2022-12-29

Nice Racism

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by Neil Godfrey

I do not fully understand “racism”.

I grew up in a time when aboriginal children were sometimes being taken from their families “for their own good”. Everything “we”, the white rulers of the land, were doing in relation to aborigines was “for their good”. Today, on the contrary, one is often confronted with an aboriginal’s story of the trauma that was one of the thousands of what is now termed “the stolen generation“. Many white Australians only became aware of the impact of that practice on the indigenous people in 2002 with the release of the film Rabbit-Proof Fence.

My first experience as a target of racism was when I was touring central China. It was innocuous enough and I laughed along with it. But at the same time I could not deny that there was a little gurgle deep down in my gut that felt a little unpleasant. I asked my Chinese companion why some people seemed to be so curious and smiling among themselves as they looked across at me in a community meal hall. I was wearing shorts, and it was explained to me that someone had said I looked like a monkey because of my hairy legs and arms.

My second experience was soon after I was employed at the Singapore National Library. I don’t believe any of the local citizens and employees there would think they had a racist bone in their bodies. But on an institutional level, when statements were made at a “high level” of conceptualization — NOT at a personal one-on-one level — I was made to feel that my place as a white westerner was somehow tolerated only on sufferance. I was needed for my specialist skills and experience and the sooner my tenure was over the happier they would all be. Australians, I very quickly earned, were reflexively viewed through negative stereotypes, and my own personality and habits that defied those stereotypes made no difference to those perceptions. (I had been asked what things I found problematic with my work environment and I said that Singaporeans “work too hard” — they would almost as a rule work way past the official “knock off” time and seem to give their lives for the corporation and only go home to their families when absolutely necessary, usually quite late at night. The response indicated that I was a “typical” lazy Australian who loved to go on strike at the drop of a hat, gamble, drink and be generally work-shy. My immediate impulse was to argue the point but the environment at the time made that inappropriate. Everyone laughed at “the Australian” and “the virtue” that he saw as “a problem”.)

So as a white Westerner — and as nothing more than a tourist or temporary worker — I have experienced very mild forms of what have felt to me to be some kind of racial prejudice.

My point is that in neither of the above experiences would I have suspected any of the commenters as having the slightest awareness of any racist undertone in their remarks. Had I challenged them on their views I am convinced that they would have denied outright having any racist attitude at all. They were only joking, after all. They liked me personally. So why did I have that little unpleasant gut feeling each time? I smiled and responded as a friend and suppressed my gut gurgling so they would have no reason to notice it.

Robin DiAngelo (Wikipedia)

Today I listened to an Australian national radio podcast talk by Robin DiAngelo. I do not know if I can agree with every statement she made about “nice racism” — The ‘nice racism’ of progressive white people — but I don’t know yet if that’s because I haven’t thought through my own ideas thoroughly enough or if some of her views really are missing the mark by just a fraction of an inch or millimetre. She has her critics and these are candidly addressed in the podcast. But I am still left thinking.

But there is one comment of hers that I certainly could relate to:

“You’re going to have to educate yourself. 

If the thought leaders in this field, for example, are using the term “white supremacy”, and you think that’s a really harsh term, and a terrible term, and you don’t understand why they’re using it, then rather than ask us not to use it, see it as, “Well, I need to get up to speed because I must be missing something. They’re using this with comfort, and they’re talking about something that’s different from what I think this is about”, and so, we’re back to the humility that I necessarily am missing something, because this is arguably the most complex, nuanced, sociopolitical dynamic of the last several hundred years. 

Around 23 mins of https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/the-nice-racism-of-progressive-white-people/14087776

In her most recent book she writes:

Our racism avoids the blatant and obvious, such as saying the N-word or telling people to go back to where they came from. We employ more subtle methods: racial insensitivity, ignorance, and arrogance. These have a racist impact and contribute to an overall racist experience for BIPOC people, an experience that may be all the more maddening precisely because it is easy to deny and hard to prove. I am constantly asked for examples, so here are a few: . . . . 

• Not understanding why something on this list is problematic, and rather than seeking to educate yourself further, dismiss it as invalid.

Excerpt From: Dr. Robin DiAngelo. “Nice Racism.” Apple Books.

In case you are wondering what the other examples are, I copy and paste them here from DiAngelo’s book, Nice Racism:

• Confusing one person for another of the same racial group
• Not taking the effort to learn someone’s name; always mispronouncing it, calling them something that’s easier to pronounce; making a show of saying it, or avoiding the person altogether
• Repeating/rewording/explaining what a BIPOC person just said
• Touching, commenting on, marveling at, and asking questions about a Black person’s hair
• Expecting BIPOC people to be interested in and skilled at doing any work related to race
• Using one BIPOC person who didn’t mind what you did to invalidate another who did
• Calling a Black person articulate; expressing surprise at their intelligence, credentials, or class status
• Speaking over/interrupting a BIPOC person
• Lecturing BIPOC people on the answer to racism (“People just need to . . .”)
• Bringing up an unrelated racial topic while talking to a BIPOC person (and only when talking to a BIPOC person)”
• Blackface/cultural appropriation in costumes or roles
• Denying/being defensive/explaining away/seeking absolution when confronted with having enacted racism
• Only naming the race of people who are not white when telling a story
• Slipping into a southern accent or other caricature when talking to or about Black people
• Asking for more evidence or offering an alternate explanation when a BIPOC person shares their lived experience of racism
• Making a point of letting people know that you are married to a BIPOC person or have BIPOC people in your family
• Not being aware that the evidence you use to establish that you are “not racist” is not convincing
• Equating an oppression that you experience with racism
• Changing the channel to another form of oppression whenever race comes up
• Insisting that your equity team address every other possible form of oppression, resulting in racism not getting addressed in depth or at all (“It’s really about class”)
• Including “intellectual diversity,” “learning styles,” “neurodiversity,” and personality traits such as introversion/extroversion in your diversity work so that everyone in your majority-white organization feels included
• Gossiping about the racism of other white people to BIPOC people to distinguish yourself as the good white person
• Using an experience as the only white person in a group or community to say that you’ve experienced racism (which you call reverse racism)
• Telling a BIPOC person that you witnessed the racism perpetrated toward them but doing nothing further
• Equating your experience as a white immigrant or the child of white immigrants to the experiences of African Americans (“The Irish were discriminated against just as bad”)
• Using your experience with service learning or missionary work in BIPOC communities to present yourself as an expert on how to address the issues experienced by those communities
• Loving and recommending films about racism that feature white saviors
• Deciding for yourself how to support a BIPOC person without asking them what they want or need
• Claiming to have a friendship with a Black colleague who has never been to your home
• Being involved in your workplace equity team without continually working on your own racism
• Attending your first talk or workshop on racism and complaining that the speaker did not provide you with the “answer”
• Asking how to start a diversity consulting business because you attended a talk and found it interesting
• Focusing your diversity work on “increasing your numbers” with no structural changes and equating increased numbers with racial justice
• Blocking racial justice efforts by continually raising a concern that your organization is “not ready” and needs to “go slow” to protect white people’s delicate racial sensibilities
Not understanding why something on this list is problematic, and rather than seeking to educate yourself further, dismiss it as invalid

Excerpt From: Dr. Robin DiAngelo. “Nice Racism.” Apple Books.

