Saturday 29 December 2012

More tea, Socrates?

"Why Am I Smiling like This?"
I had intended to write a light-hearted blog for the holiday season.  The FOMYC (Father of My Children) thinks that I Need to Lighten Up.  But what has been going round my head today is an ancient statement on slavery.

In the ninth book of Plato’s Republic, Socrates asks, ‘Suppose some god should seize a man who has fifty or more slaves and waft him with his wife and children away from the city and set him down with his other possessions and his slaves in a solitude where no free man could come to his rescue. What and how great would be his fear, do you suppose, lest he and his wife and children be destroyed by the slaves?’ ‘The greatest fear in the world!’ comes the instant reply.

The horrifying implication of this interchange is that EVERYONE in antiquity assumed that slaves held in any numbers  felt  murderous violence towards their owners and would slaughter them immediately if there were nothing to prevent them—the lash, neighbours, the army, the state.

What reminded me of ‘Socrates on Class Hatred’ was not the amount of cooking and washing-up I have done over the last week. It was the violent deaths of M.K. Bhattacharjee and his wife, tea plantation owners in Assam, allegedly at the hands of their own workers. The ancestors of the tea pluckers of Assam--who are mostly exploitable and often malnourished women--were members of tribes imported there forcibly by the British in the mid-19th century.  

The colonisers had previously imported Chinese male labourers to the new plantations, but had failed to reduce them to acceptable levels of obedience. 

I only know this because as a child I did a project on tea at school. I asked some questions because I was so fascinated by the beautiful woman smiling, as if she had been given a lobotomy, on the PG Tips adverts before they replaced her with chimpanzees.

Tea was not grown commercially in India until the 1830s, when the ‘father’ of the Assam tea industry, Lieutenant Andrew Charlton, proved that black tea was indigenous to this part of north-East India. He served with the Assam Light Infantry (now the 6th Queen’s Own Gurka Rifles), a regiment which, as even its official website concedes,  ‘saw much fighting with the many local tribes who resented the East India Company’s encroachment into their territories.’  

The ethnicity of those who extract profits from the tea workers changed after Indian Independence in 1947. But the paltry wages and dire conditions still haven’t. There are reports that the issue in this week's incident was failure to provide the accommodation to which permanent tea workers are entitled under the Assam Plantations Labour Act (1951).

None of this is amusing. Off to put the kettle on, brew up a cup of (Fairtrade) Assam, and try to focus on the New Year.

Saturday 22 December 2012

The Ancient Greek Boxer and the Gun-Nuts

Ancient Boxers policed by nervous umpires

In 496 BC, sixty school children were massacred on the beautiful Aegean island of Astypalaia. The perp was Cleomedes, a fellow islander. After killing his opponent in the Olympic boxing final,  and consequently being refused the prize by the umpires, he went ‘insane with grief’, sailed home, and brought the school roof crashing down on his compatriots’ children by removing its load-bearing pillar.

The ancient Greek travel writer Pausanias relates that the islanders tried to catch Cleomedes, but he mysteriously disappeared. Then comes the difficult bit: the bereaved community was ordered by the Delphic oracle to deify the killer and sacrifice to him. 

Delusional Heracles Kills his Sons and his Wife
The ambivalent status of Cleomedes is telling. The ancient Greeks were indeed conflicted about violent crazies. They wept bitterly when their children were slaughtered: a few decades later, they were outraged when another school massacre took place, in which every child in the town of Mycalessus was wiped out by mercenaries high on their own prowess. Yet male education consisted of military training, contact sports, and poems celebrating over-armed individuals with anger management problems. 

Heracles came home from his labours to kill his wife and three children, whom he psychotically misidentified as Bad Guys, with a club and an archery set. Odysseus used a stockpile of similarly low-tech weapons to slaughter a hundred neighbours whose only crime was to eat the contents of his larder.

Wayne LaPierre
We are just as conflicted about violence-addicted lunatics as they were. If we add automatic firearms to ancient mythology the result is the fantasy war-game going on inside Wayne LaPierre’s head. 

This executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association, and author of the delusional Guns, Crime and Freedom (1994), tells us that the NRA is offering to draw up a plan to create ‘security shields’ of heavily armed guards around every single school in the USA: ‘The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’ 

Only one word in that sentence has more than one syllable. LaPierre has clearly been watching the virtually dialogue-free Rambo IV (2008), on which purported ‘script’ Sylvester Stallone boasts that he collaborated. The Burmese troops who have killed the children in the village are mashed as in a food processor by Stallone’s jeep-mounted .50 calibre BMG. I am told by people who have actually counted that the body parts of over two hundred Bad Guys are smeared over the camera lens during the movie.

The NRA’s rhetoric is identical to the ‘argument’ of Rambo IV. Rambo must fire his ludicrous weapons because some do-gooding Christian medics, along with pettifogging bureaucrats, have made a dog’s dinner of the mission. The NRA likewise position themselves as selfless heroes whose realistic pragmatism is the last resort when pathetic do-gooders fail. 

Disturbed youths responsible for mass shootings are the modern equivalents of Cleomedes. Yet, paradoxically, gun-worshippers are also the modern equivalents of the bereaved Greek parents who agreed to worship Cleomedes as a legendary strongman. 

Come to think of it, Stallone has also acted a semi-deranged boxer, in the Rocky movies. In a sleepless moment it occurred to me that our own bafflingly bipolar approach to indiscriminate violence would receive its ultimate expression if he starred in a movie about Cleomedes, boxing champion, murderous psychopath and hero, called e.g. Last Blood: Aegean Sacrifice. The only barrier is that ancient Greek concepts as well as names tend to have more syllables than Rambo fans are used to.

