Sunday, March 29, 2020

What can Camus’ La Peste tell us as we struggle against the Coronavirus?

45 years since I’ve left Lebanon, and even though I do most of my academic reading and writing in English, I still am far more at ease reading novels in French. So, when I decided to start reading novels dealing with pandemics, Camus’ La Peste* was the first book to come to my mind.
I have read the novel twice before. The first time for my French literature subject at High School in the early 70s, and the second time, for the ‘Existentialist Philosophy’ subject at Uni in the late 70s. So I haven’t looked at it for a good forty years. I remember enjoying my first reading, the picture of an actor dying on stage and the bourgeoisie literally ‘running for their lives’ out of the theatre, abandoning all pretense of refinement, appealed to the sixteen years old counter-culture boy who harbored a genuinely venomous hostility towards the conservative cultural manners and morality of the Lebanese bourgeoisie.  I also enjoyed reading it the second time and I thought it spoke more generally and very deeply about ‘man’s moral choices’ in the face of ‘death’. Neither in the first or the second reading did anyone tell me about the autobiographical dimensions of the novel and that the plague was among other things referring to ‘the German occupation’ during WW2 and the different ways people related to it. I read this much later in Tony Judt’s review of a new translation of the book twenty years ago (New York Review of Books, November 29, 2001). Nor did anyone draw my attention to the fact that this was a novel set in an Arab city with no Arabs in it. I heard a Lebanese academic speak about this much later. I have also noted in this last reading that while women, unlike Arabs, are present in the novel, none are presented as being serious human subjects with agency and existential problems of their own.
But all this critical knowledge did not stop me from reading the novel as being about what it says it is about, a plague epidemic, in a town, Oran, that could be any town in the world – actually, not any town. For, as Camus tells us on the second page of the novel, there are ‘towns and countries where people have, every now and then, an inkling of an otherwise (un soup├žon d’autre chose). In general, it doesn’t change their lives. Except for the fact that they’ve had that inkling.’ Not so, Oran. ‘Oran’, he tells us, ‘seems to be a town without such inklings; in other words, it’s completely modern (p.12).’ From this sentence onward, reading the novel was a total pleasure for my anthropological imagination – anthropological in both a philosophical and ethnographic sense. I can say that I enjoyed this third reading even more so than I enjoyed the first or the second. Most importantly, many of its passages offered a very astute description of people’s various practical and moral behavior in the face of a long term epidemic. Those descriptions related usefully to the situation we are in today as we face the Coronavirus pandemic.
The first passage that spoke to me in this way was when Camus was describing how people were having trouble accepting that their predicament was going to last far more than they imagined it will. ‘When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It can’t last long. It’s too stupid.’ And, no doubt, a war is certainly too stupid. But this does not prevent it lasting. Stupidity always gets its way (p.41).’ Even though I have experienced the Lebanese civil war where this happened again and again, I was reading this while people around me, and I myself, were in a state of denial, refusing that this can last for a long time. We humans, Camus says, have problems believing that plagues last. ‘We tell ourselves that they are unreal bad dreams that will come to pass. But they don’t always come to pass. And from one bad dream to another bad dream it is men who come to pass, and the humanists first, because they haven’t taken their precautions (p. 41).’
By the time the plague epidemic looked like it was nearing its end the townspeople were now more inclined towards prudence and were in no hurry to celebrate (p.243). But before that, even when they come to accept that the plague has captured their present, people find it difficult to think that it has also captured their future. They keep thinking the future as they did before the plague, as a future that went without saying. It was this ‘stupid human confidence in the forthcoming (p.67)’ that made people kiss each other on the railway station’s platform ‘sure that they were seeing each other again after of a few days or a few weeks at the most (p.67).’ But quickly their imaginary of the future adapts, and, as the narrator puts it: ‘if some among us were tempted to live in the future, they refrained from doing so, as quickly as it was possible, as they felt the wounds that the imagination ends up inflicting on those who trust it (p. 71).’
Furthermore, when people are asked to sacrifice certain things, they are far more brave doing it while they thought the crisis would only last for a short time, when they come to accept that the present (in its plagued form) is bound to last a long time, people experience an abrupt ‘collapse of their courage, willpower, and endurance’ and they fall in the holes of hope they’ve dug themselves in. They drift through life rather than live it, they become victims ‘of aimless days and sterile memories, like wandering shadows (p. 72).’ Even if not is such a dramatic fashion, all this made sense of some dimensions of my behavior and the behavior of the people I have been in touch with during this on-going crisis. Interestingly, Camus has an ‘existentialist’ solution to this. In such times of crisis, life only acquires substance if we consent ‘to root (our)selves in the solid earth of (our) distress (p.72).’
