Friday, July 2, 2010

The Lessons of Easter Week, 1916

One cannot spend any time in Dublin, certainly not on the kind of Study Abroad trip from which I have just returned, without being reminded of the Easter Rising of 1916. It gets discussed extensively on the Historical Walking Tour and at Kilmainham Gaol. The train stations—Heuston, Connolly, Pearse—are named after leaders of the rebellion. Bullet holes from the conflict are still visible in the columns in front of the General Post Office. The W.B. Yeats exhibit at the National Library shows what the city looked like after an English battleship had shelled O’Connell Street that week. The only full statue in the city to a specific woman known to have actually existed (as opposed to Queen Maeve or Molly Malone) is dedicated to the Countess Constance Markievicz, whose sex alone prevented her from being executed in the Rising’s aftermath. There are Easter Week-specific tours of the city. And on and on.

Of course, the Easter Rising ultimately failed. There was no lasting Irish Republic established that week, and everyday Irish men and women were lukewarm at best towards the insurrection. But the rhetoric of Pádraig Pearse at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa less than a year earlier proved prophetic: “Life springs from death: and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations. The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead, and, while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” Pearse and fourteen others faced firing squads at Dublin's Kilmainham Gaol after the Rising, and three others were either executed outside Dublin or died on a hunger strike in prison, but it was only a few years later that there really was an Irish Free State. Significantly, however, neither the establishment of the Free State nor even the declaration of the Republic (as distinct from a dominion) of Ireland hold anything close to the hold on the public imagination as do the events of Easter 1916.

W.B. Yeats was to write in one of his most famous poems,” Easter, 1916,” written five years after the events he describes, “MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse / Now and in time to be, / Wherever green is worn, / Are changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” But there’s a sense in which Yeats had it wrong: it wasn’t so much Easter Week itself which was transformative, although those events are certainly not to be ignored. Rather, it was the tone-deaf over-reaction of the English authorities to what had transpired that inexorably changed public opinion. Whereas early on the general populace blamed the Republicans for catalyzing the destruction perpetrated by the British, that attitude dissipated in the wake of the ongoing series of executions. It seemed a little barbaric that the English provided emergency medical assistance to James Connolly so he wouldn't die before they had a chance to kill him. Moreover, the killings or long-term internments of a number of nationalists who had little if any connection to the Rising suggested that the British authorities were more interested in a show of force than in justice.

Not included in the list of those executed, for example, were Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a pacifist who was outspoken in his opposition to the tactics (though not the goals) of the rebels, and two pro-British journalists, Thomas Dixon and Patrick McIntyre. Still, all three were arrested, unarmed and unresisting, and ultimately shot to death by British soldiers. It didn’t help that the officer in charge, although indeed arrested for murder, was able to successfully plead insanity (battle fatigue), and ultimately retired at 40 with a full pension. England also extended martial law long after there was any real unrest in Ireland.

As a result of all this, the Irish people in general became considerably more radicalized, more impatient, more willing to employ violence rather than more peaceable means to achieve their ends. The moderate Irish Parliamentary Party, which held 68 parliamentary seats at the time of the Rising, managed to retain only seven in the December 1918 by-election. By contrast, Sinn Féin, which had held only six seats in the spring of 1916, re-organized under Éamon de Valera (who escaped execution after the Rising only because he was American-born) and promised to employ “every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection.” Although as an organization Sinn Féin had not been directly involved in the Rising, a good number of its members had been, and they had the best name recognition among the nationalist groups. The result was an over 12-fold increase in their parliamentary representation after the 1918 elections: to 73 seats.

We could tease out some of the nuances and discuss Sinn Féin’s subsequent tactics, but this isn’t a history lesson; it’s a political blog. So what is the real point of recounting history of nearly a century ago? Simply this: there was a lesson to be learned here. To repeat: the Irish people weren’t on the side of the radicals until the English arrogantly over-reacted. I can find literally no one, from Irish historians to the BBC, who disagrees with this assessment. Yet these simple lessons—even people who disagree with you will respect you if you act justly, and moderates will become extremists if you don’t—seem to have been particularly difficult for the politically and militarily powerful to learn. The English couldn’t wrap their heads around it in the wake of Bloody Sunday, taking some 38 years to finally, a little over a fortnight ago, admit that the victims (13 dead, as many more seriously injured) of those horrible events in Derry in 1972, had done nothing to deserve their fate. The IRA certainly got a lot of recruits from those who had seen what happened to peaceful protesters.

This kind of obliviousness, however, is not a peculiarly English phenomenon. We Americans have gotten very good at it, especially recently. With few exceptions, world opinion was overwhelmingly sympathetic to this country after the events of September 11, 2001. Then came the invasion of Iraq, a country which had precisely bupkis to do with 9/11. Then there was Abu Ghraib. And Guantanamo. And waterboarding. More importantly, there were the obviously disingenuous denials. And, suddening, a good share of the Islamic world, people who had been neutral towards the US or even leaning a little towards friendship, started viewing American foreign policy—Bush’s, Obama’s, it doesn’t matter—in Western Asia as arrogant, imperialistic, and unjust… and not without reason.

Now comes a report that the Fourth Estate, once charged with a primary role in speaking truth to power, has been abrogating that responsibility: the following is from the abstract of a study by Harvard students:

“From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002‐2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture. In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.”

That I have no use for cowardly journalism is hardly a news flash; that it appears that many elite media institutions have completely caved on any kind of pursuit of objective reality falls under that ever-widening category of “I hate it when I’m right.” Anything the lunatic right challenges, no matter how frivolous the protestations, becomes “controversial,” and that means shying away from accurate terms in favor of euphemisms. The defenders of the duly constituted Iraqi government became “insurgents”; the civil war there couldn’t be called a civil war; prisoners of war would be subject to the Geneva Conventions, so those folks became “captured enemy combatants”; waterboarding, which had been a classic example of torture for generations, was now simply an “enhanced interrogation technique.” If this is what we get from the so-called left-wing media, then what hope have we?

More to the point, everyone smarter than Liz Cheney, and that’s damned near everybody, knows that this is all a steaming pile of bullshit. And, as Watergate taught us, the cover-up is often worse than the crime. Denying the facts was hard enough a generation ago; in the internet age, it’s a virtual impossibility, although there are plenty of folks, especially but by no means exclusively on the political right, who are willing to give it a try.

Maybe, however, we should learn the lessons of the Easter Rising and its aftermath: that making martyrs of those willing to be martyred is seldom a good idea; that avoiding responsibility can last only so long; that people are ultimately smart enough not to be distracted by legalistic niceties, especially when those lawyerly phrases ring immediately hollow to any reasonably intelligent 12-year-old. If what we want to do is to “win the hearts and minds” of the Islamic world, we need to change course in a big old hurry. If we want to continue to be the world’s greatest recruiter of al-Qaida operatives, we need only proceed down the path we’re on. After all, it worked so well for the British in 1916.

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