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Conor Cruise O'Brien discusses Africa

BROADCAST: Apr. 29, 1965 | DURATION: 00:28:38


Conor Cruise O'Brien discusses the culture and political state of Africa and his experiences with journalism in African countries including Congo and Ghana.


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Studs Terkel I think one of the remarkable scholars of our time, I think who's too little known in America but I trust will be better known, is Conor Cruise O'Brien. Who has, seems to have, a foot in, to mix a metaphor, a foot in two cultures. One in Ireland and its culture, one Africa and its many cultures. He's a chancellor of University of Ghana in Accra. He's here for the Yeats festival at Northwestern University. It would occur to me, Mr. O'Brien, the most natural phrase since you're involved so directly with two different worlds and yet the same world. The Yeats line, a terrible beauty has been born, would apply to both Ireland and Africa, wouldn't it?

Conor Cruise O'Brien [chuckle] Well, I don't know. It might. There's a phrase which somebody used of having a foot in both graves [chuckle].

Studs Terkel [chuckle].

Conor Cruise O'Brien I don't know whether that applies either. These of course are very disparate interests but they are, there are some things in common you know some common elements. We in Ireland are very very concerned with and haunted by our own struggle for independence and in Africa all around us we see a stage, a certain stage, of a process which we think we know about. Of course we find out the differences as we go along. It is an interesting process.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking about perhaps the just well, just a bit on the similarities and in a way the the tradition of both, seemingly.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Well.

Studs Terkel Different yet so similar.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Well, I'll tell you one similarity is this that the country like say Ireland or the Gold Coast, I'm now taking points in common, there are many points of great difference, but both were under foreign rule for quite a long time and in both a sort of attitude of mind grew up of blaming everything that was wrong on the foreign ruler. Often with much justice. But then when independence comes you find that this will no longer do. You're out on your own. The problems are new and the psychologies also begin to change. It's no longer enough to blame other people. You have to start looking at yourself pretty hard.

Studs Terkel Is it a question then of digging into your own resources? I was wondering, thinking now Ireland during its fight for independence literature flowered and also wasn't that digging deep deep into a past? Isn't this so in the case of many African, new African countries, too? Digging into the.

Conor Cruise O'Brien This is so, and of course in Africa this thing is particularly moving because the Africans were told that they had no past. This was because the written records in relation to Africa were sparse and not well known, especially not well known in the West and missionary teachers in Africa, who in many fields did a great deal of good and who in West Africa are very much loved by the people; nonetheless, were at fault in this particular issue because they tended to tell African children your own past is nothing. You have no past. It was just bare and savage. We are now bringing you a past, our past. Though, naturally no human being will really stand there to be told that all his own ancestors were nothing. With the result that we have this growing interest in African art, African music, a realization of the very precious and long tradition that is involved in this. And then an interrogation of African archaeology and a search for written materials which, though sparse, are more present than Europeans have known. There are, for example, in West Africa, as we now find my university is doing research in this field, written records of non-European origin going back to the 17th century; mainly Arabic and or Arab influenced and mainly in the Muslim parts of West Africa, but quite an important tradition a chronicled tradition and one which is beginning to shed great light on the African past. This is an exciting.

Studs Terkel Sounds tremendous. I suppose this was buried when the slave trade itself, I suppose in the 16th century or so, but later began isn't it when when the Africans became the thing, the chattel? And I suppose

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes, that that is right. And there was a need, even from the beginning Europeans felt the need to justify themselves about the slave trade. And the only way of justifying it was to say these people are not quite human. This is not a wicked action as it would be if we did it to one of ourselves. It's not wicked because they're not human. They have no past. And this, this attitude has not entirely died out. I'm afraid it's still present in the European psyche and it's very important that progress should be made in Europe.

Studs Terkel When you say European psyche, I think we should include the western hemisphere as well [chuckle].

Conor Cruise O'Brien I'm afraid so. I'm afraid we're all in this boat.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking about yourself, Mr. O'Brien. Dr. O'Brien, your interest how did this come about? I'll ask about Ireland too in a moment, but the interest say in this seemingly exotic culture.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Well, I was a member of the Irish Foreign Service and in that capacity went for many years as a delegate to the United Nations and became very much involved and interested in the peculiar parliamentary diplomacy of this institution. I came to know many of the Afro-Asian delegates and came to appreciate and in many ways to share some of their points of view. Finding myself in increasing divergence from some of my European and American colleagues on this matter. Then Mr. Hammarskjold asked me to go to Katanga in the Congo to represent the UN there. And I did that. There I became very involved in the Congo business. That's a long story.

