Rhodes Must Fall Wants To Hide From History Rather Than Confront It

rhodes must fall oxford

A few years ago whilst on a trip to Okinawa, I visited the island’s World War Two memorial, where the graves of the fallen overlook the tranquil clear blue of the Pacific Ocean.

Though mainland Japan was subject to heavy Allied aerial bombing campaigns during the war, Okinawa was the only geographic location in Japan, which saw ground warfare.

The Battle of Okinawa was a viciously fought conflict in which over 200 000 people were killed. 62% of these were civilian casualties.

The memorial is also home to haunting art and video installations, which unreservedly tell the bloody tale of that battle and its high human cost.

There was none of the triumphalism that one encounters in British and American accounts of WW2. I saw that war, truly, for the first time, from the perspective of the defeated. And all the sadness and shame that accompanied it. Read More…

A Choreographed Dance Through Time

Smiling Victorians

To everything turn, turn, turn; there is a season.”

You may be familiar with this verse, adapted from Ecclesiastes for song by the musician Peter Seeger in the late 1950s and later sung by The Byrds in 1965.

An excerpt from the original:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

Ecclesiastes 3

It’s in the changing of the seasons, that I become most aware of the passage of time, as autumn gently gives way to winter, which always seems too long; and spring and summer, when they finally arrive, too short.

The flow of time is mysterious like that, it flows ever forward and never backwards, and yet so much of existence, like the seasons, seems cyclical; hence the eternal wisdom of the words above.

Strangely, I had that same feeling looking at pictures of smiling Victorians.

The smile broke the time barrier.

The usually severe Victorians suddenly seemed closer in time than they ever had before. The photographs could have been taken yesterday. Over a hundred years separating us seemed like hardly any distance at all.

We live in an age obsessed with “the future” and the next big thing, as if human development occurs in a straight line with no opportunity for rear-view glances.

But, as the beautiful poetic words from Ecclesiastes suggest, the human psyche is rooted in something more ancient and abiding than the latest technological fad.

Hands joining hands in a Hora-like dance that has lasted millennia, the dancers change, but the steps endure.

Featured Image Credit: “Smiling Victorians”

Love Letter to Science, from a Romantic Aesthete

Particles

It is with some interest that I am following the ‘discovery’, or perhaps, ‘confirmation of’ the existence of the Higgs boson particle. And although it is not with the in depth knowledge of someone who can credibly hold forth on the minutiae of what the actual implications of this are for The Standard Model, I can still take pleasure in this advancement of human knowledge. It brings up so many themes and topics, too numerous to discuss here, but perhaps the most important is that the scientific method has once again won through with its humble, painstaking approach to problem-solving. Which is something valuable in a world of ideological and political grandstanding. It has the courage to stand humbly before the unknown, and if proven wrong, to admit to it and begin again; all along knowing (without 100% certainty of course) that the journey of discovery does not end with one erroneous turn.

This, in contrast, to the many divisive figures today, in the media and the public sphere, who resemble small children, fingers defiantly stuck in their ears, yelling nonsensically. To make the analogy more accurate, we would have to multiply the number of children (at a conservative estimate) by about ten thousand, all yelling at once, in a crowd.

So, when the intellectual arrogance and pessimism of the media chorus becomes too much, the place to go to is the serenely scientific Carl Sagan, who perhaps married art and science more successfully than any other public figure. In the series Cosmos (1980), his precise, poetic rendering of the Universe, allowed noobs like me to entertain the absurd notion that we understood exactly what he was talking about.

Left: Carl Sagan, featuring Stephen Hawking – ‘A Glorious Dawn’ (Symphony of Science) 

 

Indeed, he was a champion of wanting to know, resisting the comforts of complacency. And that is not something only science can lay claim to. I’ve never understood the often aloof relations between art and science; because if we were ever to reach Mars, in that first expedition, along with the scientists, we would have to send philosophers and artists and poets too. Because, when combined correctly, there is no coupling more capable of achieving the sublime.

