WHY I WRITE

An online friend asked a question yesterday: why do writers write? Is it out of love for writing or necessity? The question made me think. Here’s my, thoughtful, answer:

I used to create cartoon strips, about our household, as a kid. I’d love to go back to this subversive activity but, as my freehand skills aren’t great, it would probably be by using some kind of computer programme. As the Benjamin of the family (perhaps as unfairly indulged as Joseph), my earliest literary creations reflected my counterfactual belief that it was me and the dog contra mundum. My elder brother, who still has all his Marvel and DC comics from the 70’s, loved them. Alas, my infant creations didn’t survive long. Neither, tragically, did our lovely foxhound and it was this early loss and the much later acquisition of my beloved tan terrier, Ben, that powered Angels With Hairy Faces – a plea for humanity in our relationships with dogs, who can inspire us so profoundly.

One afternoon in the 80’s, at St Andrews University, an American neighbour in the student residence pushed a short story under my door. I was so intrigued by this action, and by the creation of this elaborate lie on paper, that I don’t think I even commented on it to him. For this I am truly sorry. Affirmation is so important to writers. I can’t remember what it was about, I just recall my first understanding of the magical agency involved in literary creation. During these years I began to write poetry, St Andrews is an extremely poetic (and pretentious) place. I still do, although I find my own poems even harder to evaluate than my prose. But sometimes I feel a powerful emotion that just won’t be communicated any other way. I felt this, as a new(ish) vegan, watching The Levelling in 2017 and by happy accident I was working my way through Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, on poetry forms, at the time. The result was a villanelle.

Although I wrote some liberal student newspaper articles (which I thought radical) in a confessional and impassioned style which would now be called blogging, my first attempt at short story was inspired by dreams and memories and freewriting in the early 90’s at a college in California where I received the most excellent and author-empowering advice on asking for feedback:

  • Don’t say if you like or dislike it, if you think it’s good or bad, that doesn’t help
  • Don’t suggest changes, tell me what it does to you

A few years later, I revisited my infantile work with a caricatured melodrama in daily instalments starring my co-workers in a hotel on the Isle of Skye. To date, they have been my most appreciative readers. Never on a Sunday survives somewhere but is not for publication! Neither is my Mormon Christmas mystery, written for American flatmates, or the various (lively) extrapolations of dreams and desires I have since written as birthday presents for various gay men. People enjoy their dreams coming true but what they really appreciate is getting a mention. Mostly. (Do ask!)

Reading the Tales of the City series back in Scotland started my long preoccupation with the oddities associated with relationships between bisexual/gay and strait (sic) men. (We’re not bent, we’re broadminded.) That had various manifestations (on and off the page!) and culminated in the Bruno Benedetti Mysteries. Tricks of the Mind was an escape from caring for my Dad who had dementia but it was also an exploration of the puzzling power of clairsentience widely experienced by empathetic people and usually explained away. This started a pairing of an aspect of esoterica I found fascinating with an underlying emotional drive. So The Lovers is a meditation on the cycle of life portrayed in Tarot but also on the urgency of love (all in a plot about hospital closures). Shades of the Sun (still my favourite) is a Scooby-Doo type adventure complete with creepy manor and masqued villain combining a now obscure branch of astrology with grief and PTSD. Qismet was meant by me to showcase my amazing ideas on education but the characters (Bruno, Justin, Imogen and Clara, principally) would have none of it and instead it became a ghost story about the evils of trying to rewrite the past. Often the motivations of the characters will remain unclear to me until the end. Then I understand not only what I’ve written, but why I’ve written it. Most of the time they just don’t let me in on their secrets until they really have to. Imogen and that crypt being a prime example! Tir nam Ban was born from the waves of the North Atlantic as they strike mysterious Hebridean isles. Of course it was inspired by many lives on many islands and in many communities, some of them mine, but really I wanted to do justice (however obliquely) to both the Celtic faerie tradition and Christianity and also to use a juxtaposition of sex and socioeconomic slavery to illustrate the rottenness of social respectability.

My academic work benefitted from my growing literary confidence (at least I thought so, a dense critical theory lecturer found my style ‘journalistic’) and Dreaming Anarchy was in the ethnographic tradition of thick description. Now I think I chose to write it for my Master’s dissertation because I was so tired of all the words about words about words, ironic lives lived cynically at a half-remove, that I wanted to live and publicise a more embodied politics. And you don’t get much more embodied than living up the Pyrenees with no electricity or plumbing.

