Where have all the flowers gone?

Library - 0953I have been reading several of the gender-related themes going on in the news, usually from a feminist bent (qu’ell surprise I hear you say). Cases about how rape isn’t’ really rape, how women still face disparity in many workplaces, and, lesser emphasized, the ways in which women are subtly hampered in their pursuit of positions in the public sphere (in all sectors) and power (direct and indirect).

The most interesting to me however is the debate about women in the workplace, and the choices they make. I think there is another debate here, that is actually being obscured by discussions of child-care, partners taking on ‘home’ burdens, and issues of compensation.

Sheryl Sandburg referenced it indirectly in Lean In, but I think there is an interesting debate to be had around the way we interact in the workplace and how it is in direct contradiction to gender narratives in society and the way that children are socialized, largely from birth.

Judith Butler points out that it is impossible to leave a hospital in this country as ungendered. This initial expectation creates a pattern that is repeated throughout our lives. Even when parents attempt to raise their children against normative gender expectations, supporting those children to choose their own path, the social pressure to conform is so strong, that individuality is suppressed in many school aged children and becomes a hard-won prize for teenagers, many of whom do not make it out of high school unscathed.

For most boys in this country this involves initiation into the dominance/ submission game. Competition, clothed in a variety of constructs, serves to constantly delineate within ‘masculine’ groups who is the dominant, and who must submit and admit mastery by others. I say masculine specifically, because this is not only the case in groups of boys. I think anyone subjected to groups of mean girls can identify with this dynamic as well. I term it masculine instead because that kind of competition and required dichotomous split has traditionally been associated with the masculine ideal and relates pretty clearly to Constructivist dialogues too.

I was watching The League a few weeks ago (for the record a highly entertaining time that I recommend). I was struck while watching by the sheer volume of what my mum used to call ‘guy stuff’. The prevalence of activities that centered around one individual or group attempting to dominate, or being dominated by others was kind of striking. Funny how it probably echoes in small amount what goes on within actual football teams themselves.

It made me realize the tension that my brothers have probably felt for a long time that I am kind of unaware of. It is not that hard for me to find a group of friends who are happy to be supportive of each other, and who can relax and enjoy life as a group without the need to compete/ dominate/ be dominated. I asked a friend and he said that he has friends who are more like that, and some who are less.

It also made me think about how many activities in that gendered life are centered around that dominate/ submit paradigm. Lean In, while good advice in some ways, really means stop voluntarily submitting. It tacitly acknowledges that in the workplace that paradigm is getting played out over and over and over. So many of our white collar professions are thinly veneered arenas to get others to submit.

I’ve been wondering about the number of ‘hard charging’ women I have been known that have voluntarily given up professions that were very important to them to raise children full time. I can’t help but think that part of the motivation for this decision is a weariness of fighting. Given that expectation one can either get in the ring of the dominate/ submit expectations or attempt to succeed/ survive/ thrive without- either way you are fighting; fighting someone else or fighting that set of behaviors. It is tedious if you don’t have the ego drive to get off on it, and it is tiresome if you want to inhabit a different way of being.

Honestly, it feels at a higher volume and intensity here in the States (not that it doesn’t exist in other places), and I wonder how much of the national identity was formed on the premise of valuing that ‘fighting’ spirit.

I also wonder about the place of boys and young men in all of this. How much of the narratives they are fed from early in school are about joining and succeeding in this game, despite any instincts or desires to the contrary they might have? How much are they taught to buy into and compete against others when it ends up working against them?

I’ve been thinking about the dearth of a new masculine narrative to rival the feminist strains. Women have been fighting for a long time now to find new identities that allow for freedom and self-definition, but this has so far (mostly) failed to be matched by new masculinity ideals. Men are expected to do new things, but in the same old ways. When they have a hard time adjusting to the expectations we excoriate them for being ‘cave-men’ or ‘unenlightened’. We expect them to smoothly transition between being that way to succeed in the workplace and be supportive partners and parents in the home, not acknowledging the cognitive dissonance it creates when switching. We are (fairly) frustrated by our perception that men are unwilling to make adjustment, or give up privilege but I think Louis C.K. is right– if we had that advantage, wouldn’t we re-up? It feels slightly mean at times that we don’t have empathy for people who have to struggle harder than they are used to for the same privileges they used to enjoy. I mean, don’t get me wrong- guys, you gotta get over that- you had it great for a long time, welcome to what the rest of the world has been dealing with- but I want to try to have patience so they can decide what their new definitions of masculinity are going to be, not premised in oppression, exclusion, and full throttle competition.

