A feed of recent articles from the independent global media platform openDemocracy’s Section Transformation, which tells the stories of those who are combining personal and social change in order to reimagine their societies.
24 April 2017. To seize back democracy we need carpe diem politics –
We're immersed in one of the most dynamic periods of public protest ever recorded, so let’s seize the day.
Just like economists, political scientists have a poor record of predicting the future, whether it’s the fall of the Berlin Wall, the victory of Trump, or the timing of a UK general election. They might be even less able – or willing – to foresee that a more significant change is on its way: the demise of representative democracy itself.
Across the globe, but particularly in the Western world, we are witnessing the erosion of confidence and trust in government and traditional political parties, a long-term decline in voter turnout, and deteriorating faith in democratic norms. At the same time, anti-system, populist politicians like Marine Le Pen are stepping in to offer apparent solutions to issues where the existing system has seemingly failed to deliver on its promises, ranging from job insecurity and inequality to migration and terrorism.
How can democracy save itself from this impending failure? What would it take to create a new era of progressive democratic renewal?
I believe the best chance we have of moving forward starts with looking back to ancient philosophy. More specifically, at least part of the solution lies in one of the most potent and popular philosophical ideals in Western cultural thought: carpe diem.
Sounds unlikely? Let me explain.
Carpe diem or ‘seize the day’ is a phrase that goes back to the Roman poet Horace. In a poem he wrote in 23 BC he declared that, “Even as we speak, envious time flies past. Seize the day and leave as little as possible for tomorrow.’” Since then his two-word Latin motto has become a dominant cultural meme which generates over 25 million online search results and has spawned imitation catchphrases like the Nike slogan ‘Just Do It’ and the social media hashtag #YOLO (‘you only live once’).
Dig a little deeper, however, and a more nuanced picture begins to emerge. In the process of writing my new book Carpe Diem Regained, I worked with a research team to look at how terms such as ‘carpe diem’ and ‘seize the day’ have been used in everything from contemporary newspapers to Reformation church sermons. After analysing hundreds of original sources going back to the sixteenth century, a fascinating pattern became clear: there have been four essential interpretations of these phrases through the centuries.
The most popular form of carpe diem I call opportunity, which concerns taking windows of opportunity that may never be repeated, whether it’s the career break of a lifetime or the chance to rescue a failing relationship. A second approach is hedonism, where we seize the day through sensory pleasures, from free love to gastronomic exploration. Another is presence, which includes entering the present moment mindfully through methods such as meditation, but also extends to more vigorous activities such as the intense rush of extreme sports or getting entranced in dance. The fourth is spontaneity, which involves throwing plans and routines to the wind and becoming more experimental in the way we live.
I’m the first to admit that this quartet of approaches to seizing the day doesn’t appear very political (although Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election in Britain is an exemplary case of seizing a window of opportunity). Indeed, carpe diem has typically been conceived of as an individualist philosophy applicable to private rather than public life.
In my view, however, there’s also a fifth form of seizing the day: political carpe diem. This is not a term that you’ll find in any political science textbook, but it deserves to be. I define it as a strategy for political change based on mass popular mobilisation which harnesses all four forms of seizing the day and takes them to the collective level in an effort to achieve more influence.
Throughout history we have seen social movements exhibiting and energised by such traits. Take, for instance, the Global Justice Movement in the early noughties, where ‘carnivals against capitalism’ in cities such as Seattle, Genoa and London were full of seize-the-day spirit. They were not just about seizing opportunities on a collective scale, but were full of spontaneous mobilisation that brought protesters into the present moment and displayed plenty of hedonistic revelry alongside serious political intentions. Remember all those activists in pink tutus taunting the police with feather dusters and dancing to the beat of samba bands? That was political carpe diem in action. It’s as if they had Horace whispering in their ears.
In fact, some of the world’s most successful social movements – like the gay rights and women’s movements that emerged in the 1970s – have been fuelled by this political form of carpe diem that echoes the anti-authoritarianism of the medieval carnival tradition. It’s what gives grass-roots activism much of its power and attraction. As the political writer and historian Barbara Ehrenreich points out, “Almost every demonstration I have been on over the years – anti-war, feminist, or for economic justice – has featured some element of the carnivalesque: costumes, music, impromptu dancing, the sharing of food and drink…the urge to transform one’s appearance, to dance outdoors, to mock the powerful and embrace perfect strangers is not easy to suppress.”
But how relevant is political carpe diem today? Can it really help us stand up to the rise of far-right extremism and inject democratic politics with new vigour?
Although contemporary politics is overshadowed by the emergence of anti-system, anti-democratic actors, a more hopeful development is also evident: we are immersed in one of the most dynamic periods of public protest action ever recorded, on a par with momentous periods such as the 1960s.
We may find it hard to notice this as we go about our daily lives, but the evidence is overwhelming. A study at Columbia University of over 800 protests in more than 80 countries revealed a steady rise in the number of mass protests since 2006, with the majority focusing on economic justice and anti-austerity issues. Some have been amongst the largest protests ever known: 37 of them, in countries such as France, India and Chile – gathered crowds of over one million people.
What’s striking about these protests is how many of them display a carpe diem personality. I’m thinking here of movements like Occupy, which in September 2011 spread rapidly from Wall Street to 951 cities in 82 countries. I’m also thinking of the protests of the Podemos citizens’ movement in Spain, which grew out of the carpe diem activism of the Indignados – the indignant ones – who took over the Puerta de Sol in Madrid and other public spaces. Then there’s Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution, and most recently the pink hats of the anti-Trump Women’s March in 2017.
So many of these ‘networked social movements’ as the sociologist Manuel Castells calls them have inherited the carpe diem spirit that goes back to Horace. Of course, not all of them are on the progressive, anti-authoritarian left. On the right the Tea Party also displayed plenty of seize-the-day traits, with their members dressing up in eighteenth-century colonial gear and wearing hats with teabags hanging off them. But the real heartland of carpe diem politics is the new landscape of networked movements fired by the ideals of social justice, democratic values and progressive change.
I believe that today’s grass roots movements, campaigning on issues ranging from far-right extremism to climate change, will boost their possibilities of success if they can tap into the potential of collective carpe diem activism. Yet they face three major challenges.
The first is that carpe diem politics could encourage mobilisation at the expense of organisation. Drawing people onto the streets with clever social media strategies is all very well, but as Paul Mason observes, “horizontalism can stage a great demo, but does not know what it wants”. There is no substitute for the kind of serious grass-roots and neighbourhood organising that has been so vital to successful social movement action in countries like Spain.
A second problem is that they might focus too much on creating community spirit and not enough on challenging the state. This was, perhaps, the fate of the Occupy Movement. Yes, it was successful in catapulting the issue of inequality onto the public agenda through its ‘We are the 99%’ slogan, but Occupy failed to issue concrete demands such as radical tax reforms or new rules limiting corporate funding in politics. They would have had more impact if they’d dropped their ‘Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing’ mantra and adopted a few clear policy aims like the 1970s feminist movement, which campaigned on specific issues like equal pay and reproductive rights.
The final obstacle is that changing politics through social movement action is an undoubtedly challenging pathway compared to traditional routes such as electoral politics. How many of us have gone on marches with tens of thousands of people, only to be completely ignored by the politicians?
Yet we must retain our faith in the power of movements to change the course of history and give participatory substance to the democratic ideal. As the anthropologist and political scientist James Scott reminds us, “the great emancipatory gains for human freedom have not been the result of orderly, institutional procedures, but of disorderly, unpredictable, spontaneous action cracking open the social order from below.”
This is as relevant today as it ever was in the past. If there is any hope of forging a progressive alliance in the upcoming UK general election to confront Theresa May’s blinkered pursuit of Brexit-at-any-cost, then it will take a mass carpe diem movement of citizens on the streets to really make Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party sit up and listen.
Social movement action will never be enough on its own to create change. We need other strategies too, such as cementing social bonds by encouraging traits like empathy, and offering new economic visions to inspire us. But we would also be wise to put our faith in Horace. The moment has come to forge a new democratic era where we shift from the singular carpe diem to the plural carpamus diem – let’s seize the day together.
Roman Krznaric’s new book is Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day.
Click here for an exclusive ‘click essay’ extract from Roman Krznaric’s new book Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day
21 April 2017. What DNA ancestry testing can and can’t tell you –
What are the social justice implications of spitting into a test tube?
More than 20 years ago, my mother and aunt started a process of finding these answers. My mother then was excited to tell me about a man named Cupid, a not-so-distant relative.
The Rev. Cupid Aleyus Whitfield was born in 1868 to Cato and Amanda Whitfield, former slaves of Gen. William Gilchrist of Gadsden County, Florida. When he was about 16 years old, Cupid began teaching at a primary school and became known as one of the leading “colored” teachers in Gadsden County. He married Rebecca Zellene Goodson in 1889, and they had either nine or 14 children, depending on the source consulted.
My mother and aunt learned their father, Charlie Whitfield—my grandfather—was one of Cupid’s grandsons. This is all that I know of my maternal grandfather’s lineage. Of my maternal grandmother’s, I know even less.
Of my paternal family, I knew only my father’s name, and even after I met him in the late 1980s, that was still all that I knew. I never met his mother, father, or his siblings, and did not know their names. He passed away in April 2006, and I didn’t learn about his death until months later. But I still wanted to know more about him. And so I began my search.
Unlike my mother and aunt’s experience of uncovering information to fill in the many blanks in our family tree, I have the privilege of Google, ancestry websites, and DNA testing companies that emerged in the early 2000s. This new technology is revolutionary for folks like me, who want to know not only where they come from but also from whom—genealogical researchers, adoptees searching for family members, and folks tracing family trees, particularly African American families that had been displaced by slavery.
In her decade-long fieldwork to learn how the new technology impacts the way people self-identify, Alondra Nelson, Columbia University professor of sociology, says she found so much more. Her latest book, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome, explores the way in which DNA is being used as a tool for racial reconciliation.
I spoke with Nelson about what DNA science might offer social change.
Zenobia Jeffries: You open your book with the story of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the human rights organization that helps find children who were stolen and illegally adopted after their mothers were killed during the Argentine Dirty War. You later tell how DNA was unsuccessfully used in a reparations case here in the United States. How can science help answer fundamental questions about social justice and equality?
Alondra Nelson: The Argentina story shows us that science can help. In that case you’re talking about grandparents and grandchildren. When you’re doing a match, that sort of genetic line is actually pretty close. When you’re talking about the experience of people of African descent, there’s a gap of hundreds of years; you have a bigger mystery and a technical hurdle because you’re dealing with the history of the slave trade. In post-apartheid Africa, you have families who have not been able to do burial rites for members of their [families] who died in the apartheid struggle. I think to be able to identify the remains of a specific loved one, and to be able to commemorate, bury, and memorialize that person is really powerful. Science can help with that identification, but we need to have some complicated conversations. Science can’t be our moral compass.
Jeffries: What implication does DNA testing have for understanding racial and ethnic identity?
Nelson: It’s complicated. The tests are far from definitive. The companies use different databases and make different kinds of mathematical and statistical assumptions. Those formulas and algorithms are their trade secrets, so they’re under no obligation to share them with other countries. So, what we think about in an academic setting, when you think about something being scientifically valid, it means that you can replicate it, you can verify it; [if] someone else does the same experiment or uses the same genetic sample from you and puts it in their database, they’ll get the same results. With these companies, we don’t have any of those kind of gold standards of what we might consider academic research science.
That said, for communities like African Americans, they are in many cases left without any other way to think about that. Though we have some communities who’ve been able to use food and linguistic ties, like the Gullah/Geechee communities, who link to contemporary Sierra Leone through linguistic ties. But those cases are less common.
And so you have a large swath of people who want to know and who are willing to try different ways of knowing. It can help to the extent that, regardless of whether you’re of African descent, you’ve seen the reality television shows—people get a test, and it gives them sometimes new information, sometimes surprising information, or sometimes it just confirms or underscores what they already thought they knew.
Jeffries: Some tests break down one’s percentage of ethnicity. But does knowing that bring us closer or divide us further when you talk about the struggle toward racial justice?
Nelson: A test that says you’re this percent of this or this percent of that is making not a historical or factual assumption; it’s making a statistical and probabilistic assumption. So, what does it mean if a test says you’re either 100 percent or 30 percent Nigerian? That means they’ve created some algorithm that they assume is 100 percent Nigerian. But what in the world would that be? The history of human history is one of intermixing, intermarriage, intermating.
I use the phrase “genealogical aspirations” because the questions that people have in agreeing to the testing experience sort of shape what it can mean for them. If it’s important for you to know what part Norwegian you are versus what part Russian, then you’re going to be interested in how you slice those things up. But if you’re more interested in whether you’re more European or more bio-geographically mixed, then you have a different read of what the tests are.
For me, what’s important is not so much that these types of tests give you the truth of who you are, your identity, but that they suggest how we have come to think about putting human beings in buckets. None of these categories means anything outside of culture and history.
Jeffries: You say DNA can be used as a tool in the struggle for racial justice. Is using it for genealogical research part of that struggle?
Nelson: Sure. For people of African descent who feel incomplete without having that information about their African ancestry, it becomes very empowering.
Whether we’re talking about genetics or identity, we know that social movements and social activism come out of a sense of empowerment and agency. And like-minded people who feel empowered and outraged about the way things are can change things. That empowerment comes to some through the use of these tests is part of what mobilizes them for social justice issues.
Jeffries: For the companies that own these databases, is there something to be said about the politics of privacy and the ethics of who keeps our DNA?
Nelson: Different companies do different things. Often the consent forms you sign when you do one of these tests look like the consent that you sign when you’re uploading a new operating system—there’s a lot of small words and people don’t really read it. We know, for example, that some companies keep all of your data, because when you’re dealing with millions of genetic markers, the bigger your databases are, the more reliable statistically speaking your findings can be.
And now that some companies are interested, not only in genetic ancestry testing but also in pharmaceutical developments, this data becomes really important. They’re using people’s genetic samples to try to do investigations and for the development of personalized medicine and protocols.
But then you have the new genetic genealogy 2.0 that’s been happening: the ability for people to upload their markers online, to make them available to other geneticists.
On one website you can fill out as much as you can of your family tree and also upload your genetic genealogy results so that other people can see them or people can contact you. On the one hand, there’s two different competing interests here: One is people wanting to know more about their genealogy and their genetic genealogy, which might cause them to reveal information to other people. But then there’s also this real necessary interest in privacy and the desire for privacy.
Someone might think, “Well, I’m just using this to do my genealogy.” But that same data could be used to reveal things about your medical profile or could be used potentially to implicate people in the criminal justice system.
The thing about DNA that’s different from other kinds of data is that it can be useful in all of these different social and political sites—the exact same data, the exact same samples, potentially. That’s where the portability and transitive nature of DNA technology is the concern.
I’m not trying to paint a dystopic future, but I think it’s something to worry about. Genetic data carries a lot of information that can be used simultaneously in a lot of different places for purposes for which people intend it to be used, and purposes that they do not.
This article first appeared in YES! Magazine.
19 April 2017. In praise of melancholia –
Without knowing the extremes of sadness and joy we can never fully know or feel all that life is.
“There is something so enchanting in the smile of melancholy. It is a ray of light in the darkness, a shade between sadness and despair, showing the possibility of consolation.” Leo Tolstoy
What if melancholy can be passed down through generations, not just culturally but at the level of our DNA? Melancholia has long been seen as a key element in artistic inspiration, along with a way of turning pain and sorrow into healing, and ultimately, an acceptance of life’s inescapable emotional sufferings and wounds.
The science of “behavioural epigenetics” is now exploring how this might actually work by studying the ways in which “signals from the environment trigger molecular biological changes that modify what goes on in brain cells.” It’s a controversial idea because up until recently, it was thought that epigenetic information was erased over time, leaving a blank slate for every new generation.
But what if genes that have been influenced by negative environmental factors like famine, conflict, slavery or alcohol abuse could retain some stressful memories that leave molecular scars on our children and grandchildren? The implications would be profound, especially because genetic engineering would be almost irresistible—and that industry has a far from illustrious history.
A recent study by Rachel Yehuda and others at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York on the transmission of stress effects from holocaust survivors to their offspring claims exactly this—that severe psycho-physiological trauma experienced by parents has a measurable impact on the next generation. Stress wasn’t just culturally transmitted through holocaust stories; it was transferred at the level of the molecular biology of the brain.
So could there be positive connections across generations in this way, and if so, could these links be consciously strengthened or created?
Philosophers have long entertained the idea that melancholy and creativity are inter-connected. Friedrich Nietzshe said that the suffering brought on by melancholy—“this evening twilight devil” as he called it—was vital to the mind and soul, even sacred. Suffering and difficulty, he thought, must be embraced, cultivated, and carefully crafted. Not for him the cowardly and numbing reassurance of what he called the “slave morality” of human timidity when faced with pain.
Without some kind of torment present in the soul, nothing of real or lasting value or beauty can be created. Without that dichotomy of emotional experiences; without knowing the extremes of sadness and joy, we can never fully know or feel all that life is. Similarly, Soren Kierkegaard wrote that melancholy was his “intimate confidant,” his “most faithful mistress,” and a place where he found “bliss.” Like Nietzsche, he thought that the suffering brought on by angst—melancholia’s more animated cousin you might say—was a necessary prerequisite for creativity.
Indigenous and shamanic cultures such as that of Aboriginal Australia have no problem in believing that melancholy and other experiences among our ancestors can shape our current reality for good and ill, and that in some way we can be psychically healed in the here and now by understanding this relationship. Aboriginal culture believes that the spirits of our ancestors reside in the crevices and caves of holy mountains, and that the hum of the wind, if understood and interpreted correctly, will reveal messages and signs from the dead.
Shamans, Sufi mystics and other ‘psycho-spiritual travellers’ have always played a highly-revered cultural and spiritual role as avatars who expand their ordinary consciousness through rhythmic dancing, hypnotic drumming or ingesting psychoactive substances, and who break through into suspended time or “dreamtime.” In doing so, they can act as a bridge between what is perceived as ordinary reality and other non-ordinary transpersonal realms.
As a result, the ‘wounded healer’—the great global archetype associated with visionary shamanism as a person with acute mental perceptions—is able to ‘bring back’ knowledge and wisdom from outside of our ordinary, three-dimensional, linear space and time. The goal of bringing back this wisdom from dreamtime is to heal and regenerate all of the community on both a spiritual and a societal level. Entering dreamtime is understood as a deeply creative act.
In the Buddhist tradition, Avalokiteshvara, the “Buddha to be” who is worshipped in both male and female forms has vowed to postpone enlightenment until s/he has released all sentient beings from Dukkha, the Sanskrit word for suffering. Suffering in Buddhism is understood as one of the four great Noble Truths. In the Fire Sermons, preached over two and half thousand years ago, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, said that we live with delusion or avidya caused by suffering, and as a result we are “burning:”
“The mind is burning, ideas are burning, mind-consciousness is burning … Burning with what? I say it is burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs.”
Hence, suffering and the sadness it brings is a universal part of human experience—a visceral part of who we are at our very core. We can run from this truth if we want to, but it will catch up with us in the end. There is no hiding place, and no amount of 21st century consumption or other distractions will douse our burnings.
Melancholy is a particular kind of sadness, an emotion born of suffering but reflective rather than creating a debilitating depression. It lies somewhere “in the shade between sadness and despair” as Leo Tolstoy put it, “where the possibility of consolation might lie.” Melancholy also has a faint quality of mourning, even a kind of grief, but for what? Our lost innocence? All that is lost in the past, and all that will be lost in the future? The human condition is full of bewilderment, misunderstanding, loss and grief because we will lose the people we love, and because things will not work out in the ways we want, so mourning and regret are inevitable.
As Susan Sontag memorably noted, depression is melancholy minus the charms. Depression paralyses, inflicts inertia and often steals our ability to function; whereas melancholy can act as a creative spur, building a hard won modicum of self-knowledge to draw on. Depression closes out the world and reduces our experiences to the claustrophobic confines of our own heads; whereas paradoxically, melancholy can open up these claustrophobic walls to acceptance and self-knowledge.
If we are to stay sane in the world we must actively seek out this kind of melancholy, for if we don’t we won’t be able to understand ourselves fully. We risk one-dimensionality and superficiality—two of the many curses brought on by 21st century capitalism. This cannot be self-indulgent, nor just another excuse to inflict even more pain on our ‘guilty,’ ‘undeserving’ and unexamined selves.
Thankfully, great art can console us, particularly great music. Music is surely our greatest medium of expression, and if melancholy sometimes feels like a vast enveloping grief, then perhaps music and the consolation it brings can help us to grieve. The melancholic note in popular music—the ‘blue’ note understood by the great African American Jazz artists of the twentieth century—heals, soothes and, if we allow it, can transform our suffering into this kind of knowing and accepting melancholia. Musicians from Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson to Miles Davis, Van Morrison and Lennon and McCartney have all understood this sense of pathos, and have felt and communicated it intuitively.
Take Lennon and McCartney for example. Both were the creative driving force of the Beatles. Perhaps the lonely and aching impulse of two young boys who had lost their mothers produced a symbiotic psychic energy that spurred them to create something remarkable from abrupt and searing pain. But could they have been mining something even deeper? Could emotional trauma have been passed down from earlier generations? And could the same be said of slavery and racism as part of the genesis of 19th and 20th century African American blues? It seems plausible. After all, Smith, Davis, Lennon and McCartney, David Bowie and the rest are surely our culture’s great avatars and shamans. It is they who soothe, guide and enlighten, and make it all worthwhile.
Appreciating great music is not just an intellectual exercise. It is much more than that. We don’t just hear music, we feel it, and in a melancholy state we do so even more intensely. If you haven’t felt music or any other art form with that intensity then Nietzsche was surely right: without that intensity of feeling, life would be a mistake.
17 April 2017. Facing up to our shadow side with compassion –
Restorative justice makes real the fact that conflict, pain, suffering and crime are part of all our lives.
In 1995 my mother went into full blown psychosis as a result of a drastic change in the medication she was taking for schizo-affective disorder. She lured some of our friends and neighbors into our home and took the youngest, a toddler, into the basement bedroom. Once there, she slashed the child’s throat with a knife because of a voice telling her she had to. The toddler survived despite a massive loss of blood.
Mom had suffered from mental illness for most of her life in some form or another, and her new doctor at that time had reduced her antipsychotic medication without monitoring the effects. She had tried to take her own life after I was born, so afraid of being a bad mother that she thought it would be better if she exited, but I had no idea that she was managing life with depression that turned into bipolar disorder in my teens. She never harmed me. Quite the opposite—I was loved and supported by both my parents. But I do remember, and live with, the stigma that surrounds people with mental illness and everyone who loves them.
After the attack my mother was arrested, obliterated out of her mind. The media went wild, and she became the town monster. The magnitude of what she had done and the fear it elicited was everywhere. Others in the neighborhood began monitoring my family. They wanted to make sure the monster was put away for life. People I had known since I was a kid turned against us.
What followed was a textbook example of how not to deal with mental illness and its consequences—through ignorance, suspicion, incarceration and revenge instead of facing up to the shadow side of humanity with openness, love and understanding. It’s a story that I’ve never told before in public in such detail, but it needs to be told as another step towards redemption, and as the reason I believe that restorative justice is by far the best way forward. I’m also telling it as part of the process of owning who I am, and who my family are—good people who had something horrific and tragic visited on them, which devastated many lives.
Restorative justice values and strives to honor the needs of everyone involved in the most humane ways possible and in a safe environment—those who commit crimes, and those who suffer from them. In so doing, it brings humanity back into the justice system. It converts a limited worldview based around isolation and individualism into a much more positive vision that is rooted in honesty, accountability, and the visible connection of causes with effects. And it works in concrete terms by drastically reducing recidivism and costs. Most important of all, it nurtures new relationships and a strong sense of human unity. In that sense, the root power of restorative justice is love expressed in action.
This is not to shy away from the need for accountability or regret. I cannot overstate the utter sadness that I and my family have felt for what happened ever since, the desire to take away the pain from my mom’s victim and those who love her. The empathy and care we felt and still feel has never had a chance to be fully seen or expressed given the shambles of a criminal justice system that pits people against one another to further detriment and destruction—not to mention the total lack of opportunities for a mentally ill person to try to communicate their authentic feelings and reach for accountability under the harrowing conditions of imprisonment, where they are denied proper psychiatric treatment. This has been a hex for us all.
My mom was put on trial in the spring of 1996. I testified that she was not a criminal, but has a mental illness. I stand by that to this day. The court was cold and bifurcating: divided aisles, and a mix of fear, judgment and unspoken hatred mingling in the air. The judge ruled that my mother did not belong in prison due to her illness, and she was sentenced to house arrest and stringent rules for probation. If she violated them, she’d face 15 years in jail. And that’s when the neighborhood witch hunt resumed in earnest.
