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.

26 May 2017. How to culture jam a populist in four easy steps

Our organizing principle should be simple: don’t feed polarization—disarm it.

Supporter of Donald Trump at a rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. Credit: Wikimedia/ Gage Skidmore.

The whole world’s eyes are on Washington today, and not in a good way. As Venezuelans, we’re looking North with more trepidation than most, even though—in fairness—the panic over Trump-as-a-northern-Hugo Chávez is premature. A politician is to be judged by what they do in office, not by what they say before they get there. Beating Chávez’s historic economic demolition of the richest oil country in the world, during the biggest oil bonanza ever—leaving behind an inflation-ridden, bullet-stricken, hungry, ailing country—is quite an ask. But let’s see what happens.

Because in one way, Trump and Chávez are identical: they are masters of Populism.

The recipe is universal. Find a wound common to many, someone to blame for it and a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Cartoon them. As vermin, evil masterminds, flavourless hipsters, you name it. Then paint yourself as the saviour. Capture their imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a good story. One that starts in anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.

That’s how it becomes a movement. There’s something soothing in all that anger. Though full of hatred, it promises redemption. Populism can’t cure your suffering, but it can do something almost as good—better in some ways: it can build a satisfying narrative around it. A fictionalized account of your misery. A promise to make sense of your hurt. It is them. It’s been them all along.

For all those who listen, Populism is built on the irresistible allure of simplicity. The narcotic of the simple answer to an intractable question. The problem is now made simple. The problem is you.

How do I know? Because I grew up as the ‘you’ Trump is about to turn you into. I was cast in the role of the enemy in the political struggle that followed the arrival of Chávez, and watched in frustration year after year as the opposition tried and failed to do anything about the catastrophe unfolding all around. Only later did I realize this failure was, in a significant way, self-inflicted.

And so, some advice:

1. Don’t forget who the enemy is.

Populism can only survive amid polarization. It works through caricature, through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Pro tip: you’re the enemy. Yes, you, with the Starbucks cup. Trump needs you to be the enemy just like all religions need a demon. As a scapegoat. “But facts!” you’ll say, missing the point entirely.

What makes me the enemy, you may ask? In their mind it’s very simple: if you’re not among the victims, you’re among the culprits. In your case, you’re that modern bogeyman called the liberal urbanite hipster who thinks all cultures and religions are valid and equally worthy, who thinks of the working-class disparagingly. You are, in short, ‘a citizen of nowhere’ whose utopia is a massive, world-wide kumbaya with carrot chips, no church, and no soul either.

It’s silly, I know. Especially because you do care. As did I, a teenage CIA agent bent on feeding the serfs at my feudal estate with dog food. However, as long as you don´t recognize the problem is not the message, but the messenger, you will be wasting your time.

Your focus has to be on erasing the cartoon you’ve been drawn into. Scrambling it. Undermining it.

2. Show no contempt.

Your organizing principle is simple: don’t feed polarization, disarm it.

This means leaving the theater of injured decency behind.

The Venezuelan Opposition struggled for years to get this. It wouldn’t stop pontificating about how stupid it all is. Not only to their international friends, but also to the Chavista electoral base itself.

“Really, this guy? Are you nuts? You must be nuts.” We’d say.

The subtext was clear: Look, children—he will destroy the country. He’s blatantly siding with the bad guys: Fidel, Putin, the white supremacists or the guerrillas. Besides, he’s clearly not that smart. He’s threatening to destroy the economy too. He clearly has no respect for democracy. For the intelligentsia. We, who work hard and know how to do business. We, who’ve researched this, thought about this, grasped this. In history, in economics, in diplomacy, in accounting. Now, learn this word. Repeat after me: fascism.

I heard variations on this so many times growing up that my political awakening was set off by the tectonic realization that Chávez, however evil, was not actually a stupid man.

“Don’t listen to them, folks”, says the populist. “Stop letting them think they can school and fool you. The only true fact is that the enemies are few and that they lie. Let’s show them they’re the ones who are wrong. They’re the ones who are stupid. They’re scared! Or, worse, fearing justice! They think only about themselves. Turn off the TV. Listen to me.”

You’ve just lost the first battle. Instead of fighting polarization, you’ve played into it.

In which case, try again, seriously, because by all means…

3. Don’t try to force him out.

Our Opposition tried every single trick in the book. Coup d’etat? Check. Ruinous oil strike? Check. Inviting international intervention? You guessed it. Want to know how they did that last one, by the way? By removing themselves from the ballot in a parliamentary election. Yes, they just handed Chavismo full congressional power as some sort of ‘diplomatic statement.’ Honest to God.

Look, they were desperate. If anything, history has proven they were right to be desperate. If any of those plans had gone well, bear with me for a second, Venezuela wouldn’t be in the shit-show it’s in right now. Lives would have been saved. Many more improved.

But we failed. Because we lost sight that a hissy-fit is not a strategy. The people on the other side, and crucially independents, will rebel against you if you look like you’re losing your mind. Worst of all, you will have proved yourself to be the very thing you’re claiming to be fighting against: an enemy of democracy. And all the while you’re just giving the populist and his followers enough rhetorical fuel to rightly call you a saboteur, an unpatriotic schemer, for years to come.

To a big chunk of the population, the Venezuelan opposition is still that—a spoiled, unpatriotic, schemer. It’s taken many furious years for its politicians to wash away those stains. It sapped the opposition’s effectiveness for the years when we’d need it most.

All non-democratic channels are counter-productive: you lower your message, and give the populist rhetorical fuel.

4. Find a counter-argument (no, not the one you think).

Don’t waste your time trying to prove that this ‘ism’ is better than that one. Ditch all the big words. Why? Because, again, the problem is not the message but the messenger. It’s not that Trump supporters are too stupid to tell right from wrong, it’s that you’re much more valuable to them as an enemy than as a compatriot.

The problem is tribal. Your challenge is to prove that you belong in the same tribe as them: that you are American in exactly the same way they are.

In Venezuela, we fell into the abstraction trap in a bad way. We wrote again and again about principles, about the separation of powers, about civil liberties, about the role of the military in politics, about corruption and economic policy. But it took our leaders ten years to figure out they needed to actually go to the slums and to the countryside. And not for a speech or a rally, but for game of dominoes or to dance salsa—to show that they were Venezuelans too, that they had tumbao and could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show that they were real. And no, this is not populism by other means. It is the only way of establishing your standing. It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press pause on the siren song of polarization.

You will not find that pause button in the cities or the university campuses. You will find it precisely where you’re not expected.

Only then will your message land.

There’s no point sugar coating: the road ahead is tough and the pitfalls are many. It’s way easier to get this wrong than to get it right, and the chances are that the people getting it wrong will drown out those getting it right.

But if you want to be part of the solution, the road ahead is clear: Recognize you’re the enemy they need; show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those that brought Trump to power; by all means be patient with democracy and struggle relentlessly to free yourself from the shackles of the caricature the populists have drawn of you.

It’s a tall order. But the alternative is worse. Believe me, I know: I’m from Venezuela.

This article was first published in Caracas Chronicles.

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24 May 2017. We protest by creating beauty

Meet the artists and activists writing love letters on the streets.

Credit: all images painted or photographed by Shilo Shiv Suleman and the Fearless Collective. Some rights reserved.

My love,

It was four years ago that I started spilling onto the streets. There were thousands of us there. Our fists were clenched but our eyes were full of water. We came with all our heavy sorrows but backbones pulled up straight. I had the scar of a man who touched me on my hipbone. My mother showed me a scar she had been carrying for over 40 years. This night, for the first time, she slowly un-wrapped it and took it with her to the streets.

Here, at these protests following the gang-rape of a 21 year old girl in New Delhi in 2012, people came with candles and banners, but they also came with invisible things like fear that sometimes caused them to buckle.

Fists clenched, banners alight: “Hang the rapist”.

Girls whispering: “It could have been me. It could have been me. It could have been me” (well, it was you. It is always you).

People saying: “dark daughters, don’t go out at night, don’t attract attention to yourself, don’t take a taxi home, don’t breathe too heavy, don’t smile at strangers, don’t show too much skin, don’t look too meek. It could have been you. It could have been you. It could have been you.”

Others saying: “Break the silence.”

Does breaking the silence always have to look like shattered glass? Can’t we have another metaphor instead—to fill the silence, spill into silence, reclaim silence and transform it?

I wanted to fill this silence by writing a letter to all the men, to all the women I knew, to all those voices on the street. What is it about making injuries public that quickens their healing? When I had my first physical injury (a fractured rib), people gathered around me, helping me to make my way through elevators, train stations and months of recovery. What if I had kept it to myself? What is it about emotional injuries that make us feel as though we need to heal from them alone?

I wanted to fill this silence by writing a letter, but back then I wrote with pictures, so I made a poster instead.

It was an image of a woman with her arms crossed over her chest, the word “fearless” scrawled at the bottom. Soon there were hundreds of these posters online, these letters, from communities and protestors and new friends near and far. And then we went back onto the streets, this time with painted hands and ladders. We painted by the bank of the river in Varanasi, in the slums of Dharavi,  and with women. We opened our stories through rituals. We took pictures of each other and projected them onto walls. We gathered our skirts, our secrets and we spilled open. And as we painted, we started to hear other voices on the streets.

One of them insisted: “this should be a boy riding the bike.”

The voice came from a young man of no more than 20 years watching us from the curb. Women clad in shawls stood high on the scaffolding that we had placed against the wall to paint—an unusual sight for where we were standing (a car service station in Rawalpindi, Pakistan); an even more unusual one in his own mind.

We were painting a transgender person riding a motorcycle, exhaling flowers. The image was a story—a true story. In a world molded into binaries we wanted to carve out space for something different—something transgender, or just a woman or anyone who stands in resistance to these categories. In Pakistan, there were certainly no images like this. The person in the image lived down the road from the car-service station. Most of the people in that neighborhood had never visited their house. They had been neighbours for almost 16 years. Sixteen years is a long time never to be seen as your true self.

Another voice in another place:  “Assad is our hero.”

It was an older woman watching carefully from the window of her second-floor apartment in Bourj Hammoud in Lebanon, seemingly amused by the potluck of people carrying their languages and colours across the large five-story scaffolding where we were painting. We were in a cozy corner of a primarily Syrian-Armenian neighbourhood.

We were painting a story there too. In fact we were folding many stories into one. In a world constantly in movement, does it matter if our point of departure is war, homophobia, economic opportunities or love?  Home is what we all seek, and eventually, should find. The image we created was partly a story of an adolescent boy born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, now struggling to make a home in Lebanon. Assad was not his hero.

These stories are separated by many months and many miles, but they are tied together by the underlying fears that formed the opinions of everyone involved.

The fact that for 16 years a transgender person living in a neighborhood in Rawalpindi is still considered an outsider, or that a woman in Beirut felt threatened by an adolescent boy who didn’t share her ideals, are not just differences of opinion. They are fears that leave long trails; that become emotional injuries; that get inherited and become generational; forming cultures, politics, and eventually systems of oppression.

How do we protest a system of oppression that is fed by injuries and fears kept hidden? We protest by creating beauty. That’s the work of Fearless Collective.

Fearless Collective creates spaces to move from fear to love, drifting away from a system of messaging that is stewed in anger, and from individual opinions to the language of collective affirmation.

In the four years since our inception, we’ve painted numerous affirmations on streets around the world, some in words and some in symbols; some unsaid or unwritten, and some secretly tucked into the hair of a person that we’re painting—but always an affirmation of moving from fear to love.

We’ve painted monuments to the living communities that inhabit these spaces; women protesting politicians who continue to live with impunity despite rape charges against them; and indigenous people reclaiming sacred land that was taken away from them in brutal massacres.

Our banners and tongues aren’t laden with slogans: “Stop War”, “Save the Tigers”, “Stop violence against women.” Our words are invocations that build the imagined city we want to inhabit. When we are sold a pair of shoes through images in public space, we are also sold a sense of ‘empowerment’ and self fulfillment, and yet in social justice movements the actions we take for the earth and its people seem to come as a last resort. We need to examine the anxiety that gets associated with this sense of urgency. The impulse for movement can come from a fear of loss, yes, but it must also come from the recognition of love.

The things that we say under our breath often shift us. We need our movements to be affirmative and inward. Like planets, our outer revolutions must come from deep interior forces. So:

The transgender person riding a motorcycle in all their glory at the car-service station in Rawalpindi affirms ہم ہیں تخلیقِ خدا: ‘I am a creation of God’.

That wall in Bourj Hammoud, layered with bullet holes and stories of displacement in Beirut, now says բարի գալուստ, հազար բարի: “A thousand times welcome.”

A young girl and her cat look up at the Goddess Durga and her tiger by the banks of the river Ganges in Benaras (Varanasi) and affirm, “What we worship, we shall become.”

A street in Okhla, South Delhi demands बुरी नज़र वाले दिल से देखो आँखों से नहीं:You who stare! See me with your heart, not with your eyes.”

At a train station in Chennai, a Tamil film heroine asserts நான் என் கதாநாயகன்:” I am my own hero.”

In an alleyway in the small town of Bogor in Indonesia, a sex worker lying across from a mosque says Aku Adalah Kamu:” “I am, as you are.”

A black body wearing nothing in protest in Johannesburg says “I wear my body without shame.”

A mural in an indigenous village square in Bah’ia, Brazil says “nos protegemos que nos protégé: “We protect, what protects us.”

These affirmations are our open letters to the world. They are rooted in a moment in time, but live on the streets for all those who pass them, and see themselves inside them.

People write letters to make their invisible emotional histories visible—to lovers, friends, editors, politicians and cities. Letters full of stories, sentiments, fears, injuries, protests, affirmations, love and more. Just as old letters between scientists, diplomats and intellectuals go into archives and become part of our shared world history, we want to take our own letters and affirmations and archive them on the streets.

Open letters are intimate and introspective, but they are offered to the public. So we want to invite you to write your own open letter—to a friend, lover, parent, president, sibling, neighbour, country, land, home or yourself. You can write in any language—visual, verbal, poems, symbols, or colors, and we’ll find a home for it somewhere on the streets of the world.

You can send us your letters at this email address: We’ll send you redesigned/enlarged files and further instructions on pasting your letters onto your own streets too if that’s what you want to do.

Follow the conversation digitally on #fearlessopenletters, and find out where yours end up. We’ll also be publishing a selection on Transformation.

By sending us your letter, you will become part of a collective that’s exploring choosing love over fear, compassion over defense and abundance over scarcity, all through collective imagination. We aspire to grow as a movement of people-led narratives of personal and political change. Send us your letters and join the journey. 

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22 May 2017. The mysticism of wide open eyes

How does spirituality connect to social change?

Credit: © Nevit Dilmen. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Three months before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994, the British playwright Dennis Potter was interviewed for the BBC by broadcaster Melvyn Bragg. In obvious pain and taking regular swigs from a bottle of liquid morphine, Potter explored a wide range of questions about his work, politics, family and feelings—given that he was already in the terminal stage of his illness.

I was spellbound by the raw honesty and energy of his answers, but there was one section that catapulted me into a different state entirely. It came when Potter described the plum tree blossom outside his study window:

“Looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that's nice blossom’...I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know, there's no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance…the fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.”

I knew immediately what he meant. Potter had a complicated relationship to religion, and he didn’t use overtly spiritual language to describe his experience that day, but that’s how I felt it. He went on to say that this new state of consciousness had given him more clarity and serenity, along with the ability to stay fully focused in every moment. “Almost in a perverse sort of way”, he told Bragg, “I can celebrate life” so close to death.

These feelings of joy, compassion, clarity and connection are characteristic of mystical experience, but Potter’s story raises an intriguing question: why wait so long to enjoy the fruits of a fully awakened life? Shouldn’t we be living this way for as long as is possible, despite the constraints imposed by mortgages and college fees and all the drudgery of convention that surrounds us?

I’ve always thought so, and not just for personal reasons, though it’s certainly more fulfilling—and more fun—to live a life that is deep instead of shallow. I think it also matters politically, because spirituality, a whole life lived in the way Potter was describing, is of enormous importance in the struggle for social change. This may sound odd given the common image of mystics as people who are removed from the world, but I’m convinced that spiritual experience is one of the keys to the radical transformation of society. How so?

First of all, unlike the received dogmas and hierarchies of religious and secular ideologies, spirituality can give us an actual experience of the unity of all things. This experience, when nurtured as a constant practice, roots equality-consciousness, non-discrimination, non-violence and reverence for all people and the earth deep into our core. Here is the American writer and mystic Thomas Merton describing how this happened to him:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.”

Before this experience, Merton led a fairly conventional spiritual life in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky; afterwards he poured his energies into writing and speaking about poverty, racism, violence and war—and anything else that fractured that experience of unity, equality and reverence. But he continued his spiritual journey as a semi-hermit, moving to a separate cabin on the monastery grounds. This simultaneous turning in and turning out is characteristic of socially-engaged spirituality, repeated in figures like Dorothy Day and Angela Davis. The German feminist theologian Dorothee Soelle called it “the mysticism of wide open eyes.”

Secondly, all spiritual paths involve the destruction or sublimation of the ego, and a surrendering to something greater than oneself—whether that’s defined in terms of the ‘divine,’ or unconditional love, or artistic ecstasy, where even the plum tree outside your study window shimmers with meaning, grace and beauty. When our decision making is dominated by fear, jealousy, greed and other limitations of the ego, the economic and political systems we create will feed from and reproduce those qualities. By contrast, the ultimate security and generosity that flow from spiritual experience can anchor systems based on sharing and equality like nothing else.

Of course, kindness, joy, love and liberation don’t unlock the doors of structural oppression by themselves. They have to be connected to political analysis and concrete plans for action, but those plans can easily be pulled back into destructive, ego-led behavior that disguises self-interest as radical or altruistic. Spirituality won’t make you a Democrat or a Republican or reveal a detailed plan for health care reform, but it can place you in a qualitatively different state from which you can act in more expansive and clear-minded ways. I think that’s what Potter meant when he celebrated ‘life in the present tense:’ concentrate on ‘right action’ as Buddhists call it in the here and now and always. Don’t get locked into the patterns of the past or lose yourself in your ambitions for the future. 

Thirdly, although spiritual experiences are often spontaneous, sustaining their benefits requires practice, rigor and discipline, and those things are crucial in the struggle for social change. Classical practices include prayer, yoga and meditation, but music, art and dance can be powerful doorways too, along with loving interactions with other people—solidarity can be a spiritual experience in itself. Over the last ten years it’s become fashionable to use these practices as tools to promote personal health and wellbeing, financial success, sexual conquest and even the corporate bottom line: “mindfulness opens the doorway to loving kindness,” says Google’s ‘head of mindfulness training,’ “which is at the heart of business success.”

Spirituality is no stranger to this kind of appropriation, which is why the rigor and self-sacrifice involved in authentic spiritual growth is so important—it helps to weed out distractions and keep you on the straight and narrow. Spirituality is not a self-help strategy designed to make you feel happy in the world as it is. There’s no such thing as ‘comfortable compassion,’ because a truly compassionate life—lived through the daily operations of economics, politics, activism, social relations and the family—is exceptionally demanding. It often involves internal breakdown and reconstruction, along with the constant practice of ‘do no harm.’

This is painful, long-term work, but it’s essential to keep on going, however ‘liberated’ you may feel. After all, slippage is characteristic of well-intentioned action: the rising stars of progressive politics who become co-opted along the way; the NGOs and foundations whose radical edges are eroded over time; the social movements that slowly take on the behavior of their oppressors; and the paragons of Corporate Social Responsibility that constantly fall from grace

Does this kind of rigor and discipline have to be mystical or spiritual? If you recoil at such language and the baggage it sometimes carries then never fear, you’re in good company. Here’s the radical writer, activist and lifelong atheist Barbara Ehrenreich trying to explain experiences that were “so anomalous, so disconnected from the normal life you share with other people that you can’t even figure out how to talk about it…without sounding crazy.” Just like Potter, Ehrenreich saw a new world in a tree:

“I was looking at a tree, and then it happened. Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels and words….Was it a place that was suddenly revealed to me? Or was it a substance—the indivisible, elemental material out of which the entire known and agreed upon world arises as a fantastic elaboration?”

Ehrenreich was 17 at the time, and she didn’t return to her quest for meaning as she calls it until she reached middle age. But then she was able to apply her experiences to her activism and writing. And that’s the point: it doesn’t matter what you call them; what matters is that you’re open to experiences like these so that you can utilize their gifts—preferably before your middle age and certainly before your death.

One could argue that—however it’s described—no such experience is required to be effective as a vehicle for social transformation, but that seems unpersuasive to me: my ego is far too clever to dissolve itself or illuminate the way ahead free of the shadow of self-interest. By contrast, I’ve found that connecting spirituality to social action reveals a greatly expanded set of possibilities for personal-political change, so why wait to take advantage of them?

‘We believe in life before death’ as an old Christian Aid slogan put it when I was growing up. It seems a shame to waste an opportunity as wonderfully fruitful as that.

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19 May 2017. Is the new breed of white nationalists in retreat?

As the ‘alt-right’ movement breaks from President Trump, so goes its moment in the sun.

This article was first published in Waging Nonviolence.

Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

In April 2017, while Democrats and Republicans were finding common ground on starting a war in Syria following President Trump’s retaliatory airstrike for a brutal chemical gas attack on civilians, the so-called “alt-right” finally declared its break with the new administration. Richard Spencer, the enigmatic center of the alt-right and their leading “luminary,” took his rage to Twitter.

“The #AltRight is against a war in Syria. Period,” he said to echoes of retweets. “If Trump takes us into war in Syria, I’m done with him.”

Peter Brimelow’s anti-immigration website VDare continued the disappointment with Trump, explaining that the three things voters ended up with after becoming “Trump Republicans” were conflict with Syria, a Paul Ryan healthcare plan and tax cuts for billionaires. Across the blogs, podcasts and message boards, the alt-right is revolting against Trump, declaring his capitulation to military intervention the ultimate betrayal.

For those who have been watching the rise of the far-right in the United States, this response to Trump’s behavior may seem frenetically schizophrenic. This notion comes largely from the belief that white supremacist politics are based in traditional white colonialism, and that “America First” means the ability to enact militarized genocide on the developing world at will. The right-wing politics that the alt-right evolved from, however, is one that is isolationist at its core. They believe nationalism means creating strong boundaries between peoples, which would preclude intervention—both humanitarian and mercantile.

Paleoconservatism, an evolutionary stage leading up to the alt-right in the mid-2000s, was a reactionary response to the growth of “compassionate” interventionist neo-conservatism that rose to prominence inside of the GOP in the 1980s. The American Conservative, a paleo-leaning publication founded by Pat Buchannan, has been running headlines since this month’s bombing like “This Isn’t the Foreign Policy Trump Campaigned On” and “Bombing Syria Doesn’t Provide Humanitarian Relief.” This is not surprising since the defining principle of The American Conservative in the early 2000s was that it was the only major conservative institution to stand against the invasion of Iraq.

This rejection of Syrian intervention is uniform on the alt-right and signals the first major betrayal of the Trump presidency. Most white nationalist ideologues did not think that Trump would actually carry out a clean interpretation of their politics, but hoped they could mobilize him on their key political issues like foreign policy, refugees and non-white immigration. While he has enacted some of their agenda—including the Muslim travel ban, which was taken largely from Kris Kobach and the anti-immigration Tanton Network—his collaboration with Republican business interests has been disheartening. In that sense, the Syria bombing is only the most recent infidelity to the alt-right, albeit the most significant.

As a prelude to the widening rift, Stephen Bannon was removed from his central role on the National Security Council. The political world was shocked when Trump first brought Bannon into his inner circle—his previous job having been as head of Breitbart, which emerged as a “diet white nationalist” news site under his reign. Bannon’s own civic nationalism is tinged with fascist esotericists like Julius Evola and marked by allegations of open racialism and anti-Semitism. As such, he is deeply tied to a post-paleo world, situated to the right of the GOP and acting as the perfect weigh station between the fringe and the state house.

This was as close as Trump could walk to the alt-right, especially when he moved him to his advisory team. As Trump began to capitulate to the negotiations of party politics, Bannon’s hard edge waned, and his removal forced the alt-right to realize that Trump chose party loyalists over his dissident nationalist crew. While the anti-Trump left played a role in making Bannon’s nationalism politically toxic, it is more likely that Trump’s own power plays sunk his status. The hope for Spencer and others was that it was Bannon’s secret opposition to conflict with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that forced him off the council.

This break came after a long sequence of failures, each more significant than the last, which sparked the doubt on the right that then shifted into an anger. The alt-right could correctly be called a “post-libertarian” ideology, as most of their rank-and-file came out of the libertarian movement before abandoning it for ethnic nationalist reasons. Trump’s willingness to flirt with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s anti-worker healthcare policies—which would hit white workers in the Midwest and South especially hard—was a significant point of rupture. The writing was on the wall for months, as his transition team became a glossy episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous — especially from the international financial sector, which the alt-right views through an anti-Semitic conspiracy lens.

As Trump moves further away from the dissident cadre he brought into the halls of power with him, the alt-right is sent floundering, lacking its clear connection to the mainstream. White nationalism is still unpopular to the vast majority of Americans, so they need points of crossover to recruit. The Trump spaces have been that—from the recent “MAGA” rallies to the Students for Trump and Turning Point organizations on college campuses. If the alt-right publicly denounces and organizes against Trump, as Spencer and other major alt-right leaders are calling for, then the movement will lose access to its largest pool of potential converts.

On Sunday, April 9 2017, Spencer led a couple dozen supporters in front of the White House to protest Trump’s war in Syria. They were overwhelmed by counter protesters, who, while also uniformly against the military action, see no place for Spencer in any kind of public anti-war movement. While the alt-right protest itself lacked any crossover appeal to the broader Trump Republicans—a point solidified by the gathering’s anti-Semitic messaging—such a crossover is necessary for the movement to make any material gains.