Another interesting dimension of living through the plague that I thought was masterfully examined by Camus is the tension between our sense of self as an individual and our sense of self as a general category. To use a sociological Durkheimian language, the extent to which our sense of personhood is structured around us being an individual fact or around us being a social fact. People have problems and they think their problems are unique and they go to officials to treat the uniqueness of their case. But the officials facing the plague are dealing in social situations. 
Thus, while one key character, Rambert, initially experiences himself as having a compelling reason to leave the confinement of the city, the doctor, Rieux, whose help Rambert is seeking, refuses to help him in the name of the public good. This is staged as a struggle between those who seek individual happiness versus those who seek social or collective happiness. Rambert who is seeking his own happiness in wanting to join his wife outside the city accuses the doctor of seeking ‘an abstraction’. For, how can one struggle for social happiness if one is unable to help individuals reach their personal happiness? But Rieux has no problem with the idea that he is seeking an abstraction. Abstractions are real and concrete. For, as he put it, the pest was itself an abstraction. It does not just kill people individually. It kills them by the hundreds. It kills a high percentage of a population, and, ‘like abstractions in general, (it) was monotonous.’ (p. 87). 
This reminded me of my friend Paul Dugdale who is medical doctor but also a public health manager. As he put it to me once, ‘I do not deal with a broken leg. I deal with things like “a high percentage of broken legs among the elderly”.’ Rieux takes this further. He concludes that: ‘to fight against an abstraction one has to resemble it a little bit’ (p.87). Thus, an individual is not just ‘thought of’ as an abstraction by someone thinking statistically. Individuals are partly abstract or inversely, abstraction is part of what they really are. Abstraction, then, is a mode of existing, not just a way of thinking about someone – it is an ontological category as anthropologists would say today. And it is this part of ourselves that is an abstraction that social reality particularly conjures in times of pandemics. 
Therefore, Camus wants to also convey to us, that in such times, there are no individual heroes in the sense of an individual that shines compared to others. The heroes, as the narrator ends up saying, are all the people who do what they have to do, including the boring bureaucrat doing his job. Rambert himself, in the end, stops seeking his own individual happiness and decides to stay and fight the plague with others. While Rieux never stopped him from doing so and even tells him that ‘there is no shame in opting for one’s own happiness.’ Rambert replies that its true, ‘but there can be shame in being happy by oneself (p.190).’
Throughout the novel, it is often argued that ‘life’ itself is all that matters. Interestingly enough, this is not a universal declaration about the intrinsic importance of ‘life’. Life matters because the plague, by wanting to take it away constructs it as the most important thing there is. It is because of this that what matters is fighting the plague and not allow it to do its job. As the narrator put it: 
Many fledgling moralists in those days were going about our town proclaiming that there was nothing much that can be done against the plague and one should just kneel before fate. And Tarrou, and Rieux, and their friends might reply saying this or that, but their conclusion was always what they knew for sure: on must fight, in whatever way, and there must be no bowing down. The crucial aim was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying and being doomed to the final separation. And there was only one way to do this: fight the plague (p. 125-126).
Despite his ‘existentialism’ Camus often ends up with a ‘biopolitical’ conception of life as ‘biological life’. When the priest Paneloux tells the doctor Rieux that ‘you too work for the salvation for man’s salvation’. Rieux replies: ‘Salvation is too big a word for me. I don’t go so far. I’m concerned with man’s health; his health before all else (p. 199). But one must ask today is the opposition between the secular and the religious allowed to overdetermine the opposition between life as health and life as salvation? Is there no way to think salvation as a way of thinking life as ‘more than just health’ other than religiously?
At one point in the novel, a possible answer emerges with the fusion of life and love, in the conflict between Rambert who sees his life as only worthwhile in so far as he is seeking love and Rieux who is seeking to save lives. As they argue it out, Rambert tells Rieux:
"You see. But you're capable of dying for an idea; one can see that right away. Well, personally, I've seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don't believe in heroism; I know it's easy and I've learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves."
Rieux had listened to the journalist looking at him attentively. Still looking at him, he gently says:
"Man isn't an idea, Rambert."
Rambert jumped off the bed, his face lit with passion.
"Man is an idea, and a precious small idea, once he turns his back on love. And that's my point; we -mankind - have lost the capacity for love. We must face that fact, doctor…
This seems to me a crucial question to ask today as we engage in all the ‘techniques of the body’ that we are invited to engage in to save ourselves and ‘the population’ we are part of. What kind of human being and what kind of ‘life’ are we saving when we engage in such techniques? Are we simply protecting ‘life’? or are we going to end up saving a ‘life’ that is further impoverished of anything that can be articulated to it such as love, or the idea of salvation. 
* Albert Camus, La Peste, Paris: Gaillmard, (1947) 2011. Translations are mainly my own.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

