Monday, 21 May 2018

‘Purposeful Living’ Through Grief

Rainy Night In The City, by Alina Madan. Poster: Giclee Print
Posted by Lina Ufimtseva
Grief is like a rude neighbour in the night, knocking at your mind’s door at all kinds of inopportune moments.  Hush, you want to tell it, go away, let me sleep.  But not only is grief rude in its all-encompassing demands for attention, it also is disobedient, and stubbornly stays.  Often, for years.
I am stirring a pot of soup on the stove, and I switch it off.  The boiling liquid quickly settles, and the rolling of the surface stops.  ‘Just like my mother's blood,’ I think instinctively.  Her blood stopped moving, too. ‘Just so,’ I think, ‘a loved one's life can slip away, unceremoniously.’ And so, in the sudden memory which the soup brings back, grief stands rudely knocking.  Go away, go away.

Time allows for the body to regenerate and to heal, provided it is not put under more stress.  Years later, one may feel the strain in a joint from an old injury, but it will often be no more than a lingering nuisance.  Grief, on the other hand, can hit one like a train, no matter how much time has passed since tragedy struck. Why is emotional pain more difficult to bear than physical pain? 

The brain uses a single neural system to detect and feel pain.  The anterior insula cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex are responsible for detecting pain, regardless whether it is of a physical or emotional nature.  Even painkillers may numb emotional pain temporarily.  But they don’t help in healing.

This begs the question, why does emotional pain not heal as if it were physical?

Upon asking how a mother’s labour went, a woman may underplay her experience and reply that it was ‘painful’ or ‘a lot of pressure’.  Yet those mothers who lay in agony giving birth will voluntarily unleash the same process upon their bodies again and again.  Physical pain lingers only as an awareness that it was indeed at one time painful. 

Grief, however, has the unique ability to reiterate itself at the most seemingly random moments.  Therein lies a clue.  If we want physical pain to leave our bodies—assuming that, as it usually does,-- it affects only a certain limb or area of the body—we may use a crutch to prevent too much strain, say, on a leg.  But how does one rest from grief?

Generally one does not.

Our brains process the pain of grief in a non-linear manner.  Physical trauma leaves scars—smooth scars.  Emotional pain creates what I would call neural scabs of sorts that can be—and often will be—picked at, voluntarily or not.

The psychologist Thomas Crook has noted:
‘Indeed, when brain imaging studies are done on people who are grieving, increased activity is seen along a broad network of neurons.  These link areas associated not only with mood but also with memory, perception, conceptualization, and even the regulation of the heart, the digestive system, and other organs.  This shows the pervasive impact loss or even disappointment can have.’
Grief affects the neural pathways in a far more pervasive and ineluctable or ineludible manner than physical pain.  Emotional pain, like a scab, can very easily get picked by a casual scratch of an old memory, and the blood of grief starts pouring again.

Those who have been severely distraught by their circumstances often come to the conclusion that the greater meaning in life is not seeking happiness and hedonism, but in creating a purposeful living.  The word choice here: ‘a purposeful living’ rather than ‘a purposeful life’, is in itself deliberate.  Meaning is not stagnant.  One cannot create a purposeful life and leave it at that.  Purpose must continue to be lived out, to be striven for, to continue in some kind of endeavour. 

Purpose without struggle often loses its meaning.  In this light, grief can be given a purpose.  Severe emotional pain can be the catalyst to revaluate one’s values, choices, and path in life.  It can be one’s very own personal as well as professional spring board. 

Do you wish to leap into the bounds of further despair?  Go ahead, and grief will get you there.  Do you wish to see an armour around yourself unveiled?  Go ahead, and grief can give you the thickest skin and the thinnest heart you ever imagined.

Grief can and will redefine who you thought you were.  Can you hear it knocking?

Monday, 14 May 2018

African Propaganda In a Nutshell

Posted by Sifiso Mkhonto
Change is happening all over the world. It is impossible to stand still. Yet as we change, there are those who would wish to influence that change—some in a positive and some in a negative way. My intention is to focus on invidious change that others seek to bring about through propaganda. Specifically, in Africa.
Propaganda is biased, misleading, and intends to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines propaganda as ‘the active manipulation of opinion by means that include distortion or concealment of the truth.’ It usefully distinguishes between ’agitation propaganda, which seeks to change attitudes, and ‘integration propaganda’ which seeks to reinforce existing attitudes.

