Archives for posts with tag: Holocaust

{early, un-edited version of my next Forest of Dean Clarion magazine article}

Where Conrad journeyed into a Heart of Darkness, in September a friend and I took an excursion into sadness. Together we embarked on a foray into what might have been and what was betrayed: we went looking for the GDR/DDR in modern Berlin.

The GDR could have been an example of socialism but became instead a state racked by paranoia, a state of 90,000 Stasi agents and 175,000 Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (informers).

But I still believed in the possibility. That, at an everyday level there were elements of East German socialism which hinted at socialism as it might have been. After all, it is a fine line between Ostalgie (nostalgia for the East) and gawping at the worst of Totalitarianism. Was the GDR a workers paradise or a Stasi Hell?

Like many such binary questions, the answer is probably somewhere in between, a plurality of truths and realities. And that certainly was my experience. Nowhere was this more apparent than standing on the platform of the Wall Documentation Centre on Bernauer Strasse.

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This free memorial gives an overview in words and pictures of the construction and division created by the Wall but, most strikingly, it allows you to climb to a platform to overlook a snapshot of the wall, death-strip and watch-tower exactly as it was. Un-touched, graffiti-free this living memorial is a stark symbol of the worst of the GDR’s predicament. A symbol of a state struggling with losing its workforce to the West, paranoid in its inability to keep control of its own citizens’ faith in socialism, all set against the best as in the background towers over all of Berlin the remarkable landmark of the East – the incredible Fernsehturm – or TV Tower as it is known in the West. Nearly all my guides placed the TV Tower as the most important thing to visit when in Berlin, but it is one of the very few symbols of the former East.

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Too bad then, that it is now little more than a London Eye-style novelty. Constructed in the mid-to-late 1960’s it was the beacon of socialist achievement. Its lift doors open at bar and restaurant level to look out along the avenue of in front of the Brandenburg Tor (gate) – the Strasse Des 17 Juni – the symbolic avenue from the West to the centre of Berlin. And there’s nothing in the Western skyline that comes even close to matching the achievement of the TV Tower: socialism reigns supreme. And yet as I drank a Berliner Wasse with the traditional cherry juice I felt this wasn’t the East Germany as the workers knew it. Moreover today, despite its setting in Alexanderplatz the TV Towers feels almost disconnected from the GDR. And what’s more, the tourists around me didn’t seem to care about its history – the old symbol was now just a spectacle.

We stayed in the OSTEL Das DDR Design Hostel just off Paris Commune Strasse in the old East, not far from the East-Side Gallery (a long strip of the wall given over to graffiti art). SS851926

No TV, no mod-cons, just a basic 1970’s-era recreation of the GDR in each room. A portrait of Cabinet Minister Horst Sindermann keeps a watchful eye as you check-in at reception, complete with a TV playing a loop of GDR speeches and news. SS851974 SS851823The furnishings and wall-papering of each room are GDR-era and it lends a space for contemplative reflection, of simplicity and scarcity, of sacrifice and suppression, of hope and ideals. The rooms are cheap and the place unique, friendly, spare but touching if you like your travel with a sense of history and place. On the day we drove out into the country in our hired Trabant, the OSTEL provided a brown paper bag lunch at only €5 adorned with their own ‘Guten Appetit!’ label.

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On the opposite side of our OSTEL’s citrus-fruit coloured building is the Volksammer (Das Design Restaurant), with the familiar GDR emblem emblazoned everywhere. A huge painting of Der Palast der Republik (my favourite building of the GDR – sadly now demolished) nestled alongside the TV tower and red flags adorns the length of one wall, and the menu is authentic GDR era cuisine. Much of which reminded me of school dinners or the food my mum made me as a boy in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Except for more fish, more pickled vegetables and, thankfully, more beer. The restaurant was a perfect partner for the OSTEL.

Another ‘Ostalgie Resturant’ is the Käsekönig just off Alexanderplatz (on Panoramastr.1), but the service here wasn’t quite as friendly and sitting outside on the street was a mistake as the weather turned. Neither could it boast the authentic furnishings and ornaments of the Volksammer, but the menu seemed more than appropriate. If you can’t stomach the food of 3 decades ago, don’t worry, one certainly won’t go hungry in Berlin – there’s an abundance of foreign restaurants.

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With so much to do and see, more to write about than we have space here, I offer my essential things to do in Berlin if, like me, you want to sense its history, all within walking distance of each other, especially when based at the OSTEL.

