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Posts Tagged ‘humanism

Operation Pressure Pump, the struggle with anti-Americanism, and the future of humanism (!?)

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capital tragedy – Pyongyang

Having succumbed to the strange lure of Korean period dramas, and the not-so-strange allure of the incomparable Ha ji Won, in recent times, I’ve been reading a real history of Korea, Michael Seth’s fast-moving, highly readable book in the Brief History series. 

Seth’s book moves perhaps a bit too quickly through the vast time-span of Korean civilisation before the twentieth century, but no matter, I was keen to find out more about the Korean War, its causes and consequences, about which I knew practically nothing.

In brief, the Korean War was an outcome of the Japanese occupation of the peninsula, and its surrender and withdrawal in 1945. The vacuum thus left was occupied by the Americans in the south, and the Russians in the north, a division demarcated arbitrarily by the 38th parallel. This quasi-official division, which seemed to go on indefinitely and which the Koreans were never consulted about, came as a massive affront to a people who had effectively governed their own undivided region for centuries.

Nevertheless, communism was in the air, and held a certain appeal for some of the Korean peasantry and some intellectuals, fed by Russian and Chinese propaganda. In the poorer north, Russian and local communist leaders were able to introduce reforms which had a direct and immediate benefit for the landless peasantry, while the Americans, apparently clueless about Korean politics and history, tried to maintain order by continuing some of the hated repressive measures of the Japanese.

People on both sides of the 38th parallel wanted and expected reunification of the country in the near future, which makes what eventually happened one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. The north, under the discipline of Russian Stalinist policies of ‘x-year plans’ and ultra-nationalist workaholism, took the initiative, building up a powerful military force with which to invade the south and enforce reunification, and a Stalinist paradise. By this time Kim Il Sung had imposed himself as the Great Leader of the north, dealing ruthlessly with all rivals.

The north’s attack took the south completely by surprise, and was almost a complete success. They captured all the southern territory except for a small area around Busan, Korea’s second city in the south-east corner. By this time General MacArthur had been appointed to head the southern defence, and with American arms and reinforcements arriving quickly, the invaders were pushed back.

The northern invasion was extremely unpopular in the south, and few of the peasantry, who were generally better off than their northern counterparts, were interested in what Kim’s Stalinists had to offer. So – and again I’m simplifying massively – things eventually went back to a stalemate centred upon the once meaningless, and now very meaningful, 38th parallel. Warfare dragged on for another couple of years, mostly around that parallel.

And that’s how I come to the title of this piece. Operation Pressure Pump, which commenced in July 1952, came about as a result of American frustration with the stalemate. Here’s how Seth describes it:

Thousands of bombing raids destroyed every possible military and industrial target, the dams and dikes that irrigated the rice fields. Pyongyang and other northern cities began to look like Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the A-bomb, with only a few buildings standing. More bombs were dropped by the Americans on this little country of hardly more than 8 million than the allies had dropped on either Germany or the Japanese Empire in WWII. As a result, the North Koreans were forced to move underground. The entire country became a bunker state, with industries, offices and even living quarters moved to hundreds of miles of tunnels. Nonetheless, civilian casualties in these bombing raids were appallingly high.

A brief history of Korea: isolation, war, despotism and revival – the fascinating story of a resilient but divided people, p 126

Now, this was new knowledge to me, and I haven’t heard too many Americans talking about it, in the various media outlets I’ve been listening to lately, as a black mark against the country’s name – and some Americans are self-critical in this way. Okay, it was sixty-odd years ago, and since then there’s been Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq (twice), and a few other ‘minor’ interventions, so, who’s remembering?

So, I’ve been quite critical of the USA on this blog, and I do actually worry from time to time that I’m being unfairly anti-American. I try to relieve this concern by noting that the USA simply follows the pattern of every other militarily and economically powerful country in history. It bullies its neighbours and exploits all other regions, including its allies, to enhance its power. It also falls victim to the same fallacy that every previous powerful nation falls victim to – that its economic power is evidence of moral superiority. Their myth of American exceptionalism is arguably no worse than that of British benevolent imperialism or the civilising influence of the Roman/Egyptian/Babylonian empire. In fact, all nations are 100% self-interested in their own way. A middling country like Australia bullies smaller countries, such as East Timor over oil in the Timor Sea, while kowtowing to more powerful countries like China and the USA, in which case its self-interest lies in how to kowtow to one country without offending the other.