In 1996 and 1997, the Probation Officer received slews of calls about my mother’s case, falsely reporting violations. One group of neighbors followed my family around like bloodhounds, and one day at a water aerobics class at the local YMCA they found out that her caretaker had gone back to the locker room because she had a cold. Although my mom was in the pool with other responsible adults, this was one of the things cited by the group as a violation of her probation.
She was summoned to a hearing and from there to prison to begin her sentence (the judge who had issued a clear ruling against incarceration at the initial trial was now up for a possible spot on the state Supreme Court, and this may have influenced his decision). I remember the day she was taken away very clearly. My father and I sat with her. “Molly, you have to live your life—go on,” she told me. That was the last time I saw her outside of prison until 2014. It was 1999. I was 29 years old.
I visited my mother at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center in Eastern Idaho, a dank university town with a strange oppression in the air. The prison is located as far as possible from most of Idaho’s other major cities, which is a common pattern in American society—to make it as hard as possible to keep up any kind of contact or relationship with incarcerated family members. My mom became another number, 48985 to be exact.
In the western world prisons have become de facto asylums. Data are very difficult to gather, but it’s estimated that over half the prison population in the USA are mentally ill. At Pocatello, female prisoners shared a host of human rights violations with me: one belly-chained at her child’s birth with an officer watching the whole proceedings. Others forced to strip naked and be probed in their vagina or anus on suspicion of hiding items. Women with babies and small children who were not allowed extended or overnight visits. Mentally ill prisoners like my mother who were punished in the ‘hole’—placed in solitary confinement—for being honest about their symptoms. On and on, repeat ad nauseam.
In our failure to acknowledge everybody’s shadow side we act out our fears on the most vulnerable members of society. We scapegoat the mentally ill and treat them as though everything is their fault. We are unwilling to acknowledge the sickness that imprisons us in our own patterns of projection. Afraid to face the truth, we cannot enact true or lasting change. Transformation is only possible if we set ourselves free from these limitations and acknowledge the injustice that lies at the heart of the justice system.
My own work as an advocate for restorative justice emerged from these experiences. I saw needs go unmet for decades for everyone involved. I saw no chance of healing, or even of the slightest opening towards it in the prison system. I knew that what I’d experienced was the exact opposite of justice. Justice is respect and communication, and true accountability and reparation. It means distinguishing the individual as separate from their crime and the harm it has caused, and truthfully evaluating the unique conditions that inform a person’s actions. Justice is helping all people—including offenders—to be and feel accountable for what they have done, and to work together to make things right.
I can’t be anything but grateful for the opportunity to choose love over fear again and again throughout the last 25 years, and to live out that commitment in my work. I’ve done everything I can to respect and understand how my mother’s actions have affected others in the community, and to listen to the often ugly, revenge-based messages I’ve received from strangers. I know that housing 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners in American jails when only five per cent of the world’s population lives in the USA is both morally wrong and substantively ineffective as the basis for justice and reconciliation. I know that corporations with vested interests are passionate about filling every prison bed. I know that punishment only exacerbates the problem.
I know that stories like my mom’s must be held and heard safely to provide the raw material for healing. I know that people do not heal when they are pitted against each other and made to play a ruthless game of blame and shame. I know that by humanizing those stories we release the possibility of redemption, and come to understand our shared humanity. Without doubt, I know that restorative justice makes real the fact that conflict, pain, suffering and crime are part of all our existence. They constitute our shadow side.
Facing those shadows head on, naming them, and valuing people for who they are and not for the crimes they have committed, opens the way to offer a renewed sense of belonging to those we realize we have discarded. As Carl Jung once wrote, “if [we] only learn to deal with [our] own shadow [we] have done something real for the world. We have succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.”
14 April 2017. How I faced misogyny in Hinduism—and found peace with my faith –
Religion can be a crutch for patriarchy—and a tool to dismantle it.
Unlike most of my peers, my favorite time of day as a child was bedtime. Well, at least it was when my maternal grandmother — who visited my family every other year from the time I was born to the time I left for college — was in town. From the minute she arrived at the airport, I would latch onto her like a tiny barnacle, pestering her with questions from sunup until she finally fell asleep at night, no doubt exhausted by a five-year-old girl with a seemingly unquenchable curiosity about everything.
There was one question to which, however, she never said no. “Ajji?” I’d ask her, my voice high and ever so slightly petulant as she brushed my hair and got me in my pajamas, “Can you tell me a story?”
And she always did. Her repository of stories was seemingly endless, and she had a natural talent for making these tales accessible to a kindergartener without glossing over any moral nuances or situational complexities addressed therein. She drew upon her knowledge of Hindu epics to feed me bite-sized excerpts; exciting tales of kings at battle or goddesses who harnessed their rage to destroy evil.
This is how, before I even really knew what religion was, I was soaking up parts of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, getting my first primer to the Bhagavad Gita, and obtaining a solid foundation in the religion that would leave me conflicted for the next several years to come.
As I got older, I realized that Hinduism, and my relationship with it, would be a bit more complicated than I had previously thought. Well into puberty, I held fast to my tomboy-like tendencies; I far preferred to run around with the neighborhood kids, playing soccer and catching bullfrogs, to princesses or dress-up. I was incredulous, then, when I was stuffed into sequined lehengas, made to wear bejeweled bindis, and put flowers in my hair when visiting the temple or family friends’ houses.
When I protested, I was simply told that girls were akin to the goddess Lakshmi, and so it was expected that we dress like her to bring light into the home. It didn’t seem right that my discomfort — an alienation of my personal boundaries — was being justified via religion, but who was I to argue with a goddess? I kept my mouth shut, but even then, I knew something wasn’t sitting quite right with me.
The older I got, the more serious my problems with the religion in which I was raised grew. My family got their first taste of my self-righteous indignation shortly after I started high school. A few times a week, my whole family would get together to sing bhajans. Before one of these gatherings, however, I was pulled aside and told politely that I was not to participate in the bhajan because I was menstruating and therefore unclean and not allowed to enter the prayer area.
A rage heretofore unknown to me filled my soul — how was I being made pariah in my own home? Why was I being punished for performing a normal bodily function? Why did my religion, one that claimed to profess love and acceptance, make me feel nothing but shame and sadness?
Even then, I knew that my anger at the women in my family was grossly misdirected. They were not subjecting me to anything that they had not experienced, or forcing me to grapple with issues that they had not grappled with as young women. They were merely perpetuating the only lifestyle they had ever known onto the next generation — one that had been thrust onto them, and every generation of women before them, as an unquestionable rule with hazy religious rationale. Religion had become the ultimate crutch for a patriarchal society — one where men made the rules and God enforced them.
I carried my sense of disenfranchisement, and my ultimate disappointment with the religion of my family for many years. All through college I openly decried it, pointed out to anyone who would listen, it seemed, the misogyny I thought intrinsic to the practice of Hinduism.
Somewhere during this period I visited my grandmother, and as we were chatting, she asked me if I had been keeping up with my prayers and visiting the temple regularly while away at college. Though it seemed easier to lie and tell her that I was still pious, something stopped me — this woman, whom I had idolized since I was a toddler, deserved better. She deserved the truth.
I told her I had been struggling with my religion, with the idea of any sort of faith at all; in my view, it seemed to serve only as a way to oppress people, and enforce structures of power that turned people against each other. She thought about what I said for a minute, and then simply looked at me and said, “That’s okay. You love your family, your friends, and you want to help other people. That’s all God really wants you to do.”
While I didn’t know it then, this simple sentiment made an indelible impression on me, and softened my view on Hinduism, and religion in general. I went back to the Mahabarata, re-read the Gita, tried to make sense of the anger of my past. While I found the seeds of what could be interpreted as misogyny in these texts, I also found guidelines on how to live a fulfilling life as an insignificant human living in a cruel and confusing world. These texts were not meant to oppress me, but to try and enlighten me. Religion was a tool that humans used to understand a world that hurt them for no reason; a lack of education and an imbalance of power made it an easy scapegoat for systematic societal oppression.
While I cannot say that I am pious, devout, or even religious, I do have a renewed respect and appreciation for the faith I was raised in. And if, one day, I ever do have children of my own, I hope to tell them the same bedtime stories my grandmother told me as a child. In my mind, that is where the true beauty of my Hinduism resides.
This article was first published in The Aerogram.
12 April 2017. Can Donald Trump predict the future? –
The myth of prophecy is central to the success of authoritarian politics.
During his recent ragged interview with Time magazine, Donald Trump returned again and again to the fact that he “predicted Brexit.” He mentioned Brexit a total of eleven times; the interviewer didn’t mention it once.
Throughout the interview, Trump was determined to prove an almost mystical power for prediction. From the very first question, when the interviewer asked Trump whether he’d like to be given a quick overview of his “story so far,” Trump responded by reeling off a list of his ‘predictions’ so far: ‘Sweden…Huma [Abedin] and Anthony [Weiner]…Hillary’s email thing…NATO…Brexit…Brussels is not Brussels’ and Bernie Sanders’ candidacy campaign being ‘rigged.’ He didn’t offer any explanation, but all these things had come true apparently. “I predicted a lot of things, Michael,” he said, “Some things that came to you a little bit later.”
Brexit is the prediction which makes Trump the proudest. He couldn’t stop reminding the interviewer he predicted it, despite the interviewer never asking. If he could turn this prediction into a badge, you’d imagine he’d wear it every day. In one instance, the interviewer presses Trump on his reputation for lying: “Do you worry about your lack of credibility?” he asks. “If you’ve cited things that turn out to be wrong, what if there is a genuine emergency?” “Name what’s wrong” Trump shot back, “I mean, honestly.” “Fox news said…,” the interviewer began to respond, but then Donald draws his trump card for the fifth time: “Brexit. Wait a minute. I predicted Brexit.”
It was as if, so many months after the event, Trump was still struggling to believe that he really had predicted Brexit, astonished at his own ability to read the future. “I think that Britain will separate from the EU”, he said back in April 2016, two months before the result. But for Trump, this was no ordinary prediction; for Trump, being right once means he can never be wrong again.
Trump’s claims to clairvoyance put his ‘alternative facts’ in a new light. What if the lies we react to with rage—that Trump was wiretapped, that three million undocumented people voted in the election, that Sweden was attacked by terrorists and so on—are not actually lies but rather ‘not-yet-truths:’ not ‘fake news’ but ‘fate news’?
Perhaps that’s his hope: by making a ‘prediction’ public, Trump believes that the ensuing pandemonium will make it more likely to take place. Rarely, if ever, will Trump predict something that he doesn’t want to be true. Declarations of doomsday make doomsday all the more likely.
And so Trump claims to predict the future. People are always sceptical of his predictions, he told the Time Magazine interviewer, but – take Brexit, for example (have I mentioned Brexit?) – “I said, no, Brexit is going to happen, and everybody laughed, and Brexit happened. Many, many things like that. They turn out to be right.”
It’s not just Brexit. When Trump branded Brussels a “hellhole” over a year ago, he points out, “I was absolutely lambasted. A short time later they had the major attack in Brussels.” A coincidence? Impossible. When Trump talked about Sweden, claiming there was a terrorist attack, “everyone goes crazy”, but then “the following day, two days later, they had a massive riot in Sweden, exactly what I was talking about, I was right about that.”
Time’s interviewer clarifies to Trump exactly what he’s implying: “You are now saying you were referring to something that happened the following day.” Yes, yes, reading the future. “I tend to be right. I’m an instinctual person, I happen to be a person that knows how life works. I said I was going to win the election, I won the election.”
Confident assertions of victory before the race is run are as old as any competition. But there’s something striking about the new set of right-wing nationalists that are ascendant in global politics, and not just Trump: they all claim to see society’s destiny so clearly. The future they envision has two constant features: it’s scary—Trump, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage speak of civil war, breaking points, terrorist attacks, Armageddon and overcrowded public services—and it involves them winning. The future then becomes brighter and a golden past is restored.
Their doomsday narratives need disaster, and so when disaster strikes their outrage is matched only by their smug satisfaction. Trump and his fairground prophets delight in nothing more than saying ‘I told you so.’ Trump has tweeted this phrase 28 times. It doesn’t matter how nasty the event. Following the terrorist attack in London on March 22 2017, Farage tweeted that he was “very upset and depressed by the terrorist attack in Westminster, but unfortunately not surprised.” Just like a similar incident in Berlin last year when he tweeted: “terrible news from Berlin, but no surprise.”
Like Trump, Farage sees himself as some sort of soothsayer. “When I came here 17 years ago and I said that I wanted to lead a campaign to get Britain to leave the European Union,” Farage ranted to the European Union Parliament after Brexit, “you all laughed at me—well I have to say, you’re not laughing now, are you?” After Trump’s victory, Farage called himself “the catalyst for the downfall of the Blairites, the Clintonites…and all these dreadful people.”
This is clearly part of his image: for all his lies and deception, only Farage can see the future. Back in 2014, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) released a video entitled “Nigel Farage Predicted Everything.” It ran to 35 minutes and was scored by strings that Steven Spielberg would be proud of. It framed Farage as a harbinger of EU doom, a Mystic Meg for politics.
Brexit and Trump’s victory are now taken as signs that this dark and delightful dystopia is on its way. These victories have fuelled their fire, and the right-wing nationalists dance around it, smiling and singing, waiting for the storm. Marine Le Pen looks into the flames and sees “a new world being born” where “the European Union will die.” Farage sees “the beginning of global revolution.”
But make no mistake, these prophecies are calculated. The more their apocalyptic forecasts are accepted by the public, the more reasonable their reactionary agendas become, and the more realistic their chances of election or re-election. As Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon puts it: “What we are witnessing now is the birth of a new political order, and the more frantic a handful of media elites become, the more powerful that new political order becomes.”
Let’s not take anything away from Trump, however. Maybe he’s right and he really does have his own unique power of prophecy. “I’m an instinctual person,” he told the Time magazine interviewer, “but my instinct turns out to be right.” He said he would win the election, and he did. He said the Brexit campaign would win, and it did. What next? We await his next prediction with bated breath.
10 April 2017. Love, anger and social transformation –
The politics of the future must embrace all that makes us human: our anger, our pain, our joy and our love.
It’s November 9 2010, and I’m one of many students that have surrounded and taken over the Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank Tower in London. I’m angry, we are all angry, because the government is trying to triple the amount of money we have to pay to learn, develop and grow as young people. They are trying to raise UK university tuition fees from £3,000 a year to £9,000 as part of the continuous process of marketizing education.
There is screaming, shouting and drumming all around me, along with police in riot gear, but we outnumber them by far as we are in our thousands. I am part of a huge crowd that is singing and moving like a shoal of fish in the sea. I am at the front, face to face with a helmet, baton and shield. It's hard to see the person inside but that’s not my focus - I am focused on getting into the glass fronted party headquarters. Suddenly we are all pushed forward and I find myself kicking with my feet, hitting the glass with anything I can find. I feel this rush of adrenaline in my body. I feel all my anger around the injustice of what the government is doing come out as a physical force.
I feel a release as I kick at the glass - and then there is this beautiful moment when the glass window smashes. Everyone cheers and rushes forward. We have done it - we have broken into the building. People stand on chairs. We chant, we sing, we fill the room, and for a moment this collective anger becomes collective joy - it becomes togetherness. I feel elated, I feel pumped, I feel powerful. I feel we are powerful, I feel together we can change the world. We just broke into Conservative party headquarters for Christ sakes - we can do anything!
There’s no doubt that anger is a powerful motivator. It motivates us to get out onto the streets and do something: to take action; find kindred spirits; build collective power. But it also has a negative side when it turns to hate – hate at the world around us, hate at people who are destroying the environment, hate at the people who voted for Brexit. In my own struggles I also began to direct that hate towards myself in the form of guilt - guilt for being white, middle class and privileged; guilt for spending time doing things other than ‘creating social change;’ and at its worst, a general sense of guilt every time I experienced pleasure or joy.
That doesn’t mean accepting racist, sexist or other discriminatory behavior – we must stand up and challenge it and become aware of how we perpetuate it – but carrying that hate around inside of ourselves is incredibly self-destructive. So, can anger coexist with love, or do we have to choose one or the other? Neither extreme works for me, so what could a new approach to politics look like that acknowledges both of these forces as equally important in creating transformational social change?
From my early twenties I was drawn to spaces and places where I could explore what alternative forms of love might look like. I spent time in intentional communities and at festivals such as Boom and Nowhere (the European ‘Burning Man’), and went on courses and workshops exploring intimacy and sexuality. In different ways all of these spaces embraced the idea of love and connection as a force for positive social change.
It was during these explorations that I discovered Tamera – an intentional community in Portugal that has had a particularly profound impact on my life. Tamera was founded in Germany in 1978 and in 1995 it moved to Portugal. Today 170 people live and work there on 330 acres of land. As they put it:
“The founding thought was to develop a non-violent life model for cooperation between human beings, animals and nature. Soon it became clear that the healing power of love and human community had to be placed at the center of this work. Love, sexuality and partnership need to be freed from lying and fear, for there can be no peace on Earth so long as there is war in love. The ecological and technological activities of Tamera include water conservation and promoting regional autonomy in energy and food. Through the Global Campus and the Terra Nova School, we are working within a global network of similar communities on the social, ecological and ethical foundations for a new Earth – a ‘Terra Nova.’”
Love is a powerful force that motivates me to act, to create, to give, to be alive - love of the natural world, love of music, love from a friend that gets me through a difficult year; the love between me and a partner that can make me feel like I am flying and can achieve anything; sexual love that can put a smile on my face for the rest of the day; love for a stranger in another country that can make me donate money to charity; or the love of a family member that can make me drive through the night to be with them by morning.
I’ve had some of the most empowering, motivating, life affirming experiences in these spaces, experiences that have given me the energy to go back to everyday life and keep on fighting for a more beautiful world. However deep down I’ve always felt that there was something problematic in this approach to social change – that it couldn’t just be about love and nothing else. There’s a hope that when we live in utopian spaces such as Tamera, then all of the things that are sad, bad or problematic about human society like pain, anger and power will simply disappear, but this strikes me as naive. The reality is that we bring all of our issues and privileges with us to these communities, and if they are not explicitly addressed then the same patterns of inequality will be reproduced.
Without a clear awareness and analysis of power and how it functions, and proactive methods of engaging with it, love can become degenerative, particularly for those who may have less power because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic standing or personal confidence. So the way ahead at this crucial time in history must be nuanced, consciously working with power and embracing both our anger and our love.
With the rise of President Trump and a politics of hate and fear, it’s important that we don’t disengage, that we stay awake to, honour and acknowledge our pain, anger and rage. These are crucial emotional responses that lead us to take action, challenge the status quo, and build a different form of power together. But we can’t let that anger turn into hate, blame and guilt. Otherwise we lose, because we become participants in the political and emotional games of the forces that oppress and discriminate against marginalised groups; who promote further cuts in services and greater austerity; and whose actions take away the hope and future of the next generation.
Instead we must create a politics of love, empathy and compassion; a politics that reminds us of the beauty that exists inside of ourselves and in the world in which we live; and social movements that make us feel alive, connected and supported. But to do this we need to re-imagine and diversify the narrative of love, beyond the confines of romance and the passive acceptance that is so often used in ‘new age’ philosophies. As the writer and activist Bell Hooks writes:
“We need to reclaim the concept of love, not as an abstract, all embracing, fantasy but as a set of ethics, principles, values and behaviours. A love that is justice in action... To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility...Culturally all spheres of life – politics, religion, the workplace, domestic households, intimate relations - should and could have their foundation in a love ethic.”
In this understanding love does not become passivity, acceptance or disengagement, or give into the pretence that pain, anger, and power do not exist. Instead it becomes a daily practice which also involves critical reflection, discernment, values and principles, as well as nurturance, care and support. A love that is justice in action is one that acknowledges power and knows that equality is a prerequisite for unity. This quote from the Black Lives Matter movement sums it up perfectly:
“Our aim is to provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation, rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams.”
The politics of the future must embrace all that makes us human: our anger, our pain, our joy and our love.
The furor over Pepsi's fake protest ad resurfaces questions around the Ford Foundation president's decision to join their board. (Originally published December 5 2016).
Every day of every year, in places like Standing Rock and Ferguson and Aleppo and Hong Kong, tens of thousands of people put their lives and livelihoods on the line in the struggle for human rights. If they are paid at all the amounts are very low and the risks are often high, so shared sacrifice is demanded from everyone involved. Opportunities for personal gain are subordinated to solidarity with colleagues and the cause in order to knit together a strong social fabric. Consistency between words and actions is essential in building mutual loyalty and trust.
Faced by these imperatives, is it reasonable to expect the same standards of behavior from the funders, advisers and other intermediaries who support these struggles from a distance, and who gain publicity and legitimacy for their own work in the process?
It’s an old question that bubbles underneath the surface of conversations between activists and donors, though it’s rarely voiced directly because of the discomfort and blowback it can cause. But occasionally it breaks out in public view, providing an opportunity to re-visit the ethics of funding for social change. We’re currently witnessing one of those ‘teachable moments’ that’s centered on Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation’s avuncular and well-respected president.
On October 28 2016 the New York Times revealed that Walker will be paid between $275,000 and $418,000 a year to join the board of multinational “junk food” company PepsiCo (as New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle calls it), plus allocations and annual bonuses in the form of Pepsi shares, in addition to his regular salary of $789,000 in 2015.
Such arrangements are not illegal, nor are they particularly new. What makes this case more interesting is that Walker has publicly declared his commitment to re-focus all of the Ford Foundation’s work on inequality. He has also stated a desire to pursue transformational solutions instead of tinkering around the edges of social and economic problems, and to confront the thorny issue of privilege at both the institutional level and the level of personal practice.
These ideas have been developed in a series of carefully-crafted articles and speeches which have been music to the ears of activists and nonprofits—holding out the promise of healthier and more equitable relationships with their funders. But Walker’s decision seems at odds with the commitments he has made, threatening to undermine the message that philanthropy is in need of major surgery. How so?
First of all, inequality doesn’t happen by accident or by magic: it’s created when people take advantage of opportunities to accrue wealth which are unequally distributed among the population—including well-paid seats on the boards of corporations. Other Ford Foundation staff are prohibited from taking on paid board positions or even consultancies, and no nonprofit could do so because of the conflicts of interest involved, so Walker seems to be modeling behavior that directly contradicts the ‘level playing field’ that features so strongly in his writings.
Secondly and despite the rhetoric of transformation, Walker’s move has a decidedly retro feel. Foundation presidents have been serving on corporate boards for decades with no significant results as part of the trend towards Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR, which has levered small changes in supply chains and other areas but has barely touched the core business practices of major companies. The largest ever evaluation funded by the European Union found “no credible evidence that CSR had made a positive difference to economies or societies in the region.” Neither have new board members halted the fall from grace of HSBC, Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, Unilever and many other icons of CSR.
PepsiCo isn’t the worst of these offenders, running up the usual list of accusations concerning union-busting, forced labor and land rights violations, but ‘we’re listening and we’ll do better’ is always the mantra, buttressed by the gloss that’s added by respected outsiders like Walker. Unfortunately, however well they do they’ll still be a conventional stockholder corporation that’s duty bound to maximize its profits by selling stuff of little value to people who don’t actually need to buy it. There’s no transformative potential in that equation. The real excitement lies in the new economy of co-operatives and other experiments which aren’t subject to the same constraints. At a time when activists are energetically exploring life after capitalism it’s disappointing to see the Ford Foundation defending the current system with a few tweaks around the edges.
That leads me to problem number three: Walker’s decision represents a lost opportunity to make a strong and influential statement about the future of philanthropy, just when the pressure for change is building through the #ShiftThePower campaign and other efforts. Everyone who works for a foundation, an NGO or an aid agency has been complicit in a decades-long process of under-investment in frontline activists and communities, and a corresponding over-rewarding of those who fund or support them in other ways.
I was a beneficiary of this system myself for many years, fighting for justice from the comfort of Business Class while those who do the real work and suffer the consequences are crammed together at the rear of Economy. It’s a peculiar arrangement—divisive, outdated, ineffective and ripe for upheaval if only funders were prepared to take up the challenge, and that’s where Walker’s decision is instructive.
Throughout history the outright rejection of privilege and unequal power structures has been a key tool of social transformation: think civil rights or women’s liberation or pretty much any successful social movement. The insider route can lever some changes when it’s connected to outside pressure, but no one has ever transformed the establishment by joining it. The pressure nearly always works in the opposite direction, though subtly and over time, narrowing the horizons of possibility so that they conform to what’s expected. After all, the more invested you are in any system the less likely you’ll be to confront it.
