Sunday, 28 January 2018

Enterprise - A Tale of Three Good Episodes

"Superior ability, breeds superior ambition"

With Star Trek Discovery on the air I've been getting back into the franchise via Netflix. Enterprise the last series to be broadcast on network tv and set the earliest in the shows timeline gets a  lot of flack, and its honestly largely deserved. I can remember watching it when it first aired, I didn't hate the show, but I didn't have any strong feelings for it either. So I've been picking and choosing from series 3 and 4 the better series in that shows run.

I think I've discovered the closest Enterprise had to a gem, in series 4 it had a three part storyline revolving around Trek's blind spot genetic engineering. Star Trek is an incredibly optimistic show, that optimism is still there in Discovery, despite the overshadowing war storyline. This is especially true of scientific progress, the Federations technology is so advanced its essentially magic. The only major exception, genetic engineering. In fact Trek's hostility to the field is so notable its on par with World War III.

One of the franchises most well known villain, Kahn Noonien Singh is tied to the concept. His characters origins were in the Eugenics wars, when a group of genetically engineered people called Augments ruled the earth before being driven out after 30 million deaths. The way the shows have handled the debate over genetic modifications has rubbed some fans the wrong way, I think the lowest point was in DS9 -the series that generally handled big issues well no less- when the Doctor is discovered to have been genetically modified when a child with severe learning disabilities thanks to his parents wishes.

The way this is handled is pretty well odd, his father is sent to prison, which even if you agree with his stance on genetic modifications may seem reasonable since he broke the law. But where it gets murky is that they were going to punish the Doctor too, it was only thanks to his father agreeing to accept full responsibility for what he did that Star Fleet decide to let the Doctor alone. There is then a short speech about how its necessary to outlaw gene mods outright, because of the Eugenics wars, which was four hundred years in their past.

There is a bit more meat to the episode, the Doctor and his father clash over the procedures, the Doctor believed that he was given the treatments because his parents were ashamed of him, while his parents insist they were desperate to provide the best possible life for their son. And in later episodes we meet other characters who had also been genetically modified while children and they all had very severe side effects.

But it was still controversial especially how it was handled. So I was surprised while watching the Augment episodes of Enterprise to see some genuine nuance. The time the show is set in is much closer to the events of the Eugenics wars and World War III, so its casting a much larger shadow. The events of the episodes are largely unresolved threads from the Eugenics wars even. But the really interesting thing to me is the what the episodes imply, Archer the captain, is at one point seriously considering the arguments of Dr Soong the eugenicist whose been under arrest for essentially creating a colony of Augments. 

His father died from a inherited disease, genetic engineering may have saved his life. Archer seems receptive, but ultimately wary of the price. The issue isn't really with genetic modification as a scientific field with its own potential merits, in the episodes an alien species the Denobulans have been using the benefits of genetic research for years, and they are kind, cooperative and supportive. The problem is that thanks to way things went in the 1990s they just can't have cures for hereditary diseases without eventually getting a new master race trying to kill and conquer.

This was the issue in the DS9 episode too, but that was four hundred years later, and coupled with a knee jerk attempt to punish a man for something that was done to him, while he was a child. Its much more understandable here, especially when Star Fleet learn that a group of Augments they knew nothing about show up, murder a bunch of Klingons, hijack a battlecruiser and may have brought another war to earth. 

And another refreshing surprise was the reasons given for why the Augments always seem to turn out like tv villains. Socialisation, Soong raised the Augments as if he was their father, and that relationship was reciprocated. He treated them very well, but he also kept telling them how superior they were to normal humans, and how they must band together to survive. So, when they've come of age they don't really value life that isn't theirs. They aren't all sadists, one of the Augments, Malik, does some very brutal stuff, and the reactions of the other Augments shows they're not all fully on board with his plans, but they'll go along with it for the sake of the group.

This is something that I feel gets left out of the debate in the real world. Its not quite as in depth a look as in Gattaca, but it is an important thing to keep in mind. If we do ever push this field then its only a matter of time before we get to the point where we don't just prevent serious debilitating genetic disorders but "improving" on humanity, well this will be a serious issue. Think about it, of course someone bred to be superior will think of themselves as superior, and since Feudalism is now dead and the world has embraced the concept of meritocracy in one form or another, then it isn't much of a stretch to think that these Augmented people have severe entitlement issues.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Dispossessed

"Do you think you can stop an idea by ripping up a piece of paper?"

 Ursula K. Le Guin a famous and well regarded author of Science Fiction and fantasy and political Anarchist passed away this week. I really enjoyed the stories of hers I read, but never really found the time to really get into them. The Earth Sea series is highly recommended but I never really got acquainted with the series.

I've decided to add her back catalogue to my lists, and in the searching I found a radio play adaptation of arguably her most famous work, the science fiction story The Dispossessed.

