Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Lessons

About 16 years ago, as part of the work I was doing for my Ph.D. thesis, I visited the Fortunoff video archive for Holocaust testimonies at Yale university. I was interested in the phenomenon of survivor shame.

After 10 days of watching video recordings of interviews with Holocaust survivors a number of things stuck with me and remain prominent in my thoughts to this day. I'll list two here.

1. Many of those interviewed who were survivors had lived silent for three decades or more. Many of them were speaking now either because they had been persuaded it was important for them to do so or because they had been moved to break their silence because of the emergence of the denialist movement. In short, testifying to what happened then was a deeply distressing experience and often had psychological consequences. They did it because they felt it was important that the truth be known and not doubted.

2. I watched a number of interviews with those who had managed to escape Germany, Poland and so on in the 1930s, and made it to the US. What came up several times was the following: they would receive letters from friends and family back in Europe which would make light of the changed circumstances, which would play down the horrors of forced removal to ghettos and so forth. While there are a number of possible explanations for this, what seemed to emerge from the interviews was that those writing the letters simply couldn't comprehend the magnitude of what was happening or that the psychological burden of comprehension was simply too much, particularly if you had a family to hold together. So people downplayed the hardship and the horror as a way of seeking to convince themselves things would be alright, that it wasn't as bad as it seemed (and would become).

From this I take these lessons (among others): 

re 1. Testifying to crimes, calling out and documenting injustice, is not whining, it's not a personality flaw, it's not something people want to do or do because they think it makes them look good. It is something that is very difficult to do, that takes courage. People lived for 30 years and more without telling a soul what they'd witnessed and experienced. There is little pride in identifying oneself as a victim, particularly if the crimes perpetrated against you involved all-out attack on your dignity. 
The right wing attacks on people calling out injustice which depict those people as whiners, and as weak, are the reverse of the truth. Fascists are the weak who bully in an attempt to hide from themselves their own weakness. Those who stand for justice when it would be easier to stay silent are the drivers of all that is good in humanity.

re 2.when catastrophic political change is happening history shows us that it invariably creeps up on us, it happens not with a dramatic bang, not with the sudden horrific entrance of obviously evil people, but incrementally, so we just don't see it for what it is until later, much later. We don't see it for what it is for numerous psychological reasons and because bad people rarely do bad things in the name of badness. Be aware of this tendency and try to find the courage to see things for what they are, don't seek to explain away the alt-right as jesters because that helps frame them as less of a threat. It is important to see these people for who they are.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Failure of a Research Programme

Liberal political philosophy has failed. It has failed not because of its politics, but because of its epistemology. Its politics of toleration and justice is still as important as it ever was, all progressive political projects must aspire to defending and promoting these virtues. I am not here dismissing the liberal virtues. But liberal political philosophy as a research programme is in a terminally degenerative state because it never saw these things as virtues in need of nurturing, but saw them as principles to be applied.

Liberal political philosophers often simply dismissed the communitarian critique, advanced by philosophers such as Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre, as conservative critiques and thereby missed the more important philosophical point of those critiques: that social change does not come from jurisprudence.

Bush to Trump or How to Respond to Disappointment and Failure

Since G.W. Bush came to power in 2001 things happened from which the left, reasonably, assumed they'd benefit. 

The disasters of the illegal wars, Abu Ghraib, etc. 
(with associated anti-war movement); 

the financial crisis 
(with associated Occupy movement)

the increasing disillusionment with career politicians 
(remember the expenses scandal here in the UK, and the duck house?) 

and

the continuing unfolding global catastrophe that is human created climate change
(policies of economic growth based on carbon economies are clearly, and unequivocally, unsustainable)


The left naturally expected to benefit from a decade of political crises and failures, but if anything these have translated, as of now, into failings for the left while the populist right have benefited. 

I guess in the face of this one has a choice to either reckon with one's failings, regroup, learn and transform with a view to building an effective left alternative or one enters into some kind of denialism, which allows you to convince yourself, at great cost to your integrity and potentially to humanity, that the failings can be decoded as successes.

