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.

23 March 2017. We’ve been down this road before

A powerful new video shows how immigrants have been scapegoated throughout US history (4 minutes). 


Let’s Make History We Want to Remember is a collaborative video project about how immigrants have been targeted throughout US history, and a call to action to make a different kind of history.

Find out more at

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22 March 2017. From the politics of division to the politics of humanity

We must not give up on revolutionary optimism. It may get us some important concessions from neo-liberalism—and possibly much, much more.

Credit: Felix Masi/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

On August 27 2010 Kenya promulgated a progressive Constitution whose vision is social democracy. It’s a vision of the promotion and protection of the whole gamut of human rights; the equitable distribution of political power and the resources of society; and the creation of a nation out of different ethnic groupings. The Constitution aims to bring an end to the organization of politics through divisions; mitigate the protection of private property in land; cement agreement on national values and principles; promote integrity in public and private leadership; and build depersonalized national institutions.

The struggle to implement the progressive vision of this Constitution continues today. The elite forces of the status quo who found this vision unacceptable are resisting its implementation at every step. As the latest stage in this process, Kenya will hold new elections on August 8, 2017. I was Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya from 2011 to 2016, so I’ve observed and participated in this process first-hand. Given the efforts of the political elite to resist the implementation of the Constitution, I became convinced that the Judiciary had to play a pivotal role in defending and advancing it. We consciously developed a jurisprudence that promoted the Constitution’s robust implementation, and in that way the Judiciary became a political actor.

For almost the entire period since Kenya’s independence on December 12, 1963, the country’s politics have been organized around divisions: ethnic, religious, racial, regional, clan and gender-based, generational, pastoralists versus agriculturalists, and most recently, divisions driven by xenophobia. The Kenyan elite have become so adept at the politics of division that elections are never about issues, and voters seem unable or unwilling to shed the blinkers of these differences.

Academics and activists on both side of the class divide shamelessly talk of the ‘tyranny of numbers:’  out of the 43 ethnic communities in Kenya, the ‘Big Five’ command over 70 per cent of the electoral vote—Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luo, Kamba and Luhya. The politics of division are reflected in concrete terms in ethnic coalitions that are put together by the barons of these five communities. At the moment three of them are members of the National Super Alliance, or NASA (Luo, Kamba and Luhya), while the other two form the Jubilee coalition (Kikuyu and Kalenjin). The graveyard of acronyms of Kenyan political parties since independence would make for grim but humorous reading.

There is one pillar in the Constitution that gives me optimism: devolution, which entails the equitable distribution of political power and resources. Kenya has 47 counties with governments led by elected Governors. The Constitution decrees that 15 per cent of all national resources must be shared between these 47 counties. The Kenyan Senate has come up with an equalization formula that favors counties that hitherto have been marginalized.

Notwithstanding the very real issue of decentralized corruption, reports from these marginalized counties are encouraging. I believe that anti-corruption movements are gaining ground from the margins of these counties to safeguard the resources that are devolved to them. Demands for more resources are being made from the Center in the form of the Executive, Parliament, the Treasury and the Central Bank, since these national institutions have not justified their 85 per cent lion’s share.

Devolution, more resources for counties, and weakening the Center in financial matters are issues that will take center stage in the forthcoming elections. This will be a contest in which poverty eradication and the equitable distribution of resources should feature prominently. If so, this would be a great leap forward in the quest to strengthen Kenyan democracy.

In this respect I can already see the beginnings of a politics of humanity that is based on the equitable distribution of resources. Social movements in marginalized counties are gaining strength. Public participation in the use of resources is robust. Debates are taking place around the material needs of the people like education, employment, health, sanitation, housing, environment, foreign investment and corruption. There is a great imagination and consciousness emerging from the margins that sees the prudent use of resources as one of the keys to poverty-eradication.

I have been cautioned about creating too much hope from what I see in marginalized counties. I have been warned not to create a fetish out of the Constitution, or of devolution. All I can say with certainty is that both ‘trains have left the station,’ and they will not be easily derailed.

This is not the first time we have heard of transformation from the margins. The Chinese revolutionaries talked of surrounding the cities from the rural areas, their margins. They talked of solidarities between workers and peasants on the basis of the material interests of their lives and livelihoods. And reading Nina Eliasoph’s recent Transformation piece on the United States reminds me that such debates are happening right across the world.

I have no issue with improving access to consumer goods, jobs and services like health and education. I love them. What I hate is their inequitable distribution. Eliasoph touches on the same issue in her insistence that politics needs to “offer a vision of society in which everyone could enjoy things that look like the privilege of elites…a vision that shows how lessening the gap between the rich and poor” could make these goods and services accessible to all.

In both Kenya and the US, the challenge is to resist systems that put profits before people. This challenge is centrally concerned with the equitable distribution of resources. It’s about mitigating the harshness of systems that create extreme inequalities among people. I believe such visions are reflected in paradigms of human rights, social justice, and social democracy. In practical terms it is about having a society in which everybody can enjoy at the minimum the rights, entitlements and opportunities that are currently enjoyed by elites.

History records numerous experiments in what was called welfare capitalism and social democracy after World War Two. In America Eliasoph mentions the New Deal and the Great Society of Presidents Roosevelt and Johnson respectively. I believe one could add the meager reinforcement of such state-driven projects in the US through corporate social responsibility and social justice philanthropy, which attempt to mitigate the costs and concentrated power of corporatism.

Eliasoph is right. Such solidarities are possible notwithstanding divisions in society if “white rural people’s suffering” as she puts it is addressed as a political issue alongside the suffering of people of color and low-income communities in cities. Institutionalized racism might slowly be dismantled by a politics of humanity in which resources are equitably distributed, and in which poverty knows no color.

I know the challenges that stand in the way of this potentially-transformative optimism. Neo-liberalism and the engines that put profits before people provide serious barriers to progress. Even in Kenya, devolution faces serious challenges from neo-liberalism from the elites who benefit from it and its agents.

I want, however, to join my imagination with that of Eliasoph and others in projects of solidarity across national borders. This idea is not new. The slogan of the World Social Forum  is “Another World is Possible.” The Indian activist Arundhati Roy goes even further by telling us that “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” We must not give up such revolutionary optimism. It may get us some important concessions from neo-liberalism—and possibly much, much more.

Democracy and government
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20 March 2017. Escaping from the echo-chambers of politics

How can people who spend their lives discussing politics sometimes be so out of touch? Español

Credit: Flickr/Daniel Lobo. Some rights reserved.

In 2016, many people were shocked by the results of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of President Trump in the United States. They simply didn’t see these things coming, despite being well-educated, well-read, and deluged with information from social media. They couldn’t understand why so many people were dissatisfied with the status-quo, perhaps believing that anyone who thought differently from them was a racist or an idiot.

How could that be? How could people who spend their lives sharing news and discussing politics be so out of touch? And what can be done to address the tendency of both left and right to exist in a comfort zone of self-reinforcing ideas and opinions?  

These are the questions that sparked the founding of the Echo Chamber Club in 2016. Each week we send out a newsletter to our subscribers who self identify as ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’ or ‘metropolitan’ containing a selection of previously-published articles that come from sources outside their existing networks. The goal is to showcase different points of view—often radically so. We’ve made the case that women who call themselves ‘pro-life’ can be feminists, for example; presented Russian perspectives on the Syrian crisis; and investigated whether popular comedy shows on television are too liberal.

Why is this important? At the very least we hope that readers will understand ‘the opposition’ and be more prepared when the next BREXIT comes around. But more than that, we want to break down silos and encourage people to confront discordant points of view. Over time, we think that’s likely to lead to a more inclusive political culture and a better quality of debate. But why is the echo-chamber problem so pronounced in the first place?

My background is in media, technology and sales, so initially I thought that creating a new technology would help users to access different points of view. However, whenever you develop an app you have to be incredibly precise about the specifications of the product. Given that we don’t really know what causes the echo-chamber problem it’s difficult to create a quick-fix solution.

A lot of blame is laid at Facebook’s door since they have developed an algorithm for choosing what you see on your news feeds. Facebook’s business model depends on advertising, so the more time you spend on the platform the more advertising you see. As a result, the algorithm is designed to show you news and other material that are similar to the things you already engage with, and that perpetuates the echo-chamber effect by filtering the ideas you see and those you don’t.

There are other factors too. Take newspapers, which have been hit hard by the digital revolution. They have had to adapt the content they produce to make money via online advertising. The type of content required online is typically more simplistic than for print media, requiring shorter sentences, punchier headlines and subtitled videos.

Similarly, anyone can become a journalist these days by gathering information from social networks, producing an article in minutes and breaking stories. Compare this to pre-digital times when journalists had to go out and speak to many people before writing the first version of their article. A lot more time and thought was required before completing a piece.

Another reason why we may be more prone to echo-chambers comes from the dehumanisation of people online. The anonymity of social media makes it much easier to troll and abuse someone if you don’t know and can’t see them. This may cause you to lose empathy for those who have different opinions to you. There may be some technological elements to a solution to these problems—Max Ogles, for example, has written about a potential interface to humanise people you don’t know on Facebook by giving more prominence to a person’s face and not just to their comments—but I doubt whether technology will be enough.

That’s why experiments in humanly-curated newsletters like the Echo Chamber Club offer some promise. Each week the editors have complete flexibility in the information we present to subscribers, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no structure involved. Three rules are especially important:

First, we curate newsletters but we don’t create them. We never write new opinion pieces. Arguably there are far too many opinions in the world anyway, and adding more is unlikely to get to the ‘truth’ of the matter. Instead, we aggregate the voices of other people and curate the articles they write.

Secondly, we must have evidence to show that each newsletter will be challenging to our target audience—‘liberal and progressive metropolitans.’ Once you know where the echo-chamber exists you can confront it. It’s important not to resort to guesswork. So every morning I do a quick analysis of the echo-chamber of the day by checking what’s on the front pages of the publications subscribers say they read, like the Guardian and the BBC. We also check Facebook Trending to identify popular stories, and have a couple of Twitter Lists that we push through Nuzzel.

Third, we advocate the views of many different groups. You might think an easy solution would be for subscribers to read the conservative-leaning Spectator every week. However, in doing so they would only become familiar with the views of one other source. The Echo Chamber Club is not restricted to the views of any particular section of opinion from the centre-right to the far left.

We’ve been issuing weekly newsletters since June 2016, and most of them fall into one or more of the following categories:

“Sherpa Tenzing.” 

Tenzing was Edmund Hillary’s guide when climbing Mount Everest. Hillary needed to have direction from another source to reach the summit – otherwise he simply wouldn’t know where to go. Our Sherpa Tenzing newsletters touch on a completely different subject that might not be discussed in the echo-chamber at all. We dive deep into something that seems to be ignored, and which is unlikely to be accessed without a guide.

“Dark Side of the Moon.”

Sometimes a news story will break, and it will be the number one discussion point for people in their echo-chamber. Most of the time the group will converge on a single point of view in terms of how that story should be interpreted. In our Dark Side of the Moon newsletters we try and showcase an alternative perspective that’s held by a different group on the same news story. We’re both looking at the same moon, but we see entirely different things.

“Against the Indisputable.”

By indisputable we mean a deeply held ethical or moral opinion that’s held by the members of a group. Take the notion that all feminists must be pro-choice by definition. When we argue against the indisputable, we challenge these views, as we did in this newsletter that presents a range of views on pro-life feminism.


Occasionally we fact-check the sources of prominent news stories that are doing the rounds on social media. The purpose of these newsletters is to show that one group is just as likely to fall victim to ‘fake news’ as any other.

What results have we seen thus far?

To start with I’ve received a lot of emails from subscribers that show the Echo Chamber Club is helping to bridge the gap between different viewpoints. One messaged me to say that she’d had the first productive conversation with her mother-in-law in years after reading our newsletter about Brexit. Another told me that she is starting to feel more confident in creating more inclusive opinions because our content says things that not many other media outlets are prepared to publish. In addition, our newsletters have thousands of subscribers with an average open rate of 41 percent. Our list grows at an average of five per cent week on week, mainly through word of mouth.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot of resistance. The first question people ask me is why I’m publishing newsletters for ‘liberals and progressives’ when surely it’s the other side that needs more help? I’m conscious of the argument that we could be ‘normalising’ and giving credence to views that would be better left unshared. However, I value and believe in the underlying principles of the Echo Chamber Club—freedom of speech and the belief that people are more likely to reach reasoned decisions when they have a variety of evidence in front of them.

This isn’t easy. I frequently feel a lot of ‘cognitive dissonance’ when putting out newsletters with which I strongly disagree. For me, this comes in the form of nausea and procrastination. It’s also made it very difficult for me to get involved in anything else that requires any level of my emotional attention. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that society needs to find better ways to help people with different views truly listen to one another. From the evidence so far, it looks like the Club is helping its subscribers to do just that, and that’s enough for me.

Find out more about the Echo Chamber Club here.

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17 March 2017. Six reasons why the Left should keep on infighting

Having lots of people with lots of voices isn’t a weakness—it’s a strength.

The women's march on Washinmgton DC. Credit: Liz Lemon/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Originally published on Everyday Feminism.

“Why does the Left keep eating its own? We need to be united!”

“We should be fighting conservatives – not each other! And that’s true now more than ever!”

“We’re fighting the rise of literal fascism in the United States – we can’t waste our time and energy on infighting!”

We hear this a lot on the Left. We say it a lot. It’s almost an article of faith.

But the more I think about it, the more I can’t agree.

Outcries against infighting are understandable – but they ultimately don’t make sense.

They’re often self-serving; they divide more than they unite; they disempower the people who most need more power; and they undercut our basic identity as a movement.

Here are six reasons why.

1. ‘Infighting’ is just another word for ‘resolving conflicts.’

We have important differences on the Left.

We disagree about tactics, strategies, priorities – even about our ultimate goals.

We disagree about radical versus incremental change; identity politics versus class politics; which kinds of civil disobedience are called for and when; which compromises are necessary and which we can’t accept; and many, many more issues.

These are important differences. We need to settle them.

We need to make decisions and move forward: in our small working groups, in our large organizations and big national events, and within the movement as an amorphous, impossible-to-define whole.

How are we going to do that if we aren’t willing to have conflict?

2. Without infighting, who gets to make decisions?

We have hard decisions to make. We don’t have the resources to do all the things we want to do – and we don’t all want to do the same things anyway.

Who’s going to make these decisions, and how? Do we sit back and let our leaders do the thinking and deciding?

That’s not who we are. That doesn’t reflect our values.

And even if we were going to do that, which leaders would we follow? Labor leaders? Media voices? Heads of civil liberties organizations?

The heads of the Democratic Party – and if so, which ones?

To some extent, we can each make our own decisions about who to listen to and what action to take.

But if we’re taking collective action, if we’re working together in groups small or large, we need to make decisions. How do we make them?

If we operate by anything resembling consensus or democracy, that means conflict. And if we do choose a leader to be the decider, that doesn’t relieve us of conflict. We still have to decide, not only who to follow, but when and if to stop following.

We have to keep our leaders accountable. We have to pay attention to what our leaders are doing and where they’re going, and we have to decide every day whether we’re okay with it.

And at some point, we’re likely to have conflicts about that.

In the months since the 2016 election, the Left has been galvanized. It’s been amazing: People who have been bemoaning how weak and half-assed the Left has been should be sitting up and cheering. And this uprising is so strong, in part, because it’s coming from the ground up.

But that has some consequences. A grassroots movement is a movement led by a thousand people at once. That’s going to mean conflict.

And conflict, again, is just another word for infighting.

3. Diversity is one of the things we’re fighting for.

The Left is a highly diverse movement. We’re not as diverse as we should be, but we’re certainly better at it than the Right.

And diversity means differences – which need to be worked out.

Every group wants its issues to be addressed, to be more of a priority. That’s appropriate. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work.

And every group (and every person within every group) has different ideas – not just about which issues to work on, but about tactics and strategies, priorities, and goals.

Diversity doesn’t mean a saccharine children’s painting of varied people holding hands and smiling.

Among many other things, diversity means accepting that we have differences – sometimes major differences – and finding ways to resolve our conflicts that don’t screw people over.

4. Concerns about infighting suppress marginalized people.

This is one of the most insidious things about pleas to stop infighting.

All too often, they punch down. They get aimed at marginalized people speaking out about problems within progressive movements.

So the calls for unity create the very divisiveness they’re supposedly trying to stop. The people who get divided out are the people who complain, and are told to shut up.

Remember the Women’s March? Remember how women of color speaking about racism in the march were chided for being divisive?

When white women working on the march were told they were being racist, many responded by saying their feelings were hurt. They made their hurt feelings a greater priority than the racism, and they insisted that women of color needed to stop talking about white supremacy because it was divisive and the march needed unity.

White, cisgender women needed unity, anyway. The idea that “unity” might mean listening to black and brown women when they call you on your crap?

Some white women got that. A lot didn’t.

It was tremendously frustrating: Women who rage against these exact silencing tactics when they come from men were turning around and aiming them at other women. And it discouraged a lot of black and brown women from participating in the march.

I’ve dealt with this for years in the atheist movement. For years, when atheist women and people of color spoke about racism, misogyny, harassment, sexual assault, and the rise of the so-called “alt-right” within the movement, we were told to keep quiet because we couldn’t afford divisiveness.

Yeah, that worked out great. Ignoring the trolls was an awesome idea.

Ignoring the rise of the racist, misogynist alt-right; giving it a home in our communities because we didn’t want to be exclusionary (not to white men, anyway); giving it a home in our online spaces because free speech was falsely equated with giving a platform to fascists – that worked out great.

Oh wait, no. Strike that. Reverse it. Ignoring the alt-right was interpreted as tacit approval.

The shitlords camped out in any atheist space that would let them. They drove marginalized people out, creating the very divides the status quo warriors were supposedly concerned about.

And they used these spaces to embolden each other, spread disinformation and hatred, make their positions seem mainstream, and build their movement.

The deep rifts in organized atheism, as painful as they’ve been, are some of the best things that could have happened to us. They’ve given the social justice advocates in our movement the freedom to quit beating our heads against the wall and just create our own damn communities.

Yes, we’d be stronger if we were more unified. It just sucks that “unified” means “marginalized people need to shut up.”

And this story is all too common on the Left. We should know better.

5. The line between infighting and healthy debate often gets drawn in self-serving ways.

There are worthwhile conversations to be had about how to have conflict. But it’s kind of hilarious how blatantly self-serving these conversations can be.

Healthy debate is when conflict goes the way I want. Infighting is when it doesn’t.

I’m debating. You’re infighting. They’re creating deep rifts.

And there’s a special irony in picking fights about how people are fighting too much. Those meta-fights are apparently okay and even necessary.

The actual fights about our actual differences? That’s divisive infighting. Bad!

6. Infighting isn’t a weakness—it’s a key part of who we are.

The fact that we don’t march in lockstep behind authoritarian leaders is one of the things that sets us apart from conservatives.

It draws people to us. It makes us who we are. And it’s one of our greatest strengths.

I once saw a talk advising progressives about media presentation. I wish I remembered the speaker’s name, so I could credit him.

One of the things the speaker said – something that’s stuck with me for years – is that when it comes to media management, conservatives are very good at sticking to the party line. No matter what news outlet you tune into, you’ll see every right-wing pundit saying the same thing.

And then the speaker said that progressives shouldn’t try to imitate that. It’s not what we’re good at, we’ll never be good at it – and it’s not who we are.

What we are good, he said, at is coming at an issue from lots of angles.

We’re good at showing why our view is fair, why it’s economical, why it’s good for jobs and the environment and national security, why it fits our country’s best visions of what we should be.

We’re good at showing how the issue affects families, women, students, retired people, poor people, disabled people, people of color. We’re good at offering hard evidence, insightful analysis, and human stories that tug at people’s hearts.

We get at an issue from lots of perspectives – and when we do that well, we connect with a whole lot of people.

That’s who we are. We aren’t a movement that values authority and conformity.

We don’t just want the people at the top to be heard. We’re a movement that values fairness and kindness – for lots of different people.

We’re the ones who want to make sure the unheard are heard. Even when we don’t live up to those values, they’re what we strive for. And striving for those values means accepting the reality of conflict, and the necessity of resolving that conflict.

There is a line between conflict and abuse.

We need to have conversations about where to draw that line, and we need to keep an eye on it. And right now, in the current apocalypse, maybe we should be more thoughtful about which internal fights are worth it and which we want to let go.

But in the current apocalypse, we also need to make sure that everyone who’s endangered by the rise of fascism is heard.

I’ve never seen a general case against infighting that didn’t ultimately translate to “People who disagree with me should shut up.”

Democracy is hard. Equality is hard. Lots of people having voices and wanting to be heard– that’s hard.

But when we do it well, we are at our best. Let’s not stifle it.

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15 March 2017. Demons and angels: strongman leaders and social violence

Politicians who live in an angry narcissistic fog pose a threat to democracy and peace.

Credit: Pixabay/John Hain. CC0 Public Domain.

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker argues that we may be living through the most peaceable era in human existence. As evidence for this remarkable assertion, Pinker cites the fact that the death rate from violence in the twentieth century—at around three percent of the global population—was only a fraction of the 15 percent estimated for pre-modern societies. Even with the catastrophic wars and genocides of the twentieth century there has been a five-fold reduction in violence when measured in the aggregate, though this conclusion ignores the fact that certain groups and communities, and certain forms of violence, may have risen—against women, Muslims, and black males in the USA for example.

Perhaps less controversial is Pinker’s claim that changing circumstances—rather than changes in human nature—are responsible for these trends. Human nature, he explains, is always a mix of inner demons and better angels. Motives that impel us towards violence like predation, dominance and vengeance co-exist with motives that impel us toward peace like compassion, fairness, self-control and reason. Changes in the prevalence of violence in society result from shifts in the social, cultural and material conditions that influence the balance between these different motives. If conditions favour our better angels violence remains low. If they reward our demons violence will increase.

However, in any population a subset of individuals exists with dangerous personality disorders who are predisposed to pathological behaviours. When those individuals gain access to positions of leadership and power, the likelihood of violence increases substantially as more and more people are pulled into a self-reinforcing cycle of ‘nature and nurture.’ The election of Donald Trump and the rise of other strongman leaders around the world is a warning that the conditions which favour our inner demons are once again becoming dominant.

One person who documented the dramatic shift in human behaviour from peace and tolerance to war and genocide was Andrew Lobaczewski. Lobaczewski was a Polish psychiatrist who observed the brutalisation of Polish society at first hand as first Hitler’s Nazis, and then Stalin’s Bolsheviks, forced their violent ideologies upon his homeland. Lobaczewski’s search for a rational explanation of the incomprehensible evil he observed led him to a radically new theory of human nature, and the clearest description we yet have of the origin and spread of evil.

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

Lobaczewski was writing before the advances of modern psychiatric science, but the ‘minority’ he was referring to are those who suffer from what we now know as paranoid personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and psychopathy. People with these disorders, Lobaczewski realised, play a catalytic role in a society’s descent into barbarism. The twentieth century’s most destructive tyrants, including Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot, all displayed these characteristics. By pursuing their grandiose dreams regardless of the consequences for others, these dangerous individuals, along with their followers and enablers, played a central role in the worst atrocities in human history.

People with psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder suffer from distortions in the basic cognitive and emotional structures of their minds. These disorders manifest as rigid patterns of behaviour that are difficult, threatening and harmful to others, including an increased propensity for violence and greed.

Psychopaths suffer from a dysfunction of the brain’s emotional system which renders them incapable of feeling empathy, love, guilt or shame. People with narcissistic personality disorder exhibit a grandiose sense of self-importance, an exhibitionistic need for constant admiration, and exploitative relationships with others.

Paranoid personality disorder is characterised by suspicion and an obsession with defending against enemies, both real and imaginary. At its most pathological it impels those who suffer from it to seek the annihilation of those they deem to be enemies.

Current estimates are that around six per cent of the population in any society suffer from one or more of these disorders. No effective treatment or cure is currently available. All that can be said with certainty with regard to their causes is that both nature and nurture are likely to contribute.

While everyone can manifest callous, narcissistic and paranoid traits depending on the circumstances, it is the rigidity of thoughts and feelings that marks out people with dangerous personality disorders. The majority of human beings can act from either or both of their angels and demons, but psychopaths are only capable of acting on the basis of violence, domination and greed. People with these disorders do not ‘pivot.’ Their cognitive and emotional deficiencies mean that they are psychologically incapable of showing genuine empathy, solidarity and concern.

Lobaczewski’s contribution was not simply to recognise that a pathological minority can pose an existential threat. He also described how this minority can come to dominate a whole society. Dangerous leaders, Lobaczewski realised, are simply the most visible manifestations of a much wider malaise. Political scientist Betty Glad later coined the phrase ‘the toxic triangle’ to capture the process through which such minorities come to power, namely the alignment of a dangerous leader, susceptible followers, and an environment conducive to their rise.

As Glad explains, any individual who rises to power must do so with the help of both a core group of supporters and a wider support base within the general population. The key to understanding the rise of Hitler, Stalin or any other pathological leader is to realise that individuals who also suffer from dangerous personality disorders form a key power base within the leader’s core group of followers. Malignant narcissists already in positions of power in politics, media, academia and local political organisations respond to the opportunities that the pathological leader’s ascent to power presents for them to pursue their own ambitions.

This relatively small but influential group help to establish the violent, paranoid and post-truth characteristics of the leader as the new norm. Faced with this group’s increasing influence and dissonant propaganda, the general population experiences a growing collective confusion and loss of common sense, and an increasing inability to hold onto previously accepted standards of reason and morality.

This does not, however, allow us to escape the essential role that psychologically normal people play in aiding toxic leaders in their rise to power. In fact, as history and contemporary events both show, when the circumstances are right, toxic individuals almost inevitably find a mass following. To understand why this is so, we must consider the third side of the toxic triangle—the conducive environment in which dangerous leaders gain widespread popularity.

Today’s political circumstances constitute an almost perfect storm of inequality, insecurity, economic hardship, terrorist threats and democratic decline. Unfortunately, under such conditions many people become more willing to accept assertive leaders and more ready to dehumanise their perceived enemies. Many who act from their better angels when circumstances are supportive can unleash their inner demons when they feel angry or fearful. It is precisely this malleability of human nature that is currently allowing strongman leaders to gain support across the globe, stoking widespread public fear while posing as protectors against dangerous alien forces.

Those who struggle for freedom across the world know that free elections, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of the press, and equality regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation are the pillars of democratic systems that protect us from a minority who would subjugate us and turn us against one another for their personal gain. Democracy matters because it is all that stands between us and the Hitlers, Stalins, Maos and Pol Pots that live among us still.

Stemming the rise of authoritarian leaders and halting the spread of prejudice and hate that enables them demands that the rules and principles of democracy must be protected, extended and restored. The failure to deepen and reinstate these rules and principles will see humanity sliding backwards to a position where violence and privilege, rather than justice and dignity, will direct human affairs.

In that process, a minority of people with dangerous personality disorders can fundamentally alter the swing of the pendulum from compromise to conflict, from inclusion to vilification, and from humanity to savagery. Containing this dangerous minority by reinvigorating democracy is an urgent necessity if human progress is to continue.

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13 March 2017. Scorn wars: rural white people and us

What could end the cycle of mutual ignorance, resentment, and anger in politics? 