If the alt-right is forced to divorce itself from Trump, then its members will find themselves in the same boat that white nationalists have always been in when their moderate allies turn on their agenda: completely marginalized. While this would not be the worst political move for the movement, without its own “purity politics” it lacks a reason for existing. The only legitimacy it has provided to itself is that its white nationalism is complete and explicit, presenting itself as the revolutionary alternative to the capitulation of what it calls the “cuckservative” establishment.

To continue supporting Trump amid this deviation from the program would reveal the movement’s own deal-making, and—without a strong sense of how organizing works—its supporters will instead bank their reputation on loud shows of anger rather than strategic thinking. This does not mean the alt-right will voluntarily walk into obscurity, but as it attempts to reclaim its identity firmly away from the Trump pulpit, its proponents will find they made far less progress than they believed.

In the end, the alt-right stands to become just a fascist movement that found a moment in the sun. That moment faded when its Trojan Horse leader was appropriated by his own business party—thereby sending the movement back to the fringes it desperately wanted to leave behind.

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17 May 2017. Yoga in Bogotá: imprisoned female FARC combatants look to the future

In a Bogotá women's prison, dozens of FARC combatants remain behind bars – but that hasn’t stopped them from making plans for political, and personal, transitions ahead. Español

Bogota women's prison. Bogota women's prison. Photo: Kiran Stallone.“Step to the front of your mats. Inhale; lift your arms high, expanding upwards. Exhale; fold over your legs, palms to the floor.” As I walk my students through basic sun salutations, one giggles when she cannot quite balance on one leg or touch the floor. Her name is Marilú, and she smiles at me as I suggest an alternative pose.  

Her reaction is not unusual in a beginner's class. But Marilú, 49, is far from the typical yoga student.

Instead, she is a FARC combatant incarcerated in a high-security women's prison in Bogotá. She has spent the last decade behind bars, convicted of terrorism and aggravated homicide for helping to explode a car bomb inside a military compound in 2007.

The FARC is an armed political group that has fought the Colombian government for nearly 60 years, with stated goals including wealth redistribution and land reforms for poor farmers. In recent decades it has also been linked to drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, illegal mining and other criminal activities.

After nearly four years of negotiations, a historic peace deal was finalised in December 2016. Among other things, it grants the FARC ten seats in congress and the right to form a political party. FARC combatants are meanwhile required to appear before special tribunals that will review their cases and award amnesties, prison sentences, or other sanctions.

Women in a demobilisation zone. Women in a demobilisation zone. Photo: Kiran Stallone.Since February approximately 6,900 combatants have arrived at 23 demobilisation zones across the country where they will remain for a maximum of 180 days, give up their weapons, register their cases, and have access to skill-building activities intended to facilitate their integration into civil society.

In the Bogota's women's prison where Marilú is incarcerated, she’s seen many fellow inmates released to these zones in recent weeks. But she and nearly 30 other women remain behind bars, anxiously awaiting news about whether, and when, they too will be allowed to leave.

Inside El Buen Pastor

Inside the prison, El Buen Pastor (The Good Shepherd), FARC prisoners are separated from the other inmates. Women incarcerated for robbery or drug trafficking are permitted to walk freely throughout the main prison areas, but political prisoners are locked behind a large metal door in separate quarters known as Pabellón Seis (the Sixth Pavilion).

The entrance to the Sixth Pavilion is intimidating and heavily guarded. Inside, however, it feels relaxed. The metal door opens onto an internal courtyard, surrounded by two floors of rooms with bright pink and green walls. In the courtyard, some women play basketball, while others sit outside of their rooms braiding each other’s hair.

The women wear civilian clothes, and colorful laundry is hanging to dry from all of the windows and doors. The smell of fried vegetables and meat comes from the adjacent kitchen, where they prepare meals with ingredients received from the prison. There is a small library as well.

"Who’s doing yoga?" I began teaching weekly yoga classes here in April 2017, as a volunteer for the Fundacion Teatro Interno. Set up by Colombian actress Johana Bahamón, it works in prisons country-wide, using yoga, theater, and dance to lessen the psychological consequences of captivity and improve possibilities of reconciliation and reintegration upon release.

As soon as I walk through the Sixth Pavilion's large metal door, one of the women calls out: “Who’s doing yoga?” Women step away from their chores and arrive with makeshift mats, greeting me with kisses on the cheek.

Moving through different yoga poses, they ask familiar questions. “How do I get a flat stomach?” “What can I do so my lower back doesn’t hurt?” One woman says: “If I didn’t exercise, I would go crazy.” Another: “It helps me to relax.”

After each class, I have a few minutes to talk to the women. Using a small notebook, the only object that I am allowed to take into the prison, I have been able to document some of their stories and learn about their plans for the future.

Some say they intend to return home to their families. Many hope to become politically involved as the FARC transitions from an armed group into a political party. All stress that they still support the group's vision for Colombia.

“We're still here!”

At its peak in the late 1990s, the FARC claimed to have 20,000 members. Today there are an estimated 7,500.

Under the 2016 peace deal, FARC combatants must appear before tribunals set up by Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace and receive amnesties, prison sentences, or other sanctions depending on their confessions and details of their cases. Immediate amnesty will be granted only to those with crimes categorised as acts of “political rebellion.”

The deal also covers already-captured and incarcerated FARC members. These prisoners’ cases will be reviewed by the same Special Jurisdiction for Peace, and many will be released to the demobilisation zones to join combatants who are already there.

On 18 April, four of the 60 women imprisoned at El Buen Pastor were sent to these zones. More have followed them in recent weeks.

Last week, 45 women remained behind bars. This week, that figure has dropped to 29. Those still inside are anxious for their release and frustrated at being left in the dark as to whether and when this will happen.

"The FARC is not demobilising, but rather mobilising and transitioning towards a different political phase.”

“When will they let us go? Please tell me when they will let us go,” demanded Doris, 50, last week, exclaiming: “We’re still here!” This week, I learned she was released and is now at a demobilisation zone.

Doris was part of the Bloque Ivan Ríos, a FARC section infamous for its control of narco-trafficking routes. She spent 14 years in prison, after her capture by state security forces in Medellín while attempting what she referred to vaguely as “a special job.”

Before she was released, Doris told me she was eager to get back to work to advance the FARC’s political agenda.

She said: “The FARC is not in the process of demobilising, but rather in a process of mobilising and transitioning towards a different political phase.”

Marilú, the woman incarcerated for her role in exploding the bomb in the Bogotá military compound in 2007, also says she wants “to work to achieve the political causes of the FARC within society, occupying a new space and taking on a new challenge.”

In particular, she wants to study communications and law, and to “serve the FARC within the new political party.” She said: “Particularly now that it is now legal, it is important to advance the FARC’s cause.”

Marilú’s future is uncertain -- but this hasn’t prevented her and her fellow prisoners from making personal, and political plans. Meanwhile, our yoga classes continue. “Inhale, curl yourselves up vertebrae by vertebrae. Exhale; bring your palms to your heart. Namaste.”

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17 May 2017. Emotional politics: suffer the little children?

Outrage over child abuse is no substitute for effective social policy.

Credit: Flickr/Need NOT Greed. Some rights reserved.

The contest for the leadership of Britain’s Conservative Party in July 2016 highlighted the enormous symbolic power of children in politics. When Andrea Leadsom attempted to define her opponent Theresa May as lacking something vital for leadership by virtue of her childlessness, she was attempting to tap into the deep emotions attached to children and parenting.

Politicians and the media frequently seek to exploit these emotions because, in political terms, children embody hope for an imagined future, and they symbolise social and cultural well-being. While Leadsom’s crude assertion that, “being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake” backfired badly, this is not usually the case when children are invoked.

Stories about children can serve particularly important functions, especially in terms of a politician’s need to be, or at least to appear to be, compassionate and empathic. Such stories attract wide attention in the media, especially when they concern children’s suffering.

In the competition for attention among news agencies, as media expert Susan Moeller puts it, “children are perceived to be one of the few sure-fire ways to attract eyeballs.” In the hierarchy of innocence, the face of a child has the capacity to transcend boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

Stories about children’s suffering can produce very strong and apparently shared emotional responses, reflecting people’s identification as parents in a universal sense, even if they don’t have children themselves. As academic Sara Ahmed observes in her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, “That child could be mine”.

When the body of three-year old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi was washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, his death came to symbolise not only the desperate plight of refugees but also how ‘we’ might be defined in relation to his suffering. The expression of a shared emotional response to such a terrible event defines us as compassionate, providing us with a more positive image of ourselves.

Given the potential for stories about children to evoke such powerful emotions, it’s not surprising that politicians seek to mobilise them in support of their own agendas. The pressure on politicians to identify with the electorate in empathic terms as being 'just like us' means that a collective emotional response to children's suffering can become an important mechanism to garner more popular support. Nowhere is this seen more powerfully than in political and media reactions to the deaths of children from severe abuse or neglect.

The death of a child at the hands of their own parents or carers arouses deep cultural anxieties and moral disturbance. This is all the more so when childhood is idealised and children are the focus of adult anxieties in an increasingly precarious world, in need of protection from risks ranging from climate change to cyberbullying. The inability of a state or community to secure the welfare of its children renders our collective identity as a ‘good society’ fragile and questionable.

This imagined sense of who we are as a nation is of central importance in the political vocabulary of leaders. Social workers, as professionals to whom the state delegates responsibility for protecting children, become the target of particularly intense levels of anger and hostility when they are perceived to have failed in their duties.

In the UK, this hostility reached its zenith in late 2008 around the death of Peter Connelly (or ‘Baby P’), who died from extensive injuries aged 17 months in August 2007 in the London Borough of Haringey whilst the subject of a child protection plan. Connelly’s case continues to shape the British child protection system, not least through the so-called ‘Baby P effect:’ a dramatic and continuing rise in the numbers of children in care.

Yet it’s important to understand that the starting point for the Baby P story was not just the horrific nature of his death. The names of most children who die from similar forms of extreme abuse and neglect never make the national headlines. What characterised this case was the nature of the political, media and public response.

David Cameron’s reaction—at that time the leader of the Conservative Party in opposition—was immediate and visceral. In the London Evening Standard he wrote this: “Watching the news last night took my breath away. My wife Sam couldn’t watch and left the room...As a father of three small children who I would do anything to protect, I am sickened to the core by these crimes.”

This intensely personal account of his feelings as a parent quickly became a wider appeal to a distinctive national identity. In an article in The Sun newspaper published the next day (and no longer available online), Cameron asserted that “Britain’s sickened and we’re angry too—outraged at the failures that left a child to die.” His article formed part of the newspaper’s launch of a media campaign to punish the professionals involved in Connelly’s care.

The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, stood accused of failing to respond as a father: “He is a loving father himself, yet he seemed to be the only parent in Britain whose blood was not boiling at those who should have saved Baby P from the merciless savages who killed him…Heads must roll” said The Sun in a leader published on November 13 (also no longer available).

Next day, Ed Balls, then the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, mirrored this emotional language in a blogpost and a column for the Wakefield Express which ran as follows: “The details of how that little boy had been treated by his mum and step-father made my blood boil and my heart bleed.”

Balls eventually penned his own piece for The Sun on November 27 under the headline, “The power of your feeling is clear,” before sacking the Head of Children’s Services involved in the case on national television on December 1.

There can be little doubt that politicians have a moral mandate to respond to news stories about children’s suffering, especially when a child dies under conditions of extreme neglect or abuse. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild argues that political leaders have a key role to play as ‘feeling legislators’, particularly at times of national turmoil or crisis. They reflect collective emotions, but also and crucially, they have the capacity to mobilise and shape emotional responses to news events by creating rules about how we imagine we should feel.

How and why they do this are key questions that we have to explore and understand, because the consequences of the emotional politics involved in child protection are wide-ranging, long-lasting and profound. The culture of blame that continues to dominate children’s services is wholly counterproductive to the goal of protecting children and supporting their families. Just as crucially, these forms of politics are characterised by their selective inattention to other forms of children’s suffering.

In the account of Peter Connelly’s death, discourses on welfare were combined with a story of so-called ‘underclass’ parenting as evil. A story of evil acts became virtually synonymous with welfare dependency. In its editorial about the case on November 13 2008, for example, The Times asserted that “The welfare state has created some communities with no morality.”

In these ‘welfare ghettos’ of political and media discourse, living children are caught up along with their parents in an emotional politics that’s characterised by a fear of the supposedly expanding threat posed by a culture of dependency and moral degeneration. Far from being viewed as ‘innocents’ in a world of poverty and disadvantage, these children are often implicated as the future ‘dangerous other.’

The dead child is rescued in metaphorical terms from this discourse as a universal child that could be yours or mine. The attention of policy-makers is fixed on a perpetual cycle of inquiry into such deaths, followed by further reforms. By contrast, living children who might be the subject of compassion and political action remain ‘hidden in plain sight’ because the real world they occupy is marginalised, and largely viewed with contempt.

However, it is these children—and their families—whose suffering poses the most urgent and serious moral questions for political leaders. The growing numbers of families with children living in extreme poverty has produced a ‘life chances postcode lottery.’ High levels of deprivation are directly linked to an increase in rates of social work intervention. Social workers are overwhelmed by the levels of needs they see in families. Each step increase in deprivation is accompanied by an increase in the chances that children will end up in care or be subject to a child protection plan.

If political leaders want to exercise their moral mandate to act with compassion in response to children’s suffering, they must turn their attention to the structural problems that produce poverty and inequality and deliver the resources that local authorities need to enable social workers to support families who are coping with intolerable pressures. 

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15 May 2017. Why the left needs to re-embrace the First Amendment

Censorship of the alt-right is tempting, but history tells us it will backfire. 

Credit: Flickr/Newtown Graffiti. Some rights reserved.

Why, around 40 years ago, did the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defend the right of the Nazi Party of America to hold a march in a majority Jewish Illinois town which was home to 5,000 Holocaust survivors? Why has the ACLU, founded in the midst of the country’s “Red Scare” in 1920, filed federal lawsuits on behalf of the Ku Klux Klan and the notoriously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church?

Viewed from Europe, where a man was once fined for a “loud belch”, the American commitment to free expression—even for racists, fascists, Nazis, and bigots—often seems extreme. However, in recent years there have been growing calls, particularly on American college campuses, for limits on First Amendment protections for categories such as ‘hate speech’ and ‘violent verbal conduct.’

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has tracked this movement closely, and suggests that “39.6 percent of the 449 colleges and universities” it analysed in 2016 “maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students.” Specific examples reflect a growing emphasis on student sensibilities over free expression: quoting the N-word verbatim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is “an explicit act of racial violence”; Things Fall Apart, The Great Gatsby, and The Merchant of Venice come with “trigger warnings”; and the annual performance of The Vagina Monologues can be cancelled because “the play excludes the experiences of transgender women who don’t have a vagina.”

Although ‘trigger warnings,’ restrictive speech codes and expansive definitions of ‘hate speech’ are often ridiculed by the right, they represent serious attempts to create a more sensitive political vocabulary that is mindful of the harm that can flow from words—even unintentionally. But the broader debate raises some serious questions for those on the left who want to both protect marginalised social groups and maintain open political discourse.

Do we support free speech for those who would silence us if they had the chance? Do racists—even Nazis—deserve the protection of the First Amendment? Is the revolt against ‘political correctness’ urged on by President Trump and others simply the last line of defence for privileged white males who are threatened by evolving social norms? Should historically oppressed groups be protected from right-wing ‘hate speech’ on college campuses?

These are both personal and political questions. Many of us may passionately agree in principle with Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s famous statement that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But when translating this sentiment into our lives, are we comfortable telling a transgender person that we extend this right to those who tell them they are “simply gay men dressing up for attention”? Or telling Mexican-Americans that the right to free expression protects those who call them “rapists, pederasts and child abusers”?

Any attempt at resolving the tension between defending free speech for all and challenging economic, racial and gendered oppression must go beyond the realm of abstract philosophical debate. It must be rooted in history, politics and—the most difficult part—an honest appraisal of how our personal convictions square with our worldviews.

To begin with, it is important to assess arguments that seek to define the limits of free speech. On this point, conservative activists have frequently contrasted their absolutist position with that of left-wing ‘snowflakes’ who they see as obsessed with policing language.

Although this ignores the fact that the right’s commitment to free speech is often selective, the notion that “the rhetoric of free speech” has become a “delusion” to “facilitate bigotry” overwhelmingly originates from the left. It stems from the view that ‘hate speech’ is corrosive: free speech isn’t absolute, and ‘you can’t shout fire in a crowded theatre’ as the saying goes, because of the potential consequences if a stampede were to occur. The same applies to stoking up hatred and discrimination in divided societies.

Moreover, there are legitimate question marks against the idea that a “neutral marketplace of ideas” exists. Because of underlying social inequalities, certain voices—which “tend to be white, straight, male and class-privileged”—are inherently louder than others. There’s a danger that these privileged voices are defending free speech not out of any commitment to principle but to protect their continued dominant social position.  

Such arguments have strong foundations. It’s true, for example, that even with the clear wording and protections of the First Amendment, free speech is not considered to be absolute. Contrary to what is sometimes argued, there is no credibly accepted “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment, but libel laws, for example, acknowledge that limits do exist.

Although conservatives like Milo Yiannopoulos have seemingly built their careers on shouting ‘fire in a crowded theatre’ at every opportunity, it’s worth remembering that this charge was originally made by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes against anti-war activists, and was given legal underpinning by the Espionage Act. The 1919 case, Schenck v. United States, “upheld a man’s conviction for distributing leaflets opposing the military draft” because, in Holmes’s words, “when a nation is at war, many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight, and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.”

“Comrade Schenk” was not the only socialist who discovered the limits of free speech. Rose Pastor Stokes was given a ten-year prison sentence in 1918 for saying that “the government is for the profiteers”; five-time Socialist Party Presidential Candidate Eugene Debs was thrown behind bars for seditious anti-war speeches; and a Minnesota man also earned a prison sentence for telling volunteer knitters that “No soldier ever sees these socks.” All, apparently, were shouting ‘fire’ and had to be silenced. Their only weapon was the First Amendment, whose defence became a leading cause of the American left from Debs and Stokes through to the free speech movements of the 1960s.

Why does this history matter? In one sense, it gives important context to one of the most commonly quoted statements abridging the right to free expression, indicating why it has since been described by the ACLU as “worse than useless” and has been decisively rejected in subsequent court cases. But it also demonstrates how the First Amendment has been central to defending the marginal and the oppressed—and not just the “white, straight, male, and class-privileged.”

It was Martin Luther King’s defence against Governor George Wallace’s attempt to “protect public safety” by banning his march on from Montgomery to Selma in 1965; Reverend B. Elton Cox’s defence against the sheriff of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who had accused him of “inflammatory” speeches advocating sit-ins at segregated lunch counters; and the principal recourse for 187 black students in South Carolina who were charged with “breaching the peace” for protesting at the site of the state government in 1961.

In these cases, the precedent for First Amendment protection had been set by a racist priest expelled from the Catholic Church, and it was later strengthened by cases defending the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. This is why leading progressive intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky have signed petitions supporting free speech for Holocaust deniers using the justification that “you either believe in free speech for views you despise, or you don’t believe in it all.”

Defending the First Amendment isn’t a lofty, abstract principle derived from classical liberal philosophy, but a recognition of the fact that even a seemingly innocuous exception to the right of free expression can easily become a rule.

Today of course, activists on college campuses aren’t advocating for censorship from the Federal Government. But they and their universities are heading in a troubling direction. The University of California at Berkeley’s recent cancellation of Ann Coulter’s planned speech due to “security concerns” follows the same logic as Wallace’s attempt to ban the 1965 civil rights march. The university couldn’t guarantee her security from the students who posed “active security threats”; Wallace maintained that he couldn’t guarantee King’s security from angry whites.

This is often known as the “Heckler’s veto”—restricting free speech because it’s likely to provoke a heated response. If activists on the left want to impose it on Coulter, Yiannopoulos, Charles Murray or the countless other conservative speakers accused of ‘hate speech’ or ‘violent verbal conduct,’ they can have no complaints when it’s imposed on them.

Defending free expression for even the most abhorrent views may seem like a luxury while violent immigration raids are accelerating, reproductive rights are threatened and far-right strategists are making themselves comfortable in the White House. However, with a Republican administration displaying constant hostility to activists and the press, this is a dangerous time for the left to be wavering in its commitment to the First Amendment. In the ACLU’s words: “If the government gets to decide which speech counts as hate speech, the powers that be may later feel free to censor any speech they don’t like.”

However, there is a deeper issue here. A progressive or transformational political movement is—almost by definition—based on the constant questioning of authority, the refusal to believe anything until it’s officially denied, and a willingness to entertain dangerous ideas. This has never been confined to fiscal policy, healthcare, trade agreements or tax reform; it’s a much more fundamental commitment to critically examining our culture, worldview and daily life.  Only free speech, with all its risks and controversies, can renew this commitment.

Defending the First Amendment is not just a strategy to protect our views from state repression, it’s an imperative to re-examine ourselves continuously, jarring us out of our complacency and challenging both our reason and our emotions. As Zach Wood of Williams College puts it: “We should not settle for merely refining and advancing our own ideas”; instead, we should embrace “uncomfortable learning” on campus and beyond. This “uncomfortable learning” is central to the history and identity of the left. Now is the time to reclaim it.  



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13 May 2017. No Dogs, No Indians

In a world mediated by sound-bites, perhaps the theatre can take us back to what it means to be human.

Credit: Siddhartha Bose. Some rights reserved.

1998, Kolkata. I am sitting in the bedroom of my parent’s flat watching David Lean’s version of E.M. Forster’s Passage to India. My memory is watery, but I recall certain flickering images on the screen: night-time, cut to a shot of the moon, cut to the camera panning to a sign outside a colonial club. Dogs and Indians Not Allowed. The memory fades to black.

2015, London. Channel 4’s Indian Summers is on the screen. Shot in Malaysia, the story is set in Shimla, which is in the foothills of the Himalayas, and was known as the summer capital of the Raj. Inexplicably, this imposter Shimla is painted in rich green hues as a humid tropical paradise, where the Angrez (English) perspire profusely, while the natives are like cartoon characters mouthing speech bubbles. This is the Indian exotic that returns to the Victorian fear of, and fascination with, the subcontinent and its people, and their supposedly uninhibited nature, sensual and wild.

The camera zooms in on another sign outside another European club in British India. Dogs and Indians Not Allowed. Suddenly, the earlier memory, the fading film image, one that had remained buried and suppressed, resurfaces like one of those corpses that float on the Ganges, shockingly visible, bobbing on filthy water, garlanded by flowers and toxic pollutants. The existence of that sign in the present, on TV, the personal and historical memory of it, humiliates and shames me.

Lean’s Passage to India was part of the Raj revival of the early 1980s in the UK—Salman Rushdie wrote witheringly about it in ‘Outside the Whale’. Three decades later, plus ça change. Intriguingly, in these films and TV shows, there is little on how Indians responded to this shaming provocation. The sign itself was part of colonial policy to keep Indians in their place, to remind them of their subhuman status in the machinery of empire, despite the collaborators, the clerks, the judges, the teachers, the district officers, the maharajas, as well as all the soldiers who laid down their lives in the thousands for Europe’s battles.

Today, the West has outsourced its many wars, and we still live in a world where refugees fleeing these wars are referred to as ‘swarms.’ Language still has infinite powers of exclusion. The wretched of the Earth must address the terrible power of these words, appropriate and remake and dismantle them, in order to become human again.

I grew up in Kolkata and Mumbai, two (post)colonial cities that have played a vital part shaping modern and postmodern India. The Angrez designed large areas of the cities, though Indian hands built them. The Angrez set up schools and colleges and churches, and went about a bewildering and radical process of naming these cities, their streets, and the myriad-coloured slaves who served them. Kolkata was divided into ‘white town’ and ‘black town.’ There was a ‘gray town’ as well, in the heart of the city, north of Dharamtala, where the Chinese, the Armenians, the Afghans and many more lived and worked.

The streets of central Kolkata, once the second city of the British Empire, still echo its imperial past: Russell Street, Elgin Road, Loudon Street, Park Street. It’s much the same in south Mumbai. Despite having an ancient civilisation, the conscious classification and naming of a million Indians (and Indias) happened during colonial rule. Some of the Angrez went native, married Indians, studied Sanskrit, styled themselves as nawabs, morphed into William Dalrymple’s ‘white mughals’—the fairest of the fair, the uber-caste.

Indians, however, were left to negotiate history via appropriation and bricolage. Thomas Macaulay, who sneered at, and rubbished, everything Indian without knowing an Indian language, went about remaking the modern Indian mind by constructing an educational policy that continues to shape, and blight, India today. In 1835, he said: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern—a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

English became the first language of education, of aspiration, of power. A new type of mutant Indian was born. Many of these mutants were inspired by the ideas of 19th century modernity emerging from the West. The Bengal/Indian Renaissance happened as a negotiation between Europe and ancient India. Rabindranath Tagore—the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature—famously said that he was a product of Hindu, British, and Muslim cultures. However, I suspect that under Western eyes, the ideas of a complex, hybrid Indian modernity will always be viewed as derivative.

The classrooms of Kolkata and Mumbai’s better schools, with names like St. Xavier’s and Cathedral and John Connon, still teach Shakespeare and Keats. Many of the graduates of these schools, ‘brown sahibs’, emigrate, or stay in India, and use their access to the language of the colonisers to exercise an almost colonial power in their nation. Aatish Taseer has written extensively about this in a searing and honest way. A dismantling needs to take place. The revolution will be live.

I am a product of all the cultural neuroses I’ve cited. I grew up in with English, Bengali, and Hindi, but fundamentally, I am one of Macaulay’s great grandchildren, defined by English.

