Thursday, 11 December 2014

16. I'm not responsible because I do not exist

In these days, when so many truths are coming to light, but when accountability does not come as a consequence so clearly or strongly, the memory of my favourite book comes back every time. My favourite book is not a big romantic drama or a deep Russian novel. The book that I was dreading to end, when I read it, maybe 20 years ago is Italo Calvino's The nonexistent knightI remember turning each page with a mixture of eagerness and regret of leaving each page behind. I have to read it again.
Let me explain why I think of this book, when I read about the US Senate report of tortureThere are a few passages that come to mind: one is the very beginning when Charlemagne was reviewing his paladins shortly before going to battle. He goes through them one by one, asking who they were, where they came from, who were their parents. Until he reaches the last of these knights. A knight in a bright, clean, unscratched white armour. After presenting himself, Charlemagne asked him to raise his visor and show his face. But the knight wouldn't do it. Charlemagne asked why. He responded "Sire, because I do not exist". He then revealed that the helmet was in fact empty. "How do you do your job, then, if you don't exist?" asked Charlemagne. "By will power and faith in our holy cause", Agilulf, the non existent knight replied. He was the model soldier, a bureaucrat that followed all the rules and procedures to the point and was always right. No one liked him. It came to be when a name, a rank, some duties and a story somehow condensed into an armour.

I don't think many people were surprised by what the torture report said. Even if we did not know the details, somehow we all knew. Guantanamo bay, extraordinary renditions, secrecy, no legal framework or accountability, some precedents like the School of Americas... come on, we all knew the Emperor was naked. What it was novel in this piece of news is the US saying it to itself. It was the admission itself. The "becoming aware of it". Now it's "out there" (see the RSAnimate below from a talk by Steven Pinker on language and what he says about mutual knowledge).

It is indeed difficult to face our shadow, particularly when we have spent years projecting it to others and pointing our fingers at them. So difficult it is, that we create a carefully crafted narrative that swirls around the unspeakable truth. The words of the President of the committee were somehow of a higher consciousness "Torture goes against the very soul of our country" and relating the greatness of the country with the ability to face these facts. The reaction of the republican Senator John McCain, victim of torture himself, was probably the most poignant when he said "enhanced interrogation methods stained our national honor". However accountability is still not on the table. Some empty armors did it. And Americans seem to be ok with this. If one piece of news was US admitting what everyone knew they were doing, the second piece of news is that it did not cause any major reaction

The second passage of the book that comes to mind is when Charlemagne was warning Torrismund that due to the fact that he was born out of wedlock, he would lose his rank. He should get his father to recognise him. "I can never be recognised", 'My father was no man". Charlemagne asked "Who then?". Torrismund replies "'Tis the Sacred Order of the Knights of the Holy Grail". Then he told the story of how his mother met the knights and spent a lot of time with them, until she became pregnant. Charlemagne saw the problem: "The Knights of the Holy Grail have all made a vow of chastity and none of them can ever recognise you as son". Torrismund then explained "My mother has never spoken about any knight in particular, but brought me up to respect as a father the Sacred Order as a whole".  Charlemagne then suggested "The Order as a whole is not bound by any vow of the kind. Nothing therefore prevents it from being recognized as a person's father". No one has fathered him. It was the Order. The Order did it. 
In this case, the CIA did it. Or the Bush Administration did it. And Obama's. Or the US did it. Let's turn the page. Never againLet's look forward. We are awesome.

But how can we avoid it to happen again if we do not explore the existence of these empty armours and the functioning of these Orders? If we do not truly look at them? If they do not look at themselves? Can empty armours and faceless Orders truly "see" other people as people? 


Thursday, 4 December 2014

15. The absent father and our quest for freedom

The sense of how the social order works -and how to penetrate it- comes with the male side in our family: our fathers or anyone fulfilling a father role. They are the ones that invite us to go outside the world of mum to conquer other lands, we learn discipline (love is expressed in "doing" and completing something) and to rule ourselves; all of which gives us the sense of self-mastery and freedom. In a home with an absent father (or father figure), it is more difficult to separate the children from the mother. This may result in extreme frustration, even disgust, particularly in males who unconsciously occupy the male role of the house.

