran through the city calling on the men of Palermo to rise against the oppressor. At once the streets were full of angry armed men, crying ‘Death to the French’ – ‘moranu lin Franchiski’ in their Sicilian dialect. Every Frenchmen they met was struck down. They poured into the inns frequented by the French and the houses where they dwelt, sparing neither man, woman nor child. Sicilian girls who had married Frenchmen perished with their husbands. The rioters broke into the Dominican and Franciscan convents; and all the foreign friars were dragged out and told to pronounce the word ‘ciciri’, whose sound the French tongue could never accurately reproduce. Anyone who failed in the test was slain. The Justiciar, John of Saint-Remy, shut himself in the old royal palace; but most of the men of his garrison had been away holiday-making in the town. The few that remained could not hold it for him. He was wounded in the face during a skirmish at the entrance before fleeing with two attendants out of a window through the stables. They found horses and rode at full speed to the castle of Vicari, on the road into the interior. There they were joined by other refugees who had escaped the massacre.


By the next morning some two thousand French men and women lay dead; and the rebels were in complete control of Palermo. Their fury had calmed down sufficiently for them to think of the future. Representatives of each district and each trade met together and proclaimed themselves a Commune, electing as their Captain an eminent knight. Three vice-captains were appointed, with five counsellors to assist them. The Angevin flag was torn down, and everywhere replaced by the Imperial Eagle which Fredrick II [of Hohenstaufen whose wife was Constance of Aragon] had allotted as the badge to the city of his childhood. A letter was sent to the Pope asking him to take the new Commune under his protection.

Already news of the uprising was spreading throughout the island. . . through-out the week news came of further uprisings and slaughtering of the French. The first town to follow the example of Palermo was Corleone, twenty miles to the south. After killing  the French it too proclaimed itself a Commune. The two Communes decided to send troops in three directions to rouse the rest of the island and coordinate its efforts. As the rebels approached each district, the French fled or were massacred. In two towns only they were spared. The Vice-Justiciar of Western Sicily had won the love of the Sicilians by his benevolence and justice. He and his family were escorted with honor to Palermo and allowed to embark for Provence,. The town of Sperlinga, in the center of the island, prided itself on its independence of view. The French garrison there was unharmed and was able to retire safely to Messina.

In Messina there was no uprising. The Vicar, Herbert of Orleans, had  a strong garrison. The great Angevin fleet was in the harbor. Messina had been the only city in the island to which Charles’s government had shown any favor; and its leading family, the Riso, supported his regime.   On 13 April, when all the West and center of the island was in rebel hands, the Commune of Palermo sent a letter to the people of Messina, asking them to join the rebellion. But the Messinese were cautious. With Herbert and his garrison dominating them from the castle of Mategriffin and with the king’s ships lying off the quay, they preferred not to commit themselves. Instead. On 15 April, a Messinese army troop, under a local knight, moved to the south to the neighboring city of Taormina, to protect it against the fury of the rebels. At the same time Herbert  sent a Messinese noble, Richard Riso, in command of seven local galleys to blockade Palermo harbor and if possible to attack its fortifications. The Palermitans hastened to display the banner of Messina with its cross on the walls, to show they regarded the Messinese as their brothers; and Richard’s sailors refused to fight them. The galleys remained off the harbor maintaining an unenthusiastic and inefficient blockade.

In Messina opinion was swaying round in favor of the revolt. Many of its citizens were also citizens of Palermo who had moved to Messina when it became an administrative center. Their sympathies were with their native city. Herbert began to lose confidence. He determined to make sure of Taormina and sent a troop of Frenchmen there under a Neapolitan to replace the Messina garrison. William Chiriolo and his men were offended by this lack of trust in them. They came to blows with the French and took them all prisoner. Two or three days later Messina broke out in revolt. Most of the French were already retired to the castle; and the massacres were on a smaller scale than at Palermo. Herbert blockaded himself in the castle, but he was obliged to abandon the fleet, which was set on fire and utterly destroyed. The Messinese declared themselves a Commune, under the protection of the Holy Church. They elected as their captain Bartholomew Maniscalo, who had played the chief part in organizing the revolt. . .


 The theme of the story is twofold. The episode of the Vespers at Palermo marked a savage and important turning point in the history of Sicily. It also taught a lesson to the whole of Europe. . .


