Finding A Pothole That Fits

July 27, 2006

by Martin ‘HStorm’ Odoni

This article was first published in May 2004.

At the risk of sounding like a kindergarten teacher, I’m in the mood to play a game of pretend.

Imagine a pothole in the road. That’s not a difficult thing to picture in post-Thatcherite Britain, let’s face it. Then imagine a rainy day. Hey, that’s easy to picture in the Britain of any era. Now let’s imagine the water gathering in the pothole and forming one of those deceptively deep puddles that people tread in when they cross the road without due care and attention, and it drenches their trousers all the way up to the kneecaps. Again, we’ve all seen thousands of those in our lives, and will certainly see countless more before we die.

So far this analogy isn’t very interesting is it? All a bit predictable and unremarkable, so to liven things up a bit let’s now imagine something silly. Let’s imagine the puddle suddenly comes to life. It actually achieves the state of conscious sentience and… wait for it… it wakes up. You read it here first, ladies, gentlemen and others, we have the world’s first ever living, breathing, thinking puddle, complete with emotional problems, political convictions and bad breath.

When it wakes up it blinks several times and looks about itself in amazement. “Look at this hole I’m lodged in,” it notes in surprise, “how very remarkable. Doesn’t it fit me well? In fact it fits me very precisely. Staggeringly precisely make that. Right to the very millimetre, every bit fits my shape perfectly. Surely this can’t be a coincidence! Surely this pothole was made to fit me into it.” There’s a thought. It’s a very obtuse one, but it’s still a thought.

Now let’s imagine the sun comes out and dries some of the puddle away. The puddle is now smaller, weaker, less of a puddle than once it was. How… emasculating. Then picture another trickle of water rolling down the hill towards the pothole and pooling in over the puddle. The puddle feels affronted! Violated! “How dare this loathsome outside water invade the pothole that was created expressly for me?! Taking advantage of me in my weakened state.” And so it rises up and begins a long and vitriolic campaign to get all this dirty foreign water expunged from the private homeland of the pothole.

Actually this is all getting very silly indeed now, isn’t it? You’re probably thinking as you read it what daft ideas I’m spouting. It’s nothing but a fantasy! A daft illusion. This is true. And it means it’s a great pity that so many of us suffer from it.

The illusion in question is the idea that the place people inhabit is in some way their ‘possession’. People are shaped by their environment, not so much the other way around, and yet so many of us seem to imagine that our environment was shaped specifically for us. Of course the world seems to fit us perfectly, that’s because we’ve spent our entire lives living in it and from the moment of our conception it has shaped us into what we are. Nature is a far larger and more powerful resource than even an entire race has the power to control, as indeed is any society, so where do we find the arrogance to assume that either can belong to us?

This impulse is sometimes misnamed patriotism. Patriotism is by no means perfect, but it is a positive impulse, and involves nothing more insidious than a straightforward love of your home, wherever that may be, and a desire to see the best happen to it and the people who share it with you. It in no way demeans any other places or lands, indeed it offers full respect and appreciation for such places. The more correct name for the impulse is probably nationalism, the lionisation of your home above and beyond all others, even at the expense of others, and regarding it as a badge of superiority. It’s a ghastly partizan attitude.

This was a serious sticking point for me when I recently read an essay on the Arab/Israeli conflict. I agreed with much of what was said in it, and I was very impressed with the level of knowledge, but one thing near the end of the essay alarmed me when I read it. “This conflict is set to continue for a long while… whilst Jewish extremists are allowed to live near the Arabs they consider filthy.”

I wholeheartedly agree that many (not all) Jewish extremists in the occupied territories treat the Arab natives appallingly and that they should be stopped, but the way the above is worded frightened me a little. I mean, why shouldn’t the Jewish community be allowed to settle there?

The idea that seems to prevail here is one of, “The Arabs got there first, therefore the land is theirs.” Arab Nationalists see this as the very core of their argument, as do their supporters. If a land belongs to a particular racial grouping and someone else moves into it without asking, even resorting to violence to do so, that would appear to be an invasion, nay a violation. So should a dispute ensue, which it inevitably does, surely the incumbent population should get the benefit of the doubt and keep possession of the land?

There’s a problem with this point though, which is that an occupation of this kind is hardly a rare event in political history. So why should we limit this scale just to Palestine and Israel? I mean if you think about it, we could do it with almost any country in the world couldn’t we? For instance, the native Red Indian people would very much like more of their territory back from the United States of America (not that there’s much chance of that ever happening).