Its an abridgement, but it remains true to the novel's themes and political message. If anything it makes the Anarchism within the story more explicit. I recommend the series its easy to listen too, and apart from some confusion over similar names is a good way to get into the work itself.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Soldiers Alive - The strange case of an anti-war novel written by a pro war author

"The sweating, dust-covered soldiers marched, accompanied by countless swarms of circling flies."

Soldiers Alive is possibly the strangest book I've read so far in terms of the context of its writing and publishing. I'd heard of the book several years ago on lists of great anti war novels. That technically isn't true though I have a hard time believing it doesn't fit on the list after reading it. I also saw a brief blurb about this being the fictionalised account of the rape of Nanking. Thankfully that isn't true either. By that I don't mean I've bought into Japanese revisionism, that crime did happen, nor do I wish to downplay or minimise it, its just that.... well I really don't want to read a book about mass rape and massacres. The book is about a military unit on the march to Nanking though, and it ends shortly after the fall of the city, but no mass rape or beheading contests take place within the pages.

Curiously though the unit does commit multiple atrocities everywhere else in China they're stationed. And none of its hidden, on the contrary its stated that violent acts against the civilian population are pretty common experiences in the invasion of China. This is the oddity about Soldiers Alive, its treatment of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) and the Japanese occupation of China is so negative that I don't believe a Chinese nationalist author could do better. Yet Ishikawa Tatsuzo was not only Japanese but a pretty staunch militarist whom believed in Japan's quest to dominate Asia.

When Japan renewed its expansion into China in 1937 one of the ways the government sort to stoke patriotism within its people was to encourage writers to create novels and short stories glorifying the IJA and the Emperor. They even created a special unit of approved writers who were allowed to tour the battlefields and early settlements. Ishikawa was one of those writers, but despite his political agreements with the government and its war aims he came to a dangerous conclusion the standard propaganda line the government was pushing in regards to the war on China was incorrect and potentially very dangerous.

Officially the war was being fought for the salvation of brother race, the Chinese army was being routed at every turn, IJA casualties were light and the civilians were welcoming the Japanese as liberators from the corrupt KMT leadership . Those were in short lies, well, ok, the KMT did have a serious problem with corruption and cliques but the rest of it was extremely inaccurate. The IJA won most of its engagements with the Chinese army, yes, but they were very messy victories. Often the Chinese army would give such stiff resistance that the IJA was constantly delayed and suffered far higher casualties then anticipated. If a village was supposed to be captured within a day of fighting, it would take two or three days to capture, and that was with reinforcements or use of superior artillery and airpower. And usually the Chinese army instead of being routed would withdraw tactically and move to a new defensive position a few miles away, or go to ground and fight as partisans. Instead of a series of decisive manoeuvres in the field, the IJA lurched from one battle to the next.

And as for being beloved by the Chinese civilians, well partisan attacks were a frequent danger in the rear. Indeed acts of resistance behind the lines by Chinese civilians were so common its become part of the post war right wing narrative and is used to retroactively justify the brutal repression of the Chinese population.

Ishikawa saw this was all false and attempted to correct this by publishing an accurate account of the war. And in so doing he effectively condemned the whole adventure. I cannot stress this enough, this is one of the most damning accounts of a war and the conduct of an army I've come across not written as a deliberate attack on militarism.

Consider the following passage

"Screaming shrilly like a lunatic, Hirao thrust his bayonet three times into the woman's chest. the other  soldiers joined in, stabbing her at random. in little over ten seconds, the woman was dead. flat as a layer of bedding, she lay spent on the dark ground; a warm vapour, thick with the smell of fresh blood, drifted upward into the flushed faces of the frenzied soldiers."

The young woman (called ku-niang by the soldiers, it means girl but they're using it as slang more akin to prostitute only without any intention to pay) was butchered because she had the bad luck to mourn the death  of her mother who had been killed by a stray bullet when the fighting moved onto her families doorstep. Hirao faces no consequences for stabbing a woman to death because her crying annoyed him and this is not the only time members of the unit engage in such behaviour. 

Unsurprisingly the authorities were not pleased with this pro war propaganda. In addition to its literary merits Soldiers Alive is incredibly revealing, an accurate account of a conflict is inherently condemnatory even when penned by a militaristic author.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Great Lives - Louise Michel

This from a radio program that runs on the BBC called Great Lives, essentially a series of audio biographies on people chosen by the guests. This episode on the life of Louise Michel was chosen by Paul Mason, this was in 2013 before he reminded us all that he is firmly a social democrat. He the host and the other guest Professor Carolyn Eichner author of Surmounting the Barricades Women and the Paris Commune.

Its very comprehensive and covers her life from childhood to working as a teacher, to the Commune and her time in exile and her return to France.

