Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Send Tony Blair a Christmas Card

Why not send Tony Blair a Christmas card this year. The Make Poverty History campaign is offering this opportunity until 31 December 2005. Visit www.makepovertyhistory.org to create your own Christmas card and send it to Tony Blair. It’s easy to do and a reminder to the Prime Minister to put poverty at the top of his agenda in the New Year.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Psychologists and torture: War on Terror?

I was recently contacted by colleague and friend Brinton M. Lykes from the The Ignacio Martin-Baró Fund for Mental Health and Human Rights. She drew my attention to the fact that there is an increasing national concern in the US over the growing evidence that psychologists and other mental health workers have been directly involved in interrogations, and in some cases torture, of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere. In response a campaign has been launched against this.

She wrote: "In response to these realities of deep concern to many of us as psychologists and as US citizens, the Fund has launched a two-pronged petition campaign calling on both Congress and the American Psychological Association to commission independent investigations of this situation, and to take concrete action to put an end to these practices...We are seeking support not only from those who are professionally involved in mental health issues, but from everyone who is concerned about these issues. You need not be a psychologist or a member of the American Psychological Association to sign the APA petition, although if you are a member -- and want to let the APA know -- you can include this information in the "Affiliations" field of the response form.".

Both petitions are available from the Fund's home page: www.martinbarofund.org and from the petitions to the signature page.

Friday, December 9, 2005

Does the past have its price?

Recently, I visited the Imperial War Museum North, in Manchester, designed by world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. The museum, which focuses on how war shapes lives, is impressive in design. The various parts of the building are said to resemble the shards of a shattered world. But, despite all the symbolism, it was a minor incident at the museum that stuck in my mind. While perusing the various World War II artefacts, I noticed a group of schoolchildren who seemed mesmerised by various Nazi-related items. They seemed drawn to them, snapping photos of swastikas and a large gold Nazi eagle. Of all the objects that could draw their interest, from fighter jets to tanks, it was these symbols that captivated them.

Of course, this need not be negative. There is a growing focus on the horrors of genocide and research continues to unearth the causes of Nazi tyranny. More school curricula now focus on learning about the Holocaust. This helps us understand the past and not repeat it.

But there is also a downside. Why would such symbols intrigue children? Is it curiosity or research for a school project? Or is it the allure of the power and abuse linked with such symbols? The line between fascination with the macabre and genuinely learning from a repulsive past seems a thin one, not only for children but for adults, too. This is evident in the continuing debate about collecting Nazi memorabilia. The American writer Susan Sontag writes that collecting Nazi memorabilia gives the collectors a type of thrill similar to doing something forbidden or breaking social taboos. Consequently, the Nazis remain big business. An autograph of Hitler can fetch up to £2 000. Paper with his initials and Nazi insignia on the letterhead can fetch up to £50 a sheet. Recently, Hitler’s Nazi party membership badge, engraved at the back with the number one, was stolen from the archives of the Russian Federal Security Bureau (formerly the KGB). If it is the genuine article, it could be worth up to £2-million.

A few years ago, following public pressure, eBay had to put restrictions on what could be bought and sold on online auctions. It claims that items bearing symbols of the Nazis, including authentic German World War II memorabilia, are no longer allowed on the site. However, a quick visit to the US site revealed a plethora of items for sale, including an allegedly genuine Nazi battle flag for $750. So should eBay and others be prevented from selling such material? Many collectors claim that collecting such items is purely historic. But, if collecting was a historic exercise, then why the hefty price tags and why are such items not handed over to museums for proper archiving, explanation and display? But, equally, is banning the sale of such items the answer? Would this not increase their value, while infringing on people’s basic rights to trade freely? One thing is clear, however. It is deplorable that people should continue to make money out of such memorabilia. It also makes me think that it is time we South Africans started to think about our past. A quick scan of eBay suggests there are only a few items from the apartheid past available at the moment, including a few anti-apartheid records, T-shirts and badges, and old South African flags. But it may be a growth industry.

And what if more inflammatory items started to find their way to auction? Such items could include infamous instruments of torture or soldiers’ photos of their dead enemy, as was allegedly the case recently in Iraq. I do not want to sound like a prophet of doom but, surely, given the lessons from the Holocaust, this is all possible. Are South Africans prepared to make their past available to the highest bidder? Should trading in some items be regulated or should we just let the market take control.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 9 December 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Fancy borrowing a homeless person?

Recently, I read that it will soon be possible to 'borrow' living people from a public library in Holland. The library, based in the town of Almelo, will 'lend out' people of various descriptions, including drug addicts, physically-disabled people, homosexuals, asylum seekers and Roma gypsies. The idea is that you can reserve a person and meet them for 45 minutes, asking them anything you want and hearing their story. Jan Krol, the library's director running the programme, hopes it will reduce prejudice and break down barriers between groups as people learn more about the lifestyles of others. Moreover, for those of you worried you might forget to return 'your book', or perhaps 'your book' might have such a good time with you it forgets to return itself, resulting in a hefty fine, you can only meet the person in the library café for safety reasons. Also, in case you are wondering, Krol says you do not have to have a library card to take out a person.

Krol, who based the scheme on a project running in Sweden, is swamped with requests and has had to get his team of 'living books' together hastily. He told London's Telegraph, “I've got several gay men, a couple of lesbian women, a couple of Islamic volunteers. I've got a physically-handicapped woman and a woman who has been living on social-security benefits for many years in real poverty.”

Sounds like a great idea, doesn't it? Any so-called oddity you have been too afraid to approach in the street or strike up a conversation with at work is now freely available for questions and answers. Libraries have a reputation for being stuffy boring places and maybe this is just the thing to bring people back to books (or at least to library cafés). It is an indictment of our society that we are too busy to talk to one another and have to visit a human zoo to learn about each another; but, if the scheme promotes libraries as institutions that are part of communities, I'm all for it. Finding ways to bring people into the library, whether with a library card in hand or a camera to take a snap of the exotic person they're meeting, can only be positive. Obviously, in Africa, literacy and the availability of books is also a problem, even if you manage to steer the person away from their meeting into the actual library. The general anti-book culture the world over is another hurdle. Recently, I read that Victoria Beckham, aka Posh Spice, has never read a book in her life, despite writing a 528-page biography. Some role model there.

In addition, as sympathetic as I am towards Krol's scheme (which I know I've spent too much time thinking about, instead of reading, a good book), it does throw up several questions, such as: who is really taking out who? Who is more of a curiosity, a drug addict or a person who feels they are so deprived of chances to meet people from all walks of life that they need a library to facilitate the meeting? Also, are only minorities available for loan and does the inquisitiveness only flow one way? Can a liberal-minded person ask to meet a right-wing bigot? Can a poor black man ask to meet a middle-class white man? And, the biggest question: can you ask that certain people be removed from society and made available only on loan for all eternity? I have a few politicians in mind here.

But I'm hooked and I'm going to sign up. I've been wracking my brain all day trying to decide who I will take out on loan. And, finally, I've got it. I wonder if you can borrow a Dutch librarian; I've never met one of those before.

Copyright Brandon Hamber, October 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 14 October 2005