Stephen of The Trains

All vagrants have their haunts and their tasks, which they pursue like Tantalus. Most will wander around a particular district of the city, though some will haunt the sewers and crypts below. One or two men walk the earth, preaching their crazy philosophies, selling their crude drawings and foil sculptures, or maybe urging people to repent before tomorrow’s Armageddon.

Stephen wanders around train stations some of the time, but most of the time he will be found on a train. I first met him on the long haul down to Exeter one spring afternoon in 99, but since then I have seen him on a couple of suburban services out of Victoria, and once, I think, getting off a train at Derby. A good friend of mine claims, astonishingly, to have seen him in the restaurant car of the Glasgow sleeper.

Stephen does not sit down when he gets one the train. Or rather, he does sit down, but not immediately. He roams the carriages, back and forth, searching out the person he is destined to meet. Sometimes he will make several passes before he finds the seat he is looking for.

And then a mobile phone rings.

When the shrill tones chime throughout the compartment, Stephen will settle himself down next to the phone user, the callee, and begin singing the mobile phone he has just heard. I guess this must be rather boring for him most of the time, singing in a literal monotone, although in my case (oh yes, I was one of them) he got to sing the first eight bars of the Imperial March by John Williams.

I kept the encounter of this strange man to myself for a few years, until I overheard someone else on a train telling their neighbour about this man, whom they had also encountered. I could not resist changing seats and joining the conversation, and it was there that I learnt Stephen’s name. As soon as I got home I wrote a letter to the Times newspaper concerning him, and received several replies from those who have been disconcerted by his impromptu appearance and performance in reaction to their mobile ring-tone.

The sub-community of people who have met him has grown, and there are several theories as to why Stephen has embarked on this mission. Some people with little imagination suggest that the ring-tones are so annoying that he has been sent mad, and his odyssey is an active protest. This does not sway me. Such a person would engage with his victims, shout at them, or at least explain his motives. Stephen simply sits down, sings in pure tenor, and leaves as soon as the call has been completed, leaving the person in a state of bewilderment.

Others suggest, cynically, that Stephen is actually twenty or so people, secretly employed by the rail companies to prevent people using mobile phones on trains. This is ridiculous, because the companies would never have the imagination, nor would they spend that sort of money on a hair-brained scheme. Furthermore, I have corresponded with several people (some might call them fans or followers) who all describe Stephen in the same way, a description in keeping with my own encounter: Long hair, big nose, bow tie. He is only one person, of that I am sure.

My own theory is that he is a music lover, and sees the tones as a simple form of the art. Perhaps he sees the rings as the purest, tightest form there is, where the composers have to work with only eight notes (nine if you include the silence) and five lengths of time from the brieve to the semi-quaver, and his mission is to seek out masterpieces within the theme. Or perhaps, which is the more likely alternative in my opinion, he loathes Nokia’s rape of Beethoven’s Seventh.

And I am left with a dilemma. Do I turn off my telephone when I board a train? I still find it very hard to do so, despite my former embarrassment at the hands and vocal chords of this enigma. I think that if my telephone rings, then perhaps a man in a bow tie will come lumbering down the aisle, and I may see him again, and ask him what he is doing. I have a notion that to switch of my telephone is to deprive Stephen of his work, to deny him fulfilment.

I find myself taking the train more often nowadays, even if it is inconvenient and expensive to do so. I wear a bow tie when I travel, and always carry my telephone in my top pocket, ready to ring. One day it will do so, and Stephen will be there, singing beside me.

The Case For War

If your opponent creates the rules of the game, he will win and you will lose. If you let the opposition frame the debate, the argument is all but lost.

War looms. The troops have been shipping out to the Persian Gulf for months. Now we wonder whether to provide Turkey with the protection it will surely need. The US Secretary of State asks for a second resolution that will sanction war, apparently blind to the fact that the institution he addresses, the United Nations, has its days as an effective organisation well and truly numbered. Our Prime Minister attacks us for marching against him.

The tide turns in their favour because the diplomats who matter all play the Hawks’ game by the Hawks’ rules. Only one rule matters: It is up to the anti-war lobby to prove its case. Unless a decisive and watertight argument against the war is presented, Iraq gets levelled by the twenty-fourth.

We all know how terrible a war is. We have seen the pictures on TV, in our newspapers. War truly must be the last resort, the action we take when we know that beyond reasonable doubt, all else has failed. War is so terrible, the burden of proof must always rest with those who wage it. This must be a fundamental of human politics.

