Sunday, 23 November 2008

Refugee voucher exchange in Bristol

Yesterday the Bristol Refugee Rights (BRR) and Bristol Defend the Asylum Seekers Campaign (BDASC) held a stall outside Tesco Metro in Broadmead. I went down to see them, as I'd heard about a voucher exchange that they were running.

A member of BRR explained to me that people who arrive in this country and apply for asylum are split (by the authorities) into two categories. Those whose cases are pending receive a small amount of money, on which they have to try and live; they're the (relatively) lucky ones. The other group are those whose cases are rejected, but who remain in this country (there are a number of recognised reasons as to why people do this, e.g. there is a war and no rule of law, or perhaps their cases are under appeal). This group of people are given no money; instead each week they receive £35 worth of supermarket vouchers. They must live entirely from Tesco or Asda or Sainsbury.

What makes this system completely intolerable is that both groups of people, although they have legitimate reasons to stay in the country, are not allowed to work. This system is wrong on every level:

  • it denies people the right to work; a right which is fundamental and vital for dignity and self-esteem.
  • support is minimal in any case, but asking people to live entirely from corporate supermarkets is outrageous.

To counter this shite situation, BRR have started a voucher exchange: so, today I went down to their stall and gave them £20 which they will pass on to an asylum seeker. In return I got £20 worth of the asylum seeker's supermarket vouchers. Shopping at Tesco's is not my idea of a good time, but at least I have the option of going elsewhere, so I was glad to help.

This exchange needs to expand - there are a lot of asylum seekers who'd love to swap their vouchers for some real money. If you'd like to help contact Bristol Refugee Rights: or 0117 9080844. Alternatively drop in to their centre, on Newton Road near Easton Leisure Centre. They're there on Wednesday mornings or all-day Thursday.

The nice lady from BRR said they really need people to send them cheques. They can then send back vouchers, and start expanding the exchange operation.

Two postscripts:

  1. The BRR woman also mentioned the case of Abraham Ghebre Michael. He fled Eritrea after being mistreated and hospitalized for refusing to go into military service due to his religious beliefes. In 2003 he sought aslyum in Britain. The Home Office have turned down his claim and now Abraham is homeless, destitute and without a solicitor. Amnesty have tried to tell the Home Office how dangerous it is to go back to Eritrea but no one listens. How can we call ourselves a civilised country, when this is how we treat people who ask for our help?

  2. As I've said already, this voucher scheme stinks on a number of levels. The fact that the government won't give money out to people whose applications are rejected put me in mind of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. What's wrong with people being given money, and the freedom to choose what they spend it on? Why have we become so keen on voucher systems, and the like? People will answer that it's in the name of accountability: "we don't know what they'll spend it on". It's the same reason people won't give money to beggars.

    Bollox to that, I say. And George Bernard Shaw agrees: how dare we swan around imposing our middle-class morality on those that we think are in need of it? Mr Doolittle sums it up:

    I'm one of the undeserving poor: that's what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he's up agen middle class morality all the time. If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: "You're undeserving; so you can't have it." But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I'm playing straight with you. I aint pretending to be deserving. I'm undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and thats the truth.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Angela Davis and Barack Obama

Last night I had the privilege of listening to Angela Davis, a woman I have admired since I first heard of her, and her activism. She was speaking to a philosophy conference so this was not the occasion to spit fire; nonetheless, though her delivery was restrained, the content of her words was as uncompromising as I expected.

What was most interesting to me was that she spent some time reflecting on the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency. This has been an event to which I have felt a strange, and unsettling ambivalence. On the one hand I am supremely glad that the Republican beast is dead (as Bill Hicks put it); and that the beast has been killed by a black man is so much more magnificent. On the other hand I am not a believer in substantial change from above; I do not look towards US Presidents for hope, for in my lifetime all I have ever seen from that quarter is war and malignant oppression.

Angela Davis articulated this dual response very well. On the one hand she was prepared to honour the moment in which the US, a country so riven by the colour line (c.f. W.E.B. Dubois), has elected a black man to the presidency. She felt the joy of the moment, and marvelled at the joy which was being expressed by millions of people across the US, and across the globe. She called this an aesthetic response which I think describes the moment splendidly. My understanding of this phrase is this: that the President is a black man is important primarily (exclusively?) because it is a post of such symbolism; finally America has a black face, if you like. Black America has been given a part to play in the aesthetics of the nation, in the way that the nation describes itself, and is described by others. For black Americans this is hugely significant, and hugely affirming: aesthetics are important.

But now contrast this with Angela Davis' description of her own activism: she has not spent a lifetime fighting for black liberation so that blacks can be included in the oppressive structure of modern America. No, she has been fighting for a new social structure in which all people, black and white, can play their part. When she was on the run in the 1960's, her dream was not of a black president but of no president and, instead, a society of fairness, and of justice. A neat way to represent this is her affirmation of the term black liberation, which was the term she and her peers used to describe what they were fighting for. It is a term that contrasts sharply with the idea of a struggle for civil rights; this latter suggests a struggle to be included in American society, whilst black liberation suggests a more militant idea, that of being free from American society in its current manifestation.

Thus, for Angela Davis, the aesthetics, and the substance of this week's vote are somewhat at odds with each other. It is this tension which I have also felt, and which explains my ambivalence very well. There is an imperative, then, to "continue to be radical", as she put it. While editorials may opine that this week's vote draws a line under America's racism, and marks the final victory for the civil rights movement, we should bear in mind that life for an American black man or woman remains fraught. They remain over-represented in the prisons, as victims of crime, as the poor. Their health is poorer than the average American, but they are under-represented in hospitals because of a lack of universal health care. The list goes on.

I will end this piece with some quotes from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States". It seems appropriate that, in a week which many are calling historic, we remind ourselves of some of the harsh realities of America's history. It is a history that has been transformed for the better by the struggle of ordinary people; that struggle goes on.

Quoting Sojourner Truth, legendary ex-slave, black activist and fighter for women's rights in the 1800s:
That man over there says that woman needs to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches.... Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-upddles or gives me any best place. And a'nt I a woman?
Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a'nt I a woman?
I could work as much and eat as much as a man, when i could get it, and bear the lash as well. And a'nt I a woman?
I have borne thirteen children and seen em most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a'nt I a woman?(p.122 More on this speech)

Quoting Frederick Douglass, escaped slave and celebrated writer:
What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that revelas to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour. (p.178)

Frederick Douglass again:
Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reforms. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of struggle.... If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedds nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will... (p.179)

Quoting Chief Black Hawk in 1832:
I fought hard. But your guns were well aimed. The bullets flew like birds in the air, and whizzed by our ears like the wind through the trees in the winter. My warriors fell around me... The sun rose dim on us in the morning, and at night it sunk in a dark cloud, and looked like a ball of fire. That was the last sun that shone on Black Hawk... He is now a prisoner to the white men... He has done nothing for which an Indian ought to be ashamed. He has fought for his countrymen, the squaws and papooses, against white men, who came, year after year, to cheat them and take away their lands. You know the cause of our making war. It is known to all white men. They ought to be ashamed of it. The white men despise the Indians, and drive them from their homes. But the Indians are not deceitful. The white men speak bad of the Indian, and took at him spitefully. But the Indian does not tell lies; Indians do not steal.

An Indian who is as bad as the white men, could not live in our nation; he would be put to death, and eaen up by the wolves. The white men are bad school-masters; they carry false looks, and deal in false actions; they smile in the face of the poor Indian to cheat him; they shake them by the hand to gain their confidence, to make them drunk, to deceive them, and ruin our wives. We told them to let us alone; but they followed on and beset our paths, and they coiled themselves among us like the snake. They poisoned us by their touch. We were not safe. We lived in danger. We were becoming like them, hypocrites and liars, adulterers, lazy drones, all talkers, and no workers...

The white men do not scalp the head; but they do worse-they poison the heart... Farewell, my nation!... Farewell to Black Hawk. (p.130, full text)

On the American war of independence and still true today:
Here was the traditional device by which those in charge of any social order mobilize and discipline a recalcitrant population - offering the adventure and rewards of military service to get poor people to fight for a cause that they may not see clearly as their own. (p.77)

On farmers in the 1700s crippled by debt in an unjust economic system:
The crowd went back to the square, broke open the county jail, and set free the debtors. The chief justice, a country doctor, said: "I have never heard anybody point out a better way to have their grievances redressed than the people have taken." (p.92)

Quoting Edmund Wilson on World War II:
We have seen, in our most recent wars, how a divided and arguing public opinion may be converted overnight into a national near-unanimity, an obedient flood of energy which will carry the young to destruction and overpower any effort to stem it. The unanimity of men at was is like that of a school of fish, which will swere, simultaneously and apparently without leadership, when the shadow of an enemy appears, or like a sky-darkening flight of grasshoppers, which, also all compelled by one impulse, will descend to consume the crops. (p.233)

Monday, 27 October 2008

Aldermaston Big Blockade

I'm helping out with press work for the Aldermaston Big Blockade, which is happening today. The first press release can be viewed here.

