The People’s March

There are a number of big marches taking place in the UK today, demanding that the public get a final say on any deal made to leave the EU.

Despite what many people think, these marches are not demanding a stop to Brexit.

Surely, there cannot be anyone who is unaware of the original referendum and the result, as well as the resulting chaos and discord that followed it, but just in case there is…

The British public was asked in 2016 to vote on whether they wished to leave the EU or to remain. The results were as follows:

Of those who voted, 17,410,742 (51.9%) voted leave, and 16,141,241 (48.1%) voted remain.

The turnout was 72.2% of a total registered electorate of 46,500,001.

This means that 37.45% of the electorate voted to leave and 34.72 to remain.

So to say that the result was an overwhelming one (as has been frequently claimed) is clearly untrue. Not much over one third of the electorate declared their preference for leaving, and just over a third to remain.

One thing that is obvious in hindsight, and really should have been blindingly obvious at the time, is that if you offer a referendum on an incredibly significant and life-changing choice such as that, you should also state there should be a very clear majority for change (such as over 50% of the total electorate, or a margin of over (say) 15%)

And parliament has been utterly unable to come up with a workable, realistic plan to manage this exit.

It is true you are on shaky ground demanding a re-run, even if you think there is convincing evidence (as in this case) that everyone was lied to. And this is not about a re-run.

The initial problem, which has been the great stumbling block all along, is that nobody knew what they were voting for.

Politicians canvassing for ‘leave’ promised everything from completely halting all immigration to channelling massive sums of money to the NHS, all of which they knew was completely undeliverable, and naturally many people believed them.

So, what are the people taking part in the march demanding?

The official march website states its objective is that any Brexit is put to the people so that we can have the final say.

What it does not demand, is a stop to Brexit. Yet that is a theme I see everywhere in social media at the moment; we’re marching to stop Brexit – repeal article 50.

How about the petition?

Well, that states ‘revoke article 50 and remain in the EU’. Which is probably why so many people seem to think that’s what the march organisers are demanding, and consequently what is being repeated all over social media.

Now, although that might be something I’d like to see happen, you cannot get away from the fact that the result of the referendum was ‘leave’, and you cannot simply set that aside because you disagree with it. If it is something that is going to happen, it has to be because the majority of the public decide it is the right move.

Emotions are running very high and many people seem unable to even allow the other side to put their case without shouting them down. The name calling is ludicrous and disgraceful. And to have national newspapers with headlines calling MPs ‘traitors’ for voting against their (i.e. the newspaper’s owner’s) views is nothing short of repellent. And the unpleasantness is certainly not confined to just one side.

There is also far too much political posturing and point scoring. Not just from politicians, but from the public. Looking at social media, for example, there are many people who see this whole thing as Labour against Tory. I’m not going to attempt to dissect that, except to point out that the leadership from both parties has been derisory.

To be fair, there have been a few voices asking how it will be possible to bring both sides together when the dust has settled, but they have been largely drowned out by the clamour of those demanding their ‘rights’ and deriding their opponents on the one hand as treacherous cowards who want to see Britain ‘taken over’ by the EU, in a somehow similar manner to a country occupied by an invading army, or on the other as fascist bigots who want to expel everyone not white and Christian from the country.

There is only one way I can see out of this impasse, without the very real danger of violence and long-lasting bitter divisions. After all, once this is over, one way or another, we have to find a way to coexist with each other.

Parliament needs to either pass the deal the government has got, or alternately vote to leave with no deal, and then put that back to the people in a referendum that asks Do you accept the terms of this deal / no deal to exit the EU or do you wish to remain?

And the result of that referendum needs to be both final and legally binding. I can only speak for myself, but if the vote is still to leave, then it should be accepted since this time the electorate actually know what they are voting for. This is also, as I see it, the only way to respect people on both sides of the divide. And respect is something that seems to be in incredibly short supply at the moment.

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All Hail The Conquering Hero!

I’ve never wanted to ‘conquer’ mountains.

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Or any other parts of the world, really.

