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.

17 October 2017. Danger: there’s a centrifuge in the White House

While centrifugal forces tear things apart, centripetal forces bring things together again.

French H-Bomb 1968. Credit: Flickr/James Vaughan. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Today, nuclear weapons occupy the headlines in a way not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis. On the positive side, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, an advocacy group that promoted the historic treaty to prohibit these weapons that was reached at the United Nations in July 2017.

Although the treaty has been dismissed by the world’s nine nuclear-armed powers, its proponents believe that it will help to build a groundswell of support for the destruction of all nuclear weapons as the only way to guarantee that they will never be used again.

In more worrying developments, President Trump’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal threatens to revive the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, while North Korea’s headlong pursuit of multiple nuclear warheads, alongside its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States, has heightened the confrontation between the US and North Korea to alarming levels.

These tensions have prompted the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to midnight, and to warn that, “the probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.”

At the heart of the process of assembling a nuclear bomb is a relatively simple device called a nuclear centrifuge. A centrifuge is basically a cylinder that spins at very high speeds in order to separate out different materials. It’s what a washing machine becomes when it spins wet laundry to remove the water. Nuclear scientists use centrifuges to separate heavier Uranium 238 atoms from their lighter and more explosive Uranium 235 counterparts, which is what you need to make a nuclear bomb.

That’s why centrifuges occupy centre stage in the current debate. Under the Iran Nuclear Deal, Iran has drastically reduced the number of centrifuges in operation at its two uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, and agreed to undergo inspections by the global nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to ensure that the Ur235 it still produces is only used for peaceful purposes (mainly as fuel for its nuclear power stations).

By contrast, centrifuges in North Korea have been working overtime. It is thought that Kim Jong Un now has enough of them to produce the material required to make six nuclear bombs a year. Kim’s regime is estimated to have perhaps 30 nuclear warheads already, and is continually building more.

But what’s raising the dangers to extreme levels isn’t just the spread of this technology; it’s  the fact that in the 2016 Presidential Election, the American people voted to install a centrifuge in the White House. His name is Donald Trump.

Like a centrifuge that continually throws things apart, Trump himself is acting as a great divider, widening divisions, separating those who formerly agreed with one another, and leaving only explosive rhetoric where calm thinking and compromise are required.

In response to North Korea’s provocations, Trump has warned Kim Jong Un’s similarly-erratic regime that “they won’t be around much longer.” He has told Rex Tillerson, his Secretary of State, that he is “wasting his time trying to negotiate” a resolution to the standoff. He has said that he believes “only one thing will work!”

He has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, promising “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Trump’s threats have been met with counter-threats by Kim to strike the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam and conduct an aerial nuclear test over the Pacific. As the brinkmanship continues and the rhetoric spins ever faster out of control, threat and paranoia remain at the centre while caution and reason are thrown to the side.

North Korea and Iran are the two most dangerous examples of how Trump is increasing international tensions, but there are many others. As outlined by his senior advisors Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster, Trump’s vision of the new global order he seeks to create is one in which “the world is not a global community, but an arena where nations…compete for advantage.”

Rather than deny “this elemental nature of international affairs” Trump seeks to embrace it. By pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, he has also signalled his lack of concern, not only for those currently being impacted by global warming but also for future generations.

Aside from his divisive influence on foreign policy, Trump has two other centrifuges in the Oval Office that he is spinning to devastating effect. On domestic policy, his signature issues like immigration, healthcare, tax reform, and freeing Wall Street from regulation are set to vastly exacerbate the problems they purport to address. As journalist and author Martin Wolf has noted, after campaigning on a populist agenda and promising to govern in the interests of those left behind, Trump is actually governing as a pluto-populist (paywall).

What Wolf means is that, having risen to power with the support of the ‘forgotten America’, Trump is seeking to enact policies that will increase the fortunes of the richest one per cent and further widen the yawning inequalities that are fuelling grassroots populism. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Centre has estimated that under Trump’s tax proposals, the top one per cent of taxpayers would receive around 50 per cent of the total tax benefit, while taxpayers in the bottom 95 per cent would see their incomes rise by between 0.5 and 1.2 per cent.

Similarly, Trump’s plans for the massive deregulation of Wall Street threaten to remove the safeguards that were put in place by the Obama Administration to guard against a repeat of the 2008 Financial Crisis, unleashing once again the spiral of recklessness and predatory lending that underpinned it.

Trump’s final centrifuge is also the one that is most visibly tearing America apart, namely his personal vortex of narcissism, paranoia and threat. By stigmatising immigrants and stoking fears of cultural dilution, he is rending the fabric of a nation that, in part, has been built on immigration. By valorising racism and white supremacy he is widening racial divides.

Through his hyper-masculine rhetoric which debases women and glorifies violence, he is casting aside values like equality and empathy that underpin democratic community. From the Obama birther lie, to the Access Hollywood tape, to his description of Charlottesville’s ‘very fine people’, Trump’s vitriol is throwing equality, civility and respect to the margins of public discourse, leaving only egotism, vindictiveness and hatred in their place.

Given the nature and scale of the crises facing America and the rest of world, it is essential that Trump’s angry centrifuges are spun down, and that rationality is restored to domestic and foreign affairs.

While centrifugal forces tear things apart, their opposite, centripetal forces bring things together. This is precisely what international negotiation, treaties, and international cooperation aim to achieve. At a domestic level, it is what actions aimed at narrowing inequality and reducing racial tensions would do by making citizens feel once again that they are all part of a democratic community in which everyone has a say. And it is what disarming Trump’s rhetoric of blame, threat and hatred would achieve by allowing the virtues of tolerance and shared identity—on which our futures rely—to re-take centre stage.  

Mahatma Gandhi, a leader diametrically opposed to Trump in both character and temperament, once remarked that “the fact that mankind persists shows that the cohesive force is greater than the disruptive force, centripetal force greater than centrifugal.” The danger is that Donald Trump is testing Gandhi’s wisdom to the limit.

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17 October 2017. Can theatre change your mind?

Most people don’t think of media as propaganda, but confirmation bias is rife. What can be done? 

A scene from "A Nazi Comparison," performed by Craft Theatre. Credit: Rocky Rodriguez Junior, all rights reserved.

Clare, a young woman at university, happens upon an English translation of a play written by Hitler’s favourite playwright that upsets her entire world view. She can’t help but see strong parallels in how the media was manipulated then and now.

Filled with anxiety that the world she lives in is not as noble as everyone is led to believe, she digs deeper, jumping down a rabbit hole that eventually isolates her from everyone she knows and loves. Her friends shun her, her parents demean her and her teachers expel her. If the truth is the truth then why won’t anyone listen?

That’s the question that lies at the heart of A Nazi Comparison, a new play from my company Craft Theatre that’s currently running at Waterloo East in London. The production explores politics, climate change, the refugee crises and more, and through these topics it investigates how aspects of Nazism can resurface in contemporary societies through propaganda—and how the media can strengthen or weaken ‘confirmation bias’ in society: the tendency for people to search for and favour information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs

It’s that sort of bias that underpins the growing trend towards political polarization and the fracturing of communities—think Donald Trump’s ‘fake news’ election in the USA, for example, or the manipulation and mythmaking that surrounded Britain’s vote on Brexit. Against that background it’s worth asking whether the arts can help to address this problem as well as to create it: can theatre change our minds in positive, life-enhancing, open-ended ways, and bring people together across the lines of difference?

I’ve been exploring the answers to these questions by engaging with the audience for the play itself, and what I’ve found is disturbing: overwhelmingly, people don’t think that confirmation bias applies to them even when they are shown evidence that it does. They think they are above it, and when they watch the work they don’t actually examine what’s in front of them. “I’m not like that” is a common reaction, “I get it, I understand the world as it is.”

But do they? To go deeper I needed to understand how audiences were internalising the play, and I didn’t think questionnaires would really provide the information I was looking for. On the whole people don’t know my face, and audiences generally don’t know I’m the director of the piece, so I decided to speak to people after each performance. I didn’t lie to them, but I implied that I was a ‘regular’ audience member too. 

Of course not everyone wanted to talk, but many did. Bob, for example (not his real name), looked particularly agitated. “Oh I know for a fact that it’s all ‘hooey,’” he told me, “I have spent 30 years in the news industry, I read a lot, I know what’s going on—and I know for a fact that hurricane seasons haven’t changed in 100 years—it’s got nothing to do with climate change.”

“But I have the all the research that was used by the theatre company to develop the show,” I countered, “it has every fact in the script, properly quoted and referenced, 60 pages long. Can I email it to you?”

“No, no, I don’t have time to read anything” Bob said, proceeding to tell me that climate change is another symptom of the “left’s tricks.” I kept trying to offer insights from the research and he kept implying that he didn’t need to read it. He wasn’t listening. Bob just wanted me to agree with him.

Unfortunately, that was the trend among others from the audience I spoke with too. Each person had their own nuance, but ultimately everyone was trying to convince me that they knew the truth, that their political opinions were the right ones—and they fought hard for their bias. I started to feel like I was in the Twilight Zone. It seems that A Nazi Comparison has actually activated confirmation bias in some people rather than correcting it. That was deeply worrying for me, so why are people so ready to ignore arguments that are contrary to their world view?

It’s here that culture and the media play a crucial role. In Hollywood, it’s pretty obvious that filmmakers support confirmation bias because telling audiences what they want to hear is both easy and lucrative. However it’s also been well documented that moviemakers are actively encouraged by government agencies to present a certain image of the world. Nicholas Schou, for example, explains how:

“Since the mid-1990s, but especially after 9/11, American screenwriters, directors, and producers have traded positive portrayal of the spy profession in film or television projects for special access and favours at CIA headquarters.”

In an interview with The Guardian, veteran CIA operative Chase Brandon confirmed that “We’ve always been portrayed erroneously as evil and Machiavellian…It took us a long time to support projects that portray us in the light we want to be seen in.” And shows like NCIS already receive special assistance from the US military.

Most people don’t think the TV programmes or films they watch are propaganda, just as they don’t like to think that their opinions aren’t their own, but these examples show that confirmation bias is hard at work under the surface of the media. In that case, what can be done?

I’m a theatre director, so that’s where I naturally look for solutions. What can independent theatres do to counterbalance the misrepresentations of history and the growing trend to inject political spin into the arts? I think they can help, but based on my own recent experience with A Nazi Comparison it’s clear that the whole model will have to change.

We need to take our theatre pieces away from tired ‘black box’ fringe theatres and grand palaces. Instead, we should be building stories around circumstances that actually happen to people, and then taking those stories to communities who can use them to foster dialogue, build bridges, and explore the facts together, in order to develop new communities of honesty and solidarity.

Television and film have a ‘fourth wall:’ they come with an innate separation between actor and spectator. Theatre represents a different medium, because the fourth wall in the theatre is fake. It can be broken down and even removed entirely by encouraging feedback and interaction between the play and its audience.

The Brazilian theatre director, writer and activist Augusto Boal attempted something like this when he created “Forum Theatre,” a model in which the actors or members of the audience could stop a scene when a character was being oppressed. The audience would then suggest different actions for the actors in an attempt to change the outcome of the story.

That would be a good start, but it still implies an ‘us and them’ dichotomy. I think theatre makers should go beyond that dichotomy and dive head first into communities. The process of getting to know people and building theatre with them and from their circumstances can develop friendship and trust, perhaps even enabling people to see themselves in new ways.

In the BAFTA award winning documentary The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer interviews people who were involved in the mass executions of accused communists in Indonesia. Some of the murderers gleefully dramatized the killings, but when they watched footage of the actual events something fascinating happened—they realised how horrific what they said sounded, and it started to change their lives.

I’m not saying that all theatre should set out to change everyone by forcing them to confront a particular reality. Rather, we should set out to make friends with people and in doing so, through the act of mutual creation, we can all begin to mend our bias. There are many different ways to do this, but the first step in all of them is to acknowledge that confirmation bias is real, and that we all have it. The next step is to think about what we can each do personally to address or free ourselves from these biases within our own world and social setting.

The highest form of art is the creation of community—worker-to-worker, person-to-person, friend to friend. Real learning—the only kind that counters bias—happens only when people are open with each-other in a trusted environment, where they can develop authentic relationships. When envisioned in terms of community, theatre is one place where this can happen.


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15 October 2017. Head, heart and hands: 25 years of Schumacher College

All students are encouraged to be creative and to care for others. Cleverness should be the servant of wisdom.

Close-up of an indigenous woman's hands together, Chimborazo, Ecuador. Credit:, via Schumacher College. All rights reserved.

“This is not like any other place that I have studied in,” says Pauline Steisel, a 23-year old post graduate student from Belgium, as she chops carrots in a steamy kitchen with several of her fellow students.

“I did not expect to learn so much here about myself, about others, about sharing learning and working with others. It’s like learning about life,” she adds. Pauline has only been in Schumacher College for a few weeks but already the transformation has begun.

Set in the grounds of the historic Dartington Hall in rural south west England, the college has gained an international reputation as much for its pioneering approach to student life as for its innovative courses. Students experience what is described by some as ‘deep immersion’ as they explore themes around ecology, economics and spirituality, while sharing the responsibilities and the struggles of living together as a community.

One of the college’s founders, Satish Kumar, believes that this approach has lifelong benefits: “We are not just in a pursuit of knowledge but also of wisdom,” says the former Jain monk and now peace activist:

“Community learning is learning in a collective way with a collective consciousness and collective ideas, but it’s also about shared tasks, working with one another. We are learning for ourselves, for self-discovery, but this learning is not to have a big status. It’s about serving society, the earth and each other.”  

The college follows the principles of ‘head, heart, hands’ in its approach to education. All students, whatever they study, are encouraged to be creative and to care for others.

“Some students who come here do not know how to boil an egg when they arrive,” says Satish. “We are teaching them how to be self-sustaining humans; how to grow food, how to cook, how to live.”

This concept of multi-faceted learning stretches back far beyond Schumacher’s inception in the early 1990s. It is but one of the many pioneering projects that have grown out of what became known as “the Dartington Experiment.”

Almost a century ago, Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst bought the crumbling Dartington Hall which is set within a large estate of fields, forest and farm buildings.

Close to the wilderness of Dartmoor National Park and the Devon coastline, it has an extraordinary history dating back over 1,000 years, being mentioned in the Royal Charter of 833AD and at one point owned by two of the wives of Henry VIII. 

By the time the Elmhirsts bought it in 1925 it needed vast amounts of money for restoration. Fortunately, thanks to Dorothy’s wealth, their pockets were deep.   

Under the guidance and inspiration of Indian Poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore they launched a progressive school with a commitment to multi-dimensional learning. Students were as likely to learn how to fix a car engine as to read Chekhov. 

Even today, the list of achievements of Tagore, who came from Bengal, would be regarded as extraordinary. But in 1920’s Britain recognition for someone who came from the Indian subcontinent was almost unheard of.

He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature and was also a fine artist who exhibited in Paris. Many of his beliefs around education, ecology and women’s rights were way ahead of their time.

Leonard Elmhirst, a vicar’s son from Worsbrough in Yorkshire, had met Tagore while working in India, and introduced him to his wife, the American social activist Dorothy Whitney Straight.  She had been very involved in women’s trade unions in the US and was also instrumental in setting up the liberal-progressive magazine The New Republic and the New School for Social Research in New York City, both of which still exist today. 

It was this spirit, in part, which fuelled the ambitions of Dartington. The Elmhirsts believed deeply in the importance of living what they termed ‘a many-sided life,’ but they also wanted Dartington to become a place where conventional wisdom would be challenged.

As a result, the Hall became a beacon of enlightened social and political exploration, attracting iconic figures such as the writer Virginia Woolf, James Lovelock the environmentalist, and the potter Bernard Leach.

Dartington was the birthplace of the Arts Council, one of the UK’s foremost funding bodies for support and encouragement of the arts, and the country’s first performing arts school.  The estate was also home to the ‘progressive’ Dartington Hall School whose alumni include Lord Michael Young, who drafted the Labour Party’s election manifesto in 1945 and went on to found numerous progressive institutions including the consumer magazine Which?, the Open University, and the National Extension College.

In 1951 the International Summer School was launched which still maintains its international reputation for offering amateur musicians the opportunity to perform with world class talent such as Aaron Copland, Ravi Shankar and Daniel Barenboim.

Yet despite these achievements, part of what makes Dartington special, according to Jon Rae, the director of Schumacher College, is a willingness to change.

He describes it as a “cauldron” where diverse people come together with an openness to explore new possibilities.

It was this melting pot that was partly responsible for the development of the college itself, created in 1991 to crystallize emerging ideas about ecology and sustainability even though they ran counter to the legacy of the Elmhirsts who had favoured more intensive farming.

“I think what drew people here was the very fact that then, most higher education focussed on dominion, a separation of ourselves from nature,” says Jon. “That is alienating for many people."

"The paradigm we are exploring and cultivating is an ecological world view which is not concerned with dominion over nature but integrity in nature. We live in a tightly interconnected but highly fractured nuclear-armed world where we must find ways to get along. We must nurture our empathy and biophilia and acquire the art and science of systems-thinking or the quality of mind that discerns the ‘patterns that connect.’”

The zoologist and ecologist Stephan Harding was one of the founder members of Schumacher College. He thinks this holistic approach has played a key part in the success of the college and the wider ethos of Dartington, fearing that too much of modern society has become a slave to the intellectual:

“What we are doing here is trying to take the best insights of western culture. Western culture has made us clever but it has not made us wise. Cleverness should be the servant of wisdom. Naturally, vocational training is the first level. But here we go deeper, to give the person an understanding of deep meaning in nature and reality. Tagore is the spirit in which we approach this understanding of wholeness.”

The college continues to grow and has developed an international reputation, attracting students from over 90 countries worldwide to its unique form of nature-based education. It runs three masters programs as well as short courses related to ecology, sustainability, spirituality and leadership.

For some, the opportunity for communal living is a particular bonus when they are so far from home; for others it can be a life-changing experience.

“For each of us, and collectively in society and between societies, we are forever choreographing the dance between freedom for the individual and fairness with others and all life,” says Jon:  

“We hope that participants move on ever more connected with themselves, with others and with the natural world, resilient with deep pools of passion, love, empathy and curiosity, and armed with the tools, insights and inspiration so that they can better marry spirit with practice for a life enriching world.”

Today, the Dartington Experiment continues to evolve and adapt amid an ever changing social and environmental climate, yet the spirit of Tagore remains. Satish Kumar insists it is essential if we are to embrace the challenges that face the future of the planet.

“Spirituality is not a way of religion, it is about how to develop a sense of relationship and compassion, a unity of life and humility. We want to build on our heritage—all these people who have come before, from Bernard Leach to Tagore. We are taking their spirit and making it relevant for our time.”


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12 October 2017. Lessons from the front lines of anti-colonial pipeline resistance

Ceremony, mindfulness and healing practices play a key role in radical social movements.

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

A bridge leads to the entrance of the Unist’ot’en territory in British Columbia, Canada. Credit: Waging Nonviolence/Jeff Nicholls. All rights reserved.

The Standing Rock standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline was a reminder that colonization, and resistance to it, both exist in the present tense. Fossil fuel pipelines that despoil indigenous lands and waters have become key flashpoints in long-standing anti-colonial resistance.

An important precursor and inspiration for the Standing Rock camp is an indigenous occupation in northern British Columbia, Canada. For the past eight years, the Unist’ot’en clan have reoccupied their traditional territory. When the camp began in 2009, seven pipelines had been proposed to cross their territory, as well as their water source, the salmon-bearing Morice River. But thanks to Unist’ot’en resistance, oil and gas companies have been blocked from building new fossil fuel infrastructure. The lesser known but wildly successful Unist’ot’en encampment holds crucial lessons for anti-pipeline and anti-colonial organizers across North America, or Turtle Island, as many indigenous nations call it.

We visited the occupation this summer. Upon arriving, visitors must undergo a border-crossing protocol. There is only one way in and out of Unist’ot’en territory—a bridge that crosses the Morice River. Before being allowed to cross, we were asked where we came from, whether we worked for the government or the fossil fuel industry, and how our visit could benefit the Unist’ot’en.

We explained that we are both settlers, people living on and benefiting from indigenous lands. We also expressed our willingness to help in whatever ways were needed during our stay, such as kitchen duty, gardening and construction. Finally, we shared our commitment to decolonization and climate justice, and our appreciation for how Unist’ot’en land defense accomplishes both; it returns indigenous lands to indigenous peoples while blocking fossil fuel infrastructure that threatens the entire human estate. After a short consultation, clan members welcomed us to leave Canada and cross into Unist’ot’en territory.

Five pipelines already defeated.

The Unist’ot’en occupation has already contributed to the cancellation of five pipelines, including Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project—a multibillion-dollar development that would have pumped bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands to Canada’s Pacific coast. The two proposed incursions onto Unist’ot’en territory that remain are both fracked gas pipelines: Chevron’s Pacific Trails and TransCanada’s Coast Gaslink.

Unist’ot’en spokesperson Freda Huson explained to us that the tireless work of supporters, including indigenous people from other nations along with settler allies, is a central reason why the camp has endured and grown, knocking pipeline proposals over one by one.

Despite these successes, Huson has been struck by the exhaustion of frontline occupiers—not just on the Unist’ot’en front line, but elsewhere, including Standing Rock. Since starting their occupation, the Unist’ot’en have hosted an annual action camp for supporters wanting to learn about the struggle. Huson dedicated this year’s action camp to the theme of healing. As she explained to us, “the health of the people is vital to keep the resistance moving forward. We believe that if we heal the people they will be healthy to make decisions to heal the land.”

The action camp as a place of healing.

This year’s action camp featured workshops on burnout, healing from trauma, indigenous approaches to conflict resolution, and, on the first day, an exercise in awareness.

This first activity was facilitated by Huson and her partner Smogelgem (a hereditary chief of the neighboring Likhts’amisyu Clan). During this exercise, we were blindfolded, spun around and then guided by a partner to a tree of their choosing. “Be with the tree, make a connection” were the simple instructions. After our partners returned us to our starting points, we removed our blindfolds and went searching for our newfound evergreen friend. Every single participant found their tree. Smogelgem then explained that the land is living and breathing. We are always in relationship to it, but our relations to the land can be intentionally deepened, so that we come to experience trees, water and animals as friends, even kin.

The pithouse on Unist’ot’en territory. Credit: Waging Nonviolence/Jeff Nicholls. All rights reserved.

After completing the workshop, we walked to a traditional pithouse that was recently built on the precise GPS coordinates of Chevron’s proposed pipeline. Huson and Smogelgem plan to live in the pithouse once it is complete (and outfitted with comfortable furnishings and energy-efficient lighting and appliances). Their vision is for more Wet’suwet’en people to join them back on the land, living and renewing their culture. The Wet’suwet’en Nation is comprised of five clans, including the Unist’ot’en people.

Once the two remaining pipeline threats are defeated, Huson and Smogelgem will transition the camp into a full-time healing and cultural center for indigenous people recovering from the ongoing trauma of colonization. Indeed, the largest structure at the camp, a three-story building that includes a dining hall, industrial kitchen, and counseling spaces, is called “The Healing Centre.”

The Unist’ot’en Camp has always had a dual purpose: resisting pipelines while nurturing Wet’suwet’en culture. Like the water protectors at Standing Rock, the Unist’ot’en Clan has been careful to clarify that their settlement is not a protest. Rather, it is an occupation and assertion of their traditional territory—a site from which to resist further colonial extraction, while also practicing a culture and economy that is inseparable from the land.

According to Huson, “our people’s belief is that we are part of the land. The land is not separate from us. The land sustains us. And if we don’t take care of her, she won’t be able to sustain us.”