As soon as the ball returns to their court, the confusion of Hawks’ case is apparent: The link between Al Q’aeda and Saddam is hearsay. The link between the CIA and both is not in question. The weapons of mass destruction have not yet materialised. Hans Blix criticises Colin Powell’s attempt to mimic Stevenson. Hans asks for more time to carry out his task.

UN sanctions have strengthened Saddam. Sanctions have killed children, and war will kill some more. Anti-Americanism (however misplaced) will increase in aftermath of an invasion which is seen as blatant imperialism by many. And at the back of our minds, we know that Bush and Cheney are both ‘oil men’ waging war against the country with the fourth most abundant supply of oil in the world.

Finally, they shout Fourteen Forty-One, and we retort with Two Forty Two.

There has been no vote in the House of Commons. The case for war has not yet been proven. We are not just on shaky ground – we are sitting on the moral equivalent of the San Andreas fault.

Despite this, we have been watching our soldiers head Eastwards, and we have come to realise that none of this matters. We are incredulous, that with so many questions to be answered, a decision has already been made… last summer. This amazement, at the complete lack of mature dialogue, is what inspired hundreds of thousands of people to walk down Piccadilly on 15th February.

We are angry that our government has not addressed any of the issues, which buzz around this war like flies around a corpse. And just like the corpse, the case for war stinks.

But somehow, we find ourselves in a situation where it is up to the peaceniks to justify their case, not the governments who wish to attack! George Bush has led the debate, and formed the rules in his own image: irrational, and leaning towards revenge. We will go to war, and it will be terrible.

How to be multicultural?

It is very easy to say that you are pro-multicultural. Politicians, religious leaders, journalists, all declare that they are in favour of diversity. And yet, they all, each and every one, have their own personal faith, that is almost always at odds with everyone else’s. How can we respect and tolerate someone, if our own beliefs are contradictory to theirs? If this question is not answered, then all talk of cultural diversity is meaningless.

Imagine three guys sitting around a table during freshers’ week (that’s shouldn’t be too hard). During their opening chit-chats, it becomes apparent that they have different faiths. One is Christian, another is a Jew… the third declares he is an atheist. During their discussions, the following beliefs emerge:

The Christian believes that Jesus Christ was the Son of God; The Jew believes that God exists, but Jesus was not His son; and the atheist believes that there are no gods.

These are three mutually exclusive viewpoints. They cannot be held simultaneously. No one knows who of the three is right, but we can be certain that at least two of them are wrong. Two of the eager students are embarking on a university career, their entire belief system based on falsehood. Is it not doublethink to respect faiths and religions, when we know that the great majority of them (including, probably, our own) must be completely wrong?

The problem with this stance, trivially correct though it may be, is that it focuses on the central tenets of a particular belief. This does not advance our understanding, nor does it help us when we realise we have to live next door to these people. We must recognise that everyone has to put blind, illogical faith in something. Even the atheist has to bridge a gap of logic if he is to believe that no gods exist. These beliefs have the same status in logical argument as the parents who shout, “Because I said so!” at their children.

What is open to discussion, however, is how those tenets effect the way people lead their lives. For example, to Christians, the most important thing about Jesus Christ is that he died and was resurrected for the sins of humanity. For non-Christians, i.e. most people, the love and forgiveness Jesus is said to have preached, and that their Christian neighbours try and do the same.

There is a challenge therefore, which extends to any group of people and not just the religions used in the example above. The challenge is to show the rest of the world how they approach life, how they treat fellow humans, based upon whatever traditions and tenets they subscribe to. (This is a particular challenge for atheists, who have to explain how they live without recourse to an ancient text). Explaining your moral system to others is interesting, rational, and most importantly it allows us to form a consensus with other cultures, on what exactly those morals shall be. Mutual respect all around the table.

Simon Schama suggests how we should conduct our political discourse:

Put another way, the fight is between power based on revelation (and thus not open to argument), and power based on persuasion, and thus conditional on argument; militant theocracy against the tolerant Enlightenment.

Competing groups may follow their own traditions and code as they interact with others, but at no point must they use their own articles of faith as a reason for political action. “We have the right to do this, because God says so” is an irrational argument and will not wash in polite debate. Sadly, many politicians on the international scene use this sort of rhetoric, over and over again. We know who they are and we should ask them to stop, because then we might be able to have a proper conversation.

How to forgive?