That’s why the impact of a very public rejection of Pepsi’s invitation could have been so powerful: a signal that finally, a major foundation is willing to loosen its ties to the corporate world and focus its full attention on those tens of thousands of people who are working at the sharp end of social change.
No one expects foundation presidents to work for free, but it’s not unreasonable to expect consistency between their actions and their words. As in this case, consistency does involve some sacrifices, but they pale in comparison to the extra strength and solidarity that’s generated in the process. Those things are much more important to the long-term struggle for social transformation.
8 April 2017. Why we're not taking the new porn laws lying down –
Who cares about a bunch of queers flogging each other when there’s a migrant crisis and article 50 has been triggered? We do.
We set up the London Porn Film Festival because we wanted to address two small but significant aspects of the changing political scene. First, we felt it was high time that the culture and spirit of the Berlin Porn Film Festival made it to the UK; and second, we wanted a festival that unapologetically embraced and celebrated sexuality in all its forms. We wanted to do these things because we live in strange times. Britain is at the epicentre of a global political shift via Brexit that could change the course of history. The people bearing the brunt of this shift most publicly are migrant and Muslim populations, but behind the scenes the structures that govern our society are being subtly and permanently changed.
On the one hand we are enjoying what appear to be freedoms, the like of which have never been seen before. LGBT rights are seemingly on the ascent: marriage is now an established fact for LGBT people; Pride is a huge attraction each year, and it has the support of institutions that once marginalised and maligned us. Trans people have made huge headway in re-defining the narrative and gaining better access to medical care. It’s easy to think the fight is over—that a few loose strings here and there need to be tidied up, and then we’re done.
But this is only one part of a much bigger picture. The London Porn Film Festival is not a political outfit in itself, but we are acutely aware of the conditions in which we operate. The steep increase of hate crimes against racial and sexual minorities in the wake of Brexit indicates that a backlash is around the corner, and the climate in which such behaviour is acceptable is being fostered by vague and opaque laws such as the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations of 2014, better known as the face-sitting ban; the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016, otherwise known as the Snooper’s Charter; and the Digital Economy Bill, which is expected to become law in 2017.
These laws work together to form an alarming mesh of powers. The Audiovisual Media Services Regulation means that several sexual acts including spanking, caning, aggressive whipping, urolagnia (known as "water sports"), female ejaculation, face-sitting and fisting can no longer be represented or shown on screen in the UK. This has been roundly criticised for targeting women and queer people. American hardcore pornography remains, for the most part, untouched. But the worrying thing is that in addition the Investigatory Powers Act (which means that unless you are using a Virtual Private Network, your Internet Service Provider is keeping records of every page you visit for twelve months) and the Digital Economy Bill (which is bad for small, DIY porn businesses because of the cost of implementing new age-verification requirements), the government has given itself the power to outlaw relatively innocuous acts and spy on us.
The implications of these news laws don’t make headlines—it’s difficult to splash something so seemingly obscure on the front page, or rouse popular passions when other more spectacular things are happening. But as the obscenity lawyer Myles Jackman puts it, “Pornography is the canary in the coal mine of free speech. It is the first freedom to die. If assaults on liberty like this are allowed to go unchallenged, further freedoms will fall as a consequence.”
Hence, the increase in hate crime in the UK (both homophobic and racist) is no coincidence. The surge of authoritarian, right-wing rhetoric about ‘taking back control’ is understood very clearly by those of us on the margins as a desire to erase many of the social freedoms and much of the political recognition we have gained. By narrowing the definition of what constitutes ‘normal’ in one sphere, this definition can then be enforced in another. The London Porn Film Festival stands against that process, and we hope to provide a space in which the insidiousness of these new laws is actively challenged.
Over the years, the Berlin porn film festival on which we are modeled has developed into a huge, sell-out affair and the centre of a brilliant, fun, imaginative scene—developing porn that does not conform to mainstream standards. Indeed, their goal is very different: to focus on sexual liberation, not as a wishy-washy affair, but as a mode in which people from different demographics, walks of life, and experiences are presented as valid sexual agents, valid people to desire. We can’t speak about sex without speaking about race without speaking about class without speaking about economics—all of these things are intertwined.
This might seem like a trivial point. After all, who cares about a bunch of queers flogging each other when there’s a migrant crisis and article 50 has been triggered? But to an extent, that question provides its own answer. Repressive laws don’t target mainstream populations because there would be too much resistance. Instead, they begin with people who do not matter to the mainstream. If the attitude towards some people is “Who cares?” then they are ripe for being targeted by the state. The prevailing attitude towards queer people, particularly those who do not conform to homonormative ambitions to be just like heterosexual people, is increasingly that we are less important than others.
The London Porn Film Festival has been established not only because we like queer porn but because we care about it. We care about the sex workers, porn performers and producers who make it. We believe that queer, radical porn is a fascinating form of expression that can provide huge political, theoretical and artistic insights, insights that should be available in the blooming cultural scene in what should be a world-leading city of free speech. But the truth is that the laws are so vague and so open to interpretation that we’re not sure where we stand.
And we’re far from the only group or issue being targeted. The fight for digital liberties is a key part of all our futures, and the lack of outrage around the UK Government’s ‘Digital Economy Bill’ is largely due to the fact that most people don’t understand the technology that rules their lives. The days of a separation between real and cyber space are over. The next frontier, and perhaps the cleverest, is to curb what can and cannot be viewed online, starting with online porn, and taking small steps that seem paltry in comparison to the more repressive measure of curbing ‘real life’ freedoms.
Examples include Pandora Blake’s Dreams of Spanking which was forced offline for ten months; attempting to bankrupt small businesses by enforcing age verification technologies but providing no support for their implementation; and requiring Internet Service Providers to record the websites you visit. Unless you are taking precautions, the UK Government is quietly but surely collecting information about what you look at, who you connect with, and what you read. And you can be sure that at some point in the future they will have something to say about it.
We’re doing this because it’s important, and because queer porn is a small corner of our broader culture that’s under attack. There has always been strong feeling against sexual agency. It is usually the first thing to be attacked during a tide of authoritarianism. How willing we are to let that happen is a signal to the powers that be about how far they can go. Porn is a genre in which we can re-imagine ourselves, our sexuality and our future.
Do we think a really hot sex scene will change the world? No. But it’s not about a really hot sex scene. It’s about protecting the margins, and showing strong resistance so that we do not allow ourselves to slide into ever more repressive circumstances.
Check out the London Porn Film Festival Programme here.
7 April 2017. The power of sign –
As Sweet Honey in the Rock’s sign language interpreter, Shirley Childress dedicated her life to deaf rights.
Shiloh Baptist Church was where Shirley Childress first understood.
She was a 10-year-old whose first language was sign, the hearing daughter of two deaf parents. Her family worshiped at Shiloh’s Silent Mission, one of the nation’s earliest ministries for the deaf and hard of hearing. One day, as her mother sang in sign for the congregation, Shirley understood.
Decades later, Shirley wrote about that moment: “She was singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ in sign so beautifully and with so much emotion that people were totally absorbed, so much so that one man was moved to tears. That was my first remembrance of seeing the power of sign.”
Shiloh Baptist Church was also where hundreds of mourners came last week to say farewell to Childress, the longtime interpreter for the African-American heritage ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, who died last week at age 69 due to complications caused by West Nile virus.
The considerable contributions of Shirley Childress reverberate far beyond the lives of those who attended her funeral.
As a deaf rights advocate, Childress championed black interpreters, the scarcity of which even now many consider a shameful facet of deaf culture. She is widely believed to have been the first African American certified American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter.
She interpreted in varied platforms: Close to home for the Mental Health Program for the Deaf at St. Elizabeths Hospital. In Kenya, under the auspices of Deafpride, Inc.’s Project Access, for a deaf delegate participating in a United Nations conference. For an off-Broadway show and for Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde. She also interpreted for the 2003 “Protest Music as Responsible Citizenship” program at The Ohio State University featuring Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, Holly Near, and Sweet Honey founder Bernice Johnson Reagon.
But Childress is best known for the decades she spent with Sweet Honey in the Rock, not merely as its interpreter, but as a full-fledged member of the group. And it was with Sweet Honey in the Rock that Childress profoundly changed the way deaf people experience music.
“Shirley took Sweet Honey in the Rock’s sound and presence and activism to another level… and brought another level of inclusion to the purpose of Sweet Honey,” says filmmaker Michelle Parkerson, producer of the 1984 documentary Gotta Make This Journey: Sweet Honey in the Rock. “People who were deaf and hard of hearing could feel the vibrations and the bass line of Sweet Honey’s music….They could understand the lyrics through Shirley. Her movements and her passion were just as strong as the other five women who comprised Sweet Honey in the Rock, and so they got it. They got Sweet Honey in the Rock’s call to political action through Shirley—for their own rights as well as for people who were physically challenged.”
The prominence of Childress as the group’s sixth member—she performed with the women on stage and was not shunted to a corner—was profoundly meaningful to deaf audiences.
“Shirley was bringing ASL to the world stage when people were still referring to members of the deaf community as either deaf and dumb or deaf mutes or handicapped,” says Raymont Anderson, one of many African American interpreters mentored by Childress. “She completely changed how people viewed that culture and community, and her visibility made her the benchmark that so many other interpreters aspired to.”
Sweet Honey in the Rock was founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon, the revered Civil Rights activist who performed with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers. Coming out of the Civil Rights movement, Reagon created an a capella ensemble that was rooted in African American history and culture, and the women of Sweet Honey were eloquent advocates for social justice. As the group participated in the women’s music network during the late ’70s, that movement’s focus on accessibility led to Sweet Honey’s first use of interpreters for the deaf.
Initially, using interpreters supplied by festival organizers was somewhat problematic for Sweet Honey. Festival interpreters generally liked to prepare for concerts by practicing the material. But Reagon, who drew from orally based traditions, would not prepare set lists in advance.
But there was a bigger issue. As Reagon relates in the book We Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey in the Rock … Still on the Journey, there was a critical cultural chasm between Sweet Honey’s mission and the white interpreters they worked with. During one rehearsal, the interpreter signed the word “Africa” by putting her fingers through her nose to make a ring. Reagon wrote: “…to that date all of the interpreters were white and women, a decision that ignored the multi-racial makeup of local deaf communities.”
Serendipity stepped in one Sunday, when Reagon saw Dr. Ysaye Barnwell interpreting a service at All Souls’ Unitarian Church and invited her to join Sweet Honey as an interpreter. But Barnwell turned out to be an extraordinary vocalist, and thus also sang with the group. She quickly realized that it was not possible to interpret and sing simultaneously.
Barnwell had met Childress while conducting a workshop at Howard University, and she brought her to Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1980. By 1985, Sweet Honey was including photos of Childress on the group’s albums and she regularly appeared with the group for publicity shots.
“Shirley made musical performances by Sweet Honey in the Rock accessible to deaf communities,” says Barnwell, who retired from the group four years ago. “They would know what we were singing about, they would have an appreciation for aspects of the music—the language, the rhythm, the way in which we as different singers were working together, and the meaning of the songs.
“I want to thank Shirley,” adds Barnwell, “for being an amazing ray of light as part of the group which really opened the ensemble to a much broader audience.”
Toshi Reagon, Bernice’s daughter and an esteemed performer in her own right, frequently collaborated with Childress over the years. “There are a few interpreters I have worked with who are brilliantly musical. You can tell they have something to say about every sonic moment that is happening. That part of interpreting where they bring themselves and their artistry in terms of translating text from one language to another is masterful,” she says. “Shirley was exquisite at this. When you sat down with her, you learned more about what you were trying to say.”
In 1988, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf published a tribute to Childress that called her “The Mother of Songs Sung in ASL.” Of course, within the community of African-American sign language interpreters, Childress was already known as “Mama Shirley,” which had less to do her age than her achievements.
“In the black community, you call people ‘mama’ out of respect,” says Candas Ifama Barnes, a veteran interpreter at Gallaudet University who considers Childress a role model. “It’s about their status and the place they hold in the community and the respect that the community holds for them. It’s an homage.”
Childress was a founding member of National Black Deaf Advocates, and established BRIDGES, an organization assisting black deaf interpreters and their clients. She married and raised two sons. In honor of her parents, she created the Herbert and Thomasina Childress Scholarship Fund to help children of deaf adults explore sign interpreting as a profession.
“She was an advocate, founder, fighter and creator of things that are now part of black deaf community, as well as an interpreter,” says Fred Beam, a deaf educator and performer. “She closed the gap between the deaf culture and music culture and allowed deaf people to appreciate music more through ASL.”
Childress’ performances with Sweet Honey also touched audience members who can hear. Longtime fan Charlene Hamilton first attended a Sweet Honey performance more than 30 years ago. “I was totally hypnotized. They were these beautiful black women in all these colors singing a capella, and the songs they were singing had so much meaning,” she recalls. “I don’t understand signing at all, but Shirley made me feel like I did. It was magical—I felt like I was right there with her.”
For Childress, her gifts as an interpreter seemed to come from what she once perceived as a weakness. In We Who Believe in Freedom, she wrote: “I am an extremely sensitive wear-my-emotions-on-my-sleeve kind of person. I cry at the drop of a hat. Once I felt my sensitivity was a disability. I have come to appreciate it now as being something special about me. Sign interpreting Sweet Honey includes clear interpretations of the song true to its content, a poetic delivery, rhythmically in tune, emotionally sensitive in its nature, and timing commensurate with the singing… When I am successful, I am delivering it in a way that is as rapturous and as powerful as the vocal rendition.”
The loss of Childress was not the only heartbreak to hit Sweet Honey in recent months. Longtime sound engineer Art Steele died in a fatal car accident in January. Sweet Honey’s Facebook page read, “Art Steele and Shirley were with the organization longer than anyone. No words to sing this deep sorrow.”
For many, there is inspiration within the deeply felt sorrow. “It’s really the legacy that she left. By that, I mean her commitment to the work of interpreting, making things accessible for deaf and hard of hearing people and her absolute passion for that,” says Barnes, who has created a memorial scholarship fund at Gallaudet for Childress.
“She was all about making sure that deaf people had access. And she particularly cared about black deaf people being able to be their best selves, to have access at the ultimate level. She believed that we should do our best on their behalf, and that we had a responsibility to do that,” says Barnes.
“And here’s the thing: That came across much less in what she said than in how she was and what she did,” adds Barnes. “It wasn’t a job. It was a calling. It was who she was. It was her purpose.”
Donations to the Shirley Childress Memorial Scholarship Fund can be made here.
This article was first published in Washington City Paper.
5 April 2017. Seven ways to think like a 21st century economist –
Economics matters enormously for the future, but its fundamental ideas are centuries out of date.
No one can deny it: economics matters. Its theories are the mother tongue of public policy, the rationale for multi-billion-dollar investments, and the tools used to tackle global poverty and manage our planetary home. Pity then that its fundamental ideas are centuries out of date yet still dominate decision-making for the future.
Today’s economics students will be among the influential citizens and policymakers shaping human societies in 2050. But the economic mindset that they are being taught is rooted in the textbooks of 1950 which, in turn, are grounded in the theories of 1850. Given the challenges of the 21st century—from climate change and extreme inequalities to recurring financial crises—this is shaping up to be a disaster. We stand little chance of writing a new economic story that is fit for our times if we keep falling back on last-century’s economic storybooks.
When I studied economics at university 25 years ago I believed it would empower me to help tackle humanity’s social and environmental challenges. But like many of today’s disillusioned students its disconnect from relevance and reality left me deeply frustrated. So I walked away from its theories and immersed myself in real-world economic challenges, from the villages of Zanzibar to the headquarters of the United Nations, and on to the campaign frontlines of Oxfam.
In the process I realized the obvious: that you can’t walk away from economics because it frames the world we inhabit, so I decided to walk back towards it and flip it on its head. What if we started economics with humanity’s goals for the 21st century, and then asked what economic mindset would give us half a chance of achieving them?
Spurred on by this question, I pushed aside my old economics textbooks and sought out the best emerging ideas that I could find, drawing on diverse schools of thought including complexity, ecological, feminist, behavioural and institutional economics, and set out to discover what happens when they all dance on the same page. The insights that I drew out imply that the economic future will be fascinating, but wildly unlike the past, so long as we equip ourselves with the mindset needed to take it on. So here are seven ways in which I believe we can all start to think like 21st century economists:
1. Change the goal: from GDP growth to the Doughnut.
For over half a century, economists have fixated on GDP as the first measure of economic progress, but GDP is a false goal waiting to be ousted. The 21st century calls for a far more ambitious and global economic goal: meeting the needs of all within the means of the planet. Draw that goal on the page and – odd though it sounds – it comes out looking like a doughnut. The challenge now is to create local to global economies that ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials – from food and housing to healthcare and political voice – while safeguarding Earth’s life-giving systems, from a stable climate and fertile soils to healthy oceans and a protective ozone layer. This single switch of purpose transforms the meaning and shape of economic progress: from endless growth to thriving in balance.
2. See the big picture: from self-contained market to embedded economy.
Exactly 70 years ago in April 1947, an ambitious band of economists crafted a neoliberal story of the economy and, since Thatcher and Reagan came to power in the 1980s, it has dominated the international stage. Its narrative about the efficiency of the market, the incompetence of the state, the domesticity of the household and the tragedy of the commons, has helped to push many societies towards social and ecological collapse. It’s time to write a new economic story fit for this century – one that sees the economy’s dependence upon society and the living world. This story must recognize the power of the market—so let’s embed it wisely; the partnership of the state—so let’s hold it to account; the core role of the household—so let’s value its contribution; and the creativity of the commons—so let’s unleash their potential.
3. Nurture human nature: from rational economic man to social adaptable humans.
The character at the heart of 20th century economics—‘rational economic man’—presents a pitiful portrait of humanity: he stands alone, with money in his hand, a calculator in his head, ego in his heart, and nature at his feet. Worse, when we are told that he is like us, we actually start to become more like him, to the detriment of our communities and the planet. But human nature is far richer than this, as emerging sketches of our new self-portrait reveal: we are reciprocating, interdependent, approximating people deeply embedded within the living world. It’s time to put this new portrait of humanity at the heart of economic theory so that economics can start to nurture the best of human nature. Doing so will give us—all ten billion of us to come—a far greater chance of thriving together.
4. Get savvy with systems: from mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity.
Economics has long suffered from physics envy: awed by the genius of Isaac Newton and his insights into the physical laws of motion, 19th century economists became fixated on discovering economic laws of motion. But these simply don’t exist: they are mere models, just like the theory of market equilibrium which blinded economists to the looming financial crash of 2008. That’s why 21st-century economists embrace complexity and evolutionary thinking instead. Putting dynamic thinking at the heart of economics opens up new insights for understanding the rise of the one percent and the boom and bust of financial markets. It’s time to stop searching for the economy’s elusive control levers (they don’t exist), and instead start stewarding the economy as an ever-evolving system.
5. Design to distribute: from ‘growth will even it up again’ to distributive by design.
In the 20th century economic theory whispered a powerful message when it comes to inequality: it has to get worse before it can get better, and growth will eventually even things up. But extreme inequality, as it turns out, is not an economic law or necessity: it is a design failure. Twenty-first century economists recognize that there are many ways to design economies to be far more distributive of value among those who help to generate it. And that means going beyond redistributing income to pre-distributing wealth, such as the wealth that lies in controlling land, enterprise, and the power to create money.
6. Create to regenerate: from ‘growth will clean it up again’ to regenerative by design.
Economic theory has long portrayed a clean environment as a luxury good, affordable only for the well-off—a view that says that pollution has to increase before it can decline, and (guess what), growth will eventually clean it up. But as with inequality there is no such economic law: environmental degradation is the result of degenerative industrial design. This century calls for economic thinking that unleashes the potential of regenerative design in order to create a circular, not linear, economy—and to restore ourselves as full participants in Earth’s cyclical processes of life.
7. Be Agnostic about Growth: from growth-addicted to growth-agnostic.
To the alarm of governments and financiers, forecasts for GDP growth in many high-income countries are flat-lining, opening up a crisis in growth-based economics. Mainstream economics views endless GDP growth as a must, but nothing in nature grows forever, and the economic attempt to buck that trend is raising tough questions in high-income but low-growth countries. That’s because today we have economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive. What we need are economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow. That radical flip in perspective invites us to become agnostic about growth and to explore how our economies—which are currently financially, politically and socially addicted to growth—could learn to live with or without it.
I am convinced that these seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist are fundamental to the new economic mindset this century demands. Their principles and patterns will equip new economic thinkers—and the inner economist in us all—to start creating an economy that enables everyone to prosper. Given the speed, scale and uncertainty of change that we face in coming years—and the diversity of contexts from Beijing to Birmingham to Bamako—it would be foolhardy to attempt to prescribe now all the policies and institutions that will be fit for the future. The coming generation of thinkers and doers will be far better placed to experiment and discover what works as the context continually changes.
What we can do now—and must do well—is to bring together the best ideas to create a new economic mindset that is never fixed but always evolving. The task for economic thinkers in the decades ahead will be to bring these seven ways of thinking together in practice, and to add to them. We have barely set out on this adventure in rethinking economics. Please join the crew.
Kate Raworth’s new book is Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist.
Governments welcome violent protests and know how to deal with them. It’s a lesson the anti-Trump movement should remember.
Only the Vietnam era protests match the size and breadth of the movement unleashed by the election of Donald Trump. One point of comparison: The massive march and rally against the Vietnam War in 1969 was the largest political demonstration in American history until the even more massive Women’s March in January.
All around us we can see signs that the movement has only just begun. Consider, for instance, that a large percentage of those in the Women’s March engaged in their very first street protest. Or that thousands of protesters spontaneously flocked to airports to challenge the anti-Muslim ban. Or that hundreds of citizens have confronted their local congressional representatives at their offices and town hall meetings about the potential repeal of Obamacare and other Trump/Republican policies.
As activists prepare for future demonstrations, many are rightfully concerned about the potential disruptions by those using Black Bloc tactics, which involve engaging in property destruction and physical attacks on police and others. They often appear at demonstrations dressed in black and cover their faces to disguise their identities. Their numbers have been relatively small to date. But they garner an outsized amount of media coverage, such as a violent protest in Berkeley to block an appearance by an alt-right provocateur or the punching of a white nationalist during Trump’s inauguration. The result is that an otherwise peaceful demonstration’s primary message can get lost in a fog of rock throwing and tear gas. Even worse, fewer people are likely to turn up at future protests, and potential allies get turned off.
This is not a new phenomenon. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. confronted this issue. So did those of us active in the struggle against the Vietnam War. I played a major role in organizing the national antiwar demonstrations between 1967 and 1971, as well as dozens of smaller actions during that time. Today’s protest organizers and participants can learn much from our experiences on the frontlines a half century ago.
A good place to start is to consider the Weathermen, the most prominent of the counterparts to the Black Bloc in our day. As proponents of violent street tactics, the Weathermen capitalized on an aspect of the ‘60s counterculture that glorified violent revolution. Posters displaying romanticized images of Che Guevara, Viet Cong soldiers (especially women fighters) and Black Panthers with guns were plastered on many walls.
The Weathermen didn’t just spout revolutionary rhetoric. One of their most memorable actions was what they proclaimed as the “Days of Rage.” They urged people to join them in Chicago in early October 1969 to “Bring the War Home.” They recruited extensively among white working-class youths to come to the city with helmets and such weapons as clubs, prepared to vandalize businesses and cars as well as assault police. They believed their action would help provoke an uprising against the capitalist state.
During the “Days of Rage,” the Weathermen did not attach themselves to a larger peaceful demonstration. They were on their own. So, the action provides a great case study about the feasibility of violent street tactics.
For starters, they discovered that it was hard to find recruits for their violent street army. Only about 300 people showed up despite months of effort. And they found it harder to enlist support for their actions even among those who were friendly with them politically. In fact, Fred Hampton, the leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, publicly denounced the group’s action, fearing it would turn off potential allies and lead to intensified police repression. “We believe that the Weathermen action is anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic, chauvinistic and Custeristic [referring to General George Custer’s suicidal Last Stand]. It’s child’s play. It’s folly.”
It would not be overstating the case to say that the “Days of Rage” was a flop. They did trash some stores and engage in fights with police. But Chicago police easily contained their violence and rounded up virtually all of the militants and charged them with stiff crimes. Some suffered serious injuries, and several were shot by police (none fatally). The Weathermen soon gave up on violent street protests, became the Weather Underground and confined themselves to symbolic bombings of such targets as police stations and a bathroom in the U.S. Capitol.
In short, the “Days of Rage” shows the ineffectiveness of violent street tactics unless combined with a larger peaceful protest. The Black Bloc anarchists understand this reality, too. They need us as a cover for their actions. Put another way: We don’t need them, but they need us. So, the primary way to deal with those who advocate violent tactics is to isolate them, do everything possible to separate them from the peaceful demonstration. That was one of our goals in 1969 when organizing the November 15 antiwar march on Washington, D.C.
