Transformation

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.


20 August 2017. ‘Assemble ye trolls:’ the rise of online hate speech

Anti-Semitic tweets were viewed ten billion times on twitter in 2016—that’s why the alt-right loves the internet.

National Alliance Neo-Nazi Rally, Union Station, Massachusetts Avenue, Washington DC, Saturday 24 August 2002. Credit: Flickr/ElvertBarnes. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

2016 was one of the worst years for online hate speech, a year when neo-fascists overwhelmed the comments sections of many online forums. Members of the alt-right took popular platforms like Disqus, Facebook and Twitter by storm, flooding them with hateful posts. They attempted to reshape the debate on a wide range of issues including Brexit, Trump, immigration and Islam. What's worse, in some ways they succeeded—and they’re not done yet.

Source: Comment from Andrew Anglin on the Daily Stormer website (currently inaccessible though archived on Wayback Machine).

The alt-right represents a clear attempt to mould a new popular consensus of contempt for minorities everywhere, including in Germany where I’m based. For example, one study undertaken by the Anti-Defamation League found that 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets had been posted to Twitter by just 1,600 individuals in 2016 alone. Together, these anti-Semitic tweets were viewed around 10 billion times.

The study's authors noted that “Waves of anti-Semitic tweets tend to emerge from closely connected online ‘communities.’ These aggressors are disproportionately likely to self-identify as Donald Trump supporters, conservatives, or part of the ‘alt-right.’”

Source: Screenshot  from 4Chan, the anonymous online forum which helped to create the alt-right.

Alt-right websites such as Infostormer, Daily Stormer (both currently inaccessible) and Breitbart have been instrumental in mobilizing right wing activists to popularise nationalistic hate speech online, and are quite open about their intentions to alter the status quo by passing off hate as acceptable—for  example, by claiming that their statements are nothing but a new brand of cutting-edge humour.

Andrew Anglin, founder of alt-right website Daily Stormer, has written that, “‘Gas the kikes’ is ridiculous enough that it will immediately be recognized as humor.” He also stated that he hopes “the media repeating this phrase would desensitize the public to Holocaust humor.” 

Presumably, this explains why his website’s comments sections are drenched in racial slurs, misogyny and ‘comical’ suggestions about sending minorities to death camps. The problem is that these comments aren’t just confined to right-wing sites—they have gradually spilled over to the rest of the world’s online discussions. Since about 2012, the alt-right has increasingly been targeting the comments sections of European websites.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking hate groups since 1971 and is one of the most comprehensive sources of information on the American far-right. Its “hate map” shows that most active groups are clustered around the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee and Florida, but through the use of social media these groups have managed to extend their reach enormously. Here in Berlin, until recently one of the alt-right’s most popular hang-outs was the comments section of the English language news site, The Local.

Since I first reported on this issue, the site has removed virtually all the hate comments from its news section. However, one only needs to enter terms like “thelocal.de” plus the address of any white nationalist webpage into a search engine to see how often their articles have been re-posted in right-wing backwaters.

Selection of Google search results connecting the Daily Stormer to TheLocal.de website.

Clearly, although this site is located in Berlin it was seen as a significant target for these groups. One reason was probably the access it provides to a European readership; another is its use of the Disqus comment platform. Any website using Disqus usually has a far higher proportion of hate speech because the platform is somewhat laissez-faire about tackling fake users and their comments. While Facebook and Twitter have recently begun removing fake news items and hate speech, Disqus has taken no such action, though it did introduce user-blocking in June 2016—much to the chagrin of right-wing users.

Source: Daily Stormer.

This is a startling reminder of why it's dangerous for internet users to view comments sections on news sites and elsewhere on social media as an objective reflection of society's views. Groups like the alt-right are all too willing to manipulate that perception. 

On the Daily Stormer for example, right-wing activists can be found coordinating campaigns to carpet-bomb social platforms like Twitter and Facebook and any major websites that use Disqus. Working in tandem, these trolls manufacture ‘public’ outcries against minorities who’ve upset them by speaking out against sexism in gaming, for example, or marrying someone of another race.

From the kind of targets they pick, it seems logical to deduce that their own social group consists almost entirely of white, straight, single and presumably Christian men, since they tend to target everyone who falls outside those categories. The alt-right will often pose as women, teenagers or black people so that other users will be slower to identify them as neo-fascists, though their tendency to post endless, self-hating rants against Black Lives Matter and feminism gives them away pretty easily.

These activists are encouraged to create an array of bogus identities by supplying Twitter and Disqus with dozens of fake email accounts.  In the process, each one transforms himself into a one-man mob, ‘liking’ and reposting his own comments and chiming in with cut-and-pasted replies. This is how many of the right-wing online echo chambers are born. 

In this screenshot, a poster on Daily Stormer explains how easy it is to manipulate Disqus by creating fake accounts. This is one of the alt-right's favourite tactics for fostering the illusion of mass support for its views.

The number of extreme right-wing comments on The Local.de began to rise sharply in 2014—the same year that Chancellor Merkel announced her open-borders policy for refugees. Merkel’s move was quickly congratulated by President Obama, which seems to have acted as a starting gun for the alt-right to begin seeding German websites with anti-refugee propaganda. Since then, a legion of trolls have spent most of the day and night posting hateful comments and scouring the internet for news stories involving refugees, immigrants or Muslims which they share with their entourage of outraged sock puppets. If the news outlets don’t oblige them by providing a juicy story, they’re happy to make shit up. 

A recent example occurred on Twitter at the end of 2016 after a story about a young woman who was kicked down the stairs at Berlin’s Neukoelln station appeared online. The details of the story were quickly re-written so that the dark-skinned, dark-haired female victim became a ‘blond-haired, blue-eyed German,’ while her assailant—a Bulgarian citizen—was rebranded a ‘Muslim refugee.’ It was a perfect example of how the alt-right aggressively tries to associate every wrongdoing with one of the minority groups they hate, no matter how tenuous the connection. 

Source: twitter.

Thankfully, the alt right does not reflect the majority of opinion in Germany, any more than they do in their American homeland. Far-right membership in most Western countries has increased slightly over the last three years, but there is still a chasm between the preponderance of hate speech online and the amount of bigotry seen in real life (horrendous though that is). In the 2015 World Values Survey for example, between five per cent and 22 per cent of respondents in Western countries demonstrated negative feelings towards people of colour, immigrants, women, queers and other minorities. This stands in stark contrast to the pattern seen on Disqus, where the majority of comments are prejudiced in some way. Here is a sample of the Survey’s results from Germany and the USA:

Does not want a multiracial neighbour? Germany 14,8 per cent, United States 5.6 per cent
Does not want a migrant neighbour: Germany: 21.4 per cent, United States: 13.6 per cent
Thinks that a woman's rights to work comes second to a man's: Germany 15.5 per cent, United states: 5.7 per cent.

Meanwhile, the German Verfassungschutz  (or domestic intelligence unit) reported in 2015 that membership in far-right parties in Germany totaled just 11,800 people. Nevertheless, all media outlets have to realize that they can be and are being manipulated. A sudden rise in comments against minorities is a sure sign that the alt-right is at work. The problem is that any sign of high traffic seems to be appreciated by many media editors and owners these days, even if comes in the form of trolls spewing hate. After all, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

The alt-right also counts on internet users being in a hurry, searching for the most shocking tit-bits from their news-feeds and passing them on to others without pausing to check the authenticity of the source. The rise of fake news is a stark reminder that “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

The Deep South and its ultra-right minority may be an ocean away from Europe, but the internet allows it to post its views worldwide while assuming a local disguise. We should be wary of getting too used to the alt-right's virtual presence in our lives: as events in Charlottesville have shown us, it can quickly harden into something much more real and damaging than words on a screen.

An earlier version of this piece was published on Unscene Berlin.

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17 August 2017. What can be learned from the movement to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline?

Why indigenous civil resistance has a unique power.

This article was first published in Waging Nonviolence in collaboration with the Peace Science Digest, which summarizes and reflects on current academic research in the field of peace and conflict studies.

Stand With Standing Rock Nov 11-15 2016. Credit: Flickr/Leslie Peterson. CC BY-NC 2.0.

2016 saw the emergence of a powerful movement against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, through land vital to Native communities, especially the Standing Rock Sioux. For non-Native people who have not been paying attention to indigenous rights struggles over the past several decades, the #NoDAPL movement may have served as a wake-up call to some of the injustices still confronting these communities.

For others, as Tom Hastings points out in “Turtle Island 2016 Civil Resistance Snapshot,” in the Journal for the Study of Peace and Conflict, #NoDAPL is simply another in a long line of civil resistance struggles Native communities have mobilized, often successfully, to claim their rights.

He highlights this recent history of Native American and First Nations civil resistance movements on Turtle Island—the name, from Lenape mythology, that refers to the landmass others call North America—and takes stock of their characteristics, challenges and successes, arguing that nonviolent resistance has been a more effective strategy than violent resistance in defending Native peoples and their “lifeways.”

Hastings begins with the fact that, unlike other identity groups struggling for justice in the United States or Canada, indigenous groups can claim sovereign rights as nations with their own governance structures — which also means that activists often mobilize in tandem with, as opposed to against, their tribal governments. Practically speaking, this fact provides indigenous activists with an additional tool in their activist toolbox: the nation-to-nation treaties previously negotiated with the settler governments of the United States and Canada.

Hastings notes that occasionally simply mentioning the existence of a treaty, and the fact that “tribal lawyers are standing by,” has been enough for action to be taken in favor of Native communities. In other cases, of course, the process is not so easy, but the existence of treaties as legal documents to which the federal government must be held accountable helps enormously.

For example, Hastings recounts an incident in 1974 when two brothers from the Anishinaabe nation, upon realizing that they had treaty rights to do so, “purposefully and openly fished on off-reservation waters” and presented a copy of the treaty to the game warden who came to arrest them. The matter was taken up in the courts, who ultimately ruled in their favor. But although they had established their legal right to fish in these off-reservation waters, they still faced the wrath of angry mobs who met them with racial slurs and sometimes even violence as they were trying to fish.

Hastings himself, along with other allies with the organization Witness for Peace, would, in the late 1980s/early 1990s, accompany them to the fishing spot as a protective presence. Eventually, media attention, which highlighted the contrast between the nonviolent Anishinaabe people simply fishing and the “inebriated racists” trying to stop them, shifted the opinion of the public and ultimately government officials in favor of treaty rights.

This case draws out a number of elements of Native civil resistance that Hastings explores throughout the article, in addition to treaty rights leverage: the strategic importance of nonviolent discipline, the power of media in shaping the outcome, the key supportive role that can be played by non-Native allies (as well as by indigenous allies globally), and the ultimate need for broader public education and opinion change on Native history, rights and struggles.

Beyond treaty rights (mostly regarding access to resources on land ceded in treaties—sometimes with dubious levels of consent—to which tribes have historical ties), Hastings mentions mobilization around a range of other issues: environmental protection, tribal health care, law enforcement, borders/boundaries, tribal dignity, consultation (on various policies affecting tribes), and basic sovereignty.

Of these, he pays special attention to anti-nuclear and anti-pipeline (environmental) activism against attempts to store nuclear waste and extract or transport oil close to Native communities, noting how these movements have become “more effective at drawing [in] coalition partners and using their special sovereignty statuses to wield power disproportionate to their populations.”

Throughout the article, the complex and multi-faceted nature of Native identity—and its relation to various forms of resistance—emerges as a common theme. First, Hastings brings attention to the importance of national (e.g., Sioux) and band (e.g., Brule Sioux) identities as opposed to the blanket identity of “Native American” or “First Nation,” which he says is more often used by non-Native people than by indigenous people themselves. He does, however, note the way in which a pan-Native American identity developed to some degree in the United States (through the emergence of American Indian Movement activism in the late 1960s and1970s) whereas it did not in Canada.

Finally, he highlights the emergence of a complicated warrior identity, both in relation to participation in the U.S. military — often in the name of and to gain status for their tribal nations rather than out of allegiance to an oppressive federal government — and in relation to longstanding anti-settler resistance, including the resistance of nonviolent “warriors.”

Contemporary relevance.

From April 2016 until late February 2017, enduring a fierce winter, Standing Rock Sioux water protectors and their allies created an encampment where they gathered and prayed to resist the proposed construction nearby of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River and across their sacred sites. The encampment and its acts of civil disobedience drew widespread media attention and support but also brought repressive responses from local police and private security companies.

Although President Obama temporarily halted construction in light of the Standing Rock people’s concerns, President Trump has since reinstated the project, and the camp has been dismantled. This article helps to situate the so-called #NoDAPL movement in the broader context and history of settler colonialism, broken treaties, exploitation and persistent indigenous civil resistance in North America. Understanding construction of the pipeline as part of this continuum of oppression, displacement and trust-violation endows the resistance movement with greater meaning—a movement that needs to be seen not as an over-reaction to an isolated incident but as a justified response to a steady onslaught of injustices.

More broadly, this history focuses attention on the widespread modes of domination by which some groups of human beings interact with both other groups of human beings and the natural world—instrumentalizing both for self-centered gain with no regard for indigenous self-determination or ecological balance. It is becoming abundantly clear that such practices are neither socially nor environmentally sustainable. As climate change becomes a clear and present danger, non-Native folks have much to learn — and fast — from resistance movements and lifeways of indigenous peoples about how to live sustainably without obliterating the world or one another.

Practical implications.

For indigenous activists, this research highlights the importance of maintaining nonviolent discipline, while also thinking strategically about both the use of media and collaboration with global and local allies to facilitate shifts in public opinion and create broad-based movements that will be more resilient and have greater impact.

For non-Native allies, it reminds activists of the broader historical context informing indigenous struggles and what that means for the significance of a specific movement itself but also for the role of settler allies in that movement—those who benefit in many ways from the forms of exploitation that have deprived Native communities of their livelihoods and sacred places but who also have access to particular forms of leverage that can put pressure on those spear-heading that exploitation and dispossession today.

For example, allies of #NoDAPL can go right to the source and move their personal savings out of banks financing the DAPL project and into local banks or community credit unions that are not. Going a step further, they can mobilize their employers and cities to do the same. More broadly, non-Native allies can educate their families, friends, and communities on the historical and contemporary injustices facing Native communities so that indigenous civil resistance movements can be met with even greater empathy and support.

Finally, activists should continue to draw out the connections between local struggles like #NoDAPL and the broader global climate justice movement. The former grounds and gives a human face to an issue as daunting as energy consumption and climate change, while the latter provides #NoDAPL and other such movements with additional urgency and wider relevance that can galvanize broader publicity and mobilization.

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15 August 2017. Media monsters: militarism, violence and cruelty in children's culture

Buzz Lightyear is tortured and becomes a prison guard in the surveillance-laden dystopia of Toy Story 3. Does it matter?

Credit: Pixabay/Jarmoluk.

“Ten percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and ten percent is merciful, no matter what, and the remaining 80 percent can be moved in either direction.” Susan Sontag.

Who would ever have thought that there would be torture scenes in G and PG-rated children's films, or that video games would allow someone to feel the rush of killing, or that the Disney corporation would try to trademark ‘SEAL Team 6’ so that they could use it for toys, Christmas stockings and snow globes after this elite military group had killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani compound?

Who could have imagined that a child would write a few loving words on her desk and then be arrested in front of her classmates, or that the U.S. government would torture real children in the ‘war on terror?’ Alexa Gonzalez, a 12-year old girl from Queens, doodled “I love my friends Abby and Faith. Lex was here. 2/1/10,” adding a smiley face for emphasis. The next thing she knew she was escorted from school in handcuffs and detained for hours.

And what of 14-year old Mohammed El-Gharani, who was subjected to sleep deprivation and hung from his wrists while a U.S. soldier threatened to cut off his penis with a knife? Welcome to the new face of childhood in America.

Seeing “little Boo,” the toddler who can barely speak in Monsters, Inc., strapped into a seat with holes in the bottom for draining bodily fluids just like the electric chair on death row convinced me to take a closer look at what children all over the world are watching as their purported ‘entertainment;’ what this might be doing to their minds and their emotions; and how all this is related to public policy and the institutions of society.

I don’t think it’s accidental that—as cartoon images of violence, militarism and incarceration fill children's heads—the school-to-prison pipeline is increasingly active in the schools of poor neighborhoods and communities of color, many of whose children are slated for a life in jail or in the armed forces. Pushing students out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system—often for minor offenses such as getting behind in their homework—is as disturbing as the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instituting programs on the middle school level as a way of attracting new recruits, or the use of images in children’s films that justify the ‘war on terror.’

Yet the propaganda continues. In the film The Incredibles, children are shown the 9/11 trope of a plane bent on destruction that’s heading toward a U.S. city while an entire family ends up on a torture table; the film also shows “Mr Incredible” being blasted by viscous bubbles similar to the supposedly non-lethal incapacitant sticky-foam weapons that are currently being proposed for crowd control in the U.S. and elsewhere. And what are children to think when their beloved Buzz Lightyear—shown as a friend to all for two of the three films in the series—is tortured, has his personality changed, and becomes a prison guard for the cruel overlord in the surveillance-laden dystopia of Toy Story 3?

These examples and many others like them matter enormously, because children's beliefs about other people are molded from a very young age—think how the characters in the Disney film Aladdin, for example, may have encouraged children to see the Arabic world as mean-spirited at a time when support for the first Gulf War was being consciously built up by the U.S. Government. The cultural critic Henry A. Giroux found that Disney not only included offensive language toward the Middle East in both this film and its sequel, but didn't even bother to write actual Arabic in the scenes where it was called for, choosing instead to substitute a scribble of nonsensical scrawl.

In addition to the language of death, war scenes, and general barbarism, there are other disturbing features of G and PG-rated children's movies. In Turbo, the tale of a snail trying to enter and win the Indianapolis 500 for example, nearly all of the African-American characters have an inner-city vibe. Spanish-speaking characters are presented as poor, lazy and/or loud, a stereotype repeated in Open Season, the story of a pet bear who is sent back to the wild.

Women are shown as either ‘bitchy’ or subservient—as in Beauty and the Beast, pretty much a primer for women to learn how to endure an abusive relationship (‘If I'm nice enough he'll come around’). Or watch how Ratatouille presents a woman as psychotic when the character “Colette” stabs the sleeve of a fellow kitchen worker’s uniform. Native Americans are invariably depicted as mysterious figures who speak monosyllabically, as seen in Rango, for example. “Rango,” the new sheriff in town in what appears to be an old racist Western film, says to “Wounded Bird,” “You wanna sniff the air or commune with a buffalo or something?”

Children themselves are presented as either endangered beings or as monsters, and sometimes both, as in the Toy Story series and Nanny McPhee. Guns, cruelty, and bullying are woven through just about every children’s film in the U.S., but according to This Film Is Not Yet Rated, the Motion Picture Association of America doesn't care about the level of violence so long as no one hears any cursing or is a witness to drug use or alternative lifestyles.

This last point is especially harmful because ritual ridicule in a brutal gender binary system has been linked to a recent rise in school shootings. “Most of the boys who opened fire were mercilessly and routinely teased and bullied” as researchers Michael S. Kimmel and Matthew Mahler put it.  Our definitions of what it means to ‘be a man’ are injected early on. Seeing the character “Ken”—who is depicted as effeminate—being threatened by “Barbie” in Toy Story 3 tells boys to be wary of having nice handwriting or displaying any other purportedly-feminine behavior. Or take the example of the ‘minion’ in Despicable Me who is teased for wanting some affection.

Meanwhile, children are busy learning how to kill from video games, repeating the cruelties they learn from films, watching playground fights on YouTube, and being patted down for guns and knives at school. At the same time, American tax dollars are hard at work being used for nationalistic ceremonies at pro sports events and censoring directors who don't promote ‘patriotism’ and the virtues of war. Pro-war movies like Black Hawk Down had no trouble enlisting support from the U.S. military, but those with a different message like Forrest Gump and GI Jane were ostracized.

Where is all this leading? As Hitler’s deputy Hermann Goering said at the Nuremberg trials:

“Of course the people don't want war...That is understood...But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

Propaganda and other more subtle forms of media communication have always been used to build support for war, militaristic policing and government surveillance on the grounds of ‘national security.’ The images and messages contained in film, TV, popular music and video games form an important part of this process, especially because there are now only five big media conglomerates that control over 90 per cent of everything that is seen and heard across America.

Against this background we are growing accustomed to torture and militarism in children’s films. What next—Darryl the Drone or Larry the Land Mine and his escapades? When we laugh at the suffering of others we become complicit in the darkness of violence, cruelty and war. Is that the kind of upbringing we want to give to our kids? 

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13 August 2017. Why are religious conservatives embracing transgender rights?

Iran has the second highest number of sexual reassignment surgeries in the world. What’s going on?

A transgender flag in San Francisco. Credit: Flickr/Torbackhopper. Some rights reserved.

Transgender rights activists emphasize that they belong to a minority that’s defined by a gender identity that is different from that typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. This transgender identity presupposes that ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are innate psychological states that are intrinsic in the human subject, conceptualized as things akin to hair color or skin pigmentation. However, attempts to link gender to a supposedly ‘male’ or ‘female’ brain have been fraught with confusion, since the science involved has often been biased by social presuppositions.

It may be true that an adult person’s sexual biochemistry determines arousal and sexual preference (i.e. the endocrine system, which is responsible for the regulation of androgens such as Estrogen and Testosterone), but there is no evidence that it determines the range of stereotypical ‘personality attributes’ that we associate with ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity.’ What we ‘make’ of our sex is up to each one of us. It’s clear that only women can bear children, for example, but the implications are undetermined—the current social division of labour around childcare is only one of many possible arrangements.    

Hence, the idea that all men share a set of intrinsic heterosexual personality attributes that are different to all women is a socially and politically-conservative fiction, designed to maintain certain dominant institutional arrangements. After all, if gendered behaviours, mannerisms and styles of dress were ‘natural’ then the need for ‘role models’ to teach children how to be ‘men’ and ‘women’ would evaporate. 

Nevertheless, stereotypes about gender and sex continue to be widely circulated by parents, teachers, television, cinema, sport, literature, children’s toys, clothing, hairstyles, the beauty industry, and religion. Exaggerating differences between men and women far beyond reproductive biology, along with mystifying the opposite sex and making unregulated sexual activity between men and women taboo, only strengthens these stereotypes. As a result, we are unable or unwilling to see the opposite sex primarily as a person like ourselves, with similar needs and desires.

But here’s the thing: in arguing that a small number of people are born with a sense of gender that does not ‘match’ their genital sex, there’s a danger that the Trans movement might strengthen the assumption that all of us possess an innate identity that’s inherently ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ prior to socialisation. This might explain why many ultra-conservative religious bodies from the Iranian Parliament and Pakistan’s Ministry of the Interior to the Church of England are throwing their weight behind transgender rights while remaining steadfastly homophobic. 

Conservative religious views of ‘creation’ cling to the view that all healthy humans possess an innate heterosexuality, a belief that’s based on the compatibility of male and female genitals for reproduction. Accordingly, homosexuals are simply defective or disordered heterosexuals. However, if homosexuality is naturally-occurring then this reasoning collapses.  And since we know that many individuals do not conform to traditional gender norms it’s clear that these norms cannot be innate. 

According to conservatives, if anyone born with a penis were to have an innate desire to ‘act like women’ then he would be diagnosed as sick or “dysphoric.” The same goes for biological females who feel a stronger affinity to normatively ‘masculine’ social roles and sexual attractions. In this context, it would be surprising if homosexuals did not feel confused.

Some clinicians do identify gender ‘dysphoria’ (or ‘unhappiness’) as an abnormal psycho-sexual condition that exists within the ‘patient,’ but is this true? Is it the person, or their relationship to society’s strict gender expectations, that makes them feel unhappy in their body? This question has real political consequences, because any criticism of social institutions that need reforming can easily be redirected towards the ‘aberrant’ individual: they must be altered to fit the norms of health and social acceptability.

To get some purchase on how this works in practice, consider the situation of queers in Iran. Iran is a sexist, intolerant, homophobic theocracy in which fundamentalist religious laws are strictly enforced to support the hetero-normative status quo. The official state solution to homosexuality is either to punish or execute those who practice it openly, or to ‘encourage’ homosexuals to transition surgically to the ‘correct’ sex so that they can ‘fit back into’ society.

Consequently, Iran has the second highest number of sexual reassignment surgeries in the world, second only to Thailand. The government even provides financial assistance for them. This seems analogous to chemically lightening a black person’s skin to make them more comfortable in a racist society rather than tackling that society’s racism.

In the same way, the seemingly compassionate ‘recognition’ of transgender ‘patients’ by many progressive clinicians and others in the Transgender rights movement may actually be reinforcing the hetero-normative binary that has long caused suffering and alienation for both homosexuals and gender non-conforming heterosexuals. 

