Thoughts on Moving and Memories

In the halcyon days before the memetic mix of Chinese investors and Lebanese developers rinsed Sydney of its home ownership rates, an enterprising young couple, on a single income, were still able to purchase a modest home in the metropolitan area. My parents, a bare 18 months after their arrival in the harbourcity, paid a deposit on their home and spent the next twenty six years of their lives tending to 37 Montrose Avenue, Merrylands. 

In those days, everybody lived in Merrylands, or near enough anyway. Uncles, nieces, nephews, friends. Lebanese grocers near-by. A Lebanese school, across the road from a Lebanese Church. This was the perfect spot to settle down and raise their family, surrounded by relatives and the culture they knew and hoped to pass on. 

We lived in a modest home. A white fibro box, with green painted architraves and balustrades for design. A large blueberry tree bisected the boundary between we and the neighbour, producing delicious blueberry juice and a huge weekly clean as the blueberries fell and stained the concrete below. There were two bedrooms across from a chimney-living room. Kitchen with room for a dining table. Laundry at the back with a hallway that led to a decent sized backyard. For reasons I’ve never understood, the house had a higher than average humidity, leaving our ceilings and cornices dotted with moist, black specks. I had turned a year old when we moved into the place, already a fluent speaker in gibberish, and my young lungs didn’t take kindly to the conditions. My parents took every precaution possible to mitigate the impact of that mild asthma. I remember several Sunday afternoons spent watching them, gloves in hand, standing on beds, couches, ladders, scrubbing the dampness clean. The ceiling would look clean-white for a few weeks only for the black specks to reappear and the process repeat.

The rest of my three siblings would be born in this house. Despite my prayers to Saint Peter, they were all born as members of the so-called ‘fairer’ sex. 

I didn’t take it too well at the start. 

The morning we received the news that my new baby brother Peter was actually a girl, I cried tears of disappointment and anger, upset that I was destined never to have a brother.

A few months after my youngest sister was born, the house was packed up and we moved into a rental not too far away. Our moist, fibro home was demolished and built anew. Double brick walls. Concrete floors. Two storeys. My own bedroom. For a seven year old this was very exciting! I was gifted my parent’s old bedroom set and was thrilled by the prospect of roaming freely in my own queen-size. I could sleep in any direction I chose, turn as often as I liked. 

A few times I took one turn too many and awoke on the floor near my bed. 

Not only was the house nice and new but I got to see my Dad a lot more. He would be home when I arrived from school. Sometimes he would even pick me up. This was opposed to arriving home from work well past my bedtime and then rising for work before school hours. Even Sundays, work had permitted him no rest. These were good times. 

 

 

Sydney is a restless city and in 26 years much was bound to change. 

When I was younger one could count the number of cars that would pass in front of the house throughout the day, the loud roar of the engine an occasional interruption to the overwhelming orchestra of crickets. The situation is very different today. The street is always busy. The nearby shopping centre underwent an enormous redevelopment. Elegant, brand new houses in every street. High-rise apartment complexes in progress. Hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on developing the suburb. 

The area is not without its problems. Merrylands a byword for gang violence and shootings. A story I enjoy relaying was during my first or second year of university and a new friend asked where I was from. Not wanting to say Merrylands I chose the more broad ‘Parramatta’. They laughed and said, `It could be worse, you could be from Merrylands’. 

Teenage insecurities aside, the area of my upbringing has come a long way throughout my lifetime. Developed and grown by its overwhelmingly migrant demographic, a testament to the opportunity this country affords those who call it home. 

My family’s relationship to the area also underwent great change. Relatives sold their homes and moved a distance. Children grew up and graduated from school. The ties that bound us to Merrylands were slowly loosened and my parents began the process of searching for a new home, resigned to their wish to be closer to family. 

It was an intense process, at times giving way to frustration and ennui; endless home viewings, extraneous price requests and failed auction bids during a property boom that appeared to gather momentum when it should have been burning out. 

One of the properties which attracted our attention months earlier, but was discounted due to its price, reappeared with a heavily revised amount. A phone call, several home viewings, a signed contract, and then late one afternoon, confirmation of the owner’s acceptance. After three years of searching, the purchase took a mere few days. 

This of course meant selling the Merrylands home and this was not an easy exercise for my parents. They were very proud of their home. It was their design, their choices. Custom made to suit them and their needs. 

When we put the house up for sale earlier this year, if criticised in even the most elementary way by a potential buyer, they became defensive and were certain they had no intention of selling it to somebody unable to appreciate good taste. 

I could understand their attachment. Not only was this the house they had built, but it was where their four children had grown up. The crucial, formative experiences of adolescence were played out in all their vivid diversity. For 20 years Montrose Avenue played host to graduations, birthdays, holy communions, sleepovers, formals, Sunday bbqs, overseas family visits. 

How else were my parents to react to a mere whisper of disapproval? Through the rose-tint of their glasses, this was the perfect home, where four of the best children in the world grew up. The new owner would have to respect the past of this home if they were to own it. 

After months on the market, the house finally sold and the rush to have our new place completed in time for settlement became the consuming focus of everybody. I was more concerned with door handles, architraves, vanities, tiles, paint colours and balustrades, than in savouring the final months. 

As the day drew near, as the boxes piled up around the house and the shelves emptied, the obvious emotion of what we were doing began to dawn on me. 

26 years of memories, laughter, and tears.

The all important Sunday bbqs which Dad loved. I would complain that chicken and steak upset my stomach so I had an excuse to drink Coke.  

Late night family rosaries where we would breakout in barely suppressed laughter because one of us accidentally started the Hail Mary with ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God’. 

It was in this house that I discovered, lost and then rediscovered a love of literature and history. The uncomfortable didacticism of the Brothers Karamazov. The tragedy of the First World War. Like any good cult-of-personality dictator it has lead me to engage in my very own vanity project; a library of almost one thousand books. At least it’s not drugs. Right?