It’s that last one that got to me and made me pause and wonder. We all know others who fall into that category and have probably been there ourselves at some time. So I am forced to rethink the other points I find myself disagreeing with. That doesn’t mean Robin DiAngelo is right all the time, but the questions she raises are of concern to some people so maybe I need to think them through more fully.

One comparison that came up in that radio interview was the response of a husband who says he cannot be racist because he married a black woman, and the converse for the wife. DiAngelo pointed out that a man marrying a woman does not prove that he is free from sexist or patriarchal (and anti-feminist) biases.

It’s a topic I keep returning to and wondering if I have really understood all its complexity. Individually we may not be racist but we are part of a community and perhaps that’s where we have to wonder about our unconscious biases and how they influence systemic words and actions.


Other reading that surfaced from listening to the above:

  • Anderson, Carol. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. Bloomsbury, 2016.
  • DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Penguin, 2019.
  • Eddo-Lodge, Reni. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Bloomsbury, 2017.
  • Hamad, Ruby. White Tears/Brown Scars. Melbourne University Press, 2019.


2022-12-16

Sovereign Citizens, ISIS and Moonies — the common thread that binds them all

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by Neil Godfrey

This week, about two hours drive due west of where I live, two police officers and a helping neighbour were murdered by a trio of “sovereign citizens” — for the “crime” of entering their property. The father of two of the trio, two brothers, had not heard from either of his sons in twenty years. I read that he broke down on tv when asked about them.

. . . decades after the attacks of September 11, 2001, we stand in line for a dose of radiation while being barked at and occasionally fondled by federal employees.

It’s remarkable how much power the government grabbed, and how many freedoms they took away… instantly. Years later, it’s clear that those freedoms are never coming back.” . . . 

They have us all cowering in our homes, like house cats, stripped of our most basic freedoms. It’s a power grab we haven’t seen since 9/11 (and that may indeed dwarf it).


The circumstances are certainly similar: people are terrified, so the governments are doing whatever they please. . . . 


Contrary to popular belief, many people don’t prefer freedom… not if it means having little or no safety net. . . . They like rules and regulations and feel “safe” within those boundaries.


They see Big Government as a giant safety net. And so they trade liberty for it, believing that authority figures are truthful, benevolent, and trustworthy. They appreciate a government that seizes power.


Those who prefer freedom doubt such benevolence and trustworthiness. 

Excerpt From: “The Sovereign Manifesto: How To Be Free in an Unfree World.”

My youth and early adulthood were mis-spent with a religious cult. When I woke up to what I had been immersed in I visited libraries and bookstores to try to learn as much as I could about “how it had happened”. I was seen as an intelligent person. My upbringing had been in a lower middle-class “liberal Methodist” family. My parents sacrificed so much to see that I had a good education. How could I have ever let myself get mixed up in the Armstrong cult, the “Worldwide Church of God” earlier known as the “Radio Church of God”? I learned much and when I discovered how common my experience was and felt compelled to reach out to others who had had the same experiences. I started a local “support group” of sorts for ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, ex-Mormons, and ex-etceteras. It was part of the healing process for all of us to share our experiences and come to understand how alike they all were — despite the fact that each of us had been indoctrinated with the idea that our respective churches were “utterly unique”. No, we learned that there were techniques and experiences common to all of us. That we each felt “unique” and a part of a group unlike any other on earth was one of the experiences we had in common.

Then came 9/11 and the waves of Islamist terrorist attacks. And the public mood of “Islamophobia” mushroomed. I knew that these kinds of terrorist attacks from Muslims were a historically new development so it could not be the Muslim religion itself that was responsible. What was the catalyst? Again, I did some research. I read the online magazines and other literature of various individuals and groups that had in some way been associated with terrorism. And I read the scholarly studies from anthropologists, psychologists, historians, political scientists, sociologists who had studied these individuals and groups. How could it be possible? Everything I was reading gelled so neatly with all I had ever learned about the process that led persons to religious cults. The process was called “radicalization”. But it was the same process that had led others in other environments to “cults” like the Moonies, the Armstrongites, Heaven’s Gate, Dave Koresh of Waco fame, Jonestown, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons…. I began to write about the common thread on this blog. Hating Islam and Muslims was counter-productive and played right into the hands of the terrorists — that was a big part of my message.

Then this week six people lay dead two hours from where I am writing because of conspiracy theories. Yes, most surely, conspiracy theories were not of themselves to blame. Many people who will never even come close to thinking of killing anyone else believe in conspiracy theories. But conspiracy theories can open doors to all sorts of dark rationalizations when under the right sorts of pressures. I sometimes wonder if the most significant difference between the now defunct Armstrong cult and Dave Koresh cult was the age of the leaders: Armstrong was an old man who loved his comforts and would always find a way out of any threat to those comforts; Dave Koresh was young and idealism can be the ruin of the young. Conspiracy theories in the minds of people with other mental or social issues (such as someone on the Asperger’s syndrome spectrum as appears to have been the case with the dominant person in the local trio) can be fatal.

What is a solution? Is there one? I must be hopeful. Here is something positive, something we can all be mindful of from day to day, from a report by Lise Waldeck, Julian Droogan and Brian Ballsun-Stanton:

Public communications that conflate far right extremism with broader community dissent may reinforce far right extremist conspiratorial narratives and harden existing societal polarisation. This in turn would reduce opportunities for positive discussion that acknowledges the anxieties and fears of non-far right extremist communities.

The pandemic has created opportunities for far right extremists to broadcast their narratives to broader subculture identities built around anti-government and antiestablishment narratives as well as opposition to public health measures such as vaccination. People engage with these narratives because they provide simple answers and clearly identify an ’other’ who can become the focus of blame. Conspiratorial narratives are quick to position government and authority figures within this out-group. Communications that describe those who disobey public health orders in order to engage in civil protest as far right extremists may reinforce the very alignment sought by actual far right extremist groups.

Consistent public acknowledgement of different groups holding alternative perspectives can provide the necessary framework for proactive public engagement with marginalised subcultures. Politicising and demonising public non-compliance with health orders may lead to the further alienation of dissenting groups, pushing them towards the political fringes inhabited by actual anti-state extremists. One way to prevent this is to move away from polarising communications that subsume public discontent and fears around COVID-19 under a violent extremist lens.

Engagement strategies that provide opportunities for these communities to express their fears and anxieties may help in the increasing understanding. State government programs that proactively engage with active and outspoken dissenting/angry citizenship are well placed to provide preventative support for those impacted by conspiratorial and anti-establishment movements due to the current global health crisis, or who become engaged with far right extremist movements. (pp. 39f : Online Far Right Extremist and Conspiratorial Narratives During the COVID-19 Pandemic)

What is the common thread binding Sovereign Citizens, Moonies and ISIS? One strong tie is distrust of society. Society is under the powers of evil, they believe, whether those powers are earthly or heavenly. The controlling powers are believed to work in secret behind the scenes but are duping the majority of us. The majority, those who more or less cooperate with social governance of some kind, are seen as hapless dupes, either wilfully ignorant and blind or simply “dumb sheep”.

