Feeding the Ouroboros: A Response to the Manchester Bombing

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I’ve been thinking of the future lately. Apparently, so have the more nefarious forces in our world.

I lived in Manchester, UK for four years. It’s a city close to my heart. I won’t pretend I have the deeply ingrained connection that long-time natives hold, but it’s where I became an adult, and therefore it’s special to me. There was a pang of violation on the night of May 22nd, when a young man of Libyan descent shattered his body and those of children and other concert-goers into a unspeakable morass of pain and anguish. The morning after of such events is often lined by a sheen of unreality, which I imagine was more palpable than ever in the streets I walked and laughed and loved and fretted.

I’m not an expert on ISIS or its simulacra, the mechanics of their operation, or the intricacies of their ideology. But I know that they are technologically savvy. They are on Twitter, FaceBook, Tumblr, and they read and watch everything from Breitbart to Jacobin and Democracy now to Fox News. They are moving with us, not always silently, along the avenues of political discourse, observing and documenting and feeling out the emergent Zeitgeist as we do. And I know that they have a quasi-Manichean worldview, a disgust with materiality–with history, nature, bodies–and a yearning for some pure reality beyond time. They have death-wish for themselves and the world. They are anti-materialist to the extreme. And this all amounts to a simple observation of them: they don’t believe in Future.

The attack earlier this week coincided with the Labour Party’s considerable gain in polls for the British national election. Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, they released a new manifesto radiating with a promise of a better future: nationalizing the railways, abolishing the water tax, free childcare for 2-4 year olds, an increase of the minimum wage, among others. Introducing to the manifesto, Corbyn said, “let’s build a fairer Britain where no one is held back. A country where everybody is able to get on in life, to have security at work and at home, to be decently paid for the work they do, and to live their lives with the dignity they deserve.” In simpler terms: let’s move towards Future, not simply preserve what we have.

The Tories, on the other hand, emphasize the maintenance and management of Now, and in some cases Then. They offer us nothing new and empowering, although they often dress up their promises as such. This commitment is painfully evident in their response to terrorist attacks. For example, in her speech announcing and justifying the implementation of a literal police-state in the aftermath of Monday night’s attack, conservative PM Theresa May cited the “liberal, pluralistic values of Britain” as a source of resistance by which “evil can be overcome by good”. In extolling this value-system, May implies its adequacy, thereby indicating little awareness or acknowledgement of the heightening contradictions this system harbors (i.e. rising inequality, deteriorating health outcomes, intensifying surveillance, ecological catastrophes, etc). This ideological farming is the result of a severe cognitive dissonance: conservatives think that the world as it is and as it was is fair, equal, liberating, just, and good. Although I suspect some are more aware of the ruse of this view, most literally think this. The remarkable and impressive feat of modern conservative movements has been to sell this worldview to the very people it disenfranchises, by which I mean not only the working classes or communities of colour, but also the middle-classes, women, and the upwardly mobile.A theme common to so much conservative rhetoric is a devoted advocacy to the Now– an appeal to agree to our own cannibalization. For example,  in a speech on the “Big Society”, which pushed for the replacement of government run services by troops of volunteers and corporate-sponsored community groups, former PM David Cameron framed it as “the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street”. Although the “Big Society” project was discredited widely, the cuts to services it required were enacted and uncondemned for some time. It’s a clear example of the sleight-of-hand conservative rhetoric often performs, a ruse that is both obvious and elliptically dizzying.

ISIS and its associates are well aware of these contradictions. Indeed, I am convinced increasingly that they aim to accelerate and exacerbate them–to feed the ouroboros. 

Aside from all the practical elements which are entailed undoubtedly by such heinous acts of violence, this observation is at work in the engineering of these attacks. Although I would love to indulge the conspiracy theories being floated on the left (that the attack was orchestrated by the conservatives themselves since it will tilt public avour towards the incumbents, or at least distract from their laughable attempts to appeal to a disaffected public), I think there is a simpler explanation: they want political elites to succeed; they want money in politics; they want the AHCA to succeed; they want Brexit; they want us to ramp up weapon production; they want Trump; they want us to to revere, to love, to cherish, to pleasure ourselves on the festering feast of our coprophagiac Now.

Borders, war, surveillance, affluenza are Now.

Universal healthcare, free higher education, state-supported housing, unilateral disarmament, and sustainable environmental practices are Future

There is only one way out of our stomachs.

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healthcare in America: a returned expat fulminates

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A subconscious habit afflicting me recently is the compulsion to flip my tongue over to the right-side of my mouth and press it against the smooth porcelain of my new crown. It’s my first dental intervention of this sort, and I’m amazed at how real it feels: better than the original tooth. By far. Oh–and it cost me around $1,400.00.

Who would of thought a tooth could break the bank?, I wrote as the first line of a poem at a workshop about a week after the implant. That sentence was all I could muster, consumed as I was by the fury and weariness of that simple fact, knowing how shriekingly unjust it is.

*   *   *   *   *  *

Eight years ago I went to a doctor in a socialized healthcare system for the first time in my life. I was living in Belfast, Ireland, a member state of the United Kingdom with access to the National Healthcare Service (NHS). Before going to my appointment I called my health insurance provider (Blue Cross/Blue Shield) to double-check that my healthcare would be covered. They told me that 80% expenses were covered and I just needed to email or fax them documentation. Later, I looked like an absolute idiot when I approached reception after the appointment and tried to pay my co-pay. Healthcare in the UK is free. You just register and go.