We can even look far closer to home for another such comparison in fact. Let’s ask a serious question about the very nation most of us live in. To whom does England belong? The obvious answer that most people would offer would of course be, “Simple! It belongs to the English.” But does it?

Let us not forget that the argument, as put forward here, hinges on the question of who got there first. And the problem is that there can be no clear dividing line as to how far back we have to go e.g. why would a hundred years ago be more valid than a thousand? So…

Question: Did the English get here first?

Even if we can clearly define what we mean by the term ‘Englishman’, the answer would appear to be no, they most assuredly didn’t get here first. You could define the Anglo-Normans, from whom much of our aristocracy evolved, as Englishmen. But the thing is that, as their ethnic name would suggest, they didn’t originate here, they came here from Normandy – part of France – having originally travelled there from Scandinavia. How did they get here? The answer is that they invaded England in 1066, brutally conquering the Anglo-Saxon/Viking population.

You could argue that that populace was English as well of course, and in fact that argument is far more convincing. But the Vikings only arrived here from Scandinavia around the eighth century, and again they butchered and terrorised many of the local inhabitants as they first pillaged and then settled the land. So their right to the land seems born purely of violence as well.

And where did the earliest Englishmen, the Anglo-Saxons themselves, originate? Did they come from here? No. They came from the lands now known as Denmark, Germany and France, having apparently originated as far East as the Steppes of Russia. They came to Roman Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries and took over most of it, again violently much of the time. Many of the indigenous population retreated west and the kingdoms of Wales were soon born.

So, by the definitions offered for ‘right-of-ownership’ in the Palestine/Israel question, England does not, never has, and never will, belong to the English. It belongs to the Welsh. And furthermore the English occupation of Britain was achieved through violence, in much the same way that the ‘illegal’ occupation of Arab territories by Israel was achieved. (In the same way, Scotland doesn’t belong to the Scots, as they invaded from Ireland around the same time the Saxons arrived further south.)

And why, for that matter, should we draw the line there? Why not go even further back, to the time when all the Celtic population hadn’t arrived in the British Isles? The earliest known movement of the Celtic peoples has been traced to the Balkans, so even the Welsh claim to the entire British mainland is tenuous.

In any case, if the people of Wales were to stake a claim to redeem territories taken from their distant ancestors by the English, what could we do? Surely it would be absurd to dismiss the entire English population to the Steppes (and it follows that, taking the logic to its fullest length, we would also be forced to dismiss the entire Celtic population of the British Isles to Greece, which would be equally mad). It’s clear that we can’t go back now. But then why should we go back any length of time for anyone’s sake at all?

In other words, the logic of birthrights on purely ethnic grounds is a grotesque illusion, as indeed is the whole idea of anybody ‘owning’ land. In the final analysis, many of the Jewish population in the occupied territories have lived there for their whole lives, and by any meaningful definition, it’s their home, the place that they belong, as they don’t know anywhere else. They have built relatively stable lives in spite of a very paranoid and chaotic environment. The treatment many of them give to the local Arab populace should be stamped out, no doubt about it, but it is also beyond doubt that it is still their home. Should they lose that and their entire way of life because of the clashes with the local Arabs? If they’ve succeeded in building a community to which they contribute consistently and validly, they’ve surely done enough to be allowed to remain there. Above all, they cannot be held responsible for the mis-deeds of previous generations, or even those of Ariel Sharon’s government.

A fundamental human right is surely freedom of movement, and that has to be far more important than the delusion that the identity of ethnic ancestors gives divine rights to modern people. We inherited the world itself from them. How we choose to divide it up is up to us to decide on our individual merits. The truth is that if the Arab and Jewish populations of the occupied territories could see past the ends of their own noses, they’d realise that they each have far more that’s positive to offer each other instead of blood and bullying. Forcibly tearing them apart from one another, generating apartheid in effect, is not the answer. I truly believe that both populations would be much the better for mutual acceptance and co-operation rather than for avoiding each other entirely.

So if we were to go back to our silly analogy at the start of this study, what we see is the puddle rejecting water that, if only it allowed itself to merge with it, might restore it to its former glory. Having been reduced in presence by the drying process, the puddle in fact needs new water to make it grow again… to fit into the pothole once more, instead of despairing that the pothole no longer fits around it.

Let’s face it, the occupied territories are a big pothole, one that needs fitting rather urgently.

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