As a child I wanted my body to be male so that I could do things that only men in my culture were permitted to do, like playing football or marrying a woman. It may be that I ‘identified’ as a boy when I was a little girl, but this could well be because I simply preferred to do what my culture had taught me were exclusively ‘boyish’ activities.  There’s no way to test whether being unhappy with one’s biological body is a by-product of dogmatic gender enculturation or an innate condition as conservatives would have it, since all cultures indoctrinate their children with gender norms, albeit in slightly different ways. There is no ‘control group’ against which we could compare gender-indoctrinated individuals.

In this confusing context, it becomes very difficult to distinguish homosexuals from ‘transgendered people.’ Given the heterosexist expectations that are built into social gender norms, homosexuality represents one very good reason why a subset of people simply cannot feel ‘at home’ in their bodies. The stereotypical expectation that all men are the same (and all women too) furnishes us with another excellent reason. Such individuals are not suffering from a disease; their societies are suffering from an inability to accept diversity. 

That said, some individuals might still be happier to transition than to cross-dress or to live as a gender non-conformist. In a liberal society, the option to surgically transition to the opposite sex should never be off the table for consenting adults. However, it should not enjoy automatic precedence over fighting for social reforms that are aimed at achieving more tolerance for gender non-conformists. Gender reassignment should be a decision taken by people who are fully aware of the part that learned social norms have played in their understanding of themselves and their sexuality.

We need not object to informed and consenting adults surgically transitioning to live in a body in which they feel more comfortable. But we should all—including progressives in and outside the transgender rights movement—eschew the popular rush to embrace this option uncritically, or as the primary solution for youngsters who suffer unhappiness because of their bodies.   

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10 August 2017. The progressive’s guide to reacting to offensive comedy

Ten tips for when everyone says your favorite comedian has “gone too far.”

Stephen Colbert. Credit: Flickr/BagoGames. Some rights reserved.

Things have quieted down since the last string of shocking incidents, but we can’t afford to be complacent. Another one could happen by the time you read this, and you’ll want to be ready.

Bill Maher took his medicine. Kathy Griffin is lying low. And more online petitions are ready in case Stephen Colbert tries anything else. But before the next comedic assault on decency leaves us shaken and sputtering with outrage, let me offer a few observations from decades of interviewing and studying comedians from George Carlin to Lewis Black, and even former comedians such as Dennis Miller (ahem).

Let’s quit being snowflakes with my Progressive’s Guide to Responding to Offensive Comedy.

1. You don't have to respond.

I’ve always viewed taking offense at entertainment as the avocation of the dim-witted (of any political type) who are unaware that they can change the channel or stop reading. But that was before the Instant Internet Outrage Machine made us all feel like we’re white-knuckle-driving nitroglycerine trucks in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer movie.

Most people don’t call radio talk shows, write letters to the editor, or demand that comedians lose their careers for a crack that rubs them the wrong way or misfires. We have something better to do. What, exactly? Anything.

2. We should apologize less.

On the May 1 Late Show, Stephen Colbert said of President Trump, “the only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.”

#FireColbert immediately trended on Twitter and petitions gathered the names of both right and left apoplectic at such filth aimed at the Russophile-in-Chief and who found the joke homophobic.

My take: the joke wasn’t anti-gay but mocked a pair of macho narcissists who’d rather be caught dead than queer. Not all jokes about touchy or marginalized subjects are phobic. Colbert hardly has a history of gay-bashing. And “cock holster” is hilarious. Attention T-shirt makers.

Colbert’s response: “I don’t regret that.” The studio cheered. “He, I believe, can take care of himself. I have jokes. He has the launch codes. So it’s a fair fight. So while I would do it again, I would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be. I’m not going to repeat the phrase, but I just want to say for the record, life is short, and anyone who expresses their love for another person, in their own way, is to me an American hero. I think we can all agree on that. I hope even the president and I can agree on that. Nothing else, but that.”

Nervy and perfect. Oh, and conservatives almost never apologize for things they say.

3. Don't lose your head.

On May 30, a photograph of notoriously outrageous comic Kathy Griffin holding a fake, bloody Trump head caused Ikea to sell out of fainting couches. Conservatives lost their minds, progressives got squeamish, and Griffin lost her nerve—as well as work.

My take: the photo just seemed like a French Revolution gag. That had been in the air to the degree that even I tweeted “Let them eat Trump steaks!” on March 20, with an article about Trump’s Mar-A-Lago trips costing more than Meals on Wheels.

Griffin’s response: a video apology as excruciating as her tearful press conference—and they made no difference. Conservative mouth-breathers from cable news to Twitter were putting Griffin atop their scapegoat lists for the Virginia GOP shooting. Entertainment news bottom-feeders speculated about her long road to redemption.

Did Griffin go too far? Not one swirled hair. There’s a long tradition of bloody satire, and it harms no one, as opposed to, say, taking away health care. Nor does it make anyone violent, because humans have free will and choose their actions, and if they don’t, life has no meaning. Blaming comedy (or any entertainment) for real-life violence is the shameless tactic of political opportunists and talk show hosts looking for easy material. Politicians inciting violence is another thing. (See below.)

The Internet Outrage Machine is like a dog. You can’t show it fear. The one thing Griffin got right in her apology was that Trump and his people are bullies.

4. Take note of who's leading the outrage before you follow.

Like all bullies, Trump’s too thin-skinned to take a fraction of what he dishes out. From mocking a disabled reporter to birtherism to encouraging violence at his rallies—and plenty more—Trump, his family and his supporters have permanently lost the right to claim they’re offended by anything, ever. Other than reported facts and science.

The people who not only failed to repudiate but embraced Ted Nugent and others, and who looked the other way or took part in eight years of abhorrent remarks about President Obama? Their umbrage is the real joke.

5. Avoid circular firing squads.

Conservatives get no greater pleasure than when progressives turn on each other. Unless it’s the pleasure of stepping on the poor.

Even better for them if it’s over inconsequential media dustups. Better still if those are distractions from Actual Issues, such as becoming the world’s outlier on fighting climate change. They’re longtime experts at getting people to vote against their own interests over cultural matters that don’t affect them. (See, for instance: gay.)

Right-wingers are known to have authoritarian personalities and fall into lockstep much more easily than progressives. We don’t have to be like them to avoid giving them the satisfaction of seeing us at each other’s throats.

6. Yes, each other's.

Comedians tend to be liberal, so cut some slack.

Although there are notable exceptions, such as the Jeff Foxworthy Axis of Trailers and Dennis Miller, who apparently snapped after 9/11 and took a hard—and unfunny—right turn. (Unless you find riffing on Nancy Pelosi’s face to be the stuff of the Algonquin Round Table.) One side punches up, and the other punches down.

Don’t believe me? Look up the short-lived and excruciating Fox News version of The Daily Show from 2007 called The ½ Hour News Hour.

7. Comedians are in their own category.

Comedians get to say things that an Uber board member or Ann Coulter or a senator—even the newly relaxed Al Franken—don’t. They get to say things that would cost you your job. They’re not statesmen. When John McCain makes an awkward “Bomb, bomb Iran” crack, it’s unsettling. If a comedian does that, it’s likely satirical, as they don’t set foreign policy.

Comedians are our court jesters, and the better ones are also part philosophers. They speak uncomfortable truths, mock the powerful and provoke.

Our taste, sensibilities, approval, and especially our boundaries, are irrelevant to comedy, if not its natural targets. As Carlin told me, “Nothing’s off-limits if it’s properly couched and properly contextualized.” He then proceeded to use a “baby-rape” example I won’t detail here.

A careful comic is either an oxymoron or a bore. It’s no accident that our news media has grown more useless in direct proportion to growing more careful, while late-night comics have become more and more reliable sources of truth, or even just saying the obvious when no one else will.

8. Focus on the big picture.

Now watch while I rise to Bill Maher’s defense for saying That One Word.

On his June 2 episode of HBO’s Real Time, Maher responded to Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s invitation to come and do field work thusly: “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house nigger.”

OK, no.

Does Maher deserve the benefit of the doubt? Am I even allowed to have an opinion on this subject? (Spoiler: I’m whiter than a mayonnaise sandwich.) Depends who you ask, and you could fill books with the answers.

My take: Maher seemed to be attempting a satirical, edgy ad lib on live TV about racism, that didn’t come close to meeting the above Carlin rule. And he reaped the fucking whirlwind.

Maher’s response: he apologized and then had Black guests Ice Cube, Symone Sanders and his friend Michael Eric Dyson on the next show for chastisement. If that’s the 2017 version of white people apologizing to Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson when they screw up, it was an odd mixture of sincerity and impatience from Maher. He pointed out that “Comedians are a special kind of monkey.” Lousy word choice, valid point, still a shitty joke.

Big picture: Maher has been a gutsy liberal satirist and gadfly for decades, calling out conservatives and racists, week in and week out, before Stewart, Colbert, Noah, Oliver and Bee. He hasn’t behaved like a racist. In fact, he’s notably said that not all conservatives are racists, but if you’re a racist you’re probably a conservative.

9. There are no perfect progressives.

Not that Maher doesn’t have his flaws or rub some people the wrong way. In addition to the basic odds of a comedian self-destructing on live TV over time, his harping on Islam comes off as obsessive even when he’s making sound observations. (See also: Sam Harris.) But if progressives dogpile on flawed members of their own team, the herd’s going to thin fast.

We lose elections because we hold out for perfect liberal candidates. Anyone happy with the result of that? Expecting a comic not to transgress or bomb now and then makes even less sense.

Call them out when they’re in the wrong, move on when they acknowledge it, and reserve serious outrage for the people whose intentions are genuinely, dangerously offensive.

10. It all blows over fast.

Colbert’s ratings got better. Griffin was never on the radar of people pissed about her, and she’s dropped back off it. Maher’s show is back to normal.

And yet we keep taking the bait. It’s almost as if we’re the ones who don’t learn from their mistakes.

Well-meaning progressives can disagree about all of this. And debate. And troll each other. And unfriend each-other. But we could do it with thicker skin.

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

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8 August 2017. Do we still need human judges in the age of Artificial Intelligence?

Technology and the law are converging, but what does that mean for justice?

Credit: Pixabay/Geralt.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is fusing disciplines across the digital and physical worlds, with legal technology the latest example of how improved automation is reaching further and further into service-oriented professions. Casetext for example—a  legal tech-startup providing Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based research for lawyers—recently secured $12 million in one of the industry’s largest funding rounds, but research is just one area where AI is being used to assist the legal profession.

Others include contract review and due diligence, analytics, prediction, the discovery of evidence, and legal advice. Technology and the law are converging, and where they meet new questions arise about the relative roles of artificial and human agents—and the ethical issues involved in the shift from one to the other. While legal technology has largely focused on the activities of the bar, it challenges us to think about its application to the bench as well. In particular, could AI replace human judges?

Before going any further, we should distinguish algorithms from Artificial Intelligence. In simple terms, algorithms are self-contained instructions, and are already being applied in judicial decision-making. In New Jersey, for example, the Public Safety Assessment algorithm supplements the decisions made by judges over bail by using data to determine the risk of granting bail to a defendant. The idea is to assist judges in being more objective, and increase access to justice by reducing the costs associated with complicated manual bail assessments.

AI is more difficult to define. People often conflate it with machine learning, which is the ability of a machine to work with data and processes, analyzing patterns that then allow it to analyze new data without being explicitly programmed. Deeper machine learning techniques can take in enormous amounts of data, tapping into neural networks to simulate human decision-making. AI subsumes machine learning, but it is also sometimes used to describe a futuristic machine super-intelligence that is far beyond our own.

The idea of  AI judges raises important ethical issues around bias and autonomy.  AI programs may incorporate the biases of their programmers and the humans they interact with. For example, a Microsoft AI Twitter chatbot named Tay became racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic within 24 hours of interactive learning with its human audience. But while such programs may replicate existing human biases, the distinguishing feature of AI over an algorithm  is that it can behave in surprising and unintended ways as it ‘learns.’ Eradicating bias therefore becomes even more difficult, though not impossible. Any AI judging program would need to account for, and be tested for, these biases.

Giving AI decision-making powers over human cases also raises a fundamental issue of autonomy. In 1976, the German-American computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum argued against replacing humans in positions of respect and care, and specifically mentioned judges. He argued that doing so would threaten human dignity and lead to alienation and devaluation.

Appealing to rationality, the counter-argument is that human judges are already biased, and that AI can be used to improve the way we deal with them and reduce our ignorance. Yet suspicions about AI judges remain, and are already enough of a concern to lead the European Union to promulgate a General Data Protection Regulation which becomes effective in 2018. This Regulation contains “the right not to be subject to a decision based solely on automated processing”.

In any case, could an AI judge actually do what human judges claim to do? If AI can correctly identify patterns in judicial decision-making, it might be better at using precedent to decide or predict cases. For example, an AI judge recently developed by computer scientists at University College London drew on extensive data from 584 cases before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The AI judge was able to analyze existing case law and deliver the same verdict as the ECHR 79 per cent of the time, and it found that the ECHR judgments actually depended more on non-legal facts around issues of torture, privacy, fair trials and degrading treatment than on legal arguments. This is an interesting case for legal realists who focus on what judges actually do over what they say they do. If AI can examine the case record and accurately decide cases based on the facts, human judges could be reserved for higher courts where more complex legal questions need to be examined.

But AI may even be able to examine such questions itself. In the case of positivist judges who separate morality from the law, legal interpretation could be transformed into an algorithmic task according to any given formal method. For example, if we believe that the law is socially constructed and follow the thinking of British legal theorist H. L. A. Hart, then the possibility exists to program both the ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ rules of any legal system in this way.

Primary rules confer legal rights and duties—telling people, for example, that they cannot murder or steal. Secondary rules recognize, change or adjudicate these primary rules. For example, deep machine learning AI may be able to process how to recognize the sources of the law—like precedent and the constitution­—that are relevant in a case.

Alternatively, if we think originalists like the late Justice Antonin Scalia are right to say that the correct interpretation of the law is what reasonable people, living at the time of a legal source’s adoption, would have understood as its ordinary meaning, then AI natural language processing could be used to program this method. Natural language processing allows AI to understand and analyze the language that we use to communicate. In the era of voice-recognition software like Siri, Alexa, and Watson, natural language processing is only going to get better.

AI might be able to replicate these formalist jurists’ interpretive methods. More importantly, it might help them to be and remain consistent in their judgments. As the English utilitarian legal theorist Jeremy Bentham once wrote in An Introduction To The Principles of Morals and Legislation, “in principle and in practice, in a right track and in a wrong one, the rarest of all human qualities is consistency.” With the ability to process far more data and variables in the case record than humans could ever do, an AI judge might be able to outstrip a human one in many cases.

Things get trickier in the case of judges who introduce morality into the law—a complicated task because ethical values and the origins of morality are contested. For example, some natural lawyers believe that morality emanates from God, nature, or some other transcendent source. Programming AI with a practical, adjudicative understanding of these divine or divine-like sources in a changing human society is a hugely complex undertaking. Moreover, the surprising and unintended nature of AI ‘learning’ could lead to a distinct line of interpretation, a lex artificialis of sorts.

Even so, AI judges may not solve classical questions of legal validity so much as raise new questions about the role of humans, since—if  we believe that ethics and morality in the law are important—then they necessarily lie, or ought to lie, in the domain of human judgment. In that case, AI may assist or replace humans in lower courts but human judges should retain their place as the final arbiters at the apex of any legal system. In practical terms, if we apply this conclusion to the perspective of American legal theorist Ronald Dworkin, for example, AI could assist with examining the entire breadth and depth of the law, but humans would ultimately choose what they consider a morally-superior interpretation.

Any use of AI over algorithms in legal decision-making will likely progress upwards through the judicial hierarchy. Research bodies like the International Association for Artificial Intelligence and Law (IAAIL) are already exploring AI in legal evidence-gathering and decision-making. The American Judge Richard Posner believes that the immediate use of AI and automation should be restricted to assisting judges in uncovering their own biases and maintaining consistency. However, the increasing use of automation and AI decision-making in the courts will inevitably shape human judicial decision-making along the way. An increased reliance on AI may therefore blur the line between human and AI judging over time.

The sheer pace at which these technologies are developing has led some to call for a complete moratorium in the field so that policy and the courts can catch up. This is perhaps extreme, but it is certainly clear that the issue of AI and the law needs much more concerted attention from policymakers, ethicists and scholars. Organizations like the IAAIL as well as AI regulatory bodies are needed to provide an interface between jurists, ethicists, technologists, government and the public in order to develop rules and guidelines for the appropriate use and ownership of AI in the legal system.

In the 21st century, legal scholars have their work cut out for them in addressing a host of new issues. At the heart of these issues is a hugely challenging question: what does it mean to be human in the age of Artificial Intelligence?

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7 August 2017. The future of security

Healthy and healed relationships are the key to sustainable peace.

Shepard Fairey’s Peace Goddess. Credit: Flickr/Brian Donovan. Some rights reserved.

Justifications for war are so rampant in our current paradigm that it can be hard to notice and prevent them from penetrating the subconscious. Mainstream culture would have us believe that war is our most effective means of security, but a new paradigm is emerging, with scientific studies that make it clear that a more humane way is indeed possible.

Not only is there another way, but it is also safer and would cost a fraction of the US military budget. Here’s a look at war through the lens of the new story: True security is created by refusing to dehumanize any party in a conflict, and instead raising the human image to its fullest potential. This intention is at the heart of Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping.

What is Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping?

In recent years, Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping has gained recognition as a viable alternative to armed peacekeeping. UCP works by training groups of civilians, sometimes referred to as “peace teams,” in nonviolent de-escalation skills and philosophy, and then placing those people in conflict areas to help protect vulnerable populations and decrease violence.

Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping goes back as far as the Buddha, who once stopped a war between two rival kings from breaking out. As they fought over water rights, the Buddha held up a handful of water between the kings and asked, “What is more precious, blood or water?” The kings replied, “Blood is much more precious, blessed one.” The Buddha then said, “Let us not spill what is more precious for what is less.”

While it can be argued that UCP has been used throughout all of human history, Mahatma Gandhi was the first to attempt to implement it at a societal level. He envisioned a nonviolent army called the Shanti Sena, Sanskrit for “peace army.” Tragically, Gandhi was assassinated the evening before he was to attend a meeting to launch the Shanti Sena and so it never took full effect.

However, in 1981, a meeting convened in Canada resulted in the inception of Peace Brigades International (PBI), one of the first modern UCP organizations. From 1990 to 2014, the number of UCP organizations increased fivefold, growing from 7 to 35 (while a total of 50 organizations were active throughout this period, only 35 of them were still operating in 2014). Since 1990, UCP missions have operated in 35 countries, by a total of 50 organizations such as PBI.

How does UCP differ from armed peacekeeping?

While armed peacekeeping relies on the threat of violent force to keep vulnerable populations safe, UCP operates on a different level. As explained by Christine Schweitzer, who served as program director for Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP): “In our analysis, there is a double mechanism of protection at work here as in regard to the work of international civilian peacekeepers: they are providing the ‘eye and ear of the world,’ and, being outsiders, are able to talk to all sides of the conflict without being seen as partisan.”

The presence of internationals achieves two things: it allows news of a distant conflict to have greater reach in global media, and it allows the internationals to choose to be a neutral third party, thus giving them an opportunity to de-escalate any side of the conflict. Armed peacekeepers generally do not have an explicit intention of being nonpartisan or being a channel of news and information to the outside world, though this sometimes happens.

UCP re-humanizes all sides of the conflict. For violence to be possible, the perpetrator must see the people they target as less than human (and thus lose part of their own humanity). Dehumanization is woven throughout all military training. And though armed peacekeeping has an aim of preventing violence, it largely uses the same threat of force that the violent faction of a conflict inflicts, but changes the direction of that threat of force so that the violent group also fears it. UCP adheres to an approach free from inciting fear or threat.

UCP proves effective by sending the message that the would-be victims of violence are not less than human; that their lives are so precious that people who have never met them before would give up the distanced comfort of their home countries to live among them in an effort to protect them. Every human life is this sacred. In sending this message, UCP actors have the opportunity to not only protect the vulnerable, but also invite the oppressor off the path of violence and back to a state of congruence, where they can reclaim their own humanity.

Many people believe that going into a conflict without weapons is more dangerous than armed intervention. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Since UCP has only begun to receive the recognition it warrants as a viable alternative to armed interventions, the data collected during the early decades is sparse. However, 13 of the 35 organizations were able to provide accurate numbers of the practitioners on staff since 1990, totaling 3065.

Of these 3065 people in the field, only six deaths have occurred, one of which was a car crash and thus not related to the UCP activities. Comparing these numbers to the fatality rates of armed peacekeeping missions conducted by the United Nations shows that armed peacekeepers are 12 times more likely to die on duty than unarmed civilian peacekeepers.

This fascinating research can be illustrated by a recent story coming from the work of Nonviolent Peaceforce in South Sudan. On April 17, 2014, a United Nations base in Bor was attacked. Two of NP’s peacekeepers, Andres Alejandro Gutierrez Garcia and Derek Oakley, were at a Protection of Civilians area when the attack started. They took shelter in a mud hut with five women and nine children.

Shortly after they entered the hut, gunmen stormed in. Upon seeing two international men among the group of Sundanese women and children, the gunmen demanded that Garcia and Oakley leave immediately. Garcia and Oakley knew that if they left, the women and children would be shot. The peacekeepers exchanged eye contact, visually confirming their agreement to stay, then calmly told the gunmen that, as unarmed international protection officers, they were there to protect civilians.

Twice more the gunmen ordered them to leave, and twice more they respectfully refused. Finally, the gunmen left the hut, harming no one. This story shows with remarkable clarity what may be confusing from the statistics alone: It was the fact that they were unarmed — and trained in nonviolent de-escalation skills — that allowed them to save themselves and 14 others that day. This truth bears repeating: the fact that they did not have weapons was what saved their lives. Being willing to be vulnerable was their greatest protection.

Perhaps the gunmen were not influenced by the peacekeepers’ courageous vulnerability, but rather by other concerns. Killing internationals might have led to graver consequences for the gunmen and their cause than not killing them. Negative press and possible intervention from foreign powers might have thwarted their efforts. However the gunmen made their decision, and the peace team still accomplished its goal of protecting civilians, even if the NP did not persuade violent actors to change their ways.

The success of UCP has major implications for the rest of society. As explained by Michael Nagler: “People support war when they feel there is no viable alternative. If we are able to build peace teams up to scale, it would make it much easier for people to renounce war.” Further than simply renouncing war, we could replace the entire system for a fraction of the cost. According to estimates from peace researcher John Paul Lederach, it would take only 3% of the world’s military budget to build this into a worldwide institution.

Where do we go from here?

For those who may be skeptical that UCP cannot be applied in high conflict areas, it is exciting to note that Nonviolent Peaceforce has received a grant from the European Union to bring its peacekeeping work to Syria. For this initiative, the organization is partnering with Cure Violence, a domestic peace team based in Chicago that has had remarkable success in reducing violence in one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. Together, Nonviolent Peaceforce and Cure Violence will train Syrian civilians in UCP and help establish peace teams on the ground.

With continued innovation in the UCP field, we can find more hope than ever in our power to build a humane alternative to the war system. But for this alternative to truly be strong enough to replace the old paradigm, we will need much greater participation in it. Healthy and healed relationships are the key to sustainable peace, and how we engage in conflict has a large influence on either straining or strengthening our relationships.

As Mel Duncan, the co-founder of Nonviolent Peaceforce, once suggested in an interview on Peace Paradigm Radio, one of the most important things anyone can do to promote the new paradigm in peacekeeping is to share the idea with others.

The next time you find yourself in a conversation with someone who is despondently insisting that we must use violent force to respond to a security threat, tell them about Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping. Tell them there is another way, one that is statistically more effective in saving lives, as well as costs. Tell them about the brave peacekeepers carving a path back to human dignity, and that all of us can be a part of this new story.

When you hear someone beating the drums of war, invite them into the chorus of peace.

This article was first published in Nonviolence.

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6 August 2017. Women beware: President Trump and the promise of violence

The Mooch may have gone but the menace and misogyny remain deep inside the White House.

Anthony Scaramucci being interviewed by Emily Maitlis. Credit: twitter.

When Emily Maitlis of BBC Newsnight landed her first (and possibly as it transpired, her last) interview with the then-incoming Head of Communications for the White House, Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci, she could have had little idea beyond her briefing notes what to expect. What viewers actually saw and heard wasn’t just a bad omen of things to come, but an exercise in that peculiar blend of undisguised contempt and ferocious masculine-driven competition that has become a decisive marker of the violent underpinnings of Donald Trump and his administration. Women beware.

Scaramucci rose to the occasion of having a well-trained and well-mannered BBC female journalist in front of him by attempting to cut her down to size. He repeatedly pointed and stabbed his finger at Maitlis. He seemed to want to pat her on the arm, perhaps intending to infantilise her as ‘just a girl.’ Eventually he did touch her on the hand, thereby breaking all the normal etiquette and disarming her for a moment. Successful working women like Maitlis might have gotten to the top, but she still needed to be reminded of the ‘natural’ pecking order.