But let me return to Operation Pressure Pump. The greatest casualties of war are ordinary people. It’s worth dwelling on this as ordinary people currently face the consequences of stupid decisions over Iran. ‘Ordinary people’ might seem a condescending term, but it’s always worth remembering that the vast majority of people – in Iran, North Korea, Australia, the USA or elsewhere – aren’t intellectuals or politicians or national decision-makers or religious leaders or general movers and shakers – they’re people whose lives revolve around friends and family and trying to make a reasonable living. Warfare, and the damage and displacement it causes, isn’t something they can ever seriously factor into their plans. It just happens to them, a bit like cancer.

So the US bombing campaign was something that happened to the North Korean people in the early fifties. Another thing that happened to them was ‘communism’ or the despotic nationalist madness of Kim Il Sung. So they were doubly unlucky. As a humanist, I like to think my politics are simple. I consider bullies to be the worst form of human life, and I expect governments to be most concerned about protecting the bullied against the bullies, the exploited against the exploiters. I actually expect government to be an elite institution, like the media, the judiciary, and the science and technology sector. I also expect governments to put humanism above nationalism, but that’s a big ask. The UN hasn’t so far proved to be an enormous success, as members have generally put national interests above broader global interests, but it’s certainly better than nothing, and some parts of it, such the WHO and the UNHCR, have proved their value. I don’t think there’s any other option but to struggle to give more teeth to the UN, the International Criminal Court and other international oversight agencies. We should never allow one nation to accord to itself the role of global police officer. Of course these international bureaucracies are cumbersome when flashpoints occur – the aim is always to prevent these things from happening. The current Iran situation was entirely preventible, and was entirely due to the USA’s appalling Presidential system, which has allowed an irresponsible, attention-seeking buffoon to hold a position with way too much power and way too little accountability. There’s no doubt that Soleimani was an unpleasant character, but reports were that his activities were much reduced due to the Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015, a famously well-crafted deal by most accounts, which was destroyed by the buffoon.

So, this piece of unilateral bad acting by the USA takes us back to the terror bombing of North Korea in the early fifties. I’m certainly not saying that this cruelty made North Korea what it is today, but it didn’t help. We just have to learn to be more collaborative, more willing to negotiate and to understand, to hear, the other side, and stop being such belligerent male arseholes. We have a long way to go.

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2020 at 7:24 pm

some thoughts on humanism and activism

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jim-al-khalili

What Australia needs

 

I’ve been a little more involved in ‘movements’ in recent years, though I’m not usually much of a joiner, and I’ve always been wary of ‘activism’, which is often associated with protesting, personning the barricades (doesn’t have quite the aggressive ring to it, does it?), even a bit of biffo – if largely verbal, by preference. I’ve just been hungry for a bit of stimulus – salon culture, witty and cultured and informative exchanges with people cleverer than myself. But since I’ve been occasionally asked to engage on a higher, or deeper level, in ‘the culture wars’, on the side of reason, atheism, secularism, humanism, whatever, my thoughts on the matter have started to crystallise, and they’re hopefully in evidence in my blog writing.

I don’t mind calling myself an activist for humanism, or for other isms, but I think we should be activists for rather than against. Now it might be argued that to argue for one thing is to argue against another, so it doesn’t really matter, but I think it matters a great deal. It’s a matter of trying to be positive and influencing others with your positivity. Secular humanism has a great case to promote, as do reason, self-awareness and ‘skepticism with sympathy’.