Playing what you are dealt

IMG_0024There is an irony in the way that we both look to others to validate all of our choices, and now use social proof as a proxy for trustworthiness and the way that we compare ourselves to others and an ideal and so often find ourselves lacking. I was watching an Oprah Life Lesson video and they said that ‘comparison is an act of violence against the self’. I found that fascinating, especially given that so many of us compare ourselves so often and find ourselves lacking in so many ways. Especially how we often stack the deck against ourselves.

We compare our size, shape and ‘beauty’ to supermodels and airbrushed celebrities, our academic accomplishments against Fulbright scholars and our kindness and sociability to fictitious characters from a variety of medias. There is an impossibility in measuring up, and yet the message pervades- supposedly ‘spurring’ us to accomplishment. Somehow I feel like that is fitting, because we often forget that spurs cause pain, and horses run faster in an attempt to get away from the stimulus, not because all of a sudden they have re-discovered their intrinsic joy in running.

I feel like the current generation of 20 somethings have been told to rely on each other, and trust something only if others are doing it, and yet fall in this catch 22 that trips them up over and over when those comparisons end in finding something lacking themselves. How can we attempt to find our own intrinsic motivations when so many of our actions and perceptions are based on our reaction to the others around us and how similar, or different we are to them (especially when all of that is based in a competitive paradigm?)

Dipping a toe in

ImageSo I haven’t written for a long time. Honestly I was a little afraid to. This is the first time my brain hasn’t belonged soley to me, and I was worried that I might talk about things I shouldn’t. It took me a long time to sort out the thoughts that now belonged to my employer and those that I know are completely my own and I am therefore freely allowed to talk about.

The distinction was/is important not because I am afraid of the consequences, but because I really do love my company and I would hate to make a mistake that would harm it in any way. I think that makes a difference, one’s intentions?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot too, whether individuals’ intentions should count, as well as the results of those intentions. It is so hard to assign responsibility to an agent, because not only are you never sure they are being honest with the outside world as to why they did whatever it was they did, but because it is unclear if they are even able to be honest with themselves.

I had some trouble with that this year, that my intentions were unclear to other people, and their intentions were unclear to me, and we didn’t have any common language to talk about it, despite the fact that we were speaking the same words with roughly the same accent. Ironic then that this was precisely our undoing, because although the words were the same denotation, the connotation was a vast and otherised world of culture and historical understanding.

*The biggest problem with Google translate is names. The same person has differently spelled names in different languages. Each group learns who that person is to their particular group, fascinating, because by definition (literally) they are different to each group of people and named thus. Different words for the same concept or the same word for different concepts.

You will also see that my spelling can’t decide which continent I am on. Maybe because I still have two UK keyboards, and the rest are all US English. Did you know there is not a #hashtag symbol on a UK board? Every time I want to use it I have to search/ remember the right keystroke combination. Makes Twitter all that much more fun and time consuming.

We have so many things to discuss! They have been slightly bottled up, but my ideas are now itching to come out, and it is time. Fear, misogyny, oppression, the tensions inherent in life! (I found  a place that has made me less afraid to use exclamation points. I really am that excited and happy most of the time, why is it bad to share that? (yes, I understand the oversaturation of a market now but regardless…)

I’m now officially half Mac half PC. Migrating everything to a third party cloud is a pain, but hopefully allows a more seamless transition between the two. And there I am, sounding like the little commercial I am becoming. Oh! Commodification and commoditization. Those are on the list as well.

I should admit, that my surroundings, and some of the topics I think about during the day for other people do inflect my own thinking at home, and my understanding of the world and of other people. I try to make sure that the altitude at which I’m thinking is decidedly different but sometimes it can be hard to separate. There may be cross polination. All my ideas here though are my own. That is important to know, especially if I offend anyone. ALL VIEWS ARE MY OWN AND IN NO WAY REFLECT ANYTHING ABOUT MY EMPLOYER. (I’m now wondering if I should be putting that on the homepage). I’ve been thinking about Capitalism a lot. And hierarchy. And inevitably power. That does mean law, but it also means something else much less tangible.

