Images: E.J. MCADAMS
There is a scene early on in Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 film Germany, Year Zero in which a crowd of people gather around a dead horse and begin to carve off slices of its meat, so desperate are the war-ravaged Berlin population for food to eat. The tragic hero of the movie is told to get lost by a policeman and is chased away to return home with nothing more than a cigarette, the wartime currency. For so many of us war has become an abstraction, and yet more than ever so many of us are suffering from it. Food permeates the reality of war, from rationing for the populations of war afflicted countries to soldier’s kit bags and on to long after the guns have stopped: food and its shortage becomes the enduring, everyday consequence for general populations afflicted by conflict. ‘Food security’ is the technical term WHO use to describe how stable food supplies are for population; at the moment, in many parts of the world, food insecurity is at dangerously high limits.
It is hard not to feel that the summer of 2015 has been a particularly dismal one for humanity, but then that also seems to have a certain contemporary self importance. Humanity is always having a dismal time, and will continue to do so, even at the same time as largely things are improving for a lot of us.
The ability to recall the horse of Rossellini being fought over on a Berlin street is an important act of connecting with those who have become an abstraction, a statistic and this summer, in a series of horrifying images of destitution: refugees and migrants. We are currently undergoing a historical human migration that is seeing more people than ever move across the planet. The uprisings that spread across much of North Africa and the Middle East at the start of this decade, as in the case of Syria, boiled down into a nefarious and intractable conflict that involves regional and international players and has displaced a staggering 12 million Syrians. There has been a tremendous amount of emotional outpouring in the face of the incessant images – this is something to be thankful for in an otherwise constant stream of reasons to despair.
But the question also becomes one of how to act: citizens of the European Union seem to wish to help refugees in an immediate way their governments cannot or are unwilling to; at times on social media one gets the feeling that there almost seems to be an official response from top level government that is out of line with how people on the street feel. Possibly. But there again, there are plenty of people on the street, and not all of them are people I would talk to. The president of the European Commission, effectively the equivalent of a Prime Minister if the EU could ever imagine having a single, executive title such as that, put it nicely in a surprising way, starting his metaphor of what Europe is with a baker. “Europe is the baker in Kos who gives away his bread to hungry and weary souls. Europe is the students in Munich and in Passau who bring clothes for the new arrivals at the train station. Europe is the policeman in Austria who welcomes exhausted refugees upon crossing the border. This is the Europe I want to live in.”
It is an age old problem, that by denying the rights of those who do not belong to your society you in turn undermine the moral make up of that society itself. It’s an insidious line, and not an easy one, but it’s an important one to take: this is the Europe I want to live in, this is the world I want to live in. And yet what are we to do with the wars that started the present crisis? What to do about the climate change that has affectively made what was once habitable regions in the Middle East increasingly not fit for human habitation, especially with infrastructure that is ruined by fighting forces operating far outside the pale of any convention? (more details)
I think everyone got a jolt from the images of not only Aylan Kurdi laying dead washed up on the shoreline, but also from Petra László, the Hungarian journalist filming refugees for a right wing TV station, kicking Osama Abdul Mohsen and his son. There is mirthless irony in that he was carrying a Bio-macht-schön plastic bag, emanating from Austria as part of a Green party initiative encouraging the consummation of bio food products. Another reminder of a luxury you can’t really afford if you have decided to up and leave your home and everything dear to you. All you can afford to bring with you can fit into a plastic bag and i think that is very hard to imagine for a lot of the citizens of the European Union.
I started writing this text in Europe and I am finishing it up in New York City and one of the things that always catches my attention when I am here are the signs that advertise storage. Personal storage units ring the city. They are where all the stuff of a consuming life go, when your home is no longer large enough to house all the plastic dross you accumulate over the years. I always sit on the way in from JFK and dwell on this because I know that there must be a meaning to all this advertised personal storage and yet it eludes me. Perhaps it’s the summation of a life led in consummate luxury, or it is merely the result of a life lived fully, but full of things best kept out of sight. It also turns out I’m in New York at the same time as Pope Francis and the United Nations General Assembly is convening. I wander the streets and consider all the world leaders convening on the island, the history that the city embodies so boldly, so indifferently. I’ve gotten into the habit of ordering BLTs in corner stores, the more grime-encrusted their kitchens the better for I like the ability to afford being able to accept the city and all it has to throw my way. I eat these stuffed bagels walking down the street and I think how many people have come from many moments of struggle, or indeed struggling as they were coerced here, to form this plenitude of bustle and grim, potential and progress. It’s so full here that parts of people’s lives have to be put into storage. War is an abstraction and for all the talk in the UN’s General Assembly hall uptown the realities seem far away and distant. The light changes and the traffic stops. Stand clear of the closing doors please. I think how bagels are themselves vestiges of a people forced to move and take with them their way of cooking and eating. Our everyday actions are full of the disclosures of war and people fleeing it, its wrapped up in each one of us, and I think in my aimless wandering that we just need the resolve to see it as such.