Huson explained to us that she lived away from her people’s territory for 20 years due to colonization. “I lived on reservation, got educated and worked as an economic development officer for 14 years,” she said. “Once I decolonized and reconnected to my territory, I felt my spirit come alive. When family visit they don’t want to leave.” She wants to share with others the healing that she has experienced by being back out on her people’s land.

Indigenous resurgence and embodied social change.

The Unist’ot’en Camp is exemplary of what indigenous scholars such as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Jeff Corntassel (Nishnaabeg and Cherokee ancestry, respectively) call “indigenous resurgence.” According to Corntassel: “Being indigenous today means struggling to reclaim and regenerate one’s relational place-based existence by challenging the ongoing destructive forces of colonization.” He notes that ceremony is a key way to “reconnect to the natural world.”

There are deep resonances between indigenous resurgence and the focus on ceremony, mindfulness and healing practices that are emerging in radical social movements across Turtle Island. Settler activists are finding that different healing practices, such as meditation and yoga, can help reduce burnout, heal the traumas caused by oppression and increase organizational effectiveness. Daily meditations, for example, played an important role at Occupy Wall Street. These resonances between indigenous resurgence and the growing social movement interest in non-Western healing practices have the potential to facilitate new solidarities between indigenous activists and settler allies.

For example, Hajime Harold is a teacher, activist and longtime supporter of Unist’ot’en land defense. During this year’s action camp, he led daily exercises in qigong, a traditional Chinese healing system that integrates breathing, meditation and physical postures. As a Japanese Canadian, Harold experienced racism growing up in Kelowna, British Columbia. These painful experiences sensitized him to injustices, including those related to colonialism. His heart has been opened, too, he said, by learning qigong, which has increased his capacity to act in solidarity with those whose challenges are different from his. For Harold, qigong helps practitioners better connect with themselves, other people and the earth. He experiences qigong as resonant with the indigenous traditional teachings that he is familiar with.

Similarly, scholar Michael Yellow Bird (from the Sahnish and Hidatsa Nations) sees indigenous ceremonial practices as aligned with mindfulness meditation, and crucial to what he terms “neurodecolonization,” or transforming the embodied traumas that colonialism leaves in its wake.

Building settler solidarity on stolen native land.

Despite the similarities between indigenous resurgence and mind-body practices of settler social movements, there is still a vital element of decolonization that is regularly missed by settler activists: land. To whom does the land rightfully belong? Who has decision-making power over it?

Over lunch at the Unist’ot’en Camp, indigenous scholar Edward Valandra (from the Oceti Sakowin Oyate) asked us a simple question: “What is the first thing you do when you get out of bed each morning?” We immediately thought of our various morning rituals (meditation, yoga, a cup of coffee). Valandra patiently watched as we pondered his question; then he leaned in. “I can tell you exactly what you do each morning. You step out of bed onto stolen native land.”

The regular failure of settler activists to grapple with the land question means that even radical social movements are constantly at risk of reinforcing colonial structures and social relations. Consider Occupy Wall Street. The different occupations that sprang up across the continent in 2011 to protest profound disparities in wealth rarely acknowledged that they were happening on already occupied land.

Moreover, as scholars Eve Tuck (member of the Aleut indigenous community) and K. Wayne Yang have argued, “the ideal of ‘redistribution of wealth’ camouflages how much of that wealth is land, Native land.” Without a focus on the repatriation of land to indigenous peoples, a seemingly radical call for redistribution can quickly become a continuation of colonial dispossession.

Decolonization may feel unsettling to some, as it means the return of land and governing authority and the renunciation of settler privileges. Nevertheless, indigenous-led front lines from Standing Rock to Unist’ot’en are drawing a growing number of settlers who grieve colonial injustices, feel anxious about climate destabilization and crave a deeper connection to the land upon which they live.

Julia Michaelis is the camp’s chef. If food critics visited front lines, the kitchen at Unist’ot’en would be brimming with five-star reviews. Julia explained to us that she loved being at camp because every step she takes while there—from chopping onions to facilitating nonviolent direct action trainings—is in the service of decolonization. For settlers, relating to the magnitude of colonial injustice can be overwhelming. But at a front line like the Unist’ot’en camp, a simple chore like washing dishes is transformed into an everyday act of decolonization.

A bunkhouse at the Unist’ot’en camp. Credit: Waging Nonviolence/Jeff Nicholls. All rights reserved.

In a blog post about his experiences of healing at the camp, settler activist Will Falk recently reflected on how “every chore, every conversation, every action at the camp comes with a fullness of meaning I have never found anywhere else.” For Falk, this meaning is rooted in the traditional teachings that inform the camp.

According to Unist’ot’en Clan member Karla Tait, many supporters (both indigenous and settler) have “come out to Unist’ot’en land and found it to be a healing experience, to live on the land and have a connection with the natural world and our teachings.”

Supporters at the camp are making a connection with Unist’ot’en people, whose ancestors have been in deep relationship with the land since time immemorial. Being in good relations with people whose living traditions emerge from thousands of years of reciprocal relationship with the land allows for a depth of environmental connection, a groundedness on the Earth, that many supporters have never before experienced.

As environmental educators, we have learned a variety of contemplative exercises designed to deepen human connection to the land and facilitate a desire for stewardship. But we learned at the Unist’ot’en Camp that there is no substitute for the groundedness that comes from being in good relationship with the specific peoples upon whose lands you are living. Developing that relationship means fighting for the restitution of indigenous lands and authority.


The Unist’ot’en Camp offers a glimpse into what post-colonial relations between indigenous peoples and settlers could look like on Turtle Island. The land is Wet’suwet’en territory and governed by Wet’suwet’en law and systems of governance, but the camp welcomes visitors of all backgrounds who are keen to respect, abide by and learn from the laws of the land.

Members and supporters of the Unist’ot’en camp showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Credit: Waging Nonviolence/Unist’ot’en Camp. All rights reserved.

As stated on the Unist’ot’en website: “People of all races, religions, nationalities, classes, genders, orientations and gender identifications are welcome to support the grassroots Wet’suwet’en people in defending their land.” This connection across difference is practiced actively, a key part of the healing ethos of the camp. Indeed, one of our favorite activities at camp was “Femme Friday,” when everyone was encouraged to wear makeup and nail polish to make the environment more welcoming and celebratory for two-spirit people and genderqueer allies. Indigenous resurgence can look like a hereditary chief in red nail polish.

After eight years of anti-colonial resistance and the defeat of multiple pipeline projects, the Unist’ot’en Camp is still building momentum. Their winning formula is this: indigenous land governed by indigenous people, with consistent support from settler allies. This approach, deployed at Standing Rock and other indigenous-led front lines, is helping to ensure a livable future by stopping the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, while also sowing seeds for a different world—one in which the deep wounds to land and people inflicted by colonialism can finally heal.

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12 October 2017. Austerity, inequality and the arts

The arts are at risk of becoming the preserve of those from affluent, middle class backgrounds. That matters.

A production shot from Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here (Camden People’s Theatre). Credit: Joe Twigg, all rights reserved.

A woman goes on a road trip to her abandoned childhood home in an attempt to release herself from the debts that haunt her, and reclaim something that she left buried beneath the floorboards. When she gets there, she finds herself—quite literally—entangled with ghosts from her past. This is the plot of Barrel Organ’s Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here, an unsettling new play with an aesthetic somewhere between a David Lynch movie and a gothic horror story which explores the long-term repercussions of financial insecurity.

It’s the perfect fare for Halloween. After all, what could be more terrifying than the spectre of debt that is haunting austerity Britain? The average UK household debt is already over £57,000 (£57,349 to be exact), and 13 properties are repossessed every day. Like the most terrifying of ghosts, debt can seem impossible to escape, haunting our lives for years. And ultimately, debt is a way of taking ownership of someone’s time; your time is never truly your own until your debt is repaid.

The situation for young people seems particularly bleak. Unable to save due to student loans, credit card debt and overdrafts, one third of the so-called millennial generation has less than a month’s worth of savings in hand to cover their living expenses.

The subject of financial insecurity has been raising its head in theatre a lot lately. In Everything I Bought And How It Made Me Feel, Harry Giles catalogued everything they bought over the course of a year. As the name suggests, the show was an emotive account of the experience of spending money. Other recent examples are Beats & Elements’ No Milk For The Foxes, a beatbox theatre show about zero hours contracts, and The Paper Birds’ Broke, which drew on verbatim accounts of living with debt to explore our problematic relationships with money.

The reason why debt makes such a rich departure point for creative exploration is that it isn’t an abstract idea for many artists—it’s the reality they are living with every day. Barrel Organ—whose members are all in their twenties—calculated that the company involved in making the show owe around £300,000 between them.

In a recent blog, theatre maker Daniel Bye—a well-established name in contemporary theatre circles—wrote about a series of conversations he’d had with ‘ostensibly successful’ artists, who confessed to being in four-figure debts to payday loan companies or unable to escape their overdrafts, as well as sharing frankly his own struggles to escape ‘thousands of pounds’ of credit card debt.  

That artists are struggling to escape debt and sustain a decent living may seem like a small issue in the context of the wider and oppressive debt crisis that is facing the country at large. But it matters, because the arts are at serious risk of becoming the preserve of only those from affluent, middle class backgrounds. In fact, it already is.

The 2013 Great British Class Survey demonstrated that only ten per cent of actors came from a working-class background; the 2015 Panic! Survey—which  explored the career pathways of arts professionals—showed  that at least 76 per cent of arts workers have at least one parent in a middle-class job, and that nearly 90 per cent have worked for free at some point in their career.

Dave O’Brien, the lead researcher on the Panic! Survey, highlighted why the lack of socioeconomic diversity is a particular problem for the creative sectors in Guardian feature in which he concluded:

“People from working-class origins have issues making it into medicine, but medicine is not telling us stories about who we are. Medicine is not the thing we turn to to ask, ‘What’s my identity?’”

Culture not only reflects the world, but projects the world as it might be. If the voices that tell us stories or produce images within the arts establishment are solely those who are already advantaged by their social circumstances, then the implication is that they are the only perspectives that have value. What we privilege in our galleries and on our stages has the potential to reinforce the status quo or to change it.

It matters too because participation in the arts is empowering: you learn how to express yourself creatively, take ownership of your own story and gain the confidence to make yourself heard. These are all vital tools in the battle against systematic and endemic oppression, but right now they’re concentrated in a small number of hands.    

Clearly, there’s a huge amount the theatre sector can do to improve the financial lot of artists, such as offering better paid commissions and employment opportunities. It’s also reductive to pretend that the barriers to diversity are purely financial. A major rethink is required in terms of what kind of artwork is platformed—we can surely afford to lose a few Chekhov revivals.

Instead of moulding artists from underrepresented backgrounds to operate within established systems, the sector should be seeking ways to support them to work on their own terms and in their own contexts. This challenge is compounded by the Conservative government’s apparent determination to stigmatise arts subjects in education—as seen, for example, in ex-Secretary of State Nicky Morgan’s claim that school pupils have been ‘held back’ by studying arts subjects at school.  

However, the fear of debt is certainly one of the biggest stumbling blocks to entering a career in the arts. If going to drama school costs more than £27,000 in fees alone—leaving  you with a debt it will take decades to repay in an industry where you might well struggle to make even the minimum wage from your artistic output—why  would you take the risk unless you had a financial safety net underneath you?

We need wholesale social change that empowers people to make choices about their own futures, enabling them to pursue a creative education without encumbering themselves with debt that may be unsustainable. Finding ways to live affordably in the ways that we choose doesn’t just matter for the sake of improving access to the arts, it’s also vital for building a healthy and well-functioning society right across the board.

Artists are a tenacious, canny bunch, thank God, and they will continue to fight for this kind of society in spite of all the odds. In a socioeconomic system that can often seem as frightening and inescapable as a haunted house, their creativity and ingenuity are a beacon.

Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here runs at Camden People’s Theatre from 10-28 October, 2017 at 7.15pm (not Mondays or Sundays). Find out more at

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10 October 2017. Love and reason: how should we raise our children?

The ways in which we’re brought up go on to influence the systems we choose to build.

Unconditional Love. Graffiti art next to Elder Place with TQ3105 : Vantage Point in the background.  © Copyright Simon Carey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

As the 2017 ‘Good Childhood’ report and several other surveys reveal, large numbers of children in the UK and the US are anxious, depressed and fearful, and the scope of their unease seems to be broadening.

Parenting styles are only one of many factors at work in producing this situation, and assessing the costs and benefits of different child-rearing patterns on personal, social and political change is controversial. But there is a substantial body of research in psychology, psychoanalysis, neuroscience and attachment theory that shows that—while  genetic endowment interacts with the environment—the  emergence and progress of personhood is very much conditioned by the quality of attachment in one’s early life, whether secure or insecure.

Ideally, as a mother or other primary caregiver responds to their child’s needs, so an ‘affectional bond is formed, becoming integrated into the child’s developing personality—the blend of qualities giving us our distinct character—and serving as the basis for future affective relationships.

But the ways in which we are brought up don’t only influence our childhood identities; they also help to shape our relationships, beliefs and values throughout our lives, which go on to influence the kinds of economic, political and social systems we choose to build. In this respect, infancy is ‘the hub of cultural transmission—the place where we first learn how to feel for the self and others. Put plainly, people...think as they do partly because they have been brought up to think it.’

What we have learnt, however, is not always uplifting. We are beset by the multitude of vices that characterise the vertigo of our modern malaise: materialism, narcissism, inequality, vindictiveness and indifference. Each one is tutored through the therapeutics of emotional capitalism so that even happiness is exploited and corrupted. We appear to be living in an 'age of anger', marked by ressentiment with its trail of envy, humiliation and powerlessness.

Over the last 20 years, childcare gurus of all political hues—including  government departments, charitable agencies, and health and social work professionals—have  converged around the ‘authoritative’ approach to parenting, also sometimes known as ‘positive,’ as in neither ‘authoritarian’ nor ‘permissive.’

‘Authoritative parental control’ was first proposed in the late 1960s by Diana Baumrind, an American psychologist, as a liberal response to the conservative critique of ‘permissiveness’ in the divided America of that period. It is based on a ‘two factor’ model of discipline: emphasising ‘control’ (‘demandingness’) and ‘warmth’ (‘responsiveness’). Authoritarian parents exercise ‘high control’ but are ‘too hard’ and low on ‘warmth;’ while permissive parents, although showing ‘high warmth’, are ‘damagingly’ low on control and ‘too soft’ altogether. Only the authoritative parent, it is claimed, gets it just right.

Children who are loved 'unconditionally', says Baumrind, do not become ‘good, or competent, or disciplined.’ She dismisses criticism of punishment as ‘utopian,’ claiming that ‘structure’ in families requires ‘contingent reinforcement,’ and labelling parents who fail to use their power to achieve obedience as ‘indecisive.’ Ironically for a Marxist,  underpinning her disciplinary model is the principle of ‘reciprocity,’ which may be defined as little more than a market view of human relationships and, as such, a precursor to neoliberal ethics: “the rule of reciprocity, of paying for value received, is a law of life that applies to us all.” But possibly it's less ironic than first appears since the popularity of her parenting style across the political spectrum suggests that childism is as much alive on the left as it is on the right.

The authoritative approach derives its psychological status from the ‘new behaviourism,’ with its focus on what can be observed and measured (i.e. behaviour), rather than on feelings. Behaviours are said to function on the basis of ‘reinforcements’—positive , aversive, or constructional—which  emphasise the role of external forces in being brought to bear on what people do. ‘Subjective’ information is discarded in preference to ‘objective’ assessment. Consequently, authoritative parents are keen to set their children ‘boundaries,’ and to use rewards like star charts and punishments like a ‘naughty step’ to induce compliant behaviour in their children.

However, critics of this approach have shown that authoritative control is associated with a lower level of intrinsic motivation, less internalisation of ethical values, lower self-esteem, and relatively poor self regulation, and that these negative consequences continue into adulthood. Control is no less damaging in minimising relational virtues such as considerateness and tolerance, in ignoring the art of combining perceptiveness and imaginativeness, and in failing to encourage integrative parent-child relationships.

Perhaps even more important, the children of authoritative parents do not receive warmth as a gift of love (as a right or entitlement), because in such families warmth itself is a feature of control and reciprocity—almost a transaction. The child learns neither how to ‘love’ herself for being who she is, nor how to give warmth to others unconditionally. This is the path to a false or minimal self, which can develop into neurosis and be passed on from one parenting generation to another with tragic results.

Of course, it is not always what is done but the way it is done that yields long-lasting effects for good or ill (including the tone, moods and rhythms of parental speech). One of the most beneficial of these effects comes when children learn to ‘mentalise,’ i.e. to reflect positively on their own emotional experiences while also engaging with and understanding those of other people. Unfortunately, in embodying the popular appeal of discipline, authoritative control prioritises autocratic parental power to do to others over the democratic responsibility to work with them. This inhibits children’s capacity for mentalisation; consequently, their ability to build up relational intelligence is undermined.

The radical American educationalist Alfie Kohn campaigns for a very different approach to ‘unconditional parenting,’ which involves not rewards and punishments but ‘love and reason.’ Rather than seeing behavioural conduct as a sum total, he views it respectfully as an expression of feelings, thoughts, needs and intentions. The child as a person becomes the focus of interest, instead of only his behaviour. Naturally, these children are encouraged to do likewise in their own relationships, supporting them to develop an interdependent and emotionally mature self that is connected to other selves in the wider world.

By contrast, the temptation with conditional parenting is to love children for what they do—mainly, being obedient, successful and ‘good’ (as in ‘trouble free for adults’)—rather than for who they are, accepting that they may not always be the sort of people we wish them to be. In Kohn’s words, we should let our children know that we love them ‘for no good reason;’ it is vital that they know this: that they feel loved. This helps children to like themselves, which is important for coherent social development, since without a reasoned belief in their own being they risk becoming unhealthily narcissistic.

In thinking about the significance of these different child-rearing styles, the psychologist Alison Gopnik’s critique of ‘parenting’ as a verb is insightful. She uses the metaphor of the gardener and the carpenter to show that parenting is often likened to carpentry as a collection of skills and techniques that set out to produce a final product as a goal-driven and controlled exercise—the  objective being ‘valuable’ children who will develop into equally ‘valuable’ adults.

But through its emphasis on producing a valuable child, the carpentry approach weakens the moral good of caring for children as ends in themselves, each with a ‘cherished uniqueness. It also sets children a poor example in terms of the demands and rewards of commitment. In subverting our commitment to them, the value of commitment as a universal worth is similarly compromised.

Virtuous parental care for children is better compared to gardening: providing the child with a safe and secure environment in which a variety of flowers, shrubs and trees will bloom. In the garden, the child creates an untold number of futures, each unavoidably unpredictable. Furthermore, just as the good gardener works with and through trust in Nature, so good parents do likewise with their children. After all, without trust we are mere cynics.

In truth, whatever our best intentions, we cannot ensure that any particular childrearing pattern will make people better than they are. But we can understand and help our children as they work at growing up. Instead of practising behavioural techniques for so-called ‘character building,’ we should rely on the example of goodwill that is set through unconditional love, shepherded by Paiget’s astute warning against exaggerating the importance of morality: ‘How much more precious is a little humanity than all the rules in the world.

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8 October 2017. Your money or your morals: capitalism and fossil fuel divestment

The divestment movement highlights a set of challenges to the future of capitalism that extend far beyond its unsustainable environmental externalities.

New York Fossil Fuel Divestment Rally, Manhattan, 27 March 2014. ©Adam Welz for /0235.jpg. Flickr/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The fossil fuel divestment campaign has become one of the most rapidly growing divestment movements in history and has unified an impressive diversity of supporters—from liberal Californian universities to the Rockefeller’s family trust. But the contradictions between divestment and the logic of neoliberalism are enduring, and arguments between campaigners and their opponents are typically framed by questions relating to efficiency, feasibility, and the ethics of using fossil fuels.

Such questions are certainly important to ask, but we should also look beyond them, because by doing so we can uncover the deeper ethical contradictions inherent to capitalism which shed important light on strategies for change.

Economists and philosophers have long disputed whether capitalism's theoretical potential to harness human self-interest for the greater good of society is a virtue or a vice. Many argue that capitalism doesn’t just harness a natural human inclination towards self-interest, but rather systematically cultivates it. Others point to the vast increases in material wealth experienced around the world over the past centuries as all the proof we need of capitalism’s superiority; in this view, debates about the morality of self-interest as the driving force of change become irrelevant.

But two particular arguments against divestment demonstrate that capitalism not only cultivates negative moral values, but actively suffocates positive ones as well.

The first argument claims that divestment is hypocritical while we continue to depend on fossil fuels for our day-to-day activities. In short, we are urged not to abandon the companies we rely on.

This argument is easily refuted. It is effectively a preference to act consistently unethically rather than inconsistently ethically; a difficult position to defend in any context. It also fails to recognise the significant differences that exist between the agency of consumers and investors. Is a smoking addict who is determined to quit obliged to invest their pension in Phillip Morris? Of course not—they are only obliged to pay for their cigarettes. In the same way, our only obligation to fossil fuel companies is that we pay for the fuel we consume.

As consumers, our actions are constrained by factors such as current energy and transport infrastructures, and pressures to conform to environmentally-destructive social norms. But as investors—of personal savings or institutional money—our agency, the choices available to us, and, therefore, our moral responsibility, are radically different.

Moreover, the choice of where capital is invested in the present strongly influences our future capacity for low-carbon living. But by arguing that investments should be guided only by our current, highly-constrained consumption patterns—rather than by moral values that relate to the future well-being of humans and the world around us—opponents of divestment are effectively advocating a position that would lead to a perpetual suffocation of those values.

Even more revealing is the fact that those who oppose divestment on the grounds of hypocrisy would make no such accusation were it to be motivated by economic self-interest. Imagine a university that holds shares in ExxonMobil and is also connected to a fossil-fuel dependent national electricity grid (as many are). If the university’s investment manager noticed that returns on the Exxon shares are falling, it’s inconceivable that they would hold onto them—in the face of more lucrative share options—just in case the decision appeared to contradict the university’s electricity supply. Rather, they would simply reinvest in better-performing companies, as they are paid to do.  

Hence, divestment is considered perfectly legitimate if it is made for reasons related to profit but not to morals.  According to the logic of opposition to divestment, the profit-motive is permitted to do things that moral imperatives are not. Not only is profit-seeking rewarded, but morally-motivated actions are ridiculed and opposed.

A second revealing argument against divestment is that it leaves more opportunities for less scrupulous investors because those with more of an environmental conscience abandon the marketplace. A more effective approach, according to the critics, is for activists to become ethical shareholders by using their investments to pressure fossil fuel companies to become part of the solution to climate change.

The typical response of pro-divestment campaigners to this argument is that the kind of shareholder activism it recommends isn’t appropriate in this case. Fossil fuel companies aren't like those who produce clothes or food or electronics: the impacts of fossil fuels don’t just arise from the ways in which the supply chain currently happens to operate; rather, they are inseparable from the products themselves.

Lobbying a company to improve wages and working conditions is one thing; lobbying them to stop selling their primary product is another. Past experience suggests that it is therefore very unlikely that shareholder engagement could be successful in the case of fossil fuels (although a more aggressive ‘forceful stewardship’ approach might have greater chance of success).

Either way, when such debates become stalled on a choice between strategies it is easy to overlook the way in which moral values are suffocated. From the perspective of those who oppose divestment, market logic determines that it is better for investors to work within the norms of the system, even to achieve moral goals. One divestment skeptic puts it particularly bluntly, arguing that “moral outrage is not as effective as capitalism.”

Are such arguments merely pragmatic—a  call to take a rational, consequential moral stance rather than an emotional, categorical one?