SS851866(FREE) Visit the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe 2 minutes’ walk from the Brandenburg Gate, along Eberstrasse. Not only is this a moving experience (especially the poignancy of the Reichstag in view), but also it is an incredible piece of immersive sculpture. On the way you can also pay your respects to the homosexuals and gays murdered and persecuted by the Nazis (pretty much opposite), and nearer the Brandenburg Tor is the Memorial to the Sinti & Roma of Europe Murdered under the Nazi regime.SS851869SS851979

(FREE) Visit Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation centre along Bernauer Strasse; the story of Bernauer Strasse deserves an article of its own, and you can easily spend half a day immersed into the tragedy of the Wall here (do this over a visit to the East Side Gallery as that just lacks a sense of the everyday division)

SS851953Visit the Stasi Museum in the former HQ just off Ruschestrasse – highly detailed and a place of history in itself

SS851879(FREE) Visit the excellent Topography of Terror exhibition which documents the Gestapo and SS main offices, along with another intact Wall section

Stay at the OSTEL DDR Design Hostel

Eat at the Volksammer (Stasse der Paris Kommune 18b)

SS851873(FREE) Spit on the ground at the spot where Hitler spent his final hours (about 2mins walk from the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe) – his bunker will be under your feet (deservedly just a parking lot, a small green space where dogs fittingly defecate)

(FREE) Marvel at the scale of the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten, and the two Soviet T34 tanks and consider their victory over Nazism

SS851859If you can afford it, book dinner (at least 2 months reservation necessary) with a window seat at the TV Tower, otherwise settle for the bar and try a Berliner Wasse

Hire a Trabant and drive into the countryside of the former East (good luck!)

But avoid the Western view of the Wall: Checkpoint Charlie. You couldn’t find a less authentic experience in Berlin if you tried.

There is so much history to be seen, and so much to consider. But mostly I left saddened by all the focus on failure. The persecution and loss of life all weighs so heavy. Saddening too was the fact that there was little room for the debate that socialism might offer much, even if we agree the price of totalitarianism is not one worth paying. Only the DDR Museum offered some sense of everyday life, some redemption and only then in part, balanced as it was with Stasi exhibits.

My view is that, in the end, the world lost more than the toll of its victims. It lost the chance of a possibility.

This wasn’t a holiday. It was reflection, a memorial. Just as one might travel to WW1 war graves. Perhaps we ought to make such journeys in order to remember the danger in the states we elect and therefore in our consent we all carry in us the possibility of darkness or failure. In that darkness I hoped to find hope. I think it’s there, but it flickered dimly and fleetingly, supressed by Totalitarianism.

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{this article formed part of a much larger research project, reflecting on the GDR}

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The War (for Children’s Minds) by Stephen Law

{a review}

Many might recall Marx’s declaration that – up to his age – philosophers had sought only to understand or as he put it ‘describe’ the world, but the point was ‘to change it.’ This might be the kernel of many an activist but it is a quality not exclusive to socialism.

Many times in The Clarion I have argued that the way to truly change society is through education. But, in our time, education is the realm primarily of children. And this is why it is there that the battleground for reason is being fought.

Today’s teenagers are the ‘war on terror’ generation. They are borne of a war built on an impossible, unachievable abstract waged by fundamentalist positions of varying zeal from both Muslim and Christian traditions, charged with a bonus shot of Zionism. As Richard Dawkins warned in ‘The God Delusion’, the minds of these children will form the foot-soldiers of tomorrows’ war. Be this, as in the case of Palestinian teenagers for example, martyrdom (as so tragically documented in James Miller’s film ‘Death in Gaza’, which saw him shot and killed by the Israeli Defence Force) or the attack on reason in US schools. There 96% of Americans claim to believe in God and their authorities have banned books such as 1984 as well as, in some cases, the barest mention of scientific evolution, favouring instead what is righteous and good as dictated by the Bible.

All this, however, is wrapped in a paradox: while faith and irrationality might be at the root of more conflict now than in any time previous in the last century and a half, there is equally a decline at least in the Christian tradition in church-going and the role of faith in state affairs. And some would have it, therefore, a decline in morality. But does that really follow?

Welcome then teenage drop-out come post-man turned philosophy professor, Stephen Law and his ‘The War for Children’s Minds’.

Although primarily concerned with the issue of faith, it is not faith alone which Law sees as the problem – unlike Dawkins’ or Hitchens works have been characterised (although they’re more about reason) – but authority. And it is this difference in perspective which explains why obvious rebukes of the idea that only religion is synonymous with moral conduct don’t appear until page 158 (with the citing of Fukuyama).

Law’s book ‘Makes a case for a particular kind of liberal moral education, an education rooted in philosophy, not authority.’ That is, getting pupils to think independently, building arguments through rational persuasion at most.