Apportioning Blame

Let's say you got two TV shows. One of those shows, made and broadcast by Network A, incites racial hatred and is watched by 60% of the viewing public. The other, made and broadcast by Network B, is watched by 30% and was kinda dull, middle of the road, conservative television. (the other 10% of those with TVs were reading books, playing video games or writing shit on Facebook, I guess).

Do we really blame the writers and broadcasters of the dull show on Network B for the crimes which result from people having watched the show that incited racial hatred on Network A?


Sure, it would be better had network B put something on against Network A's show, which was both more attractive to viewers and had a more radically progressive message for those viewers. But really, you cannot blame Network B for the crimes perpetrated by Network A.

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DNC shouldn't have selected HRC, but if we're ranking responsibility for the racist and sexist violence that will emerge from Trump's victory then it doesn't fall at the door of the DNC. While they take their place in the list of those bearing responsibility, they're well down that list below Trump himself, the GOP, those who voted for Trump, the people who actually go out an perpetrate the violence, a racist US media, a me first selfish culture, and so on.

Parable (after Stoker)


So, you're a progressive character and you notice that a range of servants, employees and one or two townsfolk are enabling the local blood-sucking undead count, from up at Castle Dracula, by shifting his coffin around during daylight hours, keeping his castle in order and directing unsuspecting travellers his way.

Do you decode this as progressive expression of class interests, a rejection of the bourgeois order, and something you need to attach yourself to: a kind of people's vampirism?

or

Do you focus on the fundamental immorality of vampirism, where some are treated, in a very literal and corporeal sense, as means to the ends of others' health and well being, and therefore seek to unconditionally reject, and fight, vampirism and those who enable it to flourish?

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Wednesday, 9 November 2016

What Peter Frampton can tell you about Hillary Clinton (and Led Zep tribute bands can tell you about the revolutionary left)

As the left began to age, it split into two groups.

One began making middle of the road adult-oriented rock 
(Clinton, Blair & co. as, basically, Peter Frampton)

The other group became a covers band touring market towns and playing to handfuls of people 
(rev. left as, basically, a 55 y/o Robert Plant impersonator)

In the meantime, shit happened. The world turned, times changed. Some people died and some others entered adulthood. 

At first, increasing numbers of people realised that whatever it was Frampton was doing it wasn't for them; he was just doing what he'd always done. He didn't notice and he kept playing. Then increasing numbers of people just didn't know who he was. He kept playing (until one day he realised he was playing to himself) 

Similarly, increasing numbers of people also realised that if nostalgia was their thing, then listening to old Led Zep albums was always more fulfilling than seeing the tribute band down the Hope & Anchor. But the tribute bands kept forming. Then, increasing numbers of people realised that while nostalgia might be fun, it is really no more than a fondness for some of the past from the perspective of the present, and should never be mistaken for appreciation of something in the present, now, much less as something which determines the future. The tribute bands kept playing (until one day the Hope & Anchor became an apartment building and they had nowhere left to play)

All along, people wanted music that helped them articulate their hopes, dreams and fears.

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Oh, and middle aged guys (like me) talking about the punk movement is no more helpful either. 

The Re-birth of a 100 Year Old Mythology

Saying and writing anything just seems so pointless right now.

We really need to take stock.

Tired old tropes need retiring. Leftist cynicism, knowingness and sarcasm in Tweets and Facebook posts just shows you've either failed to learn the lessons here or you see this as first and foremost an opportunity to engage in courtship rituals with fellow travellers.

This is so much more important than that.

The USA has a President elect who was endorsed by the Grand Wizard of the KKK, and who, de facto, accepted that endorsement; who bragged about sexually abusing women; and who is a racist and xenophobe who encouraged racist violence at his rallies

Under this President, people will suffer, often violently, because of nothing other than the colour of their skin or the nationality of their parents or grand parents. This won't necessarily depend on the policies Trump introduces. His electoral success will have already served as a validation of his attitudes for many, who will feel justified and emboldened in their own bigotry and misogyny. Children will grow up believing if it is OK for their president, then it must be OK...

The infamous racist film from 100 years ago, Birth of a Nation, was originally titled The Clansman, after the book on which it was based. We just witnessed the re-birth of this racist mythology.