Feeding the Ouroboros: A Response to the Manchester Bombing

ouroboros-a

 

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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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.