Alchemy at the Chalkface was my homage to Dr Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and my analysis and application of his work first bore fruit in Only Say The Word when I realised that ‘Jesus loves me so you have to accept my lifestyle’ wasn’t a good enough justification for homosexuality when conservative Christians’ main problem wasn’t theological but biological: they just didn’t think it was natural. So I explored the nature of ‘nature’. That also helped with Life-Choice when I realised that women on both sides of the man-made barricades (and those very few trying to dismantle them) had completely different views on the nature of life in a woman’s womb, which their ethics (about what could be done with this life) followed.

Trans/Substantiation started as a departmental paper putting forward the view that ecumenical understanding on the Eucharist was being hindered more by metaphysics than theology but expanded when it struck me that beliefs about gender were exactly that: non-empirical and passionately held. This I found, shockingly, also to be true for establishment views on AIDS (as well as the more outlandish conspiracy theories on the syndrome) but here there was a kind of doublethink going on that, to a Roman Catholic, was very familiar. Researchers know (and so do readers if they read carefully) that the HIV-AIDS hypothesis doesn’t stand up but views contrary to those that sell the products of the pharmaceutical industry (a modern embodiment of Phillip Pullman’s Magisterium if there ever was one) are effectively no-platformed. Meanwhile multitudes of gay men, and Black Africans, especially, die from the known toxilogical effects of pharmaceutical drugs pushed onto populations whose mortality is considered inconsequential in comparison to profit. So, having ignored the subject for decades (because it frightened me) I simply had to write Silence and Dissent.

On a lighter note, there are my plays, dealing with dementia as subversive remembrance, homosexuality in the ranks, shooting shell-shocked soldiers, carpet-bombing and cold-blooded anti-Semitic murder. At least those are the topics of the two I’ve published so far, Mrs Atkins remembers and Redemption (the others are a bit more intense). I wrote the first out of my experience working with UK schools at WW1 memorials, my memories of my grandfather, blinded by mustard gas, and reading Lyn MacDonald’s The Roses of No-Man’s Land; the second because of a remark my Theatre Studies tutor made. It caused me to reconsider Dostoyevski’s negative portrayal of the old Russian pawnbroker, Alyona, and to try to imagine her life story.

Lastly, and just this week, I received the news that my booklet on nutrition, which I wrote out of concern for so many young people starving themselves (and ending up obese) is now an audiobook! Body-Logic is my first successful attempt at reaching the required level of quality in recording and editing (it’s been a very steep learning curve) but now I hope that, gradually, my novels and other reflections may be able to reach a wider audience for whom reading is either inconvenient or impossible. My inspiration for this move has been my mother, who can read but also loves to listen to story tapes.

Have I answered the question? Why do I write? For all sorts of reasons. Mostly because I feel I must, even the stories just have to come out. I’ve never been pregnant but I imagine it must feel like that – only a lot more overwhelming an experience! Do I love writing? Sometimes. But that’s really not the point. It’s about vivid reflection on life.

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Thanks (again) to Dawn Hudson who has released her illustration ‘Writing Hand’ into the Public Domain.

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Santa or St Nicholas?

When my mother taught in a Scottish Primary School, she used to gather the children together, about this time of year, and ask them to put up their hands if they believed in Santa Claus. Of course, some (maybe the ones that were good at Maths) smiled (or maybe frowned) and kept their hands down – and were surprised to see my mother raising her hand.

Then she would teach them all the more human but still wonderfully kind saint of Smyrna, known today, in English, as St Nicholas and whose name and whose generosity gave rise to the legend of Santa Claus. My mother maybe didn’t spell out in detail how this generosity (of paying poor families’ dowries) enabled young women who were poor to escape prostitution, but the schoolchildren certainly understood that they too could believe in the good Santa Claus and that the magic of kindness exceeds that of being able to fly about the chimneypots.

The reaction of some children to this kind of revelation is one of impatience. Why tell lies in the first place? If a story is to tell a truth, why not just tell the truth, plain and simple? This is certainly the message of Richard Dawkins (who also values children with autism but not those with Down’s).

In that case, why get married? Why not just have sex for pleasure and procreation? In 2008 in Scotland there were a series of video clips entitled, “It’s Time”, as part of the equal marriage campaign. A lot of that campaign involved telling stories and anyone who has ever attended a wedding knows that story-telling is an integral part of such celebrations – they may occur in the readings of sacred scripture as well as in the Best Man’s Speech!

