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Friday, 26 December 2008

Politics or therapy?

Some in the streets of Athens write or hold up banners saying 'Death to the police' spreading similar messages through the web. Are these views endorsed by many of those on the streets? Do demonstrators crying "Batsos" ("uniformed thug") want police officers to be done to death? Do those who disagree with these statements allege that they are made by agents provocateurs? International journalists are usually good at getting graphic image of injuries incurred in street riots - or passing on images gathered by others, on mobile phones for instance. I've seen more bloodshed at rugby games. My continued impression is that both police and demonstrators are being - so far - quite skilled at avoiding causing serious injury to one another - with the fatal exception of the death of Alexandros Grigoropulos - where the officers allegedly involved are in custody and the PM has expressed deep regret, personally and publicly. The other shooting, from an unknown source, a few days later seems to have caused minor injury to a student's hand. The language being used by demonstrators seems disproportionate. There have been dramatic pictures of smoke, tear gas and flames, but I'm wondering where politics - the mobilisation of power to bring or prevent change - enters this crisis. From here it looks more like therapy. Others have observed that the most dramatic and genuinely political event in the last few days has been the national strike and its offshoots across Greece - but I'm reading students being as polemical against these kinds of political expression, as they are against the police, and the media can't capture sufficiently dramatic images from peaceful industrial action. How do you film a walk-out, a slow-down, or even a peaceful march when there's noise and smoke round the corner? There is malaise across the economy. It parallels the impact of recession across the rest of Europe and the world. I look to see if new ideas will emerge from events in Greece, but I'm seeing nihilism, despair, 'rebellion against the drudgery of life', street theatre and widespread petty crime (not petty if it's your shop that's trashed). The 'uprising' may be understandable as a social phenomenon but it has, so far, little standing as an historical one. It makes no discernible contribution to political innovation - though it may be a seeding ground for the future.*
We hypothesize that the rioting in Greece is not simply an inevitable result of economic recession, but a proactive radical initiative that speaks to the general public. CrimethInc.Workers' Collective 20 December 08
Social upheavals of the past have been associated with striving for equity - in confrontations with the state involving extended and fatal brutality. Such campaigns are happening even now in other parts of the world, characterised by lengthy imprisonment, torture, suppression and pervasive state cruelty. Greece has its own history - of courage and brutality - in this respect but I can't quite see if the events of the past week have anything very much to do with that past. It's more akin to football violence. I want to be wrong in this. It is clear there is a need for social and political reform in the Hellenic Republic and beyond. Why else have I spent much of life pursuing environmental issues, joining in campaigns to press for sustainable policies and 'divorced my car'. I'm familiar with the role of 'situationism' in protest. It was part of student rebellion in the 60s in the USA where students and their supporters faced far more lethal forces than those deployed in the streets of Athens and Thessaloniki and a few other cities in recent weeks. Those student campaigns against 'Amerika' (a slurred view of misused US power that has endured), pale beside the dangers incurred in the Civil Rights movement of the same era. Some Greek students have been digesting post-modernist texts about breaking out of the matrix of a virtual society in which rebellion - or any kind of political dialectic - is absorbed, but it looks from here as if they are failing; even reproducing the processes against which they rail. With ugly undisciplined exceptions - the Greek police have digested contemporary manuals on managing urban disorder - among other things to avoid returning violence with stronger violence and to ensure escape routes from confrontation. In Greece such escapes, apart from those the police allow, are provided in the colleges where they are forbidden to go. Panos Livadas, General secretary of information at the Greek Embassy in America wrote this to the Washington Times on Boxing Day:
...The fact that a huge number of the demonstrators were teenagers expressing - peacefully - their frustration over the killing of their fellow student compelled the police to adopt defensive tactics in order not to risk further loss of life. No one would want a repetition of the tragic experience of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, with 53 deaths and more than 2,500 injuries. It is certain that the Greek government is determined to protect law and order (375 arrests have taken place), and it guarantees safety, as it did during the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. It should be noted that the police tactics will be re-evaluated when the dust settles. Since last week, tension has been de-escalating, and we are returning to complete normality. In the past five years, we have worked hard to strengthen our economy (our growth rate has been double that of the Eurozone's average, while the International Monetary Fund forecasts a 2 percent growth rate in 2009) and to implement bold reforms in order to provide answers to young people's uncertainties. These are understandable uncertainties, I might add, especially in the light of the deep global economic crisis. Finally, we will work even harder to address young people's needs, to create more opportunities for the young, and to restore our young people's trust in us.
