Wednesday 17 June 2020

Twice now I've seen my old neighbourhood on the news

Of the planet’s 7,500 million, about one-thirty-seventh of one percent of one percent come from in or around Ferguson, Missouri, which saw massive riots six years ago as a result of police killing a black man. Only about a quarter of a percent of a percent come from in or around South Minneapolis, whic h saw the same thing happen a few weeks ago. I’m probably not the only person who has lived in both neighbourhoods, but I think I’m one of the few.

Twice now I’ve been in another country, watching violence break  out in peaceful neighbourhoods I knew well. Twice now I’ve had to call friends or family to make sure they’re not in the middle of it. And most people I know – already stressed because of the pandemic, the quarantine and the sudden blow to the economy – are feeling anger and despair like they’ve never felt before. 

So I want to speak carefully on this; of course I’m not there on the ground right now, and I’m not black, and I don’t pretend to speak for anyone else. But twice now I’ve received reports from friends and family on the ground as it happened, and it might not seem like it, but I think there’s a lot of good news here. 

Virtually everyone is united on this. I check out multiple news sources – what are considered far-left, far-right, and mostly people who go beyond the stereotypes of the political spectrum. Everyone agrees these police were terrible, and everyone is celebrating that they are going to prison. Think of any other issue that has so many people agreeing.

You got things done. In a lot of times and places people might have looked the other way or been afraid to speak up, and that’s still the case across much of the world today. But here, as a result  of the massive and immediate public outcry, these officers were fired almost immediately, charged swiftly, and are now in jail. I used to be part of the Minneapolis political scene, I can tell you that this response happened because people there are so politically active, and so prepared to take action. The famously scrappy French labour movement doesn’t have so many strikes and marches because conditions there are worse; rather, conditions there are better because they take to the streets.

The media is getting better. I’m seeing a lot of news outlets point out something very important, something that should have been talked about in Ferguson; the rioters are not the protesters. I knew some of the Ferguson protesters; they were locals. The Ferguson police were locals. But some of the rioters came from thousands of kilometres away. As a former newspaper reporter I was incensed by the news coverage, which neglected to make this the lead story, or ask questions about where these people came from.

I heard stories of protesters helping police protect businesses from rioters ... but most journalists didn’t make those important distinctions. In Minneapolis, I’m seeing news agencies make those distinctions. Business Insider – not a radical publication -- has run articles about this. That’s important.

We don’t see most of the good people are doing. For every tragedy highlighted by social media, there are tens of thousands of people not just protesting, but babysitting kids, looking after each other, helping clean up, donating to bring back the businesses that were destroyed, all volunteers. This is what happens in a crisis; people pull together. They won’t be on the news, but they are, in their own way, heroes.

Many cops are good. In a recent survey most Americans believed that a police officer fires their gun in the line of duty at least once, and 30% guessed they shoot someone a few times a year. In fact, it’s the opposite; three-quarters of US police have never fired a gun once in their careers. I’m not implying that shooting their gun is always bad, or that they can’t do wrong even without shooting – that negligent police officer didn’t need a gun to kill George Floyd. My point is that almost all the time, police defuse life-and-death situations peacefully.

If officers defuse violent situations, say, once a week – and for some it’s every day – that’s 200 violent situations over a career, and I don’t mean that 75% of those are defused without shooting. I’m saying that for 75% of officers, 100% were defused peacefully.

That doesn’t make the exceptions okay, or imply that there’s no problem with police in America. It does mean that police aren’t all one thing. A lot of news coverage depicts conflicts of police vs African-Americans, but it’s important to note that nine of ten African-Americans oppose even cutting the number of police, almost half rate their local police highly, and of course a lot of police – a third in my native St. Louis – are black themselves. 

That said, there are a few other things to remember:

Police are civillians. As more of our social fabric has broken down, as I hear more people talk about their neighbours with fear and loathing, we put more of a burden on police to take care of neighbourhood disputes, mental health crises, and all kinds of issues that aren’t their job.

Some activists are talking about “de-funding police,” which if they mean getting rid of all police, is idiotic. But in fairness, what a lot of them mean are taking some of the burden off police and passing it to people trained in family disputes, mental health, and so on. Depending on how it’s done, that has possibilities.

Most articles I read from the USA talk about police vs. civilians, and no one – not even the protesters I know – think this is strange. As far as I know, that’s not the language that was used in the USA decades ago, or in most Western countries today. Police are civilians. I cannot stress how important this is. If you think of them as soldiers, what country are they occupying, and what enemy are they fighting?

Anger makes you vulnerable. I keep seeing memes passed around that people should get angry. Anger is easy. I were one of the people in power, I’d want people to get angry; angry people are easier to manipulate. 

How many Americans would have accepted their government launching a war in the Middle East, had they not witnessed the middle of their greatest city levelled by a terrorist attack? The US government wasn’t attacking a country that was behind the 9-11 attacks, but it was difficult to say that at the time to people so filled with anger, however justifiable. If you want to defuse a situation, you calm people down enough to listen to the better angels of their nature. Angry people do stupid things that get everyone hurt.