Studs Terkel To Katanga And Back, of course is the.

Conor Cruise O'Brien That's right. The book my book is called To Katanga And Back. It's a very long story and I wouldn't wish to go over it all again. But that began my involvement in Africa specifically.

Studs Terkel May I just just add parenthetically though this may be a long story. Mr. O'Brien's account here so violet it would seem today and clarifying so many issues that become almost deliberately nebulous It would seem.

Conor Cruise O'Brien [chuckle] I'm afraid that's so.

Studs Terkel Isn't that so?

Conor Cruise O'Brien I'm afraid that's so.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking about, so as a result of the mission.

Conor Cruise O'Brien As a result, then when I felt that what I had seen and participated in Katanga was so important and involved such big issues that I should become free to tell it. For that reason I left not only the UN service, but the foreign service of my own country. Not that I had any subject of quarrel with my own country or its government. Very far from it, but just that as an Irish civil servant I wouldn't have been free to tell this story and I wanted very badly to tell it. So I left and I told that story and while I was writing it I was invited to Ghana to become head of the university there, and I've been there now for nearly three years. I am leaving there at the end of the present year.

Studs Terkel Occurs to me three years you and you did know W.E.B. Du Bois?

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes, [ice tinkling] I had the pleasure and the honor of knowing W.E.B Du Bois in his last years. His last year, the last year of life and I conferred an honorary degree on him, indeed, in Ghana just on his last birthday which was I believe his 96 birthday. He was physically very feeble when I knew him, but he kept his clarity of mind to the end. He spoke very little, very sparingly, and always to the point. I remember in his house we were discussing one evening, his wife, myself, some friends, the question.

Studs Terkel Shirley Graham.

Conor Cruise O'Brien That's right. Shirley Graham. We were discussing the merit of the case and his attempts at that time to get into the University of Mississippi. And we were discussing it in the usual way saying the usual things. People expressed indignation about it and so on. Du Bois sat there without moving a muscle and after a little while he suddenly spoke. Just one sentence. He said this, the only thing I can't understand is why anyone would want to go to the University of Mississippi [laughter].

Studs Terkel [laughter] To the point. I suppose he was working on, this comes back again to this black African, and the yearning to find out the true sources of his culture and everything. Du Bois was working on an encyclopedia, was he not?

Conor Cruise O'Brien Well, he was. He was in charge of that project, but I mean he was a man of 96.

Studs Terkel Yes.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Even a Du Bois of 96 can't.

Studs Terkel Yes.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Be expected to do a great deal about that. He was rather, by this stage, a symbolic figure. He looked rather like, and reminded me in some ways of, a Southern Colonel out of Faulkner. He had a an old.

Studs Terkel Goatee.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes, that's right. And the sort of consciously and convincingly aristocratic air. He was a natural aristocrat and he knew it. And he had quite an 18th century residence.

Studs Terkel There was this great irony of your comment, like a Southern Colonel. Indeed he did, as we know of course. The mixing of the peoples was so much part of the Southern culture. So the deeper kernels of light dark skinned who were white [unintelligible].

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes, yes, yes. That's true. I remember also talking with him about Booker T. Washington, asking about that referring to the controversies. Which was the only time I heard him speak at any length and what he said was very interesting too. He said you know I'm depicted in history as the opposing figure, anti Booker T. Washington. That he was supposed to be a stooge and I was supposed to be a rebel. He said it wasn't as simple as that. He said, I was born in the north I had a long heritage of freedom behind me and I could say certain things. Washington was born in slavery. He had the marks of the lash on his back and he was working inside the South. He did his best for our people in the setting of his time and where he was, as I did in a different setting, and that's what I would like to be understood and remembered. And I thought was very fine.

Studs Terkel Yes, he had tremendous compassion and understanding.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes. Yes.

Studs Terkel Of this particular man, Washington. I think, I know that you can't say too much about Ghana [unintelligible] because of diplomatic matters involved. But however literacy and education, ever since independence I suppose all the new African nations this there must be tremendous drive towards literacy, isn't there?

Conor Cruise O'Brien There is, indeed. And of course Ghana has a relatively high level of literacy and also quite a large number of good secondary schools and has had for a number of years. We have at the university, and this is one of three universities, 1800 students and we're beginning to turn out to graduates at a rate of about 500 a year. If you compare that with the Congo the number of graduates for the whole of the Congo, on Independence Day was, I believe, something of the order of 14 for the whole Congo, 13 million people. So I think people don't always realize the very big gaps that there are between the African countries, between the levels of development. And let it be said also between the records of given European powers. As an Irishman I'm not automatically pro-British, shall we say, but.