Louise Michel

Great Lives

Matthew Paris Show Host:

Our Great Life this week was known as the “Red Virgin of Motmartre” the “Red She-wolf” and “Bonne-Louise”, she’s also been called the “Grande dame of Anarchy”.  And she used the pseudonym Clémence. But she had a name, it was Louise Michel. She was a school teacher, writer, orator, anthropologist, Anarchist and cat lover.

Born 1830 in Haute-Marne, died in 1905 in Marseille. Here’s one of her poems.

I have seen criminals and whores

And spoken with them,

Now I inquire if you believe them

Made as now they are

To drag their rags in blood and mire

Preordained an evil race,

You to whom all men are prey

Have made them what they are today.

Louise Michel has been nominated by the television journalist and writer Paul Mason. Newsnight’s business and industry correspondent, Paul was born in 1960 in Leigh near Wigan, the son of a miner. His books include Live Working or Die Fighting; How the Working Class Went Global, and more recently Why its Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions. Paul what’s so great about Louise Michel?

Paul Mason:

Well Matthew the Paris Commune of 1871 is probably the most crucial event in nineteenth century working class history, and what happened to women in it is one of the most interesting stories and the woman at the centre of that story is Louise Michel. She was a revolutionary, she was a fighter she fought you know with a rifle in her hand. And to me represents a kind of lost tradition on the left which is about principle, which is about passion and which is also about slight surrealism, her memoirs are full of dream like sequences that you don’t expect to read in the work of somebody whose spent their entire life in and out of jail fighting the system.

Matthew Paris:

Our guest expert is Professor Carolyn Eichner of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, author of Surmounting the Barricades: Women and the Paris Commune. Carolyn let’s set Louise Michel in the context of French History before start to look at her own history. This was a pretty important and strange moment wasn’t it?

Carolyn Eichner:

Yes, it was, the Paris Commune was a Revolutionary Civil War which came at the end of the Franco-Prussian war. The working classes of Paris rose up and threw off a reactionary republican government and were able to keep them at bay for 72 days. And as Paul said it’s an incredibly important moment in working class history of the 19th century, and on the Left it has absolutely been lionised, canonised, considered to be a golden, golden moment and on the Right is considered to be one of the worst historical moments of the century.

Matthew Paris:

Let’s look at her now, she’s right at the centre of all this, and let me ask you Carolyn, what was her background?

Carolyn Eichner:

She was born in 1830 in the Haute-Marne, her mother was a servant in a wealthy home, and her father was most likely the son of the family who owned the chateau. And the owners of the Chateau the Demahis family raised her as their granddaughter. But a marginalised granddaughter, they educated her, they fed her, clothed her, treated her as a granddaughter but she was still the illegitimate child of the family. So, she grew up in a slightly privileged yet marginalised position.

Matthew Paris:

It’s notable Paul, in all the Great Lives I’ve done and I’ve done quite a few now how many the lives of people who- in whose childhood there was some kind of strange disjunction, there was something very odd happened, and this is obviously the case in her life.

Paul Mason:

Yes, I think with Louise Michel her own account of the childhood is very interesting because she’s living in a world of make believe. In this castle that’s gone to seed because the family itself is partly ruined, and the castle is partly ruined. And she kind of wonders around it collecting the skulls of birds, and animals she’s an intelligent young girl, and I think educates herself. She has access through her family to the educated world of the mid-19th century French elite. And so, when she leaves that to become a young teacher, she very quickly was writing poetry at a young adult and sending it to Victor Hugo.

And that and there is evidence that she met Hugo very early on and remained inspired by him, so this is not somebody detached from mainstream French culture, she’s she’s plunged straight into it at the first opportunity.

Matthew Paris:

So, Carolyn she decided to become a teacher, why?

Carolyn Eichner:

There were very few career options available for women in the 19th or most of the 20th century, and becoming a teacher was a way that a woman could support herself and still be considered a legitimate member of society.

Matthew Paris:

And she couldn’t get into a state school because she wouldn’t swear allegiance to Napoleon is that right? The Third?

Carolyn Eichner:

Right, she was opposed to Napoleon III from a fairly early age.

Matthew Paris:

She opened her own school Paul.

Paul Mason:

Yes, she gets to Montmartre, at the time it is a slum in the north of Paris. And Louise Michel opened a series of private schools aimed at the children of the poor. Interestingly she was also one of the few teachers as far as we can tell who was prepared to teach people with severe learning difficulties. And she tried to teach them in the same classes as the kids who were not disabled.

Louise Michel’s classroom must have been an amazing place because she filled it with animals, pictures, music, quite like 1960s Primary school. But very, very different to the rote learning the 19th century French education had become.