There are at least three political issues entangled with one another in this kind of media spectacle. The first is the fact that a right-wing faction in government is having to contend with the presence of professional women on its home turf. This is something that neo-liberalism has already found a way to manage through recourse to ideas of ‘leaning in,’ thereby—at least to some extent—adjusting to this phenomenon. Not so the harder right which forms a key element of Trump’s support.

Secondly, these kinds of gladiatorial televisual knockabouts form a deliberate part of Trump’s approach to political communication. In similar fashion, a few days after Scaramucci’s interview with Maitlis, presidential adviser Stephen Miller went head to head with CNN’s Jim Acosta who asked him a question from the floor about Trump’s proposed new legislation on immigration. Miller accused Costa of “cosmopolitan bias” and was hailed by Breitbart News for his “evisceration” of the journalist. These performances are deliberate—gauged for their entertainment value in a presidency that’s increasingly defined by those standards, but sophisticated as a form of propaganda.

The third issue is Trump’s flagrant debunking of the law and the surrounding institutions of the state, and his disdain for the scaffolding of liberal democracy. In this environment, gender equality is a scornful thing.

Each of these factors played out in the Maitlis interview and thereafter. Indeed Scaramucci showed himself to be supremely talented in this respect, delivering his jabs with smiles and nods to the camera while displaying a prowess well beyond anything he learned at Harvard Law School or on Wall Street. And therein lies the danger: by converting news to entertainment, the actors involved may, at least to some extent, be exculpated from the gravity of their deeds. This weakens our capacity for the depth of critique that’s required in the present moment. It adds levity in a context where democracy is in peril.    

Sticking close to Trump’s Presidential campaign script, Scaramucci accused Maitlis of elitism, and referred to the political classes in Washington DC in the same way, aiming to elevate Trump and himself as champions of the ordinary working-class man or woman. His straight-talking style and claims to authenticity on the basis of growing up on New York’s Long Island are part of a repertoire of reaching out to Trump’s political base over the heads of the professional class. While Trump’s constituency may not watch Newsnight, they surely would have appreciated Scaramucci’s ability and willingness to throw a metaphorical punch in clips that were widely circulated on social media.

These claims to authenticity are part of the ‘we the ordinary people’  ‘Born in the USA’ rhetoric of many Trump voters. Such self-mythologizing is buried so deep in the white masculine working-class psyche of modern America that it resonates even when the carrier of the message is a man in a Wall Street suit. The Mooch was happy to explain to Maitlis that—while most of his counterparts in Washington DC were backstabbers—at least he and Trump were more honest: ‘we do it in the front.’ Five days later, and under the direction of the President’s new Chief of Staff John Kelly, he was forced to step down.

But the question remains: what was Maitlis to do under these circumstances? Who was guiding her through her earphone? She was on duty, so presumably her professionalism stopped her from asking Scaramucci to desist from making so many stabbing gestures with his hands. The question of what to do when etiquette is broken like this in a blatantly macho way is one that must surely reverberate for many women journalists working in and around the White House under the current administration.

Where rules are flaunted on such a regular basis, new and insidious forms of sexism must be high on the agenda. Just a few weeks previously and while awaiting a call from the newly elected Irish Prime Minister, Trump called a young woman forward from the Irish contingent of the Washington DC press corps and congratulated her on her smile. She could have refused his invitation on the grounds that this was not a beauty pageant, thereby showing how inappropriate a comment this was to someone taking part in her professional duties. Would she have lost her job? Surely not. Again it was a way of reducing a woman down to size.

All of this is redolent of the showmanship underpinned by menace that’s practiced by other right-wing leaders like ex-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi  who, like Trump, also recognized and utilized the power of TV entertainment in politics. Berlusconi felt no need to restrain himself when demeaning women. Their very presence warranted a comment in public that all could hear, whether one of approval or otherwise.

In these many small but significant actions, we see a disavowing of all the measures taken to ensure gender equality in and across public life, in media institutions, and in departments of the state. Coming from heads of government or their appointees, these actions and their signals are all the more important, seeking as they do to give legitimacy to what is happening, though Scaramucci’s performance in his interview with Maitlis pales in comparison to his expletive-driven comments to New Yorker journalist Ryan Lizza which led to him being fired. Reportedly Trump himself did not object to Scaramucci’s foul-mouthed tirade—“I loved it” according to the New York Post. Perhaps his daughter and his wife were not impressed, but it was Kelly who insisted that he be sacked.

Trump’s particular brand of authoritarianism relies on the popularity of various media genres to give it legitimacy, even in adversity, and even when the White House is struggling to meet any of its policy objectives. No one will ever be able to watch The Apprentice again and see it as harmless fun. Perhaps more complicated is our psychic attachment to genres like The Godfather, The Sopranos, or Martin Scorsese’s cinematic masterpieces of New York’s gangster-land like Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Raging Bull.  

These were the same kind of guys, the same ‘goodfellas’ who talked in the exact same way about women, and who were only truly at home in the strip club. Cut women down to size with a few violent expletives. Refer to each other in the language of the locker room where the real guys hang out.

Maybe they endeared themselves to us because they seemed to belong safely in the past. Sadly, it’s time to think again.  

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3 August 2017. How intersectional feminism transformed me from an asshole to an activist

I wrote this so that more cis men can understand their toxic behavior and avoid apologizing 20 years too late.

A person in a grey shirt looks out from a balcony. Credit: Everyday Feminism.

Originally published on Everyday Feminism. 

After leading my students, all high school seniors, on a field trip to a local domestic violence (DV) organization to get a better understanding of intimate partner violence (IPV), I didn’t expect to be the one to leave with an epiphany.

On the bus ride back to school, I messaged my ex who had been with me through many of those thrashing years of high school and college:“Whenever I hear about methods of control in DV situations, I hear echoes of a younger, way-more-insecure me. I am so sorry you had to deal with that me. Sorry also that it has taken this many years to apologize.”

She was “floored.” I responded that I hoped that the floor was clean. My past certainly has not been. What’s more, I spent much of my life never fully understanding how dirty I was.

Long before I joined Everyday Feminism, I joined Facebook and began reconnecting with childhood folks who knew that younger me. One woman, who I had never been particularly nice to in my adolescence, praised an article I wrote on male privilege and asked how I “started to get it.”

Though she didn’t say it like this, the question I heard, knowing my history, was: How did you go from being such an asshole to a writer for Everyday Feminism?

A fair question, one I more than earned.

But it’s a complicated question. First, I’m still a bit of an asshole, though I make a conscious effort to keep any assholery separate from systems of oppression. Second, I have editors telling me this piece is supposed to be an article, not a memoir.

But the article-length answer is that, over the course of my life, I have found numerous frameworks to help me makes sense of my behaviors – and unlearn them, or at least try to.

Let’s start with what I learned from working with Domestic Violence organizations.

1. The power and control wheel.

Because most cis, straight men like myself don’t formally study issues of gender, when we think of intimate partner violence, we usually think of illegal acts – physical and sexual violence. Many DV organizations refute these misconceptions using the Power and Control Wheel.

Notice that only the outside of the wheel consists of those illegal acts. The spokes, however,are full of perfectly legal—and abusive—behaviors.

During that field trip, when I looked at a few of those spokes, it was like looking into a mirror – or through a window at a younger me.

While I had always been a good kid in most ways, my goodness didn’t mean I was exempt from many of those spokes.

For example, during the years with my ex, when I was feeling particularly hurt or vulnerable, it was not uncommon to unleash a fury of punching directed at the nearest wall, windshield, or sometimes myself—leaving me with dents in bedroom walls, cracked skin and windshields, headaches—and a very scared partner.

When I discuss the Power and Control Wheel with my students, they confirm that such behaviors are alarmingly common.

A therapist I once worked with—one whom I sought out because of my inability to access my emotions—taught me that those fits were a consequence of masculinity. My emotions would spill out as rage because I, as a cis man, was trained to suppress them until they consumed me.

According to her, I was a victim of masculinity. Liking that narrative, I wrote that interpretation in ink for many years.

I now interpret those fits of rage as a means of control, a textbook case of “Using Intimidation” on the Wheel. If my partner answered a loaded question with the answer that hurt me, she risked a punching storm. It was far safer to tell me what I wanted to hear.

Other behaviors of mine that permeate the Wheel might better be described today as gaslighting, which Shea Emma Fett describes as “an attempt to overwrite another person’s reality.”

I remember on numerous occasions actually blaming my ex when men hit on her—as if I had somehow become the victim. Instead of viewing these unwelcome advances by others as harassment against her, I viewed them as threats against me that could lure away my primary source of validation—my girlfriend.

Even without the Wheel, it’s obvious how problematic these behaviors are, and I cringe rehashing them in writing. But the Wheel gave me a framework to reflect on behaviors I had not thought about in years. It spurred a wave of nostalgia, except that they were shitty memories, not sentimental ones, that rushed back into my consciousness.

2. Toxic masculinity.

Of course, I didn’t develop these behaviors in a vacuum.

I had help—like an entire society training me not just how to gain control over my partner but also that I was entitled to do so.

Poet Tony Hoagland describes some of this training in “The Replacement:”

It is a kind of cooking

the male child undergoes:

to toughen him, he is dipped repeatedly

in insult—peckerwood, shitbag, faggot,

pussy, dicksucker—until spear points

will break against his epidermis,

until his is impossible to disappoint.

I bring up this training not to pass the buck or let me off the hook. After all, I embraced much of it. I chose to enroll in weight training classes for more aesthetic than health reasons. I chose to watch those shows full of gratuitous objectification. I chose to cannonball into the waters of superficiality.

But it’s important to more deeply understand the source of one’s actions.

Harris O’Malley defines toxic masculinity as a “narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status, and aggression.”

I was playing out a script of toxic masculinity that I didn’t necessarily author, and realizing this fact helped me find a new script—even if I couldn’t forget many of the lines from the old one.

Toxic masculinity is the mainstream school that too many of us attend to learn abusive behaviors. And while anyone can exhibit abusive behaviors, if we look at IPV, cis straight men are far more likely to be the perpetrators.

In response to an underreported shooting, Melissa Jeltsen writes:

According to PolitiFact, there have been 71 deaths due to extremist attacks on US soil from 2005 to 2015. Compare that to the drumbeat of women killed by their intimate partners, which number three daily. In California alone, there were 118 domestic violence-related homicides in 2015. On average, there are nearly 11 murder-suicides nationally each week. Most involve a man killing his wife or girlfriend using a gun. But they get little sustained media attention.

Recent years have been banner years for toxic masculinity, as The Representation Project recently highlighted in a three-minute video.

But the ‘70s and ‘80s contained enough toxic masculinity to require that the rest of my life be spent unlearning and deprogramming.

3. True self vs false self.

Understanding the concepts of the true and false self accelerated the deprogramming.

In my message to my ex, I mentioned that my youth had been marked by extreme insecurity. I was a skinny White kid whose only remarkable quality was how thoroughly unremarkable I was. I lived directly atop of the bell curve.

Having my love returned by a remarkable person was validating. But also problematic, as I found self-worth not from myself, which is where you’d expect to find self worth, but from my relationship.

Mary Pipher—author of Reviving Ophelia, the classic (White) feminist text from the ‘90s—frames this type of validation as symptomatic of the “false self,” which is socially scripted, most often by unhealthy sources like the market-driven media.

Pipher writes, “With the false self in charge, all validation came from outside the person. If the false self failed to gain approval, the person was devastated.”

She wrote this with adolescent girls in mind, but other a/genders can also find the framing useful. After all, we can all relate—at some level—to the pain involved when we can’t own all of our “emotions and thoughts that are not socially acceptable.”

In contrast, people honoring their “true selves” accept themselves, rather than waiting for others to accept them. Not having fully accepted myself, I drew an unhealthy amount of value from my relationship.

And if my ex had power over my self-worth, I consciously and unconsciously did what I could to get control over her. And toxic masculinity normalized my behaviors so I could act without self-examination.

Exploring my true self, however, led to some really heavy questions—like who the fuck am I, really?

What truly feeds and nurtures me? The answers to those questions, for me and most folks, don’t include hurting the ones we care about. In fact, I wonder how many abusive people are abusive because they have denied themselves their true selves.

In the end, we all lose when we play out someone else’s script.

4. Good/bad binary.

We also lose using the good/bad binary.

In my experience, the good/bad binary is a counterproductive mindset more commonly applied to racism. If we believe that only bad people can be racist, then we’re far less likely to explore and own our racism.

But such a binary ignores the complexity of our world. In a racist world, as a White American, I can internalize racist thoughts even as I try to be a good person.

The same is true with gender discrimination, as Maisha Z. Johnson argues thoroughly here. The good/bad binary is a set-up to ensure problematic behaviors go unchecked.

Yes, I was a good kid—a good student, a good employee, and a good athlete. But that all of that goodness didn’t mean I was a good boyfriend. My resume of goodness didn’t negate all of the damage I’ve caused.

It didn’t negate the time I shouted at my girlfriend so loudly during an argument that a neighbor called the cops. It didn’t negate all the times I policed the clothing choices of my partners. And it doesn’t negate that I continue to struggle to find better outlets for my anger than yelling.

And just like I need to face my privilege and racist thoughts, I need to face these behaviors. I need to own that damage, not avoid it.

Understanding the set-up of the good/bad binary has helped me do so.

So how did go from that embarrassing mess of a young person to a less messy 44-year-old who spends so many of his waking hours challenging systems of oppression?

The non-memoir answer is intersectional feminism—the framework of all frameworks.

Maybe it was anti-racist work that led me to feminism, but feminism deepened my understanding of these powerful systems that cause so much pain, systems of which I no longer wanted to be part.

And feminism led me closer to my true self and it brought me to that DV organization, which was created by feminism. And while I wish I had learned these insights sooner, I’m forever grateful to feminism.

As an anonymous Everyday Feminism contributor writes:

I am forever thankful to have stumbled upon this brilliant ideology that names my realities and shows me how the culture is to blame, for giving me a framework to understand why what’s happened to me has happened to me, and why the world is so painful to so many.

But don’t get me wrong: I’m not done learning. And this piece is by no means an exhaustive list of the shit—present and past—that I need to own.

And I didn’t write this so I can pat myself on the back.

I wrote this so that more cis men can better understand their toxic behaviors.

And then they can free themselves of them so that they are not messaging apologies 20 years too late.

 

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1 August 2017. The power of the long march

Walking across a country provides people with a tangible and visceral experience of solidarity.

The ‘adalet’ march in Turkey. Credit: Flickr/Ziya Koseoglu. Some rights reserved.

On July 9, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of Turkey’s CHP opposition party, completed his 450-kilometre march from Ankara to Maltepe, Istanbul, where a member of his party is in jail for leaking the news that Turkish Intelligence has been supplying arms to jihadis in northern Syria. The day closed out a journey in which the politician had—come its end—at some point walked alongside millions of citizens in solidarity with the rights of women, journalists, the Kurdish population, and all who feel afraid to live a free life inside modern Turkey.

The distance travelled, especially in the punishing heat of a high Anatolian summer, is no meagre feat, its toll such that one marcher died from a heart attack in its early stages. Kılıçdaroğlu himself, writing an op-ed in the New York Times during the last days of the walk, seemed somehow greater in stature for his undertaking, and also rightly quite proud of his achievement. Many Turkish commentators have voiced opinions that only now, after seven years in the job, has he truly become the leader of the opposition in more than name.

Something in the story warrants reflection on the medium of the march itself. In aspirational terms, Turkey is a country of car drivers. In functional terms, tens of millions regularly use public transport, though few necessarily wish to. Amongst family and friends here, walking, for the most part, isn’t a big thing, perhaps aside from occasional recreation, and seldom as a means of transport. All this lends a greater sense of the monumental to Kılıçdaroğlu’s journey across a sizable portion of a large, mountainous country.

Frequently referencing Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March, and joining a noble tradition that includes the Jarrow marchers against unemployment in the UK, Kılıçdaroğlu’s ‘adalet’ (or ‘justice’) march enters a proud tradition of these grand and potentially transformative physical and political statements. The man himself is careful and correct to stress that this is only a beginning, a first step—but as such it’s not a bad one.

In a country grappling with authoritarianism, and where demonstrations are nevertheless frequent and still sometimes sizable, the march has succeeded in engendering a little hope in the population. It has also given purpose to Kılıçdaroğlu, who had always seemed to lack the necessary bite to unify a country as splintered as Turkey against a leader with such slavish support and so brutal an apparatus as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In her new book, Twitter and Teargas, the academic Zeynep Tufekci compiles a full analysis of modern political protest and reactions to it by the powerful. In so doing, one core part of her assessment recalls George W. Bush’s dismissal of the 2003 anti-war Iraq demonstrations in a single line: “Why should I listen to a focus group?” In a similarly lukewarm response to boots on the street, the then-Prime Minister of the UK David Cameron was moved by the 2015 Refugees Welcome demonstration, which drew 100,000 people but only led to a derisory increase in Britain’s Syrian refugee quota from 5,000 to 20,000.

What then, if anything, separates a march like Kılıçdaroğlu’s from demonstrations that can be dismissed as mere focus groups?

First of all is the sheer distance crossed. Precise figures vary, but even conservative ones suggest that, by the time of its culmination in Istanbul, millions of people had joined the adalet march at some point. Effectively spreading a demonstration across 450 kilometres guarantees that greater numbers can be reached.

Perhaps more significant still, in a political climate that is ever more at-ease in its disdain of metropolitan ‘elites’ (Turkey’s three largest cities all voted against Erdoğan in the April referendum on his presidential designs), in a march, the demonstration effectively comes to you. It visits your own version of the local, your off-the-beaten track, and rejects the idea that there are any ‘backwaters.’ Düzce and Sakarya gain the same prominence as Istanbul and Ankara, or London and Washington DC.

The importance of location here is in keeping with a trend now coming into greater prominence. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg resolved to visit every state in the U.S. on his recent ‘not running for President’ roadtrip. In the UK, John Harris made himself the most widely-regarded journalist in the country by covering the 2017 general election with a series called Anywhere but Westminster. And in the US, Guardian editor-at-large Gary Younge, and also Chris Arnade—one practising journalism more political and the other more personal—have clearly made it their business to keep on moving, either driving vast distances around the country or opting to base their 2016 presidential election coverage around Muncie, Indiana.

If mobility is an asset in itself, then what of the physicality of the march? Binali Yildirim, Erdoğan’s right-hand man in the office of the Turkish Prime Minister, snarked that Kılıçdaroğlu should stop his march and get the train instead. Dumb and churlish as his comment was, it was nevertheless a slight improvement, and less menacing, than the usual dismissal of critics as ‘terrorists’ or ‘terrorist sympathisers’—a sign that the march, for a while at least, confounded the usual assumptions and put-downs.

Meanwhile, the march has resonated with those less partisan than the Prime Minister—people who grow ever more concerned for Turkey’s turn away from democracy and towards a state of nepotism and ruin, both fiscal and political. To commit a month of your time and 450 kilometres of yourself to an idea is, by and large, worth more than a day and two-kilometres on a well-worn, city centre drag.

Credit: Julian Sayarer. All rights reserved.

More than that, a long march is a tangible, visceral engagement with a country and a nation. These are words and concepts that are bandied around freely in political discourse, especially the base populist version, but are never fully experienced in any actuality. The country is out there, yet it does not truly figure or come alive without being crossed.

There is a parallel here with our relationship to human rights, especially at a time when the rule of law has—with frightening speed—been exposed as a paper reality that can be screwed up at whimsy by hard power. In this regard statutes are no different to maps: both are abstractions of an irrefutable reality that affirm who we are and where we are, but they are abstractions all the same, illustrating the classic differentiation between map and territory.

The map shows the place accurately but it is not the place itself, just as our rights are inviolable and natural, but nevertheless condemned to an existence in words only. If place is neglected by centrist, Beltway politicians (note the ‘she didn’t even go to Wisconsin!’ dismay of Hillary Clinton’s critics), it is no less vulnerable to being invoked without sincerity by authoritarian nationalists. The march can reclaim geography from both types of disengaged politician.

In recounting these ideas I have some degree of personal experience, and Kılıçdaroğlu’s march recalls my first times cycling across Europe, a journey I often made between London and Istanbul. As I pedalled along and across so many contours, I discovered something obvious and yet still remarkable—that the vast physical expanses represented on paper maps were something through which I could propel myself with only the power of my body.

In this process, the abstraction of the map became accumulated physically in the journey I undertook; what had been paper became the territory itself, and with that realisation, the idea of impossibility in the world melted before the evidence of that new reality. Rigid conceptions of what was achievable collapsed into what I was apparently capable of. Kılıçdaroğlu’s recent comments after he finished his walk suggest that he might be feeling similarly: “I have returned by car via the same road that I walked,” he said, and “I asked my friends how I walked such a long way.”

Using Tufekçi’s approach to understanding protest, power-holders read signals from protests in terms of their underlying capacity and the threat that they signify. Political movements, as anyone in Turkey will tell you, are slow and hard-fought things that demand constant creativity. There is always going to be a place in the panoply of protest for putting bodies on streets at short notice. In unifying more and more people however, and in societies apparently more polarised and digitally-focused than ever before, long marches, as Kılıçdaroğlu has discovered for himself, could still prove to be a very effective tool in the modern protester’s arsenal.

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31 July 2017. What will cure the U.S. addiction to war?

We must redouble our efforts to stop the war makers from gaining the upper hand in our lives.

President Donald Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2017, at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh. Credit: Official White House Photo, Shealah Craighead via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

"I come and stand at every door
But none shall hear my silent tread
I knock and yet remain unseen."
 

 

Nazim Hikmet, Hiroshima Child

At a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on July 18 2017, Republican Senator Todd Young asked officials if the ongoing war in Yemen would exacerbate the catastrophe developing there—one of four countries, along with Southern Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia, which are set to lose 20 million people collectively this year from conflict-driven famine.

Yemen is being bombarded and blockaded using US-supplied weapons and vehicles by a regional coalition marshaled by Saudi Arabia, with US support.  Yemen's near-famine conditions and attendant cholera outbreaks are so dire that a child dies there every ten minutes of preventable disease.

At the hearing, Young held aloft a photo of a World Food Program warehouse in Yemen which was destroyed in 2015. He asked David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Program, to name the country responsible for the airstrike that demolished it. Beasley replied that the Saudi-led coalition blockading Yemen had destroyed the warehouse, along with the relief supplies it contained.  

A July 2016 Human Rights Watch report documented 13 civilian economic structures that were destroyed by Saudi coalition bombing between March 2015 and February 2016, including:

“Factories, commercial warehouses, a farm, and two power stations. These strikes killed 130 civilians and injured 171 more. The facilities hit by airstrikes produced, stored, or distributed goods for the civilian population including food, medicine, and electricity—items that even before the war were in short supply in Yemen, which is among the poorest countries in the Middle East. Collectively, the facilities employed over 2,500 people; following the attacks, many of the factories ended their production and hundreds of workers lost their livelihoods.” 

When asked about the Saudi coalition's destruction of four cranes needed to offload relief supplies in Yemen's port city of Hodeidah, Beasley confirmed that their loss had greatly impeded WFP efforts to deliver food and medicines. Young read from Beasley’s June 27 letter to the Saudi government—only the latest of multiple requests—in which he asked that the WFP be allowed to deliver replacement cranes. The WFP Director said that the Saudis had provided no reply.  Young then noted that, in the three weeks since this last letter had been sent, more than 3,000 Yemeni children had died of preventable, famine-related causes.

Medea Benjamin of the antiwar campaign Code Pink was at the hearing, and later thanked Young for rebuking the Saudi government’s imposition of a state of siege, plus the airstrikes that are preventing the delivery of food and medicine to Yemeni civilians. One day later, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported on a July 19 coalition airstrike in Yemen which killed 20 civilians—including women and children—while they were fleeing violence in their home province. The report claimed that more than two million internally displaced Yemenis have "fled elsewhere across Yemen since the beginning of the conflict, but … continue to be exposed to danger as the conflict has affected all of Yemen's mainland governorates."

On July 14, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed two amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would potentially end US participation in the Yemeni civil war. In the past, the White House has provided refueling and targeting assistance to the Saudi-led coalition without congressional authorization. Since October of 2016, the US has doubled the number of jet refueling maneuvers carried out with Saudi and United Arab Emirate jets. The Saudi and UAE jets fly over Yemen, drop bombs until they need to refuel, and then fly back to Saudi airspace where US jets perform mid-air refueling operations. Next, they circle back to Yemen and resume the bombing.

What can be done to end this seeming addiction to war?

In the summer of 2006, I joined peace campaigner Claudia Lefko at a small school that she had helped found in Amman, Jordan. The school served children whose families were refugees from the postwar chaos in Iraq. Many of the children had survived war, death threats and displacement. Lefko had worked with children in her hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts, to prepare a gift for the Iraqis at the school. The gift consisted of strings of paper origami cranes, folded in memory of a Japanese child called Sadako who had died from radiation sickness after the bombing of her home city of Hiroshima in 1945.  