I had made that appointment because I had a slight and infrequent pang in my lower stomach. I was convinced it was either giardia, an ectopic pregnancy, or an ovarian cyst (the latter I had had before). This hypochondriac mindset, I would later realize, is a symptom of being able to afford healthcare in one of most exorbitant markets on the planet.

The doctor asked me a couple of questions and once we established that all the symptoms pointed to an ovarian cyst he said not to worry about it and come back only if the pain becomes constant and intense. I was very, very confused. A year earlier, I was working in the theater at my college when I collapsed in total agony. I was ambulanced to the hospital ($300+) where a bunch of tests, including a cat-scan ($1,000+), determined that a small cyst, about the size of a grape, had ruptured. It was extremely painful at the time, but ultimately entirely harmless. Nonetheless, I made an appointment with my primary care physician (PCP) and was advised to see a gynaecologist, who in turn recommended that I come in for monitoring every 5-6 months.  It must be serious, I thought.

In the spirit of this thought, I relayed the episode to the NHS doctor and asked when I should come back to have the cyst monitored. The doctor explained–very patiently–that even if they found a cyst, unless it was the size of a orange they would not be able to do anything about it. There was no need to. Cysts happen, then they go away. It’s fine.

That day I learned about more than just the medical contingencies of ovarian cysts; I learned that as a consumer of American healthcare, at least some of the healthcare I receive is a waste of precious resources. In healthcare terms, I was equivalent to royalty. My parents work for Mass General Hospital, one of the top hospitals in the world. We paid for the most exclusive healthcare package available under Blue Cross, and MGH footed a huge portion of that monthly bill. This all went to my head. Me, my mother, my family, we all believed that recommended treatment is a necessary treatment, and that since it was important and necessary we were fully entitled to it. Doctors help propagate this disposition, which is not to say doctors are nefarious, greedy individuals. They work in system that relies on healthcare being purchased, and this fundamental impetus of capital is of course dressed-up in their minds (and ours) as benevolent “care”. And “care” is what we consumers of healthcare expect, what we feel entitled to. Happily or not, the proponents of the system usually oblige. They need our business and they want to think of themselves as custodians of a system that ultimately does good in the world.

*   *   *   *   *  *

This morass of expectations is toxic to one’s relationship to healthcare. Among those who can access healthcare (and even those who cannot), it breeds a trenchant privilege that spirals into unbridled hypochondria. When my step-mother, a self-employed real-estate agent, married my father over a decade ago, she had steady health insurance for the first time in her life. Since that time, she has gotten multiple elective surgeries and treatments, from the removal of benign moles, to something done on her elbow, to the most advanced pre-emptive bunion surgery possible, among others. These interventions are always elective, and there have been times when his insurance refused to pay for them. When my grandmother, who by contrast has had insurance her whole life, visited me in Belfast one summer, my friends were astonished by the arsenal of medications and vitamins she carried around in her bag and popped throughout the day.

An outcome of this wasteful and neurotic orientation towards our health is that quick-fixes are often offered over more tried-and-true solutions to health problems. This propensity makes us vulnerable to the more pernicious elements of the system.

During elementary, middle and high-school, my mother sent me and my siblings to the local chiropractor because she was worried about the effect of our school bags on our spinal health. He told my mother that I had a condition called a “sway back”, which is just a circuitous term for slouching. Instead of encouraging me to do a couple of sit-ups to strengthen my core, he recommended I come in each week for adjustments and electro-therapy. My mother, a full-time nurse, also attended the practice, sometimes multiple times a week for similar treatments (I don’t doubt her back was hurting, but as someone who underwent those electro-treatments I now wonder whether they did more harm than good). At one point in high-school, my right shoulder started hurting a bit. More electro-therapy.

Mine and my mother’s pathological need for healthcare set us up to become complete suckers. At some point in college I received word that that chiropractor had been investigated and convicted of insurance fraud. Apparently, we was selling droves of patients expensive treatments that they did not need so that he could charge insurance companies.

Years later, I started to develop serious knee, back, and shoulder pain. This was when I was living in England, and my GP referred me to a podiatrist, who laid me down on a table and told me within two seconds that one of my legs was shorter than the other, my feet were slightly flat, and my shoulder just needed to be exercised a certain way to build up muscle in a certain spot. Twenty minutes later, I left the office with new orthodontic insoles and within a couple of weeks of doing the stretches and exercises she taught me I was free of pain. Notably, my former chiropractor had laid me on the table and conducted the exact same examinations.

*   *   *   *   *  *

In recent months, the Affordable Care Act has survived a failed assault by congress, and although I find this consoling,  I stand by the position that healthcare in America blows. Why we cannot see it as a fundamental right that provides more freedom than restriction is a myopia that I find hard to fathom now. It’s a injustice I bump up against constantly.

*   *   *   *   *  *

As I sat in the dentist’s office waiting for the crown application a young woman dressed in sweats and carrying a skateboard was trying to check out. She had just had a tooth cleaning under the first-time customer discount plan: $57.00 for a cleaning and examination. The receptionist asked her for payment or her insurance card. She handed her a New Hampshire medicaid card. The receptionist looked it over and said there was nothing indicating dental coverage on it. The young woman looked at her with passive perplexity, insisting that it was covered. The receptionist humoured her for a few more minutes, offering to call the insurance provider to double-check, but I knew she knew that this would amount to nothing. I don’t know why that young woman was on medicaid, but I expect that even $57.00 was a lot of money to her.

