Saturday, August 27, 2016

Wild Women in Temagami - On Doing the Heavy Lifting

I had an intense dream early in the summer that stayed with me for days. I was with some men in a cabin with stacks of bunks three high. We were preparing for a canoe trip. The main leader was Indigenous, and he told me he liked how I braided my hair. I was very flattered and bashful about it. I was bundled up for the weather but couldn't find my socks. I went outside without them to sit on the rocky shore of a lake on a misty morning just cool enough to warrant a sweatshirt, and I was euphoric to be there. Jack Nicholson was there - the Five Easy Pieces version of Jack - just sitting alone, quietly enjoying the view across the lake. He was alone at a picnic table, and I was alone. I asked if he wanted to play solitaire while we waited, then laughed at what I said (because I meant a game for two - two-handed solitaire maybe). He said ‘no thanks’ and went back to looking out at the lake. I wished I had said, “gin rummy.” He might have said yes. But really I knew he just wanted to look out at the lake. And I was trying to connect because I felt like I should, not because I really wanted to. I felt awkward that we were the only people not in a pair or grouping, but he had the confidence to be totally cool with being on his own in a crowd. He was finally content with his place in the world. I joined him in silence for a moment of peace.

I typically don't heed my dreams, but this time I immediately searched and signed up for a trip after waking. I miss being on a lake, and I don't have friends that feel the same way and have the time and know-how to make it happen, so an organized adventure was the only answer. The available time slot fit neatly between obligations on my calendar.

I used to have a beautiful piece of land north of Parry Sound - 24 acres with over 1000' of waterfront on a quiet lake. An old boyfriend and I bought it in March 2005, and we built a little cabin by paddling all the supplies in across the bow decks of two canoes held together by the weight of the lumber. We had a few priceless years there with family and friends. Then in 2010, the Wednesday after Thanksgiving, shortly after succumbing to the luxury of a propane fridge, lightening hit a nearby tree sending it careening down on the cabin. It went up in smoke, leaving only the wood stove and kitchen sink as markers of what was. Luckily it was raining hard enough to save the surrounding forest. That relationship ended, and, too mournful to try to re-build, we sold the land in July 2014. I've been sick with regret ever since, and I've all but stopped canoeing. I don't seem like someone who would be teary about land, but there it is.

The air is different up there. It feels like I'm breathing for real, kickstarting my airways and blood stream out of their usual grogginess. It's instantly calming to fall asleep to loons and frogs instead of the neighbour's dog barking at every passing car, and to leave our make-shift beds to see the sun just over the horizon each morning instead of checking out the world online. At home, I go days without noticing the sun or wind unless it's bothering me. Gratefulness for the beauty of our lives is closer to the surface when I'm surrounded by trees, water, and rock than by concrete, bricks, and steel.

I needed to get out there again, but I couldn't possibly go alone. I've been on backcountry canoe trips with every guy I've ever dated, but only with guys I've dated. They've always taken the lead, picking me up in the car with the canoe already on the roof racks. I've never chanced on friends who will take me tripping; I typically gravitate to friends who drink. Can't it be both?

I didn't go looking for a women-only trip; it just best fit my schedule. But that women-only element added a pivotal dimension to the experience beyond being comfortable changing outside the tent. If men are there, they'll often offer to do the heavy lifting or sometimes they'll just do it without a word, without looking around to see if they're possibly usurping an opportunity from someone. It's efficient for the strongest to do the heaviest work. But it's reminiscent of the time I played co-ed baseball and guys dove in front of me to catch the ball pretty much every time it came near me. I likely would have fumbled it or missed it entirely, and the more capable players definitely did a better job of keeping the game moving, but sometimes efficiency and ability and winning are not what's important.

Work is so rarely seen in a positive light as a means to build stamina or character. It's seen as a chore that everyone wants to avoid. But most chores can elicit a sense of personal satisfaction and accomplishment; an opportunity is squandered when we avoid them willingly or without complaint. If someone's there to take up the slack, I'll totally slack-off. But then I end up feeling like a child who needs care-taking. It's disempowering to allow yourself to be helped more than is actually necessary, yet it's so easy to slip into that comfortable place of watching others do the work. At the time it can feel like a relief, but later there's a gnawing regret, like we weren't really on the same journey after all.