NY-based science journalist Matthew Hutson reported in May 2012 in Psychology Today that: “Scientists who study religion have come to agree that belief in God (or gods) relies on everyday social cognition: our ability—and propensity—to think about minds.” He goes on “Which means if you are autistic, and unable to “mentalize,” you would be an atheist. New research published today in PLoS ONE provides fresh evidence for this claim.”

Linked and controversial study of the ‘extreme male brain’ finds that the ability (or propensity) to mentalise and to empathise are gendered.

Why am I telling you all this?

It’s no secret to my followers on Twitter that I’m currently writing a book on AIDS hypotheses. It may be a surprise to some that there are more than one – and that both main hypotheses (drugs & HIV) were initially under serious consideration by the CDC. What has been a great surprise to me, as I’ve intensively read the wealth of evidence that the HIV hypothesis is on shaky ground, to say the least, is the vehemence of the denial of the multiple ways in which this hypothesis is problematic.

I don’t want to go into those here. For those interested, see my forthcoming book, Silence & Dissent: Expert Doubt in the AIDS Debate, read the 722-page detailed tome entitled Inventing the AIDS virus, or look up the extremely erudite work of the Perth Group who have opposed the prevailing view for decades.

The angry denial that the HIV hypothesis is extremely (or, at all) problematic takes many forms including vindictively rejoicing on the death of those who held an opposing view and who resisted taking antiretroviral (anti-HIV) drugs at least until overwhelmed by well-meaning friends and family. This denial fails to observe their comparatively longer survival than their former recreational drug-taking peers diagnosed at the same time who started on these ‘therapeutic’ drugs immediately.

I’m not writing this to argue.

I simply wonder why on Earth anyone (especially anyone diagnosed as HIV+) would not want to have as much information from the most qualified minds freely available to them. It’s not. Or rather, it is but it is ignored. Like the advice that HIV is a clinical diagnosis and not one to be made from a test kit (which are extremely fallible but the numbers of false positives are hidden in the larger figure of those all tested rather than in the smaller figure of those found HIV+ and ‘confirmed’).

In the topsy-turvy world of big pharma-backed research, rather than demand proof for a hypothesis – so shaky that it was first announced at a press conference rather than in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, that it depended on a virus proved to be stolen and that the researcher it was stolen from subsequently stated that is was not the sufficient cause of AIDS – proof is demanded for its rebuttal.

Proof there is, and in abundance, but why is it not being accepted?

Perhaps because this version is much more reassuring, especially for those who feel secure when everything is quantified and predictable:

‘HIV causes AIDS. Scientists can test your blood for HIV. Doctors can medicate you for HIV and provide you with numbers and even graphs that show your CD4 cell count going up (that’s a good thing) and your viral load going down (ditto). You can trust the medication. It may have some side effects but be positive and, hopefully, you’ll live long and prosper.’

This other version isn’t reassuring at all:

‘AIDS isn’t even a thing. It’s just whatever whoever wherever says it is. The test? Well, Western Blot is a fudge, ELISA is a soup and none of the proteins used is specific to HIV anyway. Anyway scientists can test your blood for HIV all they want but the most even they can claim to come up with is HIV antibodies (which could also just be antibodies to almost anything). Antibodies don’t kill you but whatever the doctors give you for HIV probably will as after some years (longer now, thankfully) of painful side-effects, you’ll probably die of liver failure and be written out of the statistics cos it’s not AIDS-related. The numbers and graphs they give you, about your CD4 cell count and your viral load are kinda just made up. Big pharma doesn’t give a rat’s arse about you or anyone, they just want money. Best thing you can do is stop taking the tablets. You may still have some side effects until they’re out of your system but be positive and, hopefully, you’ll live long and prosper.’

Life is all about choices. Thank God, this is not a choice I’ve had to make but I do know people who have. So, if you were told that you were ‘HIV positive’, what would you do? Would you choose the comfort of quantified information that (ignoring the persistent proofs of unreliability) the pharmaceutical industry offers?

Or would you want to learn as much as possible about this condition which that industry claims you have? Would you be angry that expert researchers have been no-platformed because they dare to doubt that industry? Would you be surprised at the level of vitriolic ad hominem attack these scientists have faced, and the damage to their reputation and careers that their principled stance has cost them?

The difference between the story of Santa Claus and that of St Nicholas is that the first is familiar, reassuring, schmaltzy and frankly unbelievable (if you think about it) and the second is complex, disturbing, historically and culturally value-laden and very, very human.