As organizers, we knew that it was not enough to stop potential disrupters. We knew we had to make sure that the demonstration itself would channel people’s indignation with the war more creatively than yet another conventional march and rally. People take to the streets because they are upset, angry or disillusioned. They want to express their outrage as powerfully as possible. Although some people prefer disruption for its own sake, almost everyone else wants to deliver their message so that it leads to positive social change, not make matters worse.
We adopted a tactic first used by a group of Quakers the previous summer. To personalize the war’s impact, that group read the names of the American soldiers killed in Vietnam from the steps of the Capitol. Their weekly civil disobedience action received a lot of media attention, particularly after some members of Congress joined them. Before long, peace groups throughout the land were reading the names of the war dead in their town squares and other public spaces.
For our demonstration in Washington, we planned what we called the “March Against Death.” Here is how Time magazine described it at the time: “Disciplined in organization, friendly in mood, [the march] started at Arlington National Cemetery, went past the front of the White House and on to the west side of the Capitol. Walking single file and grouped by states, the protesters carried devotional candles and 24-in. by 8-in. cardboard signs, each bearing the name of a man killed in action or a Vietnamese village destroyed by the war. The candles flickering in the wind, the funereal rolling of drums, the hush over most of the line of march — but above all, the endless recitation of names of dead servicemen and gutted villages as each marcher passed the White House — were impressive drama.”
First in line was the widow of a fallen serviceman, followed by 45,000 marchers (the number of Americans killed in the war to that date). After walking the four-mile route, the marchers reached the Capitol, where they placed their placards in coffins. The march began the evening of November 13 and went on for 36 hours. No one who was there would ever forget. It also set the tone for the massive march and rally.
While the “March Against Death” was taking place, we were busily training marshals who would oversee the demonstration — that is, essentially be our own force of nonviolent peacekeepers. We were rightfully concerned that groups of Weathermen-style protesters would disrupt our demonstration regardless of how creative our tactics were. The Chicago action had taken place only a month earlier, and we knew that there were many individuals and small groups for whom the appeal of violent street tactics had not diminished.
With the help of several churches that provided us with spaces, we recruited trainers, many with previous experience in nonviolent training. After giving an overview of the march’s objectives and logistics, we had the trainees do several role-playing exercises. For instance, we had a scenario where a group of Weathermen-style protesters tried to disrupt the march by trying to get people to join them in more “militant” actions. One tactic we suggested was to get the marchers to sing the then-popular John Lennon tune “Give Peace A Chance” to divert attention from the disrupters. Another was to get the marshals to link their arms to separate the disrupters from the rest of the marchers.
At the end of the two-hour-long session, the newly trained marshals were given a white armband and told where to meet the next day. We trained more than 4,000 marshals who were deployed along the entire route of the march. The armbands were an important symbol to help us isolate would-be disrupters.
Although there were a few incidents after the rally had broken up, they did not detract from the powerful message that the half-million war opponents in Washington conveyed to the public and the nation’s leaders. The war didn’t end the next day, or even the next year, but the peace movement played a major role in stopping it — something that was unprecedented in American history.
Not everyone was pleased with our marshals. In Clara Bingham’s interview of Weathermen leader Bill Ayers for her recently published book, “Witness to the Revolution,” Ayers said: “…the problem with the mass mobilizations at that time was that the militants — us — were always contained. We were pushed aside by peace marshals and demonstration marshals.”
The man in the White House also did not like the peaceful character of our actions. In “Nixonland,” historian Rick Perlstein tells a story that indicates what kind of protest Richard Nixon would have preferred: “A briefing paper came to the president’s desk in the middle of March  instructing him to expect increased violence on college campuses that spring. ‘Good!’ he wrote across the face.”
This anecdote points out another significant lesson from the Vietnam era. Governments invariably welcome violent protests. With soldiers, police and huge arsenals of weapons, they know how to deal with any form of violence. They also infiltrate protest groups with provocateurs to stir up violence — something we experienced repeatedly then and is certainly happening today. The Black Bloc is especially vulnerable to infiltration because of their anonymity. And, as we learned then, those in power will willfully mischaracterize peaceful demonstrators as violent to help turn those in the middle against us.
What makes any resort to violence, including property destruction, on the part of the movement especially dangerous today is the current occupant of the White House. Most of us have seen video clips of the campaign rally last year where Trump said he would like to see a heckler “carried out on a stretcher.”
We can only imagine what this man would do if given any excuse to fully deploy the forces of violent repression against us. Nor can we forget that this man has shown a willingness, if not eagerness, to encourage his gun-toting supporters to turn on his opponents.
The movement must keep its focus on the issues. We must not allow ourselves to get distracted. Too many lives are threatened by Trump’s reckless rhetoric and heartless policies. We can succeed, just as we did in stopping the Vietnam War. It will take time, but we can create a more just and peaceful society. It starts with us.
3 April 2017. The neoliberal economics of family life –
Attempts to restore the family as the foundation of social welfare could destroy the gains of second-wave feminism.
The rapidity with which the Trump administration has set about dismantling what remains of publicly-funded institutions and facilities in the US begs some crucial questions: what was the prior state of welfare provision in American society? What battles have been fought on questions of social security over the last 50 years, and what was the public policy landscape that contributed to his victory?
Melinda Cooper’s new book, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, plays an invaluable role in filling in this historical background from the 1960s onwards, outlining and explaining the forces that underpin contemporary anti-welfarism and the increasingly polarised nature of the USA.
Cooper documents the array of economists and public policy advisors from the Christian right, the harder edges of the neoliberal spectrum, and even some progressive democrats, all of whom have worked to undo a social security system that they perceived as inducing dependency, driving up inflation, and—with welfare payments in their pockets—freeing sectors of the unemployed from their obligations. Her painstaking account also throws light on the ways in which the right has succeeded in one of its key objectives by finding common ground between neoliberals—who typically endorse the singular freedoms of individual choice and personal responsibility unfettered by the state—and social neo-conservatives (many of whom it transpires were once on the left), who adhere to a more traditional or paternalistic notion of social obligations.
The effect of this consensus has been to reduce the legitimacy of government-backed welfare and social security provision by re-focusing attention on the family as the foundation of all social assistance. Gary Becker, the Nobel prize-winning economist, understood that this shift involved appealing to the ‘altruistic’ bonds of kinship so that the family unit undertakes what organized welfare systems might otherwise be expected to do. The love and emotional attachment of family bonds, he believed, leads people to care for each other outside of the market values that prevail in all other domains of life.
Feminists have long highlighted the effects of this philosophy in terms of unpaid domestic labour, but for Becker such labour is an exploitable resource that can be used to reduce the costs of welfare. Families should provide or pay for their own elder care, health care, and college education for their children. But how is this to happen when resources for most families are so scarce and wages are stagnating? Becker argued that expanding access to cheap credit was the key, enabling people to purchase care while guarding against inflation. Cooper sees this as a shift to ‘asset-based welfare’ or even ‘democratised debt.’ If low and middle-income families are enmeshed in debt from the cradle to the grave, their members are more likely to be beholden to each other.
This steering of the family into a pivotal place in the nation’s economy has not been without difficulty. It has been the method of choice on the part of the right as they seek to undo many of the gains which second-wave feminism set out to achieve in the US from the late 1960s. It is also the right’s answer to the dilemma posed by the un-viability of ‘moral majority’ nostalgia for placing women back in the home. As women maintain a steadfast presence in the new service-led labour markets, and as working class men’s skills are eroded and wage stagnation kicks in thanks to the monetary policies of finance-led neo-liberalism, the family must somehow cohere as an entity, as often as not through the mountains of debt they now have to accrue to cover the cost of mortgages, childcare, college education for their children, and privatised health insurance.
By appealing to the family as the moral base of all wider social values, a desperate horizon of respectability emerges. Unlike in more overtly feminist times, divorce and singleness reek of social failure, so there is a double bind: sheer dependency on each other for care within the kinship unit (especially in times of hardship or illness), and also a loss of status or social worth for those who fall outside of these familial networks of support. As Cooper shows, these strategies for shoring up the family as an economic unit were also focused directly on the management of the African American population.
Dating back to the right wing reaction against civil rights, the welfare activism of the War on Poverty, and the community engagement of the Black Panthers, the pathologisation of the black family deflected attention away from segregation and the pervasiveness of structural racism which reached into every corner of life, severely limiting the ability of black men and women to maintain their livelihoods—never mind settling down to the ideal of life as a nuclear family in the suburbs. What Cooper emphasises is just how wide the political consensus has become across the male-dominated political spectrum from left to right about the dangers to society that are apparently posed by a perceived loss of ‘family values’ through, for example, divorce and single parenthood. Feminism is also blamed for devaluing the meaning and quality of love.
Nor is it just economists from the University of Chicago like Becker who have led this charge. Cooper draws attention to the influence of European leftist social scientists such as Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck, and most notably the German economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck. According to Cooper, Streeck implies that in its bid for equal pay and flexible working arrangements, middle-class feminism has more or less shunted working-class men out of their jobs, thereby depriving working class women of a reliable breadwinner and destroying the stability of the family unit. Even Karl Polanyi—currently favoured by so many social theorists—took refuge in a return to community and state protection in the form of the family wage and its associated securities.
Cooper includes Nancy Fraser, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in her list of progressives who look to restore the family as the foundation of welfare. In one way or another all of these writers see the unsettling of the male breadwinner model and the battles fought by feminists to free themselves of dependency on male earning power as contributing to the social ills of today, including those wrought by neo-liberalism and its flexible labour markets. Fraser’s account of feminist complicity in this process is well known, though also hotly disputed.
Finally there is the sheer vindictive cruelty that Tea Party adherents and other far-right elements display towards ‘the poor.’ According to Cooper, the idea that the uninsured should be ‘left to die’ has earlier precedents. For example, neoliberal economists calculated that AIDs sufferers saved the state money by dying since many were poor and unemployed, and hence unproductive. And because the sexual behaviour of gay men who contracted the illness entailed a calculated risk, they themselves should pay the costs. Cooper gently chides the LGBTQ activist group Queer Nation in this context for seeking the safety and respectability of gay marriage as a way for loving couples to look after each other, and gain inheritance and property rights in the process.
Cooper’s book leaves us with a bleakly realistic account of the (often Christian) rightwing patriarchal forces whose resoundingly angry response to feminist and pro-welfare activism has sought to stifle the impact of the women’s movement from the 1960s onwards, especially in regard to economic, racial and reproductive freedoms. One might assume that similar ideas are at work in the Trump administration today. Under the weight of such antagonism the tenacity of feminism is nothing short of miraculous, and Cooper’s sombre analysis serves to remind the pro-feminist left and the women’s movement of how few in number we are, and have been.
However, against this background Cooper’s contribution leaves two questions unanswered. The first is that, if the family unit is here to stay, what kind of feminist politics are required to ensure equality for all its members—for women, grandmothers, daughters, young women and girls as well as men?
Second, as is so often the case, when the family becomes over-burdened and incapable of dealing with the crises such close quarters typically generate, how can we re-imagine ‘alternative kinship’ as a potentially-positive response? One of the most compelling arguments from feminism in the late 1970s was that bonds of kinship by no means guarantee love and protection. Instead, they may entail violence, misery and suffering. For many girls and young women at that time, being caught in a family-based trap of gendered assumptions and requirements regarding marriage and motherhood led to angry outbursts of feminist rage and the desire to escape the family altogether.
That rage led to a different focus on friendship, and on finding ways of developing female support networks. Since then, feminist and LGBTQ struggles have changed the way we look at kinship by including an increasing range of ‘families of choice.’ But as Cooper shows, what really matters is who picks up the tab for social reproduction, for childcare and education, and for what befalls us in ill-health, old age, and periods of unemployment. There are no equitable, healthy or sustainable answers to that question inside the family.
Protecting immigrants is vital work, but what happens when the police arrive at your door?
In 1982, a man by the pseudonym René Hurtado found himself living in a suburban church in Minnesota. He had fled El Salvador, his home country, after participating in a U.S.-backed military unit during a civil war. After coming to the United States, he spoke out about the terrible things he had done—torturing prisoners with electrocution and needles, for example—as a member of the CIA-trained Salvadoran military. El Salvador wanted him back, and the U.S. government wanted him deported. Instead, Hurtado hunkered down at St. Luke Presbyterian Church in Hennepin County, Minnesota, while his case played out in the national media and in immigration courts.
Hurtado still lives in Minnesota more than 30 years later. Today, his story has new relevance as Minnesota’s churches again embrace their role as sanctuary spaces, this time in response to President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and aggressive deportation policies.
Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has “been a wake-up call for people of faith,” said Minister JaNaé Bates, communications director of the faith-based Minnesota organization ISAIAH.
Bates said the idea of sacred places providing sanctuary is an ancient one. The Old Testament is the original source, she said, “when God declared certain spaces sanctioned for safety.”
“Throughout history there have been unjust laws … used against vulnerable people,” Bates said. And throughout history, churches have provided safety for vulnerable people. Today, member churches of ISAIAH are continuing that historical tradition by offering sanctuary to Minnesota’s undocumented immigrants—an estimated 100,000, according to a 2014 study by Pew Research Center.
ISAIAH is a faith-based coalition of more than 100 congregations that directs its members to take action on local and community issues. Their tagline is “faith in democracy.” For members of ISAIAH, “the spiritual and the political are inseparable,” said Bates.
He said that 25 of ISAIAH’s member churches have declared themselves as either sanctuaries or sanctuary-supporting churches; supporting churches are those that do not have the means or facilities to house individuals but have committed to supporting other congregations with the financial, legal, and physical resources they need to offer sanctuary. So far, 15 member churches have committed to offer sanctuary directly to immigrants in need.
Pastor Doug Pagitt of Solomon’s Porch in South Minneapolis said his church was one of the first in the state to declare itself a sanctuary church through ISAIAH. Solomon’s Porch originally offered sanctuary to show it was “on the side of the people the government is trying to deport,” he said. It was a decision motivated more by moral and political arguments than by legal ones, he said: “The power we have is the power of public opinion.”
Solomon’s Porch declared itself a sanctuary church in December, after Donald Trump won the election. At that time, Pagitt thought that by taking a public stance, the faith community might help influence the political dialogue around immigration. But since Trump took office, Pagitt said, his congregation’s motivations for offering sanctuary have shifted as the danger to individuals has become clearer. What began as a public stance to sway political opinion has since become a concrete reality, and his church is preparing to house people.
Pastor Eliot Howard, of Linden Hills United Church of Christ, shared a similar perspective. In December, Howard declared his church a sanctuary space because he felt the issue carried a sense of urgency, though at the time, it felt like a hypothetical. Three months later? “It feels real now.”
Some in his congregation expressed anxiety over his decision, he said, but in the end the church offered sanctuary because “it is our tradition. We don’t focus on the president or the politics but what Scripture says.”
Pagitt and Howard both said that Minnesota churches have been too long asleep on this issue. President Obama’s administration deported more than 3 million undocumented people from the United States, which is more than any president before him.
“A lot of us feel a bit shameful and hypocritical that we weren’t doing something about this over the last eight years,” Pagitt said. Howard shared a similar concern. “Maybe some confession needs to be given to the fact that we weren’t attentive at the time of the Obama administration’s deportations,” he said.
Should an individual or family take up the offer made by one of ISAIAH’s sanctuary churches, it’s unclear exactly how much protection they could legally receive. John Gordon, the interim legal director of ACLU Minnesota, said that there have been very few cases in the past brought against sanctuary spaces harboring undocumented people. The law on sanctuary spaces is ill-defined, he said, making predictions about the effort difficult.
There is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy memo that is cited as the legal basis for churches offering sanctuary. The memo details a policy “designed to ensure that [ICE] enforcement actions do not occur at nor are focused on sensitive locations such as schools and churches.”
But such a memo is not law and could be changed simply by the Department of Homeland Security issuing another memo. “My understanding is that whether that [memo] remains in effect depends on what time of day it is and which member of the administration you’re listening to,” Gordon said.
He also said the federal government will have no shortage of legal tactics ready should they want to enter a church harboring an individual they’re pursuing. Local ordinances, for example, are tools ICE will have at hand: Does the church have the correct number of bathrooms, legal fire escapes, or separate entrances for home and public use? Should a sanctuary church be in violation of a local zoning code or housing ordinance, ICE could use that to justify legal entry and “scoop those folks up,” Gordon said.
Offering sanctuary might have started as a symbolic response to Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, but already it has shifted for these churches to a question not of if, but when. So what will happen to these Minnesota churches if ICE comes to their doors?
Both Pagitt and Howard admit they’re uncertain how such an encounter might unfold.
Howard said that LHUCC would “deny entry” to ICE. To do otherwise, he said, would be to nullify their declaration of sanctuary in the first place. Protecting the vulnerable, Howard said, requires acts of resistance.
Solomon’s Porch would allow entry if immigration authorities had the legal authority to do so, Pagitt said, but would make a public scene of the event. “[We’d] broadcast it on the internet [and] call people to show up at the building. [We’d] make sure as many people as possible could see it.” To Pagitt, the sanctuary movement is not about harboring undocumented immigrants in secret—it’s about finding power in publicity and exposure.
Those are the tactics that are on display in Denver, where Jeanette Vizguerra and her three children have taken sanctuary in the First Unitarian Society church. Vizguerra was set to meet with ICE after a request to “stay” her deportation order was ignored. In the past weeks, rallies have been held by supporters in an effort to shine light on the circumstances of Vizguerra and millions of others.
“Making a scene is an entirely legitimate, constitutionally protected, and often very effective way to hold the government accountable,” Gordon said of the ACLU. “Shining a light on government practices is a big deal.”
Should we hide our deepest values in the public sphere or shout them from the rooftops?
Listen to a recorded audio version of this article courtesy of curio.io.
A bemused reception greeted British Member of Parliament Carol Monaghan when she arrived at work earlier this month in Westminster. Like many practising Christians, she had attended an Ash Wednesday service where her forehead was marked with ash in the shape of a cross. Most of her colleagues reacted with typically British awkwardness, and sometimes with curiosity. But the media reaction was more intense. The BBC asked whether her actions were “appropriate.” One political opponent implied that she was “promoting sectarianism.” The old debate about religion’s presence in political life was re-ignited, this time on social media.
The fact that a Christian attended church on an important date in the religious calendar hardly sounds like news. Yet open displays of religion are practically unheard of these days in British politics. For Damian Thompson, the event was further evidence of the “steady secularisation of British political life.” Arguably, this process is near complete: the idea that politicians should keep their religious views to themselves has almost the status of dogma, at least since ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair was silenced by one of his advisors with the reminder that “We don't do God.”
But now it seems that this process of secularisation is also being mirrored in political lobbying by religious groups. The researcher Steven Kettell recently reported his finding that Britain’s ‘Christian right’ are drawing on secular norms and values to support their political activities. For example, in justifying opposition to gay marriage, Dr. Dave Landrum of the Evangelical Alliance refers to the negative “impact on children” that same-sex unions will have.
What’s interesting about this development is that from a liberal perspective, this move should be applauded. By opting for secular rather than religious arguments, these conservative organisations are actually drawing closer to the liberal ideal of neutral discussion—the idea that when engaging in political debates we should keep sectarian beliefs out of the picture. So it’s not just politicians who shouldn’t mention Jesus (or Muhammad or Marx for that matter). All of us should keep controversial views to ourselves.
The ideal of neutral discussion has long been popular amongst liberal political philosophers. For example, Charles Larmore famously argued that:
“when two people disagree … each should prescind from the beliefs that the other rejects … in order to construct an argument on the basis of his other beliefs that will convince the other of the truth of the disputed belief.”
Applying Larmore’s argument in practice, when we disagree over an issue like gay marriage we should shelve our most controversial values and convictions. Conservative Christians must shelve their belief that St. Paul condemned homosexuality, just as liberals who champion autonomy must shelve their belief that there must be total freedom in personal relationships. Instead, we should seek common ground and give a ‘neutral reason’ for supporting it—like appealing to the well-being of children, which is something all reasonable people care about.
Why is it important to give such neutral reasons? One argument is that in doing so, we engage directly with what distinguishes our opponents as people—their rationality. If you care about treating your opponent with respect, you should recognise that it would be wrong to ask them to lend their support to a policy based on a reason they oppose.
On a more common-sense level, you might say that presenting neutral reasons is necessary in order for opponents to engage with each other at any meaningful level. Perhaps this is one reason why discussions with Jehovah’s Witnesses arriving on my doorstep never last very long: our arguments rely on such different assumptions that we inevitably talk at cross purposes.
Or, someone defending neutral discussion might say that it’s just intuitive to accept that personal views should be left out when making group decisions. They might make a comparison with selecting candidates for a job. Here it would clearly be inappropriate to bring in the consideration that one candidate is a family member, and the same applies to religious beliefs.
But is neutral discussion really useful, healthy or even rational when debating public policy?
In the case of picking a candidate for a job, it is right to leave out personal views because these are only expressions of personal preference; they aren’t relevant in finding the best person for the role. In contrast, religious beliefs are not merely expressions of preference, they are beliefs about the way things are and what is right. Conservative Christians believe that their sectarian reason—the authority of the Bible—takes them towards the right answer to any policy question under discussion. If it’s true that God exists and condemns homosexuality as a sin, then this has serious implications for policy on same-sex marriage. In that case it seems strange to ask people to leave out considerations that they believe are most salient to the issue at hand.
We might also worry that asking people to present neutral reasons rather than those that are most important to them is to encourage citizens to be dishonest. It asks that they wear a cloak over their deepest beliefs and motivations. It makes them pretend to be concerned with reasons that in fact don’t actually motivate them. This is problematic because we want to encourage citizens to be virtuous and honest, not two-faced and deceitful.
But it’s also a problem because we want to reach better answers to policy questions. By shelving what people believe to be pertinent considerations, we blunt the tools at our disposal for reaching a resolution that might at least be workable. If the aim is consensus, this consensus will be more meaningful and longer-lasting if it’s based on what people really believe—the values in which they are invested—rather than on reasons that are made up in order to get the other side on board.
Lastly, is it true that mutual respect requires neutral discussions? As the scholar William Galston has argued, we show respect for someone’s rational nature simply by engaging with them and attempting to reason with them. This suggests that the best way to conduct respectful public discussions is to be truthful about our different reasons and to try to get to the bottom of where, at root, we disagree.
All this may be of little relevance to the Conservative Christians interviewed by Kettell. As the quotes from his interviews show, the move by this constituency to publically embrace non-religious reasons is motivated by a desire to persuade and gain support, rather than to show respect for the rationality of their opponents. But it is certainly of relevance more generally for thinking about whether we should argue for neutral discussion as a key principle in the public sphere.
If the pursuit of neutral reasons encourages dishonest communication and comes at the expense of progress towards a meaningful consensus, then liberals should scrap this idea. It would be far more respectful, and far more helpful for resolving disputes about public policy, to be honest about the reasons behind our beliefs.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t look for things on which we might agree. Finding common ground and a ‘shared mission’ might be the only way to get hostile constituencies to engage with each other. Perhaps a search for mutual territory is the way to bridge the chasm that has emerged in the politics of many countries over the last twenty years. But once we’ve found a way of starting the conversation we need to be honest about the beliefs we hold dear. How our variously-sectarian arguments then fare in public discussion will be a good indicator of their strength.
Listen to a recorded audio version of this article courtesy of curio.io.
27 March 2017. Preparing for the long haul under the Trump administration –
There are hundreds of ways to stay upright and human in trying times—here’s a selection.
By now, my inchoate hopes that our nation will just wake up from the bad dream of Trump — or even more remotely that he’ll be impeached by a radicalized Congress — have turned to dust and floated away. He seems here to stay, and I need to figure out how to stay human, stay upright, with him in the White House. I need to be thinking about the long haul, about a life and a lifestyle of resistance, as opposed to a posture of resistance.
A historian would turn to history, would draw hope from the millennia of people who resisted injustice with verve and creativity. An artist would look to craft, the wordless public assertion of “I am” that pulls us all in, provoking and preserving, and then propelling us forward. A scientist would look to the building blocks of our reality, seeing the grand logic of life through both the microscopic and the telescope. I am none of those things, but I do have a lot of friends. So, in my near despair, I did what all the young people do: I posted on Facebook. Seeking the wisdom of the hive-mind, I asked, “How are you staying sane, focused, hopeful, resistant as you navigate, respond to, resist both the hateful hype and the actual terror that Trump represents and has unleashed?”