Matthew Paris:

One of the things that’s already striking me about her is that she was a woman who from the earliest age took everything from first principles. Not all those kinds of rules and assumptions, do you see what I mean?

Carolyn Eichner:

She really was quite an iconoclast, she lived her life exactly as she thought it should be lived. And that meant that the choice of not marrying, which made her subject to all sorts of speculation about her sexuality. Many critics mentioned her looks and criticised her looks, which was not unusual for women in the public eye to be subjected to rather intensely negative critiques of their appearance. And then the logic that well she must be a revolutionary, an activist, an unmarried person because she’s ugly.

Matthew Paris:

We’ve pictures of her in front of us now, and I wouldn’t call her ugly, you could say it’s a plain face, but it’s terrifically striking. A thin woman, a strong serious face, what do you think of her appearance Paul? What would it say to you?

Paul Mason:

Well, she is a loner, she is a thinker, there’s not a speck of make-up. Her nickname was the Red Virgin, you can see a severity about her, in her face. When she was on trial after the Commune, one of the witnesses described her as being dark-haired, high forehead, quite small. And she objected, she said “In fact I am quite tall”.

Carolyn Eichner:

Later in life she had a female companion Charlotte Vau-velle who she was constantly with for years and of course there was all sorts of speculation about that, but there really is no way of knowing you know whether she would be what we would call a lesbian, a term that wouldn’t have existed then. Or whether she just really felt she was married to the revolution, and to the idea of bringing about social revolution.

Matthew Paris:

Let’s talk about that revolution, let’s talk about the Commune. What were the background circumstances?

Carolyn Eichner:

The Franco-Prussian war preceded the Commune, and this was a situation where the Prussians laid siege to Paris. And ultimately the French government surrendered to Prussia because they were more frightened of the working-class Parisians then they were of the Prussians.

Paul Mason:

And remember at this point one of the things that Napoleon III had done was call up the workers of Paris into a National Guard. Based street by street, so they had their rifles their uniforms and their military training on their doorstep. And when the time came for the Republican Government to say you know we surrendered, so let’s collect all the cannons that the National Guard have bought and um are currently looking after. And that was the moment that the revolution started.

Matthew Paris:

And here is her description of that moment.

I descended the hill

My rifle under my coat

Shouting treason! In the rising dawn

The people heard the alarm

We climbed the hill

Believing we would die for liberty

We were as risen from the earth

Our deaths would free Paris

Between us and the army

The women had thrown themselves on the cannons and machine guns

The soldiers stood immobile

When General Lecomte commanded them to fire on the crowd

A subordinate officer broke ranks and cried surrender!

The soldiers obeyed,

The revolution was made

So on March the 18th 1871 the people in charge of Paris where the Central Committee of the National Guard, they had to decide what to do, they could carry on fighting the retreating army or they could set up their own Commune. Which Paul is what they did.

Paul Mason:

They called elections to a Commune, and let’s remember what Commune meant in this regard. It meant like the GLC of London it was a City Government, and Paris hadn’t been allowed to have a city government under the dictatorship for a very good reason. Everybody knew what the political makeup of that government would be. And within a week the army had cleared out and you have elections and you have basically a city government set up.

Matthew Paris:

Here is her description of that moment.

The proclamation of the Commune was splendid

Their names were announced

An immense cry arose

Vive la Commune!

The drums beat a salvo, the artillery shook the ground

In the name of the people the Commune is proclaimed

Carolyn, these were not revolutionaries in the, in the modern sense of the word, in fact Karl Marx was against the whole idea wasn’t he?

Carolyn Eichner:

Yes, Marx thought that it was premature, but some of them definitely were revolutionaries. And many others of them were working-class people who were completely fed up with the kind of repression and marginalisation they had faced. And this was very much the case for women also. So, in certain respects it was like a festival, because there was a sense that the working-class government had finally taken power. There was free Opera, there was music in the streets it was very much of a festival kind of atmosphere.

There were public meetings throughout Paris almost daily in which thousands of people attended and really got to practice there opposition to government.

Matthew Paris:

But Paul, what did these people want? Louise Michel was becoming prominent among them, what was her plan?

Paul Mason:

What most of them wanted was what was called the Social Republic, they wanted a democratic republic and they wanted it to have social justice as its key deliverable. So that meant ending starvation, ending poverty, ending the criminalisation of women. They’re thinking they’ll have the Social Republic, that means an anti-clerical Republic, it means one where Cooperatives are set up and facilitated by the state. And one in which there is above all personal freedom, I think the Commune remains, and of course Karl Marx later recognised this, the first experiment in successful self-government by a working-class community.

This is the important thing about it, and of course in the last days and Louise Michel is among the people who do this, as they fought to survive, they did adopt extreme measures that later allowed moderate socialist propagandists to say that well they were crazy, killing priests etc.