It is all too easy to laugh mockingly at “Trumpists” or despairingly at “anti-vaxxers” — but the report above suggests that such a response is inimical to what we all want.

I have images of local fairs where all kinds of groups, government, statutory, professional and private, place their “information session” stalls and tents for all to visit. The hard-core conspiracy theorists will mock such occasions as being part of the plan to indoctrinate us all, but the “in-between bystanders” will be the primary target. Maybe also a few hard-core persons who have tiny nigglings of some doubt. But an understanding of how “the system” really works is surely essential. How Parliament works, how medical research centres work, how teachers work, how journalists and news broadcasters work … how everything works. — Would it not be good to have programs of some kind that increased awareness of how everything really works?

The common thread is distrust of society. What can be done to corrode that thread and demonstrate how as social beings we can all work together in accordance with our basic nature and find niches that allow each of us to improve our collective lot?

One small step would be to listen with respect to issues raised by “the outsider” and think of the most informative way to respond. Mocking the conspiracy theorist is not the answer and only adds fuel to the fire. Maybe we all need to work at better informing ourselves to know how to respond in the most helpful way we can.


2022-09-05

Degenerations of Democracy

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by Neil Godfrey

If you are like me and a little mystified about how we got to where we are today with increasing numbers actually deploring our traditional democratic systems, with more or our fellow citizens seemingly ignorant of how our system of government works, even of how society functions, and are just a wee bit concerned about where we are headed, you might find some clarifying explanation in Degenerations of Democracy by Craig Calhoun, Dilip Parameshwar Gaokar and Charles Taylor.

How did we get from the great hopes of the 1960s to here? Australian history, pre-World War I especially, was a dramatic social pioneering scene partly by the way obstacles were overcome. But I think future hopes held on and were reinvigorated with a new boost in the 60s and early 70s. But today I read the views of the elderly and of historians who say that today we face a social cynicism that was not even paralleled in the 1930s. I would like to think the new Australian government is doing something to restore a little hope with its consensus approach, but if so, it’s not going to change social attitudes overnight nor by itself. And we are just one corner of the world anyway.

I’ve begun reading Degenerations of Democracy (Introduction, Chapter 1 and part of the final “What is to be done” chapter) and it makes a lot of sense.

In chapter one Charles Taylor traces how and why there has been a decline in our (“us citizens'”) sense of power to change things by working or acting together to influence governments. The rot set in from the mid 1970s.

But that is only the first part of what has gone wrong. What stems from that sense of powerlessness, at least among large sectors of the population, is the age-old tendency to seek scape-goats, to identify those who need to be excluded because they are “not really part of us”. The immigrants, the indigenous populations, the elites. (Certain elites do share a good part of the blame, of course, especially those who own the media and those who run the global enterprises. But what is needed here is not the sending of those elites to the guillotine but a restructuring of “the system” and redistributing the wealth.) The point is, the sense of community is breaking down, or at least being redefined to exclude certain groups. That’s breaking up the very foundation on which a democracy survives. I liked Taylor’s explanation of the difference between Bernie Sanders’ populism and Donald Trump populism:

Now, a word about the term “populism.” There is more than one kind, with different political implications. Even in the 2016 election in the United States, the word was used to apply to two movements, represented by Bernie Sanders and by Donald Trump, respectively. One obvious meaning of the term applies when the “people,” in the sense of the demos or nonelites, are mobilized to erupt into a system that has been run without considering them; they are breaking down the walls, breaking down the doors, disturbing business as usual, demanding redress of grievance. But there is a very big difference between the Bernie and the Donald version: the Bernie version is truly inclusive; it’s not excluding anyone. One may not agree with the particular policies put forward; one may or may not be happy about this populist eruption. But Bernie Sanders’s program does not embrace the notion that precedence gives some citizens greater rights than others. This exclusionary feature is basic and, I think, absolutely fatal to the populist appeals of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Geert Wilders. It is both deeply divisive and in programmatic terms a dead-end.

Excerpt From: Craig Calhoun. “Degenerations of Democracy.” Apple Books.

And from the “decline of citizen efficacy” through “waves of exclusion” we arrive at the final killer: polarization. When we insist on democracy meaning “the rule of a majority” without any care for the community as a whole we run into a serious and dire situation. When “majorities” take on definitions that exclude any interest in the welfare of others; when members of self-defined “majorities” say “you” would join them too when you “wake up” and “see” what they see; and when “majorities” insist that they have a need to rule in perpetuity in order to safeguard “civilization”, “white culture”, . . .  being blind to the fact that in a large society the needs of different groups change and realignments and new priorities are always going to be part of a democracy’s life.

It’s a long read. I’ll be dabbling in it on and off over some time. But I’ve already been thinking a lot about what I have read so far and trying to see if I can make better sense of what has happened “to us” and why the world has not turned out the way we had expected some decades ago. I’ve already jumped to the “What Is To Be Done” chapter at the end.

 


2022-08-17

Next up…

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by Neil Godfrey

My reviews of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts and Mike Duncan’s Rhetoric and the Synoptic Problem have to wait till I return home where I can work with something larger than a laptop screen. Till then, however, I must take the opportunity to catch up with where I left off with Thomas Witulski’s view that Revelation was written in the time of Hadrian and the Bar Kochba War. (I had expected to post more on current events while traveling overseas but in truth, I have found delving into the background of significant happenings today is too depressing. Biblical studies have become something of an emotional escape.)

Interlude: I had had an exhausting day trudging through streets and building complexes of Bangkok, with all the noise, the constant traffic on multi-lane highways, the crowds, the broken footpaths, moving and static lights on oversized public video screens, on poles, flashing on vehicles and shop fronts, the constant noise of traffic, of music blaring, of amplified sellers shouting (including a girl dressed to the nines shouting rapid fire into a microphone while balancing an oversized mock croissant on her head! — capitalism gone totally mad), . . .  and all in the heat and humidity. . . . — and finally, at day’s end, returning to where I’m staying on the “outskirts” of the city (“outskirts” that still demand a 14 lane highway, seven each way, with constant traffic in all lanes, and train-line edifices and stations raised overhead) — returning home through in the softness of the night-time and down a side-lane passing scattered little food “shops” on one side and a frog-chirping swamp on the other, sitting on the back of a motorbike, no helmet, the cool air rushing over my face and through my hair, nothing but the soft purring of the motorbike and bell-like singing of frogs and gekhoes — it was a wonderful moment of relaxed freedom, leaving behind if only for a night the dirty concrete mass of the loud and busy city of rich (many in their long black cars and tinted windows) and poor (too often sleeping on the footpath). 10 baht; I gave the rider 20 and told him to keep the change. Bangkok might be a great tourist attraction but I would really hate to live and work here.

 

 

 


2022-08-09

Imagining an Alternative to Human Rights

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by Neil Godfrey

Human rights — they are so Western! But how can anyone, any culture, frown upon them and want them excluded from their frame of reference? Think China.