A bit of basic social science regarding ‘social distancing’

Many people who should know better are being outraged that people are not taking ‘social distancing’ seriously. It is as if all people have to do is simply decide what distance they should keep from people and implement it. The fact is that the distances we keep between us and other people are more part of our social and cultural unconscious and they are hard to shake.

The anthropologist Edward T Hall has devoted most of his work to this question of spatial distancing, and spatial non-verbal communication, what he called proxemics: the study of forms of spatial relations. he not only looked at the distances people kept but how they related, touch, eye contact, smell, etc... He saw these as culturally determined in a variety of ways. It is both banal and extraordinary to reflect on why Mediterraneans kiss and hug more than North Europeans for instance.

Thus, our ways of distancing ourselves from others constitute what Pierre Bourdieu calls habitus. we have in us a distancing habitus. This means a number of things.

It means the distances we keep to others are the product of cultural habits (which differ on the basis of class, gender, national and regional differences).

It means that these distances are situationally attuned: we don’t keep the same distance between us and every other person. we grow up to know that there are some people we can get closer to than others, and we know that some people we can get close to in one social setting are off limit in others.

we also grow up to know that there are relations between distances and social hierarchy. we also internalise stereotypes that makes us ‘know’ that there are some people we should always keep our distances from.

At the same time, our distancing habitus allows us to guess how much distance we need to keep from others we do not know according to what kind of people we think they are.

This all to say that it is not enough for someone to ask us to change the way we keep our distances from other for us to just do  it. we need to work on ourselves to do so. and had governments been more attuned to the social science behind distancing they would have thought of providing some strategies to help with compliance rather than merely ask people to do it.

For instance, i am an instinctive hug and kiss kind of person. I even use it politically to mark a certain cultural ground against the supposedly classier English hand-shake. I delight in the fact that hugging at least has become the norm among all Australian youth from whatever cultural background. But now i have to try and not do any hugging or kissing. I am trying to work on myself by trying to convince myself to act as if i already have the virus, and that i am shedding it. it helps me centre on how to do the right thing, because i know i would be petrified by the idea that I am communicating the virus to others.

But one of the reasons why not enough people are taking the request to engage in social distancing as seriously as they should has to do with another ingrained habitus. This is a habitus connected with capitalist modernity. It is the habitus of confident resilience.

Those who have experienced either a personal or social tragedy are well attuned to the brittleness of life. Those who have gone through wars or natural disasters also know how the stability and durability of the surrounding social and natural world can crumble overnight.

But for many people who have not experienced major social or personal calamities, it is very hard to shake the acquired sentiment, dominant in western societies, that ‘I and my society can ultimately cope with anything that is thrown at us.’

