The lawyer, the war criminal and the limits of empathy

Parliament of dreams

Courtroom 600 of the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg was the venue for the post-war trials of Nazi leaders, so it is strange to learn that it is still used for the administration of justice. Strange but completely appropriate. Those trials established new principles of international law and the competing concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity. They also showed that what had happened under the Nazi regime was not above the law. The scale or horror of a crime cannot be allowed to take its perpetrator beyond justice, even if it takes them beyond comprehension and perhaps beyond mercy. At the same time, Courtroom 600 is a historic site under the care of the Nuremberg Trials Memorial which works to increase understanding of what happened here.

On 21 November 1945, the American Prosecutor, Robert H. Jackson, began his opening speech by saying

‘That four great nations, flushed with victory…

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A letter to my friends in the European Union (including, for now, the British)

Referendum - 1

A letter to my friends in the European Union

(including, for now, the British)

After last Thursday’s vote, I wanted to write to friends in other European countries, to share my feelings and just to be in touch with people I care for. I soon realised that there were far too many of them and that I’d be writing emails for days. I also saw that I’d be repeating myself in expressing my dismay and asking them not to lose faith in me, in us, in Europe. So this is a personal letter, a letter of friendship and affection, posted here just as a way to reach all my friends – and, who knows, make new ones. I’d write it in more languages if I could, but I can only manage English and French (below). Thank you for reading.

Une lettre à mes amis de l’Union européenne

(y compris, pour l’instant, les Britanniques)

Depuis le vote de jeudi dernier, j’ai voulu écrire à mes amis dans les autres pays européens pour partager mon émotion et simplement pour être en contact avec ceux qui me sont importants. Je me suis vite rendu compte qu’ils étaient très nombreux et que j’aurai des mèls à écrire pendant des jours entiers. J’ai aussi vu que je me répèterai beaucoup en exprimant ma consternation et en leur demandant de ne pas perdre la foi en moi, en nous, en Europe. Voici donc une lettre bien personnelle, une lettre d’amitié et d’affection, posté ici simplement pour mes amis – et, qui sait, pour en faire de nouveaux. J’aurai écris en allemand, en espagnol, en grec… mais je ne maitrise que  l’anglais et le français (plus bas). Merci pour la lecture et bon courage…

English version

Dear Friends

I woke: the house where I was born. Rain was falling softly in all the rooms.

Yves Bonnefoy, La Maison Natale

In voting to leave the European Union, my fellow-citizens have changed the future. The consequences – for those of us living in this green and rainy island, for our neighbours and even for people in distant lands – are grave and unpredictable. The referendum has exposed and intensified long-standing divisions in our society; it has often turned on grievances unconnected with the EU. And we have no idea what happens now.

In 1947, in a city ruined by the war, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons ‘that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’. In France, Raymond Aron, made a similarly cautious assessment, advocating democracy principally as the best way of limiting the state’s abuse of its power over individuals.

I wish today’s politicians showed similar wisdom in their thinking about democracy, but demagogues thrive by making things simple. I mistrust certainties and those who sell them, so I look to democracy – with Churchill and Aron – to protect our human rights. Electoral choices are not intrinsically good. Democracy is simply the right to choose, and the obligation to accept the consequences. The people may have spoken but what they intended to say – and why – is complex and uncertain. Those on the winning side elevate their choice to a moral truth. It is not. It is just the least bad way we have of deciding what to do.

The British have chosen to leave the European Union. The 48% who disagreed must live with that choice, as the 52% majority remind us. This thing will happen. Those who chose differently, who have other beliefs and alternative visions of the world, must decide what to do now. How do you respond when you wake up and find it’s raining in every room?

As politicians bluster in the media, I fear new borders and barbed wire. But security is built by getting to know those around us, not by planting hedges so we can’t see each other. If our neighbours do take us at our word and leave us alone, we’ll have isolation when we wanted independence.

Many of us – perhaps most – do not want that vision of our future. We know the EU is flawed – but so is our government and our democracy. They’re just the best we can manage at the moment and, as Churchill said, they’re better than the alternatives. If we walked away from everything flawed, we’d never stop walking. In truth, our imperfect systems and human weaknesses are the best explanation of why humanity does better when we work together to meet life’s complex challenges. And, of course, that also applies to this decision. We must work together to make the best of it.