Police manhandling protesters at one of the entrances to the Atomic Weapons Establishment

And while I'm discussing inspiring protests against weapons manufacturers, a group of Bristolians recently took the fight to Raytheon, manufacturer of parts for bunker busters and cluster bombs. Two of the protesters camped on Raytheon's roof for 38 hours. Read about it!

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

We go by night

Leaving the city, I travel quickly
To move slowly
And see the sunset spreading rubies across yellow gorse.
I say to myself, "this is living deeply."
But the blind man!

Leaving the office bustle, I dash between traffic
To tread softly
On lawn clippings, to hear birds clawing through twig piles for their nest's next layer.
I say to myself, "these are simple pleasures."
But the deaf girl!

Leaving week-day madness, I drive through suburbs
To step head-bowed
Under consecrated arches, through filtered light and careful stillness.
I say to myself, "here is holiness."
But the outcast!

Staying put, I live dangerously,
Moving painfully
Through hungry cities, bloody villages, lonely crossroads.
My companions are the blind man, the deaf girl, the outcast.
It is the darkness that speaks to me. It is the agony night which whispers truth.

I wrote this back in 2001. I think of it as a poetic restatement of an earlier post about retreat versus engagement.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Maternity services review

Since 2006 there has been an ongoing review of services for birth and the newborn across Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. The review is currently asking for feed-back from the general public. We have until 17th October to express our opinion on this issue.

In the next week or so I expect to become a Dad for the first time. Pretty bloody exciting. The process of preparing for parenthood has been a really interesting and satisfying one; my partner and I have received a lot of support from different people, including professionals. Generally speaking, I would say that professionals in this area do an excellent job.

There are of course exceptions to this though. And, for me, these exceptions generally revolve around the system's desire to manage all the people (mother, partner, child) involved in the birth. There are a lot of rules and guidelines in place that prescribe what happens to the people involved at various stages of pregnancy and birth. A lot of the time these are really helpful but not always.

For instance there is a strict rule at Southmead Hospital that there will be no partners on maternity wards after 8pm. The maternity ward is where the mother and baby go after they have given birth (the birthing wards are open to partners for the entire birth process). So, if my child is born in the afternoon, then I will be able to spend very little time with him or her, before being forcibly ejected from the premises. My partner will then have to cope on her own with our newborn child until I am allowed on the ward again at 10am the next morning.

Rules like this can be incredibly damaging I believe. If a mother wants to avail herself of the professional support available on the maternity ward, then her partner is disqualified from enjoying those precious early hours with his/her child. It is a real shame.

I intend to contribute to the on-going review of maternity services, to suggest that this rule be changed. I encourage others to also participate - especially those who have had experience of maternity services in this area. It is a great chance for changes to be made, especially as the people conducting the review seem to be recognising this tendency for the birth experience to be "over-managed". The review has highlighted the increasing occurence of Caesarean sections as a cause for concern; more generally, births tend to involve more intervention and to be "more medical" than they used to be. This review may be a chance to curb these trends.

Changes suggested by the review

  1. More promotion of the importance of care before becoming pregnant.
  2. Direct access to a midwife without having to see a GP first.
  3. Targeting some resources to those with the highest need, for example by improving translation and interpretation services and access to English classes.
  4. Employing specialist midwives to work with vulnerable women such as teenagers, drug users, etc.
  5. A wider choice of antenatal classes.
  6. More choice of where to give birth.
  7. More women to have a home birth or a birth in a more home-like environment.
  8. Women to have one-to-one care from a midwife during labour.
  9. Women will be able to choose to have postnatal care, individually or in groups at their local health centre rather than at home.
  10. Improvements to services for women with mental health problems.
  11. More training for midwives, e.g. to help parents following the death or illness of their baby.

The review has also suggested that women see the same midwife throughout their pregnancy, and during the birth. In the current system women have often never met the midwife who attends to them during their labour; this can be just one more stress in an already stressful time.

How to participate in the review

  • Website: more information about the review is available here.
  • Email: bhsp[at]bristolpct[dot]nhs[dot]uk
  • Postal address: Bristol Health Services Plan, Freepost BS1 O78, King Square House, King Square, Bristol, BS2 8EE.
  • Telephone, free phone number: 0800 015 5127
  • Minicom: 0117 9002675
  • Finally, there are a series of public meetings that people can attend

    Monday 6 October, 6.30-8pm
    The Hall
    Broadmead Baptist Church
    BS1 3HY

    South Gloucestershire

    Monday 22 September, 10-11.30am
    Oak Hall
    Jubilee Centre
    Savages Wood Road
    Bradley Stoke
    BS32 8HL

    North Somerset

    Thursday 2 September, 6.30 -8pm
    Main Hall
    Folk Hall
    High Street
    BS20 6PR

    Thursday 18 September, 6.30-8pm
    St James Church Hall
    Woodborough Road
    BS25 1AQ

    Tuesday 7 October, 10.30am-12pm
    The Campus
    Highlands Lane
    BS24 7DX

Monday, 7 July 2008

Speaking with children

The genesis of this piece was the discussion on Bristol IndyMedia newswire about attacks on the cycle path in Easton. What particularly struck me about these attacks was that people referred to the attackers as `groups of kids'. Why would children do this? Well I've got no answers but this piece outlines the trail that my thoughts have taken in the weeks since reading the discussion...

In just over a month's time I expect to become a dad for the first time. That admission should tell you all you need to know about my interest in the question of parenting... and about my current ignorance of the subject.

Not long since I was talking to a young relative of mine (let's call him Ben) who had got himself in a lot of trouble with his family, due to misbehaviour at school. He'd been excluded for a couple of days over an incident - the first time that (to his family's knowledge) he'd been in any serious trouble at school.

What struck me, when I spoke to him about it, was how little his voice had been heard by the rest of his family. A version of events had come forth from teachers at the school and this had been immediately received as the whole story, with Ben cast as the villain of the piece. Undoubtedly Ben had been pretty naughty, but when I talked to him it was also clear that some of the teachers had probably got the wrong end of the stick.

In the family's eyes though, the most important thing was for Ben to understand the importance of submitting to authority. They were concerned that he learned to `behave' for his teachers, and to do as he was told, for fear that his behaviour would spiral out of control and he'd ruin his chance for a decent education. Their concerns were well-intentioned and, to some degree, well-founded. My reservation is that we can become so focussed on getting a particular message across that we lost sight of the `truth' within a situation.

It was an issue I came across when I worked in homeless hostels in Bristol. Residents would often come to staff members griping about any number of issues; a lot of the time it was simply a way of venting their frustration at the daily difficulties of their existence and all I needed to do was be sympathetic, and help them to calm down a little. Sometimes though their complaints were related to serious issues relating to how the hostel was run, or the behaviour of other residents, and the `calm down' response was not appropriate; just diffusing the complaint was missing the point. The problem was that I (and my fellow workers) were just seeing the person doing the complaining as the problem and, again, not sighting the `truth' within the situation.

Another example: the government's message about drugs. This is another example of how just focusing on a `message' that we want to communicate can fall down if it doesn't tally with the truth. The government and their clients, the mainstream media, are so obsessed with demonising drugs and drug-takers, supposedly with a view to putting kids off taking drugs (although a discussion of the real motivation could take a while), that their portrayal of the issue is entirely skewed. It is impossible to have a serious debate about drugs because everyone involved is so focussed on `getting the message across'.

The problem with all this, well-intentioned as it may be, is that people - children, in particular - can see through it. They know when people's response to a situation is skewed or, in their words, `unfair'. Such a perception results in a number of negative phenomena.

Firstly the message that people are trying to communicate, legitimate as it might be, gets lost. In the case of Ben, his family wanted him to understand the value of getting a good education, and the foolishness of ruining his opportunity with bad behaviour. It's a good message and it's a real shame if it gets lost amidst his frustration that everyone is taking sides against him. A similar principal applies in the case of drugs: god forbid that anyone should find out that you can have brilliant times on drugs. And why should this (obvious) admission detract from a serious underlying message: that drugs can fuck you up?

The second consequence of this sort of propogandising is that it diminishes respect for the `truth'. I won't go into a long and involved philosophical debate about the absoluteness or otherwise, of `truth'; what I'm referring to is not a philosophical concept but the idea that people should speak with integrity. That we should speak with children (or homeless people, or anyone) with candour and with respect for them and their capacity to understand the world around them. This also admits the legitimacy of the other party taking a different view on things. Being open to this possibility can be draining, and takes a lot of patience, but I believe it is worth it.