With his own great abilities, and with the Papacy, France and the Italian Gueffs to back him, it seems at first surprising that Charles of Anjou’s career should have ended in failure. He failed through his own sensitivity and his lack of understanding of the peoples with who he had to deal with. The French had shown themselves to be the most vigorous and enterprising race in medieval Europe, and they knew it. They began to see themselves as a master-race. They had organized the crusading movement and had supplied most of its manpower and its direction. They had established their way of life in Palestine and Greece. It was their destiny to dominate Christendom. Charles was a Frenchman. He was moreover a French Prince; and it was above all the Royal House of France that had given the country unity and national consciousness. It was the Capetian Kings who bringing order an justice to the people and breaking down the arbitrary and disruptive power of the nobles. While Charles was a child his mother and his brother were busy crushing the turbulent nobility of France. As a young man he had the task of crushing the nobility of Provence. He grew up in the assumption that popular sympathies were with the centralizing power.

This pride of race and position led him into two grave errors, one of foreign politics and one of home politics. He saw himself as the heir of the crusader princes, especially in Eastern Europe. The French had taken pride in the Fourth Crusade and the establishment of the Latin Empire at Constantinople. Its fall was an insult to them. They could not quite understand it, for it never occurred to them that to the Byzantines, as to the Arabs in the East, they did not represent the finest flowers of civilization but were savage intruders with a liking for religious persecution. Charles believed that would be an easy task to restore the Latin empire, if only he were allowed to send an expedition against Constantinople. From the military aspect he was right; but he made no allowance for the passionate hatred that the Byzantines bore against the West nor the lengths that they would go to prevent an attack; nor did he appreciate properly the skill in diplomacy that they had acquired down the centuries. He despised the court of Aragon and never saw how effectively its claims could be used against him. He underrated his foreign enemies and never understood that they could be dangerous in combination [they conspired to engineer the revolt in Sicily just as Charles was embarking on his crusade against Constantinople].


Their combination was successful because of Charles’s errors in the internal governments of his kingdom. He was not unaware of the forces of nationalism. He knew that he could trust his fellow-French, and he trusted no other race. It was his practice in each of his dominions as far as possible to employ officials drawn from some other of his dominions. But he took no account of the resentment that such a policy might cause. He seems to have thought that, as in France, the element dangerous to the monarchy was the nobility, and that lesser folk would automatically rally to the king. In his Italian lands he diminished the power of the local nobility and relied on imported French nobles and knights, to whom he never allowed much territorial power. He failed to see that either these imported nobleman did not at once become efficient and incorruptible functionaries, just because they were divorced from their ancient hereditary territories, or that a local population might dislike foreign officials even if they were efficient. Charles himself was a good administrator, but he could not supervise everything. It is clear from the reforms he made that he hastily introduced when things went wrong, that his administration had been full of flaws. In particular it failed to satisfy the Sicilians.

It is here that the Sicilian theme mingles with the European. Charles neglected Sicily. He found it poorer and less useful to him than his other dominions. The Sicilians annoyed him by a long rebellion early in his reign. He never paid a serious visit to the island and never himself inspected its governmental machine. The officials there were more corrupt and oppressive than on the mainland where he could exercise personal control.  Yet, in spite of their earlier rebelliousness, Charles does not seem to have foreseen trouble from the Sicilians. They were of mixed racial origin. Only a half century earlier, the Greek and Arab elements could be clearly distinguished from the Latin. He may well have thought that a people of such diverse blood would never come together sufficiently closely too threaten his power for long. But in fact the misfortunes, grievances and aims of the whole island brought the islanders together. It gives a striking example of how little national feeling depends on the purity of race. It was a revolt in the island, plotted, fostered and organized by his enemies from outside, but carried out and maintained by the angry courage of the Sicilians themselves, which pulled Charles’s empire down. Some of the Sicilian leaders might waver. The intervention of Aragon and the naval genius of Roger of Lauria might contribute to the victory; but it was the unflinching determination of the Sicilians themselves, undiminished by the desertion by their allies later on, which freed them from the hated rule of the Angevins.