In her hospital bed (so the story goes), Sadako occupied her time by attempting to fold 1,000 paper cranes, a feat she hoped would earn her the granting of a special wish that no other child would ever suffer the same fate as those who had been killed and injured in Hiroshima. She succumbed too rapidly to complete the task herself, but other Japanese children who heard about her folded many thousands more. This story has been re-told for decades in innumerable places, making the delicate paper creations a symbol for peace throughout the world.

The Turkish writer Nazim Hikmet wrote a poem about Sadako which has since been set to music. Its words are on my mind today as I think of all the malnourished children from the countries of the terrible Four Famines, and from other conflict-torn, US-targeted countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. I think of their months and years of hunger. Their stories may have ended already during the first half of 2017. Hikmet writes:

"I need no fruit I need no rice

I need no sweets nor even bread

I ask for nothing for myself

For I am dead for I am dead."

The song of the “Hiroshima Child" imagines a child who comes and “stands at every door…unheard and unseen.” In reality, we, the living, can choose to approach the doors of elected representatives and of our neighbors, or we can stay at home. We can choose whether or not to be heard and seen.

Robert Naiman at Just Foreign Policy points out that many people don’t know that the House of Representatives has voted to prohibit US participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. So we must publicize the vote on social media, push for a House roll call vote on the Davidson-Nolan prohibitions on Defense Appropriation, and urge the Senate to pass the same provisions as the House.

I recognize that legislative activism at the heart of an empire addicted to war is a tool of limited use. But considering the impending disaster for which 2017 may well be remembered—as the worst famine year in post-WWII history—we don’t have the luxury to reject any of the tools and opportunities that are presented to us. I also personally oppose all defense appropriations and have refused all payment of federal income tax since 1980.

Billions, perhaps trillions of dollars will be spent to send weapons, weapon systems, fighter jets, ammunition, and military support to the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, fueling new arms races and raising the profits of US weapon makers. We must choose to stand at the doors of our leaders and of anyone else who might have influence over this situation, honoring past sacrifices and the innocent lives we were unable to save even as we redouble our efforts to stop the war makers from constantly gaining the upper hand in our lives.

We can never reverse the decisions to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we cannot prevent all of the dying that is set to come this fateful summer in the countries of the Four Famines. In her song, Sadako, long beyond saving even as she folded more paper cranes in her bed, doesn't ask us to erase her own terrible loss, but to achieve whatever change that we can, and to lose no more time in doing so:     

"All that I need is that for peace

You fight today you fight today

So that the children of this world

Can live and grow and laugh and play."


 


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30 July 2017. The real clash of civilisations

The presence or absence of conscience is perhaps the deepest human division.

Credit: http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com. Public Domain.

Six months into the Presidency of Donald J. Trump, two speeches can serve as bookends to aid our understanding of what has been a tumultuous and deeply worrying time—his Inaugural address and his speech in Poland on July 6 2017. What stand out from these two speeches are the images of “American carnage” from his opening statement to the nation, and the ominous warning he issued in Warsaw of a ‘clash of civilisations’—along with the corresponding need to act decisively to save ‘Western values.’

“The fundamental question of our time,” Trump warned in Poland, “is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?” Although the spectre of communism no longer haunts Europe, he continued, another existential threat has emerged. “We are confronted by another oppressive ideology—one that seeks to export terrorism and extremism all around the globe.”

Poland is a fitting setting in which to speak about the dangers of a ‘clash of civilisations,’ since no other country has experienced the horrors of human cruelty so brutally. The country was targeted by Hitler for mass annihilation, with only a remnant of its people to be preserved to act as slave labour for the Third Reich. It was occupied by the Soviet Union and brutally cleansed in waves of executions to remove those whom Stalin deemed a threat to ‘Soviet values.’ And it was chosen by Hitler as the site of the largest factories of mass murder in history: Chelmo, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdenek and Auschwitz.

So Poland knows something about the clash of civilisations. Not surprisingly then, it is a Pole who can best help us to understand how the horrors—not  only of Auschwitz but also of the Soviet Gulag, Cambodia’s Killing Fields, Mao’s man-made famine, Rwanda’s genocide, and many other stains on humanity—do  indeed result from such a clash, but not in the way Trump expressed it. 

Andrew Lobaczewski was a Polish psychiatrist who observed the brutalisation of Polish society at first hand when Hitler’s Nazis, and then Stalin’s Bolsheviks, forced their violent ideologies on his homeland. What Lobaczewski recognised was that the real division in values and behaviour was not simply between Germans and Russians and Poles, but between people of all nationalities who abhorred the cruelty and violence around them, and those who embraced it. He realised that the fundamental ‘clash of civilisations’ was based on psychology, between a majority of ordinary people and a small but highly influential pathological minority.

“… each society on earth contains a certain percentage of individuals, a relatively small but active minority, who cannot be considered normal,” Lobaczewski wrote. Although statistically small in number, he continued, the quality of difference of such individuals is such that “it can affect hundreds, thousands, even millions of other human beings in negative ways.”

This small but active minority are those who suffer from dangerous personality disorders, namely psychopaths, and those with narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder. These disorders render those affected essentially devoid of conscience. And as the psychologist Martha Stout spells out, the presence or absence of conscience is perhaps the deepest human division, arguably more significant than intelligence, race or gender.

In a passage originally written about Stalin and Hitler but equally applicable to present times, Lobaczewski wrote this:

“In a civilisation deficient in psychological cognition, hyperactive individuals driven by their internal doubts caused by a feeling of being different easily find a ready echo in other people’s insufficiently developed consciousness. Such individuals dream of imposing their power and their different experiential manner upon their environment and their society. Unfortunately, in a psychologically ignorant society, their dreams have a good chance of becoming reality for them and a nightmare for others.”

How would Lobaczewski have understood and interpreted Trump’s Washington and Warsaw speeches?

Russian and American journalist Masha Gessen has observed that Trump’s ability to produce an endless stream of common sense-defying statements—the gap between the world Trump seems to inhabit and the world as most of the rest of us understand it—makes his pronouncements extremely difficult to absorb. His endless lies and hypocrisy prompted David Frum of the Atlantic magazine to remark that the values Trump defended in Warsaw such as human rights, the rule of law, gender equality and press freedom are precisely the values he puts at risk in his presidency every day.

But I think Lobaczewski would caution us to listen differently. When people with emotional-cognitive disorders speak, they do so from within their own distorted worldview. Consider just one sentence from Trump’s Warsaw speech: “We cannot accept those who reject our values and who use hatred to justify violence against the innocent.”

Imagine for a moment that what Trump was referring to by ‘our values’ were not the norms and values of democracy (as Frum was assuming), but the core values and beliefs that he himself holds with the fiercest conviction: his belief in his own superiority, and his rights to unfettered power; to act impulsively in his own interest at all times regardless of the consequences for others; and to crush any opponent who threatens him.

What if the ‘violence against the innocent’ he referred to was not the violence that is visited on the poor and vulnerable in society, but the violence that he himself must suffer daily as he sees it, attacked as he is from every corner—by the media, the justice system, the majority of Americans outside his political base, and the legion of ‘leakers’ who feed the ‘fake news’ with an endless torrent of accusations.

What if Trump’s agenda is the same as that of the authoritarians of history about whom Lobaczewski wrote, and the agenda of the strongmen of the present who Trump admires? What if Trump is in office, not to serve his country but to protect his own position of power, while enriching himself and his family along the way?

Analysing Trump’s first six months as President from this perspective allows us to see how close he may be to achieving his primary objectives. While Trump’s critics take comfort in his lack of legislative successes to date, such coverage may simply be ‘background noise’ which masks the degree to which he is succeeding in what matters to him most—namely establishing  himself as the head of a dynastic, autocratic pseudo-democracy.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University and an expert on authoritarianism, has written that Trump is already close to accomplishing the most important things an authoritarian leader must do in order to survive over the long term. He has cultivated ties within the structures of government that are based primarily on loyalty to his person rather than to the rule of law or democratic norms. He has stoked the flames of a cultural civil war that benefits him by polarizing the country and mobilising his base.

He has conducted a relentless campaign aimed at discrediting institutions and individuals who might hold him accountable. And he has been directing a concerted effort, begun during his election campaign and carried out in parallel with (if not in direct collusion with) Russia, aimed at undermining the American people’s faith in the entire democratic process.

If this is indeed Trump’s vision and should it come to pass, elections will continue to be held, but there will rarely be any doubt about the winner. In the absence of sufficient checks and balances, the continued gerrymandering of districts, increased voter suppression, the dominance of special interests in campaign financing and the manipulation of information could allow the Trump dynasty and its backers in the Republican Party to remain in power for decades. Trump will have succeeded in bringing about the demise of democracy in the USA.

The president ended his speech in Warsaw by saying this: “Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield—it begins with our minds, our wills, and our souls.”  “Our values will prevail,” he vowed. “Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.” 

In response I can hear Lobaczewski’s voice echoing in my mind: the fundamental question of our time is indeed whose values will prevail: will it be Trump’s values or our own?

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27 July 2017. Six principles of nonviolence

Nonviolence can be a safe, effective and lasting way to defeat injustice, but like any other science it takes knowledge, courage and determination.

Oakland First Friday Protest, June 2015. Credit: Thomas Hawk, via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Here are six guidelines that can help you carry out nonviolent action more safely and effectively, while drawing upon nonviolent practices from your own cultural heritage. These guidelines derive, as you’ll see, from two basic points to bear in mind:

We are not against other people, only what they are doing.

Means are ends in the making; nothing good can ultimately result from violence.

1. Respect everyone–including yourself.

The more we respect others, the more effectively we can persuade them to change. Never use humiliation as a tool–or accept humiliation from others, as that only degrades everyone. Remember, no one can degrade you without your permission.

Healing relationships is the real success in nonviolence, something violence can never achieve. Even in a case of extreme violence, Gandhi felt it was possible to hate the sin, not the sinner. In 1942, when India was held down by the British and fearing a Japanese invasion, he advised his fellow compatriots:

“If we were a free country, things could be done nonviolently to prevent the Japanese from entering the country. As it is, nonviolent resistance could commence the moment the Japanese affect a landing.”

Thus, nonviolent resisters would refuse them any help, even water. For it is no part of their duty to help anyone to steal their country. But if a Japanese person had missed their way and was dying of thirst and sought help as a human being, a nonviolent resister, who may not regard anyone as his enemy, would give water to the thirsty one. Suppose the Japanese compel resisters to give them water; the resisters must die in the act of resistance.

2. Always include constructive alternatives.

Concrete action is always more powerful than mere symbolism, especially when that action creates constructive alternatives: setting up schools, forming cottage industries, establishing farming cooperatives, devising community-friendly banking. As Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Gandhi initiated 18 projects that enabled Indians to take charge of their own society, making it much easier to “dismiss” British rule and lay the groundwork for their own democracy. Constructive work has many advantages:

It enables people to break their dependency on a regime by creating their own goods and services. You cannot get rid of oppressors when you depend on them for essentials. You are not just reacting to offenses but taking charge. Being proactive helps you shed passivity, fear and helplessness.

It gives a movement continuity, as it can continue when direct resistance is not advisable.

Studies have shown that working together is the most effective way to unite people. It builds community and reassures the general public that your movement is not a danger to the social order.

Most importantly, it establishes the infrastructure that will be needed when the oppressive regime falls. Many an insurrection has succeeded in dislodging a hated regime only to find a new set of oppressors rush into the vacuum.

A good rule of thumb to follow is: be constructive wherever possible, and obstructive wherever necessary.

3. Be aware of the long term.

Nonviolent action always has positive results, sometimes more than we intended. When China was passing through a severe famine in the 1950s, the US branch of Fellowship of Reconciliation organized a mail-in campaign to get President Eisenhower to send surplus food to China. Some 35,000 Americans took part. Our message to the President was a simple inscription from Isaiah: “If thine enemy hunger, feed him.” It seemed as if there was no response. But 25 years later, we learned that we had averted a proposal to bomb targets in Mainland China during the Korean War! At a key meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Eisenhower announced: “Gentlemen, since 35,000 Americans want us to feed the Chinese, this is hardly the time to start bombing them.”

Violence sometimes “works” in the sense that it forces a particular change, but in the long run, it leads to more misery and disorder. We do not have control over the results of our actions, but we can have control over the means we use, even our feelings and our states of mind. Here’s a handy formula: Violence sometimes “works” but it never works (in making things or relationships better, for example). Nonviolence sometimes “works” and always works.

Have clear goals. Cling to essentials (like human dignity) and be clear about your principles, but be ready to change tactics or compromise on anything else. Remember, you are not in a power struggle (though the opponent may think that way): you are in a struggle for justice and human dignity. In nonviolence, you can lose all the battles but still go on to win the war!

4. Look for win-win solutions.

You are trying to rebuild relationships rather than score “victories.” In a conflict, we can feel that in order for one side to win the other must lose, which is not true. Therefore, we do not seek to be winners or rise over others; we seek to learn and make things better for all.

During intense negotiations over the Montgomery, Alabama segregation laws, Martin Luther King, Jr., made an interesting observation that he notes in his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. An attorney for the city bus company who had obstructed the African-American people’s demands for desegregation revealed the real source of his objection: “If we granted the Negroes these demands they would go about boasting of a victory that they had won over the white people; and this we will not stand for.”

Reflecting on this, King advised the participants in the movement not to gloat or boast, reminding them: “Through nonviolence we avoid the temptation of taking on the psychology of victors.” The “psychology of victors” belongs to the age-old dynamic of me-against-you, but the nonviolent person sees life as a “co-evolution” toward loving community in which all can thrive. Gloating over “victories” can actually undo hard-won gains.

5. Use power carefully.

We are conditioned, especially in the West, to think that power “grows out of the barrel of a gun.” There is indeed a kind of power that comes from threats and brute force–but it is powerless if we refuse to comply with it.

There is another kind of power that comes from truth. Let us say that you have been petitioning to eliminate an injustice. Perhaps you have made your feelings known in polite but firm protest actions, yet the other party is not responding. Then you must, as Gandhi said, “not only speak to the head but move the heart also.” We can make the injustice clear by taking upon ourselves the suffering inherent in the unjust system. This allows us to mobilize Satyagraha, or “truth force.” In extreme cases, we may need to do it at the risk of our own lives, which is why it is good to be very clear about our goals. Do this with care.

History, and often our own experience, has shown that even bitter hostilities can melt with this kind of persuasion that seeks to open the eyes of the opponent, whom we do not coerce. Nonetheless, there are times when we must use forms of coercion. For example, when a dictator refuses to step down, we have to act immediately to end the vast amounts of human suffering caused by that person misusing power. Still, it requires strategic thinking and nonviolent care to do it right. But when time does allow, we use the power of patience and persuasion, of enduring rather than inflicting suffering. The changes brought about by persuasion are lasting: one who is persuaded stays persuaded, while someone who is coerced will be just waiting for a chance for revenge.

6. Claim our legacy.

Nonviolence no longer needs to take place in a vacuum. Always note that if you are using nonviolence with courage, determination and a clear strategy, you will more than likely succeed: win or lose, you will be playing your part in a great transformation of human relationships that our future depends on.

These six principles are founded on a belief that all life is an interconnected whole and that when we understand our real needs, we are not in competition with anyone. As Martin Luther King said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

This article was first published in Nonviolence.

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27 July 2017. Has God the Father really disappeared?

The patriarchal deity could not have died in the First World War if he was seen landing on the beaches in the Second: a response to Rachel Mann.

Bury Market Place on Remembrance Day. Credit: © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

In Rachel Mann’s telling of the story, the traditional, male-centric deity “died in the trenches of the Somme, but the churches will not let him go.” I beg to differ: the patriarchal God didn’t die in the Great War, though in British society we feel little connection to Him today. He wasn’t strafed down in the mud of No Man’s Land or buried in an unnamed grave.

British Church membership had been declining steadily since the Victorian age and remained on this trajectory following the First World War, but macro studies like Richard Schweitzer’s have found that levels of religious belief remained fairly consistent between 1914 and 1918: while some certainly lost their faith, others were drawn towards it by the challenges they faced.

From the outbreak of the war, it was recognised in the Church of England that the religion of the trenches would have to be pragmatic, appealing to the needs of servicemen and responding to their problems. As the established Church, this meant a direct appeal to the Patriarchal God in creating a strong connection between a soldier’s duty to their country and a Christian’s duty to God.

This appeal was made most clearly by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Randall Davidson, who led the charge of the Church of England’s militarism alongside his “famously belligerent” Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram. Davidson preached in August 1914 that avoiding war would have resulted in “the loss of England’s Honour, England’s chivalry to weaker peoples.” It was therefore the duty of all good Britons, and ergo all good Christians, to do their bit for the war effort.

This wasn’t just jingoism, soon to be snuffed out by the stalemate of war. Today we look back on the “King and Country” ethos of the times and later the “Dunkirk Spirit” as romantically patriotic nostalgia, which, though less connected to religion, still maintains a sense of national paternalism. An appeal to a duty beyond ourselves and a reciprocal feeling of care from a body outside of our control remain reassuring concepts.

In the ultra-masculinised environment of the military, particularly a century ago, it is easy to see why the Anglican Church extolled the Patriarchal God throughout the war. He provided soldiers with guidance and gave them a reason for their responsibility.

The Church reached these soldiers through its ministry in the Army Chaplains’ Department, as well as through the production of specific pocket Bibles and Gospels for servicemen which highlighted key phrases thought to inspire and provide comfort in times of hardship. The popular Active Service Gospels were accompanied by a message from the Commander in Chief of British Forces, Lord Roberts, further demonstrating the blurring of national and religious duty. It read:

"I ask you“ to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little Book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness, and strength when you are in adversity.”

The God who watches and strengthens is the Patriarchal God. Of course, it would be wrong to assert that because this material was published, it must have been read and believed by all. Yet the continual recurrence of such themes in wartime liturgy indicates that the appeal to the Patriarchal God was seen as effective among soldiers.

Comfort and strength are constantly recurring terms in wartime analyses of what is needed from religion by both chaplains and soldiers alike, and also in the commemoration of the war after the Armistice. This is the central finding of Jay Winter, who argues that “The Great War, the most ‘modern’ of wars, triggered an avalanche of the ‘unmodern’” on which the Church was relied on to communicate feelings of loss and bereavement. After all, it was God the Father “who so loved the world, that He gave his only son,” and who could thus provide comfort to the parents whose sons had made the ‘Supreme Sacrifice’ at war.

It is certainly true that some men remained unconvinced and unmoved by expressions of religion, unable to reconcile their wartime experiences with God’s love—as is also apparent in similar debates today. This, in part, caused the despondency evident in the works of poets such as Wilfred Owen. While their mud, guts and grousing have come to colour our modern popular memory of the First World War, they are not representative of the era’s dominant thinking, nor were they the most popular literature during the war. Liberal and anti-war views like Owen’s became more widely accepted only in the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s and again in the pacifist movement of the 1960s that coincided with the war’s fiftieth anniversary.

At the time, patriotic and religious songs had provided a popular expression of poetic sentiment. One of the most frequently recurring hymns was ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,’ which was sung heartily in both religious services and recreation huts. Its lyrics talk clearly of Jesus’ sacrifice, but its final two lines also commit the worshipper to God, and their duty to uphold His love:

“Love so amazing, so divine;

Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Here, God is the power to which man is subservient. The evocation of God’s sacrifice as a father, bound up in Jesus’ crucifixion, also raises the image of the “Suffering God,” as conceptualised by the iconic army chaplain “Woodbine Willie” (Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy) as a result of his wartime experiences, a theme explored by historian Stuart Bell who highlights this quote from Kennedy: “it’s funny how it is always Christ upon the Cross that Comforts; never God upon His Throne.”

The God of the trenches, whether He’s invoked as God the father or Christ the Son, is nonetheless a personal God with whom the soldier is supposed to identify. This is pragmatism on the Churches’ part. A soldier who receives comfort from God and who feels like He understands him is more likely to be a believer whose morale can be strengthened by religious trust. The Church at war made a clear attempt to preach an emotive personal God who cares because He suffered, either as the Father or the Son.

The Church and its scriptures also became the national lynchpins of remembrance in the aftermath of war, as remains the case in commemoration services today. Far from the abandonment of God, Michael Snape has identified that it was Britain’s “historic Christian identity” which “continued to console and support” throughout and in the wake of both World Wars. In particular, he cites the Protestantism of Britain’s wartime Prime Ministers and Kings in perpetuating this Patriarchal religion of national duty under the fatherly guidance of the Lord. The Patriarchal God could not have died on the barbed wire of the trenches in the First World War if he was seen again landing on the Normandy beaches in the Second.

In modern European culture we often ignore our Christian heritage. Yet one of the few times in a year that many in Britain will come into contact with the Church is on Remembrance Sunday. Christian liturgy is still the language of commemoration, even if it no longer pervades other areas of national life. In the ultra-masculinised military, amid its rigid hierarchy and discipline, the appeal of the instructive, duty-bound Patriarchal God is clear.

In a world where much conflict is still bound up with religion, we must try to understand the role of the churches during and after the war objectively. And that means learning from our own history and religious culture in order to move towards a shared and peaceful future.

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25 July 2017. When will there be harmony?

‘White trash,’ ‘dumbass libtard,’ ‘right-wing fuckhead:’ have we all gone mad?  

Credit: Waldiwkl/Pixabay.  CC0 Public Domain.

Q: “Why are you such a dumbass?

A: Why are morons like you allowed to breathe and steal air from human beings?”

If someone approached you in this way, would you work with them on common problems? Unlikely isn’t it, yet this kind of exchange is increasingly routine—I took this one from the Facebook page of my own community in the Catskills.

“Welcome to America dumbasses. You can start your ‘No Hate Army’ but understand we still hate you.”

Thanks for that, Country Boy @jump396. Maybe you’re the “beer drinking, meat eating, gun owning, terrorist hating, liberal destroying, flag flying, America loving, commie killing, motherfucker Obama warned you about” that I see on bumper stickers at my local shopping mall.  

“You should be sent to ISIS to be killed with real knives” for putting on a Trump-themed version of Julius Caesar in New York’s Central Park. Oh really—have you ever seen ISIS in action? Yes that’s right I’m a “libtard”—the increasingly-popular shorthand for ‘retarded liberal’ among those who see liberalism as a ‘mental illness’ and progressives as ‘diseased.’

Those of us on the left don’t like to think of ourselves as part of this noxious trend—it’s always ‘them’ not ‘us’ that creates the problem—but here’s a selection from my own recent twitter feed in reference to people (a.k.a human beings) who voted for Donald Trump: ‘right wing fuck-heads,’ ‘white trash,’ ‘redneck morons,’ ‘Nazi scum,’ ‘dumb white bitches,’ ‘racists,’ ‘bigots,’ ‘fascists’ and ‘brain-washed religious fanatics.’

To me, these responses seem like a form of madness in which differences of view are magnified into the mental and emotional equivalent of the Berlin Wall; symbols of tribal identity to be displayed with pride in the ‘scorn wars’ that are rapidly unfolding in America and beyond. This isn’t just disagreement, but disagreement that’s whipped up and manipulated with potentially grievous consequences for democracy in a body politic whose arteries are hardening.

The result is a low grade civil war with steel tipped edges, ready to explode into violence at any moment—at a rally in Charlottesville, a baseball field in Alexandria, or a commuter train in Portland. Right kills left kills right keeps right on killing. I don’t care who wields the knife or the gun.

This development is incredibly important. Don’t tell me that language is irrelevant, that politics is a ‘contact sport,’ that I should just toughen up and stop being such a ‘snowflake.’ Violent language is a form of violence, both directly harmful to its targets and an antecedent of actual, physical aggression. But the poison goes much deeper than this, seeping into our relationships, our attempts to solve our problems and our efforts to build community.

When there is no genuine communication, the possibilities of negotiated consensus decline, opening the way for conflicts between different versions of the truth, each sustained by their own exclusive structures of knowledge, discussion and social media. Both left and right may think that only their ultimate victory will guarantee success, so each is determined to unravel the achievements of the other once in power.

But throughout recent history, periods of growth with equality have been based on a broader consensus across society that protects a core set of goals: social and economic security, health and education for all, a clean environment and a strong democracy—the things required for everyone to flourish even if many other differences remain. A consensus like this existed in the US and much of Europe after World War II for around 30 years, though racism and sexism abounded.

By definition, these ‘common interests’ can only be found through democratic struggle and debate—we can’t find them unless we look for them together. But that presupposes a capacity and a willingness to engage across the lines of difference. What happens when both of these things are eroded?

It’s not difficult to see how we got ourselves into this mess: a climate of fear and insecurity makes people more susceptible to demagogues and others who benefit from division—special interest groups like the National Rifle Association, for example, ‘shock-jocks’ on radio stations, politicians in search of a constituency, and websites that show you that there really is a conspiracy against you, an enemy who must be destroyed.  