I want to give one more example of the conflict between `the message' and `the truth'. Too often families take the opposite approach to Ben's family, and the the effects are just as damaging. Namely they defend their child's actions to the hilt and refuse to admit (outside the family sphere at least) that criticism of their child is legitimate. This can build an unhealthy sense of invincibility, a sense in the child that they have carte blanche to be as obnoxious as they like. Once more the message has become warped because it did not tally with the truth.

Needless to say I have no idea whether any of these reflections are directly relevant to the kids who were beating people up on the cycle track. Relevant or not though, they have crystallized a determination in my mind, a determination to speak the truth, as best I can, with my own child. Let's see now if I can live up to my good intentions...

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Clarion call for resistance to the arms trade

This blog has been following developments around the arms fair DSEi very closely. We reported on Reed Elsevier's divestment of DSEi last year. Reed took their decision due to pressure from academics, health professionals, authors and others.

In the last couple of months, Clarion events have taken over the organisation of DSEi. Clarion are organisers of many different events, but the one that caught my eye is The Baby Show.

Of course all this means that the campaign must begin all over again. Below is correspondence on the matter which I've initiated in the last couple of weeks.

Please feel free to write to Clarion yourself! You can get email addresses from the Clarion website, or use the form on the CAAT website (both of which are linked above).

Sent on 20 June 2008 to Lee Masters, organiser of The Baby Shows:

Dear Mr Masters,

My partner is expecting a baby so I am very aware of preparing for the
birth. I have seen advertisements for The Baby Shows in a number of

Unfortunately I have also seen recent headlines to the effect that the
organiser of the Baby Shows is now also organising arms fairs. Can you
confirm that this is the case? I understand that Clarion have recently
bought the rights to organise the DSEi arms fair, the biggest arms fair in
the world.

I am horrified to think that Clarion thinks that organising these two
events would be considered acceptable. One event purports to help parents
prepare to bring children into the world, the other markets machines that
usher human beings out of this world. And in the most violent (and
premature) way.

In past months I have read a series of excoriating articles about DSEi
that outlined what a mockery the system of safe guards on arms trading has
been. Representatives of the most oppressive regimes in the world have
been invited to talk with producers of some of the most hideous hardware
in the world (including parts for cluster bombs and torture equipment).

The fact of the matter is that the arms trade is the most reprehensible
possible trade for Clarion to be involved in. Let me state categorically
that under no circumstances will I attend or support Clarion-run events in
any way, so long as Clarion maintains this connection with the arms trade.

I would very much appreciate hearing your thoughts on this matter. I am
writing to you as the organiser of the Baby Shows but please let me know
of others within Clarion to whom I should also address my concerns.

Yours sincerely,

Received on 28 June from Julian Graves, of Clarion Events.

Dear ***

Lee Masters has passed me your email regarding Clarion Events’ recent
acquisition of DSEi. Clarion Events is the largest independent event
organiser in the UK and a highly successful, professional, award winning
company. We have been creating leading brands and world-class business and
networking environments globally across a wide variety of sectors for more
than 30 years and I can confirm we have added defence and security to our

Defence and security is a legitimate business and we will apply the same
very high standards, rigour, experience and skill to organising events in
this sector as we do in all of our others.

The events we have acquired serve only the legitimate defence and security
industry and both exhibitors and visitors must adhere to the highest
regulatory scrutiny. We insist that exhibitors must comply with and exceed
the requirements of UK and international law.

Your letter refers to ‘parts for cluster munitions and torture equipment’
being on display at DSEi. I would like to reassure you that cluster
munitions and torture equipment, and parts or services relating to such
equipment, are banned from DSEi.

All our exhibitors are contractually required to ensure that all equipment,
services, documentation and any other forms of promotion comply with UK, EU
and international law. Appropriate action has been and will continue to be
taken against any exhibitors who fail to meet these requirements.

Thank you again for your letter.

Yours sincerely,

Julian Graves

c.c Lee Masters,

Sent on 1 July 2008 to Lee Masters and Julian Graves, of Clarion Events

Dear Julian and Lee,

Thank you for your reply. As employees of Clarion Events it is of course
incumbent upon you to advocate for the policies and activities of Clarion;
nonetheless you have not put my mind at rest.

Let me briefly address a couple of things that you mentioned in your email:

> Defence and security is a legitimate business and we will apply the same
> very high standards, rigour, experience and skill to organising events in
> this sector as we do in all of our others.

Whilst you refer to DSEi within the remit of "defence and security", I
prefer the (more accurate) term of the "arms trade". And, yes, it is true
that the arms trade is legal. This does not however make it moral.

According to the law of this country, Clarion Events is free to organise
DSEi and other arms fairs. You should be aware though that I, and many
other citizens of this country, view this as a reprehensible activity,
whether it is legal or not.

> The events we have acquired serve only the legitimate defence and
> security industry and both exhibitors and visitors must adhere to the
> regulatory scrutiny. We insist that exhibitors must comply with and
> exceed the requirements of UK and international law.

These are the same phrases that employees of Reed-Elsevier used to
reassure me when I wrote to them regarding their organisation of DSEi.
Subsequent to their reassurances scandals broke in the press involving the
sale of parts for cluster munitions, torture equipment, and invitations
extended to people like the Sudanese defence minister!

You assure me that such things won't happen again. I can only take you at
your word but, frankly, I am not convinced. I very much doubt that you as
an individual will be responsible for foul play at DSEi but inevitably,
when the arms trade is involved, the rules will be bent.

But over and above nit-picking about individual rules being broken or not,
there is a deeper issue: I truly believe that DSEi and the other arms
fairs which Clarion has added to its portfolio, will increase human
anguish and suffering on a massive scale. People will die because Clarion
sees fit to bring together arms dealers with people who would use those
arms on fellow human beings. Is this really a transaction that Clarion
should be involved in? As an individual, do you not have any qualms about
the horror these arms fairs will cause?

Yours sincerely,

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Fast for justice in India

I want to alert people to a couple of campaigns that are happening right now. Both relate to India and both are of particular interest in that they are using the technique of fasting as a way of drawing attention to the struggle. I have pledged to support the first campaign by participating in the fast; others may be interested in how they can offer their support.

Binayak Sen

The case of Binayak Sen should provide Bristol readers with a chilling reminder of how important it is to defend our civil liberties. In recent days we have seen the House of Commons approve a Bill to allow the detention of people for 42 days without charge. In the words of David Davis, "in truth, 42 days is just one - perhaps the most salient example - of the insidious, surreptitious and relentless erosion of fundamental British freedoms."

In India, the tide of civil liberties is already at a much lower ebb. The Central and State Governments have legislated to give themselves virtual impunity when it comes to the human rights of the individual. Binayak Sen is one of many Indian individuals who have been made to suffer by their own governments.

Binayak Sen is a paediatrician and public health specialist. He has devoted his life to providing health care for the poorest people in Chattisgarh state. His efforts have been recognised internationally but, more importantly, he has also earned the respect and affection of poor local people.

But Dr Sen has another role: he is the national vice-president of the People's Union for Civil Liberties. In this role he has helped to organize numerous fact finding missions into human rights violations. These have included, in particular, inquiries into extra-judicial killings, and prisoners likely to be at risk of torture. His investigations have drawn attention to police murders of unarmed civilians.

In May 2007, Dr Sen was detained for allegedly violating the provisions of the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005 (CSPSA) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967. This draconian law has been criticised by a host of different people and organisations who see it as an unashamed attempt by the government to deprive citizens of their rights. But perhaps it is best to hear what Dr Sen himself said of the law, just before he was arrested:

For the past several years, we are seeing all over India - and as part of that in the state of Chhattisgarh as well - a concerted programme to expropriate from the poorest people in the Indian nation, their access to essentials, common property resources and to natural resources including land and water... hundreds of villages have been denuded of the people living in them and hundreds of people - men and women - have been killed. Government-armed vigilantes have been deployed and the people who have been protesting against such moves and trying to bring before the world the reality of these campaigns - human rights workers like myself - have also been targeted through state action against them. At the present moment the workers of the Chhattisgarh PUCL (People's Union for Civil Liberties) the Chhattisgarh branch, of which I am General Secretary, have particularly become the target of such state action; and I, along with several of my colleagues, are being targeted by the Chhattisgarh state in the form of punitive action, illegal imprisonment. And all these measures are being taken especially under the aegis of the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act."

For more information click here.
To read about the fast in support of Binayak Sen click here.


The plight of the people of Bhopal will probably be familiar to most of you. But if not, here's a good place to start.

Since the date of the accident the people of Bhopal have been struggling for justice. They ask for the site of the accident to be cleaned, for compensation to be paid, and for those responsible to be brought to justice. Their requests have been largely ignored (some compensation was paid but it was very small, even by Indian standards). A list of their demands can be read here.