In considering this question, it’s worth recognising that this argument sounds uncomfortably like those made in the early days of capitalism, when profits depended upon slavery rather than fossil fuels. Owning slaves was often justified via the argument that, if released, they could be in an even worse situation, left at the mercy of the new exploitative industrialist class. Therefore, it was better to keep hold of slaves and treat them slightly better; a position which, at the time, may have been considered rational in moral terms by some. However, a transformation in values since the abolition of slavery has shown it to be indefensible.

Capitalism has always strongly resisted any challenge to the energy source that lies at the heart of its profits, whether that was from human-energy in the form of slaves or fossil fuel-energy today. While benign changes around the periphery of production are tolerated reluctantly, actions that threaten to achieve more fundamental changes are deemed to have dangerous, unintended consequences, or are dismissed as having no consequences at all. The divestment campaign highlights how the logic of capitalism achieves this goal, in part, by declaring moral inclinations to be obsolete whenever they threaten to be transformational. Those campaigning for divestment must therefore prepare to be ridiculed with accusations of hypocrisy, naivety and a misguided sense of moral superiority.

Such accusations are especially harsh given that most serious campaigners don’t believe that divestment is an effective tactic on its own. The general consensus is that it is primarily a moral and political strategy, not an economic one. But it is also crucial to recognise that not all opponents of divestment are CEOs, industry lobbyists and Wall Street bankers who are set to profit directly from fossil fuel companies going forward. They may also include people who, if asked openly, wish for the same future as the average environmental campaigner, but have had their own moral inclinations suffocated by capitalist realism and the cynical view of human motivation that is the foundation of neoliberal psychology.

The divestment movement highlights a set of challenges to the future of capitalism that extend far beyond its unsustainable environmental externalities. With considerable clarity, it shows the ways in which market logic not only cultivates action that is led by calculated self-interest, but also actively suffocates intrinsic human drivers towards questions of fairness and equality.

Fortunately, these values have evolved over tens of thousands of years and, despite these latest attempts at suffocation, they will not die easily. The challenge—of particular importance for the divestment movement—is to move towards a society in which our morals are worth at least as much as our money, and ideally much, much more.

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5 October 2017. The drama of the thinking heart

Each play relies upon the witnessing abilities of others to set free the imaginative forces of resistance. 

Extreme Whether, written and directed by Karen Malpede with George Bartenieff,  Di Zhu, Ellen Fisk, Jeff McCarthy and Kathleen Purcell. Photo (c) Beatriz Schiller. All rights reserved.

For the past twenty-two years, Theater Three Collaborative has been producing ecofeminist-pacifist plays in New York and Europe, on a shoestring and against all odds. Now a book, Plays in Time: The Beekeeper’s Daughter, Another Life, Prophecy, Extreme Whether, documents this unlikely journey through four scripts, seven critical commentaries and 32 production photos.

Our plays are character and story-driven, creating worlds into which the audience enters in order to experience the transformations of characters caught-up in the genocidal histories of modern life. Characters are not immune from fate—they might be raped or tortured, have committed a terrible war crime, been lied about and censored—but they resist the implications of their fates and find the resources to change their story through deep encounters with others who act as empathetic witnesses. Each play is full of moments of such turnings from despair to strength, and each relies upon the witnessing abilities of others to set free the imaginative forces of resistance.

I’ve titled my preface to Plays in Time “The Drama of the Thinking Heart,” and written there that these four plays are meant to “bring us to our senses. Poetry is wild nature produced by human nature, a song between a living cosmos and an ever-emergent self. This is why preservation of life in all its sentient forms is the work of the dramatic poet and why the poet must be fiercely engaged in the exploration, creation and manifestation of justice on this earth and for earth’s creatures.”

All theater, but especially a poetic-political theater, is about breath, language and body, since these are its tools and affects. As an actor’s breathing deepens, the language enters more fully into their bodies and this intensity transfers to the audience. Understanding of one’s own plight clarifies, memories rouse, and insights gather. We are alone but sit together in community. As each character’s stories touch individual members of the audience, a collective experience is generated.

“The body keeps the score,” says trauma specialist Besel van der Kolk, meaning that the ills we suffer or inflict stay with us, determining our mental and physical health, blocking our way. The potential of theater is to reach inside the body to touch or dislodge a source of understanding or of pain. Sometimes in our work we see this happen.

The Beekeeper’s Daughter, for example, is about a victim of the systematic rapes of Bosnian women who finds healing with the help of some eccentric American ex-pats. It was performed in New York while the war in Bosnia continued. The word got out and Bosnian and Croatian refugees to the United States came nightly; their welcome to their new country was enhanced by a play that told their stories to Americans in ways everyone might understand. Several refugee women and their families became our friends, sharing meals and holidays.

Similarly, I was working with Palestinian-American writer and actor Najla Said when she became trapped in Beirut by the Israeli bombardment in 2006. I used her emails to help craft the characters I was already writing for her in Prophecy, viewing her correspondence as an aesthetic gift that allowed me a better understanding of the terror of war. In her own commentary on the play, Najla writes: “Somehow she had taken everything I had said and expressed and created three different women for me to play…We never spoke of it, but I think Karen knows quite clearly what she did for me…: she allowed me to process my trauma through art.”

Another Life, about the US torture program, begins on September 11, 2001. The mogul Handel watches the towers implode from his Soho loft and plots how to profit from the coming wars—he will found Deepwater, a private contracting firm based on Eric Prince’s Blackwater. While the play is fiction, its torture stories are real.

Abu Zubaydah, a high profile detainee, is still imprisoned in Guantanamo after being brutally tortured at several ‘black sites.’ Zubaydah lied to stop the pain, for that is how torture ‘works;’ ‘bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were in cahoots,’ he said. Emad Khydayir Shahuth Al-Janabi was just a citizen, picked up at random in one of the nighttime house raids, held naked and chained in Abu Ghraib. A transcript of his testimony was given to me by journalist Donovan Webster, working with lawyer Susan Burk who was suing Caci and other private contracting firms for the torture of Iraqi citizens. The testimony is used verbatim: “I was beaten in front of my wife and children…I was forced inside a wooden crate…slammed into a wall…told I would be executed…I said I know nothing. I know nothing to say. I have done nothing.”

We workshopped the play at the National Theatre of Kosovo, where our English-speaking Kosovar actors each had a private story of the torture of a family member or themselves to share from their own recent war.

In New York, we learned from the actor who played Handel’s daughter that her grandfather had been tortured in China by the Japanese. A recent Iraqi refugee acted the role of Abdul, the undocumented Egyptian cab driver whom Handel makes his personal slave. He had seen the brutality of the American occupation up close as the tanks rolled into Baghdad, and had dodged bullets in the streets, caught in a firefight between insurgents and invaders. He had come through Egypt to the United States, and found in this play about the occupation and the torture camps an opportunity to speak his truth. He has since married an American human rights worker who first saw him on-stage in Another Life. They have a child.

Ours is a completely improbable theater endeavor for New York in the age of hyper-gentrification, neo-liberalism, and endless war. I like to say our audience is comprised of people who long for the sort of live, communal experience that only the theater can provide, but who have given up on theater in general because it no longer speaks to them. We often surround our productions with what we call ‘Festivals of Conscience.’ These are post-play conversations between experts, activists and audiences. They allow audiences to hear about specific initiatives or to gain a deeper understanding of the issues. The Festivals of Conscience link the intensely private yet communal experience of watching a poetic play to a public dialogue about the redress of social wrongs.

When Prophecy premiered in London in 2008, we hosted a packed post-play conversation between Israeli author Ilan Pappé and Oxford Professor Karma Nabulsi. When the play opened in New York two years later, antiwar activists and thinkers including Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Laura Flanders and David Swanson dialogued with our audiences, which included theater parties from the ACLU, Peace Action New York, Code Pink and the War Resisters League. Pre-selling these blocks of tickets allowed us to fund the play.

We opened Another Life in New York on the weekend of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, preceded by a panel of four lawyers who had been representing Guantanamo detainees for years. Each one, in turn, remarked, “Our justice system is broken.”

Every subsequent performance of Another Life has been followed by talks from human rights and anti-torture activists who lamented the lack of concern among Americans. In fact, over 50 per cent of the American public believes that torture is “all right to keep us safe.” Darius Rejali, author of Torture and Democracy who collected these statistics, explained his research to audiences after the opening night in Brooklyn. He compared Another Life to “Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” because “it captures the story of a decade in just six characters.”

The first public reading of Extreme Whether took place in 2013, in the week in which Dr. James Hansen, America’s pre-eminent climate scientist, resigned his post at NASA so that he would be free to sue the government. He is an expert witness in the “Our Children’s Future” lawsuit being brought by minors in defense of the planet—his granddaughter Sophie among them. Hansen had already read the play, and had given me one note about it: “warming must be held far below two degrees Celsius.” He came to watch and speak to an audience of 150 people, and returned for the play’s opening in a staged production at Theater for the New City in the fall of 2014, just after the People’s Climate March had brought 400,000 onto the streets.

Hansen’s talks, like most of those I’ve mentioned, are available on our website. Extreme Whether will be revived at LaMama in New York from March 1-18, 2018. Its story of the censorship of climate science is ever more pertinent today.

So it is that we try in every way that we can to bridge the artistic and the social-political experience, for we believe that art is meant to give us strength and insight, and to mobilize our feelings and our thoughts so that we can bring nuanced understanding, depth and commitment to our activist lives.

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3 October 2017. Findhorn: inner listening, outer action

When we turn within, we find life far kinder than it seemed before, and the possibilities far more open.

Part of the Findhorn community in northern Scotland. Credit: Findhorn Foundation. All rights reserved.

In the slanting sunlight of autumn in the north of Scotland, a group of people in gardening clothes sit on a circle of tree stumps, eyes closed. “Tune into which area you would like to work this afternoon,” says Iris, a middle aged woman wearing bright orange garden gloves. The rest of the group stay still for a few moments as she names the different areas of the garden, then Iris says “thank you” and they open their eyes. The shift leaders get up and stand at different sides, and the participants move to join them. Then they move to different areas of the gardens to start their work.

This simple process of ‘attunement’ is a key to understanding the Findhorn Foundation, a community that Christina Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has called the ‘Alternative Davos.’ The center’s programmes now regularly draw thousands of people each year from all walks of life, many of whom return several years in a row and participate in work shifts alongside members of the community. Part of what attracts them is how Findhorn makes a direct connection between listening within and acting outwardly in everything it does.

“I see how attunement works for participants and for myself all the time,” notes Iris, a former hotel and real estate company manager in Israel. Her dream is to bring the skills she has learned at Findhorn back to her native country to build peace gardens. “People really come into contact with what is meaningful for them, sometimes for the first time in a long time.”

But taking time to be still and look within for direction is not our cultures’ predominant way of living.

Most of society’s structures—government, schools, religious institutions and even families—operate on the unspoken assumption that there must be external rules. The government makes laws that everyone should obey; religions set rigid definitions of what is good and bad; and schools rank students according to their grades.

In many cases, the cost of choosing to pay attention to outer rules rather than the inner life is high.

On a personal level, when people choose what the dominant culture tells them they should value instead of what they sense is their calling—money over relationships and power over fulfillment—stress, burnout and depression are frequent results. And on the collective level, when enough people stop acting on their sense of meaning and purpose, the end result is a dysfunctional system that runs on addictions, distractions, short-term gratification and a sense of separation.

What complicates the situation is that when messages from outside ourselves have colonized people’s hearts and minds, we inevitably find it more difficult to sense what is truly meaningful for us.

The Findhorn community takes a very different approach. It is an imperfect experiment in organizing groups around each person’s inner life. In small ways—like deciding which part of the garden to work in—as well as larger ones, it offers people different paths to attune to what is actually meaningful to them, and then to do it alone and with others.

“Most people have layers of conditioning from family, culture, religion and so on,” explains Iris, “when I work with people, I usually do something to help people quiet down, like hold a meditation or ask them to take some deep breaths. Then the mental chatter from all the conditioning can lessen and they can begin to sense into deeper levels.”

In our experience, doing this inevitably brings with it a greater awareness of each person’s higher purpose; and acting from this sense of higher purpose lies at the heart of constructing a different world.

Findhorn’s story began with three ordinary people who gave their lives in service to this ideal. Feeling drawn by a sense of deep calling to serve the world, they took the rare step of pledging themselves to act on that calling come what may. Years later, after meditating daily and putting what they heard into practice, they ended up penniless and out of jobs in a desolate caravan park in the remote north of the Scottish Highlands. Their families didn’t understand their ‘crazy’ obsession, and they attracted negative press for being part of a counter-cultural spiritual group.

When the garden they started in the arid sand began to flourish unexpectedly, they drew more positive media attention and more visitors. They purchased caravans for guests, and within weeks, people had arrived to purchase and occupy them. With 20 community members, they built a kitchen for hundreds more, and they came too.

Over the years the community grew and developed, becoming a founding member of the Global Ecovillage Network which links Findhorn with other similar centres like Tamera in Portugal and Dartington Hall/Schumacher College in Devon. We have gained recognition from the United Nations as a center for sustainability education, and developed a wide range of college-level programmes in ecovillage design, alternative energy, Spirituality and Wellness and permaculture.

Something that began on the farthest margins of society has started to grow into a center of influence.

The pattern is the same for many individuals. The feelings, intuitions and fleeting impressions that may get marginalized in everyday life hold clues about our deeper calling. When people pay attention to and act on their inner lives instead of condemning their experiences and impressions to internal ghettos, those parts of themselves that have been marginalized begin to gain more influence. If we continue to pay attention and act on them, we begin to sense the larger social and spiritual wholes to which we belong.

Meditation and other inner life awareness practices have gained much ground in recent years, in part thanks to Findhorn and other innovative centers that have helped to popularize them. Still, talking about inner experiences, especially ones that people regard as spiritual, tends to be categorized as anything from flaky to clinically insane.

Nevertheless, the community’s experience is that paying attention to the inner life and acting on its insights is what helps people to regain a sense of identity, sovereignty and joy. NGO workers at Findhorn often remark that they come away feeling rejuvenated and reconnected, full of fresh ideas. Participants from corporate jobs find it transformational to work in the garden and experience warm, human contact.

Often, however, reconnecting with the inner life produces things that seem unexpected, strange or extreme. New information can come in the form of a dream, a sudden knowing or a visionary spiritual experience. This makes sense, given that most of us are used to interpreting life according to the definitions of others.

In many ways, our current economic, political and religious systems seem headed towards destructive ends and are telling us destructive stories. But traditionally they have also been the wielders of authority and respectability that shape the overarching narrative of most of our lives. And if we have become convinced that a crazy way of being is respectable and authoritative, then the way out might indeed seem disreputable and strange.

What the community has discovered over 55 years of spiritual and practical action is that the decision to trust our sense of meaning, regardless of how strange it seems at first, is the road to freedom. The metaphysics of what people are doing when they meditate and listen within are open to debate. Findhorn itself avoids any kind of religious statements in order to focus attention on people’s lived experiences, not any particular theory of them.

However, one of the most common experiences among members and participants is that once we do turn within, we find life far kinder than it seemed before, and the possibilities far more open.

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2 October 2017. We need personal, everyday action to end violence against women

Never laugh at a rape joke, speak out against lower wages for women. Don’t underestimate the power of everyday activism to uphold justice.

Two women participants in an inter-generational mentoring programme in Uganda. Two women participants in an inter-generational mentoring programme in Uganda. Photo: Gender Based Violence Prevention Network. All rights reserved.Activism can be as soft as a pillow, as hard as a rock. There are untold ways to be an activist. It's never the wrong time to uphold justice and there is always room to balance power. This seems obvious until efforts to end violence against women are talked about like a job that only certain people can do.

Questions remain concerning the best ways to prevent and respond to emotional, physical, sexual or economic violence against women. Yet the key must lie in everyday action, in whatever situation we may find ourselves.

No matter how intense attempts are to normalise violence against women, it’s crucial to recognise the power of your personal activism. Even when victims get used to their pain, cover scars, or accept death, we can’t give up on our ability to positively influence our own and others’ experiences.

'we can’t give up on our ability to positively influence our own and others’ experiences'

Personal activism is what reaches out and offers safety to the wife who gets beaten or threatened with violence by her drunken husband, even before the police arrives. It’s what defends a lesbian from physical and verbal abuse, no matter what the law says. It’s what speaks out against lower wages for women doing the same job as men, even before a court action.

We usually have grand ideas about activism, thinking that the big rallies, protests on the streets, or the hashtags that make news headlines are the only worthy actions. But often expressions of collective activism like these rely on the personal activism that's necessary to confront the daily presence of violence in our communities.

It's the little things like refusing to watch or share a sex tape slutshaming a celebrity, a colleague at work, or a church member. It’s being sensitive to the pain of victims, like never laughing at a rape joke. It’s refusing to buy from a restaurant that is known for mistreating its waitresses. It’s speaking out against hitting the woman caught stealing money at the market. Often, it is little things that affect people in big ways.

'often, it is little things that affect people in big ways'

Our personal activism ultimately affects what our world becomes. We should take every opportunity to match our words with tangible actions towards justice. We cannot choose to be activists only when it suits us. Activism is consistent in being unconditional.

Everyday actions to defend, protect and support women, children and vulnerable groups are what inspires others to stand by someone being discriminated against in public, and stay with them until their security and safety is ensured; to never make excuses for violence against women; and to rethink tolerated or accepted behaviour and strive for change.

Such everyday actions can spur others to consider and experiment with more positive ways to use their power in potentially abusive situations. They can push others to question their inaction and break the silence around systemic injustice. And they can inspire others to nurture their own power within and overcome fears of challenging the status quo.

Personal activism draws people to love and accept themselves, believe that they are valuable, and feel that they are deserving of their human rights. It is through personal activism that we connect, strengthen our efforts and join our power for greater impact. And this positively influences the lives of others, as well as our own.

Join the Twitter conversation on #VAWactivism, 3-5 Oct 2017.

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1 October 2017. The dangers of political sainthood

If our aim is to learn from individuals who somehow rise above their time, we should treat them more like ordinary human beings.

President Barack Obama meets with Burmese Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the Oval Office, Sept. 19, 2012 (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, Public Domain).

When Thomas Carlyle wrote that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men,” he spoke to a common sentiment. Although the ‘great man theory’ has seemingly gone out of fashion in the academic world, it has not receded from our instinctive understanding of politics, and is certainly not an exclusively conservative tendency.

Yes, the sanctification of a Churchill or a Reagan often arises from a longing for a simpler time when kids didn’t answer back and we knew the difference between Good and Evil. But the obsession with finding and inventing political saints cuts across ideological boundaries.

Individuals play a vital role in shaping our historical and contemporary imaginations. A good example is provided by our obsession with counterfactuals: what if Lincoln had lived beyond 1865? What if Thomas Paine never met Benjamin Franklin, and had stayed in England instead of moving to Philadelphia? What if Bernie Sanders had been the 2016 Democratic Presidential Nominee?

More significantly, individual stories sometimes tell us more about history than expansive scholarly accounts. Few books illuminate the wounds and contradictions of the US as sharply as The Autobiography of Malcolm X; it’s impossible to understand the New Deal without the story of activist-turned-Labor Secretary Frances Perkins; and the life of Dolores Huerta is a powerful illustration of the modern political struggles facing Latino communities across the country.

Towering individual legacies are rarely forgotten. In life, they are solidified by lifetime achievement awards or Nobel Prizes; in death by statues, poems, songs and biographies.

Is there anything wrong with this tendency?

The short answer is yes, and perhaps particularly for those on the left, for two reasons. First, when a political movement is personalized, the role of collective action is often overlooked.

Reducing the struggle for civil rights to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks rightly acknowledges profound personal courage and intelligence, but says little about the thousands of activists whose daily resistance steadily undermined the Jim Crow regime. Likewise, figures like Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn are important to any understanding of the movement against the Vietnam War, but we cannot come near to a full picture of this history without discussing the “Quiet Mutiny” of thousands of conscripts who immobilized the world’s largest military machine from the inside out.

The moment we overemphasize heroic figures is the moment we begin to lose sight of the collective actions we have all shaped—and  will continue to shape—in the arc of radical social change. The individuals we praise will be the first ones to remind us of this lesson.

Second, if we are to find the right place for individual stories in our political thinking, we need to see our idols—particularly those who wield power—through  a critical lens. This is because politics is deeply complex, and success in politics usually requires an uneasy combination of principle and guile.

Leading a political movement is hard. If the cause is national liberation, your task is to unify millions of people with opposing material interests; if it’s social revolution, you have to uproot an entire class structure.

Any progress in these struggles requires a wide range of political skills—and not just ‘honorable’ ones. Strong principles, courage, and eloquence don’t always get very far without compromise, fudging, and even outright deception. But when an inspiring leader emerges (and succeeds), we often forget this lesson.

Take the recent example of Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. Formerly printed on the front of ‘Freedom’ t-shirts, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and lauded across the Western political spectrum, she is now profiled on opinion pages as “The Ignoble Laureate” who is “complicit in crimes against humanity.” Her refusal to condemn the Burmese military’s brutal attacks on Rohingya villages—and  the smearing of the international organizations that have documented the violence–has  extinguished her saintly global reputation.

Ms. Suu Kyi is an extreme but illustrative case. At heart a Burmese nationalist like her father, she became an ideal symbol of solemn opposition to tyranny and the archetypal ‘prisoner of conscience’ during her nearly fifteen years of living under house arrest. After her release and elevation to de facto civilian leader of the country, she has been confronted with the overriding question of building national unity.

As Thomas Abbasi, a friend of mine, recently wrote on Facebook: “She seems to have calculated that throwing the Rohingyas under the bus is worth it to keep the support of the army, the monks and the mob. We all feel upset and let down because we projected more onto her and didn’t know enough about the country’s complexity.”

Amid the betrayal and cynicism that often defines politics in every country, it’s natural to look for people like Aung San Suu Kyi who seem to rise above it, but this can lead us to lose a valuable dose of scepticism. Flaws are ignored, power plays are excused and dirty tricks are rationalized. And when we look at individuals from our own history, our critical instincts are diminished further.

Think, for example, of the ‘man of his time’ defense. Supporters of Confederate statues have been seen using this argument recently for people like Robert E. Lee: sure, he lashed his escaped slaves and had brine poured into their wounds, but everyone else was doing it back then—we  just want to honor him for his “gentlemanly surrender” at the end of the Civil War.

Attempts to elide the ugliness of historical figures are not confined to conservative publications like the National Review. In some ways progressives have actually been worse. Above all, we hide from the fact that the 20th Century progressive movement was always accommodating to white supremacists, its leading heroes happy to appease the most racist factions of the Democratic Party.

As C. Vann Woodward points out in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, modern progressivism—based on economic populism and an attack on corporate power—was  never incompatible with the Jim Crow South. In fact, some of the New Deal’s most passionate disciples were committed segregationists, including the infamous Alabama Governor George Wallace, who surged in the 1972 Democratic primaries less than a decade after giving an inaugural Governor’s address written by a member of the Ku Klux Klan.  

While the Wallaces of recent times are being expunged from the memory of progressive Americans, Franklin D. Roosevelt retains his place in the pantheon above almost all others. Mark Lilla concluded his widely read post-election essay on The End of Identity Liberalism with a rousing appeal to the values of F.D.R.—his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech highlighted as a reminder of “what the real foundations of modern American liberalism are.” Thomas Frank also criticises the Democratic Party’s departure from the Roosevelt legacy; Bernie Sanders takes a similar view.  