Around twenty years ago I visited Tiananmen Square. Soldiers, every few metres it seemed, still guarded the space. One could not just freely wander anywhere there as if it were what we imagine a public space to be. My sobered looks were noticed by my Chinese companions and they clearly looked worried at my change of mood. They (my companions) were good people, they said. After those “very bad” people did something in the square years before, soldiers or police visited their houses and left when they were assured that they were only good people and not the bad ones causing the trouble. Those were their words: good and bad people. They were horrified that I should seem to display any regrets about that time and they tried to extricate me from that area as quickly as possible. No doubt there are Chinese who feel my horror more than I can but they must remain hidden, even now.

Not long afterwards I took in a Chinese student boarder. She expressed shock when she saw on the TV news film of opposition party figures in Parliament verbally attacking those on the government side. To her she was witnessing anarchy, treason even. At one point she tried to educate me by having me analyze the word “government”: it had “govern” in it, and did not that mean that those in government must “govern”? What right, how on earth …. what a display of utter rabble and rebellion to have people attack the government!

I am currently reading three books. One of them is Kevin Rudd‘s The Avoidable War. He knows a thing or two about China. Here are some passages I have found interesting so far. Confucianism is no longer dead in Communist China:

But Xi Jinping made cultivating nationalism an even stronger priority, leveraging an increasingly sophisticated propaganda apparatus that has seamlessly fused the imagery of the modern CCP with the national mythology of a proud and ancient Chinese civilization.

This has included the rehabilitation of Confucianism, once dismissed by the CCP as reactionary and anticommunist, as part of the restoration of the party’s emphasis on the uniqueness of China’s national political philosophy. According to the official line, a long-standing continuity of benign hierarchical governance (as represented by Confucianism) is what differentiates China from the rest of the world. The shorthand form of Xi’s political narrative is simple: China’s historical greatness, across its dynastic histories, always lay in strong, authoritarian, hierarchical Confucian governments. By corollary, China’s historical greatness was never the product of Western liberal democracy or any Chinese variation of it. By extension, China’s future national greatness can lie only in the continued adaptation of its indigenous political legacy, derived from the hierarchical tradition of the Confucian/communist state. (87f)

It’s about Party legitimacy in the eyes of the people. As long as the Party can oversee rising living standards, a cleaner environment, and a consolidation (even restoration!) of China’s national borders, then the Party is safe. Confucianism: “benign hierarchical governance.”

Human rights?

Like most of his colleagues across the CCP leadership, Xi has long seen US support for universal human rights, democracy, and the rule of law as a fundamental challenge to the party’s interests. Lest there be any doubt on this score, China’s indigenous democracy movement has long been condemned by the party as one of the “five poisons” that threaten the Chinese system, together with Uyghur activists, adherents of Falun Gong, Tibetan activists, and the Taiwanese independence movement—all of which the party contends are backed by the United States.

The party’s historical antagonism toward human rights, electoral democracy, and an independent legal system will, therefore, continue because these concepts strike at the very heart of the perceived legitimacy of the Chinese party-state, both at home and abroad. This explains China’s continuing hostility toward any foreign government that dares challenge the moral fundamentals of the Chinese political system. . . . 

That Xi implemented a wide-ranging crackdown against “bourgeois liberalization” in China’s education system during the first six months of his term in 2013 is, therefore, unsurprising. He identified seven sensitive topics that could no longer be the subject of any form of academic discussion or debate. These were “universal values, freedom of speech, civil rights, civil society, the historical errors of the Communist Party, crony capitalism, and judicial independence.” This was followed in 2017 by China’s new foreign NGO law, which placed new security restrictions on the operations of any NGO attracting philanthropic funding from abroad. With the strike of a pen, this law crushed an active civil society that developed over decades, with organizations promoting everything from occupational health and safety to the schooling of migrant workers’ children. Then, more recently, Xi has also moved to ban private schooling and the hiring of foreign teachers as well as the use of international textbooks and curricula. (91f)

One of the other books I am reading now has many references to Plato. I can’t help thinking Plato would have some admiration for Xi Jinping’s policies – except for his nationalist ones that risk war.


Rudd, Kevin. The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China. New York: PublicAffairs, 2022.



2022-07-30

Sidetracked though misadventure: Time to reflect

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by Neil Godfrey

The past week I have been met with a series of costly misadventures (I blame it all on Australian dentists charging outrageous prices) that have led me to Indonesia and last night was the first night in a week I have had to truly relax. The restaurant where I ate displayed this thought-provoking picture:


2022-04-08

Modern-Day Witchcraft Conspiracy Fears

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s one of the more disturbing results of the Covid pandemic and it’s real. Too many western democracies have been in bad enough shape before the pandemic and the need to roll back the power of global corporations has been pressing enough but Covid has catalyzed a new threat: a new level of anti-government and anti-establishment conspiracy thinking that can only weaken democratic institutions as well as undermine confidence in sound scientific processes that are aimed at general health and well-being.

A survey report commissioned by the New South Wales government has been released by Macquarie University, Online Far Right Extremist and Conspiratorial Narratives During the COVID-19 Pandemic, to help us understand and counter the rise of this growing extremist outlook. The major threat that it singles out is the ability of far-right extremists to mainstream their narrative with the broader community and so increase their audience scope and potential support for anti-social actions.

In this post I single out just one item in one of the sources the report cites:

  • Leach, Anna, and Miles Probyn. “Why People Believe Covid Conspiracy Theories: Could Folklore Hold the Answer?” The Guardian, October 26, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2021/oct/26/why-people-believe-covid-conspiracy-theories-could-folklore-hold-the-answer. [Check the waybackmachine archive.org link if the above does not work]
Prof. Tim Tangherlini

Researchers have mapped the web of connections underpinning coronavirus conspiracy theories, opening a new way of understanding and challenging them. . . . .

Using Danish witchcraft folklore as a model, the researchers from UCLA and Berkeley analysed thousands of social media posts with an artificial intelligence tool and extracted the key people, things and relationships. . . . 

Gates is a persistent figure in the anti-vaccine stories. “He’s a great villain,” says the folklorist Prof Timothy Tangherlini who collaborated with Roychowdhury on the research. It’s Gates’ world-spanning influence in tech and then health that lodges him at the heart of a lot of conspiracies. . . . 

Folklore isn’t just a model for the AI. Tangherlini, whose specialism is Danish folklore, is interested in how conspiratorial witchcraft folklore took hold in the 16th and 17th centuries and what lessons it has for today.

Whereas in the past, witches were accused of using herbs to create potions that caused miscarriages, today we see stories that Gates is using coronavirus vaccinations to sterilise people. A version of this story that omits Gates but claims the vaccines have caused men’s testicles to swell, making them infertile, was repeated by the American rapper Nicki Minaj.

(bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations)

I’m sure that not all anti-vaxxers are interested in Bill Gates, especially in Australia. But the conspiratorial responses concerning elites taking over our governments and threatening our freedoms are the same. A “covid-sceptic” might hear a story about Bill Gates but adjust it to what fits his or her version of the conspiracy. To quote from Tangherlini in the article once more:

In folklore, we have this law of self-correction. So if something doesn’t quite fit, you go back to the way you heard it from 15 other people. I might be saying Jeff Bezos. But if three other people are saying Bill Gates, it’s going to be Bill Gates.