I will also say that I spent part of that time scared and silent. I’m not even really sure of what but I do know that I felt under threat. From lots of people (most of them men), and myself (which may or may not indicate my own projection). I made people mad, unintentionally, honestly by mistake, attempting to make something better, but I was threatening anyway. I’m still not sure if I was a threat to specific people? Or to a system itself. And I’m beginning to think that a threat to the system is a threat to the people. I do know that in reality they had no idea who I was, or what I was doing, or why, but they did not hesitate to come down quickly and hard. I thought I had already proven myself, I thought they knew who I was, but I overestimated someone (unclear if it was myself or others) and it all ended in tears (mostly those were mine).

There were others though that were threatened not by any action on my part, but on my existing and the sudden realization that I was not what they expected. I was more powerful, and less willing to watch silently, or drop my standards of you. The threat was probably still existential, but people who previously had sought to ‘protect’ me now were coming for me. And it made me distrust the protection. Was it about me? Or was it about the object I was?

But I battle through, mostly because I don’t know what else to do. I am becoming less afraid of angering people again. Remembering that if they will be that angry and act in whatever way results then I’m not sure it is a good relationship in the first place and so I need not be sorry to lose them, and I honestly have little to fear.

Zen is good.

Shots of Awe is also good, and mind blowing. I have to listen to things several times to follow the bibliography through genre let alone author which allows me to feel my own mortality. (which most likely sounds either crazy or poetic, although we are into asides like a fiend already so what the hell)

This may be the closest to what it is like inside my head, with all the thoughts going round, jumping from one topic to the next, seemingly unconnected. I promise if you stick with it long enough the patterns will start to become clear, and you might even see yourself in my little dia-Tribe. I will attempt to illuminate the pattern as clearly as I can, although I have been told I speak in vague generalities. Mostly that is because I try to personalize with examples close to each individual, but I’m growing more remote from where people live and less able to quickly translate concepts to local concrete. In attempting to encompass the widest audience that will also be a challenge. I’ll try to have as broad a cross section as I can, or define my terms, or make the archetypal representation as close to mythological as possible. It would help too if you could let me know when I’m not making sense (y’know with respect and caring and stuff) or ask for clarification.

So I’ll scurry back to my white board cave. And let you digest/ percolate on that while I try to decide on a more coherent topic for future.

What if? I mean really, what if?

10-04-07_0604So I have been thinking about fear. I realized that fear is a backdrop in this country more than many other places I have been. The individualist bent that underpins our society has a concurrent theme that means if we screw up, unless we are lucky enough to have family or friends with means to help us we are totally screwed. I was told by a financial planner that the number of people who worry they will end up homeless is kind of surprising.

That is a product of no (or very little) safety net. In some ways I can agree that it does often spur a different level of innovation and a higher level of drive than many other places because no one will do it for you, and the quality and tenor of ones life is totally self-motivated.

The problem that exacerbates this ideology though, and can take it to a very different place, is the hyper capitalism of the early 21st century. The underlying message of almost all commercial interactions is that we should be afraid. We are different, or not enough, or could be better (which pretty much all means the same thing) and if we purchased x, y, or z, product we could be safer by fitting in, being more efficient, getting to the place we ‘should’ be. That ‘should’ place is the dangerous element. Because in reality it can never exist. If we all actually got to the place of having everything right we would all relax, because we would have achieved what ever it is we thought we needed to do. So it is in fact an impossibility to achieve that place. We can run as hard as we want, we may even appear to get closer, but there will always be another brass ring to grasp, another lap to go, another person to pass.

These dual dynamics exist in our collective unconscious, driving us all, creating amazing progress in technology, communication and potential. The tragedy of history (as W Benjamin says) is that somehow all of the progress improves our material positions, but never gives us the peace of mind that we really desire.

Is a child perfect if they can fulfill everyones’ extrinsic goals for him, but can’t decide what he wants with a blue sky horizon? That he is only capable of choosing between options? That he can’t challenge the options themselves?

And what of his brother, who sees the falsity of the choices he is offered, but doesn’t have the language or power to point out how unfulfilling those choices have been for his parents?

The irony of all of it, is that in the end we are the only ones capable of soothing the self, but we can only really do that when we try to let go of the markers we are supposed to be achieving

Are we there yet?