I left India when I was eighteen, moving to the US to study in a small liberal arts college with a generous scholarship programme. I worked many jobs during those years. I painted houses, cleaned bars, pushed carts in libraries, taught English at university, travelled in Greyhound buses, went homeless in New York, voyaged through the American mythic, living a life some Indians would have viewed with some embarrassment. I remember an African American friend called Lyn seated on a barstool in the Midwest, who told me that I was ‘fighting the caste system.’ I lived and survived, and after 9/11 and the Iraq war, I joined the queues of bearded folk who were asked the silliest questions, and detained in the most absurd circumstances while flying in and out of the US. 

Like all colonials dreaming and writing in English, I began yearning for England (even some Americans suffer from this syndrome). I spent two years preparing and securing specific scholarships for doctoral study administered by the British government and the University of London, and I landed at Heathrow in September 2005, armed with two suitcases and a bag.

After immigration, I was ushered into a line of passengers with third world passports, all of whom had to go through medical tests; the fear of disease and contamination by the other still exists. In a flash of inspiration, I told the guardians of the land that I was Indian, but I’d lived in America for seven years. I wasn’t a stray dog—no, I was more of a pet poodle. ‘You lived in America!’ they gasped. I didn’t have to stand in a queue. I was free to enter the city gates.

As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of Indian independence, and as Britain reckons with its own sense of self in times of Brexit, there is much talk of the decline of the West and the rise of the East. In India, a new, muscular form of hyper-capitalism married with the rise of the Hindu right is asserting itself—cheered on and supported by much of the Indian diaspora in the UK and the US. The reaction to historical humiliation is to wear the mask of the coloniser. Thump your chests, make a noise, say with pride that India, despite its grotesque social problems, is an emerging power.

V.S Naipaul’s million mutinies mutate to a billion shocks to the system. India’s version of the new world disorder slouches towards Varanasi to be born. Meanwhile, the West is shutting its doors, building walls and fences, retreating from a necessary internationalism. The dictatorship of the media ensures that we make snap judgements about diverse peoples without actually knowing them. Communities are in conflict, and everyone, if the news is to be believed, feels under siege.

In this environment, all we have left are stories, stories we tell each other, myths that we make as a way not only to negotiate the traumas of the past, but also to remind each other that we are living, breathing bodies, bodies that cry and bleed and laugh, not holograms and projections on 24 hour news feeds. In a world mediated by images and soundbites, perhaps the world of the theatre and performance can take us back to what it means to be human again.

My play, No Dogs, No Indiansis about crossing thresholds, claiming access, seeking personal dignity. Pritalata Waddedar, the forgotten female revolutionary at the heart of the play, reacts to colonial humiliation through violence. Shyamal Chatterjee, the brown sahib, the other protagonist, appropriates the culture of the coloniser. Both enact their own little tragedies. 

In my own journey through gateways and borders, the empty space of the theatre remains the most inclusive, democratic, and celebratory of difference. In a world of walls meant to exclude, the theatre welcomes. 

The theatre is live. The theatre is real. The theatre is inclusive. Here we are, made of flesh and blood, sharing our stories with you. And you, the audience, will help us make this unrepeatable and vanishing moment almost holy.

No Dogs, No Indians plays at the Brighton Festival on May 17 and 18 2017. Tickets are available here.

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12 May 2017. The town that adopted trauma-informed care—and saw a decrease in crime and suspension

Empathy and redemption are far more effective than punishment and incarceration.

Former Lincoln Alternative High School Principal Jim Sporleder and Kelsey Sisavath. Photo courtesy of Jim Sporleder/YES! Magazine. All rights reserved.

A few months into her freshman year at Lincoln Alternative High School, Kelsey Sisavath got into a fight with a girl outside of class. She was sent to the principal’s office and arrived still fuming. There was a time at Lincoln, a school once known as a last resort for those who were expelled from the area’s other high schools, when fights often ended in out-of-school suspensions or arrests. But Principal Jim Sporleder didn’t immediately scold her. Instead, he asked how she was doing, then left her alone in the office with a granola bar, a water bottle, and some tissues to dry her tears. When he returned half an hour later, Sisavath was feeling calm enough to talk.

 “If he would have asked me the details and talked about punishment right away, it probably would have just pushed me even more off of the edge,” she reflected.

At the time, her personal life was riddled with pain. For years, Sisavath had bounced back and forth between her mother, who was addicted to opiates, and her emotionally distant father. Just two years earlier, she had been sexually assaulted by a stranger. All of these experiences left her feeling emotionally and physically neglected. In the eighth grade, she started hanging out with kids in gangs and skipping class to smoke marijuana.

That kind of behavior followed her to high school, where she could have faltered. But Sisavath’s experience at Lincoln was different. Sporleder and the staff created an environment built on empathy and redemption through a framework called trauma-informed care, which acknowledges the presence of childhood trauma in addressing behavioral issues. The practices vary depending on the environment, but they begin with the understanding that childhood trauma can cause adulthood struggles like lack of focus, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide.

Lincoln Alternative High School is in the small city of Walla Walla in southeastern Washington. It had been a place for students with disciplinary issues, those removed from the area’s other high schools, ordered there by a judge, or those who had performed poorly in middle school.

Tucked in the middle of a residential neighborhood, Lincoln’s brick edifice and cherry-red doors now serve as a place of opportunity for many students. At Lincoln, the first trauma-informed high school in the nation, the graduation rate increased by about 30 percent and suspensions decreased by almost 85 percent a year after implementing the framework. The school’s success, along with the advocacy efforts of relentless community leaders, convinced service providers throughout the city to adopt trauma-informed care in their own fields.

Today, an electric utility provider, the Division of Children and Family Services, the police department, and many others have all committed to raising awareness of traumatic childhood experiences and to providing internal resources to foster a safe and healthy community. As more cities and states consider childhood trauma a public health issue, Walla Walla’s success has transcended this former trading town. It now serves as a model for resilience-building in the burgeoning trauma-informed care movement that is sweeping the nation.

The tipping point began in 1998 with a landmark study of over 17,000 patients in Southern California that showed the pervasiveness of trauma. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study asked participants if they had experienced any of 10 types of childhood trauma, called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. These include direct emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; a mother treated violently; a family member with substance dependence or mental illness; parental separation or divorce; a household member who was incarcerated; and emotional and physical neglect.

The more types of trauma a person had experienced, the study found, the more predisposed they were to social, behavioral, and emotional problems and the adult onset of chronic illness. Nearly two-thirds of the participants were found to have experienced at least one traumatizing childhood event. Some specialists have since added other ACEs, such as experiencing racism or witnessing violence.

Around the same time as the ACE study, a group of researchers and pediatricians at Harvard University and elsewhere were conducting research showing that toxic stress, the frequent or continual strain on a young child without adequate adult support, could negatively impact the child’s brain development. Out of this research came an increased interest in trauma’s impact on the brain. Educators and doctors began wondering if childhood trauma could be prevented, or if its impacts could be minimized.

On the first day of her freshman year in 2012, Sisavath noticed that her high school was different. The hallways were plastered with large posters that listed traumatic experiences like emotional abuse beside examples of how to build resilience. On one, the words “attachment to a caring adult” accompanied a colorful cartoon of an adult and child ice-skating. Sisavath started adding up her own childhood traumas as she walked past the posters and soon realized that she had experienced seven of the 10 ACEs.

At Lincoln, students and teachers mingled in a natural way, unlike traditional school settings, where student cliques often dominate campus. Even in cold weather, principal Sporleder stood bundled up at the school’s entrance greeting students with a high-five and a smile. “I’m happy that you’re here,” he said as students rushed past him.

But the relationship between students and staff at Lincoln wasn’t always so symbiotic. When Sporleder first arrived at the school in April 2007, he said, about five or six gangs roamed the halls and an intern with little administrative experience was running the school. The building was in a constant state of chaos. Students freely hurled profanities. So Sporleder took a hard line by handing out automatic three-day out-of-school suspensions for every “f--- you.”

Then, in the spring of 2010, he attended a workshop in Spokane, Washington, on the impacts of stressful childhood experiences. Keynote speaker John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, explained how toxic stress overfills the brain with cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. Sporleder suddenly understood that his students’ behavior wasn’t completely in their control; their brains were affected by toxic stress. “It just hit me like a bolt of lightning that my discipline was punitive and it was not teaching kids,” he said. He hunted for curriculum to bring this understanding into the classroom, but found none. So he set out on a mission to bring trauma-informed care to his students.

Most of the students he oversaw at Lincoln had experienced multiple forms of trauma, and were in poverty and on free or reduced lunches. “That’s like running the trauma hospital,” Sporleder said. “We were dealing with crisis after crisis after crisis.”

He brought a researcher into the school to train the teachers in trauma-informed care and started replacing out-of-school suspensions with in-school ones. He allowed students to ask for a break when they could sense that their traumas were being triggered. Staff members visited the homes of students who skipped class to figure out what was wrong and how they could help them return to school. The school also provided students with free on-campus counseling and basic health care through a health clinic that received initial funding from a local medical center. There, students could get birth control pills and ibuprofen.

“I don’t know what it is,” Sisavath remarked about the staff at Lincoln. “They just have such a great connection with kids and it’s unreal.”

As the situation at Lincoln improved, Walla Walla began to take notice. Soon, trauma-informed practices that spawned in the school spread throughout the rest of the city. Getting to this point, however, had not been a quick or simple effort.

Theresa Barila moved to Walla Walla in 1984. For about 20 years, she worked as a fisheries biologist in the federal salmon and steelhead recovery program of the Pacific Northwest. Her research specialty was fish stress. When her daughter was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, she decided to resign from her position and pick up a part-time job with an organization that offered resources and services for at-risk youth. It was there she was introduced to the study of childhood trauma and ACEs.

Two years before Lincoln became a trauma-informed school, Barila introduced ACE awareness to Walla Walla. Today, she is the director of the Children’s Resilience Initiative, a community response to childhood trauma, and she credits her scientific background studying stress as a motivation for learning how to prevent and deal with ACEs.

“Yeah, it was for fish, but systems are pretty similar,” she quipped.

At first, Walla Walla residents were skeptical. “This just feels like you’re having a pity party. Where’s the accountability?” Barila recalled community members asking. But to her, a decade of research on the effects of toxic stress on the brain held the keys to understanding behavior. She knew the city could use that information to uncover the roots of trauma in its community.

Resistance has not been specific to Walla Walla. “In 2008, a lot of people would hear about this and think, This is voodoo,” said Jane Stevens, a veteran health reporter who created a social journalism network called ACEs Connection after learning of the Kaiser study. But today, she says, it’s incontrovertible science, and now the focus is on how best to integrate that understanding.

So what changed in the American psyche in the past 20 years for trauma-informed care to gain momentum?

Stevens says her network and the work of many leaders in the movement have helped raise awareness. She likens it to the slow and steady progress of every scientific revelation. “It’s sort of like plate tectonics in geology: For hundreds of years, people thought that the continents never moved,” she said. Although scientists proposed well beforehand that plates moved, “it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that plate tectonics was accepted and integrated into geology; and then in earthquake-prone zones, the science was the foundation for changes in building codes, engineering codes, urban planning, emergency response, etc.”

Nearly 10 years after introducing trauma-informed care to Walla Walla, Barila foresees a major breakthrough in resilience-building. The success of Lincoln High School and the enthusiasm of former Principal Sporleder have converted other partners in the community. The Children’s Resilience Initiative created a Memorandum of Understanding in September 2013 with more than 20 community organizations, agencies, and service providers, ranging from the Department of Corrections to a local medical center. They each agreed to create a community that understands the impacts of trauma, brain development, and ways to foster resilience. Walla Walla County Sheriff John Turner has incorporated some of those practices into law enforcement; Barila trained all of the deputies to acknowledge that toxic stress affects brain architecture.

“I think it just added another layer of understanding to some of the issues that [deputies] come across in the field, and it’s easier for them to manage their own emotions toward people that are being unruly toward them,” Turner said. Along with crisis intervention and mental health training, trauma-informed practices gave deputies a deeper understanding of human behavior. It helped them to exercise patience with people who behave disorderly and to deescalate situations.

“It might be something in the person’s physiology, anatomy, or brain structure that they can’t help,” Turner added. “It’s easier to not take it as personally, and it’s easier to deal with the actual situation, as opposed to dealing with the emotions of it.”

Within the past several years, FBI crime statistics in the county have dropped. Although Turner thinks that trauma-informed training has been valuable, he stresses that additional training and hiring decent officers also have impacted those results.

Acts of understanding, patience, and kindness have helped transform strangers into partners and friends. To Annett Bovent, a parent in Walla Walla, ACEs awareness helped illuminate the roots of her own problems and connected her to her neighbors. “People care. Before, I always felt like I was alone, and I don’t feel that way anymore,” she said. Suddenly, the town seemed to transform from black and white to color. “I feel like, to me, the information is common sense, but it was like I was the only one who heard it. And now it’s like everyone wants to know.”

Since retiring in 2014, former Lincoln Principal Sporleder has remained busy flying around the country speaking at educational and community conferences. He recently attended a workshop in Sacramento, California, where he consulted 25 principals, some of whom oversaw thousands of students. They discussed how they could use Lincoln’s model for their own schools, where some have 10 times the population of Lincoln. “I was amazed at how, once they started talking with each other, they were coming up with a model,” Sporleder recounted. An alternative school in Bend, Oregon, is among the many that has built on Lincoln’s example.

For Sisavath, trauma-informed care has had a lasting impact on her life. She graduated last spring with honors and is currently working part time at Dairy Queen while she attends a local community college. She said she doesn’t take things as personally as she once did, and has learned that behaviors often derive from childhood trauma. Her high school experience also sparked an interest in psychology and philosophy, which she hopes to pursue in college.

“There’s so many things that happen outside of the classroom that can’t be helped in school,” she explained. “If every teacher knew the techniques, knew what to do, knew how to support these kids, it would make a huge difference.”

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

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10 May 2017. Visualising mental illness

Could mapping our anxieties generate more understanding and support?

Credit: Jill Simpson. All rights reserved.

What does mental illness look like? We know how it feels; at least I do, having suffered from anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) for many years. But it’s hard to visualise mental illness in the same way we might visualise physical disabilities, and this can make it difficult for people with no experience of mental health problems to empathise or imagine how they affect peoples’ lives.

Everyone experiences periods of anxiety and at normal levels such anxiety is good for us—it helps to keep us safe and responsive to danger. However, when anxiety reaches extreme and uncontrollable levels that are disproportionate to any actual risks or threats, it becomes a mental health problem. People who have never experienced such intense and irrational anxieties might find it hard to imagine how debilitating this can be. So is it possible to visualise personal experiences of mental health problems in a way that is intelligible and meaningful to those who have never experienced them? Making complex accounts of anxiety disorders more visible might help to increase awareness, understanding and empathy among both policy makers and the public.

The word ‘anxiety’ is widely used in public discourse and in popular culture to express almost any kind of personal experience of worry or concern. This makes it difficult for people to gauge what anxiety means when it becomes an issue of mental health, as with OCD. OCD is increasingly used as an adjective to describe someone who is very particular about how certain things are done, but this reduces a serious disorder to a personality trait, internalising the illness and placing responsibility for it firmly on the shoulders of the sufferer.  

In February 2017, for example, an aide to British Prime Minister Theresa May suggested that state benefits in the UK should go to “really disabled people” and not to those “taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety.” Although the aide was heavily criticised and has since apologised, his comments suggest the existence of a hierarchy in which some disabilities are deemed less worthy of attention and support than others. 

Minimising the significance of anxiety disorders in this way stems not just from the way we talk about them, but also from the invisible nature of much mental illness. Unlike many (but not all) physical disabilities, people with anxiety disorders often show no physical evidence of their existence on their bodies, making it hard for others to understand how they might affect their lives.  My research in critical data studies, combined with my own personal experience of OCD, have prompted me to explore visualisations as a means to communicate these invisible experiences of anxiety in a way that’s accessible and meaningful to non-sufferers. 

Data visualisation is a form of cultural interface; a mediator which allows people to make sense of abstract data and complex analytical processes. The raw data and processing techniques involved remain invisible, but visualisations can communicate trends, patterns and insights from the data in powerful ways. This makes it possible to use the results to help other people make sense of less visible forms of disability, and hopefully encourage awareness and understanding of their impact among policy makers - particularly those responsible for mental health services.

Inspired by an art project called Dear Data I’ve begun to visualise my own experience of OCD by quantifying my compulsions to check and re-check the same thing over and over again. To collect the data I tracked my behaviour for a day, noting every time I checked something, the number of times I checked it, and what it was that I was checking. 

In order to sort through the data I thought about what I needed to communicate to other people in order for them to understand the impact that OCD has on my life. The number of checking incidences was significant, as were the repetitive nature of the checks and the number of times I was compelled to return to re-check things that I had already checked. For the data visualisation to act as an accessible interface it needed to be aesthetically strong but also easy to interpret, inevitably concealing some of the complexity of my experience. In order to re-introduce some personal and contextual detail, and to help users to make a human connection with the data, the visualisation is hand drawn with annotations to describe some of the incidences in more detail.

Making personal experiences of anxiety both visible and public in this way is not something that everyone will want to do.  For many people, disability is a deeply personal and private aspect of their lives, and no-one should be required to make their experiences public in order to receive support from government or other individuals or organisations. However, I’ve found comfort in reading about other people’s accounts of their anxiety disorder, and visualising my own behaviour has helped me to take a step back from it, to see it as a symptom of OCD rather than a personal failing. 

Visualising mental illness might also have the potential to make an impact beyond the individual. In an era of austerity and public service funding cuts in Britain, making experiences of such conditions more visible may be one way to protect vital mental health services. If it’s possible to use visualisations to increase understanding, awareness and empathy among policy makers and the public, it will become harder to dismiss anxiety disorders as unworthy of support. 

Although I’m willing to share some of my experiences more publically, even I don’t want to make everything visible. The data I’ve mapped only represents compulsions which are, ironically, the publicly visible aspect of OCD. I’ve refrained from visualising the obsessive thoughts which drive my anxiety, because I consider these to be private. Yet the visualisation still provides an insight into how OCD impacts my day to day life, particularly in terms of the difficulty I have in completing simple tasks like, locking a door or logging into my emails.

Political considerations are built into all data sets, visualisations and interfaces. Human bias and subjectivity are woven into data through their collection, analysis, interpretation and visualisation. Despite the hype surrounding big data and its potential to ‘objectively’ inform public policy, it usually lacks both depth and context. Big data can be especially misleading because it is big.  So there is value in considering small, rich and subjective data sets alongside the analysis of larger bodies of material. In fact, it’s difficult to see how we could use visualisations to communicate meaningful experiences of anxiety beyond individual accounts, especially because mental illness is an extremely personal and contextual experience. So to understand mental illness it’s important to look at both aggregated data sets and individual stories.

Attempting to quantify a personal experience of OCD inevitably strips away much of its complexity, yet data visualisations do have the potential to communicate some of the ways in which this form of mental illness affects daily life. Even allowing for their limitations, they could certainly be used to encourage greater compassion, deeper understanding, and more empathy towards anxiety disorders and other forms of disability, and to help policy makers and the public see the importance of maintaining and improving mental health services that are publicly-funded, accessible, and comprehensive. 

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8 May 2017. Neoliberal psychology

Why do we allow the logic of the market to occupy our minds?

Credit: By Guillaume Paumier (Own work) CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

All too often, critics speak of neoliberalism as a coercive, external force lying somewhere ‘out there’ in the political landscape. But many of us increasingly and voluntarily govern our lives in a manner mirroring the logic of the market. Is it any wonder, then, that this ideology has become so naturalised, and the alternatives so hard to see?

Neoliberalism is an elusive term, typically used to describe such processes as privatisation, deregulation, the cutting back of social and welfare provision, the retraction of the state, and the idealisation of free-markets: ideas thought to have been born in the minds of scholars in Paris in the 1930s before they emerged as a political reality in the 1970s.

But this definition ignores the fact that this movement has dug its ideological roots deep inside each one of us. Neoliberal rationalities are both political and psychological, serving to create a utopian free-market order with the power of the state and to extend this logic to every corner of society. As the sociologist Loïc Wacquant puts it, neoliberalism represents an “articulation of state, market and citizenship that harnesses the first to impose the stamp of the second onto the third.”

Early neoliberal theorizing recognised that creating an environment that cultivates Darwinian-like competition actually requires a far broader set of rules. Thus, a key aspect of neoliberalism is not so much the rolling-back of regulation, but the type of society the rolling-out of state power is designed to uphold: striving to preserve whatever unequal distributions of talent and capabilities we are born with and whatever good or bad luck happens upon us through the chaos of life; frantically trying to fabricate an illusion of a level playing field; and disciplining those that break the rules or don’t even want to play.

But neoliberal theory didn’t only reject the earlier economic liberals’ belief that competitive free-markets emerge in a spontaneous natural order; it also extended this logic to the personal level, to the citizen, concluding that the rational, self-interested individual at the heart of neoclassical economics doesn’t ‘naturally’ emerge either. This gave rise to an even more active and insidious project to cultivate citizens who seek to compete in every aspect of their lives, chillingly captured by Margaret Thatcher in 1981 with her infamous statement: “Economics is the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”

This model of neoliberal citizenship has received wide-ranging attention from sociologists and political scientists to psychoanalysts and anthropologists. Michel Foucault conceived this new homo economicus as an entrepreneur of himself, shifting the liberal vision of people owning themselves as if they were a piece of property to a neoliberal vision of people owning themselves as if they were a business.

As property, people become devoid of notions such as duty, compassion and solidarity. They gain an artificial sense of separation from other people and from the ecology that supports all life, and seek fulfilment in increased wealth and consumption—a way of living that Aristotle and Siddhartha (the Buddha) would have dismissed thousands of years ago as thoroughly as any modern critic.

But within Neoliberalism there’s a shift: the world is no longer perceived simply as property to be consumed, but as an opportunity to be captured in order to increase returns to financial, social or human capital—a trickle down of capitalist rationality without a trickle down of wealth.

As a result, people become not only separated from each other and ‘nature’ in space, but also projected in time in a process of constant self-improvement, self-investment and the efficient application of one’s bundle-of-skills to maximize future returns. Crucially, this doesn’t just mean commodification, which is essential for capitalism's survival, but also the economisation of areas of human society in which no formal commodities are found. Thus, traditional non-market social norms are displaced by the cold-hearted, means-ends calculus of efficiency, investment, productivity, growth, costs and benefits, and calculated exchange—and along the way the quest for happiness is inverted: want to get rich? Get happy first.

What was once merely theory is now widely practiced. The neoliberal vision of the citizen was first made explicit in the abstract idea of human capital, but now it’s exemplified in more concrete ways every time volunteering in Africa is construed as a great thing to have on your CV; or when nine out of ten arguments for fighting patriarchy in the boardroom are appeals to efficiency; or where morning raves are promoted for their ability to improve productivity at work; or when the first thing on a list of 21 reasons to have sex is looking younger. Neoliberal rationality has become stunningly efficient at reproducing itself.

We can use Google Ngrams to visualise how this collective psychology has swept through society by tracking the frequency with which different words and phrases have been used in English-language books since the 19th century. By carefully selecting words and phrases that we encounter on a daily basis and which embody the spirit of neoliberal rationality, we find some fascinating patterns emerging near the beginning of the 1970s.

For example, there has been an explosion in usage of the phrase ‘sell yourself’—an unsettling sign of the way in which we have learnt to speak of ourselves in the language of the market. Now, we’re even encouraged to sell ourselves on our first dates. It’s as if we have abolished slavery only to replace it with a system of entirely voluntary self-commodification. Aside from the relatively chilled-out decade of the 1960s, time has also become a commodity that we buy, and in which we invest.

Politicians and policy makers make endless attempts to align self-interest with more desirable social or environmental outcomes (rather than appealing to collective responsibilities), a shift that’s manifested in the rapidly-expanding discourse around incentives. And the increasing usage of phrases like ‘it’s none of your (or my) business’ in contexts in which nothing is actually bought or sold shows how the idea of managing life as an entrepreneur has taken hold. Even in fervently anti-neoliberal writings we hear such phrases as ‘bang on the money’ applied to ideas about social justice.

Despite the tendency to see so much of personal, social and economic life as a calculated investment for future returns, contemporary societies don’t appear to have significantly increased their capabilities for solving their long-term problems. Threats such as climate change, exhausted food production systems and water supplies, antibiotic resistance, economic collapse, and the arms race remain mostly un-mitigated. So why do we still fail to react properly to such threats?

It appears that our lives have become almost permanently projected into a place lying somewhere between the present and the future. Our hopes, dreams, and quests for a meaningful existence are cast into a space in time that never actually arrives. It’s as if we’ve fabricated a kind-of secular afterlife—an imaginary destination that justifies the struggles of the present—although, unlike religious afterlives, this is one that we have to believe we’ll reach before our deaths.

These psychological impacts also seem deeply problematic in themselves. By cultivating the antithesis of a mindful, grounded way of living, it’s no wonder that we now hear talk of epidemics of depression, demoralisation, narcissism and other psychological disorders. But perhaps such issues have been breeding for far longer than the word ‘epidemic’ implies. Authors like Charles Eisenstein argue that a process of separation between people and nature began with the development of agriculture thousands of years ago, developing via the separation of the Gods from within nature to become forces of nature themselves, extending into the notion of human dominance over the natural world, and culminating in the neoliberal idea that we are not only separate from nature and each other but from our present selves.

Today, there does at least appear to be a growing recognition of the need to counter these trends, as evidenced by the surge of interest in mindfulness and meditation, which are becoming increasingly demystified by a growing body of scientific research. Predictably, the response of capitalism has been to appropriate these practices and direct them towards productivity and profits, nicely captured by Google’s ‘head of mindfulness training’ in a brand new neoliberal aphorism: “mindfulness opens the doorway to loving kindness, which is at the heart of business success.”