I trust my friends in the European Union to understand the complexities of our struggle with these choices. It can be a difficult, dangerous world: you know as well as us what that means. Democracy’s binary choices cannot adequately reflect the hopes and fears of 35,55,983 individual voters. Only meeting, talking and listening, face to face or virtually, can help us understand each other better.

No one knows what will happen now, but societies belong to people, not governments. They are built through relationships, not treaties, in what we do, not what we say. Most of us want to live in peace with others. Most of us accept that people are different. Most of us know that life is short and precious.

For most of the period that the UK has been a member of the European community, I have worked with people who have expressed their belief in human rights, democracy and our shared humanity through cultural projects. That work is life-enhancing in every sense. It reaches across social, cultural and official divisions and helps us live together. In the past year I have visited cultural activists in many countries from Portugal to Kyrgyzstan, Orkney to Morocco, Serbia to Ireland, and of course, in Britain. Whether or not I’ve needed a visa, whatever the situation or culture of the people I’ve met, I have been inspired by their creativity, optimism and commitment – and especially the imaginative courage of the younger generation.  Come what may, that is the world I want to be part of and contribute to.

Yours in friendship

François

Version française

Chers amis

Je m’éveillai, c’était la maison natale. Il pleuvait doucement dans toutes les salles

Yves Bonnefoy, La Maison Natale

En votant pour quitter l’Union européenne, mes concitoyens ont changé l’avenir. Les conséquences – pour ceux d’entre nous qui habitent cette île verte et pluvieuse, pour nos voisins et même pour les habitants de pays lointains – sont graves et imprévisibles. Le référendum a exposé et approfondi des divisions de longue durée dans notre société ; il a aussi souvent impliqué des plaintes n’ayant que peu de rapport avec l’UE. Et nous ne savons pas ce qui en adviendra.

En 1947, dans une ville ruinée par la guerre, Winston Churchill a déclaré à la Chambre des communes que « la démocratie est la pire forme de gouvernement, sauf toutes les autres formes qui ont été essayées de temps en temps ». En France, Raymond Aron, fît une évaluation également prudente, prônant la démocratie principalement comme la meilleure façon de limiter l’abus du pouvoir étatique contre l’individu.

J’aurais souhaité que cette génération d’hommes politiques fasse preuve d’une sagesse pareille, mais les démagogues profitent toujours de fausses simplicités. D’instinct je me méfie des certitudes et de ceux qui les vendent. Je demande surtout à la démocratie – avec Churchill et Aron – la protection des droits de l’homme. Les choix électoraux ne sont pas intrinsèquement bons. La démocratie est simplement le droit de choisir, avec l’obligation d’en accepter les conséquences. Le peuple a parlé, mais ce qu’il a voulu dire – et pourquoi – reste complexe et incertain. Du côté des vainqueurs on fait de ce choix à une vérité morale. Il n’en est pas. C’est simplement façon la moins mauvaise que nous avons de faire nos choix collectifs.

Le Royaume-Uni a décidé de quitter l’Union Européenne. Les 48% qui ont voté autrement doivent vivre ce choix, comme nous le rappellent les 52% de la majorité. Cette chose se produira. Ceux d’entre nous qui ont choisi autrement, ayant d’autres croyances et d’autres visions du monde, doivent maintenant décider quoi faire. Comment réagir quand on se réveille pour trouver qu’il pleut dans toutes les chambres?

Maintenant, quand les politiciens fanfaronnent sur les médias, je crains de nouvelles frontières et de nouveau barbelées. Mais la sécurité se construit en apprenant à connaître ceux auprès de nous, pas en plantant des haies pour que nous ne puissions plus nous voir. Si nos voisins nous prennent vraiment à notre mot et nous laissent tranquilles, nous trouverons l’isolement quand nous cherchions l’indépendance.

Beaucoup d’entre nous – peut-être la majorité – ne veulent pas cet avenir. Nous savons que l’UE est imparfaite – mais on peut en dire autant de notre gouvernement, de notre démocratie. C’est simplement ce que nous avons trouvé jusqu’ici de mieux pour gérer nos affaires et, comme le disait Churchill, c’est préférable aux alternatives. Si nous abandonnions tout ce qui est imparfait, nous abandonnerions tout. Il faut accepter que nos systèmes imparfaits et nos faiblesses coopèrent face aux défis complexes de la vie. Et, bien sûr, cela s’applique également à cette décision. Nous devons travailler ensemble pour faire avec.