I keep going through the responses I got to this post. I need every single one of them. I need those people: artists, historians, scientists, strugglers, hopers. One friend reminded me of an experience with my uncle, Father Daniel Berrigan, who at dinner with three friends in the 1980s got impatient with their conversation — I imagine that it was a litany of political ills and social frustrations mixed with too much chatter about movies and television. My friend shared that Uncle Dan closed his eyes and said, “Let us close our eyes to the culture and (opening his eyes, scanning those seated) open them to our friends.” My friend finished his post with: “I tucked it away. A gem of advice.”
One friend recited Andrea Gibson’s poem “Say Yes” in time with a video of her performing the work. It is a powerful poem that says, “This is for your grandmother who walked a thousand miles on broken glass to find that single patch of grass to plant a family tree where the fruit would grow to laugh.” He says that this daily practice “breaks me open, and gives me the courage to tackle another day.” I was not familiar with Gibson, a queer poet and activist originally from Maine, and now I am a total fan. “This is for the radical anarchist asking the Republican to dance, because what’s the chance of anyone moving from right to left if the only moves you see are NBC and CBS? This is for no becoming yes. This is for fear becoming trust, saying ‘I love you’ to people who will never say it to us.”
Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco responded to my question by citing two points gathered from a deeper look at history: “1. the millions of people around the world who struggled under worse regimes than this, but nevertheless never lost hope, remained resilient, and celebrated their important historical role in the struggle even when things were difficult. 2. the fact that no government has remained in power if at least 3.5 percent of the population was engaged in active resistance (meaning that should Trump overreach by attempting to seize power in an authoritarian way, we would only need slightly more than 11 million people on the streets — which is only about two-and-a-half times the numbers on January 21, before he actually did anything).”
Zunes is citing the work of Erica Chenoweth, whose research discovered the 3.5 percent rule. This University of Denver political scientist crunched the numbers for every known nonviolent and violent campaign for government overthrow or territorial liberation from 1946-2006 that included at least a thousand observed participants. It is a huge dataset. And she found that when enough people join, change happens, and it happens nonviolently. As Chenoweth said on the TED stage in 2013, “Every single campaign that did surpass that 3.5 percent threshold was a nonviolent one. In fact, campaigns that relied solely on nonviolent methods were on average four-times larger than the average violent campaign. And they were often much more representative in terms of gender, age, race, political party, class and urban-rural distinctions.”
That sounds like the kind of people power we need to be building with our resistance!
Brian Terrell — a peace activist friend from Iowa, who travels the world with Voices for Creative Nonviolence — shared: “I have good friends who are shocked by the advent of Trumpism and are traumatized by what he is doing and what he threatens to do. For myself, I have been coping, sometimes better than others, with the terror and violence of each successive presidential administration. Is coping with the actual terror that Trump represents and unleashes any different from coping with the actual terror that Obama represented and unleashed? The world is still reeling and millions still traumatized from the terror unleashed by Jimmy Carter in Central America, Iran, etc. Had the election gone otherwise, many of our friends in the United States — who are worried about Trump — would likely now be oblivious to the terror that Hillary Clinton represents and that she would surely have unleashed.”
That jives with what another friend — singer-songwriter Joyce Katzberg in Rhode Island — shared: “My routine in the aftermath of Trump’s election is no different than it was during Obama’s or Bush’s or Clinton’s, etc. I take care of my soul by not exposing myself to ‘Fear, Inc.’ pushing their hate through the TV and radio. I pray every day to be useful. I walk frequently among trees and wild things to get their counsel, and I avoid being around people who nurture hate.”
I have a very busy friend who always seems energized and positive. She has two kids, a gaggle of chickens, a sister with special needs and is always doing a million things. Her son and my stepdaughter are in the same fourth grade class. She shared: “I would love to be in my own cocoon, but unfortunately I cannot. So doing good for others, helping a child, advocating for services that may be needed, not complaining but bringing ideas to the table … just realizing that I cannot do it all, but if I and everyone did one good thing [helps me realize] how many millions of good things we can accomplish.” Right on, Claudia Bouchard!
A lot of people talked about controlling the media they consumed. But I loved the way a friend from college watched the news. Amber Subsebat wrote: “When I feel compelled to read the news online, I keep this webcam going with the audio on. It’s a barn owl that has been laying eggs every few days. Great to watch at night when they are active. The ambient outdoor sounds are very grounding, and the pace is so much slower than the media consumption going on in the other tabs of my browser. I’ll be reading the news, then the male returns and chirps, and I am suddenly transported to a different world. That’s one way I’ve been coping that helps to slow my heart rate.”
Virtual bird watching: That sound like a pretty awesome recharge to me. Other friends mentioned stand-up comedy, water (with or without a lemon slice), daily Eucharist, cannabis, Pokémon Go, taking care of chickens, beauty, helping out in schools or soup kitchens, and sharing meals with refugees.
Laura Gross Bandara, another college friend, was really specific, mentioning books that are helping her right now — specifically the writing of women like the recently deceased (at age 100) Detroit organizer Grace Lee Boggs and the American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. She is also keeping these two books — “This is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the 21st Century” and “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants” — within reach. Laura writes: “I am making sure that I am showing up for face-to-face events, not just doing online and phone activism. Also, honestly, doing puzzles. It helps to focus. Weekly media and Facebook fasts.” I like the seeming incongruity of Laura’s current go-to books and want to know more about how they connect.
So, how am I dealing? I am listening to my friends. They are recharging me. I also started running again. It has been helping me find space in my head — breathing in cold, fresh air and blowing out the cobwebs, the knots and the fear. With each footfall, I find relief from the constant flutter of information, commentary, headlines and tweet-storms. In the new rhythm of breath, I am pounding an escape from this inescapable sensation that I am not doing enough — that no one is doing enough — to resist the Trump administration.
Andrea Gibson’s poem is going to become my metronome too. “Play loud, play like the apocalypse is only four, three, two, but you have a drum in your heart that would save us. You have a song like a breath that could raise us, like the sunrise into a dark sky that cries out to be blue. Play like you know we won’t survive if you don’t, but we will if you do.”
26 March 2017. What does it mean to love the world? Hannah Arendt and Amor Mundi –
Sentiment is dangerous in politics, but solidarity and critical thinking are essential.
In Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch (or ‘Thinking journal’) there’s a short entry on “Amor mundi — warum ist es so schwer, die Welt zu lieben?” “Love of the world — why is it so difficult to love the world?”
The day after the 2016 US presidential election I wrote a small piece for the Hannah Arendt Center newsletter Amor Mundi. Caught in the throes of grief, shocked, and uncertain of the future, I said that now we had to learn to love the world. Arendt’s provocation in that moment gave me a sense of calm and purpose, something to hold on to.
In moments of distress we often turn to poets and poetic thinkers to provide a sense of place and solace. W.H. Auden, Bertolt Brecht, Hannah Arendt. It’s not a coincidence that George Orwell and Arendt are selling in record numbers right now, 16 per cent above the usual rate. Publishers are running new prints of The Origins of Totalitarianism and even Theodor Adorno’s epic work The Authoritarian Personality. We’re at a cultural moment where we’re looking for understanding.
Readers looking to Arendt’s Amor Mundi for a form of political love might at first be disappointed. Amor Mundi—love of the world—is not love in any sense we’re commonly used to. There is, however, a challenge to think about what it means to be committed to the world, to care for the world despite its horrors. There is a provocation to embrace one another in our difference and to meet one another as fellow human beings. There is also a radical critique to be found of more common forms of love, which are destructive of difference and plurality.
Arendt’s conception of Amor Mundi has more to do with understanding and critical thinking than with sentiment or affect. For her, love cannot be political. It is dangerous and destructive to the realm of political affairs. Throughout her work, Arendt discusses numerous forms of love: eros, philia, agape, cupiditus, caritas, fraternitas. But love and politics is dangerous terrain.
In her treatise on The Human Condition, which she intended to title Amor Mundi, she writes:
“Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but antipolitical, perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical forces.”
Love of the world is also not the same as equality or care, or extending oneself to another from a place of need. In a letter to Auden Arendt chastises his characterization of charity and forgiveness as a form of love, writing that:
“You talk about charity as though it were love, and it is true that love will forgive everything because of its utter commitment to the beloved person. But even love violates the integrity of the wrongdoer if it forgives without having been asked to.”
Love in this sense is not the same as forgiveness, because love is not capable of critical thinking and judgment—it 'violates the integrity of the wrongdoer,' flattening all wrongs to a plane where each can be forgiven. In another letter to James Baldwin Arendt also criticizes his understanding of political love:
“What frightened me in your essay was the gospel of love which you begin to preach at the end. In politics, love is a stranger, and when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved except hypocrisy. All the characteristics you stress in the Negro people: their beauty, their capacity for joy, their warmth, and their humanity, are well-known characteristics of all oppressed people. They grow out of suffering and they are the proudest possession of all pariahs. Unfortunately, they have never survived the hour of liberation by even five minutes. Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive; you can afford them only in private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free.”
The love that belongs to the oppressed makes the injustices they suffer bearable. And when this love, with its empathy and commitments to justice and equality, enters the public realm it becomes destructive of plurality, which is the foundation of democracy. For Arendt there is a distinction between solidarity, which is the acceptance of difference and welcoming of plurality, and empathy and equality, which seek to flatten and condense. Baldwin’s idea of love can only ever threaten the political by leading us away from democracy.
Love of the world is about understanding and reconciling one’s self with the world as it is. Or, to use Arendt’s own language, it is the idea that we must “face and come to terms with what really happened”, and what is happening today. How can we live in a world where something like the Holocaust is possible? In her letter to Karl Jaspers written on August 6, 1955, Arendt says:
“Yes, I would like to bring the wide world to you this time. I’ve begun so late, really only in recent years, to truly love the world that I shall be able to do that now. Out of gratitude, I want to call my book on political theory ‘Amor Mundi.’”
This passage comes in the middle of the letter, where Arendt is describing the “melancholy task” she’s been working on—writing introductions for books by two deceased friends, Hermann Broch and Waldemar Gurian. It is only because of her love of the world that she is able to perform this one last act of friendship. Within this statement there is a recognition and reckoning with the events of the past. What does it mean to love the world in face of such great loss?
For Arendt, Amor Mundi is bound up with her axiom at the beginning of The Human Condition that we must stop and think what we are doing, along with the idea of reconciliation that is threaded throughout her thinking journal and her essays on responsibility and judgment. There is a form of self-reflective critical thinking contained within these ideas, since in order to see the world as it is we must stand on the sidelines, find perspective, and a place of solitude for thinking. In other words, there has to be a turning in before we can turn out. Loving the world requires reckoning with the world, which means we must find some critical distance from what is happening around us. When we witness injustices, sometimes there is an impulse to act, but Arendt cautions us to slow down and think what we are doing—to be thinkers not just joiners.
This form of reckoning and reconciliation might also be understood as making peace with one’s self; finding a way to have fidelity to one’s thoughts even in our darkest moments of loss, grief, and crisis. Amor Mundi can give us a metaphysical sense of certainty in a world that is always being destroyed. It is a relational form of love.
In earlier letters to Jaspers Arendt talks about the joy she finds in the American people—a young fishmonger who has read all of Jaspers’ work, a young girl from a poor family whose living room is filled with books of Plato, Hegel, and Kant. Loving the world involves reconciling ourselves with the events of the past so that we can move about the everydayness of life, to go on living, to create, to find joy, to find perspective, to build new friendships, and to remind ourselves of where the possible remains—in language, in poems, in the young fishmonger who has a fondness for philosophy. It’s a promise of continued existence, a way of not resigning from the world when the world seems too unbearable to live in.
What kind of world are we facing today? Why is public funding being allocated to walls instead of arts? Why are so many Americans unable to afford health insurance? Why do we value some lives more than others? And why are middle-aged Americans committing suicide at unprecedented rates?
More broadly, how is there genocide in the 21st century? Why are we experiencing the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War? Why do we keep insisting on the rhetoric of social equality instead of learning to appreciate and celebrate our differences? And why do we demand answers to any of these questions when the logic of question-answer is the same logic of tyrannical thinking?
Arendt’s conception of Amor Mundi is not comforting, it is challenging. It refuses the idea that we can ‘find meaning in’ or ‘make sense of’ and instead pushes us to work hard to understand and accept that there are no answers to these questions in the way we might wish.
In teaching us to love the world Arendt is teaching us to be thinking, engaged citizens. She cautions us against the impulses of sentiment or affect, and guides us toward political thinking. Loving the world offers us a way of being in the world that plants our feet firmly in reality, so that we can see what is before us.
Advances in artificial intelligence call us to revisit basic questions about work, love and human purpose.
A recent episode of CBC Radio’s Day 6 featured an interview with David Levy, artificial intelligence expert and author of Love and Sex with Robots. Levy discussed a line of robotic sex dolls to be released in 2017 that can speak and respond to touch. He reaffirmed his 2007 prediction, in his book Love and Sex with Robots, that humans will be marrying robots by 2050. He suggests this will be a step forward.
“There are millions of people out there who, for various reasons, don’t have anyone to love or anyone who loves them. And for these people, I think robots are going to be the answer,” he said.
I suspect that Levy sees this as a lucrative business opportunity for Intelligent Toys, Ltd, a company the article mentions he founded.
The profit potentials of automation are not limited to robot spouses.
Front and center is the issue of jobs. Donald Trump promised to bring back millions of jobs that globalization outsourced at the expense of U.S. workers. According to a 2014 MIT study recently cited by the New York Times, 2 million to 2.4 million jobs have been lost to China alone since 2000. People living in areas of the country most impacted by those job losses suffer long-term unemployment and reduced income for the rest of their lives. They are understandably angry and constitute an important segment of Trump’s political base.
But, as former President Barack Obama noted in his farewell address, those jobs are gone forever—not because of globalization, but because of automation. “The next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”
Gartner, an information technology consulting firm, estimated in 2014 that by 2025, a third of current U.S. jobs will be replaced by some form of automation. Indeed, China itself has become a world leader in automation, threatening both Chinese and U.S. workers.
Trump touted United Technologies as his first victory in convincing a corporation to keep a factory in the U.S. But UT has announced plans to use automation to do the jobs it would have moved. So, in the name of saving jobs, Trump is subsidizing with tax breaks their elimination by automation.
We are seeing a flood of predictions in business media from artificial intelligence experts that jobs at risk include pharmacists, cashiers, drivers, astronauts, soldiers, babysitters, elder care workers, sports writers, and news reporters—among others. On Wall Street, the jobs of most floor traders have already been automated, and the jobs of hedge fund managers and stock market analysts may soon be on the chopping block.
These predictions suggest we face the prospect of an economy with little need for humans. As with any technology, however, artificial intelligence is not inherently good or bad. The issue is how we choose to use it and who makes the choice.
The economy is a human creation. The only reason for its existence is to support people—all people— in securing material well-being sufficient for their good health and happiness. For most people, there is no happiness without relationships, a sense of being needed by others, and opportunities to express their creativity. That most always includes some form of work. Thus, while the automation of dirty, dangerous, and boring tasks can be a blessing for humanity, the need for meaningful work remains an imperative.
Our vision of how to deal with the coming workforce disruption must be guided by our common quest to actualize the fullness of our human possibility, not by the quest for corporate profits. The primary decisions regarding how to use artificial intelligence and how to distribute the benefits must be in the hands of self-governing human communities rather than profit-maximizing corporations.
The social isolation of which Levy speaks is real—the product of economic forces that undermine the family and community relationships that for millennia sustained our species and defined our humanity. Our need to relate to one another is foundational to our humanity.
Attempting to meet that need by turning to machines that look, feel, and act like humans would be a further step toward our dehumanization. If we want our children to learn to relate to humans and if we are more comfortable being treated by human doctors—then let our primary care providers be humans aided by machines as appropriate. But let us not confuse the two. The creation of machines that look, feel, and act like humans should be prohibited. If it looks, feels, and acts like a human, it should be a human.
In our current political climate, everything is up for grabs. This is a timely moment to stretch our imaginations and envision the lives and the society we want. Let us be clear that a world in which we are distracted from our loneliness by electronic games, animated videos, and robot sex is more appropriate as a horror movie plot than as a desirable vision for society.
Let us strive for an economy in which a primary goal and responsibility of business is to make work meaningful, build relationships of internal and external community, and heal the Earth. A combination of the appropriate use of automation and of worker and community ownership would make this possible. This might be a foundational element of a positive democratic vision for a living Earth economy, around which all people of good will can enthusiastically unite.
This article was first published in YES! Magazine.
23 March 2017. We’ve been down this road before –
A powerful new video shows how immigrants have been scapegoated throughout US history (4 minutes).
Let’s Make History We Want to Remember is a collaborative video project about how immigrants have been targeted throughout US history, and a call to action to make a different kind of history.
Find out more at www.MakeHistoryToRemember.wordpress.com
22 March 2017. From the politics of division to the politics of humanity –
We must not give up on revolutionary optimism. It may get us some important concessions from neo-liberalism—and possibly much, much more.
On August 27 2010 Kenya promulgated a progressive Constitution whose vision is social democracy. It’s a vision of the promotion and protection of the whole gamut of human rights; the equitable distribution of political power and the resources of society; and the creation of a nation out of different ethnic groupings. The Constitution aims to bring an end to the organization of politics through divisions; mitigate the protection of private property in land; cement agreement on national values and principles; promote integrity in public and private leadership; and build depersonalized national institutions.
The struggle to implement the progressive vision of this Constitution continues today. The elite forces of the status quo who found this vision unacceptable are resisting its implementation at every step. As the latest stage in this process, Kenya will hold new elections on August 8, 2017. I was Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya from 2011 to 2016, so I’ve observed and participated in this process first-hand. Given the efforts of the political elite to resist the implementation of the Constitution, I became convinced that the Judiciary had to play a pivotal role in defending and advancing it. We consciously developed a jurisprudence that promoted the Constitution’s robust implementation, and in that way the Judiciary became a political actor.
For almost the entire period since Kenya’s independence on December 12, 1963, the country’s politics have been organized around divisions: ethnic, religious, racial, regional, clan and gender-based, generational, pastoralists versus agriculturalists, and most recently, divisions driven by xenophobia. The Kenyan elite have become so adept at the politics of division that elections are never about issues, and voters seem unable or unwilling to shed the blinkers of these differences.
Academics and activists on both side of the class divide shamelessly talk of the ‘tyranny of numbers:’ out of the 43 ethnic communities in Kenya, the ‘Big Five’ command over 70 per cent of the electoral vote—Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luo, Kamba and Luhya. The politics of division are reflected in concrete terms in ethnic coalitions that are put together by the barons of these five communities. At the moment three of them are members of the National Super Alliance, or NASA (Luo, Kamba and Luhya), while the other two form the Jubilee coalition (Kikuyu and Kalenjin). The graveyard of acronyms of Kenyan political parties since independence would make for grim but humorous reading.
There is one pillar in the Constitution that gives me optimism: devolution, which entails the equitable distribution of political power and resources. Kenya has 47 counties with governments led by elected Governors. The Constitution decrees that 15 per cent of all national resources must be shared between these 47 counties. The Kenyan Senate has come up with an equalization formula that favors counties that hitherto have been marginalized.
Notwithstanding the very real issue of decentralized corruption, reports from these marginalized counties are encouraging. I believe that anti-corruption movements are gaining ground from the margins of these counties to safeguard the resources that are devolved to them. Demands for more resources are being made from the Center in the form of the Executive, Parliament, the Treasury and the Central Bank, since these national institutions have not justified their 85 per cent lion’s share.
Devolution, more resources for counties, and weakening the Center in financial matters are issues that will take center stage in the forthcoming elections. This will be a contest in which poverty eradication and the equitable distribution of resources should feature prominently. If so, this would be a great leap forward in the quest to strengthen Kenyan democracy.
In this respect I can already see the beginnings of a politics of humanity that is based on the equitable distribution of resources. Social movements in marginalized counties are gaining strength. Public participation in the use of resources is robust. Debates are taking place around the material needs of the people like education, employment, health, sanitation, housing, environment, foreign investment and corruption. There is a great imagination and consciousness emerging from the margins that sees the prudent use of resources as one of the keys to poverty-eradication.
I have been cautioned about creating too much hope from what I see in marginalized counties. I have been warned not to create a fetish out of the Constitution, or of devolution. All I can say with certainty is that both ‘trains have left the station,’ and they will not be easily derailed.
This is not the first time we have heard of transformation from the margins. The Chinese revolutionaries talked of surrounding the cities from the rural areas, their margins. They talked of solidarities between workers and peasants on the basis of the material interests of their lives and livelihoods. And reading Nina Eliasoph’s recent Transformation piece on the United States reminds me that such debates are happening right across the world.
I have no issue with improving access to consumer goods, jobs and services like health and education. I love them. What I hate is their inequitable distribution. Eliasoph touches on the same issue in her insistence that politics needs to “offer a vision of society in which everyone could enjoy things that look like the privilege of elites…a vision that shows how lessening the gap between the rich and poor” could make these goods and services accessible to all.
In both Kenya and the US, the challenge is to resist systems that put profits before people. This challenge is centrally concerned with the equitable distribution of resources. It’s about mitigating the harshness of systems that create extreme inequalities among people. I believe such visions are reflected in paradigms of human rights, social justice, and social democracy. In practical terms it is about having a society in which everybody can enjoy at the minimum the rights, entitlements and opportunities that are currently enjoyed by elites.
History records numerous experiments in what was called welfare capitalism and social democracy after World War Two. In America Eliasoph mentions the New Deal and the Great Society of Presidents Roosevelt and Johnson respectively. I believe one could add the meager reinforcement of such state-driven projects in the US through corporate social responsibility and social justice philanthropy, which attempt to mitigate the costs and concentrated power of corporatism.
Eliasoph is right. Such solidarities are possible notwithstanding divisions in society if “white rural people’s suffering” as she puts it is addressed as a political issue alongside the suffering of people of color and low-income communities in cities. Institutionalized racism might slowly be dismantled by a politics of humanity in which resources are equitably distributed, and in which poverty knows no color.
I know the challenges that stand in the way of this potentially-transformative optimism. Neo-liberalism and the engines that put profits before people provide serious barriers to progress. Even in Kenya, devolution faces serious challenges from neo-liberalism from the elites who benefit from it and its agents.
I want, however, to join my imagination with that of Eliasoph and others in projects of solidarity across national borders. This idea is not new. The slogan of the World Social Forum is “Another World is Possible.” The Indian activist Arundhati Roy goes even further by telling us that “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” We must not give up such revolutionary optimism. It may get us some important concessions from neo-liberalism—and possibly much, much more.
20 March 2017. Escaping from the echo-chambers of politics –
In 2016, many people were shocked by the results of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of President Trump in the United States. They simply didn’t see these things coming, despite being well-educated, well-read, and deluged with information from social media. They couldn’t understand why so many people were dissatisfied with the status-quo, perhaps believing that anyone who thought differently from them was a racist or an idiot.
How could that be? How could people who spend their lives sharing news and discussing politics be so out of touch? And what can be done to address the tendency of both left and right to exist in a comfort zone of self-reinforcing ideas and opinions?
These are the questions that sparked the founding of the Echo Chamber Club in 2016. Each week we send out a newsletter to our subscribers who self identify as ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’ or ‘metropolitan’ containing a selection of previously-published articles that come from sources outside their existing networks. The goal is to showcase different points of view—often radically so. We’ve made the case that women who call themselves ‘pro-life’ can be feminists, for example; presented Russian perspectives on the Syrian crisis; and investigated whether popular comedy shows on television are too liberal.
Why is this important? At the very least we hope that readers will understand ‘the opposition’ and be more prepared when the next BREXIT comes around. But more than that, we want to break down silos and encourage people to confront discordant points of view. Over time, we think that’s likely to lead to a more inclusive political culture and a better quality of debate. But why is the echo-chamber problem so pronounced in the first place?
My background is in media, technology and sales, so initially I thought that creating a new technology would help users to access different points of view. However, whenever you develop an app you have to be incredibly precise about the specifications of the product. Given that we don’t really know what causes the echo-chamber problem it’s difficult to create a quick-fix solution.
A lot of blame is laid at Facebook’s door since they have developed an algorithm for choosing what you see on your news feeds. Facebook’s business model depends on advertising, so the more time you spend on the platform the more advertising you see. As a result, the algorithm is designed to show you news and other material that are similar to the things you already engage with, and that perpetuates the echo-chamber effect by filtering the ideas you see and those you don’t.
There are other factors too. Take newspapers, which have been hit hard by the digital revolution. They have had to adapt the content they produce to make money via online advertising. The type of content required online is typically more simplistic than for print media, requiring shorter sentences, punchier headlines and subtitled videos.
Similarly, anyone can become a journalist these days by gathering information from social networks, producing an article in minutes and breaking stories. Compare this to pre-digital times when journalists had to go out and speak to many people before writing the first version of their article. A lot more time and thought was required before completing a piece.
