Some variations on a theme….
Some variations on a theme….
In today’s Fermanagh Herald, referring to the Magnificent Meadows course last week and to the State of Nature report. Here’s my bit:
I spent most of today at a Meadow Management Course. Fortunately Meadow is neither the name of a entrepreneurial guru nor a new business technique: “Are your employees harebells or nettles? Are your pygmy shrews returning maximum shareholder value?” No, this was about real meadows, and even though the nearest I come to agriculture is picking herbs and courgettes from the pots in our tiny garden, I found it fascinating and inspiring. The event was run by the Ulster Wildlife Trust, who lead the Fermanagh Save Our Magnificent Meadows project.
I’d read a little about the initiative, and had seen the Do Not Cut Yet signs around the county’s verges, but until hearing Giles and Eva talk about the vision, the detail and the wonderful response they have experienced within the community, I hadn’t appreciated quite how much was being achieved. I haven’t got time to do anything like justice to everything I heard and saw, but here are a few photographs and memorable thoughts from the day.
Across the UK we have lost 98% of the wildflower meadows we had in the 1930s, and most of what remains is vulnerable and fragmented. We need to ask ourselves what our long-term community objectives are? Do we want nothing but monoculture, high input-high output agriculture with low biodiversity, low capacity to store carbon dioxide and low water quality? And all for diminishing returns.
In Fermanagh, the only Magnificent Meadows site in Northern Ireland, the project covers 30 hectares, concentrating on public access land.We are fortunate here that our traditions and our culture, our sense of place as well as our topography, geology and soil have kept us from the worst destruction experienced elsewhere. We have something precious, and the opportunity to retain, reconnect, restore and expand our relationship with our native species.
What do stewardship and guardianship mean to us? The farmers of Fermanagh have not forgotten, although many have become resigned to decline, loss and disconnection. The majority of those managing these vulnerable sites are from the older generation. They are responding willingly and enthusiastically to the project, crossing bridges, sharing and developing skills, and involving the wider rural community.
This is the art of the possible, keeping human and wildlife communities in balance, benefiting local society now and for generations to come. I was privileged to catch a glimpse of it, and thankful, once again, to be here.
To find out more about wildflower meadows in Fermanagh, visit the new Hayheads blog, and for more inspiration and enlightenment about all aspects of nature and wildlife in the county, I heartily recommend the Young Fermanagh Naturalist.
Late last night I rather rashly promised to explain why I feel so uncomfortable about Lionel Shriver’s speech, Fiction and Identity Politics, given at this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival. Ten, mostly sleepless, hours later, it’s clear that this is going to be more than a Facebook comment. Here goes.
The speech, which is available on the Guardian website here, has created a fair amount of controversy, as was clearly the intention, and, to judge from the comments, a great deal of support. But beyond the hype, it takes some positions, and makes some claims, which, if justified, are concerning, but if not, are disturbing and potentially dangerous.
She begins, after introducing herself as a “renowned iconoclast” (more on this later) by relating a string of anecdotes about accusations of “cultural appropriation”. Or not. Actually the first, the “sombrero scandals”, was about borderline racism and reductive stereotyping, which was amusing because it was about Mexicans, who are fair game this season. If cultural appropriation is about taking the attractive bits of someone’s heritage and making them into an embellishment to your own, this was almost the opposite, reducing a people’s experience and history to a silly piece of headgear. It might have been far-fetched of the student body to interpret the wearing of comedy floppy hats as a reference to the image of Mexicans as lazy freeloaders who sit in the sun all day, or it might not. We probably need more information and, ideally, the benefit of hindsight as we see how this century unfolds. Even Shriver, I hope, would demur at an “African-themed party” in which the guests wore plastic bones clipped to their noses.
Other examples are raced through with no context, though a moment’s thought might suggest some rationale: could the exercise teacher have renamed her classes because they weren’t actually yoga; could the food concerns be based on the ease with which the glories of Indian cuisine have been diminished to chicken tikka masala? Meanwhile, the literary instances appear to come entirely from Shriver’s own head, with no suggestion that anyone has actually even criticised, never mind tried to suppress them. The inclusion of Graham Greene here is particularly bizarre, as so much of his fiction, far from impersonating another voice, deals precisely with the difficulties caused by white men in authority thrust into cultures that they don’t understand.