But this is the same F.D.R. who sent more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps, refused to support federal anti-lynching legislation because it would damage his electoral prospects, and gave the great black athlete Jesse Owens less recognition than Adolf Hitler did after his four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The great social programmes of Roosevelt’s New Deal were minutely tailored to suit the racial politics of Southern Democrats: “The segregationists supported the Tennessee Valley Authority, but only so long as the cheap electricity it produced flowed only to white communities… Likewise, African Americans were specifically excluded from New Deal legislation that set minimum wages and secured benefits for farm laborers and domestic servants.”

Honesty matters. It allows us to draw more complex lessons from our past. A true assessment of Roosevelt says something about the dangers of promoting social justice while deferring racial justice; a fuller understanding of Lincoln reveals not a God-like, single-minded “Great Emancipator,” but the value of changing your mind

If our aim is to learn from individuals who somehow rise above their time, we should treat them more like ordinary human beings. If they hold serious political power, even more so, assuming they will behave or have behaved immorally at some point: they should be judged guilty until proven innocent. This is a sceptical rather than cynical view, rooted in the conviction that the best way to appreciate great political leaders is to humanize them.

This brings us back to the wider point about collective action. No matter how exceptional, an individual is limited in what they can achieve. Historic achievements have come from Labor activists fighting for the right to picket without being arrested; feminists distributing leaflets about birth control in defiance of censorship laws; abolitionists gathering under the threat of mob violence; and pacifists opposing the draft.

Although we owe much to the individuals who have led these struggles or helped to realize their demands, we can’t let them overshadow the millions of people who made so many daily sacrifices, fought so many battles, and won so many victories.

I think the trade unionist and five-time Socialist Presidential candidate Eugene Debs made the point better than anyone else. “I am not a Labor Leader”, he once said. “I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are.” And, even more profoundly: “I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out.”

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28 September 2017. What if we thought of gender like ice cream?

Why do we have to choose between chocolate and vanilla?

Every flag together is the peaceful warrior: rainbow country, San Francisco 2014. Credit: Flickr/TorbakhopperCC BY-ND 2.0.

Originally published on Everyday Feminism.

Gender identity is a deeply personal issue that many people still have trouble understanding and respecting. Unlearning restrictive binary genders is a process, but one that is well worth the effort.

This comic highlights the importance of looking past restrictive ideas of gender and embracing the idea that every identity is ‘real’ and deserves to be respected. After all, each person knows themselves best.


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26 September 2017. When you get a front door, remember to leave it open

A Manchester-South Africa exchange reveals striking similarities in the dynamics of urban inequality.

Members of Mums Mart, Lower Broughton Life and the South African Alliance in South Africa, July 2017. Copyright: Sophie King. All rights reserved.

“It’s all about trust” said Marie Hampshire, two days into a week-long community exchange with members of the South African Alliance in July 2017, a grassroots movement of women-led savings schemes affiliated to Slum/Shack Dwellers International or SDI. Marie is a member of Mums Mart, a women’s group from Benchill in the British city of Manchester that brings low-income families together around food, monthly markets and, most recently, a new kind of savings scheme.

Each member saves small amounts with the support of their local group, and in the process of coming together the group learns about their needs and challenges and tries to respond collectively. Mums Mart was introduced to savings-based organising after meeting members of the Alliance in Manchester a year earlier. Now, other groups in the city are starting to explore how women’s savings federations could rebuild trust and solidarity in their neighbourhoods.

Joanne Inglis is the Chair of a new association called Lower Broughton Life, one of these groups that is based in another part of Greater Manchester called Salford. After accompanying members of the South African Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDUP) on door-to-door visits and listening to plans for a new housing development in Cape Town by the Informal Settlement Network (another partner in the Alliance), she urged her hosts: “when you get a front door remember to leave it open.”

Joanne was reflecting on how segregated life has become on estates like hers, where people look after their own affairs and many of the old spaces for communal life have closed down. She was struck that—while the signs of poverty and inequality in South Africa are only too visible in the townships and settlements she visited—poverty in the UK is often hidden from view: “our houses can look the same on the outside,” she said, “but it’s what’s on the inside that’s different.”

However, in other ways there are striking similarities between the dynamics of inequality and deprivation in both countries’ cities.  All are dealing with sharply rising property prices which push those on lower incomes further away from the city centre, and the concentration of deprivation in particular neighbourhoods which can manifest in gang-related crime and the absence of opportunities for young people. Unequal access to decisions on how public services are delivered perpetuates the disadvantages that low-income people have to deal with on a day to day basis.

Just as importantly, the different groups were also bound together by their experiences of strength and struggle as women and mothers regardless of where they live. During their visit to the UK, the South Africans were shocked to discover homeless people living in tents in the centre of one of the richest cities in the world, which gave rise to questions about the wisdom of looking to the global North for pathways to collective well-being.

For their part, members of Mums Mart and Lower Broughton Life reflected repeatedly on people’s pride and self-organisation despite living in highly challenging circumstances in South Africa. Both gained a fresh perspective on the possibilities of organising collectively in response to poverty.

As a member of FEDUP attested (echoing Marie), “the only thing that makes a person active is when you have trust and belief.” The members of the groups also gained confidence in one another as joint travellers on a journey of discovery—watching each other learn, adapt and embrace the experience (including some fantastic ululations!). People saw that some of the South African ideas might just work in Greater Manchester, and that they might be the ones to make this happen.

The trust they gained in South Africa by staying in people’s homes, accompanying them in their work and being part of their lives (even for a short time) meant that they were comfortable enough to share their doubts and fears—and to be open to the doubts and fears of their hosts in return. As Rose Molokoane from SDI shared:

“We are still doubting ourselves saying how can we keep driving this forward…it’s too big for us…especially because we are informal but the outside world wants to see us being formal. Most of our members are not educated; you have to create enough time and enough space to educate people about what you are.”

Rose also explained the significance for the older black South African activists of sharing their homes and their organising tools with white British women after living through apartheid, and as women continuing to struggle for justice in a highly segregated society.

The exchanges seem to have come at a critical time for the British participants. Combined with rising living costs, public service cuts and welfare sanctions, low-paid work, under-employment and unemployment are fostering severe precarity in post-industrial inner-city neighbourhoods. Thirty per cent of British children (and one quarter of children in Salford) are now classified as living below the poverty line, with two thirds living in families with working parents.

Manchester looks set to become the next beacon of social cleansing after London, with luxury high rise flats and the privatisation of the city centre making it increasingly difficult for individuals and families on low-incomes to find affordable accommodation. People in low-income areas around the edges of the central business district live in constant fear of relocation as they watch rents skyrocket in the plush developments that now surround their estates.

In many of the city’s low-income neighbourhoods, social and economic changes and cuts in public sector funding mean that people don’t come together in the ways they used to through faith-, place- or work-based forms of voluntary association. Libraries, pubs and community centres have closed down, making it almost impossible in some areas for groups to find somewhere to congregate together regularly. Rising living costs and cuts in benefits are pushing people towards pay-day loans and credit-based living, leaving them drowning under the burden of debts they struggle to repay.

The surge in support for the British Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (which is particularly visible in urban centres) suggests that increasing numbers of city-dwellers believe it is indeed, ‘time for a change.’ But how will low-income communities organize themselves and enter into movements ‘for the many and not the few’ in the years to come? That’s where networks like SDI can play an important role by inspiring new forms of mobilisation, and by linking local action into international networks for learning, advocacy and mutual support.

The savings groups they nurture are encouraged to federate, enabling them to have more influence over city and national governments in ways that are grounded in real experience. Members survey, map and profile their neighbourhoods, turning invisible challenges into concrete evidence and locally-proposed solutions. The South African Alliance, for example, has successfully advocated for a more progressive housing policy that has led to over 15,000 permanent new, affordable homes being constructed.

The SDI network used to have members in 37 countries. Thanks to a group of mums from Manchester, it may soon be 38.

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24 September 2017. Saints in politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the dilemmas of political desire

We delude ourselves by projecting qualities onto politicians who have no intention of embodying them.

Aung San Suu Kyi gives a speech in Yangon, Myanmar, 17 January 2012. Credit: By Htoo Tay Zar (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The recent escalation of violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar and their subsequent mass flight from the country has triggered a wave of opinion pieces demanding that the head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi, speak out to denounce the actions of the army and militant citizens against this Muslim population. Her failure to do so has resulted in escalating calls to revoke the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to her in 1991. In countless articles, radio features and online posts, an international public is shaking its figurative head over the seeming ethical decay of a figure previously imbued with “unquestionable moral authority.”

But there are several reasons for Aung San Suu Kyi not to speak out in the ways we expect her to. None fall into the ‘moral order’ paradigm of how politicians should act if we lived in an ideal world; all of them are in line with the practicalities of real-life politics.

In the case of Myanmar, we are in danger of reducing a complicated reality to an imaginary that we try to bring into being through sheer desire. We attribute the qualities required to make change possible to a person who is then expected to be both saintly and powerful. That person is thus saddled with the impossible task of doing what is morally just, while at the same time acting strategically in order to maintain the power required for any sort of political action.

In fact Aung San Suu Kyi’s saintly status has become a burden to her for at least three reasons. First, her image as a saintly figure consistently intensified during her fifteen years of intermittent house arrest. During this period, all she could do was become the icon against which her political actions are now measured. After the generals released her, she worked her way out of the position of non-engagement and detachment that she had cultivated in isolation, in order to re-enter the realm of power as a successor to her father’s heritage, Bogyoke Aung San, a nationalist general who wrested independence for Burma from the British Empire.

While she had become a symbol of democracy and human rights in the West during the years of her house arrest, her position within the country was different: much of her initial success and her continued reverence derives from her role as the ‘General’s daughter.’ It had been Bogyoke Aung San’s goal to establish a federal state in which ethnic diversity would be recognized. His legacy became her self-imposed burden. She was to bring people back together in harmony, or at least this was what people wanted to believe when they elected her.

Her party, the National League for Democracy or NLD, polled well in many constituencies where ethnic minorities are registered. Among my Muslim, Christian, and Hindu informants, there was no-one who spoke negatively or even critically of “Eme Suu” (‘Mother Suu’), as she is called across ethnic and religious lines. But though mirrored in Western portrayals of her, these characterizations are taken out of context. They belong to an era during which it was easy for her to demand morality and justice in the abstract because she was removed from everyday political action.

Second, her case is further complicated because of the particular relationship she has with the country’s 2008 constitution, which has hindered Aung San Suu Kyi from personally running for President. It is widely assumed that Article 59(f) of the constitution was put in place by the generals to keep her out of power, since it stipulates that those married to foreigners or with children with a different nationality are ineligible for this office—both of which are the case for her. Changing the constitution is thus one of her main objectives.

After her election victory, she began to challenge this regulation by declaring herself to be “above the President.” In April 2016, she was given the title of “State Counsellor” by the Parliament—a new office especially formed for her, with extensive powers that allow her to coordinate the activities of the executive branch as well as Parliament itself. In addition, she is also the acting Foreign Minister and Minister of the President’s Office, a strategic manoeuvre designed to entrench herself at the centre of power that is at odds with both the depiction of her as a mother-figure or an icon of democracy.

Third, Aung San Suu Kyi suffers the fate of female politicians in a more general way. We also find the attribution of saintly or motherly characteristics to Angela Merkel, for example, the pastor’s daughter who is referred to as “Mutti” in German, often mockingly; and to Pakistan’s late Benazir Bhutto, who wrote an autobiography entitled “Daughter of the East.” The putative caring aspect of female politicians lends itself to criticism when it is conflated with ‘sitting things out’ rather than facing up to conflict. This problem of agency (or the apparent lack of it) goes along with a more general patriarchal view of women as passive; in this case, the suggestion that Aung San Suu Kyi has become the generals’ ‘poodle’ who has ‘personally disappointed’ her supporters.

While harsh criticism of her seems entirely justified in the current situation, the way this criticism has been phrased is typical for how women in power are treated. She herself has made it clear that she does “not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but for political and practical reasons,” yet we continue to measure her actions against an idealized portrayal of women as removed from power and patronage. Rather than being silent, she is, in fact, speaking politically as an active member of an oppressive state apparatus that is entangled with the military. It would be more precise to analyse her current stance of non-intervention—which has always been her main political tool—as a deliberate tactic in line with the pragmatic order of political action.

While she was under house arrest, she espoused her side’s non-violence and ‘detachment.’ Now, in power and under pressure, she is holding forth about the ‘terrorism’ and ‘fake news’ spread by others, or at the very least attributing fault to ‘both sides’—all of which echoes contemporary Western political catchphrases that are not meant to help people understand or argue, but rather serve as a definition of a situation where “rhetoric is the medium, not logic; emotions are the target, not the intellect,” as the political anthropologist F. G. Bailey put it.

This juxtaposition brings out how her positionality shapes her leadership and her appeals to emotion: she is always working with the idea of a polar opposite to her own side. ‘Her side’ used to be the oppressed ‘democratic’ opposition; today, it is the (not very plausibly) oppressed Burmese Buddhist demographic majority that serves as her main powerbase. There is, however, no one to whom she can outsource the saintly qualities that are still expected of her. With the most outspoken branch of the order of the monks increasingly aligning themselves with the government and the military, she remains trapped in her own image of being a saint or a mother figure while being bound to adhere to a constitution she despises.

Aung San Suu Kyi needs to be criticised because she has become complicit in atrocities. But to single her out for blame means to delude ourselves by projecting qualities onto her that she has no intention of embodying. Tellingly, her biographer attributes the final reason why she gave in and accepted the 2008 constitution to another woman who ironically is consistently told to keep quiet: Hillary Clinton in her role as President Obama’s Secretary of State. There is, thus, an unspoken tendency to portray female politicians’ agency or apparent lack thereof in light of their status of being a woman whom we can well imagine as saints, it seems, but have much more difficulty imagining as power players.

When Aung San Suu Kyi won the parliamentary elections in Myanmar in November 2015, the response was overwhelmingly positive among all segments of the population, including members of the Muslim, Hindu and Christian minorities. But at a recent conference, a young participant from Mon state broke out in tears when she admitted that she had had so much hope for change after the NLD entered power, and how Aung San Suu Kyi had let them all down since then.

Emotional displays like this need to be taken seriously, but beyond empathy, we need to understand how they come about and persist in the midst of political power games. They are mirrored in Western news coverage, the press releases of international organisations, and discussions on social media. They tell us that apparently, even democracy cannot do without a strong personal identification of the populace with a leader-figure. In the case of Myanmar, however, we are expecting Aung San Suu Kyi to both embody the state and continue to ‘do the right thing.’

What we see here is not the undermining of democracy as such, but rather the increase of a variant that is democratic in form while authoritarian in content and personified in outlook. The dilemma consists of our wish to look into the eyes of great leaders and feel safe in their hands. Not only is the ‘Myanmar Empress’ not wearing any clothes—she is also holding up a mirror. It behooves us to face up to these political realities. We might start by acknowledging that up to now, we have neither come to terms with powerful female politicians nor with our apparent need to project our political desires onto charismatic individuals.

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21 September 2017. They rode on horseback to deliver babies: a century later, midwives are still crucial

“I grew up with mares foaling and cows calving. I knew critters could do better than that; kinda figured women could too if given the chance.”

Jean Fee shows photos from her time as a nurse midwife for the Frontier Nursing Service.  Credit: YES! Magazine/Melissa Hellmann. All rights reserved.

Carrie Hall was in the middle of a hair-coloring appointment when she received a call from nurses at a nearby hospital: One of her patients was about to deliver.

Her blonde hair still wrapped in foil, Hall rushed from the beauty salon to the delivery room and within 20 minutes was holding a baby boy in her arms.

“I was at the salon and nature called!” Hall wrote that April day in a Facebook post through her alma mater, Frontier Nursing University. It went viral. “1st time for everything!”

As one of only two nurse midwives within about 40 miles of her hometown of Whitesburg in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, the 38-year-old Hall is accustomed to dropping everything at a moment’s notice to deliver a baby or conduct a checkup.

But hers is a profession in flux. As the number of obstetrician-gynecologists declines in rural parts of the country and more primary care physicians stop delivering babies, the need for health professionals like her, who specialize in women’s reproductive care and childbirth, is becoming critical.

Yet, nearly 100 years after the first American nurse midwives rode on horseback across the Appalachian Mountains to help women in childbirth, many in this region in particular and across America as a whole have still not fully embraced this more natural form of care. Nurse midwives are nurses who have completed graduate-level courses in midwifery. They are licensed in all 50 states to deliver babies and specialize in women’s reproductive health. A few states require they be supervised by a physician to practice, but Kentucky isn’t one of them. They differ from certified professional midwives, who are trained to attend to home births and can’t be licensed to practice in Kentucky.

Still, not enough hospitals and other health care facilities are opening their doors to nurse midwives, and general misconceptions about the kind of education midwives receive leave the profession struggling for acceptance—even in areas where studies suggest they are most needed.

“Often there’s a belief that midwives are trained by their grandmothers,” said Dr. Susan Stone, president of Frontier Nursing University in Hyden.

Hall grew up in Whitesburg, a former coal mining town of about 2,000 nestled in the Appalachian Mountains. Her great-grandmother and great-aunt were trained to deliver babies by other neighborhood women and became lay midwives during the turn of the 20th century. “She basically did it because she had to,” Hall said. “There were no other women to do it.”

That family history inspired her career choice. Hall wanted to practice in her hometown so she could give back to her community, she said.

In 2003, she enrolled in a distance-learning nurse-midwifery program that FNU created 14 years earlier. It recruits students from rural and underserved areas and keeps them in their communities as they earn their degrees.

The students could get clinical experience at local clinics and hospitals and are encouraged to stay and practice in their home area once they graduate.

Hall received her nurse midwifery degree in 2005 while working at the Mountain Comprehensive Health Center. She continued her education at FNU to become a women’s health care nurse practitioner, and then a family nurse practitioner.

The everyday struggles of life in a town devastated by the loss of coal are embodied in the patients she sees at the clinic. Opioid addiction is rampant here and many of the babies she delivers are born with drug withdrawal that cause tremors, constant crying, and low birth weight. Because of poverty and lack of transportation, she also sees poor prenatal care that includes smoking and unhealthy eating. These habits can lead to gestational diabetes and premature births.

The childbirth complications she sees aren’t unique to Whitesburg, either. According to a 2016 Center for Disease Control report that looked at births before 37 weeks of gestation, Kentucky has one of the highest pre-term birth rates in the country. Premature births can cause a lifetime of learning disabilities and is the leading cause of death in children under 5, according to the World Health Organization.

The CDC report also found that Kentucky has the nation’s sixth highest rate of C-sections, a procedure that can save lives when medically necessary but also poses serious risks to both mother and child. And the state’s infant mortality rates have also long been higher than the national average, according to a 2013 state public health department report.

Studies show that engaging a midwife for prenatal care can reduce many of these risk factors by highlighting the natural childbirth process and focusing on preventative measures through health education.

In a 2012 American College of Nurse Midwives study, researchers found that midwifery improved the infant mortality rate for low-risk women compared to physicians caring for women of similar risk. Women who received prenatal care from midwives were also more likely to have a closer relationship with their health care provider, receive more prenatal education, and have higher rates of breastfeeding, researchers found.

Yet, widespread misinformation persists about midwives, and people falsely assume they will get substandard care.

As a nurse midwife, Hall can address a range of issues her clients face because her nursing background emphasizes patient care. Unlike OB/GYNS, she cannot perform C-sections, but the care she provides prioritizes taking the time to develop personal relationships with her patients.

“We get very close to them,” Hall says about her clients. This allows her to counsel and educate patients on healthy diets, breastfeeding, birth control options, and substance abuse. She typically delivers between 10 and 15 babies a year at a nearby hospital, mostly through natural childbirth with zero to minimal painkillers.

Stone of FNU thinks that more expectant mothers will turn to caregivers like Hall as the number of OB/GYNS continues to decline in rural areas, particularly in Kentucky, where a 2014 The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists report found nearly half of the state’s 120 counties didn’t have OB/GYNs.

FNU’s response has been to step up recruitment—and that appears to be showing some results. Of the 2,000 students enrolled at FNU, about 800 are in the nurse midwifery programs, Stone said. “We’re always looking for opportunities to promote and educate nurse midwives.”

Frontier Nursing University has long been at the forefront of increasing access to midwifery across the country. In fact, it began as a nurse midwifery service back when women rode for long distances on horseback to deliver babies.

Mary Breckinridge, a nurse who founded the university, had traveled to Europe in 1919 to join the post-war relief efforts. Traveling through England and France, she observed midwives who were trained to deliver babies and care for mothers. At the time, there was no formal education for midwives in America, said the school’s development officer, Michael Claussen. And Breckinridge observed how France’s system of using decentralized stations to deliver midwifery care could be implemented in the rural South, where there was a shortage of doctors.

She received midwifery training in England and returned to Kentucky in 1925 to start a clinic, which would later become Frontier Nursing Service. The clinic’s staff was originally trained as nurse midwives in England, and returned to Kentucky to practice. In 1939, the Frontier Nursing Service founded a university in Hyden, Kentucky, so women could receive training in the U.S.

On a June evening, I drove to Breckinridge’s former home in Wendover. The two-story log cabin, built from trees of the surrounding area, overlooks the middle fork of the Kentucky River. The home became a bed-and-breakfast in 2001 and now holds memorabilia of early years—midwives’ saddlebags and powder-blue uniforms. The walls were covered with black-and-white photos of women astride horseback.

In the one-traffic light town of Mckee, Kentucky, about 60 miles northwest of Wendover, I met a former nurse midwife who had worked with Breckinridge before her death in 1965.

Jean Fee met me in a church parking lot and drove with a careless confidence through the woods to her one-story house located in a clearing.

Originally from Alberta, Canada, Fee, now 80, was intrigued by the natural process of midwifery and appalled by the sterile efficiency of childbirth in hospitals, where mothers were largely removed from the process and didn’t get a chance to bond with the babies.

“I grew up with mares foaling and cows calving,” Fee said while she ate stew in her dining room. “I knew critters could do better than that; kinda figured women could too if given the chance.”

She graduated from Frontier Nursing University (then called the Frontier School of Midwifery and Family Nursing) in 1959 and stayed on as a nurse midwife with Frontier Nursing Service. Fee often made house calls to homes where lay midwives—usually older women without formal training—had formerly used superstition to solve childbirth complications. A common one was placing an ax under the bed to stop heavy bleeding during labor and childbirth.

Infant mortality rates started to decrease and women started delivering healthier babies once the Frontier Nursing Service came on the scene, she said. Fee taught women how to breathe and relax during labor and used her training as a nurse to diagnose symptoms.

Breckinridge’s emphasis on patient care and the natural childbirth process can be seen in midwifery care today. At the MCHC clinic, Hall leads me into a small, stark room where her patient, 23-year-old Hallie Wolford, sits at the exam table. Wolford has short blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail and a slight frame that magnifies her protruding belly.

She and her partner drove 45 minutes to see Hall because there aren’t any midwives in the nearby town of Pikeville, where she lives. “Everyone’s told me Carrie is really nice,” says Wolford, pregnant with her first child.

Hall lowers the exam table as Wolford explains that dizzy spells caused her to fall a couple of days earlier. Hall’s voice rises to a soothing tone, as she recommends that Wolford drink more water and consult her cardiologist. After examining Wolford’s stomach, she asks her to return if specialists haven’t discovered the source of her problem.

Hall chats volubly in a southern drawl peppered with “darling” and “sweetie.” The appointment ends with Hall joking that Wolford’s partner drives too quickly to get to the clinic. “Listen, don’t kill my patient,” she warns him as they all erupt in laughter.

When asked about the easy banter, she says: “I’m like that with all of my patients.”

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

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19 September 2017. Humanizing technology

It’s easier to turn technology in the direction of democracy and social justice when it’s developed with social and emotional intelligence. 