Without gender roles there to sub-consciously guide our actions, I was able to sit in the stern to steer a canoe through choppy waters, solo it up a steep and rocky portage, and dig out a new thunder box. I wouldn't have done any of those with a sturdy man there motivated by bravado to take on every challenge in a way that I might be less inclined. There's nothing like some hard work to forge a community of strangers into companions, and the stories we shared of our diverse trajectories to that place could fill a book.

On the final portage, I was brimming with confidence on my first pass with just a pack on my back, navigating down a steep hill after a good rain, until my foot slid the length of a wet root, leaving my knee an impressively bloody mess. Mine was not the only injury, but all were managed successfully with bandaids. Uncertain footing on the narrow path could possibly end at the bottom of a rocky slope. I think the guides managed all the canoes for that one. Without that help, we'd have had to step up and manage the pass, but ever so slowly. There's a time for standing back to watch.

I lasted seconds.
The guides made all the difference on the trip. They greeted us with an excited welcome. A brief mention of the expectation that we'll look to help each other and be compassionate and mindful of inclusivity at all times was enough to set the tone for the week. There was a bit of eye-rolling about any fear of bears - I admitted my own fears and started some tales of terror - yet it had a marked effect to see how relaxed they were.  It's like if a surgeon insists that your surgery will be easy-peasy and gently blows off any fears until it feels silly to be worried. It's not that the risk doesn't exist (enough that I wasn't the only one secretly harbouring bear spray), but that it's small enough to set it further back in our minds. They showed us the ropes and then encouraged us to do it all ourselves.

Guides bring their own knowledge and experiences to the trip, and I think we won the jackpot for the duo we had. Beyond the basics of outback camping and canoeing we tagged along for some morning yoga, learned some knots, and tried to start a fire with just the wood around us (and a shoelace) with Kie, of Lure of the North (ETA and 3rd place in season 7 of Alone!):

And we ended the days with a rousing sing-a-long from Pete Seeger to Taylor Swift with Jennifer, professional musician and knower of all the words, who, from time to time, would strike us silent with the power of her pipes!

Their energies were a perfect compliment of calm and spirited.

I came home feeling strong and capable. And a little sore and pretty much spent. But I won't miss another year on a lake with outcroppings of smooth rock slipping quietly into water that's sparkling with sunlight, with trees persistently stretching their roots into crevices of rock, twisted by the strong winds into a permanent tilt, and with that expansive horizon letting tired eyes rest on the distance. It's a recharging station for me and a reminder that there are still places where natural life is flourishing - although next time I'll leave room in my pack to collect litter on the way. Every chip bag or pop can at the side of the trail made me feel like Holden Caulfield seeing fuck you scrawled on the walls of his sister's school: "Certain things should stay the way they are." I know it's impossible to rub out all the signs of disrespect in the world, but we can made a dent in it for the people who come after us.

The trip gave me the courage to take the lead on a journey, to carry my own canoe, and the know-how to make a trip happen. And at the end, my least favourite chore of cleaning everything to be packed away for winter was relegated to an organization.

The Logistics: This trip was unbelievably well-organized. We were told exactly what to pack and what would be provided. The only thing really necessary to find that might not be in everyone's home is a sleeping bag and thermarest that pack small, although I plan to buy myself a lifejacket next time. Their one-size-fits-mosts ends up around the chin when you're 5'2" and sitting in a canoe. I old-schooled it with garbage bags instead of compression packs. The food was fantastic and plentiful, and despite all the heavy lifting, I gained weight. But I most appreciated the environmental advocacy of the trip leaders. I was on an organized trip as a teenager where we were told to lather up and jump in the lake every morning despite my quiet cautions that soap won't biodegrade in water. This group insisted on using any soap well away from the lake, separating garbage for composting, and they helped us organized carpools to decrease the impact of driving there. They offered tips on working out to get in shape for the heavy-lifting required, but everyone was accommodated as needed. I can't bring myself to work out to get in shape for later purposes, but I have just enough tenacity to muscle myself through the forest and across the lake as the need arises.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

On Feelings

I was thinking about the fact discussed here that we only started acknowledging feelings as something to be concerned with or a measure of well-being when soldiers returned from WWII, a good half of them with shell shock. Freud had us actually ask people about what's going on in their heads, and this basic technique is with us today augmented with Aaron Beck's Cognitive Behaviour Therapy that digs for and replaces negative self-talk.  The Humans of New York series is currently focused on soldiers with PTSD. The soldiers who have had some therapy, some ability to talk through their past experiences, have been significantly helped by the process.