Another reason why we may be more prone to echo-chambers comes from the dehumanisation of people online. The anonymity of social media makes it much easier to troll and abuse someone if you don’t know and can’t see them. This may cause you to lose empathy for those who have different opinions to you. There may be some technological elements to a solution to these problems—Max Ogles, for example, has written about a potential interface to humanise people you don’t know on Facebook by giving more prominence to a person’s face and not just to their comments—but I doubt whether technology will be enough.
That’s why experiments in humanly-curated newsletters like the Echo Chamber Club offer some promise. Each week the editors have complete flexibility in the information we present to subscribers, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no structure involved. Three rules are especially important:
First, we curate newsletters but we don’t create them. We never write new opinion pieces. Arguably there are far too many opinions in the world anyway, and adding more is unlikely to get to the ‘truth’ of the matter. Instead, we aggregate the voices of other people and curate the articles they write.
Secondly, we must have evidence to show that each newsletter will be challenging to our target audience—‘liberal and progressive metropolitans.’ Once you know where the echo-chamber exists you can confront it. It’s important not to resort to guesswork. So every morning I do a quick analysis of the echo-chamber of the day by checking what’s on the front pages of the publications subscribers say they read, like the Guardian and the BBC. We also check Facebook Trending to identify popular stories, and have a couple of Twitter Lists that we push through Nuzzel.
Third, we advocate the views of many different groups. You might think an easy solution would be for subscribers to read the conservative-leaning Spectator every week. However, in doing so they would only become familiar with the views of one other source. The Echo Chamber Club is not restricted to the views of any particular section of opinion from the centre-right to the far left.
We’ve been issuing weekly newsletters since June 2016, and most of them fall into one or more of the following categories:
Tenzing was Edmund Hillary’s guide when climbing Mount Everest. Hillary needed to have direction from another source to reach the summit – otherwise he simply wouldn’t know where to go. Our Sherpa Tenzing newsletters touch on a completely different subject that might not be discussed in the echo-chamber at all. We dive deep into something that seems to be ignored, and which is unlikely to be accessed without a guide.
“Dark Side of the Moon.”
Sometimes a news story will break, and it will be the number one discussion point for people in their echo-chamber. Most of the time the group will converge on a single point of view in terms of how that story should be interpreted. In our Dark Side of the Moon newsletters we try and showcase an alternative perspective that’s held by a different group on the same news story. We’re both looking at the same moon, but we see entirely different things.
“Against the Indisputable.”
By indisputable we mean a deeply held ethical or moral opinion that’s held by the members of a group. Take the notion that all feminists must be pro-choice by definition. When we argue against the indisputable, we challenge these views, as we did in this newsletter that presents a range of views on pro-life feminism.
Occasionally we fact-check the sources of prominent news stories that are doing the rounds on social media. The purpose of these newsletters is to show that one group is just as likely to fall victim to ‘fake news’ as any other.
What results have we seen thus far?
To start with I’ve received a lot of emails from subscribers that show the Echo Chamber Club is helping to bridge the gap between different viewpoints. One messaged me to say that she’d had the first productive conversation with her mother-in-law in years after reading our newsletter about Brexit. Another told me that she is starting to feel more confident in creating more inclusive opinions because our content says things that not many other media outlets are prepared to publish. In addition, our newsletters have thousands of subscribers with an average open rate of 41 percent. Our list grows at an average of five per cent week on week, mainly through word of mouth.
Nevertheless, there is still a lot of resistance. The first question people ask me is why I’m publishing newsletters for ‘liberals and progressives’ when surely it’s the other side that needs more help? I’m conscious of the argument that we could be ‘normalising’ and giving credence to views that would be better left unshared. However, I value and believe in the underlying principles of the Echo Chamber Club—freedom of speech and the belief that people are more likely to reach reasoned decisions when they have a variety of evidence in front of them.
This isn’t easy. I frequently feel a lot of ‘cognitive dissonance’ when putting out newsletters with which I strongly disagree. For me, this comes in the form of nausea and procrastination. It’s also made it very difficult for me to get involved in anything else that requires any level of my emotional attention. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that society needs to find better ways to help people with different views truly listen to one another. From the evidence so far, it looks like the Club is helping its subscribers to do just that, and that’s enough for me.
17 March 2017. Six reasons why the Left should keep on infighting –
Having lots of people with lots of voices isn’t a weakness—it’s a strength.
Originally published on Everyday Feminism.
“Why does the Left keep eating its own? We need to be united!”
“We should be fighting conservatives – not each other! And that’s true now more than ever!”
“We’re fighting the rise of literal fascism in the United States – we can’t waste our time and energy on infighting!”
We hear this a lot on the Left. We say it a lot. It’s almost an article of faith.
But the more I think about it, the more I can’t agree.
Outcries against infighting are understandable – but they ultimately don’t make sense.
They’re often self-serving; they divide more than they unite; they disempower the people who most need more power; and they undercut our basic identity as a movement.
Here are six reasons why.
1. ‘Infighting’ is just another word for ‘resolving conflicts.’
We have important differences on the Left.
We disagree about tactics, strategies, priorities – even about our ultimate goals.
We disagree about radical versus incremental change; identity politics versus class politics; which kinds of civil disobedience are called for and when; which compromises are necessary and which we can’t accept; and many, many more issues.
These are important differences. We need to settle them.
We need to make decisions and move forward: in our small working groups, in our large organizations and big national events, and within the movement as an amorphous, impossible-to-define whole.
How are we going to do that if we aren’t willing to have conflict?
2. Without infighting, who gets to make decisions?
We have hard decisions to make. We don’t have the resources to do all the things we want to do – and we don’t all want to do the same things anyway.
Who’s going to make these decisions, and how? Do we sit back and let our leaders do the thinking and deciding?
That’s not who we are. That doesn’t reflect our values.
And even if we were going to do that, which leaders would we follow? Labor leaders? Media voices? Heads of civil liberties organizations?
The heads of the Democratic Party – and if so, which ones?
To some extent, we can each make our own decisions about who to listen to and what action to take.
But if we’re taking collective action, if we’re working together in groups small or large, we need to make decisions. How do we make them?
If we operate by anything resembling consensus or democracy, that means conflict. And if we do choose a leader to be the decider, that doesn’t relieve us of conflict. We still have to decide, not only who to follow, but when and if to stop following.
We have to keep our leaders accountable. We have to pay attention to what our leaders are doing and where they’re going, and we have to decide every day whether we’re okay with it.
And at some point, we’re likely to have conflicts about that.
In the months since the 2016 election, the Left has been galvanized. It’s been amazing: People who have been bemoaning how weak and half-assed the Left has been should be sitting up and cheering. And this uprising is so strong, in part, because it’s coming from the ground up.
But that has some consequences. A grassroots movement is a movement led by a thousand people at once. That’s going to mean conflict.
And conflict, again, is just another word for infighting.
3. Diversity is one of the things we’re fighting for.
The Left is a highly diverse movement. We’re not as diverse as we should be, but we’re certainly better at it than the Right.
And diversity means differences – which need to be worked out.
Every group wants its issues to be addressed, to be more of a priority. That’s appropriate. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work.
And every group (and every person within every group) has different ideas – not just about which issues to work on, but about tactics and strategies, priorities, and goals.
Diversity doesn’t mean a saccharine children’s painting of varied people holding hands and smiling.
Among many other things, diversity means accepting that we have differences – sometimes major differences – and finding ways to resolve our conflicts that don’t screw people over.
4. Concerns about infighting suppress marginalized people.
This is one of the most insidious things about pleas to stop infighting.
All too often, they punch down. They get aimed at marginalized people speaking out about problems within progressive movements.
So the calls for unity create the very divisiveness they’re supposedly trying to stop. The people who get divided out are the people who complain, and are told to shut up.
Remember the Women’s March? Remember how women of color speaking about racism in the march were chided for being divisive?
When white women working on the march were told they were being racist, many responded by saying their feelings were hurt. They made their hurt feelings a greater priority than the racism, and they insisted that women of color needed to stop talking about white supremacy because it was divisive and the march needed unity.
White, cisgender women needed unity, anyway. The idea that “unity” might mean listening to black and brown women when they call you on your crap?
Some white women got that. A lot didn’t.
It was tremendously frustrating: Women who rage against these exact silencing tactics when they come from men were turning around and aiming them at other women. And it discouraged a lot of black and brown women from participating in the march.
I’ve dealt with this for years in the atheist movement. For years, when atheist women and people of color spoke about racism, misogyny, harassment, sexual assault, and the rise of the so-called “alt-right” within the movement, we were told to keep quiet because we couldn’t afford divisiveness.
Yeah, that worked out great. Ignoring the trolls was an awesome idea.
Ignoring the rise of the racist, misogynist alt-right; giving it a home in our communities because we didn’t want to be exclusionary (not to white men, anyway); giving it a home in our online spaces because free speech was falsely equated with giving a platform to fascists – that worked out great.
Oh wait, no. Strike that. Reverse it. Ignoring the alt-right was interpreted as tacit approval.
The shitlords camped out in any atheist space that would let them. They drove marginalized people out, creating the very divides the status quo warriors were supposedly concerned about.
And they used these spaces to embolden each other, spread disinformation and hatred, make their positions seem mainstream, and build their movement.
The deep rifts in organized atheism, as painful as they’ve been, are some of the best things that could have happened to us. They’ve given the social justice advocates in our movement the freedom to quit beating our heads against the wall and just create our own damn communities.
Yes, we’d be stronger if we were more unified. It just sucks that “unified” means “marginalized people need to shut up.”
And this story is all too common on the Left. We should know better.
5. The line between infighting and healthy debate often gets drawn in self-serving ways.
There are worthwhile conversations to be had about how to have conflict. But it’s kind of hilarious how blatantly self-serving these conversations can be.
Healthy debate is when conflict goes the way I want. Infighting is when it doesn’t.
I’m debating. You’re infighting. They’re creating deep rifts.
And there’s a special irony in picking fights about how people are fighting too much. Those meta-fights are apparently okay and even necessary.
The actual fights about our actual differences? That’s divisive infighting. Bad!
6. Infighting isn’t a weakness—it’s a key part of who we are.
The fact that we don’t march in lockstep behind authoritarian leaders is one of the things that sets us apart from conservatives.
It draws people to us. It makes us who we are. And it’s one of our greatest strengths.
I once saw a talk advising progressives about media presentation. I wish I remembered the speaker’s name, so I could credit him.
One of the things the speaker said – something that’s stuck with me for years – is that when it comes to media management, conservatives are very good at sticking to the party line. No matter what news outlet you tune into, you’ll see every right-wing pundit saying the same thing.
And then the speaker said that progressives shouldn’t try to imitate that. It’s not what we’re good at, we’ll never be good at it – and it’s not who we are.
What we are good, he said, at is coming at an issue from lots of angles.
We’re good at showing why our view is fair, why it’s economical, why it’s good for jobs and the environment and national security, why it fits our country’s best visions of what we should be.
We’re good at showing how the issue affects families, women, students, retired people, poor people, disabled people, people of color. We’re good at offering hard evidence, insightful analysis, and human stories that tug at people’s hearts.
We get at an issue from lots of perspectives – and when we do that well, we connect with a whole lot of people.
That’s who we are. We aren’t a movement that values authority and conformity.
We don’t just want the people at the top to be heard. We’re a movement that values fairness and kindness – for lots of different people.
We’re the ones who want to make sure the unheard are heard. Even when we don’t live up to those values, they’re what we strive for. And striving for those values means accepting the reality of conflict, and the necessity of resolving that conflict.
There is a line between conflict and abuse.
We need to have conversations about where to draw that line, and we need to keep an eye on it. And right now, in the current apocalypse, maybe we should be more thoughtful about which internal fights are worth it and which we want to let go.
But in the current apocalypse, we also need to make sure that everyone who’s endangered by the rise of fascism is heard.
I’ve never seen a general case against infighting that didn’t ultimately translate to “People who disagree with me should shut up.”
Democracy is hard. Equality is hard. Lots of people having voices and wanting to be heard– that’s hard.
But when we do it well, we are at our best. Let’s not stifle it.
15 March 2017. Demons and angels: strongman leaders and social violence –
Politicians who live in an angry narcissistic fog pose a threat to democracy and peace.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker argues that we may be living through the most peaceable era in human existence. As evidence for this remarkable assertion, Pinker cites the fact that the death rate from violence in the twentieth century—at around three percent of the global population—was only a fraction of the 15 percent estimated for pre-modern societies. Even with the catastrophic wars and genocides of the twentieth century there has been a five-fold reduction in violence when measured in the aggregate, though this conclusion ignores the fact that certain groups and communities, and certain forms of violence, may have risen—against women, Muslims, and black males in the USA for example.
Perhaps less controversial is Pinker’s claim that changing circumstances—rather than changes in human nature—are responsible for these trends. Human nature, he explains, is always a mix of inner demons and better angels. Motives that impel us towards violence like predation, dominance and vengeance co-exist with motives that impel us toward peace like compassion, fairness, self-control and reason. Changes in the prevalence of violence in society result from shifts in the social, cultural and material conditions that influence the balance between these different motives. If conditions favour our better angels violence remains low. If they reward our demons violence will increase.
However, in any population a subset of individuals exists with dangerous personality disorders who are predisposed to pathological behaviours. When those individuals gain access to positions of leadership and power, the likelihood of violence increases substantially as more and more people are pulled into a self-reinforcing cycle of ‘nature and nurture.’ The election of Donald Trump and the rise of other strongman leaders around the world is a warning that the conditions which favour our inner demons are once again becoming dominant.
One person who documented the dramatic shift in human behaviour from peace and tolerance to war and genocide was Andrew Lobaczewski. Lobaczewski was a Polish psychiatrist who observed the brutalisation of Polish society at first hand as first Hitler’s Nazis, and then Stalin’s Bolsheviks, forced their violent ideologies upon his homeland. Lobaczewski’s search for a rational explanation of the incomprehensible evil he observed led him to a radically new theory of human nature, and the clearest description we yet have of the origin and spread of evil.
According to Lobaczewski, “each society on earth contains a certain percentage of individuals, a relatively small but active minority, who cannot be considered normal.... individuals that are statistically small in number, but whose quality of difference is such that it can affect hundreds, thousands, even millions of other human beings in negative ways.”
Lobaczewski was writing before the advances of modern psychiatric science, but the ‘minority’ he was referring to are those who suffer from what we now know as paranoid personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and psychopathy. People with these disorders, Lobaczewski realised, play a catalytic role in a society’s descent into barbarism. The twentieth century’s most destructive tyrants, including Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot, all displayed these characteristics. By pursuing their grandiose dreams regardless of the consequences for others, these dangerous individuals, along with their followers and enablers, played a central role in the worst atrocities in human history.
People with psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder suffer from distortions in the basic cognitive and emotional structures of their minds. These disorders manifest as rigid patterns of behaviour that are difficult, threatening and harmful to others, including an increased propensity for violence and greed.
Psychopaths suffer from a dysfunction of the brain’s emotional system which renders them incapable of feeling empathy, love, guilt or shame. People with narcissistic personality disorder exhibit a grandiose sense of self-importance, an exhibitionistic need for constant admiration, and exploitative relationships with others.
Paranoid personality disorder is characterised by suspicion and an obsession with defending against enemies, both real and imaginary. At its most pathological it impels those who suffer from it to seek the annihilation of those they deem to be enemies.
Current estimates are that around six per cent of the population in any society suffer from one or more of these disorders. No effective treatment or cure is currently available. All that can be said with certainty with regard to their causes is that both nature and nurture are likely to contribute.
While everyone can manifest callous, narcissistic and paranoid traits depending on the circumstances, it is the rigidity of thoughts and feelings that marks out people with dangerous personality disorders. The majority of human beings can act from either or both of their angels and demons, but psychopaths are only capable of acting on the basis of violence, domination and greed. People with these disorders do not ‘pivot.’ Their cognitive and emotional deficiencies mean that they are psychologically incapable of showing genuine empathy, solidarity and concern.
Lobaczewski’s contribution was not simply to recognise that a pathological minority can pose an existential threat. He also described how this minority can come to dominate a whole society. Dangerous leaders, Lobaczewski realised, are simply the most visible manifestations of a much wider malaise. Political scientist Betty Glad later coined the phrase ‘the toxic triangle’ to capture the process through which such minorities come to power, namely the alignment of a dangerous leader, susceptible followers, and an environment conducive to their rise.
As Glad explains, any individual who rises to power must do so with the help of both a core group of supporters and a wider support base within the general population. The key to understanding the rise of Hitler, Stalin or any other pathological leader is to realise that individuals who also suffer from dangerous personality disorders form a key power base within the leader’s core group of followers. Malignant narcissists already in positions of power in politics, media, academia and local political organisations respond to the opportunities that the pathological leader’s ascent to power presents for them to pursue their own ambitions.
This relatively small but influential group help to establish the violent, paranoid and post-truth characteristics of the leader as the new norm. Faced with this group’s increasing influence and dissonant propaganda, the general population experiences a growing collective confusion and loss of common sense, and an increasing inability to hold onto previously accepted standards of reason and morality.
This does not, however, allow us to escape the essential role that psychologically normal people play in aiding toxic leaders in their rise to power. In fact, as history and contemporary events both show, when the circumstances are right, toxic individuals almost inevitably find a mass following. To understand why this is so, we must consider the third side of the toxic triangle—the conducive environment in which dangerous leaders gain widespread popularity.
Today’s political circumstances constitute an almost perfect storm of inequality, insecurity, economic hardship, terrorist threats and democratic decline. Unfortunately, under such conditions many people become more willing to accept assertive leaders and more ready to dehumanise their perceived enemies. Many who act from their better angels when circumstances are supportive can unleash their inner demons when they feel angry or fearful. It is precisely this malleability of human nature that is currently allowing strongman leaders to gain support across the globe, stoking widespread public fear while posing as protectors against dangerous alien forces.
Those who struggle for freedom across the world know that free elections, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of the press, and equality regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation are the pillars of democratic systems that protect us from a minority who would subjugate us and turn us against one another for their personal gain. Democracy matters because it is all that stands between us and the Hitlers, Stalins, Maos and Pol Pots that live among us still.
Stemming the rise of authoritarian leaders and halting the spread of prejudice and hate that enables them demands that the rules and principles of democracy must be protected, extended and restored. The failure to deepen and reinstate these rules and principles will see humanity sliding backwards to a position where violence and privilege, rather than justice and dignity, will direct human affairs.
In that process, a minority of people with dangerous personality disorders can fundamentally alter the swing of the pendulum from compromise to conflict, from inclusion to vilification, and from humanity to savagery. Containing this dangerous minority by reinvigorating democracy is an urgent necessity if human progress is to continue.
13 March 2017. Scorn wars: rural white people and us –
What could end the cycle of mutual ignorance, resentment, and anger in politics?
After living in the coastal cities of America for all of my life, I met rural white people for the first time in 1995. They were my sociology students at the University of Wisconsin, and I had assigned them the usual fare, heavy on the causes and consequences of urban poverty and racism. These students bristled, saying that their problems were just as bad. I was sure they must be wrong, of course: even if they were poor, they still had white privilege.
But they persisted. They described empty towns without jobs from which everyone tried to leave as soon as they could; small farmers who worked so hard to compete against agro-businesses that they had to pass up on sleep; and small communities with big drug problems.
By the middle of my first semester, hearing enough of their tales, and smelling their resentment, my emotional, moral, and political alarm bells finally went off. I realized that something big was missing from the story that urban elites, progressive journalists, politicians, media producers, and academics like me had been telling about rural white Americans for decades: we talked about everyone else’s plight except their own.
Katherine Cramer’s book, The Politics of Resentment, argues that part of the reason rural whites resent urban elites is that they think that we know nothing about them—that they and their hard work and intelligence are invisible to us and that we scorn them anyway. We eat the cheese from Wisconsin farms but we don’t think about the lives of the people who produce it.
As a religious Southerner put it to author Arlie Russell Hochschild in her book Strangers in Their Own Land, “Oh, liberals think that Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, redneck losers. They think we’re racist, sexist, homophobic, and maybe fat.” And let’s face it, there’s some truth in her image of us. Let’s also acknowledge that there’s some truth behind our image of them—some do behave in racist and homophobic ways sometimes.
However, a third of the counties that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, and most of these counties are rural places full of white people. Trump’s racism and sexism were not deal breakers for them, and this is shocking. But ignoring white rural people’s suffering won’t make them less racist. Conversely, when we only talk about white privilege, we make it sound as though we think they must be losers, since even with all that whiteness they still come out at the bottom of the social pyramid. We deprive them of any rational explanation for their poverty.
Feeling invisible and scorned, they want to turn the tables, to convince each other that ‘the first shall be last;’ and that they are the real folk, humble, hardworking, and full of gratitude, while we are self-important, ungrateful, lazy complainers.
Once upon a time, our societies had broad, public visions like the New Deal and the Great Society that lessened the gap between winners and losers. Without those visions, rural people’s resentful conversion of powerlessness into piety makes sense since ‘your win is my loss.’ Resentment of this kind billows with explosive psychological and moral power. It fills not just hearts, but ballot boxes. It’s become a kind of identity politics for white people, packed tight with rage and brittle with superiority.
J. D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy shows how this lack of political vision feels from the inside. While detailing one childhood disaster after another, Vance tries not to blame society, not to feel like a victim, and never to ask for help. Instead, he wants to feel gratitude. He grew up with a crazy, drug-addicted mother but is grateful for the caring grandma who took him into her home.
As recent work about rural America shows, rural whites don’t want to be complainers. They don’t think complaining would help because they have no vision of any kind of change that could fix their problems. Instead, they want to find brave, fun, clever ways of dealing with them; or to bear their crosses with humility, remembering that suffering is part of the human condition; or to find some other way to adapt to what seems inevitable.
We all have a lot to learn about gratitude. Vance misses a lesson that most Americans, rural and urban alike, also miss: he implies that his extended family is the main reason that he came out okay as an adult, but he doesn’t notice the source of much of his gratitude, which is the state.
He is grateful for the green hills and fresh streams where he roamed as a boy, for running water, for not growing up in a war zone, and for decent public schools. But he doesn’t connect the dots: what saved him was not just his kin, but also wise taxpayers who paid for the good, clean, orderly public schools and the public university he attended. For most kids, playing in trees and woods and streams is possible only if someone has preserved them, so appreciating the glory of nature must include appreciating the political decision-making that preserves it.
Vance misses a crucial step that I call ‘political gratitude.’ We all need more of it. Without it, we are stuck in mutual scorn, each trying to turn the tables on the other, fearing and jealously trying to undermine them. What could end this cycle of mutual scorn, ignorance, resentment, and anger?
First, just listening to each other more attentively across the divide could help. This could mean forming organizations with white rural people, including those with whom we disagree. This is tricky, since some people do act in racist and homophobic ways. But it can work when people find themselves working side-by-side on projects whose missions they share. Some organizations are quietly doing this. For example, the Sierra Club, the United Steelworkers and fifteen other unions train fossil fuel workers for better paying, more secure, and safer jobs in solar and wind energy. Working together, tree huggers and steelworkers discover they have a lot in common.
Second, we need to give people a vision for society that makes it clear that if one group wins better pensions, another group doesn’t lose money as a result; that ‘our’ job security and decent schools don’t come at ‘their’ expense; and that environmental regulation and food safety laws won’t give fancy jobs to urban elites while taking them away from rural people. Bernie Sanders, for example, proposed specific ways to protect family farms against those agribusinesses that were making my Wisconsin students’ families so miserable.
Academics and activists on the left have been so busy talking about discrimination that we rarely offer a vision that shows how lessening the gap between rich and poor could give everyone decent schools and universities; health care and pensions; parks, pools and beaches; clean air and water; vacations and parental leave and more.
Meanwhile, Fox News is relentlessly blaring its own powerful social vision across the airwaves, presenting all of these things as privileges that only urban elites enjoy. And, as Arlie Hochschild describes in Strangers in Their Own Land, right-wing funders are quietly setting up local church projects and political campaigns that propagate this vision.
Together, Fox and their funders are offering something alluring that resembles political theorist Antonio Gramsci’s image of a church or a political party: it provides both a vision and a place where people can repeat this vision to one another and feel like they’re in the same boat together. The way in which Fox and wealthy donors are structuring rural white people’s feelings about welfare is a good example of how Gramsci’s church-like political party works.
According to Fox and the rural organizations that right-wing donors fund, getting government aid is shameful because no one should need it. So in their local groups, rural white people don’t learn about each other’s actual use of welfare. In a spiral of silence, each person feels privately feels ashamed, not knowing that their neighbor shares the same dirty secret. So, when Fox News tells rural whites that all that tax money is going to universities and ghettos, each dearly wants to believe it. Fox gives rural aid recipients an easy way to forget their private shame.