If you’re going to an AIDS memorial service tomorrow, follow the money. Find out who its sponsored by. Ask yourself why. Then keep asking questions until you, personally, are satisfied with the answers.

saint-nicholas-871289590212M42

Thanks to Vera Kratochvil who has released here photo “St Nicholas” into the Public Domain.

Sex, Lies and HIV

They seem like two open and shut cases. Two young strong gay men, one Black, one White, one American, one British, one a College wrestler, one a hairdresser, both (apparently) repellent in character and (evidently) attractive enough to persuade multiple other young men to have sex with them, ‘bareback’. In one case, the persuasion not to use condoms may have been aggressive. No, it wasn’t the Black guy. In the same case, condoms may have been sabotaged.

Why were they prosecuted? Because both tested positive for HIV antibodies, at least some of their sex partners also tested positive for HIV antibodies and at least one had recently tested negative. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Or was it?

Although the report on Darryl Rowe by the Crown Prosecution Service of England and Wales today is fairly concise and factual, the reaction on UK media has ranged from an icky fascination with Rowe’s DIY cure for HIV to the inevitable I told you so’s about ‘gay plague’. On the other side of the Atlantic, there was, of course, the usual homophobic and racist reaction to a sexually active gay man with the compounding sin of being Black ramped up by plague panic but this was accompanied by a grave concern – absent in the UK media – about the ethics of HIV criminalization laws.

Michael Johnson was initially jailed (2015) for 30 years for the twin crimes of “recklessly infecting and recklessly exposing a sexual partner to HIV” but after appeal (September 2017) the sentence was reduced to ten years. Darryl Rowe has been charged with the twin crimes of causing grievous bodily harm and intent to commit grievous bodily harm. I’m no expert on Common Law (we have Civil Law in Scotland and I’m no expert on that either) but I doubt that Rowe will face 30 years, or even ten, for GBH. Ironically, whereas Rowe was accused of post-coital taunting of his passive sex partners (and cutting the ends off condoms) Johnson was only ever found guilty of reckless behaviour.

Is that it?

Not according to the author of Are You Positive? an informative novella written in 2008, updated in 2010, by Steven Davis, centred on a fictionalised version of one of the many trials in the USA of men accused of recklessly infecting another man or woman with HIV. Davis centres his story on the evidence of expert witnesses who testify that, among other quirks in the official version, the notion that antibodies equal active virus was unheard of before HIV.

There are many, many quirks in the officially accepted story that HIV causes AIDS. Among them is the fact that the original statement, made to the press by Margaret Heckler, then US Secretary of Health and Human Services, in April 1984, was: “HIV is the probable cause of AIDS” (italics mine). When Dr Kary B. Mullis, co-winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method, now used to identify HIV proteins, sought a scientific reference for this statement, his search was in vain. Peter H. Duesberg, Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berekely, points out that Karposi’s sarcoma, the once iconic disease of AIDS (watch Philadelphia) was so clearly linked to gay men’s use of poppers to facilitate passive anal sex that even the gung-ho virus hunters of the US Centres for Disease Control investigated it in 1981 and in 1991 (briefly) considered taking KS off the growing list of diseases associated with AIDS.

All of which is beside the point.

Jessica Matthews reports (originally on http://www.cnbc.com):

In six U.S. states, individuals living with HIV who are found guilty of knowingly exposing a partner are required to be registered as a sex offender. They can face felony charges, or felony-level punishments, in 32 states.

She goes on to give the establishment medical view of progress in antiretroviral therapy:

But as breakthrough HIV drug treatments and medical studies show there is essentially no risk of sexually exposing someone to HIV while taking antiretroviral drug therapy (ART), states are being forced to play catch-up to the science, and stigma, of the AIDS virus.

ART – or even HAART for those coinfected with Hepatitis C – is certainly better than AZT, the first HIV treatment which is now recognised as responsible for countless deaths (and now routinely prescribed to babies who have HIV antibodies). What Matthews omits to mention is that there is a great deal of risk – especially of sudden liver failure – to anyone on even the newest anti-HIV drugs.

My point is that judicial deliberation is based on the evaluation of evidence, not on maintaining a cosy relationship with the pharmaceutical industry, not on performing a convenient public relations exercise intended to calm the general population as the government is seen to be doing something, and not, especially, on no-platforming unfashionable expert witnesses simply because they refuse to do all of the above.