Places where people of different political views can meet and engage with one-another are much more difficult to find now that the old cross-cutting member-driven federations like Parent-Teacher Associations have been replaced by single-issue and other exclusive groups, and virtual spaces on the Internet have not replaced them.

Trading insults is also cathartic, perhaps more so than many of us might admit. It’s a way of channeling all your inchoate frustrations into a single, visible target—Trump or Clinton, the left or the right, pro-choice or anti-abortion; a chance, at last, to ‘let it all out’ against those who you think have ignored or belittled you. This isn’t a conversation but a wrestling match, ‘mano a mano,’ no prisoners taken and no surrender.

What’s difficult is figuring out what to do about these problems, and who blinks first. At the personal level we’re presented with the most elemental of questions: when you meet that other human being, who do you see? White trash, or the firemen who volunteer to come to your rescue, the farmers who grow your food, and the guys who plough your roads throughout the winter?

Likewise, if you voted for Donald Trump, do you see liberals as ‘retarded,’ or people just as wondrous as those you love who happen to have a different view about abortion, gun control and government regulation; people who have the same rights as you do to love and marry who they want, to make their own decisions over their bodies and to be protected from police brutality?

Wherever you stand on the political spectrum your responsibility is the same: break the cycle, even if ‘the other side’ initially rejects you. That’s what emotional maturity looks like in practice. We’re supposed to be building the “beloved community” as Martin Luther King once put it, not the beloved political party or social movement (important as they are). And in a community there should be a place for everyone, barring the violent extremists who have to be monitored and dealt with through the law.

At the political level we need new institutions that bring people together in common projects, re-orienting incentives away from division and exaggerated conflicts towards joint accountability and decision-making, in which everyone has a role, and which promote the widest possible level of economic, social and political security. People are much more likely to reach out and make connections with others when they don’t have to fight for survival, respect or recognition. Like rocks in a stream, the sharp edges of our differences can be softened over time as we knock against each other in collective action.  

Obvious priorities include removing winner-take-all election systems and other practices like gerrymandering which accentuate the polarity of politics and make consensus building much more difficult. For example, under the “Fair Representation Act” recently introduced by Representative Don Beyer, congressional districts would have multiple representatives, each elected through “ranked choice voting.” The result would be more rural Democrats, more urban Republicans, more third-party politicians, and more pressure to collaborate on legislation that affects the shared needs of all constituents.

The same goes for civil society, which is supposed to be the place where “strangers can meet and not draw the knife” as the writer John Keane once put it. That means mixing people of different views and backgrounds together in voluntary associations—a reversal of most current trends. “Standing shoulder to shoulder with people across our differences and creating new understandings and visions together is where the real transformative potential lies,” say activists Peroline Ainsworth and Kiran Nihalani on the basis of their experience of women’s co-operatives in south London.

Even social media can be used in this way, though it’s never a substitute for doing stuff together, face to face and hand in hand. Check out the Echo Chamber Club for example, or Jeff Rasley’s experiment on Facebook that invented some basic ground-rules for debate between his pro- and anti-Trump friends—most importantly, you can attack an idea or a politician but you can’t attack each-other. It’s not just that we need to ‘hear each-other’s stories;’ we also have to share each-other’s struggles and experiences—difficult as that may be.

As our political differences spiral downwards into tribal warfare, will these counter-cultural experiments be enough to restore some harmony in our relationships with others? Harmony is a very powerful idea, and a common aspiration once we remove ourselves from the shock-jocks and filter bubbles that push us in the opposite direction. My dictionary defines it as “concord, agreement, the quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole.”

I love that vision, but does harmony really require agreement? I don’t think so. Political and cultural disagreements are much more enduring than I had ever imagined, seemingly hard-wired into human beings and the societies they create. Difference is the ‘new normal’ you might say, so it’s vital to look for patterns and relationships that preserve a diversity of beliefs while negotiating more common ground—an orchestra that doesn’t require a ban on trumpets or music from only one composer.

That’s a task that challenges many of our assumptions about politics, activism and the structure of communications. It urges us to abandon a fixation on aggregating enough power to finally destroy our enemies, in favor of transforming power relations so that new alliances can be built. My guess is that most people would prefer it that way. After all, we have to live with people we don’t agree with in our communities; we can’t just find different ways to hate them.

When will there be harmony? Not when all our disagreements disappear. That sounds like a fantasy. But there’s no reason we can’t unite with some of our differences intact. In fact that’s the only way we’ll survive.

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23 July 2017. Could Facebook provide an antidote to political polarization?

Is it so hard to listen and speak respectfully to people you disagree with?

Credit: Flickr/Michael Mandiberg. Some rights reserved.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Abraham Lincoln  

When a gunman opened fire on a Republican congressional baseball team practicing on a suburban Virginia field on June 14 2017, national attention was once again focused on the dangerous level of political polarization in the USA. The attack wounded Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise and four other people, but the outrage quickly passed as shock jocks, social media and even some political leaders returned to their divisive rhetoric.

Polarization in America is not a myth—it’s been trending upwards for decades. As academics Alan Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders have shown:

“Since the 1970s, ideological polarization has increased dramatically among the mass public in the United States...There are now large differences in outlook between Democrats and Republicans, between red state voters and blue state voters, and between religious voters and secular voters. These divisions are not confined to a small minority of activists—they involve a large segment of the public and the deepest divisions are found among the most interested, informed, and active citizens.”

Many of us thought that Barack Obama was an inspiring figure, and that, as the first African-American President, he would unite the nation and reverse this trend. It didn’t turn out that way, and now an even more polarizing figure sits in the White House—President Donald J. Trump.

According to Stanford University’s Matthew Gentzkow , 2016 was:

“the year Republican primary voters applauded proposals to build fences on the border and to ban Muslims…the year that the leading Democrat in New Hampshire polls was a self-proclaimed socialist who favored 90 percent top tax rates and a $15 per hour national minimum wage…the year we all decided once and for all that those on the other side of the political divide didn’t just have different priorities, didn’t just hold different opinions, but were out to destroy the country and everything it stands for. Americans in 2016 are more politically divided than ever before.”

The finality of the election result provided no antidote to the passions inflamed by the angry rhetoric of the presidential campaign. Facebook lit up with even greater vehemence after Trump’s election, and then again at his inauguration. By hurling insults and ridicule at right-wingers, my left-wing friends released their fury over Trump’s election and took their revenge for the assaults against Obama that my right-wing friends had posted during his presidency.

Social media did not provide a forum for healing through meaningful conversations about where we go from here. It wasn’t used as a medium to develop greater understanding between partisans on opposite sides of the political divide. It wasn’t even used very much as a platform for strategizing about how to respond to the surprising election of a neophyte politician as President whose party now controls both houses of Congress.

Post-election, Facebook was just another place for disappointed Democrats to howl their rage at their political foes and for Republicans to express their glee. Is there any way out of this impasse?

In the Winter 2017 issue of The American Scholar, sociologist Amitai Etzioni urged his fellow liberals and progressives “who wish for a less reactionary America” to engage with, rather than despise, those who voted for Trump, in the hope that some bridges might yet be built. Clearly, many of those voters won’t be attracted to any new variant of progressive thinking, but respect for their fellow human beings and political prudence suggests that all of them should be approached as if they could be.

The question is not only whether a new progressive movement can appeal to the less extreme elements of Trump’s constituencies, but also whether progressives can understand the legitimate anger and frustration that many Trump voters felt and still feel, in the hope of creating a more workable, just, and peaceable society that is founded on some sense of common ground.

Is it really that hard to listen and speak respectfully to people you disagree with politically? Etzioni’s admonition is the same advice given by Robert Fulghum in his popular book series from the 1990s, All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten: even the best and brightest can regress into angry children misbehaving on the playground, absent the emotional maturity required to engage in adult conversations across ideological and other lines.

“It’s obvious that Trump voters are racists, bigots, and brain-washed religious fanatics who will never listen to facts, reason or measured attempts to understand that they're haters. They’re fanatics who have abdicated all rights to be treated with respect and courtesy. You can't negotiate with fanatics. You either fight them on their dirty, ugly Trumpian turf or you die.”

This was a comment posted by a Facebook friend after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, but you could easily find the mirror image of this diatribe among Trump supporters about the Democrats. It’s the kind of stuff that is all over social media. It’s convenient and emotionally cathartic. Feel like adding yet more fuel to the fire? You certainly can and you won't be alone, but first ask yourself whether that’s the highest or best use of your time. 

Myself? I decided to try something different. Beginning a month after Trump’s inauguration, I invited my friends (both pro- and anti-Trump) to participate in discussions on Facebook about current political issues. My only request was that contributors did not attack each other personally, though they were free to criticize any political figure.

Sixty-three people participated in the initial discussion threads and more joined in as time went on: blue and white collar, Baby Boomers and Millennials, high school grads and PhDs, urban and rural, and from many different states. Several started their own discussion forums. Nasty and angry remarks were posted about Trump, Clinton, and other politicians, but the request to avoid personal attacks was honored.

Topics ranged from US policy in Syria, to relations with Russia, to abortion. To me, these conversations were proof that it’s possible to use social media for more than insulting those who oppose you, or huddling with like-minded friends so that you're never challenged by reasonable views that are different from your own. That’s important, because most of us agree that growth comes from exposure to new and different information, interpretations, analyses and conclusions.

Therefore, shrinking opportunities for this kind of conversation feed through into further polarization and disenchantment with democracy, at a time when—as successive World Values Surveys have shown—there’s increasing cynicism about the value of political participation. Millennials are the most disillusioned generation about democracy since polling data began to be compiled, with 26 per cent saying that “free and fair elections” are unimportant.

This declining commitment to democratic values is related to an increased feeling of powerlessness and anger among many Americans, which manifested during and after the 2016 election. The inclination is to lash out rather than to produce rational arguments in support of what our parties and candidates really stand for. Both the Trump and Clinton campaigns were run along these lines, and too many of us have followed their leads.

Further ‘fight and flight’ responses will deepen the cynicism, pessimism and complacency about democracy even further. So as a small step forward, how about using your own Facebook page to hash out disagreements and possibly find some common ground on important issues, instead of just bashing your political opponents? Through civil conversation we could at least develop a better understanding of what divides us and why. That would lower the temperature of the body politic so that more moderate and pragmatic voices could be heard.

After we’ve vetted our own opinions and arguments, we’ll have a firmer grasp of the relevant facts and a better understanding of the issues. That, in turn, should help to move us past the point of discussion and on to encouraging activism by calling out politicians who behave undemocratically, and by marching, demonstrating, calling legislators, signing petitions, and voting for candidates who represent a different form of politics.

Or, of course, we can continue to do the opposite by feeding our primitive impulses and lashing out on social media before ducking back into our own filter bubbles. The toxic polarization of the time of Trump will get even worse, but at least we’ll feel safe and secure inside our silos.

Jeff Rasley's new book is Polarized! The Case for Civility in the Time of Trump: An experiment in civil discourse on Facebook.

 

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20 July 2017. Can grassroots action neutralize the growth of the white supremacist movement?

As the ‘alt-right’ moves to violence, community responses really matter.

This article was first published by Waging Nonviolence.

Credit: By United States Department of Justice/Wikimedia. Public Domain.

A train pulled out of the quiet and quirky Portland, Oregon neighborhood of Hollywood on the evening of May 26th 2017, and that’s when the yelling began. Targeting two young women, one wearing a hijab, 35-year-old Jeremy Christian went on an Islamophobic tirade, accusing them of terrorism, tax evasion and general un-Americanness. When three men stepped up to intervene in the assault, Christian was ready with a knife, stabbing each one, successively, in the jugular and killing two of them.

This brutal attack was not just the result of mental illness, as is often blamed in cases such as these, but rather the latest stop-over in white supremacist escalations. Christian, who was new to such politics, had been frothing with rage for several week—ever since an April 30 “free speech” rally that a local ultra-conservative group had organized and modeled after other alt-right events happening around the country. Wearing an American flag cape and wielding a wooden baseball bat, Christian was stopped by police before he could take a swing at the counter protesters.

Tragedies like these inspire a sense of horror in the collective community, but it is not necessarily a surprise. The pattern of white supremacist violence has been consistent over the decades as fascist movements rise and fall, and disaffected members of their ranks follow suit with “lone wolf” violence. How the community responds to these moments of sorrow, and the ways in which those responsible are held accountable, is what determines the fate of movements like the alt-right.

A violent vision.

The history of the white nationalist movement—of which the alt-right is the latest incarnation—is one of violence from start to finish. As FBI reports confirm, radical right-wing combatants are still the primary terror threat in the United States, far outweighing the Islamic terror boogeyman that the Trump administration hopes to portray. In a 2015 survey of 382 law enforcement agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum, a full 74 percent of attacks came from far-right “anti-government” radicals.

In a U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center study, far-right terrorists were responsible for an average of 337 attacks a year since 9/11. The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks hate groups, listed white supremacists as conducting more attacks in 2015 than any other ideology, and when combined with anti-abortion and “anti-government” groups, which often crossover, the number rose to a full 63 percent of all domestic terrorism.

The threat of white supremacist terrorism is a constant in U.S. history. During the civil rights movement, the Ku Klux Klan built a paramilitary assault on the American South, murdering hundreds in bombings, gun attacks and lynching. In the 1980s, the Order erupted as a revolutionary project out of the Aryan Nations, robbing banks and murdering Jewish radio host Alan Berg. The militia movement, which was becoming an increasingly violent force in the 1990s after the passage of the Brady assault weapons ban and blunders by federal agents at Ruby Ridge and Waco, hit its zenith when Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh detonated a fertilizer bomb in the Oklahoma City Federal Building.

Built on failure.

The pattern of white supremacist violence often fails to be associated with the movement itself because of the common “lone wolf” quality of individual attacks. Following the “leaderless resistance” model developed by white nationalist Louis Beam and championed by skinhead leaders like Tom Metzger, those on the fringes of the movement and society are often instigated to engage in acts of extreme violence against the state, minorities and their collaborators.

The model for this violence is one of desperation, attempting to mobilize those without strong social bonds. The failure of their ability to organize, to see growth from a seed idea into a mass populist movement, kicks it over the edge into a nihilist assault lacking in long-term vision. As the culture further turned left, and major white supremacist enclaves like the Aryan Nations compound and the National Alliance were disrupted, desperate acts of violence took place—from the 2009 murder of a security guard at the Smithsonian Holocaust Museum to the 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

A part of this pattern comes from the relationship that white nationalists have with those on the margins of the mainstream, like politicians, media outlets and other provocateurs. Because of the extreme nature of their ideas, white nationalists latch onto those who—despite not sharing their key ideological platform—have enough in common with them to help mainstream their message. People like Barry Goldwater and George Wallace held this role to the anti-integrationists active during the civil rights movement.

In the early 1990s, the campaign of Pat Buchanan and the broad “paleoconservative” movement did this as well, using dog whistle language railing against immigration, globalization and affirmative action. Today, this comes in the form of what many call the “alt-light,” the layer of “anti-PC” talking heads that populates the so-called deplorable-sphere around the Donald Trump campaign. Milo Yiannoupoulos, Lauren Southern and Gavin McGinnis all promote their talking points and political ideas, even if they would squirm when the full-bore racism and anti-Semitism is unleashed.

Historically, white nationalists ride their mainstream relationships as far as those with celebrity are willing to take them, and when the association becomes too toxic, those with careers to think about jump ship. As the true alt-right becomes more well known, and their history of violence becomes more commonly understood, this will further push those who have lent their celebrity to betray their allegiances.

It is this final push that relegates the fascist core back to their sub-cultural roots, validating—in their minds—a “revolutionary” perspective that had been compromised by the pursuit of beltway respectability. It is at this moment that the acts of “lone wolf” violence escalate, when the hope of a peaceful solution to the “race problem” has been dashed. As we enter the period when the alt-right breaks from Trump and is abandoned by their temporary colleagues, the potential for violence only magnifies.

A part of history.

What often blinds people to the alt-right’s potential for violence is their branding, not their content. With fashionable swooped hair, pressed suits, and geeky Internet jargon, they seem more like an upper-middle-class wedding party than a nationalist cadre bent on a 21st century coup. This is only a mirage, as they are simply the latest generation in a lineage of white nationalist organizing, but with better youth appeal.

At American Renaissance, one of the largest alt-right conferences, the “who’s who” of the movement is in attendance: U.S. Members of the Aryan Nations hobnob with the alt-right group Proud Boys, former KKK leaders like David Duke and Don Black hold “Q&As,” and politicians from far-right European political movements like the British National Party receive standing ovations.

While their language may be, at times, couched in academic jargon, they have the same effect of motivating their fringe towards acts of kamikaze violence. After Dylan Roof murdered nine in a flurry of automatic gunfire, his manifesto revealed that his inspiration was the propaganda of the Council of Conservative Citizens—a neo-Confederate group that lists miscegenation as “against God’s chosen order,” and holds American Renaissance founder Jared Taylor as one of its spokesmen and board members. Taylor’s work at American Renaissance further inspired Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old man who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several others in 2011.

As the alt-right coasts into its most contentious period since its 2015-2016 rise, the violence has risen among its disaffected periphery. James Harris Jackson went to New York City in March with the intent of finding and killing black men in relationships with white women. Instead, he settled on murdering a black homeless man with a sword. Weeks later, Sean Urbanski murdered Army Second Lieutenant Richard Collins in an act of racial revenge. Both men were following alt-right figures online, with Urbanski in the “Alt-Reich” Facebook group and Jackson following alt-right leaders like Richard Spencer. During the same period of escalation, Lauren Southern brought an entourage of alt-right celebrities—and others ready to attack community members and protesters—to her speaking event in downtown Berkeley, California.

Us together.

While the historical behavior of white supremacists teaches us what to expect, there is also much to learn from the community responses that have neutralized their growth. For example, while the federal government went to war with the militia movement after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, it was growing public disgust that devastated the militia movement’s recruitment efforts and essentially forced them into retreat until Barrack Obama was elected president.

The final answer, though, is the creation of a mass response to this type of racist violence. With only hours notice the day after the Christian murders in Portland, a candlelight vigil drew thousands to the site of the attack. Meanwhile, the organizers of the April 30 “free speech” rally are organizing another event on June 4, and the response from the community promises to completely overwhelm them, showing that an iron wall has been built against alt-right recruitment. This is the way that a mass movement turns the tide of atrocity, letting the violence act as a reminder of what inaction can bring.

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19 July 2017. Please don’t tie me down

It’s time to let go of the Victorian idea that a ‘serious’ man should not be sensually open.            

Credit: www.pixabay.com. CC0 Public Domain.

Disclaimer: I’m a man who wears a tie to work every day. I work in a primary school, and a couple of years ago ties were made compulsory for both male and female pupils. Tie-wearing for boys and girls at school is pretty common in England so their introduction came as no great surprise, but it did produce a dilemma in my mind: I hadn’t worn a tie to work for years, but now that all the children had to wear one should I lead by example and follow suit? There was no school policy on staff wearing ties, but the pressure began to build and eventually I buckled.

I’ve worn a tie to work ever since, yet this really bugs me, and not just because I find ties a little uncomfortable or unfashionable to wear: for me it’s also an issue of politics.

My interest in the political significance of tie-wearing was pricked in June 2017 when John Bercow, the Speaker of the UK House of Commons, clarified that MPs would not be required to wear ties to debates in Parliament (he meant for men, not for women). Bercow’s decision was discussed on BBC Radio Five Live’s news show Good Week / Bad Week on July 2nd 2017. One of the guests was the Russian journalist and former Kremlin adviser Alexander Nekrassov, who suggested that relaxing the rule on ties would be a “disaster.” He argued that a tie “reveals everything about a man,” and that ties “make men look smart…and smart has to come back.”

Nekrassov defended the tie because it’s a symbol of the traditional masculinity he’s keen to preserve (or “bring back” as he put it on the programme), an image that still shapes our subconscious sense of what a man should be. What’s worrying is how broadly accepted this position seems to be. All four of the other panel members agreed with Nekrassov that a man looks smarter in a tie. Jane Garvey, one of the show’s co-hosts (who also presents Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio Four) put it like this: “I tend to agree with the general view that men look smarter with ties.”

It’s this idea of male ‘smartness’ that needs to be deconstructed and overturned.

When we think about the smartness associated with a man in a suit and tie, we’re thinking about a form of masculinity that is rooted in late Victorian, bourgeois culture. During the Radio Five Live discussion, Garvey half-heartedly offered up the theory that the tie is a “silken arrow” that points towards a man’s “most treasured region” (she didn’t say whether this was his wallet or his penis). That’s a little too Freudian for me. Instead, I suspect that—as a critical accompaniment to the Victorian suit—ties are better understood as part of a wider form of ‘respectable’ expression that’s defined by male self-repression.

After all, what does a tie do? It tightens, restricts and covers. It tightens around a man’s neck, restricts his movement just a little, and critically, it covers up the buttons of his shirt that provide the opening to bare flesh. The late Victorian man in his suit and tie is defined by his discipline. He must display his ability to control his raw bodily urges, raising himself above a state of nature with the power of his rational thought and the strength of his hardnosed convictions. The tie helps to communicate this level of control and discipline to the world, literally tying up the top button—the first to be undone in revealing the body—and covering the rest with that “silken arrow.”

The modern suit jacket, the surviving descendent of an array of Victorian coats and jackets, completes the look. It adds another thick ‘professional’ layer over the body of sensuality and emotion. To this day, many professional men will wear their jackets and ties at virtually all times when they enter into ‘serious business,’ even when they work in horribly hot and sticky environments. They must bear the discomfort, keep the body well covered up, and ‘be a man.’

As Garvey’s fellow co-host Peter Allen suggested during the Radio Five Live discussion, there’s a perception that a man without a tie looks ‘untidy,’ but what does that mean? It means a little too free—for a man. If so, a senior professional man with an open-necked shirt and two whole buttons undone might well create complete consternation among his staff. To many people, an un-tied shirt is worrying enough as an indicator of openness to the sensual body, so how about a CEO or Prime Minister in shorts, revealing his bare legs to the world? Even the notion of teenage boys in short trousers makes us think twice. The truth is, we haven’t let go of the Victorian idea that a ‘serious’ male should not be sensually open.            

Given that we still readily accept a man in a suit and tie as the gold standard for ‘smartness’ in multiple senses, is it any wonder that we still live in societies that are defined by the emotionally stunted nature of traditional masculinity? These are societies where ‘smart’ men in suits and ties go about their business, putting profits above our welfare, self-interest above empathy, and ‘tough decisions’ above human dignity—men  who have been taught that raw power is more valuable than emotional sensitivity.

In Western societies, ruthless strength in the face of ‘emotional wavering’ is still one of the most prized traits in industry and politics. We should not be surprised, then, to find a man like Donald Trump stepping up from the world of business to claim political power. While he may be clueless, he looks kind of smart in his suits and red ties.   

When Trump met Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, he found his kindred spirit on the global stage. As the journalist Richard Wolffe puts it, the two men are “cut from the same cloth.” Wolffe used that phrase metaphorically, but he might just as well have meant it literally, because when they sat down together to bond over their status as fellow strongmen, they reflected the image of each other in their immaculate suits and ties.

While we may think of men like Trump and Putin as aggressive and hot headed as they bludgeon their way to the top, they strive to give off the impression of being cool and collected during the ‘big’ occasions and the ‘tough’ decision making that follows. Whenever it‘s time for serious business, they will be ready in all their professional layers, looking neat, tidy and tightened up. They will make sure that the sensual body is well restricted when it ‘really matters.’  

The irony, of course, is that strongmen who are so keen to express control over their emotions are the same people who are so out of control in their insatiable lust for power. As they drain human sentiment out of their decision making they are left with the most basic compulsion for more. Indeed, modern strongmen drop the token Victorian ideal of the rational overcoming the natural in order to reveal traditional masculinity in its bare form. What matters most to them is not the strong mind but the strong gut—men like Trump like to trust in their ‘gut instinct.’ And here’s the final irony: the ‘smart’ suit and tie of the strongman ultimately hints at the primitive gut of self-interest.   

If we want to progress beyond a world defined by this culture, then perhaps it’s time to reflect more critically on supposedly ‘trivial’ symbols of Western masculinity like suits and ties. Deep down, they carry a powerful mix of traditionalist associations that underpins the conservative ideologies from which we’re struggling to break free.

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16 July 2017. Did the Great War leave God “hanging on the old barbed wire”?

The patriarchal deity died in the trenches of the Somme, but the churches will not let him go.

The Fire Window in the Regiment Chapel of Manchester Cathedral. Credit: © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

In the north-east corner of Manchester Cathedral there is a large rectangular chapel. The focal point is a stained-glass window in the east wall, a vast arch of red, orange and yellow glass that suggests flames and destruction. On the altar frontal beneath it and completing the fire motif is a phoenix. In the Manchester Blitz of 1940 the cathedral was bombed and burned. The Fire Window commemorates both the long nights of destruction and the city’s resurrection out of the flames.

