The following article is the Prologue of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting chapter by chapter.
All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a table of contents and a preface on why I started writing it.
“The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority… Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” 1
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
Two decades ago, relaxing in a local pub at the end of an anti-Iraq War march, I chanced upon a discarded copy of the magazine Red Pepper. Flicking through the pages, I came to a short article written by a person I will refer to only as R. A brave soul who had gone to Baghdad as the war drums beat loudly to hunker down as a human shield in the hope that her sacrifice would deter an attack on its civilian population. Impressed by her self-sacrifice but concerned that such goodwill might be hijacked and manipulated to serve the ends of Saddam’s regime, I decided to write a letter – helpfully, there was an email address appended to the article.
To my surprise, I received a very prompt and full reply, and more surprisingly, discovered that R was a Canadian grandmother. Here is part of the reply I received:
Thank you for writing. Your letter gives me courage that there is still time to stop the awful situation. I wish I knew how. But all I can think is that with the majority of the people in the world believing this war is wrong there has to be a way to stop the terrible madness. I am now in Albania. I left Iraq and drove back to France, then flew to Albania as I have a commitment here to build a garden in the centre of this terribly damaged country. I am very torn to have left Baghdad. Some of the friends I travelled with are still there. I am not able to contact them easily except by transmitting messages through the staff at the hotel where we were living. I am very touched by the hotel team when I call because they seem so glad to hear from me and I feel I have done so little.
The following day, March 11th, I wrote back as follows:
How kind of you to return my letter so swiftly. You can hardly imagine how surprised I was to discover not one but two replies to my short note. In some respects I am glad to hear that you have left Baghdad and certainly you have every reason to hold your head high and to tell your grandchildren about the courageous stand you and your friends have taken. Perhaps if you were naïve then that was only in your belief that thousands would follow you into danger, since it is hard to follow your grand commitment (and more importantly, most, like myself, quite frankly lack the courage, if not also the conviction, to do so). The fact that the media were more interested in Gustavo than the human volunteers says much, I feel, for our difficulty in seeing the innocence of others (it is easy to sympathise with a dog who “has no axe to grind” but what motivates the rest of you it is easy to wonder?) And many will be cynical, since it’s hard to comprehend acts of selflessness when you inhabit a world fashioned by the heartless demands of global capitalism.
It is worrying to hear that the other human shields have been moved to “strategic sites”. This was reported on the news and given as the reason why many had already left Iraq, and we have also heard that Saddam used human shields in the last conflict to protect his armaments. I hope that your friends will not allow themselves to be sacrificed to protect Saddam – that would be an appalling tragedy.
Your analysis of the crisis is spot on: “it is unforgivable that men of violence keep each other in power by persuading frightened people that violence is the only path”. We all should act against this barbarism. You have played a big part whereas a million in London have made our voices heard in a smaller way. You ask if I have any ideas. Then may I quote you again: “protest against this war loudly and strongly in whatever way you can”! And here I believe that in Britain more than anywhere we hold the real key. The population is split and it is reckoned that without a second resolution (which in any case will undoubtedly be vetoed by the French) only something like 30% are in favour of war, which means a very sizeable majority remain frustrated. Tony Blair is a frightened man and I don’t know if you saw how badly Jack Straw (our foreign secretary) lost his composure at the UN recently. So the ruling Labour Party is deeply divided (yesterday Clare Short, a cabinet member, described Blair as “reckless”). On top of this there is a groundswell.
Last week hundreds of schoolchildren in Britain abandoned their lessons and took to the streets. In Sheffield they marched into the university and drummed up support from the much older students and then collectively they marched into the city centre. This is unprecedented. And these disaffected groups have such a diverse make-up, crossing the usual boundaries of age, class, or nationality.
These are a few very good reasons for optimism though at heart I confess that I am pessimistic for the simple reason that Blair takes no notice. ONE MILLION march into London and all he does is to acknowledge our right to free speech! That is simply not enough! What kind of democracy is run on the whim of one man? What is needed then is some way of demanding Blair’s attention.
There is a plan that when war begins (as it surely will) people should drop whatever it is they are doing and congregate outside the town hall wherever they happen to be and protest. That we should block the streets, cause peaceful civil unrest, and demand our right to be heard. If this happens then it represents the beginnings of a sea-change in what might loosely be called politics. But will it happen? Will I join the protests? Certainly I support the idea. But success depends on solidarity and a movement of colossal size when probably most (myself included) will stay at our desks (either too disinterested or too cowed to take such daring unilateral action). In any case, when war has begun it will be hard not to think that we have already failed.
Perhaps the best hope then is that we can forestall the war indefinitely – though the date indelibly in the Bush diary is March 17 – but the fact that France, Russia and Germany are refusing to co-operate and that Hans Blix has remained so unflinching throughout keeps the pressure on. We too must try to keep the pressure up, though this is difficult with time running short. One beautiful thing that happened yesterday was that at the end of a TV debate Tony Blair was actually slow hand clapped by the audience – he must be getting the message by now!