I’ve learned from years of teaching students from scores of different countries and cultures that we all can be excited by learning new stuff, that we’re amused by similar things, that we all want to improve and to be loved and appreciated. The ties that bind us as humans are far greater than those that divide us culturally or in other ways. I’ve also learned that the first principle of good teaching is to engage your students, rather than haranguing or badgering them. This may not seem easy when you’re teaching something as apparently dry and contentless as language and grammar, but language is essentially a technology for communicating content, and if we didn’t have anything meaningful or important to communicate, we’d never have developed it. So the key is to engage students with content that’s relevant to them, and stimulating and thought-provoking enough that they’ll want to communicate those thoughts.

I suppose I’m talking about constructive engagement, and this is the best form of activism. Of course, like everyone, I don’t always ‘constructively engage’. I get mad and frustrated, I dismiss with contempt, I feel offended or vengeful, yet the best antidote to those negative feelings is simple, and that is to throw yourself into the lives, the culture, the background of your ‘enemy’, or the ‘other’, which requires imagination as well as knowledge. I mis-spent a lot of my youth reading fiction from non-English backgrounds – from France and Germany, from Russia and eastern Europe, from Africa and Asia. It was a lot cheaper than travelling, especially as I avoided a lot of paid work in order to indulge my reading. Of course I read other stuff too, history, philosophy, psychology, new-wave feminism, but fiction – good fiction, of course – situated all these subjects and issues within conflicted, emotional, culturally-shaped and striving individuals, and provided me with a sense of the almost unfathomable complexity of human endeavour. The understanding of multiple backgrounds and contexts, especially when recognising that your own background is a product of so much chance, creates multiple sympathies, and that’s essential to humanism, to my mind.

However, there are limits to such identifications. Steven Pinker discusses this in The better angels of our nature (the best advertisement for humanism I’ve ever read) by criticising the overuse, or abuse, of the term ’empathy’ and expressing his preference for ‘sympathy’. Empathy is an impossible ideal, and it can involve losing your own bearings in identifying with another. There are always broader considerations.

Take the case of the vaccination debate. While there are definitely charlatans out there directly benefitting from the spread of misinformation, most of the people we meet who are opposed to vaccination aren’t of that kind, usually they have personal stories or information from people they trust that has caused them to think the way they do. We can surely feel sympathy with such people – after all, we also have had personal experiences that have massively influenced how we think, and we get much of our info from people we trust. But we also have evidence, or know how to get it. We owe it to ourselves and others to be educated on these matters. How many of us who advocate vaccination know how a vaccine actually works? If we wish to enter that particular debate, a working knowledge of the science is an essential prerequisite (and it’s not so difficult, there’s a lot of reliable explanatory material online, including videos), together with a historical knowledge of the benefits of vaccination in virtually eradicating various diseases. To arm yourself with and disseminate such knowledge is, to me, the best form of humanist activism.

I’ll choose a couple more topical issues, to look at how we could and should be positively active, IMHO. The first, current in Australia, is chaplaincy in schools. The second, a pressing issue right now for Australians but of universal import, is capital punishment.

The rather odd idea of chaplaincy in schools was first mooted by Federal Minister Greg Hunt in 2006 after lobbying from a church leader and was acted upon by the Howard government in 2007. It was odd for a number of reasons. First, education is generally held to be a state rather than a federal responsibility, and second, our public education system has no provision in it for religious instruction or religious proselytising. The term ‘chaplain’ has a clear religious, or to be more precise Christian, association, so why, in the 21st century, in an increasingly multicultural society in which Christianity was clearly on the decline according to decades of census figures, and more obviously evidenced by scores of empty churches in each state, was the federal government introducing these Christian reps into our schools via taxpayer funds? It was an issue tailor-made for humanist organisations, humanism being dedicated – and I trust my view on this is uncontroversial – to emphasising what unites us,  in terms of human rights and responsibilities, rather than what divides us (religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation etc). To introduce these specifically Christian workers, out of the blue, into an increasingly non-Christian arena, seemed almost deliberately divisive.