I’ve always felt this was the wrong way to think of a journey. It was ridiculous to think I could impose my will upon a mountain, or on a desert, or indeed upon any part of my route. That I could, perhaps, somehow bend it to my will.

I feel it is more a case of preparing as best as possible, including mentally, and then perhaps said mountain will tolerate my presence; will allow me passage.

‘Conquering’ also carries the implication of invasion, of fighting, of strife. That is not the sort of relationship I want with mountains, or with any other place I choose to travel.

Certainly, in the past I have travelled at least partly with that mindset at times.

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Some of you may recall I wrote about an extremely foolish journey I took in Oman when I lived there almost 30 years ago (Mr. Stupid Goes For a Walk). Although I was running low on water, I pushed myself to the limit to reach the final ridge of hills on the route I had decided I was going to achieve one day, nearly killing my stupid self in the process. And although I achieved my aim, I didn’t feel victorious.

Only a bit stupid.

I prefer instead to think of myself as a visitor. And as a visitor, I need to have some manners. You do not expect to find the visitors pushing through your house and demanding to see this or to be given that, so I don’t.

I am not out to break records, nor to prove how tough I am.

This does not imply a lack of ambition, nor a lack of determination. Indeed, I have both – it’s just that the mindset is a little different. In particular, I give myself different priorities. I want to reach my goal, but if I don’t it does not matter. I think I’m more attuned to my own safety, and perhaps that of others. I hope I can be receptive to the feelings of others, too.

A good example in the climbing world is that of the mountains in Nepal that climbers are forbidden to reach the summit of, due to the belief that they are the abode of gods. Theoretically, a climber will stop some 10 meters or so short of the summit. Opinion is naturally divided over whether a climber would, or wouldn’t, in the absence of any witnesses, respect that ban.

I would respect it every time.

The mountains, of course, are inanimate. They do not wish me harm or otherwise. Neither do deserts or oceans. Even the most inhospitable of landscapes is neutral. It does not care whether I succeed in my aim to reach or traverse a particular part of it, and it will not hinder or help me in the attempt.

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My feelings about a landscape are just my reactions to it, and if I should choose to give this landscape a kindly or vindictive character, I am only projecting my own feelings onto it.

This may give me comfort, or otherwise, but will make no material difference.

Maybe I am simply suggesting it’s good to travel with humility.

I have touched upon that before!

Going Green

On the morning of the 26th August, 2019, every single person on earth woke up to find that their skin had turned green.

For a few hours, there were an awful lot of people trying to find a way to change it back again, to try to dye it, rub the colour off, swallow lots of strange potions, try magic spells, see doctors, priests, scientists, mystics, druids, and all sorts of other experts and so-called experts, all of whom claimed they could cure the problem.

But all of whom had green skin as well, so they didn’t come across as very convincing.

Finally, someone thought to bellow up to God ‘Oi, God! What on earth have you done?’

There was a rumble of ethereal chuckling, and then God replied: ‘I am just so totally pissed off, like, with your saying how some of you are better than the others, like, just because of the colour of the skin I gave you. It’s all pretty random, after all. So now you’re all the same, and you might as well just stop it.’

‘Yeah…but…green?’

‘Yes, green. If I make you all white, then the ones that were already white will make out that was because they were superior in the first place. Same with all the other skin colours. So…green. None of you were green before.’

‘But…’

‘Plus,’ and here God gave a little Godly snigger, ‘you all equate green skin with aliens. So now you’re all aliens. And, even if I say so myself, that’s a good one.’

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Nothing’s ever simple, though, is it? Within a couple of weeks, once everyone had realised there was no mileage in everyone claiming to be a Green Supremacist, all the major religions started working overtime to fire up extra feuds and wars and to persecute anyone within reach who thought differently to the ways they did, anyone they considered heretical, those who some thought might be a slightly different shade of green, or cut their sandwiches in a non-prescribed way.

And then the sound of the loudest ever irritated sigh filled the skies and echoed around every valley and mountain and city on earth. It rumbled across the plains and seas and everyone stopped what they were doing and muttered ‘Oh, crikey. Now what?’