101_0049So yes, back in Qatar, teaching more kids to debate. Teaching here is brilliant. The kids are usually really excited to learn and because of that it’s easy to have fun with them. This week we were working out how much the students understand about how debate works and although there is quite a variety of levels, they all have a basic grounding. More than that though, I can see them really pushing themselves to speak better, or know more, or challenge their received wisdom. I was also struck when teaching how rarely we all seem to do that about certain ideas.

I was trying to explain how each ideology, be it religious or political or patriotic, within its own community, has a set of beliefs that go largely unquestioned or unchallenged. When speaking to an audience it is helpful to know what those beliefs are because it will help you to know what they might or might not find convincing. It is also helpful to know that what is ‘unquestioned/ ‘right’ varies within and between audiences.
To be honest, its part of my difficulty with academia. The paradox that to try to say anything one has to recognize that anywhere you start from is both arbitrary and challengeable. To defend whatever my belief might be I have to start from a premise, which, often, can itself be challenged. I know I’m a debater, and that makes almost everyone groan, the idea that everything is debatable. But the thing is, I keep coming back to this wall. I decided to call it faith, and I’m not sure if I mean in a religious way, or if its even possible to sort in that manner. What I mean when I say ‘faith’ is that starting point, the one where you don’t question beyond it. You are comfortable saying ‘I’m going to start here’ and maybe you can justify why that spot and not this, and maybe you can’t, but it seems most logical to you, or you just feel that is the spot. For some people it might be the right to property, for some it might be the right to free speech, to some it might a right to social equality, for some it might be divine right. My point is that if we really examine ourselves, we all have core fundamental beliefs and they all come from somewhere. In academia you have to choose and then justify why that spot (which makes sense I just find very difficult because there is never an end).

In debate you kind of have to agree either to a premise upon which to debate, or a debate about which premise to take (its pretty hard to do both at once). Debate communities kind of develop their own accepted premises (a process I think is so subtle it’s really interesting). The thing I am most impressed with about these kids, and a lot of the other debaters I’ve seen is their ability to balance their personal beliefs, and faith and the premises required by the activity we do. I’m terrible at it, and seem to regularly forget what exactly it is that I believe and only know what I’m currently arguing. These kids however are able to speak my language, and yet be true to their own. Its really challenging trying to honor that and teach then what I know, but its also inspiring because I wish I was half as smart at their age.

Second big epiphany of teaching: Today I was talking to a student about the ice cream cart. Some of you will know that this is my favorite analogy ever in regard to voter preferences and voter preference shaping. (I can point you to the book if you are interested) The basic idea is that if you think of a political spectrum as a long beach then it makes sense that the most people would be congregated at the middle (all parking being equal of course). An ice cream vendor, in order to be nearest the most numbers of customers will place their cart closer to the middle. The idea is that those at the far end of the beach, without other carts nearby will make the trek closer to the middle of the beach as there is no other option for a tasty cold treat. Parties and candidates therefore make a determination about how close to the middle of the beach, relative to their political beliefs they can afford to be before apathy sets in and the people at the end of the beach choose to just eat the half melted smoothie they have in the cooler (i.e. not vote at all). Those who are politically engaged, having no other option will move towards the centre rather than be shut out of the political process completely. If, however, a party can drag a whole spectrum closer to their ideology the middle of beach moves closer to their own outliers. (See Thatcher in 1983/1984)

The 2008 election was interesting in the Democratic Primary because to a certain extent it was exactly this dilemma. Obama placed his ice cream stand closer to the Left end of the beach than the current DNC membership, betting (rightly) that the numbers of disaffected voters he could get to come back and buy ice cream would be more than Clinton could get from the middle. In doing so, he opened up the beach again and effectively made the potential selling area longer. The difficulty is that there was a group of Republicans who no way, no how, were going to get closer to the middle and refused the spectrum as a whole moving. The Republican party we see now is the ice cream stand torn between those in the middle who have a better chance of getting extra votes lost in the Democrat’s move left, and the very vocal group who keep promising that if they move their ice cream stand farther Right there will be more people lining up to buy. The real issue is that what’s happening is the two parties are getting pulled farther apart to appeal to their bases which then makes any hope for governance moot. Its actually a fairly clear representation of the current political sociology of the US.

Democratic compromise comes from coming to the middle, but in order to get enough votes it is necessary to move farther and farther to the edge. FPP (first past the post) makes it almost impossible for a third, middle party to emerge (as with the Lib Dems) and even if they do our governance structure is such that they end up pretty much having to choose which way they will throw their lot so even the middle voters get pulled to one end or the other.

