Sunday 27 June 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

As I write these lines two thousand people are believed to have been killed and forty thousand displaced by the conflict in Kyrgystan. A few weeks ago, Israel's raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla caused the death of eight Turkish activists. And David Cameron's recent apology to the victims of the Bloody Sunday massacre caused a veteran correspondent, who covered the event, to claim that the Prime Minister would be a worthy recipient of the Freedom of Derry tartan. In a bookshop, in Kuala Lumpur, I held Amartya Sen's 'The Idea of Justice' in my hands, wondering whether to buy it or not.

The first three events are linked. The fourth one is not prima facie. But it is indeed, and I will explain to you how.

Amartya Sen is a name that has cropped up very often in articles I've read in The Economist magazine, The Guardian and The New Statesman. Although I had never thought of buying any of his books, a recent feature by this Nobel Prize winner on how justice can address powerlessness made me think a great deal about that subject and ultimately hold his 'The Idea of Justice' in a bookshop at the airport on the day (or night, rather) I was coming back from Malaysia.

For Sen the hypothetical contract entered by the state and its people in which both parties are involved in identifying the institutions they need is flawed. In contrast, he believes that it's people's actual lives and circumstances that ought to shape up the justice system.

This is where the first of the three examples I mentioned before comes in. Is justice a byword for fairness, too? The crisis in Kyrgystan is not rooted in the violence unleashed by the pro-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev brigade, but in the ethnic carving up in which Stalin indulged right after Lenin kicked the bucket in 1924. After the disintegration of the ex-Soviet Union, the justice system was modified, but ethnic divisions were not addressed. The question is, then, can there be a structure based on moral principles that ignores - or even encourages, sometimes - bias and prejudice?

This is where the Gaza flotilla raid comes into the picture. And no, I'm not interested in whether you, reader, are pro-Israeli or Palestinian, but rather in whether you think there can ever be a body of laws that seeks to enforce the moral principles I mentioned before whilst atempting to be fair. When the Israeli forces attacked the Free Gaza Movement's boat, they claimed the organisers' intent was violent. Ties with global terrorist groups were given as the justification for their actions. But was their excessive use of force fair? Even if we take their excuse that they were acting in self-defence at face value, their response looked disproportionate. This is where Amartya Sen's assertion that 'If our concentration has to be on the actual lives of people, the question that immediately arises is how to understand the richness and poverty of human lives. The approach I have tried to pursue has largely focused on the freedoms, in various forms, that people enjoy' comes into play. The problem is when people have been denied that freedom for a long time.

Enter then, the Saville inquiry. Justice was finally done. And Sen would be happy, because it was the powerless, in this case the families of those killed on that fatal day ('Sunday, Bloody Sunday', remember that song by U2?), who benefited more from this significant victory. The hurdle was overcome. However, the relatives of those murdered and injured on the streets of Derry had to wait thirty-two years to see a prime minister making the following statement to the House of Commons: 'On behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry'. Is it fair? Thirty-two years? Is that with what the family of Ian Tomlinson will have to contend?

Justice, fairness, powerlessness, freedom. Big, abstract words, but terms with which we come into contact very often. As a parent, I've had to mete out punishment to one or both my children every now and then, only for one party to retort: "It's not fair". Do you recognise the scenario, fellow parents? In this case, I think, the course of action to take is not to highlight distinction ('your action was different') but remark on the quality and equality of punitive measures ('why do you think I did this?'). The goal would be to eliminate any persistent notion of deprivation or low self-esteem.

It is those two last symptoms to which Amartya Sen refers in his piece. The Uzbeks fleeing southern Kyrgystan were already suffering deprivation of freedom, denied to them both by the former Soviet Union and by their current government. The Palestinians living in Gaza are caught in a crossfire between Israel and Hamas. The families of those killed on Bloody Sunday have had to wait for more than three decades to see their claims vindicated.

That's why I half-agree with Amartya. Half, because I do believe that the hypothetical contract entered by state and people ought not to be severed. A body of laws and the means to enforce them are necessary not just to safeguard democratic principles, but also to avoid an abrupt descent into chaos. However, when this system of moral codes does not work, or works only for a selected group, we need, then, to look closer to people's behaviour and their demands. It's one of the ways of reversing powerlessness, giving people the freedom (even if it's relative) they ask for, strengthening justice and acting fairly.

Pandora's World Cup Box

Madame Tussauds moment of the tournament so far: French coach Raymond Domenech in the game between his team and Mexico. Pandora had to pinch herself several times to make sure she wasn't dreaming and that the beleaguered manager was not the latest wax addition to the aforementioned museum. But no, everytime the camera zoomed in on him, there was the same 'Je ne sais pas quoi faire' expression on his stony, immobile face. It was only when Nicolas Anelka buzzed past him shouting out: 'Eppur si muove' that Domenech came out of his stupor, but by then it was too late. France had lost. Pandora believes that as she writes this post Raymond's measures are being taken so that he can take his place alongside the likes of Shrek and Tony Blair (please, insert your own joke here).

Eagle hats, feathered serpents and faces covered in green and white paint. And that's just the Mexican fans. Really, who needs Milan and New York when we have the World Cup, Pandora asks? Rumours that catwalks from London to Paris will emulate the once-every-four-years tournament and look to stage their shows in a similar way are not unfounded. South Africa 2010 has set the bar really high for the fashion world (and that includes the Bavaria brigade, who would have thought that orange was such a fun colour?). No wonder Lady Gaga is nowhere to be seen. Upstaged doesn't even begin to explain it.