The Regiment Chapel as it is known commemorates, remembers and celebrates the service of The Duke of Lancaster Regiment and its precursors, including the Manchester Regiment. From the walls hang flags and battle honours, heavy with the conflicts of the twentieth century including Mons, Ypres, the Somme and Cambrai. Along the north edge are sturdy wooden display cases full of weighty books of remembrance, packed with the names of the fallen. On alternate Wednesdays there is a simple service called ‘The Turning of the Leaves,’ when the pages of the books are turned over. These are pages thick with memory, ritualized into manageable remembrance.

It is troubling to think about how the Church of England has been complicit in the ways in which war has been prosecuted. Elie Halévy notes how in the Great War of 1914-18, for example, state control of thought took two forms: the negative, aimed at suppressing opinions deemed contrary to the national interest; and the positive, appropriately termed “the organization of enthusiasm.” The Church of England was very much part of the latter. Indeed, until the formation of a government Department of Information in 1917, propaganda was very much the business of private initiative.

As Albert Marrin, who argues that the Great War was the last European holy war, has written:

“Convinced of the righteousness of England’s cause, and believing that Christianity was concerned as much with the discharge of civic responsibilities as with the religious life, patriotic clergymen resolved to do their ‘bit’ for King and Country.”

The consistent refrain of diocesan conferences and parish meetings at the time was that the Church had a dual role as a servant of God and the servant of the state. As a servant of god, it provided huge amounts of practical humanitarian support to both needy soldiers at the front and their families at home, as well as supplying chaplains and distributing mind-bogglingly large number of Bibles and religious tracts.

In terms of service to the state, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the Bishop of London, remains the most notorious figure among the clergy who were active as recruiters for the war, yet there was no shortage of other clerics willing to preach for the patriotic cause. Rev. Richard Huggard, Vicar of St. John's Barnsley claimed to have personally enlisted two thousand men. The Rev. A.W. Gough, Vicar of Brompton and Prebendary of St. Paul's suggested that every Englishman worthy of the name should don the khaki uniform with pride, “the festal garment which God is offering us today, which he is insisting that we put on.”

Winnington-Ingram—a man who loved to throw on a uniform and hang around recruiting rallies—boasted of having been thanked officially by the War Office for adding ten thousand men to the fighting forces of the crown. Soon after, a grateful king appointed him a K.C.V.O.

For whom was the God proclaimed by the Church, and what account of suffering was it able to provide? The writer Alan Wilkinson suggests that “God speaks to the Church through the world, as well as to the world through the Church...In this period, that Word emerged more authentically from the prose and poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen than it did, say, from the sermons of Winnington-Ingram.”

More than any other, Owen’s poetry determines how most British people see the Great War in particular and war in general. He was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 2nd Manchester’s and was gazetted for the Military Cross. Owen was not a religious poet; his subject, as he famously put it, was “War and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.” Yet his poetry and letters play with and push against biblical images and theological concepts; he is profoundly aware of God and Christ, but his wrestling with God is imbued with rich irony and ambivalence. It is as if he is trying to make sense of an abridged or compromised God for times of abridged hope, a God who can make some kind of home in an ironic world.

Owen discovers a God both greater and lesser than he imagined. In one of his letters, he suggests that:

“Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear His voice: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life—for a friend. Is it only spoken in English and French? I do not believe so. Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism…Christians have deliberately cut some of the main teaching of their code.”

Owen found himself drawn close to Christ in his passion, though he expresses this closeness with irony:

“For 14 hours yesterday I was at work—teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirsts until after the last halt; I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet to see that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb and stands to attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.”

The contrast with the God/Christ of the Anglican churchmen cum recruiting sergeants is striking. Theirs typically reflects the muscularity and presumed masculinity of their class. As Modris Eksteins strikingly puts it in his book Rites of Spring, “Clergymen dressed Jesus in khaki and had him firing machine-guns.” Their God is one that echoes through the martial fair-play of the poetry of Sir Henry Newbolt in his most famous poem, Vitai Lampada, which imagines a soldier bringing the virtues of his school and sport (specifically cricket) onto the battlefield:

“The river of death has brimmed his banks,

And England's far, and Honour a name,

But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:

‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’”

Newbolt was a lifelong friend of Douglas Haig, the British army commander from 1916 until the end of the war. They had met at Clifton College, whose cricket field provides the location for the first stanza of Vitai. As the writer Paul Fussell makes clear, “Much later Newbolt wrote, ‘When I looked into Douglas Haig I saw what is really great—perfect acceptance, which means perfect faith.”’ The Establishment, of which the Church of England was a part, celebrated what Patrick Howarth has called Homo Newboltiensis: the man who is stoic, honourable, brave, loyal and not a little unimaginative.

The God of the Anglican recruiting sergeants is the patriarchal God, made in their own image and inherited from decades of English imperial confidence, shaped in public schools. The Episcopal and clerical recruiting sergeants of 1914 were part of a class and culture that comprehended the old truth that son inherited from father in the fullness of time if the son was faithful to his elder. For the elder was, ultimately, to be trusted. The evidence for this lay in one hundred years of relative peace in which England’s power had grown to its zenith.

If the Church of England continued to articulate a patriarchal God throughout the war (and perhaps still does to this day), Owen offers glimpses of something else. In his lesser-known poem ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ (a retelling of the Abraham and Isaac myth), Owen signifies the death of patriarchal society and the god to which it is beholden.

Beginning on familiar territory (“So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,/And took the fire with him, and knife”), the poem unfolds into a nightmarish trench-based scene: “Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,/And builded parapets and trenches there,/And stretched forth the knife to slay his son”). As in the Biblical story, an Angel intervenes and invites Abram to “Lay not thy hand upon the lad” and sacrifice “the Ram of Pride instead.” The conclusion of the poem is devastating in its simple condemnation of the ‘Good Father’ principle: “But the old man would not so, but slew his son,/And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Arguably, the patriarchal God died on the Somme, at Ypres and at Passchendaele. He—like so many—was left “hangin’ on the old barbed wire” as the famous World War I song put it. Unlike the poor lads on both sides who went over the top, perhaps he hangs there still. The Churches will not let him go. What is for sure is that in our time the traditional churches are in crisis.

I do not know if this is because churches like my own, the Church of England, have yet to move on from this dead, male-centric God. I suspect it may be one reason among many. The reasons why the masses no longer go to church (if they ever did) are complex and multiform. What is clear is that the patriarchal God could not—in the light of years of slaughter—hold the weight of expectations. Ultimately, it proved to be an unreliable and hapless idol.

Rachel Mann’s new book is Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, Ritual, Memory and God.

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14 July 2017. Slow science, slow food, slow down

When we rush, we make decisions that lack information, lack proper reflection, and ultimately make the problems of humanity worse.

Credit: Flickr/Innovate Impact Media. Some rights reserved.

“Where ignorance is your master, there is no possibility of peace.” The XIV Dalai Lama.

The scientific contributions of Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman were fundamental for the construction of the atomic bomb. Today, their reflections on the subject are also fundamental for the survival and evolution of our species. Conversations with both scientists after the Manhattan Project indicate that each felt remorse for their involvement. They wished they had thought through their direct and indirect involvement more thoroughly, and said that if they had known what their work would lead to they might have acted differently.

These quotes from Einstein are glimpses of his perspective:

“I made one great mistake in my life—when I signed the letter to President [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made. Had I known that Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger. The unleashing of the power of the atom bomb has changed everything except our mode of thinking…Science has brought forth this danger, but the real problem is in the minds and hearts of men. We scientists must consider it our solemn and transcendent duty to do all in our power to prevent these weapons from being used for the brutal purpose for which they were invented. Non cooperation in military matters should be an essential moral principle for all true scientists.” 

Feynman joined the Manhattan Project as an enthusiastic and energetic 24 year-old. Later in his life—after recovering from a severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—he said this:

“One should reconsider perpetually one’s reasons for doing something, because it may be that the circumstances have changed… I don’t guarantee you as to what conclusion I would have come to if I had thought about it, but nevertheless the fact that I did not think about it was, of course, wrong.” 

What I hear when I translate the language of these two geniuses into my perspective is this: we were going too fast. We are still going too fast. When we rush, we make decisions that lack information, lack proper reflection, and ultimately make the problems of humanity worse.

Now is the time to slow down, to take a pause, to rethink the purpose of science and education and to cultivate our critical thinking—and our critical feeling. It is time to combine science with the soul: science as the sustainable, collective and critical development of knowledge; soul as the individual and collective capacity to make wise use of that knowledge; ultimately, the ability to rejoice in the welfare of all living beings. Bertrand Russell echoed this postulation when he wrote: “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” 

As a scientist, I am not against science. I am against the unethical applications of science. I represent a new generation that rescues the best of previous generations. Formed by millions of citizens of the World, this generation wants to be part of the mass that weighs on the positive side of the balance of the survival of our species. It’s a generation that cares about our planet; a generation that cares about the future of humankind; a generation that sees the big picture and the interconnectedness of our magnificent cultural and biological diversity.

We, the new generation, believe that the purpose of education is to help students to become more fully developed human beings, to help students discover meaning and passion in life, to develop critical minds and sensitive hearts, and to become knowledgeable about the peoples, inherited wisdoms, and subject matters that will help them find their path in the creation of a more peaceful, just, sustainable, and diverse World.

For us then, universities must be not centers of military recruitment or corporate indoctrination, or obedience to totalitarianism and support of the (dis)order of the non-egalitarian status quo, but they must be epicenters of critical thinking, inspiration, creativity, imagination, justice, freedom and true democracy.

The support of the development of weapons is an example of the contradiction between the purpose of education and the decisions made by some of the regents of the University of California (UC) in the history of this institution: since the Los Alamos Laboratory opened its doors in 1943, every single nuclear weapon built for the United States arsenal was designed at a UC managed weapons laboratory. 

A nonviolent generation with many perspectives.

Paraphrasing Gandhi, to overcome the greatest destructive weapon humans have invented one needs the greatest power humankind has been endowed with: nonviolence. Just as peace is more than the absence of war, nonviolence is more than the absence of violence. It is not simply the negation to cause harm, but it is something infinitely more: it is when one’s heart is so full of love, so full of courage, forgiveness, generosity, kindness and compassion, that there is no room for hatred, resentment and violence. It is not a double negative but a superlative positive.

Nonviolence is a call to disobey inhumane laws and treaties; it is a call to obey the law of love; it is a call to not control anger but to express it under discipline for maximum effects; it is a positive force; it is a way of life: the thoughts we have, the things we say, the food we eat, the cloths we wear, the things we do. The members of this new generation are pragmatic idealists who try to “walk their talk.” Their means are their ends. They are trying to embody what Martin Luther King Jr. called “love in action.” 

This young generation is formed by conservatives, liberals, moderates, anarchists, religious and secular people. We all are catalysts who honor all perspectives to be closer to the truth. I am a progressive, a conservative, a liberal, an anarchist, in short: a perspectivist. In other words, our generation is formed by citizens of the world who promote dialogue, tolerance and rooted values. In most respects, I continue to align with what I grew up believing to be conservative values. Yet I find I have nothing in common with extremists of the far right who advance an agenda of class warfare, fiscal irresponsibility, government intrusions on personal liberty, and reckless international military adventurism as conservative causes.

At the same time, I have nothing to approve of in extremists of the far left who advocate violence and a new way of totalitarianism which keeps attacking the human spirit. At the same time too, I’m not an anarchist as defined in the encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc. written by the hierarchies and their corporate media, I’m engaged and in love with the voluptuous authority of collective intelligence; with her hugs of education, respect and peace; and with her kisses of justice, true democracy and freedom.

To be consistent with this new generation, one of my contributions is that I did not want to receive a title from an irresponsible institution that is putting at risk the survival of our species. Hence, this semester, after almost four years of interacting with the amazing and beautiful people of the Astronomy department as a graduate student and instructor—after seven years of following the fascinating path of Astrobiology—I withdrew from the University of California at Berkeley and will have nothing to do with that institution until it stops being involved in the research, production and manufacture of nuclear weapons.

In evolutionary time scales, I believe that violence and science are mutually exclusive; the two cannot coexist in the long run. Vinoba Bhave was quite aware of this: “Violence must be done away with if science is to survive," he wrote, "If both are sought to be retained, mankind, along with its science also, would be destroyed.” This disastrous combination inhibits the development of critical inquiry, he explains, because “our thinking becomes narrow and circumscribed if we are associated with any organization which will not be fully conductive for the quest of nonviolence.” 

If we want to stop the proliferation of atomic bombs, it would be a good idea to stop producing them ourselves. If the government of the United States justifies nuclear weapons for its national security, why wouldn’t other countries construct atomic bombs for their own national security? This is not about “national security” but Global Security, Human Security—reconciliation and mutual respect between the peoples of the Earth is what really makes for peace and security in the long run, each country can be secure only when all are secure: the Earth is but one country and all living beings her citizens.

The political and intellectual prestige of the UC can be used not for justifying annihilatory purposes but for creating an artistic-scientific-spiritual-rational and humanitarian society. Just because we are students studying art, economics, engineering, peace and conflict studies, landscape architecture or astrophysics that doesn’t mean that we have to be part of an institution that develops new “safer weapons of mass destruction”. What if, rooted in the purpose of education as true seekers, the citizens of the World decide to noncooperate, according to their capabilities, with the UC until this institution stops being involved in the research, production and manufacture of nuclear weapons?

But this is not just about finding ways to abolish nuclear weapons and move on from this survival crisis. We are missing a great opportunity to convert swords into plowshares. We must divert their purpose into something constructive for humanity. What about protecting us from the impact of a large asteroid or comet to avoid a mass extinction of life on the Planet? We might be able to use nuclear explosives for a near asteroid burst to ablate surface material and nudge the body to a safer orbit, or a direct sub-surface burst to fragment the body.

That’s the difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing.

As a starting point we can slow down, pause, rethink and heal from the cancer of violence which starts to disappear from our minds. Eknath Easwaran, a disciple of Gandhi who brought many of his teachings to the West, said: 

“It is essential not to confuse slowness with sloth, which breeds procrastination and general inefficiency. In slowing down, we attend meticulously to details, giving the very best we are capable of even to the smallest undertaking.”

That is exactly what we need to do.

A longer version of this article was published on Earthling Opinion

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13 July 2017. What democracy looks like when you have to disagree with your neighbours

As much as I dislike the administration of President Trump, I value community harmony very deeply.

Protestors gather outside the hotel where Republican Representative John Faso was scheduled to speak in Schoharie, New York. Credit: YES! Magazine/Reggie Harris.

I’m leafing through a stack of protest signs in the corner of the mudroom, reading the markered letters, looking to see what can be recycled for tonight. The subjects we’ve collected thus far are about human rights and the environment. It looks like we’ll need to draft something fresh and new for tonight, because the topic is health care.

Our Republican congressman, John Faso, has an 89.7 percent track record for voting “Yes” on Trump initiatives. He hasn’t been holding town meetings with constituents, he and his staff have stopped responding to letters, I’ve never had a phone call even answered, and his recent vote to repeal ObamaCare in the House has sparked this last minute protest down in the village of Schoharie, New York, where he’s the keynote speaker at a countywide Republican fundraiser.

I’m not a big fan of crowds. I don’t even like meetings. But the elections last November showed me that even introverts need to emerge from their shells and make their voices heard.

As much as I dislike and distrust our current national administration, I also deeply value community harmony. Where national politics and economics fail, I have a deep belief that local community can survive. But Trump won Schoharie County by a margin of 3-1. And the past few months, for me, have been tough.

I don’t like to disagree with my neighbors. I’m one of those people who waves at every person driving down our rural roads. I like to talk about the weather, about local issues, about who’s having surgery, about whose daughter is coming for a visit, about who’s cleaning out their garage, who’s having a baby. I can remember those things and carry on intelligent conversations. When it comes to national politics, however, I’m completely rattled. In the face of someone who disagrees with me, I’m so flustered by the lack of harmony, so worried that our friendship could be fractured, I lose my ability to be articulate about issues.

But national politics, in my estimation, are now dire. Too much is at stake for me to spend all my time in my comfort zone. Saoirse and Ula are following the issues now, too, and it would be irresponsible for Bob and me to encourage political discussion at home, but then fail to empower them with the democratic tools available to them to influence change.

So I’ve chosen among my discomforts: rather than talking one-on-one with my neighbors about my feelings and opinions, I’ve been pushing through my anxiety about being around lots of people. Part of me wonders whether my choice to stand among like-minded souls is more cowardly than talking one-on-one, but I cut myself some slack. It’s better than doing nothing.

On this spring evening, Bob, the girls and I write catchy phrases on the backs of some of the other protest signs we’ve amassed, load into the car, stop at the bank, stop at the grocery store, then make our way to the protest.

One hundred eighty-five of us have gathered outside the hotel where Congressman Faso is scheduled to speak. That’s a big crowd for a rural Republican county, especially since this all came together at the last minute. Bob, the girls and I walk toward them, and we’re greeted with hugs. We stand among friends, comforted by each other’s presence. The sky is blue, and the sun is warm on our backs.

Attendees for the fundraising dinner begin to drive by. We hold up our signs. The drivers don’t make eye contact. A few flip us the bird. Bob Neid, our organizer and local agitator extraordinaire, holds a megaphone to his lips.

“Tell me what democracy looks like!” He shouts.

And we all know how to respond, no coaching necessary.

This is what democracy looks like!

For a little while, no one drives past headed for the dinner. Being a great lover of the written word, I’ve found in the past few months that protest signs are their own literary form, and I’ve come to enjoy reading them. While it’s quiet, Saoirse and I take off down the line to appreciate the creativity of our fellow protesters.

As we walk, I meet up with farm customers, former teachers, and a lot of people I’ve not seen in years. We laugh, we share design tips for reusable posters. Some people turn their signs around and show on the back the list of every protest they’ve attended this year, the way others might collect spoons from tourist destinations.

A flush of cars arrive. We turn our attention to them and hold up our signs. We sing out different chants:

Hey Hey–Ho Ho, John Faso has to go!

Healthcare for all, big and small!

And then some fellow farmers drive by, their big pick-ups shiny and clean for the evening.

“Tell me what democracy looks like,” Bob Neid chants.

I know a lot of them. In one truck, I see a couple I’ve known my whole life. They helped me do my master's research. They helped me do my dissertation research. They recognize me. We lock eyes.

Is this confrontation? Is this the very thing I’ve been trying to avoid?

He gets a little twinkle in his eye and gives me a nod. She smiles widely and waves at me.

Then I begin to laugh. I forgot! He’s a Republican. She’s a Democrat.

Now they’re both laughing, too.

“This is what democracy looks like!” The crowd cheers back.

And then I hear it up and down the line. “Hey! That’s my neighbor!” Another protester lifts his arm and waves to someone else driving down the line. “Looks like he’s feeling better after his surgery!” Another little wave back from the car.

“Hey! Those are my neighbors! I didn’t know they’d be coming out to something like this!” Another nod. Another wave of greeting between protester and Republican driver.

Tell me what democracy looks like!

This is what democracy looks like!

I discover a new comfort zone. I am who I am. I believe what I believe. And all of us in that line are facing the same thing: public dissent, when harmony is a matter of rural culture, survival, and quality of life. But with the support of fellow citizens who share our opinions, we find the courage to speak up about these issues that we find appalling.

And then, on the other side, we see our neighbors. And all those nods, all those little waves on the road, all those pleasantries at the grocery store, become hugely valuable. For the sake of preserving relationships, direct words may not be exchanged. But the communication is happening nonetheless.

Tell me what democracy looks like…

Maybe it’s imperfect. Maybe it’s provincial. But I’ll own it. In Schoharie County, this is what democracy looks like.

This article has been re-posted from YES! Magazine. It was originally published in The Radical Homemaker.

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12 July 2017. Face to faith

It is better to be united in our ignorance than divided in our certainties.

Credit: Flickr/SteveRhodes. Some rights reserved.

From time to time stories appear in our newspapers of priests or ministers—maybe even a bishop—who have ‘lost their faith.’ Such headlines are misleading and far too simplistic. It is not faith which is lost, but beliefs: by contrast, faith is transformed

Beliefs can be naturally outgrown and discarded during our lives as we fulfill St Paul’s eloquent prophecy: “When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.”

Although this process ought to continue throughout life, for a priest or minister it is most comfortably achieved after one is retired. Working clergy may regard it as their duty to defend the system, to loyally justify the church, to be sensitive to the feelings of its people, and to take care not to destroy another person’s faith.

But all of these things can make us more cautious than we would like to be. That is important, because spiritual growth and development must be continuous, even if that means leaping—not lapsing—into agnosticism, recognizing that there is much of mystery in life and that we do not know all the answers.

At the heart of this process we come to see Christianity—along with Judaism and Islam—more as historical religions than simply faith-based; man-made rather than divinely created. As such, they have to be judged by the evidence of history, and their scriptures scrutinized just like any other historical document.

History may then indicate that all ancient religions—and maybe some modern creeds too—have arisen largely out of pre-scientific mythologies in which what is called the ‘supernatural’ lies at the center. An essential aspect of growing up demands that we reject the idea of the supernatural and recognize that the ‘natural’ is wonderful enough.

Few people can deny that Christianity has often been a form of blessing to many people, and that the church has sometimes been beneficial to the improvement of human society. In the realm of the arts, in music, painting and literature, religious belief has inspired incomparable beauty and innovation; and in human behavior, incredible heroism and self-sacrifice.

But there is a darker side which, in our growing, we increasingly come to see as outweighing the lighter on the scales of human judgment. Dogma has dominated reason. Superstitions have been encouraged as facts. Charity and love have been subordinated to inquisition and cruelty. Fear has governed where hope should have reigned. The wisdom and experience of half of humankind—women—has been ignored and belittled.  

A distorted picture has emerged and prevailed over the original teachings of the guru of Christianity: Jesus. Growing up entails re-evaluating the one who saw himself as the son of man, rather than the son of God.

In no area of life can this process of transformation be seen more clearly than in the realm of morality. So it is not surprising that this subject has come to the fore, and that the issues involved have received more attention in the 20th and 21st centuries—especially in the aftermath of the Second World War during which human immorality was exposed in all its naked horror. It really did seem possible that after 1945 that humankind might ‘come of age.’

In the years that followed, the issue of sexuality in particular came to dominate both thought and practice. Liberation became the buzzword in theology, in personal and social relationships, in race relations and in national aspirations. And—if at times this led in destructive or uncomfortable directions for some—so be it, for we have come to realize that it is better to be united in our ignorance than divided in our certainties.

That, surely, is a sign of maturity.

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10 July 2017. A new vision for the left

Equality and security are means to a greater end: ‘the evolution of a people who are kindly, intelligent, free, co-operative, enterprising and rich in culture.’

Credit: Flickr/Jacob Anikulapo. Some rights reserved.

Now that the UK general election is over, it is time to think about the political future of the left. Whether the current popularity of ‘Corbynism’ endures remains to be seen, but we should resist surrendering critical awareness to the idea that the political ground has shifted in a manner likely to automatically reinvigorate radical thought and practice.

While few observers would dispute that neo-liberalism’s self-confidence has been severely undermined since 2008, what remains of our civic culture is uncertain. Everywhere there is nervous ambiguity and ambivalence, which is all the more reason to conceptualise a new programme that eschews jargonistic sloganising. I’d suggest it should focus on three areas: reducing economic precariousness, resetting the parameters of social life away from the market and individualization, and initiating an open debate about the cartography of moral and ethical standards.

Clearly, electorates are questioning social-liberalism’s amalgam of middle-class political and cultural interests which have tended to marginalise the majority of ‘ordinary’ people. Consequently,  liberal elites  are in a kind of psychic turmoil, engaging by turn in denial, sarcasm,  sulks, bravado and—until  Corbyn’s recent success—dreams  of forming a new centrist party. Despite that success, the left is no less in disarray, and has hardly begun to provide an effective intellectual analysis of either neo-liberalism’s austerity thesis or the ‘radicalism’ of  the ‘soft left.’

If the left is to become more influential, it needs to expand on its traditional Marxist-influenced critique of capitalist rationality, coupled with an avowed commitment to a fashionable politics of recognition. Rather than trying to offer sectional interests feel-good narratives, we should propound a vision of society marked by a belief in individual and collective 'mental progress' of the kind that exemplifies a clearly articulated ‘moral politics’ that stresses the duties and obligations of commonality and universalism.

Vision, says the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a mental image of what the future will or could be like; the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.” We need to appreciate that vision is important in politics because it provides an emotional prism that allows people to feel the ideology of a Party. Such a vision should be constructed so as to reflect a commitment to a particular kind of politics, both reasoned and emotional, not so much laws and structures, but those inner beliefs and values with which voters intuitively engage.

In thinking about vision, the left could do worse than begin the process by resurrecting aspects of the Labour Party’s traditional ethical thought, if only through reminding themselves of the post-1945 Labour administration when Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison  advised the Party that it was more than a vote-winning machine; it was, he said, “something great and glorious that stands for a new way of life.” Morrison grasped the essence of a critical thread in the moral priorities of Labour’s ‘historic mission’ when he declared that “one of our purposes is to make men and women better than they are, and to promote sweetness and light.’”  