*   *   *   *   *  *

Later on that week I received an email from one of my students that she was withdrawing from my class and going on a leave of absence from the school. A few days earlier she had been sitting in my office, an exhausted heap, telling me that her insurance plan was refusing to pay for her medications. Her father had been laid off at the start of the year and she and her family just switched onto medicaid in their home state. She had to drive back every weekend to see her doctors for an incapacitating anxiety disorder. She also caught mono and someone rear-ended her a few weeks back, leading her neck to begin hurting. The college knows about her situation, but there is no hardship fund available. She was one of my brightest students and we had connected over the course of the year. Her email also mentioned that she would be transferring to a school in her home state.

*   *   *   *   *  *

My brother was kicked out of my mom’s house a couple of months ago. He was stealing money from my younger brother, taking cash and forging checks to buy pills. He needs to go to detox. He is unemployed so he’s eligible for medicaid, but he’s living in a world where paper-work and ringing call-centers is difficult to carry out. If he could just walk in, like one does in the NHS, maybe things would be different. My father wants to section him through the courts in order to streamline him right into detox and rehab, but the risk is that if there are no beds available at the time of his sectioning–and the current statewide opioid epidemic is making that scenario likely–he would have to go to prison until a bed is open. I was sorting through some papers the other day and found a photograph of us siblings at my 11th birthday. He has missing teeth and the widest smile.

*   *   *   *   *  *

In early March I noticed my urine smelled slightly rancid. This persisted for a few weeks until a minute burn became noticeable. I bought some cranberry juice and started to drink a lot of liquids. More weeks. The burn persisted. I finally made an appointment with my PCP, and when the nurse practitioner confirmed I had a minor urinary tract infection I beamed with relief. Thank god I didn’t pay a $20.00 co-pay for nothing.

I don’t think someone would think that anywhere but America.  

Yes, but we still need game changers …

A little over a week ago, Jessica Valenti, a prolific feminist writer at the Guardian, responded to Wendy Davis’s newly released memoir, in which Davis shares her own personal experiences of two abortions. For those who do not know, Davis is a state senator in Texas (now running for the Texas governorship) who rocketed herself to political stardom last year when she engaged in a physically and mentally exhausting filibuster of an incoming bill that would effectively restrict access to abortions in the state. Although Davis prevented the law from being passed that day, Governor Rick Perry managed to push it through at another session shortly thereafter. Despite this setback, Davis’s agonizing eleven-hour effort, during which she was not only expected to stand without using the bathroom but also stay on topic, she nonetheless managed to garner nationwide attention to herself, abortion rights, and the growing influence of the Democratic party in Texas.

For Valenti, Davis’s disclosure of her own experiences of abortion in her memoir represents the growing popularity of such disclosures amongst reproductive-rights campaigns and female political figures, for example Rep. Jackie Speier’s retort to Rep. Mike Spence in 2011. Although Valenti acknowledges the bravery of these women, she backpedals slightly and asks us to consider the gender logics in play in this particular political tactic:

In a political climate so antagonistic to women and reproductive rights, this kind of disclosure is undoubtedly brave. But in a world where there is no privacy for women and their bodies, it’s shameful that we have to lay bare our reproductive lives just so others can – maybe, if we’re lucky – view us as full people. Because, really, women’s abortions are none of your business – not even those of a public figure, not even one who became an international figure because of abortion rights. We shouldn’t have to explain ourselves or justify our life decisions: our abortions are ours alone.

I laud Valenti’s defence of women’s right to privacy, and indeed I find it problematic that the the ticket women must buy to speak in the public sphere is the reduction of their voice to their body (see my previous post). However, Valenti’s application of these principles to this particular debate does not move me. On the one hand, I believe she mistakes an activist tactics for a positive duty. On the other hand, it is precisely the divide between private/public spheres which makes it possible to efface  political claims that concerns women (and men’s) bodies.

But, before I explain this further I want to demonstrate how Valenti’s position illuminates a key tension between negative duties and positive duties. Broadly speaking, negative duties presuppose that moral agents have a duty to refrain from certain kinds of action, namely actions that would directly and deliberately involve the harming of some other individual. Conversely, positive duties presuppose that moral agents have a duty to act in certain ways (to do something) in an effort to either prevent harm or afford a benefit to others. Some philosophers contend that negative duties are strong, whilst positive duties, if they can be defended at all, are generally weak. Within this mix, other philosophers also argue for the importance and moral bindingness of agent-relative duties, which hold that moral agents have scope to act in ways that are pertinent to them and them alone, even if this means not benefitting others or preventing the harming of others. Thus, if I see two children drowning in a pond, one of which is my own child, and I only have time to save one, it is permissible for me to choose my own child. These principles can help us make sense of Valenti’s argument and demonstrate where she might be flawed.

Valenti suggests that trends within the abortion-rights movement are imposing a positive duty on women to share their personal experiences in order to benefit women at large. In her view, such a duty violates the agent-relative right to personal privacy. For her, of paramount importance is the right for women to have the personal discretion over the public disclosure of their bodily lives. She writes, ‘not all of us want to be that brave. And none of us should have to be.’ Furthermore, such political tactics can be contested because they reinscribe political norms which require women to open up their bodily lives to public scrutiny. For Valenti, the alleged positive duty to share personal experiences harms women by violating their right to privacy and enforcing norms that reduce them to their bodies, and on these grounds it can be refused by women, and should be refused by political movement.

