I was watching a great programme on BBC 4 last week about Harry Belafonte. I didn’t know he was so politically active in the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960’s which is period I have a lot of interest in. (My great political hero of that time is Malcolm X, and I would urge anyone with an interest in politics to read his autobiography. Actually, I would encourage everyone to read his book, it’s a great read). Anyway, towards the end of the programme he talked about establishing a council of elders which intrigued me because I’ve often remarked to a friend of mine that here in Ireland, we’re seriously lacking in wise elders, and he would often remark that you only had to look at our politicians to see that!
Anyway, there have been many times in life when I really needed some good advice but could never find it, and it took me quite a long time to realise that most people are fairly useless when it comes to giving advice and are often motivated by the desire to either create drama or hear a juicy bit of gossip, (an unfortunate side effect from watching too much Eastenders). Even today, it’s still difficult to get good advice without prejudice, and doubly difficult to get if from someone who has a genuine regard for your welfare. I found, when I was growing up, questions about life were generally met with a wry ‘you’ll learn’ with the implication (hope) that if you did, it would be the hard way. People almost took a perverse pleasure in withholding information that may have been of use to you, and then enjoying watching while you struggled and invariably failed.
The cult of youth in society, has probably helped to devalue the elderly and they are seldom regarded as having little of value to impart. Ironically, most of the older people I know have never really matured, they just got old. I know people in their seventies who still operate on the emotional level of a fourteen year old, some are not even that old. It seems appropriate that the legend of Tir na N’Og would be Irish, it means Land of the Young, a place where you never grow old. There is a strange attitude to growing up here, it’s as if it is a form of surrender, or maybe it’s just to do with the fear of death. No one seems to actively seek maturity here, people think that once they’ve turned eighteen, they’ve matured and have no need to grow anymore, as if the day of their eighteenth birthday magically conferred on them all the wisdom and knowledge they would need to carry them through the rest of their lives. Then there are those who try to maintain the lifestyle they were living at eighteen, which generally means out drinking and partying all weekend which is actually quite sad in a forty year old.
Paradoxically, we also have here what I call, the middle-aged teenager. Young people who never had a youth and just went straight from childhood to middle-age. They generally come from very religious families and belong to the cult of the ‘mammy’. In these families, mammy knows all, generally has her nose in everybody’s business and dictates how her children live their lives. They in turn, remain strangulated by her apron strings and never raise a word against her because no-one is ever allowed to question or upset ‘mammy’. They aren’t mature either, just old in their thinking and habits, and I’m always very wary of anyone over the age of 12 who still refers to their mother as ‘mammy’. There is often one rebel in there somewhere who no one talks about except when ‘mammy’ is feeling sorry for herself and in need of the collective sympathy, who couldn’t take the claustrophobia of it all and cleared off to England at a young age and hasn’t been heard from since. Fortunately, for Irish society these families are on the decline.
There are two reasons why I think we as a country and a society, are like this. The first is religious, and has to do with the long domination of Irish society by the Catholic Church. The other reason is centuries of British rule. Together, these two elements have created a society that doesn’t know how to think or act for itself, it only knows the way of the invader, Britain, and the oppressor, the Catholic Church (although their influence has waned considerably in recent years).
I often wonder how we would have evolved as a society if we hadn’t had the imposition of those outside forces on us. We have no real sense of ourselves as a people, other than as cultural clichés, and there is a tendency to blow with every wind that comes through. I often think we are the world’s biggest fashion victims, I’ve watched fashion trends come and go, with everything from rottweiler dogs, to large jeeps, which really are ridiculous for a country like Ireland with all the small back roads we have. It was a revelation to drive through France a few years ago and in the entire country I only saw two four by fours vehicles, and one of them was being driven by an Irish man on holiday.