The six o’clock dinners around the breakfast bar, with only 5 stools to seat six people. I don’t know what possessed my parents to only purchase 5 stools but they never considered rectifying their error and that was how it remained. My mother, selfless being that she is, always sat on the lower chair we pulled from the dining table. Not that she remained seated for long. Whenever one of our plates would empty she would jump and re-fill them. Whatever she could do to make her children and husband more comfortable, she would do. My spot on the breakfast bar was on the left hand edge. I guarded it with the ferocity of a Sheldon. My father sat opposite me. Mary-Joe next to him. Paula and Christie would interchange. 

Our dinners were temperamental events, one never knew how they would end up. The conversation may remain serious. Work related. Perhaps I would get to extol some political or historical knowledge I had stored. Perhaps it would be science or maths based, and I would have nothing to extol (unless it was the quadratic equation which I have learned to sing). Other times a debate about why I never had to do the dishes or whether Lebanese was a dialect of Arabic or its own separate language. 

Generally speaking, we were never able to remain serious for long. Not with my younger two siblings at the table. Paula with her fondness for laughing hysterically at strange sounds and Christie with her fondness for being the producer of said sounds. Dad, tired after an arduous day at work would get annoyed at their rabid laughter, but try though they might to contain their giggling, it was to no avail. They would laugh until it was time to do the dishes, and then the laughter would disappear. 

When the moment demanded it, we could be serious. When the business was floundering, mum would warn us that dad had had a hard day at work and that we should be on our best behaviour, hug and kiss him. This would silence our mouths and we would be the perfect children at dinner. A peace that would last until mum would expect me to dress for Tae Kwon Do or expect Paula to eat fasoulia. No financial difficulty could induce her or I to do so. 

Throughout those difficult times my parents never let us feel that we had to go without anything. They shielded us from the worst of it and allowed us to keep living as before. It was only as I got older that I realised how difficult those times had been. It is to their eternal testament that they never projected their problems onto their children. 

 

So now, without the bricks and mortar, the physical presence of our house, how vivid will these memories remain? 

I’ll never forget my disappointment at seeing the house get repainted. Mum had floated the idea several times, and I assumed rather naively that this too would be another of those insistences. I wasn’t opposed to repainting because of any selfish aversion to being inconvenienced, in fact I understood and appreciated that the time had come for some renewal. Rather I was opposed because it meant the loss of the infamous kitchen stain. 

For many years, I’m not sure exactly how many, at least a decade, the right corner of our kitchen ceiling was represented by a medicinal-syrup stain. My mother had drawn it, inadvertently, one evening when a syringe full of syrup had projected upwards and latched onto the ceiling. The stain consisted of a group of small, circular shapes likes islets on a map. I remember my excitement at the moment. 

How I laughed! 

How I invoked it in conversations. 

My mother! The clean freak. The woman who made me dust my bedroom every Saturday. Who made me wash the garage floors. The woman who mopped several times a week. Vacuumed just as often. Here she was, creating a permanent mess! It was ammunition for a youngster and I was glad to use it. 

So naturally it upset me when the painter rolled over the stain and turned this monument to my mother’s fallibility into a mere reserve of memory. It became something purely anecdotal. A story to tell at a dinner party, should a similar topic be broached. Without the stain it was a fairly insignificant story. It was no longer tangible, visible to the eye. It was the physical proof of the event that made it vaguely interesting. Its survival now resting entirely on my ability to propagate and perpetuate. The sad truth however, and it was something I recognised then, was that memories fade. They are fickle, unreliable companions. Did I really find it so funny at the time? Was it even my mum who caused the stain? Or is this memory just a creation of my own mind, something I assume occurred in the order that I recall but in reality happened very differently? The further removed you are from someone or something the more distant the memories become, the more shallow and impeded they feel. 

How quickly will the unending memories fade from our minds, becoming unreliable and uncertain? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. As Maya Angelou said ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ Our memories need not be faithful narratives; exact recounts of the past. What matters is knowing that I grew up loved and cared for, surrounded by parents, sisters, family and friends. Able to spend this Christmas with those that I love and those who love me. 

As the memories of Montrose Avenue fade that will be what matters most. 

 

A Nation Held Hostage, by Roger Scruton

It’s never easy to read your own nation’s history. I enjoy reading the history of other nations. I love English, Russian, German, Chinese history.

I can read it and enjoy it, judge it objectively, explore it without prejudice. With my own country, the experience is very different. I’m uncomfortable as I read because I can identify with different actors at different times, I can understand the choices they made and rationalise the decisions they took. If I were born in an earlier time, I would have been making those decisions myself, been under the same pressure, felt the same fears.

The story of my country, Lebanon, and my people, the Maronites, is a story dominated by heroism, tragedy and folly. The 20th century which began so triumphantly, ended so tragically. The loss of considerable power, foreign occupation, mass emigration and most tragically, the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. It’s hard not to see yourself in that, almost as compensation for having been lucky enough to miss the horror; living comfortably in a new country, with peace, stability and affluence.

I never expected the British philosopher Roger Scruton to have written a book about the conflict and was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Written in his signature clear wit, Scruton takes Western media outlets to task, especially the likes Robert Fisk, for their misleading reporting, and displays a surprising depth of knowledge on how this notoriously intricate country works. The book was published in 1987, when the conflict was not yet at an end, but in many ways the damage to the power of the Christians and to the economic, social and political union of Lebanon was complete. The outside powers, Syria, Iran and Israel had crumbled the country, each for their own strategic end, and as Scruton solemnly declares, the main victims of this strategy were the Christians. Lebanon truly was and remains a nation held hostage.

Maria. We’ll miss you!

I pick up my phone and dial one of my favourites. Work. Work. Work. The stress, the pressure, the sense of being enclosed unable to escape. My voice has a tinge of desperation. This needs to be paid. That needs to be finished. No I don’t have time to do them. I need you to do them. Are you coming into the office today? We need you here.

No he isn’t. He’s at the hospital. The Doctors have just been to see them. They’ve given her hours.

Hours?

Yeah, hours. Maybe a day.

I say nothing for a few moments. I notice a sombre strain in the voice on the other end. I realise that he isn’t on site with the sounds of metal and steel and engines that usually drown out his instructions and questions.