Best fans of the tournament so far? Not the loud Brazilians, Portuguese and Argentinians, goalfest notwithstanding. Or the crafty Dutch. No, the best supporters this cup has seen, ipho (that means In Pandora's Humble Opinion), are the Bafana Bafana brigade. Rain or shine, hot or cold, the South Africans have come out en masse to cheer on every team. Even if they have set the uncomfortable record of being the first host nation not to have qualified for the last sixteen. Pandora cannot have been the only one who heard vuvuzelas being blown in unison as the Mexicans scored the equaliser in the opening game against the Safa team. And no, the horns were not coloured green and white. The South African football fans remind me of the drunkard one meets at a dinner party and who's so jolly and inebriated with happiness that he won't leave you alone until you see the scar from his hernia operation. Likewise, the cacophony of cheers and vuvuzelas around stadia is impartial. Which goes to show how mighty the English fans' boos were when they showed their disgust at their national team after the disappointing goalless draw with Algeria. To shout down one vuvuzela is impressive, to overpower a whole symphony orchestra of lepatatas is Herculean.

Pandora's good luck sees no signs of abating. Accidentally (well, these things happen), she was Cced into a recent message from the Queen to Fabio Capello: 'One has already had one's seat booked. I'll be playing midfield on Sunday'.

Memo to Norah Jones re today's clip: that's how you sing the blues, dear. Thanks and have a nice week.

© 2010

Next Post: 'The Inheritance of Loss' (Review), to be published on Tuesday 29th June at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. What body of law can do what the UN couldn't do.

    Cuban, when and if you got the chance please visit my The Sunday Roast.

    PS: Please don't be too hard on Norah Jones :)

  2. Justice for all is a tall order. Does Sen address who exactly would determine the real needs of the people? Unfortunately, it is always the current government, with their particular agenda and world view that determines what the people want and need.

    I think we need to work from the bottom up, rather than the top down. If we raise children without ethnic prejudices perhaps they will one day be the ones in the position to work for justice for all.

  3. I think we may hear the fans' boos from here this time...

  4. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    OG, I do like Norah, :-) but in kind of 'background music' way, which I don't think it's the way she would like to be liked.

    Bonnie, Sen speaks in the abstract, that's why I was a tad bit mortified by his article. To his credit he doesn't claim that a total end to state law is the answer, but his alternative doesn't really resonate with me either, especially coming from where I come.

    Rachel, I think Her Majesty would have put those Teutons in their place. :-) Especially if she had been selected rather than Gerrard.

    Greetings from London.

  5. Big Mama Thornton, OMG, how she sings, and she’s beautiful, too. Because she hearkens back to an earlier era, she also seems particularly appropriate for the point I want to make about the social contract versus descent into chaos. I too am not a fan of dissolving the contract for fear of descent into chaos. It seems to me that the civil rights movement in the US in the 60s was an example of how to do it effectively. Was the key element of that civil rights revolution its nonviolent focus? With powerful entrenched interests being challenged by less powerful ones, it may have been the critical, if not the only, element. Certainly the full measure of the change is still in process, Obama’s Presidency notwithstanding. This might suggest that patience fits in there somewhere. Hopefully, it would only take as long as, in Dr. King’s memorable words: “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

  6. I always like your posts for their thought-provoking qualities and that you mix up subjects so well. You make me think about things that I normally never consider, just because I am so deafened by the noise of my everyday life.

  7. Can law ignores mores? When it does for too long, then sometimes society slips in the necessary adjustment. So now we have laws against hate crimes, because a moral value that was dormant once, becomes part of our consciousness. Justice. Fairness seems more emotional somehow, what children look for.
    Also, good for Big right!

  8. Interesting, as ever.... who is the "parent" in the global setting?

    Did you buy the book in the end?

  9. Big Mama! The real thing.

    Thanks, Cuban. I'm a fan, too. She's got it all.

    Yours for the blues,

  10. I'm comforted by Big Mama Thornton.
    And can't get into the discussion of Sen .... maybe because I feel it's all too hopeless, maybe because I read an interesting book by Tony Horwitz, "Blue Lattitudes," that pretty nicely explore the poison (inevitable) of cultural expansion/classes...
    I agree with a lot of what Judith Mercado said about the civil rights movement...but timing/leadeship/embarrassment all seem part of slow moving change... one can easily argue about how much is left to be done...
    sort of sickening to listen to the news and learn that the Supreme Court has taken away the right of states to have firm gun laws... I've digressed uselessly, but have listened to Big Mama..
    and thank you

  11. ooh boy Cubano, such heavy, complex issues you unearth. I think that laws too often protect those in power and forget the powerless. Justice is still not won in so many cases. 32 years? We have been waiting for the U.S. apology for slavery since 1865. And there's nothing like real blues to underscore injustice. Thanks for that. Big Mama is one of my heroines ans she still doesn't get the acknowledgement she deserves for writing so many blues classics that were appropriated into rock--Elvis' Hound Dog.

  12. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  13. Great tune! To a Cuban in London from a Canadian in Ghana - great blog. I'm your newest follower :)



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