Currently the National School Chaplaincy Program is in recess, having been stymied by two effective High Court challenges brought by a private citizen, Ron Williams, of the Humanist Society of Queensland. As far as I’m aware, Williams’ challenge was largely self-funded, but assisted by a donation from at least one of the state humanist societies. This was a cause that could and should have been financed and driven by humanists in a nationally co-ordinated campaign, which would have enabled humanists to have a voice on the issue, and to make a positive contribution to the debate.

What would have been that contribution? Above all to provide evidence, for the growing secularism and multiculturalism of the nation and therefore the clearly anachronistic and potentially divisive nature of the government’s policy. Identification with every Christian denomination is dropping as a percentage of the national population, and the drop is accelerating. This is nobody’s opinion, it’s simply a fact. Church attendance is at the lowest it’s ever been in our Christian history – another fact. Humanists could have gone on the front foot in questioning the role of these chaplains. In the legislation they’re expected to provide “support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships and spirituality”, but there’s an insistence that they shouldn’t replace school counsellors, for counselling isn’t their role. Apparently they’re to provide support without counselling, just by ‘being there’. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just have their photos on the school walls? The ‘spirituality’ role is one that humanists could have a lot of fun with. I’ve heard the argument that people are just as religious as ever, but that they’ve rejected the established churches, and are developing their own spirituality, their own relationship to their god, so I suppose it would follow that their spirituality needs to be nourished at school. But the government has made a clear requirement that chaplains need to be members of an established religion (and obviously of a Christian denomination), so how exactly is that going to work?

While humour, along with High Court challenges and pointed questions about commitment to real education and student welfare, would be the way to ‘get active’ with the school chaplaincy fiasco, the capital punishment issue is rather more serious.

The Indonesian decision to execute convicted drug pedlars of various nationalities has attracted a lot of unwanted publicity, from an Indonesian perspective, but a lot of the response, including some from our government, has been lecturing and hectoring. People almost gleefully describe the Indonesians as barbarians and delight in the term ‘state-sanctioned murder’, mostly unaware of the vast changes in our society that have made capital punishment, which ended here in the sixties, seem like something positively medieval. These changes have not occurred to the same degree in other parts of the world, and as humanists, with a hopefully international perspective, we should be cognisant of this, aware of the diversity, and sympathetic to the issues faced by other nations faced with serious drug and crime problems. But above all we should look to offer humane solutions.

By far the best contribution to this issue I’ve heard so far has come from Richard Branson, representing the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), who spoke of his and other commissioners’ interest in speaking to the Indonesians about solutions to their drug problems, not to lecture or to threaten, but to advise on drug policies that work. No mention was made about capital punishment, which I think was a good thing, for what has rendered capital punishment obsolete more than anything else has been the development of societies that see their members as flawed but capable, mostly, of development for the better. Solutions to crime, drug use and many other issues – including, for that matter, joining terrorist organisations – are rarely punitive. They involve support, communication and connection. Branson, interviewed on the ABC’s morning news program, pointed to the evidence showing that harsh penalties had no effect on the drug trade, and that the most effective policy by far was legalisation. It’s probably not a story that our government would be sympathetic to, and it takes us deeply into the politics of drug law reform, but it is in fact a science-based approach to the issue that humanists should be active in supporting and promulgating. Branson pointed to the example of Portugal, which had, he claimed, drug problems as serious as that of Indonesia, which have since been greatly alleviated through a decriminalisation and harm-reduction approach.

I hope to write more about the GCDP’s interesting and productive-looking take on drug policy on my Solutions OK website in the future. Meanwhile, this is just the sort of helpful initiative that humanists should be active in getting behind. Indonesians are arguing that the damage being done by drug pushers requires harshly punitive measures, but the GCDP’s approach, which bypasses the tricky issue of national sovereignty, and capital punishment itself, is offered in a spirit of co-operation that is perfectly in line with an active, positive humanism.

So humanism should be as active as possible, in my view, and humanists should strive to get themselves heard on such broad issues as education, crime, equity and the environment, but they should enter the fray armed with solutions that are thoughtful, practicable and humane. Hopefully, we’re here to help.