As long as we treat politics as a football match, with whoever gets the most points wins and decides on dinner, and as long as our social complexities continue to increase we will have these problems and the juxtaposition between the two guarantees things will get worse. The other alternative is to change the system somehow completely, either socially or politically, but how is that even possible from within this dynamic, especially given how dysfunctional it is? (see last post, and I’m coming back to it again)

Perhaps this is all obvious to everyone already, and I’m just repeating what we all already know, but I did do a handy-dandy little chart below (a little proud) that might make what I’m trying to say more clear and you could show your friends at dinner parties.

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House Sitting But Dancing

Authors Notes:

Screen shot 2010-10-20 at 21.04.21

I am sorry for the delay, but it seems that moving and then Portland took much more time than I thought. Tobe honest, it wasn’t really the moving so much as that thedetails involved made it much more difficult to be

analytical. I’ve had lots of thoughts in the meantime, but not enough clarity for it to make it possible/ fruitful to write it down. I know that it’s a pretty serious lapse, but back now and hopefully less crap in future.

Also, and I know this is a really sucky excuse I’ve been having difficulty accessing iWeb from my laptop…

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I was reading an article today in the Oregonian (actually it was an op-ed) piece about the suicide of a supporting character on a reality TV program. The gist of the article was that we, as watchers, should be ashamed of ourselves for trafficking in and being entertained by this man’s (and other’s) difficulties in life. I was interesting because there was a report on the BBC news last week that researchers have found a difference in the choices children profess about intended employment/ dream careers. Previously children often chose to go into caring professions (doctor, nurse, policeman) while today they mostly want to be famous with careers that match (football/ movie/ popstar. The researcher blames the media endorsement of the glamorous lifestyle and exciting events in these peoples lives for the shift.

The two are, of course, related. At least I think so. But there are more pervasive and problematic correlations as well.

The op-ed blames us for watching, while the media industry blames them for signing up while simultaneously telling them they should. But the real issue comes from the individual shift in perception and the accompanying societal impacts. It seems we are failing to connect the dots between these things and that’s the mentality of blaming someone else. True, we could choose not to watch, true also those stars could attempt to anticipate and choose not to participate. At this point I don’t think its possible for them to say they had no idea what it might be like (although I think no one can ever really know what it would be like). But I think that’s somewhat the point. Although they couldn’t know exactly what it would be like, its possible to attempt to understand based on historical evidence of what its been like before.

This also seems linked to the riots. People’s inability to future the consequences of their actions. There has been a lot of talk, almost since the beginning of the riots of the culture and context that created the conditions conducive to their happening (sorry for the excessive alliteration). But based on the evidence in court many of the individuals were already members who had chosen to take criminal action before. This is not to say that there is not widening disparity in society (there is) or that it need not be addressed (it does), but to say that individual’s themselves still must bear responsibility for their actions.  I know that this is easier for me to say sitting in the privileged position that I do, but it is the same sentiment expressed by many people in the same communities from which the rioters hale.

Upholding the rule of law is about more than simple protection of property (although many think that’s its basis). From my perspective law is about organization of large groups in densely populated areas to allow people structure to understand how they can expect their neighbours to behave and give them codes of behaviour as well. The real crime is not the taking of things, but the unconscious thought that an individual’s desire for something is more important than the codes themselves. My father asked about the difference between the Arab Spring and the London riots and my answer is simple- in the former the long-term consequences and the collective were the point and in the latter they were not. The professed goals of all demonstrators in the Middle East is the introduction of democracy, a system that allows for the establishment and orderly maintenance of codes of conduct, allowing individuals within that society to make choices as to the balance between their freedoms and responsibilities. To be fair, once established those codes will favour those in power at the time of establishment and this undermines the premise of total equality. Democracy is not totally fair and not totally equal but it is an attempt at fairness and equality while maintaining the malleability for society to adapt to changing social conditions. At the point when individuals decide that system isn’t working for them to the extent they must ignore it it does raise questions. The question is, as many people have said ‘why did they do it?’. Many already have various politically charged answers, largely based on their ideological positions.

Rights/ Privileges/ Responsibilities

Governance.