In similar vein, Michael Young, the Secretary of the Labour Party’s Research Department who helped to draft the 1950 election manifesto, claimed that socialism was about “human dignity” and “communal solidarity,” and called for “people’s needs to be thought of psychologically as well as materially.” Unsurprisingly, the manifesto declared that “Socialism is not bread alone ... Economic security and freedom from the enslaving bonds of capitalism are not the final goals. They are the means to the greater end—the evolution of a people more kindly, intelligent, free, co-operative, enterprising and rich in culture.”  

This sentiment echoed that of the influential Labour economist, Evan Durbin, a junior minister in Clement Atlee’s government, who, in collaboration with the child psychoanalyst John Bowlby, made two critical claims in a study of personal aggressiveness. First, that the kind of people “who can support the responsibility, freedom, and toleration required by democracy are also likely to be peaceful;”and second, that “They are not peaceful because they are democratic. They are peaceful and democratic because they are the kind of people they are.”  

In other words, thinking psychoanalytically, our behaviour is all mixed up with our attitudes and values which are always open to change and development. What these assertions have in common, however, is a belief that in seeking to transcend capitalism, Labour’s socialism aspired to promote personal and collective progress in the human faculties.  

With this background in mind, it is worth remembering that one of the defining features of democratic socialism has always been a belief in ‘Progress’ of the kind that incorporates ‘individual moral and intellectual advance’—meaning caring and unselfish behaviour towards others, and rational and logical thought. Believing in this form of human betterment privileged the Victorian liberal idea of ‘character:’ “the ability to rise above sensual, animal instincts and passions through force of will.

It was, in effect, a commitment to notions of goodness, human rationality, and the belief that social progress stems from the moral improvement of individuals. This is not to say that in promoting a vision of making people better than they are, we should discount economic and political determinants of progress. Rather, in the frantic and often toxic atmosphere of public discourse, it is to remind ourselves that individual moral aspiration is real and that it is critical to the sustenance of all forms of justice.   

But what, exactly, does it mean to make people ‘better than they are?’ It certainly should not be taken to imply an authoritarian didacticism. Nor does it urge us toward impossibly idealistic goals. Instead, it is positive about human endeavour in emphasising not perfection but the will to do better. It means giving people the opportunity to see that each possesses what Martha Nussbaum calls a “soul:” “the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relations rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation.”

These faculties, of course, are inseparable from morality: deciding between is and ought in a vision that encourages us to subjugate selfishness and vindictiveness, and to believe in our capability for improving the world for the public good. In saying that we can usually do better, it is supportive of our ‘moral needs.’ These needs, says philosopher Susan Neiman, are so strong that “they can override our instincts for self-preservation” and include the need to “express outrage...reject euphemism and cant and to call things by their proper names.” Basically, she says, “we need to see the world in moral terms...grounded in a structure of reason,” for it is through reason that we are able to ‘conceive the possible’ and not simply accept what is.  

If, however, a vision is to be more than merely a slogan, it needs to promote its own virtues. Margaret Thatcher had a vision that was in stark contrast to that of John Donne’s “no man is an Iland, intire of it selfe.” The essence of Thatcherism was to restore the age of the individual. This lent itself to a certain kind of moral outlook that espoused, as one of her admirers expressed it, ‘vigorous virtues’ such as uprightness, independence, self-sufficiency, energy and loyalty.

While these are ‘moral’ virtues, socialist morality requires others in addition. The centre-left political theorist David Marquand has referred to the ‘softer’ virtues of kindness, gentleness, humility and sympathy. The brilliance of Thatcherism, he says, was that it successfully harnessed its supposedly-classless virtues to its philosophy. These ‘softer’ virtues, however, also need to be promoted as classless, and the left should harness both kinds in order to show people that it is, indeed, both socially and morally worthwhile to be ‘better than they are.’

Working in a reciprocal manner, these virtues can be the start of a process whereby they are channeled to make them come alive culturally so that they become part of the socio-political dialogue, one that leads to a new awareness of the scope of possibility as a reasonable and manageable course of action. Just as cultures are not fixed, so a socialist culture can, with the necessary forethought and planning, be nurtured. Mental progress, then, has to be seen to be a step on the road towards an ethically sensitive democratic left-socialism, which can be expressed through ‘moral clarity:’ a public fearlessness, driven by personal integrity.  

Thus, in deploying a vision of individual moral advance, the left could take a lead in inspiring the electorate to cast off its unhealthy narcissism in favour of reason, altruism, fraternity, understanding, tolerance and commonality. If we ignore or reject these things, we will be writing the tragedy of our times, namely a willing self-destruction of Enlightenment ‘hope.’ Hope, as courage, is a necessary virtue because, being predicated on uncertainty, it is rarely achieved without struggle.

A socialist vision enables us to reject what often appears as the dour inevitability of despair. It presents the opportunity, underpinned by beneficence, to seize the chance to become our better selves. Nothing is certain, but in so doing, we may begin to make socialism inescapably relevant to our condition, and therefore, to begin to make a better world.  

Of course, a successful political ideology involves more than a vision; it requires ideas of the kind that sustain long-term goals and accompanying strategies. But, as a flag of identification of what the left stands for—an encompassing moral vision, crisply, succinctly, thoughtfully, and sincerely expressed—it would be a good place from which to start.

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7 July 2017. Tearing down the walls that keep us from finding common ground

Faced by increasing divisions we should be echoing an earlier call to action—“Tear this wall down.”

This article was first published in Waging Nonviolence.

Credit: Flickr/Danny Birchall. Some rights reserved.

The current occupant of the White House wants to build a “real,” “big,” “serious” wall. To avoid a government shutdown, the administration wavered on the timing of funding. But that does not mean a wall, or walls, will not be built. Walls are material structures, and—maybe more importantly—they are metaphors. They promote ideas like possession, property and separation, as well as mine, yours, who belongs, and who doesn’t belong. They create emotional responses: safety, trust, envy, frustration, fear, anger, dread, hostility.

The wall on the border between the United States and Mexico is both material and metaphorical. If you have not looked at pictures of the walls, fences, or barriers already installed on some 650 miles of the 2,000-mile border, you should do so right now. Considerable damage to the environment, the economies of border communities, and individual human lives has already been accomplished by the militarization of the border.

In 1961, the Berlin Wall appeared almost overnight. It was physical and metaphorical, carrying a weighty ideological message to Western “fascists,” who, according to the U.S.S.R. were trying to destroy the socialist state. From the West’s perspective, the purpose of the wall was to deny people access to the West and, importantly, to its message of freedom. All walls carry multiple messages depending on your point of view.

The wall on the border with Mexico has different meanings depending on which side of the physical and metaphorical wall you are on. Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions has different ideas about the wall and the people it prevents from entering the United States than do the ranchers and farmers whose land is often divided by a river that does not respect human boundaries.

While construction may be impeded, the idea still exists. It exists as part of an “unconscious system of metaphorical thought,” according to Tom Vanderbilt, in a November New York Times essay about the insidious power of ideas. As a metaphor, the idea of a “wall” is the centerpiece of the new administration’s approach not just to the border, but also to the rest of the world. More barriers along the border could have dire environmental consequences for specific species and the biodiversity of the region. As an environmentalist, I am horrified at this scenario and, yet, I believe that the idea of the wall is as pernicious a consequence of the election as these material impacts.

Everyone is building walls. In Eastern Europe and the Middle East, walls are being built at an exceedingly rapid pace. Vanderbilt cites geographer Elisabeth Vallet’s survey of the 50 actual walls that currently exist, 15 of which were built in the last few years. They are a response to the crisis of immigrant and refugee migration and reflect, as well, the different belief systems—religious and political—that fuel various regional conflicts.

A similar surge of nationalist ideology is evident in the United States, too, as “build that wall” became a rallying cry among Donald Trump’s supporters. Those who approve of both kinds of walls exhibit fear and racism. Others believe the myths about job loss or the illusion of physical walls as a solution to a variety of social problems. Nationalism, sometimes labeled populism, has always bubbled under the surface of political discourse in the West, and such rhetoric now has “legs.”

Meanwhile, people who oppose the wall and the immigration policies it represents have also built walls. Articles in SlateHuffington Post, and elsewhere all carried unforgiving tirades against people who voted for Trump after November 8. This divisive landscape and tendency to build walls represents a crisis for social change activists in engaging a majority of the people to support movements for change.

In the 2001 book “Doing Democracy: The MAP Model of Organizing Social Movements,” veteran social movement activist and trainer Bill Moyer wrote that, “the central task of social movements is to win the hearts, minds and support of the majority of the populace.” After 40-plus years of participating in, planning, training, and analyzing social change and the role of social movements, he stressed the important role of ordinary citizens in successful movements for change.

Moyer believed that people would respond to violations of “their deepest values” and that social movements were, in fact, a primary way for people to “challenge unjust social conditions and policies.” As the editor and a co-author of “Doing Democracy,” I too believe that values are at the core of social movements. That is why our political and cultural polarization — that is, the “metaphorical walls”—concerns me and raises questions like: What are these “deepest values?” How do they relate to our “democratic values?” And how many of us share them?

If social movements are to continue to be a “means for ordinary people to act on their deepest values,” as Moyer thought they did, then we need to ask questions about our current culture and the dynamics that are creating more walls than ever before. Are there, in fact, universal values that are widely held today? Numerous authors and many activist groups still cite the Movement Action Plan, or MAP, as a model in understanding the typical stages of social movements on the road to success, the strategies and tactics useful along the way, and the roles that individuals and organizations play in accomplishing movement goals.

Since we completed “Doing Democracy,” I have not encountered any references to the last chapter, titled “Toward the Future.” That chapter encapsulates discussions that Moyer had with many people over the years, and with me during the last several years of his life, about the underlying philosophy of our beliefs and values and knowledge emerging from psychological and sociological research about how we change beliefs and behaviors.

Moyer’s analysis of the need for personal and cultural transformation, including the transformation of movement cultures, has not engaged people as much as the “Eight Stages of Social Movements” and “Four Roles of Social Activism”—reflecting, perhaps, an emphasis on strategy and tactics instead of the more personal challenges of being effective change agents by grappling with the philosophical and psychological aspects of social change.

Some will say these considerations sound too individualistic or academic and ask why they are important given the absolutely frightening challenges we face today. In response to this challenge, my colleague Jim Smith and I wrote the forthcoming book “Still Doing Democracy! Finding Common Ground and Acting for the Common Good.” In it, we focus on questions about values, about understanding different beliefs and about how we negotiate the boundaries that different perceptions of the world create so that we can build broader coalitions to support progressive change.

We are once again in an era of large demonstrations that engage the public’s attention. This is good. Some of these events may help groups gain traction in establishing a campaign and building the next movement moment. As longtime organizer and Waging Nonviolence columnist George Lakey has pointed out, protests do not a social movement make. I contend that after the “trigger” events, after the mass demonstrations, and after the first flush of success, such groups will persist in the long struggle to facilitate change only if they are able to engage the “hearts, minds, and support of the majority of the populace.” That is, only if they are able to have a conversation about values and how current conditions violate widely held values.

This conversation needs to take place with those with whom you marched, with those who did not march, with those who did not vote (over 42 percent of eligible voters), with those who do not participate in civic life at all, and even with those who voted for the other candidate.

Despite the elation over mass turnouts at recent protests, beginning with the Women’s March, I fear that too little attention is being paid to the more nuanced and disciplined work of listening and learning that’s required to “win the hearts, minds, and support of a majority of the populace.” Unless we are determined to have real conversations—where we are not talking past each other because we are speaking a different language, while using the same words—I believe we will fail.

“Still Doing Democracy!” takes the question of having authentic conversations seriously. Partisans on either side of the progressive/conservative wall use the same language in talking about democratic values. For example, “freedom” is a commonly expressed value that has widely divergent meanings depending on which side of the wall you are on. On one side, being free means to be able to choose to buy or not buy healthcare. On the other side, it means having access to healthcare that you can actually afford to buy. This is not a conversation; there is no common ground here. There is certainly not a shared belief in healthcare as a human right. The belief system and value differences are not only external to the progressive movement world.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s analysis of Occupy Wall Street in “Hegemony, How-to: A Roadmap for Radicals,” shows how movement groups create walls that keep them from collaborating with natural allies. I look at the signs at the various marches since January and see a plethora of issues and value statements. But what do these value statements mean? Do people mean the same thing by the words “freedom,” “justice” or “fairness?”

Do the people standing next to each other at demonstrations share the vision in “Doing Democracy” of a “civil society in a safe, just and sustainable world?” What kinds of personal and cultural characteristics would describe such a world? These are the questions we need to consider in our groups and in our efforts to engage the “majority of the populace.”

The building blocks of metaphorical walls are the ideas and beliefs that reinforce them. They can be as impenetrable as brick and mortar. Thinking and feeling our way around—through, or over walls—is not always easy, but it is necessary to contribute to real change in a world characterized by diversity of beliefs, perspectives and life experiences.

My approach comes out of a tradition that approaches social problems by asking epistemological questions and analyzes issues through the lens of critical theory. No one needs a degree in philosophy to use these tools—they are everyday skills. Whenever you ask someone where they got a certain idea from, you are asking an epistemological question. What is the source of the information? Is it from the news, their family or the Bible? How firmly do they hold it? Is it an opinion, a belief or, perhaps, “the truth”?

As you listen, and this is key, you will learn whether you can have a real conversation. Of course, you must be willing to be similarly transparent, and we must each ask ourselves the same questions. Where do my ideas and beliefs come from? Are they tentative frameworks for making sense of the world, or are they my version of the “truth”?

When you look at social problems through the lens of critical theory you are also asking questions about beliefs. A basic question must be: “Are the people benefitting from this situation, or is some power holder making out like a bandit?” This is the beginning of strategic issue analysis, and it too must include close scrutiny of the stories that substantiate the walls of political belief systems. Our approach brings new insights to the analysis of issues in a social, political and cultural environment that is clearly more complex and fragmented than ever before.

In Lakey’s review of Smucker’s book, he suggests that we have, perhaps, not been bold enough in promoting movement values as the new standard worldview. I suggest that we need to engage in an ongoing conversation about values because we live in a world that has significantly changed since the 1960s, when many of these commitments were first framed as “universal values.”

We hope “Still Doing Democracy!” will promote these conversations by helping engaged citizens develop an appreciation of different, disparate, competing or conflicting beliefs and learn how to overcome the barriers they create. We need to add these tools to our list of strategies at every stage and as skills to develop in whatever role we are playing. We must not build new walls. Instead, we should be echoing an earlier call, “Tear this wall down.”

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5 July 2017. Sustaining peace

Half of all peace deals fail within five years. This is how you make them work.

President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos gives ex-U.S. President Barack Obama a copy of the Colombian peace agreement, September 21, 2016. Credit: Flickr/Agencia de Noticias Andes. Some rights reserved.

Violent conflict is on the rise. According to the Global Peace Index 2017 published last month, the last decade has seen the highest decline in world peace since the Cold War. The World Bank has also noted that two billion people live in ‘fragile states.’ That’s more than a fifth of the world’s population.

By contrast, only one comprehensive, major peace agreement was signed in 2016, between the Colombian government and FARC rebels. This was an inspiring example of diplomacy, compromise and determination in action, but less than a year later, some commentators are already casting doubt on whether the deal has sufficient support in Colombia to survive.

Sadly, history shows that half of all peace agreements collapse very quickly, roughly within five years of signing. Why is this, and how can countries like Colombia avoid the same fate?

The problem with many peace deals is that they seldom if ever address the underlying causes of the conflict. In reality, every peace agreement is no more than a ceasefire, designed to stop the fighting for now. Important though such agreements are, what really matters is what happens afterwards.

After a lid has been put on the fighting, peace needs to be carefully nurtured and encouraged to evolve in subsequent years to deal with the issues that caused the conflict in the first place—such  as inequality, poverty and historical grievances—and  slowly building trust between the different sides. But the mechanisms and support required to do this are often lacking, especially on the most sensitive and hardest issues—the ‘higher hanging fruit.’

Peace deals also often result from external pressures rather than from a genuine coming together of opponents whose own analysis tells them that now is the time to seek a non-military solution. Such externally brokered peace deals can be particularly tenuous.

A big risk to peace also comes from third-party ‘spoilers’—leaders or parties who feel that the emerging peace threatens their interests or excludes them. Meanwhile, geopolitical factors such as changes in policy by major players like the USA can shift the circumstances and render the agreement no longer valid.

Current discussions around whether the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement will be undermined by Brexit or the recent UK general election is one example of how susceptible peace can be to apparently unconnected events. The peace that was brought by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is now widely accepted, but as the Irish scholar Eunan O’Halpin has said, there are still unresolved tensions and bitterness.

This is why peace deals must, first and foremost, be won and sustained locally.

Among countries where agreements did not hold is South Sudan, where dissatisfaction among elites over access to political and economic power led to the resurgence of rivalries and violence soon after the country’s independence in 2011.

And in Rwanda, spoilers played a part when some Hutu leaders rejected the Arusha Peace Accords in 1994, less than two years after signing, fearing that returning Tutsi rebels would have too much power, and contributing to the genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of people in less than three months.

In all of these cases, the peace agreement did not resolve the underlying political and economic grievances that pre-dated it, resulting in renewed violence. What could have been done differently? Agreements that have stood the test of time thus far include South Africa’s National Peace Accord (NPA) of 1991, which supported the peaceful transition from apartheid rule and brought an end to the long-term conflict between the ANC and the state.

While not perfect, this process created structures that helped to contain violence, address injustices and create mechanisms for peace, including local conflict monitoring and mediation. This was partly achieved by establishing local and regional peace committees, which brought together religious and political leaders, business people, security forces, and others. And, while encouraged by outsiders, the accord was the result of political calculations made by the South African parties themselves.

Stronger peace deals like this one are developed over a period of years. They are hard to achieve, and usually have mechanisms built in to monitor the peace by interested international parties, helping to ensure that the process delivers real peace dividends and continues to evolve.

Examples include Nepal, which last year celebrated a decade since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. It has taken a long time and much discussion to deliver key elements of this agreement, particularly the much disputed new constitution that sets out a new, federal state. Much remains to be done, but so far the fact that the process has not been rushed is probably an advantage.

Or take Lebanon, where the Taif Agreement ending the long-lasting sectarian conflict was signed in 1989 and has held ever since. A crucial element in this case was the inclusion of a mechanism to ensure that all sectarian groups are represented in governance—essentially reserving parliamentary seats and ministerial positions for particular groups.

Nevertheless, no peace agreement is foolproof, and the Lebanese and Nepalese still have to manage their peace every day. In Nepal, the complex new constitution is yet to be fully implemented. And in Lebanon, the political system will no doubt need to evolve to be able to deal with new tensions and realities such as changes in demography and regional conflict dynamics—for example, the refugee crisis emerging from the war in neighbouring Syria, which is putting pressures on the Lebanese population and public services.

The contexts vary, but the need to continue the work of peacebuilding after a deal is signed is universal.

In Colombia today, the challenge is to ensure that every party fulfils their commitments and that all Colombians see advantages in the peace process, and get behind it. For a peace deal to last, it must be achieved and maintained by people right across society. These efforts must continue long after the ink on a peace agreement has dried.

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3 July 2017. Can there be a progressive patriotism?

The left must find a way to incorporate love of country into a new political vision.   

Credit: By Alex Thomson from Seattle, United States of America (Patriotism), CC BY- SA 2.0 or CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Although many people have criticised blind devotion to a country or a nation, few have done so as sharply as Bob Dylan. “When God’s on your side,” he observed, “you don’t count the dead” and “you never ask questions.”

In Dylan’s critique, the annihilation of Native Americans becomes a footnote from “when the country was young;” the dropping of nuclear bombs is accepted through necessity (“If fire them we’re forced to/Then fire them we must”); and all you remember from the conquest of other countries are “the names of the heroes/I’s made to memorise.”

Whatever the slogan—‘American exceptionalism,’ ‘Rule Britannia,’ or ‘it is sweet and right to die for one’s country’—the essence is the same. Patriotism is “a conviction,” in George Bernard Shaw’s words, that “a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it.” Shaw’s definition places the concept firmly in the category of the irrational, tribal, or even barbarous. From this perspective, love of one’s country comes at the expense, not only of love for other countries, but also of individual reason, critical thinking, class solidarity and a sense of common humanity.

Rosa Luxemburg saw patriotism as part of the “bestial chorus of imperialist war-mongers” and “the shrill cry of capitalist hyenas;” Bertrand Russell bristled at its teaching in schools as “the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons;” and Frantz Fanon powerfully articulated how “national consciousness” could be turned into a “cruel and fragile travesty” by a self-serving “national middle class.”

Recent history seems to support this view. Why else would a resident of New York City create an “Order of the Star Spangled Banner” to defend the ‘homeland’ from foreigners? How could any US president celebrate the nation’s “pride” days after incinerating retreating soldiers in the desert?

It is hard to argue with the sense that—expressed in these terms—patriotism is irrational, but is it inherently regressive? Intense attachment to the concept of a ‘nation’ has always had the potential to frustrate social and economic progress. However, patriotism is not only a widespread and unavoidable political force; its unique combination of myth, history and emotion can also be central to the task of building a progressive vision that appeals to both our reason and our passions. Shaping this vision requires a fresh and critical assessment of our past in ways that speak to current struggles against racial injustice, inequality and militarism.

Although concrete, material interests cut across borders, they are rarely acted on as fiercely as perceived ‘national’ interests. As George Orwell observed, the British working class “watched their comrades in Spain slowly strangled” from 1936 to 1939, “and never aided them by even a single strike.” But when “Anthony Eden appealed over the radio for Local Defence Volunteers” in preparation for a possible German invasion in 1940, “he got a quarter of a million men in the first twenty-four hours.” Allegiance to the flag made working men and women leap to the defence of a country run by and for their class enemies.

A more common contemporary puzzle—particularly for political pundits—is the tendency of low-income people to seemingly ignore their economic interests and vote instead for abstract commitments to defending or strengthening their country. Whether it’s  a vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which has called for privatising the National Health Service and reducing corporation tax, or a Republican Party offering up tax cuts for the rich and the de-funding of public services, the response is often: ‘How can people be that stupid?’ It’s like ‘turkeys voting for Christmas,’ or even “Voters are making a mess of democracy.”

Yet the basic fact is that all of us frequently act on emotion, impulse and gut instincts as much as rational calculation. Put another way, “Human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working hours, hygiene, birth control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.”    

This puts progressive thinking in a difficult position, wedged between deeply material commitments and the need to answer highly emotive questions: how will we defend our country’s way of life? What does it mean to be ‘British’ or ‘American?’ What symbols and stories define our national culture?

It’s a dilemma that can be navigated relatively well in countries like Britain (at least in theory), where the National Health Service consistently tops polls that ask people “what makes them proud to be British.”

In the United States, however, the situation is more complicated. Even the relatively modest health care reforms and public spending increases of the Obama Administration led to accusations of “a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world.” Much of the traditional progressive programme—including wealth redistribution, labour regulations, public ownership and industrial policy—is essentially seen as foreign. This perception is further fuelled when the leading torch-bearer of the U.S. progressive movement, Bernie Sanders, looks to small Scandinavian countries as models of his “democratic socialism.”

The need to take ideas from other countries to cure America’s problems is also the central theme of Michael Moore’s 2016 documentary Where to Invade Next?—decent school meals from France, free university tuition from Slovenia, generous holiday pay from Italy, health-care from Britain, and criminal justice reform from Norway. Instead of invading foreign lands, Moore suggests, America should learn from them.

This is, of course, sensible enough, particularly given how badly the U.S. compares on social measures with, say, Denmark or Germany. But the average American can be forgiven for thinking that even if European-style social policies look better than a capitalist jungle, they are still, at root, alien to their country.

And yet, as James Baldwin pointed out, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it”—and popular struggle is central to this story. At its core  is the conviction that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” based not on love  of government or army, but of the American “roughness and spirit of defiance” praised by Walt Whitman. This tradition stands in sharp opposition to ideas which trace the nation’s achievements to enlightened—and even divinely inspired—“Founding  Fathers.”

Instead, it acknowledges that rights and liberties are “the inheritance of a long history of struggles: by abolitionists for the ability to hold meetings and publish their views in the face of mob violence; by labour leaders for the power to organize unions, picket and distribute literature without fear of arrest; by feminists for the right to disseminate birth-control information without being charged with violating the obscenity laws; and by all those who braved jail and worse to challenge entrenched systems of racial inequality.”

Alongside these struggles there has been an underlying opposition to entrenched privilege— a sharp contrast to a country like Britain. From Tom Paine’s denunciation of “oppression,” “avarice,” “kings” and “subjects,” to Fanny Wright’s attacks on the “corruption” and “degradation” of “hereditary nobility,” this radical sentiment is far from marginal in American history. Instead, anti-elitism is central to the political culture of a nation shaped so much by millions of immigrants shunned by their homelands.