Darryl Rowe is nobody’s hero and Michael Johnson does seem, at least, selfish. But the former should not be prosecuted for refusing drugs officially acknowledged to be harmful, the latter should not be prosecuted by a Bible Belt mentality that still sees all Black young men as rapists, and neither should be prosecuted for crimes of bodily harm when the only universally acknowledged bodily harm associated with HIV is that caused by antiretroviral ‘therapy’.

crossed-fingers

Thanks to George Hodan for releasing his photo “Crossed Fingers” into the public domain.

a love letter to vegetarians

Where you live

(where it gets you)

Where I live

(where I’m coming from)

Today

Dear Friends,

First I want to salute you and to thank you for all that you’re already doing for animals, for human health and for the planet. Whether you’ve been vegetarian for days, for weeks or for months, you have already saved the lives of many animals and meaningfully contributed to the fight against high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, land abuse, poverty, climate change and ecological disaster. If you’ve been vegetarian for years, then you remember when this was much, much, harder, when you weren’t only considered uncool but a socially awkward freak and when you had to not only put up with the severe limitation (or non-existence) of vegetarian options when dining out but the constant verbal harassment of omnivorous friends, acquaintances and total strangers who felt totally justified in listing the varieties of dead animals they would and wouldn’t eat, their inexpert opinions on nutritional health and their unethical take on the hypocrisy of vegetarians (as opposed to fruitarians).

No matter how long you’ve been vegetarian, you may also have had to put up with being criticised and lectured by vegans – and for that I sincerely apologise. (If you’ve been lectured by fruitarians please just put up with it. I’m not sure how long these good souls survive and, like Mayflies, we should appreciate them while they’re still here.)

I turned vegetarian when I was eight and for many years (even until I turned fifty) I would tell people this then exclaim, “my goodness, that’s twenty years!” and for one glorious moment be 28 again. But when I was 28, being vegetarian was really hard (and when I was 8 it was Hell!): soya mince was pretty tasteless but the only meat substitute, the usual ‘vegetarian’ option in restaurants was fish, salads were awful (I’m Scottish and people wonder why I lived for years in South American and Mediterranean countries) and the reaction of waiters and chefs to the question ‘is there ham stock in this?’ was often either astonishment or belligerence.

Nevertheless, I persisted. Waveringly. For some years I ate fish (so was, technically, an ovo-lacto-piscatarian) after spending time in a Mexican fishing village and justifying my choice with the thought that I was really against vivisection and factory farming. Three times I tried to turn vegan but, although it was fairly easy at home, I just couldn’t take the hassle outside. As I even bought my shoes and belts in charity shops (so I wouldn’t contribute to the leather industry) I felt fairly ethically consistent.

Fairly. Vegans got to me not only because they were often so self-righteous (especially the ones who’d been vegan for approximately 5 minutes!) but because their ethics had already convinced me. All I needed was a gentle (not aggressive) push. That came in the form of a short Youtube video made by vegan Jains. These lovely people, asking forgiveness for any harm that the making and showing of this video may have caused, speak simply and from the heart: the dairy industry depends on the killing of male calves and industrial egg production on the killing (often by mechanical grinding up) of male chicks only hours old.

Namaste. The divine light in me salutes the divine light in you. In the end, whatever the words we use to describe our ethics (or our spirituality) it’s all about compassion. You have already opened your heart so much and I love you for it. Open your heart still more. Don’t worry if you can’t be consistent. We’re all human. Don’t worry if some days it feels like a bit of a bind and you wish you were more organised (or that other people were more generous in their opinion of you and provision for you).

Nevertheless, you persist. The world needs you to turn around just a little more and by this conversion to educate, to liberate and to heal so many hearts. Try turning vegan. For greater goodness and for even more love.

Namaste, Alan

a-cow-peers-over-a-hedgerow

Thanks to David Bollard for releasing his photo, A Cow Peers Over A Hedgerow, into the public domain.