Matthew Paris:

What was Michel doing during this period? What was her role?

Carolyn Eichner:

She was involved in the Women’s Vigilance Committee, she was also involved in the Men’s Vigilance Committee, and the vigilance was essential since the city was under siege by the French government. She was involved in some of the political clubs and these were working-class clubs that met in churches, which was a real appropriation of space and power. These were very much grassroots organisations, she fought on the battlefield and then ultimately on the barricades in the final week when there was street fighting.

Paul Mason:

One of the pictures of her is in a man’s uniform, and there’s a reason for that, she wanted to fight. We that before the Commune had even started, she used to go to fairgrounds to do target practice. So, she did fight and she was involved in a number of engagements, one at Clamart station in the south of Paris another one at Issy.

Matthew Paris:

Louise later claimed that during the 72 days of the Commune she never went to bed. She was with the Communards when they made their last stand in the cemetery of Montmartre. After the fall of the Commune she was arrested and she was officially Prisoner Number One.

 Apparently, the noise from the firing squads while other Communards were being killed led to complaints from the neighbours, so the soldiers started bayonetting the prisoners to death instead. Altogether there were about 25,000 men women and children executed. Among them Louise’s dear friend Théophile Ferré.

She dedicated a farewell poem to him. The Red Carnations Oeillets Rouges.

If I go to the black cemetery brother

Throw on your sister as a final hope

Some red carnations in bloom

In the last days of Empire when the people were awakening

It was your smile, red carnation

That told us all was being reborn

Today go blossom in the shadow of the black and sad prisons

Go flower by the sombre captive

And tell him truly that we love him

Tell him that through fleeting time everything belongs to the future

That the livid proud conqueror can die more surely

Than the conquered

Paul you’ve suggested that the ideology of the Paris Commune has been hijacked by historians of the left to explain later developments of Marxism-Leninism. If it doesn’t what does it explain? What’s its real significance?

Paul Mason:

For me Louise Michel and the Commune she was part of almost the sort of uber case study of what happens when workers make revolutions without people like Bolsheviks to help/hinder them. I think the Commune remains because above all of its personal and its sexual politics, so far in advance of the 20th century. You know one of the things we remember Louise for, she fought for the rights of all women.

Paul Mason:

Was she a feminist, do you think Carolyn?

Carolyn Eichner:

Yes absolutely, she was absolutely a feminist. And the term feminism did not come into use until the 1880s, but if one defines feminism as a movement for gender equity, Louise Michel was absolutely a feminist.

Matthew Paris:

In December 1871 Louise Michel was brought before the 6th Council of War, charged with offences including trying to overthrow the government, encouraging citizens to arm themselves and herself using weapons and wearing a military uniform. When she was asked if she had anything to say in her defence, she’s said to have replied

Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has no right to anything

But a little lump of lead I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance

And I shall avenge my brothers. If you are not cowards kill me!

If you are not cowards kill me. That’s an extraordinary speech Paul, do we believe that that is what she said? Is in character?

Paul Mason:

I think it’s what she said and what she meant because she is in a state of grieving. Even reading her memoirs written twenty-thirty years later that grieving never stops. The dreamlike quality of the memoir comes from the fact that she’s seen a massacre. And when we as modern journalists cover massacres, we’re all to aware of what that does to people’s psychology for decades beyond that.

You know there were piles of bodies in the streets, she writes constantly about the Hecatomb, the mass grave. That’s an image that’s in her writing till the day she dies. So yeah, she’s ready to die, she knows what the future holds, and that is deportation.

Matthew Paris:

Why didn’t they kill her? When she said kill me, why was she transported to New Caledonia as her sentence when she was such a leader of the rebels?

Carolyn Eichner:

It’s an excellent question, and most likely because they did not want to make her a martyr. She had such a following which did only grow, but she was charismatic, heroic, mythical and the French state must have recognised that making her a martyr would have been a larger problem.

Matthew Paris:

Then four months in a ship the Virginie on the way to New Caledonia, which is an island off Australia. How long did she spend there?

Carolyn Eichner:

She was there for seven years. Her experience there was that of most of the Communards who were sent to New Caledonia, which was that they were basically dumped there and left to fend for themselves. Including constructing their own habitations, getting their own food, these were urban people, New Caledonia now one would think oh this is a tropical paradise, but when one reads the memoirs of the people who were there it was very hot, there were malarial mosquitoes, dengue fever. The conditions were extremely difficult and brutal, and she was among a small number of women who were sent there and very much left to fend for themselves.

Matthew Paris:

And she did fend for herself, she didn’t just vegetate she ended up teaching the native people the Kanaks, she ended up teaching the children of the colonists, she got to know and respect the indigenous culture. She wrote a rather poetic treatise about their language, their island and their culture and here’s part of it.