Sunday 16 December 2012

What Ed Miliband needs to learn from Demosthenes

It is imperative that the parliamentary opposition in the UK gets its act together.The  proposed 'Welfare Uprating Bill' is set to abolish the 80-year-old connection between benefits and living standards. The bill ELIMINATES the honourable principle that the income of those on benefits should rise proportionately with inflation/cost of living.  It will be very difficult for any government ever to reinstate this principle. Britain’s poor will be pushed down the slipperiest of slopes.

It is sickening enough that George Osborne, the Chancellor behind this venomous piece of legislation, is heir to a baronetcy, has an inherited fortune of £4 million, and was educated at St Paul’s School (fees currently £29,466 p.a.).  But my nausea level rises even more at the Orwellian name of the bill. The OED says that ‘to uprate’ means ‘raise to a higher standard’, ‘upgrade’, ‘improve the performance’ or ‘increase the value’ of something. The bill does none of these things to the living standards of Britain's poorest. It really needs to be called the 'Social Security Drastic Reduction Bill.'

Whatever the Labour Party’s (hazy) position on the bill, one thing is certain:  it will be painful to listen to Ed Miliband’s speeches on the topic.  Never has a prominent British politician’s  vocal delivery hurt my ear-drums so badly. I know that this is not his fault, for he has had surgery to correct a deviated septum. But FIVE DAYS with a competent actor or singer could sort him out. He needs to use his chest voice rather than try to make sound in his nasal cavity and squeak through the front of his face. He needs to propel a sustained column of air up through his larynx with the help of his abdominal muscles.

'Démosthène s'exerçant à la parole', J.L. du Nouÿ

Demosthenes the ancient Athenian orator knew that his whiney voice was proving a handicap, so he hired the famous tragedian Satyrus to sort out his breathing. He practised speaking over the roar of the waves and gargled with pebbles.

The worrying thing is that Demosthenes seems to have left it too late to learn to use his whole body in creating sound. His political mission was to stop the Kingdom of Macedonia taking over Athens, and he FAILED. This raises the alarming question  of what history would have looked like if some of the other great speakers had been afflicted by nature with Demosthenic/Milibandian voices and had failed to get vocal training.

If Churchill had sounded like a Bee Gee, how would ‘Fight them on the beaches' etc. have come across? If Martin Luther King had squealed like David Beckham, would we have listened to him when he told us that He Had a Dream? If Miliband doesn’t stop sounding like someone on the Goon Show, no amount of political commitment on his part will Make Poverty History in the UK.

The two friends of Miliband with whom I have discussed this say that he is a pleasant and committed politician who simply despises all PR.  This position may be admirable in principle, but not when the future of Social Security in the UK is on the line. I once had a few singing lessons, have researched ancient oratorical delivery, and could fix the supply of air passing through Miliband's vocal cords in a week. It would make a good TV make-over programme. I will let you know if he takes up the offer.

Saturday 8 December 2012

Scythians in Seattle

Scythian looking forward to next funeral

My favourite passage in ancient history is Herodotus’ description of the dope-smoking Scythians of the Russian steppes. They were sceptical about the social benefits conferred by alcohol, the intoxicant recommended by their Greek colonisers (4.75). But the Scythians did love their weed.  At funerals, they inhaled the delicious vapours produced by bags of cannabis laid over hot stones, and howled in collective joy.

Herodotus’ evidence was confirmed in the 1920s by the sensational discovery of equipment for enjoying cannabis in Iron-Age tombs, along with preserved bodies of tattooed nomads, in the Altai Mountains of Siberia. Some scholars have even discerned images inspired by the cannabis plant and its leaves amongst the elaborate body art.

Altai Marijuana Smoker's amazing tattoos
This week the State of Washington did a Scythian Thing. It legalised the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. The news was greeted with delight by the indigenous Suquamish tribe (after whose ancestor, Chief Sealth, the city of Seattle was named).  The Suquamish have always used marijuana extensively in medicine and ritual. But their opponents have issued dark warnings about an imminent rise in psychiatric disorders and drug-related violence. We shall see.

Chief Sealth
In the USA, no effective Federal legislation against marijuana existed until 1937. It was the brainchild of  Harry J. Anslinger, first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger, a fanatic, used cinema (you can see some of the unedifying results on Youtube) to malign cannabis as 'the most violence-creating drug on this planet'.

The political trajectory of his campaign needs no more illustration than his infamous statement,  'There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.' 

Anslinger Propaganda
The illegal status of cannabis has always seemed perverse to me. I once lived in Brixton, where it was obvious that the police used its illegal status to justify purely racial harassment. When a close friend was in agony with galloping Multiple Sclerosis, he gained considerable relief from inhaling these benign, crumbly, green-brown leaves.

Further back into prehistory, when I was an undergraduate, it was far less expensive to use cannabis, preferably inhaled through a bong shared with friends, than to seek relaxation through booze. The bong-crowd, many of whom were classicists and thus professionally familiar with the Scythians, used to go gently to sleep in our ring-leader’s bedroom. 

Meanwhile, the drunken Rugger Buggers were fighting, breaking windows, and terrorising all females who dared so much as to walk past the college bar. The UK rather accidentally criminalised dope when its inclusion as one of a long list of substances in the 1925 Dangerous Drugs Act was virtually undebated. Let's hope the country doesn’t take too long to follow the Seattle-ites' Scythian trend.