Credit: Pixabay/Geralt. CC0 Creative Commons.

Can we use the internet to enhance deep human connection and support the emergence of thriving communities in which everyone’s needs are met and people’s lives are filled with joy and meaning?

That’s a very challenging question, and the answer isn’t just about technology, at least not in the conventional sense of that word. It’s not about any of the emerging trends that are already impacting our societies like bitcoin, drones, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, hyperloops or any of the things that the Singularity University thinks will converge.

It’s not just a matter of finding new technologies either, even if they are more user-centric or built on self-sovereign digital identities in place of corporate ownership and control—the field that forms my own techno-specialty. And the solutions can’t be driven by a government need to find a military advantage—which is the case for a vast range of everyday innovations today—as Manuel DeLanda outlines in his book, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines

Our work on ‘technical’ technologies won’t generate broad human gains unless we invest an equal amount of time, energy and resources in the development of social and emotional technologies that drive how our whole society is organized and how we work together. I think we are actually on the cusp of having the tools, understanding and infrastructure to make that happen, without all our ideas and organizing being intermediated by giant corporations. But what does that mean in practice?

I think two things are absolutely vital.

First of all, how do we connect all the people and all the groups that want to align their goals in pursuit of social justice, deep democracy, and the development of new economies that share wealth and protect the environment? How are people supported to protect their own autonomy while also working with multiple other groups in processes of joint work and collective action?

One key element of the answer to that question is to generate a digital identity that is not under the control of a corporation, an organization or a government.

I have been co-leading the community surrounding the Internet Identity Workshop for the last 12 years. After many explorations of the techno-possibility landscape we have finally made some breakthroughs that will lay the foundations of a real internet-scale infrastructure to support what are called ‘user-centric’ or ‘self-sovereign’ identities.

This infrastructure consists of a network with two different types of nodes—people and organizations—with each individual being able to join lots of different groups. But regardless of how many groups they join, people will need a digital identity that is not owned by Twitter, Amazon, Apple, Google or Facebook. That’s the only way they will be able to control their own autonomous interactions on the internet. If open standards are not created for this critical piece of infrastructure then we will end up in a future where giant corporations control all of our identities. In many ways we are in this future now.

This is where something called ‘Shared Ledger Technology’ or SLT comes in—more commonly known as ‘blockchain’ or ‘distributed ledger technology.’  SLT represents a huge innovation in terms of databases that can be read by anyone and which are highly resistant to tampering—meaning that data cannot be erased or changed once entered. At the moment there’s a lot of work going on to design the encryption key management that’s necessary to support the creation and operation of these unique private channels of connection and communication between individuals and organizations. The Sovrin Foundation has built an SLT specifically for digital identity key management, and has donated the code required to the HyperLedger Foundation under ‘project Indy.’

While this critical infrastructure is being birthed we need to think about how to leverage it for the world that we want to create—a world of interconnected humanness in place of centralized social networks controlled by profit-driven and publically-traded companies whose mission is to manipulate us into buying more stuff. These networks are selling access to us and limiting our ability to connect and organize independently. They have deals with companies like Cambridge Analytica and Palantir to suck up the digital exhaust of our lives, spy on us, and collectively manipulate us for their own ends.

As the basis of this next generation of user-centric or self-sovereign identities, Shared Ledger Technology is crucial if corporate control of the internet and our lives is to be reversed, but this  won’t be enough to humanize  technology, and that’s my second key point: social and emotional ‘technologies’ are also vital.

Social technologies are the tools we use to interact with each other in groups of any size, from the Parent Teachers Association (PTA) and other neighborhood organizations to national governments and international bodies. They are increasingly important in the shift that is taking place from an exclusive reliance on representative political processes and institutions to an expanded range of deeper and more deliberative forms of democracy. The social technology of voting for representatives was a breakthrough 300 years ago, but these systems are breaking down and are not serving us well enough today.

Emotional technologies are the tools we use to interact with ourselves internally and in our relationships with other people. They are more critical than ever because the mental health of everyone is now a key concern—since one lone individual can inflict enormous harm through high-tech weapons or by hacking into our core infrastructures. Such technologies are well known and include mediation and meditation practices of different kinds, yoga and mindfulness, Nonviolent Communication, Co-Counseling, and 12 Step processes like Alcoholics Anonymous.

Social technologies work a lot better if people have a range of these emotional tools and practices to draw on, because they are better able to manage themselves and interact with others. We want security and have been putting billions of dollars into the security-surveillance-industrial complex post 9/11, but what about the deeper issue of how we connect to each other and solve problems together? What are we doing to address everyone’s mental and emotional wellbeing to reduce alienation and disconnection?

How do you get people on vastly different sides of controversial issues to collaborate to solve what seem to be intractable problems? How do you structure inclusive deliberations that involve whole communities and build up social capital and connection? Individuals like Miki Kashtan, Tom Atlee and Sharif Abdulah and groups like the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation have been working on these questions for many years but deserve much more investment and support. Without further innovations in these social and emotional technologies, no ‘technical’ technologies will save us.

To take a concrete example, my ‘sweet spot’ is in designing and facilitating interactive meetings for professional, scientific and technical communities in what are called ‘unconferences.’ I’ve been co-leading one of these unconferences—the Internet Identity Workshop—twice a year for over a decade, during which we’ve developed many innovations built on nurturing the emotional capacities  of the people involved and the social processes we’ve been using at our meetings.

They are organized primarily through Open Space Technology where the agenda is co-created live on the day of the event with all the participants. We throw in an hour of demonstrations on the second day after lunch and we eat dinner together every night. The patterns described in the Group Works Deck have been particularly useful—things like ‘Embracing Dissonance and Difference’ (meaning that anyone is welcome in the conversation); and opening and closing every day in a circle while diverging into as many as 15 different sessions every hour during the rest of the time we spend together—what in Open Space terms is called the rhythm of ‘Convergence and Divergence.’ Taken together these processes have been very successful in building a stronger Group Culture.

I got excited by the possibilities of user-centric identity technologies over 15 years ago while part of the Planetwork Community, which came together to look at global ecology and information technology and think through how planetary challenges could be addressed more effectively. But through the process of co-leading efforts to build that infrastructure it became clear that we must also invest in the social and emotional technologies that make it possible to collaborate and work together at all scales. 

All three forms of technology are essential to the transformation of our relationships to each other and our bigger social/societal systems. Technical technologies provide the tools that can empower individuals to connect and work together for their own wellbeing and that of their communities. Social technologies enable these tools to be used effectively and inclusively in processes of collective action. And emotional technologies support everyone’s mental health as a precondition for engaging in these processes with more chance of success.

To put it simply, technical technologies are easier to turn in the direction of democracy and social justice if they are developed and applied with social and emotional intelligence. Combining all three together is the key to using technology for liberating ends.

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18 September 2017. We need to talk about stigma within the mental health system

‘There’s nothing wrong with you; stop playing games; no one believes you.’

Credit: By Chitrapa at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve experienced mental health problems for the past 24 years, and in that time the stigma I have experienced has come, not so much from outside the system as within it. And yet we don’t seem to be having conversations about this issue in the mainstream media.

I was first hospitalised at the age of 17 in an adult psychiatric ward in the UK. It was an inappropriate place for someone still in the throes of adolescence and somewhat emotionally behind due to having suffered in silence for the three years preceding my admission.

Quickly it became clear that I was considered to be a histrionic, attention-seeking young woman whose problems amounted to an individual moral failing, and a refusal to take responsibility. I was not alone. There were other young women my age and we were all subject to the same invalidating experiences which served only to exacerbate our distress.

Our common presentation was self-destructive; we self-harmed and attempted to take our own lives, refusing to suffer silently once our despair had surfaced, the seasons of being able to keep our demons under lock and key well and truly over.

The common refrains we would hear from mental health nurses and doctors went like this: ‘just take responsibility;’ ‘there’s nothing wrong with you;’ ‘you are bed-blocking’ (even though they had sectioned many of us, including myself, and it wasn’t in our power to free up any bed); ‘stop playing games;’ and the worst of all, ‘no one believes you.’

Despite being considered a risk to myself, and lacking mental capacity, these judgements were accusations of mere misbehaviour and laden with mixed messages: ‘you are too ill to make your own decisions,’ and simultaneously, ‘you should stop being willfully disobedient.’ It must be noted that these comments were not levelled at the male patients on the ward, and were not reserved solely for younger patients.

This kind of treatment followed me for years until a desperate attempt to take my own life by jumping from a bridge startled others into taking me seriously. I wasn’t meant to survive. I felt that I was a lost cause and that my inability to just snap out of the madness was a personal failing.

I may not have died, but stigma within the system kills. It is far deadlier than any amount of stigma that one might face outside of the system because these are the professionals we are told to go to for help. Many of my friends who were treated as I was have since taken their own lives because their distress was not taken seriously.

So forgive me if I roll my eyes at the ever-prolific mental health awareness campaigns. Sure, they have their place, and it’s important that we all become more emotionally literate and sensitive to those who struggle with their mental health. But for some, there will be no help because they will be viewed in the same way I was, and consequently may be excluded from services because they are not seen as legitimately ill by those who are supposed to be specialist clinicians.

Over the past nine years my distress has been taken more seriously. This is because my difficulties are now understood to be of a psychotic nature, which can be labelled in biomedical terms and, thus, not my fault. It is not that the system has significantly changed, because I read every day of people who are being shut out of services, but that my suffering is now seen as a bona fide mental illness.

The context of people’s distress is rarely acknowledged, despite the fact that a great percentage of people who experience mental ill health have also experienced trauma. Their emotional and psychological responses to the world and those around them make great sense in the light of their experiences. Further traumatized by the services supposedly in place to treat them, they are frequently labelled ‘untreatable.’

Some critical psychologists and psychiatrists are attempting to address the stigma and injustices within the system, but many have their own agendas in putting forward particular approaches, and may be anti-medication to a fault. I personally believe that drugs are overprescribed, but I also respect that they can help some people some of the time.

Other groups of grassroots activists comprised of people who have experience of mental health services like Recovery in the Bin are emerging, and have important contributions to make in bringing to light the injustices within the psychiatric system, providing critiques of the recovery model as well as offering peer support that has not been co-opted by service-providers in the ways that many peer-led, service-user initiatives driven by mental health teams across the UK have been.

I’m not sure that removing stigmatized diagnoses such as personality disorders (as some are calling for) is enough to change the attitudes of many of the mental health professionals who have prejudices against certain presentations of madness and mental distress. A mere linguistic turn is not going to significantly address the sexist, patriarchal discourses involved in understandings of what constitutes ‘legitimate’ suffering in women and men, and, indeed, who is deemed worthy of treatment.

Change needs to happen at the very beginning of mental health training. I have seen many trainee mental health nurses and doctors who appear to bring compassion and empathy to their placements, only to be indoctrinated by more senior members of staff about who is considered worthy of care and who isn’t.

Of course, I acknowledge that there are mental health professionals who take a much more humane and inclusive approach towards patients, and who are trying to change the system from within. However, there is a clear code in the system that relegates certain sufferers to substandard care, if any. And that’s something we need to talk about.

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14 September 2017. Why are Nazis so afraid of clowns?

Using humor and irony to undermine white supremacy dates back to the days of the Third Reich.

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

English Disco Lovers protest against the English Defense League. Credit: Flickr/Tim Buss. CC BY 2.0.

Trolls chanted in the streets the day of a planned neo-Nazi rally in the small ski town of Whitefish, Montana earlier this year. But they were not the trolls that residents had been expecting—namely, white supremacists from around the country, who had been harassing the town’s Jewish community with death threats.

These trolls wore bright blue wigs and brandished signs that read “Trolls Against Trolls” and “Fascists Fear Fun,” cheerfully lining the route where the neo-Nazi march had been slated to take place. Due to poor organizing and the failure to obtain proper permits, the demonstration had fallen through, leading to what the counter-protesters gleefully deemed a “Sieg Fail.” So locals held their own counter-event, gathering together to share matzo ball soup and celebrate the town’s unity, which—with a dose of humor and a denunciation of hatred—had successfully weathered a right-wing anti-Semitic “troll storm” and strengthened the community as a whole.

Using humor and irony to undermine white supremacy dates back to the days of the Third Reich, from jokes and cartoons employed by Norwegians against the Nazi occupation to “The Great Dictator” speech by Charlie Chaplin. In recent years, humor has continued to be used as a tactic to undermine Nazi ideology, particularly in the unlikely form of clowns—troupes of brightly-dressed activists who show up to neo-Nazi gatherings and make a public mockery of the messages these groups promote. This puts white supremacists in a dilemma in which their own use of violence will seem unwarranted, and their machismo image is tainted by the comedic performance by their opponent. Humor de-escalates their rallies, turning what could become a violent confrontation into a big joke.

Satirical imitation was used in Olympia, Washington in 2005 when a dozen members of the National Socialist Movement paraded around the state capitol to recruit members for the coming “race war.” They were met with clowns mimicking the “Seig Heil” salute and goose-stepping in a public mockery that drew attention away from the Nazi demonstration and undermined their image to would-be supporters.

In 2007, the group Anti Racist Action staged a full-fledged clown performance at a neo-Nazi rally in Knoxville, Tennessee. The clowns feigned confusion at demonstrators’ cries of “White power!” and called back, “White flour?” as they threw fistfuls of flour into the air.

“White power!” the neo-Nazi group shouted, and the clowns pretended they finally understood their mistake. “Oh, white flowers!” they cried out, handing white flowers to passersby, including some of the neo-Nazis themselves.

“White power!” they yelled again. “Tight shower?” the clowns called back, holding a shower head in the air and crowding together in a ridiculous attempt to follow the directions of the white supremacist group.

They tried once more: “White power!” And the female clowns exclaimed, as though they finally understood, “Wife power!” raising letters in the air to spell out the words and hoisting the male clowns in the air, running around and carrying them in their arms.

The clowns stole the show, and continued parading through the streets with the police smiling happily at their sides while the neo-Nazi group called off their demonstration several hours early. This action inspired clowns in Charlotte, North Carolina to also yell “Wife power!” at a white supremacist rally. They also held signs that said “Dwight Power!” next to photos of the NBA player Dwight Howard.

Anti-Nazi clowning can also turn into a wider community event, bringing local people together in solidarity and fun. A recent New York Times editorial highlighted an “involuntary walk-a-thon” in Wunsiedel, Germany, organized in response to an annual neo-Nazi march. The organizers drew chalk markers on the pavement marking the starting point, halfway point and finish line. Local residents and businesses pledged to donate 10 euros for every meter the white supremacists marched to a group called EXIT Deutschland, which is dedicated to helping people leave right-wing extremist groups.

People came out to cheer the marchers the day of the event, flanking the route with signs that read “If only the Fuhrer knew!” and “Mein Mamph!” (or “My Munch”) by a table of bananas offered to the walkers. This turned the marchers into involuntary supporters against their own cause, and brought the community together in unity to counter the messages of white supremacy.

Other European cities have employed clowns to counter anti-immigrant groups. For example, the “Loldiers of Odin” formed in Finland to counter a citizen patrol called Soldiers of Odin. The clowns danced around the streets the same nights that the patrols went out in the community, bringing acrobat hoops and a hobby horse. They also danced around the “soldiers” while playing in the snow. Their actions countered right-wing propaganda of making the streets “safer” from immigrants by bringing humor and silliness to their actions.

Clowning as a tactic of creative resistance was first developed by a group of U.K. activists who started the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, or CIRCA, in 2003. Mixing slapstick humor and improv theater with civil disobedience, the group had—at its height—over 150 trained clowns in Edinburgh, and their tactics were adopted by activists across Europe and the United States.

Humor has wide-reaching potential beyond clowning in countering neo-Nazis. It can be employed in the form of a serenade, like the sousaphonist who played his instrument to a crowd of Confederate flag-wielding marchers in Columbia, South Carolina. There’s also the parody song “Tiki Torch Nazis,” written and performed by a couple from San Francisco, that went viral after Charlottesville and hilariously undermines the serious image neo-Nazis strive to present. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, a group called the English Disco Lovers, or EDL, uses its acronym along with dance music and 1970’s style wigs to subvert public gatherings of the racist English Defense League.

To build on past successes of anti-Nazi clowning, activists and local organizers can draw on the creativity of the community to devise actions and events that mock white supremacist ideology and those who support it. This could be done in the form of a carnivalesque “Fascist Fair,” complete with a dunk tank and jousting match. It could take the form of dressing up in costumes that satirize the labels white supremacists have given counter-protesters, like vermin or Communists. Events can draw in various local groups, from marching bands to theater troupes to intramural sports teams so that resistance to white supremacy becomes a community expression of solidarity, like in Whitefish, Montana.

Counter-demonstrations can employ a tactic called détournement, or culture jamming, to draw on existing cultural symbols that resonate with a wider audience. This could involve staging a humorous match in which one side represents neo-Nazis dressed as Death Eaters from Harry Potter, and the other side represents Gryffindor, or the Avengers, or Wonder Woman and the Amazon warriors. Their marches can be accompanied by a mass choir drowning out their chants with refrains of “You’re So Vain” or JoJo’s “Leave (Get Out).” They could also be met with “Flash Mobs Against Fascist Mobs.” The street where the march is planned could be covered in rainbow paint and glitter that will coat the bottoms of their shoes.

Beyond the marches themselves, clowning can undermine Confederate statues and symbols when their removal would lead to an escalation of violence, as activist David Swanson has suggested. Dressing up Confederate statues as clowns or jokers with signs like “You must be joking!” mocks the statue itself and undercuts the veneration of historical figures who represent the country’s legacy of slavery.

Other creative tactics can be used to counter neo-Nazi propaganda with less direct confrontation. Activists around the world have turned Nazi graffiti into art, like the #PaintBack campaign transforming Swastika’s into cartoon animals. These actions not only deflate the macho image of neo-Nazis to their own supporters—which is strengthened by violent confrontation—but they also engage the community in planning fun collective actions to counter hate and intolerance. Humorous counter-demonstrations unleash a storm of creativity, as activists and local groups collaborate to design creative actions together. In the end, the actions bring communities together against hate speech.

Since humor and clowning can incorporate so many community members—children and the elderly, musicians and athletes, politicians and school teachers—they draw everyone into a joyful, silly expression of solidarity. That’s something a band of tiki torch-wielding neo-Nazis don’t stand a chance against.

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13 September 2017. Does kindness matter?

Like spraying water on a spider’s web, research reveals the taken for granted infrastructure of human relationships.

Credit: Flickr/Ron Mader. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Does being kind have any role to play in achieving real and lasting gains in social and economic justice? At first sight it sounds unlikely. Kindness is so soft a virtue and injustice is so hard. Individual acts of love and compassion are no substitute for removing centuries of structural oppression.

But after a year of working with seven organisations in different communities in Scotland with a team supported by the Carnegie UK Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, I’m convinced that kindness lies at the heart, not only of our ability to generate wellbeing but also to strengthen the foundations on which the power for change can be built. Here’s the argument in a nutshell:

Kindness makes people’s lives better, but just encouraging individuals to be kinder to each other has significant limitations. Therefore, we have to transform the social, economic and political structures that inhibit our ability to act in kindness, and at the same time strengthen the links between these actions and our aspirations for greater social and economic justice.

That may sound simple, but researching these issues is like spraying water on a spider’s web, making visible the taken for granted infrastructure of relationships that makes a significant impact on the quality of our lives.

We know that resilient individuals have at least one strong emotional attachment, along with access to wider support and positive community experiences, so there’s a well-documented association between strong social ties and lower adult mortality. A recent meta-analysis shows a 26 percent increase in the likelihood of death when measured over an eight year period as a result of loneliness, irrespective of a person’s age. In an increasingly virtual world, we still live in real houses on real streets, and rely on direct contact with real people to make our lives work.

As part of our research we spoke to many of these ‘real people,’ who talked eloquently about what kindness means to them in the film that accompanies our report. One of them, Hannah, spoke about kindness in terms of “sharing, trust, encouraging and being gentle with each other;” another, called Angela, described it as “a true opening of your heart, true belief in the talents, abilities and love that everyone can share.”

When we spoke to customers at the Tesco supermarket in Maryhill, Glasgow, we found that many isolated older people were shopping every day or so in order to break up their day with at least some form of human interaction. When asked if they took part in activities or groups to meet other people, many of those we spoke to said that they didn’t like anything that was formally organized; they would rather have a good neighbour than someone who is paid to spend time with them, or even a volunteer.

But kindness is also difficult, especially given the pressures of living and working in contemporary capitalist societies where altruism and compassion often have to be rationed, or are actively discouraged. Talking to older people in particular, it was striking to hear how far their notion of ‘neighbourliness’ extends beyond what would nowadays be considered ‘normal.’

For example, Maureen and Isabella—two residents of Maryhill—talked fondly of their past experience of tenement life in Glasgow, sharing childcare and chores and taking meals to older neighbours. The creation of the welfare state relieved some of those obligations and provided vital services at a time of national crisis, but social needs have multiplied and expectations have since been raised.

Alongside changes in family structures and growing geographic mobility, these developments have weakened some of the bonds that held communities together. We found that—whilst people understand the economic and social shifts that underpin these changes—they still miss a sense of that older community spirit. In many cases however, people said that fixing this problem ‘was someone else’s job.’ 

Looking for evidence of ‘what works’ in creating kindness revealed a mismatch between what we wanted to explore—relational experience in communities—and the existing body of research and policy studies that focus on the transactional, the evaluation of interventions which assume that success depends on formal institutions.

This pattern—identify a problem and then task or create an organisation to find the solution—is common in the social policy field, but nurturing the values of community and caring for each other isn’t something that can be achieved through top-down, bureaucratic action.  We’re not going to find the answers in services, programmes or projects, but at a much deeper level in the humanity of individuals, and how to let that humanity grow and flourish. 

For example, one of our respondents (called Margaret) wore a ‘Friendly Dumfries’ badge to indicate that she was someone who was happy to have a chat. She found that wearing the badge made her think about her role and presence in helping to strengthen community. Other respondents talked about creating welcoming places and informal opportunities to get together and explore what kind of society or neighbourhood people want to live in. Simple steps like these can help to create the conditions for greater kindness in communities.

But equally important is finding out what gets in the way of kindness, and acting to remove those barriers beyond the level of the individual. Part of the problem is that many of those we talked to saw greater risks in altruistic action than in previous decades. As a result, they are increasingly likely to seek out more formal routes to be helpful in their communities through established charities, as opposed to through their individual interactions with each other.

Shug, for example, a community worker in Kircaldy, suggested a weekly kickabout in a local park with kids and their parents. He went ahead and put the idea into practice, but after a couple of weeks he was challenged by the local authority to produce his ‘risk assessment’ paperwork and identify a ‘lead for child protection.’ In this case, regulation, or perhaps more accurately our current interpretation of what regulation means, is getting in the way of encouraging more opportunities for people to come together and express their care and attention for each other informally; the official structures of caring form a barrier to ‘unofficial’ kindness.  

Intuitively it might make sense to conclude that if we care more actively for each other in communities then we place less pressure on overburdened public services, but this doesn’t necessarily lead to greater empowerment in communities, still less to broader social change. So what is it that connects kindness to social transformation?

In Tesco Maryhill for example, individual caring connects with community empowerment because checkout staff have taken the time to get to know their isolated customers, talking with them, helping to build their confidence, and nudging them to join local groups, as well as raising money and volunteering for community projects like after school clubs where kids get a healthy snack and help with homework, community gardens and cooking projects. 

