Archive for the 'politics' Category

On Feeling Powerless

Jean Jullien

Paris.

Beirut.

Syria.

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.

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.

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.

Ten years is a long time.

I was in my dorm room at university, in Washington DC. Doing a kickboxing video, if you can believe it. My cell phone rang. My dad, phoning on a Tuesday morning, was out of the ordinary to say the least.

“Are you ok”

“Yeah, why?”

“Turn on the TV”

Image: Scott Bauer for USDA

So off went the workout video, and on came the news. I remember seeing the footage everyone saw that day – the plane hitting the tower behind the poleaxed newscaster. I don’t remember how I ended the conversation with my dad, only that he said he’d tell my mom I was ok.

I don’t know the order in which things happened next. I remember packing a bag, intending to get out of town, knowing friends who were getting out of the city, but the traffic was too much, and I didn’t really have anywhere to go.

I remember going to the top of my building and seeing the smoke coming from the Pentagon, and the rest of the city seeming quiet, despite the traffic. Was the city locked down in some way? I remember a friend calling her friends who worked at the Pentagon. I remember being invited into someone’s room for a glass of wine, because what could we do? I remember all of us trying to do the grown up thing, and not really knowing what that was.

I remember thinking, knowing, that it would lead to some kind of war, and that I really wished it wouldn’t.

In the following days and weeks I remember being alarmed at the military on the streets – tanks, people in fatigues with really big guns. I remember the university sending counselors around to talk to us.

Four years later, I found myself in a pub in Dublin the day of the London bombings in July. I had left London the day before.

I forget these memories, until I go looking for them. How I felt that something had dropped out from under me, and how I just continued life as normal anyway.

10 years is a long time.

Like any anniversary, we can look back and see what’s changed. In the years since 9/11 I graduated university and started a career. I moved to Canada, then to England. I made a film. I began and ended an important relationship. I lost my grandparents. I have seen my friends and cousins marry and have children. I have seen my siblings get older and wiser. I have seen the economy collapse and natural disasters take out cities in developed countries. I have seen Waiting for Godot with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan.

There is a lot of life to be seen in ten years.

That is a lot of life that people had taken from them, people who did not see themselves as soldiers in a war, people who were not fighting. People who had no choice.

So what do we do? We think about the things we deliberately forget to think about the rest of the time. And we ask why. And we are angry and sad and hopeless and our heart breaks a little. And we decide to keep going, because we’re still alive, and it’s not fair, and that’s how it is.

How do you distinguish a crime from an act of war?

In this article Noam Chomsky discusses the responsibilities of public intellectuals in the context of the killing of Osama bin Laden, and extra-judicial killings and morally bankrupt international political machinations of the American government and others throughout history.

Reviewing the reactions of various governments to groups of intellectuals (put briefly, people with privilege, access, and knowledge that gives them influence) who either support or condemn various government actions, he notes that it is the intellectual supporters who tend to be lauded by their own politicians, and the critics who tend to be embraced by that state’s enemies.

The article is a good if intensely troubling read, and Chomsky makes abundantly clear the need for people to notice and speak out against the kinds of atrocities the American government enabled or flat out perpetrated in Latin America and elsewhere. His observation about the nomenclature of US military vehicles, weapons, and missions (Apache, Blackhawk, Operation Geronimo) is particularly chilling (“We might react differently if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes “Jew” and “Gypsy”).

Bringing this obligation (clearly his own) to the international response to 9/11, Chomsky questions the U.S. action, and observes that the U.S. appears to have played easily into bin Laden’s ploy, a disconcerting prospect suggesting a cold and ruthless insight into American and European politics. Chomsky quotes Eric Margolis noting that “[bin Laden] repeatedly asserted that the only way to drive the U.S. from the Muslim world and defeat its satraps was by drawing Americans into a series of small but expensive wars that would ultimately bankrupt them.”