Charles’s failure as an empire-builder lay in his failure to understand the Mediterranean world of his time. Had he been content with the role of King of Sicily he might have had time to learn how to govern his subjects there, but he saw himself the soldier of God, chosen by the Holy Church to be its champion. The western empire had fallen because it had opposed the Church. He would build a new empire under the aegis of the Church, as its secular arm. He was too late. Christendom had split into too many units with their local interests; nationalism was growing too fast. Charles himself was affected by it. Whatever his own conception of his role may have been, in his actions he was partly  the agent of papal imperialism, partly of French imperialism and partly of his own personal and dynastic ambition; and the parts were confused. Later the Angevin House was to find glory when seated on the Hungarian throne, but only so long as it confined its interests to central Europe.  When it tried to combine its dominions in Italy with those in central Europe, the task was beyond it. The kings of the Angevin dynasty were nearly all of them men of outstanding  ability who made their mark on European history. But it was an ephemeral mark and did little good to Europe.

The massacre of the Vespers ruined the experiment of King Charles’s empire. But more, too, perished in the blood-bath. It was the ruin of the Hildebrandine Papacy. The Papacy had committed itself to Charles. A few wiser Popes such as Gregory X and Nicolas III, had tried to reduce the commitment, but in vain. The Sicilians  themselves did their best to offer the Papacy a road to escape. A better Pope than Martin IV might have cut the losses of the Papacy in time. But even so there would have been losses. The failure to support Charles would have been an admission that Rome had been wrong. But to support him so blindly against the wishes of a devout people and against the conscience of much of Europe, and then to be dragged by him into defeat, meant a far crueler humiliation. The Papacy threw everything into the struggle. It threw more money than it could afford. It threw the weapon of the Holy War, and all to no purpose. It emerged financially impoverished; and to recoup its finances it was forced to try to extract from the secular powers more than they would now willingly pay. It emerged with its chief spiritual weapon tarnished; for there were few Europeans outside France and the Gueff cities of Italy who could regard the repression of the Sicilians as a spiritual aim. The idea of Holy War had been cheapened already when it was used against the Hohenstaufen. It now fell into utter disrepute. The high authority of the Papacy was wasted on a losing cause, without the certitude of moral right on its side. No conception of Medieval history was finer than that of the Universal Church, uniting Christendom into one great theocracy governed by the impartial wisdom of the Vicar of God. But in this sinful world even the Vicar of God needs material strength to enforce his holy will. It proved impossible for the medieval Papacy to find a lay supporter whom all Christendom could trust. By crushing the Universal Empire, which alone might possibly have provided such support, the Popes set themselves a hard problem. Their choice of Charles of Anjou is easy to understand; but it was fatal. When Charles’s power was broken by Vespers Palermo they were too inextricably involved. The story led on to the insult offered to the Holy Father at Anagni, to the Babylonish captivity of Avignon, and through the schism and disillusion to the troubles of the Reformation.


The Sicilian men who poured, with knives drawn, through the streets of Palermo on that savage evening struck their blows for freedom and honor. They could not know to what consequences it would lead them and with then the whole of Europe. Bloodshed is an evil thing and good seldom comes of it. But the blood shed on that evening not only rescued a gallant people from oppression. It altered fundamentally the history of Christendom.


The lesson was not entirely forgotten. More than three centuries later King Henry IV of France boasted to the Spanish ambassador the harm he would do to the Spanish lands in Italy were the king of Spain to try his patience too far. “I will breakfast at Milan’, he said, ‘and I will dine in Rome.’ ‘Then’, replied the ambassador, ‘Your Majesty will doubtless be in Sicily in time for Vespers.’


The Sicilian VespersA History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century by Steven Runciman; Cambridge University Press, 1958

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Nightmare from Which We are Trying to Awake by Michael Ignatieff



A disillusioned younger teacher in a turn-of-the century Dublin school is struggling through a history lesson with adolescent pupils who are just as bored as he is. He asks them the name of the ancient battle where Pyrrhus won his Pyrrhic victory, and as they mumble the wrong answers, his mind begins to wander. Why is history so suffocating? Is it nothing more than a lesson in futility and folly? Is this what his pupils unconsciously know as they yawn at their desks? Is this why they hang on in silence, waiting for the bell to deliver them back to the noise of the playground and the still un-foreclosed possibilities of youth?