This makes it much harder for those who are asked to change their habits to do so out of a sense of impending catastrophe.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

working on your PhD in the shadow of coronavirus

Dear all (co-supervisors cc-ed),

Albert Camus in The Plague (that famous novel about an Arab town with no Arabs in it ), gets one of his characters to note that, as the virus is transforming all aspects of people’s lives, while not everyone ends up carrying the virus physiologically, everyone ends up carrying it in their heart and soul.
I am not sure about you but that is certainly the case with me. So, if like me you are having trouble concentrating and spending a whole day reading and writing on your research project, here are a couple of tips.
As I have always suggested, it is really important that you divide up your day into time slots that work for you as a standard working day. I think of my working day as 8.30-10.30, 11.00-1.00, 2.00- 4.00, 4.30-6.30. Do I religiously follow this, of course not. Do I religiously think of it as the norm to return to, yes. Even if I don’t follow it for a whole week I still think of it as the norm to return to.
But I am more fidgety than usual at the moment. So I’ve shortened the duration of my time slots. I found it useful because along with the idea of having time slots is the idea of having a very definite task to finish during that time slot.
As you know, getting up in the morning and saying ‘I’ll read this article this morning’ is not usually a good work strategy. Dividing the article into sections and ensuring you read and take quotes and notes etc… from that section during a specific time slot is good.
So, I’ve shortened my working day time slots to one and a half hour: 8.30-10.00, 10.30- 12.00, 1.00-2.30, 3.00-4.30, 5.00-6.30. and I am thinking of each one and half hour as having three half hour tasks to finish. This has helped me a lot actually. half hour tasks are really working well at beating the attention seeking Corona.
I am not suggesting you follow my mode of slotting the day. But I definitely think you should slot your day depending on what you know about yourself and create shorter ones with shorter tasks that suit the current moment. You might be more of a night worker than a morning worker etc… you might work more on the week end etc… but you should strive, as much as it is humanly possible, to create a proletarian routine with small specific tasks to finish and try to stick to them. Otherwise coronavirus will eat up your whole reality without you even being sick.
I have asked some of you to do this before. I think it is even more imperative to do this now: keep a diary of your days and time slots. Something like this:
8.30-10.00: read page 1 to page 10 of this article. Took lots of notes.
10.30-12.00: read page 10 to page 30. Article finished. More notes
1..00-2.30: wrote some notes and re-arranged my thesis’ conceptual framework.
3.00-4.30: didn’t work as planned. Was feeling sleepy and just lazed around
5.00-7.00: read from
8.30 – 10.00: Etc…
10.30- 12.00 went to do some essential shopping so didn’t work
8.30-12.00: did paid work…
It is crucial not to lie to yourself about procrastrinations, looking at a blank page like a zombie for an hour, and all that.

The purpose of this diary should never be to make yourself be guilty (or maybe a little bit of guilt is ok and productive, but neoliberal education works on the propagation of guilt so that’s the last thing we want to contribute to). So, no to guilt, but yes to construct a tool which allows you to reflect and get a realistic sense of what you achieve in a week’s work. Week after week. Send me your diary every fortnight and we can talk about it.
All the best and hope to see you on skype sooner or later.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

‘Fed-up’, ‘sick and tired’ and ‘driven too far’: From Christchurch to Brisbane and From White to Male supremacist violence

