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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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Boys Just Learn Faster?

After Hapkido class the other evening, I light-heartedly moaned to one of my senior-belted co-students about how there were some students in our class who had started after me who will, at the next belt test, overtake me.

I have no illusions about my own competence, and would not expect to ‘double test’ as the other students are, and my intention was really to mock my own plodding pace. Her response, however, surprised me.

She said that there are some things that ‘boys just learn faster’.

It had never occurred to me to pin my lack of progress, or the successes of the other students, on biology. I assumed that they simply came to class more or were more coordinated than I. Her comment, however, suggested that in her years in the school, she’d seen a lot of male students progress faster than the women.

Being in general the sort of person who revs up the social analysis anytime someone says something that smacks of gender determinism, I got to wondering – what could explain this, either socially or biologically?

The prevalence of women at various belt levels throughout the school, and the fact that our Saboumnim is a woman, (and the existence of accomplished professional female martial artists) quickly rubbishes the idea that men are somehow simply better at martial arts, but is it possible that in general men learn them faster?

In Hapkido at least, progress doesn’t have much to do with outright power, where men have the obvious edge of a bit more muscle mass and speed.

Hapkido is essentially learning choreographed movements (along with a philosophical side which I’ll leave for the moment).

From my limited experience in class, what you need to do well, at least in the early stages, is coordination, balance, a decent memory, focus, and a willingness to both toss people around and be tossed around.

None of these are obviously gendered traits.

I can’t speak for other women in my school, but the last of those is what I have the greatest difficulty with – although it improves with every class, I still get really rattled when people do some of the techniques on me at speed.

Despite expecting it, I still feel that in practice my opponents should be taking care not to do me harm, and pain and/or discomfort, however brief, and however instructional (or accidental), shakes my focus and makes me feel distressed. I am equally reluctant to throw myself into the techniques because I might cause pain to someone else.

It may be that for men (and I am speaking generally, obviously this is not true for all), being raised in a society where it is considered appropriate and character building for males to beat the crap out of each other throughout childhood and adolescence could preclude the mental block that I, at least, appear to have.

Years of both experience and social sanction have led them to be very comfortable both with fighting in a kind of friendly way, and with being a little beat up from time to time.

Inversely, there was never playful fist fighting between me and my female friends, and once adolescence set it, physical fights with boys, however ‘playful’ were a bit scary. Rather than getting a subconscious level of comfort with socially appropriate fisticuffs, I experience physical violence as something that girls did not do, and also as something malicious and dangerous; any physical pain deliberately caused by another person is seen as a threat. In the few self defense classes I have taken since the age of 13, the focus on ‘what to do if your rapist does this’ did nothing to mitigate that perception.

You can see how this could cause an issue in a martial arts class. My conscious mind can get behind the practice, but subconsciously, anyone who happens to be flinging me to the ground or bending my joints in the wrong direction is being mean and threatening, and it’s really difficult to fight the internal voice that’s screaming ‘get the hell out of here’.

So men, then, may have the advantage of a missing mental block, benefiting from experience that tells them men fight each other sometimes, which is ok, and fun, and it’s not anything to be scared of, whereas women are taught that fighting is mean and scary and violence is not the way etc.

There is another possible source of the male success, and it, too, is more mental than physical.

Saboumnim recently discussed in class this study, where sports performance was enhanced by the (erroneous) belief that the equipment used belonged to a professional. What this means is that one can be better if one can visualize oneself as somehow connected to someone talented in the task at hand.

Now quick, name 3 women martial artists. (Without Google).

Film and television are full of representations of male figures adept at various martial arts (like Bruce Lee) or just general butt-kicking (like Jason Bourne). As much as I enjoy martial arts films, the last time I came out of a cinema ki-yap-ing and generally playing at karate was after 3 ninjas.

After about 13, a girl absorbs that only boys get to be ninjas.

Is it possible that the men in my school also have the advantage of years of imagining themselves to be Jackie Chan, or Chuck Norris, or Jet Li?

I tend to seek out films with ladies kicking butt (Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, Jessica Alba in Dark Angel, Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but it’s not quite the same thing, is it? There’s a difference between being a martial artist and playing one on TV (in a sexy leather ensemble, no less).

There is by extension a possible effect on instructors; being within to the same social context as the students may result in a tendency to expect more of male students, and therefore push them further, faster. I don’t think this is the case in my class specifically, I certainly feel pushed plenty hard enough as it is, and I believe my instructor to be quite conscientious in this regard.

However I can see how in the same way that a dearth of female CEOs leads some people to think that women can’t be CEOs, a gender disparity at high belt levels could lead some to expect a difference in performance and act accordingly.

Any sport or physical discipline is largely mental, and it seems more than plausible that men might process faster and more confidently in Hapkido, and other martial arts, because they are surrounded by messages throughout their life that encourage them to think of themselves as fighters, and women may struggle more, as they fight against an experience of being female that excludes both the inclination and ability to fight.

Oh Male Privilege. You’re everywhere.

More seriously, and usefully, perhaps having made these observations, I can more consciously work around all of this social programming and start imagining myself as the heir to Bruce Lee?

Or like these ladies:

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.

further reading

“Formal or informal Saudi complicity, whether from sympathy or to buy internal peace, are real Acts of War.”

Steve Marlowe examines post 9/11 America, and just how much democratic freedom has been given up.

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.

The Teenage Wasteland

“It’s not my community, so why should I live by their rules?”

This pithy comment (or something very like it) was made on an episode of World’s Strictest Parents last night. The speaker, one of the two usual characters for the show, was an intelligent teen with a penchant for gothic style and an argumentative relationship with his mum (putatively remedied by the time with the titular strict parents from foreign parts).