However, I am not convinced that outspoken politicians such as Wendy Davis or the 1-in-3 Campaign are arguing for such a positive duty. If anything, they are merely pointing out the importance of such acts of disclosure. Rather than require women to be brave, they are inviting women who already feel brave enough. And the cumulative effect of such disclosures is the creation of an environment where less brave women feel less stigmatized about their past and future decisions concerning abortion. This is the penultimate endgame of such politics,and in this respect I concede  to Valenti: yes,  a feminist politics installs a prima facie positive duty to act in ways that advance women’s interests. Yet, against Valenti, because feminism also valorizes women as individual, it leaves scope for strong agent relative reasons to prevail. In this respect the feminist politics hold that women should share their personal experiences of abortion, rape, sexism, and discrimination in order to advance the aims of women, but recognizes that there are compelling reasons which make it permissible for women women to excuse themselves from these acts of disclosure.

Valenti’s contention that the public disclosure of women’s embodied experiences reinforces norms which relegate women to their bodies is, however, harder to dismiss. Indeed, it is a point with which I broadly agree.  However, I worry that the negative duty to refrain from body-speak would undermine the very claim reproductive-rights advocates are making, and would thereby reinscribe the problematic bifurcation between public/private which is so often deployed in order to silence political claims made by women, LGBT activists, sex workers, etc. In my view, the promise of reproductive-rights campaigns lies in their efforts to foreground bodies and make it difficult to draw-up institutions that rely on the abstractions produced through airy pontification, religious sentiments, or fear-mongering.  Indeed, Valenti herself recognizes this, citing research which demonstrates the social and political importance of sharing abortion-experiences.

In this vein, I am reminded of an incident in the Michigan state legislature which took place a few years ago. State senator Lisa Brown was ban from the floor in a debate on Planned Parenthood when she stated, at the end of speech ‘finally Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.’ The gender dynamics of the housepeaker’s response are striking in every respect: the house-speaker claims that by using the phrase ‘no means no’ Brown was suggesting that support of the legislation was akin to rape, an allegation which Republicans simply could not abide (ahem). For more obvious reasons, others have called the event ‘Vaginagate’.  Whatever the reason for her expulsion, both rationales illustrate the momentous effort of anti-feminist actors to foreclose an acknowledgment of women embodied experiences and impose a ‘neutral’ decorum in the public sphere, but neutrality merely translates to the occlusion of women’s experiences. This foreclosure of language makes it difficult – if not impossible – for women to talk about the reality of their lived experiences.

With this in mind, I’d like to suggest that the problem posed by a politics which asks women to speak about their embodied experiences in public is not the highlighting of embodiment itself, but the ways women are elided with their bodies. Too often women are subjected to narratives of embodiments which reduce women to hypersexual beings or passive vessels of reproduction. Such narratives tell us how to live our bodies in very specific ways. In this respect I agree with Valenti: society frames women in biological and sexual terms, while men get to be ‘neutral’ and cerebral actors. But countering such narratives requires feminists to talk about bodies in the public sphere in order to bring different narratives to the fore, narratives which justify protections and privileges that are central to women’s agency and well-being in virtue of our embodiment.

All in all, I appreciate the impulse underpinning Valenti’s article, but I worry that her argument relies on a straw-man construction of feminist reproductive-rights activism and an unhelpful reinstatement of the public/private divide. Women do not have to act in accord with feminism all the time, indeed there are many good reasons why they should not.  But if the reproductive-rights movement is to establish institutional change, then the movement needs at least some women to be game-changer. Such women challenge the norms that imbue abortion with stigma and close-mindedness and thus engage in the important feminist activity of structural change. As feminists we should stand by women’s personal privacy, but to unwaveringly do so at the expense of a wider politics seems to defeat the point of feminist politics in general. Indeed, I think Valenti recognizes this herself when she writes that women should not have to share their because ‘not all of us have the Wendy Davis support network’. I agree, but isn’t this what Davis, Speier, Brown and others are trying to build?

Mundanity in ‘Generation Kill’

So, in a desperate effort to postpone starting the final season of The Wire I’ve decided to satisfy my drama addiction with Simon’s Generation Kill, an HBO mini-series based on the same-titled book by Evan Right. This series depicts the first stages of the invasion of Iraq from the viewpoint of a reconnaissance-Marine battalion. It offers its viewers a plethora of political commentary, stories, characters, and themes, and I would like to interrogate one of these themes by way of philosophical reflection.

I call the theme ‘mundanity’, by which I mean ‘an emotional and cognitive disposition in which, because of the relegation of the horrific to a level of everyday, common-place, hum-drum routine level of  ‘mundaneness’, one is driven to a quasi-passive, bored, disengaged state of ‘insanity”. Madness is traditionally understood to mark an emotional and cognitive mindset typified by abnormal behaviour and/or conviction. When in a state of madness, one may lack emotional stability, may be unhinged from reality, or may be unaware of normative expectations. There is a rift between the person and others, thereby diminishing her capacity for rapport and empathy. In short, madness entails a detachment from others.

