Friday, 31 August 2012

Remember Lidia

The next few months will see the seventieth anniversary of the death of Lidia Zamenhof. It is impossible to be more exact than that, since no one knows the actual date of Lidia's death for sure — she was swept up in the mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto in the summer of 1942 and murdered by the Nazis at the Treblinka extermination camp some time thereafter.

Lidia, the daughter of Ludwig Zamenhof, founder of the international auxiliary language Esperanto, did not learn to communicate using her father's creation until the relatively late age of nine. In time, however, she became a committed Esperantist and itinerant teacher, effectively forgoing the possibility of marriage and children in order to travel the world teaching the language using the "Cseh" method, a form of interactive lecture to very large groups of learners. One of her best-known translations is of Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis.

She was also a woman of faith, first espousing the homaranismo (religious humanism) of her father, derived from the teachings of the Jewish philosopher Hillel the Elder, and later the Bahá'í Faith, a monotheistic religion founded in the nineteenth century in Islamic Iran. The Bahá'ís have a centre on Belfast's Lisburn Road. Their teachings include the equality of all human beings and the primacy of science over dogma.

The Blether Region recently read Wendy Heller's biography Lidia: The Life of Lidia Zamenhof, Daughter of Esperanto, a moving and inspiring book. One eye-opener was the extent of antisemitism in inter-war Poland, possibly even as virulent as that in Germany right up to the time of Kristallnacht in 1938. As Theodor Herzl once said of Central Europe, "das Maerchen und das Sprichwort sind antisemitisch."

Lidia herself was unfortunate enough to be thrown out of the United States on the eve of World War II for allegedly breaking the terms of her tourist visa by accepting payment for Esperanto classes. She was later imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto, refusing many offers of help to escape out of concern for the welfare of those making them, despite being all too aware that she faced death. A later attempt to have her declared a Bahá'í martyr was unsuccessful.

One of Ludwig Zamenhof's best-known quotes concerns the need for tolerance of others.

"I am profoundly convinced that every nationalism offers humanity only the greatest unhappiness ... It is true that the nationalism of oppressed peoples – as a natural self-defensive reaction – is much more excusable than the nationalism of peoples who oppress; but, if the nationalism of the strong is ignoble, the nationalism of the weak is imprudent; both give birth to and support each other ..."

Most likely Zamenhof was referring to the Poles when he wrote of the "nationalism of oppressed peoples". No one can know what he would make of the world today, and in particular what conclusions he might have drawn from the murder of his children. Would he have applied the phrase to the excesses of the Palestinians or to those of the Israelis?

Perhaps, fair man that he was, he might apply it to both.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Bible and Babel

Former Sports Minister Nelson McCausland has posted on his blog about Katie Taylor, the young woman who won a boxing gold at this month's Olympic Games in London. The fact that Katie is a member of a born-again Christian church has brought a warm glow of satisfaction to the ministerial cheek. Now, it would be unfair of the Blether Region to point out that Ms Taylor's gold was won for Ireland; there is, after all, hardly such a thing as Southern Unionism. Nor is the Blether Region, truth be told, much interested in flags (especially those reserving a third of their surface for an organisation whose marches most Scots want to ban). Likewise, the fact that Ms Taylor was also as a keen player of Gaelic football could of course also be put down to geography and environment.

As could the 26-year-old's private lessons in Irish.

No, the big thing here is not to latch onto an isolated aspect of Ms Taylor's personal interests and press it into ideological service in the wake of her unexpected success. The big thing is to ask why one evangelical Christian can value the Irish language and yet remain every bit as much a committed evangelical Christian while the other, well, can't.

Friday, 10 August 2012

British Israelites — Some of Our Best Friends?

During the past year the Blether Region was in the crowd at two memorable events in Belfast, the first being the annual Cearta is Ceiliúradh bash held by Pobal at St. George's Market last autumn, and the second, just last weekend, the Gay Pride parade through Belfast city centre.

Now, on the face of it, very few people speak Irish, and very few people are gay. In fact, Newton Emerson once memorably claimed that no one in Northern Ireland speaks Irish (Nelson McCausland's estimate was "about 20"). We know that there are a few gay people because Iris Robinson, Jim Wells and co. wouldn't otherwise get so exercised about them. When one actually witnesses events such as the above, however, it becomes obvious just how many people are actually in those groups. In fact, the Blether Region could count a good half dozen who fall into both.