It is night, it was hot during the day and the coolness is good.

The tribe stretched out beneath the coconut palms, near the huts

Listens to the tales of the storyteller and the breakers in the distance tell tales as well.

The storyteller half-asleep half-awake tells while dreaming stories that we listen to while dreaming.

One would think that it is the branches of the coconut tree that move in the air

But its fruit bats, let them fly away in peace.

This evening the tribe is not hungry, here come drops of rain,

But they are hot, they feel good as they fall on us lying here on the grass

From which we feel the heat of the earth rise.

The white man’s borders are far away, very far away

This is the land of the Fathers.

Paul I’m fascinated by this completely new chapter. There are three or four lives here aren’t there?

Paul Mason:

Yes, I mean let’s remember why the French state sent people to New Caledonia. It thought it wouldn’t just imprison the Communards it would force them by having to remake their lives amid stone age people to reconsider their ideas. And the effect on many of them was depression, of course many of those people, urban people lived in a tiny neighbourhood of Paris all their lives, suddenly they’re in the wilderness.

Louise Michel fought it by being creative. This is the period where she’s constantly writing novels, plays, all kinds of lost work and she becomes and amateur anthropologist. She sets out from almost day one to engage with the New Caledonian indigenous people. And once she’s done that, she ends up going to their villages, she ends up- she takes her notebook, she writes down their songs and their folktales and publishes -actually while she’s even on the island- the first edition of the Chanson de geste book is published in Paris.

So, she’s doing anthropology but what they don’t know of course is she’s also radicalising them. When the time comes for the Kanaks to revolt, she’s given them her red scarf that she’s kept hidden since the days of the Commune and is one of the few French prisoners who is whole heartedly in favour of the Kanak revolt.

Matthew Paris:

The white man’s borders are far away, very far away she wrote, but she went back to the white man’s borders she returned to Paris in 1880 after an amnesty had been granted to the Communards. She was met at the station by a crowd of about 7,000 people shouting “Vive Louise Michel! Vive La Commune!” How had she become so famous and so popular on the other side of the world during this period Carolyn?

Carolyn Eichner:

Her legacy of the time during the Commune and her activism prior to the Commune just continued to grow and amplify in her absence. And then she was continuing to write and to send her manuscripts back to Paris, things were published and she had become in some ways really transformed by the experience in New Caledonia. Now she had actively advocated anti-imperialism, she continued to push for social revolution, and one other thing that had very much come out of her experience after the Commune was that she had become an Anarchist.

And this sort of transformation had occurred on the boat on the way to New Caledonia. So in New Caledonia she was also thinking and writing about Anarchism and about how the failure of the Commune meant a redirection or real grassroots efforts for revolution. And she had become this enormous personality, thousands of people met her at the station and then even thousands more came to a talk she gave immediately after that. And that sort of set the situation for the subsequent decades.

Matthew Paris:

And she went back to being a revolutionary agitator. So, it was probably inevitable that she would get locked away again. Why? What did she do?

Paul Mason:

In 1883 she leads a bread riot, carrying a black flag now through the streets of Paris, there was violence at the end of that demonstration she is charged and imprisoned for three years. This already a woman who has spent two and a half years after the Commune in a French prison, then seven years on the island and now she’s back in prison.

I think what is important about this though is that by the 1880s you’ve got the emergence of an almost modern style French labour movement. You’ve got unions, you’ve got self help societies, Louise Michel thinks that this is all rubbish. And she wants to carry on the dream of activating the slum dwelling poorest classes. That’s what she’s doing on that bread riot, she sees her task as being to radicalise and ignite the poor.

Matthew Paris:

Paul Lafargue visited her in prison in 1885 and recorded that conversation.

I’m not complaining, to tell you the truth I’ve had to put up with worse.

I’ve found a happiness in prison I never knew when I was free.

I have time to study, and I take advantage of it.

When I was free, I had my classes, 150 students or more, it wasn’t enough for me to live on since two thirds of them didn’t pay me.

I had to give lessons in grammar, music, history a little bit of everything until ten or eleven o’clock in the evening.

And when I went home, I went to sleep exhausted, unable to do anything.

At the time I would have given years of my life in order to have time to give over to study.

Here in St Lazare I have time for myself, a lot of time and I’m happy about this.

I read, I study I’ve learned several languages.

Two years after she was let out of prison, she was shot in a theatre Carolyn.

Carolyn Eichner:

She was giving a political speech, and someone in the crowd stood up and shot her in the head, but it just barely grazed her head. And she recovered fully, and she refused to prosecute the shooter, saying that he was just clearly someone who didn’t understand what she meant, what her intentions were and she wanted to speak with him she spoke with the man and allowed him to go free. And this of course fed into the idea of her as the saintly figure.