Two supporters of Donald Trump in Prescott, Arizona. Credit: Wikimedia/Twins of Sedona. CC0.

After living in the coastal cities of America for all of my life, I met rural white people for the first time in 1995. They were my sociology students at the University of Wisconsin, and I had assigned them the usual fare, heavy on the causes and consequences of urban poverty and racism. These students bristled, saying that their problems were just as bad. I was sure they must be wrong, of course: even if they were poor, they still had white privilege.

But they persisted. They described empty towns without jobs from which everyone tried to leave as soon as they could; small farmers who worked so hard to compete against agro-businesses that they had to pass up on sleep; and small communities with big drug problems.

By the middle of my first semester, hearing enough of their tales, and smelling their resentment, my emotional, moral, and political alarm bells finally went off. I realized that something big was missing from the story that urban elites, progressive journalists, politicians, media producers, and academics like me had been telling about rural white Americans for decades: we talked about everyone else’s plight except their own.

Katherine Cramer’s book, The Politics of Resentment, argues that part of the reason rural whites resent urban elites is that they think that we know nothing about them—that they and their hard work and intelligence are invisible to us and that we scorn them anyway. We eat the cheese from Wisconsin farms but we don’t think about the lives of the people who produce it.

As a religious Southerner put it to author Arlie Russell Hochschild in her book Strangers in Their Own Land, “Oh, liberals think that Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, redneck losers. They think we’re racist, sexist, homophobic, and maybe fat.” And let’s face it, there’s some truth in her image of us. Let’s also acknowledge that there’s some truth behind our image of them—some do behave in racist and homophobic ways sometimes.

However, a third of the counties that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, and most of these counties are rural places full of white people. Trump’s racism and sexism were not deal breakers for them, and this is shocking. But ignoring white rural people’s suffering won’t make them less racist. Conversely, when we only talk about white privilege, we make it sound as though we think they must be losers, since even with all that whiteness they still come out at the bottom of the social pyramid. We deprive them of any rational explanation for their poverty.

Feeling invisible and scorned, they want to turn the tables, to convince each other that ‘the first shall be last;’ and that they are the real folk, humble, hardworking, and full of gratitude, while we are self-important, ungrateful, lazy complainers.

Once upon a time, our societies had broad, public visions like the New Deal and the Great Society that lessened the gap between winners and losers. Without those visions, rural people’s resentful conversion of powerlessness into piety makes sense since ‘your win is my loss.’ Resentment of this kind billows with explosive psychological and moral power. It fills not just hearts, but ballot boxes. It’s become a kind of identity politics for white people, packed tight with rage and brittle with superiority.

J. D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy shows how this lack of political vision feels from the inside. While detailing one childhood disaster after another, Vance tries not to blame society, not to feel like a victim, and never to ask for help. Instead, he wants to feel gratitude. He grew up with a crazy, drug-addicted mother but is grateful for the caring grandma who took him into her home.

As recent work about rural America shows, rural whites don’t want to be complainers. They don’t think complaining would help because they have no vision of any kind of change that could fix their problems. Instead, they want to find brave, fun, clever ways of dealing with them; or to bear their crosses with humility, remembering that suffering is part of the human condition; or to find some other way to adapt to what seems inevitable.

We all have a lot to learn about gratitude. Vance misses a lesson that most Americans, rural and urban alike, also miss: he implies that his extended family is the main reason that he came out okay as an adult, but he doesn’t notice the source of much of his gratitude, which is the state.

He is grateful for the green hills and fresh streams where he roamed as a boy, for running water, for not growing up in a war zone, and for decent public schools. But he doesn’t connect the dots: what saved him was not just his kin, but also wise taxpayers who paid for the good, clean, orderly public schools and the public university he attended.  For most kids, playing in trees and woods and streams is possible only if someone has preserved them, so appreciating the glory of nature must include appreciating the political decision-making that preserves it.

Vance misses a crucial step that I call ‘political gratitude.’ We all need more of it. Without it, we are stuck in mutual scorn, each trying to turn the tables on the other, fearing and jealously trying to undermine them. What could end this cycle of mutual scorn, ignorance, resentment, and anger?

First, just listening to each other more attentively across the divide could help. This could mean forming organizations with white rural people, including those with whom we disagree. This is tricky, since some people do act in racist and homophobic ways. But it can work when people find themselves working side-by-side on projects whose missions they share. Some organizations are quietly doing this. For example, the Sierra Club, the United Steelworkers and fifteen other unions train fossil fuel workers for better paying, more secure, and safer jobs in solar and wind energy. Working together, tree huggers and steelworkers discover they have a lot in common.

Second, we need to give people a vision for society that makes it clear that if one group wins better pensions, another group doesn’t lose money as a result; that ‘our’ job security and decent schools don’t come at ‘their’ expense; and that environmental regulation and food safety laws won’t give fancy jobs to urban elites while taking them away from rural people. Bernie Sanders, for example, proposed specific ways to protect family farms against those agribusinesses that were making my Wisconsin students’ families so miserable.

Academics and activists on the left have been so busy talking about discrimination that we rarely offer a vision that shows how lessening the gap between rich and poor could give everyone decent schools and universities; health care and pensions; parks, pools and beaches; clean air and water; vacations and parental leave and more.

Meanwhile, Fox News is relentlessly blaring its own powerful social vision across the airwaves, presenting all of these things as privileges that only urban elites enjoy. And, as Arlie Hochschild describes in Strangers in Their Own Land, right-wing funders are quietly setting up local church projects and political campaigns that propagate this vision.

Together, Fox and their funders are offering something alluring that resembles political theorist Antonio Gramsci’s image of a church or a political party: it provides both a vision and a place where people can repeat this vision to one another and feel like they’re in the same boat together. The way in which Fox and wealthy donors are structuring rural white people’s feelings about welfare is a good example of how Gramsci’s church-like political party works.

According to Fox and the rural organizations that right-wing donors fund, getting government aid is shameful because no one should need it. So in their local groups, rural white people don’t learn about each other’s actual use of welfare. In a spiral of silence, each person feels privately feels ashamed, not knowing that their neighbor shares the same dirty secret. So, when Fox News tells rural whites that all that tax money is going to universities and ghettos, each dearly wants to believe it. Fox gives rural aid recipients an easy way to forget their private shame.

The problem is that it isn’t true. Rural people get more government money per capita than urban people. For example, South Carolina gets eight times what it puts into federal coffers, while states with big cities like New York, Illinois, and California are donors, whose citizens get less than a dollar for every dollar they pay in taxes.

Everyone has a pattern of fitting feeling to fact, seeing what they expect to see, forgetting what doesn’t fit in with their feelings and expectations, and allowing themselves to feel what makes sense given what they think is real. This self-perpetuating cycle is what sociologist Raymond Williams called a “structure of feelings.” Right now, Fox News is giving rural people a secure structure of feeling.

Rural people aren’t stupid. They see the poverty, the lack of funding for education and health care, the neighbors and kin who’ve gotten cancer from pollution, and so much more. But they don’t let themselves complain about what they don’t believe they can fix. If progressives can offer a vision of society in which everyone could enjoy things that now look like the privilege of elites, and if we could all find more places to bring this vision to life together, we might stop blaming and scorning each other so much and start to repair the world that we share.

A longer version of the article is forthcoming in Contexts Magazine.


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10 March 2017. The book of fragments

As shown by Christianity itself, America is not united by any one faith. 

The book of Habakkuk. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The idea of Christianity as the 'one true religion' is back with a vengeance. In America the focus is on the Muslim travel ban as it bounces in and out of court. But we don't need to look outside America or Christianity to see that this return to evangelical fundamentalism is rotten to its core.

A very big American story is that of the Christian non-conformists. This isn't new—it dates back hundreds of years. Certainly, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries dissenter Christian sects were many and the practice of exile was widespread. Quakers, Methodists and other groups sailed to be free to practice in the new world, a world ironically lit up by the French Revolution's 'Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite' and, in many cases, slave ownership.

Like contemporary Muslims they were moving westward to escape intolerable circumstances. There is something sick about the idea of the west being 'invaded' coming from people whose ancestors moved west, and this sickness is widespread.

I put this to friends and one pointed out that the Spanish settlers may object to being called non-conformists. This is true—many were of a Catholic orthodoxy. But all over America, the non-conformist story can be found. Because of this diasporic history, some Christian sects have very different cultural rituals to the mainstream—polygamy for example, the taking of multiple wives  as practiced by some Mormon sects.

These examples are very much the anomaly nowadays, but I haven't heard a raging polemic directed at Mormons lately. I have heard a lot of anger being directed at Muslims over their supposedly terrifying alien values. It is, in fact, much more difficult to identify a single orthodoxy within Christianity than it is to describe its differences. It is also possible to get to a point where the Muslim religion appears to have more in common with 'mainstream' Christian beliefs than with a Christian sect that practices polygamy.

In the case of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints the repression and abuse of women and girls can be horrifying. Yet I have heard so many easy lines about the repression of women under Islam. It is undeniable that in places Islam has a domineering patriarchal hierarchy, but in the west many Muslims simply get on with their lives just as Christians and atheists do.

But see how the colonial logic saturates my language? That there is a Christian 'centre' and outside there are different spectra of belief to be 'tolerated'. This isn't the case.

A similar narrative to the non-conformist story can be found within Islam too. Islam, essentially, is undergoing a cultural crisis, and its crisis has much to do with its settling in the west. But this isn't the whole story. In Mosul, war is being waged street by street against Isis. Within this battle there are other, older conflicts, like Sunni versus Shia.

I had the most bizarre conversation last week with someone who suggested that Islam's inner turmoil and violence was 'primitive,' and that is why Christianity must be held on to. He went further and suggested that unless Christianity was defended 'as the one true religion' we would receive a Caliphate by default.

I reminded him that over in Ireland a blazing religious conflict dating back to Henry VIII had only recently been extinguished, and still showed signs of heat. He confirmed this by growing angry, an internalised rage that now had no outlet because I had blocked its path. This anger is dangerous—in him, on the right and on the left; in the atheist, the agnostic and the zealot alike. And I am angry too.

What is being lost in post-truth, specifically, is the anthropology of religion. The oldest book of the bible, Amos, is constructed from fragments of notes taken from just a few days of 'prophecies' he delivered. Except when Amos delivered them he was a shepherd. He was only designated 'a prophet' later on, and worse, his prophecies were completely hopeless. At least one earthquake didn't happen when and where he said it would. But to laugh at Amos is to miss the social function of his 'prophecies'.

When this shepherd stepped out of his wandering existence, the elites of the region, used to living off the fat of the land, were living off the lean of the land. The poor simply starved to death. Assyrian rule was breaking down and there were revolts due to the lack of goods and materials as supply chains faltered. There were domestic revolts as a result in Assyrian cities across 763-760 BC.

So Amos went to the temples around him and blasted each of them with the only rhetoric available to him in the accepted form of delivery of the time—the prophecy. The content of Amos's speech is not very original. It has a formal structure very similar to most of the lay preaching of the time. Remember that ‘The Bible’ did not exist at this point, and the birth of Christ was the best part of a millennium away.

Amos tells the priests that they are corrupt and blind to the abuses all around them and that 'for three transgressions as well as four' they will suffer, as Yaweh (God) will bring wrath upon them. This fourth transgression is widely interpreted as 'the last straw'. The social function of this story is little different to a schoolboy explaining to a bully that his big brother is going to get him, although here it has moved up several scales to a situation where the lowest of the castes is calling out the heads of what passed for the state during his time.

But it is never Amos calling out the priests: Yaweh 'speaks through' Amos. But the formulaic nature of the speaking tells us that this is a social rite, not a vision. The form of the delivery is part of its social contract; shepherds can go up to the temple proclaiming that they have been told by Yaweh to go there, and they can tell the priesthood that Yaweh will break the fortresses, bring fire and make the bodies of the oppressors pile up in the rubbish dump and float, bloated, in the river.

This is a very different thing to Amos simply marching up the temple steps and declaring a takeover. Death would surely follow. The underlying social contracts of the bible have been lost. The temple elders can't have angry shepherds murdered every few months either, there really would be a takeover.

Mary, walking around clearly pregnant and out of wedlock—what do you do? You invent a story to cover this inconvenient bump in history. Or more likely, you retrospectively airbrush the history of the birth of the Son of God with a can of Miracle Gloss.

We might now turn to the Grand Canyon visitor centre, where fear sometimes makes the dating of the canyon any further than a couple of thousand years ago rather awkward. Believers see the canyon as evidence of a global flood, and therefore proof of the existence of Noah, the only pure individual in a world of sinners who all must die. Creationism and post-truth are not bedfellows, they are Siamese Twins. We might turn to Creationism in schools. But when we turn, we might see that the shock now being expressed at post-truth politics as a new phenomenon covers a much longer incubation period.

The bible that is referred to by fundamentalists is usually a version of the King James version of 1611. This is also a collage of fragments, and each fragment, as we can see from the story of Amos, is another collage. Fundamentalists might have a better time with the Qu'ran, because as far as we know it has a single author. I refuse to base my understanding of the universe, or how I live in it, on either book, although both clearly contain wisdom. Both books also contain things that disturb me. But then so does the writing of Karl Marx and Bobby Seale.

The point to make is that Christianity is not some settled, stable or agreed-upon thing, and clearly nor is Islam, despite its story of sole authorship.

I dislike Richard Dawkins just as much as the peddlers of miracles. The only intelligent response to existence in the vastness of the universe is agnosticism, just as the best philosophers understand their lack of knowledge first and foremost.

But we need the spirit of Amos, and we need the ritual toleration of the accused. We need new language, calibrated to cut through the suffocating smog of post-truth, as well as the cut-throat words and deeds of fundamentalism. 

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9 March 2017. Uncertain comma Texas

A new film describes a world whose inhabitants have been broken, but offers the hope that all can be repaired.

UNCERTAIN is at the ICA in London from 10th March and On Demand from 17th March at

"Uncertain” is the story of redemption brought into the lives of three men - and of hope brought to a whole town … and eventually all of humanity. And it is a documentary. A writer of fiction would have been so lucky to have assembled the layered richness of meaning and interpretation we find in this film … and yet as audience, we remind ourselves throughout that the meaning was there in the ordinary lives of the inhabitants of Uncertain, Texas, all ready to be taken, harvested, nurtured into this uncomfortable but ultimately uplifting, mythopoetic tale. And yes, like Paris, there really is a place called Uncertain on the Louisiana border. And that reinforces the powerful lesson at the heart of the film: our world needs hope and redemption; whatever each individual route to it - through science, religion or collective action - the possibility of something better exists here, through our agency and common humanity.

There are moments of uneasiness with the documentary nature of the film - is this cheap voyeurism into the lives of others on the trailer park? But the film is always reminding us that this is not about them, in Uncertain; no: they are us. We can see our whole world in Uncertain, and we are all its inhabitants - look closely into the ordinary anywhere, suggests the film, and you too can build the world into this lesson.

The breathtakingly beautiful opening sequence emphasises that this is the story of the world: first there is swamp and water; then the insistent noise of a powerful machine, a sort of heartbeat, that will start the world going; then in the darkness emerge some humans, some of them making the cries of animals. And finally the camera pans over real human settlement on the edge of swamp - board houses on stilts, a dog on a balcony - to enter the town, announced first by a warehouse labelled “Uncertain, Flea Market”, then another modest wood front labelled “Uncertain Town Hall” and finally a postbox, “Uncertain, Church”. Out of the primeval swamp comes those three pillars of humanity’s cohabitation with nature: commerce, the collective and the spirit. The film announces its grand theme from the outset.

The three men that are the focus of the film all at different points reveal they have problems sleeping - they are not just Uncertain, they are haunted. The big native-American man, an ex-heroin addict with a violent past and the death of young black motorist on his conscience spends his nights in the swampland peering through night-vision sights hoping to kill “Big Ed” (“the Hog with the Horse’s Head” he goes on to intone, ritualising his quest into the rhythmic chant of a prayer) - I call this man “Chief”. One of the cinematic beauties of the film is its use of night-vision footage: sudden cuts into the world of green and black. Just as Chief is pulling the trigger on a hugely sophisticated camouflaged gun to finally get Ed, there is a distant sound and flash. A replay of the night-vision - Chief has all the tech to help him in his quest - shows what Chief can only believe is an alien ship descending, visible only through his special vision equipment.

"Chief" on a nocturnal hunt for Big Ed

Chief will eventually work through his nocturnal visions to a realisation of what it was he needed to defeat all along. As Chief slices and roasts pieces of Big Ed, feeding them to friends gathered in the trailer park around the taxidermied head of the fallen beast - he’d finally killed the hog, and so Chief had now become himself the biggest beast in the night woods - he remembers, and, we feel, understands for the first time, the Sioux prayer from his childhood:

Oh, Great Spirit,
whose voice I hear in the winds
and whose breath gives life to all the world, hear me.
I am small and weak.
I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes
ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made
and my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand
the things you have taught my people.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden
in every leaf and rock.
I seek strength, not to be superior to my brother,
but to fight my greatest enemy - myself.
Make me always ready to come to you
with clean hands and straight eyes,
so when life fades, as the fading sunset,
my spirit will come to you
without shame.

There is a shot of Chief, just after he has killed Big Ed, bulging stomach silhouetted against the setting sun, bandanna tied like every American renegade maverick since Apocalypse Now, when we know for sure that Chief’s obsession with killing Ed was a need to kill what he had himself become. We next see him walking through a cemetery, sobbing, and looking for the young black boy he’d killed in a crash 30 years earlier caused by his inebriation. Chief’s life before Uncertain is sketched out: a once-estranged son who says “I’ve only said Dad like three times in  my life” and who explains that between jail terms, he mainly remembered his father for teaching him to cook meth and inviting him to participate in troilist adventures … a violent job in which Chief is shot at and miraculously survives (“I don’t blame them [the shooters] - I would’ve tried to kill me too” explains Chief) ... the life of an addict - “living asleep” as he describes it - followed by the insomniac night-visions of the sinner looking for redemption.

Chief acts out the killing of the big hog that he was - “he has no enemies except for me”, and the forest has to be rid of him, says Chief, to allow the other animals to flourish. The film cuts to night-vision shots of affectionate raccoons, sauntering deer, rabbits … a whole disney cast that hardly makes another appearance in the film’s more threatening (and often human) fauna. The person that Chief was, just like Ed the unnaturally equine pig, needs to go. Chief is like the saint  in Flaubert’s tale of St Julien l’Hospitalier. The born-to-rule young aristocrat who has to kill and kill and kill on the hunt is eventually confronted with the magnificent talking stag - himself, the figure he had to bury. Overcome with regret at the destruction he has so wantonly wrought, he becomes a hermit at a dangerous ferry-crossing where he brings warmth to lepers by lying with them.   

"Big Ed", the hog with the horse's head

But that’s not all that needs to go. Uncertain stands for the future of the planet: lake Caddo is dying, and with it the leisure-fishing human settlement it has supported. From an innocuous-seeming corner of the consumer economy - the decorational fish-tank industry- came a native South American plant with no natural predator in Texas. Salvinia Molesta is choking all life out of Uncertain’s lake Caddo.

There’s a small research team working on how it might be stopped; humans in white coats looking into microscopes and trying this and that in precisely controlled and minutely measured greenhouses. The plant has its own nightmarish “more’s law” in this unrestricted environment: it can double in size every 2 to 4 days. And where it has taken over, it drives all life out from the depths underneath. The views continue to be stunning - great trees rising out of the water, alleyways of them like the trees on a French Route National, cathedrals of water, light and leafy heights. And the bright green carpet of Salvinia Molesta.

The scientists bring a council of citizens together into a town-hall meeting. They think they’ve found a possible solution to Molesta: a weavil that feeds on her roots. The geeks can save us: they think they’ve discovered the bug that’ll debug the original hiccough. All it needs is 1 billions larvae and $2m of funds … and, we think, a hope and a prayer that the bugs won’t themselves introduce a plague that’s even worse. But the film is right to emphasise that repairing the world is not just love, forgiveness and personal transformation: science and engineering, at its best, can try to make good again what we’ve broken. The town approves the debug program and the films ends on a Eureka moment, when the scientists have taken a sample from the dark, dead pools below Molesta and shout: “we’ve got weavils”!

The fishing guide (I call him “Guide”) who is another of the 3 troubled men whose life we follow is shown in a frail boat, outboard tilted up to keep the propellor clear of knotty weed, using an old oar to paddle out of the mess. The image of basic struggle is worthy of some of the great water-borne metaphors of humanity in Herzog’s Aguire Wrath of God or Cobra Verde. His life - what is left of it, he is old - depends, at least materially, on the fishing. We see him threading small live fish onto hooks to catch larger fish. And he fishes for tourists, too. Old clients reminisce about the people who can longer find a livelihoood on the lake.

"Guide" navigating the lake

But he too has had trouble sleeping, and he too has killed someone many years before - “murder without malice” is the charge. He grew up in a segregated South; he wanted his children to go to school but was ostracised for such Uncle-Tom-ism, to the point of violence. When someone comes to get him, he shoots in self-defence and kills. We see a photograph of him as a young man - handsome, roguish … “but I’m on the straight and narrow now…”. “Is there a single day when I wish I hadn’t pulled that trigger … no there isn’t …” he says. Guide is like the old man and the sea: his prowess at pulling big wriggling animals out of the water is a well of proud memories. But his wife has died, and since then he’s found himself going to Uncertain’s Baptist church on Sundays rather than into the swampy waters to fish. But his son and daughter are not so sure that he’s quite keeping to the path that goes through the strait gate. He has a girlfriend nearby, and she’s not good for him, they think. At first, he doesn’t want the camera to follow, but eventually we see her: “I like big women”, he’s said before; his girlfriend is that - she’s eating throughout the scene, voracious, always needing more, we feel. We can see how he could lose himself and bury his memories in her amplitude.

But it’s the church that really does him good, not his escapism. He admits to the personal guilt he’s lived with throughout his adult life; “I’ve done wrong; I’ve done good; I pray that the good outweighs the bad”; and he describes a vision of heaven, reunited with his wife, his parents and his children: “I want all of us to be together in Heaven and it will be a glorious day”. He may be a resident of Uncertain, but during his vision, he has no doubt; he will be reunited and whole again, “I know”, he says. And after that vision, he can sleep once more. He has spent the night at his daughter’s trailer. They both wonder at him having slept like a child. His burden is lifted, and, if the weavils do their work, his fishing might even return to its prelapsarian state.

The last story the film follows in detail is that of the young man I started early in the film calling “Rock Star” after his truly terrible karaoke performance in one of Uncertain’s dives - he had just remarked that there was so little to do that “if you stay in Uncertain, you’re retired at 21” and had particularly complained that there were no young women in the town. He had reported his mother to social services for her dereliction and they’d come to take her away. Since then, he and his brothers had lived alone.

"Rock Star" at a bar

The camera lingers over an interior of squalid chaos. Rock Star periodically tries to stop drinking, but it’s hard. He is diabetic and has a gothic tattoo across his chest warning whoever might need to know that he is. At one point, he seems almost content as he lists the necessities of life that he has just been able to pull together - for now. He has “phone, netflix and medicine” and he can “whack off, eat beans and play minecraft”. He records his state of living in a YouTube selfie, and perhaps this self-recording represents the moment of self-awareness: “I’m getting the fuck out of Uncertain” he says as he packs his bags for Austin. It’s important to take the waffle-maker, his bag of grass and a cool-box of insulin. 40 days’ supply is all he’s got. Without a job soon, he’ll be out of drugs. He may have left Uncertain, but precarity follows him to his new life.

He finds a room in a motel run by a deaf family. Work’s not so easy to find, but he has beans to last a bit longer. But we see him next in a hospital bed with an IV - he’d run out of meds and somewhere the Texan health system had found enough socialised care for him not to die. Just at the time that Chief is killing Big Ed, Rock Star reminds us that for him, every day is a fight. Just as Chief recites the Sioux prayer and Guide has his vision of heaven, the film moves back to Austin. Rock Star has had a haircut;  he looks like a fresh-faced, almost born-again boy. He’s at a rock concert, smiling benignly. If that was all the insulin’s work, the drugs did him good.

The actual IRL rock-star on stage has a pause from singing and celebrates his fans pointing to the particularity of every person there: “you are all unique; you are all special” we hear, as the camera pans around what could be a university-city youth crowd anywhere in the world. The crowd is weird and queer and exploding with difference. Rock Star from Uncertain, not the one on stage, we feel, has found a home, a small space out of the loneliness of uncertainty.

Uncertain shows us how as humans we can all make a home in the world and make a world that becomes a home. We may break it in all sorts of ways - and the world may damage us - but the film is ultimately a glorious poem of hope that it can - and must - all be repaired.


UNCERTAIN is at the ICA in London from 10th March and On Demand from 17th March at

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8 March 2017. Why black bloc tactics won’t build a successful movement

Nonviolence can be just as powerful and militant as violence, and it works.

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

Black bloc near the World Bank in Washington, DC during feeder march to anti-war "March on the Pentagon" in 2009. Credit: Ben Schumin/Wikimedia CC BY SA 3.0.

I admit, I laughed a little too. When I first saw videos of white nationalist Richard Spencer getting punched by a protester, I thought it was funny. And even now, I’m not exactly shedding a tear for him. I certainly pray that the attempts to find and target the person who threw the punch prove unsuccessful.

As many of us expected, the election and subsequent inauguration of Donald Trump has given rise to a new movement of white supremacy and hatred. It has empowered an ideology that never really went away, but has been lying largely dormant for decades. But resistance to those ideologies has also been on the rise.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

So that is where we are. The racism that this country knows so well is being exposed. So much so that terms like “alt-right” have now entered our common lexicon. But so have terms like “antifa,” short for anti-fascism.

Many of these movements, however, have utilized black bloc tactics and believe in the principle of “diversity of tactics.” This includes property destruction and acts of violence. Much of this came to light recently during protests at UC Berkeley around an event featuring alt-right leader and ex-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.

People have credited the violence that erupted at these demonstrations for its success. After all, student activists tried multiple nonviolent strategies to have the event cancelled, and it was ultimately the violence that “worked.” And let’s be clear, there was violence. Videos of Yiannopoulos fans getting pepper sprayed and attacked have surfaced.

Debates have been raging on social media since these actions. Debates have been had about whether or not we should have debates about them. Some have criticized the violence, while others have criticized those critics for demonizing other activists and playing respectability politics.

While I don’t believe it is helpful to cast out activists that we disagree with, I also think that our movements are not always skilled at evaluating the effectiveness of certain tactics. Not only are we not skilled at it, the conversation is oftentimes shut down by those who believe we should never criticize another’s tactics. And that is dangerous. There is a fine line between denouncing activists and evaluating the efficacy of certain tactics. And it feels that we are often so dogmatic in our beliefs that we are not able to have objective conversations about their effectiveness. And that hurts our movements.

I don’t believe that advocates of “diversity of tactics” really mean that they honor all tactics. I don’t think anyone would argue that we should kidnap and torture the children of white supremacists. So even those that use catch phrases like “by any means necessary” or “at all costs” agree that there’s some line that we should not cross. Saying that we support “a diversity of tactics” does not allow us to have the conversation about where that line is and what is effective vs. harmful.

