Friday 26 May 2017

She-Gods of Justice Ancient & Modern

Protest against the Dhaka Themis
So the angry conservative Sunnis of Bangladesh have won their months-long battle to get the statue of Themis, reported as being ‘the Greek goddess of Justice’, removed from her plinth outside the nation’s Supreme Court in Dhaka. 

Do the Bangladeshis really believe that anyone might start worshipping sculptor Mrinal Haque’s eye-catching creation?* Or is the problem that she is a sign of creeping ‘western’ secularisation in public art as well as law? Or is it that she is a female in a position of authority?

Antelope-fabric-clad Themis in British Museum
Regardless of the reason, her removal is at least aesthetically sad for everyone who is, like me, partial to statues. Ever since my garden gnomes named after philosophers (René, Immanuel, Karl etc.) mysteriously vanished from my (then) East Oxford garden, I have collected (indoors) busts of Greek sages instead.

And the Bangladeshi Themis was a fabulous creation, not least as a product of millennia of intercultural symbol-swapping. Themis was in charge of overseeing right thinking and conduct in the divine sphere, delegating human law to her daughter Dikē, but the Greeks never portrayed her looking static or solemn with a sword, scales or blindfold: on the contrary, she was famed for her good eyesight, liked flashy textiles embroidered with antelopes, escaped riding a bull bareback from the primordial flood, and giggled as she laid the tables at Peleus & Thetis’ wedding.**

Scale-wielding Equity, not Justice, on a Coin of Hadrian
Scales were carried on Roman coins not by Justitia but by Aequitas (Equity) or Moneta (Money).  And the Romans seem to have borrowed them from the Egyptian god Anubis, who used scales to measure a deceased person’s heart against the weight representing Truth. Truth (Ma’at) was herself sometimes imagined with a fetching ostrich feather on her head. The exact process by which personified Justice acquired all her now familiar accoutrements is unclear, but she was certainly imagined with scales by the 13th century.
Anubis and his Scales; Befeathered Ma'at

The Dhaka ‘Themis’ continued this riotous process of intercultural cross-pollination by wearing a distinctly local sari. It would be so nice if she could get re-erected, perhaps with an Egyptian ostrich feather and added Greek antelopes on the outfit. Law is indeed a weighty matter, but perhaps the Bangladeshi authorities, instead of letting the iconoclasts win, need to lighten up?
Mosaic in St. Mark's Venice

[*Although the Qur'an nowhere bans statues, many Muslims have always worried that art representing living forms encourages idolatry--actual worship of the entities represented. One of their most sacred traditions, recorded  in a Sunni prophecy collection, says that when Muhammad conquered Mecca, he immediately removed 360 idols from around the Ka'bah. ‘The Prophet started striking them with a stick he had in his hand and was saying [this is a line from the Qur’an], "Truth has come and Falsehood has Vanished”.']
[**Quintus of Smyrna's Fall of Troy  4.128ff., 13.298ff. and Suda under 'Boucheta'.]

Sunday 14 May 2017

Eurovision's Collective Ethnic Psychosis

Some of Lucie Jones' Personalities
‘This madness we’re running through…/It’s madness, it’s madness’ sang the three fragmented avatars of Britain’s Lucie Jones last night. As well she might. Europe is in Ethnic Denial. I became increasingly perturbed as the Eurovision final wore on at the impression the show would have given to any visiting Martian that all Europeans had light complexions. 

Quite apart from the historic debt owed by popular music to people of non-European descent, especially those with ancestry stretching back to Africa and the Caribbean, more than 15% of all Europeans really are brown or black.

The headcount last night (for which the strapline, astonishingly, was Celebrating Diversity) was shocking. With the single exception of Hungary, every lead singer was white. Otherwise only Sweden managed to put dark-skinned people, even as backing singer-dancers, on stage at all.

Bipolar in Croatia
Europe, quite frankly, is in a denial of psychotic proportions about the identity and appearance of Europeans. And an unconscious acknowledgement of that psychosis leaked out in the lyrics, which suggested delusional experiences in a concentration never before heard on Eurovision. I speak as someone who has had treatment for mental illness and once spent time in mental hospital.

Belgian Stockholm Syndrome
Croatia’s Jacques Houdek made Eurovision history as two of his split selves, one a countertenor and the other a bass, sang a bipolar duet about Being Friends and The Force of Destiny. Belgium’s Blanche had been abducted by a mysterious stranger when ‘all alone in the danger zone’ and was suffering, dilated-pupils and all, from Stockholm Syndrome.