From The Copenhagen Post

The Guardian article’s conclusion is worth quoting, too:

Why do people believe things that seem so wrong?

Conspiracy theories often crop up after catastrophic or unusual events and they thrive in environments where there is a lack of trusted information, says Tangherlini.

In 16th and 17th century Denmark, catastrophic events from floods to poisonous algae mixed with the massive change brought by industrialisation. For those isolated on small farms, access to trusted, consistent information was scarce and stories about witches start to take hold.

Today it’s clear that coronavirus has been a catastrophic event that has impacted everyone’s lives. On the face of it, a lack of information is not a problem in wealthy countries. However, the overload of information online can produce the same effect that Danish farmers faced several centuries ago – a lack of trusted information.

This is where conspiratorial storytelling comes in and these stories start to get created. Then, as now, stories are a powerful way of talking about what we fear.

In my other posts about propaganda I have attempted to underscore the point that a glut of information can have the same effect as too little information. Most of us don’t have the time to take in all the information available, let alone analyse or check it all. It can be too easy to not bother even trying to sift wheat from chaff and fall back on simplistic narratives that offer easy to understand answers.

To quote one section from the report with which I opened this post, pp 38-39:

Conspiracy theories provide simplistic answers to complex problems such as the current global health crisis, and present experts and traditional systems of authority and government as malevolent and untrustworthy. Belief in a conspiracy theory is not a reliable indicator of an acceptance of far right extremism, but conspiratorial thinking is prevalent within far right extremist (and many other extremist) movements, and may provide a vulnerability for pathways into these.

While conspiratorial thinking is detrimental and corrosive to liberal democracy, in sum there are three qualities of conspiratorial thinking that make it particularly concerning for social cohesion:

First, conspiracy theories concerning COVID-19 present a global narrative that can be linked to a host of diverse local issues and grievances. This allows far right extremists to exploit local tensions for their broader political agenda by connecting their narratives with world affairs.

Second, conspiracy theories form an alternative reality. This alternative reality serves as a framework under which multiple fringe movements, ideologies, and concerns can be mobilised. This allows far right extremists to mobilise among new social groups not traditionally receptive to their narratives or aims.

Third, by presenting the crisis as caused or exacerbated by the actions of a sinister and malevolent out-group, conspiracy theories justify an implicit solution in neutering or removing the out-group. This can present pathways towards anti-establishment civic dissent and violence.

A positive response to this growing threat to our societies that the report advises is to respect and engage productively with all those with concerns about covid, medical and vaccine advice, and government policies and to be careful not to label them with the far-right extremists who espouse the same views. To fail to do so risks driving them towards those extremists.

 


Leach, Anna, and Miles Probyn. “Why People Believe Covid Conspiracy Theories: Could Folklore Hold the Answer?” The Guardian, October 26, 2021

Waldek, Lise, Droogan, Julian, and Ballsun-Stanton, Brian. “Online Far Right Extremist and Conspiratorial Narratives During the Covid-19 Pandemic.” Government report for Department of Communities and Justice, NSW. Sydney, NSW: Macquarie University, March 22, 2022. https://doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.5732611.



2022-01-31

If you are worried about “Russian expansion”, read this….

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by Neil Godfrey

Press stunned as Ukraine leader points finger at west

The underlying issue is this: NATO promised not to expand eastwards. It has done so repeatedly. It is never called out for this.

The link is to a report by Nury Vittachi on the Pearls and Irritations site.

Every time I listen to someone who is a specialist in Russian affairs — and one who is not employed as a political mouthpiece for a Western power I am informed of the clear evidence that there are no signs of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet still, the mainstream media appear by and large to have fallen in line with “merely reporting” the “news” as they are “informed” by their anti-Russian, pro-expansionist vested interests in the West.

Like so many other times, it is a bizarre, even surreal, experience listening to and watching Western media “at work” after having stepped aside for a moment to ascertain some facts.

 

 

 

 


2021-12-18

On Charity and Tyrants

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by Neil Godfrey

When reading about Herod the Great recently I was reminded at one point of my recent post about The Dawn of Everything. Herod prided himself on showering the poor with free food — following the “bread and circuses” custom of aspiring and established political leaders in Rome.

https://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/images/potlatch-ceremony.jpg

Northwest Coast societies, in contrast, became notorious among outside observers for the delight they took in displays of excess. They were best known to European ethnologists for the festivals called potlatch, usually held by aristocrats acceding to some new noble title (nobles would often accumulate many of these over the course of a lifetime). In these feasts they sought to display their grandeur and contempt for ordinary worldly possessions by performing magnificent feats of generosity, overwhelming their rivals with gallons of candlefish oil, berries and quantities of fatty and greasy fish. Such feasts were scenes of dramatic contests, sometimes culminating in the ostentatious destruction of heirloom copper shields and other treasures, just as in the early period of colonial contact, around the turn of the nineteenth century, they sometimes culminated in the sacrificial killing of slaves. Each treasure was unique; there was nothing that resembled money. Potlatch was an occasion for gluttony and indulgence, ‘grease feasts’ designed to leave the body shiny and fat. Nobles often compared themselves to mountains, with the gifts they bestowed rolling off them like boulders, to flatten and crush their rivals.

So far so good. The authors towards the end of the book describe the archaeological evidence of the first Mesopotamian city, Uruk, and the evidence for the temple complex there accommodating the poor:

It is often hard to determine exactly who these temple labourers were, or even what sort of people were being organized in this way, allotted meals and having their outputs inventoried – were they permanently attached to the temple, or just ordinary citizens fulfilling their annual corvée duty? – but the presence of children in the lists suggests at least some may have lived there. If so, then this was most likely because they had nowhere else to go. If later Sumerian temples are anything to go by, this workforce will have comprised a whole assortment of the urban needy: widows, orphans and others rendered vulnerable by debt, crime, conflict, poverty, disease or disability, who found in the temple a place of refuge and support.

One wonders, of course, about the possibility that these people were slaves. Graeber and Wengrow note,

There is a possibility some were already slaves or war captives at this time (Englund 2009), and as we’ll see, this becomes much more commonplace later; indeed, it is possible that what was originally a charitable organization gradually transformed as captives were added to the mix.

From here, we move on to the question of how authoritarian societies arose and to quote a portion of what I covered in an earlier post,

The shorter version of Steiner’s doctoral work . . . focuses on what he calls ‘pre-servile institutions’. Poignantly, given his own life story, it is a study of what happens in different cultural and historical situations to people who become unmoored: those expelled from their clans for some debt or fault; castaways, criminals, runaways. It can be read as a history of how refugees such as himself were first welcomed, treated as almost sacred beings, then gradually degraded and exploited, again much like the women working in the Sumerian temple factories. In essence, the story told by Steiner appears to be precisely about the collapse of what we would term the first basic freedom (to move away or relocate), and how this paved the way for the loss of the second (the freedom to disobey). . .