His comment, in conjunction with a recent documentary aired on BBC4 The Great Estate: The Rise and Fall of the Council House, struck me as particularly enlightening in respect of the recent riots in London.

In the documentary (which I worked on and which I recently saw a re-airing of), one of the conclusions presenter Michael Collins draws regarding the state of government housing is that the housing devolved from family communities in which generations of the same family were given preference of residence to encourage a sense of belonging and community, to under-budget, short-term, needs based housing deliberately preventing a sense of long term investment in the community.

The simple teen anti-establishment trope stated above is writ large in the ‘anti-social behaviour’ seen in the riots, where large groups of un- or under-employed teens suddenly decided to act out, like a character on WSP, to prove that they didn’t need to follow ‘their’ rules.

That’s essentially the meaning of ‘anti-social behaviour’, isn’t it? Someone, or some group, decides (in this case clearly on a whim), that they aren’t part of this ‘society’ and therefore have no reason to uphold its basic tenets.

Image: George Rex


So how do you explain to kids that stealing, setting buses and buildings on fire, and running over passers by, are the wrong thing to do, and that they are members of a community with an obligation to it, like everyone around them?

I don’t think we can send them all to an Orthodox Jewish community in Tel Aviv. Though to be frank, that might be cheaper and more effective that sending them all to jail.

There’s been mention of making these kids perform some kind of reparative labour in the neighbourhoods where they caused so much damage – maybe a kibbutz would do the trick?

Do you hit like a girl?

Those who know me well – or rather, those who have heard me speak, ever – know that few things aggravate me more than gender-based truisms. ‘Girls are just more sensitive’, ‘boys just naturally love guns’, ‘women are just more talkative’. All of these are nonsense.

These statements, which I find so annoying, can either reflect what is considered to be a behavioral or physical truth: how people act, and how their bodies manifest. There are three problems with this kind of thinking. The first is the assumption that observed differences are genetic – due to biological sex (biological determinism), the second, that something generally true to the population on average universally applies to individuals (stereotype), and the third, that if one difference is scientifically verifiable then difference in all associated abilities or tendencies must also be true (halo effect/reverse halo effect).

In the first instance, many people assume anecdotal experience provides sufficient information for them to make assumptions about the general population. Being the parents/aunt/uncle/cousin/babysittter of a boy child and a girl child does not make you a geneticist, nor give you a representative sample. The appeal of biological determinism is that it makes things (like institutional sexism) simple. Girls just *want* to be nurses/mommies. Boys are just *made* for the cut-throat world of high-finance/hockey.

If things like difference in income or representation in government can be assumed to be a direct result of innate differences in talent and character, then there isn’t anything to be fixed. It’s just natural that women make less money and do more housework and stay at home to make babies and pies. It has nothing to do with the fact that there are social patterns that reinforce certain behaviours and punish others, nothing to do with pre-existing power structures where sexist people are in positions of power where they have the ability and inclination to empower other people who think and act like them. This holds true for racism, by the way. How many people just ‘believed’ that people of colour were ‘made’ for physical labour? How many people still do?

For things that appear to be simple physical distinctions it’s harder to notice how sexist thoughts and beliefs can be reinforced, as they masquerade as scientific truth. XX and XY chromosomes do impart physical differences, including hormonal ones. However, what often happens is that a simple physical reality, e.g. ‘adult women’s hormones fluctuate on a roughly 28 day cycle’ can be used to justify sexist beliefs which are unrelated to the physical truth through anything other than common association and connotation, e.g. ‘for 3-7 days out of the month, women are irrational/angry/hungry for chocolate’. Science is misused to reinforce a pre-existing idea about supposed behavioural distinctions between men and women.

One of the most commonly accepted facts of sex-based physical difference is that men are stronger than women. And it is true in that, on average, the distribution of muscle and fat on men makes them more powerful, pound for pound, than women. This does not mean, however, that all men are stronger than all women, or that strength goes beyond ability to lift heavy things. Recently an acquaintance made reference to the fact that men were stronger than women, and concluded that therefore he could easily knock me unconscious. Note that he immediately made the leap from physical strength to a physical contest.

I think people of any gender will agree that few things are more of an invitation to brawl than an accusation of physical weakness.

I did not, on this occasion, punch my collocutor in the face.

I did stress that in general, it was pretty difficult to knock someone out, and that, if he would but take a look around the room, he would see at least 10-15 men that I could in all likelihood easily defeat in combat by virtue of being about 20lbs heavier than they (any sex-based advantage of theirs being outweighed by the difference in size and the fact that I exercise and eat regular meals).

It is also worth pointing out that knowing how to fight confers a significant advantage above and beyond physical strength; while a 220lb male beefcake could probably bench more weight, a 150lb female with a 4th degree black belt could still, most probably, kick beefcake’s ass. Being stronger is not the same as being better in a fight; however, because there is a strong connotation between physical strength and prowess, the scientific ‘truth’ of average advantage in one is conferred to the other.

Most people don’t think they are sexist (or racist, or other kinds of bigot), but many don’t notice the ways in which their assumptions about difference justify inequality, writ large or in their smaller, everyday interactions. Any generalizations you subscribe to affect how you interact with the subjects of these assumptions as individuals.

If you think of women as physically weaker, this affects how you treat all women, in the same way that subscribing to the belief that women get irrationally angry on a regular basis means that when you encounter an angry woman, part of your thought process in response may include wondering ‘should the source of this woman’s anger be dismissed out of hand because this woman is over-reacting due to her uterus’.

Just like knowing someone’s race doesn’t give you a short cut to knowing what they like or what their strengths and weaknesses are, knowing someone’s sex is equally useless in allowing you to come to any conclusions about them. These generalizations are unhelpful stereotypes, and perpetuate social inequality by declaring it genetically inevitable.


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