I would argue that a certain level of ‘insanity’ is broached by several, arguably all, the characters in Generation Kill, and this is the case because, on the one hand, the mission of these soldiers requires the witnessing or inducing of the suffering of other human beings by the characters. Thus in one sense I could argue that they become necessarily desensitized to the pain of others. Their immersion in the suffering of both non-combatants and combatants (suffering which they are ordered to cause, but which also arises because of mistakes, character flaws, laziness, or fatigue) desensitizes them to the pain of others by besetting in them a most ponderous anxiety and a most acute withdrawal. However, I think this level of insanity is also brought about by the sheer boredom of their situation, as being ‘in war’ it becomes ‘everyday’, bothersome, and unmeaningful.

Many commentators, including the makers of the series, draw attention to the persistent ‘boredom’ of the platoons as they await orders,  sit in traffic, conduct long, uneventful stake-outs, etc. Not many philosophers engage the subject of ‘boredom’ (it is, perhaps, more readily fodder for poets and other artists?), and perhaps one would think it doesn’t have much philosophical purchase, but amongst the few who have interrogated it is Martin Heidegger, who gives the subject about a 100 pages of analysis in his work What is Metaphysics? I did not directly return to this tedious text for this project, but I did pick up a small work by Lars Svendsen called A Philosophy of Boredom to refresh myself on Heidegger’s position, which I think will give us some insight into the mundaneness depicted in Generation Kill.

Heidegger identifies two types of boredom: 1) being bored with something and 2) boring oneself with something. The first type of boredom arises when the thing or activity at hand isn’t transpiring in the order of time it is supposed to. We thus become hyper-aware of the ‘slogging’ of time and as a result become bored with the thing or task at hand. For example, in one scene the men, stationed in Kuwait, are assembled, given a rousing speech, given the orders to begin the invasion of Iraq, storm their way to their vehicles … only to anti-climactically wait for about 4 hours until the platoon translator arrives. The tension between ‘going to do something’ and ‘having to wait to do it’ marks many moments in the series and reflects a certain situational boredom.

The second type of boredom Heidegger discusses is equally apparent. In the above example the men become exhaustively bored with their situation, however their boredom is not simply a matter of a rising awareness of time. Waiting around in between the interstices between action and battle because ‘someone made a wrong turn’ or ‘no mission has been given’ or ‘civilians need to be courted down the motorway’ cultivates a dissonance between the skills of the soldiers and the tasks at hand. In short, they are not doing what they are trained to doo – their activities have failed to meet their needs (see Svendsen: 120).  The activities of the soldier (the porno-mags, the invasion as a whole, and virtually every mini-mission they are given) all amount to nothing more than a mere past-time, that is, something which ‘fills’ my time but nonetheless leave me empty and unsatisfied. This character of ‘war’ as a past-time is clearly augmented by the ‘buffer’ which their preparation as soldiers provides for them. Yes, their lives and well-being are clearly at risk. But the show also makes an effort to portray the physical and emotional bubble these men live in which detaches them from the pain of the realities of suffering around them. These men are so well trained, conditioned, and equipped to fight in war, that they very much live without threat, at least without the same measure of threat they pose to the amateur insurgents. This is perhaps why one soldier, Trombley, (who is admittedly, somewhat psychopathic) acts as  if he’s simply playing a video game and thus eagerly awaits, yearns, and whinges for the moment when he ‘gets to shoot someone’… as if the death of that person is not something he can relate to but is simply something to ‘pass the time’ without any great consequence to himself, as the fact that it is his job to ‘kill’ serves as an excuse for all his actions – even the mistaken killing of a young boy. The disparity between the soldiers and the Iraqis is markedly transparent: whereas the reality of the civilians and insurgents is one fraught with suffering, fear, and death, the soldiers (being acutely more prepared and equipped) endure a bit of diarrhoea, feelings of guilt, or a lack good porn and batteries for their night-vision goggles. I’m not arguing that they do not face difficulties; but even one soldier, Sargeant Brad ‘Ice-man’ Colbert illuminates the comparative disparity of their situations when he realizes the insurgents he shot in one scene were simply ‘untrained amateurs’.

Beside these images of boredom are images of horror, for they are in the midst of war, an activity that involves constant and urgent attention. The men are thus constantly on edge. At many moments in the series they have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and yet are completely unable to relax or sleep, lest one risks letting down one’s guard. They are trapped in a boredom that they cannot even fully entertain.As a result, they look for an escape at every turn. At one point, a group of guards diligently watching a set of distant lights decide that the flickers (a town) are an advancing army. They subsequently call in an air-strike. One character remarks that the distant lights only seem to move because of the involuntary movement of muscles in the eyes. The metaphorical depiction of tension is clear; its as if the body itself desires to desperately escape the static confines posed by the torsion between urgency and boredom.

However, an abundance of activity does not necessarily bring alleviate the boredom of their situation. In perhaps one of the most strikingly absurd scenes of the series, a convoy (on its first ‘mission’) approaches a bridge to a town with the intention of raiding it and exterminating any insurgents, to find (upon arrival) that the bridge’s entrance has been partially blocked. It quickly becomes evident that this was intended to be an ambush, and within moments gunfire starts passing between insurgents and the platoon. However, this gunfire (in which no soldiers are killed but all the insurgents are) is not the problem. The problem is that the queue of Humvees has come to a grinding and messy halt, and as a result none of the Humvees can move until the ones at the end of the queue do. A simple breakdown in communication ensues and is only resolved when the driver of the first Humvee exits the vehicle to frustratingly direct and berate those near the end. The scene reminds one of a traffic jam in a parking lot. Whilst the threats posed by the insurgents are certainly a reason to move the vehicles, in truth, the characters just seem annoyed to be gridlocked. It doesn’t seem to matter that they’re being shot at; that reality only seems to pose a minimum nuisance. All around them men are dying, and strangely, it is pretty uninteresting, pretty mundane …. pretty darn boring.