Africa has been the victim of both agitation propaganda and integration propaganda—and while propaganda anywhere in the world may share the same characteristics, I here offer examples which are characteristically African, which Africans are primarily aware of—or ought to be. Mark Nichol, a writer, offers these four useful descriptions of propaganda, from which I develop my thoughtful analysis:
An appeal to prejudice, or the black-and-white fallacy. Africa is a place of unusually stark contrasts, historical, cultural, social, and geographical. Politicians and religious leaders exploit this by presenting only two alternatives, one of which is identified as undesirable. They do so to exploit an audience’s desire to believe that it is morally or otherwise superior. However, the goal is the pleasure of the propagandists, regardless of whether the victim is in poverty or has riches.

An appeal to fear. Africa still wrestles with fundamental issues, more so than other regions of the world, so that it faces many fears and uncertainties. Propagandists exploit fear and doubt, disseminating false or negative information, to undermine adherence to an undesirable belief or opinion. They do so to exploit audience anxieties or concerns through fear of political identity, gender, race, tribes, and religious or traditional practices.

Half-truths. Governments and political parties in Africa tend to be secretive about information, which may further be difficult for the public to access. Full knowing the full truth, they still make statements that are partly true or otherwise deceptive to further their own agenda. The government often disguises this as a matter of national security, so that the full truth lies under a veil of secrecy.

Obfuscation and glittering generalities. In Africa, the spoken word may have priority over the written word, so that it is received personally, not critically. Propagandists resort to vague communication and word prejudices intended to confuse the audience as it seeks to interpret the message. In South Africa, the ruling party has for each election campaign used this method to continue holding power. It tells the story of apartheid history and how its injustices ought to be fixed, however may only be fixed if each person votes in remembrance of their leaders who fought the apartheid system.
Where does the solution lie? It surely lies in our personal choice, as to whether to accept or reject what we see, read, and hear. Our identity and its underlying attitudes are changed over time, through those choices that we make—and our ideology, which is the consequence of what we were and are exposed to, often plays a crucial role in shaping our perception of what is truth and propaganda.

As individuals, we need to examine our judgements of information at the bar of mature reasoning, in order to avoid judging amiss and believing the propaganda. If we continue to fail this test, propaganda will prevail as it allows what is biased popular opinion to turn into the judgement of the minority opinion.  This then infringes on the right we all ought to or do have—freedom of speech.

The theologian Isaac Watts gives us this timely advice:
‘When a man of eloquence speaks or writes upon any subject, we are too ready to run into his sentiments, being sweetly and insensibly drawn by the smoothness of his harangue, and the pathetic power of his language. Rhetoric will varnish every error so that it shall appear in the dress of truth, and put such ornaments upon vice, as to make it look like virtue: it is an art of wondrous and extensive influence: it often conceals, obscures, or overwhelms the truth and places sometimes a gross falsehood in a most alluring light.’ 
Let us use logic as the measure of reasoning and sharing information. Not biased opinion from an eloquent man.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Picture Post #35: The House Number

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Mountain View township, South Africa

House numbers:- laser cut aluminium, cast iron plaques, illuminated perspex, oil rubbed bronze, stencils and paint, carvings in wood. These not only identify the house, but reveal the occupant.

The number on a front door in an African township. We are immediately impressed by the attitude it expresses:- a bold and careless statement that this is no. 1251, so put that in your pipe and smoke it. 

Monday, 30 April 2018

Is There a Rational Basis For Human Compassion?

By Thomas Scarborough
Søren Kierkegaard wrote that Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy was ‘utterly without grace’. It was a fierce condemnation of Kant.
Kant  favoured autonomy—which is defined as the capacity of an agent to act in accordance with objective morality rather than under the influence of desires. Today this is a view which, by and large, drives all of our ethical thinking. The problem, in Kierkegaard’s eyes, was that it lacked compassion. This is true. We place great emphasis on civil rights, the rule of law, social norms, and so on, while compassion is not comfortably accommodated in the scheme. How may it be possible to bridge the gap—rationally? This is the subject of this post.

Ethics is a very human thing. Regardless of the intellectual debate, or the final framing of our ethics private or public, it always originates in the human person. It is, above all, a person's formation of a certain outlook on the world. Aristotle thought of ethics as ‘the golden mean’—the balanced life—where the ‘mean’ is defined as a quality or action which is equally removed from two opposite extremes. Thus ethics represents the achievement of a balance in the human person—between economic and social goals, individual and communal goals, unity and diversity, novelty and tradition, thought and feeling, and so much more. This is our starting point in this post—that it is about balance—of which further discussion would unfortunately deny us room to develop the theme in the available space.