There is something wrong with the statement ‘they work for us’ when applied to government. The reality is that they work on behalf of us, as a public good, codifying, overseeing and enforcing the codes we all choose to support. Even if we don’t agree with each thing, we agree with the system that has currently approved whatever it is they are codifying/overseeing/ enforcing and thus, in maintaining that system they are still working on our behalf. I say that because we are not their boss, just like they are not ours. They are from among us, self-chosen to be sure, and with myriad personal motives to make that choice, but still. The point of democracy is that expectation that everyone has a chance (although some have a greater chance) to make the choice and work on behalf of society and because it is a choice, and they are a member, we believe their work will be more reflective of our experience. But part of that work is to be informed about the consequences of their choices for all the people. Much of the disquiet with Washington is the perception (real or not) that those we have chosen to govern for us are making their choices either uninformed or unwilling to see the consequences of their actions.

All Thoughts Must Go

IMG_0127-2Do you ever have so many thoughts or ideas it hard to know where to start putting them down? I know, that probably isn’t the most usual problem. But I can’t help it. I think a lot, and I mean a LOT, and while I want to express it all I have such a hard time knowing where to start. For example: the main topics of thought for the past few days have been, in no particular order: Britain, naval power and the race for Africa- implications both politically, but also in terms of things like fairy tales; the need to ‘play the game’ to ‘get ahead’ in life, (although what it means to ‘play the game’ and to ‘get ahead’ are in themselves highly contentious topics and its hard to reach any conclusions without first agreeing on what that means); popular cultural mythology, baselines and patterns; my personal autobiography and if there is any way to write a biography for an application without sounding wanky; the importance of maintenance (re: appearance) and when something is relative how to identify the point at which one should decide to be satisfied; politics: personal everyday choice? Or ballot box limited?; taxes and civic donations- the roles of government and the expectations of the ruling class; definitions of Europe and the implications of that- as well as the ability of a group to be self-centric both successfully, and with the approbation of others.

See? ridiculous, especially because these are not all passing thoughts, when I stop to try to write things down I can get a few thousand words out of each without really trying all that hard. What I’m trying to say really, is that when I don’t post, its not that I’m not thinking, or that I’m not thinking about trying to express it to you, but I’m having a hard time starting because there are so many things its hard to put it down. Especially because, as already demonstrated, its hard to put down only part of it.

So, a bit of a whingey post, more of an update rather than a post. If any of you would like to hear more about any of these topics in depth I have some things written about them already, or I’m happy to oblige and write more. I’m a bit here and there at the moment. I was in Brussels this past weekend, Dublin next weekend and then one more in London before I leave for the foreseeable future to return to the cradle of my childhood to make jam and work on statistics. (If you are a stranger you probably find this last sentence somewhat confusing, although I honestly believe the only people who read this already know me so its less of a problem). For those not in the know but who would like to be I am currently moving from London for a short time to Portland before hopefully relocating to New York. So, that’s happening.

Natural Caffe (Several Coffees, a tour of the EU and a few gluten free biscuits later…)

IMG_0129-2A friend asked me the other day about my opinion as to what is the new ‘capital’ of Europe. Did I believe that London would take the prize? It was in response to a series of New York Times op eds (see here)  The prompt (for those of you who can’t be bothered to click the link is: In every era, one city is designated as a magnet of creativity and energy. Which city is the dynamic center in Europe now?

I had a quick response that on further reading I still believe, but after spending a few days in Brussels I think I’ve changed my opinion somewhat.

This is my original response:

I think London isn’t really the capital of Europe, but I don’t really think that Europe has a capital yet. The split between Brussels and Strasbourg as an administrative capital, and the push to make sure things are equal in language etc makes it hard for just one place to become dominant/ the ‘centre’. There is a lot of work being done right now about ‘global cities’, what they are, how they manifest, what their result will be. Many of the big capitals of Europe are considered ‘global cities’, but I do actually think London will end up being the major hub of this region. Hub, not centre, because I don’t think that culturally it has the same resonance that Paris or Amsterdam once had and I don’t know if thats even possible anymore. I think its part of a network of global cities that include Singapore, Mexico City, Toronto, Rio, Tokyo, New York, Mumbai and a few others. These cities have elements that distinguish them through historical cultural influence, but neo-liberal values have also set a stamp that makes them identifiable. People like myself and my peers move through each city and find ourselves almost as comfortable in one as in another. The difficulty is that the comfort is much more about personal culture and ideology and much less as a communal centre. They are are largely economic hubs, both as centres of regional growth and as financial exchange points, but they also involve travel which means tourism, and the import of globalized goods. There is also usually elements of academia or cultural production, but even here the members are not particularly tied to place as much as subject/ object. This means that inhabitants, while comfortable, are also transient and this makes it difficult to create a more settled cultural and political community that would root one of these cities as a new ‘capital’ in the way meant in the op-eds. I think London is important because of the ties to Europe, the Common Wealth and the US. This is what adds to the mix of cultures and the importance placed on it by so many people. But, I’ve also seen the tensions between long-term residents of the city (like generations of them) and the more recent emigrees. The Labour minister last week got himself in major trouble saying that british employers should hire british workers, even if they might not be as well qualified or hard working and it was a major problem for him. He encapsulates a big tension between brits who believe they are owed something because they come from here and people are taking over what is theirs and immigrants who say that what britain offers is opportunity but if brits aren’t going to work hard enough to take it they will. All of this of course is also predicated on material resources and if the BRIC countries really start to make inroads, especially depending the debt negotiations in the US it could all change drastically.