After his pupils flood out into the school yard, the young teacher goes to his headmaster’s study to collect his weekly wages. Turn-of-the-century Ireland is still very much in the British Empire, and Mr. Deasy’s study is decorated with the iconography of empire and British union: a tintype of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and sporting prints of famous English horses. Mr. Deasy identifies with this iconography of Protestant imperial power: he baits the young teacher and calls him a Fenian, while the young teacher bites his tongue and conjures up in his mind all the savagery incarnated in the Protestant conquest: the Catholic corpses left behind by Cromwell’s bloody passage through Ireland. This is history at its most suffocating: the blood-soaked myth that foreclosed all benign possibilities. “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”: Mr. Deasy intones all the adamantine slogans of resistance to home rule and Irish national independence. But there are darker myths imprisoning Mr. Deasy and his kind. He waves his finger at the young teacher., “Mark my words . . . England is in the hands of the Jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press .  .  . Old England is dying.” Having dropped the coins of the young teacher’s pay into his hands, Mr. Deasy makes a little joke. Why is it asks, that Ireland ‘has the honor of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews?”  “Why, sir?” “Because she never let them in.”



The Jews have sinned against the light, Mr. Deasy instructs him, and history – which is moving toward the manifestation of the glory of God – has proved it so.


To which Stephan Dedalus – Joyce’s  protagonist in Ulysses – famously replies: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”


History was not just the anti-Semitic philistinism and crabbed imperial arrogance of the Irish Protestant ascendancy –as deposited in the foul sediment of one turn-of-the-century schoolmaster’s brain. There was a “Fenian” version to escape as well. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the nationalist Davin tells Dedalus, “Try to be one of us. In heart you are an Irishman,” when Dedalus announces, “This race and this country and this life produced me. I shall express, myself as I am.” To Davin’s protest, “A man’s country comes first. Ireland first, Stevie. You can be a poet and a mystic after,”  Dedalus replies with cold anger: “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.”


Joyce’s writing is a long rebuke to versions of history as heritage, as roots and belonging, as comfort, refuge, and home. His was the opposite claim: You could be yourself only if you escaped home, if you struggled to awake from the dreams of your ancestors. For Joyce the artist, coming awake meant finding a language of his own against the compulsion of linguistic tradition and inheritance. As he says in Portrait of the Artist, “when the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” And fly by them Joyce did: to Trieste, Paris and Zurich, from Portrait to Ulysses to Finnegans Wake, from home to exile, from the language of his birth to a language uniquely his own. To come awake as an artist was to create something that transcended both personal and national past. To awake was to come to yourself, to force a separation between what the tribe told you to be and what you truly are.


What is nightmarish about nightmare is that it permits no saving distance between dreamer and ream. If history is nightmare, it is because past is not past. As an artist and as an Irishman, Joyce was only too aware that time in Ireland was simultaneous, not linear. In the terrible a quarrel at the beginning of Portrait over the meaning of the Irish nationalist politician Parnell’s disgrace and death, when Dante screams triumphantly, “We crushed him to death!” and Mr. Casey sobs with pain for his dead king and Stephen’s father’s eyes fill with tears, it is clear that Parnell’s death is not in the past at all. In the quarrel, past, present, and future are ablaze together, set alight by timer’s livid flame.


To awake from history, then, is to recover the saving distance between past and present and to distinguish between myth and truth. Myth is a version of the past that refuses to be just the past. Myth is a narrative shaped by desire, not by truth, formed not by the facts as best we can establish them but by our longing to be reassured and consoled. Coming awake means to renounce such longings, to recover all the sharpness of the distinction between what is true and what we wish were true.


It has become common to believe that we create our identities as much as we inherit them, that belonging is elective rather than tribal, conscious rather than unconscious, chosen rather than determined.  Even though we cannot chose the circumstances of our birth, we can chose which of these elements of our fate we make our defining inheritance. Artists like Joyce have helped us think of our identities as artistic creations and have urged us to believe that we too can fly free of the nets of nationality, religion, and language.


The truth is that the nets do bind most of us. Few of us can be artists of our own lives. That does not make us prisoners: we can come awake; we do not need to spend our lives in the twilight of the myth and collective illusion; we can become self-conscious. But though Joyce’s hard-won freedom may be beyond most of us, his metaphor of awaking points to the possibility open to us all. In awaking, we return to ourselves. We recover the saving distance between what we are told to be and what we are. This saving distance is the space of irony. We wake: we tell our nightmare to someone; its hold on us begins to break; it begins to seem funny or at least untragic. We may still shudder in the telling, but at least we can share it. We can lighten up. The day can begin.


The Warrior’s Honor; Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff; Owls Books, 1997