What happens, Steiner asked, when expectations that make freedom of movement possible – the norms of hospitality and asylum, civility and shelter – erode? Why does this so often appear to be a catalyst for situations where some people can exert arbitrary power over others? Steiner worked his way in careful detail through cases . . .  Along the journey he suggested one possible answer to the question . . . : if stateless societies do regularly organize themselves in such a way that chiefs have no coercive power, then how did top-down forms of organization ever come into the world to begin with?

You’ll recall how both Lowie and Clastres were driven to the same conclusion: that they must have been the product of religious revelation. Steiner provided an alternative route. Perhaps, he suggested, it all goes back to charity. In Amazonian societies, not only orphans but also widows, the mad, disabled or deformed – if they had no one else to look after them – were allowed to take refuge in the chief’s residence, where they received a share of communal meals.

Bread and circuses, charity . . . and the rise of tyrants. The message to me is the importance of allowing everyone to participate in the distribution of their needs.


Graeber, David, and David Wengrow. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.



2021-12-09

Where none shall hunger

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by Neil Godfrey

Here are a few extracts reminding us that humanity does at times embrace the value of caring for the basic needs of one’s fellows. One political view current in Western societies is that the public purse must dole out less than the poor need to survive lest they become dependent and fail to seek a job and care for themselves. Other societies have had a different perspective. Different ways humans have organized themselves and treated others are addressed in The Dawn of Everything. Below are some extracts from that book as well as others:

Dampier also remarked on other key aspects of Aboriginal life—small-scale societies, close communal living and the habit of sharing all procured food:

They have no houses but lie in the open air without any covering . . . they live in companies of twenty or thirty men, women and children together. Their only food is a small sort of fish, which they get by making wares [weirs or traps] of stone across little coves . . . Every tide brings in the small fish . . . at low-water they seek cockles, mussels and periwinkles. There are very few of these shellfish . . . At their places of abode . . . the old people . . . and tender infants await their return; and what providence has bestowed on them they presently broil on the coals and eat it in common . . . Whether they get little or much, every one has his part . . . 

Two societies could hardly have differed more than Georgian England and Aboriginal Australia. English society was based on the Christian work ethic and the sanctity of private property, whereas Aborigines saw no value in work except the food quest and believed in the sanctity of communal property. Each society tried to make the other change. Aborigines expected Europeans to share their food and other goods; Europeans tried to instil principles of private ownership and regular work into Aborigines. Instead of mingling, they lived uneasily side by side . . . .

Wrasse was the most abundant species in Tasmanian prehistoric deposits until 3500 years ago, when fishing abruptly ceased. Toxic fish are often confined to a small area and toxicity varies seasonally, but it seems that 3500 years ago Tasmanian fishermen suffered such severe poisoning that no Aboriginal Tasmanian ever risked eating fish again. The Aboriginal custom of sharing all food means that a single meal could wipe out a whole band. News of such a calamity would have spread quickly, leading to the universal taboo.

Flood, Josephine. Original Australians. Crows Nest, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin, 2006. pp 5, 57, 72

 

His people were very generous and, hospitable. . . . The value of sharing was impressed upon the missionaries wherever they travelled in south-east Queensland. Gift giving and sharing valued possessions was essential to cement relationships. ‘The worst character they are able to give of a man,’ Reverend Christopher Eipper noted, ‘is that he does bail give it’ meaning ‘he will not share’.

Connors, Libby. Warrior: A Legendary Leader’s Dramatic Life and Violent Death on the Colonial Frontier. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015. p. 10, citing Colonial Observer, 23 July 1842, p. 347.

 

Moreover, it is really honour which forms the mainspring of their actions. I wish no other proof of it than what this same honour makes them do in a case of extreme necessity, at the hunting season when they are so often exposed to hunger that there is almost no year that someone does not starve to death. Then, if a cabin of hungry people meets another whose provisions are not entirely exhausted, the latter share with the newcomers the little which remains to them without waiting to be asked, although they expose themselves thereby to the same danger of perishing as those whom they help at their own expense so humanely and with such greatness of soul. In Europe, we should find few [people] disposed, in like cases, to a liberality so noble and magnificent.

Latifau, Joseph François. Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times, Volume II. Edited by William N. Fenton and Elizabeth L. Moore. Vol. 49. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1977 [1724]

 

Although the dialogue of Lahonton with a certain native spokesman have in the past been considered fanciful, more recent scholarly study has come to a different view: that they do indeed reflect the arguments of the Americans Indians.
Sioui, Georges. 1972. ‘A la réflexion des Blancs d’Amérique du Nord et autres étrangers.’ Recherches amérindiennes au Quebec 2 (4–5): 65–8.
—. 1992. For an Amerindian Autohistory: An Essay on the Foundations of a Social Ethic. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
—. 1999. Huron-Wendat. The Heritage of the Circle. Vancouver: British Columbia University Press.”
Steckley, John. 1981 ‘Kandiaronk: a man called Rat.’ In J. Steckley, Untold Tales: Four Seventeenth-Century Hurons. Toronto: Associated Heritage Publishing, pp. 41–52.
—. 2014. The Eighteenth-Century Wyandot: A Clan-Based Study. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.”
Mann, Barbara Alice. “ —. 2001. ‘Are you delusional? Kandiaronk on Christianity.’ In B. A. Mann (ed.), Native American Speakers of the Eastern Woodlands: Selected Speeches and Critical Analysis. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, pp. 35–82.”

Lahontan on the other hand urges Adario to become a European, to which Adario says, “How could I watch the Needy suffer, without giving them all I have? . . . “

Brandon, William. New Worlds for Old: Reports from the New World and Their Effect on the Development of Social Thought in Europe, 1500-1800. Athens, Ohio : Ohio University Press, 1986. http://archive.org/details/newworldsforoldr0000bran. p. 91

With all these vices, they are exceedingly vainglorious: they think they are better, more valiant and more ingenious than the French; and, what is difficult to believe, richer than we are. They consider themselves, I say, braver than we are, boasting that they have killed Basques and Malouins, and that they do a great deal of harm to the ships, and that no one has ever resented it, insinuating that it was from a lack of courage. They consider themselves better than the French ; ‘ ‘ For, ’ ’ they say, ‘ ‘ you are always fighting and quarreling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; [32] you are thieves and deceivers ; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind ; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbor. ’ ’

Letter from Father Biard, to Reverend Father Christopher Baltazar, Provincial of France, at Paris, In The Jesuit relations and allied documents : travels and explorations of the Jesuit missionaries in New France, 1610-1791. https://archive.org/details/cihm_07535/page/n7/mode/2up

Much like Biard’s Mi’kmaq, the Wendat were particularly offended by the French lack of generosity to one another: ‘They reciprocate hospitality and give such assistance to one another that the necessities of all are provided for without there being any indigent beggar in their towns and villages; and they considered it a very bad thing when they heard it said that there were in France a great many of these needy beggars, and thought that this was for lack of charity in us, and blamed us for it severely.

. . .

Do you seriously imagine, he says, that I would be happy to live like one of the inhabitants of Paris, to take two hours every morning just to put on my shirt and make-up, to bow and scrape before every obnoxious galoot I meet on the street who happened to have been born with an inheritance? Do you really imagine I could carry a purse full of coins and not immediately hand them over to people who are hungry. . . .”