In order to develop the ‘golden mean’, then, it stands to reason that we should weigh a great number of opposites in our minds, not to speak of variations, one against the other. The scope of this is important here: as we do so, we typically have as our goal to balance the world around us, no more and no less. I should say, I have as my goal to balance the world around me—in my own individual mind—so as to develop (I should hope) a balanced outlook on my world. This is true—but it is simplistic. It is a more nuanced view of the process which should help us to open up our ethical thinking to human compassion.

I live in a world of others—tens, thousands, millions, in fact billions of others. As soon as I take these others into account, not merely as numbers, entities, or abstractions, I open up some important considerations. Each of these others carries in their own mind an evaluation of the world—without which my own evaluation of the world cannot be complete. It matters a great deal, not merely that others exist in my world, but that they each arrange the world in their own particular way. Therefore in a sense. we now have uncountable worlds within a world. It is easy to overlook this. These others perceive things, assess things, plan things, and act upon things which are of critical importance to that ‘golden mean’ which Aristotle spoke about. Perhaps this much goes without saying.

However this now introduces a quantum leap of complexity to my task of arranging my world, since now I must combine their world with mine—tens, thousands, even millions of worlds in other people’s minds. Then, too, this all has to do with semiotic codes, which are the means through which others reveal their own arrangement of the world—codes that are all too often all but inscrutable. A smile, a jig, a nod of the head—candles on the table, or a hush in the hallway—President Kennedy's visit to West Berlin, the Bomb under Mururoa, the public appearances or Her Majesty the Queen, and a host of so-called ‘interpretative devices’. In order to have some command of such things, I need to have an intimate ‘feel’ for others.

The existence of others in my world—further, the existence of their worlds within my world, and the ways in which they communicate their worlds with me—means that ethics may often come down to something all too human. I now need to be sensitive to the expressions, gestures, and postures of others, and a great variety of semiotic codes besides—not to speak of the sufferings, desires, and hopes which lie behind them. I need to understand—to borrow a term from the polymath Thomas Browne—‘the motto of our souls’. This represents a rapport which rests to a very large extent on a careful, sensitive reading of the many others involved in my world, whether this involvement is direct or indirectl. Thus we incorporate personal rapport in a rational ethics—which is human compassion.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Metaphysics: Does It Control Us?

Posted by Tom Johnson *

The Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

‘We are all our own metaphysicians.’ wrote the philosophers Godfrey Vesey and Paul Foulkes. We all have our first philosophies. These are the world views which we live by, even when we have not deliberately or carefully worked them out.

Tom Johnson was, at the time that he penned the notes below, a Western graduate and an intern in Africa. He wrote these notes for a supervisor, immediately following a period of burnout. The significance of the notes is that they reveal a close relationship between his burnout and his religious-metaphysical outlook (in his words, his ‘view of God’ and his ‘ideology’). While the notes may suggest an introverted intern, in fact he held a very public position. He finally received a positive report of his internship:
What were the signs that I was headed for a crisis? I break down my experience into five categories, which is my mental, emotional, and physical health, my patterns of activity, and what I shall call ‘spirituality’.

• Mental: I was ‘unhappy’. More than that, I was just going through the motions of day to day work, looking forward to when I would be finished in Africa, and hoping that things did not get any worse before I left. I was anxious that someone might call me out on my weakness or lack of fervour, or that I would ‘get into trouble’ for not being the type of person I should be. I felt guilty for being here, and not taking better advantage of the situation, not being more disciplined in coming to understand this culture and context better.

• Emotional: I have come to understand my stress as being manifested in different yet related emotions: among them fear, guilt, shame, depression. That is, it was these emotions which dominated my state of mind. Strangely, I am unable to recognise that I have felt this way until I manage to find my way out, and can only look back in retrospect: ‘Yes, I was feeling that way.’ It always seems to come down to a critical moment of intense anxiety. Then something changes, and I feel much better.

• Health: I had been feeling drained of energy, as though, for months, I had a head cold. Occasionally I would wake up with congested sinuses or a sore throat only to have it fade during the day. Most significantly, I was suffering headaches very often. For two consecutive months, I suffered a headache almost daily. Because of this, I was unable to exercise, as too much physical strain just worsened things, and so my health suffered. Inevitably, this made my tasks more cumbersome, too.

• Patterns of activity: I began to isolate myself from friends, started shutting myself in almost completely. I found social interaction to be very difficult. It takes a great deal of energy to go out to a situation where I will be forced to ‘fake it’ and make pleasant conversation. If I did go into social situations, I was submissive and acquiescent, always agreeable, often doubting myself. In keeping with this, I completed my assignments with the minimal lack of effort or thought.

• Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the spiritual aspect of things. Prior to burnout, I seemed to take a more authoritarian view of God. That is, I viewed God as the divine task master who told me what to do. Of course, I always fall short of this ‘god's’ expectations, and this only adds to the shame and guilt. I generally feel embarrassed about what I believe at all. I am reluctant to speak of my faith, and become anxious where others are talking about what they believe, or are confronting me on what I believe.

I began to loathe my faith, and wished that there was no God, simply so I could be free from all the fear, guilt, and shame.  I wondered whether this was all related to faith, or whether it was just part of growing to understand who I am and what I believe. I have come to accept that a major cause of my stress is when I am going through significant life changes, or changes of ideology. At this point I find it extremely difficult to commit to one set of beliefs over another, and it seems I am very easily swayed.

This leaves me constantly doubting myself and seeking to take shelter in other people's ideas and ways of being. What I crave is the ability to commit to one belief system, and the confidence to stand by those beliefs without being tempted to jump ship and view it from another perspective again.  

Thus Tom's notes end with a religious-metaphysical reflection, which significantly receives the greatest space, in fact appears to suffuse all earlier sections of his notes. In spite of Tom not being dogmatic about his faith in God, and distancing himself from this ‘god’ (uncapitalised), even wishing that his god did not exist, he is clearly deeply motivated by his faith.  This in itself is interesting. Our religious-metaphysical world view need not be settled in order to dominate us.

Apart from his religious beliefs, a ‘major cause’ of Tom's stress is ‘ideology’, or a ‘set of beliefs’ where there may not be a necessary connection with his belief in God's existence. That is, a basic belief in God does not release him from ideological or metaphysical struggles, or their consequences.

Bearing in mind that this is a single, simple case study, our ‘first philosophies’ may indeed have a profound effect on our mental, emotional, and physical health, our patterns of activity, and our ‘spirituality’. It seems that, yes, our metaphysics controls us.

* Tom Johnson is a pseudonym. His notes are used with permission.

Monday, 16 April 2018

'Evil': A Brief Search for Understanding

In medieval times, evil ws often personified in not-quite human forms

Posted by Keith Tidman

Plato may have been right in asserting that “There must always be something antagonistic to good.” Yet pause a moment, and wonder exactly why? And also what is it about ‘evil’ that means it can be understood and defined equally from both religious and secularist viewpoints? I would argue that fundamental to an exploration of both these questions is the notion that for something to be evil, there must be an essential component: moral agency. And as to this critical point, it might help to begin with a case where moral agency and evil arguably have converged.

The case in question is repeated uses of chemical weapons in Syria, made all too real recently. Graphic images of gassed children, women, and men, gasping for air and writhing in pain, have circulated globally and shocked people’s sense of humanity. The efficacy of chemical weapons against populations lies not only in the weapons’ lethality but — just as distressingly and perhaps more to the weapons’ purpose — in the resulting terror, shock, and panic, among civilians and combatants alike. Such use of chemical weapons does not take place, however, without someone, indeed many people, making a deliberate, freely made decision to engage in the practice. Here is, the intentionality of deed that infuses human moral agency and, in turn, gives rise to a shared perception that such behaviour aligns with ‘evil’.

One wonders what the calculus was among the instigators (who they are need not concern us, much as it matters from the poltiical standpoint) to begin and sustain the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons. And what were the considerations as to whom to 'sacrifice' (the question of presumed human dispensability) in the name of an ideology or quest for simple self-survival? Were the choices viewed and the decisions made on ‘utilitarian’ grounds? That is, was the intent to maim and kill in such shocking ways to demoralise and dissuade insurgency’s continuation (short-term consequences), perhaps in expectation that the conflict will end quicker (longer-term consequences)? Was it part of some larger gopolitical messaging between Russia and the United States? (Some even claim the attacks were orchestrated by the latter to discredit the former...)

Whatever the political scenario, it seems that the ‘deontological’ judgement of the act — the use of chemical weapons — has been lost. This, after all, can only make the use utterly immoral irrespective of consequences. Meanwhile, world hesitancy or confusion — fails to stop another atrocity against humanity, and the hesitancy itself has its own pernicious effects. The 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill underscored this point, observing that:
“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”
Keeping the preceding scenario in Syria in mind, let’s further explore the dimensions of rational moral agency and evil. Although  the label ‘evil’ is most familiar when used to qualify the affairs of human beings it can be used more widely, for example in relation to natural phenomena. Yet, I focus here on people because although, for example, predatory animals can and do cause serious harm, even death, I would argue that the behaviour of animals more fittingly falls under the rubric of ‘natural phenomena’ and that only humans are truly capable of evil.