It is their duty to kill insurgents (… or blow up schools to keep insurgents from staking it out, or staging roadblocks, or consoling themselves when they’ve accidently killed civilians) they are effectively confined to a state of boredom. These tasks comprise their life, but are so unthreatening and ordinary that their lives become characterized by an utter lack of ’purpose and meaning’ (128).  This yields the mundaneness and ensuing ‘mundanity’ of their situation: ‘everything collapses into one indifferent whole … [one’s] genuine possibilities … life fallow in boredom. Everything becomes both indifferent and bothersome in its lack of meaning.’ (123)  Because everything takes on the character of indifference, one becomes detached from the world (130).

Whilst all this sounds quite glum, for Heidegger boredom is an important resource. In a state of boredom we become painfully aware of our own role in giving life meaning. This may induce an anxiety, but it can also provide an unclouded view of my task as an individual who decides what is important for her life and must take the responsibility for pursuing such interests. It is a responsibility fill one’s time and give one’s life purpose. Of course, the situation for the soldiers is markedly different. Whilst the responsibility to fill their time falls onto their shoulders, but their role is to take orders, to, that is, be given a purpose by something outside themselves. By virtue of their position as ‘soldiers’, they are unable to escape the confines of boredom, they are unable to give themselves new tasks and purposes.

I have hopefully shown the various ways in which their situations become mundane, which in turn in provokes a certain ‘detachment’ (from their own potential and from the suffering of others), which in turn inculcates a certain ‘insanity’. This is ‘mundanity’. Is it a state of mind necessarily engendered by war? By modern-day war? By having professional troops on hand? Moreover, should ‘mundanity’ worry us? Does its inculcation create a person so detached from others that s/he cannot return to activities of non-war? I leave these questions open, perhaps to return to them later. In the meanwhile, I commend Simon on creating an authentic and unvarnished portrayal of this state of mind and can’t wait to see what he churns out next.

Ever feel like a good ol’ bus rant?

A few weeks ago, a video of an English woman named  Emma West  hurling racist remarks at fellow passengers went viral. A few days ago another video of an albeit very drunk woman attacking a black man also went viral. If you search for any variation of ‘crazy’ ‘bus’ ‘racist’ ‘rant’ on YouTube you will encounter hours of various, grainy, discretely shot video clips of women and men confronting other passengers or shouting about something or another to the bus as a whole, of a small pocket of nearby passengers.

Such incidents are not unfamiliar. We’ve all had the experience of riding the bus, the tube, or the tram, minding our own business, just trying to get from point A to point B, when someone takes the floor and kicks up a fuss about something. These moments are truly cringeworthy for us passengers. There’s nothing historically inconsistent about such displays. Perhaps because of the rise in personal vehicle use the space for such acts has shrunk. It used to be the guy on the soapbox on the street corner or the man ranting about the impending apocalypse in front of the grocery store. These figures persist, frequenting popular pedestrian areas such as the high streets, but whereas these figures were, and in many cases still are, part of the natural backdrop of urban life, there’s something about treating the bus as a platform for the public promulgation of one’s ideas that seems so utterly inappropriate, so invasive.

So even though such incidents seem so commonplace, they are nonetheless a space of expression which can only be describes as culturally fringe. Perhaps this is why the people who gravitate towards them do so to express fringe concepts and opinions. I really do not know. In many cases the ‘ranters’ are sometimes disenfranchised or mentally unwell, so it seems more likely that they would  unabashedly cross social boundaries of appropriate public behavior and express their bizarre ideas. And of course drugs and alcohol can contribute to the lack of inhibition.  Yet,  in reflecting on my own experience (insulting of Catholics on a bus in Belfast) I feel that these factors are not always play. Emma, for example, was not inebriated. It makes me wonder,  perhaps there is something about the bus that renders it a space which facilitates the expression of certain views.

The bus is a communally shared place. All sorts of people use public transport services. There’s not class division in it, except sometimes on trains. It’s the space where we’re all in each other’s face. And you can’t really leave. Well of course you can, but unless we feel immediately threatened most of us just stay put and endure it.  If you’re on the bus you’re traveling – and traveling can be exhausting. You just can’t be arsed to object. And today, more so than ever before, we can just plop our ear buds in or take out our phone or kindle and sink into our own world. Though we travel together on the bus, we’re very much in our own space. In these senses, the bus seems to offer the perfect audience: passive, locked-in, diverse. Moreover, on buses, trams, and tubes there is often a lacking presence of ‘authority’ figures to stop people from rants. These are all good reasons for saying the bus is a very fitting soapbox.

But does something about it make it the perfect place to spew hate? Perhaps the clue is in that last audience-quality: diversity. We all use public transport at some point. If someone has a grudge against immigrants you’re likely to find them using public transport. You’re likely to find anyone. I’m not trying to justify this behavior by enumerating the reasons that public transport is a suitable forum for the expression of bizarre ideas or hatred. My point in this post was to explore this phenomenon a bit. In a way, I appreciate these outbursts. They’re illuminating. They remind me what crap views people hold and compel me to take more action in my own life to address hate. The bus seems to be a space where ideas burst forth into the public realm. It invokes the question, what is Emma representing? Not just herself. If anything she’s reflecting a well-acknowledged sentiment. Such outbursts force me to take off my iPod and leave my own world sometimes. Otherwise I might forget what goes on out there

I’m an advocate of free speech, even if it’s hateful (it’s undoubtedly the most American aspect of me). Yet, I respect the legislative position in the UK against hate speech. It seems to me that even if people are going to spew hate, there needs to be well-acknowledged forums where others cannot be trapped into listening and responding to such hate. If you ever get a chance, go to Speakers Corner in Hyde park in London and you’ll see what I mean.

abortion: not b/w

I wrote this a few months ago, let me know of your thoughts!