. . .

Wealthy men – and it should be noted that all these societies were decidedly patriarchal – were typically seen as providers for poorer dependants, improvident folk and foolish drifters, by virtue of their own self-discipline and labour and that of their wives.

. . .

There are a number of things worth noting here. One is that it makes clear that some people were indeed considered wealthy. Wendat society was not ‘economically egalitarian’ in that sense. However, there was a difference between what we’d consider economic resources – like land, which was owned by families, worked by women, and whose products were largely disposed of by women’s collectives – and the kind of ‘wealth’ being referred to here, such as wampum (a word applied to strings and belts of beads, manufactured from the shells of Long Island’s quahog clam) or other treasures, which largely existed for political purposes. Wealthy Wendat men hoarded such precious things largely to be able to give them away on dramatic occasions like these.

Excerpts From: David Graeber. “The Dawn of Everything.” Apple Books.

.

.

The first Mesopotamian City:

Uruk: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/3D-Visualisation-of-the-city-of-Uruk-3000-BC_fig1_280134491

It is often hard to determine exactly who these temple labourers were, or even what sort of people were being organized in this way, allotted meals and having their outputs inventoried – were they permanently attached to the temple, or just ordinary citizens fulfilling their annual corvée duty? – but the presence of children in the lists suggests at least some may have lived there. If so, then this was most likely because they had nowhere else to go. If later Sumerian temples are anything to go by, this workforce will have comprised a whole assortment of the urban needy: widows, orphans and others rendered vulnerable by debt, crime, conflict, poverty, disease or disability, who found in the temple a place of refuge and support.

Excerpt From: David Graeber. “The Dawn of Everything.” Apple Books.


2021-12-06

The Big Question We Should Be Asking of Human History

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by Neil Godfrey

Here is an extract from The Dawn of Everything (see previous post) that I feel at liberty to quote in full since Youtube programs of public discussions (see below) of the book show co-author David Wengrow reading this section in full to his audiences:

If there is a particular story we should be telling, a big question we should be asking of human history (instead of the ‘origins of social inequality’), is it precisely this: how did we find ourselves stuck in just one form of social reality, and how did relations based ultimately on violence and domination come to be normalized within it?

Franz Steiner

Perhaps the scholar who most closely approached this question in the last century was an anthropologist and poet named Franz Steiner, who died in 1952. Steiner led a fascinating if tragic life. A brilliant polymath born to a Jewish family in Bohemia, he later lived with an Arab family in Jerusalem until expelled by the British authorities, conducted fieldwork in the Carpathians and was twice forced by the Nazis to flee the continent, ending his career – ironically enough – in the south of England. Most of his immediate family were killed at Birkenau. Legend has it that he completed 800 pages of a monumental doctoral dissertation on the comparative sociology of slavery, only to have the suitcase containing his drafts and research notes stolen on a train. He was friends with, and a romantic rival to, Elias Canetti, another Jewish exile at Oxford and a successful suitor to the novelist Iris Murdoch – although two days after she’d accepted his proposal of marriage, Steiner died of a heart attack. He was forty-three.

The shorter version of Steiner’s doctoral work, which does survive, focuses on what he calls ‘pre-servile institutions’. Poignantly, given his own life story, it is a study of what happens in different cultural and historical situations to people who become unmoored: those expelled from their clans for some debt or fault; castaways, criminals, runaways. It can be read as a history of how refugees such as himself were first welcomed, treated as almost sacred beings, then gradually degraded and exploited, again much like the women working in the Sumerian temple factories. In essence, the story told by Steiner appears to be precisely about the collapse of what we would term the first basic freedom (to move away or relocate), and how this paved the way for the loss of the second (the freedom to disobey). It also leads us back to a point we made earlier about the progressive division of the human social universe into smaller and smaller units, beginning with the appearance of ‘culture areas’ (a fascination of ethnologists in the central European tradition, in which Steiner first trained).

What happens, Steiner asked, when expectations that make freedom of movement possible – the norms of hospitality and asylum, civility and shelter – erode? Why does this so often appear to be a catalyst for situations where some people can exert arbitrary power over others? Steiner worked his way in careful detail through cases ranging from the Amazonian Huitoto and East African Safwa to the Tibeto-Burman Lushai. Along the journey he suggested one possible answer to the question that had so puzzled Robert Lowie, and later Clastres: if stateless societies do regularly organize themselves in such a way that chiefs have no coercive power, then how did top-down forms of organization ever come into the world to begin with? You’ll recall how both Lowie and Clastres were driven to the same conclusion: that they must have been the product of religious revelation. Steiner provided an alternative route. Perhaps, he suggested, it all goes back to charity.

In Amazonian societies, not only orphans but also widows, the mad, disabled or deformed – if they had no one else to look after them – were allowed to take refuge in the chief’s residence, where they received a share of communal meals. To these were occasionally added war captives, especially children taken in raiding expeditions. Among the Safwa or Lushai, runaways, debtors, criminals or others needing protection held the same status as those who surrendered in battle. All became members of the chief’s retinue, and the younger males often took on the role of police-like enforcers. How much power the chief actually had over his retainers – Steiner uses the Roman Law term potestas, which denotes among other things a father’s power of arbitrary command over his dependants and their property – would vary, depending how easy it was for wards to run away and find refuge elsewhere, or to maintain at least some ties with relatives, clans or outsiders willing to stand up for them. How far such henchmen could be relied on to enforce the chief’s will also varied; but the sheer potential was important.

In all such cases, the process of giving refuge did generally lead to the transformation of basic domestic arrangements, especially as captured women were incorporated, further reinforcing the potestas of fathers. It is possible to detect something of this logic in almost all historically documented royal courts, which invariably attracted those considered freakish or detached. There seems to have been no region of the world, from China to the Andes, where courtly societies did not host such obviously distinctive individuals; and few monarchs who did not also claim to be the protectors of widows and orphans. One could easily imagine something along these lines was already happening in certain hunter gatherer communities during much earlier periods of history. The physically anomalous individuals accorded lavish burials in the last Ice Age must also have been the focus of much caring attention while alive. No doubt there are sequences of development linking such practices to later royal courts – we’ve caught glimpses of them, as in Predynastic Egypt – even if we are still unable to reconstruct most of the links.

Steiner may not have foregrounded the issue, but his observations are directly relevant to debates about the origins of patriarchy. Feminist anthropologists have long argued for a connection between external (largely male) violence and the transformation of women’s status in the home. In archaeological and historical terms, we are only just beginning to gather together enough material to begin understanding how that process actually worked.

Some online discussions:

British Library Event

(19 October 2021)

Brooklyn Public Library Event

(11 November 2021)

LSE Online Event

(16 October 2021)

 

 


2021-12-05

A New History of Humanity — And Hope for Those of Us Who Want It

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by Neil Godfrey

Everything I read, learned and taught about the stone ages and beginnings of civilization was wrong. An anthropologist and an archaeologist have got together to update us all on the discoveries that have been appearing in the scholarly literature over the past sixty years. The findings give great encouragement to those of us who are concerned about humanity’s ability to change course in the interests of our long-term survival.