As one distinction, people can readily anticipate — project and understand — the potential for harm, on an existential level; other species probably cannot (with research continuing). As for differentiating between, say, wrongdoing and full-on evil, context is critical. Another instantiation of evil is history’s many impositions of colonial rule, as having been practiced in all parts of the world. It not uncommonly oppressed its victims, in all manner of scarring ways, by sowing fear, injustice, stripping away of human rights, physical and emotional pain, and destruction of indigenous traditions.

This tipping point from wrongdoing, from say, someone under-reporting taxable income or skipping out on paying a restaurant bill, into full-on evil is made evident in these additional examples. These are deeds that range the gamut: serial murder that preys on communities, terrorist attacks on subway trains, genocide aimed at helpless minority groups, massacres, enslavement of people, torture, abuses of civilians during conflicts, summary executions, and mutilation, as well as child abuse, rape, racism, and environmental destruction. Such atrocities happen because people arrive at freely made choices: deliberateness, leading to causation.

These incidences, and their perpetrators (society condemns both doer and deed) aren’t just ‘wrong’, or ‘bad’, or even ‘contemptible’, they’re evil. Even though context matters and can add valuable explanation — circumstances that mitigate or extenuate deeds, including instigators’ motives — rendering judgements about evil is still possible, even if occasionally tenuously. So, for example, mitigation might include being unaware of the harmful consequences of one's actions, well-meaning intent that unpredictably goes awry, pernicious effects of a corrupting childhood, or lack of empathy of a psychopath. Under these conditions, blame and culpability hardly seem appropriate. Extenuation, on the other hand, might be deliberate, cruel infliction of pain and the pleasure derived from it, such as might occur during the venal kidnapping of a woman or child.

As for a religious dimension to moral agency, such agency might be viewed as applying to a god, in the capacity as creator of the universe. In this model of creation, such a god is seen as serving as the moral agent behind what I referred to above as ‘natural evil’ — from hurricanes, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, tsunamis, and droughts to illnesses, famine, pain, and grief. They of course often have destructive, even deadly, consequences. Importantly, that such evil occurs in the realm of nature doesn’t award it exceptional status. This, despite occasional claims to the contrary, such as the overly reductionist, but commonplace, assertion of the ancient Roman emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius:
 “Nothing is evil which is according to nature.”
In the case of natural events, evil may be seen as stemming less from intentions and only from the consequences of such phenomena — starvation, precarious subsistence, homelessness, broken-up families, desolation, widespread chronic diseases, rampant infant mortality, breakdown of social systems, malaise, mass exoduses of desperate migrants escaping violence, and gnawing hopelessness.

Such things have prompted faith-based debates over evil in the world. Specifically, if, as commonly assumed by religious adherents, there is a god that’s all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-benevolent, then why is there evil, including our examples above of natural evil? In one familiar take on theodicy, the 4th-century philosopher Saint Augustine offered a partial explanation, averring that:
 “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist.” 
 Other philosophers have asserted that the absence of evil, where people could only act for the good (as well as a god’s supposed fore-knowledge of people’s choices) would a priori render free will unnecessary and, of note, choices being predetermined.

Yet, the Gordian knot remains untied: our preceding definition of a god that is all-powerful and all-benevolent would rationally include being able to, as well as wanting to, eliminate evil and the suffering stemming from it. Especially, and surely, in the framework of that god’s own moral agency and unfettered free will. Since, however, evil and suffering are present — ubiquitously and incessantly — a reasonable inquiry is whether a god therefore exists. If one were to conclude that a god does exist, then recurring natural evil might suggest that the god did not create the universe expressly, or at least not entirely, for the benefit of humankind. That is, that humankind isn’t, perhaps, central or exceptional, but rather is incidental, to the universe’s existence. Accordingly, one might presuppose an ontological demotion.

Human moral agency remains core even when it is institutions — for example, governments and organisations of various kinds — that formalise actions. Here, again, the pitiless use of chemical weapons in Syria presents us with a case in point to better understand institutional behaviour. Importantly, however, even at the institutional level, human beings inescapably remain fundamental and essential to decisions and deeds, while institutions serve as tools to leverage those decisions and deeds. National governments around the world routinely suppress and brutalise minority populations, often with little or no provocation. Put another way, it is the people, as they course through the corridors of institutions, who serve as the central actors. They make, and bear responsibility for policies.