Studs Terkel [chuckle].

Conor Cruise O'Brien [chuckle] In the in West Africa at least it must be confessed that they have relatively good record and left good will behind them which unfortunately is not so in the ex-Belgian Congo, as they say.

Studs Terkel Of course this brings to mind a piece I know you know back in nineteen-five by Mark Twain called "King Leopold's Soliloquy".

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yeah, I just read it. I just read it six months ago. It's largely based on E.D. Morel's "Red Rubber" and on Casement's revelations.

Studs Terkel So it's a long history is it not of.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Indeed.

Studs Terkel Our democratic little ally.

Conor Cruise O'Brien [chuckle].

Studs Terkel Poor little [bee?]. When we come back perhaps, Mr. O'Brien, I think I think that a number of listeners may be acquainted with Mr. O'Brien through two quite remarkable book reviews he wrote for The New York Review of Books, a very lively publication. One was a review of Whittaker Chambers' "Cold Friday" and was headed "The Perjured Saint", and the other was a review of a book a recent biography that you liked of Queen Victoria and the phrase occurred to me that these two people had some sort of impact on their times. One seemed to impose a code of morality [unintelligible] that priggish though it was, was a code of morality the other seemed part of a code of immorality that too was priggish [chuckle].

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes, yes I think so. Well as between the, as between Queen Victoria and Whittaker Chambers, although I'm no great fan of Queen Victoria.

Studs Terkel [laughter].

Conor Cruise O'Brien I'm I am for her [laughter].

Studs Terkel Yes.

Conor Cruise O'Brien And for that kind of morality as against this kind of immorality. I mean I think there has been a certain declension in standards there. I think from the Chambers, his case one thing is clear. Chambers did perjure himself. He perjured himself either when he said he did not engage in espionage or when he said he did with Hiss. In one, in either case it's certain that he committed perjury and this of course cast, or should cast a great doubt on the value of his evidence as a whole. But people, very respectable people, like Miss Rebecca West, have been able to pass over this and to accept it as a mystical phenomenon. And I think this is extremely unhealthy that the acceptance of lies when they're convenient. The acceptance of this by society as a whole is a bad thing and the Victorian hypocrisy was at least better in that regard. They were shocked if someone was caught out telling a lie. To be caught out was of course the decisive part of it, admittedly.

Studs Terkel Caught at.

Conor Cruise O'Brien But we're no longer shocked even when they're caught out.

Studs Terkel I think this this point perhaps is worth dwelling on just a bit. This is beyond a man named Whittaker Chambers or beyond any single person. A certain Margaret Halsey called it the pseudo-ethic. A little book she wrote called the pseudo-ethic in which this case was a factor. But beyond this the acceptance of venality as pretty much a way of life whether to deal with man to man or nation to nation standards. Do you find this?

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes I think so. I mean I think there's been a shift from a mixture of hypocrisy and [door closing] naivete in the last century to a relaxed kind of cynicism in this. Of course they behave that way. What way would you expect them to behave? [pause in recording]

Studs Terkel The point you make, Dr. O'Brien, that this point that it's what else can you expect if corruption itself becomes cynically casually accepted. We it seems the developed countries, speak in a patronizing way of helping the underdeveloped countries, and in a material sense this is true, but isn't there something they can teach us?

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes, well I think there's something that the peoples of the country [ice tinkling] in particular can teach us. I think paradoxically, it will seem paradoxical to many people, but I think the peoples of Africa, if you learn this from contact with them not by reading about them, could teach Europeans and perhaps Americans quite a lot about kindness and you know decency towards strangers specifically. I know this is not the classical picture of Africa torn by tribal strife where everybody is supposed to be speared as soon as they show their face, but that is a very distorted image indeed. I have traveled now a great deal in Africa [clock ticking] with my family and we've had experiences like breaking down, our car breaking down in the bush, many many miles away from anywhere, and walking across country with nothing except our dirty faces and appearance, coming to a village and being received with immediate kindness, helped on towards the next village and so on with nowhere anything but the greatest kindness. I realize this would not be so in a disturbed area, if we were to promenade across certain parts of the Congo today in the panic hysteria and fear which prevails there, and for which white people bear a very great part of the responsibility, our reception would have been different. But among Africans and in an African society, where their experience with white people has been a reasonable and decent one, their response is one of an unmitigated kindness to the stranger. I wish I could think that in my own country if I showed up with a black face in a village where I'd never been seen before. I would be treated as well as showing up with a white face in a black village where I was never seen before.