The Queensland Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll rightly and publicly apologised for the comments. The Queensland detective Mark Thompson who uttered the comments was removed from his position. But the words were spoken: “Is this an issue of a woman suffering significant domestic violence, and her and her children perishing at the hands of the husband? Or is it an instance of a husband being driven too far by issues that he’s suffered by certain circumstances into committing acts of this form?
To me, and to everyone in my circles, the vile self-indulgent sexist legitmisation of domestic violence and murder that are behind these words was very clear. But we all know, or should know, that this is not the case for a large number of people. The detective did not speak with a sense that he was saying something outrageous. If anything, we can say that he spoke with an extra-ordinary ordinariness. He spoke with the sense of assuredness, legitimacy and reasonableness of a person who knows they are speaking the common sense of many people inside and outside of the police force. 
One can guess from past occurrences, that to such people, he will be a ‘good bloke’ who has now been vilified by an establishment captured by politically correct feminists and ‘cultural Marxists’. All what’s left for him is to resign, join a fringe party or run as an independent, and get elected to the Queensland parliament. He can then give a speech about how ‘one is not allowed to say what should go without saying these days’. His mob will shake their head vertically, approving every word he says, while my mob and I will shake our head horizontally asking ourselves yet again: ‘how can it be that we are living in such absurd times?’ 
I am not qualified, nor do I want, to speak directly to the case of the murder of Hannah Clarke and her children itself. Many people, better-placed and more knowledgeable than me on the question of domestic violence have already written and raised many of the important issues that need to be raised (see the excellent SMH piece by Jenna Price, for example). However, I am interested, more generally, in the figure of the person ‘being driven too far,’ and in the affective community that such a person is part of. I believe that the weight of this affective community has been hovering over, and damaging, our lives for far too long. 
The person driven too far does not emerge from nowhere. It is someone who must have already ‘had it up to here’, a state that signals that one is ‘on the brink’. And while the people who are driven too far are a few, the people who have had it up to here are many. They are the community from which the person driven too far emerges. Everyone in this community is ‘fed up,’ but most are successfully working hard to control themselves. The person who is ‘driven too far’ fails to do so but his community understands him.
If I am dwelling on this it is because one cannot fail to note that the figure of the person ‘driven too far’ has also been explicitly or implicitly claimed by the White supremacist murderers that have emerged here and there around the world. And it is very much the case that those murderers emerge from communities that abound with self-righteous feelings of ‘having had it’ and of being ‘fed up’ with migrants, with blacks, with Jews, etc. While we rightly treat those who have been ‘driven too far’ with a great degree of urgency, we take a benign view of those who simply claim to ‘have had it.’ But the organic link between the two is there to see.
As we approach the anniversary of the Christchurch massacre let us not forget this link. For the murderer who has been ‘driven too far’ points straight at the White Australians who form the community of those who are ‘fed up’. These are hardly hard to find. They are represented in our parliament and they are continuously informing us of how ‘fed up’ they are. I simply invite the reader to google ‘Pauline Hanson’ + ‘had it up to here’, or ‘fed up’ and see for themselves. But even more so google ‘Pauline Hanson’ + ‘sick and tired’ and run through the astonishing number of times where Hanson is informing us that she is or ‘Australians’ are on the brink. They’ve had it, they’re sick and tired and they are fed up. Why they are so gives us a good sense of the self-righteous sense of privilege that oozes out of these pronouncements.
From her first day in Parliament Hanson has informed us that she is fed up with Asians. This was well before she declared ‘having it up to here’ with Muslims. I genuinely can quote from her pronouncements all day regarding this. Some stand out. Hanson has declared herself ‘sick and tired’ of ‘the government giving away our money.’ This is when she was opposing scholarships to overseas students. One wonders why isn’t she simply opposed to this. Why does one need to be in a state of near explosion over such a matter? After complaining of the "disgusting" focus on Indigenous culture during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, she tells us: ‘I've got nothing against the Aboriginals, but I'm sick and tired of being made to feel as if I'm a second-class citizen in my own country’.We’ve been told again and again that we need to respect and understand such poisonous views. There is nothing to respect here. But the white self-indulgence and how it is legitimised definitely need to be understood. It is like a child learning that they can get people to listen if they threaten with throwing a tantrum over not much. In a double dosed statement Hanson has declared that she has ‘had it up to here’ with racial tolerance, while at the same time declaring: ‘I am fed up with people ... calling me a racist.’ 
We can see in the above the ‘cater for our sensitivity or we will explode’-type of politics that Hanson peddles and which legitimises both her sensitivity and the possibility of exploding. Indeed, another mark of Hanson’s discourse is how the demand to take note of her affective ‘about to explode state’ is accompanied by a formulation such as ‘all I want is…’ where something outrageously offensive and hateful to non-White Australians is often ‘all she wants’: ‘All I ask is that any Australian, regardless of their origin, should give Australia their full and undivided loyalty.’ And ‘All I want is an Australia for Australians’.
Rejecting this politics of emotional blackmail should be part and parcel of the rejection of the justificatory claims embodied in statements such as ‘driven too far’. We need to forcefully assert that just as there is nothing that warrants ‘being driven too far’, there is equally nothing that warrants being ‘fed up’. Let us not forget that the claim that the Christchurch massacre was committed by someone who was driven too far by the effect of Muslim migration was made in Parliament by Fraser Anning. He was condemned just as Mark Thompson was condemned. But the community to whom Anning spoke and who thought that he made sense was not condemned. Indeed, in those two cases, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a major empirical overlap between the two communities. While finding ways to protect us from, and better still avoid the emergence of, the individuals who go too far is crucial and has been underway, the politics of ridding us of the culture of the ‘fed-up’ that generates and legitimises them is yet to begin.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Holocaust Denialism and Climate Denialism: on the necessity of taboos