I keep hoping that lively debates are being held in these safe houses and that, from a population skilled in using the social web, novel ideas will spread. If there's a more positive way of understanding what is happening I long to know it. For me the lesson is to spend more time seeking out those figures in Greek society who are campaigning and, in a variety of ways that don't hit the headlines, working for change. I know these people exist and that they have been working for many years to develop new ideas, to spread them and to influence reformation of the Greek polity. My relative ignorance of such people is a reproach to me and, since my ideas are of minimal significance, a much more serious reproach to those in the media who follow only smoke and the flames. BTF - From Kathimerini's 29 December 2008 Editorial:
...There are many police officers, judges, academics and politicians who are quietly doing their jobs, honoring the institutions they are meant to serve. We have an obligation to discover these low-key figures and appoint them to key posts. There is no need for sweeping changes. We just have to be more eclectic and make sure we pick the right people for the right jobs.
*I remain intrigued with the possibilities that I am observing this crisis through the distorting lens of the present. Throughout my career the ideas of Fred Emery, my boss at the Tavistock Institute, for a few years after I left university, have periodically recurred - especially his thoughts on understanding future possibilities in a paper he wrote for the ESRC in 1967:
From Section III Methodologies for predicting the future: …It is not simply foolhardy to think that we may enable ourselves more readily to recognize the future in its embryonic form. There are almost certain regularities about these emergent phases. Social processes which, in their maturity, are going to consume significant portions of men’s energies most likely have a lusty growth. They do not, by definition, command human resources at this stage , and hence their energy requirements must be met parasitically, i.e. they must in this phase appear to be something else (my italics). This is the major reason, we think, why the key emergents are typically unrecognized for what they are while other less demanding novel processes are quickly seen. A social process which passes for what it is not should theoretically be distinguishable both in its energy and informational aspects. Because it is a growing process, its energy requirements will be substantially greater (relative to what it appears to do) than the energy requirements of the maturer process which it apes. Because it is not what it appears to be, the process will stretch or distort the meanings and usage of the vocabulary which it has appropriated. F. E. Emery (1967) 'The Next Thirty Years: Concepts, Methods and Anticipations' (excluding FEM’s 1997 postscript – in the year of his death), Human Relations, 1967, 20, 199-237. p.15
This suggests we should assume that what is really happening lacks, for the moment, the characteristics of a whole or a gestalt, that can be named and analysed. What may be emerging may have a 'lusty growth' - but currently exists as a diversity of disconnected trends and events - unjoined dots - which may, with the benefit of hindsight, be seen as converging. Though this is the result of human actions, inevitably imperfect awareness of these possibilities can induce the false causality of millenarianism, cargo cults and conspiracism - paranoia made confusing for occasionally being nearly correct, as with astrology. Fred would suggest looking out for the debilitation that caused by parasitic action on familiar institutions. From where is energy being sucked? Where is it going? Is language being stretched, distorted, 'appropriated'?
