Actions speak louder than words in war against racism


Some lines from a poem called Incantation by the Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz express the fundamental beliefs upon which the fight against racism must be based: Human reason is beautiful and invincible/No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,/No sentence of banishment can prevail against it/It puts what should be above things as they are/It does not know Jew from Greek nor slave from master.

It is thrilling to hear the ideal possibilities of human life stated so unambiguously. For a moment, the dirty slate of history seems to have been wiped clean. The lines return us to the bliss of beginnings. They tempt us to credit all over again liberations promised by the Enlightenment and harmonies envisaged by the scholastics, to believe the deep well of religious and humanist value may still be unpolluted.

Yet there is also something problematic about what is being said. While the lines do have original force and proclaim the principles upon which a universal declaration of human rights must be founded, the evidence of the ages is clearly stacked against them.

They appear to ignore the terrible historical reality of imperial conquest, crusade, religious war, colonial desecration, slavery, genocide, holocaust, apartheid, civil and ethnic violence.

So it comes as no surprise to be told that in the original Polish, there is a certain frantic, even comic pitch to the metre and the tone on Incantation. Milosz's irony, in other words, saves him and his poem from illusion and sentimentality; the tragic understanding that co-exists with the apparent innocence of his claims only makes those claims all the more unyielding and indispensable.

In the course of the past century, imaginative writers have grown more and more conscious of the darker levels to which human beings can descend, yet their art remains answerable to "what should be" as well as to "things as they are".

This means, I believe, that the example of writers has something to say to all who campaign against racism at present. Activists have different priorities from artists, but they too are forced to acknowledge the prevalence of the atrocious while maintaining faith in the possibility of the desired.

Such campaigners would be in total sympathy with another famous utterance by Milosz. What is poetry, he asks elsewhere, which does not save/Nations and peoples? It is a question that concerns what I myself once called "the redress of poetry", by which I mean the need poets feel to align themselves with those who have been wronged, to repair and compensate for injustices suffered, to stay mindful of the miseries of the world.

It is the serious artist's question to himself and the question he will usually hear when he comes in contact with the activist. And it is a question he will answer by posing another one: "What is poetry that does not address itself to the individual consciousness, that does not convey an experience of verification at the personal level?"

The fight against racism, in other words, must be waged at governmental level, as a highly organised, internationally co-ordinated, deliberately pursued effort of education and legislation. Nations and peoples must be recognised and represented equally, must be "saved" by just laws and civilised treatment. Action, rather than words, is desperately called for.

Nevertheless, the fight is also helped by every statement that strengthens an individual's moral sense and gratifies his or her sense of right, every utterance that reawakens the feeling of personal dignity or promotes a trust in human solidarity.

Much of the literature of the past century, for example, is a de profundis on behalf of the desperate and the deprived in gulag, ghetto, township or camp, but in spite of its desolate content, that literature has nevertheless been a positive influence: it has had the paradoxical effect of raising spirits and creating hope.

We need only say the name Solzhenitzyn to remind ourselves how the integrity of an individual writer can underwrite a whole culture of resolution and resistance. It can even underwrite a new idiom of affirmation, such as the one employed in the UN's Visionary Declaration, "Tolerance and Diversity : A Vision for the 21st Century", a document initiated by Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

The thrust of the document is strong and direct: "The horrors of racism - from slavery to holocaust to apartheid to ethnic cleansing - have deeply wounded the victim and debased the perpetrator. These horrors are still with us in various forms. It is now time to confront them and to take comprehensive measures against them."

The document further declares, "We all constitute one human family", and goes on to assert a new scientific basis for this belief by invoking the proof of common humanity afforded by the mapping of the human genome.

And yet the scientific reinforcement of the argument remains just that: reinforcement. Its primary strength comes from moral and philosophical sources, from the witness of heroic individuals to the belief that human reason is indeed beautiful and invincible.

The fact that the patron of the declaration is Nelson Mandela immediately gives it a kind of moral specific gravity. The name Mandela, like the name Solzhenitzyn, is the equivalent of a human gold reserve, a guarantee that the currency of good speech can be backed up by the resource of heroic action. There is nothing loose-mouthed involved. When Mandela's writing rises to a noble statement, that statement has been earned. It has behind it the full weight of a life endured for the sake of the principles it affirms.

Consequently, there is genuine healing power rather than mere rhetorical uplift in Mandela's espousal of the aims of the Durban Conference, and the conference could well adopt as its sacred text something he wrote in his book, Long Walk to Freedom: "It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, black and white. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken away from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity."

These lines, like the ones I quoted from Incantation, have a radiance that is only enhanced by the tragic knowledge behind them. The man who wrote them might well be called an activist but he has a visionary understanding, and would surely agree with the conviction that sustains Milosz's poem. It too could be adopted as a text by all who travel to Durban, all who are guided by reason to: write Truth and Justice/With capital letters, lie and oppression with small. For such people, there is nothing improbable about the poem's luminous conclusion:

Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia

And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.

As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth.

The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.

Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.

Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.