Laughing in the Face of Adversity

Argus title : In praise of rabbits who keep going back for carrots

My columns have been a bit depressing of recent weeks. People say they like them, but far too many have told me that they’ve also made them cry. I’ve dealt with some challenging topics – rape, child abuse, mental illness, death and destitution – and all within a very short time.

It seems even my photograph has unsettled some people. Six women (but oddly enough no men) have told me it makes me look “grim” and that I “ought to change it”. Three of them told me it “adds 10 years to me”. That gave me pause for thought, particularly given that it was taken 2 years ago.

I asked my husband what I should do and he said helpfully “Don’t change anything”. I asked my daughter and she said “Tell them some jokes”.

So I decided I’d do just that.

A rabbit walks into a shop one day and says to the man behind the counter, “Got any carrots?” The man replies “No, I don’t have any carrots. This is a cheese shop.” “Oh all right then” says the rabbit and hops out of the shop.

Next day the rabbit comes back to the shop and says “Got any carrots?” The shop keeper looks a bit disconcerted and says “I told you yesterday, I don’t have any carrots. I just sell cheese.” “OK” says the rabbit.

Next day the rabbit returns to the shop and says “Got any carrots?” By now the shop keeper’s getting irritated so he says quite sharply “Look it doesn’t matter how many times you ask you won’t get carrots. I sell cheese.”

Next day the Rabbit comes back and asks “Got any carrots? Now the shopkeeper’s really annoyed. He shouts at the Rabbit “Look you flop-eared idiot I’ve told you I can’t sell you carrots. If you come back again annoying me I swear I’m going to nail your ears to this counter.”

The next day the rabbit comes in, looking a bit nervous, and asks “Got any nails?” “No” says the shopkeeper. “Good” says the rabbit “In that case, got any carrots?”

All good jokes describe the human condition and – by making us laugh – help us to bear the bad bits. This joke could be interpreted in different ways, but I think it’s about courage and persistence.

When we’re small most of us are like the rabbit, but we learn differently over the years. So in adulthood, when someone tells us there are no carrots, we just accept it.

But, there are other people who, apparently against all reason, go back and back asking for what they need rather than what’s on offer. That isn’t because they’re stupid, but because they know what’s possible.

Deep down we all suspect that the ‘shop keepers’, whether they be captains of industry or politicians, multi-national corporations or governments could provide what humanity needs if they really wanted to. They don’t have to peddle lies, oil, war and armaments, when what the people really need is food, education, health care and work.

My old sparring partner Tony Greenstein is something of a rabbit. He’s a carer, a community activist and a volunteer advice giver. He’s also one of Brighton & Hove’s ‘characters’- an atheist, Marxist, ant-Zionist son of a rabbi who has spent most of his adult life struggling against forces far more powerful than himself.

He complains about growing old, but is forever young. A perpetual student, mutter some. A man with ‘chutzpah’, say others. Chutzpah is a word originally used by East European Jews. According to Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish it means “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts’, presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to.”

Sometimes Tony tilts at windmills and occasionally he attacks people and organisations he really shouldn’t. In fact, there are probably many people who have been tempted to (metaphorically) pin his ears to a piece of furniture. Indeed, I am among them.

However most people recognise that, most of the time, Tony fights against real injustices and potent dangers. So people forgive him.

He has combated anti-Semitism and other forms of racism all his adult life and he and the late Rod Fitch played a key role in the seventies and eighties in preventing fascist mobilisation in Brighton & Hove.

He was the prime mover in setting up Brighton & Hove’s Unemployed Workers Centre in Hollingbury and – together with others – founded the Refugee Trust. In 2004, he introduced me to Nada, the Palestinian refugee whose plight touched the hearts of so many Argus readers. And he it was who told me about the 2 destitute Algerian men I wrote about last week.

He nags me to write about immigration and asylum issues far more often than I am able and torments and berates me if I do not.

He can be bad-tempered and foolhardy, but is always courageous. There was one famous incident 20 years ago when, at an anti-fascist rally on the Level, Tony led a ‘charge’ against the National Front (who were safe behind police lines). More prudent fellow activists followed with greater caution and watched in horror as a huge police horse mowed him down. He was knocked unconscious, but got up, dusted himself down, and returned to the protest. He claims the incident has been grossly exaggerated. Probably it was foolhardy. Certainly it was brave.

Bravery and persistence in the face of unequal odds has characterised the campaign to free Omar Deghayes from Guantanamo Bay. Jacky Chase, the co-ordinator of the campaign, and Omar’s family and friends are engaged in a gargantuan struggle with the most powerful political force on earth. Demanding justice from the US government must surely sometimes seem as futile as trying to buy carrots in a cheese shop. And yet they don’t despair.

Neither does Michael Abatan who seeks justice for his murdered brother Jay. Nor Sue who seeks wants answers from local health services about her son Yannick’s tragic death.

Such courage and persistence in the face of all the odds may seem pointless to some, but anyone with historical knowledge will know that it is these small cumulative acts of resistance or defiance which change the world.

When the suffragettes broke windows in Whitehall and were being brutally force fed in Holloway Prison, they probably feared that women would never be able to vote. And yet, within a decade, they were.

At the height of Apartheid’s power, it must often have seemed that resistance was fruitless – particularly when defiance was so brutally crushed. And yet people resisted in their thousands. The prison officers who held Steve Biko claimed that he fought back before he died. It was probably true, for he had chutzpah in abundance. As he lay dying he may have felt that freedom was decades away. And yet, within 15 years of his murder free elections took place in South Africa.

So all things are possible, provided that people resist and organise and don’t lose hope – or their sense of humour.

And so I offer another joke – also about courage and chutzpah in the face of intolerable circumstances. I think it’s one of Rabbi Blue’s.

“A man falls off a cliff. He flails about wildly as he plummets towards the rocks and churning surf below, and catches on to a tiny branch sticking out of the sheer cliff face. As he hangs there his palms slippery with sweat, watching the small branch begin to shred and give way, he begins to pray. He shouts “Please, if there’s anyone up there, help me!” A mighty voice comes down from the sky “My son, have faith. Let go of the branch and I will catch you in the palm of my hand and hold you safe.” The man thinks for a moment and then yells “Is there anyone else up there?”

That one’s for Tony.

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