Chomsky’s proposed alternative initially brought me up short. He presumes here that 9/11 was responded to as an act of war, rather than a criminal act, and that the terribly named ‘Operation Geronimo’ had kill, not capture, as the intended goal. My initial response to this statement was aversion:

the “crime against humanity,” as it was rightly called, could have been approached as a crime, with an international operation to apprehend the likely suspects. That was recognized in the immediate aftermath of the attack, but no such idea was even considered by decision-makers in government. It seems no thought was given to the Taliban’s tentative offer—how serious an offer, we cannot know—to present the al Qaeda leaders for a judicial proceeding.

Image: Wally Gobetz

It is tempting to say that overseeing an organization that masterminded an elaborate plot resulting in the death of 3000 US civilians, not to mention other mass-murders elsewhere over the last 20 years, is an act of war which goes beyond mere criminality, and that negotiating with morally reprehensible groups like the Taliban is impossible and offensive.

But when we consider that Slobodan Milošević was brought to trial and prosecuted for crimes against humanity and genocide in Crotia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein, and the Nuremberg Trials, it’s clear that sheer scale is immaterial, and that in recent history, we have determined that a criminal justice procedure is possible and necessary for even the most egregious actions.

To prosecute and punish crimes of this magnitude under the auspices of a judicial system without treating all war as a crime, we must assume that in any conflict there is a clearly wrong antagonist and clearly correct opposing force, and that there is a legal and humane way to engage in war with such an opponent.

Moreover, to operate in with such a system, if we cannot or do not bother to prove objectively that we are correct in our assessment of guilt, and that we have followed the rules of engagement where our enemy has attacked the innocent and defenceless, what is there left to separate our ideas from theirs?

So what differentiates bin Laden’s actions, and his death by US forces, from the obscene genocidal and homicidal political and military figures taken to The Hague?

Do you see anything other than the nationality of the victims?

In response to 9/11, the US declared a war. Not just against Iraq and Afghanistan (where they were joined by the UK and subsequently NATO forces), but against Terror (where they were also joined by NATO). A war against militant organizations and those governments that supported them.

The CIA provides this definition of terrorism from Title 22 of the US Code, Section 2656f(d):
• The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.
• The term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving the territory or the citizens of more than one country.
• The term “terrorist group” means any group that practices, or has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.

Over the course of this war, people have been brought to trial, or imprisoned without trial and tortured.

Bin Laden was not captured or brought to trial. He was killed and buried at sea. And, to be clear, I don’t think there is doubt in anyone’s mind that he deserved to die, probably in a more painful and prolonged way than he did, nor that were he to face trial, he would be found guilty and sentenced accordingly.

Image: FBI

The point, mes amis, is that there wasn’t a trial. It is the judicial process that separates the criminal militants and genocidal despots from the American and NATO governments seeking retribution for and an end to murderous actions against their citizens, however certain the outcome of a trial.

Why? Because no one sane systematically kills large groups of people without believing they have a good reason to do so. American and NATO forces are killing people, systematically, and to be justified by their own standards they must be able to prove the justice of each one of those deaths.

According to Amnesty International “CIA Director Leon Panetta said on 3 May that US forces had full authority to kill Osama bin Laden but that they were to capture him if he had surrendered. The White House has said that Osama Bin Laden was unarmed but resisted capture”.

To capture and prosecute bin Laden (and then kill him, per American law), would have allowed the US and NATO forces to maintain the moral high ground. I don’t know that we will ever be able to discover if he was shot in cold blood, or was indeed ‘resisting capture’ unto death, but it does make the American moral position a little less clear, and in any situation where people are dying, the moral justification is precious, and precious little at that.

There are far worse, and far more unjust things, that have happened over the course of this ongoing conflict, than the murder of a confirmed mass murdering militant: the lack of due process for suspects who are imprisoned for months and years without a fair trial, because there is insufficient evidence, which anywhere else would result in freedom, and the ‘collateral damage’ that always attends military action.

Surely any act involving the killing or displacement of anyone, as would happen in any armed conflict, can be seen as a crime. How important, then, is the ability to defend every action as both necessary and just.

Could things have been done better? Can things be done better?

Important questions to ask, if we are to defend murders, however much they may seem inherently justified, with righteous self-defence.