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was so improbable, I needed Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness to remind me that it was not some figment of my imagination, and did in fact exist. It was so unlikely, in fact, that I feel a quick summary of Commission’s activities is required, so its astounding nature can be fully comprehended.

Let me get this right: After apartheid ended and a fully democratic government was elected, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established. This body was created to facilitate a national catharsis, where people were given a platform to narrate their stories of the era. In the case of the victims of the apartheid regime, those who has been abused and tortured by the government security forces, the Commission had the power to grant them a symbolic compensation. “So far so good,” you might say—nothing too radical there. However (and you might have to read sentence twice) the Commission also had the power to grant an amnesty from prosecution, to those who confessed to crimes against humanity, committed during the apartheid era! People could come to the TRC, tell everyone that they had abducted, tortured, maimed and killed, say sorry, and then go home.

It’s all so improbable. South Africa was for half a century the epitome of animosity. The apartheid system took an entire race of people and stomped them into the ground. There was regular violence. There were massacres, notably at Sharpville in 1960 and in Soweto in 1976. There were bombings. The history of South Africa from 1948 points inexorably towards a chaotic civil war, similar to the many other conflicts that have crippled the African continent.

And it just did not happen. Not only did it just not happen, but also out of the negotiations of the early 1990s, there emerged the TRC, which began granting drive-by amnesty and gung-ho forgiveness left, right and centre.

We already know how this came to pass. It was made possible by that unique man Nelson Mandela, and also by people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who took the helm of the TRC when it was established 1995. These South Africans were able to steer their nation away from seemingly certain civil war and onto the path of resolution and development. Such a thing was possible entirely because of the good character of those involved. The source of their morality, sketched in Tutu’s memoir, is something that should be studied by everyone.

The core message of No Future Without Forgiveness is encapsulated bluntly in the title. Before we examine its credibility and implications in detail, there are other nuggets worthy of inspection. What I find most interesting is Desmond Tutu’s account of ubuntu. I will describe it in a moment, but first a few observations on multiculturalism, and my own dabbling with it.

Whenever people talk about cultural exchange as a valuable thing, the reason cited is that we may “learn things from other cultures”. However, what it is we actually learn is never really explained. We can appreciate unfamiliar traditions, but they are always trumped by western liberal values if the push really comes to the shove.

Furthermore, culture as a concept is difficult to define at the best of times. Despite this, my personal experiences have convinced me that we do have valuable lessons to learn from non-Western cultures, and as such I am always delighted when a solid example of non-Western culture surfaces, and proves itself to be superior. Ubuntu is one such example, and one I have experienced before.

In Tutu’s words, which I shall quote at length with no qualms or apologies:

Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, u nobuntu’ … this means they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate. They share what they have. It also means my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘a person is a person through other people … I am human because I belong.’ I participate, I share. A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good; for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.

This is one of the best articulations of ubuntu I have read, and it makes me smile. When I read it in No Future Without Forgiveness I instantly recognised it that distinctly African way of treating other people that I experienced when I lived on the other side of the Limpopo, in Zimbabwe. It is the thing that says, “you will always feed a visitor to your house”, that says, “you will give a ride to those you see standing beside the road.” It is that attitude that says, “Respect your family,” that says “you will be better off working together.” Ubuntu is a way of saying “we are all part of the same team, the same human race.” It is a very communal attitude to take, one that is not evident in Britain, mid-2002.

But, crucially, it is present in the white communities of Southern Africa, and that is what is fascinating about the concept of ubuntu and more generally, the hybridisation of cultures in general. At the moment, these white communities do not identify with their black neighbours, and yet the tell-tale signs of ubuntu are visible—The white South Africans will befriend you in a way that Europeans would never do. A distrust of the blacks still remains, and this communal spirit is certainly not applied indiscriminately throughout the country… but the seeds of ubuntu are there and they grow larger in the soul of the white tribe every day. That is another thing the TRC proved, as many of the former overlords stood up to apologise for their misdeeds.

Desmond Tutu’s brand of Christianity is worthy of note. Living in the United Kingdom, it would be fair to say that Christianity is suffering something of a PR crisis. The Anglican Church argues over doctrine; whether women should be ordained, whether homosexuals or divorcees should marry. In doing so, the key teachings of Jesus Christ, that we should love and forgive our fellow man, are ignored by the wider population. The underlying message of being generally nice to your neighbours, the essential unity of the human race, is something that remains unheeded as a result.