J’ai confiance en mes amis de l’Union européenne pour comprendre les complexités de notre lutte avec ces choix. Le monde peut être difficile et dangereux : vous aussi le savez bien. Les choix binaires de la démocratie ne peuvent pas refléter les espoirs et les craintes de 35,55,983 électeurs particuliers. Il faut se rencontre, échanger, s’écouter, que ça soit face à face ou en ligne, si nous espérons nous comprendre.

Personne ne sait ce qui va se passer maintenant, mais les sociétés appartiennent aux citoyens, pas aux gouvernements. Elles sont formées par les relations, pas par les traités. Elles sont la somme de nos actes, pas de nos paroles. La plupart d’entre nous veulent vivre en paix avec les autres. La plupart d’entre nous acceptent que les gens soient différents. La plupart d’entre nous savent que la vie est courte et précieuse.

Pendant la plupart du temps le Royaume-Uni a fait partie de la communauté européenne, j’ai travaillé avec des gens qui exprimaient leur engagement aux droits de l’homme, la démocratie et notre humanité partagée par le moyen de projets culturels. Ce travail enrichit dans tous les sens la vie. Il franchit les divisions sociales, culturelles et officielles et nous aide à vivre ensemble. L’année passée j’ai rendu visite à des activistes dans beaucoup de pays – du Portugal au Kirghizistan, des Orcades au Maroc, de la Serbie à l’Irlande et bien sûr, en Grande-Bretagne. Partout, j’ai été inspiré par la créativité des gens, leur optimisme et leur engagement – et particulièrement par le courage et l’imagination de la jeune génération. Advienne que pourra, c’est le monde dont je veux faire partie et auquel je veux contribuer.

Bien amicalement

François

The Light Ships launch

The Light Ships 21

Last Saturday was windy and cold. A good part of my drive from Nottingham to Whaplode was through torrents of rain, but as I got closer, the weather grew calmer and I grew more anxious about The Light Ships event. It’s been many years since I’ve organised anything quite like this and I wasn’t confident about how many people would brave the early breath of winter or what they’d think of it all if they did.

With the stalwart help of Lauren Williams and Kristina Taylor at Transported, and one or two local friends, the exhibition had been installed on Friday afternoon. It included drawings by Rosie Redzia, woollen sculptures by knitting groups, photographs by Tony Quinton, amateur paintings gathered by Mary Brice of Moulton, new and archive films, and a recreation by Jo Wheeler of the Bus Fayre from her Village Postcard project. But the principal exhibit was the wonderful church of St Mary’s at Whaplode, whose nave was begun about 890 years ago: I wanted the exhibition to enrich the building not obscure it.

Music was made with organ recitals by Tony Fitt-Savage and Tim Galley and the bellringers of Whaplode, and generous hospitality provided in the form of tea and cakes by the church community. The rain kept off. People came and the atmosphere was warm (despite the weather). There was even a rainbow…

These photos give a lovely sense of the occasion. They were taken by Steve Hatton at Electric Egg for Transported, and I’m grateful to them for permission to include them here.

The Light Ships will be presented at 3.00pm on Saturday 22 November 2014 at Wrangle church and at the same time the following Saturday (29 November ) at Gosberton church – and anyone is most welcome to come along. The book will be available to download from this site shortly and copies can be ordered from Transported (it costs £5, plus postage).

Holbeach St. Marks Community Association Building, Sluice Road, Holbeach St. Marks, Lincolnshire PE12 8HF

Tel 01406 701006 Email: TransportedLauren@litc.org.uk

The Light Ships 22

An antidote for visual satiety

 

In a world saturated with pictures, the work of artists is very vulnerable and very important –vulnerable because it is so easy to lose one’s way in this hall of mirrors, lured by money, fame and flattery into creating work that serves only the purposes of power. And important for the same reason – because, if they are true to their own way of looking, their craft and their sensibility, they are the antidote to the visual pap with which power shapes our ideas of reality. Artists with integrity are like whole food in a world of burger bars and junk.