Blair’s New Labour were (in)famous in providing the blue print for the Tories to encourage more faith schooling in the UK. But Law builds a steady case against the notion that faith has a monopoly on moral education. Instead he offers a list of skills the student might cultivate as opposed instead of deference to a higher authority just because they say so or it is written (where, for example, it is ordained that homosexuals or women are not to be treated as equals). Law recommends students be taught to…

  • Reveal and question underlying assumptions,
  • Figure out the perhaps unforeseen consequences of a moral decision or point of view
  • Spot and diagnose faulty reasoning
  • Weigh up evidence fairly and impartially
  • Make a point clearly and concisely
  • Take turns in a debate, and listen attentively without interrupting,
  • Argue without personalising a dispute,
  • Look at issues from the point of view of others, and
  • Question the appropriateness of, or the appropriateness of acting on, one’s own feelings.

These are admirable qualities we could probably all use. And like most good advice, it is obvious and easy but I’d wager if we really adopted them well, we might just make the citizens of a shared world worthy of and for each other. And that’s probably why it hasn’t been universally applied, as it is not in the interests of the quiet authoritarians pulling the strings. Law reminds us that modern education only fulfils half its original intent – not to merely intellectualise – but also create good citizens. This just happens to be a view shared by those in favour of more authoritarian approaches; Law just disagrees on how that is achieved. And he offers a convincing case.

Law is concerned with many things, including the misunderstanding of Kant and the Enlightenment. He manages to stay just on the interesting side of argumentative pedantry but his simple, yet philosophical approach convincingly breaks down all the arguments of the authoritarians.

One problem is, of course, that authoritarians will never recognise themselves as such. Another is that they will misrepresent the liberal approach. But at Law points out ‘To say “You must judge what is right and wrong” is not to say “You must judge on a wholly shallow, materialistic, self-serving basis”.’ And yet this is the familiar argument against liberal education. Law refutes the claims that liberalism is relativism and encourages anarchy in the classroom. Indeed, how could that possibly deliver a structured approach to thinking? Law rejects authority which dictates what is to be believed, rather than instilling the means to think for oneself.

An oddity of many philosophic debates (as a visit to the Tintern Philosophy Circle (each 3rd Tuesday in the month at the Rose and Crown 7.30pm) will often testify), is that it isn’t long before the topic of Nazis turn up. And Law’s book is no exception. I guess this is because the Nazis are such a milestone in amoral conduct they off a good example of how supposedly rational beliefs become policies that can carry a whole country into mass extermination (and by, um, ‘authority’ no less).

Here Law rightly draws on Milgram’s 1950’s psychological tests which sought to understand how Nazi concentration camp guards qualified their actions by claiming ‘they were only following orders’ and – so Milgram thought – to prove that it could never happen in the USA. Instead, Milgram found that actually ‘65% of ordinary American citizens will electrocute another human being to death if told to so by a white-coated authority-figure’. Law argues that it is only, as Kant says, through ‘the courage to use one’s own reason’ we might question such authority.

In fact, from a socialist perspective, our history is rich with those who questioned the established authority and challenged them in order to change the world for better. What is somewhat lacking here though is that which Marx set out – the means to change the status quo. At the risk of sounding like one endorses Pol Pot’s Year Zero: revolutionary action – in this case the means to ignite Enlightenment for modernity.

A liberal approach to character education won’t emerge of itself. It needs to be policy won by evidential argument, or if not grown organically by educationalists themselves. But I say what better place to start, while we wait for policy-makers to catch up, than in the home?

For his part, Law suggests some training for specialised teachers. After building such a convincing case, this solution seems rather lightweight.

In his defence, however, Law does cite cases where philosophy in schools has not only drastically improved critical thinking skills and reasoning, but there’s also evidence of side-benefits too both in general educational improvement, as well as better behaviour and attitudes, particularly on moral issues like, say, bullying.

So my major political conundrum (the myth of the rational voter) isn’t yet solved, but at least the debate as to how to positively influence change has begun with this highly recommended, mindful book. Buy it, read it and then buy a copy for the Head of your local school.

I am not a fan of sci-fi: never have been and probably never will be. Or so I thought.

Like every other boy of the 1970’s I loved love ‘Star Wars’ but it wasn’t until the early 80’s with the BBC’s adaptation of ‘The Day of theTriffids’, and then ‘Threads’ did a certain breed sci-fi come to affect my whole outlook on life. Frankly, at the time I thought we were doomed. Borne of these are the beginnings of a political awakening that took another decade to bear fruit.