Some four months ago, a group of people walked from Bhopal to Delhi to ask, yet again, to speak to the prime minister about their complaints. The prime minister has not met with them, despite their patient requests and their evidently just complaint. Indeed after months of waiting on the pavements of Delhi, last week a number of the Bhopalis were arrested and taken to a police station. There they were savagely beaten to the point that one of them needed to be hospitalised.

In the aftermath of the police activities, nine of the Bhopalis commenced an indefinite fast. They have been joined by people around the world who wish to draw attention to the Indian prime minister's disgraceful (lack of) response to the Bhopalis' cry for help.

To join the fast click here.
To read of US congressmen and UK ministerial action click here.
Here in the UK we might not be able to influence Indian politicians, but perhaps some of us should pay a visit to Dow chemical:
2 Heathrow Boulevard, 284 Bath Road, West Drayton, Middlesex, UB7 0DQ, UK
Tel: (020) 8917 5000 Fax: (020) 8917 5400 web.

Friday, 13 June 2008

A letter to Thich Nhat Hanh

For some years I have read, and tried to practise, the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk from Vietnam. The following is an open letter to him, and to the Buddhist group with whom I practise, about some of his teachings. Specifically I talk about the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Other expressions that may need explanation are Dharma and Sangha.

Dear Thich Nhat Hanh & the White Clouds Sangha,

I am not quite sure who to address this letter to. But it concerns the Dharma - one of the three legs of practising Buddhism - so it seems appropriate that I address my concerns to the other two legs - my Sangha and the Buddha. (With apologies to Thich Nhat Hanh for conflating him with the Buddha!)

There are two main issues that I wish to address. They both constitute (constructive) criticisms of the way that we practise. Let me say first that I value the practice very much and I want my criticisms to be read with this in mind. My criticism comes from a place of love and respect for the Darnha, the Sangha and the Buddha.

(1) THE FIVE MINDFULNESS TRAININGS: At our Day of Mindfulness on Saturday we ended the day, as we often do, by reciting the five mindfulness trainings. Most of the group seem to find this a good way of ending the day, strengthening our resolve to practise mindfulness in the days ahead.

Unfortunately I do not find it so. There are three reasons why not:
(a) The trainings are "the basis for a happy life". My problem here is with the "the" and the exclusiveness, dogmatism even, that it implies. I broadly endorse (with some exceptions as given below) the five mindfulness trainings as a way of life; but I would certainly shrink from asserting that they are the definitive answer to the question of how to live.

But this is easily fixed: replace "the" with "a" and I am happy (and I have seen this in other translations of the five trainings so perhaps it should be this way anyway).

(b)On drugs and alcohol: Why the injunction to forgo these pleasures?

The majority of the training on consumption revolves around the cultivation of compassion for the earth and all beings on the earth. It is therefore very natural to be mindful in our consumption: to avoid meat, to avoid polluting TV programmes etc. It is not clear to me that a compassionate outlook implies a complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol.

In fact it seems to me that the use of drugs can be undertaken mindfully - with a view to enhancing our understanding of consciousness and our emotions, whilst aware of the risks which such an undertaking involves. It is true that most of society does not use drugs in this way, even if they intend to. But then this is also true of TV and we do not presume to ban TV altogether - only to moderate its use.

The point is this: the practice of Buddhism should allow us to live compassionately and wisely and mindfully. If we do this then the choices which we make will be good ones. It is not necessary nor, indeed, is it in any way advantageous for our spirituality, to be arbitrarily bounded by dogma. This limits us; if nothing else it removes from us the chance to say "no" for ourselves.

(c) On sex: And, really, the same applies here. We pledge many fine things in the third training but why this: "not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment."?

Why is love not sufficient? How can it not be sufficient? I mean REAL love, MINDFUL love, a Buddha-like love. Perhaps with this love we may decide to say "no" to any sexual relations which are not long term. But, then, why are we being instructed in this way, rather than being allowed to choose for ourselves?

Humanity's relation to sexuality has long been a vexed one. Religious leaders of every ilk have tried to give guidance on this issue - sometimes in good faith. But the end result has always, it seems to me, been one of two outcomes: the wise have instructed us to LOVE and to BE LOVING in all we do. The less wise have tied themselves (and, sadly, their disciples) in knots trying to prescribe monogamy, or heterosexuality, or abstinence, or free love, or... whatever it may be.

It seems that, when it comes to our sexuality, it is very hard to see the wood for the trees, to know the best way to proceed. How much more difficult then when we try to give recipes for OTHER PEOPLE's sexuality!Let us love one another. That is enough.

Before I leave this concern, let me anticipate one defence of the five mindfulness trainings: that they are guidelines for practice, not hard and fast rules. Of course I appreciate this point; I also appreciate the responsibility of the Buddha and the Sangha for giving guidance on how to live - I take this guidance very seriously.

The key point is that, in these two instances - on sex, and on drugs and alcohol, the guidance moves from the philosophical to the specific. When I "vow to speak truthfully" there is a world of reflection open to me (and my Sangha) about what this means, and how I am to put my vow into practice. This is not the case when I say "I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant..." which is an absolute statement and admits no freedom of interpretation. Yet, if I am to practice truly and mindfully, then I must have that freedom to think and to reflect and to decide for myself.

(2) And so to my second concern: retreat vs engagement.

Unlike my first concern which was specific and concrete, my second is one of perception and balance. Or rather a perceived imbalance. Where this balance arises I am not sure - undoubtedly it is partly within myself. But perhaps it also arises within the practice of the Sangha and so I feel I should share it.

My perception is simply this: that the idea of "retreat" has become too dominant in our practice, so that it now threatens our "engagement". As a Sangha we seem to share a love of natural beauty, of stillness, of reflective peace. This is right and proper. We seek out these experiences and share them as a group together. I have benefited greatly from them.

Even more, when we come together, we share guided meditations speaking to us of the "clear mountain air" and the "sunshine" and the "cool stream". It is good that we think of these things for they are, and so we are with them.

When I return to my daily life - at work, or on the road, or wherever - I retain in me the sense of connectedness to the clear mountain air and the cool stream, and it eases me.

But sometimes I wonder about this ease: is it the ease of a being immersed in the present moment, connected to the earth and all that dwell on her? Or is it the ease of a being who escapes the present moment through a porthole to other, more beautiful places. Am I seeing my world more clearly or, rather, am I focusing my eyes on a distant horizon and refusing to acknowledge that which lies in front of my nose?

There is no answer to this but perhaps there is a pointer for my practice. i can retreat TOO MUCH. I can seek peace and tranquillity to the point that I am not able to acknowledge chaos and drama. My practice must be immersed in every aspect of my life.

And it is not just me, the practitioner: the same may be said of the Sangha, surely. If we meet together only in places of beauty and peace, are we not in danger of unbalancing our practice? Should we not share together the trials of daily life so that we can be present together there too? How is our practice, in its current form, engaged?

It is not enough to have a Dharna pot for children in Vietnam; there must be something more. Perhaps our next day of mindfulness should be at a rubbish dump, or in a shopping centre, or outside an arms factory. Perhaps our Dharma talk should be the story of a refugee or drug addict. Perhaps we should eat rice without salt...

I am committed to reflecting and discussing and trying to resolve these concerns as best I can for myself and with my Sangha. I would appreciate any feedback.

Yours sincerely,


Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Knowledge for all

The following article just appeared here.

Last month the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai (IMSc) launched its new open-access repository. The repository provides open access to research articles written by members of the Institute. Anyone who has an Internet connection can access the server and can read articles about physics, mathematics and theoretical computer science written by members of IMSc.

Of course these articles are also available to anyone who subscribes to the journals in which they are published. But herein is the key point: journal prices have, in recent years, gone through the roof and many journals are now so expensive that access is restricted to universities with extremely deep pockets. For obvious reasons, universities and scientific institutes in India, with the exception of a few, cannot afford access.

The IMSc repository is part of a growing backlash from academics around the world who are angry at this state of affairs. They are seeking new and different ways to wrest back knowledge from the corporations and to open up access for all.

The current situation

The established method for an academic to circulate her work is to publish in a peer-reviewed journal of good repute. When an academic sends in a paper for publication, an editor will send it out to one or more independent and anonymous referees, chosen for their expert knowledge in the field. The referees will write a confidential report to the editor, on the basis of which the editor will take the decision to publish or not to publish. In many areas of academia (including, for instance, mathematics), the author, editor and referee all work for free. They receive no remuneration from the publisher, a fact that will be important later.

When a reader comes across an interesting article in a good journal they know it has gone through this process and so they can have some degree of trust in the veracity and quality of the work being presented. It is here that the reputation of the journal is paramount -- if a journal has a tendency to publish work which is later found to be sub-standard then the peer-review process is undermined. Journals of good standing build up their reputation by consistently publishing high-quality work, sometimes over periods of more than a century.