London also has this unique vibe, there is amazing culture- free museums, concerts in the park, art in the streets, good food and this amazing mix of people (take a bus across Elephant and Castle on a Sunday and you see the most amazing african women on their way to church with these incredible dresses and hats), and I don’t know any city that is as crowded but that has as much green space.

I still believe all these things, but what I’ve come to realize is that London isn’t really in Europe and it’s a mistake to assume it is. Its been a while since I spent any real time here, but very soon after arrival (if you are paying any attention at all) you can’t help but notice the very European-ness of it. I know, for someone who is supposed to be good with words that is a really bad descriptive, but I think its hard to encompass. For one example- in London if you travel by car (or have a very long attention span walking) you can notice that streets and blocks have quite obviously been developed at different time periods, one block will have little bay windows on the ground floor, one street is almost all one particular kind of brick work, but each block has some integrity. Also, they tend to be build in one or two stories until you properly start to get into the city. Here however most blocks are taller. I don’t know if there are more floors, or it seems that maybe the ceilings are taller? On most of the houses I’ve seen there are also these little grillwork balconies on the first (second) floor. The funny thing is that the buildings seem to be sort of filled in. There will be some that resemble each other, but they seem interspersed with buildings of a totally different design culture. Not to say they don’t work, the mish-mash is absolutely lovely, but it definitely isn’t the enlightenment inspired uniform blocks I’ve come to expect. That’s only one part of it though, there are differences in everything else as well. Brussels is definitely French inspired, but the overwhelming impression, and the reason for my change of heart is how little it seems to be impacted by the neo-liberal furore that is ever present in North America, the developing world, cities of Asia and Britain. Although there are some global symbols, there are many more that are local and the feel I get is that Europe is both doing just fine, and much less concerned with the rest of the world. And honestly, if you really think about it, isn’t that pretty justified? Despite the recent economic events and the threats to the Euro, it is still one of the more powerful currencies in the world, and the EU both continues to grow and to absorb economic instability with remarkable aplomb.

I asked some friends about it, and although there was discussion, almost none of it was in reference to the world beyond Europe. And, to be fair, the way the question was posed that makes sense, but I was struck by their ability to take the question that way, that Europe’s capital has only to do with Europe and not with its impact on the wider world.

I realized that I think that probably always been somewhat the case. Britain’s empire was able to expand because of their naval power, and the ability to hem in the rest of Europe, not to mention that the Europeans were a little occupied fighting themselves, but at the same time, despite their actions impacting the rest of the world in the way they have Europe was and continues to be less aware of the world, because the world is aware of Europe. Not sure why that is, but it seems to be historically the trend and likely to continue.

Neo-Liberalism? Or a return to anarcho- possibilities?

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I was talking to some people the other day about the rise of neo-liberalism and the attendant consequences. Neo-liberalism gets a bad rap (although not totally undeserved), but what I was thinking was ‘what if neo-liberalism gets a bad rap for something it represents and not something its doing?’

So this is my thought: There is a connection between neo-liberalism and the loss of state sovereignty, right? But what if that loss of power has less to do with the system of capitalism, and more that the state, as a unit of administrative organization, has been outgrown? What if the ability to coercively control territory, and more importantly, that population density has rendered useless those governance mechanisms that held sway during the period of early modernity?