By The Rivers of Babylon We Sat Down and Wept

9/11: An event that ripped a hole in the fabric of our history. The time before it, seems idyllic.

Whilst pondering the historical significance of 9/11, we came across this rather beautiful a capella version of Babylon by the American singing trio, Mountain Man.

While some may see the choice of song here as a political point (‘Zion’ may seem a loaded term after all), it seems appropriate, now, more than ever, owing to its evocation of past and present, as we look back on a decade of war and take a moment to consider our place in history. So we ask you not to consider Zion in such narrow terms, but to apply it more broadly. As representative of a bright, shining past that will forever elude us. Zion is a lost innocence. This generation’s at least.

The twenty-first century has, for the most part, been defined by contradictions between what we thought about our human future and what we have found awaiting us. After a century of seemingly relentless war and the threat of nuclear annihilation, we seemed poised for a greater future, in the 1990s. The Soviet Union fell and thus appeared to bring an end to the age of great power competition; whereupon Francis Fukuyama declared the ’End of History’. New technology was causing the world to shrink and the march of globalisation swept across the world.

Then, at the dawn of the new human century, history came crashing down on us again, out of a clear September sky. It seems both tragic and fitting that we faced an enemy that wished to achieve a twisted parody of what some had thought we had achieved already: an end to history, a return to an imagined perfect epoch.

What has been achieved since then? Can the human race claim to be any more unified? The old Western order strains to hold itself together, fractured by economic chaos and endless war. The cradle of civilisation is racked by revolution and counter-revolution and our hatreds and misunderstandings seem more fervent than ever. We gaze, fearful but resigned, into the abyss.

The events of the last decade embody the state of timeless historical perpetuity to which Robin Jones refers in his piece about that blackest of Septembers. What is to become of us? The answers may surprise us. Our idea of history is more realistic now and more conducive to building a future from the fragments of our present. Our civilisation has not fallen; we have limped on in spite of our frailties. New discoveries have in many ways defined the 2010s, our artists and dreamers continue to cultivate great beauty and the human capacity for great love and empathy remains undiminished.

Francis Fukuyama was wrong, but so were the men who sought a return to the past. History cannot be brought to an end nor can it be revived. The goals of those men were impossible and thus their failure inevitable. There is no deterministic force called ‘history’ and the future is an untold story of which we are the narrators. Most of all there is no past, only the memory of what is lost.

9/11: The long fading memory of History

(Originally published September 11, 2012)

It is a cliché but also a truism that everybody remembers where they were when it happened, or at least when they found out about it. Eleven years on, it is worth reflecting on this memory. I refer not to the need to pay tribute to the dead (also a worthy and, in my opinion, necessary activity) but to notice how an event that, for so many years, has seemed current has now passed into history. This does not diminish it as a climatic and game-changing event for the entire civilised (and uncivilised) world.

I recall that the day after the event, by strange and auspicious coincidence, I was to have my first class of ‘American History’ for my high school History course. We walked in and sat in silence, the air still abuzz with a surreal electricity from the events of the day before. Our teacher walked  around the classroom with a handful of photocopies of the infamous image of the burning towers now seared on the brain of almost every human being, gave us each a copy, walked to the front of the class and simply said: “This is history”.

At the time it didn’t feel like history. I had studied history and there was something intangible about it, distant and arcane. This was the very essence of ‘NOW’, the rubble still smouldered, mobile phones still screeched desperately from under the rubble, fanatics ululated joyously around burning American flags and everywhere ordinary citizens fearfully contemplated ‘what’s next?’. We were at the threshold of a savage new millennium.

The foul architect of that atrocity lies dead at the bottom of the ocean, but the consequences of that day still ripple through global society and politics. Hatred towards Western secular society still ferments among fundamentalists, and the need to stand up to that hatred is still manipulated for political gain in the West. Britain and America are still dug into a seemingly intractable conflict in Afghanistan and much of the Middle East remains unstable. But the ‘now’ has extended into a kind of historical perpetuity. We are paying a price to history, a debt we did not ask for but incurred nonetheless.