Richard Johnson is a Scottish-Canadian artist who has been sent, first by the Detroit Free Press and latterly by the Washington Post, to Iraq and Afghanistan. There is nothing new about war artists: Britain first used them in 1916, and they have been assigned to most subsequent conflicts. But Johnson works as a ‘visual journalist’, much as a press photographer would: documenting what he sees and the people he meets in immediate sketches whose purpose is to help newspaper (and website) readers understand better what is happening now, today. His latest assignment, following the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan, brings vividly home, and from many perspectives, the humanity of the experience. The results can be seen in a blog here.

Speaking on the BBC World Service’s Boston Calling, Johnson explained his idea of drawing’s value in journalism:

‘It’s great for telling stories where you need people to care about people who are far, far away – so, your refugee camps in Syria, internally displaced camps inside Iraq now, Ebola in Africa, these are stories I think that [drawing] could be used incredibly effectively to make people emotionally connect with what are basically just other human beings. They may not be nearby but they’re just as valid and just as valuable as anything else in your life.’

In much less dramatic contexts this is one of the founding ideas behind Regular Marvels. Art has not just ways of seeing, but ways of knowing, that it alone commands. It does not simply depict or represent: it creates knowledge that cannot otherwise exist. The contributions of the artists I have worked with on these books – filmmaker, Ben Wigley; painter, Mik Godley; sculptor Bill Ming; and illustrator, Rosie Redzia – have been integral to each one. They do not illustrate my words, any more than those words describe their visual work. They create new kinds and new levels of knowledge.

One reason for that is because they are the result of time taken and therefore they take time to understand: this is slow imagery in a world that plays fast and loose with pictures. Artists like Richard Johnson can help us go beyond being informed to empathising and even understanding what is otherwise so far from our own lives. When the imagery of war can no longer be distinguished from the imagery of video games, the ball point and the pencil can still tell fact from fiction.

 

Sharing the stage

 

Sharing the stage 5Yesterday the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation hosted a conference about participatory art at the old Town Hall in Shoreditch (London). All the organisations who’ve been long-listed for funding in the Foundation’s participatory performing arts strand were invited to ‘share the stage’ in an event dedicated to encouraging reflection, debate and the exploration of new collaborations.

Such an approach is always risky, but it was well thought through and expertly delivered on the day. The result was one of the most enjoyable and stimulating conferences I’ve attended recently. The atmosphere was collegiate and supportive, which could hardly be taken for granted since everyone there was in competition for the same resources. But most of all, I came away inspired by the ideas and commitment of lots of people I met for the first time, and hopeful that good work is not just being sustained but developing in new ways.

Sharing the stage 6

If you were there and want to see the notes I used for my talk, click on the link. The essay that sets out those ideas more fully can be downloaded from here, along with other writing about community and participatory arts:

Sharing the stage 3

Angels

Angel_on_a_frosty_morning_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1316802

Mike White is an old friend who has made a huge contribution to the field of arts and health, in practice, research and writing. Illness has recently brought him into a different contact with medical services and he has written a moving piece about the experience, for the Centre for Medical Humanities blog.

Mike was one of those who worked to bring The Angel of the North to Gateshead, a process of long community engagement that is rarely appreciated by the sculpture’s many imitators. One small element of that was the gift of a series of photographs documenting the making of the angel to Gateshead’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where Mike is now receiving treatment. It is the sight of those images, when viewed from another perspective, that he writes about.

It’s a reminder, if any were needed, that all these ideas about people’s experience of art are, when they are true, connected to everything that makes our lives matter. Behind the blether of policy, ideology and opinion, the arguments in parliament and the media, there is life and death, love and pain and courage, the everyday lives people lead in the hope of making a difference.

Angels have become oddly popular in recent years, appearing in all sorts of places and contexts as rather ambiguous symbols of hope or spirituality in a culture that has lost much of its religious faith. This trend has often seemed close to sentimentality—what I think James Joyce describes somewhere as ‘unearned emotion’. But art walks the border between sentiment and sentimentality, true and false feeling, and the risk of falling on the wrong side of it is worth taking because it’s so valuable to be on the right side. So here’s an example I came across recently, from the great Australian artist, Michael Leunig, that for me at least does just that.

Leunig - At the Top