But the contradiction between the projected, atomised self of neoliberalism and the grounded egolessness of mindfulness is glaring. Business managers may believe that investing time in meditation will “pay dividends” in the form of increased employee productivity and reduced healthcare costs, but could a truly mindful consumer or investment banker ever exist? Perhaps such cultural appropriations will prove fatal to the psychological basis of neoliberal capitalism itself.

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5 May 2017. Passive patience is oppressive, but active patience can help us all

Does your commitment to justice override your desire for comfort?

Two people sitting on a couch while touching each other’s hands and smiling. Credit: Everyday Feminism. All rights reserved.

Originally published on Everyday Feminism.

She held me as we lay in bed together, falling asleep. We had only been dating for two months.

“I just ask you to be patient with me.”

I didn’t respond. I lay there thinking, “Not today, Becky. You gots to go.”

You see, I’m a Black woman, and my partner is a (white) Jewish woman. I am no stranger to white women asking me for patience without understanding that the trauma of being a queer Black woman in America means that we don’t have the same access to time.

I started pulling away from (what I perceived to be) the all too familiar request to honor a white woman’s experience(s) above my own. She felt my energy.

“Listen, there’s a difference between active and passive patience. I will never be passively patient with you.”

I was stunned. In 25 years, I had never heard this distinction.

More poignantly, I had never heard a white woman use the term patience in a way that didn’t center on her own experience, thus erasing my own.

Intrigued, I asked, “What’s the difference?”

She responded, “You’ve had a lifetime of white women talking. I’d rather show you.”

For the past 25 years, I’ve almost exclusively heard patience used in a passive, oppressive way. It’s been used as a tool to silence those seeking justice and relief.

It’s been six months, and my partner still hasn’t defined active—or rather, “radical”—patience verbally. Every distinction I’ve gathered has been from observing the way she shows up for justice, both in our relationship and in her work.

The personal is political, and observing the ways that she embodies active patience has given me context to explore the difference between active and passive patience politically.

Here are ten differences between active and passive patience.

1. Passive patience is stagnant—it doesn’t grow or change.

Passive patience doesn’t work towards changing the conditions that cause harm.

It just asks us to stop complaining, resisting, and demanding to comfort and appease folks who are being asked to change.

For example, when white women demanded the patience of trans women, Native women, and women of color during the Women’s March, what they were really saying is: “We meant well. Stop being divisive by reminding us of your oppression—that is both uncomfortable and inconvenient. Let us have this moment of solidarity, even if it comes at the expense of your erasure.”

In some ways, I understand their distress.

Change can be difficult, painful even. But pain and discomfort are inevitable and temporary parts of moving towards change and resolution, both ebbing and flowing in presence and intensity.

Our relationship to it often shifts, as opposed to remaining stagnant.

Suffering, however, is often either caused or inflicted and is the indeterminate and irresolvable experience of pain. It’s long-term, and its psychological, physical, and emotional impact are devastating.

When marginalized folks point out the ways that the actions of our oppressor(s) cause suffering, and our concerns are greeted with an insistence of silence, stagnation, and/or cooperation in our own suffering, as opposed to discussing solutions for change, that’s passive patience.

2. Passive patience conflates acceptance with complacency.

We’re taught that we must accept who and where we are, even if that means accepting one’s harmful tendencies, in order to change them.

But acceptance doesn’t mean that we’re complacent.

For example, if someone is on fire, a complacent reaction would acknowledge that someone is burning, but do nothing to address their suffering.

However, the process of acceptance requires one to acknowledge, or accept, that someone is burning in order to know what steps come next, like finding water to put the fire out.

White cis women must be willing to accept that historically and presently, they contribute to the oppression and erasure of the experiences of women of color. But first, that involves active listening.

They must be willing to listen to the experiences of women of color and accept their participation in white supremacist culture before they’re able to dismantle it.

3. Passive patience centers one’s good intentions over one’s hurtful actions.

In my experience, most people aren’t intentionally sexist, misogynistic, racist, ableist, and so on.

But that doesn’t change the harmful impact of their actions.

Often, when well-meaning people are confronted with abuse of privilege, they often get defensive because the reality of their actions challenges the person they’ve imagined themselves to be.

However, living in a society built on the oppression and marginalization of non-white, non-male, disabled bodies inevitably causes us to internalize oppressive behavior.

That doesn’t mean that we aren’t good people. It just means we have a responsibility to be self-aware.

Unlearning oppressive behaviors via self-awareness is a lifelong process, but that doesn’t mean that one has to wait a lifetime to stop causing harm.

4. Passive patience both maintains the status quo and is coercive.

Most of my life, I’ve heard the term patience both used against me, and other women of color, in a way that mimics gaslighting.

Women of color are asked to be patient when institutions inadvertently acknowledge their lack of diversity, let alone inclusion. Yet, support for our efforts to create a more welcoming, intercultural, and anti-oppressive social climate are either subpar or non-existent.

And in the case of Black women specifically, we often begin to doubt our own experiences and develop Black Superwoman complex in a search for the strength to develop more (passive) patience, to withstand affliction from another person.

When we complain about the pain we experience as marginalized folks, or walk away because we’ve had enough, we’re told that we just aren’t patient enough, that we need to wait a little while longer until things change.

We’re made to feel as if our inability to passively sit with suffering is the root of the problem, not an institution’s unwillingness to work to change hurtful and oppressive conditions.

While it’s true that one or both parties may have to deal with hurt feelings and unprocessed trauma, it’s important to recognize that privilege requires an oppressor to carry greater responsibility in the effort of reconciliation.

Marginalized folks desire safety and healing like all beings. However, oppression often puts the onus on us to carry our own generational trauma while carrying the burden of our oppressors emotional discomfort and/or complacency.

Any model of patience that treats those being harmed like props by insisting that the person(s) experiencing harm remain silent is passive – and violent.

5. Passive patience demands self-sacrifice and martyrship.

Passive patience requires that the oppressed use our physical, mental, and emotional energies as fertilizer for their dreams.

In other words, it requires the oppressed to place our full center in causes, institutions, and actions that don’t value us enough to listen when we’re hurting.

For example, to insist that women of color and/or trans women participate in a march that actively excludes them for the sake of able, cis, white women is messed up.

Now, I want to state that I have privilege in some areas and am marginalized in others. I’m marginalized as a queer, neurodivergent, Black woman, but my educational background, lighter skin, American citizenship, and able body give me privilege.

However, I notice most often that passive patience is demanded of me when my emotional labor is expected in the education of well-intentioned folks who would rather debate my humanity as opposed to listen when I explain why something is hurtful.

Having a conversation with a person who’s contributing to my suffering requires energy, especially when the person is unwilling to accept my truth.

It’s very uncomfortable for many of us to sit with our own ability to cause harm, especially unintentional harm. Yet, marginalized folks are expected to do this labor, despite the emotional ramifications to ourselves.

We’re expected to engage. We’re expected to be passively patient while our oppressors work through their own processes.

6. Active patience is an active commitment toward change.

As mentioned earlier, passive patience is coercive.

Instead of relying on mutual agreement towards a common goal, it demands the participation of those being harmed for the benefit of the oppressor.

However, active patience is not coercive.

Everyone involved uses their agency to agree on a goal. And when everyone agrees, all parties can move toward a common goal. Everyone can actively move toward change.

7. Active patience respects the autonomy of each being involved.

Often, the comfort of an oppressor is privileged over oppressed folk’s need for safety.

For example, when Native women complained about the appropriation of their culture(s) and the erasure of their histories by white folks during the Women’s March, an actively patient ally would have not only engaged in active listening, but would have sat with their pain.

They would’ve sat with the discomfort of their own complicity in another person’s degradation and began searching for ways to minimize the direct harm they caused in that moment while committing to strive towards larger structural changes in the future.

They would’ve asked questions to understand the concerns of the oppressed as opposed to silencing them.

In short, they would’ve respected their voices and perspectives as autonomous beings as opposed to reducing them to stereotypes, treating them like props.

8. Active patience isn’t perfection.

So, I’ve laid a lot out here, and it probably sounds like active patience leaves no room for fuck-ups. But never fear.

We’re human, which means that fuck-ups are expected.

There will often be setbacks on the path of healing and change. But active patience doesn’t allow setbacks to turn into complacency.

Just because something is hard and/or we struggle to “get it right” doesn’t mean we give up on the pursuit, especially when it leads to justice and healing for another person.

Active patience continues growing and shifting, collectively.

9. Active patience doesn’t guarantee lack of conflict.

Conflict is inevitable, even in the healthiest, most nourishing relationships.

However, we aren’t talking about healthy relationships. We’re talking about fucked up dynamics between privileged and marginalized communities. So, conflict is expected.

Marginalized folks desire safety and healing like all beings. As I mentioned earlier, oppression often puts the onus on us to carry our own generational trauma while carrying the burden of our oppressors emotional discomfort and/or complacency.

Living in colonized cultures come with a lot of biases, wounds, and assumptions.

When conflict occurs, one or both parties may have to deal with hurt feelings and unprocessed trauma, but it’s important to recognize that privilege requires an oppressor to carry greater responsibility in the effort of reconciliation.

For example, a white person may be offended when a Black person calls their actions racist because that wasn’t their intent.

Conflict itself is a healthy aspect of any relationship, but there’s a difference between conflict, abuse, and oppression. We need conflict to grow and learn. It can be used to guide us, and facilitate connection.

Active patience recognizes that there will be conflict, but it uses conflict as an opportunity to reevaluate and adapt.

10. Active patience doesn’t settle for ‘good enough.’

Active patience accepts setbacks as something that happens on the way to change, but it doesn’t settle with “good enough.”

It doesn’t give up on the pursuit of healing and progress but adapts.

If Hillary Clinton had won the election, rejoicing over her victory would have been settling for “good enough,” given her history of racist statements and ideologies.

Settling for microaggressions over overt discrimination, opting for mildly offensive as opposed to in-your-face offensive, doesn’t address the root of the issue.

Rather, it allows us to ignore underlying causes and settle for “good enough.”

Cultivating active patience in a society that doesn’t promote accountability is hard. Active patience requires trust, and it understands the difference between forgiveness and a pardon.

Trust requires being present to the experience(s) of oneself and of others. It requires being honest and non-judgmental.

It’s difficult to expect any form of patience from marginalized folks when trust is fraught through centuries of oppression, decades of inaction, and silence around our pain.

Without trust, active patience is impossible. And without active patience, we perpetuate oppressive systems thru passive patience.

Not many privileged folks are willing to take on the challenge of establishing trust with marginalized people because it’s inconvenient. It requires extensive personal and structural changes, and in many cases the total uproot of one’s way of being.

It’s important, then, to ask yourself: Does your commitment to justice override your desire for comfort?

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3 May 2017. Sharing stories in a broken culture

Respectful relationships are a prior condition for persuasion.

Credit: Shutterstock. All rights reserved.

In late-April 2017 the French Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron stunned supporters of Marine Le Pen, his opponent, by directly engaging with them on a picket line. Macron handed the microphone to union members whilst arguing that closing borders would do nothing positive for the economy, and might well harm it.

This was a rare act of engagement in western politics, where debates are characterised by the frothing of deeply divided sides. If Macron’s argument had been transmitted indirectly via the media it would probably have fallen on deaf ears, dismissed as more ‘fake news’ or standard ‘liberal bias.’ But he managed to create a relationship with people directly who he knew might disagree with him, and this direct engagement made all the difference. Physical presence has a power that goes beyond any argument. By showing that he was ready to listen, Macron also helped to diffuse his opposition. The crowd quietened and a dialogue began.

The gatekeeper of our intellect—the emotional limbic system—relies on relationship. No matter how potent the arguments, that system won’t allow more information to be processed rationally by the ‘higher’ faculties of the brain if there is no emotional connection. That means that respectful relationships are a prior condition for persuasion—a point that is lost in much current political campaigning, still more in the nightly ridicule of President Trump and his supporters by comedians on late night television shows in the USA.

The polarised cultures of Western democracy alienate one other not just through what they say, but also by how they live. These divisions are having a crucial effect on how we address issues of migration, welfare and trade. The problem is that both sides are so busy trying to fix the other that no genuine communication is taking place.

The blogger Andrés Miguel Rondón offers Venezuela’s experience as a prescription for healing this situation. It took liberals there years to realise that they themselves had become de-humanised, while in the mindset of those who saw ex-President Hugo Chavez as a champion, all talk of justice and freedom of the press fell on deaf ears because it seemed to come from an alien group.

When two sides of an argument are so entrenched, a simple exchange of facts no longer produces any forward movement. The clash is not one of opinions but of radically-different worldviews. A worldview is an emotional commitment to certain attitudes and beliefs. Most of us spend our entire lives accumulating evidence to justify a worldview. Our lives and actions then seek to express it. “We tend not to see our worldview as a perspective” says researcher Annick de Witt, “We see it as truth.”

The fundamentals of our own worldviews are no less shaky than those of the opposition, but our respective commitments run very deep. Long-time Greenpeace activist and storyteller Brian Fitzgerald puts it another way: “What is being expressed might seem crazy, but the feeling it expresses is a true experience for that person.” We may deny or reject what we see as a nonsensical argument, but in doing so we are denying what someone else experiences as truth. It’s this dynamic that feeds mutual alienation.

So what does it take to reach across our different worldviews?

First, “it takes a lot of humility” says de Witt, “We need to be willing to explore the limitations of our own worldview.” But this is a step, she admits, that few of us seem willing to take. The theatre director Peter Brook puts it like this: “hold on tightly, let go lightly.” “For a point of view to be of any use at all,” he says, “one must commit oneself totally to it, one must defend it to the very death. Yet at the same time, there is an inner voice that murmurs: ‘Don’t take it too seriously.’” It would be wonderful if more of us were willing to commit to our values, but even more powerful if we had the grace to let go. Only then could we find more common ground.

Secondly, the stories that shape our worldviews are very powerful. In the information age it’s tempting to think of the whole world as a story. If the world is a story then the perfect world is only a story away. We need only spin a message, an advert or campaign to bring about successful change.

We all know of indigenous tribes whose worlds are shaped by the stories that they’ve heard, so we believe our own storytelling will shape society too. The trouble is that the kind of stories that are told in such societies are part of a network of mythology—not media to be consumed but realities that are lived. Such stories aren’t just heard; they are enacted through ritual. Listeners become participants in ways that shape and sharpen their psyche. They don’t simply receive information; they learn new ways of seeing and being in the world. Their intuition is moulded so that they know how to act.

It will take the work of centuries to restore our present-day cultures to anything like that level of dignity and imagination. However, we can draw one vital lesson: what we are looking for is not a story but a ritual. By creating experiences that embody the world we want to live in, we allow others to participate and create their own meaning.

“It took our leaders ten years to figure out they needed to actually go to the slums and to the countryside” says Rondón, “And not for a speech, or a rally, but for game of dominoes or to dance salsa – to show they were Venezuelans too, that they had tumbao and could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed.”

To see how these different elements combine—relationship, humility and ritual—here’s a recent example that comes from Italy.  In 2016, a group called GoDeep! hit the streets of Grottaglie in Puglia to explore—and potentially transform—local attitudes towards migration from North Africa.

At the heart of the process was what they call the ‘appreciative gaze,’ an attitude similar to the unconditional positive regard that was practiced by the psychotherapist Carl Rogers. Rather than arriving with pre-set judgements on what needed to be changed, the group spoke to local people on their own terms. Sometimes this meant receiving openly racist abuse, but gradually ties with the community were forged.

At the end of the enquiry, a celebration of diversity was held in which both local culture and the cultures of the new arrivals were included. Those seen as ‘the other’—in this case migrants and liberal activists from GoDeep!—steadily became more of an ‘us.’ By starting with direct contact and open conversation with local people, the group established a relationship. This relationship then served to create an experience that told a deeper story of unity than words alone could tell. This story of unity was then ritualised in celebration.

First-hand experiences of this kind create more information, conversation and connections than conventional media campaigns, and they help to reduce the likelihood of judgmental behaviour and artificial separation. “In a few days we created the possibility for people from diverse backgrounds to take ownership of their local space” says Niels Koldewijn, a GoDeep! participant and the director of Elos Foundation. “It generated recognition for migrants from the locals, and importantly, migrants for locals as well.”

This approach might not be enough to persuade political hardliners, but it can help to create the right conditions for those who are ready to make a jump across the lines of difference. As one of Hannah Arendt’s favourite poems from Walter Benjamin puts it:

“…the soft water’s movement will
defy the strongest stone in time.
The hard ones, you see, are more easily undermined.”

We could imagine a wave of ritual actions similar to GoDeep! taking place worldwide, each one a potent demonstration of the open, tolerant world we want to create. Enacting unity through public works, participatory theatre and even cups of tea would mean that we’re not just telling a story but creating it together—and doing so in ways where everyone’s invited.

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1 May 2017. When meditation isn’t enough

For someone with a traumatized nervous system, sitting in silence isn’t always the right response.

Credit: Flickr/Darragh O Connor. Some rights reserved.

I like to say that India changed my life twice. The first time I was 24. An English major at the University of California, Berkeley, I’d turned down a job offer from McKinsey Consulting in my senior year—I want to change the world, I said, and make music. But a few years of doggy-paddling at nonprofits and singing in cafes on weekends left me confused and disillusioned. Academically I’d been an excessive over-achiever, sure that life was preparing me for big things. This couldn’t be it, could it—my days governed by the geopolitics of cubicles and office gossip, with a brief respite for actual living? I was depressed, and needed something drastic to test my mettle. So I decided to travel around India alone. I couldn’t say why, exactly. Only that the place drew me, and powerfully. 

I crammed what I needed into a backpack and spent five happy months traveling and freelance writing my way across the subcontinent. Two months in, I found myself in muted overwhelm, desperate for reprieve. In the ancient city of Rishikesh, famous to westerners as the place where the Beatles met their Maharishi, I saw a flyer for a vipassana (or insight) meditation retreat. I took a taxi straight to the ashram, located on the Ganges four miles outside of the city and approximately 700 from Bodhgaya—where the Buddha attained enlightenment. 

For ten days I sat in silence and stillness, ate vegetable mush for dinner, and focused on my breath. It wasn’t long before strange and beautiful things began to happen. Insights alighted like doves, one after the other. I saw, for example, that I had never loved myself unconditionally—only in reward for achievements. I saw that I was angry and scared, and that these things could, given loving attention, shift. I sat on the ashram roof and held debriefs with God. I found a quiet spot upriver and sang and danced. I was happy, and free. 

On leaving, I committed to meditating every day. When I returned from India, I had a sense of purpose. I spent the next seven years organizing, singing in, and writing about the global justice movement, with regular times-out to attend vipassana meditation retreats. I applied my intemperate drive to rigorously and exhaustingly striving to transform the world and myself.  Meaning had returned to life.

The second time I visited the subcontinent I was 33. I had just completed my Masters in Fine Arts in Fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I’d received a Fulbright Scholarship to work on a novel in Varanasi, where I’d spent a week nine years earlier. Varanasi is also a holy city on the Ganges. According to the scriptures, death here puts an end to the harrowing cycle of samsara, or reincarnation, and brings about total liberation. But modernity, in the form of rampant urban growth, has not been kind to the place: the streets are filled with barely-moving traffic, the sidewalks with crowds of people.

After a couple of weeks, strange things again began to happen. This time, however, they were different. I found myself assailed by a rising tide of anxiety. There had been some strong prior hints, but in Varanasi I careened right off the cliff I’d unwittingly been skirting. My stomach—which had survived the on-the-cheap vagaries of five continents—fell apart, and two courses of antibiotics couldn’t put it back together again. I found a lump in my breast. I couldn’t find an apartment. The fear just kept growing. I stopped sleeping and fell into a hole the likes of which I’d never suspected existed inside me.  

“I don’t know what’s happening,” I said over the phone to the Fulbright director in Delhi. “This is so… weird. I meditate every day. And I’ve done, like, a whole month on silent retreat. I know my mind.” That month, spent at the Insight Meditation Society three years earlier, had not been easy.  I’d say a full three weeks of it had been hell—but it was, in hindsight, the second circle kind of hell. This was the more like the ninth. He made soothing noises and suggested I see a therapist.

Over the following weeks I began to see the deep fracture in my life: most of my days had been dominated by drive and adrenaline, while I tended to the spirit by slamming on the brakes for compensatory periods of silence and stillness. I have an Indian friend who views meditation retreats as a kind of penance. Here in the west, we rush about achieving and consuming, she says, and then we go meditate to expiate our sins. As an activist, I may have been offering a radical critique of consumer culture, but I certainly wasn’t immune to its hyperactivity. 

The inability to rest—the constant running, pushing and achieving—were a culturally-applauded sublimation of the fear and rage I wrestled with on retreat, and they took their physiological toll in the form of adrenal exhaustion. The fracture in my life was no more than a mirror of the fracture in my psyche, which had its roots, as I began to see, in events that had happened many years earlier.

In the end, I cut my Fulbright short and returned from India to navigate my way through a breakdown. It wasn’t pretty. It felt as if everything good inside me had been tossed on one of Varanasi’s funeral pyres—my creativity, confidence, and capacity for happiness. Who was this petrified, tortured woman, this ghost of my former self? For months, I was so exhausted that getting dressed felt onerous. I had to scrape together all of my courage to go to the grocery store. I attended a few week-long retreats that were more or less extended encounters with unabated terror and self-loathing. And the five years since my return have resembled a drunken waltz: fall down and get back up, again and again, the falls growing gradually less paralyzing as I learned how to fall and how to relax both my body and my expectations. 

I don’t blame meditation for any of this. Indeed, it was a huge support in numerous ways, not least of which was the ingrained mental refrain to focus on the oatmeal on the stove, the fluttering leaves, or the breath in my belly—on what was present and actual rather than the fireball in my chest. And meditating alongside the terror certainly gave me some significant, if unasked-for, experience of my own mettle. Nonetheless, ultimately it wasn’t enough to watch the madness, to greet it with awareness or even metta (loving kindness). 

There has been much discussion in the media lately about the limits, and even the dangers, of mindfulness. There are stories of meditation inducing confusion and panic attacks, and of retreat experiences leading to depression and psychotic episodes. While these stories of psychological incapacitation are rare they do raise important questions. Western culture has bought selectively into Eastern practice—there are currently 700 mindfulness apps available and counting. So what to make of this reputed dark side?  Does meditation have ominous powers?

Drawing from my own experience, I say no. Meditation does not wield dark esoteric powers, but rather draws away the veils covering existing darkness in our own psyches. These veils usually exist for good reason: they are the psyche’s brilliantly inventive answer to violation. Depending on one’s history, meditation may be an insufficient response. Or it may be the wrong medicine entirely.

There’s an oft-repeated story of the Dalai Lama’s first visit to the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts in 1979.  In a meeting with western Buddhist teachers, he was asked about the phenomenon of self-hatred.  Despite his translator’s efforts, he was baffled by the term. Buddhism has adapted to numerous cultures over 2,600 years, but in the west it’s only in its second generation—barely pubescent. It is still molding itself to the western mind. Western teachers are currently negotiating how to teach an integrative practice, one that incorporates communication and diversity, social justice and relationships.

And western Buddhists are just beginning to grapple with contemporary understandings of trauma—not only the shock of individual experiences of war and abuse, but also the injuries of collective oppressions such as racism and homophobia. Suffice it to say that for any individual with a traumatized nervous system, sitting in silence and focusing attention on the body is not always the right response. In eliminating or minimizing external inputs, unconscious material rises to the fore. This is precisely why meditation is such a powerfully healing practice—and also why it can trigger a traumatic reaction. If meditation is a response to trauma, then it requires a very skillful teacher.

As for me, while I am grateful for meditation, it wasn’t enough. I feel fortunate to have found other tools to help pry aside the darkness and expose what lay even deeper than the fear and pain: an original sense of joy, a spontaneous creativity, an integrated presence. I didn’t want my dark night of the soul, and the truth is I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But on stumbling my vertiginous way out I discovered myself happier than I’d ever been. The breaking, I’ve come to see, was a crucial part of the healing—the psyche’s radical stab in the direction of wholeness; a death in service of rebirth. 

A friend recently suggested that I may have been better off never meditating or journeying to India. I disagree. Yes, I may have stayed stable—but I would still have been driven by what lay buried in my unconscious. Breakdown forced me to face it. I had no choice: I had to relinquish control. And perhaps that’s where the greatest transformation is born.

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28 April 2017. What does it take for activists to get your attention?

We need campaigns that educate media consumers on how they are manipulated.

This article was first published by Waging Nonviolence.

Members of Puente Arizona pray together as they put their bodies on the line to block access to a rally for Donald Trump in 2016. Credit: WNV/Twitter/Puente Arizona. Some rights reserved.

For major protests today, it is standard to have a media strategy. For example, there can be individuals assigned to media liaison. The location and timing of an action can be chosen with an eye toward media schedules. Some actions are designed specifically to attract media attention.

However, there are many factors that complicate activist efforts to reach the mass media. Major outlets choose what to report based on news values such as conflict, prominence and proximity. A politician will be quoted rather than an activist, and a scuffle at a rally will be reported rather than what the protest is actually about.

Activists can try to sidestep the mass media by using social media. Another option is simply to not worry so much about media coverage and focus on making actions meaningful for participants. After all, protesters are part of the audience.

There is lots of practical advice on how to send the protest message, and it is definitely worth understanding media dynamics and taking them into account. However, protesters will nearly always be at a disadvantage when trying to compete with dominant groups. A useful perspective for understanding this challenge is provided by Tim Wu in his engaging book “The Attention Merchants.”

Capturing attention

Wu tells the story of media in an original way, as a struggle to capture the attention of audiences. What you pay attention to is the foundation of your reality. It is what you think about, and it shapes your behavior. According to Wu, the history of media is an evolving effort by governments and corporations to capture the attention of audiences.