Fatherhood, and absent fathers in particular, has been a topic President Obama talked about in several occasions (there are several videos in YouTube), speaking a lot from his own experience of the challenges of growing up without a father:

In the most extreme situation, an unbalanced masculine (its absence or uber-dominant presence) can be destructive over the unbalanced feminine (the mother, the system). History has seen this at social level in the form of fascism, which represents a violent response against the feminine principle. 

This is somehow told in Pink Floyd's The Wall: the protagonist goes through childhood with an overprotective mother (unbalanced feminine, unable to see and feed the individuality of the child), a rigid school and an absent father. In this context, his Ego creates an internal fascist dictator, seeking to counter-balance the oppressive environment in which he lived, that was extremely invasive. In the film Pink, the child, the ashamed, the wounded, the unseen by the people that were supposed to see him, unfed with attention to his individuality, and unable to separate from the mother, gets replaced by the unbalanced masculine, a fascist persona who performs this separation with violence, and in a twisted manner reclaims what he did not get as a child: the unconditional maternal love and attention (that's not the same as control) in the first place and the paternal order and notion of freedom later on. 

This persona incarnates the power without the love, "the all for one"  without "the one for all"; still merged with the maternal, he fears his own masculinity cannot be expressed and see 'queers' as a reflection of this fear (his shadow); it objectifies all (because he had been objectified), judging, labelling and discarding, particularly women that now should be at his service.

But this fantastical story was inspired by his (and Syd Barrett's) own life, with the anger he felt growing up without a father:

In this video (it's only 4:46 so, worth watching), the philosopher Slavoj Žižek speaks about Freedom and more interestingly for this post, false freedom. 

From this, I'd to highlight a couple of passages:
"The most dangerous form of non freedom is the non freedom which is not even perceived as such.
Then there is another form of freedom, which I think has a disastrous impact and we shouldn't underestimate. I met at some point in Belgrade in the late 90s, when Milo
šević was still in power, some probably ethnic cleansers, nationalists. And -I'm even ashamed now for doing this- I got in conversation with them. And they gave me a wonderful short lesson on how nationalist fundamentalism worked. They told me "We experience your western liberal world as over-regulated... you know, you are all the time bombarded by messages of be political correct, don't be a racist, be careful what you eat, disciplined yourself and so on and so on.". And they told me openly "I want to eat whatever I want, smoke, I want to steal when I want I want to beat women, rape them and so on. Becoming a nationalist, doing some ethnic cleansing gives me this terrifying freedom".
This is why I was not surprised when I heard that in the area of Irak and Syria controlled by Isis, it is not just religious fundamentalism, there are also gang rapes, tortures, freelance killings and so on.
You see. This is the problem with fundamentalism. It is not just that there is no freedom. There is also this kind of false freedom. The explosion of this obscene freedom. For me the highest form of freedom is love. Here I'm a pathetic old romantic."
In the mystery of how the Islamic state recruits so many Europeans, we need to start to recognise how this seed of anger is implanted to then understand why it gets attracted to a promise of false freedom, so we can treat it differently. On the one hand: either a toxic mother or lack of a soothing mothering figure, on the other hand the absent father so no one is negotiating a detachment with the development of self-sufficiency and self-mastery. When not in the extremes, the separation from the mother does not require violence, but it tends to require a "masculine" force. That's why Princesses liberation from the mother -the stepmother being the shadow of the actual mother-, requires finding a Prince with a spade -the prince being their internal masculine-. 