I express my sincere sorry. I hang the phone up and look out my office window. Work, real life, was now about to disappear into a corner, hide below a shadow and give me space. An undue respect still afforded to the mourning and the sick.

It was happening, it was really happening.

Two hours later I was standing a bare metre away from somebody who not 5 days earlier was her usual self. Her body is warm. Her torso rising heavily with each inhalation, then releasing through barely open lips. She snores softly but persistently. I’m told she can still hear us. Ears apparently are usually the last to go. Everything else unfortunately is being eaten up, devoured by that most egalitarian of illnesses. Her face is still full of colour. Her hair freshly quaffed and her nails painted.

I arrive to a Rosary, soft whimpers and runny noses. There are at least 30 people by her side, slowly filtering out in the hallway of the ward, much to the displeasure of the nurses who need to walk through. More of us downstairs in the foyer. Even more outside in the courtyard. There had been no point in moving her into palliative care, the doctors proclaimed, so the stroke ward where she had been since the previous week would have to suffice.

One of 9 she was. Ditto her husband. 5 children. 15 grandchildren. Two on the way. Legacies from the feet of Mount Lebanon, with assistance from the hills of West Ireland and the mountains of Tuscany. The nurses would have to put up with it. There was no holding us back.

The Rosary finishes and we say a further prayer. I walk to her side and feel a blur. I remember crying. I remember kissing her arm. I remember pained conversations in the downstairs foyer. Should we go home and come back later? Rest for a few hours and return when the southern cross would be at its most visible? She still seems strong. We tell each other. Her pulse has not slowed.

I agree to go home for a few hours and return to be by my Aunty’s bedside.

I arrive home at 6 and sleep the night. I wake at 1 am only to find my father had left without me. I call him and he reassures me that she seems to have improved slightly and that I should sleep some more.

I’m back at the hospital by 7.30. I sit in her room while another Rosary is prayed. Her breathing is now heavier. The inhalations sharper. More biting.

The palliative care nurse makes a visit.

I’m struck by how matter of fact her explanations are. My aunty has deteriorated since yesterday, she explains. As we can see the body is now working overtime just to keep her breathing.

So much for slight improvement, I think.

She recommends we purchase a fan to circulate some air in the overcrowded and heated room. She continually remarks on how my aunty was progressing as expected. My aunty’s 39-degree temperature. All part of the progression. The heavy breathing. Progression. As if she were simply ticking off the boxes of a chart. One by one. Inch by Inch.

The presence of the nurse is a comfort nonetheless. She speaks with warmth and sympathy, having seen it all before.  One of 13 apparently.

My uncle wets a few hand towels and begins wiping them around my aunty’s face, neck and arms. He cries as he does it and repeats a Lebanese expression difficult to translate into English. Hope this makes you better, he says. The image of my 67-year-old uncle leaned over his dying wife, cooling her down with a tea-towel as tears leave his eyes is an image I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

The purchase of the fan proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated. Fans are seasonal we are reminded by store after store. Eventually David Jones comes to the rescue.

The rest of the day passes in short trips from her room, to the foyer downstairs, to the outside courtyard, and then back again. The harsh morning cold gives way to a welcome but uncomfortable late autumn sun. Cousins come and go. People I know. Others I don’t. We try to keep our minds off the reality at hand. We talk about football. About work. About my Aunty and the person she was. Already the past tense is being used. Already she has been grouped not with the living but the dead. We still smile. We still laugh.

Around 5 o’clock we’re told she’s now within the hour. The news turns my stomach on itself and an anxiety I’ve only ever fleetingly known begins to take control of me. An anxiety that wasn’t for me or about me. An anxiety for others. For my Aunty’s life. My Uncle’s agony. Her children’s sadness. The crowd of people begins to disperse and soon there are about 25 of us left at the hospital. My father who had been awake since 12.30 is asleep in his car.

The hospital’s calculations are slightly off. Within the hour was 5 hours ago. It is now 10 o’clock and we’re all in the foyer area clicking our fingers, making pointless conversation.

A phone call comes from her room with instructions for her husband and her brother to make their way upstairs. The end was near. There was foam around her mouth now.

Barely two minutes pass before the phone rings again. A look of resignation on the face of the receiver. She had passed. The end was no longer near. It was now. It was then.

Soon we’re all in the lift going up.

I can feel my body shaking. The tension in my stomach slowly being released to my arms, legs and chest. While everybody cries, I shake nervously.

We wait for her eldest son to arrive. His hand pulls around the door frame, his body turned away as he struggles to bring himself to bare the sight.

One final Rosary is started. All her children and their spouses, standing hand in hand around her bed. She lies on her back, just as she had for the previous week, only now there is no soft snoring, no moving torso. Her skin has become more yellow. Her neck breached forward, exposing the folds of her chin.

My uncle leads the entire Rosary, his voice never wavering, our responses filling the quiet, synthetic air, as the clock passes 12.

When the final amen is said my uncle decides to go around to every person in the room. Hugging them and recounting a specific memory between my Aunty and that person. Here the real tears start.

For years I had dropped the Aunty from her title. She was now just Maria. How’s it going Maria? I’d say in a true-blue accent. I’m good. How you going? She’d reply in the same way.

My Uncle remembered that and hugged me. I’m not afraid to admit I left quite a few drops of tears on his jacket. RIP Maria. We’ll miss you dearly.

The Coming of the Third Reich – Richard J. Evans.

Robert Harris’ use of primary Nazi sources in Fatherland fascinated me to find out more about how the Nazis ran their state in the years before the war. I was interested in knowing the details of legislation and the methods used to implement that legislation at a practical level. So I went in search of Richard Evans’ Nazi trilogy and bought a rather expensive leather bound edition off EBay. I was tempted to skip straight to the second title, the Third Reich in Power, but maintained my discipline enough to begin at the beginning.
The Coming of the Third Reich, answered one of the more fundamental questions I’ve always had about modern history. Was ‘democracy’ to blame for the rise of the Nazis?
Evans details the complex social, political and economic machinations that the Nazis brilliantly harnessed to their advantage, out-maneuvering their opponents, and when necessary using force to get their way.
Although always an unstable entity, it would be the advent of the Depression in 1929 that plunged the Weimar Republic into a crisis it would not recover from. The economic conditions lead to an increased polarisation of German society and politics. The growth of the Communists on one end and the Nazis on the other end. This polarisation made it difficult for any government to hold long enough and elections were common place.