In the early-’90s there were several such journals, independently owned and publishing work in a vast array of areas. It was around this time that several publishing houses started to grow significantly and to buy up journals in particular fields. Perhaps the most celebrated such publishing house is Reed-Elsevier. This giant of the field was created in 1993 by the merger of Reed and Elsevier, two publishing houses of more than a century's standing. Reed-Elsevier is now a FTSE 100 company with profit before tax of around Rs 8,000 crore in 2007.

Since the merger (and independently beforehand) Reed-Elsevier has bought up academic journals from many different fields. Their health division, for instance, now publishes some 800 journals, including the most prestigious of them all, The Lancet. Science Direct, their online science platform, claims to provide access to some 2,600 scientific journals. Once again, these include some of the most prestigious journals in the field - Physics Letters B, Nuclear Physics B, Advances in Mathematics, etc etc.

Unfortunately, Reed-Elsevier's new-found dominance of the market has proved costly for students and academics around the world. A 2007 survey of mathematics journals found that over the last decade the prices of many journals had increased by more than 10% per year. Prices have reached a level of absurdity whereby many mathematics journals cost more than Rs 50 per page (some have prices as high as Rs 300 per page). Reed-Elsevier is not alone in this practice Springer also deserves a special mention) but, as the biggest scientific publishing house, it has been instrumental in setting the trend.

And it is a trend with a hugely negative impact on academic research. Consider the situation at IMSc, Chennai. The total annual budget for IMSc is around Rs 13.3 crore, of which Rs 2.55 crore is spent subscribing to academic journals. Around 55% of this Rs 2.55 crore is paid to the two largest publishing companies - Reed-Elsevier and Springer - for the privilege of receiving a selection of the journals that they publish. In other words, more than 10% of the total budget for IMSc (more than the entire budget for faculty salaries) is paid directly to these two multi-national companies.

M Paul Pandian, the IMSc librarian, estimates that journal costs for IMSc are increasing at an average of 8% per annum, far in excess of inflation these past years. In the last year, this increase has been mitigated by a weaker dollar, but in general the effect of this increase is substantial. What is more, according to Pandian, price increases appear to have no correlation with increased costs for the publisher, or with better service.

Now IMSc is in the fortunate position of being one of the premier scientific institutes in the country and, as such, it has been given a budget to accommodate the commercial publishers. But, as Professor VS Sunder of IMSc says, "barring a miniscule number of institutions (such as IMSc and TIFR), the majority of universities in India (and even some good research institutes, which do not happen to be quite so fortunate in the funding they receive) simply cannot afford to access many journals as they are priced today. This situation represents a serious handicap for many Indian students and academics who wish to do significant research."

Hope for the future

A research academic has two fundamental duties: to perform research and to share that research with others. Sharing research has traditionally been achieved through publishing, but many academics now do not consider work to have been adequately shared if it has been merely published in an over-priced journal. With this in mind, and angry at the policies of Reed-Elsevier, Springer and their fellows (such as John Wiley and Taylor & Francis), many academics are using new, non-commercial methods to undermine the corporate publishing houses.

Firstly institutions have started to set up open-access repositories (like the one that has just been launched at IMSc, Chennai); this ensures that their work is available to the public even if it ends up being published in an expensive journal. At IMSc, the mathematics group has gone one step further. They decided at an open meeting of the group to make use of the repository mandatory; in other words all members of the mathematics group are required to place a copy of all of their papers on the repository. Such a requirement is, at this stage, not all that common, but it is becoming more so.

In 2007, five leading European research institutions launched a petition that called on the European Commission to establish a new policy that would require all government-funded research to be made available to the public shortly after publication. Within weeks more than 20,000 signatories had endorsed the petition and in January 2008 the European Research Council (ERC) announced that all ERC-funded research was required to be put in an open-access repository within six months of publication. A month later, in a separate development, Harvard University announced a similar policy for all research published by academics at Harvard. More universities and institutes are expected to follow suit.

The proliferation of open-access journals is the second important development in the move away from commercial academic publishing. As I mentioned earlier, in mathematics at least, the peer-review part of academic publishing is done for free by professional academics. What is more, mathematics papers are submitted already type-set by the author. Which means there is precious little left for the publisher to do!

Recognising this fact groups of academics have started to set up new journals which are free (or, at least, low-cost). They still provide the same peer-review service and, indeed, a goodly number of the free journals already have significant renown in the academic world. For instance, the journal Geometry and Topology, a free mathematics journal set up under the auspices of the University of Warwick, has quickly become one of the premier journals in its field. The number of such journals is increasing rapidly: the online Directory of Open Access Journals now lists 3,315 journals.

More than just setting up free journals, academics are actively protesting corporate publishing policies. In 2006, in a move that sent ripples throughout the mathematical community, the entire editorial board of the prestigious journal Topology resigned in protest at Reed-Elsevier's management of the journal since they first gained control of it in 1994. In their resignation letter the board stated that "we believe that the price, in combination with Elsevier's policies for pricing mathematical journals more generally, has had a significant and damaging effect on Topology's reputation in the mathematical research community." They go on to say that Reed-Elsevier have undermined the legacy of a fine journal with their policies. In 2007 the editorial board announced the launch of a new low-cost journal, the Journal of Topology, which would not be published by Reed-Elsevier.

Corporate publishing houses, though, are not going to sit by watching their profits vanish in a mist of open-access.

In 2007 the scientific journal Nature reported that some of the big houses (including Reed-Elsevier) had hired a PR expert to help them counter the open-access revolution. The expert's advice: a smear campaign to undermine the new trend. He advised the big houses to focus on simple messages such as "public access equals government censorship"; he also suggested that they attempt to equate traditional publishing models with peer review. Both of these messages are, of course, factually incorrect, but this is hardly a hurdle for a PR campaign.

Other, less duplicitous, methods are also available to the big houses. On a visit to IMSc, an executive from Reed-Elsevier was challenged by academics on the issue of pricing. He freely admitted that it is not in Reed-Elsevier's interest to reduce prices (and therefore profits); rather he said that Reed-Elevier were investigating methods of "adding value" to their service. For instance, they were considering paying referees for their work, thereby establishing a commercial transaction in the heart of the peer-review process.

So the battle is on, and the consequences of who wins are important. As Professor R Balasubramanian, Director of IMSc points out, "aspiring scientists and academics in developing countries deserve a chance to fulfil their potential. For this to happen the shift to open-access publishing needs to be vigorously supported. It is vital that academics and institutes take all possible steps to open up learning and knowledge to all."

Thursday, 6 March 2008

The Tree

A long time ago, a great forest covered a distant land. One day a woodsman came walking along a path through the forest, whistling a tune and enjoying the summer sun. He carried an axe, resting it on his shoulder, and he walked easily, casting a professional eye over the trees as he walked past.

Suddenly he came across a very old, gnarled giant of a tree with an owl sitting on a nest in its branches. "Hello owl", he said. "Hello to yoooou toooo." said the owl and they smiled at each other.

"This tree doesn't look very well", said the woodsman.

"No, indeed. It's been ailing for quite a while" said the owl.

"Yes, I can see where disease has come into its limbs and has weakened them. This isn't good, owl."

"You're not wrong," said the owl.

There was an easy silence as the woodsman thought a little. Eventually he put his axe down on the ground and stretched his arms to waken the muscles. "You know, I think I could probably sort this tree out," said the woodsman.

"Hang on," said the owl quickly, "Sort it out how?"

"Well, it's simple see. This disease needs to be cut out of the tree if the tree's going to get better. And I reckon I'm just the man for the job - I can see where the disease is and I'll just lop off the bad bits."

"Whooooooaaa boy," said the owl. "Back up a little. The tree might be sick, sure. But that doesn't mean you're the man to cure it. I'm not sure that this tree needs the tender ministrations of a sharp blade at all. In fact, I reckon that's the last thing it needs."

"How so?"

"Well this tree was doing pretty well until woodsmen started messing with it a few years back. Giving it a little prune here and there - `for its own good' of course. One guy even tried the same trick you're talking about - cutting out this nasty disease with his axe. A fat lot of good that did - this tree hasn't ever properly recovered from that operation - the disease just got a whole lot worse. But at least we're surviving, and at least I've still got a nest for my babies."

"Well owl, that's as may be. You've clearly come across some bad woodsmen. But I'm different from that - I know what I'm doing. I know trees and I know this tree - I can fix it. I know I can."

"Thank you kindly for the offer," said the owl, "but we'll be just fine without your help. You go along now mister and good day to yoooouu."

The woodsman grimaced. "Owly, I've heard your comments but, with respect, I think you're wrong. And I'm going to prove it."

With that, he picked up his axe and walked purposefully to the tree. As the owl watched in consternation he examined a branch for sign of disease and then picked his mark and started chopping. In just a couple of minutes the branch was half cut through and soon, with a big creaking noise, it started splintering and dropping to the ground. A couple more hearty blows and the branch and tree were split asunder for ever.