And God roared out ‘I thought I was angry before, but now I’m really pissed off! What on earth makes you think you can speak for me? This is all, quite frankly, rather insulting! I made this lovely planet, and put you on it so you could enjoy it and look after it and be nice to each other! How dare you presume to say that I hate people who you disagree with? How dare you say you have authority to kill in my name? And, while you’re at it, you can stop all the servile bowing and scraping, too. I mean, what sort of an image do you have of me?

‘Oh, and I almost forgot (‘cos I’ve got a lot of gripes with you lot!). Men are not superior to women in any way whatsoever. So you men can stop paying them less, treating them differently, forcing them to hide themselves, denying them education, declaring them inferior or evil, or discriminating against them in any other way at all, or else I’m jolly well going to visit a few plagues on you that will really make your blood run cold!

‘Now, start to look after my bloody planet, treat women with respect, and stop trying to find more cowardly ways to exterminate anyone you think different to yourselves!’

Blimey. Better do as She says.

The Kashmir Issue

I posted a little while back that I had prepared a rather contentious post.

This is it.

Of course, I realise I risk being shot down in flames over this post. An Englishman blogging on what he thinks might be the solution to an incredibly difficult problem in the Sub-continent. So I will put on my tin hat, duck behind the sandbags, and press ‘Publish’.

As always, I welcome your comments. In fact, it is probably pointless my posting this unless there is a conversation. But, please, keep it polite.

Obviously, I am not the only person to have thought of this idea. Indeed, I read about it a long time ago, when these various options were being discussed to the backdrop of bombs and bullets.

Plus ca change.

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I fear there is only one solution that is practical in the long term, but I strongly doubt that the governments of India or Pakistan would have the courage to implement it. For the whole of Kashmir to remain in Indian hands will mean a continuation of the devastating armed conflict in progress at present, with no prospect of it ever ending, plus the ever-present prospect of it escalating into something much more serious. But for it to pass entirely into Pakistani hands would be considered out of the question by the huge majority of the Indian population, and certainly by the whole of the political class.

No, the only prospect of peace that I see is for the state of Kashmir to be partitioned in much the same way as India herself was in 1947. The areas of Muslim majority such as the Vale of Kashmir would need to be ceded to Pakistan, and the remaining ones would remain part of India. Pakistan and the insurgents would need to agree to give up all claims to these areas. This would need to be achieved by negotiation in good faith with goodwill on both sides, both conscious of the risks and the monumental steps they are taking to finally establish permanent peace, and to restore prosperity to a troubled part of the sub-continent. And upon resolution, all parties would need to declare very publicly that this was a solution agreeable to all, and give it their blessing.

It is not as though there is no precedent to that arrangement. After all, both the Punjab and Bengal were divided this way at independence, and although it was strongly resented by some, it was also generally viewed as the only practical solution. And it is what should have happened to Kashmir, then.

If the difficulties in the way of this solution are huge, then so too are the incentives for success. It goes without saying that the loss of life and the devastation caused by the troubles are highly undesirable in the first place, and then there is the massive drain in resources to both sides by keeping huge forces established on either side of the border. With the prospect of peace, then agriculture, industry and tourism could return to normal with major benefits for everyone involved. Lastly, with the removal of the ‘Kashmir Issue’ as a friction between them, it is possible that both sides might finally come to the sort of mutual respect, collaboration, and friendship envisioned back in 1947. Even if the attempt were to end in failure, then the goodwill generated by the attempt could be a positive that might spill over into other areas of India / Pakistan relations.

The alternative solution, sometimes mooted, of an independent Kashmir under UN jurisdiction, appears an unworkable ideal. The state itself is too divided for this to work, and both Indian and Pakistani players would still covert the whole country. It is unlikely that conflict would cease under these conditions; it would be more likely to simply escalate. The small state would forever be reliant on the UN for security, leading to a constant financial drain on the organisation. The peacekeepers, too, would inevitably become military targets raising the risk of  new frictions arising.