Wu starts with the first newspapers. They were sober, expensive and not widely read. Then a U.S. entrepreneur had the idea of running advertisements, lowering the price and increasing circulation by running stories of scandal. The result was hugely popular. More people read newspapers. Their attention was captured by lower quality reporting and then directed to ads.

This same pattern was repeated with each new media form. It’s hard to believe today that when radio was introduced in the United States in the 1920s, it was thought improper to broadcast ads that would be played in people’s homes, which were considered private domains. But then a popular program, Amos ’n’ Andy, began airing ads, breaking the barrier of politeness.

Governments also used media to their ends. The British and U.S. governments pioneered the use of propaganda during World War I to promote patriotism and recruitment into the army. The Nazis in Germany learned from this when developing their own propaganda.

However, it wasn’t only governments that learned from the success of World War I propaganda. Advertisers adopted some of the same techniques.

Wu tells of wave after wave of new attention-gathering media, including television, desktop computers, video games and smartphones. In every case, advertisers have shaped content and use, with the trend being to degrade the content to attract audiences and reduce costs. For example, it is expensive to produce quality television, and some producers came up with the idea of having unpaid actors. Reality TV was born, and it was a great hit.

From the point of view of activists, the dilemma is that nearly every media form is captured by advertisers, who are highly sophisticated in designing ways to entice viewers. Today, they have invaded the most intimate parts of people’s lives via the smartphone. When you use Google or browse the web, the ads follow. On many sites, there is “click-bait”: intriguing stories with headlines designed to increase the likelihood that you will click on them and read further, including the associated ads.

In this marketplace built around attention capture, activists operate at a severe disadvantage. They may be perceived as just one more group competing for attention, but without a multi-billion-dollar enterprise to back up their efforts. Media entrepreneurs and advertisers can hire the best psychology, media studies and marketing students to figure out ways to promote their interests. Their efforts are most effective when audiences are influenced without even thinking about it. Many ads are designed to sidestep rational assessment.

This picture would be relentlessly depressing except for one countervailing process. After a new media form captures widespread attention, usually there is a popular backlash as consumers instinctively resist the exploitation of their time and interest. So, periodically, there have been efforts to push back against saturation advertising. In the 1800s, billboards and other public advertising took over cities such as Paris. This eventually led to protests and to laws restricting such advertising.

Recent types of resistance are the use of ad blockers on smartphones and the popularity of Netflix, where viewers binge on several episodes or even entire series in marathon sittings without watching a single ad.

Activists are, for the most part, small players in the struggle for attention. They seldom can afford high-profile ads, and mass media coverage usually lacks an in-depth treatment of issues. Relying on social media means competing with vast numbers of other messages.

Another problem is that most people do not understand how they are influenced by media. They think ads influence other people, but not themselves.

What to do?

One response to this situation is to figure out ways for helping more people to become knowledgeable about the operation of the media and the activities of the attention merchants. Organizers could add segments on media dynamics to sessions on nonviolence training. But more is needed, beyond the ranks of activists.

More broadly, to make a difference in the long run, we need campaigns to educate media consumers about how they are being manipulated and having their attention sold to advertisers. Fostering a movement to run such campaigns is a huge challenge.

In the meantime, individuals can try to resist attention merchants on their own. However, collective action is more promising. Members of groups can support each other in turning off intrusive media inputs, installing blockers or refocusing attention on sources to achieve long-term goals.

How this might be done is a work in progress. So far, attention merchants have taken most of the initiatives, with audiences either welcoming or resisting their offerings. Activists usually try to compete for people’s attention, but do this at a severe disadvantage in skills and resources. This is why they should consider joining a struggle at the receiving end. The goal: developing people’s understanding of attention-capture techniques and building their capacity to resist and redirect their attention.

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26 April 2017. Why stories matter

Stories cultivate the frequently forgotten yet uniquely human traits that build solidarity.

Credit: Flickr/Zenonas Meskauskas. Some rights reserved.

I’m sitting at the window of a cafe in Notting Hill Gate in London, looking out at the passing machines and global signage. A man across the street dips into a rubbish bin, rescues an unopened plastic bottle of milk from deep inside and squeezes it into one of four over-full plastic bags, before pushing on to the next bin at a steady clip.

The bins hold valuable assets to the cognoscenti, but they have to be quick to get the good stuff that people outside the circle absently throw away: a packet of cigarettes from someone who made the snap decision to quit, perhaps, a bag of blueberry muffins past their sell-by date, or an unfinished can of beer.

Between Pizza Express and Prontaprint the same man excavates a second bin, extending the full length of his arm to the bottom and lifting something out. I’m eager to know what it is. There’s a discerning look in his eye as he weighs in his mind whether or not it’s collectable, before deciding to let gravity reclaim the mystery object. Perhaps someone further along will assess its market value differently.

Soon afterwards, a woman of indeterminate age determinedly tries her luck in the first rubbish bin, and then quickly moves along to the second.  She picks out a bunch of withered flowers tied together with a ribbon—evidently something the first bin-searcher considered worthless—and cradles them in the crook of her arm, before walking on a little more slowly than before, perhaps plunged in thought with her petals or simply keeping a safe distance from her predecessor. Bin scavenging must be fraught with such dangers and demands.

Just like most other jobs, time is the enemy. Those on the hunt are in competition with each other, but they’re also racing against the clock to beat the men in yellow jackets from the local council whose job it is to empty the bins into the mouths of their guzzling trucks. Scavengers are caught in a unity of opposites, simultaneously inside and outside the mainstream world: subjected to regular routes and routines but only in order to sustain life in a sleeping bag.

How did they get here? Relieved of wages and possessions, anyone can join their club. Admission is not restricted to addicts or the mentally ill. In times of economic austerity and insecurity the distance from the cliff’s edge to the bottom may be large even for those on an average salary, but the descent can be rapid.

The woman with dead flowers in her arms wasn't born on the street, I assume. Perhaps the sun was shining brightly for her as she sang her lungs out in class, a beam of sunlight on her desk, with pens and pencils inside along with a jotter with her name on it, a skipping rope, and a treasured note from an early love interest. I see her running around the yard with other children at playtime, using up some of that excess energy, laughing and giggling, hearing other children call to her. Now she has her head in a rubbish bin near Prontaprint and is all-but invisible.

What about the man who walked past my café window? Obviously at some point his life had changed. Maybe it was sudden, but it could have been gradual, losing his grip finger by finger until he was unable to cling to the ledge any longer, and was forced to fall. People don’t give up the fight easily though. I once met a family in Walsall in the English Midlands who were pulling up the floorboards in their upstairs bedroom to burn for fuel, so I helped them to break up the floor of their life raft. That night I had been standing on the street opposite their house in relentless rain, trying to hitch a lift back to the motorway. They called me over and invited me in to dry off and warm up by a roaring fire, and for the next few hours husband and wife cheerfully competed to tell me stories of better times, while their son was the colour of death.

I met them on a miserable trip that started and finished in freezing rain. Almost as soon as I arrived in London I turned around and headed home to Scotland, unsure of why I had set out in the first place. On my way back the day started off bad and steadily got worse. It was dim from dawn, and lifts from motorists were few and far between. Somewhere on the bleak A1 I found myself stranded, numb with cold and wet. At one point the situation was so bad that I stood in the middle of the road to stop a car, but the driver only took me for half a mile. Back on the verge a man who looked like a tramp emerged from behind me wearing several coats and a beaming smile—an instantly friendly and overwhelmingly sociable Glaswegian. My heart sank.

To my eternal shame, I didn’t want to be burdened with someone who might reduce my chances of a motorist stopping even further. But the ice broke, and we walked on together for a fair stretch of road. I got so caught up in conversation with him that until he asked me, I had quite forgotten that I was hungry. Starving in fact, I told him, and immediately he produced some foil-wrapped sandwiches from out of the deep pockets of one of his overcoats.

Being a vegetarian, I gave him back the contents of the sandwiches and just ate the buttered white bread. His face darkened; I didn’t know real hunger, he said. But in less than a minute he was back to his cheerful self, giving me advice on everything from the Scottish history they don’t tell you in school to how to find out if a rabbit’s at home using a twig, and the best way to find a sandwich: look for the back door of a hospital kitchen, since the people who work there are always willing to help.

After an hour or two I reminded myself that my companion was a hitch-hiker’s hindrance and declared that we should go our separate ways in order to increase the chances of a lift.  He thought I considered him beneath me; I could read him reading me, and I suppose he was right, but he resumed his smile and emphasized that we should stay together. If it came to it, he said, he knew ways of surviving a bad run on the motorway, but I was emphatic, and quickly walked ahead.

In the hour that followed, darkness descended and with it despair. I couldn’t see where I was walking along the grass verge, and frequently slipped. The rain fell more heavily, and I was soaked through, shivering and weak. Then hope in the form of some distant car headlights shone through the pelting rain, and I stuck out my thumb from the edge of the road. The car sprayed me as it passed and showed no signs of stopping, but then quite suddenly it pulled into the verge ahead and I ran towards the lights as fast as I could.

I pulled open the door and climbed into the front seat, thanking the driver profusely for saving my life. He turned the wheel to pull back on to the road. “No need to thank me,” he said, “it was this guy who insisted I stop,” indicating the tramp with his thumb, who, with a big smile on his face, was already sitting in the back seat of the car.

Ok, so what’s point of this story, you might ask? The brain is wired for metaphor. It provides a quick route to comprehension, but also a trigger to the brain's sensory areas—an action that helps to deepen our understanding through feeling. Storytelling, recognised in every society as a way of making sense of cultural roots or social reality, is an elaborate form of metaphor, and memoir is its masterpiece: life stories enable us to share insights and enhance mutual understanding in a social, political, psychological and spiritual sense. Memoir is revolutionary precisely because, when shared, it’s a way towards the truth.

We don’t become any less by sharing. Stories are part of the fabric of who we are, but only in sharing our life experiences do we develop a sense of self. After all, individuals are necessarily social. In my story, the man I met on the motorway had little when seen from the perspective of materialistic culture, but he had gifts to give and gave them gladly despite my selfish disregard: empathy, altruism, joy and sacrifice—all the stuff that makes us human. He may also have saved my life. Stories cultivate the frequently forgotten yet uniquely human traits that are crucial in building solidarity.

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24 April 2017. To seize back democracy we need carpe diem politics

We're immersed in one of the most dynamic periods of public protest ever recorded, so let’s seize the day.

Credit: Pixabay/ColiN00B. CC0 Public Domain.

Just like economists, political scientists have a poor record of predicting the future, whether it’s the fall of the Berlin Wall, the victory of Trump, or the timing of a UK general election. They might be even less able – or willing – to foresee that a more significant change is on its way: the demise of representative democracy itself.

Across the globe, but particularly in the Western world, we are witnessing the erosion of confidence and trust in government and traditional political parties, a long-term decline in voter turnout, and deteriorating faith in democratic norms. At the same time, anti-system, populist politicians like Marine Le Pen are stepping in to offer apparent solutions to issues where the existing system has seemingly failed to deliver on its promises, ranging from job insecurity and inequality to migration and terrorism.

How can democracy save itself from this impending failure? What would it take to create a new era of progressive democratic renewal?

I believe the best chance we have of moving forward starts with looking back to ancient philosophy. More specifically, at least part of the solution lies in one of the most potent and popular philosophical ideals in Western cultural thought: carpe diem.

Sounds unlikely? Let me explain.

Carpe diem or ‘seize the day’ is a phrase that goes back to the Roman poet Horace. In a poem he wrote in 23 BC he declared that, “Even as we speak, envious time flies past. Seize the day and leave as little as possible for tomorrow.’” Since then his two-word Latin motto has become a dominant cultural meme which generates over 25 million online search results and has spawned imitation catchphrases like the Nike slogan ‘Just Do It’ and the social media hashtag #YOLO (‘you only live once’).

Dig a little deeper, however, and a more nuanced picture begins to emerge. In the process of writing my new book Carpe Diem Regained, I worked with a research team to look at how terms such as ‘carpe diem’ and ‘seize the day’ have been used in everything from contemporary newspapers to Reformation church sermons. After analysing hundreds of original sources going back to the sixteenth century, a fascinating pattern became clear: there have been four essential interpretations of these phrases through the centuries.

The most popular form of carpe diem I call opportunity, which concerns taking windows of opportunity that may never be repeated, whether it’s the career break of a lifetime or the chance to rescue a failing relationship. A second approach is hedonism, where we seize the day through sensory pleasures, from free love to gastronomic exploration. Another is presence, which includes  entering the present moment mindfully through methods such as meditation, but also extends to more vigorous activities such as the intense rush of extreme sports or getting entranced in dance. The fourth is spontaneity, which involves throwing plans and routines to the wind and becoming more experimental in the way we live.

I’m the first to admit that this quartet of approaches to seizing the day doesn’t appear very political (although Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election in Britain is an exemplary case of seizing a window of opportunity). Indeed, carpe diem has typically been conceived of as an individualist philosophy applicable to private rather than public life.

In my view, however, there’s also a fifth form of seizing the day: political carpe diem. This is not a term that you’ll find in any political science textbook, but it deserves to be. I define it as a strategy for political change based on mass popular mobilisation which harnesses all four forms of seizing the day and takes them to the collective level in an effort to achieve more influence.

Throughout history we have seen social movements exhibiting and energised by such traits. Take, for instance, the Global Justice Movement in the early noughties, where ‘carnivals against capitalism’ in cities such as Seattle, Genoa and London were full of seize-the-day spirit. They were not just about seizing opportunities on a collective scale, but were full of spontaneous mobilisation that brought protesters into the present moment and displayed plenty of hedonistic revelry alongside serious political intentions. Remember all those activists in pink tutus taunting the police with feather dusters and dancing to the beat of samba bands? That was political carpe diem in action. It’s as if they had Horace whispering in their ears.

In fact, some of the world’s most successful social movements – like the gay rights and women’s movements that emerged in the 1970s – have been fuelled by this political form of carpe diem that echoes the anti-authoritarianism of the medieval carnival tradition. It’s what gives grass-roots activism much of its power and attraction. As the political writer and historian Barbara Ehrenreich points out, “Almost every demonstration I have been on over the years – anti-war, feminist, or for economic justice – has featured some element of the carnivalesque: costumes, music, impromptu dancing, the sharing of food and drink…the urge to transform one’s appearance, to dance outdoors, to mock the powerful and embrace perfect strangers is not easy to suppress.”

But how relevant is political carpe diem today? Can it really help us stand up to the rise of far-right extremism and inject democratic politics with new vigour?

Although contemporary politics is overshadowed by the emergence of anti-system, anti-democratic actors,  a more hopeful development is also evident: we are immersed in one of the most dynamic periods of public protest action ever recorded, on a par with momentous periods such as the 1960s.

We may find it hard to notice this as we go about our daily lives, but the evidence is overwhelming. A study at Columbia University of over 800 protests in more than 80 countries revealed a steady rise in the number of mass protests since 2006, with the majority focusing on economic justice and anti-austerity issues. Some have been amongst the largest protests ever known: 37 of them, in countries such as France, India and Chile – gathered crowds of over one million people.

Source: Isabel Ortiz, Sara Burke, Mohamed Berrada and Hernan Cortes Saenz (2013), World Protests 2006-2013, Columbia University and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung 

What’s striking about these protests is how many of them display a carpe diem personality. I’m thinking here of movements like Occupy, which in September 2011 spread rapidly from Wall Street to 951 cities in 82 countries. I’m also thinking of the protests of the Podemos citizens’ movement in Spain, which grew out of the carpe diem activism of the Indignados – the indignant ones – who took over the Puerta de Sol in Madrid and other public spaces. Then there’s Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution, and most recently the pink hats of the anti-Trump Women’s March in 2017.

So many of these ‘networked social movements’ as the sociologist Manuel Castells calls them have inherited the carpe diem spirit that goes back to Horace. Of course, not all of them are on the progressive, anti-authoritarian left. On the right the Tea Party also displayed plenty of seize-the-day traits, with their members dressing up in eighteenth-century colonial gear and wearing hats with teabags hanging off them. But the real heartland of carpe diem politics is the new landscape of networked movements fired by the ideals of social justice, democratic values and progressive change.

I believe that today’s grass roots movements, campaigning on issues ranging from far-right extremism to climate change, will boost their possibilities of success if they can tap into the potential of collective carpe diem activism. Yet they face three major challenges.

The first is that carpe diem politics could encourage mobilisation at the expense of organisation. Drawing people onto the streets with clever social media strategies is all very well, but as Paul Mason observes, “horizontalism can stage a great demo, but does not know what it wants”. There is no substitute for the kind of serious grass-roots and neighbourhood organising that has been so vital to successful social movement action in countries like Spain.

A second problem is that they might focus too much on creating community spirit and not enough on challenging the state. This was, perhaps, the fate of the Occupy Movement. Yes, it was successful in catapulting the issue of inequality onto the public agenda through its ‘We are the 99%’ slogan, but Occupy failed to issue concrete demands such as radical tax reforms or new rules limiting corporate funding in politics. They would have had more impact if they’d dropped their ‘Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing’ mantra and adopted a few clear policy aims like the 1970s feminist movement, which campaigned on specific issues like equal pay and reproductive rights.

The final obstacle is that changing politics through social movement action is an undoubtedly challenging pathway compared to traditional routes such as electoral politics. How many of us have gone on marches with tens of thousands of people, only to be completely ignored by the politicians?

Yet we must retain our faith in the power of movements to change the course of history and give participatory substance to the democratic ideal. As the anthropologist and political scientist James Scott reminds us, “the great emancipatory gains for human freedom have not been the result of orderly, institutional procedures, but of disorderly, unpredictable, spontaneous action cracking open the social order from below.”

This is as relevant today as it ever was in the past. If there is any hope of forging a progressive alliance in the upcoming UK general election to confront Theresa May’s blinkered pursuit of Brexit-at-any-cost, then it will take a mass carpe diem movement of citizens on the streets to really make Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party sit up and listen.

Social movement action will never be enough on its own to create change. We need other strategies too, such as cementing social bonds by encouraging traits like empathy, and offering new economic visions to inspire us. But we would also be wise to put our faith in Horace. The moment has come to forge a new democratic era where we shift from the singular carpe diem to the plural carpamus diem – let’s seize the day together. 

 Roman Krznaric’s new book is Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day.

Click here for an exclusive ‘click essay’ extract from Roman Krznaric’s new book Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day

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21 April 2017. What DNA ancestry testing can and can’t tell you

What are the social justice implications of spitting into a test tube?

Illustration by Bobby Sims for YES! Magazine. All rights reserved.

More than 20 years ago, my mother and aunt started a process of finding these answers. My mother then was excited to tell me about a man named Cupid, a not-so-distant relative.

The Rev. Cupid Aleyus Whitfield was born in 1868 to Cato and Amanda Whitfield, former slaves of Gen. William Gilchrist of Gadsden County, Florida. When he was about 16 years old, Cupid began teaching at a primary school and became known as one of the leading “colored” teachers in Gadsden County. He married Rebecca Zellene Goodson in 1889, and they had either nine or 14 children, depending on the source consulted.

My mother and aunt learned their father, Charlie Whitfield—my grandfather—was one of Cupid’s grandsons. This is all that I know of my maternal grandfather’s lineage. Of my maternal grandmother’s, I know even less.

Of my paternal family, I knew only my father’s name, and even after I met him in the late 1980s, that was still all that I knew. I never met his mother, father, or his siblings, and did not know their names. He passed away in April 2006, and I didn’t learn about his death until months later. But I still wanted to know more about him. And so I began my search.

Unlike my mother and aunt’s experience of uncovering information to fill in the many blanks in our family tree, I have the privilege of Google, ancestry websites, and DNA testing companies that emerged in the early 2000s. This new technology is revolutionary for folks like me, who want to know not only where they come from but also from whom—genealogical researchers, adoptees searching for family members, and folks tracing family trees, particularly African American families that had been displaced by slavery.

In her decade-long fieldwork to learn how the new technology impacts the way people self-identify, Alondra Nelson, Columbia University professor of sociology, says she found so much more. Her latest book, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome, explores the way in which DNA is being used as a tool for racial reconciliation.

I spoke with Nelson about what DNA science might offer social change.

Zenobia Jeffries: You open your book with the story of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the human rights organization that helps find children who were stolen and illegally adopted after their mothers were killed during the Argentine Dirty War. You later tell how DNA was unsuccessfully used in a reparations case here in the United States. How can science help answer fundamental questions about social justice and equality?

Alondra Nelson: The Argentina story shows us that science can help. In that case you’re talking about grandparents and grandchildren. When you’re doing a match, that sort of genetic line is actually pretty close. When you’re talking about the experience of people of African descent, there’s a gap of hundreds of years; you have a bigger mystery and a technical hurdle because you’re dealing with the history of the slave trade. In post-apartheid Africa, you have families who have not been able to do burial rites for members of their [families] who died in the apartheid struggle. I think to be able to identify the remains of a specific loved one, and to be able to commemorate, bury, and memorialize that person is really powerful. Science can help with that identification, but we need to have some complicated conversations. Science can’t be our moral compass.

Jeffries: What implication does DNA testing have for understanding racial and ethnic identity?

Nelson: It’s complicated. The tests are far from definitive. The companies use different databases and make different kinds of mathematical and statistical assumptions. Those formulas and algorithms are their trade secrets, so they’re under no obligation to share them with other countries. So, what we think about in an academic setting, when you think about something being scientifically valid, it means that you can replicate it, you can verify it; [if] someone else does the same experiment or uses the same genetic sample from you and puts it in their database, they’ll get the same results. With these companies, we don’t have any of those kind of gold standards of what we might consider academic research science.

That said, for communities like African Americans, they are in many cases left without any other way to think about that. Though we have some communities who’ve been able to use food and linguistic ties, like the Gullah/Geechee communities, who link to contemporary Sierra Leone through linguistic ties. But those cases are less common.

And so you have a large swath of people who want to know and who are willing to try different ways of knowing. It can help to the extent that, regardless of whether you’re of African descent, you’ve seen the reality television shows—people get a test, and it gives them sometimes new information, sometimes surprising information, or sometimes it just confirms or underscores what they already thought they knew.

Jeffries: Some tests break down one’s percentage of ethnicity. But does knowing that bring us closer or divide us further when you talk about the struggle toward racial justice?

Nelson: A test that says you’re this percent of this or this percent of that is making not a historical or factual assumption; it’s making a statistical and probabilistic assumption. So, what does it mean if a test says you’re either 100 percent or 30 percent Nigerian? That means they’ve created some algorithm that they assume is 100 percent Nigerian. But what in the world would that be? The history of human history is one of intermixing, intermarriage, intermating.

I use the phrase “genealogical aspirations” because the questions that people have in agreeing to the testing experience sort of shape what it can mean for them. If it’s important for you to know what part Norwegian you are versus what part Russian, then you’re going to be interested in how you slice those things up. But if you’re more interested in whether you’re more European or more bio-geographically mixed, then you have a different read of what the tests are.

For me, what’s important is not so much that these types of tests give you the truth of who you are, your identity, but that they suggest how we have come to think about putting human beings in buckets. None of these categories means anything outside of culture and history.

Jeffries: You say DNA can be used as a tool in the struggle for racial justice. Is using it for genealogical research part of that struggle?

Nelson: Sure. For people of African descent who feel incomplete without having that information about their African ancestry, it becomes very empowering.

Whether we’re talking about genetics or identity, we know that social movements and social activism come out of a sense of empowerment and agency. And like-minded people who feel empowered and outraged about the way things are can change things. That empowerment comes to some through the use of these tests is part of what mobilizes them for social justice issues.

Jeffries: For the companies that own these databases, is there something to be said about the politics of privacy and the ethics of who keeps our DNA?

Nelson: Different companies do different things. Often the consent forms you sign when you do one of these tests look like the consent that you sign when you’re uploading a new operating system—there’s a lot of small words and people don’t really read it. We know, for example, that some companies keep all of your data, because when you’re dealing with millions of genetic markers, the bigger your databases are, the more reliable statistically speaking your findings can be.

And now that some companies are interested, not only in genetic ancestry testing but also in pharmaceutical developments, this data becomes really important. They’re using people’s genetic samples to try to do investigations and for the development of personalized medicine and protocols.

But then you have the new genetic genealogy 2.0 that’s been happening: the ability for people to upload their markers online, to make them available to other geneticists.

On one website you can fill out as much as you can of your family tree and also upload your genetic genealogy results so that other people can see them or people can contact you. On the one hand, there’s two different competing interests here: One is people wanting to know more about their genealogy and their genetic genealogy, which might cause them to reveal information to other people. But then there’s also this real necessary interest in privacy and the desire for privacy.

Someone might think, “Well, I’m just using this to do my genealogy.” But that same data could be used to reveal things about your medical profile or could be used potentially to implicate people in the criminal justice system.

The thing about DNA that’s different from other kinds of data is that it can be useful in all of these different social and political sites—the exact same data, the exact same samples, potentially. That’s where the portability and transitive nature of DNA technology is the concern.

I’m not trying to paint a dystopic future, but I think it’s something to worry about. Genetic data carries a lot of information that can be used simultaneously in a lot of different places for purposes for which people intend it to be used, and purposes that they do not.

This article first appeared in YES! Magazine.

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19 April 2017. In praise of melancholia

Without knowing the extremes of sadness and joy we can never fully know or feel all that life is.

Melancholy by Edgar Degas. Credit: Edgar Degas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“There is something so enchanting in the smile of melancholy. It is a ray of light in the darkness, a shade between sadness and despair, showing the possibility of consolation.” Leo Tolstoy

What if melancholy can be passed down through generations, not just culturally but at the level of our DNA? Melancholia has long been seen as a key element in artistic inspiration, along with a way of turning pain and sorrow into healing, and ultimately, an acceptance of life’s inescapable emotional sufferings and wounds.