Sectioned in Norway
Greece’s Demy complained she can’t get rid of the ‘echo in my head’. Azerbaijan’s Dihaj is ‘deep into high extremes’ of ‘fantasy’. In Israel, Imri Ziv is feeling ‘a bit fragile’.  Meanwhile, in Moldova, SunStroke Project are worried about their mother’s mental health (Mamma, mamma, don’t be so mad/Mamma, mamma, ma…)

Jowst of Norway have simply given up and seem already to have been been sectioned:

   They read me like a book that is open
   While punching on a bag and I’m choking
   I’m looking for a sign while they’re stepping on my mind

   Try to keep myself calm while my head was getting bombed…
   I’m gonna kill that voice in my head

Thankfully, our visiting Martian, if she/he/it understood Hungarian, would have had the collective psychosis explained by Hungary’s brilliant, brown, Romany Rapper Joci Pápai. Along with a beautiful brown woman dancer, he explicitly addressed everyone else’s ethnic denial :
Total Exception: Brown and Proud in Hungary

Why did you lie to me
That the colour of my skin doesn’t matter?
You knew that my eyes are brown
It never changes
I don’t need you anymore
Get out of here, leave me alone
I don’t want to see you
You’ll be cursed forever, forever.

Rather how I feel about the white people of European descent who run the global media right now.

Sunday 7 May 2017

On Seeing the Wood despite the Tory Trees

When Small I thought Tory was short for Conservatory
Times are tough for the British Left.   For four long years, since UKIP broke into the mainstream by returning 147 elected councillors in the 2013 local elections, the news media have been obsessed with issues of national identity. The debates leading up to the referendum were dominated by immigration rather than sovereignty or socio-economic wellbeing. I voted Remain, but there are other things that matter besides our relationship with Europe, which in general worries the mobile, professional-class elite far more than the poor. But you would not know it from the news coverage on offer.

When I was a child I thought that the name ‘Tory’ was short for ‘Conservatory’ and that it meant rich people with big enough properties (i.e. not back-to-back terraces and council flats) to support greenhouses full of exotic blooms tended by obedient gardeners. The Conservatory Party, I believed, existed to stop less rich people upgrading their accommodation.

It was only when got interested in the English Civil War that I discovered the real, original meaning of ‘Tory’.  This may seem baffling in the light of the Tories’ historic attitude to Irish independence, but it comes from an Irish word tóraidhe (modern tóraí), which means ‘pursuer.’

Tory Pin-Up Boy James II
In the 17th century it was an insulting term applied by promoters of English imperialism to Irish outlaws, equivalent, according to one historian in 1693, to ‘Robbers, Thieves, and Bogg-trotters’. This was transferred in 1679 to the ‘Abhorrers’—the Cavalier, pro-Stuart, often Roman Catholic devotees of James, Duke of York, later James II, who had support in France and Ireland. After James was deposed by the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, the Tories became one of the two big political parties and took to their historic missions of (1) conserving limits to parliamentary representation; (2) conserving economic inequality; and (3) conserving the privileges of the established Church.

It wasn’t until the early 1830s, when the Tories hit an all-time low in popularity, that they tried to abandon the name Tory and turned themselves into ‘Conservatives’. This was described in Hansard Commons for 25th May 1832 as ‘the fashionable term, the new fangled phrase now used in polite Society to designate the Tory ascendancy’ and by John Stuart Mill in 1861 as ‘by the law of their existence the stupidest party’.

Pimenta, Hero of People's Health
They may be the stupidest in the grand scheme of things, but they have been canny in keeping so many current emergencies off our collective radar. The NHS can’t last much longer unless we pay attention: see this brilliant short video explaining why by junior doctor Dominic Pimenta.

Even the Tory Chair of the Education Select Committee, Neil Carmichael, admits that by 2020 there will be such a shortage of teachers that the quality of secondary education will be under severe threat. The serial reductions in benefits, especially to young adults, and austerity cuts hitting local councils, charities and mental health services have made thousands more people homeless even than a year ago.

All of which means I’ve stayed in the Labour Party despite everything which the BBC, especially their snide, irresponsible Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, has done undemocratically to belittle it and its leader. And I would start calling the Tories ‘bogg-trotters’ as well as ‘Abhorrers’ and ‘thieves and robbers’ if it weren’t offensive to our free Irish neighbours.