Taboos are a major topic in anthropology. We teach it to our students right from the start. All social groupings have a variety of things that they consider taboo: things that cannot be done and things that cannot be said. Some taboos are religious and some are secular. Some are ritualistically observed and the very reason why they are taboos is no longer clear. But some are very recent and the practical logic that animates them is still very clear to us.
The tabooing of Holocaust denialism is by far the most important recent taboo that we know of today. Because of its recency the tabooing of Holocaust denialism can help us understand a few things about what the functional nature of taboos in general, and the importance of this functional dimension in the contemporary world.
One important thing that the taboo on Holocaust denialism help us understand is that a taboo is not just anything forbidden. It is a forbidding which has sacred dimensions. This is because what is tabooed is not considered simply a legally forbidden act. To engage in it is also considered immoral, unethical and anti-social. All this combines to make the breaking of a taboo a sacrilegious act.
Holocaust denialism has slowly been made into a taboo because there was increased generalised agreement about it being not only an unethical and immoral act but also a destructive act. It was so not just towards the victims of the Holocaust, some of whom are still alive, and their descendants, but to society in general. It became a taboo because there was general agreement that is had murderous consequences in the past and an equal agreement that no decent person would want their society to take the path which has led to the Holocaust. Taboos are of course used politically, and not necessarily for progressive reasons. But this does not make the taboo less necessary.
Of course, many people break taboos. Some break a taboo privately and some choose to challenge it publicly for political or many other reasons. How strict does society consider the breaking of a taboo depends on many things, not least with whether the forbidding associated with a taboo is institutionalised and supported by social laws and sanctions, or whether it is merely conventional. For the reasons mentioned above, Holocaust denialism is a taboo supported by the law. Still many anti-Semites do engage in private or public Holocaust denialism. But its taboo-ing has helped to restrict it's propagation, especially that we live in societies that we know can still see, and indeed do see, rises in anti-semitic beliefs and practices.
As the title of this piece indicates I am dwelling on the logic behind the taboo on Holocaust denialism because I believe it can help us think the taboo-ing of Climate Denialism: the belief that climate change caused by human activity is not occurring. This is what I'd like to advocate. And to be clear, just as the taboo-ing of Holocaust denialism does not treat so-called 'Holocaust scepticism' as anything different to denialism, my argument about Climate Denialism extends to so-called Climate Scepticism. There should be zero tolerance of Climate Denialists posturing publicly in our societies, whether in mainstream media or in our parliament. Too much is at stake for us to continue being subjected to this intellectually and ethically offensive but also more importantly, destructive, belief.
First of all, anthropogenic global heating is the most destructive phenomenon the world is witnessing today. we in Australia are in the midst of experiencing how destructive it is to humans, to animals, and to the planet in general.
Secondly, the scientific data concerning both the destruction and its anthropogenic character is at the very least as conclusive and detailed as the scientific data concerning the Holocaust.
Thirdly, just as Holocaust denialists are still around despite the evidence and have their pseudo-independent un-orthodox 'historians' to legitimise their claims, Climate Denialists also have their pseudo-independent un-orthodox historians whom they can appeal to to legitimise their claim.
Fourthly and perhaps most importantly. Tabooing Holocaust denialism was not only motivated by the fact that Holocaust denialists exist, but by the recognition that there are still powerful forces that have an interest in bringing such denialism from the woodwork and constituting it into a potent political force.
This is particularly why it is crucial to taboo Climate Denialism, and particularly in Australia. It is because there are clearly certain forces associated with the fossil fuel industry who have an on-going interest in encouraging climate denialism and making it into a potent political force.
Tabooing never eliminates what it aims to taboo. Indeed as the famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss pointed out, if there is no tendency for society to produce the acts being tabooed, there would be no need for a taboo. As such, an argument in favour of tabooing Climate Denialism, will not mean that Climate Denialism will simply cease to exist. There will always be people who think their personal experience ('life taught me') is a better basis for knowledge than macro-scientific experience. There will always be people to whom attacking the messenger (the bad ugly Greens) is more important than the truth of the message. There will always be people (those wonderful llittle Galileos) who think of themselves as too interesting to simply agree with what everyone expect them to agree with. Tabooing, will not stop such people. And they will always be able to engage in their muttering privately, in the pub or as part of some social media subculture. But it'll help removing them out of those spaces that really matter as far as decision making is concerned. And this is what we should no longer have to deal with in Australia in the light of how this summer has begun. And, to be sure, not having those denialists where it matters is as anti-democratic as not having Holocaust denialists pollute our mainstream media and political space.