The effect of this litany of Things They’re Trying To Ban (or things that might have a tangential relation to TTTTB, or things she’s just thought of that someone might possibly try to ban) is the same, albeit for an artier audience, as those Daily Mail lists of Political Correctness Gone Mad, or a Nigel Farage speech about the idiocies of Brussels. (She even complains specifically that, “you are not free; you have inadvertently invited a host of regulations upon your head, as if just having joined the EU”.) It’s intended to make people exasperated and defensive, and it does so. The fact that many of the examples are irrelevant or invented, or that there is no Cultural Appropriation Police, only a few academics, critics and marginalised commentators raising questions, has by now been forgotten in the huff of outrage.
And from this moral high ground, she proceeds to misunderstand or misrepresent (it’s hard to imagine by accident) the basis of the tentative argument she’s opposing. It isn’t a moralised version of Creative Writing 101: Write about what you know. It has nothing to do with the fact that most crime writers haven’t murdered anyone, or, as one of the Guardian commenters pointed out, oh so amusingly, that Tolkien wasn’t really a hobbit. The concerns, as I understand them (and am happy to be corrected if I haven’t) are basically that where:
it might be appropriate for the group B writer to consider, rather than filtering the story through their own cultural tradition, using the privileged platform which they have to illuminate the work of the group A writer. Of course, in practice it will be more complex than this and there are many reasons why it might be the right thing for the group B writer to tell the story. But is it really outrageous to ask the question?
Shriver seems to think that it is, for two reasons. Firstly, she doesn’t like “identity politics”. By this she doesn’t mean political identities; the zero-sum game of competing nationalisms that we see here in Northern Ireland or the travelling circus of Republican-Democrat knockabout. She means, I think, the attempts to minimise the exclusion experienced by people on account of some, or often multiple, fundamental aspect or aspects of themselves, such as their race, gender or disability. She doesn’t even like the use of the word.
“Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.”
This seems to me either naive or mischievous. The Oxford dictionaries’ website gives as its first definition of identity: “The fact of being who or what a person or thing is” and as its second: “The characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is” . The truth is that identity in the first sense, the unique person, is made up, inter alia, of the characteristics referred to in the second. And the more socially problematic the characteristics, the larger part, inevitably, they will play in an individual’s experience of their personhood.
The reverse of this is also true, of course, that the more privileged your characteristics, the less you will experience them as your identity. Put a solid blue jigsaw piece into its place in the middle of the sky, and from a distance you won’t see its outline. As a wealthy, white, able-bodied member of the Minority World, as she says, “a German-American on both sides”, she affects to be unaware of the luxury of being able to dismiss her status, or of the insult of saying to the oppressed that she doesn’t mind their dressing in leiderhosen. As for the one aspect of her identity which might cause her to pause, she has written at length about the fact that she has nothing to say about gender.
But politics, if it means the process of bringing about equality, justice and peace, has to be largely about identity in the second sense. The common good is not common or good if it isn’t inclusive; it’s just another word for the status quo. Even the broadest, most global of concerns, such as climate change, requires, if pieties are to be transformed into effective action, that we look at who benefits and who suffers.
Contemporary identity politics would be a problem if it were setting the interests of one marginalised group against those of another, but on the whole it isn’t. The cooperation dramatised in the film Pride, of LGBTQ people from London supporting striking Welsh miners, is replicated again and again. People who experience exclusion for one reason, and the possibility of liberation, recognise and share in the corresponding journey of others. That’s what makes it all so disturbing for those whose identities used to be the norm.
Of course, mistakes are sometimes made: statements come out as over-simpliflied or clunky or confused, suggestions are made that are impractical, have unanticipated side-effects or simply haven’t been properly explained. It’s always more difficult to strike a new path than to plod along the old one. There are plenty of opportunities for snide humour at those who are speaking with new and untried voices. Every kind of liberation has been treated as a joke by those whose own emancipation is secure. Our generation (Shriver is eight years older than me) is challenged by some of the concepts and language used by young activists. Sometimes we’re unsure of how to react or what to say. We’re not the first. Something is happening and you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mrs Jones? No, not always. But if I listen, someone will explain it.