Matthew Paris:

She spent some years in London, what did she do in London Paul?

Paul Mason:

We don’t know everything she did in London but she did a lot of philanthropy, she became known as the “good woman” I think she was going around the East End giving away food. She constantly gave away everything that was sent to her actually clothes, dresses, books. But the other thing she did was to form a school with a fellow Anarchist and survivor of the Commune in quite a posh part of London. Recently research has managed to unearth some of the prospectus and syllabus and its quite you know radical.

But surprise, surprise a bomb was found in the school, nobody was prosecuted but the school did close thereafter. We don’t know who put the bomb there, we don’t think it was Louise Michel and her cohorts, it might have been a police sting, or one of their more radical- you know there were lots of radical Anarchists around Louise Michel all the time by the 1880s and 90s.

Matthew Paris:

And she carried on lecturing not just all over France, she went to Algeria, and on a trip to Algeria she fell seriously ill. Back in Marseilles she died.

Carolyn Eichner:

Yes, she had wanted to go to Algeria to advocate for an uprising against the French Imperial government. And she managed to do this though she was in ill health she travelled around and spoke against the French government, spoke against religion, spoke against militarism and essentially this tour ended her life. She died shortly thereafter.

Matthew Paris:

Let’s give Louise Michel one more chance to convert us all to Anarchism. In all her writing there’s no paragraph more powerful than this one.

There are millions of us who don’t give a damn for authority because we have seen how little the many edged tool of power accomplishes.

We have watched throats cut to gain it, it is supposed to be the Jade axe that travels from island to island in Oceania.

No! Power monopolised is evil.

Matthew Paris:

Paul, in your book about working-class history you end with a mention of Louise Michel. I’d like you to read that last bit.

Paul Mason:

I have seen the young Louise Michel dancing to a samba band in a field outside Glen Eagle’s summit. Her face was painted and she was wearing pink fairy wings, she still has a lot to learn.

Matthew Paris:

Paul Mason, thank you for sharing with us your enthusiasm for the extraordinary Louise Michel. Carolyn Eichner thank you for joining us. And from me Matthew Paris until next week goodbye.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Case of the Birmingham Six

In Birmingham in 1974 two pubs were bombed, the police suspected IRA involvement and so targeted the local Irish population. In the end their dragnet charged six men Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker with the bombings. The six men appeared in court bearing bruises and eventually they plead guilty. 

It turned out that the confessions were extracted from them by physical assault, indeed it came out that none of the six men had committed the bombings and were innocent. Eventually in 1991 after being imprisoned since 1975 the six were freed and the case declared a miscarriage of justice. 

There's a part of the above video that got overlooked but I think is really important. The wife of one of the six didn't know her husband had been arrested until the televised news broadcast despite her home being raided and searched by the police. The reason that didn't tip her off is because the police actions surrounding the bombings in 74 weren't a departure from typical police behaviour when suspecting Irish perpetrators. The UK police fully employed profiling in this period, any suspicious event that might possibly be IRA related was met with a program of harassment and investigation of the local Irish community. 

Profiling is often championed on grounds of pragmatism, it may be unfair or even illegal itself but we're assured that it works. Well it didn't work in Birmingham in 1974, six innocent men were beaten and imprisoned sixteen years, and it also didn't work in Guildford where four Irish men were wrongly arrested for another series of IRA pub bombings, and it didn't work when the police arrested an additional seven Irish men for the crime of manufacturing the explosives used. In the end all eleven men were found innocent after lengthy prison terms.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Remembering the Black Triangles

I've been thinking about an often overlooked aspect of Nazi society and its campaigns of terror. Specifically I was thinking of how much of what we think about when we think of Hitler and the Nazi regime is still dominated by the myths they created for themselves. As a result a lot falls through the cracks so I'd like to try redress some of this by sharing what I've learned about the Black Triangle.

Its not much I'm afraid, most of the information on the issue in English I've found has been dominated by the controversy about how appropriate it is or is not as a symbol of Lesbian oppression[1] in the Third Reich, and about the current usage of the symbol by disabled campaigners in the UK[2]. I was able to find out that in 1938 mass arrests of anti-social individuals accounted for 10,000 people 2,000 of which were sent to Buchenwald, and that other camps such as Auschwitz, Ravensbruck and Dachau had black triangle populations[3].

The Black Triangle badge was for prisoners who were deemed to be Antisocial, the official name was Arbeitsscheu which literally translates as work-shy. But long term unemployment wasn't the only criteria for imprisonment, you could also be declared Arbeitsscheu for refusing or being found unfit for compulsory labour such as digging trenches for the Autobahns or working in armaments factories. You could also be branded with the triangle if you were suspected of being of poor moral character, common targets for the anti-social category included the homeless, alcoholics, drug users and sex workers. 