Both were imaginings of terrible fictions. ‘Threads’ seemed all too real and hypothesized nuclear Armageddon, whereas the BBC’s updating of the John Wyndham’s novel presented a different side to social destruction –giant, man-killing plant aliens. The genre was known as post-apocalyptic, and is an awkward addendum to sci-fi genre. They were fictions based on supposedly scientific possibilities. Indeed, ‘Threads’ was the first mass understanding of the nuclear winter hypothesis which was a debate still raging at the time – making even surviving a nuclear holocaust so terrible as to warrant questioning the point of living.

But I was slightly too young to remember the silent killer at work in the BBC’s 1970’s post-apocalyptic series ‘Survivors’.

This time it was an invisible means of destruction: disease. Watching the 70’s series on DVD today, I can see now that had I been just a bit older when it aired, it would have marked me as indelibly as ‘Threads’ would later in the 80’s.

Written by TV sci-fi supremo Terry Nation (who also gave us Blake’s 7 and many a Dr. Who storyline) it supposes the very real threat of a deadly epidemic and the social decay and terrible anarchy that arises out of the entire destruction of the state. These are topics I have written about before in The Clarion with my review of ‘The Death of Grass’ (by John Christopher) and to a degree in my explorations of modern utopian writing (all share communes and different social codes among their defining features). Nation, however, was at pains to distance his new series from his sci-fi work stating that “Survivors has its roots in the future, as it were, but it’s not science-fiction. It’s not going into the realms of the impossible; it’s skating very close to the possible,” which I guess is why the series still holds my interest, despite Nation’s other portfolio.

Indeed, the Radio Times write-up for ‘Survivors’ (it was shown on BBC1 over 3 series from 1975) cites a line from the show which sums up perfectly its preoccupation: “Incredible, isn’t it? We are of the generation that landed a man on the moon and the best we can do is talk of making tools from stone.

‘Survivors’ is at its best when it questions our assumptions about how stable our society really is. How civil we might truly be under great duress, and what happens when we peel away the froth of our consumerist lives? It pokes around in moral dilemmas not usually broadcast in BBC dramas at 8pm on a Wednesday night. Today or in the 70’s.

Jenny, Abby & Greg (L to R). The face Jenny is pulling is because they've just found the body of a man hanged for looting a supermarket.

Lucy Fleming is the likeable constant, but where as heroine ofseries one (Carolyn Seymour as Abby Grant) is admirably driven she remains fairly impenetrable and one dimensional. What is to be commended, particularly for the age – as this still happens too infrequently today – is that the producers accepted a female as the lead character in what was on the face of it an adventure series. Granted, ‘Charlie’s Angels’ was also around at the same time, but they were impeccably hair-sprayed icons drawn by men of what women heroes ought to be like (and with a male for their boss, no less). Even ‘Wonderwoman’ was busty and pouted silky lip-gloss. By contrast Abby Grant crops her hair as she sets out on the road into a post-apocalyptic British countryside, her dead husband sprayed across the lounge sofa.

The camera follows Abby in what could easily have turned outto be classic Twilight Zone territory (“Oh God, please don’t let me be the only one.”) only to reveal to the audience the parallel story of Jenny Richards (Fleming) and then separately again the incredibly annoying Jackanory-esque tramp-comes-good storyline of Tom Price (played in a ridiculously Dickensian turn by Talfryn Thomas). But once modern viewers adjust their grins at the tragic fashion and 70’s BBC acting, the strength of the stories and other characters comes to the fore.

My favourite, for example is that of super-bitch Anne Tranter and Vic who she leaves for dead in a quarry once she realises he cannot supply her with riches now that he’s tragically crippled by an accident. Then there’s the poetic child-killer in series two and capital punishment episode in series one, both of which feel like Amnesty International had a hand in the writing.

Of course, one of the recurring themes is the nature of community and the role of leadership, be it within our ragtag group or across the other surviving communities and bandits the characters stumble across. Alongside this is the pressure that “Our civilisation had the technology to land a man on the moon, but as individuals we don’t even have the skill to makean iron spearhead”. The realisation that scavenging will only last so long comes to the fore and without a sign of a state forming any time soon, there’sa quick return to self-sufficient agriculture, with all its pitfalls and trials. This is not ‘The Good Life’.

Upon completing production of the pilot episode, contracts were drawn up in January 1974 and the show commissioned around the theme: ‘Bubonic plagues sweeps the world, killing all but a handful of people who escape to the country with absolutely nothing and who start civilisation again from scratch.’ But the response to Nation’s series was mixed.

The Times was expecting classic sci-fi in the Dr. Who mould from Nation and was therefore rightly disappointed. The Guardian for its part was just underwhelmed (‘a perfectly passable pastime’). The Daily Mail, however,got it on the nail when it compared its greatest strength to HG Wells’ War ofthe Worlds in which ‘extraordinary events are set in actual, small-scale landscapes’ – which is why the work reminded me of ‘The Death of Grass’ (and toa degree, John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’) – all of which seem set in a comfy version of the British countryside which we’ve come to love through thelikes of Betjemen, the Hovis ad or ‘All Creatures Great and Small’. And that is why so much of it is so simple yet effective.