In the 1928 election, the Nazis achieved less than 3% of the vote and the Communists just 10%. In 1930, with the economy tattered, the situation had changed dramatically. The Nazis achieved an 18% vote, the communists 13%. By 1932, in the first of two elections held that year, the Nazis officially became the biggest party in the Bundestag winning 37% of the vote, the communist vote increasing to 14%. In the second of the elections that year, the Nazis suffered their first setback. Losing 4% of the vote, achieving 33%. The communist vote peaking at 17%.
With the worst of the depression behind Germany, this may have marked the point where the Nazi and Communist threat began to abate. Unfortunately with the political polarisation so intense, the political centre was unable to hold and in early 1933, Hitler, leader of the largest party in the Bundestag, was appointed Chancellor.

The centre-right rather than working with the centre and centre-left to stave off the threat of the far right and far left, worked instead with Hitler, thinking they could control and manipulate him into a restoration of the monarchy and a curbing of the power of the Bundestag.
They were very wrong, underestimating the ambition and intelligence of the man.

With the apparatus of state in his hand, Hitler convinced President Hindenburg to call an election, hoping to solidify his position.
The 1933 election, infamous in many respects, saw the National Socialists use mass propaganda, rallies, radio broadcasts and public announcements to get their message out. They also had a large paramilitary known as the Brown Shirts, who used intimidation and violence as they pleased, essentially a law unto themselves. They shut down opposition newspapers and opposition meetings. Violence had become quite common.
A few days before the election, the Reichstag was arsoned by Dutch Communist/Anarchist Marinus van der Lubbe. Although some historians believe that the Nazis had planned the fire and used Lubbe as either their pawn or scapegoat, Evans rejects this theory, believing as the German courts later found, Lubbe had worked alone. Hitler, whether aware of the fire beforehand or not, used the situation to his advantage and convinced President Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree. It suspended several sections of the constitution, including the suppression of civil liberties and the Nazis used it prosecute those who opposed them.
Hitler, used the Reichstag Fire to substantiate his claim that the Communists were planning on taking over the government and that Germany was now threatened. Although the Communists were not banned, their deputies were being arrested and attacked, so while their names may have been on the ballot paper, they would never take their seats in the Reichstag.
On the day of the election, thousands of Nazi Brown Shirts were sent to ‘supervise’ the vote. According to Evans ‘ they patrolled and marched menacingly through the streets, while the Party and the Steel Helmets organised motor transport to get people to the polling stations. ” Imagine the intimidation those voting must have felt.

With all this skullduggery and violence, the Nazis could still not convince a majority of Germans to vote for them, receiving 43.91% of the vote, with a high turnout of 89%.
Not all Germans were Nazis and many went far opposing them, even to their deaths.

The lack of majority was of small consequence. Within a few weeks, the Enabling Act was passed giving Cabinet, which the Nazis effectively controlled, the power to make decisions without the authority of the Bundestag, for four years. Hitler now had the unrestricted power he desired to transform the German state.
How the Act managed to pass at all, considering the lack of Nazi majority, is the subject of historical debate and Evans explores the complex motivations and intentions that lead to the decision.
By the end of 1933, Hitler had firmly established control and the Weimar Republic was now disappeared.
Looking back, and hindsight is always a wonderful thing, the failure of the Weimar republic came down to one thing, a lack of belief. While this may sound simplistic, I urge your ear. Not enough Germans were willing to defend their republic, because not enough Germans believed in their republic.
The historical and cultural ties that are necessary for the existence of any institution, especially one that seeks the submission of her citizens, were not entirely prevalent in Weimar Germany. For much of their history the German peoples had been governed by Monarchs and Emperors, not Chancellors and Presidents. The abolition of the monarchy after the First World War, left behind a vacuum of power that the Weimar Republic attempted to fill but ultimately failed in doing so. This was by no means an inevitability, but the political, social and economic climate of the period made it very difficult.
The republic had too many enemies. The Communists viewed it as a capitalist, bourgeois concoction that had to be revolted against. Almost forgotten today, the Communists also experienced exponential growth throughout the final years of the republic. Many of their intentions for Germany were similar to that of Nazis. The end of the republic, the creation of a one-party state, the use of violence and force. Their growth placed enormous pressure on the centre-left Social Democrats, who had easily been the major party of Weimar Germany, severely restricting their ability to hold off the Nazi threat.
The Centre-Right, although originally partners in the Weimar Republic, came to seek the restoration of the monarchy and a return to Germany’s pre-war style of government. Had they believed in the republic they would never have sought an alliance with Hitler, an individual who made his disdain for the republic virulenty clear. In thinking that Hitler was their pawn, the centre-right was blind to the truth; the Nazi leader had used them to springboard his ambitions. There is something almost tragic about it.
As for the Nazis, they perceived the republic as a foreign imposition. They opposed the communists, the capitalists, the monarchists and the Jews. They sought the creation of a Greater Germany, with a social hierarchy that placed the Aryan peoples firmly in the prime.

Ultimately only the Social Democrats were willing to defend the Weimar Republic. They had been central to its creation and function. Unfortunately for them, by 1933 they were not strong enough to prevent the Nazi onslaught.

One further point of interest from this book, related to language. Whenever possible, Evans used the English rather than the German title. For example, Hitler is not Führer, he is leader. As Evans explains, ‘retaining the German is a form of mystification, even romanticisation which ought to be avoided.’

In the end, the Nazi takeover of power was by no means democratic. It was violent and oppressive and unique. May we learn from that lesson.

White South Africans – Oppressed Minority?