This is where people like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela have a story to tell. Shorn of divinity, Jesus of Nazareth is still there in the history books saying “Forgive” and “Love” as he withered away on a cross. In 1990, Nelson Mandela heeded those words, and walked out of prison without bitterness. Archbishop Tutu sat in front of killers and said, “I forgive”. The success of their actions in diverting a crisis is a justification for the politics of the Nazarene, one that agnostics and atheists may accept. It is delightful to see that two millennia later, the political ideas have not died, even if we think God Himself has. Those of us who are not waiting around for another messiah, should begin searching for a mortal with enough character to forgive without demanding payback… and then vote for them.

Each page of No Future Without Forgiveness is an ode to the spirit of reconciliation, and in this sense it reminds me very much of Terry Waite’s Taken On Trust. In both books the authors remember the phrase “There, but for the grace of God, go I”. They recognise that the perpetrators are very much a product of their times, and thus deserving of forgiveness. That is not to suggest that the forgiveness is easy—but as both Terry Waite and Desmond Tutu say, it does help one’s own healing, if one can forgive.

Nowhere are these sentiments more forcefully preached, than in those passages that describe the best and worst of humankind, on neighbouring pages. These narratives lend weight and credibility to the Archbishop’s message of love. He offers transcriptions of some of the TRC confessions, the most harrowing of which describes the murder of the Pebco Three, a group of black anti-apartheid activists. One of them, Champion Galela, had his testicles crushed by a police officer. The account of an eyewitness, the very man who betrayed these victims, is powerful enough to provoke a physical reflex-action. I read the passage on a tube train, and as I did so my body pumped a surge of adrenaline through my veins, a futile attempt to protect me from the hurt I read in those passages. I had to put down the book, cover my face from my fellow passengers who were reading their magazines, and took a few deep breaths to keep me from crying. The candid nature of the TRC testimonies is like the removal of bandages to reveal a disfigurement—what we had hitherto imagined is shown in full detail, and the truth that we dared not contemplate, we are forced to confront. It is probably the most uncomfortable thing I have ever read.

Tutu contrasts this horror with the forgiveness of the victims. We read of Neville Clarence, who inexplicably bears no ill will to the men who caused his blindness by planting car bomb. We read of Beth Savage, who despite having campaigned against apartheid, found herself crippled by a random grenade attack in King William’s Town:

I would really like to forgive the man who threw the grenade in an attitude of forgiveness and hope that he could forgive me too for whatever reason. But I would very much like to meet him.

Tutu describes an army officer, who received a thunderous applause from his victims after he apologised for ordering his men to fire upon them a decade before. Adrenaline returns when I read these stories over and over again, excitement as I discovered what human beings are capable of.

Ask yourself: Is there hope for humanity? Never mind development models and economic analysis. Your reaction to that basic question will determine how you treat the world, and the people who you bump into as you walk around it. Do you feel, deep down in your gut, that humanity will ultimately succeed? Or do you think that probably we will end up destroying ourselves, in the end? Alternatively, do you suppose mankind will never learn from its mistakes and we shall instead ride a sine wave of success and failure, prosperity and war?

No Future Without Forgiveness is optimism in a book. As I finished the epilogue, I felt sure that homo sapiens will succeed. Desmond Tutu explains that this species is capable of wonderful things in the face of evil, and it is this capacity that inspires a sort of confidence in mankind. Somehow, things will work themselves out in the end, because we are able to rise above revenge and simply forgive. Maybe we do have the capacity to overcome our differences, those differences that daily cause bloodstains all over the world.

Only on sober reflection can we begin to understand how much is asked of us. Peace and stability is possible, but it entails hard sacrifices from all concerned. There will be no ‘negotiated settlement’, no treaty, no ‘sustainable development’ scheme that will provide a short cut for us. These are the tools of the men who can see only as far as their next term of office. Instead, true peace asks for massive compromise and humility, and to take this step requires nothing less than a leap of faith. This is the true, practical lesson of the South African TRC, and I am eternally grateful that I am not one of those who will have to forgive injustice, racism, murder and genocide, in order for world peace to prevail. I am very lucky.

Turn your thoughts to the millions of unborn children, from Ireland to Israel, who will eventually be required to do the actual forgiving. They will need to understand ubuntu before they can do so. Also, it will take a politician of high calibre, greater than any leader in power at the moment, to actually ask them. Such titanic forgiveness must require an example from our leaders. Desmond Tutu takes this crucial factor for granted, because he is lucky enough to have been governed by Mandela, and his book is the product of Nelson’s exemplary example. Whether enough people follow that example, is what will make or break this crazy project we call humanity.