There was much less recognizable agency involved in the Cook Club in Moredun in Edinburgh, where people (often facing severe difficulties) come together once a week to prepare and share food with one another. Individual kindness is clearly evident in Moredun, but it is limited in challenging the underlying factors that produce adverse childhood experiences, poverty, deprivation, neighbourhood hostility, addiction and inadequate responses from the state.

The best results seem to come from mutually-reinforcing relationships between structures and individuals, as, for example, when TESCO’s corporate policy in Maryhill was changed to give permission to staff to become more active in community engagement. Whilst kindness is obviously not sufficient in itself, it seems to be a necessary element in creating the power for positive change.

It’s difficult, though, to talk about kindness at all in a public policy context. These conversations are uncomfortable, and kindness sometimes feels too soft or too glib in contrast to other, more formal and more recognised approaches to social research and social policy. However, it has been liberating to have so many conversations about something that everyone can connect with, and to become explicitly involved with the work both intellectually, and personally and emotionally.

Our conversations with Maureen and Isabella and Margaret and Shug and all the others show that we can all talk about kindness, and talk about it in ways that are powerful both personally and politically.  That universality of understanding matters if we are to affect social change for the good, rather than merely providing superficial solutions through social services.   

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11 September 2017. Under the volcano

A reflection on the Dark Mountain Project—testimony, protest art and praise song of a different kind.

Cover of Walking on Lava. ‘Where from? Where to?’ Mount Patterson from the Wakupit Range, Alberta, Canada by Garrett Hupe. Copyright: Garrett Hupe. All rights reserved.

On a mountain in Wales in the teeming rain, we sit in a yurt packed with people, the five of us, on hay bales, dressed in black suits and bowler hats. One of us has a pack of cards up his sleeve, another an African folktale, another a guitar and a song by Nick Drake from the 1970s. I have oak leaves in my hatband to signify an instruction circa 600 BC from the Sibyl who once guarded the door to the Underworld in the ‘Campi  Flegrei’ outside Naples.

A link to the pre-patriarchal ‘uncivilised’ world, she guides a lineage of poets to the territory under the volcano where all deep transformations take place: Virgil, Dante, T.S. Eliot, Mary Shelley, Sylvia Plath. Denied immortal youth by the autocratic Apollo, her desiccated body kept in a jar, only her voice is still left for us to follow.

One of us, Dougie, stands up and invites the audience to take part in a demonstration of two figures from the ancient world: one is Chronos, the inexorable march of linear time; the other is a young man with a lock of hair over his forehead, who intervenes and interrupts him. His name is Kairos, and sometimes ‘Possibility.’

We’re giving a performance called ‘Testaments of Deep Time’ to introduce the work of The Dark Mountain Project—itself an intervention into the linear narrative about ecological and social calamity. As the rational world attempts to control the consequences of its dominant storyline, cracks have begun to appear.

Through those cracks, archaic, indigenous knowledge, hidden for safekeeping against Roman and other empires, slips through, and fleeting glimpses of another future reveals itself.

This encounter, we know, is what changes everything.

Dark Mountain was launched in 2009 to challenge the contemporary lack of response by culture makers to ecological overshoot in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Its manifesto was called simply Uncivilisation.

Many people picked up this gauntlet, recognising it, not as a challenge to a duel but as an invitation to explore a territory yet unmapped. This invitation has led to collaborations with writers, musicians and artists; 12 books and five festivals; a year-long theatre workshop in Sweden; teaching encounters in the mountains of Spain and the moors of the West Country; and performances built around the celebrations of the solar year by the River Thames and the ancestral wilderness of Scotland—and now in Wales.

What distinguishes Dark Mountain from grassroots Earth-defending organisations and progressive movements is that it is a creative response to prevailing crises—and lacks an evangelical agenda to fix them. The project’s manifesto can act as a frame, but there is no drive to act in the space that frame creates—no pressure to shut down power stations or convince your neighbour to stop flying, or your community to reduce its carbon emissions.

Instead, it provides a space that has room and time in it, where the 24/7 broadcast of progress can be switched off and other voices apart from the mainstream can be heard; it gives an opportunity to look at things differently, and for other slower realisations to occur—for interactions, connections and deep thought as a reader, listener or contributor.

‘Are you against environmental activism?’ I was asked recently by a television researcher. ‘No,’ I said ‘We’re not against anything. It’s a conversation not an argument. We’re a creative network.’

‘Extinction Cabinet’ by Richard Kahn and Nicholas Selesnick from ‘Truppe Fledermaus: 100 Stories from a Drowned World.’ Copyright: Richard Kahn and Nicholas Selesnick. All rights reserved

‘If this manifesto has travelled further than we imagined, one explanation is that it has helped people to get their bearings in a world where the thin, shiny surface of prosperity has cracked. Trying to make sense of our own experience it seems that we put words to a feeling that others shared... a feeling that there is no way through the mess we find ourselves that doesn’t involve facing the darkness, and being honest about the scale of the unravelling that is under way, and the uncertainty as to where it will end. A feeling that it is time to look down.’  Dougald Hine from the Introduction to the 2014 edition of Uncivilisation.

This rallying point, the agreement to ‘look down’ and acknowledge that we sit on a crater’s edge rather than a firm foundation, not only creates a different literature but also nurtures a very different feeling towards that literature and those who write it. If there is one shared response to the contacts made by people towards the project it is the sense of relief and comradeship in a world where a possible eruption of the status quo is manifestly denied.

However there is no mantra or belief system to take refuge in here.  Dark Mountain is a collective work-in-progress, initiated by ‘recovering journalists’ disillusioned by the green movement and its timid approaches toward change. It doesn’t offer a road map for a sustainable future but can offer you a place by the fire, an opportunity to dig beneath the distracting surface of industrial late capitalism; to produce work that asks the question, ‘how can we reclaim the voice and body of ourselves that has been suppressed by civilisation for millennia. The deadline is never far away.

The fact is we all know that “the boat is leaking and the captain lied” as Leonard Cohen once sang; we know the statistics about climate change and acidified oceans and decapitated mountains. The news that the numbers of kittiwakes on St Kilda have plummeted or that the ancient trees of Sheffield have been felled pains us. We don’t numb out that pain, nor do we indulge it in the see-saw of hope and despair.

We know the Earth is not an abstract concept of environment or ‘nature’ and requires a very different relationship, one that wrests the material of life out of the hands of the ‘quants’ and economists and gives it due respect. The question we face is always: what do you do when you know, when you allow yourself to see and feel what is shut out by the broadcast of progress? You can’t keep writing conventional love stories and detective novels, hoping that Hollywood will get in touch.

What kind of literature and art does this awareness produce?  A diverse body of work that does not fit neatly into a monocultural, corporate bookshelf or gallery wall. Inspired by the inhumanist poetry of Robinson Jeffers, its voices do not come out of a narcissistic and alienated highbrow culture, discussed by the chattering classes of Boston or London, but from a library of stones, from the desert and forest hermitage, from conversations around convivial fires.

This space is existentialist, ringed as it is by urgent questions about what kind of human being can be so numb or so dumb in the face of catastrophe; its tone is elegiac rather than triumphant. In many ways it returns the artist and writer to their original function, as people who push the edge and keep the door of possibility open. People who embody and stand by their words, for whom those fiery brimstone fields are home.

It’s in this spirit that we’ve created a new work called Walking on Lava, taken from our first ten hardback journals as a showcase introduction. Following their shape it is made of work of contrasting voices and genres—poetry, flash fiction, essays, artworks, photography and interviews—and structured around the manifesto’s ‘Eight Principles of Uncivilisation.’

Here are Robert Leaver crawling along Broadway in New York on his hands and knees; Christos Galanis shooting a thrift store copy of the Iliad in the New Mexico desert; and Emily Laurens sweeping the brown sands of the Welsh peninsula in honour of the disappeared passenger pigeon and the millions of species now becoming extinct—testimony, encounter, protest art and praise song of a different kind.

Writer and artist Robert Leaver in his performance ‘Crawling Home’ in New York. Photo by Larrey Fessenden. Copyright: Robert Leaver and Larrey Fessenden. All rights reserved

‘I imagine the people I have seen on Broadway, and maybe the world over, feeling a weight on their backs, in their hearts and souls. Maybe this weight is the burden on modern life, the burden on being conscious in a world gone mad. Crawling seemed to be a way to maybe show compassion or solidarity, to make a metaphor of this collective burden we all share. Instead of crawling I could have curled up in a foetal position in perfectly chosen locations. But this crawl was never about surrendering. I went down and kept moving, kept pressing on as so many humans are doing every day. The idea has always been to keep on, to get through this journey, to make it home safe and sound.’ Robert Leaver – Crawling Home.

What happens when you get bitten by a squirrel, or when you return to your homeland now crawling with bulldozers and fracking trucks? When the story you were told by your teachers and parents is broken, when the Earth makes contact with you, you may stumble upon art with a different kind of attention: a feral stew of roots and road killed pheasant in the highlands of Scotland, a dreaming woman carrying a horse in her womb in Cornwall, a meditation on graphite in the winter-wet Cumbrian hills.

Kairos, the daemon of opportunity, had a shaved head, meaning that you had to grasp the moment that faced you, for once the light-footed one had disappeared the chance to see in all-at-once-time had also gone also. There are only so many opportunities to sense the volcano that rumbles beneath us. Rarely do we find the way to the cave where the Sibyl sits, or pay heed to those who struggle to return from the darkness of the Stygian lake.

We live, as Marshall McLuhan once noted, in a third world war of narratives, of competing controlled ways of perceiving the world, all of them hostile to people and planet. In the quiet, in the depths, in the wild places, in the struggle of our hearts, writers and artists—those who have always kept a true link to the wider, wilder world—are forging another story. We hope that Walking on Lava will show how some of that new collective tale is unfolding.

Walking on Lava – Selected Work for Uncivilised Times is edited by Charlotte Du Cann, Dougald Hine, Nick Hunt and Paul Kingsnorth and published by Chelsea Green. 

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6 September 2017. Inside the ACLU: defending white supremacists as a black attorney

As a constitutional lawyer I fully support the First Amendment. But as a black person, I’m conflicted when it comes to defending hate.

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

Being a black constitutional and civil rights attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) can be more emotionally unsettling than I am sometimes willing to admit.

And over the years, I have struggled with decisions we’ve made to defend those who foment hate, who proselytize against my very existence and openly long for a return to the days when people like me were legally considered less than human. Because it means that as an ACLU attorney, I am defending them, too.

The organization that fought alongside the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for school desegregation in the 1950s and that helped overturn extreme voter ID laws in Pennsylvania and Arkansas in 2014, also intervened on behalf of the white nationalist who organized the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, three weekends ago in which one woman was killed and many others injured.

The decision by the ACLU of Virginia to defend the group’s right to free speech and expression triggered a strong public reaction from both outside and within the organization—especially potent given the outpouring of public goodwill we received from a country reeling from the election of Donald Trump.

The ACLU takes the position that a threat to free speech anywhere will harm the progress of free speech and civil rights for groups that historically had been oppressed as well. It has defended the constitutional rights of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups in the past and our leaders have made it clear we will continue to do so in the future. And certainly, a number of planned rallies by hate groups in the coming days and weeks present a real opportunity for that to happen.

As a constitutional lawyer, I fully support the First Amendment and understand and agree that we must advocate for tolerance of ideas when the purpose is to create a space for tolerance. But this ignites an internal conflict for me when some of these groups seem to advocate for intolerance—of my existence.

The current climate has caused me and some of my ACLU colleagues to consider what it means to be black advocates for free speech, especially when we know that some of this speech threatens our very existence and that of other people of color.

In the wake of Charlottesville, the ACLU adopted a policy change to impose stricter screenings and take legal requests from white supremacist groups on a case-by-case basis. We will no longer represent hate groups that demonstrate with firearms. I appreciate this change.

But in the end, I’m not convinced that more speech that spreads hate and fulfills a white, racist, and divisive agenda in this country will bring about a better result for people like me, who are its targets. The leaders of the white national movement openly admitted they used “free speech” grounds to test whether they could create more hostile protests without legal opposition.

During my two years at the ACLU, I have represented individuals to ensure school districts, cities, and local agencies did not impede individuals’ constitutionally protected speech. For example, I represented students on a yearbook staff after their school district tried to censor their Black Lives Matter content from the yearbook. In another case, I advocated that a school district could not remove Black History Month paintings by a San Francisco-based artist solely because someone might be offended.

It feels good when I can use the First Amendment as a tool to ensure equality for people of color.

But there’s an emergence in this country of hate groups that unapologetically wage war on people they don’t envision in their version of America. Many of them are headquartered in Northern California and California’s Central Valley, where I live.

I grew up in the South, and watched the KKK march through the Martin Luther King parade in my hometown. Just this week, I witnessed three cars in Fresno, in Central California, flying Confederate flags. Knowing these could be my neighbors, owners of businesses I frequent or, worse, people I know personally, make these instances particularly frightening.

Watching this resurgence of Confederate pride and flags across the country and hearing conversations that fail to recognize that these symbols are rooted in black dehumanization make navigating this space mentally and emotionally taxing. It makes me all the more committed to being true to my core racial justice values and true to the social justice community.

I have been outspoken within my office about what it means for me as a black attorney representing white supremacists. And my office has created a safe space for me to discuss how that feels. I’ve also made a point to check in with other black ACLU colleagues at my job, understanding that we are each processing this in our own way and might just want to talk.

This artihcle was first published in YES! Magazine.

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4 September 2017. Sacred activism: the story of Tamera

‘We all were indigenous once. We have been waiting for you. Welcome back.’

Participants in the Defend the Sacred gathering on Odeceixe beach in Portugal, August 12 2017. Credit: Copyright Tamera Institute. All rights reserved.

There are people who think that Odeceixe is the most beautiful beach in the world. Nature has created a pearl in southern Portugal, a sandbank between the green meanders of the Seixe River and the blue of the Atlantic Ocean. Each day in summer, the sandbank is flooded with tourists, and on this particular day—August 12 2017—they expect nothing more spectactular than sunscreen, surfboards and sandcastles. They don´t yet know it, but today they will be part of a prayer. A widely visible prayer, formed with their bodies to protect the coastline from oil drilling by national and international corporations

From early morning, a part of the beach is being separated, and people are working hard in the sun, forming a giant image in the sand. In the afternoon buses arrive, full with hundreds of indigenous elders from different cultures, activists, trade unionists, shamans from Latin America, Palestinians and Israelis arm in arm, musicians, and lots of young people.

“We know the world stood with us, so we come to stand with you,” a powerful mature woman says into a microphone. It is LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, one of the initiators of the Standing Rock struggles. A young man adds, “Water is life. Water is sacred. Life is sacred. We must protect the very things that our lives depend on. For our NO to succeed, we have to know what we say YES to.”

This gathering—called Defend the Sacredis being hosted at Tamera, a community dedicated to the task of finding alternatives that are both visionary and concrete, strongly rooted in its own place but working with activists from the wider region and across the global South. Tamera had invited activists to reflect on their experience from Standing Rock, Sumud Freedom Camp in Palestine, the peace village San José de Apartadó in Colombia, and many others from around the world who actively protect what is sacred to them, whether water, nature, human rights or freedom. The idea of the gathering was to envision a global community of sacred activism and discuss how this movement could continue and succeed.

Situated a little more than an hour from Odeceixe, Tamera is an international peace research community of nearly 200 people from many different countries and age groups. The community was founded in 1978 in Germany and moved to Portugal in 1995. Its founders—the sociologist and psychoanalyst Dieter Duhm and the theologist and peace ambassador Sabine Lichtenfels—intended to create a holistic model for a peaceful society.

“The issues of our time are so interwoven and so closely linked to each other,” wrote Duhm, “that they cannot be solved individually. It will only be possible to carry out the tasks for the future on the basis of a well functioning community.” In his view, humanity has separated itself from the universal powers of life. In order to survive we need to reconnect, a process Duhm calls “human revolution.”

“Trust is the most original and most efficient of all healing forces,” he continues, “The very first task of a community is therefore to create trust among the participants.” That’s why Tamera invests such large amounts of time, skills and care in building trust and truth among their members.

On a daily basis they meet to reveal what they think and feel, to envision their common aims, to provide mutual support and to create transparency. This daily “Forum” is a crucial part of the community, without which it would not have survived for so many years. In all its activities, Tamera follows a plan of what it calls “global healing biotopes”—model communities with autonomy over water, food and energy but strong regional and global linkages, and connected to the divine forces of life in everything.

Arriving in Tamera in summer after driving through a landscape threatened by desertification and woodfires is like arriving at an oasis. Bodies of water fill the valleys, surrounded by terraces with gardens and fruit orchards. Water has been a core topic in Tamera from the beginning. Under the guidance of mountain farmer and ecological visionary Sepp Holzer, Tamera created a natural ‘Water Retention Landscape’—a series of interwoven ponds, lakes and orchards designed to slow down rainwater runoff and give it time to filter deep down so the soil is fertile throughout the year. Other work focuses on decentralized energy solutions, holistic healing, alternative education, permaculture, biologic building and communication and cooperation with animals and plants.

However the most crucial element of Tamera´s work is love, the core work of peace. “There will be no peace in the world as long as there is war between the genders” says co-founder Lichtenfels, “Our intention is to create a field for love free from fear. This also includes sexual love.” Every choice that somebody makes in Tamera—be it a monogamous, polyamorous or celibate lifestyle—is supported by the rest of the community so long as it is based on mutual respect and inner truth.

Sexuality and love are regarded as sacred forces which we cannot own. “Also, we cannot possess our partner", says Vera Kleinhammes, a mother of two children. “Isn´t it strange how many couples find it normal to lie to each other on what they really feel or to whom they are attracted? But without truth, love cannot grow.” In Tamera, partnership and free love don´t exclude each other, they need each other. “However, I would not dare to try this outside of community.”

This approach found resonance among the participants at the gathering. Time and again, activists have faced internal conflicts and collapse in their communities and protest actions around the topics of jealousy, the suppression of women, and other gender topics. Social transparency on love and women’s empowerment are part of the remedy for these conflicts.

As Vassamalli Kurtaz shared—a representative from the indigenous Todas tribe in India —“Before our communities were colonized, married women could choose one or two other sexual lovers if they wished. It was accepted by tradition also by their husbands. Now with having so many men without the chance to have sex we have tensions arising in the community. Colonization and Christianity harmed our lifestyle and the nature that we live from. We need to return to our traditions.”

Pat McCabe from the Diné (Navajo) Nation added this: “According to our traditions, we look for balance and healing between fire and water, light and dark, the feminine and the masculine. I am impressed that this community works so deeply on this balance too. It is a profound experience to find a place in Europe which gives such a strong resonance to positions that have been crucial in indigenous cultures. I leave this place with the feeling that the wounds of colonizations can heal.”

At the gathering, the activists developed a sense of global community, envisioning how the movement for defending the sacred that began at Standing Rock could continue, supported by the emergence of decentralized alternatives to capitalism. As Tiokasin Ghosthorse said, a representative of the Cheyenne River Nation, “We all were indigenous once. We have been waiting for you. Welcome back.”

Meanwhile at the beach, the renowned activist and artist John Quigley had prepared an image that we will form with our bodies in the sand, filmed from the air by drones so that we can send it out to the world as a strong declaration of our will. The image consists of a huge dolphin and the words: “Nao ao furo (‘no to the oil drill’)—Defend  the Sacred.”

We line up to enter the image, passing by a place of sacred water kept by Lichtenfels and a place of sacred fire kept by LaDonna Brave Bull. Everyone is led to a place in one of the letters of the declaration or—in my case—as part of the dolphin´s snout.

Soon it becomes clear: the image is too big to fill with the 400 or so people that have come from Tamera and the rest of the region, even with all the other activists. We need at least double. What to do? Do we have to give up like so many times before?

“Be attractive” shouts Quigley, “attract people to join us.” And we do. We shout and sing and call the tourists on the beach to help us fill the image. They watch, but hesitate. After all it is their holiday. But then they come. Parents being pulled in by their kids. Couples and groups of friends, surfers and sunbathers leaving behind their daily business and joining in, happy and proud to be part of something bigger, each one being cheered on by the activists.

And then we make it! In the end we are nearly 1,000 people. The last to join is Takota Iron Eyes, aged 13, a Sioux youth leader from Standing Rock who forms the eye of the dolphin together with other teenagers.

When she starts singing, the crowd becomes silent. Something resonates very deeply in me. It feels like a transformation point in my internal belief system. We really made it. And if we can be successful here then surely we can do anything—stop the oil drilling, change the track of history, and create peace on the earth.

For more about Tamera click here and here.


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3 September 2017. Please call me they

How do I explain to my colleagues that I’m not a ‘he’ or a ‘she’—and why it matters?

Every flag together is the peaceful warrior: rainbow country, San Francisco 2014. Credit: Flickr/Torbakhopper. CC BY-ND 2.0.

In a few weeks time I’ll be starting a new job in a university that I’ve never worked at before. This presents me with a uniquely queer dilemma: how do I ‘come out’ about my pronoun at work?

To give you a bit of background, I’m a genderqueer nonbinary person who uses the pronoun ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ or any of the others. I was born into the label ‘girl’ 34 years ago, but that doesn’t have much relevance to my life as an adult. I don’t aspire to any kind of womanhood or manhood so ‘she’ is really not a word that captures me—and neither is ‘he.’

My life is a mishmash of feminine and masculine experiences, but above all, experiences that are not really gendered at all. That’s why I prefer the pronoun ‘they,’ which is free from all the expectations and assumptions that come with gendered language. But how do I explain this to my new colleagues?

Scenario 1: I walk into the office on my first day and say ‘hi, please call me they—that’s my pronoun. I’m not a woman or a man. It’s very nice to meet you.’  That will set me up for some relaxed relationships at work for sure…..

Scenario 2: I don’t say anything about my gender until a few months later when everyone’s gotten to know me, then I announce that nobody in the office truly knows who I am—they’ve  been using the wrong pronoun since day one. That’s bound to build trust among my colleagues…..

Either way, it’s going to be awkward. Anyone who’s had to come out as anything knows that it’s not a one-off event. You keep coming out most days of the week for the rest of your life. But it’s particularly hard to come out as nonbinary genderqueer because most people have no idea what that even means. So let me explain.

For me—and I have to emphasise that this is my own interpretation since other people understand it differently—queerness is the opposition to the Western social ordering principle of gender, and the building of alternative ways of being that are free from such gender norms. Contrary to common misconceptions, queerness is not primarily about sexuality but about gender. What’s more, it’s not really an identity but a structural critique of modern society and its violent and deadly hierarchies.

When we are born, or actually before we are born, we are put into one of two genders—boy or girl; boxes that tell us loosely who we are, how to act, and what to aspire to. Thanks to feminists’ struggles over the last 100 years these two boxes have been stretched and expanded, but they’re still definitely recognisable. The queer criticism of these boxes isn’t just that they’ve been too rigid historically, but that their contents—‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’—are inherently and irreparably harmful.

Sure, it’s unpleasant to be put in a box and told by everyone else who you should be, and ideally we would all choose our own individual identity without being dictated to by others. But humans are not islands. Our thoughts are made through language and the concepts and categories that come with it. Our innermost desires and tastes are created through interactions with other people, and in that sense we co-create each other.

In order to do this and live together we do need categories—maybe even some kind of boxes—but those categories should be flexible and varied, and there should definitely be more than two of them. When someone chooses to merge things from different categories together we should support them.

However, the important thing about the queer critique of gender is that hegemonic gender boxes are not just limiting and rigid; they are toxic and hurtful to us all.

Think about the traits that define the stereotype of an ‘ideal man’ in capitalist and white supremacist society. The masculine man is strong and competitive, knows everything, thinks rationally, acts aggressively when threatened, and likes to conquer both women and non-European cultures. These are tired old stereotypes, but they still affect and shape our worldviews.