Some of this is owed to the ‘feel’ of the work. While the opening title theme is infectious (ahem) and the titles sequence explains all we need to know about the origin and spread of the disease, it is interesting to note that it wasn’t a clever directorial instruction to omit incidental music, but a BBC strike, which lead to a very tight production schedule and hence no budget or time for music. This probably inadvertently adds much to the silence of dead Britain. It obviously works, because there’s still no incidental music by the end of the final third series.

It is also with some interest then that I discovered that much of the farm the group settles in during series two is not far from Monmouth. In fact, there’s quite a local link. Series one saw shoots in Evesham, the Pitville Circus in Cheltenham, various locations around Ross-on-Wye, Llanarth Court in Monmouth but was mostly shot in Herefordshire’s Hampton Court. By series two Callow Hill Farm near Monmouth came the setting for the fixed commune.

Alan W. Turner’s biography of Nation lays the departure of the shows’ creator to a split with co-writer Jack Ronder. The two had differences over the series’ direction and once Nation had also fallen out with the producer, Nation withdrew from his own project altogether. Besides, by this point Brian Clemens, who Nation had worked with on shows like ‘The Avengers’, filed court proceedings stipulating ‘Survivors’ was his idea in the first place’. The project seemed diseased on every level.

Somehow it survived. A second series was commissioned and Nation penned a novelisation of his version of the story – now a collectors’ item. For TV, Series two (1976) sees the departure of Abby Grant and a change of setting and I think it is all the better for it. It does suffer from the problem in TV series where one remarkable thing has to happen after another for fear of losing audience interest (but that could also be said of ‘The Archers’, albeit on a slightly smaller scale and perhaps less deadly). This sadly misses the point, of course, that ordinary post-apocalyptic life had itself WAS extraordinary to us viewers watching from the lap of technological luxury and leisure.

Series three took the show to its conclusion (1977). It still had the essence of what Turner commented was Nation’s premise, a “western, the struggle against nature and the attempt to establish a morality in a lawless land.” But now it was more about adventure than character and smaller domestic struggles. The search for engineer Greg Preston becomes more than annoying and dampens the effect of the ‘Survivors’ as a whole.

Of course ‘Survivors’ received the inevitable modern BBC remake. And like many updates it revels in sensation, where remarkable things have to so exciting and bombastic as to be inane. Zombie-apocalypse movie and video games are now ten a penny and with them, the danger of something as benign as a disease just doesn’t cut it anymore.

In many ways, however, the real world is more frightening. Remember BSE, driving past foot-and-mouths bonfires, bird-flu? And the impending influenza epidemic we’re due?

Yes, ‘Survivors’ is old-fashioned. But it is a unique piece of British TV history, trapped in time in this vast DVD box set.

SOURCES: ‘Survivors’ the complete series on DVD; ‘The ManWho Invented the Daleks: the strange worlds of Terry Nation’ by A. W. Turner(Aurum Press, 2011); http://survivors-mad-dog.org.uk/

REVIEW: ‘A Nuclear Family Vacation (Travels in the World of Nuclear Weaponry)’ by N. Hodge & S. Weinberger

There were tests on living creatures as well. Because pigskin is remarkably similar to human flesh, the U.S. government experimented on live pigs. Tests in 1957 exposed some twelve hundred pigs to atomic detonation.

This is a strange book. Much like the Missile Defence Programme itself, it is presented as one thing but is, in fact, something else. Whereas Missile Defence was sold to the world as a defensive measure, in reality it was an offensive means of getting one’s enemy to believe you could withstand a first strike and thus break the M.A.D. doctrine which guaranteed mutual destruction to your advantage. And therein lay the end of deterrence.

Here, I detect the heavy hand of the Bloomsbury marketing office: ‘A Nuclear Family Vacation’ has no family about it and as such is a rather lazy play on words, and it is hardly a travelogue as the sub-title and ironic cover of my edition would have you believe. Instead what we get is an extended journalistic foray into the development of the United States nuclear defence programme. And it reads like the kind of article one might expect in the Sunday supplements, albeit stretched over some 285 fairly laborious pages.

The most despicable line these Cold War enthusiasts reveal is the deadly lamenting of the end of the Cold War itself. Engineers, scientists and contractors seem to openly regret the end of so-called hostilities between the US and the Soviet regime. With funding removed there was, before 9/11, no role for development in a world where mutually-assured destruction guaranteed jobs for what seem like unashamedly candid hotheads who believe in the myth of the great American dream.

Initially, nuclear weapons were delivered by bombers lumbering through the skies and, like any aircraft, could be shot down. The advent of the ballistic missile changed the entire calculus: A nuclear attack with intercontinental ballistic missiles was nearly unstoppable. The ABM Treaty, adopted in 1972, helped preserve the Cold War’s nuclear balance of terror by ensuring that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would (with certain exceptions) deploy active defences against ICBM’s, thus guaranteeing mutual assured destruction. The treaty was seen as a landmark of arms control, limiting the need for new offensive nuclear weapons and reinforcing a key point of nuclear deterrence: the only defence against nuclear attack was massive retaliation.

Following 9/11 the Bush Presidency quit the Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaty and the military got the renewed funding it had been searching for since the end of the Cold War. Now missile defence had a new role with Iran and North Korea. Though, as the authors point out in a rare moment of rightful scepticism, not a single missile has been halted by Missile Defence Programme in realistic test conditions – the above passage suggests an acceptance of M.A.D. as a legitimate tool for peace (as opposed to eradication of nuclear weapons, which simply isn’t entertained throughout the book).

Look at the anger Bush’s policy has awoken in Russia. Even if, as the book claims, Russia missiles wouldn’t be the target of the Missile Defence in Poland and the Czech republic (as they are convinced their missiles would fly north across the Pole as the shortest route to the USA), the political message cannot be ignored. In kind, long-range Russian nuclear bombers have re-started their run-up against UK airspace (as – let’s face it – with Fylingdales, we’re little more than a radar outpost for the US military and it’s NORAD).

Hodge writes for Jane’s Defence Weekly and has also featured in the FT and Foreign Policy magazine. His wife, Weinberger, writes for Wired’s national security blog ‘Danger Room’ and has also appeared in the Washington Post. But their journalistic qualities need to be held into account. These people are definitely nuclear tourists and while they clearly know their subjects well and write on the history with authority, they seem to portray an ugly fascination with their topic and, like the military hotheads they interview, metaphorically rubs their hands with glee at the thought of a new generation of nuclear R&D. Not quite the un-biased, scientific view they should have presented. Perhaps Bloomsbury’s editorial team have themselves been nuked. To be fair, they rightly raise an eyebrow at the survivability argument of the US side and also point out that post-‘duck and cover’ the general consensus appears to be that protecting the civil population wasn’t really on their agenda. But these points paradoxically run counter to their implied view that the presence and continuity of nuclear weapons is not to be questioned, whereas the jobs of its committed servants re-appears in almost every chapter. If only they cared so much about humankind.

But I have to ask myself why did I buy and read this book? And why did I continue to read it when the repulsive lamenting of the good old days of Reagan and Star Wars became clear? What then is the appeal of nuclear weapons? The answer is simple: war fascinates. Its history and its depiction of the worst of human kind. From All Quiet on the Western Front and the poetry of Sassoon or Owen to movies like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory or Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. From the War Game to Threads. Only by recognising the worst in human nature can we hope to change. This book is a despicable reminder that, despite what the history books tell us about a period of time we’ve called ‘the Cold War’, US military staff sit round-the-clock, trigger-ready and morally bereft in their underground missile silos with 10,000 warheads at their disposal (with 400 more in Europe, many in the UK). Or humming around the oceans, waiting for politicians to fail, British sailors maintain Trident and its capability to leash death unto millions of innocent civilians. The authors end by stating that ‘It took a trip around the world for us to question the rationale behind the nuclear arsenal,’ – frankly they appear to be lacking in imagination. They sleep-walked around the world just as many people sleep-walked out of the Cold War not realising the nightmare was still a reality. What’s missing here and in the wider Trident debate is the child’s question – ‘Why?’ to which the response could be left to Albert Einstein when already too late he commented on the destructive power of the atom: ‘If only I had known, I would have been a watch-maker.’

Although John Christopher is popularly known as the man who brought us ‘The Tripods’, this seminal 1956 work in the cannon of apocalyptic fiction needs to be disassociated with the authors sci-fi credentials, deserving a much wider audience. Just as the William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ offered a grotesque analysis of the potential of cruelty of humanity, so ‘The Death of Grass’ offer us a taste of how civilisation can quickly crumble. And with it, all that makes up society.

The premise of the book is one now familiar with anyone who considered the possibilities of swine flu, BSE, foot and mouth, aids or avian bird flu. In fact, in 1999, a form of stem rust appeared in African crops which quickly became an epidemic spreading from Africa to Asia and the Middle East and destroying a large amount of cereal crop with it.