Don’t pick a side. I see a lot of slogans about how everyone needs to pick a side, you’re either with us or you’re against us. I’ve heard that before, both in my own life and in history, and that’s when things really go south.

I hear more and more people talk gleefully about shutting down anyone who says anything they don’t like. But that’s not how people learn. That’s how civilisation breaks down.

I hear more and more people talk about doing anything to defeat hatred. But hatred is always other people; it’s never you.

This could get a lot worse. I see a lot of memes about how the people need to rise up, for they have nothing to lose. If you live in a modern Western country with ample food, relative safety, and some vestigal trappings of democracy, you have a lot to lose. Again, in movies like V for Vendetta or the Hunger Games, riots and insurrection are how you take down an authoritarian rule. In real life, they’re how you start authoritarian rule. And remember that these memes are started and spread by people with an agenda, some of whom might gain from violence breaking out.

Beneficial movements in the past succeeded, not by lashing out in anger, but by talking with neighbours, listening to each other, pooling resources, creating a logical plan, and negotiating practical solutions. The marching down the street? That’s the one percent that was filmed – most of it was behind the scenes, done by people you’ve never heard of. And things got better. It can happen again.

Monday 25 May 2020

Epidemics in the old days

I talked to my neighbour, Angela, about what it was like during the tuberculosis epidemic of the 1950s.

Saturday 9 May 2020

Covid's Metamorphoses

A few weeks ago, I posted a video about the silver linings to this crisis and quarantine. Now that countries are either opening up or announcing plans to do so, I wanted to make another video looking back on what we've learned from this. Enjoy -- and if you do enjoy it, I'd appreciate it if you subscribed and shared it with all your friends. 

Friday 3 April 2020

Remembering the pandemics that came before

Recently I was able to interview another one of my elderly neighbours -- by phone this time -- and he told me all about the dangers of tuberculosis in Ireland in the 1950s, along with the Spanish Flu of 1918. We forget how fortunate we are.

Sunday 22 March 2020

Relaxing during a pandemic

This covers some of the same ground as the article, but I'm hoping people find it useful. Stay safe everyone!

Saturday 14 March 2020

What to do when you're cooped up at home

Girls wearing masks in Helena, Montana during the 1918 flu, courtesy of "Helena As She Was" web site,
For the next few weeks, many of us here in Ireland – and possibly where you are -- will feel like we are in a permanent state of house arrest, working from home and looking after children kept home from school. Most of us are, rightly, staying away from crowds of people and making food at home, so most of us need to stock up on the basics durable foods that will keep over time – beans, lentils, rice, flour, salt, sugar and other staples.

Once, shopping meant shopping for these basic ingredients, which any home-maker knew to make into bread, soup, cakes and other goods. Vegetables came from the garden, and everyone had one of those just outside the kitchen door, fed every year with compost from the kitchen that had been allowed to rot into soil again. This basic cycle meant that every home was – to some extent --- a self-sufficient homestead, a self-contained Ark during any of life’s floods.

Floods come more often than we realise; since I moved to Ireland 15 years ago, we have seen fuel prices skyrocket, the crash of 2008, the country go bankrupt in 2010, and the housing crisis of recent years. We have seen scares around Ebola, SARS and now Coronavirus. We have seen planes grounded temporarily during the Icelandic volcano of 2010, and of course many individuals have seen their own personal crises. We will see many more crises in the years to come, as climate change increases and weather grows more extreme. Yet we think of preparedness as a fringe activity for people preparing for the End of the World – and, in fairness, there are people who do that.

Most of the crises we will encounter in life, though, are not the Big One – there probably never will be a Big One, in climate change, disease or any other area. We are entering an era of increased problems – what James Howard Kunstler called “The Long Emergency” – but  like the “Fall of Rome” or “The Industrial Revolution,” it will not be an event, but an era in which, most of the time, everything is normal, and life is only occasionally be punctuated by severe events. Only later will historians look back and see the overall trends.

In the meantime, don’t panic. New diseases crop up every year, as old strains mutate or jump from one species to another. Most are not serious. Most of the serious ones are contained quickly, and do not become pandemics. Even in the middle of a pandemic, most people do not get sick, and most people who get sick get better. There’s a small chance you might die from this, but only a very small one. Your chance of dying in the long run, of course, is 100 percent.
Of course wash your hands frequently, consume lots of vitamins, get a mask and keep a few months’ worth of stored food in the pantry. What foods you stock up will depend on your situation, but stock up on a mix of proteins (beans, meat, fish), starches (dried pasta, rice or flour) and vitamins (fruit, vegetables). We have vitamin pills, frozen veg in the freezer, along with root vegetables in the garden. Always keep your food in vermin-proof containers.  Stock up on medicine, soap, toothpaste, bandages and blankets, and have stores of potable water, just in case. If something happens to the water supply, you can make water filters using sand or charcoal, or with ultraviolet light – look up how to do that if you’re interested.