"Now would you look at that!" said the woodsman. "This tree is going to be a whole lot healthier now. That branch was riddled with disease - if I'd just left it be the whole tree would have been brought down."

This time the owl didn't respond. She was flapping her wings in agitation and muttering soothing noises to her babies. The sound of chopping had aroused a chorus of frightened cries from the youngsters hiding unseen under their mother's soft belly.

The woodsman turned to the tree again and began examining the next branch. Finding evidence of more disease he started chopping away. He was confident that, with a few minutes work, this tree would be entirely freed of disease and the owl would be proven wrong.

Somehow though, it didn't work out that way. As he finished cutting off each branch he would look up and immediately spot more disease on the remaining branches. A few minutes quickly turned into a few hours of hard work.

He was so focussed on the task at hand that he barely noticed the owl getting more and more frantic. She alternated between whispering gently to her babies and trying desparately to quell her rising panic. Although it distressed her babies even more, she started to squawk wildly to try and attract the attention of any passing animals that might be able to help. But either they didn't hear her, or they were doing their best to stay out of harm's way, for no one came to her help.

Suddenly the owl launched herself from her nest and swooped down savagely on the head of the woodsman.

"Hey, what are you playing at?" he asked angrily. She'd taken him by surprise - he'd forgotten about her altogether, and she'd scratched his scalp.

"You're cutting my branch!" she screeched hysterically. "My babies are in a nest on that branch!"

She was right, he hadn't even realised. What's more it was the last branch left. As he looked around at his work, he realised that he'd chopped down all but a fraction of the once mighty tree. The main trunk still stood, and one long branch which supported the owl's nest.

"Why, you're right, owly. I see you're right." And he put down his axe and paused to wipe the sweat from his brow - cutting this tree had really taken it out of him. The owl flew back to her nest in relief. She'd stopped him just in time - she turned her attention to her crying babies - "It's all right now. Don't worry, Mummy's here..."

But suddenly she felt a shudder run through the nest. She looked up and saw the woodsman was cutting the branch. "Twaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrkkkkkkkk" she screeched in wild panic. "What are you doing? My babies!"

The woodsman didn't look up from his work. But between blows he gasped out a few sentences. "Owly, I don't expect you to understand.... But if I leave this branch all my work will be for nothing.... And this tree will still be here, diseased and uncured.... This branch is harbouring a disease that will kill this tree and it's my duty to cut it out..."

But the owl wasn' t listening. She was flapping frantically, trying vainly to protect her babies from the shudders running through the nest. Her mind whirred in panic but there was nothing she could do. She could feel the branch weakening with every brow. Oh God, oh God. Suddenly the branch collapsed a little. The whole nest dropped with it and she felt her stomach in her throat. Her babies were thrown around in the nest; their feeble cries were filled with terror. It would take just one more blow, she knew, and the branch would fall. As she watched the woodsman pull back his arm, she leaned down and gently picked up one of her babies in her mouth. As the axe hit the branch, she spread her wings and took flight.

As she beat her powerful wings she heard the branch hit the ground. Her heart jerked in her chest and a burning sadness spread through her whole body. But she flew on, her baby in her mouth - the only baby left - whom she had to save. The forest was wide and there were many trees but who would have her? She had only one nest and it was gone now. There were hard days and nights ahead, this much she knew.

The woodsman stood by the remaining tree trunk. The great tree which had stood for many years was now little more than a stump in the ground. Great branches lay strewn around on the ground - though diseased they were still great solid pieces of wood. This had been a great labour. He was tired now and it was time to go home and rest.

* * * * *

The next day the woodsman returned to the tree stump. This time he travelled on a cart that was pulled by two weary looking horses. He tethered the horses in the shade of a nearby tree and picked the axe out of the cart. He spent the rest of the day cutting the branches of the tree into logs and loading them onto the cart. It was hard graft and by the end of the day his hands were full of splinters.

Once the axe slipped and came mighty close to cutting off his foot. But it missed and the scare seemed to renew his focus. He chopped twice as hard after that and the tree was soon completely carved up and loaded onto the cart. As darkness fell he climbed on the cart and clicked the horses into a walk. It was beautifully cool now after the sweat of hard work in the heat of the day.

As he pulled out of the clearing a distant bird call sounded through the forest. It was an owl, he thought. The call sounded repeatedly as he left the clearing where the tree had once stood - it was a strange call. Oddly strident and clear, but full of a deep emotion that he could not quite name. What was that bird screeching for, he wondered? He'd forgotten all about the owl that had lived in the tree, so he had no inkling of the sadness that filled that call.

When he got back to his house, he greeted his wife with a kiss. "The man from the timber company came by earlier," she said. "He was keen to speak with you."
"Yes, I'll bet he was. Come and see this." He led her outside and showed her the cart full of logs. "Good solid logs these," he said. "And rare too. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw this tree yesterday."

"Why, this is wonderful, " said his wife. " But there are strange markings on its bark. Has it got some kind of disease?"

"Oh, don't worry about that. This is good timber, that's all that matters. We're going to get a mighty good price - the timber company are going to love this. We're set, baby, we're set!"

He kissed her and they went inside. It had been a long couple of days.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

A Circle of Good People

The text of this post is taken from here. The post describes a movement here in Tamil Nadu which very much fits into Negri and Hardt's Project of the Multitude (see my earlier post). Alternative structures to that of government are being set up. These structures are not just protest structures, they are creative and productive. And in creating these structures, ordinary people are weakening the influence and relevance of the corporation-government nexus. Nice one!

Ennangalin Sangamam (Confluence of Thought) is the off-shoot of a highly localised earlier movement called Nalloor Vattam (meaning circle of good people). This movement was first formalised and legitimised by the right-wing RSS in the early-’80s in an attempt to build a movement of grassroots groups across Tamil Nadu. However, in the process, they ended up networking a large number of neighbourhood people and institutions who did not necessarily subscribe to the RSS political and social views.

So, out of the darkness, light may come: The Nalloor Vattam now functions in most parts of Tamil Nadu as an apolitical organisation more concentrated on volunteering for a need in the neighbourhood and less inclined towards any political activity. Moving still further from its RSS origins, the Ennangalin Sangamam is the embodiment of a simple idea: Create a space in which these neighbourhood volunteers can come together and share their stories.

This year's Ennangalin Sangamam took place on Sunday, January 6, 2008 at Pattabiram on the outskirts of Chennai. This was the third year the group gathered and it has grown each year. The first year had about 100 participants, the second 152 and this year there were more than 500, some of whom had travelled nearly 500 kilometres to be in attendance. A directory of contacts was published at this year's Sangamam and it contains more than 300 names.

The only qualification that is needed to attend the Ennangalin Sangamam is a willingness to talk and listen. There is no formal registration or payment of fees -- the whole event is designed to sit within the context of volunteerism. The organisers themselves are volunteers, who have taken it upon themselves to create this space and allow the stories to be told.

And everyone had a story to tell. Two of the participants had taken it upon themselves to promote eye donations in their local community. They had convinced more than 100 people to donate their eyes after death, thereby bringing sight to many who had been blind. Another man had taken it upon himself to tell the stories of disabled people. He had spent time talking with different people with different disabilities, written down their stories and published them. His aim was inspiration -- to let the reader hear what can be done against the odds.

Another man worked in an HR consultancy company which focussed on finding employment for the physically challenged. He himself suffered from muscular dystrophy as well as a number of other ailments. He had first encountered the company when he himself had gone there to get help to find work. While there he had used his English skills to translate a conversation for a parent of a deaf woman. The manager of the HR company was impressed and hired him as a consultant there and then.

One speaker particularly impressed the audience as he told of his work facilitating better education facilities for long-term serving prisoners in the Madurai central prison. As he described the social stigma which is suffered by a prisoner's family he broke down with emotion. The suffering of the prisoner's family is immense and the burden is particularly heavy for the prisoner's children who, though innocent of any wrongdoing, often lose out on a fair education.

Many other groups provided support to disabled people -- either through housing, or by the provision of crutches or tricycles for mobility, or through education and work opportunities. A significant number worked on education related issues -- enabling children to go to school and supporting them in their school work. Another group of people were involved in `annadaana'; they volunteer to source, cook and serve free food to abandoned invalids, small village schools and other marginal sections in semi-urban and urban environments. The common thread that united all these groups was a belief that people should be given every opportunity to live a fulfilled life. And, more than a belief, they have a will that converts to action -- concrete outcomes for the improvement of people in their community.

There were hundreds of other stories like this that were shared throughout the day. Some people got up on the podium and told the whole group, many stories were shared over a rice meal (provided free by another set of volunteers) or while drinking tea.

So many stories, so what? Storytelling creates connections. The people gathered in this room were acutely aware that the work they did was important but also that it wasn't enough; that they couldn't do it all on their own. There was a sense that too many people in India are let down by the society in which they live – opportunities are denied and potential is unfulfilled.