1994, Nelson Mandela becomes President of the Republic of South Africa, the era of apartheid, of white-black separation is now over and a new period of reconciliation and forgiveness begins. The oppressed black-majority of South Africa are finally free to participate in public life as equals to their white primarily Afrikaner oppressors.

That period of optimism and hope is now long gone. Mandela has passed away, and while his party the ANC (African National Congress) is still in power, it is beset by widespread corruption, economic stagnation and rising racial tensions.

On university campuses in South Africa tensions between black students and the white minority have risen over the past couple of years. It has lead to an interesting turn of events, the white minority feels its self threatened, in a country where they only make up 5% of the population, facing off against young black South Africans who believe that white South Africans still enjoy significant advantages over them.

In this piece, the magazine Foreign Policy, have explored these tensions in South Africa from the perspective of an organisation called AfriForum.  They claim to represent the interests of white people, specifically Afrikaners, under black-majority rule. They boast 200,000 members, have a strong presence on South Africa’s campuses, even petition the United Nations claiming they are a beleaguered minority.

This piece asks fundamental questions in our age about the past, the present and the future.

Is it fair for white people to identify themselves as an embattled minority, given their long history of dominance?

To what extent should young Afrikaners, many of them born after the end of Apartheid, be held responsible for the actions of their ancestors?

How much of a role should race play in society? Especially one like South Africa where race is such a sensitive issue.

Very interesting.

Thoughts on Trump

The morning after.

Donald Trump is President. He’s given an acceptance speech. Hillary has given a concession speech. The machinations of election day are over.

After 8 years of Barack Obama, 30 years of globalisation and migration, they’ve turned to the candidate who has promised to address their concerns about these issues, shake things up or as he likes to call it ‘drain the swamp’.

I can scarcely believe it.

I found myself walking around the house yesterday, in a state of imperfect equilibrium. Both excited and abhorred by the idea.

This was the biggest repudiation of the establishment since…well since Brexit. (The comparisons ought to end there).

He has beaten everybody. Everybody. The media, almost entirely against him, the political establishment of both the Democrats and his OWN party, many of whom despise him. International opinion, like British politicians debating a ban on him entering the UK, or our very own Leader of the Opposition and holder of Governments to ransom Bill Shorten, who claimed that Trump was ‘barking mad’. Economists and experts who predicted economic armageddon if he got elected. Celebrities who threatened to move to Canada (never Mexico of course).

Against them all, he has somehow managed to win more than 300 electoral college votes and will, next year, be sworn in as President. You can’t help but be impressed by it. Not having run for public office before, he was a natural campaigner. Getting his point across, often venomously, but across nonetheless. His campaign ripped up all the rule books. He said what he wanted to say. There was no script being read from. It didn’t always work, but it appealed to people. Especially when compared to his opponent Hillary Clinton.

I remember watching the First Debate and immediately being struck by the contrast. The candidates were asked a question about what their plan for America was. Clinton responded by saying that she had recently become a grandmother and therefore thought a lot about the future. I had heard months earlier that the Clinton campaign was encouraging her to mention her grandchild frequently in order to humanise her, and there it was, almost immediately. I remember thinking to myself ‘God she’s so scripted.’ It wasn’t just what she said, it was how she said it; slow and perfunctory. Eventually you would tune out, not exactly remembering what she had to say. Not exactly being inspired or excited by her.

The contrast with Trump was enormous. When he spoke, you were hooked. His face bent towards the microphone. His right hand constantly moving, changing between an open palm, to a fist, to a pointed finger. His eyes squinting. Changing topics repeatedly, being incoherent, his minding racing to settle on something he could rant about it, and then when he would find it, he would go.

The NAFTA was a disaster, the worst policy he had ever seen. The worst, the absolute worst.

Slowing his words down, leaning further into the microphone just to make his point even clearer. It was entertaining to watch. ‘If i’m elected I will bring jobs back to America and it’s going to be great. So great. The best economic recovery ever. Ever.’ There wasn’t much in the way of detail, but it was entertaining.

Here was a politician telling it like it is. When Clinton said it was ‘awfully good that somebody with the temperament of Donald Trump isn’t in charge of the Law in this country’, Trump responded by saying ‘Yeah, because you’d be in jail.’ There aren’t many politicians with the nerve to say that. ‘What a boss!’, cheered a Trump supporter friend of mine.

In her concession speech Hillary Clinton admitted that America was ‘more divided than they had thought’. To me seemed it seemed an almost unbelievable admission. Where had Clinton been the previous 18 months? The division was palatable from halfway across the globe, how could that be something ‘they’ had missed?

America is divided and this election highlighted that division. 58% of white voters voted from Trump, yet 65% of latinos and 88% of blacks voted for the Secretary. America remains a country divided on racial lines. It wasn’t just non-university educated white men who voted for him, but college educated men and almost half of all white women. As one commentator put, white people, especially white men, had voted like a minority.

Yet there was an even more obvious divide, that between the rural and urban areas. 31 of America’s 35 cities voted Democrat. This was a revolt of the rural classes. Very similar to Brexit, where every region in England except London voted to leave the European Union.

What was it about Trump that drew so many white voters to him? Well in the mid-west of America thousands of jobs have been lost as large corporations have packed up shop and moved overseas where the labor costs are cheaper. America’s wage growth has stagnated since the 80s.

My own father once lived in a small American town in Pennsylvania called Newcastle, it was a steel town with a population of close to 50,000. Today it is a shell of its former self. Its population now closer to 20,000. There are drug problems, and few jobs. This is the story of many other American towns. In fact Pennsylvania perfectly encapsulates the great American divide. Pennsylvania’s two cities Pittsburgh and Philadelphia voted for Hillary, where as the rural areas primarily stumped for Trump. It was enough for him to win this very important swing state.

What Trump has done is identify a problem. He claims that globalisation has lead to the loss of manufacturing jobs and that’s why America is suffering. He claims that migrants, both legal and illegal have come into America, taken their jobs and depressed their wages. He’s railed against the effects of globalisation on American jobs and has threatened to renegotiate many of America’s trade agreements claiming that America has been taken for a ride. No wonder the global markets are shuddering.