Before I finish, may I just ask about Albania? Albania is one of those places that gets forgotten. I have no idea what Albania is like these days (not that I have much idea what Albania was like during the Cold War). Then today I read an article in The Guardian newspaper saying that Britain is intending to send its asylum seekers to camps in Albania. For a government that claims to want “to liberate the people of Iraq” it takes a rather dim view of “illegal immigrants” who are we’re told “an increasing problem”. So we will send them away to camps in Albania, where The Guardian claims, they will be faced with rabies and encephalitis-carrying ticks amongst the other hazards. My government makes me sick. To judge from the tail of your email you have a much better chap in charge of Canada.
I hope that this letter finds you happy and well. I will send it to your old email address since there is nothing urgent contained within its rambling bulk. I hope I haven’t disillusioned you by taking a more pessimistic tone. And thank you for the quote from Lao Tzu (may we all be as wise) and let me finish with another, and one that is perhaps better known:
heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs
In the words of Philip Larkin, we should be kind to one another, while there is still time.
Warmest regards, James.
Little more than a week later, on March 20th (and so a mere three days after the date anticipated) war on Iraq began in earnest. Shock and awe missile strikes punishing those down on the streets of Baghdad who had no quarrel with us at all.
As the months passed, increasingly disillusioned with the state of world affairs and depressed by problems at work which were affecting me more personally, I had continued writing to R who was keen that we should keep in contact. She was still helping out on the garden project in Albania. Eventually, however, the correspondence between us dried up, perhaps, the ties were frayed as (when I look back honestly) I increasingly presented her with issues and problems, seeking her counsel as a sort of surrogate therapist, instead of maintaining proper relations as a distant friend. In any case, the last reply I received from R began as follows:
You sound like you are in a real muddle.
Suddenly finding you are about to lose your work, part-time or otherwise is disconcerting at the best of times. Indeed, we have never met in person but nonetheless, from your writing and description of yourself you sound like someone deep in thought and short on action. I hope it is not too presumptuous of me to say so. I am a bit of an introvert myself so I can recognize the symptoms. At least I think I can.
So….my best advice of the day is to get out and get in touch with the world. Stay connected. The world is full of good and decent people but you have to seek them out. I get terribly depressed when I listen to the American media talk about Iraq and suggest that an Iraqi life is not worth that of an Americans’. It makes me sick. But as Henry Miller said to Erica Jong…..”don’t let the naysayers get you down”. Life is long and all you can really do about it is get up each day and put one foot in front of the other.
Am I that transparent, I wondered. A few informal letters and I’m an open book! No doubt this is a reason her advice stuck with me ever since. 2 But the part of her letter that most caught my attention was the quote… “don’t let the naysayers get you down”. I have frequently pondered it ever since, before gradually forming an opinion that leads to a contrary but complementary conclusion. Not that we should let the naysayers get us down, obviously, but that aside from carrying a psychological shield to guard against their highly infectious gloom and doom, we might also take great care to guard against the eternal hope of the yea-sayers.
For though, in the West at least, we are lucky to be alive during times of incomparable plenty and considerable social freedom, not to mention relative peace and political stability, there is a great deal we are justified in feeling miserable and resentful about. Firstly, that this ‘best of all times’ is already under a sustained attack, and unless we organise our fight back then this decline is likely to accelerate, both our freedom and relative prosperity withering away altogether. But secondly, that we, the human race, have long since held far greater potential, and might easily surpass this false summit offered by our impressive western civilisations. For it is really not that our ease and pleasure still relies for its purchase on the burdened backs of those who distantly suffer; if indeed it ever truly did. There is no zero-sum game at work in this regard. Moving our slavery abroad has instead created a new and different kind of underclass at home, bringing unprecedented miseries since ones never before juxtaposed by such comparative wealth.
Not long ago, the vast majority of resources were remote and insecure. Mere survival forced almost everyone into hours of labour that were excessively long and hard. Today with abundant resources, human labour is being made redundant thanks to new technologies. It is self-evident that we need to find fairer methods for distributing our resources as well as a sensible approach to maximising the new freedom arising from our gradual replacement by automated systems. Certainly we should not let the Malthusian naysayers get us down, although we must of course guard against Pollyanna optimism too, and especially of those who tell us to enjoy the good times and stop moaning. For so long as the good times can and should be far better again, then surely moaning is the least we can do. We stop moaning at our peril!
1 Martin Luther King, jr, Strength to Love. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963/1981: 27-28
2 In the same letter, R also suggested “putting one foot in front of the other” more literally, recommending, to help clear away the cobwebs, that I might like to walk the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, a major route of Christian pilgrimage which starts from many locations in France, Belgium, German or inside Spain itself extending for over a thousand miles and finishing at Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the Spanish province of Galicia. I have yet to pick up her prescription (though perhaps one day in the future I shall).