What is needed is a web of hope that can run through society and which will help to support people in time of need. The Sangamam helps to spin that web. By hearing other people's stories, people gain inspiration and energy to continue their good work. By telling their own story people receive affirmation for what they have undertaken – it is a morale-booster. People gain knowledge and ideas that they can apply to their own context. Practical support structures are forged through conversation, collaborations are initiated.

All of this interaction is driven from below, from people who are at the coal face, not from ministers and officials at the top of some dubious tree. It was a pleasant change for me to go to a function which didn't involve a mandatory two-hour wait for some (invariably very late) minister to turn up, to be lauded and garlanded, and then to spend too long singing his own praises and describing his commitment to good works. Instead of this hubris, there was an impressive humility on display – this was a gathering of peers, not of passive spectators.

One false note was struck however. For some reason the organisers of the Sangamam saw fit to give an ex-government employee an hour of the gathering's time to promote the white elephant cause of "river linking". And so the stories stopped and the virtues of this idea were outlined (a process often enjoyed by the politicians of Tamil Nadu). The irony of course is that river linking is inherently a grand, centralised and government-driven plan and, as such, is very much at odds with the typical modus operandi of the Sangamam participants. Fortunately this session occurred immediately after a good lunch and so was largely ignored by the participants as they interacted with each other or rested.

It would be a shame if the Ennangalin Sangamam were to be hijacked by political agendas. There is a sense in which the Sangamam is necessary precisely because the other structures of civil society are not performing as they should. Provision for the disadvantaged has dropped so far down the agenda of government that alternative structures need to arise that will meet the need of people in the margins. But these alternative structures will not work if they are simply mirror images of the dysfunctional mainstream political system. Instead our hope lies in a different way of doing things– not by decree from above, but by sharing with those below; not blinded by grand and glorious schemes but immersed in the small, daily struggles of local people.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Murray Brown

My friend, Murray Brown, died in November 2007. When I heard the news I wrote his wife a letter. I am posting a copy of some of what I wrote here, as a tribute to a good man.

I have very warm memories of Murray. He is someone that I admired greatly and someone whose friendship was very important to me at some key moments in my life. Despite our difference in years I felt very close to Murray - he did not hide behind his seniority in years or his priestly status. He was very warm and big hearted and that is what enabled me to be his friend.

After I heard the news this morning I went and phoned Matt, to console and be consoled. I then spent some time pouring out some memories to Katie, my partner - memories of Murray. She did not have the privilege of meeting him - something that I now very much regret. But it was good to be able to share with her memories of someone whom I consider to be simply a good man.

In trying to describe Murray to Katie, I found myself using the word `naive'. I mean that in a completely positive way. He was naive because he eschewed the faux worldliness of the cynic; he lived with a genuine, heart-felt, unapologetic commitment to his ideals and he delighted in it! I remember SCM discussions when his hearty laughter filled the room, with his delight at new ideas and lively discussion, as well as his pleasure in the company of those around him. And, in turn, it was a pleasure for me to be in his company.

Murray also shared himself and his pain very willingly. I remember very vividly his descriptions of his struggles with mental health problems; in particular he described to me how one day he had reached such a low that he could do little else but crawl around the back lawn picking out weeds. That image showed a unique vulnerability which touched my heart; Murray's willingness to share that image also showed a deep and abiding strength of character.

In the weeks before I went out bush, after leaving SCM, I met with Murray as a kind of preparation. During our meeting, he introduced me to the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. He gave me a copy of "The Miracle of Mindfulness", a book that changed my life perhaps more than any other. In turn, it has changed the life of Katie, when I bought her a copy some years later. Katie's father has subsequently received much comfort from Thich Nhat Hanh. I've no doubt that Murray's loving actions will ripple out for many years to come, changing people's lives for the better.

I don't want to turn this letter into a hagiography of Murray - I'm sure he would detest that more than any one else, but my memories and loving feelings are strong and very real. I remember an SCM discussion about men, in which Murrary participated, when we concluded that the best we could ever hope to be was a "wise old fool". This was the path of largest heart, of greatest love. Murray walked that path, I think, and I hope that I too will follow in his footsteps as I grow older.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Pool reflections

I spent the afternoon today by the side of a pool in a resort in Kerala, India. I was there by invitation of some family members and they were my companions. Various other tourists from the UK and Italy and elsewhere also spent the afternoon by the pool. It cost 200 Rupees for the privilege unless you were staying at the resort in which case it was free.

It was a very nice pool - cool and blue. There were murals on the high wall which enclosed the pool and sun beds and green lawn. The sky was a brilliant egg shell blue. Coconut palms leaned over the wall and shaded the sunbathers; the hot season is just under way in India and that cool shade was delicious.


The entire experience was an exercise in keeping India at bay. The heat of the day, the chaos of the town, the dirt and grime of, well, everywhere; but above all the annoying presence of Indians. 90% of Indians don't have 200 Rupees spare for pool side lazing. The other 10% weren't around today. Perhaps they turn up now and then, but at least you can be sure that they won't be the annoying type who are forever asking for money.

Let us call a spade a spade. This is racist tourism. This place has been set up and deliberately priced to exclude poor people. Which means, since we are in India, excluding Indians. It could not be more obvious if they had a sign at the front saying LOCALS AREN'T WELCOME.

Such places are an attempt to distill all the tropical exoticness of the location - the sun, the sky, the palms - and remove the humans and all the inconvenience that comes with them.

Because, dammit, India - and Indians - can be pretty inconvenient. The roads are bad, the rubbish isn't collected so reliably, the food is spicy, the water's dodgy, the towns are noisy, and it's always so crowded. So many people!

Of course money has always been used in every country to avoid inconvenience. Rich people back in England can avoid many of the travails that bedevil your average Joe. The difference is that in this place the line dividing rich and poor follows pretty close to the line dividing foreigner from lcoal. So, to all intents and purposes, we have an apartheid set-up with white-only zones (except for the Indians who mix the drinks).

This kind of tourism stinks and this kind of resort stinks. Harsh words but I hold them to be true. The people around that pool were decent, ordinary people many of them were the same poor folk who, back in England, can't afford to avoid the everyday inconveniences that don't register with the rich. They were enjoying the novelty of feeling rich.

Unfortunately `feeling rich' is a novelty we have no right to enjoy - for it necessitates that others must feel poor.

This pool provided a reflection. A reflection of the state of the world - where millions are born, live and die in poverty. When we sun ourselves by the pool's blue waters we are openly enjoying the fruits of a world wracked by inequality, injustice and oppression. No wonder the glare of the sun this afternoon was so bright that most people had to shut their eyes.

* * * * * *

P.S. Arundhati Roy's An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire provides an alternative view of India to that experienced at the pool side:

47% of India's children below three suffer from malnutrition, 46% are stunted. Utsa Patsaik's study reveals that about 40% of the rural population in India has the same food grain absorption level as sub-Saharan Africa. Today, an average rural family eats about 100kg less food in a year than it did in the early 1990's. The last 5 years have seen the most violent increase in rural-urban income inequalities since independence. (p222, written in 2004)

Saturday, 9 February 2008

What a load of rubbish

Last week-end I took my beloved on a romantic trip to Chennai's main landfill site. As we approached the site the sweet smell of shit filled the air and a haze of smoke blocked out the sun. We coughed our way inside, through fumes erupting from piles of rotting refuse, waving away buzzing flies and mosquitoes. A mangy, pussy-eyed old dog sat at the side of a jet-black stream scratching its behind, while various people meandered around the site doing I don't know what. Sorting the rubbish? Scavenging? Contracting some kind of hideous skin rash? All of the above and more.

Outside the dump a group of local residents had gathered to express their protest at the state of affairs. The dump is huge (400 acres) and illegal and its right on the doorstep of a large number of poor families. These poor buggers have been housed courtesy of the Slum Clearance Board. This institution is supposed to move destitute people from squalid homes in slums and put them in decent housing elsewhere. But times change, and now the process seems to have reversed. The residents here used to live elsewhere in the city but had to move due to highways being built, or other developments. So now they live in squalid accommodation next to a massive pile of shit.

Actually shit is the least of their worries. It's the carcinogens in the air that really bother them (air samples from the yard taken on January 22, 2007 and analysed by Colombia Laboratory Services in California revealed the presence of 33 noxious gases, five of which are carcinogenic). And the prospect of contracting malaria from the monster clouds of mosqitoes that roam these parts.

This wasn't what the World Bank had in mind, I'm sure, when they funded these apartment blocks. No, Kodungaiyur dump yard won't appear on the front cover of their annual report. Just another unfortunate by-product of the long march to a globalised tomorrow.

More coverage:

The dumpThe dump

Protesting Indian-style. Nice masks.

Thanks World Bank! Shame about the view!

