Friday, April 8, 2005

Simple lesson from 9/11 and reprisals

A few months after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York, I visited the site where the World Trade Centre once stood. I was drawn to it out of a desire to turn the almost celluloid television event that was Hollywood-like in its magnitude into reality. On one level my visit did this. The enormity of the calamity was immediately apparent. The gaping space where the 110-storey Towers once stood was a poignant marker of the size of the disaster. The heart-rending messages on the fence surrounding the site and posters of the missing a reminder of the human loss.

At the same time, however, my visit was decidedly unreal. Tourists clamoured for the best view of the site. Some disturbingly posed for photographs smiling in front of the rubble. An array of tasteless souvenirs were up for grabs. You could procure a roll of Osama Bin Laden toilet paper with the message 'Osama Kiss My Butt' for a few dollars. The pyre was still smouldering and people were making money. Nothing felt sacred about the place. It was a sad mess.

Recently, on a trip to New York, I found myself drawn to the space again. I was hoping for something different a few years on. I arrived at the site via the newly-renovated World Trade Centre station, a large clean area with stainless-steel finishes. The whole site was cleared, contained and ready for development. The hawkers had been shunted elsewhere. Signs urged visitors to keep the site special and not to buy any items. Makeshift memorials and posters had been removed. Memorial plaques had been erected, listing the names of those killed. Of course, there were tourists, even those posing in front of the site. But tourist buses shuffled people on and off the site without much commotion. Everything seemed more subdued and ordered.

But something remained amiss and reality still felt distorted. This might be inevitable, considering the site is in the midst of an energetic city with little time for reflection. The scale of the devastation remains overwhelming. The attacks are also still recent. How can we memorialise history while it is in the making?

But the most startling realisation I had on my second visit was that, although Ground Zero now seems more ordered, this too was an illusion. The mess has not gone away but has been transferred elsewhere, namely to Iraq and Afghanistan. What makes this worse is that the US reprisal attacks, especially on Iraq, regardless of the commercial advantage to various US concerns, really boils down to misguided revenge. In fact, the whole sorry situation, from the attacks on the Towers to the US invasions, reek of vengeance justified by a whole range of perverted moral claims. These claims seem tragic in the true meaning of the word.

In literature a tragedy is a story in which a character is reduced to ruin because of moral flaws in their character. There are those who feel that the US has reaped what it sowed; its penchant for interfering in the business of other countries, commercialism and exploitation has meant that it finally got what it deserved. Equally, the “you are either with us or against us” mentality advocated by George W Bush is used to justify any action against those labelled as morally-bankrupt 'terrorist', no matter the consequence.

But, really, it is the mentality behind both of these views that is deeply tragic. They teach us nothing about how to deal with fundamental difference constructively and they do not enhance our ability to address complex social problems one bit.

As I walked away from Ground Zero for the second time, the message I took away was simple: two wrongs just don't make a right.

Copyright Brandon Hamber, April 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 8 April 2005.

Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Gerry Adams address to the IRA

Many of you have been emailing me regarding the recent developments in Northern Ireland concering the death of Robert McCartney and the campaign for justice by his family. This is, of course, a very complicated situation. I did, however, find Gerry Adams recent statement, entitled "An address to the IRA" particularly interesting, thought some of you would appreciate a link to it. Click here to read it. Comments welcome as always.

Friday, April 1, 2005

Charity presents one-dimensional view of Africa

I am now an official survivor of the unmitigated blitzkrieg people in the UK call Red Nose Day. I suffered the relentless onslaught of weeping celebrities begging me to part with my cash to help starved Africans. I just managed to stomach the general public going berserk for a day, colouring their hair red and jamming 17 fat cross-dressers into a Mini Cooper, all in the name of charity.

But, despite the absurdity of it, Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day works. The charity extravaganza and telethon that happens every two years have raised more than £337-million since 1985, with 60% going to causes in Africa. That said, there is also something about this feel-good frenzy and media juggernaut that is Red Nose Day that makes me feel just a little uncomfortable. Am I the only one who feels the bitter irony of engaging in a pie-eating contest to raise money for the starving?

I do not want to be a party pooper or discourage philanthropy, but how much thought is really going into this type of giving? I have no doubt that those working at Comic Relief have a sophisticated strategy for selecting projects and sustaining them. Their Website convincingly describes the long-term impact the money makes. But is there similar strategic thinking when it comes to the general public?

The media machine behind Comic Relief, although successful at getting donations and sensitising the public to the plight of individuals in dreadful circumstances, also distances us from the bigger picture. The average public donor is sold a package, complete with red nose, hair gel and funny fundraising ideas, with no thinking required whatsoever. The message is simple: watch the TV insert about the plight of Africans, see what a difference Comic Relief makes, feel emotionally moved, dial a number and, faster than you could order a pizza, your money has bought a meal for a starving child.

You would expect, after 20 years, the campaign message to be a little more sophisticated. I do not want to take a cheap shot at Comic Relief or those millions of generous people out there. I also recognise the pragmatic argument that if a zany media campaign is needed to bring in the money then so be it. But there are other issues to consider.

In an effort to present a snappy media message, there is a tendency to paint Africa as an amorphous mass. It really doesn’t matter if the project being supported is in Sudan or Sierra Leone. It is all Africa – and it needs help. Media-wise, this works, but it leaves the UK public with a very one-dimensional view of Africa. It acontextualises why poverty and conflict came about it the first place. It lets governments off the hook and writes multinational companies out of the picture.

I know that Comic Relief tries to tackle this in its own way. Its educational materials for schools deal with questions of debt and fair trade. It encourages students to take a stand and write to MPs. But, sadly, this is not the public face of Comic Relief. It is a social indictment that charity has to be funky to get a public response.

Disturbingly the slick celebrity-driven marketing does not challenge the public to think about the root causes of poverty and do something more substantial than dipping into their pockets every two years.

Surely the campaign should include a focus on the need for fundamental political change to alleviate poverty and not just the importance of making an individual difference.

Comic Relief should be commended for all it has done and the world would be a better place if there was a red nose under every bed, but I only wish the whole thing was just a little more political and a lot more challenging.

To find out more on Comic Relief visit http://www.comicrelief.com/

Copyright Brandon Hamber, March 2005. "Look South" Column: an edited version of this article was published on Polity on 25 March 2005.

A Shared Future Policy Document

In Northern Ireland the policy document "A Shared Future Policy and Strategic Framework for Good Relations in Northern Ireland" has now been launched. According to the introduction of the the document "This policy document sets out that we need to establish over time a shared society defined by a culture of tolerance: a normal, civic society, in which all individuals are considered as equals, where violence is an illegitimate means to resolve differences, but where differences are resolved through dialogue in the public sphere and where all people are treated impartially". It remains to be seen how this will be embraced and developed. Download the document.