I once liked the idea of Rousseau: in our “native state” we are innocent, good; it is the chains that have come with civilization that have degraded us.

But over time I came to fear Hobbes might be more right than I wanted him to be: in our native state our life is “nasty, brutish and short”; it is the controls that civilization has imposed that have obliged us to live according to the “better angels of our nature”.

No. Neither Rousseau nor Hobbes had the right model. We know that people as a whole cannot be lumped under either of the simplistic labels of “good” and “bad”. We can be very, very good and we can be very, very bad. For those of us who see the need for change in the way we live if we are to get through the threats we are facing now of runaway climate change and nuclear war and god knows what else and are keen to join any organized action for a better future, we can take heart from David Graeber and David Wengrow who, in The Dawn of Everything, demonstrate that humanity has done things better in the past and humanity can change.

The Dawn of Everything is one of those books that really does change everything about the way we see ourselves as a species. Several Youtube programs of over an hour length are available for anyone wanting to see the authors’ scholarly peers discussing the book. By bringing together the findings of anthropology and archaeology from the last generation they really are giving the public promise of a new vision. They are not dogmatic about their findings: they simply present the evidence and raise the questions. The rest is up to us.

Luckily I did not know when I opened my electronic copy of the book (one of questionable legal status) that it was over 700 pages long. If I had known that I most likely would have put it aside until I found “the time” to read it. But in Rousseau-like ignorance I undertook my journey and read nothing else for the next two to three days.

Facts:

— Agriculture did not ruin us. We, humans, did not organize ourselves into cities and kings once we “discovered agriculture” and the need for all the land management that is necessary to make it work. Jared Diamond was wrong when he said in Guns, Germs and Steel that agriculture was humanity’s biggest mistake, leading to overcrowded cities and diseases, poverty and the rest.

— There is nothing inevitable about living in a hierarchical or bureaucratic society: people, the same people, have been known to switch on a seasonal basis between highly authoritarian rule and open, small-scale, democratic self-government.

— Big cities are not, by definition, bad: people have created large cities that are non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic, and open to regional self-government and significant forms of equality. And no poverty.

— Poverty is not inevitable in any society, large or small. It is indeed possible — our experience as a species proves it — to live in a just society without judges, police, jails.

— Steven Pinker’s thesis in The Better Angels of Our Nature was flat wrong. The evidence does not support his view of a relatively violent “pre-civilization” past and a comparatively more peaceful present. In the past there were indeed periods of warfare but there were also very long periods of peace.

— Western civilization as understood according to its historical European base is not the bee’s knees of human accomplishment. We take it for granted that we must study, pass exams in degrees of literature, philosophy, whatever to enter the “public service”. We copied that from the Chinese. We take it for granted that our base-freedoms of liberty equality and fraternity were the products of the European Enlightenment. Rather, European philosophes were inspired — it almost feels like heresy to say it — by “savages” in the New and other worlds they conquered. (For evidence of this claim one can see another work more readily at hand on archive.org: New Worlds for Old : reports from the New World and their effect on the development of social thought in Europe, 1500-1800 (As I said at the beginning, Graeber and Wengrow are not writing a whole lot of new ideas: they are bringing to the public awareness the evidence that has been accumulating in scholarly publications now for the past fifty to sixty years.)

Graeber and Wengrow identify three freedoms that they suggest “make us human”, and three corresponding forms of control that are found in the evidence. They do not say that these are “THE” freedoms of humanity. They acknowledge there may well be others, but for a discussion starter these are the ones they identify: Continue reading “A New History of Humanity — And Hope for Those of Us Who Want It”


2021-10-27

Update on Julian Assange

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by Neil Godfrey

Jen Robinson, a barrister on Julian Assange’s legal team, explains it well. I have summed up her responses to the following questions but you can listen for yourself to the interview in the link below. There are more questions addressed in the program, such as why he did not divulge details of his partner and children earlier; his health and mental state; future prospects of the ongoing “punishment by process”.

Why did Julian Assange break his bail conditions and seek asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy? — Important to recall that JA was seeking to cooperate with Swedish authorities but with condition that he would not be extradited to the United States. The Australian government did not step in and ask for assurance from Sweden that he would not be extradited. It was this failure to be assured of his security that led him to seek, as is his right, refuge in another country’s embassy. Sweden has since dropped their charges against him.

Was the release of documents a reckless dump of data that endangered lives? No. Before releasing any data Assange and his team scoured through the material meticulously to remove any information that could endanger lives. In all court hearings the US has not cited one instance of anyone being killed as a result of the release of the material.

Did Julian Assange assist Bradley/Chelsea Manning to hack the data from U.S. files? No. Assange was entirely the recipient.

Is Julian Assange a journalist? He has won prizes for journalism: the Walkley Award and the Martha Gellhorn Prize.

Link to listen to the program: https://abcmedia.akamaized.net/rn/podcast/2021/10/lrt_20211026.mp3

 


2021-10-25

Sad farewell to a pioneering colleague

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by Neil Godfrey

Cathy Bow

This is to say a very sad and shocked goodbye to Cathy Bow, a colleague I worked closely with a few years ago in creating a vital project for the preservation of aboriginal languages in the Northern Territory, Australia. In a former, distant, more enlightened age, the Australian government introduced bilingual education in remote aboriginal communities and as a result, for the first time in many cases, aboriginal languages were written down, in storybooks, for children to learn to read. These books were often the only written record of those languages in their full “as spoken” form. Then times changed and a new national government came along and decided that bilingual education was not acceptable and those books fell into disuse. Some were stacked away in cupboards to gather dust; some were even “stored” in refuse bins! Key persons in the Charles Darwin University in Darwin who noticed what a valuable resource was in decay and danger of being lost entirely and Cathy Bow was hired to go out into these communities to recover (in dialogue with the community elders) as many of the aboriginal languages books as possible.

As she brought them in to us, we set about digitizing them and working with a tech team to make them available publicly — for linguists internationally as a scholarly resource, but especially for the different aboriginal communities themselves. They would be able to interact with them online, adding their own responses to what they were now able to read. It was a vital project in helping preserve languages that were in danger of being lost.

The project is The Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages (LAAL) and you can explore what it is all about from that link.

It contains nearly 4000 books in 50 languages from 40 communities available to read online or download freely. This is a living archive, with connections to the people and communities where the books were created. This will allow for collaborative research work with the Indigenous authorities and communities.

Cathy and I worked together to manage ways to enter different languages into the archive as well as the best ways to safeguard the material in a digital format. In the process, Cathy taught me much about the aboriginal cultures and I have followed up that learning with wider reading about the aboriginal peoples in different areas where I have lived since.

Since that time, Cathy built on this archive and extended her efforts in assisting with the preservation of indigenous languages: see Preserving the Kunwinjku language of West Arnhem Land

I was stunned to hear of her unexpected death earlier today. I know many others who also worked closely with Cathy at the Charles Darwin University, in particular on the LAAL project, will feel the same way. As will, I have no doubt, many of the aboriginal communities she visited on a regular basis over the years.


see also Aboriginal Languages, a Repository of Aboriginal Knowledge


 

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