Questions like “do lighting fires justify more police repression,” “does violence turn people away from movements,” or “what does violence do for accessibility” are valid and need to be explored. People may ultimately believe that they are effective tactics, but violence and property destruction brings a lot of new variables into the equation, and we need to be open enough to continue to evaluate them so that our movements can learn and grow.

Is property destruction violent?

This is one issue where people tend to be very dogmatic, so let’s start here. I think anyone who believes that property destruction is never violent or that it is violent period needs to think more critically about the issue. The recent burning of two mosques in Texas were acts of violence.  The Ploughshares movement, in which activists sneak into military bases to dismantle weapons, is an act of nonviolence. Property destruction can be incredibly violent, or it can be an act of nonviolence. Context matters.

Writer Rebecca Solnit wrote that, “the firefighter breaks the door to get the people out of the building. But the husband breaks the dishes to demonstrate to his wife that he can and may also break her. It’s violence displaced onto the inanimate as a threat to the animate.” During Occupy Oakland, I witnessed a mob of people using black bloc tactics rush a corporate business in the middle of the day and start spray-painting and banging on their windows. I remember seeing a young child inside the business with her mom. I don’t care about the window, but I do care about the impact on that girl. I don’t think breaking a window itself is an act of violence. But I wouldn’t be surprised if that act also traumatized that little girl—and that is violent.

However, regardless of your stance on property destruction, the basic fact remains that the majority of Americans seems to view it as violent. We spend too much time arguing about what we feel, and ignore what the public feels. And if we are not including that into our calculations, we are making a huge mistake. Generally speaking, I believe we spend too much time debating about whether or not something is violent. There is a more important question that we need to be grappling with: Are violence and property destruction effective?

In order to answer that question, we need clarity on what the goals are. If the goal was simply to cancel one appearance by Yiannopoulos, then by definition it was successful.

But that to me is an incredibly shortsighted goal at the expense of long-term consequences. The goal should not be to cancel one event. It should be to ensure that people like Yiannopoulos don’t have a platform, and to transform the culture that brought us people like him, Trump and other members or supporters of the alt-right. And if those are our goals, were the actions at UC Berkeley ultimately successful?

Giving him a platform.

The problem with violence is that it has a tendency to backfire. Yes, the event was cancelled. But the attention that the protests received gave Yiannopoulos a bigger platform than he has ever had. Pre-sales of his (now-cancelled) book increased by over 1,200 percent overnight and made it the No. 1 bestseller on Amazon. His name showed up all over media. He was trending on Twitter, despite him personally being banned on the social network. The number of followers on his Facebook page skyrocketed.

The protest made him the victim. It swung popular support towards a man whose message of hatred should disqualify him from any sympathy. This dynamic can swing both ways. When the Senate censored Sen. Elizabeth Warren for reading Coretta Scott King’s letter during a debate about Jeff Sessions, it gave Warren a huge platform and Mrs. King’s letter ended up being read by more people than ever.

Regardless of your personal beliefs about a certain tactic, you have to consider the short, medium and long-term impact it will have on your target.

Criminalizing protests and public support.

Another potential negative impact is how it may play into the hands of the Trump administration’s attempts to criminalize dissent. Republican lawmakers in 10 states have already introduced legislation that could increase the penalties associated with protests.

It is true that many of these bills were introduced before these protests, and that Trump and others will try to criminalize dissent anyway. But it’s also hard to argue that actions like this don’t give them more ammunition to push that agenda forward. Not only will it make them feel more justified, it will also empower them by giving them more public support.

We have seen time and time again that the public is willing to sacrifice civil liberties if they are afraid.  And again, regardless of your personal feelings about these tactics, the vast majority of Americans view them as senseless at best and criminal at worst. Most people will not be able to separate those who engage in these tactics with those committed to nonviolence, and the entire movement will lose popular support — with much of that support shifting toward efforts to criminalize the movement.

We cannot make change without the support of the majority. If the public views protesters as “trouble-makers” and sides with the state’s efforts to “maintain order,” our movements will be at a severe disadvantage. We live in an ecosystem of relationships. When you engage in acts of violence (real or imagined), you are not alone. The whole world is watching, and you are communicating a message with your actions.

Whether you agree with the way the media reports these actions is also irrelevant. We know how it is going to be spun, regardless of your beliefs. Again, what you feel about these tactics is not the question. The question is what impact these tactics are having on the public conscience. And when we engage in violence, we are losing the public.

Legitimizing violence.

The left engaging in violence continues to legitimize violence from all sides. It says to the world that using pain, fear and intimidation to force our will is a justified tactic if we view ourselves as being on the “right” side of an issue. Not only might this empower the state to use more repressive tactics, but it may also give the right justification to use violence against the left. What is the message we are sending to activists on the far right when those of us on the left celebrate, joke about and mock Richard Spencer getting punched during an interview? When memes of him getting assaulted go viral all over the Internet?

When the right sets up websites to try to identify those involved in the violence, are we in a place of moral authority to denounce this kind of violence? These websites and other attempts by the right to identify these people and target them for violence is scary and should be banned. But do we put ourselves in a place where we can make that argument when we were celebrating violence against activists on the right?

Do we only get outraged when people we agree with are victims of violence, yet celebrate violence against those we disagree with? Do elementary arguments like “they started it first” or subjective arguments like “they deserve it more” connect with people who don’t already agree with you? What dangers are we putting our people, our communities, our allies in by using violence against others and celebrating it?


We will not win unless we can build a movement that is diverse and inclusive of marginalized communities. When we introduce violence into the equation, it limits who can participate and take leadership. And when the police respond with more repression, it is marginalized communities who suffer the most.

When we use violence, what does it do to access for undocumented communities? People with criminal records or disabilities? Elders? Caretakers who need to get home? People who may be more vulnerable if they are arrested, such as people of color or transgendered people? When we introduce violence into the equation, is the leadership of women generally lifted up or undermined? Does it increase toxic masculine energy that can be harmful not only to movements but to all relationships?

I remember talking to a young formerly incarcerated Latino man, who used to spend time at an Occupy camp after one particular march that turned violent. “Man, these marches, that’s for white people,” he told me. And while that analysis may be too simplistic, the implicit message he had received was understood—that his safety, as a young man on probation with young kids at home, was not a priority or a consideration. He simply did not feel safe at these events if people were using tactics that would likely bring about an aggressive police response.  As a life-long Oaklander, Occupy Oakland was no longer a place he felt welcomed.

Internalizing violence.

In my work in the prison system, I have found that it is impossible to engage in violence in one area of your life and not have it impact your relationships in other areas. The more time you spend dehumanizing someone or hurting another human being, the more you internalize violence and the more it plays out in other areas of your life.

As I wrote before, it is violence that gave rise to Trump and Yiannopoulos, and it is violence that is our enemy. This is the case both for incarcerated people who grew up surrounded by violence as well as those who work in institutions that rely on violence. Prison guards, police officers and military personnel have some of the highest rates of alcoholism, depression, suicides, domestic violence and other forms of violence in any profession. It has also been the case for violent revolutions, which have a higher tendency to fall back into dictatorship or civil war than nonviolent revolutions.

What nonviolence is not saying.

There are so many misconceptions about nonviolence that I think it’s important to address some of them. Personally, I am not saying that Yiannopoulos should have been allowed to speak. His rhetoric is violent and hateful, and his words could bring violence to marginalized communities. I am also not saying that we can ask nicely of fascists and white supremacists to change their ways. Like many antifa activists, I believe we need a militant movement, and that we need to escalate our tactics to match the escalation of hate. I also agree with Martin Luther King, Jr. who called for a nonviolent army that is as “dislocative and disruptive as a riot.”

I believe we can build such a movement. One that is grounded in nonviolence, but is just as powerful and militant as violence. That, however, requires work, strategy and training. Violence is easier, faster and more natural to us. Its dynamics are simpler to understand. “I make you suffer until you give in.” But now is not the time to get seduced by the short-term. We need to continue to train and grow, to have the humility to be self-critical, and to objectively evaluate our tactics and strategies. We need to continue to build a movement to transform violence.

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6 March 2017. We aren’t so different—three steps to overcome hate and fear

Avoiding Trump supporters only increases our already dangerous polarization. Here’s how to really listen and find compassion.

Credit: Johnny Silvercloud / Flickr. Some rights reserved..

The election of Donald Trump has brought a number of ugly realities to light. One of the most disturbing is that an apparently large number of Americans hold racist, sexist, xenophobic beliefs, and outright hatred for others, and blame them for the country’s problems. While that doesn’t include all Trump supporters, it’s certainly a critical mass, as evidenced by the steep rise in hate crimes and comments on social media immediately following the election.

This presents a challenge for those who strive to be compassionate and inclusive. How does one feel empathy for people who hate others simply because of what they look like or where they come from? It can be hard to feel anything but anger, and to do anything but withdraw when confronted with those sentiments.

In politics, however, some level of anger can be useful in order to summon the strength and resources for continued fighting. But this country is already dangerously polarized, with the two main political parties demonizing each other and failing to listen to each other. It’s one thing to view some politicians as corrupt and their policies as irredeemably bad; it’s another to think of large numbers of fellow Americans as the “other.”

Because, of course, we aren’t so different. We’re all people who suffer, whose beliefs have been shaped by the vagaries of our experiences, who are capable of ugliness. But we all have the potential to change.

Nelson Mandela, who leveraged the power of love and forgiveness to transform South Africa, knew something about that. Despite being the target of intense racism and hate during his early battles against apartheid, he was nonetheless able to view his opponents with kindness and to utilize reconciliation tactics in an attempt to heal the nation.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote about one of the correctional officers at the prison where he was held for 27 years: “It was a useful reminder that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and that if their heart is touched, they are capable of changing. Ultimately, [the officer] was not evil; his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system. He behaved like a brute because he was rewarded for brutish behavior.”

Like Mandela, so many others are models of love in the face of hate. Their acts of compassion and tolerance can be examples to us today. There are practical steps we can take that can help us overcome our feelings of disgust and fear, and open up to others.

The first step requires learning how to really listen and accept new information. “Our mind is a very conservative thing. We have a belief and we want to conserve it, so we find data that support it,” says Everett Worthington, whose research at Virginia Commonwealth University focuses on practical steps to forgiveness. Once we’ve decided that a certain group of people is mean or ignorant, he says, it becomes easy to repeatedly confirm that idea. Challenging it—that is, opening our mind—is much harder.

“If I want to have compassion, I have to do something that goes against my implicit confirmation bias,” Worthington explains. “That just opens me to new data; it doesn’t change my mind, but it allows me to have some empathy for people who disagree.” Worthington suggests researching the struggles that Trump supporters in economically depressed regions might be experiencing, as a way of understanding their attitudes and behavior.

Step two is perhaps the most important one: Make a conscious effort to connect with those who think differently, even if they are hateful. “Stay engaged no matter what,” says Pamela Ayo Yetunde, a pastoral counselor and community dharma leader in the Atlanta area who has written about the relevance of Buddhism in the era of Black Lives Matter.

Yetunde explains that she’s been thinking about the Rwandan genocide where people who’d lived next door to each other for years were suddenly incited to kill one another. “Leaders got involved and began to ‘otherize’ people,” she says. “We can’t think that as Americans that can’t happen here. The danger is staying in one’s comfort zone. Maybe people have to arrive at agreements about how, but to remain engaged is the key.”

It’s OK to feel hesitant and vulnerable in the process, she adds. “Through mindfulness, we can recognize when we are cutting ourselves off from people, [even if] we’re doing it out of hurt and a desire to protect ourselves.” That way, when we do finally connect, we can do so with more skill and self-awareness.

Finally, for step three, it is crucial to genuinely get to know one another, says Susan Glisson, founding director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. “It’s about building strong, trusting enough relationships where you can talk about hard stuff. It doesn’t just happen; you have to create an infrastructure for respectful relationships.”

Glisson should know. She, together with her husband, leads a consulting firm that runs racial reconciliation workshops around the country. Her team recently spent three weeks fostering trust between police officers, African American community members, and representatives from a Black Lives Matter group in Birmingham, Alabama.

“Spouting a bunch of studies—if that worked, it would’ve by now,” she says. The real way change occurs is by hearing others’ experiences and feeling heard. So let people tell their stories about who they are.

“When you do that, what gets built is an emotional connection: the ability to become compassionate about the experiences people have had that led them to the place where they are,” she says. That allows people to rethink their stereotypes, and also creates space for them to reflect on the origin of their attitudes.

On a practical level, that might mean venturing into new places that include a wide mix of people—new restaurants, places of worship, or volunteer organizations. But don’t dive right into asking about people’s political affiliations, Glisson cautions. Take the time to learn who they are first: What do they value about themselves? Where do they feel safe? Only after trust has been established can the most powerful changes—on all sides—occur.

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

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3 March 2017. Love in action: the life, work and death of Sister Maura Clarke

Celebrating a stellar example of how to say no to the warmongers and yes to life itself.

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

Eileen Markey’s stunningly beautiful book, “A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura,” comes not a moment too soon. Her rendering of the life and death of Sister Maura Clarke at the brutal hands of a U.S.-financed Salvadoran military, clarifies how we are to be in a world of ascending and entrenching authoritarian governments. In the world in which human beings and the earth play second fiddle to the whims and wants of the wealthy and their minions, Maura Clarke is a stellar example of how to say a resounding “No” to the wealth-hoarders and warmongers and an almighty “Yes” to life itself.

“A Radical Faith” starts graveside — that is at the makeshift grave of Clarke, Sister Ita Ford, Sister Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan who had been brutally killed and, for at least two of the women, raped as well. As the bodies of at least 75,000 Salvadorans killed by their own military during a 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992, the bodies of these women are illuminative. They clearly show the extent to which the military regime of El Salvador, the oligarchic families it protected, and its foreign mainstay, the United States, would go to protect and preserve an environment friendly to business, militarism and oligarchic rule. Clarke’s radical faith was that she accepted, embodied and practiced this basic command of Jesus: “You must love one another as I have loved you.”

In the opening chapter of the book, Markey asks “Who was this woman in the dirt? What forces in her life, in herself, led to this vicious death so far from home? What did that ring, slipped on the slender finger of a 22-year-old [novice in the Maryknoll religious congregation] have to do with farm laborers and death squads, clandestine meetings, and military orders?” These are compass-setting questions.

Combined with Markey’s vivid opening account of the bodies found, the agonizing hours of a search for the women, and their religious comrades kneeling on the ground near the bodies, these questions and the rock-solid commitment of the religious women help to ground us in the political realities and struggles of the present moment. Where do we stand? To whom and what are we committed? In what are we grounded? Markey’s gift to the reader is not only her ability to write a compelling narrative but also that she astutely understands why we need to know Maura Clarke’s story.

There is a good reason why women came together in consciousness-raising circles to tell their stories, analyze their circumstances, uplift the personal, and work for change. Our feminist foremothers in the 1960s and ’70s well understood that the political sphere was structured along patriarchal lines and as long as no one saw or challenged that, things would remain the same. Markey notes, at the close of the first chapter, that Clarke’s story was not only a political story but also a personal story. It is Markey’s attentiveness to the details of Clarke’s life that make reading this book a life-changing experience.

There is the way, for example, that Markey so powerfully helps us to see Clarke vitally alive in her work. During the first days of her missionary work, “she was keenly open, trying to absorb everything. She stretched to bridge the language gap, smiling with interest, focusing on the faces of people near her, nodding, her lean frame tilted toward them, laughing when she fumbled a word.” By the book’s end, Clarke is so consistent in her practice of solidarity, which is well charted by Markey, that one begins, if at first only subconsciously, to embody the tilt of the attentiveness and the desire to get closer to hear what the other has to say.

Markey’s inclusion and vivid depiction of Clarke’s nuclear and extended family are yet another instance of the personal dimension of the book. Native to Ireland, Clarke’s parents met during the Irish War of Independence when John Clarke, who had returned to Ireland after seven years in the United States, brought a wounded comrade to the door of nurse Mary McCloskey. John Clarke, whose dream of liberation for the Irish people was crushed by the war’s end, sailed back to the United States and was joined by Mary in 1929.

Married in 1930, they were among those who “represented the tail end of a giant wave of Irish immigration that began with the Irish potato famine in 1845.” The reader meets and spends time with the family again and again throughout the book. Markey describes the remarkable ability of this family to cultivate intimacy and support while at the same time opening the doors of their home to so many of Maura’s colleagues, community members, friends and those she served. There was room for all at the Clarke family table.

In the early spring of 1959, Maura Clarke made her final vows with the Maryknoll Sisters. That fall she would head to Nicaragua to begin her mission work. Upon her death, 21 years later (and that of Ita Ford, also a Maryknoll Sister) the Maryknoll Sisters and Fathers issued a joint statement, which recognized that these women put the Gospel at the center of their lives and that they were assassinated for their love for the poor and marginalized.

Markey demarcates the world which nurtured Maura Clarke, her family and countless other Irish-Americans. The Clarke family’s Belle Harbor, Queens, New York parish of Saint Francis de Sales, just a few blocks away from the ocean, lauded both God and country. Later, when Markey describes the Maryknoll novitiate days of Clarke, one can also see what an “ordered” religious life looked like in part: “Do not loll about or lean against walls. Do not stand with hands or arms resting on chair backs.”

The other and much larger part of her early life with Maryknoll, however, was the work of entering into and learning how to dwell within the root of an interior life. Again, Markey’s research and writing allows the reader to engage in the world of Clarke and the Catholic Church of the 1950s. Further, she is even-handed when writing about a church and, more specifically, Maryknoll, a religious congregation.The Maryknoll religious congregation acknowledged “that all of humanity was related, that all people were children of God, and that is was worthwhile to go far away from home to connect with some of those distant brothers and sisters.” At the same time, as Markey notes, the Maryknoll community of the 1950s would not have seen or critiqued its missionary work as imperialistic in nature.

After its introductory chapters, the bulk of “A Radical Faith” consists of Markey’s robust rendering of Clarke’s mission work in Nicaragua and, briefly, in El Salvador and the United States. These chapters also include an expert analysis of the liberation theology and movement within the Catholic Church, a synthetic and well-researched account of the political and economic structural forces at play in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the United States, and of Clarke’s personal and religious transformation. Markey makes the point that Clarke was steeped in love for other human beings and thought that everyone mattered.

In the middle and final sections of the book, its reader sees how the ecstatic love of Clarke’s spiritual life matured and embodied itself in a consistent, courageous and radical love for those whom she served in Nicaragua, El Salvador, her Maryknoll community members, and her family. The structured life imposed upon her during her Maryknoll novitiate life served her well in Nicaragua and El Salvador as we see Clarke, along with so many other Maryknoll Sisters, pray, work, teach, visit and serve from the early morning hours to late at night.

Their efforts were consistent, disciplined and seemingly tireless. Clarke and her community members did their best to blend into the communities they served rather than to isolate themselves behind convent walls where they could enjoy middle-class conveniences. They were mild in manner, clean of heart and, as the years of their mission work passed on, immersed more and more in the poverty of the people whom they lived with and loved.

Mild in manner, however, did not mean simply standing by the side of the road while the military machines of Nicaragua, El Salvador and, indirectly, the United States rolled over the poor and all living things in their way. There was a rather dramatic scene in the book, for example, where we see Clarke confronting members of the Nicaraguan National Guard. Called in by rich landowners to shut down a camp that housed the poor survivors of an earthquake, they could not get past the infuriated Clarke and two other Sisters. “She shouted at the guardsmen,” Markey writes. “No one ever did that. Father [Fernando] Cardinal was there as well, and was stunned by the ferocity of the three women. It was the first time he saw the National Guard back down.”

The righteous anger of these women is indeed riveting, and one wonders what had changed for Clarke and her comrades. Instead of hustling the poor folks off the scene, why had they chosen to confront these representatives of the political and economic elite? It is hard to know how the elements come together in the action of another, but one cannot help but wonder if her Irish family’s tradition of resisting oppression merged with a new Catholic consciousness about matters of faith and justice in Clarke.

A good 12 years before the confrontation with the National Guard, the Catholic Church had “opened the windows” of its ancient institution and welcomed in the “fresh air” of the Second Vatican Council. For Clarke and her Maryknoll community, the intellectual and religious development sparked by this council meant that “the Jesus of Good Friday and Easter knew what it was to fear the National Guard. He wasn’t locked up in the sky or laid flat in the pages of a holy book. This Jesus belonged to the people, came alive again when the people were united.”

Clarke was in the United States in the latter part of 1976 so that she could introduce the work of the Maryknoll missions to her fellow Americans and help them to see what life was like for folks whose lives are terribly compromised or brutally cut short by the ravages of poverty and violence. While Clarke knew and understood the political and economic dynamics that created the terrible conditions in which the people with whom she worked were forced to live, she did not subject her audience to a long and bullying talk on U.S. imperialism.

Instead, Clarke offered a historical and political analysis while also speaking specifically and concretely about the humans beings with whom she moved, lived and breathed. She could talk about the dear Lesbia Taleno, a teenager whose mother was close to Maura, who was arrested for hanging political posters and then raped and impregnated by members of the National Guard. When someone who came to a talk she gave asked if the U.S. government knew what those foreign governments to whom the United States gave hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid knew what was going on, Clarke gave a slight nod of her head.

It would be Maura’s devotion, love and gentleness that would help her American Catholic compatriots see the wealth of fundamental teachings on justice that constituted Catholic Social Thought. A few months later, Clarke would again act on such teachings and engage in the act of nonviolent civil disobedience in the offices of the Nicaraguan consulate to the United Nations. Once again, Clarke’s fierce resistance to injustice issued forth. The police, as Markey notes, “looked dumbfounded. Were they really being lectured about supporting revolution by a nun?”

President Jimmy Carter, who had ignored Archbishop Oscar Romero’s pleas for him to stop sending military aid to El Salvador six months before Clarke was killed, resumed funding — including an emergency five million dollars — to the military dictatorship of El Salvador two weeks after Maura, Ita, Jean and Dorothy were kidnapped, raped, and killed. By 1982, and during the Reagan presidency, U.S. military aid to the Salvadoran government would reach $64 million that year. Such expenditures were often justified by Cold War politics and by the fear of the communist threat that countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador could be to Central America, the latter of which was within what the United States considered to be its sphere of influence.

Reading through U.S. military reports on the civil war in El Salvador, one also finds reference to the desire of the United States to help foster democracy within a country struggling to develop. One can only imagine that Clarke, had she been given a chance to speak to these masters of Cold War politics would ask them to see what was actually happening to actual human beings. How can we ever plan for, pay for, and justify the mass slaughter, torture, rape, and impoverishment of even one person, much less the many thousands who were killed in El Salvador alone?

From my own experience of working in the same Salvadoran communities in the Department of Chalatenango that Maura worked, I heard these questions asked by Salvadoran people there, many of whom were psychologically scarred, physically injured, or impoverished by the war, to their American visitors. They wanted to know why the Americans did not resist what their government was doing, or at least stop paying taxes which funded a military death machine.

Perhaps it was because, for many Americans, they did not know or fully understand what was done in their names in Central America. Political, economic and military elites often make good use of the fog of ideology, which is all but impenetrable and does a good job of obfuscating reality. Clarke’s gift of speaking about the specific lives of human beings went a long way to break through this fog and enter into the hearts of her listeners. It is a practice we may wish to retrieve and rehabilitate in these days of authoritarian darkness.

Though Sister Maura Clarke worked with a Gospel and an institution thousands of years in the making, she was able, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, to love vitally, welcome other human beings and, as such, write a counter-narrative to the equally ancient story of death-dealing empire. That we can now know the power and beauty of her life is due to a book that reads like an act of love by its author, Eileen Markey.

The radiance of Clarke’s life is also that of the good people with whom she lived and worked, her family along with its rootedness in the tradition of Irish resistance, and the Maryknoll religious congregation’s embrace of their faith, its social teachings and its liberation theology. Markey’s scholarship and her devotion to this story affords its reader the opportunity to ask the ever-renewing question: “where do we go from here?” Clarke shows us the fundamentals: love, community, nonviolence, resistance, courage and faith. Nourished by her life and this book, let our communities of resurrection get to work.

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1 March 2017. Profits first, love later: why western love stories need subverting

What alternative possibilities are opened up when dominant representations of love are questioned?

Credit: Laura Lopez Gonzalez/Heath-e news. All rights reserved.

Monogamous love is frequently used in global sexual health promotion efforts to try to inspire choices about ‘safe sexual practices.’ Yet there are two crucial and potentially harmful assumptions embedded here: first, that choice is something that every individual views as being available to them; and second, that love stories will always inspire.

In fact, a long history can be uncovered in which particular conceptualizations of love have monopolized debate and been used to marginalize other experiences—a legacy that needs to be exposed and disrupted. In doing so, I’m going to draw on my work in East and Central Africa, but I hope the core of my arguments speak to people from a whole range of different contexts.

What alternative possibilities are opened up in love stories when more dominant representations are subverted?

There’s a notable absence of love in many of the widely published historical accounts of Africa, mainly because the writing distributed about the continent was largely derived from the work of foreigners, often connected in some way to colonial enterprises. In a book of collected papers called Love in Africa edited by Jennifer Cole and Lynn Thomas, this silence about love is explained as an effect of the colonial fascination with the ‘other,’ and a narrow focus on the values of kinships and exchange in marriage, infused with insidious notions of white superiority.

The contributors to Love in Africa go on to describe how the loving and intimate aspects of relationships in Africa that are clearly demonstrated in songs, poems and love medicines were largely ignored. They discuss how Western projects of ‘civilizing’ and ‘developing’ Africans—maintained by the spread of Christianity, Westernized school education, and externally-controlled media—have hijacked public narratives about love on the continent.

Under these colonial and neo-colonial influences, love is constructed as a modern thing that can only be found in smaller ‘un-African’ nuclear families and in ‘companionate’ relationships—meaning those relationships  which are rooted in intimacy and commitment as a choice and not as a duty. The work of Jennifer Hirsch, Mark Hunter and others describes this process as the “marketization” of love, in which companionate marriage becomes a deliberate strategy that’s used by people who consciously want to claim a modern identity that is built around commodities, consumption, and an individual’s ability to move in and out of relationships as a matter of personal choice.

But what about the large proportion of people for whom individual choice and consumption—in the capitalist sense of access to consumer goods—were and still are very limited? The urban, low-income young people I have spoken with in the course of my research in Tanzania describe relationships with others which are, as with everything else in their lives, deeply entwined with more omnipresent struggles for survival.

Many stated categorically that “there is no real, true love here” because of the “hustle” for money and commodities, which for girls, may only be accessible through their intimate relationships. As one girl described it, “relationships here are all profits first, love later.” In comparison to the ‘love conquers all’ narratives found in Hollywood movies and the ideal of monogamous love that’s pushed by NGOs and the international aid system, the lived experiences available to these young people just don’t match up.

Furthermore, when they describe their relationships they don’t just talk about themselves and their sexual partners. Care and responsibility to their kin are also important, so relationships and the potential they offer for improved socio-economic status are viewed at the level of the family and not the individual. This makes the individual agency that lies at the core of Western conceptualizations of love and healthy relationships highly problematic. Despite the good intentions behind many NGO and aid-funded campaigns, we have to recognize that positioning simplistic, individualized notions of love as the ideal may not inspire people at all. They may actually contribute to the demoralization of those who are already marginalized because that ‘ideal’ is simply not an option.