Both neo-liberalism and the state are about governance and monopolies of power, but the shift to ‘smart power’ and the increasing irrelevance of constructed boundaries in flows of information, social connection and ‘goods’ mean that the institutions developed as mechanisms of control don’t hold the same potential that they used to. This is important, especially because of the values we developed based on the ability of the state to mediate between different groups, and balance the rights of the individual against the rights of society.

More important is the ability the state has to attempt to regulate inequality through some accepted legitimate redistribution of resources, not totally socialist or communist, but important nonetheless. The state redistributes wealth from those very well off to those less well off, but also gathers resources to address problems that could not be attempted without some community organization. The problem now is that many of those problems are too big for a state (or several states) to address and the goals themselves are also contested. Because of this, the legitimacy of the state to collect taxes for purely redistributionary policies, or for contested goals is being questioned. Neo-liberalism is blamed for both the failure of the state and the inequality that results, but it may be a case of our economic sphere evolving before our social sphere catches up. This is not to say it won’t. I’m pretty clear that we already are. But I think that to just blame neo-liberalism, and capitalism in general ignores the realities that are facing us, and in blaming the state for failure to combat this new reality is a way to hide our heads in the sand. (I think I’ll come back to this later too)

The real issue is that the power/ responsibility balance is being questioned in myriad ways and the construction of who and for what is exponentially complex. Population density and its associated issues (*I’ll come back to this at some later point) make messy the issue of power to versus power over. This relates directly back to the issue of the state as for several hundred years the state was assumed to have both power to and power over and currently its ability to control either is kind of up in the air.

Another, also interesting, somewhat related point. I was also thinking about the power/ responsibility balance in relation to failure to take responsibility. I realised that although there is often good reasons to say ‘I don’t have any power to take responsibility’, there are also many reasons to say ‘taking responsibility creates its own power’. I think that at times it is true that individuals or groups feel powerless to change their situations, but I also think that there are points when some people make that as an excuse. Those who don’t want to take responsibility blame their lack of power for their failure to act instead of admitting it is a choice they have made. I believe the last great freedom that can be taken is the ability to act, and in acting we should be striving to take responsibility- for ourselves, for our situation, for our community. This is not to say that anyone can and always should act- that would be arrogant and naive, but that I think very often more people could take more responsibility than they do because it is easier to let someone else do it. I find this disappointing, although not terribly surprising. Thoughts on a postcard?

Reaching out and touching someone

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So the issue of respect and relationship has been on my mind still. Pas pointed out, quite rightly, that some people want respect despite a lack of relationship. There are individuals who just want people to like and respect them, and that it usually has to do with empathy. I think empathy is key. Just key in almost everything.  If we could find a way to expand peoples’ capacity for empathy I think it could be an antidote to fear, shame and anger. The thing is, the more we see ourselves in others, and them in us the more we want a relationship and want respect. But what is it that instills empathy, why do some people have it and some people don’t? What is it that allows empathy to expand once the seeds are sown? More importantly, what causes it to wither and die?I’ve been reading (listening to) a book about Ayn Rand and the development of her individualism. I think its interesting, because if you subscribe to the idea that most debates can come down to ‘first principles’ and that most of those principles are related to a self/ other, individual/ group divide, the question of why people lean one way or the other becomes paramount.I’ve been thinking about why some people find the ‘group’ to be oppressive, or why they fear the group denying their individual freedoms that guarantee their safety. Why do some people feel that individualism is the only route to safety? (in a totally self centered thought- why do I think the group is more important in that regard?)

I was told recently that I have found myself amongst a group of intellectual refugees, banded together to explore ideas that they were unable to pursue elsewhere. I think thats interesting, especially because my interpretation of why they couldn’t think their thoughts in those places is because they challenged the extant hierarchy in those places. Now my dilemma is this: I think it is important that they think those things, that they be allowed to think those things. I take away important lessons from them thinking those things. So my question is, why do I not feel a part of that community? Why do I try so hard to fit in to the ideology of the dominant group? In all honesty, I think I try to fit into both, but I find it much harder to fit into the challenging paradigm, despite the fact that I’d like to think I spend a lot of time doing that. It would seem that I don’t find the group excessively oppressive enough that escape is the only recourse to intellectual freedom. Or, perhaps I think that total escape is less important than intellectual freedom within the situation as it is only there that one can affect changing that specific system. This feels like a very messy entry, the second such and quite self-centred. Hopefully I’ll become more coherent when I am not myself an intellectual refugee…