The second reason that Shriver doesn’t like the question is that it challenges her concept of fiction. She writes, “The name of the game is not whether your novel honours reality; it’s all about what you can get away with.”
I don’t agree. The novel occupies a particular and important cultural niche precisely because of its correspondences with reality, its simultaneous position as a creative work and a mirror to society. It draws from real experience, and reflects it back in ways that change how people think and how they relate to one another. Sometimes those changes are big and direct, as with Oliver Twist or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, sometimes they operate through analogy and myth, sometimes they are as small as noticing the manhole cover you’d walked over a thousand times. Novelists don’t have to consciously write to effect change; most don’t, but as responsible citizens, they ought to be aware of it and accept responsibility for what they write. Maybe it’s no coincidence that We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the few books which has made me want to take out my brain and put it in the washing machine at an ecologically unfriendly temperature.
Lastly, the iconoclast thing. Shriver writes:
“Worse: the left’s embrace of gotcha hypersensitivity inevitably invites backlash. Donald Trump appeals to people who have had it up to their eyeballs with being told what they can and cannot say. Pushing back against a mainstream culture of speak-no-evil suppression, they lash out in defiance, and then what they say is pretty appalling.”
But mainstream culture, especially in America, is the exact reverse of this. It doesn’t tell people what they can or cannot say; it tells people that someone else, the notorious They, is telling them what they can and cannot say. The unsayable is said, over and over again, and underlined by the pretence of transgression. Shriver is telling the same story as Donald Trump, as Nigel Farage, presenting herself, in her privilege, as the maverick voice of the outsider.
An iconoclast is someone who destroys art. The implication is that the works smashed are symbols of mindless conformity, of the dominance of the establishment. But what if they’re not? What if they’re fragile, beautiful, irreplaceable creations, made with dignity and preserved with love? What if, once gone, all they will be replaced by are caricatures and the jingle of money?
But hey, sweeping up the pieces is someone else’s job.
On Friday I travelled to Belfast to take part in the NICVA Big Ideas Festival of Economics. Clare Bailey (one of our Green Party MLAs) had been asked to be on one of the major panels but was unable to be there, so I was making a rather nervous effort to stand in her (always elegant) shoes. It was a tough gig, without the prepared opening statement which usually gets me in the zone for answering subsequent questions. This time it was straight into the questions, with no more guidance than the debate’s theme “Is left right politics the big idea we need?”
As you can hear from the audio stream from Slugger O’Toole’s coverage of the event (the second audio stream, and my bits came at around 14, 38, 53 and 1hr 11 minutes in) I didn’t approach the slickness of my fellow panellists (all men, including the ubiquitous Alex Kane) but I managed to say some of what I thought most important. If I had put it into an opening statement, it would have been something like this:
The Green Party in Northern Ireland is generally perceived as being on the Left. That’s a description that I’m very comfortable with, but it isn’t an identity that I’m wedded to. Green Party politics is about having a vision of just and sustainable future, and promoting the policies that will get us there. That’s a matter of evidence, not of ideology or identity. What matters is what works, not the label which attaches to it. The policies that we need are more often those associated with the Left, but they aren’t copyright, and we don’t have red flags tattooed on our hearts. (Or not all of us, anyway.)
In Northern Ireland we’ve traditionally seen a politics based on competing nationalisms, and that is pernicious both for the political process, which hugely wastes time, energy and resources on matters of mere symbolism, but also for the wider, divided society which it is supposed to serve. But a mere mapping of existing identifications onto a left/right axis (in its crudest form, the idea that nationalism equals ‘left wing’ and unionism ‘right’) is even more dangerous.