I believe that the option of doing nothing is one that must be finally put aside. At present the situation is one where a resented and hated military presence governs within its own borders through fear and the threat of violence, That is not a situation that is likely to ever change to trust. The population are never going to learn to love their rulers that way. The only option in that situation is the eternal continuation of the status quo.

But it lies within the power of the regional players to solve this crisis once and for all, and it is essential that the attempt is made.

An Alien Culture?

More people travel for leisure purposes today than have ever done so in the past. And many work abroad on short- or long-term contracts, often with a certain amount of leisure time available to experience the culture that surrounds them there.

And this will result in these travellers meeting the people that make up the indigenous society where, for a while, they find themselves. Will there then be a meeting of minds?

Having lived in an ex-pat society, as I have referred to on here before, I am familiar with the laager mentality that often pervades it. I won’t go into all the permutations, but there is frequently a combination of arrogance and fear that leads to a strong feeling of ‘us and them’.

Many travel with the firm conviction that their own society is superior to any other, and are unwilling to see any good at all in any others. Some who go away to work resent being uprooted, and arrive with that resentment packed in their baggage. Some find the experience to be fearful, if they do not understand the language being spoken around them or assume that this alien society has values that somehow threaten them.

And they can either lock themselves away and peer over the barricades, or they can embrace the experience and learn from it.

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Travel broadens the mind, it is said, but sometimes it seems to just cement prejudices more firmly in place.

And how easy it is to travel around just looking for things to justify prejudices!

One of the more infuriating things that I come across occasionally is a bigoted and ignorant letter or article in a local newspaper (it often tends to be the local ones) where someone’s idiot views are justified by the phrase ‘I know; I was there’. I imagine them living their entire time in a foreign country in a compound that they rarely leave, yet thinking that they now know exactly how the society functions beyond their walls.

I’ve met one or two of them, over the years.

I spent three years in Oman, working, and I’ve travelled fairly extensively in India, but I do not imagine or pretend that I really have much more than a superficial experience of these places. I knew little of the local culture in Oman beyond what I could see in the streets and villages and markets that I visited. I didn’t know anyone well enough to spend time at their homes or in their social circles. I went with groups of other westerners to places of interest. I did spend a lot of time exploring the desert and the nearby towns on my own, but I was effectively still inside my own little bubble. It is a huge regret that I never got deeper under the surface.

I have, perhaps, managed to learn a little more about the real India, especially through spending time on a project in a village, although I cannot pretend, even to myself, that I really have any idea of what it is like to actually live in an Indian village.

During the later days of the British Raj, the rulers took the approach that their civilisation was naturally superior, and that there was nothing in Indian civilisation worthy of their consideration. The irony of this is that around the end of the eighteenth century, and the first years of the nineteenth, many of the British in India had taken a keen interest in Indian history and culture, themselves doing a tremendous amount to unearth much of the history that had been lost and forgotten. For that comparatively brief period, it would seem that many of the British treated Indians and their culture with a deep respect.

The reasons that this changed are probably deeper than my understanding, but two things stand out. Firstly, that from the beginning of the nineteenth century, many British women came to India in search of husbands, bringing with them what we tend to think of as Victorian attitudes, and secondly, there was an upsurge of evangelism in Britain, which translated itself in India as a movement to convert the ‘heathens’ to Christianity. These combined as a new feeling of superiority, and contempt for a society that was now seen as inferior, especially when much of it resisted their overtures.

With this, the British as a whole seemed to become more intolerant and arrogant, and less respectful of sensibilities. This culminated in the horrors of 1857, which could be said to be caused directly by these attitudes.

To return to the present day, it seems that many travellers have attitudes no better than their Victorian predecessors’. I wrote a post a few months back that mentioned a number of westerners I came across in a Himalayan hill resort, https://mickcanning.co/2015/10/25/the-mad-woman-of-the-hill-station/  should you wish to view it, whose behaviour and attitudes were just downright arrogant and disrespectful. They were doing no more than confirming their prejudices as they travelled, and at the same time I daresay they were confirming many people’s views of western travellers.