This is what happens when countries with different cultural values and practises invade others and impose their way on them. The continuity of natural evolution is disrupted and sometimes lost, often to the point where it is irretrievable. Many societies across the globe have struggled to maintain their own culture in the face of the cultural holocaust of foreign invaders; the aborigines in Australia, the many native tribes in the US (a lot of whom never survived) and more recently the Tibetan people whose country has now been wiped off maps of the world after invasion by China. Then, of course, there is the ongoing saga of Israel and Palestine.
A few years ago, the Anne Frank Exhibition came to my home town and as I wasn’t working at the time, I volunteered to help present it. It turned out to be a great learning experience. We’re all aware of what happened to the Jewish people under the Nazi’s, but what I learned from this, was that the story of how this is presented in history is highly suspect. The attempted systematic extermination of the Jewish people is often presented as a one-off, a terrible aberration, when in reality it was the accumulation of almost 2000 years of anti-Semitism by the ‘Christian’ churches. Someone, somewhere, back in the day, decided that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for killing ‘God’ when Jesus was crucified and that kicked the whole thing off. Other interesting facts I learned are that England was the first country to expel the Jewish people as a whole back in the middle-ages. The word ghetto is Italian, and means ‘ironworks’ because that’s where the first ghetto was, in Italy in an old ironworks. We all know the character of Shylock from Shakespeare’s, The Merchant of Venice as a money lender, but what we don’t know is the reality behind it. The image of the Jewish person as a money lender and tax collector is based on fact but what I didn’t know was that Jewish people were forced into those occupations because no one wanted to do them because of how unpopular they were.
For almost 2000 years, the Jewish people were marginalised, discriminated against, oppressed and expelled and treated in all manner of rotten ways until finally someone decided to wipe them off the face of the earth. The Jewish people with their long history of expulsion and oppression went along and did as they were told for the most part, probably believing that it was another of those anti-Semitic pogroms and if they kept their heads down and went along they would probably come out alright in the end. As Malcolm X said, they ‘sleepwalked’ to the gas chambers and in light of their history it becomes understandable now how that happened.
But what I don’t understand is this, why in 2000 years of this treatment did no one ever seriously object, why did no one ever speak up on their behalf, why did no one ever stop and say, 'these people are human beings too, what if we are wrong in what we are doing to them?' Where were all the ‘Christian’ voices in the so- called ‘Christian’ churches? Quite frankly, I think the ‘Christian’ churches should be sued under the Trades Descriptions Act for false advertising.
And again, we come back to the same old story, because people don’t think for themselves enough and will often choose the easier road in life. They don’t want the hassle, they prefer to keep their heads down and go along with the crowd, it’s easier to have someone do your thinking for you than to sit down and think for yourself, or to stand up and say ‘Well, actually I think you’re wrong!’ To go against the crowd, to stand apart, to challenge the authorities.
Now, this is not to excuse what is happening in Israel and Palestine today, but in order to understand a people you need to understand their history and in doing so we gain perspective and some understanding of the mind-set and the collective anger that must exist within the Jewish community. Of course, they are going to be defensive about their territory, especially when they perceive themselves as being surrounded by so many hostile forces. Who will guarantee their safety and security? Who can they trust when they have been subjected to 2000 years of oppression, who can they have faith in when less than 80 years ago, they were almost wiped off the face of the earth?
Everything that is happening in the present has it’s roots in the past, there is no easy road to resolving the problems that exist today. It is going to take a long time for the Jewish people to be able to trust the world and it irritates me to listen to the simple condemnations of Israel by people and politicians without regard to the whole picture. If they really want to help they should reach out the hand of understanding and friendship, and maybe a collective apology on behalf of mankind for what was done to them as a people for 2000 years, would be a good place to start.
To the Israeli people, or to Mr Netanyahu and the Zionist right, I would like to say, in remembering your history, remember that the Palestinians are human beings too and that oppression in any form leaves a bitter taste. Whether as the oppressed or the oppressor, no one can predict the future and no one knows what may lie ahead for any of us but one thing I do know, is that the more friends you have on your side if, or when trouble comes, the more support and protection you will have against those forces who would seek to do you harm.
For God and all of humanity.
As always, comments are welcome.