Let's apply that information to another group, the British Israelites, the evangelical Christians — nothing to do with actual Jews — who believe, or affect to believe, that the various British ethnic groups are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. While BI is not a racist or sectarian belief in itself, various British Israelites have been associated with racist or sectarian organisations, for example, Christian Identity in the United States, and in Northern Ireland TARA, the National Front and dissident anti-Agreement Loyalist groups. Other groups in Northern Ireland that one might not (reflexively) put in (quite) the same category have been notable for the large numbers of British Israelites in their ranks, for example, the Ulster Independence Movement, and the Cross of St. Patrick LOL 688 (right back to the days of its co-founder William McGrath and its most iconic member, the unfortunate Rev. Robert Bradford).

But how many British Israelites are there? Well, counting the number of BI churches might give us some idea. In Belfast, one, that of Pastor Alan Campbell (Cregagh Covenant People's Fellowship), is based in Downshire Hall opposite Cregagh Library. Another, the Church of God, is based on the Mount just behind Woodstock Link. Those who live in Belfast will know that Woodstock Link and the Cregagh Road form a single arterial route. Until a few years ago there was another, much larger church in Belfast linked with BI thinking, Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in the north of the city, which has a congregation of 2,000. That church has since disassociated itself from the movement.

And in the person of one noted BI devotee and convicted dissident Loyalist terrorist, Clifford Peeples (a protégé of Campbell), yet another church, Bethel Pentecostal off the Shankill Road, has been linked to BI.

There are more than likely other BI churches, gospel halls and smaller groups across Northern Ireland of which the Blether Region is unaware.

Furthermore, there is a cluster of interdenominational Protestant organisations with a disproportionately large number of declared and undeclared British Israelites in their ranks — the Loyal Orders. Not to mention various ostensibly apolitical and non-sectarian Ulster-Scots organisations (generally the ones that claim it's a language).

One is forced to conclude that, while BI is not a mainstream belief, it is a surprisingly widespread and influential one — and never excluded anyone from a mainstream role.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

A High-Pressure Area

The man with the winning smile Jim Allister has raised the potential impact on Protestants' job chances of Carál Ní Chuilín's draft language strategy for Irish, claiming that they would be disadvantaged by people's proposed right to conduct business with state agencies in the language of their choice. Mr. Allister points out that only 2% of Protestants have a knowledge of Irish, as opposed to 39% of those in the Catholic community.

Now, it was once the case in the Irish Republic that competence in the first national language was required of candidates for posts even when it was not a practical requirement of the job, but that hardly applies now. Surely all those Poles and Lithuanians who moved to Ireland while the Celtic Tiger burned bright were not unduly disadvantaged by their ignorance of an Ghaeilge. Even if Protestants were disadvantaged, one suspects that any change would be gradual, with ample time to make the language available to pupils in controlled schools — unless, of course, there were an irrational antipathy towards it that might prevent that.

Mr. Allister also suspects that the strategy was launched on 11 July so that it might escape the attention of Protestants. But aren't they considerably more likely than Catholics to be in Northern Ireland around that time of year? The consultation in any case runs to 27 November.

Strangely, he further claims that a consultation document as opposed to a policy requires the agreement of the Executive. It may well be that some aspects of the strategy do not gain the agreement of the Executive, but it is entirely within the competence of the Minister to present it with a finished document. Indeed, in Westminster, David Cameron intends to call a vote on reforms to parliamentary boundaries, despite the fact that he will be lucky to win it without the support of his coalition partners.

Perhaps Mr. Allister's most bizarre contention is that the strategy will make "it easier to get government funding for an Irish-only school even if there is no need for one because there are English-speaking schools in the area". While the overall number of school-age children in an area is a perfectly valid criterion for deciding the viability of a new school, is not the whole point of Irish-medium education that it is not in English? Moreover, given Mr. Allister's intimate knowledge of the religious breakdown among Irish-speakers, it should be obvious to him that a new Irish school is very unlikely to impact much on the education of Protestant children.

There has been much speculation recently with regard to the impact of man-made global warming on the weather in this part of Europe, with some plausibly arguing that any unsettled patterns locally are a result of a much wider set of circumstances.

Yes, folks, it's going to be blustery.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Braken Fences

In masterful Scots, Wulf Kurtoğlu's Braken Fences describes a dystopian future where the world is partitioned between the "rational" west and the failed, impoverished states of Islamic fundamentalists. It's an epic tale with believable characters and the thoughtful treatment of moral issues that we expect from the best science fiction.