Guerrilla Litter-Picking

Like many men my age I’m liable to sound off a bit. On occasion. For good reason. And there are many good reasons to be angry about many real issues. However, anger can become a default emotion for many men my age. It’s the other side of depression and (perhaps) it’s better out than in. Inward anger is linked by the more holistically minded to many bodily symptoms of ill health – and even the most Cartesian of medical minds admit that stress induces high levels of cortisol with a knock-on effect that’s not only bad for the waistline but is linked to Type 2 diabetes etc.
Grumpy is a stereotypical attribute of older men but vary the adjective a little and other stereotypical irascibilities come into focus: peevish, waspish, nippy, surly, petulant, bitchy, thin-skinned, aggressive, high-maintenance, demanding, hard to please, not amused. There are many manifestations of habitual anger and a bit of wordplay will ensure that’s there’s one demographically suited especially for you.
Nowadays many of us feel that we are justified in having anger as a default reaction to the wrongs of the world. We would all be quite happy if not for the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers, if not for climate change denial, if not for cruelty to animals, if not for racism and homophobia and misogyny, if not for the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, if not for Teresa May and Donald Trump. If only these things would change, we would get back to being out usual bubbly happy-go-lucky selves. If only.
And just Zenning out or doing yet another spa weekend/ Tough Mudder/ Marvel Comics Movies binge/ (insert favourite displacement activity) can feel a bit of a cop-out. What do we do? What can we do? In the face of all that’s wrong, isn’t that the basis of our communal, continual, ever-present, exhausting, anger?
And for those of us whom the powers-that-be (higher, lower or just purgatorial) have tasked with the burden and duty and privilege of caring for a specific vulnerable person (or several at once) then all these political concerns become so personal that at times it’s simply unbearable.
And that’s when I take my trusty Ben for a walk. Along the banks of the beautiful Forth and Clyde canal. Which winds beside the remains of the Antonine Wall, one of Scotland’s most unknown, unprotected, and uncherished cultural legacies. And on that walk through this place of Victorian and Roman imperial heritage there are empty bottles of Buckfast (cheap fortified wine made by English monks) and cans of beer and their plastic rings and the supermarket plastic bags they came from, tossed about. If they haven’t already been smashed/ thrown into the canal or set on fire along with the grass.
And it usually makes me angry. But tonight, I found myself thankful that the local youth had had the grace (this time) not to chuck the bottles at the stank just below the swings. An empty bottle is better than a broken one. And on my way back, Ben still sniffing and gambolling about – because his default emotion is either highly energetic or very lazy joy – I picked up the plastic bags, snapped apart the plastic beer rings and put them and the cans and the bottle in the bags, took them home and recycled them.
It’s not much. It’s just guerrilla litter-picking. I don’t do it all the time. But when I do engage in this little sporadic and disorganised warfare against hopelessness, I can feel my cortisol levels drop and my grumpy face relax. A little.
There are so many of us. We have such energy. Just think what we could do. Just think what we do do. Now and Zen.

old-bridge-on-canal

Thanks to Karen Arnold for releasing her photo Old Bridge on Canal into the public domain.