The corresponding stereotype of traditional Western femininity is the opposite: hesitant, modest, unsure about how cars or science work, motivated by emotions, beautiful to look at, desperate to please all those around her, and wanting to be conquered by dashing men. Hats off to all those feminist activists who have fought to break down these nauseating clichés, and shame on all those post-feminists who deny that they still affect us.

Of course, it’s difficult to generalise about gender stereotypes because they vary depending on your class, racialisation, age and so on. The contents of those two boxes are different depending on who you are. But the hegemonic version of these stereotypes—the contents of the white, middle-class, working-age gender boxes—are something everyone in society must relate to, and against which they must be judged.

The point about these stereotypes is that they’re not random—they serve a specific function: masculinity is the embodiment of domination and femininity is the embodiment of subordination. In recent years, the concept of ‘toxic masculinity’ has been used to highlight the links between pressures on men to be strong and assertive, and the incidence of violent attacks, male suicide, domestic violence, rape and sexual assault. I’d add war, macho politics, profit-seeking and colonialism to that list.

In this binary model, femininity isn’t much better since it acts as the complement to masculinity: it is self-erasing and accommodating; it provides free domestic and emotional labour; and it supports, applauds and copes.

The queer critique of the binary gender system, then, is not only that it’s boring or constraining, but that it’s actively harmful. Many liberal feminists have campaigned for the right of women to jump out of the pink box and into the blue one; hence women can now become CEOs, wear suits and cut people’s Disability Living Allowances just as aggressively as any guy. To a queer, this is not the way out of the mess in which we find ourselves.

Rather than focusing on opening the two boxes to everyone, nonbinary queerness lets us create entirely new ways of being that reject and go beyond any hierarchical bundle of identities. Is it so difficult to imagine what that might look like in concrete terms? Thankfully there are already many real-life alternatives.

As a lecturer for example, I could orate in a booming voice like my masculine forbears or femininely defer to the brilliance of male authors and male students. Of course I do neither. Instead I try to talk to my students without dominating anyone and aim to facilitate their learning, like many lecturers do.

As a politician, British Prime Minister Theresa May has chosen to pursue policies based on aggressive competition, inequality and sanctioning state violence rather than daintily giggling her way through politics. But wouldn’t it be much more progressive to practice a different, non-hierarchical form of politics and economics altogether—rooted in  participatory local governance,  worker-owned co-operatives, alternatives to prison and publicly-funded social centres, schools and youth clubs?

There are a million alternatives to gender binaries in all areas of our lives. Nonbinary queers reject them in different ways: some believe in expanding gender stereotypes from within by parodying and stretching gendered attributes, while others believe in making them obsolete by embodying different and gender-free ways of being. The choice of tactic will depend on your background, culture, religion and relationship to your family.

Personally—as a white atheist city-dweller with no traditional family ties—I try to move beyond gendered expressions and identities as much as possible in my personality, life choices and language. That’s why I’m not a ‘he’ or a ‘she.’ Instead, out of all the non-gendered pronouns I could have chosen (and believe me there are plenty), I’ve gone with ‘they.’ That word isn’t so much about my identity as it is about my politics, worldview and entire personality. And that’s why what I say to my new colleagues at work is far from a trivial pursuit.

Maybe there’s a third scenario to add to the others I mentioned at the outset: print loads of copies of this article and give one to each of my new colleagues: everyone loves a preachy missionary who forces other people to read their stuff. That will make me popular at work.....

Or I could just play them this Madonna cover that I’ve made with my own words added. I hope you enjoy it. And please don’t forget to call me they.

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31 August 2017. Why are the Danes so happy? Because their economy makes sense

The Nordic economic model is the most successful yet invented for the common good. How did they do it?

This article was first published in Waging Nonviolence.

Waterfront district in Copenhagen. Credit: By GuoJunjun - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0. 

The World Happiness Report puts Danes consistently in the top tier. Twice in the past four years Denmark came in first. Danes also report more satisfaction with their health care than anyone else in Europe, which makes sense, since happiness is related to a sense of security and others being there for you. A fine health care system makes that real.

The Danish approach is especially interesting to Americans because of the U.S. suspicion of centralization. Danes prefer to administer their health care locally. On the other hand, they’ve found that the fairest and most efficient way of paying for their system is through income tax, most of which is routed through Copenhagen.

The system delivers quality healthcare to all and costs Denmark only two-thirds what the United States spends. I’d like to hear Democratic U.S. senators, who mostly reject single-payer health care (except for themselves), try to sell Obamacare to the Danes.

“What?” I imagine the Danes exclaiming. “You want us to spend one-third more of our national wealth on health care, and still leave many Danes without coverage? And end up with inferior health outcomes?”

The continuing attempt by most Democratic leaders to sell health care as a market-based commodity would strike Danes as both unethical (more people die from preventable causes) and a waste of money. What sense would that make?

How did the Danes force their own economy to make sense?

Denmark wasn’t always like this. A century ago its economic system was deeply irrational and poverty was endemic. Despite having a parliament and free elections, a growing number of Danes came to realize that they had a sham democracy. The major decisions were actually made by their economic elite. Many Danes were so discouraged that they left for North America, hoping for something better.

People left behind in Denmark decided to turn their country around, which meant organizing movements to override the will of their contented 1 percent. The people pulled off what might be called a nonviolent revolution.

In the 19th century, their struggle focused on the first two stages that I describe in “Toward a Living Revolution:” cultural preparation and organization-building. A lot of leadership came from N.F.S. Grundtvig, a writer and bishop. He invented the Danish folk schools, which taught adults whose agricultural rhythm gave them some free time during the winter. At folk schools they learned some of the basics of literacy and participatory democracy.

Grundtvig used his religious influence to restore people’s confidence in themselves—he saw spirituality as empowerment rather than “the opium of the people.” He also supported the growth of coops, a form of socialism that rebelled against the merchant class’ deification of the private market. The agricultural coops provided a way to retain the wealth that farmers and agricultural workers sweated for.

Other creative Danes found ways to show that, even in a small Northern European country with few natural resources and frequent gloom-inducing weather, the people could find abundant meaning by developing their collective life, their Danishness.

The intensity of this cultural preparation paid off later in the Danish resistance to Nazi German occupation, when by collective effort the Resistance saved nearly all the Danish Jews from the Holocaust. Rallying around Danishness, however, can have its down side, showing up recently as reluctance to integrate immigrants to Denmark, who now total over 8 percent of the population.

As Danes industrialized, they continued their cultural preparation and organization-building through worker study groups and unions. The industrial workers tested their strength through a wave of strikes in 1899 that forced the employers association to bargain with them on a national level.

The workers movement organized itself into three parts: unions to deal with wages and workplace issues, consumer coops to retain wealth that otherwise would go to the capitalists, and a political party to represent them in parliament—the Social Democrats. Unlike the U.S. unions’ choice largely to support the Democratic Party, the Danish unions decided to create a party that would be would be strictly accountable to the movement. Their choice paid off.

The class struggle intensifies.

After World War I Danish workers grew more radical and escalated. Syndicalists sometimes led the strikes. The Danish economic elite’s worries were compounded by looking across the border and seeing radicalized German workers mounting large-scale revolutionary insurgencies.

The combination of disruption inside Denmark and radicalism outside the country eroded the elite’s opposition to change, much as the United States experienced in the 1960s and ‘70s. During the civil rights and other movements, the United States took to nonviolent direct action internally while the empire was experiencing uproar in Southeast Asia and Latin America. The American 1 percent felt compelled to make concessions as a result.

For Danish workers, farmworkers and middle-class allies, the post-World War I struggle won two major victories. Industrial workers gained a nationwide guarantee that wages would increase along with inflation. This is huge, as contemporary U.S. workers who have lost so much ground in the past few decades can tell us.

The second victory favored the other large group of poor and near-poor people, the farmworkers in Denmark’s large agricultural sector. Major landowners were forced to give up a substantial part of their land, which were then re-distributed to the farmworkers. The landowners were also forced to pay a substantial new tax on their remaining land. This win took away the last remaining privilege of Denmark’s old landed aristocracy.

The movement’s nonviolent struggle won over the Danish majority, enabling the Social Democrats to begin in 1924 a stretch of governing that ran almost continuously through the 20th century. Because direct action had reduced the elite’s power, the Danes could take leadership in co-creating what economists would later call “the Nordic model.”

Sweden and Norway work to catch up.

The Viking cousins in Sweden and Norway imported folk high schools. They developed their own coops and vision-developing study groups. Their goal was to push the 1 percent out of dominance. In my new book “Viking Economics,” I tell the dramatic story of mounting nonviolent confrontations with their economic elites.

In 1931, in Sweden, the struggle came to a head. The elite called out the army to suppress the workers. Troops killed unarmed strikers. Retaliating, the movement staged a widespread general strike. The government fell.

In the years following that victory, the Norwegians escalated the number of their strikes and were joined in nonviolent militancy by the farmers and the movement’s student allies. Norwegians succeeded in making their country ungovernable by the economic elite. The 1 percent was forced to the bargaining table in 1936, where they gave up their dominance of the country’s direction.

While the revolutionary struggles in Sweden and Norway each came to a single breakthrough point in the 1930s, the Danish movement did a two-step. The first breakthrough moment came early, in the years following 1918. The second came in the 1930s.

Disaster hits in the 1930s, and vision saves Denmark.

The real measure of a movement is how much it is able to turn crisis into opportunity. Author Naomi Klein writes about this dynamic in a different way, showing how private contractors profit from the global climate change crisis. But when movements seize opportunities, we all flourish—rather than just the power elites. Will movement people today focus on using the opportunity, as the Danes did in the 1930s?

As the Depression deepened existing inequality, Danes polarized. Fascism grew, inspired by Hitler in next door Germany. The attractiveness of communism also increased. The majority, however, was hungry for a solution that would heighten democracy and individual freedom and be in alignment with “Danishness.”

The Danish economic elite were eager to regain their firm hegemonic rule that was shaken by the post-war class struggle. They were tired of being pushed around by the Social Democrats who had been governing since 1924. To stage a comeback, however, the 1 percent needed a solution to the Depression, a breakdown of capitalism. With Denmark’s largely agricultural economy unable to sell its produce to foreign markets, half the population was left with no purchasing power at all.

The 1 percent decided to hold out for market-based solutions: reliance on the private insurance approach to ill-health, for example. They proposed governmental austerity, which under the circumstances was laughable.

Successful movements generate a positive vision of what they want, rather than simply relying on protests about what’s wrong.

The Social Democrats came up with a vision adopting Keynesian stimulation for the macro-economy. The vision flatly rejected austerity. It also rejected insurance and philanthropy as the solutions to misfortune and poverty. The Social Democrats turned decisively toward universal services financed by the government through progressive taxation.

Using the crisis as an opportunity, the Social Democrats secured the foundation of the Nordic model, the most successful economic national model yet invented for the common good. The Danish majority loved it, and the unions and family farmers retained political control of the country for the rest of the century. The model became so hegemonic that all the parties were forced to embrace it to remain relevant at all, even the new “right-wing” party that hates immigration while still promoting a robust version of the Nordic model.

What shall we call that model? Describing Denmark as a “welfare state” is, I think, seriously misleading. The Nordic design isn’t welfare for the needy—that’s the old approach that has not worked for any nation in the world, ever. Instead, the Nordic model provides universal services given to all, whatever their income, as a matter or right, supported by progressive taxation that re-distributes income and wealth.

If you like poverty, continue to think “welfare,” because welfare is mainly about poverty. If you like equality, think “universal services,” because the universal approach has been shown by the Nordics to promote the abolition of poverty.

For the Danes, fully implementing the promise of the Nordic model took a while. The country’s economy improved in the 1930s, but the Nazi occupation set them back. By the late 1950s, the Social Democrats were moving rapidly toward the shared abundance that shows up in their happiness ratings.

Shall we call the change process a nonviolent revolution?

The Danish people did not produce utopia, nor are they first in every measure. Norway has more social ownership of the means of production than Denmark does, and Sweden generates more innovation as measured by patents. The Danes did not end the push-back from the economic elite. Class struggle remains a reality in Denmark, as it does everywhere.

The Danes did, however, end centuries of domination by their 1 percent and empowered the democratic majority to make decisions about the future direction of the economy. They designed a different economy, one that centers labor instead of capital, correctly understanding this shift to be the pre-condition for the abolition of poverty. They also turn to nonviolent direct action to do the heavy lifting when they see it is needed, rather than putting all their eggs in the parliamentary basket.

However we debate definitions, the Danish story of struggle offers valuable lessons for the rest of us—especially those of us who want to be happy.

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29 August 2017. Gentrifier heal thyself?

There are limits to living our political convictions. How can we navigate them?

Cheshire St, London. Credit: Flickr/Ms Sara Kelly, CC BY 2.0.

 When Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was pushed to define ‘obscenity’ in 1964, he famously responded: “I know it when I see it.” The much-contested and slippery term ‘gentrification’ is often understood in the same instinctive way.

When the sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term, she described it as a process of—among  other things—“working class quarters” being “invaded by the middle classes,” and the conversion of “shabby, modest mews and cottages” into “elegant, expensive residences.” Today, this process is symbolised by everything from over-priced craft beer and scruffy beards to skinny jeans, organic food and artisan bakeries.

Whatever gentrification actually is, we seem to know, on some level, that it’s bad—associated  with words like ‘displacement’, ‘removal’, and even ‘social cleansing.’ If you live in a big city like London or New York, it’s not uncommon for someone to recommend a neighbourhood because ‘it’s not too gentrified’—meaning  you can still (maybe) buy a drink for less than your hourly wage—or to hear someone bemoan the fact that an area has ‘lost its character,’ been taken over by ‘yuppies,’ or ruined by ugly new luxury apartments.

Curiously, many of the people who make these comments about gentrification are gentrifiers themselves, railing against the displacement of the working class at their house-warming parties on up-and-coming blocks where working class people used to live.

I’ve been through this routine numerous times myself: marching to ‘save social housing’ in London by day before returning to my ex-council flat at night; opposing more luxury apartments in the inner-west of Sydney while living in a far from shabby building in the exact same area; and now, criticising the insanity of New York’s housing market from my newly renovated apartment in Harlem, a neighbourhood once described by Bobby Womack as “the capital of every ghetto town”.  

Faced by gentrification in places like these, we can blame shifty landlords, stingy city governments and predatory property developers, but at least to some extent, we are left lamenting something that our own life choices are reinforcing. For those who try hard to live their political convictions—from buying fair trade bananas and carbon offsets to boycotting union-busting corporations—this creates some serious personal discomfort. ‘If we’re so worried about gentrification,’ we should ask ourselves, ‘why do we keep buying into it?’

That’s a difficult question to answer, because it speaks to a common gap between what progressives say and what they do. Such concerns aren’t new of course. George Orwell suggested that the genius of the “jingo imperialist” poet Rudyard Kipling lay in his understanding of the fact that “a humanitarian is always a hypocrite.” Orwell, with some exaggeration, wrote that “all left-wing parties in the highly-industrialised countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy.”

Despite having “internationalist aims” he continued, they “struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue.”

Maybe the left-wing case against gentrification is the same—a worthy concern, but one for which we would personally sacrifice very little. That may sound harsh, but we can’t ignore such critiques. Not only do many of us participate in gentrification—we actually enjoy it: earnestly deploring the Trump Presidency in Che Guevara-themed cafés; celebrating the diversity of city life in a live music bar with a $10 cover charge; or buying produce at farmers’ markets instead of greasy delis.

The Saturday Night Live sketch “The Bubble”, mocks this secret love of gentrification perfectly, depicting “a planned community of like-minded free-thinkers” where “life continues for progressive Americans as if the election never happened,” complete with “hybrid cars,” “second-hand bookstores,” and Bernie Sanders’s face on every Dollar Bill.

On a personal level, many of us are living these contradictions by reaping the benefits of something we’re not supposed to like. There’s no harm in admitting this, but what should we do about it?

Such contradictions don’t justify political silence or passivity—quite the opposite: they should form the basis of a wider and deeper discussion which explores how everyone can be properly housed, without making  young people, fresh out of university and desperate to pay down their snowballing debts, compete with the urban poor for the scraps of somewhere to live. Why is there so much profit in the business of displacing people from their communities? Why is it so hard to make daily choices that reflect or realise our moral goals? And are there forms of ‘gentrification’ that could support those moral goals?

Far from feeling muzzled when we are complicit in gentrification, we should be asking serious questions about its causes, consequences and many faces. This includes trying to understand the complex and diverse reactions that it provokes: sometimes anger at rising living costs and the commodification of local culture, and sometimes cautious acceptance of the benefits it can bring.   

The idea of gentrifiers as a pioneering “creative class” of tech start-ups and quirky businesses has been largely discredited, but in my experience the residents of poorer neighbourhoods don’t always see the arrival of people with additional energy and resources as inherently bad. They might bemoan the destruction of public housing in favour of ‘shared workspaces’ and roof-top bars, without opposing the basic idea of outside investment.

Beyond these perceptions, another change is developing: the prospect of life in an all-white suburb—complete with SUVs, 30-year mortgages and star-spangled banners on the front lawn—is losing its  post-war appeal. Baby-boomer parents are confused  by their children’s insistence on moving to inner-city streets that they actively avoided in the 1970s and 1980s. Although the cities of the United States remain heavily segregated economically and racially, the growing attraction of urban life is leading to a degree of social mixing unseen in previous generations.

In this context, there is a real opportunity to build a new vision for our cities. The temptation for incoming college-educated urbanites like me is to assume leadership by promoting the equitable housing policies they learned about at university and using the political and organisational skills we refined in the Students’ Union. Yet this temptation must be resisted: urban communities are held together by social bonds and shared histories that no newcomer can fully grasp.

Powerful political leadership has always emerged from these neighbourhoods. A prominent example is New York’s Al Smith, a second-generation Irish immigrant born above a barber shop in the slums under the Brooklyn Bridge, who left school at the age of twelve to work in the Fulton Fish Market and reportedly read just one book in his entire life. Smith went on to be elected governor of New York State four times in the 1920s, overseeing the radical social reforms that eventually inspired the New Deal: maximum working-hours legislation, public works projects, minimum housing standards, and revolutionary workplace safety laws.

More recent figures include Jesse Gray, who worked as a tailor before leading Harlem’s rent strikes in the 1960s; and California Congresswoman Barbara Lee from Oakland, who has repeatedly fought for affordable housing as a human right in the House of Representatives. There is no shortage of talent, spirit and determination in communities under threat from economic and political exploitation.

Nonetheless, in the fight for more just and inclusive cities, gentrifiers can lend valuable support. Though not to the same extent, they can see and feel the damage done by profit-centred housing markets. They can sense the unwillingness of politicians to respond, and they can help imagine and develop solutions to the crisis. When people have some shared experience—even if it’s scraping together enough money for a broker’s fee, or dealing with a negligent landlord, or complaining about inexplicable power cuts in their building, they begin to see more common interests with their neighbours—and to recognize the need to fight alongside them for improvements.

Of course, the underlying tensions are still there: your presence as an incomer is a physical symbol of an often-damaging social transformation. But if we acknowledge their strength and try to understand the remarkable history of the communities that have sometimes begrudgingly welcomed us, we can play a part in the collective struggle for a better city. 

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27 August 2017. American idiot: rethinking anti-intellectualism in the age of Trump

Trust in expert knowledge is declining, but what does that mean for democracy and social justice?

March for science in Melbourne, Australia on Earth Day, April 22 2017. Credit: By Takver from Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

“On my arrival in the United States I was surprised to find so much distinguished talent among the subjects, and so little among the heads of the Government.” Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835.

We may fairly assume that Tocqueville, the famous French historian, would be even more surprised if he were to visit America today. The 45th President, Donald Trump, has made no secret of his disdain for learning and specialized knowledge, sneering at a campaign rally in 2016, “You know, I’ve always wanted to say this—I’ve never said this before with all the talking we all do, all of these experts, ‘Oh we need an expert’—the experts are terrible!”

Such comments provide ample fodder for Tom Nichols’ topical and engaging new book, The Death of Expertise. For Nichols, the anti-intellectual strain in the U.S. has transmuted into an arrogant contempt for intellectual authority due to major shifts in education, journalism, and the media and political environments. Taken together, he claims, these shifts have driven American democracy to the brink of authoritarian populism.

A professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and a former political adviser, Nichols argues that the country has shifted from a healthy skepticism of accepted knowledge to a proud, self-satisfied ignorance and active hostility to the very idea of expertise. Across American society, intellectual authority is resented, resisted and disregarded, with every opinion ostensibly holding equal weight.

This leveling of viewpoints has been accelerated by digital technologies and platforms, which have further lowered the barriers to participation, opening the floodgates to those without the requisite educational backgrounds and professional credentials. As Nichols puts it:

“I fear we are witnessing […] a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”

In the absence of these crucial distinctions, Nichols asserts, public discourse has become degraded by unquestioned cognitive biases and a dearth of informed, evidence-based argumentation.

Referencing recent commentaries such as Susan Jacoby’s “The Dumbing of America,” Nichols vividly sketches the denigration of expertise in key areas of society. Institutions of higher education have lowered their standards, providing affirmative “safe spaces” rather than necessarily uncomfortable intellectual challenges. No longer a time of disciplined learning and personal growth, college has become what Nichols describes as “a consumer-oriented experience in which students learn, above all else, that the customer is always right.”

Consumer rankings and ratings are also ubiquitous in cyberspace, where every buyer is now a critic and an opinion maker on websites like Amazon and Yelp. Drowning out expert perspectives, the Internet offers quick facts and views without the guarantee of accuracy, consistency, or disinterested, non-partisan oversight. Finally, contemporary journalism has adopted an open-ended and participatory format that caters primarily to customer interests, blends news with punditry and entertainment, and perpetuates both ideological segregation and distrust in government, the media, and other democratic institutions.

In addressing the depreciation of established knowledge, The Death of Expertise joins a tradition of writing that extends back to Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-intellectualism in American Life, published in 1963. Yet Nichols’ analysis fails to assimilate Hofstadter’s account of the “cyclical fluctuations” of anti-intellectualism that have rippled across all spheres of U.S. society for centuries, often rising in periods of complex and bewildering global change. On what basis, then, can one contend that American anti-intellectualism has become more pervasive over the past half-century and is now, in Jacoby’s words, “less a cycle than a flood”?

Positing a qualitative shift, Nichols often makes recourse to lapsarian, technological-determinist arguments that attribute the decline of critical intelligence in large measure to digital culture. Ironically, such claims reactivate familiar tropes in the history of media, issuing pessimistic diagnoses of mass manipulation and stupefaction that can be traced back to previous historical junctures, when older technologies were likewise new. Writing after the first televised presidential debates in 1960, Hofstadter himself noted that twentieth-century politics had been shaped by “the American mania for publicity and the development of the mass media.”

At the same time, Nichols misses a crucial opportunity to revisit Hofstadter’s work in light of the economic and social transformations of the past half-century. Noting the ubiquity of the business paradigm in American culture, Hofstadter wrote:

“Business not only appealed to vigorous and ambitious men but set the dominant standards for the rest of society, so that members of the professions—law, medicine, schoolteaching, even the ministry—aped businessmen and adapted the standards of their own crafts to those of business.”

The hegemony of business logic has significantly expanded over the last three decades, as Wendy Brown argues in Undoing the Demos. Neoliberal rationality has subjected all spheres of human existence to economic metrics, such that even non-monetized domains of action are now framed and measured according to a market model. Privatizing public goods and thinking only in terms of capital enhancement, neoliberalism has undermined the necessary conditions of democratic citizenship, leading to a situation in which, as Brown writes:

“politics [is] peculiarly unappealing and toxic—full of ranting and posturing, emptied of intellectual seriousness, pandering to an uneducated and manipulable electorate and a celebrity-and-scandal-hungry corporate media.”