Anger Fatigue

I don’t post very often these days. This is because I am tired of ranting. It seems like every day there are five or six things to be absolutely enraged over, and it’s exhausting. It’s like I’m getting a repetitive strain injury from overexerting my fury.

The repetition is what makes it so unbearable – the same bloody misogyny and bigotry over and over again. It’s like they never get my letters.

Take the news today (from Google).

1. George Osborne (the money guy in the UK government) ‘hails positive figures despite sluggish growth’

Do you know why? Because he wants to revoke the 50% tax on the super rich, and needs some sort of justification for giving the wealthy more money while his government rips away social support from the neediest members of society. Because, you know, those impoverished senior citizens and people whose disabilities make them unable to work need to stop being such drains on the taxpayer. And if the rich have more money to spend then the economy will recover faster.

This is what is called ‘bullshit’. The economy continues to suffer because banks aren’t lending to small businesses to allow them to grow, individuals are suffering because their jobs are either non-existent or not safe and the cost of living is going up whereas wages are stuck in the 1970s. The problem is that political power has become something that is won through money, so rather than enact legislation designed to bring the greatest good to the greatest number, legislation is designed to protect the people who give the politicians money so they can keep winning elections. This isn’t to say that all politicians are money-grubbing parasites, only that the way in which the system is run encourages supporting the wealthy rather than the masses. Which, suffice to say, blows.

2. Norway Minister Praise Police Response to Gunman. My first thought when I heard about the horrific bomb and shooting in Norway was ‘what? Norway?’ Because this sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in hip and groovy countries like Norway. Which just goes to show how easy it is to forget that psychopaths can exist anywhere, it’s just harder for them to get weaponry in some places.

The point of this story is that a delusional, violent person went on a rampage and systematically killed innocent people. The tendency in the news is to make it political, because these murderers or, (if they are of the suicidal type of killer) the groups that sponsor them, always claim some sort of cause that they are fighting for. As if most people go around backing up their political views with the blood of various passersby. No. Wrong. There are plenty of people who hold extreme views with which I doubtless vehemently disagree, but who don’t act like killing people is the natural extension of this opinion. A small percentage of the human race are murderers. The rest of us aren’t, and it’s an insult to every non-murderous human being to treat these shitstains like they’ve ever considered a way of expressing their supposed political opinion in a way that doesn’t involve bloodshed.

Even good news, like New York legalizing gay marriage, is dampened by the fact that some douchebags are bringing lawsuits against the right already.

Add that to irritations like the sexist milk commercials about PMS (which is, you know, a man’s problem, because ladeez be craaaazy amirite guys?) and the douchey douche commercials, which have managed to add racism to the whole ‘vaginas are great because men like them!’ sexist message, on top of the asinine suggestion that people with vaginas need deodorant for their vulvas, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m missing something here. How can advertising like that still even work? Does anyone think ‘man, I’m thirsty for a beverage that I can give my woman to make her stop being irrational?’ or ‘gosh, what’s the best way to groom my vuvlo-vaginal area so that I can maintain the vagina’s status as some sort of free-standing holy grail rather than a functioning part of my anatomy?’

Also, I feel I should note that this blog’s spellcheck doesn’t like ‘vagina’ or ‘vulva’ to be plural. Because there can be only one?

It’s hard to keep believing that people are basically decent when everything around me suggest that people are either classist entitled pricks, racist sociopaths, sexually repressed homophobes, or misogynistic chimps.

Language Matters

One of the no doubt many ways in which I am irritating includes a vehement adherence to the belief that the meaning of words and phrases matters.

While ‘reclaiming’ some of the more political ones is absolutely laudable and often causes a media-centered argument which can be quite informative and thought-provoking, the total misuse of various words due to a lack of exposure to the correct form and meaning is not something which should be defended, it is something to be corrected.

To take a neutral example, let me once again berate the editors who let slip ‘begging the question’ as a synonym for ‘raising the question’. Quite simply, this is not what it means, however many dictionaries include a definition which is essentially ‘some people incorrectly use this phrase to mean this, so if you happen to be in a conversation with them, try to meet them halfway’. (Find an example of correct usage of ‘beg the question’ here).