Yet there are many people who travel with open ears, open eyes and an open mind, and their rewards are far greater than those of the blinkered traveller. They have the wonderful opportunity to experience and learn about different cultures at first hand, speak to people who hold different beliefs and ideals to them, and perhaps learn a little of what drives them. In return, they have an opportunity to enlighten others, perhaps, to things in their own society that might not be understood by those others. In a small way, each and every one of them can choose to contribute either to different societies coming to understand and become more tolerant, or to the further spread of tensions, mistrust, and misunderstandings.

And all of these little interactions, added together, are as important and influential as the contacts between politicians and diplomats.

The Limits of Free Speech

It is the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that were in the headlines this year, because of the murders of twelve journalists and cartoonists at its Paris offices in January. Not unnaturally, this prompted a huge outpouring of sympathy and support not only for the families and friends of the victims, but also for the principles of free speech. The murders, it seems, were viewed by the majority of people, certainly in the west, as an attack on democracy and the principles of free speech and, by extension, on all of our western values.

But, even in the west, not everyone would view them in the same way. Whilst condemning the murders as abhorrent, there were many who pointed out that the cartoons were distasteful and unnecessary, and provocative towards all Muslims, and to view the cartoons as offensive was not the same thing as regarding all western civilisation as beyond the pale. And not the same thing as condoning the murders.

Yes, we do have the right of free, or at least reasonably unfettered, speech, but it is important to remember that with rights come responsibilities. It is generally accepted that we do not lie under oath, and that it is unacceptable to malign or defame someone. It is quite rightly against the law to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded cinema if there is no fire, or to claim that an expensive nostrum that one is marketing is the elixir of life.

It is against the law to incite violence, but, to return for the moment to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, it could be argued that their publication was just that. Those responsible for the publication must have been perfectly aware that they would be regarded as deliberately provocative and would provoke anger and outrage. At the very least, they displayed an unnecessary lack of respect towards a large number of people; a complete disregard for their feelings. I cannot help but compare their actions to those of the hooligan who throws a brick through a window, just to enjoy the sound of the destruction, and the knowledge that he has hurt and offended someone who he may never have met.

So…censorship. There! BOO! I’ve used the C word! To suggest that there might be valid reasons why we might have limits on free speech, is to openly invite accusations that one would like to censor this and that and everything and that is obviously a bad thing, no? Well, that depends rather on whether or not you agree with what I have just written. I would not suggest that discussion of certain subjects should be taboo, but that the challenge is to find a way to discuss a difficult subject without causing unnecessary offence, otherwise we prevent that discussion happening in a rational and intelligent way, anyway. It is not wholly possible to avoid controversy, and indeed we should not wish to, but a healthy discussion is not the same as a slanging match.

If it is possible to speak out to draw attention to injustices in a state or a system, or to discuss controversial subjects without the fear of being persecuted for doing so, then one is enjoying freedom of speech. Deliberately insulting or slighting another person is no more than rudeness; technically, it is verbal assault.

How does all this pertain to the writer, then? Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Conrad’s ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’, if written today, would clearly need to be given a different title. But does that make Conrad racist? No, it was considered to be acceptable, when it was written, to use that as a title. It wasn’t then considered as provocative. If he was writing today, Conrad would surely avoid it.

Many of the Father Brown stories are quite racist in their content but, again, are of their time. If Chesterton were writing today, he would surely write them differently, without those racist overtones. Whether or not he had any particular feelings about the superiority, or otherwise, of any particular race, he would, hopefully, self-censor his writing. It is, after all, what we all do at times to avoid offending someone else (don’t we?).

A number of newspaper journalists and editors will use the phrase ‘in the public interest’ to justify publishing damaging stories of famous figures’ private lives that can have no possible bearing on the lives of members of the public, but are merely prurient and salacious and sell newspapers. Is this a misuse of free speech?

What are your thoughts on this issue?