Is this a dagger...?
Stabbing is in for autumn. First of all, a South Korean farmer stabbed himself to death outside the Cancun trade talks this week. (Typical bloody farmer. Always topping themselves. It's what comes from poisoning mice all day long, and living in a house full of shotguns and traps). And then the Foreign Minister of Sweden went and got herself knifed. Two deaths; with intimately related but very different results.
12 September 2003
Lee Kyoung-Hae, in the company of other Korean protesters, marched up to the gates of the WTO conference in Cancun, pulled out a knife and stuck it into his own heart. And the effect of his death upon the conference will be precisely *zero*. A delegate's hand may have paused for a fraction of a second on its way towards picking up a biscuit, but that's about as far as his suicide went towards changing WTO policy.
It was a noble act, an act of great bravery, but totally fucking pointless. He just made a mess on the pavement. The political distance between international trade negotiations and a Korean farmer's desperate suicide is too great. The electric fence too high.
Anna Lindh was a jolly lady; a well-liked, liberal, committed politician. She was anti-war, and famously described George Bush as "the Lone Ranger". US Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, recalls a meeting with Anna Lindh last year in Washington:
"Anna came over recently and I told her that there are three Swedish things I am very much fond of: Volvo, ABBA and Anna herself. Anna asked me: 'Why am I in the third place only?'"
Anna Lindh was strolling along in a shopping centre and someone ran up and stuck a knife in her liver. She didn't have a bodyguard with her; she didn't think she needed one. She didn't live her life 'separately' from the people she served. But her death is a challenge to the celebrated openness of Scandinavian
"We live in an open democratic society where political figures typically move around without risking attack, and this is tradition we are proud of. But we would be deluded to believe that what has happened in Sweden could not occur in Denmark."
- Danish Justice Minister, Brian Mikkelsen.
"This brutal murder shows how vulnerable our society is and how important it is to secure the openness and freedom that we value so highly. This is a serious attack on open societies and the closeness politicians both have and want to have..."
- Norwegian Prime Minister, Kjell Bondevik.
When the knife sliced into Anna Lindh's liver, it did more than murder a politician and mother, it was another hack at the tenuous link between people and power. It was a nail in the coffin of the open society. A shift towards a world in which Ministers are cut off from the people, tucked away in bunkers, gliding around in Jaguars with bullet proof glass, sipping tea behind electrified fences.
The people who are running the world are almost out of reach. They're floating off in a balloon which has been cut free - with a few brave folk like Lee Kyoung-Hae clinging to the guy ropes. But what can they do? What can anyone do? Scream, shout, bang our little fists on the table, commit suicide...?
How should we relate ourselves to a world over which we can exert no meaningful influence? At whom do we shout when we don't know whom to shout at? Why bother playing along when democracy has turned into a panto? Should we simply cut our losses, and let the world go hang?
It's tempting. One way out (not open to a South Korean farmer, but open to us in the wealthy west) is to turn in on oneself, to think: "fuck the world, fuck everyone else, I don't care - I'm here on this planet to please myself. Everyone else can go to hell." The political equivalent of Charles Ray's amazing introverted sculpture 'Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley'
A second route out is the one taken by Terence McKenna. Drugs. He argues in his 1993 speech 'Alien Dreamtime' that: "History is ending, because the dominator culture has led the human species into a blind alley." So how do we get out of the cul-de-sac? McKenna says: "what we need is a new myth. What we need is a new true story that tells us where were going in the universe... Psychedelics return us to the inner worth of the self, to the importance of feeling immediate experience. And nobody can sell that to you and nobody can buy it from you, so the dominator culture is not interested in the felt presence of immediate experience."
A third route is cribbage.
Or should we fight? And if so, how do we fight? Should we sign up with the anarchists, and chuck bricks through the windows of McDonald's? Karl Popper, author of The Open Society and its Enemies would have us fight, and not from a position of 'radicalism' (a 'radical' is someone who has cut themselves off at the root - 'radix'), but from within the system:
Aestheticism and radicalism must lead us to jettison reason, and to replace it by a desperate hope for political miracles. This irrational attitude which springs from an intoxication with dreams of a beautiful world is what I call Romanticism. It may seek its heavenly city in the past or in the future; it may preach 'back to nature' or 'forward to a world of love and beauty'; but its appeal is always to our emotions rather than to reason. Even with the best of intentions of making heaven on earth it only succeeds in making it a hell...
In other words, we should not be looking for political miracles, but addressing political reality. And the only way to do that is to engage politically. Which simply isn't happening. After the last general election, The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee said: "Not since the extension of the suffrage in 1918 has there been such a low level of participation in the electoral process. The reasons for it may be debated, but not its seriousness for our democracy. We find it extraordinary that this collapse in electoral participation, put alongside other evidence on civic disengagement, has not been treated as a civic crisis demanding an appropriate response. Political life has simply continued as if nothing has happened."
What was it Mr Amitri said?
Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
The needle returns to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before
And we'll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow...
Something like that.
Online memorial to Lee Kyoung-Hae:
More Del Amitri here.