The science of “behavioural epigenetics” is now exploring how this might actually work by studying the ways in which “signals from the environment trigger molecular biological changes that modify what goes on in brain cells.” It’s a controversial idea because up until recently, it was thought that epigenetic information was erased over time, leaving a blank slate for every new generation.

But what if genes that have been influenced by negative environmental factors like famine, conflict, slavery or alcohol abuse could retain some stressful memories that leave molecular scars on our children and grandchildren? The implications would be profound, especially because genetic engineering would be almost irresistible—and that industry has a far from illustrious history.

recent study by Rachel Yehuda and others at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York on the transmission of stress effects from holocaust survivors to their offspring claims exactly this—that severe psycho-physiological trauma experienced by parents has a measurable impact on the next generation. Stress wasn’t just culturally transmitted through holocaust stories; it was transferred at the level of the molecular biology of the brain.

So could there be positive connections across generations in this way, and if so, could these links be consciously strengthened or created?

Philosophers have long entertained the idea that melancholy and creativity are inter-connected.  Friedrich Nietzshe said that the suffering brought on by melancholy—“this evening twilight devil” as he called it—was vital to the mind and soul, even sacred. Suffering and difficulty, he thought, must be embraced, cultivated, and carefully crafted. Not for him the cowardly and numbing reassurance of what he called the “slave morality” of human timidity when faced with pain.

Without some kind of torment present in the soul, nothing of real or lasting value or beauty can be created. Without that dichotomy of emotional experiences; without knowing the extremes of sadness and joy, we can never fully know or feel all that life is. Similarly, Soren Kierkegaard wrote that melancholy was his “intimate confidant,” his “most faithful mistress,” and a place where he found “bliss.” Like Nietzsche, he thought that the suffering brought on by angst—melancholia’s more animated cousin you might say—was a necessary prerequisite for creativity.

Indigenous and shamanic cultures such as that of Aboriginal Australia have no problem in believing that melancholy and other experiences among our ancestors can shape our current reality for good and ill, and that in some way we can be psychically healed in the here and now by understanding this relationship. Aboriginal culture believes that the spirits of our ancestors reside in the crevices and caves of holy mountains, and that the hum of the wind, if understood and interpreted correctly, will reveal messages and signs from the dead.

Shamans, Sufi mystics and other ‘psycho-spiritual travellers’ have always played a highly-revered cultural and spiritual role as avatars who expand their ordinary consciousness through rhythmic dancing, hypnotic drumming or ingesting psychoactive substances, and who break through into suspended time or “dreamtime.” In doing so, they can act as a bridge between what is perceived as ordinary reality and other non-ordinary transpersonal realms.

As a result, the ‘wounded healer’—the great global archetype associated with visionary shamanism as a person with acute mental perceptions—is able to ‘bring back’ knowledge and wisdom from outside of our ordinary, three-dimensional, linear space and time. The goal of bringing back this wisdom from dreamtime is to heal and regenerate all of the community on both a spiritual and a societal level. Entering dreamtime is understood as a deeply creative act.

In the Buddhist tradition, Avalokiteshvara, the “Buddha to be” who is worshipped in both male and female forms has vowed to postpone enlightenment until s/he has released all sentient beings from Dukkha, the Sanskrit word for suffering. Suffering in Buddhism is understood as one of the four great Noble Truths. In the Fire Sermons, preached over two and half thousand years ago, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, said that we live with delusion or avidya caused by suffering, and as a result we are “burning:”

“The mind is burning, ideas are burning, mind-consciousness is burning … Burning with what? I say it is burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs.”

Hence, suffering and the sadness it brings is a universal part of human experience—a visceral part of who we are at our very core. We can run from this truth if we want to, but it will catch up with us in the end. There is no hiding place, and no amount of 21st century consumption or other distractions will douse our burnings.

Melancholy is a particular kind of sadness, an emotion born of suffering but reflective rather than creating a debilitating depression. It lies somewhere “in the shade between sadness and despair” as Leo Tolstoy put it, “where the possibility of consolation might lie.” Melancholy also has a faint quality of mourning, even a kind of grief, but for what? Our lost innocence? All that is lost in the past, and all that will be lost in the future? The human condition is full of bewilderment, misunderstanding, loss and grief because we will lose the people we love, and because things will not work out in the ways we want, so mourning and regret are inevitable.

As Susan Sontag memorably noted, depression is melancholy minus the charms. Depression paralyses, inflicts inertia and often steals our ability to function; whereas melancholy can act as a creative spur, building a hard won modicum of self-knowledge to draw on. Depression closes out the world and reduces our experiences to the claustrophobic confines of our own heads; whereas paradoxically, melancholy can open up these claustrophobic walls to acceptance and self-knowledge.

If we are to stay sane in the world we must actively seek out this kind of melancholy, for if we don’t we won’t be able to understand ourselves fully. We risk one-dimensionality and superficiality—two of the many curses brought on by 21st century capitalism. This cannot be self-indulgent, nor just another excuse to inflict even more pain on our ‘guilty,’ ‘undeserving’ and unexamined selves.

Thankfully, great art can console us, particularly great music. Music is surely our greatest medium of expression, and if melancholy sometimes feels like a vast enveloping grief, then perhaps music and the consolation it brings can help us to grieve. The melancholic note in popular music—the ‘blue’ note understood by the great African American Jazz artists of the twentieth century—heals, soothes and, if we allow it, can transform our suffering into this kind of knowing and accepting melancholia. Musicians from Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson to Miles Davis, Van Morrison and Lennon and McCartney have all understood this sense of pathos, and have felt and communicated it intuitively.

Take Lennon and McCartney for example. Both were the creative driving force of the Beatles. Perhaps the lonely and aching impulse of two young boys who had lost their mothers produced a symbiotic psychic energy that spurred them to create something remarkable from abrupt and searing pain. But could they have been mining something even deeper? Could emotional trauma have been passed down from earlier generations? And could the same be said of slavery and racism as part of the genesis of 19th and 20th century African American blues? It seems plausible. After all, Smith, Davis, Lennon and McCartney, David Bowie and the rest are surely our culture’s great avatars and shamans. It is they who soothe, guide and enlighten, and make it all worthwhile.

Appreciating great music is not just an intellectual exercise. It is much more than that. We don’t just hear music, we feel it, and in a melancholy state we do so even more intensely. If you haven’t felt music or any other art form with that intensity then Nietzsche was surely right: without that intensity of feeling, life would be a mistake.

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17 April 2017. Facing up to our shadow side with compassion

Restorative justice makes real the fact that conflict, pain, suffering and crime are part of all our lives.

Inside H Block 4.Credit: Flickr/Still Burning. Some rights reserved.

In 1995 my mother went into full blown psychosis as a result of a drastic change in the medication she was taking for schizo-affective disorder. She lured some of our friends and neighbors into our home and took the youngest, a toddler, into the basement bedroom. Once there, she slashed the child’s throat with a knife because of a voice telling her she had to. The toddler survived despite a massive loss of blood.

Mom had suffered from mental illness for most of her life in some form or another, and her new doctor at that time had reduced her antipsychotic medication without monitoring the effects. She had tried to take her own life after I was born, so afraid of being a bad mother that she thought it would be better if she exited, but I had no idea that she was managing life with depression that turned into bipolar disorder in my teens. She never harmed me. Quite the opposite—I was loved and supported by both my parents. But I do remember, and live with, the stigma that surrounds people with mental illness and everyone who loves them.

After the attack my mother was arrested, obliterated out of her mind. The media went wild, and she became the town monster. The magnitude of what she had done and the fear it elicited was everywhere. Others in the neighborhood began monitoring my family. They wanted to make sure the monster was put away for life. People I had known since I was a kid turned against us.

What followed was a textbook example of how not to deal with mental illness and its consequences—through ignorance, suspicion, incarceration and revenge instead of facing up to the shadow side of humanity with openness, love and understanding. It’s a story that I’ve never told before in public in such detail, but it needs to be told as another step towards redemption, and as the reason I believe that restorative justice is by far the best way forward. I’m also telling it as part of the process of owning who I am, and who my family are—good people who had something horrific and tragic visited on them, which devastated many lives.

Restorative justice values and strives to honor the needs of everyone involved in the most humane ways possible and in a safe environment—those who commit crimes, and those who suffer from them. In so doing, it brings humanity back into the justice system. It converts a limited worldview based around isolation and individualism into a much more positive vision that is rooted in honesty, accountability, and the visible connection of causes with effects. And it works in concrete terms by drastically reducing recidivism and costs. Most important of all, it nurtures new relationships and a strong sense of human unity. In that sense, the root power of restorative justice is love expressed in action.

This is not to shy away from the need for accountability or regret. I cannot overstate the utter sadness that I and my family have felt for what happened ever since, the desire to take away the pain from my mom’s victim and those who love her. The empathy and care we felt and still feel has never had a chance to be fully seen or expressed given the shambles of a criminal justice system that pits people against one another to further detriment and destruction—not to mention the total lack of opportunities for a mentally ill person to try to communicate their authentic feelings and reach for accountability under the harrowing conditions of imprisonment, where they are denied proper psychiatric treatment. This has been a hex for us all.

My mom was put on trial in the spring of 1996. I testified that she was not a criminal, but has a mental illness. I stand by that to this day. The court was cold and bifurcating: divided aisles, and a mix of fear, judgment and unspoken hatred mingling in the air. The judge ruled that my mother did not belong in prison due to her illness, and she was sentenced to house arrest and stringent rules for probation. If she violated them, she’d face 15 years in jail. And that’s when the neighborhood witch hunt resumed in earnest.

In 1996 and 1997, the Probation Officer received slews of calls about my mother’s case, falsely reporting violations. One group of neighbors followed my family around like bloodhounds, and one day at a water aerobics class at the local YMCA they found out that her caretaker had gone back to the locker room because she had a cold. Although my mom was in the pool with other responsible adults, this was one of the things cited by the group as a violation of her probation.

She was summoned to a hearing and from there to prison to begin her sentence (the judge who had issued a clear ruling against incarceration at the initial trial was now up for a possible spot on the state Supreme Court, and this may have influenced his decision). I remember the day she was taken away very clearly. My father and I sat with her. “Molly, you have to live your life—go on,” she told me. That was the last time I saw her outside of prison until 2014. It was 1999. I was 29 years old.

I visited my mother at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center in Eastern Idaho, a dank university town with a strange oppression in the air. The prison is located as far as possible from most of Idaho’s other major cities, which is a common pattern in American society—to make it as hard as possible to keep up any kind of contact or relationship with incarcerated family members. My mom became another number, 48985 to be exact.

In the western world prisons have become de facto asylums. Data are very difficult to gather, but it’s estimated that over half the prison population in the USA are mentally ill. At Pocatello, female prisoners shared a host of human rights violations with me: one belly-chained at her child’s birth with an officer watching the whole proceedings. Others forced to strip naked and be probed in their vagina or anus on suspicion of hiding items. Women with babies and small children who were not allowed extended or overnight visits. Mentally ill prisoners like my mother who were punished in the ‘hole’—placed in solitary confinement—for being honest about their symptoms. On and on, repeat ad nauseam.

In our failure to acknowledge everybody’s shadow side we act out our fears on the most vulnerable members of society. We scapegoat the mentally ill and treat them as though everything is their fault. We are unwilling to acknowledge the sickness that imprisons us in our own patterns of projection. Afraid to face the truth, we cannot enact true or lasting change. Transformation is only possible if we set ourselves free from these limitations and acknowledge the injustice that lies at the heart of the justice system.

My own work as an advocate for restorative justice emerged from these experiences. I saw needs go unmet for decades for everyone involved. I saw no chance of healing, or even of the slightest opening towards it in the prison system. I knew that what I’d experienced was the exact opposite of justice. Justice is respect and communication, and true accountability and reparation. It means distinguishing the individual as separate from their crime and the harm it has caused, and truthfully evaluating the unique conditions that inform a person’s actions. Justice is helping all people—including offenders—to be and feel accountable for what they have done, and to work together to make things right.

I can’t be anything but grateful for the opportunity to choose love over fear again and again throughout the last 25 years, and to live out that commitment in my work. I’ve done everything I can to respect and understand how my mother’s actions have affected others in the community, and to listen to the often ugly, revenge-based messages I’ve received from strangers. I know that housing 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners in American jails when only five per cent of the world’s population lives in the USA is both morally wrong and substantively ineffective as the basis for justice and reconciliation. I know that corporations with vested interests are passionate about filling every prison bed. I know that punishment only exacerbates the problem.

I know that stories like my mom’s must be held and heard safely to provide the raw material for healing. I know that people do not heal when they are pitted against each other and made to play a ruthless game of blame and shame. I know that by humanizing those stories we release the possibility of redemption, and come to understand our shared humanity. Without doubt, I know that restorative justice makes real the fact that conflict, pain, suffering and crime are part of all our existence. They constitute our shadow side.

Facing those shadows head on, naming them, and valuing people for who they are and not for the crimes they have committed, opens the way to offer a renewed sense of belonging to those we realize we have discarded. As Carl Jung once wrote, “if [we] only learn to deal with [our] own shadow [we] have done something real for the world. We have succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.”

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14 April 2017. How I faced misogyny in Hinduism—and found peace with my faith

Religion can be a crutch for patriarchy—and a tool to dismantle it.

Battle scene between Kripa and Shikhandi from the Mahabharata. Credit: Wikimedia. Public Domain.

Unlike most of my peers, my favorite time of day as a child was bedtime. Well, at least it was when my maternal grandmother — who visited my family every other year from the time I was born to the time I left for college — was in town. From the minute she arrived at the airport, I would latch onto her like a tiny barnacle, pestering her with questions from sunup until she finally fell asleep at night, no doubt exhausted by a five-year-old girl with a seemingly unquenchable curiosity about everything.

There was one question to which, however, she never said no. “Ajji?” I’d ask her, my voice high and ever so slightly petulant as she brushed my hair and got me in my pajamas, “Can you tell me a story?”

And she always did. Her repository of stories was seemingly endless, and she had a natural talent for making these tales accessible to a kindergartener without glossing over any moral nuances or situational complexities addressed therein. She drew upon her knowledge of Hindu epics to feed me bite-sized excerpts; exciting tales of kings at battle or goddesses who harnessed their rage to destroy evil.

This is how, before I even really knew what religion was, I was soaking up parts of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, getting my first primer to the Bhagavad Gita, and obtaining a solid foundation in the religion that would leave me conflicted for the next several years to come.

As I got older, I realized that Hinduism, and my relationship with it, would be a bit more complicated than I had previously thought. Well into puberty, I held fast to my tomboy-like tendencies; I far preferred to run around with the neighborhood kids, playing soccer and catching bullfrogs, to princesses or dress-up. I was incredulous, then, when I was stuffed into sequined lehengas, made to wear bejeweled bindis, and put flowers in my hair when visiting the temple or family friends’ houses.

When I protested, I was simply told that girls were akin to the goddess Lakshmi, and so it was expected that we dress like her to bring light into the home. It didn’t seem right that my discomfort — an alienation of my personal boundaries — was being justified via religion, but who was I to argue with a goddess? I kept my mouth shut, but even then, I knew something wasn’t sitting quite right with me.

The older I got, the more serious my problems with the religion in which I was raised grew. My family got their first taste of my self-righteous indignation shortly after I started high school. A few times a week, my whole family would get together to sing bhajans. Before one of these gatherings, however, I was pulled aside and told politely that I was not to participate in the bhajan because I was menstruating and therefore unclean and not allowed to enter the prayer area.

A rage heretofore unknown to me filled my soul — how was I being made pariah in my own home? Why was I being punished for performing a normal bodily function? Why did my religion, one that claimed to profess love and acceptance, make me feel nothing but shame and sadness?

Even then, I knew that my anger at the women in my family was grossly misdirected. They were not subjecting me to anything that they had not experienced, or forcing me to grapple with issues that they had not grappled with as young women. They were merely perpetuating the only lifestyle they had ever known onto the next generation — one that had been thrust onto them, and every generation of women before them, as an unquestionable rule with hazy religious rationale. Religion had become the ultimate crutch for a patriarchal society — one where men made the rules and God enforced them.

I carried my sense of disenfranchisement, and my ultimate disappointment with the religion of my family for many years. All through college I openly decried it, pointed out to anyone who would listen, it seemed, the misogyny I thought intrinsic to the practice of Hinduism.

Somewhere during this period I visited my grandmother, and as we were chatting, she asked me if I had been keeping up with my prayers and visiting the temple regularly while away at college. Though it seemed easier to lie and tell her that I was still pious, something stopped me — this woman, whom I had idolized since I was a toddler, deserved better. She deserved the truth.

I told her I had been struggling with my religion, with the idea of any sort of faith at all; in my view, it seemed to serve only as a way to oppress people, and enforce structures of power that turned people against each other. She thought about what I said for a minute, and then simply looked at me and said, “That’s okay. You love your family, your friends, and you want to help other people. That’s all God really wants you to do.”

While I didn’t know it then, this simple sentiment made an indelible impression on me, and softened my view on Hinduism, and religion in general. I went back to the Mahabarata, re-read the Gita, tried to make sense of the anger of my past. While I found the seeds of what could be interpreted as misogyny in these texts, I also found guidelines on how to live a fulfilling life as an insignificant human living in a cruel and confusing world. These texts were not meant to oppress me, but to try and enlighten me. Religion was a tool that humans used to understand a world that hurt them for no reason; a lack of education and an imbalance of power made it an easy scapegoat for systematic societal oppression.

While I cannot say that I am pious, devout, or even religious, I do have a renewed respect and appreciation for the faith I was raised in. And if, one day, I ever do have children of my own, I hope to tell them the same bedtime stories my grandmother told me as a child. In my mind, that is where the true beauty of my Hinduism resides.

This article was first published in The Aerogram.

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12 April 2017. Can Donald Trump predict the future?

The myth of prophecy is central to the success of authoritarian politics.

Credit: Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann. Some rights reserved.

During his recent ragged interview with Time magazine, Donald Trump returned again and again to the fact that he “predicted Brexit.” He mentioned Brexit a total of eleven times; the interviewer didn’t mention it once.

Throughout the interview, Trump was determined to prove an almost mystical power for prediction. From the very first question, when the interviewer asked Trump whether he’d like to be given a quick overview of his “story so far,” Trump responded by reeling off a list of his ‘predictions’ so far: ‘Sweden…Huma [Abedin] and Anthony [Weiner]…Hillary’s email thing…NATO…Brexit…Brussels is not Brussels’ and Bernie Sanders’ candidacy campaign being ‘rigged.’ He didn’t offer any explanation, but all these things had come true apparently. “I predicted a lot of things, Michael,” he said, “Some things that came to you a little bit later.”

Brexit is the prediction which makes Trump the proudest. He couldn’t stop reminding the interviewer he predicted it, despite the interviewer never asking. If he could turn this prediction into a badge, you’d imagine he’d wear it every day. In one instance, the interviewer presses Trump on his reputation for lying: “Do you worry about your lack of credibility?” he asks. “If you’ve cited things that turn out to be wrong, what if there is a genuine emergency?” “Name what’s wrong” Trump shot back, “I mean, honestly.” “Fox news said…,” the interviewer began to respond, but then Donald draws his trump card for the fifth time: “Brexit. Wait a minute. I predicted Brexit.”

It was as if, so many months after the event, Trump was still struggling to believe that he really had predicted Brexit, astonished at his own ability to read the future. “I think that Britain will separate from the EU”, he said back in April 2016, two months before the result. But for Trump, this was no ordinary prediction; for Trump, being right once means he can never be wrong again.

Trump’s claims to clairvoyance put his ‘alternative facts’ in a new light. What if the lies we react to with rage—that Trump was wiretapped, that three million undocumented people voted in the election, that Sweden was attacked by terrorists and so on—are not actually lies but rather ‘not-yet-truths:’ not  ‘fake news’ but ‘fate news’?  

Perhaps that’s his hope: by making a ‘prediction’ public, Trump believes that the ensuing pandemonium will make it more likely to take place. Rarely, if ever, will Trump predict something that he doesn’t want to be true. Declarations of doomsday make doomsday all the more likely.

And so Trump claims to predict the future. People are always sceptical of his predictions, he told the Time Magazine interviewer, but – take Brexit, for example (have I mentioned Brexit?) – “I said, no, Brexit is going to happen, and everybody laughed, and Brexit happened. Many, many things like that. They turn out to be right.”

It’s not just Brexit. When Trump branded Brussels a “hellhole” over a year ago, he points out, “I was absolutely lambasted. A short time later they had the major attack in Brussels.” A coincidence? Impossible. When Trump talked about Sweden, claiming there was a terrorist attack, “everyone goes crazy”, but then “the following day, two days later, they had a massive riot in Sweden, exactly what I was talking about, I was right about that.”

Time’s interviewer clarifies to Trump exactly what he’s implying: “You are now saying you were referring to something that happened the following day.” Yes, yes, reading the future. “I tend to be right. I’m an instinctual person, I happen to be a person that knows how life works. I said I was going to win the election, I won the election.”

Confident assertions of victory before the race is run are as old as any competition. But there’s something striking about the new set of right-wing nationalists that are ascendant in global politics, and not just Trump: they all claim to see society’s destiny so clearly. The future they envision has two constant features: it’s scary—Trump, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage speak of civil war, breaking points, terrorist attacks, Armageddon and overcrowded public services—and it involves them winning. The future then becomes brighter and a golden past is restored.

Their doomsday narratives need disaster, and so when disaster strikes their outrage is matched only by their smug satisfaction. Trump and his fairground prophets delight in nothing more than saying ‘I told you so.’ Trump has tweeted this phrase 28 times. It doesn’t matter how nasty the event. Following the terrorist attack in London on March 22 2017, Farage tweeted that he was “very upset and depressed by the terrorist attack in Westminster, but unfortunately not surprised.” Just like a similar incident in Berlin last year when he tweeted: “terrible news from Berlin, but no surprise.”

Like Trump, Farage sees himself as some sort of soothsayer. “When I came here 17 years ago and I said that I wanted to lead a campaign to get Britain to leave the European Union,” Farage ranted to the European Union Parliament after Brexit, “you all laughed at me—well I have to say, you’re not laughing now, are you?” After Trump’s victory, Farage called himself “the catalyst for the downfall of the Blairites, the Clintonites…and all these dreadful people.”

This is clearly part of his image: for all his lies and deception, only Farage can see the future. Back in 2014, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) released a video entitled “Nigel Farage Predicted Everything.” It ran to 35 minutes and was scored by strings that Steven Spielberg would be proud of. It framed Farage as a harbinger of EU doom, a Mystic Meg for politics.

Brexit and Trump’s victory are now taken as signs that this dark and delightful dystopia is on its way. These victories have fuelled their fire, and the right-wing nationalists dance around it, smiling and singing, waiting for the storm. Marine Le Pen looks into the flames and sees “a new world being born” where “the European Union will die.” Farage sees “the beginning of global revolution.”

But make no mistake, these prophecies are calculated. The more their apocalyptic forecasts are accepted by the public, the more reasonable their reactionary agendas become, and the more realistic their chances of election or re-election. As Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon puts it: “What we are witnessing now is the birth of a new political order, and the more frantic a handful of media elites become, the more powerful that new political order becomes.”

Let’s not take anything away from Trump, however. Maybe he’s right and he really does have his own unique power of prophecy. “I’m an instinctual person,” he told the Time magazine interviewer, “but my instinct turns out to be right.” He said he would win the election, and he did. He said the Brexit campaign would win, and it did. What next? We await his next prediction with bated breath. 

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10 April 2017. Love, anger and social transformation

The politics of the future must embrace all that makes us human: our anger, our pain, our joy and our love.

Credit: Flickr/r2hox. Some rights reserved.

It’s November 9 2010, and I’m one of many students that have surrounded and taken over the Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank Tower in London. I’m angry, we are all angry, because the government is trying to triple the amount of money we have to pay to learn, develop and grow as young people. They are trying to raise UK university tuition fees from £3,000 a year to £9,000 as part of the continuous process of marketizing education.

There is screaming, shouting and drumming all around me, along with police in riot gear, but we outnumber them by far as we are in our thousands. I am part of a huge crowd that is singing and moving like a shoal of fish in the sea. I am at the front, face to face with a helmet, baton and shield. It's hard to see the person inside but that’s not my focus - I am focused on getting into the glass fronted party headquarters. Suddenly we are all pushed forward and I find myself kicking with my feet, hitting the glass with anything I can find. I feel this rush of adrenaline in my body. I feel all my anger around the injustice of what the government is doing come out as a physical force.

I feel a release as I kick at the glass - and then there is this beautiful moment when the glass window smashes. Everyone cheers and rushes forward. We have done it - we have broken into the building. People stand on chairs. We chant, we sing, we fill the room, and for a moment this collective anger becomes collective joy - it becomes togetherness. I feel elated, I feel pumped, I feel powerful. I feel we are powerful, I feel together we can change the world. We just broke into Conservative party headquarters for Christ sakes - we can do anything!

And yet…

There’s no doubt that anger is a powerful motivator. It motivates us to get out onto the streets and do something: to take action; find kindred spirits; build collective power. But it also has a negative side when it turns to hate – hate at the world around us, hate at people who are destroying the environment, hate at the people who voted for Brexit. In my own struggles I also began to direct that hate towards myself in the form of guilt - guilt for being white, middle class and privileged; guilt for spending time doing things other than ‘creating social change;’ and at its worst, a general sense of guilt every time I experienced pleasure or joy.

That doesn’t mean accepting racist, sexist or other discriminatory behavior – we must stand up and challenge it and become aware of how we perpetuate it – but carrying that hate around inside of ourselves is incredibly self-destructive. So, can anger coexist with love, or do we have to choose one or the other? Neither extreme works for me, so what could a new approach to politics look like that acknowledges both of these forces as equally important in creating transformational social change?