Friday, November 15, 2019

On belonging to a country that cannot keep its children

“You've wasted the (people with) talents and given them to the foreigners" said a prominent banner in downtown Beirut on the very first day of the uprising. It made the Lebanese government responsible for the ‘brain drain’ caused by ongoing migration, and declared the latter a problem that could be avoided if it wasn't for the mismanagement of the economy by the political and economic governing elite.
I have noticed with interest the extent to which migration figured as a lament 'look what you are making us do', as problem 'our youth are all leaving' and a sign of governmental disfunction 'we shouldn't have to leave', in the discourse of the Lebanese uprising. 
Sometimes, migration has been a factor in the uprising without people being conscious of it as such. Take the way Tripoli, the capital of northern Lebanon has risen in prominence as one of epicentres of the protests. Tripoli for so long perceived by Beirutis as a poor, underdeveloped part of the country, festering with backwardness, poverty and Islamic fundamentalism rose in ways no one imagined it to be capable of. Not only did thousands descended to the capital's main square rejecting traditional sectarian politics just as much if not more so than they did in Beirut. They did so with style leaving Beirutis literally speechless: a local rapper got everyone grooving in the square. They were at it in their thousands and it was incredible to watch. A story that is not told is that these features of Tripoli's 'modernity' are impossible to disentangle from it being one of the key centres of migration to Australia and where Australian Lebanese continuously return. Tripoli has a rugby league team, hardly a home grown sport and it is impossible to go to Tripoli without hearing people speaking English with an Australian accent. And while the research is yet to be done, I would think that Tripoli's uprising is a diasporic phenomenon through and through. But so is Beirut's. I have often sat at street meetings where the conversation had to happen in English because the participants'm Lebanese wasn't good enough.

And yet, the man in the dark photo below was screaming "I don’t want to be in a situation where my relatives ring me and say 'your father's not doing so well' and I am too far to be able to do anything". The discourse about migration being something bad that happens to you has always been present in Lebanon, but it often took the back seat to an opposite celebratory discourse: migration as a sign of the Lebanese's adventurous and ambitious character something that runs in the Lebanese blood and has been inherited since the times of those trading, adventurous and ambitious Phoenicians. The uprising has definitely brought the discourse of migration as a social pathology to the forefront. One can hear it everywhere: we are demonstrating because "we're sick and tired to have to migrate", "I have just got my degree, why should I be looking for a job outside of Lebanon" and then there is this guy with a placard stating the names of all of his friends who have migrated and telling them that he is demonstrating 'because we want you back'.
But it was the woman holding a sign stating that she is demonstrating ‘For every drop of tears that has fallen at the airport’ that broke me. For the sign points not so much at a social problem but at a primal injury that is at the heart of Lebanon's diasporic culture. I have spent so much of my academic life researching this primal injury, that manifests itself most clearly precisely at the airport when one sees parents cry as they say goodbye to their children. I have analysed this injury but i've also analysed the Lebanese art of acting as if there is no injury at all, a whole culture of dissimulation that is itself a symptom of the depth of the injury.