Studs Terkel It would seem, it would seem that since you carry a typewriter or a camera in your automobile, you carry a gun. Perhaps so often we've carried guns.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes, that is true. That is true, and this is the case of the Congo where the European has been known as a man who shows up with a punitive force to get you to part with the rubber or to work for nothing.

Studs Terkel Yes.

Conor Cruise O'Brien And if you don't work causes you to be beaten or tortured or killed. Well, even African patience wears thin.

Studs Terkel [chuckle].

Conor Cruise O'Brien But the trouble is in European, and to some extent an American reporting of Africa, the ordinary European or American easily forgets everything that he has done to the African. But if the African does something to a European that's murder.

Studs Terkel Since you've mentioned this, the kind of, it's interesting, I think now of your review again of the Langford book and Queen Victoria and you spoke of two different values. Though she was an imperialistic symbol, certainly, her attitude. There were atrocities, as indeed the English committed many atrocities toward the Indians, but there was an Indian Mutiny and there were some atrocities toward the British and there was a furor in Britain and she stuck up for the Indians. She tried to avoid hysteria and you spoke of this in contrast to the recent hysteria involving the Congo.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes, yes this is true. The Queen on this occasion kept her head more than the majority of us subjects who were clamoring for mass reprisals. She came out against it and distinguishing between the ordinary Indian people and those who had been guilty of the crimes and in general raised a voice for common sense which was rare in that time and is not any less rare now. I only wish she had shown the same compassion and interest in her dealings with Ireland, but that's another matter.

Studs Terkel Now I think [ice tinkling] about this matter of the double standard involved. The recent, the recent furor involving Congolese atrocities, indeed there were, but I think the forgetfulness it seems of decades and decades and decades of it the other way as though each one life is of less value than the other life.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Exactly, and I mean I'm afraid that is the unstated premise of most European and American reporting on the Congo. The people who write it and read it don't even formulate this to themselves, but that's what they think. I remember in the Congo hearing a very striking formulation of this. It was at a time when Tshombe's people, who are of course European controlled, had beaten and tortured some of their enemies who had taken refuge with the UN. I was at that time in charge of the UN operation in Katanga, and I wanted to show the press what had been going on and I, they were a bit skeptical had these things really happened, so I said well, here's a man who has been flogged, savagely flogged, while you're taking photographs of Europeans with blank eyes, why don't you take a photograph of this African? So the photographer said, and it was a technical observation and perhaps true but it's also true in a wider sense, he said [wheels?] don't show on a black back.

Studs Terkel [chuckle] That's a give away.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yeah, isn't it.

Studs Terkel [Wheels?] don't show on my black back. Because I must say that America, perhaps should be [chuckle] proud of our particular way in Vietnam, we're not afraid to show atrocities committed here. That's a new development by the way. Even Graham Greene has mentioned this recently.

Conor Cruise O'Brien This is a staggering thing. I mean we, many of us who have followed this have been astonished by these these terrible pictures, which seem to be put out with the utmost complacency as if they were something to be proud of.

Studs Terkel I.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Again, again Queen Victoria would have been shocked. I think she would have been right.

Studs Terkel I wonder if this isn't connected with the comment you made earlier about the casual acceptance, just as venality becomes accepted then the dehumanization must set in.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes, well I was just reading Simone de Beauvoir's last book.

Studs Terkel The Force Of Circumstance.

Conor Cruise O'Brien The Force of Circumstance, and she's speaking about the Algerian War and of bringing forward to a group of people proof, definite proof, that torture was regularly being committed by the French forces in Algeria at that time. She expected to be received with skepticism and denials which would have been so earlier. But instead she realized as she says something much more horrible. Everyone knew it was true and nobody gave a damn. I mean this is the hardening the callousness which is setting in. It's not new in history and it's not irreversible but it's very present in this part of the 20th century much more present than it would have been a hundred years ago.

Studs Terkel And this is the land of the Marseillaise [chuckle].

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes. Alas alas.

Studs Terkel Of course we've talked, this is rather incredible to speak to a man named O'Brien only about Africa.

Conor Cruise O'Brien [chuckle].

Studs Terkel And not to touch so much Ireland itself. You're here for the Yeats festival, of course.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Ireland is in the happy position of not making news at the moment, which I think is a good thing.