In African Love Stories: An Anthology, Ama Ata Aidoo talks about a cultural shift in Western publishing away from the tragedy and torment of love that’s connected to “the business of selling joy and happiness.” There’s a great deal of white and otherwise-privileged moral solipsism contained in this shift. Aidoo and others are part of a wider movement that aims to disrupt this marketized, one-dimensional and marginalizing version of love by creating and promoting love stories that more diverse audiences can identify with.

Yet I think that another important part of this process consists of opening up love itself for redefinition, and working to move beyond the dualisms of good and bad, or tragedy versus joy. The Ancient Greeks had many different words to describe love in all its various forms. But in the modern West this pluralism has been reduced to the prioritizing of one, amalgamated form that masks or denies space for the potential tensions and contradictions between, for example, romantic passion, love of family, love which endures, love of self, and the love that does justice.

A Kenyan friend once told me that the greatest colonization of all was the enforced learning of the colonizer’s language, and the knowledge that was lost in this process. She went on to explain how life skills are contained in Swahili sayings that can help people to think deeply and creatively. In their ambiguity they often signpost important questions instead of providing simplified answers to the complexities of life. “It is not this way in English,” she said laughing.

I think this holds an important learning point for understanding the multiple possibilities of love. To love another person is complicated and hard, yet Western, reductionist versions of love not only marginalize but also belittle the efforts that have gone into relationships in which endurance prevails. Discussions which problematize love rather than promote one shallow idealized form could be of much more use to young people in Africa and elsewhere whose lives are already overrun with contradictions of many different kinds.

In that sense, any effort that aims to connect love with safety and protection in sexual health needs to be rooted in subversion. Critical questions can be used to foster the skills that are needed to deal with and disrupt the complexities and power struggles of love and life in general.

An earlier version of this article was first published on Subversive Storytelling.

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27 February 2017. The new infantocracy in politics

Like an aged babysitter who has forgotten herself for a moment and decided to join the kids, Theresa May now identifies Donald Trump as her closest ally.

Donald Trump rally in Newtown, Pennsylvania, October 21, 2016. Credit: Flickr/Michael Candelori. Some rights reserved.

There is, it appears, a worldwide epidemic of infants in positions of political power, and everyone is telling everyone else to grow up.

In the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May and Nigel Farage, the ex-UKIP leader, have both told officials from the European Union (EU)  to “grow up”—in Farage’s case, before embarking on a childish rant of his own. Conservative MP Ian Duncan Smith similarly blasted EU leaders for “behaving like children.” On this evidence, there is nowhere so seemingly childish than Brussels, with its babyish EU bureaucracy, its technocrats, and its parental disregard for Britain’s national independence. Grow up people!

But it’s not only the EU’s arrested development that is frustrating British politicians. Theresa May has also said that she wants a “grown-up relationship” with Scotland and Wales, and that Labour needs to be “more grown-up” about the National Health Service. Labour MP Stella Creasy has said that “we need a grown-up form of socialism,” while her leader Jeremy Corbyn wants the UK government to develop a “more grown-up” strategy for Europe.

As if seeking to reinforce the childish reputations of politicians, during the referendum campaign on Brexit Boris Johnson complained that all the doom-sayers in the Remain camp had their pants on fire, while in Norway the Prime Minister was caught playing Pokémon Go in parliament.

And then there is Donald Trump, the biggest child politician of them all. Like Sesame Street’s Elmo and many of the toddlers that love him, Trump is an “illeist”—someone who prefers to refer to himself in the third person rather than “I” or “me.” ‘Be nice and cool, stay on point Donald, stay on point.’ But his infantile traits go beyond illeism: he also bears grudges like a hungry child. He cries ‘they started it’ to excuse his behaviour, and labels others as ‘just being jealous’ when they criticise him. Hopefully Trump will go down in history as the only American President to have boasted about the size of his penis on the campaign trail.   

Surprisingly, however, the leader who’s most determined to be seen as mature and reliable is also the leader who seems most determined to hold hands with Trump, that most immature and unreliable of politicians. While other political figures from Corbyn to ex-US Vice-President Joe Biden have been queuing up to tell Trump to grow-up, Theresa May—usually so fond of this instruction herself—has remained silent. Like an aged babysitter who has forgotten herself for a moment and decided to join the kids, May now identifies Trump as her closest ally.

As a politician whose image rests on being a sensible grown-up, this alliance is a dangerous step. In an interview with TV presenter Jon Snow, the actress and former Labour MP Glenda Jackson lamented how Labour needed a “grown-up” as leader rather than Jeremy Corbyn: “the one thing you can’t take away from our Prime Minister,” she reflected, “is that she is very clearly a grown-up.” The Daily Express likewise graced May’s leadership as ushering in a new “era of grown-up politics,” while The Times heralded her as “the only grown-up in the room.” In the light of her new friendship with the Donald, however, her prized grown-up credentials will inevitably be called into question.

May’s shift captures one of the main dangers of Trump: that he risks bringing everyone else down to his own level of immaturity, whether enemies or allies. Joe Biden, for example, spoke of wanting to “take Trump behind the gym” and made gestures accordingly with his fist – “if I were in high school,” he swiftly added, “I want to make that clear.” He told Trump to “grow-up” a few months later.

Similarly, when Trump announced his shameful immigration ban on all citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, a kind of global birthday-party politics ensued. Several of the countries punished by the ban (Iran and Iraq in particular) responded by proposing bans of their own on all Americans: If I’m not invited to your party, you’re not invited to mine either. This is understandable, and even potentially effective, but it only serves to deepen the divides that Trump is so dedicated to deepening. The entire world is subsequently brought down to his own low level.

Unfortunately, as is already clear, Trump’s childishness will not negate his threat or his agency. If anything, it appears only likely to increase them. He is erratic, prone to tantrums and refuses to accept decisions he does not like, irrespective of all and any expertise on the subject in question. He is the Jack Merridew of this new “Lord of the Flies” world: an aggressive castaway leader with contempt for democratic institutions on an island destined to go up in flames. We are left like Merridew’s bespectacled, bullied victim in the book—Piggy—loyally clinging to the conch and not knowing what to do. The conch is a shell that comes to symbolise democracy, order and civilisation on the island, and is eventually smashed in the carnage that ensues. 

How should we respond to the rise of the infantocracy? “The best antidote to anti-politics is grown-up politics” says Labour MP Chuka Umunna, clinging to the conch. The same complacency underpinned the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton: if we show ourselves to be the more adult, her team reasoned, we’ll win. “Hillary Clinton Destroyed Trump in the Debates Just by Being a Grown-Up”, reads one emblematic headline. Such attitudes were everywhere, and then she lost.

The problem is that the increasing childishness of politics runs deeper than any one person or a single flaw, but we can at least begin to address it by binning fake solutions.  ‘Grown-up politics’ is a meaningless phrase that serves as yet another slide in the political playground.  Its allure is a symptom of the childishness of politics, not a cure. Most of the time it simply stands for ‘politics that agree with me,’ a patronising complacency that compounds our problems.

The rising popularity of this platitude stands in for the new ideas that are needed if politics is to take a mature step forward. To that end, perhaps it’s precisely the child-like imagination to look beyond the possible and see something different that’s required, rather than the childish impatience and intolerance of the infantocrats.

Ultimately however, faced with the sight of a UK parliament where the average age is 51 yet in which MPs continue to insult each-other with versions of ‘your mum is’ type jokes, we can only conclude that grown-up politicians don’t exist. ‘Grown-up’ is a hyped-up human destiny forever doomed to disappointment, an impossible plane on which the world suddenly becomes more sensible. In that case, the question isn’t whether we want grown-ups or children in power, but what kind of children we want and how they should be supervised.

In his Anti-Mémoires, the French writer André Malraux asks a parish priest what he has learned about human nature after fifteen years of listening to confessions. “Confession teaches you nothing,” the priest replies, “And yet...people are much unhappier than one thinks...and then also the fundamental fact is that there are no grown-ups.” It’s a lesson we could all do with learning. Today, there are no grown-ups—and there won’t be any to save us from this mess. 

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24 February 2017. How the everyday use of militaristic jargon makes us more combative

The language of violence pervades our discourse, even when we’re not talking about war.

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

“War is merely the continuation of politics by other means,” wrote the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz. Lately, it’s been sounding like the other way around. That’s not likely to change soon, since the language of warfare and violence pervades Americans’ discourse, even when we’re not talking about war. But as we struggle to come to terms with what wasn’t heard during the campaign, we need also to reckon with what was.

“The country has descended into full partisan battle mode,” proclaimed the Washington Post in typical campaign coverage, while journalism sites warned against relying on such warlike clichés. Warn away; they were everywhere.

Candidates targeted, took aim, opened fire, attacked and counterattacked. They engaged in scorched earth verbal warfare and exhibited a take-no-prisoners style as they shot from the hip. Those who were losing made excuses when they bombed, yet, they soldiered on as long as they had a fighting chance because, in the primaries at least, it was a war of attrition. But when they were out-gunned, they bit the bullet and, bloody but unbowed, thanked their armies of volunteers for fighting the good fight.

Campaigns focused on battleground states, sent in attack dogs and ran attack ads paid for by money bombs. They deployed their secret weapons with which – or more likely whom – they bombarded voters, hoping all the while to find the smoking gun or, better yet, a bombshell with which to ambush an opponent.

Apparently, few news outlets could resist “bombshell” when describing a potential new FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails dangled before voters’ eyes at the end of October. “Bombshell” appeared in headlines in the New York Times, New York Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Herald, Baltimore Sun, Charlotte Observer, Christian Science Monitor, Politico, Reuters TV, CNBC, CNN, NPR and Fox, and that’s just a start. Fewer bombs were detonated when the FBI announced nine days later that no investigation was necessary.

It’s a given that this campaign was particularly combative, but I’m not talking about what the candidates said to each other or to their followers. I don’t mean to beat up on the media, either; they’re doing a good enough job of that themselves. What I am talking about is how we talk about campaigning and selecting our country’s leadership. I’m calling out the violent, militaristic, belligerent language, memes, metaphors and images that have become so commonplace in our speech that it’s nearly impossible to get through a routine conversation without resorting to them.

It has continued since the election, albeit not quite as regularly. A Washington Post headline on November 12 asked, “What’s next for Democrats? For starters, a battle for the soul of their party.” An NBC News headline on November 28 announced that “Trump Meets Petraeus as Battle Over Secretary of State Continues,” while in another headline on December 15, Fox News pondered, “Settling Scores? Trump team resumes battle with press.” And Columbia Journalism Review, a site not high on the belligerence scale, noted in December that although the phenomenon of fake news is hardly new, “One factor unique to our modern discontent is the terrain upon which that battle is fought.”

Sure I’m cherry-picking, but examples are not hard to come by. Why does this matter, especially now that the voting is over? Well, in addition to a lack of imagination and a surfeit of generals proposed for the next administration, when we talk as if we’re always embattled and as if vanquishing is the only form of winning, this threatens to become the lens through which we see the world. It also makes not just politicians but everyone who sees the world differently from us into the enemy who must be vilified. And look where that’s gotten us.

That process is similar to what happens in wartime, where military jargon—that twisting of language for propaganda purposes and the jazzy, Orwellian names for weaponry, tactics, and missteps — becomes code for behavior civilians wouldn’t understand and wouldn’t want to if they could. In the bone-chilling book “On Killing,” Dave Grossman, a psychologist and former Army Ranger, argues that it becomes easier to overcome the humanly innate reluctance to kill people the farther one moves away from them. The language we choose to describe people and events can be a form of distancing too.

I know that words are not actions—that talking about battleground states is not the same as calling up militia, that “bombshell” never meant the same thing as “bomb”—but if we demonize political opponents as we demonize military opponents, any form of useful discussion becomes impossible. I’m not advocating some anodyne healing, false comity, or hushing of grievances. There are ways to resist other than declaring war, and to do that, it would benefit nearly everyone to find different words to describe how we got here and how we will go forward.

We’ve been at real war for a long time—more than 15 years in Afghanistan—without counting the numerous shorter incursions into other countries over the past 50 years. I’ve spent the last nine years reporting on people who fought those wars, many of whom have come to regret it. We’re all weary of war—the wars of tactics and the wars of words. When I find myself talking about fighting for peace, I fear the battle is lost.

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22 February 2017. Why play? This is serious.

Play isn’t the opposite of work—it’s vital for social transformation.

Materials used at the inception workshop for Toybox Mums in Nairobi, January 2017. Credit: Sarah Huxley. All rights reserved.

It’s fair to say that, like many other people, I’ve been a pin ball in the international development fruit machine for many years. Sometimes I’ve hit the jackpot by working with great people on programmes or advocacy that have truly benefitted young people; at other times I’ve fallen into the dark pit of skepticism and disappointment. For all the talk of ‘breaking down silos,’ some people seem inordinately invested in preserving them. We go up and we go down. The good news is that I can see another ‘up’ coming.

That’s because I’ve spent the last year ruminating and exploring what to do next. There’s no doubt that the creaking development sector requires new and better ways of operating, and that’s where play comes in.

As I’ve ventured into the wilderness beyond the offices, taxis and conferences of the foreign aid world it feels like I’m an undergraduate again, though thankfully I haven’t had to battle the cobbled streets of Oxford in a wheel chair as I did many years ago as part of a ‘geography of disability’ assignment that had a big impact on me. The harsh juxtaposition of playing around in a wheelchair, set against a glimpse of the stark reality of what life is like for the people who have to use them full-time in an all too often unaccommodating world, was striking. In fact the more I thought about it, the more play seemed to lie at the core of a rubix cube of social transformation.

So I started to read, watch and listen. I listened to musician and writer Pat Kane talk about creativity and his book the Play Ethic, which shows how play is fundamental to both society and the individual, and how the work ethic that has dominated the last three centuries is ill-equipped to deal with the modern world. Kane claims that “Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the industrial age—our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value.” That felt liberating and resonated with my core feelings.

I heard the writer Steven Johnson talk at the RSA about his new book that focuses on the “wonder and delight” of play, and how places of play have contributed to social change—for example, the explosion of coffee houses in London in the 1600s when “what seemed like leisure actually turned out to be exceptionally productive…the flowering of the British enlightenment was really based in the coffee house culture” that included magazines, Lloyds of London, and the RSA itself.

As someone who has studied and worked with children and young people throughout my career I’ve come to view girls and boys, young women and young men as engines of invention, creativity and deconstruction—the  witches and wizards of Lego building in the world—but  only if they are allowed to thrive in places of play.

But when I thought back to my time studying the anthropology of childhood, I was struck that—whilst the literature looked at ritual, ways of learning and apprenticeship—it never actually discussed the broader concept of play. It was as if play had been relegated to something that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Yet as Stuart Brown and other biologists and psychologists have demonstrated, play is a vital element in the socialisation processes of all animals and humans.

It has only been in the last five years that there has been explicit and substantial research, reflection and interpretation on play in anthropology. You could argue that Clifford Geertz’s famous studies of the ‘Interpretation of Cultures’ in the 1970s and the Balinese Cockfight he describes there was a playful form of analysis, but his emphasis was on the cockfight ritual as a solemn act rather than the art of delight that surrounded it. In most societies play has been side-lined as something subservient and superficial, regularly placed in opposition to the value and seriousness of work and labour that’s imbued in dominant Christian western ideologies.

But societal narratives that see play ‘as something only children do’ are a myth. Play and games (with and without rules) enable us to learn about ourselves, who we want to be, and how we see ourselves in the world. Play has huge benefits for people of all ages, including how to solve problems, gain knowledge, learn to be in a group, and develop creativity and imagination. Play is what helps children to learn about how problems can be solved. Kacy Hughes from the Boston Children’s Museum describes this perfectly:

“In the beginning, infants learn to use their bodies in a way that helps them manipulate objects. They may make accidental discoveries, such as hitting a button that makes a toy play music. However, over time they will learn that they themselves made the toy play music, and they become able to intentionally perform these actions. Children learn cause and effect relationships, how to manipulate objects, and develop critical thinking skills.”

Research by Rachel Keen at the University of Virginia has found that the ability to use tools depends on children’s previous experience with them, reflecting the importance of giving children the opportunity to manipulate tools in order to learn about how they work. But before children ever use tools, they play with toys. Playing with toys allows infants to understand how the different properties of objects such as texture, weight, and size affect how those objects will behave. 

That’s the key point: it’s not just that what happens in childhood affects our capacity to deal with the rest of our lives, but that as adults we should also continue to be the explorers we are as children. Play plays a crucial role in developing the skills and capacities that are required to create better alternatives to our brutal and relentless world.

I’ve started to put these ideas into practice in my own life by starting a new initiative called the Toybox Mums Collective. Young mums bring up children. They embody what care, empathy and resilience mean. And they are true catalysts in society who can connect across generations and spread values related to a love of learning, play and creativity. Yet their power and potential often goes unnoticed. I’ve yet to hear of a culture that reveres young mums or places them in positions of power. Instead they’re often seen as a burden on society, and at worst they can be neglected and abused.

That was my starting point for setting up Toybox Mums as a playful space (both physical and online) where mums can develop their own skills and contribute to toy designs that will improve their children’s capacities. Toys are tools that can connect people, generate new ideas, and nurture new ways of interacting with each-other.

The seeds of Toybox began a few years back, but it wasn’t until 2016 that I developed the actual concept. I held the first inception workshop with ten other young mums and a business innovation specialist in Nairobi, Kenya in January 2017. We played around with three questions:

  • How can we create toys that facilitate inter-generational play?
  • How can we create gender neutral toys that encourage girls and boys to play together?
  • And how can we create hybrid toys with a cultural and modern twist?

The goal is for Toybox Mums to grow into a platform for young mothers to become inventors—co-designing toys and regaining a more valued position in society. We are not alone in exploring the power of play. At the end of March 2017, for example, the CounterPlay festival takes place in Denmark. It’s a festival of play where people from all around the world will come together for three days of talking, thinking, dancing, making, learning and playing to explore key questions:

How can play facilitate a stronger sense of agency and become a catalyst of adaptability and change? In what ways can play inspire and encourage people to question the status quo and challenge the rules of current economic and political systems? How can our innate playfulness spark our imagination and curiosity, and will it enable us to see that the world can be transformed into something else?

In the same spirit, I want to extend a virtual hand and ear to anyone who is exploring the power of play in one form or another. Let’s connect for some seriously useful playtime.

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20 February 2017. Can contemplating death improve the quality of life?

Deep reflective thought about death can bring us closer to self-compassion and concern for the well-being of others.

Lord Byron on his death-bed. Credit: Wikimedia. Public Domain.

"Emergency first aid in the Middle Ages: from amputations to enemas."

Finding myself with an hour to spare before an unsurprisingly poorly-attended lecture in St Giles’ Church in Norwich, I wandered around the cloisters of the nearby cathedral during choral evensong and was drawn to a full-size skeleton etched on a wall. Beside it was a plaque with an inscription commemorating Thomas Gooding who died 400 years ago:

“All that do this place pass bye

remember death for you must dye

As you are now even so was I

And as I am so shall you be.”

In the course of my work as a psychologist I once met another man named Tom who believed he was dead, so I suppose the inscription wouldn't apply to him. Tom couldn't provide a rational explanation for why he thought he didn't exist, and no amount of logical argument, physical evidence or medication could persuade him otherwise. He had worked in the British civil service for over two decades and was in his early forties when all things came to an end—including, as he saw it, his own life—though he couldn’t recollect precisely when he died, how, or what it was that killed him.

Somewhere in this pile of years he vaguely awoke to the fact of his death and to the strangeness of things around him: people seemed unfamiliar, objects unreal, and the world colourless. He became depressed and reclusive, and with nothing but the clothes on his back began to wander into the wilderness as might a ghost. He increasingly referred to others as ghosts too, abandoning his family, home and possessions. Following a suicide attempt that left him with a scar around his neck—sewn up with a large sackcloth needle, judging by the necklace of puncture marks—Tom found himself in psychiatric care.

Mounting despair led to two further suicide attempts within the first two years of his hospitalisation, one that mangled the tendons in his right arm and left him without the use of three of his fingers. But whilst there was some measured success through medication with regard to his suicidal tendencies, his delusory thoughts proved largely unresponsive to anti-psychotic drugs or electroconvulsive therapy, and he was subsequently shunted into a long-term locked ward. Having no regard for his life (why would he?) and given the way of his thoughts, he spent his earthly occupancy within the confines of this forbidding place.

It was difficult to imagine his suffering. He was convinced but confused, and almost constantly in deep despair. Facts and rational argument merely placed him in a painful effort of thought, if not severe stress. When agitated he hunched up and shut down, pressing his wrists to his ears. In time, tolerance, though not quite acceptance, emerged as a working arrangement, and as a result his days passed a little more peacefully.

I played chess with him in those quiet times, and Tom often triumphed. During our games I stole glances, watched him studying the pieces on the board, saw his eyes in fixed concentration and his mind several moves ahead, and sensed the relief he felt to be involved in this small theatre of schemes and strategies as though returned on a temporary pass from the place of the dead—pulled away for a while from his experience of emptiness.

Tom belonged to what I saw as a rare, almost mythical species poised on the brink of existence—a view that was shared by some of his fellow inmates. He gave the distinct impression of knowing something the rest of us didn't or couldn't know, and there seemed no way through the language barrier. Left alone, he would spend his days almost trancelike walking the length of the ward, his lips moving as though speaking in prayer, with a lost tribe of other residents shuffling along behind him.

Perhaps they saw in him a ray of hope, though he didn't seem to notice them. Each time he reached the end of this well-worn linoleum-covered road, he calmly repeated the futile exercise of trying the door to the outer corridors and grounds. I had no doubt he would just as calmly and determinedly walk over a cliff, and perhaps his disciples would follow him.

In retrospect, it seems to me that Tom’s symptoms fit ‘Cotard’s Syndrome:’ an unusual condition popularly but erroneously described as a zombie-like state in which the sufferer believes that their vital organs are missing or that they themselves are dead. Whilst such a diagnosis might have drawn more attention to his case, however, it would have made little difference to his treatment.

We played chess during what turned out to be our final meeting, one of the few games where he found himself repeatedly put in check, and whilst I would like to think my skills were improving I fear my win was simply a consequence of his deteriorating interest in this, his last refuge. Not without some irony, following a fatal move he broke the prolonged silence: ‘I am now in a place where I’m as good as dead.’ I pretended to interpret this comment as a reference to the game rather than to the world of the ward. ‘Never say die,’ I told him as I moved my knight into position, knowing full well the game was over.

Does Tom’s story have any relevance for the rest of us? It seems to me that in the midst of life we are also in death, though not always as we might expect. The writer Vladimir Nabokov described the existence of Ivan Ilyich, the career-minded character in Tolstoy’s immortal novella, as a ‘living death’—an awareness that grew as his last day drew closer. There’s a parallel train of thought in the philosophy of Andre Gorz, who was keen to stress that the experience of life under capitalism was for many people a kind of social death, a view that may have its source in the existence depicted by Tolstoy of a life spent in pursuit of ultimately meaningless things. For Gorz, Tom’s life would just be the lives of others taken to extremes.

Ever fearful of a Gorzian existence I’ve sometimes wondered if the hour will come when I look back with regret on time spent deciphering self-assembly instructions for Ikea flat-packed furniture, fixing computer glitches, and working into the evenings and weekends following the stillborn language of audit trails, baselines and performance indicators—preparing to meet demanding deadlines dressed up as urgencies that were in the end irrelevant. Is it possible to avoid this fate?

One way is to prepare more actively for death by becoming more conscious of what makes life worth living. I’ve often wondered what, if any, outpourings of memory might rush by in the final moments of life. In an effort to address this question I set myself a three-minute exercise of meditating on death, allowing the final thoughts, life highlights, experiences and regrets to float freely to the surface in a mesmeric dream journey where the subconscious was given free rein to come through. Time-jumbled memories tumbled out, each triggering another. It’s an exercise I now do regularly. Simply putting myself in the position of considering what I might recall if I was just about to die brings me rushing back to planet earth, gulping for air. Beautiful earth, beautiful skies, and well worth actively preserving.

There’s no shortage of studies on death. Thanatology is constantly expanding. Several UK universities offer a Masters degree in Death Studies. There’s a Death Studies journal and an increasing number of books on the subject—notably Timothy Secret’s ‘The Politics and Pedagogy of Mourning’ and Judith Butler’s ‘A Precarious Life.’ Transformation ran a whole series of articles on the social context of death in 2016. This literature poses some fundamental questions: What counts as grief in life? Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives and what makes life worth living?

Against the backdrop of inequality and suffering, but also of solidarity and a meaningful life, these authors question the motives behind extravagant ceremonies of solemn commemoration, noting that in death, as in life, the existence of some people is acknowledged whilst that of others is routinely ignored. From the point of view of moral and political philosophy, what we think of death and how we value the dead are inextricably bound up with how we value life and the living.

A growing body of evidence suggests that simply thinking about death can play a pivotal role in rebooting our self-awareness and the motivation to achieve the highest level of human-beingness that’s possible—a process described by humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers as inherently pro-social. Several studies such as Kenneth Vail’s ‘When Death is Good for Life’ support this healthy lifestyle choice. Vail found that people were more likely to be kinder to themselves and more helpful to others following an increased awareness of their own mortality, and that both close relationships and wider social bonds were intensified as a result.

The stoic and former Roman slave Epictetus counseled thus: ‘Let death be daily before our eyes.’ This approach to the good life isn’t popular in today’s death-wary Western cultures. Most people don't want to be reminded of the 400 year-old words of Thomas Gooding etched in the walls of Norwich Cathedral. In fact most don't want to talk about death at all, and those who do are urged to ‘get a life.’ Yet far from ‘raging against the dying of the light,’ deep reflective thought about death, rather than its disavowal, can bring us closer to self-compassion and concern for the well-being of others. It’s perhaps the best two-for-one offer most of us will ever get.

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17 February 2017. Trying to save the world should be fun

If we can't find joy in our work for peace and social justice, what's the point?

Credit: Common Dreams/CC BY 3.0.

Since Election Day in the US my mood has been sunk deep in the shadows. It’s been hard to find the energy to smile, even on the sunniest day.

Then came the Women’s March. I arrived late and joined the march in mid-route. The signs, the banners, the colors, and everywhere the smiles—it was like plunging into a river of hope and good cheer, flowing gently and gracefully through the streets.

Suddenly, all those negative feelings that had been freezing my heart for more than two months vanished. This was exciting. This was exhilarating. This was FUN!

In a flash I felt like a time machine had swept me back nearly half a century to my first protest marches, against the Vietnam war. And I remembered what I should have known all along, the lesson I first learned in the late ‘60s and had to re-learn, over and over again, in all my years of activism since then: Politics is supposed to be fun. If your political activism isn’t fun, you aren’t doing it right.

For all the mistakes we ‘60s radicals have made, we got one thing right. Activism, done right, means following Gandhi’s motto: Be the change you want to see in the world.  Create, here and now, as best you can, the future you are trying to bring about.

For most of us, that future is a world filled with as much joy as possible, a world where it is easy to have fun, not all the time, but most of the time. So that’s the change we should be, now.