[John Psaropoulos of Athens News gives a quite detailed account of events in Athens in the immediate aftermath of the death of Alexandros Grigoropulos - one that captures the confusions and contradictions that befog my understanding of what's going on] [...and see this piece in the blog Diatribe called Phoenix by Dean Kalimniou in Melbourne, dated 22 December '08:
...The Greek revolution was underlain by an ideology of liberal enlightenment developed by profound thinkers and underwritten by powerful financiers. It was a co-operative effort of all sections of society aimed at re-building a viable, cohesive state in accordance with western values. Modern Greece is a member of NATO and the European Union. As such, it purports to espouse the values guiding these entities and aspires to take its place among the great nations of the world. Yet it cannot hold itself out to be a proponent of the rule of law and democracy when it allows its citizens to run amok and cause harm to each other. For this reason, and in the face of the howls and curses of the ashen lunatic fringe, the perpetrators of these disgusting crimes against Greek citizens must be brought to account and be punished. A properly functioning democracy has no need of a violent steam valve. In that way, citizens will all be made to feel responsible towards each other and can set upon the task of making themselves and the State more accountable. Abigail van Buren may have quipped that: "People who fight with fire usually end up with ashes," but I prefer this, by Miguel Cervantes, if only the Greeks could take a good, long, hard look at themselves: "The phoenix hope, can wing her way through the desert skies and still defying fortune's spite, revive from the ashes and rise." It is time we reject ashes for good, and embrace the regenerative qualities of our immortal bird.]
[Back to the future 5 January 2009: Dimanadis Matzounis, a 21 year old police officer on duty outside the Culture Ministry, was shot and wounded in Exarchia by two men with Kalashnikov automatic weapons] * * * * Harold Pinter died. Ann Wright is a US Army veteran who retired as a Colonel. A former US diplomat, she resigned in March 2003 in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. She served in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia and Mongolia. In December, 2001 she was on the small team that reopened the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. She is the co-author of the book "Dissent: Voices of Conscience. Her tribute to Pinter speaks of her pleasure that he had chosen, on being awarded the Nobel prize, to make a speech excoriating George Bush for his failure as a self-declared leader of the free-world, and Tony Blair for sullying us with his support for US foreign policy, for suspending the rule of law at Guantanamo, for legalising torture, for their suave moral incompetence. I envy him for the eloquence with which he could express his rage at US foreign policy. These gangsters and their followers - claiming to put my safety and my family's safety - ahead of the principles in which I'd been brought up, put those principles in harm's way. Principles for which one should be prepared to face injury and death. In my name these ghastly people with their pally ways found legal justifications, playing on artfully sustained ignorance and terror, for unravelling Lincoln's resounding proposition. That their governments have made the world more dangerous rather than less is beside the point (since our danger is nothing to that faced by the wretched of the earth), though it compounds the shame that will mark their place in history. Ann Wright's words about Pinter console me, especially as she's a citizen of that Manichean world where the devil has learned not to waste good working time in the company of those already his own. Back to the future 1 January 2009 - Harold Pinter's funeral on 30 December 2008 at Kensal Green Cemetery where Dad and Maria are interred:
Michael Gambon at Pinter's request read this from Pinter's No Man's Land (1.11.42-1.12.36)
I might even show you my photograph album. You might even see a face in it that might remind you of your own of what you once were. You might see faces of others in shadow or cheeks of others turning or jaws or backs of necks or eyes, dark under hat, which might remind you of others whom you once knew, whom you thought long dead but from whom you will still receive a sidelong glance if you can face the good ghost. Allow the love of the good ghost. They possess all that emotion trapped. Bow to it. It will assuredly never release them but who knows what relief it may give to them
[Back to the future 23 March 09: I found these words of Pinter, when he was accepting the 2005 Nobel Prize, below the profile of an exceptional photostream on Flickr:
When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us. I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory. If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us – the dignity of man.
* * * * Obama and Biden will travel south by rail from Philadelphia's 30th Street (where I arrived for my first job from New York) via Wilmington to Washington Union for the Inauguration on 20 January - a fillip for America's long blighted railways and a celebration of good architecture. [Back to the future 16/01/09: NY Times photo album of Obama's government] * * * My family bought me some well judged presents - deep dark chocolate, the first Swedish police procedural (even before Mankell), a Richard Wilson thriller, some pudding wine, a Macallan single malt, a wind up LED torch, a monocular and DVDs of BBC dramatised versions of Vanity Fair and North and South. Richard also told me about using Handbrake to convert films I made into DVDs some years ago to MP4 so's I can edit them - a present in itself.

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Simon Baddeley