From my early twenties I was drawn to spaces and places where I could explore what alternative forms of love might look like. I spent time in intentional communities and at festivals such as Boom and Nowhere (the European ‘Burning Man’), and went on courses and workshops exploring intimacy and sexuality. In different ways all of these spaces embraced the idea of love and connection as a force for positive social change.

It was during these explorations that I discovered Tamera – an intentional community in Portugal that has had a particularly profound impact on my life. Tamera was founded in Germany in 1978 and in 1995 it moved to Portugal. Today 170 people live and work there on 330 acres of land. As they put it:

“The founding thought was to develop a non-violent life model for cooperation between human beings, animals and nature. Soon it became clear that the healing power of love and human community had to be placed at the center of this work. Love, sexuality and partnership need to be freed from lying and fear, for there can be no peace on Earth so long as there is war in love. The ecological and technological activities of Tamera include water conservation and promoting regional autonomy in energy and food. Through the Global Campus and the Terra Nova School, we are working within a global network of similar communities on the social, ecological and ethical foundations for a new Earth – a ‘Terra Nova.’”

Love is a powerful force that motivates me to act, to create, to give, to be alive - love of the natural world, love of music, love from a friend that gets me through a difficult year; the love between me and a partner that can make me feel like I am flying and can achieve anything; sexual love that can put a smile on my face for the rest of the day; love for a stranger in another country that can make me donate money to charity; or the love of a family member that can make me drive through the night to be with them by morning.

I’ve had some of the most empowering, motivating, life affirming experiences in these spaces, experiences that have given me the energy to go back to everyday life and keep on fighting for a more beautiful world. However deep down I’ve always felt that there was something problematic in this approach to social change – that it couldn’t just be about love and nothing else. There’s a hope that when we live in utopian spaces such as Tamera, then all of the things that are sad, bad or problematic about human society like pain, anger and power will simply disappear, but this strikes me as naive. The reality is that we bring all of our issues and privileges with us to these communities, and if they are not explicitly addressed then the same patterns of inequality will be reproduced.

Without a clear awareness and analysis of power and how it functions, and proactive methods of engaging with it, love can become degenerative, particularly for those who may have less power because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic standing or personal confidence. So the way ahead at this crucial time in history must be nuanced, consciously working with power and embracing both our anger and our love.

With the rise of President Trump and a politics of hate and fear, it’s important that we don’t disengage, that we stay awake to, honour and acknowledge our pain, anger and rage. These are crucial emotional responses that lead us to take action, challenge the status quo, and build a different form of power together. But we can’t let that anger turn into hate, blame and guilt. Otherwise we lose, because we become participants in the political and emotional games of the forces that oppress and discriminate against marginalised groups; who promote further cuts in services and greater austerity; and whose actions take away the hope and future of the next generation.

Instead we must create a politics of love, empathy and compassion; a politics that reminds us of the beauty that exists inside of ourselves and in the world in which we live; and social movements that make us feel alive, connected and supported. But to do this we need to re-imagine and diversify the narrative of love, beyond the confines of romance and the passive acceptance that is so often used in ‘new age’ philosophies. As the writer and activist Bell Hooks writes:

“We need to reclaim the concept of love, not as an abstract, all embracing, fantasy but as a set of ethics, principles, values and behaviours. A love that is justice in action... To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility...Culturally all spheres of life – politics, religion, the workplace, domestic households, intimate relations - should and could have their foundation in a love ethic.”

In this understanding love does not become passivity, acceptance or disengagement, or give into the pretence that pain, anger, and power do not exist. Instead it becomes a daily practice which also involves critical reflection, discernment, values and principles, as well as nurturance, care and support. A love that is justice in action is one that acknowledges power and knows that equality is a prerequisite for unity. This quote from the Black Lives Matter movement sums it up perfectly:

“Our aim is to provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation, rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams.”

The politics of the future must embrace all that makes us human: our anger, our pain, our joy and our love.

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9 April 2017. Should funding agencies also share in the sacrifice of social change?

The furor over Pepsi's fake protest ad resurfaces questions around the Ford Foundation president's decision to join their board. (Originally published December 5 2016).

Protestors at Ginowan, Japan. Credit: By Nathan Keirn from Kadena-Cho, Japan. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Every day of every year, in places like Standing Rock and Ferguson and Aleppo and Hong Kong, tens of thousands of people put their lives and livelihoods on the line in the struggle for human rights. If they are paid at all the amounts are very low and the risks are often high, so shared sacrifice is demanded from everyone involved. Opportunities for personal gain are subordinated to solidarity with colleagues and the cause in order to knit together a strong social fabric. Consistency between words and actions is essential in building mutual loyalty and trust.

Faced by these imperatives, is it reasonable to expect the same standards of behavior from the funders, advisers and other intermediaries who support these struggles from a distance, and who gain publicity and legitimacy for their own work in the process?

It’s an old question that bubbles underneath the surface of conversations between activists and donors, though it’s rarely voiced directly because of the discomfort and blowback it can cause. But occasionally it breaks out in public view, providing an opportunity to re-visit the ethics of funding for social change. We’re currently witnessing one of those ‘teachable moments’ that’s centered on Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation’s avuncular and well-respected president.

On October 28 2016 the New York Times revealed that Walker will be paid between $275,000 and $418,000 a year to join the board of multinational “junk food” company PepsiCo (as New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle calls it), plus allocations and annual bonuses in the form of Pepsi shares, in addition to his regular salary of $789,000 in 2015.

Such arrangements are not illegal, nor are they particularly new. What makes this case more interesting is that Walker has publicly declared his commitment to re-focus all of the Ford Foundation’s work on inequality. He has also stated a desire to pursue transformational solutions instead of tinkering around the edges of social and economic problems, and to confront the thorny issue of privilege at both the institutional level and the level of personal practice.

These ideas have been developed in a series of carefully-crafted articles and speeches which have been music to the ears of activists and nonprofits—holding out the promise of healthier and more equitable relationships with their funders. But Walker’s decision seems at odds with the commitments he has made, threatening to undermine the message that philanthropy is in need of major surgery. How so? 

First of all, inequality doesn’t happen by accident or by magic: it’s created when people take advantage of opportunities to accrue wealth which are unequally distributed among the population—including well-paid seats on the boards of corporations. Other Ford Foundation staff are prohibited from taking on paid board positions or even consultancies, and no nonprofit could do so because of the conflicts of interest involved, so Walker seems to be modeling behavior that directly contradicts the ‘level playing field’ that features so strongly in his writings.  

Secondly and despite the rhetoric of transformation, Walker’s move has a decidedly retro feel. Foundation presidents have been serving on corporate boards for decades with no significant results as part of the trend towards Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR, which has levered small changes in supply chains and other areas but has barely touched the core business practices of major companies. The largest ever evaluation funded by the European Union found “no credible evidence that CSR had made a positive difference to economies or societies in the region.” Neither have new board members halted the fall from grace of HSBC, Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, Unilever and many other icons of CSR.

PepsiCo isn’t the worst of these offenders, running up the usual list of accusations concerning union-busting, forced labor and land rights violations, but ‘we’re listening and we’ll do better’ is always the mantra, buttressed by the gloss that’s added by respected outsiders like Walker. Unfortunately, however well they do they’ll still be a conventional stockholder corporation that’s duty bound to maximize its profits by selling stuff of little value to people who don’t actually need to buy it. There’s no transformative potential in that equation. The real excitement lies in the new economy of co-operatives and other experiments which aren’t subject to the same constraints. At a time when activists are energetically exploring life after capitalism it’s disappointing to see the Ford Foundation defending the current system with a few tweaks around the edges.

That leads me to problem number three: Walker’s decision represents a lost opportunity to make a strong and influential statement about the future of philanthropy, just when the pressure for change is building through the #ShiftThePower campaign and other efforts. Everyone who works for a foundation, an NGO or an aid agency has been complicit in a decades-long process of under-investment in frontline activists and communities, and a corresponding over-rewarding of those who fund or support them in other ways.

I was a beneficiary of this system myself for many years, fighting for justice from the comfort of Business Class while those who do the real work and suffer the consequences are crammed together at the rear of Economy. It’s a peculiar arrangement—divisive, outdated, ineffective and ripe for upheaval if only funders were prepared to take up the challenge, and that’s where Walker’s decision is instructive.

Throughout history the outright rejection of privilege and unequal power structures has been a key tool of social transformation: think civil rights or women’s liberation or pretty much any successful social movement. The insider route can lever some changes when it’s connected to outside pressure, but no one has ever transformed the establishment by joining it. The pressure nearly always works in the opposite direction, though subtly and over time, narrowing the horizons of possibility so that they conform to what’s expected. After all, the more invested you are in any system the less likely you’ll be to confront it.

That’s why the impact of a very public rejection of Pepsi’s invitation could have been so powerful: a signal that finally, a major foundation is willing to loosen its ties to the corporate world and focus its full attention on those tens of thousands of people who are working at the sharp end of social change.

No one expects foundation presidents to work for free, but it’s not unreasonable to expect consistency between their actions and their words. As in this case, consistency does involve some sacrifices, but they pale in comparison to the extra strength and solidarity that’s generated in the process. Those things are much more important to the long-term struggle for social transformation. 


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8 April 2017. Why we're not taking the new porn laws lying down

Who cares about a bunch of queers flogging each other when there’s a migrant crisis and article 50 has been triggered? We do.

We set up the London Porn Film Festival because we wanted to address two small but significant aspects of the changing political scene. First, we felt it was high time that the culture and spirit of the Berlin Porn Film Festival made it to the UK; and second, we wanted a festival that unapologetically embraced and celebrated sexuality in all its forms. We wanted to do these things because we live in strange times. Britain is at the epicentre of a global political shift via Brexit that could change the course of history. The people bearing the brunt of this shift most publicly are migrant and Muslim populations, but behind the scenes the structures that govern our society are being subtly and permanently changed.

On the one hand we are enjoying what appear to be freedoms, the like of which have never been seen before. LGBT rights are seemingly on the ascent: marriage is now an established fact for LGBT people; Pride is a huge attraction each year, and it has the support of institutions that once marginalised and maligned us. Trans people have made huge headway in re-defining the narrative and gaining better access to medical care. It’s easy to think the fight is over—that a few loose strings here and there need to be tidied up, and then we’re done.

But this is only one part of a much bigger picture. The London Porn Film Festival is not a political outfit in itself, but we are acutely aware of the conditions in which we operate. The steep increase of hate crimes against racial and sexual minorities in the wake of Brexit indicates that a backlash is around the corner, and the climate in which such behaviour is acceptable is being fostered by vague and opaque laws such as the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations of 2014, better known as the face-sitting ban; the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016, otherwise known as the Snooper’s Charter; and the Digital Economy Bill, which is expected to become law in 2017.

These laws work together to form an alarming mesh of powers. The Audiovisual Media Services Regulation means that several sexual acts including spanking, caning, aggressive whipping, urolagnia (known as "water sports"), female ejaculation, face-sitting and fisting can no longer be represented or shown on screen in the UK. This has been roundly criticised for targeting women and queer people. American hardcore pornography remains, for the most part, untouched. But the worrying thing is that in addition the Investigatory Powers Act (which means that unless you are using a Virtual Private Network, your Internet Service Provider is keeping records of every page you visit for twelve months) and the Digital Economy Bill (which is bad for small, DIY porn businesses because of the cost of implementing new age-verification requirements), the government has given itself the power to outlaw relatively innocuous acts and spy on us.

The implications of these news laws don’t make headlines—it’s difficult to splash something so seemingly obscure on the front page, or rouse popular passions when other more spectacular things are happening. But as the obscenity lawyer Myles Jackman puts it, “Pornography is the canary in the coal mine of free speech. It is the first freedom to die. If assaults on liberty like this are allowed to go unchallenged, further freedoms will fall as a consequence.”

Hence, the increase in hate crime in the UK (both homophobic and racist) is no coincidence. The surge of authoritarian, right-wing rhetoric about ‘taking back control’ is understood very clearly by those of us on the margins as a desire to erase many of the social freedoms and much of the political recognition we have gained. By narrowing the definition of what constitutes ‘normal’ in one sphere, this definition can then be enforced in another. The London Porn Film Festival stands against that process, and we hope to provide a space in which the insidiousness of these new laws is actively challenged.

Over the years, the Berlin porn film festival on which we are modeled has  developed into a huge, sell-out affair and the centre of a brilliant, fun, imaginative scene—developing  porn that does not conform to mainstream standards. Indeed, their goal  is very different: to focus on sexual liberation, not as a wishy-washy affair, but as a mode in which people from different demographics, walks of life, and experiences are presented as valid sexual agents, valid people to desire. We can’t speak about sex without speaking about race without speaking about class without speaking about economics—all of these things are intertwined.

This might seem like a trivial point. After all, who cares about a bunch of queers flogging each other when there’s a migrant crisis and article 50 has been triggered? But to an extent, that question provides its own answer. Repressive laws don’t target mainstream populations because there would be too much resistance. Instead, they begin with people who do not matter to the mainstream. If the attitude towards some people is “Who cares?” then they are ripe for being targeted by the state. The prevailing attitude towards queer people, particularly those who do not conform to homonormative ambitions to be just like heterosexual people, is increasingly that we are less important than others.

The London Porn Film Festival has been established not only because we like queer porn but because we care about it. We care about the sex workers, porn performers and producers who make it. We believe that queer, radical porn is a fascinating form of expression that can provide huge political, theoretical and artistic insights, insights that should be available in the blooming cultural scene in what should be a world-leading city of free speech. But the truth is that the laws are so vague and so open to interpretation that we’re not sure where we stand.

And we’re far from the only group or issue being targeted. The fight for digital liberties is a key part of all our futures, and the lack of outrage around the UK Government’s ‘Digital Economy Bill’ is largely due to the fact that most people don’t understand the technology that rules their lives. The days of a separation between real and cyber space are over. The next frontier, and perhaps the cleverest, is to curb what can and cannot be viewed online, starting with online porn, and taking small steps that seem paltry in comparison to the more repressive measure of curbing ‘real life’ freedoms.

Examples include Pandora Blake’s Dreams of Spanking which was forced offline for ten months; attempting to bankrupt small businesses by enforcing age verification technologies but providing no support for their implementation; and requiring Internet Service Providers to record the websites you visit. Unless you are taking precautions, the UK Government is quietly but surely collecting information about what you look at, who you connect with, and what you read. And you can be sure that at some point in the future they will have something to say about it.

We’re doing this because it’s important, and because queer porn is a small corner of our broader culture that’s under attack. There has always been strong feeling against sexual agency. It is usually the first thing to be attacked during a tide of authoritarianism. How willing we are to let that happen is a signal to the powers that be about how far they can go. Porn is a genre in which we can re-imagine ourselves, our sexuality and our future.

Do we think a really hot sex scene will change the world? No. But it’s not about a really hot sex scene. It’s about protecting the margins, and showing strong resistance so that we do not allow ourselves to slide into ever more repressive circumstances. 

Check out the London Porn Film Festival Programme here.

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7 April 2017. The power of sign

As Sweet Honey in the Rock’s sign language interpreter, Shirley Childress dedicated her life to deaf rights.

Shirley Childress. Credit: Sharon Farmer/Washington City Paper. All rights reserved.

Shiloh Baptist Church was where Shirley Childress first understood.

She was a 10-year-old whose first language was sign, the hearing daughter of two deaf parents. Her family worshiped at Shiloh’s Silent Mission, one of the nation’s earliest ministries for the deaf and hard of hearing. One day, as her mother sang in sign for the congregation, Shirley understood.

Decades later, Shirley wrote about that moment: “She was singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ in sign so beautifully and with so much emotion that people were totally absorbed, so much so that one man was moved to tears. That was my first remembrance of seeing the power of sign.”

Shiloh Baptist Church was also where hundreds of mourners came last week to say farewell to Childress, the longtime interpreter for the African-American heritage ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, who died last week at age 69 due to complications caused by West Nile virus.

The considerable contributions of Shirley Childress reverberate far beyond the lives of those who attended her funeral.

As a deaf rights advocate, Childress championed black interpreters, the scarcity of which even now many consider a shameful facet of deaf culture. She is widely believed to have been the first African American certified American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter.

She interpreted in varied platforms: Close to home for the Mental Health Program for the Deaf at St. Elizabeths Hospital. In Kenya, under the auspices of Deafpride, Inc.’s Project Access, for a deaf delegate participating in a United Nations conference. For an off-Broadway show and for Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde. She also interpreted for the 2003 “Protest Music as Responsible Citizenship” program at The Ohio State University featuring Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, Holly Near, and Sweet Honey founder Bernice Johnson Reagon.

But Childress is best known for the decades she spent with Sweet Honey in the Rock, not merely as its interpreter, but as a full-fledged member of the group. And it was with Sweet Honey in the Rock that Childress profoundly changed the way deaf people experience music.

“Shirley took Sweet Honey in the Rock’s sound and presence and activism to another level… and brought another level of inclusion to the purpose of Sweet Honey,” says filmmaker Michelle Parkerson, producer of the 1984 documentary Gotta Make This Journey: Sweet Honey in the Rock. “People who were deaf and hard of hearing could feel the vibrations and the bass line of Sweet Honey’s music….They could understand the lyrics through Shirley. Her movements and her passion were just as strong as the other five women who comprised Sweet Honey in the Rock, and so they got it. They got Sweet Honey in the Rock’s call to political action through Shirley—for their own rights as well as for people who were physically challenged.”

The prominence of Childress as the group’s sixth member—she performed with the women on stage and was not shunted to a corner—was profoundly meaningful to deaf audiences.

“Shirley was bringing ASL to the world stage when people were still referring to members of the deaf community as either deaf and dumb or deaf mutes or handicapped,” says Raymont Anderson, one of many African American interpreters mentored by Childress. “She completely changed how people viewed that culture and community, and her visibility made her the benchmark that so many other interpreters aspired to.”

Sweet Honey in the Rock was founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon, the revered Civil Rights activist who performed with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers. Coming out of the Civil Rights movement, Reagon created an a capella ensemble that was rooted in African American history and culture, and the women of Sweet Honey were eloquent advocates for social justice. As the group participated in the women’s music network during the late ’70s, that movement’s focus on accessibility led to Sweet Honey’s first use of interpreters for the deaf.

Initially, using interpreters supplied by festival organizers was somewhat problematic for Sweet Honey. Festival interpreters generally liked to prepare for concerts by practicing the material. But Reagon, who drew from orally based traditions, would not prepare set lists in advance.

But there was a bigger issue. As Reagon relates in the book We Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey in the Rock … Still on the Journey, there was a critical cultural chasm between Sweet Honey’s mission and the white interpreters they worked with. During one rehearsal, the interpreter signed the word “Africa” by putting her fingers through her nose to make a ring. Reagon wrote: “…to that date all of the interpreters were white and women, a decision that ignored the multi-racial makeup of local deaf communities.”

Serendipity stepped in one Sunday, when Reagon saw Dr. Ysaye Barnwell interpreting a service at All Souls’ Unitarian Church and invited her to join Sweet Honey as an interpreter. But Barnwell turned out to be an extraordinary vocalist, and thus also sang with the group. She quickly realized that it was not possible to interpret and sing simultaneously.

Barnwell had met Childress while conducting a workshop at Howard University, and she brought her to Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1980. By 1985, Sweet Honey was including photos of Childress on the group’s albums and she regularly appeared with the group for publicity shots.

“Shirley made musical performances by Sweet Honey in the Rock accessible to deaf communities,” says Barnwell, who retired from the group four years ago. “They would know what we were singing about, they would have an appreciation for aspects of the music—the language, the rhythm, the way in which we as different singers were working together, and the meaning of the songs.

“I want to thank Shirley,” adds Barnwell, “for being an amazing ray of light as part of the group which really opened the ensemble to a much broader audience.”

Toshi Reagon, Bernice’s daughter and an esteemed performer in her own right, frequently collaborated with Childress over the years. “There are a few interpreters I have worked with who are brilliantly musical. You can tell they have something to say about every sonic moment that is happening. That part of interpreting where they bring themselves and their artistry in terms of translating text from one language to another is masterful,” she says. “Shirley was exquisite at this. When you sat down with her, you learned more about what you were trying to say.”

In 1988, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf published a tribute to Childress that called her “The Mother of Songs Sung in ASL.” Of course, within the community of African-American sign language interpreters, Childress was already known as “Mama Shirley,” which had less to do her age than her achievements.

“In the black community, you call people ‘mama’ out of respect,” says Candas Ifama Barnes, a veteran interpreter at Gallaudet University who considers Childress a role model. “It’s about their status and the place they hold in the community and the respect that the community holds for them. It’s an homage.”

Childress was a founding member of National Black Deaf Advocates, and established BRIDGES, an organization assisting black deaf interpreters and their clients. She married and raised two sons. In honor of her parents, she created the Herbert and Thomasina Childress Scholarship Fund to help children of deaf adults explore sign interpreting as a profession.

“She was an advocate, founder, fighter and creator of things that are now part of black deaf community, as well as an interpreter,” says Fred Beam, a deaf educator and performer. “She closed the gap between the deaf culture and music culture and allowed deaf people to appreciate music more through ASL.”

Childress’ performances with Sweet Honey also touched audience members who can hear. Longtime fan Charlene Hamilton first attended a Sweet Honey performance more than 30 years ago. “I was totally hypnotized. They were these beautiful black women in all these colors singing a capella, and the songs they were singing had so much meaning,” she recalls. “I don’t understand signing at all, but Shirley made me feel like I did. It was magical—I felt like I was right there with her.”

For Childress, her gifts as an interpreter seemed to come from what she once perceived as a weakness. In We Who Believe in Freedom, she wrote: “I am an extremely sensitive wear-my-emotions-on-my-sleeve kind of person. I cry at the drop of a hat. Once I felt my sensitivity was a disability. I have come to appreciate it now as being something special about me. Sign interpreting Sweet Honey includes clear interpretations of the song true to its content, a poetic delivery, rhythmically in tune, emotionally sensitive in its nature, and timing commensurate with the singing… When I am successful, I am delivering it in a way that is as rapturous and as powerful as the vocal rendition.”

The loss of Childress was not the only heartbreak to hit Sweet Honey in recent months. Longtime sound engineer Art Steele died in a fatal car accident in January. Sweet Honey’s Facebook page read, “Art Steele and Shirley were with the organization longer than anyone. No words to sing this deep sorrow.”

For many, there is inspiration within the deeply felt sorrow. “It’s really the legacy that she left. By that, I mean her commitment to the work of interpreting, making things accessible for deaf and hard of hearing people and her absolute passion for that,” says Barnes, who has created a memorial scholarship fund at Gallaudet for Childress.

“She was all about making sure that deaf people had access. And she particularly cared about black deaf people being able to be their best selves, to have access at the ultimate level. She believed that we should do our best on their behalf, and that we had a responsibility to do that,” says Barnes.

“And here’s the thing: That came across much less in what she said than in how she was and what she did,” adds Barnes. “It wasn’t a job. It was a calling. It was who she was. It was her purpose.”

Donations to the Shirley Childress Memorial Scholarship Fund can be made here

This article was first published in Washington City Paper.

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5 April 2017. Seven ways to think like a 21st century economist

Economics matters enormously for the future, but its fundamental ideas are centuries out of date.


No one can deny it: economics matters. Its theories are the mother tongue of public policy, the rationale for multi-billion-dollar investments, and the tools used to tackle global poverty and manage our planetary home. Pity then that its fundamental ideas are centuries out of date yet still dominate decision-making for the future.

Today’s economics students will be among the influential citizens and policymakers shaping human societies in 2050. But the economic mindset that they are being taught is rooted in the textbooks of 1950 which, in turn, are grounded in the theories of 1850. Given the challenges of the 21st century—from climate change and extreme inequalities to recurring financial crises—this is shaping up to be a disaster. We stand little chance of writing a new economic story that is fit for our times if we keep falling back on last-century’s economic storybooks.

When I studied economics at university 25 years ago I believed it would empower me to help tackle humanity’s social and environmental challenges. But like many of today’s disillusioned students its disconnect from relevance and reality left me deeply frustrated. So I walked away from its theories and immersed myself in real-world economic challenges, from the villages of Zanzibar to the headquarters of the United Nations, and on to the campaign frontlines of Oxfam. 

In the process I realized the obvious: that you can’t walk away from economics because it frames the world we inhabit, so I decided to walk back towards it and flip it on its head. What if we started economics with humanity’s goals for the 21st century, and then asked what economic mindset would give us half a chance of achieving them?

Spurred on by this question, I pushed aside my old economics textbooks and sought out the best emerging ideas that I could find, drawing on diverse schools of thought including complexity, ecological, feminist, behavioural and institutional economics, and set out to discover what happens when they all dance on the same page. The insights that I drew out imply that the economic future will be fascinating, but wildly unlike the past, so long as we equip ourselves with the mindset needed to take it on. So here are seven ways in which I believe we can all start to think like 21st century economists:

1. Change the goal: from GDP growth to the Doughnut.

For over half a century, economists have fixated on GDP as the first measure of economic progress, but GDP is a false goal waiting to be ousted. The 21st century calls for a far more ambitious and global economic goal: meeting the needs of all within the means of the planetDraw that goal on the page and – odd though it sounds – it comes out looking like a doughnut. The challenge now is to create local to global economies that ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials – from food and housing to healthcare and political voice – while safeguarding Earth’s life-giving systems, from a stable climate and fertile soils to healthy oceans and a protective ozone layer. This single switch of purpose transforms the meaning and shape of economic progress: from endless growth to thriving in balance.