However, after so many dictators, orphans turned terrorists, destructive regimes, drug addicts; after so many philosophers, spiritual leaders, politicians, movies like Star Wars, and Lord of the rings -to name a very popular couple-, after so many artists who all talked about this very subject, we still don't fully recognise the anger into the spectrum of human behaviour, we demonise it. We still don't accept it, we don't own it: it's not civilized, anger is barbaric. We don't own the anger of the oppressed, of the ignored nor the oppressive systems we sustain. 

Anger is an emotion that is very useful, in fact. In a culture where only the rational is good, emotions are not acknowledged nor understood. They are simply judged, normally as something of an inferior nature. However, anger helps us build the strength to defend ourselves and our limits. With this I don't mean to condone violence, but rather pointing out that anger is an important, valid and useful emotion if it can be fostered to energise a constructive purpose. 

When the official narrative is oppressive it is because it lacks self awareness (it does not see itself, it does not recognize its own failings),  and is fatherless: it lacks an equal force that limits the power of this mother-system to leave room for the individual to be and feel free. An oppressive system only leaves room to anti-system narratives and this initial natural anger to escalate into violence, the false freedom Žižek talked about.

Racism has long been unrecognised by the US institutions.

So it is probably because Barack Obama is the first black president, racism in America is more visible now than it's been for a few years. Most significantly, the racial tension and the bias of institutions against the African American community are being named, thing that did not happen for a while or at least not so clearly. 

First you see, then you name, both are significant and might be the first needed and painful steps towards a deeper change. 

However, while the system does not acknowledge this fact, and does not evolve into a father-led emancipation, it only leaves room for the desperate violent separation. In Ferguson we can find a hint of this logic: one of the demonstrators -after demonstrating peacefully in August- concluded: "If we don't tear anything down, if we don't destroy anything, if we don't set fire to anything, they won't even pay attention"The New York protesters where highly allegoric too with their signs and chants "I can't breathe" these final words from Eric Garner quickly became their cry for freedom

The racial conflict in America won't go away, and won't be resolved but with the full transformation of society. We are all part of the context, we all build the "them, us" model. 

Here is where Obama in his symbolic paternal position could've helped to guide the change needed in the institutions, however, as the article in Der Spiegel "Racial divide: the tragedy of America's first black president" describes, the prevailing sentiment is of disillusionment.  

The final part of Slavoj Žižek video speaks says:  
"The lesson is true freedom means looking into and questioning the presuppositions of everything that is given to us by our hegemonic ideology. And by ideology I don't mean here, some explicit teaching, simply the way in our daily lives we experience our reality. To question everything including the notion of freedom itself."
In our own quest for freedom, we need to find the father within: the one that can separate us from the whatever is our construction of a maternal narrative (the ideology coming from the many mothers we adopted in our lives: our country, a political party, a company, our actual mother, etc); the one that can help us build discipline and self mastery and navigate the journey of "we love, we hate, then we become". So the systems we create and sustain will have also a father within, the one able to restrain the system itself and better negotiate the balance between the individual and the whole.

In this video, Russell Brand (another public figure highly critical of the system), who also spoke about his absent father, proposes his father to have a boxing match, but mainly his aim is to get some form of healing in this staged measurement of his masculinity. He also discusses it with the psychologist David Cohen (author of The Father's book).

Almost at the end of this 10 min part 1, David Cohen praises Russell and his mum. "Your mum did definitely something rather right as the main caregiver", he says. "You want to find out about yourself. You are taking quite a lot of risks". This example is particularly good for many reasons, because an absent father does not mean the mother is powerless, but the work is more subtle. And secondly, because the culmination of a "patriarchal drive", the emancipatory movement, is to beat the father. The father symbolically dies just to mark the end of submission and that the father role has been integrated.  

This is important because this first questioning is purely ours (sometimes with the help of self-aware mother). Following the path that leads us to the answers does not depend on anyone else, it does not depend on heroes or demons we find in the world. If it happens, if we find the father within, it will enable us to make new decisions, and then we are free(r), we become our rulers.
This process cannot be reversed and if many go through it simultaneously will emerge in society too, with better systems, that are self aware and have a Good Father within, to ensure that everyone has the right to feel safe, be cared for, looked after and free.