For a time, I used to wonder at the reason why Lebanese migrants, despite their propensity to narcissistically over-valorise themselves and their achievements, always betrayed a sense of inferiority in the face of the inhabitants of the lands to which they migrated. I used to think that it was an internalisation of a developmental racism which made so many of them see westerners as superior. But then, not only was this shown to be again and again not true, it also failed to explain the presence of this sense of inferiority to people they actually racialise, people who they deemed in a racist way civilisationally inferior. Slowly the source of this sense of inferiority became clear. The immigrant might do very well socially and economically compared to the locally born but nothing will alter the simple fact that unlike the local, the immigrant belongs to a country that could not care for them. Or as put to me poetically by a Venezuelan Lebanese informant once: 'we are the people whose country could not keep them.' 
The bringing of this wound into the open is part of the incredible socio-political but also psychological 'revolution against one's own self' that's been unfolding in the streets of Beirut since the 17th of October.
That the President of the Republic allowed himself to tell the demonstrators a variant of the 'if you don't like it here leave' is a sign of how remote and disengaged from popular sensibilities this whole regime has been.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Hizbollah, zionism, geopolitics and democracy

As people in the Arab world increasingly face their destructive, corrupt and incompetent ruling classes, we should have no time for anyone who denies that Western Imperialism and Zionism remain the single most poisonous reality affecting all of the Arab world. But we also should have no time for those who use this to let the destructive, corrupt and incompetent ruling class continue in its rule. So much was made clear during the Arab Spring.
We should have no time for anyone who denies that Arab Nationalist movements emerged with a genuine desire to struggle against anti-imperialism and Zionism. But we should have no time for anyone who denies that Arab Nationalist movements failed to defeat Zionism and Arab nationalism became an ideology of elite reproduction and nothing more.
We should have no time for those who cannot see that zionism and imperialism have to be resisted at a macro, geo-political level. but we should also have no time for anyone who cannot see how geopolitical anti-zionism and anti-imperialism became, particularly in Iraq, in Syria and in Libya, the ideology for the perpetuation of international, regional and local economic and geopolitical interests that increasingly accommodated itself with a perpetual modus vivendi with Western imperialism and zionism and had little to do with the struggle against them.
The same goes for Lebanon. We should have no time for anyone who denies that Hizbollah and Hassan Nasrallah have a heroic past freeing Lebanon from Zionist occupation, for which all Lebanese should all be grateful. And we should have no time for those who think that Lebanon is better off without a resistance movement. But we should have no time for the pontifications of Hassan Nasrallah at the moment: While, in the short term, he certainly has traced a new heroic path of resistance to zionism, in the long term, he is walking along the same old well-worn path of the primacy of geopolitical anti-imperialist and anti-zionist sloganeering at the expense of people's aspirations for a decent life. 
Despite the tragic and murderous consequences of its Syrian involvement, for which it should one day be held accountable, there is still time for the resistance to trace for itself a path that differs from all the resistances that have preceded it.
We should have no time for anyone who denies that Hizbollah as a resistance movement has a better chance of contributing to the defeat of zionism, if that is really its main concern, if it allies itself to the Lebanese and to other Arab world's popular uprisings rather than struggle against them. It can also help protect those movement form zionism which will no doubt attack them when they look successful.
But at the moment we should have no time for anyone who denies that Hizbollah is moving in the same direction as Arab Nationalist movements before it prioritising the geopolitical and economic interests of its' own elite and that of it's international backers. That is, like all the Arab nationalist movements before it Hizbollah's anti-imperialism and anti-zionism have turned into a defence of an established elite and of a sclerotic geo-political status-quo. 
And we should say this as people who, let us repeat, have no time for anyone who denies that Western Imperialism and Zionism remain the single most poisonous reality affecting all of the Arab world.