We started out protesting a horrendous war that we watched on television every night. Nevertheless, we found so many ways to bring fun into our protests and all our political activities.

Now our chief concern, highlighted in the Women’s March, is the oppression that some people and groups may experience at the hands of a minority that still thinks it’s the majority. We won’t stand for anything less than full justice and equal rights for all people.

But there is little point in securing equal rights for all if all are going to be merely equally joyless. What we want is a society that offers equal opportunity for joy to all, and equal opportunity to have fun. So, as we work toward that goal, we should take care to bring as much joy and fun as we can into the process.

Having fun is also a smart political tactic. Sadness, anxiety, and gloom drain us of energy and hope. Joy and fun fill us with energy. They make us more hopeful, make it feel like there’s good reason to keep on keeping on.

It’s going to be a long four years. We are going to need all the energy and hope we can muster. It’s just a smart tactic to fill our activism with as much fun as we can.

It isn’t very hard, as we saw at the March. Enjoying the diversity of ideas and images created by such diverse people all around us was fun. Seeing all the creative signs and banners and costumes, hearing the chants and the songs, was fun.

In all our activism we can incorporate such creative tactics. We can have parades, pageants, street theater, satire, stirring oratory, dinners, dances, communal feasts, coffee houses, cabarets, and much more. It’s all fun.

And we do all of it together. As we saw at the March, the sheer excitement of creating the kind of massive community we would want to live in, even if only for a few hours, is surely a lot of fun. We will rarely be in a community that big. But whatever kind of activism we do, we usually do it with others, with friends old and/or new. Creating and renewing bonds of friendship, finding pleasure in the give and take of relationships, feeling the joy and excitement of being part of the group – all that is bound to feel like fun, not all the time, but much of the time.

In my years as a teacher I talked to a lot of students who were considering starting some kind of progressive activism. I always told them that there was no guarantee their efforts would change the world. But I could guarantee that in progressive activist circles they would meet the nicest people. They would surely share uplifting experiences with people they like and admire. And that would be fun.

Just hanging out with good folks who share your political views, sharing the banter, the jokes and the sarcasm, even the griping and commiserating, is a kind of fun. We spend a lot of that time making fun of people and political views we oppose. Why not recognize that we are having fun?

Fun is an attitude that we can choose. We can choose to see the funny side of so much of political life, at least some of the time. And we can interpret most of our experiences in activism as fun if we choose to.

Suppose a group of you go into a Congressperson’s office and have to deal with a semi-robotic staffer who obviously knows much less than you about your issue and gives you no answers but empty cliches. It’s like talking to a stone wall. What’s the point? The group can easily leave depressed at how useless it all seems.

Or you can walk out and say to each other, “Well, that got us charged up. We got to see how ridiculous those people can be; it’s enough to make us want to laugh. And we showed them how knowledgeable we are about the issue, as good citizens should be. Hey, that was fun. Let’s do it again some time.” Focusing on the fun rather than the frustration makes it more likely that you will, indeed, do it again some time.

We can never predict with any certainty the effects of our political actions. In that sense, activism is always an adventure into the unknown. Thinking of it like that is yet another way to make it exciting and fun.

When we decide to look for the fun in our activism, it helps us focus on the intrinsic value of the process rather than judging it solely by the outcome, which can often lead to feelings of failure. Though the outcome may be less than we hoped, we can make always make the process feel gratifying and, in that sense, a success.

Of course we cannot be having fun all the time. We are activists because we are paying attention and caring deeply about what’s going on in our country and in the world. That means we are seriously worried and often depressed every time we read or watch or hear the news. It’s unavoidable.

That’s precisely why we should take care to fill our political lives, and every aspect of our lives, with as much fun as we can. America needs us to be at our strongest and most effective, as we try our best to move the nation closer to liberty and justice for all, despite the forces dragging us down. So America needs us to be having some fun along the way. Let’s remember to stop every so often and ask ourselves, are we having fun yet?

This article was first published on Common Dreams.

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15 February 2017. How we talk about race and safety can really make a difference

Speaking with both honesty and care can transform a conflict in unexpected ways.

Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay. Credit: Twitter/

“Do you really believe that US police kill black people unprovoked, without any real reason?”

This question from an Israeli friend of mine is no more unusual than the relentless killings of black people themselves. Like my friend, many white people remain unaware of structural racism and implicit bias. They believe that the police are simply doing their best to protect public safety, and are reinforced in their views by the fact that police officers are acquitted so often.

Safety is a tricky concept, both abstract and emotionally compelling. Focusing on safety activates the fight-flight-freeze part of our brains. Our circle of care then shrinks to include self and kin only. This dramatically reduces the chances that we will reach out and collaborate with others in a moment of actual or perceived conflict. In that way, framing things in terms of safety separates us from each other and from the larger web of life of which we are a part.

As David Schneider says, a Rice University psychologist and author of The Psychology of Stereotyping, “the most popular stereotype of black people is still that they’re violent.” These stereotypes are not accidental; they have been reinforced for centuries with devastating consequences for African-American communities. In some parts of Oakland, for example, black youth don’t walk outside in their own neighborhoods for fear of being targeted. An East Bay Express article documents extensive racial profiling by white residents on the private (commercial) social network Nextdoor, while the company itself and some of its users have given less-than-serious consideration to complaints about racism.

The criminalization of the Black community, and the structures that sustain it, also inform police action. Ongoing police violence is why a UN Committee condemns U.S. for racial disparity and police brutality. Vox reports that Black teens are 21 times more likely to be shot by cops than white teens, and USA Today reports a staggering racial disparity in U.S. arrest rates. According to the Guardian, the “final total of people killed by US police officers in 2015 shows the rate of death for young black men was five times higher than white men of the same age.” 

Still, despite all the evidence, Blacks and whites are worlds apart in their perceptions about the role of race in the US. On every measure used, the gap is significant. For example, 84 per cent of blacks say that blacks are treated unfairly by the police compared to only 50 per cent of whites.

In that case, how can white people who do understand these realities respond?

Bridging the gap of perception, especially when safety is invoked, requires speaking both from our heart and to the other person’s. As the following stories illustrate, this is far from a trivial task. It requires changing what we say to ourselves, and, by extension, changing how we speak. More than anything, it takes a commitment to learning over time, and never giving up. 

Melanie is a white woman from a small town in upstate New York who I talked with on a recent conference call. She encountered the standard stereotypes of black people in a conversation with a police officer. Speaking of the mostly black population of housing projects in New York City, he told her that they deserve worse treatment than he gives them. When Melanie spoke of their humanity, he countered like this: “these people are thugs; they will rob you; that’s just what they do, and then they laugh about it.”

Melanie was paralyzed: “I was really unsure what to say to the police officer in the moment because my mind was racing around judging him,” she said. Even while seeing the irony that she was judging him for judging “these people,” she remained unable to reach across the divide and connect. Neither she nor any of us can truly have a conversation with someone while judging them. Something else is needed to give us the power to subvert societal scripts. It starts with reflecting on what makes it possible for police violence—and more generally, white indifference to the plight of black people—to persist.

The officer’s words provide a window into answering that question. No explicit thoughts about black people are required. Structural privilege hides the effect of our actions, choices, thoughts, and lifestyles on other groups of people. Sometimes, the conditioning that comes with privilege obscures the very humanity of others. For the police officer it’s simple: one group that’s implicitly white deserves safety, and the other group that’s implicitly black deserves punishment. With that mindset, anyone can contribute to violence without actively choosing it.  

Here’s a dilemma from my own experience. I had just boarded a Southwest flight in the US. Gradually, I became aware of an escalating conversation behind me. A white flight attendant was telling one of two young black women in an exit row to move, saying that she hadn’t responded with a clear ‘yes’ when asked whether she could perform the required actions in the event of an emergency. The young woman insisted that of course she could, and had said so. The flight attendant said repeatedly: “I needed a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and you gave me an attitude.”

I can’t imagine a white woman being told this, so despite my unease I decided to step in (I’m providing a window into my internal thought processes because I hope this might support others in their own reflections). My habitual response to situations involving authority tends to be fearful, but as I often tell other people, “use your privilege, mobilize it for everyone’s benefit.” Despite being Jewish and an immigrant, I know my relative privilege as a white woman. So I stood up to speak.

Ideally I believe in finding a way to care for everyone simultaneously in a situation like this. In this case, I didn’t find it on the spot. Instead, I chose to prioritize the needs of the two black women to compensate for their relative lack of power. With barely an acknowledgment of the flight attendant’s concern for safety, I focused on the potential racial undertones of the conversation. Instead of the situation deescalating, the flight attendant brought the white captain and a Latina security guard to our seats while I was talking with the young women and offering them my support. The black woman then agreed to move, and I continued to monitor things, standing. When the security guard raised her voice to tell me to sit down or get on another flight, I lost my courage and complied.

On some level, my intervention was unsuccessful: the young black woman ended up vacating her seat, separated from her friend in the absence of other seats. The airline staff didn’t consider any perspective outside the frame of their safety protocols. But on other levels, perhaps something was achieved. The two black women thanked me, leaving me with the sense that what I did had had a micro-effect—perhaps supporting them in being ever so slightly less alone in what was happening. I also succeeded in diverting a cloud of hostility towards myself. Maybe a few other people noticed and perhaps thought about what was happening. My seatmates, an Asian-American couple, initiated a conversation and affirmed my perceptions and action. Something outside the norm did happen.

What was missing, perhaps, was more of a capacity to see the humanity and concerns of the flight attendant even while advocating for the black women. Speaking with a high degree of honesty without losing care can sometimes transform a situation in unexpected ways. When we manage this feat, the person we challenge might respond differently in their next moment.

This is what the writer Ijeoma Oluo did in response to racist trolling on Twitter on Martin Luther King Day in 2015. By Quoting Dr. King, by offering empathy to her troll, and by sharing her experience directly, she transformed the situation. By the end of their exchange, she had discovered that the ‘troll’ was a 14-year old boy who had lost his mother and was using Twitter to release his anger. His final words? “You’re so nice and I am so sorry.”

When we don’t make a conscious attempt to include and understand everyone in a challenging situation like this, we can come across as telling the other person that what they’re doing is wrong, which doesn’t help us to bridge perception gaps. Even when we are free of judgment, it takes a concerted effort to make that clear across divides. Stating explicitly that we trust another person’s intention not to cause harm deliberately can go a long way to reducing their defensiveness, and opening the way to a different outcome.

For Melanie, this would have meant acknowledging the concerns of the police officer she was speaking to at the same time as standing up for the community that he was maligning. For me, it would have meant communicating to the flight attendant my care for the dilemma she was facing, at the same time as standing up for the dignity of the young black woman who was asked to move—not one or the other.

Whatever we try in challenging situations like these may or may not work. We can’t know that in advance. I only know that each time I allow myself to feel the heartbreak of these situations, to see my own humanity and that of others, and to learn from my mistakes, I get one bit closer to the world of my dreams. There’s nothing more I could ask of myself or anyone else. 

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14 February 2017. Cold war, hot love

The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a revolution of the intimate. To open our series on Romantic regimes, we discuss the trajectories of emotional socialism and emotional capitalism in the post-Soviet context. Русский

Russian lovers per excellence, in Western imagination: Yuri Zhivago and Lara, protagonists of Boris Pasternak´s Nobel Prize winning novel "Doctor Zhivago". Source: Wiki Commons.In the mid-1990s, I observed Russia’s transition to “emotional capitalism” — a value system based on personal autonomy, individual choice and private interests not only in the market, but in the private realm, too. Every morning as I made my way to school, I would linger at the newspaper stand near the metro, where I was entranced by the ever-changing assortment of newspapers and magazines. Glossy covers, one after the other, with pictures of racy women and equally racy cars were forcing the greying Pravda into the back row — until it disappeared completely. Whereas the front page of a newspaper previously ordered Soviet citizens to dedicate every minute of their lives to socialist labour on factory floors and fields of collective farms, Cosmo, Vogue and GQ now insisted that men and women alike ought to focus on a new sphere of productivity: their own lives and their own bedrooms.

“Sex or Chocolate: There is time for Everything!” a Cosmopolitan cover instructed a nation that had just ceased to measure their lives in five-year plans. Moreover, it claimed that “successful thirty-year old women did not need husbands” and invited the reader to test “how well they know their partner”. Once again in the history of the twentieth century, the Russian individual was to be radically “re-forged” (to use a Soviet term), this time from collectivist, fatalist Homo Soveticus into an emotional capitalist who measures the quality of their marriage on a scale of one to ten, masters the “25 sexual positions everyone can for a fold-up bed” and knows how to “pursuit their emotional needs” in a communal kitchen.

A Western lover per excellence, in Russian imagination: Cosmo girl. This is the cover of the first Russian issue of the Cosmopolitan magazine published in May 1994. Source: of the heart suddenly acquired a new vocabulary: where the thousand-page Russian novels said “love”, the stars of the new sitcoms said “relationship”; where our folk songs sang of “destiny”, Cosmo spoke of “decisions”; where our mothers were still saying “fiancée”, we were learning to say boifrend and gelfrend; and where well-bred Russians shrugged shoulders and turned red, Cosmo said “sex”, “oral sex”, “anal sex”, “body contact” and “orgasm”.

The usual pattern of relationships has been challenged, too. In place of a steady progression of “falling in love”, “seeing each other” and “getting married”, we are now taught to “stay independent”, distinguish between “sex” and “feelings”, give the partner a “trial period” and only then “commit”. This was a revolution of intimacy. Together with the economic and political regimes of late socialism, another, subtler but equally potent regime had crumbled — the romantic regime, a system of emotional conduct that affects how we speak about how we feel, determine “normal” behaviours, and establish who is eligible for love, and who is not.

To open oDR’s series on “Romantic regimes”, I spoke to Julia Lerner, a sociologist and professor at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, and a former resident of St Petersburg, who came up with the concept of “emotional socialism” in her research on emotional language in the mass media. 

Julia, how did you come to the topic of “emotional socialism”? Did you yourself experience the clash of “Soviet” or “Russian” ideas about emotions and love with their “western” counterparts? 

I left for Israel when I was 18 years old — the very peak of the beginning of romantic relationships, and I, of course, searched for love. I was in love with Israel, its language, and I wanted relationships only with Israelis. But I was completely unprepared for the way first dates are conducted there. For instance, I heard this Hebrew expression lo matim li (“this doesn’t suit me”) from a young man. And I just couldn’t understand what it meant, why he was saying this to me and what further development of our relationship it foresaw — would he call me after or not? I understood Hebrew, but this expression was completely alien to me. 

What does this lo matim li mean? First, it supposes an autonomous Self. And this Self has some kind of emotional needs, a clear idea of what and who is suitable, and who isn’t. This might be banal, but it’s like as if he’s entered the supermarket, and there are different women there, and he’s choosing — but he can’t make up his mind straight away, and so he tries, and after the first or second dates, after sex, he says “No, I don’t want that, but that, yes, perhaps.” And he isn’t thinking about offending me, not at all. But he has his Self, and the Self has needs. He — Igal, Omri, Dudu — knows them and is constantly studying them, and this is why it seems to him that he isn’t humiliating me whatsoever. I just don’t suit him, but he doesn’t say anything about that to me. That is, I’m just absent from this picture. 

In the Russian model, if you don’t fall head over heels, then you aren’t really in love, and this kind of love won’t bring you happiness

But the most important thing after someone says lo matim li to you is that you have absolutely nothing to say. The whole romantic scenario of wooing someone just doesn’t work anymore. Because how will you woo them? Change their needs? Change yourself so you suit them? 

According to the Russian version of love, you can love someone that doesn’t suit you. And this doesn’t make you “unhealthy”, as it were. It actually emphasises your humanity. But in the western model, if you love something or someone that doesn’t suit you, it means that you’re neurotic. 

Sure, that’s how I see it. But the differences are felt even when people come to the conclusion that they “suit” one another. After I got married to an Israeli, we nevertheless perceived what happened between us completely differently. I was still signed up to that model of love where there are certain laws. In the first place, love - either it’s there, or it isn’t. But he was “in a relationship”, which could and had to be “worked on”. It’s interesting that, despite the fact that a Soviet person was meant to work on themselves in different spheres, you still can’t “work on love” in the Russian paradigm. Love is beyond that. 

lead If Anna Karenina did a better job working on her relationships, may be she wouldn't have to be so sad. Photo CC BY-ND 2.0: John E. Branch Jr./Flickr. Some rights reserved. In general, the therapeutic management of emotions is an illusion. Because, in actual factual, you don’t choose anything. You organise yourself, your behaviour according to a healthy norm. I spent a year in America, and the whole time there I had the sense that everything was designed to cultivate the feeling that you had many choices. So that you would never think that you had no choice. And this is why you would be constantly asked if you wanted a plastic bag or a paper bag — you were supposed to have the feeling that you were choking on this choice.

How free are we in love? We live in this paradigm, we choke on this choice, as you put it — but how real is it?

We’re limiting ourselves to romantic love right now, yes? When another, separate person, who suddenly according to fate, or your choice, or because they satisfy your needs becomes something significant for you and you want to be with them, spend time with them, touch them – in this sense?

For me, freedom is not a relevant issue when it comes to this experience. It seems to me that this kind of love, this kind of attachment, it fundamentally denies the possibility of freedom. It proposes dependency instead. Compromise. It’s just in the Russian model that the women, as a rule, always compromises, and not the man. But, on the whole, freedom can only exist from it, from love, but this kind of freedom is charged with unhappiness and emptiness. 

What are emotional socialism and emotional capitalism? Do they actually exist? 

Let’s start with capitalism — it’s been studied and described in closer detail. Emotional capitalism is a very general concept that tries to describe the result of the interaction of different economic forces, grand cultural narratives and social institutions. It’s a fusion of psychological discipline and its practices, free-market capitalism and the major life scenarios of American culture. Here you have the protestant ethic, and individual autonomy, and the never-ending ideology of choice. This mixture, this is what emotional capitalism is.

Pet Shop Boys - Love is a bourgeois construct. 

Emotional socialism is also a fusion generated by disparate phenomena existing in the same historical time and place. Firstly, this is the economic and value system of socialism — its principles of collective property and service to society. Secondly, it includes the life scenarios of Russian, or rather, Russian-language culture, at the heart of which lie the norms of 19th century literature. Apart from this, Orthodoxy and, of course, everything that Soviet ideology had to see about emotions and your private life. 

In this sense, “Russianness” plays a role in emotional socialism, just as “Americanness” does in emotional capitalism. This is why, when I talk about emotional socialism, I don’t lose sight of the dominant role of Russian literature and, of course, Russian language itself. That is, you can probably work with the concept of emotional socialism in Cuba and China, but it will be different from the former Soviet Union. 

Of course, we should be critical towards the idea of “emotional socialism” as a reality. Any attempt to describe a culture purely in opposition to another is fraught with simplification: we start to see more differences and fewer similarities. When someone or something starts to be perceived as an Other, then that Other very quickly transforms into The Other, the complete opposite. What I mean is that the Russian emotional style, the Russian style of relationships, the Russian model of love begins to be interpreted as the polar opposite to the American, western and so on. 

I don’t consider Russian or Soviet emotional culture something exotic, something that would be completely alien to the population of France, Britain or America. This is why the concept of “emotional socialism” very strongly simplifies our understanding. All that being said, the idea of emotional socialism seems to me correct and suitable for analysis. In the post-Soviet space, people think and talk about their private lives, emotional experiences differently. And this becomes particularly prominent in Russian-speaking émigré communities where there’s the possibility of direct comparison, reflection. 

Let’s come back to the life scenarios that emotional socialism is built upon. What do they represent? And who are its heroes? What qualities do they have? What trials and tests do they have to pass through? 

Well, for example, I understand that the protagonist of Russian literature suffers, and his suffering is his value. That is, avoiding suffering is not his goal. In modern pop-psychology (don’t confuse it with Freud!), there is the idea of avoiding suffering. The Russian narrative doesn’t have this, it has pain. Suffering is not seen as a barrier, as something that suggests you’re living your life wrong, or doing the wrong thing.

A Soviet lady in distress was a lady like any other and had the empathy of women far beyond the USSR. Best proof: an Oscar won by "Moscow doesn't believe in tears" in 1981, arguably, the most famous socialist rom-com. Photo: RIA NovostiI’ll give you an example. I once carried out some research for Sochnut, the Jewish Agency for Israel, about how they should represent Israel to Russian Jews still in Russia. So that they would understand how good they could have it in Israel. The agency decided to opt for a business strategy, rather than an ideology: Russian Jews most likely have some unsatisfied needs, and Israel should be represented as a product that will satisfy them. 

The main life scenario today is self-realisation, personal growth. Curiously, people find this scenario largely through self-help technologies and media, rather than through professional psychology

We did a huge number of focus groups, and I saw something that really surprised me: people spoke about their unsatisfied needs, but changing their place of residence was not, for them, a way of solving them. The majority of them said that to learn how to live with these problems, get used to them, live despite them — this is was a more meaningful, valuable experience. This is their route to success. This doesn’t wash over that a million people left, but people who stayed articulate their reasons in these terms.

This is another specific element of emotional socialism, which is a place for things like fate, destiny, circumstances. There’s a certain set-up of forces or some kind of route that you follow, and you need to follow it, not resist it. To adapt, not change. 

In western literature, Homo Sovieticus or Soviet man is often described precisely in these terms — as someone who is subjugated to circumstances, who doesn’t have what is called “agency”, that is, self-definition, freedom of will, the freedom to take action. Personally, it seems to me that this reading is rather simplified and incorrect, and so I’d like to ask you: where does emotional freedom, the emotional will of a person raised on emotional socialism lie?

Most likely, it’s in the freedom to fall head over heels in love, in the freedom to love madly. Why was there such a cult of love in Soviet literature, cinema? After all, it was completely legitimate to make films about “mad love”, betrayal, leaving your family.

It was, it seems, a special kind of niche: to lose your head, the freedom of emotional self-expression. But not with the aim of “self-realisation”, for example, but an end in itself. Here, economic prosperity and happiness do not follow from big authentic feelings. And nothing good, as a rule, comes of them. Perhaps, it’s like the exercise yard in prison. A system that always holds you in place very firmly, but, to exist, has to create some spaces where its guard drops.

So it’s like Mikhail Bakhtin’s “carnival”, the authorised chaos in a world of total control. Russia’s freedom to lose your head has a dark side, too: domestic violence, abandoned children, alcoholism, the highest number of divorces per capita in a developed country. Is “losing your head” really freedom or a just lack of responsibility?

This is a normative question. It suggests that we look at “Russian” and “American” love judgmentally. I try not to suppose that Russian love is madness and irresponsibility, and American is responsible regulation that minimises harm to oneself and those around you, or, indeed, the other way round — that Russian love is true and deep, and American is like a programme for robots. Although in all my personal experience, I feel ambivalence, my own conscience and language are psychologised and, perhaps, through my fantasy about Russian emotions I am trying to resist their complete colonisation.

How are life scenarios changing in post-Soviet culture? Where do people get their ideas of how to express their emotions, how to live with them?

There’s been a discursive shift. It’s become unclear where we find meaning, where these meanings are produced. I think that, for a huge number of people, blogs and Facebook – this is all that they read. And social media are incredibly normative. It’s completely clear that the place of classic literature as a source of life scenarios and, in particular, emotional life, has been seriously reduced. 

The Soviet individual was made with an axe, and what you just described [self-help culture] is an attempt to slaughter this personality type with a weapon that is just as blunt

The main life scenario today is self-realisation, personal growth. Curiously, people find this scenario largely through self-help technologies and media, and not through professional psychology. Russia has a therapy culture, just not a culture of turning to therapists for help.

The idea of freedom from love as freedom from dependency, which is promoted in self-help literature, is also very popular. But it often takes very radical forms, such as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). How do you explain this? 

This is usually connected with a situation where a break with the past is being sold well. Some researchers write that you have to understand Soviet civilisation not through the command economy, but the building of a new type of personality, individual. The Soviet individual was made with an axe, and what you just described [self-help culture] is an attempt to slaughter this personality type with a weapon that is just as blunt, together with its emotional socialism, and create a new one in its place. And that’s in a situation where, when we analyse what’s happening in Russia’s media discourse, in popular culture, we see a lot of Soviet material there. 

The format of communicating ideas is absolutely Soviet. The emphasis and aim (to destroy the old or foreign) is absolutely the same. I was just thinking that, if we’re going to talk about emotional socialism and emotional capitalism, then we’re currently living in the times of the emotional “New Economic Policy” (NEP) — i.e. a time of permitted experimentation and acquisition after upheaval. In 1925, Nikolai Bukharin came to the workers and peasants and announced: “Get rich!” And this is precisely what post-Soviet self-help does. It comes to people and says: Onward, take control of your life, you don’t owe anyone anything! Don’t give up your seat to old ladies on the metro. Only get married to an alpha male who brings in 100,000 roubles a month. What do you think?

That’s an interesting thought. But at the same time, I think you and I have fallen into a certain trap of this omnipotent emotional capitalism. We’ve taken the bait, and used its baseline economic metaphor. Take me, for instance, I recently went to a professional coach, who explained to me how to grow in my profession. And she asked me: “How do you fill up your emotional bank? Let’s take a look at what investments you have, what outgoings?” And I told her that I don’t want to use those kinds of concepts. I don’t see my soul and my life as a bank.

I am not sure that this is necessary or the correct way to write about the emotional lives of people and their concerns in terms of property, capitalism and socialism. There’s something wrong about this, in accepting this structure of thought as a baseline. 

Let’s round up. what’s the main difference between “Russian” and “western” love? 

In the Russian model, if you don’t fall head over heels, then you aren’t really in love, and this kind of love won’t bring you happiness. And in the American model, if you lose your head, then it’s first and foremost a sign that something’s wrong with you. To be happy in love there, you need to show — yourself and your partner — that “I can live without you”. 

Coming soon: the next part of “Romantic Regimes”, where we look at the changing norms of love in marriage counselling in Czechoslovakia. 


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13 February 2017. America is not the Promised Land

Wrapping Jesus in the Stars and Stripes so that we can wage wars, claim exceptionalism, and justify the expansion of US business interests is not Christianity.

Credit: Some rights reserved.

I constantly battle a myth within me. It formed me—as ancient stories do—and its logic crops up unbidden as I go about my life. I notice it as I walk along the shore of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga and the land vibrates with history. Making my way over the bridge to the business district, the streets swarm with students and tourists visiting an aquarium, a museum, a theater, and restaurants. In the midst of business, I remember that my city is known for being a Bible-based city. It is one of the most Christian towns in the nation.

When I descend the steps to the river’s edge, another story emerges. Native symbols line the stairs, and murals mark our essential elements of wind, fire, earth, and sun. The walls call to the four corners of the earth, lending me a compass that grounds me as I honor the Cherokee Nation that once thrived on this land, before their forced removal created a Trail of Tears along which thousands of people died from disease, starvation, and exposure.

As I stand at the water, I remember how I’ve prayed along these shores with their members and elders. Our chants matched the rhythm of beating drums as they scattered ash into the flowing river, lifting up those who died along the terrible path. When I walk along the river, my internal mythic battle ensues.

As a white woman who grew up as a conservative Christian, the European colonizers’ story mixed with my theology in awkward ways. I internalized those triumphant ideas of Manifest Destiny—that the American people hold special virtues, that we are exceptional, and that it is our divine right and destiny to remake others in our own image. In our history, as settlers moved west to take more land, Manifest Destiny reverberated through pulpits, proclaiming that we were a Christian nation, a ‘shining city on a hill.’ 

Growing up, the Religious Right echoed this message and I often heard it. We co-opted the stories of the Jewish people. In our Sunday school classrooms, we learned under the glowing visage of Warner Sallman’s Jesus. The curriculum recounted narratives with flannel-graph figures in the shape of a blonde Moses leading his pale-skinned followers through the wilderness to the Promised Land. As our teacher tried to make the lessons of an ancient nomadic people applicable to our 10-year-old 1980s lives, we understood that the U.S. was our Promised Land, given to us by God, so that we could have religious freedom.

As we moved from our classrooms into the sanctuary to hear the pastor expound, our national narratives became more confused with the stories of the Bible. We learned that God blesses certain nations, and God was blessing America. It was our duty to defend our country, fight for its Christian identity, and inspire its people to uphold the highest moral purity.

The clear evidence of God’s favor was our wealth as a country. We were to be a light to all nations. In my pew, the words of Jesus began to sound a lot like Ronald Reagan’s addresses. When we belted out, “Onward Christian Soldier” and “God bless America,” our hearts soared and our eyes watered, because we believed that we were exceptional. We had reached the Promised Land, and we intended to defend it against any physical, religious, or moral threat.

Now, thirty years later, I have broken with my Religious Right heritage and have written about healing from the damage it has caused. I became a social justice Christian and a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). As I walk along the shores of the Tennessee River, I realize how mixing God and white nationalism together has had devastating effects on my country, particularly when it comes to inciting wars, suppressing religious freedom, and encouraging the spread of unbridled capitalism.

First, in the military actions of the United States, we have heard the echoes of crusader language coming from those who want to use religion to frame armed missions abroad. Conjuring God to ignite warfare has been an effective mobilizing tool since the days of the Emperor Constantine, but peace between nations is impossible when suspicious politicians drag  faith onto their battlefields. President Trump’s ban on immigrants from seven Muslim countries shows how the war on terror has been set up as a religious war, and how politicians have used ‘God and country’ rhetoric to incite public support for it.

In order to stop this flagrant use of Christianity to foment violence, we must realize that American soil is not the Promised Land. Instead of allowing faith to be dragged into war, we have to unravel our deepest beliefs from the possession of property and economic gain. Only then we can look to the ancient wisdom of different religions to inspire peace, forgiveness, and dignity between faiths.

Second, the concept of religious freedom—the right of people to practice their faith and not persecute people of any other faith or none—has long been upheld by the religious Right. Yet instead of understanding this right as celebrating all faiths in a diverse country, they perceive themselves as persecuted. Conservative Evangelical Christians often understand the idea of religious freedom to mean that they have the right to uphold certain beliefs, even if that belief causes discriminatory action or physical harm to another citizen.

For example, they might explain that a baker should not be forced to bake a cake for a couple’s religious ceremony if the baker does not agree with same-sex marriage. Or they might maintain that a business owner should not have to provide insurance coverage for a woman’s reproductive health.  But when the rights of Muslims are severely curtailed, many of these Christians don’t seem to feel the same passion to defend religious freedom.

When we understand that American Christians are not God’s chosen people we can begin to uphold the right of all people to practice religion, or not to practice it. If we begin to uphold the religious convictions of all people, then we must recognize the dignity of those who celebrate a religious ceremony, women who need access to reproductive health, and refugees who travel across borders for sanctuary, because above all, we are people who have been called to lives of love.

Third, the idea of a God that blesses people with wealth has seeped into our national dialogue so deeply that many Christians do not begrudge an economic system that encourages the increasing disparity between rich and poor. In fact, they have baptized it as holy, because they imagine people with wealth and health are blessed by God. On the other hand, those who struggle to pay their debts or cannot access medical care are seen as morally flawed. But the American system of high student loans, limited access to healthcare, and low wages makes solvency untenable for most of the population. As U.S. influence expands to other countries, the economic interests of the USA have taken on a missionary fervor.

Yet Christians must know that their faith has been co-opted. When they go back to their texts, they see that Jesus claimed that the poor were blessed, and he compels us always to be looking after the “least of these.” Jesus said that when we feed a hungry person, clothe a naked person, or welcome a stranger, we welcome God.

As I look over the Tennessee River and stand with the ghosts of the past, I’m reminded that Christianity does not condone wrapping Jesus in the American flag so that we can wage wars, claim exceptionalism, and justify the expansion of U.S. business interests. America is not the Promised Land. Instead, Jesus calls out over troubled waters in a nation which still has to recognize its great atrocities, and he encourages love for our neighbors as for ourselves.

When faith is used by its most pernicious elements to incite violence, oppress religious diversity, and create economic disparity, we need to reclaim the truth of our moral core: we need to relearn love.

Carol Merritt’s new book is Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God after Experiencing a Hurtful Church.


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11 February 2017. ‘Arrival’ and the possibility of conversation

The gift is their language itself, and the new perception of reality it unlocks.

lead New arrivals. Sand sculpture at the 'Sandworld' exhibit in Warnemunde, Germany, 2014.Flickr/Brando.n. Some rights reserved. Arrival, the film adaption of the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, has been recognised as one of the most intelligent sci-fi films of recent years, as concerned with helping us see our own world anew as with what might exist beyond it. It is especially poignant, perhaps, that Denis Villeneuve’s movie was released only days after a bitter US Presidential race, whose outcome was only the most shocking upset of a year that has exposed seemingly irresolvable political and cultural divisions. For essentially it is a story about the possibility of communication, of bridging the abysmal gulfs that stop us talking to each other.

An alien civilisation visits Earth, their opaque, ovoid spacecraft – monumental structures recalling 2001’s monoliths – materialising one day at various locations across the world: the Indian Ocean, the Siberian tundra, the plains of Montana - twelve in all. Their portals hover a few metres from the ground, inviting entry. The subsequent meetings with the extraterrestrials powerfully convey something of the radical otherness of alien life. Partially visible, swathed in swirling fog behind a transparent screen, the tentacular ‘heptapods’ have no front or back, and communicate by projecting enigmatic circular symbols on the barrier’s surface. This is sci-fi that understands the difference between encountering and communicating with other forms of life, recalling Wittgenstein’s observation that if ‘a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him.’

But a breakthrough is made. And as the alien script is gradually decoded it becomes apparent they have come to bring a gift, not war, and that the gift is their language itself, and the new perception of reality it unlocks: the ability to see, as they do, into the future as well as the past, to experience time as a totality, not simply as a linear series of events. That may be an improbable interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language structures our perception of the world. But whatever liberties have been taken with the theory for cinematic purposes, the film’s essential message is delivered with emotional force and clarity: a shared language opens the possibility of conversation, and conversation the possibility of peace. It’s a thought worth holding onto today, when our public discourse is so charged with anger.

Poster for Arrival (film).The spectacular political events of 2016 indicate that fierce but familiar differences between neoliberals and social democrats, austerians and Keynesians, social conservatives and liberals, climate change sceptics and environmentalists, have been transcended by a more elemental divide between what might be called ‘nativists’ and ‘cosmopolitans’: between those who emphasise national identity, protectionism, isolationism, fidelity to place and family, and an idealised past; and those who prioritise internationalism, trade, social liberalism, and an idealised future.

Even mainstream politicians have indulged in the intemperate rhetoric that suffuses contemporary debate, the centre-left Hillary Clinton referring to Trump supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’ and the centre-right Theresa May suggesting in her Tory conference speech that ‘a citizen of the world’ is ‘a citizen of nowhere’, unable to ‘understand what citizenship means.’

But Villeneuve’s film reminds us that we do share something fundamental: language. However much we disagree about the interpretation of concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘prosperity’, ‘happiness’ and ‘equality’ we recognise they form part of a common moral vocabulary that offers a starting point for conversation. We do not stand on either side of a screen, with nothing to say to each other. Our moral grammar is ‘open-textured’, contestable, rich in possible meanings that can be shaped and refined through discussion between parties who – precisely because they disagree – all have something unique to bring to the table.

The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose work emphasises the importance of conversation, suggests that our debates are so intense not because we have different values, but because we recognise the importance of the same set of values and disagree over their meaning:

“It is, in part, because we have shared horizons of meaning, because these are debates between people who share so many other values and so much else in the way of belief and of habit, that they are as sharp and as painful as they are.”

And today, for cosmopolitans concerned by the rapid rise of the new populism, it is especially important to be prepared to talk about those elements of our moral grammar that risk colonisation by the nativists, such as ‘patriotism’, ‘faith’, ‘family’, ‘security’ and ‘community.’ These are words that belong to all of us, and close consideration of their meanings shows that, like all moral terms, they are inherently fluid concepts that permit progressive as well as conservative interpretations.

Consider, for example, that most charged of words, ‘patriotism.’ Certainly, it is saturated with ostensibly conservative sentiments: the love of a homeland, with its particular landscape, myths and history, and the sense of pride and belonging that attends that love.

But these are complex sentiments. For the conservative the idea of nation may evoke the continuity of a settled social order, the slow evolution of a constitution and its embodiment in the figure of a monarch. But progressives have their own rich national mythologies - histories of uprisings, labour movements, radical writings - which over time secured the gradual enfranchisement of the wider population. And it is possible to retain a special bond with one’s own nation while believing its interests are best served through membership of transnational institutions. National loyalty does not preclude internationalism.

‘Community’ is another term that risks appropriation by the new populists, for whom it signifies attachment to family, neighbourhood and place, in contrast with a ’rootless cosmopolitanism.’

But communities are always in flux, forming and reforming as their populations shift, morphing into fresh shapes as new clusters of people find ways to live together. Something similar might be said about ‘family’, a term that through history has been used to refer to many configurations, encompassing extended families, nuclear families, adopted children, heterosexual and gay couples, and single parents.

And the value of community – however it might be understood – is something recognised by both radicals and conservatives. Community is the necessary condition for any kind of progressive political project, the source of the collective agency necessary to build welfare states, health services and education systems.

Consider one further example, ‘faith’, a term freighted with notions of timeless patterns of life established by what has been revealed and cannot be changed. But religious traditions have always yielded radical as well as conservative interpretations, producing liberation theologies as well as doctrines demarcating gender roles.

Discussion with those with whom one profoundly disagrees is, of course, hard work, requiring courtesy, patience, a capacity to listen and a recognition that dialogue usually won’t change views overnight, if at all: our foundational values are deeply rooted, evolving over long periods of time, with a high degree of immunity to whatever questions might be raised in the course of a challenging conversation.

Arrival fondly imagines a universal language that, once understood, facilitates spiritual awakening, a kind of Zen enlightenment that opens the way for a new era of peace. Our reality is rather different: language is always, by its very nature, contestable, even when we share the same vocabulary.

But if we are prepared to keep talking, and to begin fresh conversations, we can continue to refine and enrich our moral language, to find new meanings in well-worn words, and find surprising points of agreement with those with whom we most disagree. A simple thought, but important today, when darker means of resolving conflicts loom on the horizon.

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10 February 2017. How Somali Muslims are raising a 10,000-person anti-hate army

The refugee community in Minnesota is a big target for bigotry, but they have a plan.

Credit: Fibonacci Blue / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In November 2015, Asma Jama, a Somali-born woman living in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, was waiting for her pasta alfredo at Applebee’s, chatting in Swahili with her family, when she was confronted by Jodie Burchard-Risch. Burchard-Risch demanded that Jama speak English or go home. Then, she smashed her beer mug in Jama’s face.

The attack was shocking and made national news. This past December, Jama spoke at the sentencing hearing for Burchard-Risch, who pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and will serve six months in jail. Jama recounted the fear she lives with after the attack, saying she no longer goes anywhere alone. Still, she spoke words of kindness to the woman who showed her none. “In front of everybody here,” Jama told the packed courtroom, “I forgive you. And I hope that you choose love over hate.”

Minnesota is home to the nation's largest Somali population. And like so many Muslim communities throughout the United States, Minnesota Somalis are organizing to combat the Islamophobia stoked by Trump. The Minnesota Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) plans to activate 10,000 Minnesotans using a three-part strategy grounded in the belief that people will, when given a chance, choose respect and understanding instead of fear, following Jama’s example of rejecting hate.

CAIR-MN plans to use a combination of traditional organizing tactics and new outreach efforts to communities not historically engaged in this fight.

Successfully engaging thousands of people to fight Islamophobia depends on an understanding that Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-MN, laid out to about 60 Somali and non-Somali activists in late December. “Most Americans agree there is something wrong with how we are treating American Muslims,” Hussein said. “They know something is wrong, even if they cannot identify it.” As Trump’s presidency approached, Hussein told the room, “They know they’ve got to do something about it.”

Muslims expect American Islamophobia to intensify under Trump, and Somali Americans expect to be on the front line.

The Somali-American community had been the target of institutionalized Islamophobia prior to the campaign and subsequent election of Donald Trump. “The Somali community in Minnesota was at the blunt end of Islamophobia before this election,” says Hussein. “But it is a phenomenon that has outgrown all previous levels.”

Somalis in Minnesota are targeted.

The U.S. Census Bureau data estimates there are 40,000 Somali-speaking residents in Minnesota. Underreporting to the U.S. Census Bureau is common, though, and by some accounts, the number of Somalis—including resettled refugees, inter-state migrants, and native U.S.-born residents—could be twice as high. While Somali Americans have planted deep roots in the state, starting thousands of businesses and non-profit organizations, opening schools and mosques around the Twin Cities metro area and beyond, tension between the state’s largest Muslim population and native Minnesotans has risen in recent years.

The uncertainty and tension felt by Somalis result in part from the Somali identity inhabiting multiple American fault lines. Imam Hassan Mohamud put it bluntly: “We are Black. We are immigrants. We are Muslims.”

Mohamud, Imam at the Minnesota Da’Wah Institute, spoke at a recent anti-Islamophobia meeting, where he explained how Somali Americans feel the harsh rhetoric against Muslims, the anti-refugee rhetoric in general, and racism against African Americans. The compounding effect of this racism and Islamophobia has left Somalis feeling specifically targeted.

Last April, a Minnesota man crossed the border to Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he burned down a Somali-owned restaurant. The same month, former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman wrote an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune intending to address the number of Twin Cities-based individuals who returned to Somalia to fight in that nation’s civil war. In the piece, Coleman labeled Minnesota “ground zero” for radical Islamic terrorism and called out “a specific population—Somalis.” The letter was titled “The Land of 10,000 Terrorists.”

Perhaps the biggest source of concern in the Somali community—and the one that makes Somalis feel uniquely targeted by the U.S. government—is a Department of Justice program called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). The program is meant to root out radicalization and extremism on U.S. soil, but it has led to controversy and fear among Somali Muslims. Mohamud and Hussein both agree that CVE’s policy of offering money into a resource-starved population in exchange for information about activities taking place within the community has left the Somali community divided. Muslim support for CVE is rare, Hussein explained, but many are in a position where they need to choose the money over their opposition to the program.

According to Mohamud and Hussein, CVE imbeds Islamophobia into government policy. “The program’s very premise is Islamophobic,” Hussein points out. It targets one community, Somali Americans, and builds suspicion that any individual in that community might be a source of radical extremism. That’s “the playbook of the Islamophobia network,” Hussein says, and it affirms the principle that Somali Americans are a threat to America.

This was the tense landscape in Minnesota even before Donald Trump arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Nov. 6, two days before his election, to address his supporters. Trump said, “A disaster is taking place in Minnesota” as a result of lax vetting in refugee resettlement, “with very large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state without your knowledge, without your support or approval.”

Trump didn’t refer specifically to the stabbing at a mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota, nor to the ISIS trial in which nine men were tried for providing support to the terrorist organization. But the message that he did share was clear: The Somali community as a whole is a threat to Minnesota. “You’ve suffered enough,” he told the crowd.

Building a strategy toward understanding.

CAIR-MN’s overall strategy to fight Islamophobia is rooted in Asma Jama’s story of violence and forgiveness. She “has the literal scars (of Islamophobia) on her face,” and could have retreated after her attack, says Hussein. “But she chose love instead of fear.”

The first part of the strategy is to make conversations about Islam easier for everyone by “training the trainers.” CAIR-MN will provide the preparation for people to accurately combat the misinformation and fear used to perpetuate Islamophobia. Then, the trainers can talk to those who might be susceptible to that fear, those who have little contact with Muslims and are unfamiliar with Islam.

Islamophobia feeds on small pieces of misinformation that build a case for fear, says Hussein. That strategy succeeds because “people make decisions based on what they feel” and not what is true about Islam or Muslims.

The second part is to share success stories of the Somali community with non-Muslim Minnesotans to challenge the ugly narratives about Islam. Much of that sharing will take place on social media, used by many Somali youth. Hussein estimates that 50–60 percent of the Somali population in Minnesota is under the age of 40. They know English, have adapted to the culture, and are one of community’s best advantages in the fight against Islamophobia. The youth, Hussein says, are better able to communicate across the cultural divide—on the internet and off—without losing their own cultural identity.

Finally, CAIR-MN envisions an increase in traditional non-violent organizing tactics that raise public awareness, such as rallies and community education events. Mobilizing public events around Islamophobic incidents or targeted neighborhoods remains a crucial part in the fight against Islamophobia.

The most important element in these parts, Hussein stressed, is reaching beyond the existing participants of a conversation. Most people having conversations about Islamophobia in Minnesota are talking to people who agree with them, he points out. During Trump’s presidency, the only way to progress will be to hold conversations with people who disagree. “You can no longer say these people disagree with me or voted the other way, so I am not going to have a respectful conversation with them.”

Hussein would like to work with evangelical congregations, where pockets of Islamophobia can be found. Muslim outreach to evangelical Christians could “re-engineer how we communicate on this issue,” he says. “Without that outreach, we’re just talking to the same people we have already reached.”

Gaining resilience from experience.

Some Muslims use humor as a way to assuage the fear and uncertainty. Mohamud joked about an anti-Islamophobia sticker produced by a local organization that was translated incorrectly into Somali and Arabic, before moving to a sincere plea to recognize that “not all Republicans” are Islamophobes. He related the story of former Utah Sen. Bob Bennet’s dying remarks to Muslims, in which he apologized for his party’s embrace of Islamophobia.

Hussein opened his meeting at CAIR-MN with similar levity, joking about the election even as the fear created by Trump’s victory animated the room. There are reasons to be positive. From the election of the nation’s first Somali representative, Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis, who was sworn in last week, to the overwhelming interest in fighting Islamophobia that has emerged since Election Day, Somalis are hopeful.

The Somali community in Minnesota is a big target for bigotry, and tensions are expected to get worse. But in their experiences of facing both institutional and societal Islamophobia, their resilience and optimism is evident.

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

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8 February 2017. Can we handle the truth?

The critical need for genuine fact cannot be overstated.

Credit: Pixabay/Geralt. CC0 Public Domain.

In December 2016 Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” the word of the year, the singular term that their merry band of logophiles found to capture “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations” of the past 365 days. As an adjective, “post-truth” is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Our post-truth era is not a moment in time after truth, but the juncture beyond truth—an occasion in which truth is no longer relevant.

Can we no longer handle the truth? Perhaps that depends on what the ‘truth’ truly is.

Before we can dissect the pitfalls of post-truth existence we must first understand what truth is: the state of being the case; a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true; the property of being in accord with fact or reality. Truth assumes actuality but it does not require it. Often, for something to be held as true it must only be accepted as such: 70 virgins patiently awaiting in the afterlife, Meryl Streep as the most talented actress in the world, the sky above us a celestial blue.

Truth can be subjective, based on personal opinion and experience. The perception of truth, whether you’re a devout Catholic, Katherine Hepburn fan, or colorblind, redefines truth from person to person, seemingly without minimizing the acceptance of any one of those beliefs as truth.

In a world teeming with selfie affirmations, the idea of one’s own truth—‘my truth’—has come to define an entire generation. The pursuit of the authentic self comes with the freedom to editorialize. A quick search of #mytruth on Twitter reveals intellectual breakthroughs on everything from life wisdoms (“Attention to detail is what divides the exceptional from the average #mytruth”) to personal reportage (“#mytruth I woke up with that familiar clammy taste in mouth, mouth as dry as cotton. I blinked”) to financial advice (“Parents, save up: Cost of raising a child is more than $233K Children are a bad investment #mytruth”).

In this context, truth is not the same as fact—the quality of being actual, something that actually exists. Those creating their own truths are simply deepening their own beliefs.

Think about two people standing in the middle of Central Park as a bird flies by. New Yorker 1 says to New Yorker 2, “I just saw a red bird.” New Yorker 2 responds, “No, that was a yellow bird.” Technological interventions aside, there would be no way for this pair to confirm who is right, to know what the truth is—whether a red or yellow bird flew by. Even if the same bird flew by moments later, NYers 1 and 2 would never be able to confirm it was the same bird that flew by before, in that moment, at that time: hashtag my truth.

Truth and fact may not be synonymous, but what about fact and reality? One of Albert Einstein’s favorite thought experiments will take us down another hypothetically complex path.  

Imagine yourself in the first car of a train cruising down an outdoor track. Your friend is on a platform up ahead waiting for you to rush by. Lightning strikes, two bolts at either end of the train. From the platform your buddy sees both bolts crash at the same time. You, however, being closer to the strike at the front of the train, see that bolt first because the light has a shorter distance to travel to you. When comparing notes after the fact, both you and your friend would be right (you did see one bolt strike first and your friend did see two bolts strike at the same time), but here fact is certainly different from reality. With this thought experiment Einstein launched his theory of relativity.

Does that mean that facts are relative, too?

In an interview on January 22 2016, one of President Trump’s senior advisors, Kellyanne Conway, introduced the phrase “alternative facts” in response to conflicting truths regarding attendance numbers at the presidential inauguration two days before. On Inauguration Day, Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer alleged, among other things, that the 2017 gathering had the “total largest audience” of any inauguration ever, a fact that has since been hotly contested. In defense of her colleague and employer, Mrs. Conway offered “alternative facts” as an explanation for why Mr. Spicer’s comments differed from mounting evidence to the contrary—a very post-truth truthiness moment.

Later in the same interview, Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd railed against Conway’s contention, to which she responded, “There’s no real way to quantify crowds. We all know that.” Simple math seems like the simple answer to this inane debate, but even that measurable fact is in question. We dispute everything from the afterlife to the gods of acting, but surely this is something we can prove?

Well, maybe not. Spicer doubled down on his earlier comments by declaring that “sometimes we can disagree with the facts.” The New York Times estimates that 160,000 people awaited the newly-minted president’s inaugural speech. On day two in office Trump said that the event drew 250,000. Aerial shots of January 20, 2017 abound, but who can count every single person from 8,000 feet up?

Suddenly, each one of those attendees becomes a red-yellow bird flying by.

It would also seem that the line between alternative facts and ‘fake news’ is tantalizingly blurry. Having already asserted that truth is not fact or reality, it’s hard to remember a time when fake news didn’t exist. The Greeks gave a horse to the Trojans as a ‘peace offering.’ Closeted homosexual Rock Hudson was a ‘celebrated womanizer.’ Kids get to ‘meet Santa Claus’ at Christmas, who’s usually a guy in a fat suit making the minimum wage.

Everyday we’re bombarded with total falsehoods. Some we know and love, and some we unknowingly and blindly accept. Because the spectrum for truth is so broad, fake news can appear to be as rampant as the real thing. One man’s fake news trash is another man’s real news treasure.

Trump and his team have long had a tempestuous relationship with the media, attacking digital and print outlets for skewing reality. At a recent press conference, the president directed his fury at CNN for publishing unsubstantiated claims about some (ahem) personal matters, condemning the channel’s prodding reporter without allowing a question to be asked. A couple of weeks later CNN took what some might argue was revenge by not covering the inauguration in full depth, shying away from assessment and coverage for fear of ‘normalizing’ what many perceive to be a sad, scary truth.

No news outlet can cover every moment of history, but there’s an expectation that the ostensibly bipartisan news outlets on 24-hour rotation will capture most of the important ones. Without all the various insights and perspectives, how real is the real news really?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident” is what the forefathers of the United States declared. But even those truths, the ones we live and die for and free and enforce by aren’t agreed on. No wonder we can’t make up our collective mind about the color of a dress on the internet, whether the New England Patriots cheat (okay maybe on that one we can), or exactly how many people showed up to stand around for a few hours in Washington DC on January 20. Maybe we’re more self-referential now than we ever knew; maybe we’ve actually been ‘post-truth’ for a long, long time.

To be ‘post-truth’ doesn’t mean that fact and reality don’t exist. All of the events I’ve described actually happened. But the importance of truth beyond belief, the critical need for genuine fact, cannot be overstated. Our post-truth existence threatens to undermine certain truths that we do in fact hold to be self-evident, like the realities of science and discovery that are as close to undeniable as anything can be in this hyper-curated, deeply-connected world.

There’s a fine line between real and fake, between what actually is and what we perceive. That line has always been there, so the question still remains: can we handle the truth?

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6 February 2017. The inconvenient truth about foreign aid

For recipients aid has been a very mixed blessing, but for donors it’s been a bonanza. 

Credit: Flickr/DFID. Some rights reserved.

It’s astonishing when you think about it. Why should an old and poorly-performing industry carry on, burdened with even more tasks, and provided with yet more money? I’m talking about foreign aid, whose mixed results have been reconfirmed countless times in the last 70 years.

For aid’s backers, such skepticism is unfair or at best premature. Successes, from combating diseases to promoting the ‘green revolution,’ are held as self-evident. With new, smarter policy formulas and management focused on results, failure is soon going to be minimized. Across most of the Left-Right spectrum, aid still enjoys political backing. Western spending continues largely upward. New aid donors from Turkey to Thailand are joining in. And tasks are expanding.To achieve the 169 targets of the world’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals by the year 2030, global leaders concur that foreign aid is vital.

For aid’s critics, however, ‘mixed results’ is a euphemism for badly designed, poorly-managed efforts guided by donor hobbies and flip-flopping policies that ignores the graveyards of failed programmes, the histories of waste, and the sometimes toxic outcomes of aid born of coercion and incoherence. China and Vietnam reduced poverty significantly with almost no Western aid, while aid-dependent countries like Malawi and Timor-Leste have fared badly—in which case why does the aid industry keep on prospering?

To answer that question we have to look at the drivers and navigation systems at work upstream in the system where the captains of the aid industry confer. These drivers get little serious probing, but the knowledge we do have points to an inconvenient truth: the main systems of development aid chiefly serve the donors. The aid system colludes in redistributing wealth from poorer to richer. Under an aura of beneficence, aid is harnessed to self-interest.

Here’s how.

To buy goodwill from others or coerce them, aid provides a classic tool of statecraft. For the biggest donors it can buy votes at the United Nations, keep client regimes ‘onside’, punish troublemakers and open doors to powerful people. As a former senior US aid official put it, “Foreign aid … is like political campaign contributions:  it can facilitate the access of those providing it to those receiving it.” Giving aid helps governments to look good in diplomatic forums while encouraging taxpayers to feel good about their generosity.

In addition, ‘our security’ is at stake. Since 9/11 development and humanitarian aid has increasingly been subordinated to hard power aims—that is ‘securitized.’ European aid, for example, is now supposed to help curb irregular migration from Africa.  Meanwhile, military doctrine and operations have become ‘developmentalized,’ complementing older practices in which aid lubricates access to strategic assets as in Kyrgyzstan, where western aid was exchanged for use of an airbase serving NATO operations in Central Asia.

Boosting exports and investments are major objectives of aid providers. A scholarly consensus, backed by many studies, holds that the mercantile interests of aid givers usually enjoy priority over the interests of aid recipients. For donors the pay-offs are many. For example, for every €10 the Dutch provide in bilateral aid to an average recipient country, Dutch exports to that country increase in the short run by €7 to €9. In the longer run, as goodwill and force of habit take hold, aid-induced sales then become even more lucrative. In the period 1988-2004, each dollar in Western bilateral aid yielded 2.15 dollars in additional exports of goods and services by Western businesses.

Donors use aid to gain footholds for their industries, like Japanese fishing fleets in the South Pacific, French uranium mining in Niger and oil and gas companies in emerging producers of hydrocarbons. Aid providers work assiduously to lower costs and risks for their business investors using subsidies like low-cost loans, insurance and market advice. In recipient countries they add to physical infrastructure and occasionally skilled-up workforces. But the aid system’s most powerful contributions involve the transmission and enforcement of ‘sound policy’, meaning policy that is suitable for investors.The formulas are well-rehearsed: sell-offs of public property; weaker protection of labour rights and environmental safeguards; and taxes shifted from foreign flows to domestic sources.  

Under the World Bank’s ‘competitive cities’ approach, municipalities are pushed to compete for outside investment by offering tax ‘sweeteners’, land and other subsidies. With the rise of financial sector power, donors have facilitated the growth of stock markets and hot money flows. Key to these investor-friendly climates has been austerity—driving down public spending in recipient countries.

Acting almost as bailiffs, donors also help to extract payments to big pharmaceutical and software firms who own patents, copyrights and other kinds of ‘intellectual property.’ In the years 2012-2015, sub-Saharan African countries together paid about $10 billion to these private interests, up from about $8.7 billion in the years 2007-2010. But because rich country tax laws allow firms to hide profits, these World Bank data may actually understate the true scale of extraction.

Under vigorous donor pressure, poorer countries have poured trillions of dollars into Western banks under a rationale of self-insurance. As the economist C. P. Chandrasekhar has pointed out “This reverse flow of capital essentially means that excess savings in emerging markets are being ‘recycled’ in ways that put the responsibility of allocating that capital in the hands of a few financial decision makers … sitting at the apex of a concentrated global financial system.”

Consistent with their promotion of rent-seeking from ‘intellectual property’, donors show almost no interest in curbing cartels and other anti-competitive practices by transnational firms. Research is scarce, but it points to massive losses for poorer countries. One study estimates that annual losses are equivalent to at least 50 percent, and could equal as much as 300 percent of aid disbursed.

Donors have also invested in knowledge, but gains can flow back disproportionately to themselves. Aid for the ‘Green Revolution’, for example, helped boost crop yields in poor countries, but major beneficiaries have been western agribusinesses. Up to the early 1990s, estimated returns to such firms were forty times the amount of aid paid out originally by the US for research and development of the ‘Revolution’s’ higher-yield technologies.  

Contrary to the belief that aid-financed programmes target diseases that mainly affect people in the tropics, research shows that “development aid is intended to alleviate the threats to populations within the donor state.” And since the 1960s, foreign aid has brought hundreds of thousands of students from poorer countries to study at universities in Europe and North America. Today, student fees and expenses annually absorb more than $3 billion in aid—virtually all of it spent in donor countries.  Where the longer-term benefits from aid-funded scholarship programmes go isn’t known with much precision, but there is some evidence that former scholarship holders from Africa tend to stay in richer countries, or to work abroad in Western firms and other organisations.

In sum, poorer countries routinely put more resources at the disposal of donor country interests than they receive in foreign aid, yet it isn’t easy to demonstrate this inconvenient truth conclusively. Estimating the extent of the aid system’s collusion in ‘perverse’ aid is often guesswork because the system’s upper reaches lack transparency. Laws, rules, political agreements and sheer inattention shield many counter-flows from public view. Every year, thousands of evaluations of aid’s ‘downstream’ activities take place but I know of no formal evaluation of aid mechanisms ‘upstream’ that would indicate with precision who benefits and by how much.

Does it have to be this way?

In 1943, at a time of enormous human suffering, one of the 20th century’s greatest activist-philosophers, Simone Weil, wrote about the characteristics of practical compassion for others.  She insisted that help must be concrete and authentic: “All human beings are bound by identical obligations, although these are performed in different ways according to the circumstances…. The obligation is only performed if… expressed in a real, not a fictitious, way.” Today, in framing debates about obligations across borders, that plea has lost none of its relevance.  It calls for lucidity, and hence the rejection of pseudo-solutions promoted through the foreign aid system.

Activists, academics, journalists and NGOs in a number of fields are already focusing on counter-flows and the legal gimmicks and non-transparency that promote them.  Although based outside the mainstream aid system, these initiatives are getting respectful attention from some donors, notably in Norway but also in a few knowledge centres of the United Nations. A prime example is the movement for tax justice.These combined efforts have begun to pay off as better tax enforcement and new rules yield more revenues for public purposes. Meanwhile a bloc of non-Western governments at the United Nations led by Ecuador is pressing to create a global tax body

A system of global taxation won’t be with us soon, but as this idea gains traction it may open up a pathway towards an authentic system of redistribution across national borders. In so doing it could help to replace today’s machinery of upward redistribution, re-build decent social contracts, and ultimately sideline foreign aid as we know it.

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3 February 2017. Civic beauty without permission

Why tile a bridge across one of the busiest streets in a city without a permit and with almost no financial support?

Credit: works & conversations/Rick Hawes. All rights reserved.

Besides introducing me to Ted Fullwood, artist Tony May told me about Rick Hawes. In fact, we'd just left Fullwood's house when Tony said, "Let me show you something..." and I couldn't quite make out the rest of it—something about a bridge.

     "A bridge?"
     "There's a guy who's been tiling them."  
     "A guy tiling bridges?"
     Tony nodded. 
     "You mean like freelance?" 
     Tony nodded again.
     "He just started tiling them?" 
     Another nod.
     "You're kidding."

It wasn't long before we were standing on Santa Clara Street in San Jose, California, cars whizzing by, looking at a vintage concrete bridge. It reminded me of the bridges from the '20s and '30s I'd seen as a kid in West Virginia. The sides of the bridge had large inset panels and sure enough, the panels were tiled. In some places, tile had been broken off, vandalized. Each panel featured colorful original designs. Hawes had filled out the rest of the surfaces with a field of broken white tiles all carefully fitted together. The work obviously had required thousands of hours. But the work seemed to have been suspended some time ago leaving an impression of benign neglect.

"I want to meet this guy," I told Tony. If a man had decided to just start tiling a bridge in the middle of San Jose without bothering to file for a permit, without seeing a commissioner, without lobbying the board—well, that would be a pure act of... of what? —unauthorized civic improvement?  

Tony sent me a phone number a few days later, which yielded one of those pre-installed voicemail recordings—impossible to know if I had the right guy. I left a message anyway. A week passed, then another, and basically I forgot about it. Then five or six weeks later, I had a message on my own voicemail. It was Hawes. We chatted a little and I proposed an interview. Hawes was agreeable. Not a loquacious man. A few weeks later I found myself in a trailer park in Sunnyvale and was soon lost in a warren of little lanes. With the help of a generous mailman, I finally stood at Hawes's door. 

He invited me in and immediately wanted to show me around. It had been his mother's place he told me. Here, in her bedroom, was where he kept his books—loose-leaf notebooks, really, covered with white paper and hand-lettered. These were filled with clippings, pictures, evidence of an interest in things Oriental, Eastern philosophy, Islam, world religion. And there were birds and animals too, many volumes.

We went from room to room. Except for the notebooks and the ceramic tiles and the jars of glazes, the numbered glaze tests, the various sheets of design sketches and the long lines of tiles laid out in the living room carpet and also on the coffee table, the place had a conventional look. The furnishings and decor must have been his mother's. In a little back room, he showed me his kiln where he fired the tile he made, a tiny electric kiln that might handle three or four tiles at a time. Amazing.

When I'd first come in, I noticed on a little kitchen table several treats, which clearly had been set out, probably for me—a plate with watermelon wedges carefully cut, a bowl of chocolate chip cookies and another bowl of mixed nuts--enough for ten people. But as Hawes hadn't said a word about this spread, I'd kept my hands to myself. Eventually I couldn't resist and I pointed over at the table. "Oh, they're for you," he said and invited me to help myself.

I carefully moved a few tiles to make some space and set up my old tape recorder on the coffee table. By then I knew that Hawes was not an embellisher of tales. Instead, he was a man of action, perhaps of quiet action. But clearly he did not lack in either boldness or vision. Santa Clara Street is a busy, four-lane thoroughfare. Thousands of cars cross his bridge every day. It was hard to imagine setting up right there with all the traffic and also with people constantly walking across the bridge. No permits. Can people do that? Rick Hawes did.

Richard Whittaker (works & conversations):  You started tiling a bridge in San Jose, an old concrete bridge on Santa Clara Street. Tell what made you start tiling that bridge?
Rick Hawes:  I'd been doing volunteer community service for many years, gardening and landscape work. At that time I was still going to San Jose State, getting my master's degree in art when I discovered the bridge there. Someone had started tiling and had only done maybe a fifth of it. So I thought, this is something I could work on. I could beautify it. It would be an avenue where I could use my talents for service to the community.

works:  Did you talk with anybody about your idea before beginning?
Rick:  [laughs] No. I just went ahead and started. 
works:  You saw a need and just started in on it?
Rick:  Yes. I thought they would welcome it. Police would see me sometimes and would ask me if I had permission, and I'd say, no. I'd tell them I just thought it needed to be done. Eventually an agency got a hold of me and told me I needed permission.
works:  How long before that happened?
Rick::  Several months. Then they wanted me to stop. And they didn't want me to paint the concrete where I wasn't tiling. At first they didn't want me to put the broken white tiles around the inset panels. They told me I had to get permission to do that. 
works:  So eventually you ran afoul of the city.
Rick:  Yes. But eventually they got me a $1000 grant. 
works:  Was this something you had applied for? Had you asked for anything?
Rick:   No. 

works:  So for several months before that you were just working away. How often during the week would you go out there?

Rick:  Three or four times a week. For a while, I was going every day. I used to go there before going to my job as a janitor. I'd get there at 7am and work an hour. Then I'd come back after finishing my janitor job and work on the bridge until dark. 
works: That'd be five or six hours a day on the bridge. And you did this for several months before the city told you to stop. Now the police, they left you alone? 
Rick:  Sometimes-I don't know if they were joking around-they'd kind of grab me and flip me around like they were going to arrest me or something, like I was a criminal. [laughs] I had a lot of different policemen. Later on, they'd kind of wave at me while I was working and say, "Good work!" and stuff. 
works:  They became friendly.
Rick:  Yeah. But occasionally they'd act like I was in trouble or something.  But they'd always let me go. 

works:  So they didn't ever put cuffs on you?
Rick:  No. Not until 2007 when the lady went crazy and stirred things up. The work I was doing wasn't up to her taste, the style of the tile work.  
works:  They put cuffs on you then?
Rick:  No. They told me if I worked on the bridge any more, they'd throw me in jail. The lady found out my permit was out of date. And I didn't get permission from the transportation department. I didn't get a permit from the San Jose arts program. So that's kind of how it is now. I can't work on the bridge. 
works:  Now what was the year you started? 
Rick:  1990.  
works:  So this was seventeen years later. 
Rick:  Yes, I worked for about seven years pretty consistently, but I had a real small apartment then and I just accumulated too much stuff. It got so I couldn't work anymore and I ran out of ideas, too. I burnt out. So I quit for years. Then I lost my job and I moved to Mt. Madonna Center in the Santa Cruz mountains. I started doing tilework up there. 
works:  So when you were first working on the bridge after seven months you had to go and get a permit. Was that a big hassle? 
Rick:  Yeah. The city works very slow. I was ready to work and I had to wait. They were very slow. They had to get the right people to look at it. But some of the council members, David Pandora, he came over and thanked me for what I was doing. 
works:  Was it just one permit you needed?
Rick:  Just one. It took about six months. And then there was something about the white tile, which enhances the rest of the work. 
works:  Did you have to present drawings or plans?

Rick:  Yeah, they wanted me to do that, but I told them I couldn't do it that way. 
works:  And they accepted that?
Rick:  Yeah. So I was working on the Santa Clara bridge for a year and some neighborhood association ladies came over and asked me how would I like to work on their two bridges. These are to the south on the same creek, Coyote Creek. I said okay. So they got me permission to do that. Then they collected three hundred dollars to help me out. But I turned them down. [laughs] I said, "Keep the money." 
works:  Why did you turn them down?
Rick:  Three hundred dollars to do two bridges with tile work? People get paid three hundred dollars for one little piece of work! 
works:  But you weren't getting paid for the work you were doing on the Santa Clara bridge.
Rick:  Just that one thousand dollars.
works:  Have you done work on any other bridges?
Rick:  I got three bridges! Santa Clara Street, San Antonio Street and William Street. 
works:  So those other two were your idea, too?
Rick:  Well, like I said, these neighborhood association ladies asked me to work on their two bridges.
works:  I thought you turned them down.
Rick:  I turned down the money! I told them I'd work for free. So I did the work. 
works:  Oh, I see. Wow! That's really interesting. Did you complete any of these bridges? 
Rick:  No. The Santa Clara is closest. It's a lot of work. See, I've dealt with the small panels and now I've got the large panels. Those are the hardest ones to do. 
works:  Are you interested in finishing any of these?
Rick:  Yes. But right now, I'm not allowed to work on them. The director of Public Art in San Jose told me they could get me a permit. They want me to finish the Santa Clara bridge first. That's the one that's closest to being done. And they want to pay me for my materials. And there's a guy who owns a tile store in San Jose who is going to help me. He's going to supply the bisque tile and help me fire the tiles. But now we have this recession going and there are all these budget cuts. I'm thinking that maybe next year something is going to happen. My friend tells me I've done all these bridges without any help from anyone, so why don't I just keep working and finish it by myself? But I don't have a permit now. If it was just up to me, I'd rather work on the other two bridges. They have the smaller panels. I'd finish them and then get back to the Santa Clara Street bridge. 

works:  Tell me about your tile designs. 

Rick:  I used to do a lot more animals, a lot of birds and plants. I did some abstracts when I was going to junior college. I did some cat skulls and some self-portrait series. Each series of drawings took me about a year to finish.

From the drawings, I made some designs and then I made some tiles from them. After I finished those, I thought I'd like to start a plant series, so I started drawing ice plants. It's just a very sculptural plant. I thought I could get something in a year or two, but the thing has gone on for twenty years and I still haven't been able to take it to the level I wanted to. Now I'm burned out on it and am kind of lost. But if I go back to the bridges, I'll go back to nature. 
works:  Now these tiles here [letterlike designs], when did you start working on these designs? 
Rick:  A lot of these letters are very old. I dug them up from my journals. I've been keeping a journal for thirty years. These are mantras, names of God. I'm exploring this. If they gave me permission to work on the bridges again, I'd do the nature thing and maybe put the mantras in the background in a subtle way. [Hawes gets up and retrieves one of his journals, large with pages full of writing and lots of visual content- sketches, photos, torn-out magazine pages. I spend some time looking through several pages. The drawings are quite interesting.] A lot of this stuff is not high art.
works:  More like design. This is from what, the '80s? 
Rick:  '70s, '80s. 
works:   When did you first get interested in doing art things?
Rick:  I did a little drawing in high school and had some artist friends, but never thought of becoming an artist until I was in pre-med at DeAnza College over here. My fantasy was to become a chiropractor, but I was having some difficulty with the math and science. An astrologer told me I might have a little art talent. So when my medical studies sort of fell through I switched over to art. Eventually I got a master's at San Jose State in ceramics. 
works:  [He hands me a folder with photos of the bridge tilework]. These bird designs are beautiful. I don't know if I've seen any of your animals. Do you have any animal drawings? 
Rick:  For my master's show, I had some vases with dolphins on them. I sold some of those. 
works:  If you had a clear shot at those bridges, what you would want to happen?
Rick:  If they gave me permission, I'd like to finish them. It'd be a challenge, because I'd like to get the colors right. I've been having problems. I keep redoing and redoing it. In order to finish them, they're not going to be perfect. You know Marlow Bartels? [no] He's a tile artist down in Los Angeles. Great stuff! He can just do it, and it looks pretty good. But I'm trying to get it perfect and it's a lot of trouble.
works:  You want the colors to be just right.
Rick:  Yes. Something like a mosque. But it takes too long. They're not going to be quite perfect. Sometimes you get a beautiful color, but the relationship next to another color changes it. And sometimes, the glaze colors don't turn out quite right. It's not like painting where you can change the color right there. You've got to make another tile, glaze it and fire it up. 
works:  Why do you think this woman stirred up trouble? Have you ever talked with her? 
Rick:  I don't even know who she is. The crazy thing is that when I first started, she had one of her sons come over and give me some fruit. It's funny that at one time she thought I was doing ok. I think maybe some other people talked with her and put some ideas in her head. She's into more conservative stuff. Mine's more like graffiti. But Antonio Gaudi, he did it. And that was a hundred years ago. She's out of touch. She doesn't know what's going on. His stuff kind of looks like graffiti in a sense. 
works:  He's a wonderful artist. One art friend of mine went to Barcelona and was standing there in Parque Guell, and it made her cry. Ever been there? 

Rick:  No. There's one part of the park there. If I could just get a book on that section, I wouldn't need to go there. I'd just need a couple pictures here and a couple of pictures there. 
works:  What is it you love so much about that part you're referring to?
Rick:  Gaudi took the tiles and cut them up and made all these different squares about two feet by two feet with white in between. It's just really neat. They had neat tiles, too, then. 
works:  Some of your work you probably feel really good about and some maybe isn't quite right. You're a bit of a perfectionist, I think. So how do you tell when it's just right?
Rick:  It just sings. Sometimes I work for months and I keep changing. I get an idea. I try this. I try that. And I run out of ideas. On the bridge I tried out all these ideas. And I hope to keep doing this. Eventually you figure it out and it just sings. 
This article first appeared in works & conversations.

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1 February 2017. Why mindfulness matters now

I didn’t learn how to cross lines of difference when I was younger. Maybe you didn’t either, but we can all learn it now.  

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

Many years ago I was working with a group of high school students from different faiths and races in Washington DC when a conversation around race surfaced and all sorts of things started happening at once: stereotypes, white guilt, people shutting each other down, and well-meaning attempts to fix the situation by universalizing particular experiences. The staff met to unpack these threads, but it didn’t lead to any clarity about what to do. 

Then I remembered a time when a friend had called for a few minutes of prayer in a secular meeting of national community service leaders.  So I suggested that we take ten minutes to be quiet together. When I opened my eyes, I saw my colleagues spread out around the room: Jason, a white rabbi, at the window praying; Liz, Catholic and Latina, on her knees with her hands clasped on a chair; and Christian, an African-American Baptist who had pulled out his bible.

The room seemed different—quiet but charged with a palpable energy that made it easier to to figure out next steps.  We decided to use an exercise called “Cross the Line” to increase the students’ awareness of difference, empower students of color to articulate their own understandings of race, and engage everyone in dialogue.  Through a time of shared practice and the specific pathway of each person’s tradition, we’d been able to tap into a more expansive wisdom about interconnectedness.  It was one of the first times I’d experienced a link between the intelligence of the quiet depths and the urgency of action.

If you’re an activist, you’ve likely experienced multiple versions of this story. People who want change spend a lot of time in groups. Progress depends on how well we can hang together and get things done, whether that’s lifting a ban on refugees, ensuring climate science prevails or discerning right action and priorities in the era of President Trump.  As the assaults on human dignity and freedom pile up the weight can be paralyzing.  But the fact that so many different fronts are being threatened holds the key to our future because we know how deeply different forms of oppression are interwoven—and why that requires action across issues and identities. 

The nationwide demonstrations currently taking place under the hash-tag #NoBanNoWall provide a great example, making visible the interdependence between refugees, immigrants and those fighting alongside them. Likewise with the organized groups of Christians, Jews and veterans who showed up in solidarity with the Sioux Tribe at Standing Rock, who made explicit connections between colonialization, marginalization and occupation. However, coming together powerful lines of difference can be tough. The ability and willingness to cross more boundaries more frequently and with greater skill isn’t something that most of us automatically possess, and this is where creating space for people to engage in contemplative practice, prayer and ritual can be vital. 

I didn’t learn how to cross lines of difference when I was younger. Maybe you didn’t either, but we can all learn it now.  And we have to, because our shared humanity and collective survival depends on breaking through old fears and patterns.

Early in the Black Lives Matter movement I was living in Houston, Texas. Like many cities there were town hall protests, campaigns for police body cams and efforts to sign up more people of color to sit on grand juries. These were all vital actions, but there wasn’t much opportunity for people to connect with each other across racial lines. I was working at the Rothko Chapel, a unique space dedicated to art, spirituality and human rights, and we decided to host a program to encourage a deeper dialogue and enable members of the community to hear from historians of transatlantic black migration, elders, judges focused on cooperation with law enforcement, community organizers and many others. We wanted people to be able to express their feelings in the midst of a turbulent time and really hear each other’s perspectives.

At the beginning of the program we included a short meditation, encouraging people to connect with their hearts and with their breath, and explicitly welcoming different emotions into the room: grief, compassion, rage, hope and confusion. Then people broke into small groups mixed by race and age to talk. The room was filled with the buzz of laughter and tears, the energy of people speaking, and listening.  When the groups came back together, people were invited to share. Black parents spoke about their fear for Black youth; a white woman shared her struggles with a racist relative; and a journalist described the challenges of covering the complexities of what was happening. Much of what was said was difficult for some people to hear, but they kept on listening. 

It’s a good illustration of how practices like meditation or prayer can lend depth when people come together across lines of difference. There’s always a lot of creativity at the boundaries of things, in the spaces where open fields meet the forest, or at the edges of society where differences collide to create new possibilities and give birth to revolutionary ideas.  But these boundaries can easily become fault lines which embed differences deeper into society and politics. The good will that’s often expressed in one-on-one interactions doesn’t scale up so easily.  As groups grow and become more diverse, their members tend to be more competitive and less friendly.  Writ large we see this frequently on the left among those who are basically aligned with each-other around core values. And even when we do agree, we stumble and fail to build on each other’s good ideas or make the links between our different struggles. 

As a white woman working in multiracial settings I’ve learned these lessons the hard way, over and over again, and I know how it feels to freeze up in confusion or let fear push me to the safer sidelines. But I’ve been fortunate to have spaces that allow for vulnerability, and I’ve worked to create those spaces for others. I’ve seen what happens when the rough edges of racism are met with a gentle fierceness, and I know the difference between unhealthy shame and healthy regret. A lot of possibilities open up when we meet discomfort at the boundary with courage.   

This is where practice comes in. Many studies have documented the benefits of mindfulness meditation and yoga. They include an improved ability to handle stress, stronger cognition, less depression, and the ability to regulate emotions so that we are not knocked sideways when things get difficult.  One recent study showed that meditation can reduce what the researchers called “implicit bias” around race and age. Intuitively this makes sense, given the ways in which mindful attention slows down the stream of mental activity.  Practices like meditation interrupt our conditioned responses and enable us to step back into a different kind of awareness in which we can start to pull apart pernicious stereotypes and the oppressions they create.

Stopping or quieting the mind, or moving the body in a compassionate and mindful way through something like yoga, brings more attention to the tensions we feel in activism or when talking with those who disagree with us.  We can observe our thoughts and feelings with a little less judgment, and meet others in new ways.  And that’s what begins to short-circuit the default mechanisms we have, and the prejudices or internalized oppressions we might carry around inside of us. As a result, we can think more clearly and interact with others using the best version of ourselves.

However, we’ve barely tapped the potential of these shared practices to transform our politics and our future.  Now more than ever, we need to be bolder and more intentional about including them in our work.  We can plan ahead with colleagues to include yoga or meditation in group settings, not just in the easy contexts but in those with higher stakes too.  We can practice noticing people’s bodily responses and invite them to stretch in simple ways that might shift their energy and attention.  Or we can invite a few moments of silence and reflection when talking seems to have run its course. I think the United States is still in its adolescence when it comes to engaging with the realities and consequences of racism.  And I believe we all want to grow up.  Going forward, that is going to require greater capacity for risk.

As we scale up these practices we can increase our collective capacity to meet others across the boundaries of race, gender, sexual identity and political beliefs, and build stronger relationships of solidarity. It’s about being brave and willing to meet in the tight places, being willing to struggle and even squirm. Being at the boundary with each other is like going further in a yoga pose: if we’re mindful of the stretch, it becomes a fruitful place of growth, but if we’re mindless we can get hurt.  If we relax into the fullness of our breath, the mind softens too.  What’s difficult becomes generative of new ideas and solutions. 

Like the cells that build the body, all of this starts with us—in our daily interactions and in all the groups in which we find ourselves. I believe we all want what every group I’ve ever worked with has wanted: to be seen and heard, to connect authentically with each other, and to move forward to real results. Practices that bring us to the root of our truth like mindfulness can strengthen our capacity to face the future with compassion and solidarity.  And it seems like we’re going to need that more than ever.

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30 January 2017. Who wants to live in a frictionless world?

Unless life is uncomfortable, there’s no room for transformation.

Hoverboard Wars in Second Life 06. Credit: Flickr/Torley. Some rights reserved.

Does it matter that Micah Johnson was killed by a robot, albeit one controlled by human hands? Johnson shot five police officers during a demonstration in Dallas, Texas, on July 7 2016. Twenty-four hours later he was blown apart by explosives maneuvered into position by a robot-controlled device that was normally used for bomb-disposal, after a gun battle and the break-down of negotiations with police. According to the Washington Post, the action was “widely praised as an innovative way to eliminate a threat without risking more officers’ lives.”  

Violence by proxy is already commonplace in warfare.

This form of “violence by proxy” is already commonplace in warfare, where the use of unmanned drones is justified on similar grounds of efficiency. Studies have put the civilian casualty rate from U.S. drone strikes at anywhere between four and 35 percent of the total deaths they have caused. What’s not in doubt is that fewer U.S. military lives are put at risk when direct combat engagement is replaced by so-called ‘frictionless’ methods of attack. This trend will be even more pronounced when much more powerful weapons come on stream like ‘death rays’—giant lasers fired at ‘soft targets’ from the air.

These examples may seem extreme, but they are part of a much broader search for ‘frictionless’ solutions in business, technology, design, philanthropy, foreign aid, education and even politics. Backed by the ideology, influence and resources of Silicon Valley, the race is on to solve social and economic problems in ways that lower transaction costs and increase speed and efficiency, on the assumption that everyone will benefit.

Smart cities” can be planned using big data and technology; money and investment can flow more freely in a frictionless global economy; human judgment can be replaced by algorithms which can search vast oceans of information in seconds; decisions over health care and education can be made using the cost-effectiveness calculations of “effective altruists;” and “frictionless design” can minimize the journeys of users around the real or virtual office.