What Trump doesn’t do is admit to the benefits of free trade, like cheaper imports and exports, job opportunities in the services sector. Free trade and globalisation have done wonders for Australia’s economy and standard of living. To be fair, nobody in this election was making the case for free trade.

He also didn’t explain how he plans on bringing these jobs back? He has said he will cut taxes and regulation. Something right out of the Republican playbook. Then he takes a different tangent and threatens to increase tariffs. A potential return to the protectionism of the post-war era. The impact of a more economically isolationist America would be far reaching and has many nations who trade with the United States concerned.

I say ‘potentially’ because Trump is something of an unknown. Was he saying these things because he believed them or because he wanted to get elected? The details are vague and the global markets wait with bated breathe to see what exactly ‘Trumponomics’ will consist of. Not to mention the millions of people who voted for him in the hope he could improve their lives.

Economics was not the only thing Donald Trump focused on during the campaign. Immigration was another significant issue, especially two proposals that really caused shock and awe when they were announced. The first was his desire to build a wall on the border with Mexico and the second his proposed ban on Muslim immigration. I’ll deal with the Muslim ban first.

He announced it in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings. The theatrics of it all were brilliant. He, reading from a paper, glasses on, speaking in the third person about himself. “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” That was it. The details as always were vague.

He has altered his position slightly, claiming the ban would only target those from nations with a history of terrorism. So a Scottish Muslim? Well they’re fine. It exposed, to me anyway, a dark underbelly to his campaign. Targeting Muslims in their entirety just goes against the Liberalism the West claims to live by. We do not discriminate against an entire Religion because of the actions of its extremists. Islamic extremism is a problem, a big problem, but the majority should not be punished for the few. If we were to do so, how are we any different, how are we any better than them?

The furore it created was enormous, I couldn’t believe the backlash against it. J.K. Rowling, a little too self importantly for my liking, claimed he was worse than Voldemort. Many commentators predicted that he was finished. As usual they were wrong. He only became more popular. Fear of Islamic extremism is a real thing, and Trump took perfect advantage of it.

While he seems to have dialled down his rhetoric on Muslims, on the wall he has continued. He is adamant that he will build a wall in an attempt to keep out those who seek to get into the United States illegally. On top of all that, he plans on making Mexico pay for it, through an increase in Tariffs in the NAFTA and other fees!

I have to admit I find myself somewhat torn on this. The cost would be enormous, more than $25 billion dollars. Patrolling it would be expensive. Many experts question its effectiveness. Not to mention the symbolism of a ‘wall’.  However, as an Australian, I’ve seen an Australian government win an election promising to ‘Stop the Boats’, criticised widely for proposing to turn boats around, told they would be unable to do so, it would be too expensive, only for them to succeed and succeed with relative ease. It’s hard for me to oppose something that my own Government has done, something I and the majority of Australians have been very supportive of. If he can build the wall, and reduce Illegal immigration into the United States, in the long run the issue of illegal immigration will die down in American politics, and as we’ve seen in Australia, public support for immigration will rise. Besides, how is it fair to those who follow the rules, pay the fees and go through the arduous application process, when millions of people can come to the United States and just stay there? It isn’t.

We’ll to have wait and see if Trump can implement his agenda, but there is an elephant in the room that nobody is really addressing and that is Hillary Clinton. How can she have lost to somebody like Donald Trump?

She was the establishment candidate.

The experienced candidate.

Over a decade in the Senate, four years as secretary of state, the First Lady of a moderately popular former President. The first ever female nominee for any party, on the cusp on becoming the first women President. Yet she still lost.

Some have claimed it was sexism, America being unprepared for a female leader. Others have claimed she lost because of a ‘whitelash’ against the black Obama. Perhaps in those there is some truth, but they largely ignore that it was always going to be difficult for her to win. The Democrats were seeking a third term in the Oval Office at a time when they are not exactly popular.

Not two years ago the Republicans took control of both houses. Not since 1988 has a party won a third consecutive term in the Oval Office. However, if ever there was a time to capitalise on the disunity of your opponent it was now, against a candidate like Donald Trump. She couldn’t and that goes to the heart of her weakness as a candidate.

The American public wanted change and in the eyes of many, she was not the agent to bring it. She was associated with policy failures like the Iraq War, Libya and Benghazi. She gave $300,000 speeches to Goldman Sachs, while attempting to portray herself as the candidate on side with the downtrodden and left behind. She came to be perceived as the candidate too close to corporate interests, extraordinary when you consider her opponent was a billionaire businessman.

The Americans also didn’t trust her. The email server scandal a reminder of her liberties with the truth. Let’s pause a moment to consider just how shady the whole email server business was. Why would you, as Secretary of State, set up your own email server, rather than use the one assigned to you by the Government? Why would you then, when discovered, delete thousands of email before handing them over to the FBI? First she claimed there were no classified emails. Then when that was proven untrue, claimed she was unaware that the C marked on some emails meant classified. Perhaps there are perfectly innocent explanations for these actions, but to many Americans it looked and sounded wrong and boy was Trump good at exploiting her faults.

In the end, the campaign became a referendum on Clinton, not on Trump and that was always going to be a concern for the Democrats. In perhaps the most embarrassing statistic of the election, an exit poll found 61% of voters thought Trump was unfit for the presidency, yet he still managed 47% of the vote, meaning many of those who thought him unfit for the presidency, still voted for him. That is an indictment on the Clinton campaign.

In the end this election has not showered America in any glory. It has been crude and divisive. With it finally over, now is their chance for some national healing and unity. Trump’s acceptance speech was wonderful and conciliatory. He may surprise us yet. For the sake of world, I do hope he does.

1913: In Search of the World Before the First World War by Charles Emmerson

The marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm defined the years between 1789 to 1914 as the ‘long nineteenth century’. Beginning with the French Revolution and concluding with the outbreak of the First World War. It was an era that saw the emergence of the nation state, the explosion of the industrial revolution and the age of Empire. A time when European civilisation was at its zenith as a force in the world.