Anyway, take bird or swine flu – here is a direct correlation to Christopher’s terrible prognosis just as ‘Threads’ posed the interconnectedness of things – Christopher sees a rampant disease among grasses as the first domino which sets the path to the destruction of modern civilisation.

Things start as a distant rumble, in China. But soon the BBC news reports that the rioting for food (rice and wheat or barley make up the genus that is in the family of grasses) begins to spread Westwards through India and then into Eastern Europe. The Western world begins charitably – sending supplies, but soon the mass begin to question this policy as scientists fail to find a way to stop the virus from spreading.

John Custance – our protagonist – and his family make an early break for his farmer-brothers Lake District valley farm, where he too has been watching the virus intently and switched to planting only root vegetables. They escape just as London is sealed off by the Army. However, things turn quickly nasty at roadblocks or the roads to villages, now arming themselves defensively against the masses rioting in the cities. I guess this does sound far-fetched but Christopher reads like John Wyndham: characteristically British and reserved – both in content and style. And it is that British reservation which increases the terrible frankness of murder, rape, looting – the juxtaposition of the English countryside with its dead grass but profoundly ordinary provincial setting that makes it such haunting reading.

Although I found the opening annoying (there’s a poorly written segment where he said / she said / he said / someone said comes over as rather amateurish – it’s as if Christopher struggles with openings), once the pace quickens, so does the fluidity of the writing and I’m certain most readers will become compelled by the protagonists struggle for survival in a speedily crumbling world. Penguin reissued the novel under its Modern Classics banner – so it’s claims on our time as readers comes with good recommendation.

The Death of Grass’ does the social decay and lawlessness of an holocaust at least as well as the leading examples of apocalyptic film – ‘Threads’ or ‘The War Game’. As such it is chilling warning of how fragile our world might actually be.

(the  topic at last night’s pub philosophy meeting lead by Prof. John Clarke MA and Emeritus Professor of History of Ideas at Kingston University)

Some points I am still pondering – help welcome…

1. Can an argument, hypothesis or idea exist independent of the philosopher – as vehicle – who propagated it? When does a hypothesis become so consumed by adherence to an ideology by its vehicle that its value decreases? Is it when we get emotional about that ideology (as we rightly do with Nazism or Communism)?

Or, would Heidegger’s reputation be different were he not a Nazi?

What if he unconditionally recanted his Nazi Party membership? Does that actually matter? Is the hypothesis bigger than the man?

Many struggled with this last night, but other examples were offered – Wagner for example; have we dismissed his music because of his attitudes that seemed entirely compatible to his Nazi admirers? Jung has the advantage of admitting he was wrong to be involved with Nazis and their sympathisers and this appears to be hardly mentioned when talking of him and his body of work today and yet with Heidegger it is always mentioned as a defining context.

2. Did Heidegger really completely reject calculative thinking (in favour of purely meditative thought)? The answer from Prof. John Clarke was ‘no’, but it seemed to me that the attitude was more binary than not. This strikes me as somewhat asinine of someone purported to be among the most influential of thinkers in the 20th Century. Then again, I’ve not read his criticism of calculative thinking, but I am surprised he sees little value in it.

Instead, Prof. Clarke referred to Heidegger’s love of poetry and the almost Taoism of the meditative critique, but this is a paradox: poetry is full of rules, syntax, craft, a necessary mathematical pulse even – it’s more than aesthetic. I guess this is the danger of only a 45minute lecture on a complex man, especially when we warned that ‘Being and Time’ (Heidegger’s greatest work) is virtually unreadable.

3. The idea of anti-modernist attitudes was floated. It seemed to me from what we heard about Heidegger was that, actually, he would’ve been more at home/peace (and perhaps enjoyed a kinder audience) had he been born 60-70 years before and entered into the circles of William Morris and the Arts & Crafts bent of British socialism as opposed to the National Socialism of Germany in the 1930’s. The argument being that the zeitgeist at the turn to first-quarter of the 20th Century saw theological and philosophical challenges to meet modernism which was running away with itself – had taken the enlightenment too far. The volk were spiritually dissatisfied with modernism. Modern life is rubbish. It was technology-led and reinforcing a soullessness which was consuming faith, culture, socio-political issues as well as the aesthetic.

The example offered from our modern understanding modernism is the endless development of, say, TV from analogue to digital to micro gadgets replacing formerly cabinet-sized beasts of the lounge (and, I assume, the depreciation in quality content in light of the increase in means and technological advancement, which was implied but not actually cited). But, I objected, this criticism is not an aspect of Heidegger. In fact, I could not think of a single philosopher who actively embraces endless developments in pure technology and thus the implication of the contrary. And the reason is clear: it is not philosophers who occupy this realm, but the forces of economics.