The problem is that it isn’t true. Rural people get more government money per capita than urban people. For example, South Carolina gets eight times what it puts into federal coffers, while states with big cities like New York, Illinois, and California are donors, whose citizens get less than a dollar for every dollar they pay in taxes.
Everyone has a pattern of fitting feeling to fact, seeing what they expect to see, forgetting what doesn’t fit in with their feelings and expectations, and allowing themselves to feel what makes sense given what they think is real. This self-perpetuating cycle is what sociologist Raymond Williams called a “structure of feelings.” Right now, Fox News is giving rural people a secure structure of feeling.
Rural people aren’t stupid. They see the poverty, the lack of funding for education and health care, the neighbors and kin who’ve gotten cancer from pollution, and so much more. But they don’t let themselves complain about what they don’t believe they can fix. If progressives can offer a vision of society in which everyone could enjoy things that now look like the privilege of elites, and if we could all find more places to bring this vision to life together, we might stop blaming and scorning each other so much and start to repair the world that we share.
10 March 2017. The book of fragments –
As shown by Christianity itself, America is not united by any one faith.
The idea of Christianity as the 'one true religion' is back with a vengeance. In America the focus is on the Muslim travel ban as it bounces in and out of court. But we don't need to look outside America or Christianity to see that this return to evangelical fundamentalism is rotten to its core.
A very big American story is that of the Christian non-conformists. This isn't new—it dates back hundreds of years. Certainly, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries dissenter Christian sects were many and the practice of exile was widespread. Quakers, Methodists and other groups sailed to be free to practice in the new world, a world ironically lit up by the French Revolution's 'Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite' and, in many cases, slave ownership.
Like contemporary Muslims they were moving westward to escape intolerable circumstances. There is something sick about the idea of the west being 'invaded' coming from people whose ancestors moved west, and this sickness is widespread.
I put this to friends and one pointed out that the Spanish settlers may object to being called non-conformists. This is true—many were of a Catholic orthodoxy. But all over America, the non-conformist story can be found. Because of this diasporic history, some Christian sects have very different cultural rituals to the mainstream—polygamy for example, the taking of multiple wives as practiced by some Mormon sects.
These examples are very much the anomaly nowadays, but I haven't heard a raging polemic directed at Mormons lately. I have heard a lot of anger being directed at Muslims over their supposedly terrifying alien values. It is, in fact, much more difficult to identify a single orthodoxy within Christianity than it is to describe its differences. It is also possible to get to a point where the Muslim religion appears to have more in common with 'mainstream' Christian beliefs than with a Christian sect that practices polygamy.
In the case of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints the repression and abuse of women and girls can be horrifying. Yet I have heard so many easy lines about the repression of women under Islam. It is undeniable that in places Islam has a domineering patriarchal hierarchy, but in the west many Muslims simply get on with their lives just as Christians and atheists do.
But see how the colonial logic saturates my language? That there is a Christian 'centre' and outside there are different spectra of belief to be 'tolerated'. This isn't the case.
A similar narrative to the non-conformist story can be found within Islam too. Islam, essentially, is undergoing a cultural crisis, and its crisis has much to do with its settling in the west. But this isn't the whole story. In Mosul, war is being waged street by street against Isis. Within this battle there are other, older conflicts, like Sunni versus Shia.
I had the most bizarre conversation last week with someone who suggested that Islam's inner turmoil and violence was 'primitive,' and that is why Christianity must be held on to. He went further and suggested that unless Christianity was defended 'as the one true religion' we would receive a Caliphate by default.
I reminded him that over in Ireland a blazing religious conflict dating back to Henry VIII had only recently been extinguished, and still showed signs of heat. He confirmed this by growing angry, an internalised rage that now had no outlet because I had blocked its path. This anger is dangerous—in him, on the right and on the left; in the atheist, the agnostic and the zealot alike. And I am angry too.
What is being lost in post-truth, specifically, is the anthropology of religion. The oldest book of the bible, Amos, is constructed from fragments of notes taken from just a few days of 'prophecies' he delivered. Except when Amos delivered them he was a shepherd. He was only designated 'a prophet' later on, and worse, his prophecies were completely hopeless. At least one earthquake didn't happen when and where he said it would. But to laugh at Amos is to miss the social function of his 'prophecies'.
When this shepherd stepped out of his wandering existence, the elites of the region, used to living off the fat of the land, were living off the lean of the land. The poor simply starved to death. Assyrian rule was breaking down and there were revolts due to the lack of goods and materials as supply chains faltered. There were domestic revolts as a result in Assyrian cities across 763-760 BC.
So Amos went to the temples around him and blasted each of them with the only rhetoric available to him in the accepted form of delivery of the time—the prophecy. The content of Amos's speech is not very original. It has a formal structure very similar to most of the lay preaching of the time. Remember that ‘The Bible’ did not exist at this point, and the birth of Christ was the best part of a millennium away.
Amos tells the priests that they are corrupt and blind to the abuses all around them and that 'for three transgressions as well as four' they will suffer, as Yaweh (God) will bring wrath upon them. This fourth transgression is widely interpreted as 'the last straw'. The social function of this story is little different to a schoolboy explaining to a bully that his big brother is going to get him, although here it has moved up several scales to a situation where the lowest of the castes is calling out the heads of what passed for the state during his time.
But it is never Amos calling out the priests: Yaweh 'speaks through' Amos. But the formulaic nature of the speaking tells us that this is a social rite, not a vision. The form of the delivery is part of its social contract; shepherds can go up to the temple proclaiming that they have been told by Yaweh to go there, and they can tell the priesthood that Yaweh will break the fortresses, bring fire and make the bodies of the oppressors pile up in the rubbish dump and float, bloated, in the river.
This is a very different thing to Amos simply marching up the temple steps and declaring a takeover. Death would surely follow. The underlying social contracts of the bible have been lost. The temple elders can't have angry shepherds murdered every few months either, there really would be a takeover.
Mary, walking around clearly pregnant and out of wedlock—what do you do? You invent a story to cover this inconvenient bump in history. Or more likely, you retrospectively airbrush the history of the birth of the Son of God with a can of Miracle Gloss.
We might now turn to the Grand Canyon visitor centre, where fear sometimes makes the dating of the canyon any further than a couple of thousand years ago rather awkward. Believers see the canyon as evidence of a global flood, and therefore proof of the existence of Noah, the only pure individual in a world of sinners who all must die. Creationism and post-truth are not bedfellows, they are Siamese Twins. We might turn to Creationism in schools. But when we turn, we might see that the shock now being expressed at post-truth politics as a new phenomenon covers a much longer incubation period.
The bible that is referred to by fundamentalists is usually a version of the King James version of 1611. This is also a collage of fragments, and each fragment, as we can see from the story of Amos, is another collage. Fundamentalists might have a better time with the Qu'ran, because as far as we know it has a single author. I refuse to base my understanding of the universe, or how I live in it, on either book, although both clearly contain wisdom. Both books also contain things that disturb me. But then so does the writing of Karl Marx and Bobby Seale.
The point to make is that Christianity is not some settled, stable or agreed-upon thing, and clearly nor is Islam, despite its story of sole authorship.
I dislike Richard Dawkins just as much as the peddlers of miracles. The only intelligent response to existence in the vastness of the universe is agnosticism, just as the best philosophers understand their lack of knowledge first and foremost.
But we need the spirit of Amos, and we need the ritual toleration of the accused. We need new language, calibrated to cut through the suffocating smog of post-truth, as well as the cut-throat words and deeds of fundamentalism.
9 March 2017. Uncertain comma Texas –
A new film describes a world whose inhabitants have been broken, but offers the hope that all can be repaired.
UNCERTAIN is at the ICA in London from 10th March and On Demand from 17th March at http://uncertainfilm.com/
"Uncertain” is the story of redemption brought into the lives of three men - and of hope brought to a whole town … and eventually all of humanity. And it is a documentary. A writer of fiction would have been so lucky to have assembled the layered richness of meaning and interpretation we find in this film … and yet as audience, we remind ourselves throughout that the meaning was there in the ordinary lives of the inhabitants of Uncertain, Texas, all ready to be taken, harvested, nurtured into this uncomfortable but ultimately uplifting, mythopoetic tale. And yes, like Paris, there really is a place called Uncertain on the Louisiana border. And that reinforces the powerful lesson at the heart of the film: our world needs hope and redemption; whatever each individual route to it - through science, religion or collective action - the possibility of something better exists here, through our agency and common humanity.
There are moments of uneasiness with the documentary nature of the film - is this cheap voyeurism into the lives of others on the trailer park? But the film is always reminding us that this is not about them, in Uncertain; no: they are us. We can see our whole world in Uncertain, and we are all its inhabitants - look closely into the ordinary anywhere, suggests the film, and you too can build the world into this lesson.
The breathtakingly beautiful opening sequence emphasises that this is the story of the world: first there is swamp and water; then the insistent noise of a powerful machine, a sort of heartbeat, that will start the world going; then in the darkness emerge some humans, some of them making the cries of animals. And finally the camera pans over real human settlement on the edge of swamp - board houses on stilts, a dog on a balcony - to enter the town, announced first by a warehouse labelled “Uncertain, Flea Market”, then another modest wood front labelled “Uncertain Town Hall” and finally a postbox, “Uncertain, Church”. Out of the primeval swamp comes those three pillars of humanity’s cohabitation with nature: commerce, the collective and the spirit. The film announces its grand theme from the outset.
The three men that are the focus of the film all at different points reveal they have problems sleeping - they are not just Uncertain, they are haunted. The big native-American man, an ex-heroin addict with a violent past and the death of young black motorist on his conscience spends his nights in the swampland peering through night-vision sights hoping to kill “Big Ed” (“the Hog with the Horse’s Head” he goes on to intone, ritualising his quest into the rhythmic chant of a prayer) - I call this man “Chief”. One of the cinematic beauties of the film is its use of night-vision footage: sudden cuts into the world of green and black. Just as Chief is pulling the trigger on a hugely sophisticated camouflaged gun to finally get Ed, there is a distant sound and flash. A replay of the night-vision - Chief has all the tech to help him in his quest - shows what Chief can only believe is an alien ship descending, visible only through his special vision equipment.
Chief will eventually work through his nocturnal visions to a realisation of what it was he needed to defeat all along. As Chief slices and roasts pieces of Big Ed, feeding them to friends gathered in the trailer park around the taxidermied head of the fallen beast - he’d finally killed the hog, and so Chief had now become himself the biggest beast in the night woods - he remembers, and, we feel, understands for the first time, the Sioux prayer from his childhood:
Oh, Great Spirit,
whose voice I hear in the winds
and whose breath gives life to all the world, hear me.
I am small and weak.
I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes
ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made
and my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand
the things you have taught my people.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden
in every leaf and rock.
I seek strength, not to be superior to my brother,
but to fight my greatest enemy - myself.
Make me always ready to come to you
with clean hands and straight eyes,
so when life fades, as the fading sunset,
my spirit will come to you
There is a shot of Chief, just after he has killed Big Ed, bulging stomach silhouetted against the setting sun, bandanna tied like every American renegade maverick since Apocalypse Now, when we know for sure that Chief’s obsession with killing Ed was a need to kill what he had himself become. We next see him walking through a cemetery, sobbing, and looking for the young black boy he’d killed in a crash 30 years earlier caused by his inebriation. Chief’s life before Uncertain is sketched out: a once-estranged son who says “I’ve only said Dad like three times in my life” and who explains that between jail terms, he mainly remembered his father for teaching him to cook meth and inviting him to participate in troilist adventures … a violent job in which Chief is shot at and miraculously survives (“I don’t blame them [the shooters] - I would’ve tried to kill me too” explains Chief) ... the life of an addict - “living asleep” as he describes it - followed by the insomniac night-visions of the sinner looking for redemption.
Chief acts out the killing of the big hog that he was - “he has no enemies except for me”, and the forest has to be rid of him, says Chief, to allow the other animals to flourish. The film cuts to night-vision shots of affectionate raccoons, sauntering deer, rabbits … a whole disney cast that hardly makes another appearance in the film’s more threatening (and often human) fauna. The person that Chief was, just like Ed the unnaturally equine pig, needs to go. Chief is like the saint in Flaubert’s tale of St Julien l’Hospitalier. The born-to-rule young aristocrat who has to kill and kill and kill on the hunt is eventually confronted with the magnificent talking stag - himself, the figure he had to bury. Overcome with regret at the destruction he has so wantonly wrought, he becomes a hermit at a dangerous ferry-crossing where he brings warmth to lepers by lying with them.
But that’s not all that needs to go. Uncertain stands for the future of the planet: lake Caddo is dying, and with it the leisure-fishing human settlement it has supported. From an innocuous-seeming corner of the consumer economy - the decorational fish-tank industry- came a native South American plant with no natural predator in Texas. Salvinia Molesta is choking all life out of Uncertain’s lake Caddo.
There’s a small research team working on how it might be stopped; humans in white coats looking into microscopes and trying this and that in precisely controlled and minutely measured greenhouses. The plant has its own nightmarish “more’s law” in this unrestricted environment: it can double in size every 2 to 4 days. And where it has taken over, it drives all life out from the depths underneath. The views continue to be stunning - great trees rising out of the water, alleyways of them like the trees on a French Route National, cathedrals of water, light and leafy heights. And the bright green carpet of Salvinia Molesta.
The scientists bring a council of citizens together into a town-hall meeting. They think they’ve found a possible solution to Molesta: a weavil that feeds on her roots. The geeks can save us: they think they’ve discovered the bug that’ll debug the original hiccough. All it needs is 1 billions larvae and $2m of funds … and, we think, a hope and a prayer that the bugs won’t themselves introduce a plague that’s even worse. But the film is right to emphasise that repairing the world is not just love, forgiveness and personal transformation: science and engineering, at its best, can try to make good again what we’ve broken. The town approves the debug program and the films ends on a Eureka moment, when the scientists have taken a sample from the dark, dead pools below Molesta and shout: “we’ve got weavils”!
The fishing guide (I call him “Guide”) who is another of the 3 troubled men whose life we follow is shown in a frail boat, outboard tilted up to keep the propellor clear of knotty weed, using an old oar to paddle out of the mess. The image of basic struggle is worthy of some of the great water-borne metaphors of humanity in Herzog’s Aguire Wrath of God or Cobra Verde. His life - what is left of it, he is old - depends, at least materially, on the fishing. We see him threading small live fish onto hooks to catch larger fish. And he fishes for tourists, too. Old clients reminisce about the people who can longer find a livelihoood on the lake.
But he too has had trouble sleeping, and he too has killed someone many years before - “murder without malice” is the charge. He grew up in a segregated South; he wanted his children to go to school but was ostracised for such Uncle-Tom-ism, to the point of violence. When someone comes to get him, he shoots in self-defence and kills. We see a photograph of him as a young man - handsome, roguish … “but I’m on the straight and narrow now…”. “Is there a single day when I wish I hadn’t pulled that trigger … no there isn’t …” he says. Guide is like the old man and the sea: his prowess at pulling big wriggling animals out of the water is a well of proud memories. But his wife has died, and since then he’s found himself going to Uncertain’s Baptist church on Sundays rather than into the swampy waters to fish. But his son and daughter are not so sure that he’s quite keeping to the path that goes through the strait gate. He has a girlfriend nearby, and she’s not good for him, they think. At first, he doesn’t want the camera to follow, but eventually we see her: “I like big women”, he’s said before; his girlfriend is that - she’s eating throughout the scene, voracious, always needing more, we feel. We can see how he could lose himself and bury his memories in her amplitude.
But it’s the church that really does him good, not his escapism. He admits to the personal guilt he’s lived with throughout his adult life; “I’ve done wrong; I’ve done good; I pray that the good outweighs the bad”; and he describes a vision of heaven, reunited with his wife, his parents and his children: “I want all of us to be together in Heaven and it will be a glorious day”. He may be a resident of Uncertain, but during his vision, he has no doubt; he will be reunited and whole again, “I know”, he says. And after that vision, he can sleep once more. He has spent the night at his daughter’s trailer. They both wonder at him having slept like a child. His burden is lifted, and, if the weavils do their work, his fishing might even return to its prelapsarian state.
The last story the film follows in detail is that of the young man I started early in the film calling “Rock Star” after his truly terrible karaoke performance in one of Uncertain’s dives - he had just remarked that there was so little to do that “if you stay in Uncertain, you’re retired at 21” and had particularly complained that there were no young women in the town. He had reported his mother to social services for her dereliction and they’d come to take her away. Since then, he and his brothers had lived alone.
The camera lingers over an interior of squalid chaos. Rock Star periodically tries to stop drinking, but it’s hard. He is diabetic and has a gothic tattoo across his chest warning whoever might need to know that he is. At one point, he seems almost content as he lists the necessities of life that he has just been able to pull together - for now. He has “phone, netflix and medicine” and he can “whack off, eat beans and play minecraft”. He records his state of living in a YouTube selfie, and perhaps this self-recording represents the moment of self-awareness: “I’m getting the fuck out of Uncertain” he says as he packs his bags for Austin. It’s important to take the waffle-maker, his bag of grass and a cool-box of insulin. 40 days’ supply is all he’s got. Without a job soon, he’ll be out of drugs. He may have left Uncertain, but precarity follows him to his new life.
He finds a room in a motel run by a deaf family. Work’s not so easy to find, but he has beans to last a bit longer. But we see him next in a hospital bed with an IV - he’d run out of meds and somewhere the Texan health system had found enough socialised care for him not to die. Just at the time that Chief is killing Big Ed, Rock Star reminds us that for him, every day is a fight. Just as Chief recites the Sioux prayer and Guide has his vision of heaven, the film moves back to Austin. Rock Star has had a haircut; he looks like a fresh-faced, almost born-again boy. He’s at a rock concert, smiling benignly. If that was all the insulin’s work, the drugs did him good.
The actual IRL rock-star on stage has a pause from singing and celebrates his fans pointing to the particularity of every person there: “you are all unique; you are all special” we hear, as the camera pans around what could be a university-city youth crowd anywhere in the world. The crowd is weird and queer and exploding with difference. Rock Star from Uncertain, not the one on stage, we feel, has found a home, a small space out of the loneliness of uncertainty.
Uncertain shows us how as humans we can all make a home in the world and make a world that becomes a home. We may break it in all sorts of ways - and the world may damage us - but the film is ultimately a glorious poem of hope that it can - and must - all be repaired.
UNCERTAIN is at the ICA in London from 10th March and On Demand from 17th March at http://uncertainfilm.com/.
8 March 2017. Why black bloc tactics won’t build a successful movement –
Nonviolence can be just as powerful and militant as violence, and it works.
I admit, I laughed a little too. When I first saw videos of white nationalist Richard Spencer getting punched by a protester, I thought it was funny. And even now, I’m not exactly shedding a tear for him. I certainly pray that the attempts to find and target the person who threw the punch prove unsuccessful.
As many of us expected, the election and subsequent inauguration of Donald Trump has given rise to a new movement of white supremacy and hatred. It has empowered an ideology that never really went away, but has been lying largely dormant for decades. But resistance to those ideologies has also been on the rise.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
So that is where we are. The racism that this country knows so well is being exposed. So much so that terms like “alt-right” have now entered our common lexicon. But so have terms like “antifa,” short for anti-fascism.
Many of these movements, however, have utilized black bloc tactics and believe in the principle of “diversity of tactics.” This includes property destruction and acts of violence. Much of this came to light recently during protests at UC Berkeley around an event featuring alt-right leader and ex-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.
People have credited the violence that erupted at these demonstrations for its success. After all, student activists tried multiple nonviolent strategies to have the event cancelled, and it was ultimately the violence that “worked.” And let’s be clear, there was violence. Videos of Yiannopoulos fans getting pepper sprayed and attacked have surfaced.
Debates have been raging on social media since these actions. Debates have been had about whether or not we should have debates about them. Some have criticized the violence, while others have criticized those critics for demonizing other activists and playing respectability politics.
While I don’t believe it is helpful to cast out activists that we disagree with, I also think that our movements are not always skilled at evaluating the effectiveness of certain tactics. Not only are we not skilled at it, the conversation is oftentimes shut down by those who believe we should never criticize another’s tactics. And that is dangerous. There is a fine line between denouncing activists and evaluating the efficacy of certain tactics. And it feels that we are often so dogmatic in our beliefs that we are not able to have objective conversations about their effectiveness. And that hurts our movements.
I don’t believe that advocates of “diversity of tactics” really mean that they honor all tactics. I don’t think anyone would argue that we should kidnap and torture the children of white supremacists. So even those that use catch phrases like “by any means necessary” or “at all costs” agree that there’s some line that we should not cross. Saying that we support “a diversity of tactics” does not allow us to have the conversation about where that line is and what is effective vs. harmful.
Questions like “do lighting fires justify more police repression,” “does violence turn people away from movements,” or “what does violence do for accessibility” are valid and need to be explored. People may ultimately believe that they are effective tactics, but violence and property destruction brings a lot of new variables into the equation, and we need to be open enough to continue to evaluate them so that our movements can learn and grow.
Is property destruction violent?
This is one issue where people tend to be very dogmatic, so let’s start here. I think anyone who believes that property destruction is never violent or that it is violent period needs to think more critically about the issue. The recent burning of two mosques in Texas were acts of violence. The Ploughshares movement, in which activists sneak into military bases to dismantle weapons, is an act of nonviolence. Property destruction can be incredibly violent, or it can be an act of nonviolence. Context matters.
Writer Rebecca Solnit wrote that, “the firefighter breaks the door to get the people out of the building. But the husband breaks the dishes to demonstrate to his wife that he can and may also break her. It’s violence displaced onto the inanimate as a threat to the animate.” During Occupy Oakland, I witnessed a mob of people using black bloc tactics rush a corporate business in the middle of the day and start spray-painting and banging on their windows. I remember seeing a young child inside the business with her mom. I don’t care about the window, but I do care about the impact on that girl. I don’t think breaking a window itself is an act of violence. But I wouldn’t be surprised if that act also traumatized that little girl—and that is violent.
However, regardless of your stance on property destruction, the basic fact remains that the majority of Americans seems to view it as violent. We spend too much time arguing about what we feel, and ignore what the public feels. And if we are not including that into our calculations, we are making a huge mistake. Generally speaking, I believe we spend too much time debating about whether or not something is violent. There is a more important question that we need to be grappling with: Are violence and property destruction effective?
In order to answer that question, we need clarity on what the goals are. If the goal was simply to cancel one appearance by Yiannopoulos, then by definition it was successful.
But that to me is an incredibly shortsighted goal at the expense of long-term consequences. The goal should not be to cancel one event. It should be to ensure that people like Yiannopoulos don’t have a platform, and to transform the culture that brought us people like him, Trump and other members or supporters of the alt-right. And if those are our goals, were the actions at UC Berkeley ultimately successful?
Giving him a platform.
The problem with violence is that it has a tendency to backfire. Yes, the event was cancelled. But the attention that the protests received gave Yiannopoulos a bigger platform than he has ever had. Pre-sales of his (now-cancelled) book increased by over 1,200 percent overnight and made it the No. 1 bestseller on Amazon. His name showed up all over media. He was trending on Twitter, despite him personally being banned on the social network. The number of followers on his Facebook page skyrocketed.
The protest made him the victim. It swung popular support towards a man whose message of hatred should disqualify him from any sympathy. This dynamic can swing both ways. When the Senate censored Sen. Elizabeth Warren for reading Coretta Scott King’s letter during a debate about Jeff Sessions, it gave Warren a huge platform and Mrs. King’s letter ended up being read by more people than ever.
Regardless of your personal beliefs about a certain tactic, you have to consider the short, medium and long-term impact it will have on your target.
Criminalizing protests and public support.
Another potential negative impact is how it may play into the hands of the Trump administration’s attempts to criminalize dissent. Republican lawmakers in 10 states have already introduced legislation that could increase the penalties associated with protests.
It is true that many of these bills were introduced before these protests, and that Trump and others will try to criminalize dissent anyway. But it’s also hard to argue that actions like this don’t give them more ammunition to push that agenda forward. Not only will it make them feel more justified, it will also empower them by giving them more public support.
We have seen time and time again that the public is willing to sacrifice civil liberties if they are afraid. And again, regardless of your personal feelings about these tactics, the vast majority of Americans view them as senseless at best and criminal at worst. Most people will not be able to separate those who engage in these tactics with those committed to nonviolence, and the entire movement will lose popular support — with much of that support shifting toward efforts to criminalize the movement.
We cannot make change without the support of the majority. If the public views protesters as “trouble-makers” and sides with the state’s efforts to “maintain order,” our movements will be at a severe disadvantage. We live in an ecosystem of relationships. When you engage in acts of violence (real or imagined), you are not alone. The whole world is watching, and you are communicating a message with your actions.
