A little rant
Josh Kutchinsky presents a humanist historical perspective on human rights.
I feel scared. Frightened not just for myself but for others too, others like me; hands, eyes, brains, that sort of thing, but younger, maybe even not yet born. I don’t know if history repeats itself because I am not quite sure what that means. But I have lived long enough and more importantly read enough, which is to say shared the thinking of others, to detect some patterns.
I fear that people, including good people, are doing it again. They are believing that the other, as an individual is a threat and, in large numbers, agents of calamity, like disease to a healthy body.
At night I see Greek Colonels and a silhouetted soldier with fixed bayonet and flames. I watch as tanks silently, persuasively, roll into the Athenian streets, the birthplace of democracy. A radio beats out a military march interrupted by proclamations “We decide, we order” and the freedom to think evaporates. And the torture begins.
There is a woven copy of Picasso’s Guernica at the UN. Did I dream that they covered up this tapestry of terror so as not to disturb the diplomat’s weaving of half truths to persuade the world of the necessity of invading Iraq? I did not.
Today the original, and even more powerful, Guernica is at home in Madrid. Next year it will be the twentieth anniversary of its move to Spain. The artist’s wishes had been respected. The painting was not in Spain when Franco’s torturers were hard at work (and the Greek militia were busy pulling toenails).
Where else in this Europe of the Convention of Human Rights were tears being torn from people’s eyes? Portugal, for example, with Franco’s friend Salazar whitewashing language, as they all do, in this old ‘new state’ of horrors. These were Mussolini’s children, like Hitler, playing their power games over broken bodies.
Whilst governments in other countries did not succumb, do not believe that they were not at risk. There were even colonels plotting in the English shires. Harold Wilson’s paranoia was well founded.
Of course half of Europe was in shackles chained, more or less, to the Soviet empire: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. These were the lands of the invisible hand of terror, of the unheard scream, the disappeared, of the silenced. Millions were tortured and millions died.
In the 1960s I was in England, in the UK, in a backwater of this sea of suffering and witnessing some progress. I was not fully aware of the cruel hand which pressed down on those desperate for the lack of a divorce, the need for an abortion, the need to hide their sexual orientation, the need to breathe air free of the stench of sexual repression, of militaristic, hierarchical, class-ridden restrictions, racism and sexism. Suddenly there was a confluence of liberality and reform within a surge of youthful optimism.
Google a little if you are not familiar with the reforms that took place in the 1960s. Try and imagine the time before and what it must have been like for those who were oppressed.
Do not believe, for one moment, the claptrap spoken about this period as having gone too far. It never went far enough. By what measure? By the measure of individual suffering at the hands of others.
“Is there no need for rules, for discipline? Should people just be allowed to satisfy their immediate lusts and desires without any check?”
What else do people say, as they have always said, to impose their will on others?
“The young are out of control. The frightening events in society are caused not by us, but by them, by their freedom, their saying things which we wouldn’t dare to say and doing things we wouldn’t dare to do. They call it art but what is it? Self indulgent rubbish and we pay for it. Where’s the respect? They do drugs and drink and smoke even though we tell them not to. We tell them that some of us did some of these things and it wasn’t good. But will they listen? And then quietly to ourselves, whilst biting our lip we admit the very worst of it. Which is … that they are young and we, we are old and they will take what we have and they will outlive us.“
Am I so clever that I know what should be allowed and what should not? Well, first of all banning or forbidding something is not the same as putting a stop to it, but it does indicate an intention to punish those who disobey. Allowing something will also not necessarily make it happen. For it will not happen unless people wish it. Recently I was asked whether it might not be a good idea to make young people swear some sort of allegiance to human rights as what they described as “a last ditch effort to shore up respect for the UN’s Universal Declaration”. Well, maybe, but better still would be to educate young people about human rights and the benefits to them, their family, friends and others. Engage them in the development and improvement of these human rights globally, for the world will soon be theirs.
Clearly, most young people are not out of control, they are, in the main, if anything too much under control. Most of the frightening things in our society are of our making. Who else can be to blame? Creativity is the only hope for a better future and bad art is only a step on the road to good. If somebody is doing something of which we disapprove maybe we should ask ourselves whether it is doing us any harm. Then we could ask whether we are being made to do it ourselves. If we are being harmed maybe we could try and engage with them and help them see our problem? Try to find a way for them to be able to do what clearly they wish to do without it harming us. We should support reasonable controls to prevent harm to others. Of course, it may be necessary to sanction those who harm others but surely it is better still to educate and prevent the harm in the first place.
But this is all well and good in a well ordered society, but it is this very notion that I fear is at risk. It is at risk because those who spread rumours of terror and discontent do so because they wish to accrete more power to themselves and their clique or to prevent its diminishment. It has always been so. Europe is not just a common market, not just a political union, not just a common currency, it is a creation of its time and its time was the Europe shortly after World War Two , when fascist , and the equally repressive and totalitarian, communist ideologies were still at play, everywhere. I don’t know what other options might work to ensure that Greece, Portugal, Spain and the new Europe, all of us, are safeguarded from jackboot militarism. How are we to be gently encouraged to stroll peacefully arm in arm?
Human rights were conceived as a defence against tyranny, democratic or otherwise. Rights are decided by us, human beings, and may need improvement. However we must be sensitive to ignorant blustering (and even more to concerted, clever and assiduously contrived attacks) Resist those who would undermine the fundamental principles on which our safety, our peace and our security rests.
When we hear a platitude:
“Rights? What about responsibilities?”
“Why should Europe/Brussels/Strasbourg tell us what to do?”
“Who ever thought the Euro was a good idea?”
We should ask: who is saying this and why? Are they blustering or conniving or are they offering serious arguments backed up with evidence and maybe even suggesting a way forward?
We must resist,and protest on behalf of those people who are suffering (or will suffer) and we must do so as if they were our own, for in truth, they are.
Josh Kutchinsky is an organiser of the Central London Humanist Group and founder and co-ordinator of Hummay a humanist support group. He was a director in a publishing company and co-editor of Merely a Matter of Colour – The Ugandan Asian Anthology. He was also director of a laser show company and produced the first comprehensive exhibition of lasers and their applications at the Science Museum. He writes prose and poetry as well as about science and technology.