It is through institutions that people’s decisions and deeds become externalised — ideas instantiated in the form of policies, plans, regulations, acts, and programs. In this model of individual and collective human behaviour, institutions have the capacity for evil, even in cases when bad outcomes are unintended. Which affirms, one might note in addressing institutional behaviour, that the 20th-century French novelist and philosopher, Albert Camus, was perhaps right in observing:
“Good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”
So, to the point: an institution’s ostensibly well-intended policy — for example, freeing up corporate enterprise to create jobs and boost national productivity — may nonetheless unintentionally cause suffering — for example, increased toxins in the soil, water, and air, affecting the health of communities. Hence again is a way in which effects, not only intentions, express bad outcomes.

But at other times, the moral agency behind decisions and deeds perpetrated by institutions’ human occupants may intentionally aim toward evil. Cases range the breadth of actions: launching wars overtly with plunder or hegemonism in mind; instigating pogroms or death fields; materially disadvantaging people based on identities like race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin (harsh treatment of migrants being a recent example); ignoring the dehumanising and stunting effects of child labour; showing policy disregard as society’s poorest elderly live in squalor; allowing industries to seep toxins into the environment for monetary gain — there are myriad examples. Institutions aren’t, therefore, simply bricks and mortar. They have a pulse, comprising the vision, philosophy, and mission of the people who design and implement their policies, benign or malign.

Evil, then, involves more than what Saint Augustine saw as the ‘privation’ of good — privation of virtuousness, equality, empathy, responsible social stewardship, health, compassion, peace, and so forth. In reality, evil is far less passive than Saint Augustine’s vision. Rather, evil arises from the deliberate, freely making of life’s decisions and one's choice to act on them, in clear contravention to humanity’s well-being. Evil is distinguished from the mere absence of good, and is much more than Plato’s insight that there must always be something ‘antagonistic’ to good. In many instances, evil is flagrant, such as in our example of the use of chemical weapons in Syria; in other instances, evil is more insidious and sometimes veiled, such as in the corruption of government plutocrats invidiously dipping into national coffers at the expense of the populace's quality of life. In either case, it is evident that evil, whether in its manmade or in its natural variant, exists in its own right and thus can be parsed and understood from both the religious and the secular vantage point.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Turkey, Nuclear Energy and the Remarkable Power of Money

All friends again. Recep Erdogan and Vladimir Putin at the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant ground-breaking ceremony this month
By Martin Cohen

This week saw Turkey officially 'launching' it's first nuclear reactor, Russian-designed, with specailly invited guest, that country's president, Mr Putin. Which in itself is quite a turn-around since it was only on the 24 November 2015 that a Turkish combat aircraft shot down a Russian jet on the Turkish-Syrian border. After this incident, President Putin spoke of  'a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists' and warned that it would have 'significant consequences including for relations between Russia and Turkey. And yet, and yet...  two and a bit years on all is smiles and sunshine again in the relationship.

What could have created such harmony from discord? And the answer, as ever in international and domestic politics alike, is money. For the Russians, the rapprochment has other strategic benefits too, yet for Turkey, the nuclear deal looks at first glance odd. But I wrote a book* a few years back about nuclear energy and in the process of researching it, I realised that with nuclear power nothing is as it seems.

And in Turkey, nuclear politics is really about money. Or perhaps we should say the lack of it. Because Turkey has made four attempts to start a nuclear power program, beginning in the 1960s, and still is nowhere near to generating any nuclear electricity.

The problem is not about the political will - Turkish governments whether civilian led or military-led have long hankered after the idea of being a 'nuclear power', and it certainly is not due to any respect for safety or the environment. The complete deafness to safety considerations is shown very clearly by the fact that the signed and sealed plan for Turkey's first nuclear reactor at Akkuyu Bay on the Mediterranean coast is located smack bang in the middle of an earthquake danger zone. If the plant is built (see below) and if it ever starts operating, then it is highly likely to be the first one destroyed by an earthquake.

Should the Turkish government care? Yet environmental factors have always counted for little in that country's drive for hydro-electric power.. Thus, the massive Ilisu dam project on the Tigris river, was after an international outcry over the flooding of the ancient city of Hasankeyf and yet the Ilisu dam is dwarfed by the Beyhan project on the Euphrates, also in the Kurdish south-east, where fears of the forced evacuation of the local population evoke particularly bitter memories. Here an energy project is in reality part of amore sinster destruction of that much-oppressed stateless people.

No, the big questionmark and problem that dogs the nuclear industry in Turkey is simply that (behind the smokescreen) both the reactors and the electricity produced are very, very expensive. Thus the only way the Turkish government can afford nuclear plants is to get outside countries to pay for them - and then let the foreign investors charge premium prices to the power consumers for years to come. A similar foolish contract has recently been entered into by the British in order to persuade someone to fund a new nuclear reactor for the UK.