Yet the 1914 outbreak of war and the horrors it would bestow, broke down the nineteenth century and ushered in the modern world. The so called ‘short twentieth century’ as Hobsbawm would classify it.

The horrors of trench warfare, the thousands of dead on the western front, remain ingrained in our minds as a nation. We commemorate the landing at Gallipoli as a pioneering moment in our national self-determination. We celebrate the sacrifice of those who fought for their country, even by those who disagree with the reasons for which they fought.

Charles Emmerson an Australian historian decided to go in search of the world before the first world war. He stepped back into 1913 and in a rather haunting exploration, gives a portrait of the economic, political and social realities of the time. The hopes, expectations and debates of the age come flowing through and showcase the quickly changing, globalising, industrialising world, more connected than ever before.

This is not a starry-eyed history though. The inequality, putrid working conditions, racial divide, political instability are all on display.

Most importantly, this isn’t a European history. It may begin in London and Paris, but it moves to Mexico City and Buenos Aires to Tokyo and Nanking. His is an attempt to showcase the world for what it was, not for what the prejudice of time has instilled. ‘Can we at least attempt to look at the world in 1913 as it might have looked through contemporary eyes’ He asks in the introduction. Well he does his best.

While it may not be a European history, the fingerprints of Europe encircle the world. The British Empire controls almost a quarter of the globe. Its Capital City London is the biggest in the world, with over 7 million inhabitants. It is rich and lavish in parts, poor and impoverished in others, ‘worse than the indian city of Madras’, according to one N. Ramunajaswami, a young Indian in London for the first time in 1913.

Europe was industrialising at a rapid rate. In the space of 40 years Berlin, the once backwater capital of a small Kingdom had become the capital of a significant Empire. Paris, remained the cultural capital of the world, enchanting visitors from all across the globe.

Thousands of German and French lived in London, and vice versa. Europe was becoming more and more ‘European’.  Europeans were beginning to see themselves ‘as a single entity, separated by national rivalries for sure, yet tangled by common bonds of culture and class, trade and travel.’ Free trade and the movements of people was bringing Europe closer and closer together. Many believed this rendered peace a certainty, war a so called ‘great illusion’. An illusion that became an all too awful reality. It was a telling observation considering the events of the past few days. 

For all of Europe’s prestige and affluence, many of its citizens did not share in the pomp. Europe was unequal, the working conditions of many of the working class were terrible. Unions and Labor parties were beginning to find a voice through democratic platforms. In Germany, the largest party in the Reichstag was the Social Democrats. In England the fight for female suffrage had turned violent as Parliament continually rejected the enfranchisement of woman for several different reasons.

Out of Europe and into to the ‘New World’. Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated President in 1913. Best known as the man behind the League of Nations and for bringing America into the First World War, in 1913 his focus was more on domestic issues. Ending corruption, taxation reform, reform of the financial system. Wilson told a friend before becoming President that it ‘would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign problems’. It is one of many anecdotes in this book that are almost haunting when benefited by hindsight.

Further down the Americas in Mexico City the situation is precarious and dangerous. The Government had been overthrown in a revolution in 1911. The long-serving former President had fled the country and a new President Francisco Madero had been elected virtually unopposed. An eccentric man, rather than ‘launching himself into land reform, published a Spiritualist Manual based on the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata’ It’s no wonder his presidency unravelled in just over a year, when the army moved against him and in what has become known as the decena tragica – the tragic ten days, a military dictatorship was established.

Across the Pacific in North Eastern Asia there are two divergent narratives being written. In 1913, Japan was a nation on the rise. In the 50 years since the Meiji Restoration the country had developed at a fastidious rate. It was growing not just as a nation but as an Empire, acquiring control of Korea. It had defeated the mighty Russians in 1905 and believed it deserved its place on the seat of the great powers. Yet there were still questions. ‘Would Japan prove a factor of stability and western order or would it be an expansionist force?’

To the south, China is in a state perpetual decline. In 1912 thousands of years of Imperial rule came to an end and a republic was established. Unfortunately as often happens in these situations, by 1913 the republic looked to be morphing into a dictatorship. China was a nation with many problems. The boxer rebellion had damaged its international standing, and the opium trade was causing social distress. Like Japan, China was on the precipice of a new era and it was uncertain the direction it would take.

There is much more to this book than the above mentioned chapters. Emmersen spends several chapters looking at the outreach of Empire, comparing the way Empire Day was celebrated in different sections of the British empire. From Bombay to Durban, Melbourne to Winnipeg.

This a wonderful book, not difficult to read and something to return to if you ever need an engaging overview of what the world looked like before the First World War.

The English and Their History (1)

The nation of England on the island of Great Britain has attained a special place in Europe. ‘The largest nation without its own political institutions.’

Since 1707 England has been in a political and economic union with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland known as the United Kingdom or more colloquially; Britain. 

Until 1998, the British peoples were governed with the one Parliament from Westminster in London, a shared language, religion, monarchy, geography and history, uniting them.

In 1998 Parliaments with devolved powers were introduced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by the Blair Labor Government as a way to ‘kill nationalism and preserve Labor dominance in Scotland and Wales’, as well as ending the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.

It has set in motion profound changes to the British constitution with the potential for even greater change, including the dissolution of the United Kingdom. This came close to fruition in 2013 during the Scottish referendum on independence, when Scotland voted 55-45 to remain in the Union.

It has also brought to the fore the so-called West-Lothian Question. Is it fair that English MPs refrain from voting on laws relating directly to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, yet Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs can still vote on purely English laws?

The logical answer is of course no.

Following the Scottish referendum British Prime Minister David Cameron promised a new settlement in which ‘the millions of voices of England must also be heard.’ He was answering the West-Lothian question. Three years later, Britain is pre-occupied with the European question, a potentially fractious issue, with no decisive answer as of yet to its West-Lothian one.  