Victims also included the Roma[4] and people with behavioural abnormalities and disabilities that were deemed not serious enough to warrant euthanasia were also rounded up, hence the current associations with the struggles against Department for Work and Pensions. In Ravensbruck there were four women given the Black Triangle who specifically noted as suspected lesbians, and there were cases of people being categorised as Arbeitsscheu for having relations outside of their "race".

You could also be black triangle for having a criminal record even if you had not committed a crime recently, which would have moved you into the Green Triangle category instead.

Hitler in Table Talk actually argues that all citizen with a serious offence on their records should either be executed or condemned for life in the Concentration camp system.

"After ten years of imprisonment with hard labor an individual is lost for community life anyhow. Who is going to give him any work? Such a fellow should be put into a concentration camp for life or he should be killed. In our days the latter is more important and serves as a warning. It should be an example for all followers!"

The part I've bolded is I think the key factor that unites all the various victims of the Work-shy label and the violent repression that came with it. Its the one thing the estimated 12.658 [6] Anti-social prisoners have in common. They all in one way or another were deemed unworthy of taking part in the new German national community.

Volksgemeinschafft was a key pillar of the National Socialist society, there were dozens of government and party organisations dedicated to its promotion and ensuring that all German citizens took an active part within it. Deviation from this community in any form wasn't tolerated and we see that through the Black Triangle category it carried the ultimate penalty for those who couldn't measure up to it. An estimated 6,000 Anti-social prisoners would die in the camps.

One of the largest and most powerful organisations was the Strength Through Joy (KDF) organisation.

The KDF worked for the German Workers Front the umbrella organisation that replaced the now illegal trade unions and mutual aid societies. It was also under the supervision of Goebbels propaganda ministry and collaborated with other arms of the Nazi regime. The KDF is sometimes depicted as a largely benevolent organisation, apologists are quick to emphasis cheap package holidays and trips to the cinema etc. But the truth is that it was a tool for the control of the ordinary German in their leisure time.

The aim of the KDF was to extend Nazi party regimentation to the German workers free time, it even an Office for After Work Activity (Amt Feierabend) and Office for Popular Education (Amt Volksbildungswerk). The KDF's sole function was making sure German workers took part in approved leisure activities, the cinema trips were to propaganda films, the leisure activities were strictly partisan, even the uniforms for sports clubs were all party endorsed. 

Even the package holidays were politically motivated, after the union with Austria the KDF sent thousands of Austrian workers in order to encourage loyalty to the new regime

Two weeks after the Anschluss, when SS-Gruppenführer Josef Bürckel became Reichskommissar für die Wiedervereinigung as well as Gauleiter, the first five trains with some 2,000 Austrian workers left for Passau, where they were ceremonially welcomed. While Bürckel announced that he did not expect all KdF travelers to return as National Socialists, he did expect them to look him in the eyes and say, "I tried hard to understand you."
This is why the treatment of the "work shy" was so severe, not only were they not contributing to the German economy fully but they weren't able to take part in the German community project either, which rendered them suspect in the eyes of the regime. 

Die Gemeinschaftsunfähigen (Those unfit for community life) by H.W Kranz and S. Koller, Giessen 1941
Title page
Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Heinrich Kranz and his colleagues in the Institute for Hereditary Health and Racial Hygiene with the university of Giessen directed their focus in work on the attempt to demonstrate the hereditability of criminal and "asocial" behavior. After his habilitation paper "Lebensschicksale krimineller Zwillinge" (1936), his main work consisting of two volumes, "Die Gemeinschaftsunfähigen", was published in 1941; Kranz had edited this work together with his colleague Siegfried Koller. Kranz and Koller identified "all those'unfit for community life' or'asocial'..., who show very often significant tendencies opposing community life and who repeatedly show their incapacity or hostility concerning community life." The authors described those who were unable or who did not want to fit into the dominant Nazi condition s, crimal and non criminal individuals, "unfit for community life" as "clinkers and excretory products of human society and civilization", and recommended forced sterilization, forced labor and deprivation of national civil rights for the protection of national unity.
In 1941, the medical statistician Siegfried Koller (born in 1908) became head of the new bio-statistical institute in Berlin. In 1956, after having spent the years 1945-1952 in confinement, Koller was appointed honorary professor and head of the Institute for medical statistics in Mainz. From 1953 to 1962 he was head of the Department for Demographic and Cultural Statistics with the Federal Office for Statistics. In his function of nestor of medical statistics, Koller obtained the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Federal Distinguished Service Medal) in 1982.

Essentially in the new German order you could potentially condemn to a forced labour camp for the crime of not liking folk dancing.

4: In Birkenau concentration camp the Roma population wore black triangles before the introduction of a Brown triangle badge unique to Roma prisoners
5:  Table Talk p. 271
7: Idib.

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