Triage and Tyranny

1855. You are sitting outside a large medical tent in the freezing winter on the shores of the Black Sea. Future generations will know this is the Crimean War. To you, a young woman from a sheltered background with scant medical training, it is Hell.
Here they come.
The tent behind you is partitioned in three. To the right, the wounded soldiers likely to survive without medical intervention; in the centre, those likely to die without medical intervention; to the left, those likely to die; outside, those already dead. There are three exits from the tent. The word ‘likely’ does not mean very much, but it’s the best that can be done in the circumstances.
As the first one approaches, stretcher supported by brothers in arms, you know that your split-second decision for right or left or centre (or outside) is likely to save some lives and to end others. If you do nothing, many more will die. If you try to save them all, many more will die.
You steel yourself, thrust down your feelings, and begin the first, rapid, assessment.
This scene is an imaginary illustration of very real events that have been taking place just behind the front line in many wars for many years. A complicating factor, and there are many, is that there are only so many doctors and there’s only so much time. So only those most likely to survive will receive treatment. Any time wasted on those to the right or left means more of those in the centre will die – as some will anyway. This necessary categorisation, in these circumstances, is not only life-saving; it is almost certainly a sentence of death. Someone has to do it.
As morality deals with good and evil; ethics deals with right and wrong. Their relationship is complex. The kind of ethical decision-making employed by the young woman in the illustration is today called ‘utilitarian’ – meaning that such decisions are based on their utility, i.e. the good that may come out of them. Several modern philosophers are associated with utilitariansim but the foremost champion of a single ethical imperative outweighing all others is the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Kantian ethics, deriving ultimately from Plato’s Socrates (via a misreading of Aristotle) had great influence in Nazi Germany and, as I show in my thesis, continues to have great influence in the United States of America.
What a horrible thing to say! How can I compare a courageous young woman doing her best to save lives against all odds in hellish circumstances, with Hitler and then with the Land of the Free?
Firstly, as the classicist Prof. Martha Nussbaum shows, Kantian ethics are an attempt to avoid the tragic conflict of opposing ethical imperatives. In other words, the young women sitting outside the tent in the Crimean War avails herself of the clarity of these ethics so that no matter the particularities of each wounded soldier (the one whose blue eyes remind her of her brother, the one who pleads for life because of his pregnant wife, the one who has high rank in the Army) she is able to make a decision based solely on the greater good: saving as many lives as possible.
I cannot fault the exercise of Kantian ethics in those circumstances. Grave problems arise, however, when frontline decision-making becomes the basis of ethical conduct in times of peace.
Kantian ethics rely on the total removal of all other ethical considerations opposing the main imperative. A key part of this process (as modern philosopher Dr Mary Midgley shows) is the reduction of particular people and particular circumstances into universal categories. (Also reduction happens, as I show in this book, by use of language.) So, for example, sandy-haired Private Benjamin Jones, 33, a nonconformist lay preacher and amateur boxer, married and faithful to pretty brunette Nelly Jones neé MacDonald, although in love with his lieutenant, who has three kids (the youngest coincidentally resembling the postman), doting parents, a dog and likes fishing, becomes ‘suppurating wound in the thigh’ and is sent to the left (to die).
The reason why frontline ethics are a problem in peacetime is that the only thing that recommends them is their simplicity. I’m not for a moment saying that triage is simple but Kantian ethics are designed to respond only to the greatest ethical imperative and ignore all the others. As Prof. Nussbaum shows, this is the reverse of Aristotle’s teaching that it is the particulars of each person and circumstance that most surely guide us towards a wise ethical response. Not simple, wise.
This kind of sensitivity to particular ethical situations is recommended by moral philosophers such as Rev. Charles Curran, the American theologian who was in frequent conflict with Pope John Paul II. What concerns me is that it is a sensitivity increasingly under threat as more and more organisations worldwide are affected by American corporate values.
Charitable organisations are especially vulnerable as they often flounder in terms of effectiveness, communication and organisation so a hard-headed person unafraid to make tough decisions may seem like a godsend. The catch is that such decision-making may indeed be tough, for anyone with much humanity, but for those hardly burdened by conscience it is quite simple: set goals, clear obstacles, forward march!
Further complications arise because charitable organisations are full of people who feel it is uncharitable not to think the best of others. So if a candidate for a powerful position shows psychopathic tendencies, these may be interpreted as ‘focussed’ or ‘business-minded’. Freud’s rather innocent example of such tendencies (a girl who likes a boy she met at a funeral hoping for another funeral to maybe meet him again) shows that they are not just shared by the criminally insane. In fact, a recent survey of top companies found that a fifth of CEOs shared these tendencies.
It’s a commonplace in the more smug varieties of chicklit and womens’ magazines to poke fun at males (never men) making up the majority of those on the autistic spectrum; on the other end of the same spectrum psychologists are concerned that women (never females) who make up the majority of those on the psychotic spectrum are not receiving support as the condition is so badly publicised.
Adding all this together with the everyday sexism that still abounds and the trend in the third sector is for organisations to be run by someone high on the psychopathic scale, with immediate subordinates (or support from Head Office) of men who find it easier to stick rigidly to rules than interact with changing human situations (as emotional particularities are so overwhelmingly complex to interpret) and with women in the majority of grassroots workers and many of them self-sacrificing and painfully sensitive to the opinions of others.
On top of all this may be the hothouse effect that occurs when communities are cloistered canonically, isolated geographically or otherwise shrouded in secrecy due to the vulnerability/ naivety of their client group or the difficulty in getting staff. An insistence on ‘professionalism’ may mean that dissenting/ abused employees and volunteers are prevented from expressing anything other than the party line – as the psychopathic boss controls formal communication and informal communication is condemned as ‘gossip’ unworthy of good people, scandalous to the public/ clients and contrary to the exemplary values of the school/ church/ home/ charity/ community. The hallmark of the psychopath is the inability to recognise or feel any remorse for the harm they have done to people, so they move effortlessly from sadistic treatment of an individual to community schmaltz with a beaming face of innocence.
There is much wisdom in the co-dependency awareness movement but what it may fail to grasp is that everyone involved may sincerely believe that they are doing the right thing:
– Laying down the law
– Sticking to procedures
– Self-sacrificing and keeping silent
As we watch in awe the debacle of American democracy, it may help to realise that the unprecedented administration is a symptom, not a cause, of frontline ethics applied in peacetime.
The reduction of complex situations to simple categories of right and wrong, the dehumanising of people, the control of the people by force and censorship of the free speech, these are the hallmarks of military crisis and in such times the Ancient Romans accorded special dictatorial powers to a designated senator (usually a consul). The Ancient Greeks called this person a Tyrant.

funny-hospital-sign

Thanks to Linnaea Mallette who has released her photo ‘Funny Hospital Sign’ into the public domain.