2. See the big picture: from self-contained market to embedded economy.

Exactly 70 years ago in April 1947, an ambitious band of economists crafted a neoliberal story of the economy and, since Thatcher and Reagan came to power in the 1980s, it has dominated the international stage. Its narrative about the efficiency of the market, the incompetence of the state, the domesticity of the household and the tragedy of the commons, has helped to push many societies towards social and ecological collapse. It’s time to write a new economic story fit for this century – one that sees the economy’s dependence upon society and the living world. This story must recognize the power of the market—so let’s embed it wisely; the partnership of the state—so let’s hold it to account; the core role of the household—so let’s value its contribution; and the creativity of the commons—so let’s unleash their potential.

3. Nurture human nature: from rational economic man to social adaptable humans.

The character at the heart of 20th century economics—‘rational economic man’—presents a pitiful portrait of humanity: he stands alone, with money in his hand, a calculator in his head, ego in his heart, and nature at his feet. Worse, when we are told that he is like us, we actually start to become more like him, to the detriment of our communities and the planet. But human nature is far richer than this, as emerging sketches of our new self-portrait reveal: we are reciprocating, interdependent, approximating people deeply embedded within the living world. It’s time to put this new portrait of humanity at the heart of economic theory so that economics can start to nurture the best of human nature. Doing so will give us—all ten billion of us to come—a far greater chance of thriving together.

4. Get savvy with systems: from mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity.

Economics has long suffered from physics envy: awed by the genius of Isaac Newton and his insights into the physical laws of motion, 19th century economists became fixated on discovering economic laws of motion. But these simply don’t exist: they are mere models, just like the theory of market equilibrium which blinded economists to the looming financial crash of 2008. That’s why 21st-century economists embrace complexity and evolutionary thinking instead. Putting dynamic thinking at the heart of economics opens up new insights for understanding the rise of the one percent and the boom and bust of financial markets. It’s time to stop searching for the economy’s elusive control levers (they don’t exist), and instead start stewarding the economy as an ever-evolving system.

5. Design to distribute: from ‘growth will even it up again’ to distributive by design.

In the 20th century economic theory whispered a powerful message when it comes to inequality: it has to get worse before it can get better, and growth will eventually even things up. But extreme inequality, as it turns out, is not an economic law or necessity: it is a design failure. Twenty-first century economists recognize that there are many ways to design economies to be far more distributive of value among those who help to generate it. And that means going beyond redistributing income to pre-distributing wealth, such as the wealth that lies in controlling land, enterprise, and the power to create money.

6. Create to regenerate: from ‘growth will clean it up again’ to regenerative by design.

Economic theory has long portrayed a clean environment as a luxury good, affordable only for the well-off—a view that says that pollution has to increase before it can decline, and (guess what), growth will eventually clean it up. But as with inequality there is no such economic law: environmental degradation is the result of degenerative industrial design. This century calls for economic thinking that unleashes the potential of regenerative design in order to create a circular, not linear, economy—and to restore ourselves as full participants in Earth’s cyclical processes of life.

7. Be Agnostic about Growth: from growth-addicted to growth-agnostic.

To the alarm of governments and financiers, forecasts for GDP growth in many high-income countries are flat-lining, opening up a crisis in growth-based economics. Mainstream economics views endless GDP growth as a must, but nothing in nature grows forever, and the economic attempt to buck that trend is raising tough questions in high-income but low-growth countries. That’s because today we have economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive. What we need are economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow. That radical flip in perspective invites us to become agnostic about growth and to explore how our economies—which are currently financially, politically and socially addicted to growth—could learn to live with or without it.

I am convinced that these seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist are fundamental to the new economic mindset this century demands. Their principles and patterns will equip new economic thinkers—and the inner economist in us all—to start creating an economy that enables everyone to prosper. Given the speed, scale and uncertainty of change that we face in coming years—and the diversity of contexts from Beijing to Birmingham to Bamako—it would be foolhardy to attempt to prescribe now all the policies and institutions that will be fit for the future. The coming generation of thinkers and doers will be far better placed to experiment and discover what works as the context continually changes.

What we can do now—and must do well—is to bring together the best ideas to create a new economic mindset that is never fixed but always evolving. The task for economic thinkers in the decades ahead will be to bring these seven ways of thinking together in practice, and to add to them. We have barely set out on this adventure in rethinking economics. Please join the crew.

Kate Raworth’s new book is Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist.

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4 April 2017. How anti-Vietnam War activists stopped violent protest from hijacking their movement

Governments welcome violent protests and know how to deal with them. It’s a lesson the anti-Trump movement should remember.

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

By S.Sgt. Albert R. Simpson. Department of Defense via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Only the Vietnam era protests match the size and breadth of the movement unleashed by the election of Donald Trump. One point of comparison: The massive march and rally against the Vietnam War in 1969 was the largest political demonstration in American history until the even more massive Women’s March in January.

All around us we can see signs that the movement has only just begun. Consider, for instance, that a large percentage of those in the Women’s March engaged in their very first street protest. Or that thousands of protesters spontaneously flocked to airports to challenge the anti-Muslim ban. Or that hundreds of citizens have confronted their local congressional representatives at their offices and town hall meetings about the potential repeal of Obamacare and other Trump/Republican policies.

As activists prepare for future demonstrations, many are rightfully concerned about the potential disruptions by those using Black Bloc tactics, which involve engaging in property destruction and physical attacks on police and others. They often appear at demonstrations dressed in black and cover their faces to disguise their identities. Their numbers have been relatively small to date. But they garner an outsized amount of media coverage, such as a violent protest in Berkeley to block an appearance by an alt-right provocateur or the punching of a white nationalist during Trump’s inauguration. The result is that an otherwise peaceful demonstration’s primary message can get lost in a fog of rock throwing and tear gas. Even worse, fewer people are likely to turn up at future protests, and potential allies get turned off.

This is not a new phenomenon. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. confronted this issue. So did those of us active in the struggle against the Vietnam War. I played a major role in organizing the national antiwar demonstrations between 1967 and 1971, as well as dozens of smaller actions during that time. Today’s protest organizers and participants can learn much from our experiences on the frontlines a half century ago.

A good place to start is to consider the Weathermen, the most prominent of the counterparts to the Black Bloc in our day. As proponents of violent street tactics, the Weathermen capitalized on an aspect of the ‘60s counterculture that glorified violent revolution. Posters displaying romanticized images of Che Guevara, Viet Cong soldiers (especially women fighters) and Black Panthers with guns were plastered on many walls.

The Weathermen didn’t just spout revolutionary rhetoric. One of their most memorable actions was what they proclaimed as the “Days of Rage.” They urged people to join them in Chicago in early October 1969 to “Bring the War Home.” They recruited extensively among white working-class youths to come to the city with helmets and such weapons as clubs, prepared to vandalize businesses and cars as well as assault police. They believed their action would help provoke an uprising against the capitalist state.

During the “Days of Rage,” the Weathermen did not attach themselves to a larger peaceful demonstration. They were on their own. So, the action provides a great case study about the feasibility of violent street tactics.

For starters, they discovered that it was hard to find recruits for their violent street army. Only about 300 people showed up despite months of effort. And they found it harder to enlist support for their actions even among those who were friendly with them politically. In fact, Fred Hampton, the leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, publicly denounced the group’s action, fearing it would turn off potential allies and lead to intensified police repression. “We believe that the Weathermen action is anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic, chauvinistic and Custeristic [referring to General George Custer’s suicidal Last Stand]. It’s child’s play. It’s folly.”

It would not be overstating the case to say that the “Days of Rage” was a flop. They did trash some stores and engage in fights with police. But Chicago police easily contained their violence and rounded up virtually all of the militants and charged them with stiff crimes. Some suffered serious injuries, and several were shot by police (none fatally). The Weathermen soon gave up on violent street protests, became the Weather Underground and confined themselves to symbolic bombings of such targets as police stations and a bathroom in the U.S. Capitol.

In short, the “Days of Rage” shows the ineffectiveness of violent street tactics unless combined with a larger peaceful protest. The Black Bloc anarchists understand this reality, too. They need us as a cover for their actions. Put another way: We don’t need them, but they need us. So, the primary way to deal with those who advocate violent tactics is to isolate them, do everything possible to separate them from the peaceful demonstration. That was one of our goals in 1969 when organizing the November 15 antiwar march on Washington, D.C.

As organizers, we knew that it was not enough to stop potential disrupters. We knew we had to make sure that the demonstration itself would channel people’s indignation with the war more creatively than yet another conventional march and rally. People take to the streets because they are upset, angry or disillusioned. They want to express their outrage as powerfully as possible. Although some people prefer disruption for its own sake, almost everyone else wants to deliver their message so that it leads to positive social change, not make matters worse.

We adopted a tactic first used by a group of Quakers the previous summer. To personalize the war’s impact, that group read the names of the American soldiers killed in Vietnam from the steps of the Capitol. Their weekly civil disobedience action received a lot of media attention, particularly after some members of Congress joined them. Before long, peace groups throughout the land were reading the names of the war dead in their town squares and other public spaces.

For our demonstration in Washington, we planned what we called the “March Against Death.” Here is how Time magazine described it at the time: “Disciplined in organization, friendly in mood, [the march] started at Arlington National Cemetery, went past the front of the White House and on to the west side of the Capitol. Walking single file and grouped by states, the protesters carried devotional candles and 24-in. by 8-in. cardboard signs, each bearing the name of a man killed in action or a Vietnamese village destroyed by the war. The candles flickering in the wind, the funereal rolling of drums, the hush over most of the line of march — but above all, the endless recitation of names of dead servicemen and gutted villages as each marcher passed the White House — were impressive drama.”

First in line was the widow of a fallen serviceman, followed by 45,000 marchers (the number of Americans killed in the war to that date). After walking the four-mile route, the marchers reached the Capitol, where they placed their placards in coffins. The march began the evening of November 13 and went on for 36 hours. No one who was there would ever forget. It also set the tone for the massive march and rally.

While the “March Against Death” was taking place, we were busily training marshals who would oversee the demonstration — that is, essentially be our own force of nonviolent peacekeepers. We were rightfully concerned that groups of Weathermen-style protesters would disrupt our demonstration regardless of how creative our tactics were. The Chicago action had taken place only a month earlier, and we knew that there were many individuals and small groups for whom the appeal of violent street tactics had not diminished.

With the help of several churches that provided us with spaces, we recruited trainers, many with previous experience in nonviolent training. After giving an overview of the march’s objectives and logistics, we had the trainees do several role-playing exercises. For instance, we had a scenario where a group of Weathermen-style protesters tried to disrupt the march by trying to get people to join them in more “militant” actions. One tactic we suggested was to get the marchers to sing the then-popular John Lennon tune “Give Peace A Chance” to divert attention from the disrupters. Another was to get the marshals to link their arms to separate the disrupters from the rest of the marchers.

At the end of the two-hour-long session, the newly trained marshals were given a white armband and told where to meet the next day. We trained more than 4,000 marshals who were deployed along the entire route of the march. The armbands were an important symbol to help us isolate would-be disrupters.

Although there were a few incidents after the rally had broken up, they did not detract from the powerful message that the half-million war opponents in Washington conveyed to the public and the nation’s leaders. The war didn’t end the next day, or even the next year, but the peace movement played a major role in stopping it — something that was unprecedented in American history.

Not everyone was pleased with our marshals. In Clara Bingham’s interview of Weathermen leader Bill Ayers for her recently published book, “Witness to the Revolution,” Ayers said: “…the problem with the mass mobilizations at that time was that the militants — us — were always contained. We were pushed aside by peace marshals and demonstration marshals.”

The man in the White House also did not like the peaceful character of our actions. In “Nixonland,” historian Rick Perlstein tells a story that indicates what kind of protest Richard Nixon would have preferred: “A briefing paper came to the president’s desk in the middle of March [1969] instructing him to expect increased violence on college campuses that spring. ‘Good!’ he wrote across the face.”

This anecdote points out another significant lesson from the Vietnam era. Governments invariably welcome violent protests. With soldiers, police and huge arsenals of weapons, they know how to deal with any form of violence. They also infiltrate protest groups with provocateurs to stir up violence — something we experienced repeatedly then and is certainly happening today. The Black Bloc is especially vulnerable to infiltration because of their anonymity. And, as we learned then, those in power will willfully mischaracterize peaceful demonstrators as violent to help turn those in the middle against us.

What makes any resort to violence, including property destruction, on the part of the movement especially dangerous today is the current occupant of the White House. Most of us have seen video clips of the campaign rally last year where Trump said he would like to see a heckler “carried out on a stretcher.”

We can only imagine what this man would do if given any excuse to fully deploy the forces of violent repression against us. Nor can we forget that this man has shown a willingness, if not eagerness, to encourage his gun-toting supporters to turn on his opponents.

The movement must keep its focus on the issues. We must not allow ourselves to get distracted. Too many lives are threatened by Trump’s reckless rhetoric and heartless policies. We can succeed, just as we did in stopping the Vietnam War. It will take time, but we can create a more just and peaceful society. It starts with us.

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3 April 2017. The neoliberal economics of family life

Attempts to restore the family as the foundation of social welfare could destroy the gains of second-wave feminism.

Rally at Minneapolis Social Security Office. Credit: Flickr/AFGE. Some rights reserved.

The rapidity with which the Trump administration has set about dismantling what remains of publicly-funded institutions and facilities in the US begs some crucial questions: what was the prior state of welfare provision in American society? What battles have been fought on questions of social security over the last 50 years, and what was the public policy landscape that contributed to his victory?

Melinda Cooper’s new book, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, plays an invaluable role in filling in this historical background from the 1960s onwards, outlining and explaining the forces that underpin contemporary anti-welfarism and the increasingly polarised nature of the USA.

Cooper documents the array of economists and public policy advisors from the Christian right, the harder edges of the neoliberal spectrum, and even some progressive democrats, all of whom have worked to undo a social security system that they perceived as inducing dependency, driving up inflation, and—with welfare payments in their pockets—freeing sectors of the unemployed from their obligations. Her painstaking account also throws light on the ways in which the right has succeeded in one of its key objectives by finding common ground between neoliberals—who typically endorse the singular freedoms of individual choice and personal responsibility unfettered by the state—and social neo-conservatives (many of whom it transpires were once on the left), who adhere to a more traditional or paternalistic notion of social obligations.

The effect of this consensus has been to reduce the legitimacy of government-backed welfare and social security provision by re-focusing attention on the family as the foundation of all social assistance. Gary Becker, the Nobel prize-winning economist, understood that this shift involved appealing to the ‘altruistic’ bonds of kinship so that the family unit undertakes what organized welfare systems might otherwise be expected to do. The love and emotional attachment of family bonds, he believed, leads people to care for each other outside of the market values that prevail in all other domains of life.

Feminists have long highlighted the effects of this philosophy in terms of unpaid domestic labour, but for Becker such labour is an exploitable resource that can be used to reduce the costs of welfare. Families should provide or pay for their own elder care, health care, and college education for their children. But how is this to happen when resources for most families are so scarce and wages are stagnating?  Becker argued that expanding access to cheap credit was the key, enabling people to purchase care while guarding against inflation.  Cooper sees this as a shift to ‘asset-based welfare’ or even ‘democratised debt.’ If low and middle-income families are enmeshed in debt from the cradle to the grave, their members are more likely to be beholden to each other.

This steering of the family into a pivotal place in the nation’s economy has not been without difficulty. It has been the method of choice on the part of the right as they seek to undo many of the gains which second-wave feminism set out to achieve in the US from the late 1960s. It is also the right’s answer to the dilemma posed by the un-viability of ‘moral majority’ nostalgia for placing women back in the home. As women maintain a steadfast presence in the new service-led labour markets, and as working class men’s skills are eroded and wage stagnation kicks in thanks to the monetary policies of finance-led neo-liberalism, the family must somehow cohere as an entity, as often as not through the mountains of debt they now have to accrue to cover the cost of mortgages, childcare, college education for their children, and privatised health insurance.

By appealing to the family as the moral base of all wider social values, a desperate horizon of respectability emerges. Unlike in more overtly feminist times, divorce and singleness reek of social failure, so there is a double bind: sheer dependency on each other for care within the kinship unit (especially in times of hardship or illness), and also a loss of status or social worth for those who fall outside of these familial networks of support. As Cooper shows, these strategies for shoring up the family as an economic unit were also focused directly on the management of the African American population.

Dating back to the right wing reaction against civil rights, the welfare activism of the War on Poverty, and the community engagement of the Black Panthers, the pathologisation of the black family deflected attention away from segregation and the pervasiveness of structural racism which reached into every corner of life, severely limiting the ability of black men and women to maintain their livelihoods—never mind settling down to the ideal of life as a nuclear family in the suburbs. What Cooper emphasises is just how wide the political consensus has become across the male-dominated political spectrum from left to right about the dangers to society that are apparently posed by a perceived loss of ‘family values’ through, for example, divorce and single parenthood. Feminism is also blamed for devaluing the meaning and quality of love.

Nor is it just economists from the University of Chicago like Becker who have led this charge. Cooper draws attention to the influence of European leftist social scientists such as Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck, and most notably the German economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck. According to Cooper, Streeck implies that in its bid for equal pay and flexible working arrangements, middle-class feminism has more or less shunted working-class men out of their jobs, thereby depriving working class women of a reliable breadwinner and destroying the stability of the family unit. Even Karl Polanyi—currently  favoured by so many social theorists—took  refuge in a return to community and state protection in the form of the family wage and its associated securities.

Cooper includes Nancy Fraser, Luc  Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in her list of progressives who look to restore the family as the foundation of welfare. In one way or another all of these writers see the unsettling of the male breadwinner model and the battles fought by feminists to free themselves of dependency on male earning power as contributing to the social ills of today, including those wrought by neo-liberalism and its flexible labour markets. Fraser’s account of feminist complicity in this process is well known, though also hotly disputed.

Finally there is the sheer vindictive cruelty that Tea Party adherents and other far-right elements display towards ‘the poor.’ According to Cooper, the idea that the uninsured should be ‘left to die’ has earlier precedents. For example, neoliberal economists calculated that AIDs sufferers saved the state money by dying since many were poor and unemployed, and hence unproductive. And because the sexual behaviour of gay men who contracted the illness entailed a calculated risk, they themselves should pay the costs. Cooper gently chides the LGBTQ activist group Queer Nation in this context for seeking the safety and respectability of gay marriage as a way for loving couples to look after each other, and gain inheritance and property rights in the process.

Cooper’s book leaves us with a bleakly realistic account of the (often Christian) rightwing patriarchal forces whose resoundingly angry response to feminist and pro-welfare activism has sought to stifle the impact of the women’s movement from the 1960s onwards, especially in regard to economic, racial and reproductive freedoms. One might assume that similar ideas are at work in the Trump administration today. Under the weight of such antagonism the tenacity of feminism is nothing short of miraculous, and Cooper’s sombre analysis serves to remind the pro-feminist left and the women’s movement of how few in number we are, and have been.

However, against this background Cooper’s contribution leaves two questions unanswered.  The first is that, if the family unit is here to stay, what kind of feminist politics are required to ensure equality for all its members—for  women, grandmothers, daughters, young women and girls as well as men?

Second, as is so often the case, when the family becomes over-burdened and incapable of dealing with the crises such close quarters typically generate, how can we re-imagine ‘alternative kinship’ as a potentially-positive response? One of the most compelling arguments from feminism in the late 1970s was that bonds of kinship by no means guarantee love and protection. Instead, they may entail violence, misery and suffering. For many girls and young women at that time, being caught in a family-based trap of gendered assumptions and requirements regarding marriage and motherhood led to angry outbursts of feminist rage and the desire to escape the family altogether.

That rage led to a different focus on friendship, and on finding ways of developing female support networks. Since then, feminist and LGBTQ struggles have changed the way we look at kinship by including an increasing range of ‘families of choice.’ But as Cooper shows, what really matters is who picks up the tab for social reproduction, for childcare and education, and for what befalls us in ill-health, old age, and periods of unemployment. There are no equitable, healthy or sustainable answers to that question inside the family.

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30 March 2017. Minnesota churches face tough questions in offering sanctuary to immigrants

Protecting immigrants is vital work, but what happens when the police arrive at your door?

Police monitoring the crowds at the Minnesota Women’s March. Credit: Fibonacci Blue / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In 1982, a man by the pseudonym René Hurtado found himself living in a suburban church in Minnesota. He had fled El Salvador, his home country, after participating in a U.S.-backed military unit during a civil war. After coming to the United States, he spoke out about the terrible things he had done—torturing prisoners with electrocution and needles, for example—as a member of the CIA-trained Salvadoran military. El Salvador wanted him back, and the U.S. government wanted him deported. Instead, Hurtado hunkered down at St. Luke Presbyterian Church in Hennepin County, Minnesota, while his case played out in the national media and in immigration courts.

Hurtado still lives in Minnesota more than 30 years later. Today, his story has new relevance as Minnesota’s churches again embrace their role as sanctuary spaces, this time in response to President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and aggressive deportation policies.

Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has “been a wake-up call for people of faith,” said Minister JaNaé Bates, communications director of the faith-based Minnesota organization ISAIAH.

Bates said the idea of sacred places providing sanctuary is an ancient one. The Old Testament is the original source, she said, “when God declared certain spaces sanctioned for safety.”

“Throughout history there have been unjust laws … used against vulnerable people,” Bates said. And throughout history, churches have provided safety for vulnerable people. Today, member churches of ISAIAH are continuing that historical tradition by offering sanctuary to Minnesota’s undocumented immigrants—an estimated 100,000, according to a 2014 study by Pew Research Center.

ISAIAH is a faith-based coalition of more than 100 congregations that directs its members to take action on local and community issues. Their tagline is “faith in democracy.” For members of ISAIAH, “the spiritual and the political are inseparable,” said Bates.

He said that 25 of ISAIAH’s member churches have declared themselves as either sanctuaries or sanctuary-supporting churches; supporting churches are those that do not have the means or facilities to house individuals but have committed to supporting other congregations with the financial, legal, and physical resources they need to offer sanctuary. So far, 15 member churches have committed to offer sanctuary directly to immigrants in need. 

Pastor Doug Pagitt of Solomon’s Porch in South Minneapolis said his church was one of the first in the state to declare itself a sanctuary church through ISAIAH. Solomon’s Porch originally offered sanctuary to show it was “on the side of the people the government is trying to deport,” he said. It was a decision motivated more by moral and political arguments than by legal ones, he said: “The power we have is the power of public opinion.”

Solomon’s Porch declared itself a sanctuary church in December, after Donald Trump won the election. At that time, Pagitt thought that by taking a public stance, the faith community might help influence the political dialogue around immigration. But since Trump took office, Pagitt said, his congregation’s motivations for offering sanctuary have shifted as the danger to individuals has become clearer. What began as a public stance to sway political opinion has since become a concrete reality, and his church is preparing to house people.

Pastor Eliot Howard, of Linden Hills United Church of Christ, shared a similar perspective. In December, Howard declared his church a sanctuary space because he felt the issue carried a sense of urgency, though at the time, it felt like a hypothetical. Three months later? “It feels real now.”

Some in his congregation expressed anxiety over his decision, he said, but in the end the church offered sanctuary because “it is our tradition. We don’t focus on the president or the politics but what Scripture says.”

Pagitt and Howard both said that Minnesota churches have been too long asleep on this issue. President Obama’s administration deported more than 3 million undocumented people from the United States, which is more than any president before him.

“A lot of us feel a bit shameful and hypocritical that we weren’t doing something about this over the last eight years,” Pagitt said. Howard shared a similar concern. “Maybe some confession needs to be given to the fact that we weren’t attentive at the time of the Obama administration’s deportations,” he said.

Should an individual or family take up the offer made by one of ISAIAH’s sanctuary churches, it’s unclear exactly how much protection they could legally receive. John Gordon, the interim legal director of ACLU Minnesota, said that there have been very few cases in the past brought against sanctuary spaces harboring undocumented people. The law on sanctuary spaces is ill-defined, he said, making predictions about the effort difficult.

There is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy memo that is cited as the legal basis for churches offering sanctuary. The memo details a policy “designed to ensure that [ICE] enforcement actions do not occur at nor are focused on sensitive locations such as schools and churches.”

But such a memo is not law and could be changed simply by the Department of Homeland Security issuing another memo. “My understanding is that whether that [memo] remains in effect depends on what time of day it is and which member of the administration you’re listening to,” Gordon said.

He also said the federal government will have no shortage of legal tactics ready should they want to enter a church harboring an individual they’re pursuing. Local ordinances, for example, are tools ICE will have at hand: Does the church have the correct number of bathrooms, legal fire escapes, or separate entrances for home and public use? Should a sanctuary church be in violation of a local zoning code or housing ordinance, ICE could use that to justify legal entry and “scoop those folks up,” Gordon said.

Offering sanctuary might have started as a symbolic response to Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, but already it has shifted for these churches to a question not of if, but when. So what will happen to these Minnesota churches if ICE comes to their doors?

Both Pagitt and Howard admit they’re uncertain how such an encounter might unfold.

Howard said that LHUCC would “deny entry” to ICE. To do otherwise, he said, would be to nullify their declaration of sanctuary in the first place. Protecting the vulnerable, Howard said, requires acts of resistance.

Solomon’s Porch would allow entry if immigration authorities had the legal authority to do so, Pagitt said, but would make a public scene of the event. “[We’d] broadcast it on the internet [and] call people to show up at the building. [We’d] make sure as many people as possible could see it.” To Pagitt, the sanctuary movement is not about harboring undocumented immigrants in secret—it’s about finding power in publicity and exposure.

Those are the tactics that are on display in Denver, where Jeanette Vizguerra and her three children have taken sanctuary in the First Unitarian Society church. Vizguerra was set to meet with ICE after a request to “stay” her deportation order was ignored. In the past weeks, rallies have been held by supporters in an effort to shine light on the circumstances of Vizguerra and millions of others.

“Making a scene is an entirely legitimate, constitutionally protected, and often very effective way to hold the government accountable,” Gordon said of the ACLU. “Shining a light on government practices is a big deal.”

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

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