But I've been thinking of a side-effect of becoming aware of our feelings and how our experiences affect us: Some of us are becoming hyper-aware of every moment of fear or disappointment or grief or sadness to a debilitating degree.

Years ago I went on a road trip with some friends travelling from concert to concert around Ontario. Just before leaving, the driver of the wreck we were travelling in was cautioned to make sure it didn't overheat. Just that one word of warning from a random bystander sent us to the side of the road every couple of hours to open the hood and stare inside. The temperature gage never got anywhere close to the danger zone, but every time it moved, we had to pull over. Sometimes too much attention can be as bad as not enough.

After thousands of years of stoically forging ahead despite flashes of anxiety, in just 70 years we've shifted to a point in which every fluctuation in mood might be fodder for medical help. Instead of ignoring nervousness or sadness, we fixate on them, allowing them room to blossom, like a scab that won't heal because we can't leave it alone. Sometimes hyperawareness of anxiety can make it much worse until it becomes paralyzing and pleasurable events become mired in painful feelings of stress. Can something actually be enjoyable if we're barrelling through a sea of tumults, trembling with a heartbeat that is curiously inaudible to others in order to just get through it all? Does it really make sense to feel the fear and do it anyway when the dread of doing it might override the pleasure of having it done?

My youngest asked me recently, "When were you most afraid?" And I couldn't really remember ever feeling afraid. It seems to be like pain. During each childbirth, I got to a point when I was quite certain I was going to die. How can we possibly live through such a bodily trauma? But I can't actually remember what it felt like. I remember talking about it at the time; I remember my postures and my words and some of my thoughts, and they all lead me to believe I was in a ton of physical pain, but I don't remember the pain at all. How quickly the human race would diminish if women could physically remember the pain of childbirth.

Then a group of friends were recalling myriad scars and surgeries, and I had none to offer. Later I remembered getting many stitches in my thumb just last fall. You'd think it would be part of our survival instincts to remember trauma more immediately, but it seems a far more important survival instinct to forget. Remembering pain would keep us locked in our homes inert and lifeless.

Similarly, there are many times I remember exhibiting the actions of one who's afraid, of clasping the person next to me during a movie or speed-walking through bear habitat. But I don't remember how the panic felt, certainly not enough to avoid it.  I remember it intellectually, able to describe the events going on in my body and thoughts in my head, but I can't relive the actual feeling. It's different from anger, for instance. If I start to describe an injustice from my childhood, I can easily re-experience the rage first hand. Describing a sad tale can have me in tears, and a hilarious memory can leave me gasping for air. But, I'm guessing for most of us, fear and anxiety seem harder to re-establish emotionally. When I describe a frightening experience, I don't revisit the fear in the same way; it's more of a giddy excitement after the fact. Imagining a scary event about to happen has a much more intense effect than the memory of an event that ended. And pain seems completely impossible to re-live. Just as well. So, if fear is short-lived, and enjoyment has better sticking power, then the pleasure of a fearful event can far outweigh the pain in retrospect. And retrospect lasts a lot longer than the moment.

Often the fear I remember isn't even from the event itself, but from my perception of a potential worst-case scenario that typically never comes to pass. During a scary event, we're too busy to register our fear. But the anxiety anticipating the event can produce in our heads, merely from our perception of an event that we're not actually experiencing at the moment, and that might not even happen in such a dramatic way, isn't tempered by busyness. Before an event, we have all the time in the world to stew. But we mustn't. Not much anyway. If we can remember, like Epicurus would have us do, that it's ridiculous to worry about an event, to feel pain from something that isn't actually happening to us right now, it can help reduce the level of anxiety. We're safe at home but all tied up in knots - how silly!

Somehow it's heartening to know that, even thousands of years ago, people still worried over stupid things, and they were counseled to actively stop themselves from having those thoughts. We've come full circle again to recognizing that dwelling on our feelings just exacerbates them. Talking over trauma, over feelings around events in the past, can be life altering and miraculous, but scrutinizing emotions created from perceptions of potential experiences we haven't actually had, can be debilitating. Epicurus, William James, Aaron Beck... all recognized that a shift in perception and active shutting out of stressful thoughts is necessary to get on with thing. We will be scared and offended and enraged. Sometimes we just have to ride it out.