Emma Lazarus’s words on the Statue of Liberty capture this feeling eloquently—“keep ancient lands your storied pomp”—and  their author stands in a long line of immigrants who have built the modern progressive movement in the USA. Of course, as with any country’s founding stories, this is more an article of faith than objective fact. While the U. S. is indeed a country where men have gone from back country log cabins to Pennsylvania Avenue, it has also given root to an aristocracy of its own, as exemplified in the mansions of Scott Fitzgerald’s West Egg, the robber barons of the gilded age, or the Bushes and the Clintons.

However, at least as an aspiration, the idea of a new nation uniquely opposed to pomp and privilege has persisted. Take, for example, the language of A. Philip Randolph’s Freedom Budget, emphatically described by its architect as a “feasible”, “concrete” and “specific” plan to revolutionise “the workings of our economy [that] so often pit the white poor and the black poor against each other at the bottom of society.” “The ‘Freedom Budget,’” Randolph wrote in October 1966, “is not a call for a handout,” but “a challenge to the best traditions and possibilities of America; a call to those who have grown weary of slogans and gestures to rededicate themselves to the cause of social reconstruction.”  

The language of American “freedom”—now  so often associated with the rants of right-wing radio hosts and seen by many progressives as a delusion—was  also famously used in Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, where he expanded well beyond the “negative freedom” of the original Constitution to embrace freedom from want and basic economic protection.  

There’s always a temptation to say that “we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway and learn what they have accomplished for their working people.” But, as the historian Eric Foner wrote in a 2015 letter to Bernie Sanders, “the rich heritage of American radicalism” is a powerful resource that could be placed at the core of a future progressive vision. The challenge is to present both calculated common sense and an appeal to an often irrational love of ‘the nation’ as part of one, coherent and compelling story.

As Orwell put it during World War II, “Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again.” Progressives cannot transcend the reality of emotive, patriotic politics, but they can—and must—redefine it. 

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30 June 2017. The right way to be left

Breaking up is easy, but sticking together?  That's the real test of one's ideals. 

Street art on the frontage of the Köpi in Berlin.  Credit: A. E. Elliott. All rights reserved.

There is good reason for people on the left to have divisiveness on their minds. In the news and on social media, the leftists that are shown most often are those that are ranting and raging at each other, calling each other out over this badly-phrased thought or that impulsive tweet, or exposing one another as less liberal or tolerant than their comrades. We're also regularly force fed images of 'activists' who are dressed identically in black, attacking cops who themselves seem to be dressed for a round on Robot Wars.

There’s a common theme underlying both kinds of coverage: in it, we only ever see the left wing in a state of conformism, a state of attack against whatever doesn't fit neatly into its narrow parameters of 'ideal.’ At a subconscious level, this preconditions us to view activism as a rejection, rather than an affirmation of certain ideals. As a result, fear, not hope, becomes the public's only motivation for living up to the left's demands. 

Perhaps this unbalanced view of left-wing activism is the only one that the media is capable of giving us. The media is a mirror which reflects what it knows how to see, and conformist executives who live in fear of being rejected by their peers will tend to identify with activists who behave in the same way. So the kinds of left-wingers who are depicted in the media are necessarily a reflection of the media industry's own biases.

Unfortunately, these same biases can also be found in Berlin's left wing scene where I live and work.  

Instead of fighting back against the prevailing status quo, many activists here seem happy to mirror its habit of excluding or rejecting anyone who doesn't fit into their ideal of what defines an ‘ethical’ person. Even looks are grounds for exclusion, it seems: I recently heard about a queer collective in Berlin that is refusing to admit anyone who wears dreadlocks or ear plugs, on the grounds that such styles amount to ‘cultural appropriation.’

Leaving aside the question of which culture can claim to be the true originator of dreads or plugs, is this a practical model of how the left can achieve meaningful social change? Or is it another case of leftists slotting their ideals into a pre-existing social construct and limiting their efforts to negation, because that's what the superficial mainstream tells them to do?

A few years ago when I was organizing my first Berlin party with some people from the London free party scene, I took them to the Köpi, a local underground venue, to ask the collective there if we could rent their cellar. When a punked-out resident of the Köpi eventually appeared in the doorway (covered from head to toe in band names, political slogans, tattoos and pins), we told him that we were interested in renting the cellar for a party. “We don’t do commercial parties here, sorry,” he snapped, and a few seconds later he was shutting the door in our faces. 

We barely had time to sputter out a whole sentence, let alone describe what kind of party we were planning to organize. Both the DJs and the crowd that we represented are firmly rooted in the UK squatting/direct action community, and would have been a perfect fit for the ideals of the Köpi. But apparently all that mattered was that they weren't a perfect fit for its look.  

And hey: why listen to a stranger for long enough to recognize that you might have something in common beyond the superficial details? Who has time for that these days, when we're all too busy fighting the capitalist system? Ironically, the fastest way out of that system might be to stop treating other people like an afterthought... or an inconvenience... or a threat... to the aims of the left. That's something that any one of us can do at any time if we really want to throw a spanner in the works. 

Similar scenarios have played out at many of the political events and meetings that I've attended. People refuse to speak to the obvious stranger in the group, even as they bang on about inclusivity and breaking down barriers of gender, race and sexuality. The inclusivity mantra itself has become another reason to reject anyone who hasn't read, memorized and recited it in the right way.

Maybe I've just been unlucky, but many of the activists I've encountered in Berlin seem like they're only interested in preaching to the converted—in being reassured that they are right instead of taking on the kinds of risks that are traditionally associated with the left. 

The corporate world, meanwhile, succeeds because it has learned our truest lessons. Even as it sends out divisive messages to the public, it understands that solidarity is the fastest route to success. It prioritizes togetherness and mutual support in the face of all criticisms, no matter how valid they may be.  And, okay, it also takes that support to obscene levels by overlooking sexual harassment, for example, or criminality within its ranks.

But in every situation, the corporate world's first impulse in the face of adversity is to support its peers. Perhaps the left would get as far as McDonalds in its bid to change the face of the planet if it would adopt (or rather, reclaim) that same approach.

The reaction we received at the Köpi and other stories like it make me want to put my head in my hands.  In my own activist lifespan I’ve witnessed materialist anarchists bashing pagan anarchists; first-wave feminists being trashed by third-wave feminists; queers trashing trans people; and vegans getting trashed by vegetarians. For a while, all this griping and sniping nearly put me off politics altogether.

Eventually I realized that, for many people, rejection is the first step on a long road that leads to transformation. But while recognizing that something is ‘bad’ is a necessary first step, dealing with it is the essential second step towards enacting those radical changes. Rejection and avoidance are just ways of postponing that second step from ever happening.

After all, it takes a whole of society to create a biased or consumerist (or whatever) person. And by logical extension it takes a whole society to transform them too. Shutting out individuals who are less enlightened—or enlightened in a different way—is passing the buck for society's problems onto them and them alone, instead of dealing with them as a collective. I can hardly think of a worse way to express ‘solidarity.’ 

In an age where people socialize alone, through the medium of a computer screen, the habit of un-friending and blocking people with whom one disagrees has become an almost unthinking first resort for dealing with disagreement. But these tools of rejection are just another corporate product that the likes of Facebook have forced upon us to further isolate us from our communities. And each time we employ them, we further those corporate aims rather than the autonomous ones we seek to create in the left. The prospect of true unity—which takes enormous effort—grows dimmer.

So what's the solution? Well, perhaps Berlin's left scene could try organizing meetings where the only goal is to meet new people and share everyday experiences and back-stories, without judgment. Safe and non-defensive spaces for leftists to meet and mingle have been in short supply as far back as I can remember. But activists are people too, and they need the same freedom to explore, enjoy and even (gasp) make mistakes without the judgments that many people leap to. Currently, capitalism has the market cornered on all those kinds of mindless and fun activities. 

Activists still need the kind of spaces where they can just be together; where the ever-present pressure to be the ‘best leftist’ or the ‘most egalitarian campaigner’ no longer exists. We need places where we can create a more balanced scene by being a more balanced person, a person who is allowed to have strengths and weaknesses and ups and downs. And we need the space to experiment too, instead of expecting to hammer out the perfect rhetoric and then go about fixing the world without any doubts or hesitations.

Rhetoric has a dangerous tendency to narrow the world down to black and white, when it's mostly made up of grey areas. With less rhetoric and fewer judgments we could see each other as people—as works in progress rather than simply symbols of a cause. Eventually, you run out of things to stop, reject and be against, and after that, you’re left with whatever you are, and the strange, discomfiting fact that this is all you will ever have to work with. And that's when the real work starts to happen. 

Breaking up is easy, but sticking together?  That's the real test of one's ideals.

A longer version of this article was published on Fleeting Reams.

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28 June 2017. Utopia in Sheffield? We have to start somewhere.

“What makes us move is tasting dreams of what could be, stepping into the cracks where another world is coming into view.”

Credit: Flickr/Lucas Theis. Public Domain.

We need utopian thinking.

If this claim had been made 25 years ago, people would have said I was mad. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the idea that utopia equals totalitarianism gained widespread acceptance, and utopianism was regarded as a form of totalising thinking destined to end in terror. Margaret Thatcher famously declared that “There is no alternative” to the neoliberal project, and Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “End of History.”

One of Fukuyama’s key assertions was that “we cannot picture to ourselves a world that is essentially different from the present one, and at the same time better.” His basic claim was that the time for utopian projects, and even the possibility of utopian thinking, was over. But this strikes me as nonsense. Why can’t we picture and construct a world transformed?

Myself and Max Munday are organizing a series of workshops to begin the difficult task of constructing a shared utopian vision with activists, campaigners, artists and others working for social change. The first worskhop – organised as part of Sheffield’s “Festival of Debate” – provided an opportunity to share experiences, explore political and ethical motivations, and identify aspects of existing practices that point towards a better way of being. 

This might seem a bit pompous or grandiose, but as we put it in our publicity blurb, “We Have to Start Somewhere. I’m well aware of all the criticisms that have been leveled at utopian thinking: there’s the fear that utopianism ignores or negates human plurality and difference; that it quashes individual freedom; that it draws up blueprints of a world in which everything and everyone is uniform and regulated; and that utopia can only be realised through suppression and coercion.

There are also concerns that attempts to realise utopian visions will always fail amidst myriad unintended consequences; that utopias are the wish-fulfillment fantasies of individuals oblivious to the dynamics of class struggle; that utopianism is an elitist project that denies the possibility of workers constructing and determining their own future; and that ultimately, utopianism is a complete irrelevance—those who construct the future won’t give a damn about the pictures we paint today.

However, none of these criticisms strike me as convincing.

Firstly, the idea that utopias quash freedom and suppress difference is based on a misreading—and sometimes a deliberate misrepresentation—of the utopian genre. While there are plenty of utopian visions that are terrifying and about which we should be fearful, the history of utopian ideas is rich and varied, and there are plenty of other interpretations from Charles Fourier to William Morris to Ursula Le Guin that celebrate freedom and difference.

Secondly, although more emphasis has been placed on the diversity of interests and identities than on commonality over the last 30 years of political thinking and action, it’s important to ask whether difference inevitably leads to fragmentation, whether diversity is incompatible with solidarity, and whether plurality precludes the possibility of a shared vision. I think it’s important to stress that visions of the good can accommodate difference. In seeking to picture and construct a world transformed, what happens if we take as our starting point the possibility of shared interests?

Thirdly, it’s certainly true that utopian ideas have often been the fantasies of individuals. Utopian thinking has largely been the preserve of the privileged, and utopianism could be described as a bourgeois genre of writing. But what if we embarked on a collective endeavour to imagine and construct grassroots utopias?

This is especially important because a lot of what we currently do in our work, our groups, and our campaigns, is reactive and defensive. We respond to forces that often seem beyond our control; we defend hard-won ground against the encroachment of austerity; and we devote a lot of time to criticising and resisting.

Political action is often localised, organized around preventing further cuts, further privatisations, and further dehumanisation. It often feels like we are defending ourselves against an onslaught, and this is necessary, important work. We do have to defend and resist.

At the same time, our practices are grounded in ethics, principles, desires, convictions and dreams, and wherever possible we try to ensure that our actions are consistent with those ethics and convictions; we try to prefigure the world we’d like to inhabit in what we do today and how we do it. So the germs of utopian visions are always there, present in many of our everyday practices.

However, the drive for a world transformed often gets lost amidst the pressures of daily life. With so much to defend and resist, there is seldom if ever the time or space to think and act beyond the level of short-term, local resistance. Another world is possible, but everyday life means it remains forever deferred. We never seem to have the resources or opportunities to turn our dreams into reality.

Against that background, utopian visions can do various things: they can inspire, mobilise, and give direction to a struggle. They can provide a critical viewpoint from which the inadequacies of the present become more starkly visible. They call into question the existing order of things and render the present mutable and open to change. They liberate the imagination and make it clear that alternatives can be thought of and fought for. They make us feel uncomfortable—angry even—with the way things are, and they lead us to question whether things really have to be this way.

They provide a goal and a spur to action and act as a catalyst for change in a way that social criticism on its own cannot. As William Morris once said, “these dreams for the future make many a man a socialist whom sober reason deduced from science and political economy would not move at all.” Or as the “Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination” puts it:

“More information is not going to motivate us to act,

neither are representations or pictures of politics,

what makes us move is tasting dreams of what could be,

stepping into the cracks where another world is coming into view.”

Crucially, the very process of working together to construct utopian visions can have transformative effects. Through exploring and reflecting on our ethics, motivations, desires and dreams, we get to know them better. Through sharing with others we can learn, refine, develop and enhance the principles that drive us, and we can gain a clearer picture of how they can guide our daily practices.

It’s not just the end result—a shared utopia—that is useful and important; it’s the journey too, the process of utopian construction as a collaborative endeavour. By working together to build a different world slowly and carefully, we might come to understand this endeavour as something like a shared, reciprocal, respectful, and iterative process of collective learning—a form of utopia in itself.

Can we build a grass-roots utopia? Can we identify shared principles, motivations, aims, practices, ethics and goals? Can we identify in our daily lives thwarted desires, suppressed longings, and untapped possibilities, and can we ask what society would look like if these things were realised?

Can we work together to develop a shared vision of the kind of society we’d like to create? And can we then use this vision—this alternative way of living and being—to help mobilise and drive forward our collective struggles for radical change?

I think we can, and I want to try.

Over the past few years, and especially since the economic crisis of 2008, utopia has started to come back in from the cold. More people are beginning to recognise the need for alternative visions. The articles appearing on these pages are testimony to this fact.

2016 was the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, which saw a flurry of celebrations and events. This year is the centenary of the Russian Revolution. People are starting to write books about communism again. Utopia as a radical project is slowly being rehabilitated. Let’s work together to make utopia our home.

 

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26 June 2017. The subversive power of joy

The unexpected, spontaneous and pleasantly disruptive nature of collective celebration is one of the great equalisers of social and political struggle.

Credit: Sisters Uncut/Jade Jackman. All rights reserved.

When you hear the words ‘anti fascist rally,’ what do you visualize? An angry crowd with placards, old hippies holding banners with clichés about love, or maybe those rowdy anarchists in black balaclavas?

What about young women and non-binary people gleefully dancing to grime music that’s blasting out of portable speakers? Well, that’s precisely what a recent anti-fascist rally in south London looked like. It’s a perfect example of how collective joy can become powerfully subversive.

When the far-right “pro-British” South East Alliance came to Croydon in south London to hold an “anti-immigrant, anti-Islam” rally, they were interrupted with an unexpected weapon: joy. A big crowd of young activists, predominantly from direct action groups like Sisters Uncut and Black Lives Matter UK, danced joyfully right in front of them, guarded by a line of police. It might seem like an unexpected tactic, but logically it makes perfect sense, both to the individuals involved and to the political goals of these groups.

Where fascism aims to instill fear, joy is the perfect resistance. To laugh in the face of fear is possibly the bravest act, which is why Saffiyah Khan became an instant hero in the UK when she smiled at fascist thugs from the far-right, racist movement English Defence League—who began harassing Muslim women in her hometown. Two core tenets of fascism are fierce racism and rampant sexism, and with that in mind, anti-fascist resistance doesn’t get more powerful than women and non-binary people of colour collectively, loudly and happily dancing together in the streets.

Dance as protest.

Dance as protest is not unique to Croydon. In April, LGBTQ activists in the USA held a “queer dance party” outside Vice President Mike Pence’s home to protest his homophobic policy positions. The global One Billion Rising movement, which aims to end violence against women, is centred on women dancing together on the same day in countries throughout the world. Sisters Uncut are renowned for collective dancing at their demonstrations against cuts to domestic violence services proposed or enacted by the UK government.

Their spontaneous, collective dancing  is described by activist Sur Este as “a fuck you to the powers that be.” She says that dance is both a way to reclaim public space and a way to let go: “When I dance surrounded by cops, or fascists, or when I am trying to make a point about something horrible that is happening, I feel powerful...We are still here and we are still dancing.”

Naatasha Mumbi, who also attended the Croydon protest, recalls the inspirational student protests that took place in South Africa in 2016 as part of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement:

“The front lines were bringing full-on coordinated dance moves, and what a disarming and radical act it was in the face of state violence. It made my heart pound. Facing up to fascists with the full force of bangin’ grime beats, and putting our bodies on the line together in rhythm, is how I channeled what I saw from South African protests.”

Liberation movements have a long history of communal dance. The writer Barbara Ehrenreich has documented the history of collective joy in her book “Dancing In The Streets.”  She argues that collective and ecstatic dancing is a nearly universal “biotechnology” for binding groups together. Physical movement—a powerful escalation of typical protest chanting—not only releases emotion, it also creates bonding, trust and equality, dissolving hierarchy and increasing a sense of community.

What’s more, it’s actually essential to our survival. Our species, homo sapiens, has outlived all other human species because of our ability to co-ordinate with others in groups. Historically, groups who could hold themselves together through dance and other methods would have enjoyed an advantage over more weakly-bonded groups.

In his book “The Righteous Mind,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the innate craving that people have to belong to a greater whole; to “transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves.” Haidt calls the ability to do this the “hive switch,” which makes groups more cohesive and more successful in relation to others.

This switch can be activated at football matches and raves, through the use of hallucinogens like LSD, and even in choral singing or military drills. It has its roots in biology, since all of these activities release the “hug hormone” oxytocin which promotes social bonding. On an undeniably physical level, collective dancing has the power to generate a deep sense of elation, but at what point does collective joy become subversive?

When pleasure becomes subversion.

Within the context of capitalism, collective joy through dancing and other forms of expression is already subversive. Back in 1905, the German sociologist Max Weber warned of an “unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual” that accompanied the “spirit” of modern capitalism. In a capitalist society founded on competition, privatisation and small family units, collective joy—as opposed to individual happiness—signals both personal resilience and political rebellion. The very act of relishing in a shared connection is a triumph in a society that seeks to divide us.

The subversive power of collective joy is maximised when it occurs in public, politicised spaces as an affirmation of collective identity. Joy can score cultural and political goals in the name of liberation because it simultaneously serves an individual and a broader, political purpose. Many group activities are carried out in the pursuit of hedonist escapism, or in order to forget ourselves. However, when collective joy erupts in pursuit of defiantly reinforcing your very existence—especially in the face of those who seek to erase you—it  has the power to subvert authority and release suppressed rage whilst connecting us to each other, and reinforcing a sense of group safety.

There’s no better example of this process in action than Dabke dancing. Dabke is the traditional folkloric dance of Palestine, supposedly originating as a fertility rite where people stamped their feet on the ground. It is most commonly danced at wedding celebrations, but it can also be found in flash mobs on the streets of Gaza, as well as in BDS protests in New York.

Saeed Suliman, a Dabke teacher from the West Bank, told me that Dabke dancing is an “important weapon in the cultural resistance of Palestinians.” He continued:

“After the Zionists stole our land and named it Israel, our national identity was no longer recognised. We only had Palestinian culture to identify ourselves by, and Dabke dancing shows our roots to the land that has been stolen from us. Dabke is a way to fight against our extermination by reinforcing our identity, energy and pride as a people.”

Our next steps.

Right now we face a hostile world order that’s rapidly shifting to the right. The UK and the USA, supposedly bastions of democracy, both have leaders who ran for election with pledges to remove human rights and build walls; and who aggressively scapegoat migrants and valorize the military. Bearing in mind the 14 characteristics of fascism established by political scientist Lawrence Britt, these measures signal that there are even bigger battles to come.

But the fight-back need not be joyless. Holding onto and centring joy is a vital tactic for personal and group resilience, as well as political resistance to an agenda that seeks to enforce hierarchy and division through mass fear. Authoritarianism is directly incompatible with collective joy; it demands fear, obedience, hierarchy and an obsession with security and preparation for war. The unexpected, spontaneous and pleasantly disruptive nature of collective joy takes people off guard and is one of the great equalisers of social and political struggle.

“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution” as Emma Goldman, the Russian feminist anarchist, once famously said. We’d do well to take her words literally. Movement builds movements.

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23 June 2017. After the fight: a skinhead’s journey towards nonviolence

How one man moved from gang culture to permaculture.

Credit: Jeff Clark for the Bureau of Land Management, via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I was 18, had just enlisted in the Navy and was stationed in Virginia Beach, Virginia for two years of shore duty when I met him. He was a half-Samoan, half-Caucasian man in his late 20’s. His face tattoos and steel-toed boots added to his intimidating presence, one built on physical power. I’ll never forget him: He was the man who introduced me to the skinhead lifestyle.

We were an anti-racist crew loosely associated with the S.H.A.R.P. Skins ("skinheads against racial prejudice"). The first night that I was invited to a “house party,” that same man blindside tackled me, put me in a headlock and wrestled me out the door, where we beat each other until nothing made sense. It ended with him picking my head up off the sidewalk, kissing me on the forehead and saying, “Welcome to the crew brother.” From my perspective, the great lie of crew life is that everyone is your “brother.” So many people come to a crew looking for a family, but it’s just not there.

I wish I had known at that point what it was that was missing or broken inside of me that would have ever attracted me to start associating with that type of lifestyle. Looking back, I had a fear-based program running in my head, from the media and from the myriad of other influences in Western culture that lead us to believe we are separate and in competition with one another. Fear twisted reality so that violence appeared to be the path toward safety — a man walks around with a brick only if he is afraid of being attacked.

The skinhead rhetoric constantly driven into my mind ordered me to be “tougher” than the other guy. According to the script, the only way to protect “our” women was to beat anyone who looked at them wrong on the street. “Keeping our neighborhood safe” meant pummeling people we saw as threats: drug dealers, racist skinheads, able-bodied men who didn’t work or contribute to society but freely took from it, men who just looked tough. We thought we could fight our way to peace.

The blindfold of fear was so thick that I couldn’t see the fallacy of this pseudo-vigilante worldview. While I’m writing this, it is almost impossible for me to connect emotionally to the feelings that were alive inside me then. The fact that I can visit these memories now and not be burdened by them is truly a testament to finding life on the other side of emotional guilt.

My life started changing for the better when I was 20 and had gotten into some trouble with a handgun (I went after a man who had disrespected me). My getting in trouble surprised no one beyond the fact that I had slipped through the cracks for so long without getting caught. Being an active-duty military member, I was charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I wound up spending some time locked down in a psych facility because I had chased the cop who busted me around his car while holding my gun in my mouth and telling him to pull the trigger. After that, I was discharged from service.

Upon my release, I found my way back to my home city of York in Pennsylvannia. York has been a rather tumultuous city ever since the race riots of 1969, and the poison from that time still lingers in the air downtown. While the suburbs are modern and progressive, the inner city is known for violence and major drug problems, because York has become a major hub of the drug trade between New York City and Baltimore, Maryland.

I couldn’t move back with my family, who were completely disgusted with me. I moved to the only neighborhood I could afford, one high in crime and poverty. While it was not an ideal place for healing one’s soul, that is where my healing began. I reached my bottom-out point by living in an abandoned crack house with a few other people who had also made some consequential life choices. It’s true: you start to look up when you hit the bottom.

The people who know me today would have a hard time believing that this is really my story, since I no longer use anger as an excuse to further a negative cycle. Almost daily, anger about this incredibly broken system creeps into my thoughts, but I don’t find these feelings scary any more. When they arise, I view them as a reminder that there is a disconnection in my life that can be corrected. They are the reason I continue working toward a more peaceful future.

Trying to walk a peaceful path in the world can be a daunting venture, and I would be lying if I said it is an easy path to take. Every smile I share has the power to communicate truth, even in the midst of conflict. For me, it takes daily meditation and support from my family and friends to stay balanced and continue to live in truth and love.

I have replaced “gang culture” with permaculture in my life. I’m putting a lot of my energy into collaborating on building a gift-economy space where people will be able to unplug, detox from industrialism and learn about sustainable living and nonviolence. While this community-centered project is a tangible expression of peace work, I still strongly believe that the most powerful contribution I can make is the inner work I do, as peace grows from the inside out.

This article was first published in Nonviolence.

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