We might need a bit of resilience. 
And patience.


PS: did I mentioned that J.R.R Tolkien lost his father when he was 3?
PS2: A "dad" made it tenth most popular Christmas list request for children
PS3: Absent fathers in music: Papaoutai by Stromae (Papa where are you?)

Lyrics in French
Lyrics in English

If you liked this article, have a look at:

-The absent mother
-Women: invisibility or blindness?

External links:
Anne Manne, The Guardian: Narcissism and terrorism: how the personality disorder leads to deadly violence
Der Spiegel, Racial divide: the tragedy of America's first black president
Der Spiegel, Terror from the fringes: searching for the answers in the Charlie Hebdo attack

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

14. 2014: Walls, World Cups, Integration and the lightness of being

Don't worry, this article is not about football. It's about integration, so even if I start with the World Cup... bear with me. 

I have to think twice to remember that 2014 was a World Cup year. An event that seemed to be omnipresent a few months ago, now it is a thing of the past. 

Sometimes it is interesting to see how the World Cup -and the emotions it generates- sit against the social context of the countries that win it and the countries that host it. World Cups, as many big events and rituals, can feed and synchronise the collective unconscious.  The most remarkable of all, probably was the Germany win in 1990 in Italy, as it was soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the reunification of Germany. This win became a celebration of having their country back to life, after fascism had killed it, the occupation had torn it apart and had built a wall to keep it that way. 

Germany is for some the corpus callosum of the world's brain. It is the place where connections between the two hemispheres happen (West and East). It is the country where strangely the sun is female and the moon is male. Where things flip. With a strong masculine personality, analytical, focused in planning and order but still connected with instinct, nature, a country that gave birth to some of the greatest philosophers. It is also the place where the conflicts and tensions were expressed in the point of history when the world was at its maximum polarity and, probably where many of those tensions should be resolved. 

As most of the world, Germany is too looking for its own identity. Not without problems. Not without fear. 
Fear of finding their Ego again instead of the self. In this fear, Germany used to hide behind the EU (up to recently many Germans were more comfortable saying they were Europeans rather than Germans). In this confusion, it constantly needs to negotiate very fine lines between helping to build a union of nations -respected on the grounds of their own power and individuality- and creating another big devouring Mother called Europe that in the name of integration, swallows. The fact that we should be all connected does not mean that we should be or act all the same. Recognition of individuality and difference is a step that cannot be jumped. For Germany to understand the difference, it is important that they find their own individuality, remember it and celebrate it. Funny enough, a string of Wold Cup wins helped them to do just that: right after the World Cup semi-final, Der Spiegel published an article called "The bearable lightness of being: the Germans are learning to like themselves", describing the evolution of Germany from its unification onward. 

Integration is a big word for Germany in this journey: integration of former West and East Germany, integration of the high number of immigrants, integration in the context of the European Union, and probably playing an important role in the resolving (integrating) the world biggest polarity: the tensions between US and Russia (Spiegel's article Germany's choice: will it be America or Russia?). Integration is not only a big word for Germany, it is THE word. Now, from the streets of Dresden, led by Pegida, we are hearing the old story against "others" again: "they are not integrating" and "what should we do with this hordes that milk welfare here and bleed our social state dry?".  This "they" is Islam this time and even if it will never be minor when Germany finds yet another religious group to call "they", the problem is less about religious intolerance that it may seem. Firstly: seeing the problem outside and not recognising it inside. Dresden, as the whole of East Germany is also in the process of integrating with former West Germany, which also at times talks about East Germany as "milking" the mother-nation (which in Germany is rather the Father nation). Secondly, speaking about integration without understanding what's about: integration IS acceptance. 
We cannot integrate what we don't accept. Moreover, integration is not something "the other" does. Integration is a work for all, and that's why it is a challenge, that's why sometimes it feels uncomfortable. 
Something similar occurs in the new battle against Greece. Germany is projecting the failings of the Union project on the weak nations, without recognizing that they were competitive all those years thanks to a group of weak nations, without acknowledging that fixing the interest rates the same for economies that were in structural terms  radically different was also a mistake. And it was not done by the Greeks, or the PIGS. Projecting the union failings onto others is denial. So if Germany wants to lead Europe, it will also have to own part of its failings.