Perhaps we could mention Marx, but I rather think we should separate his observations on economics from his pure philosophy. Marx philosophises on the exploitation at the kernel of capitalism, but capitalism is NOT a philosophy it is a socio-economic and political structure. So, still, can you think of a pro-technology philosopher? No. And I’ll tell you why because economics of this kind thrives on mindlessness not wisdom.

So I am not entirely convinced of the value of this if all philosophers are anti-technology by their love of wisdom alone; they can be against modernism and post-modernism, but not against pure technology just as they can’t be for it; it is a personal value judgement not a system of thought.

I have always struggled with the notion erroneously (it seems) attributed to Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.’

On the face of it this maxim exemplifies the truly liberal society; one which fully embraces freedom of speech – a proper open democracy. But what about the views of Nazis?

I – and I suspect many of you – will never defend the views of the far right, let alone to the death. Indeed, quite the contrary. So how do we justify this messy shift in logic?

Perhaps Voltaire, if he said it at all, was simply wrong.

What then is the limit of our liberal willingness to entertain extremes and controversy in the name of freedom of speech?

Extreme expressions and controversy in the world of art is considered the means by which boundaries are pushed and that, as we are told by the critics, is to be commended, the same cannot be said of controversial ideas in the realm of governance by either the far right or, by logical extension, the far left. This in itself reveals a form of logical inconsistency.

Take the recent banning in Russia of Mein Kampf. Reuters reported the ban as ‘an attempt to combat the growing allure of far-right politics.’ [1] Does the ban go too far? Or is it justified as a means to halt fascism?

To flip the scenario as a thought experiment: how would we on the left feel if the new ConDem coalition sought to ban the works of Trotsky following the Socialist Worker’s Party storming of Acas offices during the Unite’s union negotiations with the despicable BA, in fear of the rise of the far left?

First, I guess the comparison is somewhat like comparing apples to oranges, especially to an outsider. But I think the point remains a moot one: to be truly liberal means to defend the rights of the worst of the far-right (and the best of the far-left) on the principle that freedom of speech is sacrosanct.

So the distinction to justify endorsing those words attributed to Voltaire only to a certain extent must lie elsewhere. Perhaps it is in the promoting the use of violence for the use of deliberate persecution where we can mark the watershed.

Sir Karl Popper talked about this when he said: “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them,” concluding that “We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

But who is to judge what is to be tolerated?

Thus you can see how difficult it is to find a philosophically strong point from which to stand on this issue. I guess – in the end – we make our own personal value judgements on things like this as the truly logical conclusion is just too unpalatable.

My personal position is this: I do not believe banning Mein Kampf is a good move, in the same way I believe pushing for a ban on the BNP because they are the BNP will not drive the fascists away. It serves only to drive them underground and, as evidence has already shown us, to radicalise them.

No, we must meet the fascists head on; not on the streets with fists but first in the battleground of people’s perceptions. We need to deconstruct their arguments and reveal the true nature of the BNP and their European counterparts; only then can we ensure they are democratically impotent precisely because decent human beings will see through their policies as an abhorrent affront to civilised people.

Thus, I feel, there is a terribly sad irony that the Nazi bible is to be banned just as the Nazi’s themselves had began their totalitarian regime by banning and burning.

The ban needs to be lifted in Germany too as it has already demonstrated that it is futile: anyone can buy the book on ebay or Amazon and elsewhere on the web and get it delivered to their door. And the fascist skinhead scene [2] thrived on being an underground means of disseminating hate throughout Europe and the USA.

Mein Kampf needs to be taught and discussed and thus to be understood as a document of hate. Then it acts a signpost to the markers that allows genocide to continue into our own modern era. Only by educating – both from history and today’s world around us – we will learn from the mistakes man has sown for himself. The West played its part in the creation of the Third Reich when we burdened Germany with un-payable reparations from WWI. In the era of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the US supported the insurgency which eventually gave us the Taliban, Al Qaeda and militant Islam the world-over.

The notion that the ban will stem hate crime in Russia or anywhere else is baseless. A book – mere paper and words – does not cause hate crime just as it cannot commit hate crime; it needs an executor and a motive, just like the knife, smashed glass bottle, gun or concrete block, just like the fist, iron bar, brick or nail bomb…

[1] Reuters, Moscow: ‘Russia bans Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” as extremist’ – 26th March 2010 by C. Sweeney.

[2] Just read our former MEP’s Glyn Ford’s work on this topic to see how incestuous the fertilisation of hate is among skinheads across Europe. I think the book is still available as a Searchlight publication, or try the ANL website.

A zillion trees;
some of them dead
and some of them touching one another
looking at the dead.

by Karlos the Unhappy Jackyl