It'll take more than a massive pile of human waste to keep this lot down. I hope.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Agent Orange

Last night I attended a screening of the film "The Last Ghost of War", followed by a discussion with Dr Simone Nhu-Mai of the Vietnam Agent Orange Victims Association (VAVA). The film and discussion highlighted the horrific legacy that continues to be felt in Vietnam (in addition to Laos and Cambodia, as well as among war veterans from the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Korea) due to the spraying of herbicides, including the defoliant Agent Orange.

Nineteen million gallons of herbicide were sprayed on Vietnam between 1962 and 1971 in an operation code-named Ranch Hand, with the first spraying being personally authorised by President Kennedy. Agent Orange was the most commonly used of these herbicides which were sprayed by American forces in an attempt to destroy the jungle cover of their enemy, the Viet Cong.

And very effective it was too. Unfortunately the production process of one of the key ingredients of Agent Orange - 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid or 245T - was such that it was routinely contaminated with one of the most poisonous substances known to humanity - 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or dioxin.

Effects of Exposure

Estimates suggest that between 2.1 and 4.8 million Vietnamese people were directly exposed to herbicides in the course of the war. But that's only the start of it: Many areas in Vietnam remain heavily contaminated by dioxin; people are daily exposed to this dioxin residue through breast milk, cow milk, and the consumption of contaminated meat and fish.

It is this dioxin residue that gave the film its name: "The Last Ghost of War". And it is a ghost with a horrible appetite: The effects of dioxin are numerous. The National Toxicology Program in the US has classified TCDD to be a human carcinogen. Dioxin has been scientifically associated with an array of human diseases including soft-tissue sarcoma, Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease and chronic lymphocytic leukemia. There has also been a suggested association with a number of diseases in the children of those exposed to it, particularly spina bifida. A good summary of the current state of received medical wisdom in this area can be found at the Institute of Medicine's website.

The nature of medical literature is, though, inherently conservative – it might be hard to scientifically prove that dioxin causes certain illnesses, but that doesn’t mean to say doctors would recommend you hang about while spraying is going on. Indeed the film presented an array of images which suggested that the effect of herbicide spraying has been wide-spread and devastating. Studies of those exposed to herbicides in Vietnam - veterans and civilians - encountered, in addition to the cancers listed above, numerous examples of children born with severe birth defects. Severe mental and physical disability is a (relatively) common occurence in the descendants of those exposed to the spraying. Inevitably the suffering of these children, and of their families, is immense and little or no financial support is available to them.

Prior knowledge

A tragic consequence of war, then. But in fact it's more than that. There is significant evidence to suggest that the chemical companies who produced 245T were aware of the awful consequences of exposure to dioxin.

In 1949 there was an accident at a chemicals plant in Nitro, West Virginia. This plant was owned by Monsanto who produced 245T there. The accident resulted in a number of workers coming into contact with 245T (and, consequently, with dioxin); these workers suffered immediate severe health effects in the form of chloracne – a severe skin condition – as well as longer term conditions including multiple tumours and nervous conditions.

Several studies were conducted of workers involved in the accident. Two of these were conducted for Monsanto and discovered no evidence of long term health problems, aside from chloracne. However one study was conducted independently of Monsanto and, instead, found a number of serious ongoing symptoms. Monsanto has subsequently been the subject of criminal investigation for falsifying its studies of dioxin exposure.

This was not the only incident of exposure to dioxin however – a number of such incidents occurred (see pp27-34 of this VAVA briefing) – at the plants of a number of chemical companies. These companies shared their findings with each other. For instance a Monsanto memo refers to information gathered from Dow:
“According to them [Dow] it is the most toxic compound they have ever experienced. It is presumably toxic by skin contact, as well as by inhalation. According to Dow is it 100 times as toxic as parathion. It is, likewise, capable of causing incapacitating chloracne.”

Another Monsanto memo from 1965 suggests that “very conceivably, [dioxin] can be a potent carcinogen.” A1968.

The government was also aware of the potential risks (although they may not have had the specific knowledge of the chemical companies). Dr. James R. Clary, a former government scientist wrote the following in a letter to Senator Tom Daschle:

“When we (military scientists) initiated the herbicide program in the 1960's, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the ‘military’ formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the ‘civilian’ version due to the lower cost and speed of manufacture. However, because the material was to be used on the ‘enemy’, none of us were overly concerned.”

Clary’s reference to a military formulation is important: The production process of 245T was known to result in contamination with dioxin; however the level of contamination varied considerably. During the period in which they were supplying the US military with 245T the chemical companies took the specific decision to produce 245T for the lowest possible cost – and hence, tragically, with a large level of dioxin contamination. (see pp35-37 of the VAVA briefing)

The Law

In 1979 a class action was launched on behalf of 2.4 million American Vietnam veterans. Veterans are not legally able to pursue the US government for redress, hence the target of their law suit was the chemical companies who produced the herbicides for use by the US military. These companies were Dow, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock Corporation, Hercules Inc., Uniroyal inc., T-H Agricultural & Nutrition Company, and Thompson Chemical Corporation.

In 1985 these companies finally settled out of court. They created a $180 million fund to compensate veterans whose medical problems fit specific rigid conditions. In particular, anyone suffering an illness following 1994, which was very likely considering the illnesses associated to Agent Orange could take 20-30 years to develop in some instances, did not qualify to receive payment under the settlement terms. In addition, a lump sum payment was provided for the Agent Orange families of veterans that died from diseases that may or may not have been related to Agent Orange, and quickly the $180 million fund was depleted by 1994. Just 50,000 Agent Orange members received a small compensation. (source)

In 1991 the US government passed the Agent Orange Act which officially recognised that Agent Orange caused certain specific diseases including various types of cancers; veterans are therefore eligible for support from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. In 2006, US Congress passed legislation providing health care, monthly disability compensation, and vocational rehabilitation to the children of Vietnam veterans suffering from the serious birth defect spina bifida.

A number of different veterans groups have taken the manufacturers of Agent Orange to court. In 2006 South Korean veterans won compensation from Dow Chemical and Monsanto; their victory came on appeal, and the amount of compensation was a relatively small $62 million – they had initially sued for $5 billion in damages. US veterans who missed out on compensation from the 1985 settlement fund have also attempted to gain legal redress, but have largely unsuccessful - this door now seems permanently closed. A Canadian class action is currently underway.

Of course the largest group of affected people is the Vietnamese residents of the area sprayed in the war. In 2004 the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), along with a number of individual Vietnamese victims of the spraying filed a law suit under American law. The law suit is against 37 companies who produced herbicides for use by the American military in Vietnam (the US government could not be sued as it claimed sovereign immunity). The claim was dismissed in 2005 by Judge Weinstein, although an appeal of this decision is pending (the briefing document for the appeal is here).

So what now?

Clearly the people of Vietnam are in great need - the last ghost of war continues to lay a heavy burden on the shoulders of some very poor people. Help is needed to diagnose and treat medical disorders resulting from herbicide spraying. Families with disabled children need help to care for their children properly. Funds are needed to clean "hot spots" - areas which are known to be heavily contaminated with dioxin. Finally more studies are required of the medical effects of dioxin exposure on the Vietnamese population.

To make these things happen, funding and other support is required. So far the Vietnamese people have been unsuccessful (so far) in their attempts to gain compensation through US law – neither the US government, nor the chemical companies involved, have paid a single cent of compensation to the people of Vietnam.

At a government level, a Fawlty Towers-style diplomacy seems to be in operation: “Don’t mention the war!” To be fair the Vietnamese government is in a very difficult position – Vietnam was the target of a US-led trade embargo which was only lifted in 1994. This embargo caused severe hardship to the people of Vietnam. Since 1994, the Vietnamese government has pursued a policy of friendship with the United States – so, although it is seen to be supportive of the law suits brought by Vietnamese victims, it is not in a position to demand redress for crimes committed during the war.

Thus the onus for action is left with the people. Dr Nhu-Mai asked that people show solidarity with the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, in whatever way they can. Grassroots groups in Vietnam have expressed their solidarity very practically, through a number of peace villages which care for children with disabilities thought to be caused by Agent Orange; one of these peace villages was started by a US Vietnam veteran.

In India, a natural avenue for solidarity is through the Bhopal Campaign, a group which helped to organise last night's event. This group is seeking redress for the death, injury and long-term illness caused by the 1984 explosion in Bhopal, India at a Union Carbide factory. Dow Chemicals, a former manufacturer of Agent Orange, took over Union Carbide in 1999. Dow is therefore held responsible for tragedy by victims in both India and Vietnam.

Further information can be found at a number of sites: The full briefing of VAVA's appeal to the US court contains a plethora of fact and argument. The Alvin L. Young Collection on Agent Orange has an enormous number of primary documents relating to this issue. In addition there are a number of different groups seeking to provide solidarity in different ways, in particular Collectif Vietnam Dioxine, VAVA and the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign.