On Feeling Powerless

Jean Jullien




I remember, being in DC on 9/11. I remember the empty streets, the sudden and strange military presence, the impossibility of knowing what to do. It felt like a space, in my mind; a void, when I tried to think past what was happening to what I needed to do. There was no possibility of an answer, no possibility even at the heart of the most powerful nation in the world, because the problem, the situation, was too complex.

On that day I remember thinking ‘I hope it doesn’t cause a war’, and thinking too that was a silly thing to hope for because it was impossible. Impossible that there wouldn’t be military action in response to such an egregious terrorist act, and impossible that military action could possibly work to stop something like it happening again. Impossible that military action wouldn’t mean many more deaths, which in turn would mean more people seeking vengeance.

What has happened in Paris is shocking and heart-breaking and horrifying. And I see the outpouring of solidarity, and the supportive statements of political leaders, and the media attention, and this is as it should be; because what do we have but words in the face of this?

But as some have pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere, similar attacks, such as the one only two days ago in Beirut, did not receive the same outcry, the same emotional response. As refugees from Syria pour into Europe, we cannot help but be aware of the ongoing crisis, and yet we still hold it at arms length.

I will not say we are ignoring it, the news reports are there, petitions are sent to European governments demanding support for those fleeing the seemingly endless conflict – but who has changed their Facebook photo to signal support for Lebanon? For Syrian refugees?

Is this racism?

The attacks in Paris, like the attack on the Boston marathon, feel more shocking than the bombing in Beirut. Why? Because, to my shame, I expect violence in the Middle East. It is, in my subconscious, an unsafe place compared to Western Europe or the US or Canada. But France? The US? I expect a different level of personal safety. Does this mean the lives taken in France are different from those in Lebanon? The answer is both no and yes.

No, each human life is equally valuable, and each death an egregious affront to justice.

And then, yes. A life taken in Paris, a less dangerous city, has different implications because of the presumption of the level of safety. The underlying thought is, if people are not safe in Paris, are we safe anywhere? London? Berlin? Amsterdam?

Syrian refugees flock to Europe because it is a haven. Because on a day-to-day basis, we do not live in fear of losing our lives to senseless violence.

My heart breaks for those in Paris. I feel rage towards those who dare to treat life with such cavalier disregard. I want those responsible crushed.

And yet. I cannot ignore the bigger picture. No one is born a murderous religious extremist. The financial and military powers of the world, no doubt with at least some good intention, pour money and weapons to different sides of an ever-more divided set of opposing forces who tear the region to shreds.

What would I do, if I saw my country, my home, bombed by drones? My friends and family attacked by my own government’s military? Who would I blame? Feeling that powerless, that subject to the whims of people so powerful that my life was, to them, invisible and therefore expendable?

What would I do, if someone told me there was a God who wanted me to fight back?

I want to believe with all my heart that I would run, rather than harm innocent people.

But I cannot know.

When an oppressive regime maims and kills its own people, of course I do not want other countries to stand aside and ignore it. Action must be taken in the face of inhumanity – World War 2 surely taught the world that.

And yet.

Violence begets violence.

There is no right answer. I can say with utter certainty that it is wrong to kill people. But that is not good enough, is it? Because wars and terrorist acts are an ugly, painful reality; and they are without question a tangled morass of influences – so often made worse, more deadly, more complicated, by the interference of other countries trying to protect themselves or their ‘interests’.

My heart breaks because it seems to me that there is only one impossible answer. For peace to be real, everyone must be united in deciding to forgo violence. And they cannot, because there will always be someone who will use force to get what they want. So in turn, force is used to protect those against that malignant power.

Where can we draw the line? If we can imagine a peaceful world there must be a way to achieve it. But perhaps that would mean more forgetting than we are capable of.

It is at times like this where I wish I could believe in a benevolent God. An all-powerful, all-knowing entity who could bring justice, and see justice, where we poor limited humans cannot. Because I want to pray. I want to pray for Paris, for Beirut, for Syria. For those who lost their lives and those who run to save them. For the terrible people who commit such atrocities in the hope that some of God’s power might be put to use in changing such a broken mind. Such a broken world. Because I do not know what would stop this unbearable cruelty and I want there to be a power that can.

But I cannot. I do not have faith. Usually, I have faith only in us poor limited humans. Because we have come so far. Because although it is a long road, there are so many ways in which life is improving. We are getting better at being fair, at being kind, at seeing injustice and fighting tooth and nail to end it. So many ways in which people show they care for other people who are in trouble.

I have faith that we are not an evil species – that we are kind and strong and generous. That even those I vehemently disagree with are capable of compassion and understanding.

And there are some days when my faith in us stumbles. When I stare without mercy at the long harsh list of ways we hurt each other and wonder if we are, perhaps, doomed to war. If violence and cruelty and mindlessness and selfishness are part of our chaotic makeup. If our destiny is blood.

Perhaps I could believe in a different kind of God. Not all-powerful. Not all-knowing. Just old, and patient, and sad. One who watches us and tries, with their limited power, to bring us dreams of peace so that we can learn to be peaceful. One who weeps with us when we fail, and feels proud when we succeed. One who can hope, with the patience of immortality, when I cannot.

A man played ‘Imagine’ on the piano near the Bataclan today.

Perhaps that’s all there is.

Still a Stranger Here

I like being Canadian.

Aside from the embarrassment of Rob Ford and the ongoing empire of Stephen Harper, we have a lovely reputation: polite, friendly, the cleaner/nicer/more left-wing version of Americans.

I also love living in London; the theatre and museums, while not absolutely peerless, are exceptional (and have quite spoiled me for living anywhere that isn’t as culturally rich).

And while being an expatriate comes with pros (two passports!) and cons (like people correcting my diction and pronunciation. I know what I said. You know what I said. I know both what you people call it and how you pronounce it and have decided to stick with my own vernacular in this case. So stop being pedantic), there is something particular to the UK (and Europe) that I don’t think I will ever master.


In Canada and the US, you have: the wave,


the chin acknowledgement (think ‘s’up’),


the handshake,


the fist bump,


and the hug,


for varying degrees of physical and emotional proximity.

In the UK and Europe, though – y’all do the cheek kiss (for an indeterminate length and number of times), with either a handclasp or some kind of hand-on-arm job.

Even Hilary Clinton thinks this shit is weird.

I do not know what to do with that.

This STILL feels unnecessarily intimate and weird to me.

If you do that in North America? You’re either a theatre-person greeting other theatre-people, or you’re basically hitting on someone REALLY HARD.

I can’t you the number of times I’ve automatically gone for a hug since some person is suddenly in my personal space and they’ve gotten a mouthful of hair or head butted.

And I still can’t tell if you guys are actually doing a kiss or just going ‘mwa’ in the space next to my head.

I tend to do the latter, after I’ve done a weird pseudo-hug that’s the equivalent of a limp-fish handshake (which I loathe) because ARGH I can’t KISS you, that is for intimates.

I get it, I think – it looks classy, it’s less business-y than a handshake, it’s affectionate and I’d bet most Londoners are affection-deprived on average.


It’s not intuitive for me. It doesn’t come naturally, and I still haven’t figured out exactly where the cheek-kiss thing falls in terms of social proximity. Do you do this with literally everyone you meet? Work colleagues? Bosses? Friends of friends?Grandparents?

Where is the line? Have I unwittingly offended people by pre-empting them with a firm all-American handshake or put them on the back foot by an unanticipated warm and fuzzy Canadian hug?

It’s odd. I speak the language. My parents are Brits, but picturing them doing the cheek-kiss thing is impossible – is this a new thing? They left the nearly 40 years ago – is this a European import? WHAT IS THE DEAL?

Seriously. Please. Someone teach me.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it, though. I do it, because social niceties and whatnot, but it always feels like a put-on.

On Ferguson and silence

I have read a lot about Ferguson over the past couple of days and months.

There are some times, as a friend of mine wisely said on Facebook, that white people need to just shut up and listen.

I agree, I have and I am.

However, I also feel that, as a white person who benefits from the privileges denied to people of colour in American en masse, I should speak out, too.

Because silence can be read as complicity.

And I want to state, unequivocally, for whatever it is worth, that what happened was wrong. Darren Wilson shooting Mike Brown was wrong. The failure of the grand jury to hold him accountable was wrong. And that this injustice is part of a huge, terrifyingly racist legal system.

It is unjust, and appalling, and heartbreaking.

The American justice system does not afford Black people the same rights as white people. Police are taught to profile Black people and other people of colour. Prosecutors and judges mete out more severe punishments for non-white people. This is all part of a larger social and cultural infrastructure that oppresses Black people and people of colour – by restricting their education, their job opportunities, their healthcare, their lives.

People are kept in poverty, schools are neglected, and our culture finds a thousand ways to tell Black people what their roles are, what is expected of them – stereotypes abound, of the thuggish hoodie, the drug dealer, the thief. This culture makes it somehow ok, or permissible, or understandable, to see any Black person as life-threatening. As an enemy. As a combatant. As expendable.

It chokes something in me to write that there are white people, and clearly far to many, who struggle to see Black people as people, or who don’t even bother to struggle, who see only difference and inferiority and some grotesque innate barbarity – that the legacy of imperialism and slavery remains so much a part of our everyday life when its injustice is so painfully clear.

People die. People are killed because these structures not just allow but encourage the view that Black people are somehow less – less important, less valuable, less human. That is what is barbaric.

And I do not have a voice loud enough to scream that this is not ok. That this is a moral failure of such magnitude that I cannot find the words for it.

More than anything, I want to aver that grief and rage are completely appropriate responses. It is an insult to basic humanity to insist on ‘calm’. A huge group of people are not just told but shown, repeatedly, by the powers that be, that their lives, their children’s lives, don’t matter. That the loss of these lives is not worth protesting. That there is no recompense. That there is no justice.

Of course rage is an appropriate response to being told you and yours do not matter.

I am only one person. I cannot dismantle an entire system or mete out justice, as much as I wish I could. But I can say that this, as often and as loudly as I can: all of this is deeply, fundamentally, morally wrong.

And that it matters to me.

It should matter to everyone.

Such stuff as dreams are made on

cc Nick Webb via Flickr

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

– Caliban, The Tempest

Like most people in the UK, I stayed up Friday night to watch the Olympic opening ceremony. And as bizarre as I found the sheep and the texting and the frenetic pace, not to mention the 90% asinine BBC commentary, there was that swell that comes from a focused crowd of thousands; the drumming, dancing, music, singing – felt tangible, and felt shared. And it was a relief to feel that, however manipulative.

To feel connected by awe and admiration, to feel that in that brief moment, whether true or not, that there was a sudden absence of fear and aggression, that every person in that crowd, and huge swathes of people watching elsewhere, had this one moment of united benevolent thought.
I don’t know that I’ll feel anything like that again – how often does anything hold the complete attention of a sizeable chunk of the planet? And how often is that thing actually and actively positive? How often is it awe? Or surprised amusement?

It is both thrilling and isolating to live in a big city – there is so much happening, such great diversity, and yet because of the density there is also a deliberate blindness towards other people, it would be too much to really see and hear everyone. It would feel dangerous. People are scary.

So to have a moment when everyone around you ceases to be a potential threat, and is instead sharing something akin to delight – it is precious, and almost unbelievable: that we could all simultaneously set aside irony and cynicism and our other assorted defences, without even noticing that we were. It is in many ways the intention, if not always the successful practice, of events like the Olympics – forgetting the competitiveness; we are there to come together – all of us – and play.

Be not afeared.

Blog for Choice Day – 2012

Blog for Choice Day – 2012

Today is Blog for Choice Day: the 39th anniversary of Roe v Wade in the US, the court case that established that women had a legal right to abortion (until the point of fetal viability).

The legal right to abortion, including safe and ready access, is a key element of civil rights everywhere for people with female reproductive organs (henceforth referred to as ‘women’ – fully acknowledging that there are people who identify as women who do not have female reproductive organs, people who identify as men who do, and those who do not identify as either who may or may not have them).

This right is as critical as having access to contraceptive options, thorough sexual education, and infrastructure that supports healthy pregnancies. Any person should and must have full bodily autonomy, and this is only possible if they are fully aware of how reproduction works, and have the means to control it without fear of judgment or reprisal.

It is not just in the US where this right is called into question, to the point where it endangers or ends the life and health of women. Abortion is one of the safest medical procedures going (safer than giving birth), and yet around the world, “nearly half of all abortions worldwide are unsafe, and almost all unsafe abortions occur in the developing world” (via feministing)

Usually, the objections to reproductive rights spring from a moral tenet, often via religious beliefs (which, as we know, are so often scientifically verifiable) that abortion or birth control of any kind amounts to infanticide, that the only morally correct sex is that which is performed with the intent to reproduce within a religiously sanctioned union of some kind, and that women are obligated to carry to term, birth, and raise any fertilized eggs that happen to implant in their uterine wall, or indeed maintain an ectopic pregnancy at great risk to their health until on the verge of death, should a fertilized egg implant elsewhere.

Implicit in this idea, too, is that pregnancy and childbirth and child rearing are a kind of divinely sanctioned punishment for any non-reproductive sexual behaviour. And who wouldn’t want to be raised by an unenthusiastic genetic parent(s) who consider them a penance from God?

There are plenty of arguments to be made about the moral correctness of abortion – pointing out for example, that many people who get the procedure already have children, and are making the decision based on availability of resources, and a lack of support for the raising of children in general – but this ignores the heart of the argument, to wit, it is the owner of the uterus/ovaries/fallopian tubes who gets to the decision.

The state does not have the right to dictate decisions that affect the health and bodily autonomy of its residents/citizens. It can suggest, it can make widely accessible things that are likely to improve the health and wellbeing of the country (e.g. flu vaccines, birth control – thank you NHS), but it cannot and should not actively legislate within the borders of the human body.

The purpose of the state and legislative structures are to manage the resources and interactions of a millions-strong community. Sex and pregnancy have nothing to do with anyone or anything other than the people having sex or providing the egg/sperm. A fertilized egg is not a citizen in need of protection from person in whom it exists. The person in whom a fertilized egg may implant, however, is a citizen in need of protection against those who would presume to dictate what they do with their organs.

If pro-life activists really wanted fewer abortions, they would support access to contraception and sexual education – two things that are statistically proven to reduce abortion rates. But they don’t, because what they are really interested in is limiting the choices available to women so that women’s sexual behaviour is in line with what they think is appropriate.

Without bodily autonomy, women are not free, and to imprison women in their own bodies – that is the real crime.

Further reading;
UN states told they must legalise abortion (Guardian)

Arguments in favour of abortion (BBC Ethics Guide)

Images of Boehner from Keep your boehner our of my uterus tumblr
Poster from Protectchoice.org


via livius.org

Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.
– Heraclitus

let’s ignore the sexism and hope that the ‘man means everyone’ is more valid in Ancient Greek diction

The arrival of the New Year generally inspires a backward glance – recalling major events, highs and lows. The older I get, and the world being as it is, it always seems that much easier to find evidence that we’re a self-destructive species at the mercy of natural disasters and our reliance on exploiting non-renewable resources, and each other, in our quest for survival and dominance.

I was going to list a small sample of the bad things, but it’s just too depressing for this post. I’m sure you can think of plenty.

The thing is, there are so many people in my life that inspire hope in spite of that – not because they are necessarily saving the world, but because they are kind, creative, intelligent and interested people who do fun and interesting things all the time, which reminds me that this is not only possible, but that it’s the best way we can be.

If it didn’t smack of un-provable evo-psych nonsense, I’d be tempted to say it’s the way we are naturally inclined to be when not forced by circumstance to be otherwise. Which is to say, most people probably do have their own small but interesting milieu in which they can be creative and kind; whatever the larger political or financial movements may be, someone’s probably still making tea and cookies for their friends, or writing a play, or painting.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t pervasive beliefs held by otherwise decent people that help to perpetuate injustice, but that, excluding a select, super-villain-y few, most have the ability and inclination to change for the better, to examine their beliefs and politics when provided with the opportunity to do so, and amend them if they are found wanting.

I stumbled across the following yesterday on Free Will Astrology (don’t judge me):

I’m reminded of Jung’s formula, which is that we don’t so much solve our problems as we outgrow them. We add capacities and experiences that eventually make us bigger than the problems.

That just sounds about right, doesn’t it? Think of the things that kept you up at night when you were a child, or ten years ago, or five. Sure, we can get retrospectively angry about the things that upset us at the time, but the real annoyance is usually that, were we faced with the same situation now, we would handle it better – we’d be less afraid or intimidated or anxious, because we’d be better informed and more experienced at handling similar conflicts.

If we can extrapolate from the individual to the group, then we could assume that human society, too, can grow past its problems, that the combined capacities of the 7 billion people (or so) alive today, and the experiences of our ancestors, means that we are collectively getting better. That, theoretically, humanity could reach a point equivalent to self-actualization.

It is our capacity to change, and to imagine things as other than they are, that allows us to carry on even when things seem overwhelmingly dire. So I hope, then, for 2012, that we as a species have the opportunity to abandon that which is damaging to us, and pursue that which allows us to be our best selves, so that we can outgrow our problems.

And as an individual, I hope I can remember that, and get bigger than a few problems of my own.

Goodbye Christopher Hitchens

image by ensceptico (flickr)

There are a lot of people who have written, blogged, and tweeted about their response to Christopher Hitchens – his life, his writing, his politics, his death – and all of them succumb to the inevitable: they talk about themselves. This, more than anything, shows the true scope of Hitchens’ influence – as a public intellectual he affected so many people simply by turning his implacable and formidable mind to so many subjects, changing the conversation.

Whether you agreed with him or not, it mattered what he said and thought because he made a point of having intensely well-informed and thoroughly considered opinions, and he had the intellectual cojones to challenge not just generally accepted views, but also his own judgments and opinions, subjecting himself to the same scrutiny he applied elsewhere.

Hitchens insisted on bringing every conversation to his level, and this, ultimately, is why we need public intellectuals. We need people who care, passionately, about everything that makes up our public life, who aren’t apathetic or overwhelmed by the seeming impossibility of positive change, who insist that things be assessed, judged, and most importantly, demand change according to that analysis.

Hitchens didn’t just back up his moral and ethical judgments; he believed incontrovertibly that things could and should change in the face of those judgments.

For me (like I said, everyone inevitably talks about themselves), Hitchens made me think, made everyone think, with greater attention, and with greater scope, and that is the greatest compliment I can give. I hope we can keep the public debate up to his exacting standards.

If not, there’s always his youtube channel.

Goodbye, Hitch. And, really, thanks.


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