Why Abortion is not Black and White

I begin this post with reference to a sociological trend recently uncovered by India’s current census. According to the BBC, the census (which can be read here) shows an alarming decline in the number of girls under the age of seven since 2001. The census indicates a general decline in the population of children; however most of this decline is of the female population. Researchers are suggesting that this decline is a result of the foeticide and infanticide of females. In India, tradition mandates that dowries must be given by the family of the bride upon her marriage. Though the exchange of dowries is currently illegal in India, the custom is nonetheless practiced by the rich and poor alike. Boys are thus preferred to girls and it is widely acknowledged that women undergo abortions when pre-natal scans indicate the fetus is female. It is clear this trend is rooted in culture, not necessarily in poverty. Families are making a deliberate exchange of a child’s life to uphold a custom, despite its illegality, and despite their poverty. Their choice is an engagement with a cultural custom rather than a reaction to socio-economic status. Many observers of the abortion debate may now ask themselves how women’s rights movements (which are typically pro-choice) respond to this recent trend, as it shows an instance where the pro-choice position undermines feminist aims to secure respect women. In other words, how can one support the right of a women to have an abortion if the capacity for abortion is used to deliberately eliminate female foetuses? The Indian episode serves as a exemplar illustration of the ambiguity at the centre of the abortion debate and thereby debunks the black and white hegemony of the pro-life/pro-choice agenda in America.

In America and Europe, the abortion debate is clear-cut, with those of the ‘right’ holding the pro-life position and those of the ‘left’ advocating for the pro-choice position. Little do many realize that both positions are incredibly diverse. Some on the pro-life divide contend that abortions are always impermissible. Others, drawing on Natural Law Theory (a rationalized morality which most Christian denominations profess) and the ‘principal of double-effect’ contend that an abortion is permissible if it is a procedure necessary to preserve the mother’s life. Here, the intent is not to conduct an abortion, but to preserve the mother life or well-being, rendering the abortion an ‘effect’ of preventing death or harm to the mother. Another variation on the ’principle of double effect’ is the conducting of abortions by rape and incest victims. Here, the intent is not to have an abortion, but to halt continuation of the rape or incest. Traditional Natural Law  does not account for other ‘harms’ an abortion may address. Hence, one cannot get an abortion because she cannot ‘afford’ to raise a child, nor could one permit an abortion as a method of population control. There are dozens of other reasons for conducting abortions that would be ‘impermissible’ according to standard Natural Law Theory. This is because Natural Law ethics generally prioritizes procreation on the grounds that if one is to ‘do good and avoid evil’, one cannot end life without preventing a greater evil or pursuing.If this was the only imperative of Natural Law, then one could easily rationalize any good to be commensurable to life. However, according to Aquinas, the good of life is considered to be an absolute good, in that it cannot be transgressed for the sake of many other ‘goods’.

Many societies and cultures, however, do not subscribe to the same ‘ranking’ of goods. Here enters the pro-choice position. Since the Enlightenment, a turn of the philosophical gaze from ‘heaven’ to ‘humanity’ incited a new focus on freedom and individual dignity. Ethical discourse shifted from from an emphasis on preserving divine absolute goods to preserving equality, fraternity, dignity, and freedom of choice for the individual. The ethical pursuit of these goods has been assumed and adjusted by various social movements since, such as the French and American Revolutions, abolition, workers’ movements, civil rights, multiculturalism and feminism. It is now called the ‘Politics of Recognition’. Instead of looking to ‘do good and avoid evil’, the moral imperative is to ‘secure equal recognition’ of each individual in a society. This imperative is a foundational principle at work in the pro-choice position. Advocates contend that women, as a collective demographic, have endured an extensive history of pernicious and systemic oppression of which they consider sexual reproduction to be a major dimension. Pro-choice advocates recognized the extent to which women’s life decisions are bound to the demands of their body, particularly their body as a vessel for the birth and their energy as a source for the raising of children. They thus claim, if women are to be recognized as equal to men, she must have the ability to make choices apart from the demands of her body.

It is important to note that just as the pro-life position is developed in the context of Natural Law Theory, the pro-choice position is developed in the context of the Enlightenment equality principles and the politics of recognition. You see? They are both products of their own philosophical ‘culture’ – i.e. of norms. As Americans – who are ‘top of the world’- we often forget that we propagate and opine within a particular culture with particular ethical conceptions of ‘the good’. Through such an American-Western culture we develop ethical positions that when placed in other cultures seem just as odd as to them as their ethics seem to us. The pro-life and pro-choice positions are operating on two distinct ethical presumptions, and it is clear that the abortion trend in India is conducted on an entirely different ethical premise! Who is right? It is important to answer this question, not because it is important for scholars to ‘one-up’ each other, but because it is important that in an increasingly globalised world people can make decisions which are consistent across ethico-cultural borders.