Other examples of this include the invented word ‘irregardless’ and the use of ‘impact’ as something other than a noun or transitive verb. You have not been ‘impacted’ by a really moving book or unfair legislation. Teeth are impacted. You, dear reader, may find that something has had an impact on you, or perhaps, have seen the impact of a meteor in that film. Again, dictionaries often note the use of ‘impact’ as an intransitive verb, usually with a note to the effect that ‘this is wrong but it appears in print a lot so I guess it’s ok, yeah?’

This is something I find frustrating in conversation, but absolutely unforgivably lazy in print. It is the editors who are allowing these garbled entries into our dictionaries and supporting the ‘common’ usage, as if being wrong is ok if everyone does it.

Meaning matters, otherwise all we have is a population of Mrs. Malaprops and Dogberrys making communication at once hilarious and frustratingly difficult.

Aside from this level of pedantry, there is also the difficulty of politically correct language. This has rather gone out of fashion since the 1990s, but remains important, especially since what usually happens is that a neutral term referring to a person or group is used metaphorically to imply something negative.

Language isn’t tangible, it is a set of forms, much like math, where everyone has to agree on the meaning imparted to said forms in order for it to function. If, for example, we use the term ‘gay’ when we mean annoying/bad/ugly, then the actual people associated with that term are tarred with the connotations.

I am most guilty of (and I am heartily ashamed of it) misappropriating the phrase ‘retarded’. Although the technical meaning is a slowing down, diminution, or hindrance, and I would really like to believe that is what I mean, the reason it feels like an appropriate metaphor is the connotation with the mentally disabled. If I am referring to the actions of someone objectionable, or the frustration of useless or counter-productive political action, why can I not use the words ‘objectionable’ ‘unwise’ and ‘counter-productive’? Why do I let slip ‘that’s retarded’?

Another sneaky one is ‘crazy/insane’. What we mean is irrational, nonsensical, inexplicable, unbelievable, but the connotations again refer to a group of people with mental illness. Yes, I’m sure it’s ‘political correctness gone mad’ – but you see what you did there? You’re metaphorically assuming that because you don’t agree with my argument that I am mentally ill, and, moreover, that this is bad, that the mentally ill cannot inherently make sense, which, as I’m sure you’ll agree, isn’t actually true.

As I age and become more aware of all of the ways in which bigoted metaphor sneaks into everyday parlance, I find it difficult to break myself of a linguistic habit. And every time I slip up, I realize how important it is to stop, because these metaphors are pervasive and do have an effect on what we mean.

Language is as we, collectively, use and invent it. This is why we must use it thoughtfully, however annoying that may be. Yes, it is intangible and abstract, but the way we communicate affects who we are and how we think.

In order to help myself and others who may wish to break an nasty linguistic habits, here is a list of better words to use.

For ‘begs the question’
– makes/inspires one (to) ask, invites/provokes/raises the question

For ‘impacts’ (intransitive)
– effects, changes, creates, generates, effectuates, enacts

For things that are not good
– bad, evil, troubling, distressing, lazy, useless, inapt, inane, futile, laughable, ludicrous, meaningless, trivial, preposterous, insulting, silly, dangerous, inconsiderate, unfair, boring, tedious, annoying, tiresome, frustrating, irritating, abrasive, offensive, exasperating, provoking, vexing, bothersome, disturbing, abominable, atrocious, awful, defective, crap, defective, ghastly, inadequate, incorrect, wrong, substandard, unacceptable, detrimental, deleterious, unhealthy, corrupt, criminal, vicious, vile, villainous, rancid, rotten, harsh, terrible, horrible, unpleasant

For people that are not behaving intelligently
– gormless, inept, foolish, self-defeating, dunce, exasperating, blockhead, dolt, senseless, inane, stunned, irrational, obtuse, naive, rash, puerile, jejune, stolid, thick, ignorant, stupid, silly, incoherent, disagreeable, unpleasant, unfair, unkind, insensitive, egotist, egoist, conceited, narcissist, jerk, ninny, oaf, rascal, jackass