Insofar as Brown contends that “smugness in ignorance” has supplanted a Socratic sense of humility, she shares Nichols’ view of contemporary American political discourse. Yet whereas she stresses the ominous threat posed to democracy by neoliberal capitalism, Nichols sees the nation’s fate hinging on individual action:

“There is plenty of blame to go around for the parlous state of the role of expertise in American life […]. Experts themselves, as well as educators, journalists, corporate entertainment media, and others have all played their part. In the end, however, there is only one group of people who must bear the ultimate responsibility for this current state of affairs, and only they can change any of it: the citizens.”

While this behaviorist approach prompts readers to contemplate what actions are within their immediate control, it remains fixed on the level of cultural symptoms or epiphenomena, without regard for pathologies or underlying forces.

In a troubling passage from the Introduction to The Death of Expertise, Nichols reflects on the massive social transformations since the 1960s:

“Social changes only in the past half century finally broke down old barriers of race, class, and sex not only between Americans in general but also between uneducated citizens and elite experts in particular. A wider circle of debate meant more knowledge but more social friction. Universal education, the greater empowerment of women and minorities, the growth of a middle class, and increased social mobility all threw a minority of experts and the majority of citizens into direct contact, after nearly two centuries in which they rarely had to interact with each other. And yet the result has not been a greater respect for knowledge, but the growth of an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else.”

Filled with ambivalence, Nichols thus recognizes the crucial significance of expanding access to education and widening the parameters of participation in the American public sphere, even as he links advances in sociopolitical equality with the rise of epistemological relativism such that expert knowledge is no longer revered.

Identifying the Vietnam War and Watergate as key causes of declining trust in political elites and institutions, Nichols fails to mention the longstanding abuses of expert truth-claims such as scientific racism and sexism, as well as subsequent efforts to challenge, redefine, and broaden the figure of the ‘expert’—who historically was assumed to be both white and male. Moreover, in citing “increased social mobility” as a contributing factor, Nichols obscures the conservative measures of recent decades that have restricted, and even reversed, democratizing reforms, attacking the diversified middle class and contributing to our present situation of economic polarization and intensified social inequality.

Not only has the dismantling of the American welfare state perpetuated disenfranchisement and increased wealth disparities along racial lines; the liberal arts curriculum has come to be seen as antiquated amidst the utilitarian, market-driven regime of neoliberalism. If, as Nichols correctly argues, college is now perceived as a commodity—with students treated as clients and instructors regarded as service providers who are evaluated based on customer satisfaction—this has emerged in tandem with the precarization of teaching positions and the implementation of corporate logic, personnel and funding models in institutions of higher education—with Trump University as the reductio ad absurdum.

Exacerbating these trends, the President and his administration have proposed unconscionable budget cuts to educational programs, financial aid initiatives, and medical and scientific research, seeking to restructure the entire system with an eye to school choice and privatization. Though Nichols’ book is an important plea for renewing our intellectual climate, it neglects the material bases of education and informed, functional citizenship—as well as the inextricable linkages between economic forces, knowledge production, and social justice. 

A longer version of this article appears on Public Seminar.

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24 August 2017. If you’ve never lived in poverty, stop telling poor people what they should do

The key question is how to change the economy to fit the needs of everyone, not how to change everyone to fit the needs of the economy.

Rich and Poor. Credit: Flickr/Sandra Cohen Rose and Colin Rose. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Originally published on Everyday Feminism.

The brownstone I lived in for eight months in 2009 and 2010 had few amenities – the building often smelled like leaking pipes, the carpets were threadbare in many places, and the steam heater in the corner was completely out of my control, resulting in quite a few freezing mornings and sweltering nights. It did, however, have a gas stove and oven which, the landlord had told me, was pretty new and “worked great.”

Unfortunately, everything else in the unit was electric, which meant that I’d need to set up separate utility accounts and pay for the gas every month just to run the stove and range.

“It’s like $10 to turn it on and then another $20-$30 per month depending on how much you use it,” she explained.

Yeah, I’m just not going to do that, then, I thought, doing the math in my head.

At that point, $30 was just a little bit less than my take-home after a day of making lattes, which is what I was doing every day that I wasn’t at my public radio internship. The rent on the apartment – which was the least expensive I could find in Seattle – was already going to cost well more than half of my monthly income. With student loan payments to top it off, I barely had living expenses to speak of, and the extra money I’d spend on the gas just didn’t seem worth it.

This wasn’t my first go-round with poverty: We grew up without much money, and I supported myself through college. But after graduation – when the student loan envelopes started showing up and I had to move out of my inexpensive college town to a city that actually had jobs – the situation was dire. But I knew how to handle it.

Every month, I’d scrutinize my budget, looking for things to trim or ways to increase my earnings.

I moonlit as a cocktail waitress. I considered selling plasma (again), but the bus ride to the clinic was too long to fit into my days. I didn’t have a car or health care (or a stove). I picked up odd jobs on Craigslist, receiving cash under the table for nights of cocktailing or working as a cater waiter. I visited food banks. I never bought clothing. I stopped shaving to save money on razors.

Eventually, I was able to get a slightly more lucrative job, began piling on freelance work, and basically never looked back.

I am very, very confident that I did everything in my power to provide myself the best life possible as a young adult, and that the choices I made were the correct choices. My life now would indicate that that’s the case. And still, without fail, when I tell someone or write about that time in my life, I’m met with a cascade of advice.

Well-meaning people who have never been poor are convinced that they know what I should have done. That subtle tweaks to my budget could somehow stretch my $9.50 per hour. I should have gotten a roommate. I should have lived somewhere cheaper. I should have found a better job.

Anyone who’s ever lived in poverty has probably had this experience.

In the US, we have become so accepting of the fact that poverty is not a symptom of a grossly unequal economy, or the result of numerous systemic failures, or the product of years of trickle-down economics, but instead, that the only thing standing between a poor person and the life of their dreams is their own decisions, their own choices, and their own failures.

This is why I would advise any person whose immediate reaction upon hearing about a friend, relative, or stranger on the Internet who is living in poverty is to offer unsolicited advice to hold their tongue (or fingers), at least long enough to consider what other forces contribute to poverty and how their “help” may actually be insulting, incorrect, and downright damaging.

The most common advice doesn't add up.

The over-simplification of poverty is often apparent in the advice that gets disseminated by people who have money and companies who make money off of other people’s financial predicaments.

Earlier this year, an infographic circled around which underscored this fact. Created by a company called InvestmentZen, the infographic showed how to “build wealth on the minimum wage.”

Aside from the fact that it contained numerous logistical issues – it used the federal minimum wage, which isn’t accurate in most states, either because their wage is higher or lower due to tip-crediting – the graphic also seemed to be concerned about moralizing the decisions of poor people and less about actually helping anyone.

Advice from the graphic included “learning skills on YouTube,” only eating in-season produce, and remembering that “the best things in life are free.”

“You can make excuses, or you can do something about it,” the graphic chided. “It’s your choice to make.”

Twitter instantly took it to task; the response was so heated that it eventually led one of the men responsible for circulating to issue a retraction, calling many of the criticisms “fair.”

I suspect that the graphic was so easily mocked because the advice it selected was familiar. Despite the myriad systemic reasons that many people live in poverty, there are a handful of “tips” that well-meaning (most of the time) folks recycle with alarming regularity.

Move somewhere cheaper. Buy in bulk. Get rid of your car. Get a roommate. Eat out less.

These changes seem simple – if you just spent less money on groceries, you’d have more money! If you didn’t have a car, you could save hundreds on car insurance! – but they fail to take into account one crucial element of humanity and existence: The dollar amount of a thing doesn’t fully capture the value of it.

Most people who live in poverty are working jobs where their income is determined by how many hours they can spend on the job, which often don’t fall within typical commuting hours, and often run well over forty hours per week.

When you’re poor, your time – especially your free time – is extremely precious. And many of the prescribed tips for saving money cut into that free time, make it less enjoyable, or might even actively cost more money in the short term.

I’ve written before about the actual cost of moving – renting a truck, putting down a deposit, the financial hit of taking time off work to move – but recommending that someone relocate their entire life to save on rent also neglects to account for the real value of living in a place with a support system.

Whether it’s a family by birth or by choice, living near people you know offers a sense of responsibility and place – not to mention a couch to crash on if you get evicted and the potential for free childcare or other assistance.

To illustrate this point, let’s use another common tip: giving up a car.

Access to transit is one of the single biggest investments that communities can make to help people get out of poverty. But overwhelmingly, transit systems are failing poor people. And for seniors or disabled people, taking the bus may be even more difficult if cities and transit authorities don’t accommodate for various mobility, vision, or hearing impairments.

Which means that the cost (both figurative and literal) of giving up a car might be steeper than keeping it. Which means that even if a person makes the choice to save money by riding the bus, the bus may not be there for them.

There’s also the issue of time and convenience, particularly if you live in a smaller city, which tend to have much spottier bus service.

We can look at it like this: Estimated cost of owning a car over a year: about $725 per month, according to AAA. That’s a lot, but compared to riding the bus (because let’s assume a person doesn’t have the upfront cash for a bike, a lock, and the gear they might need to commute in all weather), it’s not really.

Where I live, it costs about $5 per day to commute via bus, assuming I’m traveling inside the city and just going to work and back using a single method of transit. Multiply that by five days per week (though most people working minimum wage work more than that), and it’s about $100 per month. That’s still less than $725 – until you account for:

Two hours of commuting compared to thirty minutes of commuting (at $13/hour): $19.50/day in lost income, or $390 per month.

Cost of an extra hour of childcare to account for the commute time (at $13/hour, as well): $260 per month

The cost of using the bus for weekly grocery trips (which limit the choices a person has and reduces the ability to buy in bulk, another favorite piece of advice for people with means to give to poor people) and the occasional other appointment: about $50 per month.

Which equals $800 – and doesn’t take into account the fact that grocery shopping by bus is not ideal for someone with kids in tow. Additionally, taking the bus to get groceries makes it less likely that a person can comparison shop, visit multiple stores for ultimate savings, and purchase products that are less easy to carry, like fresh produce or bulk items.

You can also see from this example how interconnected so many of these pieces of advice are.

“Get rid of your car” is a fine piece of advice in a vacuum, but when it’s coupled with “drive for Uber to make extra money,” you’ve now prescribed something that’s literally impossible. “Spend less on groceries” is fine on its own, but if you’re also recommending that someone switch to commuting by bike or bus and move to a less dense place with fewer food choices, you’ve now quadrupled the daily difficulty of their life.

And that has a real cost, even if it’s not tangible or numeric.

This, I think, is truly at the heart of the advice we tend to offer poor people: It implicitly says that we believe that they should be willing and able to exchange their own time on earth, comfort, happiness, and even physical health and safety just to scrape by.

Being poor is really expensive.

The assumption that “simple advice” can dramatically change a person’s economic outlook assumes that a person’s poverty is solely the result of personal failings, rather than very real and costly systems of oppression, including legacy poverty, systemic racism, mass incarceration, punitive immigration policies, medical debt, and more.

Regardless of the personal choices a family might make to save money, there are some unavoidable costs that are baked into our financial and social systems.

Overdraft fees, late fees on missed bills, high-interest credit card fees, and payday lenders are just a few ways that poverty begets higher expenses. The average payday loan borrower – who is usually short just a few hundred dollars between paychecks – ends up paying more than 300% interest on their initial amount.

These companies make billions each year by offering people a necessary service that costs them an outrageously inflated price.

Banks also find ways to capitalize on people without money. Many checking accounts require that a person carry a minimum balance – and fine customers for every month that they don’t meet the requirement. And that’s assuming a person even uses a bank! An estimated 8% of Americans don’t use a bank, largely due to their low monthly income. As a result, they pay more money in fees at check cashing businesses or by using prepaid debit cards.

In addition to these fees and fines, a lack of funds in-hand can also mean paying more for services and products. Whether it’s putting charges on a credit card and paying interest or buying in smaller denominations (and thus paying more per unit), there are hundreds of small ways that being cash-poor can make it harder to save.

The Washington Post reported on a study on this subject: When [researchers] compared households with similar consumption rates shopping at comparable stores – and controlling for two-ply TP – they found that the poor were less likely than wealthier households to buy bigger packages, or to time their purchases to take advantage of sales. By failing to do so, they paid about 5.9% more per sheet of toilet paper – a little less than what they saved by buying cheaper brands in the first place (8.8%).

Poor folks don’t buy single-use items because they never thought about buying in bulk – it’s often because they literally don’t have the money to do so, or don’t have a way to get bulk items home.

Our broken immigration system is also responsible for trapping new Americans (and their children) in low-income jobs, substandard housing, and legitimately dangerous transportation and work situations – all of which have a compounding effect on poverty.

Each year, immigrants pay billions into our tax coffers, only to get the short end of the economic stick.

New Americans are less likely to report wage theft, may experience housing discrimination, and of course, often have to pay massive sums of money to travel, bring relatives to the county, and send money back to their nation of origin.

And if you want to begin the process of obtaining citizenship? Expect to cough it up. Just becoming a US citizen can cost up to $900.

Mass incarceration also has a stark economic impact, specifically on the Black community – a population that already sees lower lifetime earnings and increased rates and instances of poverty.

One in four Black children born in the era of mass incarceration will have a parent who is incarcerated, which will limit that parent’s earning by an average of 40% over their lifetime. The cycle of incarceration is expensive at every single step – from the cost of arrests, legal fees, and fines, parole, and lost jobs and hours on the clock, evictions, and so much more – and effectively traps people in a feedback loop of poverty that’s nearly impossible to break.

Even those who aren’t themselves incarcerated pay for incarceration, though. The cost of visiting a spouse in prison (both in lost time and expenses), inflated commissary bills, prohibitively expensive phone bills, the cost of lost time due to traveling, court dates, and meetings, and legal fees make it impossible for some families to dig out.

Having poor parents also puts in motion a cycle of disadvantage (and not because poor people are just worse at raising their children). The vast majority of people who grow up poor stay poorfor a variety of complex reasons – which means no amount of coupon-cutting or Costco shopping can dig some families out of poverty, and to suggest otherwise is just disrespectful.

Personal choices don't fix a broken system.

The InvestmentZen infographic was roundly mocked because it was a symptom of a larger problem, which is that people with means love to give advice to poor people. This serves two distinct purposes:

  1. It makes people with means feel better about their means because they feel like they have wealth as a direct result of their own effort – and not systems and structures that helped them along the way; and
  2. It makes people with means feel better about those systems, rather than being forced to confront them or work to dismantle them.

When the infographic said that a person “can’t earn minimum wage and live in an expensive city and be wealthy,” they weren’t telling a lie – but they were accepting implicitly that it’s okay for people who work full-time to live in poverty if they live in large cities.

Imagine if everyone took that advice – if every person working minimum wage up and fled all of the major cities to go live and work in smaller markets with less expensive rent. Cities literally could not function.

Despite the commonly held belief that only teens should or do work for the minimum wage, the fact of the matter is that millions of Americans of all ages, a/genders, and educational levelssupport their families on hourly low-wage jobs. That includes seniors, disabled people, and women of color.

The answer, then, is not that poor people live differently, but instead, that we create a society and an economy where people who work full time can live in the community where they work. 

No amount of cutting back on luxury spending or driving extra hours for Uber can change the fact that there is literally nowhere in the country where a minimum wage job can support a family, that good union jobs have been in decline for decades, or that housing costs have priced people out of their homes. Cutting coupons, commuting by bike, and enjoying outdoor activities can’t really fix that.

So, instead of telling poor people what they should do to work around a system that’s leaving more and more people behind every year, we need to consider how the system can bend and change to better fit the needs of all people.

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22 August 2017. Life’s a pitch

Welcome to the new economy, where everyone is free to submit to another round of degrading competition.

Credit: Flickr/Umbro Umbro. CC-BY-NC-2.0.

Today’s economy has reduced life to a never-ending pitch. We parade before bosses and clients for work. We position ourselves on social media for friendship, love, sex—or just attention. We work longer hours for less pay, and due to technology and globalization, fewer jobs mean workers can demand less and bosses more. As the hotelier Conrad Hilton says to Don Draper in the TV series Mad Men, “When I say I want the moon, I expect the moon.” 

Yet the colonization of life by the ‘pitch’ is a symptom: unionised jobs with social benefits have disappeared, and without the fixed ropes enjoyed by a previous generation the marketing of ourselves and our souls has become required rather than chosen. “The painful truth is that, at work, we’re on trial all the time” as Roger Mavity and Stephen Bayley write.

Now, pitching has expanded way beyond the world of work and into social media, dating apps, and reality television. Life is experienced through the prism, or prison, of pitching. How did this happen, and what can be done?

The word pitch commonly means ‘to throw,’ as in pitching an idea or a product. Sales pitches are crafted to be persuasive and logically impenetrable—designed to bring the customer to the point where they care enough to buy, or just want the stream-of-consciousness selling to end. In Glengarry Glen Ross, Blake—the character played by Alec Baldwin—embodies mercenary salesmanship at its purest: “only one thing counts in this life,” he says, “get them to sign on the line which is dotted...A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing.” And always be pitching.

We have to be connected, to be visible, ‘gramming’ or ‘tinding’—two forms of contemporary ‘pitch-work’ performed in the electronic sweatshop. Part of this pitch-work involves forming networks, because someone has to be there to ‘catch’ your ideas—to catch you. Networks become our new safety nets—the stronger the network, the safer you are. Time is taken up making and cultivating links, turning weak links into strong links.

“We pitch all the time, because when it's increasingly less about a piece of paper from a university, the way YOU appeal to others becomes more important...even in private life,” says Christoph Sollich, a Berlin-based pitch doctor. “The tool to stand out is how you pitch yourself, like on Tinder.”

We even have ‘pitch TV.’ Anna Richardson, the presenter of UK’s Naked Attraction, calls the show ‘Tinder television.’ Contestants choose a dating partner based on their naked bodies alone, standing inside semi-transparent Day-Glo boxes and slowly revealed from the bottom up—first the legs and the groin, then the torso, and finally the head.

The show claims to “demystify the rules of sexual attraction for the Tinder generation” by giving young people a true picture of each other’s bodies—truer than the photo-shopped versions available on social media. Yet this naked nightmare simply glorifies choice by body-parts—‘You've got six vaginas staring you in the face and you say you like feet’—ensuring that the show explodes on social media and harvests even more advertising revenue.

An alien watching from another planet might think that this show—and other naked reality televisions shows like Love Island and Stripped—show a people comfortable with their bodies and desires, and suggests a society at ease with itself, with few obstacles to freedom and self-expression; a heroic society in which the best can pitch their virtues to be admired and emulated.

But all this shows is the ‘pornography of the pitch’—the fact there’s no longer any distance between our desires and those who might fulfill them. You can pitch your apartment on Airbnb or your body on Naked Attraction, and if Obamacare is scrapped you can join the other people who’ll be pitching to cover their healthcare costs.

This isn’t a gig economy, it’s a pitch economy, and the pitch is where the rivers of neo-liberalism meet and the crocodiles feed. Everyone is ‘free,’ yet only to submit to another round of degrading competition. There’s always a winner yet the prize is elusive. Pitch platforms are democratic but all they democratise is need. Pitching has become a secular prayer for meaning in a culture of generalized meaninglessness. Like a mycelium growing underfoot it destroys social belonging and drags us into a sinkhole of sameness and despair.

How does ‘life as a never-ending pitch’ work? A system cannot operate without a culture to give it shape, and pitch culture invokes compulsory non-stop positivity, the blue-sky thinking of the Facebook ‘Like’ button. Drawing on positive psychology and the cod-philosophy of fast capitalist literature found at airport bookshops, systemic inequality is propped up by a sea of untested beliefs and fortune-cookie sound-bites that distil the ‘changing times’ into something we can understand, delivered in the deracinated vernacular of the pitch.

Researchers at Stanford University analysed this vernacular by looking at 26,000 Kickstarter pitches. The successful ones generated emotional responses; they were tentative and framed the pitch collectively by using ‘we.’ The unsuccessful ones generated affective responses; they were more certain and were framed using ‘I.’ Sadness and anger also indicated failed pitches. The research team found that successful ones were “more emotive, thoughtful and colloquial,” yet this is a particular kind of thoughtfulness devoid of negativity and empathy. For Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, such a culture of non-stop positivity (and blocked negativity) turns us into “exhausted slaves” in a “burnout society.” Does this sound familiar?

What’s the answer to these problems? In a world dominated by the apostles of capitalism’s Good News—the hierarchy-hopping, soy-latte-sipping, sexually-voracious-yet-emotionally-hollow millennials or Meh!-lennials—the future is not just being cancelled but reduced to an elevator pitch.

Or is it? Perhaps millennials, living with colossal levels of debt and subject to the ‘churn and burn’ workplaces of the gig economy, form part of the solution.

“Millennials are numerically far bigger than our generation, the sons and daughters of baby boomers—and they’re going to have a massive impact on politics,” Dmytri Kleiner told me when I interviewed him in Berlin. Kleiner is the founder of the Telekommunisten Collective, a group that explores the political impact of communications technology. “Actually they’re already having an impact,” he continued, “just look at Corbyn and Sanders. Politics is opening up—there’s a Left and a Right again. Unfortunately the Right is Trump, and we can’t stop talking about him.”

Kleiner believes that the Left has “lost the skills of organizing. Our generation had no political representatives to vote for, we could only vote for Left or Right variants of neoliberalism, and so we invented a politics that reflected this: a politics of horizontalism.” His idea of Venture Communism moves beyond horizontal politics by turning the weapons of capital back onto the capitalists while fighting to preserve workers’ historic gains.

“First we need to find new ways of organising our economy, creating worker-controlled organisations and businesses that add value to the commons; and second, we need a vigorous counter-politics that holds the state to account in providing health, education and social services. That’s Venture Communism.”

Kleiner’s work centres on the digital world like the Telekommunisten, who came out of Berlin’s hacker community to create hosting services and tools that give users more control over their data. But what about the physical world? What about organising real bodies in real places in real time?

In her book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked ProtestZeynep Tufekci emphasizes the crucial importance of capacity within social movements, and reminds us of the importance of place. Artists and free-thinkers fleeing the First World War had Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire (perhaps including a young Lenin); the New Left in England had the Partisan Coffee House; the American Civil Rights Movement had a network of churches and homes for activists to stay in.

But where are the places of the precariat? Where can people go to share stories, empathise and organise? Outside of online there are few places to gather. Pitch culture drowns out solidarity; online organising builds more barriers than bridges; and by pitching our problems into corporate servers we’re merely providing the fuel for our own destruction. Our pitches lift capitalism higher and higher.

So here’s my pitch. Today’s workers need places to organise offline, so let’s combine the ideas of the hacker community with the needs of the precariat to establish them. For want of a better word I’ll call them ‘Precär-Spaces:’ Prekär is German for precarious, and Precär is my English-German compromise. Let’s put a Precär-Space in every town and city, spaces where precarious workers can gather together, share stories, build empathy and organise for better working conditions and better lives.

Pitch culture works on anonymity, while the platforms of the gig economy keep workers isolated and unaware of each other’s struggles. A Precär-Space would be a place, a project and a disruptive technology to bring new collective ideas to light, and to help people break free of naked exploitation. In the words of Cabaret Voltaire’s Hugo Ball, we demand a space not only for those who enjoy their independence, but for those who wish to proclaim it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Daily Stormer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: twitter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why indigenous civil resistance has a unique power.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemporary relevance.

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

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

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

Practical implications.

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

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

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

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

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