Integration is also a big word for the world and for all of us. In the way of resolving our own internal conflicts, we need to integrate them: find what's stored in our shadow, accept it, own it, assume responsibility for it, find the potentiality in it, and use it to help us do what we want to do, become what we can be. We need to knock down our own internal walls, the ones that separate us from our shadow and the walls that separate us from the other. Haruki Murakami wrote about walls for the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall
"In some cases a wall may protect us. But in order to protect us, it has to exclude others - that's the logic of walls. A wall eventually becomes a fixed system, one that rejects the logic of any other system. Sometimes violently". 

Marina Abramović, the famous Serbian performance artist, spoke (somehow) about the integration process when she was preparing to perform The life and death of Marina Abramović, a theatrical piece. As a performance artist, she hated theatre "Theatre is fake... The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real". But then she realised that Performance was just a tool to express herself "When you really found your own language and you become secure of what you are doing, then you can accept anything else." Somehow in being able to detach herself from her love of Performance and the hate of theatre, she felt secure she could also use theatre and experience it. "I've learned patience". 

Apart from knocking down the wall, and integrating the other side, Germany is still working on integrating its past. With my former job, we had a lot of internal training, one of which was on leadership, which involved exercises questioning who you are as a leader, why people should follow you, etc. A colleague from India once commented: "It's definitely a challenging exercise...making yourself those questions, but I'm surprised how much the Germans in the course were struggling with it". "Well, it is clear, isn't it?" I said. "Why?" She asked. "if they translate Leader to German is Führer, a heavy word for them" I explained. Confronting the past takes time, and Germany needed many years to make its first mayor film on Hitler, Der Untergang (Downfall, Oliver Hischbiegel, 2004). Not only that, they wanted to portray him as a human being (see Demonising and Idolising), which is not easy and became big topic of discussion (New Yorker.The Guardian) as some people would consider this dangerous and would rather see the demonic narrative, which leaves you in no doubt that it was his fault alone. It is by no means a closed chapter, Oskar Groening was convicted only recently: one of the few 50 SS officials out of 6500 at Auschwitz convicted.  

Banksy - West Bank
Spain is taking a different road regarding its past: the civil war and the Franco years. The judge Baltazar Garzón was deemed wrong in investigating deaths during Franco's dictatorship according the the Amnesty laws, and the team looking for the grave of Federico García Lorca, killed by Franco's nationalist forces, faced many obstacles with the loss of public funding related to the Memory law. Of course, avoiding to look at the past is nothing new. Moving forward without looking back is a known coping strategy for severe trauma. We build a wall, "a wall may protect us", we fragment ourselves and give power to what we consider our strong side, hiding the weak, the ashamed, the bad, the not worthy behind the wall. In this article of The Guardian, Kate Connolly speaks about Dresden being at war with itself in this regard.

We fragment society and the world, separating too the weak, the ashamed, the bad, the not worthy, the sick, the poor, the immigrants, the old, the african americans, the PIGS, the third world....
However, walls can stand for a long time, but not forever. Hating and segregating the weak is hating our own weaknesses instead of accepting them.

There is a moment when a new generation comes that is able to detach themselves from the love and hate that built those walls, and just sees them as oppressive. The emotions sustaining walls are always dense and heavy. A new generation that can make questions, that want to see what's behind, that want to knock it down, challenge the beliefs, unveil the secrets, with the hope that through that density and armed with the ability to step to the other side, there might come a break to the wheel of eternal recurrence, and find a lightness of being.


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