This festival is about big ideas, but perhaps more important are the big realities of climate change and inequality. We know the damage that they are doing, and will continue to do in the future, and we know what we need to do to combat them. The sheer size of the challenges mean that they have to be combated by the mainstream, by governments and assemblies across the world. We don’t have the luxury of precious ideological purity. The role of the Green Party, as a minority, is to welcome the actions of other parties when they do the right thing and to call them to account when they don’t. Successive Prime Ministers, both Conservative and Labour, have used their first-day-in-office speech to dedicate themselves to the common good. If they really did what they promised, we would be a long way further towards a fairer and brighter future.
The European referendum result reminds us that people don’t always vote according to their ‘tradition’, in their economic self-interest or according to their judgement of administrative efficiency. When we vote, we are expressing our identification with a moral foundation. And the more bizarre others’ moral foundation seems to us, the more we have to try to understand it. As Pope Francis suggested, this is a time for building bridges, not walls. Binary choices, whether we call them nationalist/unionist, left/right, in/out or Trump/Clinton don’t bring out the best in either the electorate or the elected. Both right- and left-wing traditions, in so far as they are predicated on infinite economic growth on a finite planet, and on concepts of fairness that leave out intergenerational justice, fall short of what we need.
The Green Party does the vision-thing, with a clear picture of the just and sustainable society we want to see. We know that we will get there by practical, well-thought, evidence-based policy, by working with others and by holding them to account. We can ask the difficult questions, but we can answer them too.
I’ve had quite a media-ish week, mostly, but not entirely, arising from Theresa May’s bright idea that George Osborne’s ‘shale wealth fund‘ might act as more of an incentive if it were paid to individual householders instead of to local councils. Obviously, the existence of the proposed fund at all is far from certain, depending as it does on fracking making a profit in the UK, those profits actually being taxed, and there being enough tax revenue thereby for ten per cent of it to mean something. 10% of zero is, of course, zero. But public support for fracking continues to plummet, and the dangling possibility of a few quid (especially if the equally affected neighbours down the road won’t get it) seems to be what Ms May thinks One Nationhood is all about.
And of course it gave an opportunity to DUP MP (and former NI Environment Minister) Sammy Wilson to wheel out his well-worn anti-Green artillery. It’s been a couple of weeks since he was last in the headlines, accusing women MPs of ‘voyeurism’ for seeking to breastfeed their babies while at work in the Commons chamber. That didn’t end too well, with even his party distancing itself, so he was probably relieved to return to the old Green-baiting. There’s something comforting about a long-established hobby.
Anyway, I was given the job of responding to him, in the original Belfast Telegraph article (see link above), on the Green Party website and on Radio Ulster’s Talkback (begins 45mins in) and Q Radio. There was also an article about the whole business in today’s Fermanagh Herald (more headline idiosyncrasies – I assume the inverted commas were supposed to be around both the first words, otherwise it appears that Tom and I are definitely warriors but dubiously eco) …
… and one about the success of the library campaign, too.
Good news today. We (members of the local Green Party group) have been involved over the past couple of months in the Hands Off Enniskillen Library campaign, trying to reverse the decision to cut its opening hours once again. I was part of the initial group which met in June to set up the campaign, along with representatives from other parties (Labour and the Socialists – none of the ‘mainstream’ politicians were there) union reps and library users, and did my bit getting signatures for our petition (above). I was in Glastonbury for the big rally, but our chair Geoff Bartholomew spoke for us, and for all the people, young and old, who depend upon the library’s services.
Then today the Department of Communities announced that it had, after all, found the money (£225,000) to keep the existing opening hours for all the libraries potentially affected. I have no doubt that it was our campaign and others that led to this change of heart. It’s a comparatively small success, but a wonderful illustration of what can be done if we work together with hope and goodwill, and a reminder that no decision is set in stone. If our communities, and those most in need, are going to suffer as a result of government decisions, it is not only our right but our duty to speak out. Thank you to everyone who did just that.
My letter in today’s Impartial Reporter:
(not sure what happened to the final ‘y’, but I don’t mind belonging to the Green Part.)
Today’s Fermanagh Herald was out in a bit of a post-Twelfth rush, but I’m sure you can tell what I was saying.