The questions themselves

IssueSeptember 2005
Comment by David MacKenzie

I must love the questions themselves, as Rilke said, like locked rooms full of treasure, to which my blind, and groping key, does not yet fit. (Alice Walker from "Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful")

Some years ago former UK government minister Chris Smith wrote in the New Statesman about the joys of hill-walking in Scotland as an escape from politics. My first reaction to the article was to share in his pleasure -- but soon enough the question hit me: How in the name of the wee man do you get away from politics in the Scottish hills? From most of our finest hills you will look down on a ruined landscape, still livid with the scars of the clearances and the wearing down of an ethnic group which did not subscribe enthusiastically enough to British values. Incensed, I wrote a poem which imagined him looking down on Rannoch Moor and Coulport and sent it to him. I understand he laughed and got the point.

The "museum effect"

The mainstream media reflections of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki commemorations have recalled that incident. Fair enough, the standard was a bit better this time with a number of commentators actually attempting to bring the issue up to date. Participation, too, of peace movement people worldwide was strong and effective. At the same time the media tendency to treat it as a "reliable silly season chestnut" and a museum piece (carrying the sub text: "This was sad but long ago and far away") is alive and well. I felt the disconnection very powerfully at our little ceremony in Stirling, where we stood round the Peace Tower at the Smith Museum, just 300 yards away from the roundabout where we regularly give the thumbs down to lorries carrying today's bombs of many times the power of Little Boy.

Of course, the "museum effect" goes wider than the media. The ability to keep current concerns and challenges at a distance while mulling critically and regretfully over the past can be useful in allowing us to develop human reactions free from immediate pressures. Yet often enough the re-connection does not happen, and current horrors are ignored or relatively sanitised.


The traditional compartmentalisation of knowledge has an obvious part to play. We used to, maybe still do, teach healthy eating classes in schools with Coke machines at every other corner. One of the findings of the report on the "Overcoming Violence" project, which supported a number of anti-violence initiatives in Scottish schools, was that schools find connectedness very difficult. "While the initiatives have affected the knowledge, skills and attitudes of the young people (immediately) involved there are barriers preventing the principles of violence reduction from flowing into all the compartments of the school's life" ("Overcoming Violence", Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre 2004). Also noted was the tendency to focus solely on personal violence among young people at the expense of structural violence and the links between them. The implication is that the principle of compartmentalisation is not merely an imposition from outside but has been thoroughly internalised by the actors. Education has been turned on its head. In our systems it's the teachers, largely, who ask the questions, in the real McCoy it's the learners. And the problem goes well beyond schooling. Somehow the natural inquisitive mind that strives to integrate knowledge and values gets heavily sat upon.

Crossing barriers

I guess that it is our role in the peace movement to help repair the broken connectors, but that task demands that we, too, are attached somewhere. If I am right about the disconnection problem it is not merely a media phenomenon but is a sophisticated defensive system in the psyche. That system will find it easier to reject an uncomfortable connection if it is able to identify the source as dubious because of its marginality, like a wild-eyed preacher of doom. It is early days yet, but I do wonder if in the more radical end of the G8 protests we made that mistake by not putting enough effort to crossing the barriers into mainstream public life, at national and local level.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons
See more of: David Mackenzie's diary