Afternoon of Life

For my birthday, a good friend gifted me a link to a New Age film which is part of the inspiration and industry related to a certain famous channeled body of writing. The body in question is a lively organism of many members and this film is only one of the many related works. The title doesn’t matter as, in the whole film I found nothing original. The book, ditto. I didn’t put the word ‘channeled’ in scare quotes as I have no problem with archetypal writing, or the kind of book that Robert M. Pirsig (who doesn’t use that word) calls by the Swedish word kulturbärer (culture-barer). I do, however, have a lot of problems with the culture embodied in this film.

To be fair, there is much that is good about the film. Many creative works begin by choosing a different path in midlife and, if Dante’s Divine Comedy was a momento mori (remembrance of death) than this film is definitely a reminder to live life, and to live it to the full. All well and good, and in the afternoon of life we may do well to remember that life is for living.

I can put up with the New Age smugness, the smile and the not-really-listening-to-the-question-because-you-already-know-the-answer; these are symptoms of an attitude common to all ideologies. The studied childlike anti-intellectualism, which precludes an ideology becoming a critical philosophy, the vagueness and conflation of concepts of self and universe and nature and the divine, which preclude fragmentary teachings becoming a religion (or even a full spirituality); these are annoying but not toxic elements utilised by this industry. More irritating is the gender binary, seemingly stuck in melodramas of 50’s suburban Americana awaiting the liberation of Second Wave feminism. So we hear that pre and post the ‘quantum moment’ (a peak experience that [unlike peak experiences] is enduring and simultaneously a paradigm shift, always for the better) men and women want different things. None of them surprising (for those who know the genre). But the male teacher conveniently forgets, in his universal call to service, that while human beings find our purpose in serving, women, apparently (they’ve done studies), need to do their own thing.

So I wonder, as usual with the abundance/ awareness version of the New Age, whether ‘human being’ really translates as ‘independently wealthy White US male’. Just don’t ask by what means he or his family got the money. And please don’t stop supporting this multi-million dollar industry, that prides itself on not being materialistic.

I’m being unkind and unfair, I know. Just about everything I’ve said could, with a couple of tweaks, be equally applied to scientific socialism, Roman Catholicism, or the touchy-feely micromanaged milieu of call centres. I’m not being partisan, I often take pot shots at my coreligionists, when I find them lacking in collective compassion – and don’t get me started on call centres!  But the film bothers me because it’s almost right.

Its naiveté is breathtaking. We’re told that, as we lacked nothing in the womb, as all was provided perfectly, so, with non-interference and good will, all will be well in life after birth. Without going into reproductive ethics, from the perspective of life in a woman’s womb, there are so many things that can and do go wrong – abortion, miscarriage and non-fatal damage being three. It’s also beyond me how, looking around the seas and shores of Europe at the moment, everything can be said to be working out perfectly. This is the Humpty-Dumptyism of language. If that’s what ‘perfect’ now means, we need another word to describe what it used to mean. One that doesn’t include calamity.

So the film is plain wrong about the politics of privilege, this whole industry masks its present day material relations and considers anti-capitalist protest a form of mental illness. The much-vaunted ‘purpose’ we are all encouraged to find seems to be to support the industry, while appearing not to.

So what’s good about it? This film is a reminder to live life, and to live it to the full. And yes there is much insight into creativity and wonder and play as essential elements of a life well lived. These are elements that I bring out when referencing the New Age in my novels. What is missing from the film, with all its blather about awareness, is:

  • we must live more simply, in order for others to simply live
  • we must live more justly, in order for others to just live

…and in order to do both these things, we must become aware (as native peoples, deep ecologists, feminists, anarchists and liberation theologians tell us) of all our relations, just and unjust, simple and complex. If we don’t do this hard task of honesty, ‘spirituality’ becomes a bland soporific, a boob tube of pleasant transmissions, a sleep of the critical faculties.

The wise Buddhist, Taoist and Sufi traditions from which this mental mish-mash is extracted and commodified do not conceive of enlightenment as peaceful slumber.

Wake up!   tree-13441096826dr

Thanks to George Hodan who has released this photo:

“Tree” into the Public Domain