Whether you agree with the way the media reports these actions is also irrelevant. We know how it is going to be spun, regardless of your beliefs. Again, what you feel about these tactics is not the question. The question is what impact these tactics are having on the public conscience. And when we engage in violence, we are losing the public.
The left engaging in violence continues to legitimize violence from all sides. It says to the world that using pain, fear and intimidation to force our will is a justified tactic if we view ourselves as being on the “right” side of an issue. Not only might this empower the state to use more repressive tactics, but it may also give the right justification to use violence against the left. What is the message we are sending to activists on the far right when those of us on the left celebrate, joke about and mock Richard Spencer getting punched during an interview? When memes of him getting assaulted go viral all over the Internet?
When the right sets up websites to try to identify those involved in the violence, are we in a place of moral authority to denounce this kind of violence? These websites and other attempts by the right to identify these people and target them for violence is scary and should be banned. But do we put ourselves in a place where we can make that argument when we were celebrating violence against activists on the right?
Do we only get outraged when people we agree with are victims of violence, yet celebrate violence against those we disagree with? Do elementary arguments like “they started it first” or subjective arguments like “they deserve it more” connect with people who don’t already agree with you? What dangers are we putting our people, our communities, our allies in by using violence against others and celebrating it?
We will not win unless we can build a movement that is diverse and inclusive of marginalized communities. When we introduce violence into the equation, it limits who can participate and take leadership. And when the police respond with more repression, it is marginalized communities who suffer the most.
When we use violence, what does it do to access for undocumented communities? People with criminal records or disabilities? Elders? Caretakers who need to get home? People who may be more vulnerable if they are arrested, such as people of color or transgendered people? When we introduce violence into the equation, is the leadership of women generally lifted up or undermined? Does it increase toxic masculine energy that can be harmful not only to movements but to all relationships?
I remember talking to a young formerly incarcerated Latino man, who used to spend time at an Occupy camp after one particular march that turned violent. “Man, these marches, that’s for white people,” he told me. And while that analysis may be too simplistic, the implicit message he had received was understood—that his safety, as a young man on probation with young kids at home, was not a priority or a consideration. He simply did not feel safe at these events if people were using tactics that would likely bring about an aggressive police response. As a life-long Oaklander, Occupy Oakland was no longer a place he felt welcomed.
In my work in the prison system, I have found that it is impossible to engage in violence in one area of your life and not have it impact your relationships in other areas. The more time you spend dehumanizing someone or hurting another human being, the more you internalize violence and the more it plays out in other areas of your life.
As I wrote before, it is violence that gave rise to Trump and Yiannopoulos, and it is violence that is our enemy. This is the case both for incarcerated people who grew up surrounded by violence as well as those who work in institutions that rely on violence. Prison guards, police officers and military personnel have some of the highest rates of alcoholism, depression, suicides, domestic violence and other forms of violence in any profession. It has also been the case for violent revolutions, which have a higher tendency to fall back into dictatorship or civil war than nonviolent revolutions.
What nonviolence is not saying.
There are so many misconceptions about nonviolence that I think it’s important to address some of them. Personally, I am not saying that Yiannopoulos should have been allowed to speak. His rhetoric is violent and hateful, and his words could bring violence to marginalized communities. I am also not saying that we can ask nicely of fascists and white supremacists to change their ways. Like many antifa activists, I believe we need a militant movement, and that we need to escalate our tactics to match the escalation of hate. I also agree with Martin Luther King, Jr. who called for a nonviolent army that is as “dislocative and disruptive as a riot.”
I believe we can build such a movement. One that is grounded in nonviolence, but is just as powerful and militant as violence. That, however, requires work, strategy and training. Violence is easier, faster and more natural to us. Its dynamics are simpler to understand. “I make you suffer until you give in.” But now is not the time to get seduced by the short-term. We need to continue to train and grow, to have the humility to be self-critical, and to objectively evaluate our tactics and strategies. We need to continue to build a movement to transform violence.
6 March 2017. We aren’t so different—three steps to overcome hate and fear –
Avoiding Trump supporters only increases our already dangerous polarization. Here’s how to really listen and find compassion.
The election of Donald Trump has brought a number of ugly realities to light. One of the most disturbing is that an apparently large number of Americans hold racist, sexist, xenophobic beliefs, and outright hatred for others, and blame them for the country’s problems. While that doesn’t include all Trump supporters, it’s certainly a critical mass, as evidenced by the steep rise in hate crimes and comments on social media immediately following the election.
This presents a challenge for those who strive to be compassionate and inclusive. How does one feel empathy for people who hate others simply because of what they look like or where they come from? It can be hard to feel anything but anger, and to do anything but withdraw when confronted with those sentiments.
In politics, however, some level of anger can be useful in order to summon the strength and resources for continued fighting. But this country is already dangerously polarized, with the two main political parties demonizing each other and failing to listen to each other. It’s one thing to view some politicians as corrupt and their policies as irredeemably bad; it’s another to think of large numbers of fellow Americans as the “other.”
Because, of course, we aren’t so different. We’re all people who suffer, whose beliefs have been shaped by the vagaries of our experiences, who are capable of ugliness. But we all have the potential to change.
Nelson Mandela, who leveraged the power of love and forgiveness to transform South Africa, knew something about that. Despite being the target of intense racism and hate during his early battles against apartheid, he was nonetheless able to view his opponents with kindness and to utilize reconciliation tactics in an attempt to heal the nation.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote about one of the correctional officers at the prison where he was held for 27 years: “It was a useful reminder that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and that if their heart is touched, they are capable of changing. Ultimately, [the officer] was not evil; his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system. He behaved like a brute because he was rewarded for brutish behavior.”
Like Mandela, so many others are models of love in the face of hate. Their acts of compassion and tolerance can be examples to us today. There are practical steps we can take that can help us overcome our feelings of disgust and fear, and open up to others.
The first step requires learning how to really listen and accept new information. “Our mind is a very conservative thing. We have a belief and we want to conserve it, so we find data that support it,” says Everett Worthington, whose research at Virginia Commonwealth University focuses on practical steps to forgiveness. Once we’ve decided that a certain group of people is mean or ignorant, he says, it becomes easy to repeatedly confirm that idea. Challenging it—that is, opening our mind—is much harder.
“If I want to have compassion, I have to do something that goes against my implicit confirmation bias,” Worthington explains. “That just opens me to new data; it doesn’t change my mind, but it allows me to have some empathy for people who disagree.” Worthington suggests researching the struggles that Trump supporters in economically depressed regions might be experiencing, as a way of understanding their attitudes and behavior.
Step two is perhaps the most important one: Make a conscious effort to connect with those who think differently, even if they are hateful. “Stay engaged no matter what,” says Pamela Ayo Yetunde, a pastoral counselor and community dharma leader in the Atlanta area who has written about the relevance of Buddhism in the era of Black Lives Matter.
Yetunde explains that she’s been thinking about the Rwandan genocide where people who’d lived next door to each other for years were suddenly incited to kill one another. “Leaders got involved and began to ‘otherize’ people,” she says. “We can’t think that as Americans that can’t happen here. The danger is staying in one’s comfort zone. Maybe people have to arrive at agreements about how, but to remain engaged is the key.”
It’s OK to feel hesitant and vulnerable in the process, she adds. “Through mindfulness, we can recognize when we are cutting ourselves off from people, [even if] we’re doing it out of hurt and a desire to protect ourselves.” That way, when we do finally connect, we can do so with more skill and self-awareness.
Finally, for step three, it is crucial to genuinely get to know one another, says Susan Glisson, founding director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. “It’s about building strong, trusting enough relationships where you can talk about hard stuff. It doesn’t just happen; you have to create an infrastructure for respectful relationships.”
Glisson should know. She, together with her husband, leads a consulting firm that runs racial reconciliation workshops around the country. Her team recently spent three weeks fostering trust between police officers, African American community members, and representatives from a Black Lives Matter group in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Spouting a bunch of studies—if that worked, it would’ve by now,” she says. The real way change occurs is by hearing others’ experiences and feeling heard. So let people tell their stories about who they are.
“When you do that, what gets built is an emotional connection: the ability to become compassionate about the experiences people have had that led them to the place where they are,” she says. That allows people to rethink their stereotypes, and also creates space for them to reflect on the origin of their attitudes.
On a practical level, that might mean venturing into new places that include a wide mix of people—new restaurants, places of worship, or volunteer organizations. But don’t dive right into asking about people’s political affiliations, Glisson cautions. Take the time to learn who they are first: What do they value about themselves? Where do they feel safe? Only after trust has been established can the most powerful changes—on all sides—occur.
This article was first published in YES! Magazine.
3 March 2017. Love in action: the life, work and death of Sister Maura Clarke –
Celebrating a stellar example of how to say no to the warmongers and yes to life itself.
Eileen Markey’s stunningly beautiful book, “A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura,” comes not a moment too soon. Her rendering of the life and death of Sister Maura Clarke at the brutal hands of a U.S.-financed Salvadoran military, clarifies how we are to be in a world of ascending and entrenching authoritarian governments. In the world in which human beings and the earth play second fiddle to the whims and wants of the wealthy and their minions, Maura Clarke is a stellar example of how to say a resounding “No” to the wealth-hoarders and warmongers and an almighty “Yes” to life itself.
“A Radical Faith” starts graveside — that is at the makeshift grave of Clarke, Sister Ita Ford, Sister Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan who had been brutally killed and, for at least two of the women, raped as well. As the bodies of at least 75,000 Salvadorans killed by their own military during a 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992, the bodies of these women are illuminative. They clearly show the extent to which the military regime of El Salvador, the oligarchic families it protected, and its foreign mainstay, the United States, would go to protect and preserve an environment friendly to business, militarism and oligarchic rule. Clarke’s radical faith was that she accepted, embodied and practiced this basic command of Jesus: “You must love one another as I have loved you.”
In the opening chapter of the book, Markey asks “Who was this woman in the dirt? What forces in her life, in herself, led to this vicious death so far from home? What did that ring, slipped on the slender finger of a 22-year-old [novice in the Maryknoll religious congregation] have to do with farm laborers and death squads, clandestine meetings, and military orders?” These are compass-setting questions.
Combined with Markey’s vivid opening account of the bodies found, the agonizing hours of a search for the women, and their religious comrades kneeling on the ground near the bodies, these questions and the rock-solid commitment of the religious women help to ground us in the political realities and struggles of the present moment. Where do we stand? To whom and what are we committed? In what are we grounded? Markey’s gift to the reader is not only her ability to write a compelling narrative but also that she astutely understands why we need to know Maura Clarke’s story.
There is a good reason why women came together in consciousness-raising circles to tell their stories, analyze their circumstances, uplift the personal, and work for change. Our feminist foremothers in the 1960s and ’70s well understood that the political sphere was structured along patriarchal lines and as long as no one saw or challenged that, things would remain the same. Markey notes, at the close of the first chapter, that Clarke’s story was not only a political story but also a personal story. It is Markey’s attentiveness to the details of Clarke’s life that make reading this book a life-changing experience.
There is the way, for example, that Markey so powerfully helps us to see Clarke vitally alive in her work. During the first days of her missionary work, “she was keenly open, trying to absorb everything. She stretched to bridge the language gap, smiling with interest, focusing on the faces of people near her, nodding, her lean frame tilted toward them, laughing when she fumbled a word.” By the book’s end, Clarke is so consistent in her practice of solidarity, which is well charted by Markey, that one begins, if at first only subconsciously, to embody the tilt of the attentiveness and the desire to get closer to hear what the other has to say.
Markey’s inclusion and vivid depiction of Clarke’s nuclear and extended family are yet another instance of the personal dimension of the book. Native to Ireland, Clarke’s parents met during the Irish War of Independence when John Clarke, who had returned to Ireland after seven years in the United States, brought a wounded comrade to the door of nurse Mary McCloskey. John Clarke, whose dream of liberation for the Irish people was crushed by the war’s end, sailed back to the United States and was joined by Mary in 1929.
Married in 1930, they were among those who “represented the tail end of a giant wave of Irish immigration that began with the Irish potato famine in 1845.” The reader meets and spends time with the family again and again throughout the book. Markey describes the remarkable ability of this family to cultivate intimacy and support while at the same time opening the doors of their home to so many of Maura’s colleagues, community members, friends and those she served. There was room for all at the Clarke family table.
In the early spring of 1959, Maura Clarke made her final vows with the Maryknoll Sisters. That fall she would head to Nicaragua to begin her mission work. Upon her death, 21 years later (and that of Ita Ford, also a Maryknoll Sister) the Maryknoll Sisters and Fathers issued a joint statement, which recognized that these women put the Gospel at the center of their lives and that they were assassinated for their love for the poor and marginalized.
Markey demarcates the world which nurtured Maura Clarke, her family and countless other Irish-Americans. The Clarke family’s Belle Harbor, Queens, New York parish of Saint Francis de Sales, just a few blocks away from the ocean, lauded both God and country. Later, when Markey describes the Maryknoll novitiate days of Clarke, one can also see what an “ordered” religious life looked like in part: “Do not loll about or lean against walls. Do not stand with hands or arms resting on chair backs.”
The other and much larger part of her early life with Maryknoll, however, was the work of entering into and learning how to dwell within the root of an interior life. Again, Markey’s research and writing allows the reader to engage in the world of Clarke and the Catholic Church of the 1950s. Further, she is even-handed when writing about a church and, more specifically, Maryknoll, a religious congregation.The Maryknoll religious congregation acknowledged “that all of humanity was related, that all people were children of God, and that is was worthwhile to go far away from home to connect with some of those distant brothers and sisters.” At the same time, as Markey notes, the Maryknoll community of the 1950s would not have seen or critiqued its missionary work as imperialistic in nature.
After its introductory chapters, the bulk of “A Radical Faith” consists of Markey’s robust rendering of Clarke’s mission work in Nicaragua and, briefly, in El Salvador and the United States. These chapters also include an expert analysis of the liberation theology and movement within the Catholic Church, a synthetic and well-researched account of the political and economic structural forces at play in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the United States, and of Clarke’s personal and religious transformation. Markey makes the point that Clarke was steeped in love for other human beings and thought that everyone mattered.
In the middle and final sections of the book, its reader sees how the ecstatic love of Clarke’s spiritual life matured and embodied itself in a consistent, courageous and radical love for those whom she served in Nicaragua, El Salvador, her Maryknoll community members, and her family. The structured life imposed upon her during her Maryknoll novitiate life served her well in Nicaragua and El Salvador as we see Clarke, along with so many other Maryknoll Sisters, pray, work, teach, visit and serve from the early morning hours to late at night.
Their efforts were consistent, disciplined and seemingly tireless. Clarke and her community members did their best to blend into the communities they served rather than to isolate themselves behind convent walls where they could enjoy middle-class conveniences. They were mild in manner, clean of heart and, as the years of their mission work passed on, immersed more and more in the poverty of the people whom they lived with and loved.
Mild in manner, however, did not mean simply standing by the side of the road while the military machines of Nicaragua, El Salvador and, indirectly, the United States rolled over the poor and all living things in their way. There was a rather dramatic scene in the book, for example, where we see Clarke confronting members of the Nicaraguan National Guard. Called in by rich landowners to shut down a camp that housed the poor survivors of an earthquake, they could not get past the infuriated Clarke and two other Sisters. “She shouted at the guardsmen,” Markey writes. “No one ever did that. Father [Fernando] Cardinal was there as well, and was stunned by the ferocity of the three women. It was the first time he saw the National Guard back down.”
The righteous anger of these women is indeed riveting, and one wonders what had changed for Clarke and her comrades. Instead of hustling the poor folks off the scene, why had they chosen to confront these representatives of the political and economic elite? It is hard to know how the elements come together in the action of another, but one cannot help but wonder if her Irish family’s tradition of resisting oppression merged with a new Catholic consciousness about matters of faith and justice in Clarke.
A good 12 years before the confrontation with the National Guard, the Catholic Church had “opened the windows” of its ancient institution and welcomed in the “fresh air” of the Second Vatican Council. For Clarke and her Maryknoll community, the intellectual and religious development sparked by this council meant that “the Jesus of Good Friday and Easter knew what it was to fear the National Guard. He wasn’t locked up in the sky or laid flat in the pages of a holy book. This Jesus belonged to the people, came alive again when the people were united.”
Clarke was in the United States in the latter part of 1976 so that she could introduce the work of the Maryknoll missions to her fellow Americans and help them to see what life was like for folks whose lives are terribly compromised or brutally cut short by the ravages of poverty and violence. While Clarke knew and understood the political and economic dynamics that created the terrible conditions in which the people with whom she worked were forced to live, she did not subject her audience to a long and bullying talk on U.S. imperialism.
Instead, Clarke offered a historical and political analysis while also speaking specifically and concretely about the humans beings with whom she moved, lived and breathed. She could talk about the dear Lesbia Taleno, a teenager whose mother was close to Maura, who was arrested for hanging political posters and then raped and impregnated by members of the National Guard. When someone who came to a talk she gave asked if the U.S. government knew what those foreign governments to whom the United States gave hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid knew what was going on, Clarke gave a slight nod of her head.
It would be Maura’s devotion, love and gentleness that would help her American Catholic compatriots see the wealth of fundamental teachings on justice that constituted Catholic Social Thought. A few months later, Clarke would again act on such teachings and engage in the act of nonviolent civil disobedience in the offices of the Nicaraguan consulate to the United Nations. Once again, Clarke’s fierce resistance to injustice issued forth. The police, as Markey notes, “looked dumbfounded. Were they really being lectured about supporting revolution by a nun?”
President Jimmy Carter, who had ignored Archbishop Oscar Romero’s pleas for him to stop sending military aid to El Salvador six months before Clarke was killed, resumed funding — including an emergency five million dollars — to the military dictatorship of El Salvador two weeks after Maura, Ita, Jean and Dorothy were kidnapped, raped, and killed. By 1982, and during the Reagan presidency, U.S. military aid to the Salvadoran government would reach $64 million that year. Such expenditures were often justified by Cold War politics and by the fear of the communist threat that countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador could be to Central America, the latter of which was within what the United States considered to be its sphere of influence.
Reading through U.S. military reports on the civil war in El Salvador, one also finds reference to the desire of the United States to help foster democracy within a country struggling to develop. One can only imagine that Clarke, had she been given a chance to speak to these masters of Cold War politics would ask them to see what was actually happening to actual human beings. How can we ever plan for, pay for, and justify the mass slaughter, torture, rape, and impoverishment of even one person, much less the many thousands who were killed in El Salvador alone?
From my own experience of working in the same Salvadoran communities in the Department of Chalatenango that Maura worked, I heard these questions asked by Salvadoran people there, many of whom were psychologically scarred, physically injured, or impoverished by the war, to their American visitors. They wanted to know why the Americans did not resist what their government was doing, or at least stop paying taxes which funded a military death machine.
Perhaps it was because, for many Americans, they did not know or fully understand what was done in their names in Central America. Political, economic and military elites often make good use of the fog of ideology, which is all but impenetrable and does a good job of obfuscating reality. Clarke’s gift of speaking about the specific lives of human beings went a long way to break through this fog and enter into the hearts of her listeners. It is a practice we may wish to retrieve and rehabilitate in these days of authoritarian darkness.
Though Sister Maura Clarke worked with a Gospel and an institution thousands of years in the making, she was able, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, to love vitally, welcome other human beings and, as such, write a counter-narrative to the equally ancient story of death-dealing empire. That we can now know the power and beauty of her life is due to a book that reads like an act of love by its author, Eileen Markey.
The radiance of Clarke’s life is also that of the good people with whom she lived and worked, her family along with its rootedness in the tradition of Irish resistance, and the Maryknoll religious congregation’s embrace of their faith, its social teachings and its liberation theology. Markey’s scholarship and her devotion to this story affords its reader the opportunity to ask the ever-renewing question: “where do we go from here?” Clarke shows us the fundamentals: love, community, nonviolence, resistance, courage and faith. Nourished by her life and this book, let our communities of resurrection get to work.
What alternative possibilities are opened up when dominant representations of love are questioned?
Monogamous love is frequently used in global sexual health promotion efforts to try to inspire choices about ‘safe sexual practices.’ Yet there are two crucial and potentially harmful assumptions embedded here: first, that choice is something that every individual views as being available to them; and second, that love stories will always inspire.
In fact, a long history can be uncovered in which particular conceptualizations of love have monopolized debate and been used to marginalize other experiences—a legacy that needs to be exposed and disrupted. In doing so, I’m going to draw on my work in East and Central Africa, but I hope the core of my arguments speak to people from a whole range of different contexts.
What alternative possibilities are opened up in love stories when more dominant representations are subverted?
There’s a notable absence of love in many of the widely published historical accounts of Africa, mainly because the writing distributed about the continent was largely derived from the work of foreigners, often connected in some way to colonial enterprises. In a book of collected papers called Love in Africa edited by Jennifer Cole and Lynn Thomas, this silence about love is explained as an effect of the colonial fascination with the ‘other,’ and a narrow focus on the values of kinships and exchange in marriage, infused with insidious notions of white superiority.
The contributors to Love in Africa go on to describe how the loving and intimate aspects of relationships in Africa that are clearly demonstrated in songs, poems and love medicines were largely ignored. They discuss how Western projects of ‘civilizing’ and ‘developing’ Africans—maintained by the spread of Christianity, Westernized school education, and externally-controlled media—have hijacked public narratives about love on the continent.
Under these colonial and neo-colonial influences, love is constructed as a modern thing that can only be found in smaller ‘un-African’ nuclear families and in ‘companionate’ relationships—meaning those relationships which are rooted in intimacy and commitment as a choice and not as a duty. The work of Jennifer Hirsch, Mark Hunter and others describes this process as the “marketization” of love, in which companionate marriage becomes a deliberate strategy that’s used by people who consciously want to claim a modern identity that is built around commodities, consumption, and an individual’s ability to move in and out of relationships as a matter of personal choice.
But what about the large proportion of people for whom individual choice and consumption—in the capitalist sense of access to consumer goods—were and still are very limited? The urban, low-income young people I have spoken with in the course of my research in Tanzania describe relationships with others which are, as with everything else in their lives, deeply entwined with more omnipresent struggles for survival.
Many stated categorically that “there is no real, true love here” because of the “hustle” for money and commodities, which for girls, may only be accessible through their intimate relationships. As one girl described it, “relationships here are all profits first, love later.” In comparison to the ‘love conquers all’ narratives found in Hollywood movies and the ideal of monogamous love that’s pushed by NGOs and the international aid system, the lived experiences available to these young people just don’t match up.
Furthermore, when they describe their relationships they don’t just talk about themselves and their sexual partners. Care and responsibility to their kin are also important, so relationships and the potential they offer for improved socio-economic status are viewed at the level of the family and not the individual. This makes the individual agency that lies at the core of Western conceptualizations of love and healthy relationships highly problematic. Despite the good intentions behind many NGO and aid-funded campaigns, we have to recognize that positioning simplistic, individualized notions of love as the ideal may not inspire people at all. They may actually contribute to the demoralization of those who are already marginalized because that ‘ideal’ is simply not an option.
In African Love Stories: An Anthology, Ama Ata Aidoo talks about a cultural shift in Western publishing away from the tragedy and torment of love that’s connected to “the business of selling joy and happiness.” There’s a great deal of white and otherwise-privileged moral solipsism contained in this shift. Aidoo and others are part of a wider movement that aims to disrupt this marketized, one-dimensional and marginalizing version of love by creating and promoting love stories that more diverse audiences can identify with.
Yet I think that another important part of this process consists of opening up love itself for redefinition, and working to move beyond the dualisms of good and bad, or tragedy versus joy. The Ancient Greeks had many different words to describe love in all its various forms. But in the modern West this pluralism has been reduced to the prioritizing of one, amalgamated form that masks or denies space for the potential tensions and contradictions between, for example, romantic passion, love of family, love which endures, love of self, and the love that does justice.
A Kenyan friend once told me that the greatest colonization of all was the enforced learning of the colonizer’s language, and the knowledge that was lost in this process. She went on to explain how life skills are contained in Swahili sayings that can help people to think deeply and creatively. In their ambiguity they often signpost important questions instead of providing simplified answers to the complexities of life. “It is not this way in English,” she said laughing.
I think this holds an important learning point for understanding the multiple possibilities of love. To love another person is complicated and hard, yet Western, reductionist versions of love not only marginalize but also belittle the efforts that have gone into relationships in which endurance prevails. Discussions which problematize love rather than promote one shallow idealized form could be of much more use to young people in Africa and elsewhere whose lives are already overrun with contradictions of many different kinds.
In that sense, any effort that aims to connect love with safety and protection in sexual health needs to be rooted in subversion. Critical questions can be used to foster the skills that are needed to deal with and disrupt the complexities and power struggles of love and life in general.
An earlier version of this article was first published on Subversive Storytelling.