Collect information on what to do if hospitals are full, either for the flu or for anything else that might happen – one very good book on the subject is Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook by Jane Maxwell, Carol Thuman and David Werner. It is used by WHO and UNICEF for their workers in the Third World, and deals with everything from injuries to childbirth. Brush up on traditional treatments – comfrey for headaches, plasters to aid breathing. They won’t cure the flu, but neither will antibiotics.

If all this sounds extreme, keep in mind that most of it will probably not be necessary, but there’s no harm in learning a bit more about these things just in case, for this outbreak or the next one that comes along. Modern medicine has blessed us with a lifespan and health far beyond most people in most places, but we are still mortal, and our modern lifestyles are likely to create new diseases faster. The world’s population has increased from two billion to seven billion in a single lifetime. Air travel has increased exponentially, so diseases that took centuries to travel across the medieval world now spread around the world in hours.
For the time being, we can use this opportunity; this is a good time to spend with family, play board games rather than video games, and catch up on reading books – including, preferably, some written more than a century ago. Right now I’m reading The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose, an academic work that is nonetheless fascinating for showing how extremely poor people created their own schools, libraries and debate societies that transformed their lives, offered a way out of poverty, and gave them something to live for even in the most extreme poverty.

I’m also catching up on old black-and-white movies, many of which have a lot better dialogue and characterisation than today’s blockbusters. Tonight I saw No Highway in the Sky, with Jimmy Stewart and Glynis Johns, and recently watched And Then There Were None, the excellent 1945 version of the Agatha Christie mystery.  

 If you have some staples to hand, you might want to try these filling and nutritious recipes.

Lentil soup
500g dried lentils
One large onion
Three cloves of garlic
Three large potatoes
One carrot
One leek
One stalk of celery
One litre of meat or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Two teaspoons of marjoram
One-fourth of a teaspoon of thyme
One tablespoon of soy sauce
Two tablespoons of cider vinegar
Olive oil

Cut the leeks lengthwise and wash them out well, as grit tends to collect between their layers. Peel and dice the potatoes into bits two centimetres across Chop the onions, leeks, carrots, and celery about a centimetre across.
Pour some olive oil in a pot, and sautee the vegetables until they are soft, and add the potatoes. Add the lentils and stock, and add seasoning. Cook for 30 to 45 minutes until they are tender.
I sometimes add bits of fried meat to the soup for flavour, and serve with crusty bread.

Buttermilk pancakes
1.5 cups of flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1.5 teaspoons of baking powder
0.5 teaspoons of soda
0.5 teaspoons of salt
1.5 cups of buttermilk
Three tablespoons of melted butter
Two large eggs
0.5 teaspoons vanilla

First mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, then the wet ingredients in another bowl. Mix the two bowls together gently – it’s okay if the batter is a bit lumpy.
Melt a pat of butter in a cast iron pan with a few tablespoons of oil, and heat it on high heat – about 180 Centigrade. Pour the batter in from a height of five centimetres and turn the heat to low. Depending on the consistency of the batter it will either spread round by itself of need a little nudge with a spoon.
The first side is done when you see the bubbles rising all over the pancake, and then flip over the pancake. Cook it until the second side is lightly browned.
Pancakes can be kept for a half an hour or so before serving in a preheated oven at 90 degrees centigrade – for extra tenderness, brush them with melted butter.
Leftover pancakes can be allowed to cool, then sealed in an airtight container and frozen for up to one month. When removed they can be reheated by putting them into a microwave, although they tend to toughen a bit; they can also be put into a regular toaster.

Tuesday 25 February 2020

Article published in American Conservative

For those who haven't yet been informed, most of my articles are not moving to the new web site and host of my ongoing projects, Old School School. I'll continue to update this site periodically.

Also, the American Conservative published my breakdown of the Irish election and the rise of Sinn Fein as our newest political force - read all about it here.

I'm continuing to interview elderly Irish about traditional ways of life: you can read the latest part of my interview with Jack here, talking about keeping cows and horses. 

I've also published my interview with my neighbour Angela, talking about a traditional childhood -- you can watch it here.

Finally, Mother Earth News has published my piece on preserving butter in an Irish bog - you can read the article here, watch the video here, and see the piece about it on British television here. It's an hour long, but my piece is mentioned around the 5:45 mark.

Thursday 16 January 2020


Winter sky over Dublin. 
I'm focusing on the new web site, Old School School, for now, but I wanted to let everyone know that I will have some new articles at The American Conservative shortly.

My bog butter article will also be featured on the BBC show QI tomorrow; for those not in the UK area, it will probably be on Youtube soon.

I also have a number of videos up on the Youtube channel, including some excellent interviews with elderly neighbours. Check it out.