Studs Terkel But Ireland and literature and, oh one [unintelligible] before we leave Africa. Is there an upsurge of writing too of African, black African, writers too?

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes, there's some very interesting African writing going on mainly in Nigeria and in South Africa. The, I think, the probably one of the best known and one of the best of these writers is Chinua Achebe of Nigeria whose, much of whose, writing has been dealing with the problem of the African coming from the village and changing to the values of the of the city. It's, if you like, banal if you put it in summary like that, but it isn't banal because of the sensitivity with which he tells it, and his range of reference. This extraordinarily wide range of reference to the very ancient type of village which you have in Africa right through this to the most contemporary forms of civilization. It gives him a span and I think makes him in some ways more fully a human being than those of us who are more limited to one type of culture can be. Europeans it seems to me in commenting on this phenomenon have always stressed the terrible strain, what a strain it must be Mr. so-and-so to come from your Bush village here to Oxford. It is a strain but it can be a creative strain and Chinua Achebe has shown that it can be. And this is another part of what the so-called under developed can help to contribute.

Studs Terkel And teach. Isn't this an interesting, an interesting challenge here not so much, isn't a challenge here to, what were the industrialization that is bound to ensue the technological developments is a danger. I know this may [knocking sound] sound romantic. Is it a danger of a loss of certain values too?

Conor Cruise O'Brien Well, of course there is. I mean I suppose humanity all through history.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Has been losing things [horn honks] and picking up other things. But the fact is that Africa today is so so remote [tapping] from generalized industrialization. So remote from anything [tapping] like what we have here, for example, that the process will be a different one and will be a new part of the enrichment of the human experience and a very big part for this time.

Studs Terkel The process will be different.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yeah.

Studs Terkel In short than this experience you spoke of a Achebe. This matter of the village and the urban community both the fusion and the man, a new kind of man indeed might develop possibly.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Well, I think so. Though I'm always a bit [cherry?] of the new kind of man.

Studs Terkel Yeah yeah, I know. The new kind of man is a [threatening frukus?]

Conor Cruise O'Brien God knows the only kind of man was bad enough [laughter].

Studs Terkel [Laughter] But.

Conor Cruise O'Brien But I would, I would speak in terms of an enrichment of human experience [squeaking]. A making of, if you like, conscious contacts with different parts and sometimes more remote parts of the human past. [Southre?] I think and others have drawn attention to the fact that an anachronism may be a source of strength. By being able to reach out back you may be able to contribute something now to the present and make the world a richer and more varied place.

Studs Terkel So being a multidimensional man in a way instead of the monolithic [door slams].

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes, that's right. I mean there's, as we all know it's perhaps been too much played up, there is a tendency for industrial civilization to produce a stamped product. It's appropriate I think to quote Yeats on this, "I am in fear that times may bring approved patterns of women and of men but not that self-same excellence again". Referring to the excellence which he recognized in a sort of aristocratic and rather medieval culture.

Studs Terkel Yes, Perhaps one last question I know that you have several other engagements here, Mr. O'Brien. This of course has been a privilege for me and I know for the listeners. I've been wanting to meet you for a long time. Not beginnings of Conor Cruise O'Brien. How you came. What led boy. Not so much your autobiography. Where from, was it from Dublin you yourself?

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes. I was entirely brought up in Dublin and I went to Trinity College-Dublin, did my degrees there in modern literature and modern history and then I went into the Irish Foreign Service. Where I spent the next twenty years of my life during which time I wrote a couple of books and also participated in this UN experience. I have criticized the UN, but I'd like to say that for a country to enter the UN I believe is a stimulating experience for it in itself. It takes it out of the kind of rut in which it was and certainly Ireland in the years after the Second World War had got itself into a tremendous rut constantly brooding on its own problems. Coming into the UN gave a breath of new air. I think it was very good, for example, for Ireland to send a contingent, a military contingent, to the Congo and has changed people's perspective and enriched them. That Ireland has learned more from the Congo than it would have expected of learn [chuckle] I think [chuckle].

Studs Terkel So perhaps we can end with the phrase, another Yeatsian phrase, there that Mr O'Brien is there. He's not only being witness he's bearing witness to the fact that terrible beauties are indeed being born.

Conor Cruise O'Brien Yes, well I think that's, that is happening around us. There was a new galaxy born the other day I believe and this happens on Earth too.

Studs Terkel Thank you very much indeed. Conor Cruise O'Brien.