That said, I have several issues with the book's premise, chief among them the question of what rationality actually is. Part of it is logical consistency, and in the case of western states that identify with human rights and democracy, that means avoiding double standards. If we value individual human rights but adopt a group-rights approach in a key conflict, that's a kind of irrationality. The same goes for an attachment to self-determination except when it comes to independence from big, important countries. Muslims notice these double standards.

Moreover, I'd suggest that people also have a hierarchy of political goals, with most — perhaps even most feminists in Palestine or Kashmir — putting national self-determination before women's rights. What's beyond debate is that liberal attitudes in individual societies closely correlate with their wealth. As was recently pointed out to Mitt Romney, it's hard to be a wealth-creator when you have to wait all day at the checkpoint.

Of course, one can also interpret rationality as secularism, but doing so admits the possibility that the divide between "rational" and "fundamentalist" will not dovetail so neatly with that between Christians and Muslims. Littoral America might be in the "rational world", but what about the rather larger bit in the middle, the America of The Handmaid's Tale? Would Lowland Scotland's Presbyterian colonies in the Hebrides and north-east Ulster get into the RW? Likewise, the secular Ashkenazim of gay-friendly Tel Aviv might feel rather more comfortable enjoying a pint with a Bosnian Muslim, or indeed a Scots one, than spending time with the ultra-orthodox of Jerusalem.

Overall, the notion of a neat division of the world into good and bad guys is a little too neat, owing rather too much to the anti-intellectual, Manichaean nature of discourse in the America of the culture wars. We would never attempt it at home. But, of course, home is a place whose shades of grey we actually know.

Wisely or luckily, Kurtoğlu avoids full-on politics and concentrates on characters. Furthermore, the book neatly succeeds in underlining that it is about fundamentalism rather than race through its majority-Asian cast, including its half-Indian heroine, Beatrice Varshini, whose heritage may or may not be a nod to the rational/irrational partition of India. In one or two places the character of Bill Henderson provides the focus for some un-PC thoughts, but the novel leaves us in no doubt as to what we are supposed to think of that. Predictable emphasis is given to borders and their policing, but also, through the novel's concern for Tibetan refugees, to their inherent injustice at an individual level. Young westerners do "rational service" to protect those borders. This is of course a pun on "national service" for those who remember that, but I'm afraid it reminded me for all the world of the IDF.

Life in the fundamentalist zone is short and brutal, and some of the women there have been forced to disguise themselves as men to avoid persecution, thus providing a symbolic parallel to the ditching of empathy that typifies the once-liberal neo-cons to whom the novel presumably speaks. Furthermore, they make use of what in a nice poetic touch is called "The Ceety o Weemen", a contraceptive plant, for at least some of the FZ's female half has decided to stop procreating and thus halt the cycle of male Islamic fundamentalist oppression. This plan is described as collective suicide. I'm not sure that it is, but it does establish a linkage: stop the gene to kill the meme. But what about those immigrants in the real world who bring their own genes and memes with them? In the west, it is the indigenous or assimilated who use contraception. No western woman wants to have 20 children, after all. In fact, most of them don't want to have three. But unassimilated immigrants have a higher birth rate. Will liberal westerners, as a certain grocer's daughter once famously said, end up being "swamped"? This theme is expanded upon in the subplot about the resurrected Neanderthals, whose intermarriage with homo sapiens will for genetic reasons result in their extinction. Is there a parallel here with western multiculturalism? Only the reader can decide.

The Neanderthals bring me to what I felt was the novel's main failing. There is just too much going on. The book seems weighed down by its philosophical concerns, starting with the three lengthy quotations on the first page. I also felt that there were too many minor characters. In some cases their reappearance in the action, or the news that they had passed on, necessitated flicking back to check. Given the fact that perhaps only one in 20 of the Scottish population could nowadays wheech through the Scots version, that seems an indulgence.

Linguistically, as one would expect from one of the very greatest Scots academics of her generation, Braken Fences is a masterpiece of accessible yet full-bodied Scots. As in Philip Robinson's reverse-kailyard works, there is sometimes English dialogue and Scots description, but any Scots novel nowadays is bound to be experimental. The language's full range is also deployed stylistically, with the Neanderthals speaking an Insular dialect. Given the popular associations of the word "Neanderthal", that could of course cause offence, but the novel incorporates the most recent scientific beliefs that they were much more intelligent than previously thought. Complaints about verisimilitude with regard to the speech of Shetland in a science-fiction context seem to me bizarre.

I agree with other reviewers that this is an important book, and a further step in the normalisation of the language. It deserves to be read and argued about, and I hope that this review will make people go out and buy it. I also look forward to more from its author, who has already done much for Scots, and has much to offer in future.