Saturday, April 29, 2006

"to represent the age"

posted by k

I've just seen the French film (from 1969 but reissued in a new print) L'Armee des Ombres. It's about the French Resistance but doesn't have the usual structure. There's no victory or anticipation of victory at the end. Instead,
the German occupation and Vichy government are well in place.

The film moved me, not just because it's well-made, well-acted and about a dark period of history. It raises questions about how we live now and our relation to our own government.

There are powerful absences in the film. No-one discusses why they resist, although a variety of positions (Communist, Catholic, Gaullist, Royalist) are acknowledged. The need to resist is taken for granted. Disturbingly, those who betray the Resistance are executed without trial. The film's focus is the daily courage of those who live and die anonymously rather than conform to an evil government.

It's a fiction, of course, for all its historical basis, ane the situation is comfortingly extreme. It's not how we live now. If it were, would we notice?

There have already been slips in our ethical assumptions.

Torture is now condoned. Recently, official papers revealed that torture was practised by public servants in Britain, its Empire and its occupied territories after the Second World War. it was concealed for some time. Now that our government is complicit in U.S. government torture (as in rendition flights), it tries to have evidence obtained under torture abroad accepted in British courts.

Justice and law are not equal for all. Anti-Social Behaviour Orders - soon to be extended - allow a kind of personalised law, in which actions that are not illegal for all become criminal for some. Control orders restrict personal liberty in a way that ministers condemned in apartheid South Africa. The power of the courts in these matters and others has been curtailed. Now the government threatens to extend such powers and further to curtail the courts' authority and public justice.

Freedom of speech and freedom to protest are increasingly limited while surveillance of all increases, as if by accident. Protestors and demonstrators are frequently detained (individually or in small groups) - usually out of sight of TV cameras.

Detention without trial is commonplace for asylum seekers - their children are denied the rights all other children have in British law. Fear of detention - or being sent to imprisonment, torture or death - has created a number of people who live illegally, outside the law. (The majority are criminals only because they were forced beyond the law - their lives have become illegal.)

I could go on. When I remember the ethical standards with which I was brought up, I can hardly believe it. Christopher Isherwood's collection of linked sketches, Goodbye to Berlin, ends with Berlin a newly Nazi city. The narrator comments, "Even now, it is hard to believe that any of this really happened." (quotation from memory I'm afraid)

No, we're not living in a state that's the same as Nazi Berlin or occupied France. But if we were, how would we know? And what would we do about it?


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