The answer to this simple question is not a question of who ‘comes out on top’, but how ethico-cultural horizons fuse. At first glance, it may seem that both positions can be straightforwardly applied to the Indian episode yet this is not case. The pro-life movement cannot easily grip the proverbial political ground of the Indian debate on abortion because it prioritises ‘life’ over honor, custom, and fiscal well being. In fact, one may even argue that from the perspective of a major Indian religion, Hindu, life is not an absolute but ephemeral good, subject to the laws and cycles of reincarnation. This is a problem the pro-life movement in virtually every culture, and is why advocates often appeal to sensibility with horrific images of aborted foetuses (which are often time pictures of miscarried infants) and unsettling anecdotes about the physical and psychological health risks to the mother. Our concern, however, is not whether or not an ethical perspective will be politically popular, but whether or not that ethical perspective can be analytically sound. As discussed above, earthly life is not as strongly prioritised within Eastern-Hindu culture as it is in Western-Christian culture. Whilst abortion may not be explicitly condoned or suggested by Eastern-Hindu culture , the procedure is evidently not discouraged. The question becomes, what ought to be ranked higher, life or Hindu custom?

Life is a consistent reality across cultures. It transcends culture. Norms cannot exist without life. Yet, no life exists apart from norms. It is the way a person or a group of persons conceptualizes her world. It is the basis of her convictions and actions. Norms and life are interdependent concepts. When pro-lifers speak of life, they do not mean a dead, vacant, isolated life, but one which is engaged with a social matrix of meaning. A ‘flourishing human life’ and a ‘culture’ do not exist without the other, so how can two integral concepts be weighed against one another? Surely we can make arguments against culture without arguing against life, and vice versa? Unlike life, a constant reality, culture is a malleable reality. Cultures are never static, but are subject to shifts in thought, practice, and new meaning (i.e. think of how the world has changed since the advent of science). A cultural acceptance of abortion can be best articulated not on the grounds of preserving life, but on other grounds that resonate within that culture. Other values can be accessed and articulated as reasons to preserve life over the pursuit of a specific custom. If no such reasons can be articulated, the pro-life movement can only work to change the landscape of that culture to better prioritise and value life. In this way, one achieves a fusion of cultural horizons rather than a failed battering of ethical perspectives.

How does the pro-choice argument fair in the Indian episode? This position faces even more difficulty because the very ‘right’ to abortion is being used to exterminate deliberately the bearers of that right. The pro-choice position seems to underestimate itself. Surely Indian women are exercising their right to ‘choose’, and pro-choice advocates should support them? Well, are they? Firstly, many women are being forced to undergo abortions by their husbands and family, but- on another level- one could claim that women are being forced to undergo abortions by culture itself. Yet, they are complicit in many regards with that culture, in fact, many women may choose to undergo abortions themselves. Is it fair to criticize their choices because of our ethico-cultural prioritization of women? Or can we make a fair critique of the practice because such abortions are committed for the purpose of avoiding female children? That the ‘child’ is being devalued for something that is not its fault? That she shouldn’t have to answer for the cultural practice of the dowry without first engaging with that culture? These are difficult questions to think about and I have no clear answers.

Culture is not a singular oppressive ‘force’ acting on the isolated individual, but is a result of the normative negotiations agents make. As stated above, we are always acting within a cultural matrix, and in some ways that matrix shapes us without our realization, and in other ways we act with complicity. We could turn turn our challenge to the agent or to the culture, but perhaps we should consider doing both. In regards to the agent, since the dowry practice is banned by law, and this law is thoroughly promulgated, many (thought certainly not all) are aware that one can live in India, as culturally Indian, without this practice. They know there are other options, is my point, yet the practice persists. On the other hand, in regards to culture, it seems that Indians are not being forced by their culture to devalue women in the ethical sphere; rather, the collective decision to practice the dowry custom creates a culture that devalues women. In other words, we could interrogate the culture itself, subvert it, change the practice of dowry exchange so that it doesn’t hinge so sturdily on women.

Can we bring these same thought about ‘cultural interrogation’ to the Western debate? Perhaps. Just as the pro-life position struggles because of its ethico-cultural priotisation of life, the pro-choice position struggles because of its ethico-cultural prioritisation of the right of the individual to choose. If the pro-choice position remains as that which so stubbornly holds ‘individual choice’ above all else, then it cannot make the case that women have the right to make reproductive decisions without then accepting that the decisions of women in India is to abort female fetuses. Just as one can make a case for challenging the notion of female feoticide, one can also make a challenge to the  notion of choice as the end-all-be-all good. In other words, sometimes we must say that in some instances one may not have the right to make that choice, that the whim of the individual should not be the only consideration, that we have to think carefully about what we’re doing and what it says about how we value the human.

In conclusion, I have tried to show that the pro-life and pro-choice positions are based on culturally specific ranking of normative values. When these position confront another ethico-cultural perspective there is a friction that can only be resolved in two ways: 1) by subsuming of one perspective by the other, or 2) by achieving a fusion of cultural horizons. Instead of creating a space for antagonistic relations, we should aim to achieve a space for agonistic relations. What such a fusion of of horizons looks like in India is beyond the scope of this essay. What I aim to show is that in this increasingly globalized world, cultural boundaries are confronting one another with often devastating conflict. This conflict is avoidable when we integrate the issues at hand and illuminate the ethico-cultural values underpinning our perspectives and work to shape a new cultural resolution that blends both ethico-cultural perspectives and maintains space for interrogation and subversion.