The UK had great difficulty persuading anyone to sink money into nuclear - but got around the doubts by making the taxpayers ultimately liable for all the risks. Alas, from the perspective of the nuclear industry, Turkey does not provide what the professionals like to call 'a secure environment' for risky, multi-billion dollar, investment. Inflation is high, the economy is in deficit each year, about half of it due to energy imports, and the country's debt is well over $100 billion. 

In Western countries governments change, but contracts once signed are sacrosanct. However, in Turkey, political change is more violent. There is the history of military coups d'état in recent years - in 1960, 1971, and 1980 - while the forced resignation of Necmettin Erbakan in 1997 did not do much to reassure investors either. On the other hand, the Turkish electricity sector is effectively a state monopoly,  and  the possibility of Turkey being allowed to join the European Union, remote though it ever seemed, barely threatens that these days, even over a timescale of 40 years which is the time-scale necessary for the moneymen who fund nuclear plants to feel confident they can make their profits.

All of which is to say again that Turkey's nuclear program is about cash, not to say wheeling and dealing. The energy minister, Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdogan's son-in-law, just fancy that! called the start of work on Akkuyu the realisation of a national dream. Not to say that the vast sums of money involved in unuclear projects tend to stick to the hands of all those involved.

Turkey is located at the centre of transport routes between the vast oil and gas reserves of the Middle East and Central Asia, and the markets of Europe. Logically speaking then, it would seem that the country would is in a unique position to benefit from low-cost fossil fuels, without even mentioning its own hydroelectric, fossil, and renewable energy resources. Yet somehow Turkey has ended up being dependent on cheap gas imports from Russia and Iran, the arrangements with whom (in the manner of all bargain basement deals) have in recent years proved 'unreliable'. At one point Turkey even broke off one contract with Russia, its biggest gas supplier. If the plant is ever built, Turkey will be dependent on Russian support to fuel and run it.

At least there seems to be no real sense that Turkey is still working towards a nuclear bomb. Indeed, there is the strange historic role of Turkey as a conduit of nuclear secrets from the US to Pakistan and - of all people - Israel, a country which the government regularly rails against for having driven the proverbial truck through the principles of non-proliferation. Commenting on this, one CIA operative told the London newspaper, The Sunday Times:
"We have no indication that Turkey has its own nuclear ambitions. But the Turks are traders. To my knowledge they became big players in the late 1990s,"
More 'wheeling and dealing' has resulted in several cases of highly toxic nuclear waste turning up in Turkish industrial zones, apparently brought in surreptitiously in return for corrupt payments.

Over the years, Turkish nuclear power projects (as with nuclear projects in many countries) have come and gone, announced with a fanfare only to disappear without trace. Yet it looks like things are more serious now. Russia’s President has promised to back the project with more than $20 billion, while Turkey’s prime minister planned to borrow another $2.5 billion on the financial markets.

How can such extraordinary sums be repaid? The project represents a ball and chain being tied to the Turkish economy, a burden on the many that likewise will make the governing clique fantastically wealthy.

The Turkish public are apprehensive about nuclear, looking warily over their shoulders at the plants run in Armenia and Bulgaria which are generally thought of as dangerous. And Turkey is the one of the countries which was affected by the disaster of Chernobyl, even if the accident has always been kept out of the public debate about energy policy. Instead, the discussion has been focussed on the economic arguments. But here too, nuclear power has a lot of explaining to do.

* The Doomsday Machine: The High Price of Nuclear Energy, the World's Most Dangerous Fuel

Monday, 2 April 2018

Picture Post #34: An Omission in Addition

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Havana, Cuba 2018    Picture credit: Patrizia Ducci

As your eye enters this image, it moves between characters, names and signs that we recognise and do not recognise. We have some knowledge of some but not of others, and so, along our limited acknowledgment we move forth, leaping over the unknown parts.

Above a closed entrance on a building, seemingly in disuse, is written the word ‘circus’. Kirkos or krikos in ancient Greek, meaning something curved, something that is happening all around. In Latin, circus means circle. The idea of ‘something’ happening in a circle is whispered to us by the letters of   an alphabet that we happen to read.

What of the two portraits painted? One on each side of the entrance. They seem to enhance the bricks that should keep the outside from the inside. Yet these depictions do not seem to deal with whatever was the forgotten function of the building - if the word circus has, or once had, anything to do with the building at all.

Visible is a form of what is called decay, a melancholic deterioration that somehow relates the images and characters to ‘their’ past. And when a stranger sprouts in their midst, he does not seem to belong  with either the portraits or the building, far less with a circus.