What all this means for ‘Britain’ remains to be seen, but as Robert Tombs explains in this timely and lengthy work, English nationalism is a relatively unknown variable; a ‘splinter’. ‘England has long been a powerful, political, cultural and economic entity. But, oddly, rarely has it been a self-contained and autonomous nation.’ The English it seems are afraid of isolation. ‘Perhaps it is characteristic of an island nation…to have multiple but impermanent political relationships.’

It was these characteristics that lead Britain to join the European Union in 1973, or the European Economic Community as it was then known, fearing the rapid decline of its Empire and the subsequent loss of its prestige would render it a ‘greater Sweden’.

This contrasted with the opinion of French President Charles De Gaulle, who believed the British would never join the EEC because it was ‘too connected to the rest of the world….to ‘shut itself up’ in Europe.’  De Gaulle did block Britain’s entry into the EEC for other reasons, but his opinion is one that would resonate with English Eurosceptics.

Why, the Eurosceptics ask, remain a member of the European Union, an economic block that is shrinking, encroaching upon Britain’s sovereignty, when Britain could link through trade and shared history, with the rest of the world; India, America, Australasia, even China?

Euro-scepticism a ‘characteristic facet of English consciousness today’ derives from the level of global connectedness England developed through Empire, ‘its people (have) more intimate family and cultural connections with North America, Australasia or the Indian subcontinent than with Belgium, Luxembourg or Bavaria.’

At the same time, Europhiles oppose leaving the European Union concerned that it would see Britain become ‘little England’. Tony Blair, the staunchly pro-‘European’ Prime Minister stated that ‘Europe is today the only route through which Britain can…maintain its role as a global player’. Both sides seemingly fear the same thing, irrelevance.

It will come to a head on June 23, when Britain votes on whether to continue their membership in the European Union. The vote came about when the British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron promised in 2013 a referendum on membership. The Conservative Party who had traditionally supported the European project had shifted significantly over the previous years to become the mainstay of Euroscepticism in England.

Cameron himself is a strong supporter of continued membership and has campaigned vigorously on the issue, claiming that Britain is better in than out.

On the opposite end is the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who announced at the beginning of the campaign he would advocate a vote for Leave. Johnson known for his self-deprecating buffoonery is perhaps the most popular politician in Britain. His decision to back Leave was considered a significant boost to their campaign.

This isn’t a left-right issue necessarily. There are many Conservative MPs who want to remain in the EU and many Left wing MPs who are campaigning to leave.

The ramifications for the June vote are enormous. Should Britain vote to stay it would be considered implicit British support for the Union, ‘ever closer union’ an inevitability.  

Should it vote to leave, then it could precipitate the collapse of the United Kingdom.

Should England vote to leave, but is kept in the Union by Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish votes then it may precipitate a constitutional crisis. The opposite is also true. Should Britain vote to leave but Scotland votes to stay, the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has declared it a trigger for another referendum on Scottish Independence.

The campaign has been marked by its passion and at times vitriol.

It is proving to be the decisive issue of modern British politics.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones

Dan Jones seems to have perfected the art of story-telling. This is a seriously good work. Mixing exciting story-telling with actual scholarship, Jones has managed to re-create the mayhem that emerged in England as a result of Henry VI’s ineffectual rule. Jones builds the story convincingly, managing to bring the multitude of characters to life and explaining their motivations, without getting lost in the detail, especially in a conflict that was often centred on complex genealogies, petered by a multitude number of Henrys, Edwards and Richards.

Jones challenges the idea that the Wars of the Roses was some great Tudor triumph. That Henry VII in defeating Richard III and then marrying Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York, united the two warring factions of England, the House of Lancaster and the House of York, whose rivalry had wrought widespread desolation, and brought peace to a broken realm.

Jones claims the Wars of the Roses came about as a result of a decline in royal authority because of Henry VI’s inability to rule, augmented by the loss of all of England’s French territories. With Henry virtually a puppet for whomever was in control of him, the realm descended into riotous frustration at the royal government’s porous finances and fear of a French invasion. From this Richard Duke of York, Henry’s cousin, would stake his claim, first as protector of the realm and then more directly for the throne itself. This would lead to several brutal battles, the worst at Towton where up to 100,000 men met in battle. If there is one criticism I have of this book, and perhaps this is no fault of Jones himself, it could have done with a deeper appraisal of Henry VI.

After Towton, the crown passes from the House of Lancaster to the House of York and stabilises under Edward IV, but after Edward’s untimely death, his brother Richard III in quite an extraordinary moment seizes the crown for himself from his nephew, Edward V, and has he and his younger brother murdered in the Tower. This action, coupled with Richard’s paranoia, encourages Henry Tudor, Henry VI’s half brother, to invade England in 1485. He builds a strong army and at the Battle of Bosworth, Richard is slain and Henry becomes king.

The deaths do not end there however. Henry VII and even Henry VIII find themselves having to defend their claim to the throne from real and imagined threats, until 1525, when there was simply no body left to threaten them.

There are several revelations I found enlightening, especially with regards to the Tudors. The Tudors are Welsh, and found themselves close to royal power through the rather extraordinary life of Owain ap Muredudd ap Tudur (ap being Welsh for son of) or as we know him now, Owen Tudor. Owen manages to marry the dowager Queen, Henry V’s widow, Catherine of Valois. Together they have two sons, Edmund and Jasper. Henry VII was Edmund’s eldest son. It is a remarkable rise for a Welsh family, at a time when the Welsh were considered second class citizens.

This is a brilliant book.

Vivid Imagery

The skull was shattered open, blood and intellect, spluttering out. So long constrained, now free to move as they choose, their services no longer required. The jaw broken, on the verge of tearing from the rest of the face, the nose a fountain flowing blood. The body, moments earlier seated upright in the swarthy black executive office chair, lay slumped sideways, upper body hanging off the left edge, right hand thumb caught inside a cleft in the broken skull. The legs spread apart, pants filling with blood. Carpet, chair, desk, all red with liquid. A silver frame, hanging behind the desk, of a newspaper front page ‘Peace Ensured’ was splashed in gore, slowly dripping down the frame.