The titans of technology even have their own friction-free version of the Burning Man festival, designed to avoid cooking and cleaning for themselves: “we have great reverence for Burning Man” said organizer Russell Ward to the Guardian’s Nellie Bowles, “but there’s always an element of arduousness. Here we have spa treatments and green juice. There’s already enough in life that’s tough.”

Who really benefits from this brave new world?

It sounds great if you can afford it, but who really benefits from this brave new world?

The first point to note is that less friction for some means more for others—usually those with less wealth and power who must take on and suffer the consequences of those ‘arduous tasks’, which can be deadly. Drone strikes may be highly efficient for the US Marine Corps but not for the wedding guests (the bride included) who were killed or injured in a drone attack in Yemen in December 2013

Likewise, robot-controlled assassination may reduce the level of friction on hard-pressed law-enforcement officials, but it didn’t do much for Micah Johnson’s chances of a trial from which something useful might have been learned—or for the wider issue of accountability. As journalist Olivia Ward puts it, drones and robots “are your judge, jury and executioner—but they give you no case to answer.” The ease of use of such technologies could lead us to pay less attention to the broader social consequences of our actions.

It’s a similar though less lethal story in Silicon Valley, where the friction of finding a place to live is being aggressively outsourced from the rich to the poor. Technology companies like Facebook and Google worry that even staff who are well paid are struggling to find accommodation in the housing bubble of San Francisco, so they are buying up and redeveloping property for their workers and evicting low-income tenants.

To increase the desirability of neighborhoods nearby, technology gurus are also bankrolling efforts to clear homeless people off ‘their’ streets, echoing attempts to remove those who stood in the way of ‘progress’ in other projects of gentrification. More than a third of children in Silicon Valley are already without a home. Faced by the friction of opposition, the rich can pay, lobby and litigate until it goes away.

Friction is essential for social change.

The second problem is that the benefits of frictionless solutions only outweigh the costs in a restricted number of circumstances—and using a limited definition of efficiency. If I want to get from home to hospital in a medical emergency I want to do so quickly and easily—with the minimum of friction. You could make a similar argument for contactless payments or donations made on your cell-phone, or organizing a supply chain so that it provides what customers need just at the right time to avoid unnecessary costs, or reporting human rights abuses using a new online app. In these situations reducing friction is an excellent idea

But for anything that has broader social or political significance the calculus is different, which is why friction is essential for social change. We all have different interests, and different views about the ‘good society,’ the provision of public goods, and the ethical issues involved in decisions about technology. These views and interests have to be aired, debated and negotiated through democratic politics, which—at least in theory—both produces friction and reconciles the results so that no-one’s voice is excluded and meaningful consensus can be built. The hard work of transforming society is not something to be avoided, but something to be embraced. Only through face-to-face engagement and political struggle can power relations be contested and remade.

Human judgment provides its own source of friction in processes like these, often frustrating and unpredictable and bloody-minded because it’s based in deeply-rooted values and inspirations. Even algorithms and calculations of cost effectiveness contain value judgments made by human beings on the basis of their own biases and priorities. It’s the power relations that underpin the design and use of technology that are important socially and politically, not the machines themselves.  That’s why Facebook’s attempts to automate its news filters are proving so problematic.

Take the example of public school reform in the USA, a favorite cause of Silicon Valley philanthropists like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. Their model of choice is designed to reduce friction in the education system by pushing down costs using online or distance learning; narrowing the curriculum by privileging math and science over art and creativity; and measuring results using standardized tests and rankings of pupils and their teachers. The goal seems to be a more efficient production line of employment-ready graduates, not necessarily rounded human beings who are capable of dissent and imagination—and who can apply their own friction to the system in the future. But like all visions of education and learning, this model is saturated by a particular set of interests and values.

There can’t be any friction if there’s no-one left to produce it.

It’s no coincidence that part of this package consists of curbing the power of the teachers’ unions, which are friction-promoting institutions par excellence (or what we used to think of as counterweights and valuable sources of expertise). In fact any group that can get in the way of the techno-business elite is likely to be marked for disinvestment or undermining by other means, whether it’s a government, a labor union, a grassroots organization or a protest. There can’t be any friction if there’s no-one left to produce it.

In this world of friction-free learning, who checks the facts, or scrutinizes what’s being taught, or balances different views and perspectives? More speed plus a greater volume of information inevitably leads to superficial processing. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words; now I zip along the surface of knowledge like a guy on a jet ski” as the writer Nicholas Carr once put it. The art of thinking is supposed to be difficult and painful because our assumptions have to be exposed and tested. That’s why friction is so important. Friction slows things down and gives more people a role in producing and critiquing knowledge and ideas. This is the very stuff of democracy.

A world without friction is a world without politics, diversity or sufficient opportunities for human control and intervention. It’s a world in which elites can tighten their grip on decision making under the false promise of market efficiency, scientific neutrality, and technological progress. It heralds the dream—or perhaps the nightmare—of a population who have a basic education and a job or some other form of income security, but who lack the social and political structures and opportunities to be truly active citizens.

A world without friction is a world without politics.

Who wants to live in a frictionless world? If new technology can get me to the emergency room on time then I’m all for it, but in the social, political and artistic worlds there’s little that is healthily friction-free. Struggle is the bedrock of advancement. Our job is to insert ourselves as much and as often as possible into the wheels of technocracy, bureaucracy and business. We should resist anything that evades or removes the human dimension of problems and solutions in politics and economics. And we should celebrate the life-affirming benefits of friction when applied to privilege and power.

After all, unless life is uncomfortable, there’s no room for transformation.

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27 January 2017. What’s so feminist about yoga?

Despite the influence of capitalism on its practice, yoga can strengthen resistance and movement-building.

A young person doing the Cobra pose on a yoga mat outdoors. Credit: Everyday Feminism. All rights reserved.

Originally published on Everyday Feminism.

Yoga is not feminist.

Or that’s what you might think if you only know yoga through the lens of our capitalist, body-shaming, fitness-obsessed American culture.

Seeing magazine covers of thin, wealthy, White, cis women talking about “how to get yoga abs” certainly isn’t appealing for those of us working to eradicate inequality and oppression – nor does it make us want to give the practice a try.

Cultural appropriation is another serious problem in American yoga today.

The historical and contemporary colonization process of Western yoga serves to whitewash and erase yoga’s South Asian roots, while privileging the voices and bodies of White (heterosexual, cisgender, and wealthy) Americans as the owners, purveyors, and consumers of yoga.

This is certainly not feminist. Heterosexism, cultural appropriation, racism, inaccessibility, profit-driving, gender policing, and body shaming are not feminist values; in fact, recognizing and fighting against them are a necessary part of an intersectional feminist movement. And yet, these are all very present elements of yoga in America today.

They’re also completely counter to the values of the practice.

Feminism and yoga are in no way contradictory. In fact, despite all of this, I would argue that yoga and feminism are authentically bound. Despite the destruction that Western patriarchal capitalism has had on yoga practice and culture, yoga holds subversive, feminist elements that can strengthen our movement.

So what role can yoga play in the feminist movement? How does yoga challenge capitalism and systemic oppression, or strengthen our ability to be agents of social change?

What is so feminist about yoga?

Here are four things to consider.

1. Yoga changes our relationships to our bodies.

“By being physical without a focus on weight-loss or competition, yoga can help you become a witness to negative self-talk that comes from years of misguided influence of the media and other cultural forces. Despite what Instagram might look like, yoga can help you reject attachment to cultural beauty standards so that you can feel comfortable in your own skin.” —Veronica Rottman, feminist yoga instructor and doula

Although yoga has only in the last several decades begun to occupy a visible place in the American mainstream, yoga has been practiced globally for over 5,000 years. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj” meaning “to yoke,” or “to come together,” “to unite.”

The union of the mind and body is at the core of yoga and is certainly no small goal. We tend to view the mind and body as separate things in our culture, and we promote division by prioritizing one over the other.

Certainly, living under an endless amount of body-shaming, victim-blaming, and social pressures around sex and body image creates a context for toxic relationships with our bodies.

Feminism takes up this cause by examining, deconstructing, and challenging these norms. Yoga takes up the cause through the practice of embodiment. This process means connecting and reconnecting and coming into our bodies just by noticing what we’re feeling without judgment or any attempt to control or change those physical and emotional experiences.

Our bodies hold our life stories. They hold our grief and trauma, our anxiety, our sadness, our joy, our histories. And while we live in an incredibly cognitive world, we can’t always verbally explain what’s happened and is happening in our bodies. In fact, most of the time, we don’t even notice or care. The division of our “self” from our bodies allows the space for constant negative self-talk, criticism, and punishment of our bodies for just being what they are.

In a world that teaches us to constantly try to “take control” over ourselves – our bodies, our weight, our health, our emotions – it can be a radically feminist experience to learn to simply hold the space for our bodies to feel whatever sensations arise, to allow ourselves to carry what our bodies want to hold onto, to let go of what they no longer need, to breathe in their history and each passing moment.

This is what yoga teaches – to be in our bodies, fully, and to love the movement and sensations and emotions, with all their complexity.

2. Yoga can help us heal from trauma.

“Feminism offered the ideological tools to examine my tortured relationship with my body systematically and deconstruct mediated images. Yoga provided the practice that rooted the things feminism had taught me. It is one thing to intellectualize self-love and acceptance, it’s another to embody it.” —Melanie Klein, academic, feminist, yoga instructor

To live in this world as a person of marginalized identities is to experience trauma.

As I’ve discussed in past posts, oppression is immensely bad for your mental health. Healing from the systemic and interpersonal violence that one endures in this world, then, must hold a central role in our movement.

We cannot build a movement of strength without acknowledging the daily trauma (big T and little t) that has been carried out in the name of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and other systems of oppression.

When it comes to healing from trauma, both yoga and feminism play important and overlapping roles. While feminism gives us the framework for letting go of internalized shame, yoga grounds that healing in our bodies.

Increasing research shows that because we hold trauma in our bodies, yoga often gives us the tools we need to release it, to let go of the weight and conditioning and to find a new strength for moving through the world.

This process of healing and building strength and power is such a central part of our work. To be a part of this movement is to acknowledge the trauma inherent in living under and alongside rape culturepolice violence in Black communities, violence against abortion providers, the prison industrial complex, gender and sexuality-based hate crimes, and the list goes on and on.

We are witnesses to this trauma, and we are survivors of it. The practice of being present to it, to being awake, and to healing are central to yoga, and central to our social justice work.

The practice of yoga is not only healing – its philosophy also speaks to our social justice goals: The ultimate goal of yoga is liberation.

Yogic philosophy also holds values such as ahimsa, or nonviolence, and kharma, or selfless action, at its core. Yoga, like feminism, seeks to dismantle and deconstruct cultural notions and belief systems through critical thinking, or kind questioning.

It values non-duality and fluidity of the self and in our expression of gender. The idea of “wiping the fog from the mirror” is a common one in yoga – that we can wipe away that which clouds our clarity, that we can be increasingly conscious and awake to what is happening around us.

Yoga, then, can teach us not only to let go of harmful and rigid constructions of self as we heal from trauma, but fills that space with a framework grounded in liberation and taking action.

3. Yoga helps us cultivate being here now.

“The practice of yoga only requires us to act and to be attentive to our actions.” —T.K.V Desikachar

Yoga isn’t just about moving your body. Sure, we make cool shapes in a yoga class, but the practice is about so much more than that. In fact, yoga has eight limbs, only one of which includes the physical poses (asana). Other limbs focus on ethical standards, self-discipline, the steps of meditation, as well as connecting to our breath and to the present moment.

Yoga teaches us to sit in the present moment, to notice every sound, sensation, action – and to notice these things without judgment. This is also called mindfulness, and it is an incredibly challenging thing to practice.

It means being here now, in this moment, and facing whatever we may be trying to avoid by distracting ourselves with work, substances, or television. It also means truly seeing the people and other living beings around us. Seeing them not as separate from us, but as deeply connected.

While capitalism and oppression teach us to strive to “get ahead,” to compete and compare and criticize ourselves and others, yoga teaches us to accept ourselves and those around us. While capitalism values productivity and efficiency, yoga values slowing down and inaction. While capitalism teaches us we don’t own our own bodies or our labor or our time, to always be thinking of the future as a way to get through the long days of work, yoga teaches us that no one can “own” our time or bodies, and that the only way to truly live is to be fully awake to each and every moment.

While capitalism and systemic oppression serve to isolate us from one other and to separate us from our time, our labor, ourselves, and everything around us, yoga teaches us to connect with the present moment, and to the beings around us.

When we take action as a collective, as beings who are deeply connected to one another, we are better able to position the values of empowerment, equality, and empathy at the center of our work – and become a stronger feminist movement because of it.   

4. Yoga teaches both acceptance and change.

“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” —B.K.S. Iyengar

When I first started studying yoga, I remember having a really hard time with that word – acceptance. Why would I work toward a place of acceptance when there is so much in this world that needs changing? Isn’t acceptance of each moment counter-revolutionary?

While it can be difficult to hold both ideas at once, it’s possible (and even radical!) both to accept each moment as it is, while rejecting the oppressive violence around us and taking action to enact change.

We can hold that each moment is true and real and authentic while wanting events of those moments to be different. We can hold that we are who we are and where we are, while wanting both of those things to be better.

But we have to start where we are.

I think one of the hardest parts of being an activist is that change is so. frustratingly. slow.

And in a world where waking up to the truth of the terror happening around you can easily set you up for a lifetime of endless anger and frustration, it’s absolutely necessary that we make space for connection and joy.

It’s a long road to change, and burn-out is all too common in our movement. Yoga teaches us how to do just that – to be both patient and demanding for the necessary revolution; to accept and be grateful for each small change as we remain rooted in our larger vision and thirst for deeper shifts; to be awake to the beauty and power offered in each breath and moment, while challenging the emptiness, alienation, self-blame, and disconnection upon which oppression and marginalization thrives.

We need and deserve to see the beauty around us amidst the violence. By doing this, we remind ourselves what kind of world we’re fighting for, and keep that fire for justice burning.

Yoga also teaches us how to hold humility and an openness to learning, especially when it comes to learning from the wisdom of both yoga and feminism’s long history.

In our work, it’s essential to be open to learning from our history – from both the narrow, destructive past of White feminism’s exclusionary vision to the infinite wisdom of radical, intersectional feminists.

While Western yoga culture may position itself as ahistorical, taking credit for its own profit-driven existence, a feminist yoga practice teaches us that we are intimately connected to its long, vibrant history, as well as to its destructive colonization and appropriation from its spiritual roots and culture.

This awareness, gratitude, and openness grounds us in the wisdom of the past while teaching us to create an intention for the present and future.

While I firmly believe that yoga can hold a major role in our movement, this is by no means a call to embrace yoga culture as it exists in America.

There are real problems with the way yoga in this country is practiced and with whom it excludes. But I don’t think this means rejecting yoga completely. Instead, I would argue that the qualities of yoga that reaffirm marginalization and exclusion are definitively un-yoga. They’re counter to yogic philosophy.

There’s a difference between yoga culture and yoga practice – the larger yoga culture in America may be way too body-shaming and appropriative, but your practice doesn’t need to be. Take it from Sparkle Thornton and Dianne Bondy and Nick Krieger and Jessamyn Stanley. Take it from BlackWomenYoga and Queer and Trans Yoga and the Prison Yoga Project.

As we work to make our studios and practices more accessible, inclusive, and critical of the racist, heterosexist, cissexist, and cultural appropriative elements of yoga, we can also work to integrate the elements of yoga we find most beneficial into our movement.

I believe that yoga can only make us stronger activists – radicals with more energy, gratitude, presence, and deeper connections to one another and our planet.

While feminism continues to be our ideological framework for understanding and critiquing oppression, yoga can be the tool to ground us in that framework, to practice the awareness, compassion, and self-love that will create the space for us to be agents of change.

Just start where you are.

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25 January 2017. Empathy and vulnerability in the digital age

The cyber-world collapses the distance between the spectator and the scene of brutality, but does this encourage voyeurism or solidarity?

Credit: Flickr/Marina Shemesh. Some rights reserved.

While the technological advances of the 21st century have brought us unparalleled ways to connect with each-other through social media, they may also be producing a greater sense of isolation. We are drawn towards feelings of loneliness as we navigate an increasingly digitized world, even though the vulnerability of human life is on full display: from cell phone recordings of the murders of Americans of colour to videos from those who are documenting their precarious existence in the rubble of Aleppo; from the Facebook livestream of the torture of a Chicago teen with special needs earlier this month to the video-recording of the infamous ‘Coffin Assault,’ in which two South African farmers forced a man into a coffin while threatening to toss a snake inside and set it ablaze.

Not only do we have more real-time glimpses into the horrors of human savagery, but we also feel an increased intimacy to the victim’s vulnerability. These developments could, in theory, promote greater empathy and more empathic action, but responses to such horrors more often take the form of voyeurism, victim-blaming, shock, momentary outrage and pity, none of which are sufficient motivators for the kinds of activism that are required.

The crafting of empathic responses is necessary in building and sustaining meaningful political resolve, but empathy requires both patience and hard work. The active creation of empathy supports communities as they hone in and focus on long-term structural challenges while sustaining the difficult emotional work of collective and personal introspection. Identifying with the needs and perspectives of others allows for openness and learning, as well as the incorporation of new approaches and ways of thinking. These are crucial tools in building new social movements, alliances and coalitions.

But where empathy is demanding, these other responses to suffering on the internet are easy. Take voyeurism, the easiest response of all. The victim’s pain, suffering and humiliation are transformed from the visceral to the spectacle. By extension, the victim is transformed from a living, breathing and feeling human-being deserving of dignity into an object of entertainment. The dangers of this response aren’t new, though the technology may be. They echo the workings, public nature and souvenir-hunting of lynching in the United States, which necessitated an intimate proximity between the victim, perpetrator and spectator—forming “boundaries of fear and loathing within and between communities.”

It’s in this context that social media are extremely important. The cyber-world collapses the distance between the spectator and the scene of brutality, increasing both the power and position of the observer and the vulnerability and disempowerment of the victim. Any agency gained from such interactions is futile unless it is converted into empathy and on to action in which others are seen and treated as full and equal human beings.

Victim-blaming operates in much the same way as voyeurism, except that it also attempts to reinforce the perceived normative power of the accusers and perpetrators, a form of power that’s legitimatized by the victim-blamer through their relationship to the victim. This power imbalance is justified by the delusion that the victim deserves the treatment they receive as a result of their actions or beliefs: they become collateral damage in the quest for a greater good, a sentiment reflected in a comment on the Coffin Assault video that claims that “[t]his is the culmination of years of people killing farmers in South Africa and taking over their land.”

Shock is another, malleable response to such horrors. Naomi Klein has written extensively about the ways in which neoliberal institutions utilize collective shock in their efforts to increase their power to transform society. But momentary shock can also be used to heighten empathic action if exposure to human vulnerability is crafted in effective ways. This requires building communities of social and political practice in which shock, empathy and collective action are continuously connected. HandsUp United’s Books and Breakfast program provides a good illustration of what this means in practice. Over the sharing of meals and literature, a politics of solidarity and responsibility can be formed.

On the surface, the next reaction to horrific events witnessed on social media—momentary outrage—has more merit, because it lends itself to some level of identification with suffering. However, the empathic nature of this response is often limited by the sheer immediacy of digitized interaction. The duration of an event’s discomfort and thought-provocation is cut short by the new and intense stimulation that is brought directly to our cell-phones, tablets, laptops and digital watches. In the process, our outrage at injustice is often too fleeting to allow for any meaningful reflection or the organization of considered responses.

However, the pragmatism of centrist politics demands that leaders follow the logic of momentary outrage in their actions. Promises to rectify injustice are rarely followed by long-term or structural changes. This leaves space for reactionary politicians to tap into genuine pain that has not been translated into action. In this context, such reactionary figures come across as truth-tellers even if their arguments are devoid of factuality. For example, the Danger and Play website claimed that the perpetrators of the torture of the Chicago teen with special needs came from the #BlackLivesMatter movement and reflected their values. These claims were proven to be nonsense, and the alleged perpetrators have rightly been charged with hate crimes on the grounds of ability.

Pity may be the most damaging of all responses. At worst it is used condescendingly in projects of social stratification, utilizing a victim’s distress to essentialize and stabilize their vulnerability while empowering the observer. At best it is misguided, robbing the victim of their experience and transferring pity onto someone else and the group they represent. One only need look at the comment section of the right-wing Breitbart News website to witness human vulnerability transformed into pity for the sake of power—for example, the oft-repeated line that  “[i]t’s time to stop pretending that white people are the problem.” Pity also manifests itself as a passive recognition of suffering, an acquiescence to current conditions that prevents any meaningful action. Personal feelings of helplessness and temporary political solutions like humanitarian aid without any structural changes both reflect and reinforce the power of pity.

The increased proximity to suffering that’s offered by social media provides a mirror of our own vulnerability, and thus humanity. Undoubtedly, this can be frightening, but instead of running away from this experience we should embrace it. We must refrain from shielding ourselves from the suffering of others because doing so limits our capacity for empathy, action and inspiration. To be human is to be vulnerable. We are all prey to unpredictability; tomorrow is not promised today.

Meaningful action and empathic construction require hard work—intellectually, emotionally and practically. Such labours demand strength, and they cannot be completed alone. Technology can interfere with these labours but it can also support them, if we can find ways of binding together our fractured sense of self and community instead of allowing social media and the internet to splinter us. To do this, we must find ways of recombining the real and virtual elements of how we respond to suffering, and shift our sense of time and distance. We must challenge the instantaneous nature of social media that disable meaningful reflection while actively expanding our sense of togetherness, for we are stronger in unity than in isolation. 

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23 January 2017. The growing political impotence of images

Are photographs of war and atrocity losing the power to move us?

The death of Aylan Kurdi. Credit: Flickr/Ur Cameras. Public Domain.

The moon is bisected by a cloud, then a razor blade slits through a woman’s eyeball with unnerving ease. The narrative jumps quickly to “eight years later”, with the woman’s appearance fully restored. This opening scene, one of the most infamous in the history of cinematography, is a grotesque and violent challenge to the audience’s point of view, slicing literally through their conceptions of society, the arts and culture.

Still from Un Chien Andalou. Credit: Flickr/LLacertae. Some rights reserved.

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s 1929 surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou (“An Andalusian Dog”) was, in the words of the former, “a violent reaction against what in those days was called ‘avant-garde,’ which was aimed exclusively at artistic sensibility and the audience’s reason.” One of its purposes was to confront audiences and their conceptions of art directly; to make them feel uncomfortable when faced with incomprehensible scenes and distorted narratives.

Today we are inundated with scenes of wartime atrocities from places like Aleppo in Syria, yet few linger long in the memory. There are multiple images of crying mothers, children being pulled from rubble and shattered-looking doctors and nurses. Yet few, if any, of these images assume an iconic status. A community of strangers would struggle to pick out a selection of images that capture or define any particular war zone.

It was not always so. In the past, images have galvanised anti-war movements and become truly iconic. Nick Ut’s famous photograph of a young girl burned by napalm called Kim Phúc, running down the road naked with her arms raised is one such example from the Vietnam War; Nick Ut’s photograph of Kim Phúc.. Credit: Flickr/Tommy Japan. Some rights reserved.or Eddie Adams’s capturing the summary execution of a suspected Viet Cong guerrilla. Such images aroused the passions of protesters thousands of miles away and provided a mobilizing force that a thousand or more words could not provoke.

Eddie Adams’s capturing the summary execution of a suspected Viet Cong guerrilla. Credit: Flickr/Cliff. Some rights reserved.In September 2015, a photograph of the lifeless body of three year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi went global. Like many thousands of people before him, Kurdi perished in the Mediterranean Sea as his family strove to reach Greece. Face down in the Turkish sand in a red t-shirt and blue shorts, his arms resting by his side, Kurdi’s image inspired rhetorical outrage and many calls for action. Within weeks, however, it had faded from view and from memory, catalogued alongside thousands of other images of the victims of a refugee crisis whose causes remain unaddressed.

The death of Aylan Kurdi. Credit: Flickr/Ur Cameras. Public Domain.

 What lies behind the diluted power of imagery like this?

First of all, the contemporary aestheticization of violence has stifled the impact of such images on our collective consciousness. Overproduced and stylised violence permeates all aspects of daily life, diluting and cleansing such images of pain and suffering. Sensationalizations of warfare and crime in popular culture provide a purely aesthetic experience that serves as entertainment as opposed to a potential source of empathy.

The victims captured in images of war have become objects of our gaze, their subjectivity diluted by this commodification and glorification of violence. Their humanities are obliterated along with the landscapes that surround them. In effect, they’ve become collateral damage from the emotional detachment or paralysis of those who are considering the images that are laid-out before them.

Secondly, this process of aestheticization has been made more acute by the exponential rise of the internet and, in particular, by social media. The pace and quantity at which images (whether still or moving) are reproduced and shared has accelerated. Audiences are inundated with images of atrocity and tragedy at a level that reinforces the numbing effect derived from portrayals of violence in contemporary culture, whether in movies, TV dramas, music videos or video games.

The possibilities for distorting and manipulating images using media technology have planted additional seeds of doubt about the veracity of any photograph or video. Scenes of one event (an atrocity or a protest, for example) are regularly used to illuminate an entirely different one. Images are photo-shopped or cropped to add or omit crucial details with the intention of twisting or distorting their meaning. Manipulation means that the same image can be used to support opposite or diverging narratives.  

Juxtaposed with on-line advertisements and celebrity gossip, the perspective in which an image sits is fundamentally altered, changing the connotations of what it had intended to communicate. This is one of the time-honoured lessons of the late John Berger’s seminal ‘Ways of Seeing:’ that the context in which images are presented matters greatly.

Context is the frame through which images are viewed and interpreted. As Berger himself asserted, “When paintings are reproduced they become a form of information, which is being transmitted and so they have to hold their own against the other information which is jostling around them to appear on the same page or the same screen. The meaning of an image can be changed according to what you see beside it or what comes after it.”

Thirdly, war and its complexities are becoming increasingly inaccessible. Photojournalists are used less frequently by editors, and when they are used they can be targeted by combatants or embedded within military deployments. In 2013 and due to a lack of funding for frontline journalists, the French newspaper Libération published an entire edition without any photos to illustrate the impact an absence of images could have on the consumption of news. 

Rémi Ochlik with a Free Syrian Army fighter near Homs, taken the evening before he was killed by a rocket attack in Bab Amr. Credit: Freedom House/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The list of photojournalists killed in war zones continues to grow, including the French photographer, Remi Ochlik, who was accompanying the American journalist, Marie Colvin, when they were apparently deliberately targeted by Syrian shells in Homs in 2012.

As we become increasingly passive observers of war and its crimes, images cease to exercise the mobilizing potential they might once have had. This makes it even more important to slit through our own perspectives in order to challenge the context in which the images we encounter have unfolded. We must engage more assertively with the stories behind these photographs, delving beyond the surface of the images to recognize, understand and empathize with their subjects—both perpetrators and victims. We must explore the structural context in which every image is taken and presented, not just the pure aesthetics of the image itself. Only then might an image tell us ‘more than a thousand words.’ 

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