And yet, the presence of the stranger completes this image in which past time is always present time. In this way, the stranger hands us the possibility of revisiting what we think to recognise, what we think we know, and rediscover it as more mysterious.

Monday, 26 March 2018

On Classism and Inequality

Posted by Keith Tidman

In various forms, and to many degrees, classism, meaning prejudice against people belonging to a particular social class, and social inequality are pervasive, pernicious, and persistent. And they are unbreakably bound: classism and inequality engage one another in a symbiotic, mutually reinforcing relationship. The two phenomena are therefore best explored together.

The casualties of classism, predominantly poorer, less educated, working-class people, not uncommonly internalise the discrimination, resenting and yet accepting censure at the same time. The victims may find it difficult to dismiss the opprobrium as unjust  they might, in resignation, wrongly see it as fitting to their station in life. The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche attempted to rationalise why, dismissively stating that: 
 “The order of castes is merely the ratification of an order of nature.
At the same time, class has appeared hard-wired across generations within families. For many, there are no or few available strategies to exit the cycle theyre caught up in. Measures of influence, power, wealth, job status, and knowledge — along with verdicts about decency, heritage, behaviours, habits, and who deserves what — are the filters through which stereotypes and biases pass. Identity, labels, entitlement, and rationalisation are among the tools instigators use to perpetuate classism. Their claim to merited privilege becomes the normative standard. That standard, however, can run into the immorality of social and economic inequality that’s arbitrary, often non-merit based, and stems from self-indulgence.

Appropriately, the 18th-century Scottish social philosopher Adam Smith pushed back against Nietzsches dismissiveness, laconically offering the optimistic, affirmative view that:
 “... the  difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of.” 
A notion that all people, of all classes, can build on. 

Yet classism and inequality aren’t figments; they are real social constructs that bear concretely on citizens’ lives. Certain groups, believing their economic and sociopolitical advantages endow them with higher class rankings, enjoy yet another consequential privilege: they get to pull the levers on how government, the law, institutions, entitlements, and cultural foundations are designed and operate, and whom those levers favor. This instrumentalist perspective serves as a means to acquire additional benefits. The privileged are adept at influencing the running of nations and leveraging the hand they get to play. They project their influence on society in ways that primarily attend to self-interests, with modest resources to be shared among the rest.
The effect of those residual resources doesn’t make inequalities right, or more bearable or fixable; the effect is duplicitous. In a paradoxical way, the privileged exert a powerful, dominant grip, while dexterously advancing their interests. The exercise of power often happens veiled — though it needn’t always do so, as out-in-the-open brazenness is no barrier to political manipulation. An offshoot among the privileged is increased self-determination and sovereignty over choice — their own and their nation’s. Distrust of the financially oiled powerbrokers — among those who feel disenfranchised and denied fairness and opportunity — emboldens disunity and strident polarisation. Sometimes the outcome is the rise of extreme factions on both the left and right of politics, clashing over matters of both policy and heart-felt beliefs.

The underprivileged classes see that, in an increasingly and perhaps irresistibly and irreversibly globalised world, there’s merely a larger platform on which those already holding capital, and the levers of influence that accompany it, extend their gains all the more. The so-called common good isn’t always seen as an enlarging, sharable pot — where zero-sum resources go only so far and are seen to be acquired at the expense of other groups. The less-advantaged members of society might question whether equality and merit really matter, as opposed to an unfair 'legacy' grip on claims to influence, wealth, and power. 

Liberal economics promises the opportunity to rise among the ranks, though serving as more an aspirational, albeit elusive, brass ring. Identity — such as race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, language, and history — is integral. Identity serves as a means to decide how to share access to rights, choice, fairness, justice, goods, safety, and well-being — and ultimately recognition and legitimacy in the marketplace of ideas — according to the governing arrangement. Yet inequality endangers these benefits.

As an ideal, the observation by the 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau is still highly relevant to the debate  duplicated around much of the world  over class, inequality, the public good, sociopolitical advantage, and nations responsibility to rectify egregious imbalances:
It is therefore one of the most important functions of government to prevent extreme inequality of fortunes; not by taking away wealth from its possessors, but by depriving all men of means to accumulate it; not by building hospitals for the poor, but by securing the citizens from becoming poor.
Yet, the reality — whether in liberal democracies or in patriarchal autocracies, and most systems of governance and social philosophies in-between — has seldom worked out that way. Classism and inequality continue to march conspicuously in unison and without remedy, their rhythms bound irremediably together, each still used to justify and harden the shape of the other.