The trick is to figure out which emotional upheavals are better examined and which are better ignored. We don't quite know what a minor trauma is. Working in a high-school, there's been a clear change in the amount of attention and concern we give to heartbreak, for instance. It's par for the course in adolescence, but now we're understanding to a fault, postponing due date to allow extra time for students to process, which, I believe, makes that trauma larger than life. It hurts; there's no denying that. But is it a pain that will dissipate faster it it's attended to or ignored? And if we attend to lots of everyday traumas, will we be able to cope when something huge hits us? Suggesting as much is painted as heartless, so we get the illusion of the benefits of an immediate salve but no immunity in the longterm.

A bit of worrying can be useful if used to our advantage. That anxious hyperawareness we experience might help us ensure we don't miss a detail. I've written papers that I wasn't stressed at all about, and my over-confidence almost always led to a lower mark because I didn't have that adrenaline boost of stress forcing me to re-check everything a few more times. We need just the right amount of anxiety to help us rise to challenges, yet actually go through with them.

I'm thinking a lot about anxiety today because I'm off to Temagami on a canoe trip in the morning. I'll be in bear territory, and I'll have bear spray at the ready, but that's not the scary part. I rent a car only twice a year or so, and I always avoid driving on major highways. I'm picking up a fellow traveller on the way, so I'll have to manage the 401, and then it only makes sense to continue on the 400. And on the way back, I'll be desperate to be home before sunset so that I'm not driving in the dark. Backroads won't get me there in time. My passenger has no idea what she's getting herself into, how silent and still she'll have to be for me to manage all the lanes and signs and so many cars and trucks all over the place!

I've had one accident, and it was on a side road. It was a clear day, but snow was blowing across a field rendering the road indistinguishable and other vehicles invisible. I followed the line of hydro poles to try to stay in my lane, but I still managed to clip the front bumper of an on-coming car that materialized before my eyes. I partially blame having a passenger who kept leaning between the bucket seats to rifle around the back for another CD. There has never again been rifling around in a car I was driving!

I've driven myself to Parry Sound and back over and over, sometimes three trips in a day, but always on the back roads as far as I could, but I used to drive back and forth to Ottawa on the highway regularly when I had a friend living there. That was 20 years ago, but at least I know it's possible. It's something I was once able to do pretty fearlessly, like a normal human being.

So for the rest of the day, I'll be actively ignoring the waves of panic and shaking off the burgeoning flood of tears. There will be no blowing snow tomorrow, and it might not even rain. In the right-hand lane, doing precisely 3 km over the speed limit, and staying well back from other cars, I'm unlikely to have or cause an accident. I'll have a passenger to help navigate the signs for most of the trip.  If I miss an exit, I'll have plenty of time to take the next one and turn around. And my anxiety has done me the great service of forcing me to write out my planned routes and an alternative route, to mark a map with sticky-notes, and to print off magnified areas of concern from google maps. Handy!

And I'd rather die on my way to a canoe trip than slipping in the bathtub. There's always that.

Just imagine how good it smells there. Like suddenly breathing real air.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart

Told in a series of personal interviews jumping back and forth between six different people, Scott Anderson's magazine-length article, "Fractured Lands," is the stuff of nightmares, but it's important we don't look away. This is the story of the last several decades in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Egypt.

Here's what I took away from it: not the specifics of the individuals he spoke with, but the general feeling of the history of these events from the perspective of individuals who lived it. I'm interested to see what brighter minds (like Hedges or Chomsky) make of it all. I don't have the background to easily discern any bias in the reporting. Most of the names I learned as a kid from SNL "Weekend Update" skits!

Colonization made a mess of a lot of countries.  

At the end of WWI, Britain and France, and later Italy, determined new borders within the old Ottoman Empire. The new borders created some of the problems we're seeing now. Iraq is made of three provinces forced together (Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds - see this for further details), as is Libya. Greater Syria was carved up into Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan (Israel and Jordan). Like the situation in Rwanda, colonists dominated areas from afar by empowering the local minority groups to be administrators because they'd be less likely to rebel against the colonists for fear of a majority uprising. Then colonists pitted groups against one another to distract them from the control maintained in Europe.

This is similar to what we did with Indigenous tribes here except in the US, Canada, and Australia, the European settlers stayed to see through the destruction of the tribal groups (until we developed a modicum of sympathy for their plight and guilt for our actions). In the Middle East, European colonists stared the fights and then left.

Anderson cautions us to remember three historical factors crucial to understanding the crises: the instability of artificial states, the precarious position US-allied Arab governments are put in when forced to pursue policies opposed by their people, and the US involvement in the partitioning of Iraq in 1991.

PART 1 - 1972-2003

In Egypt, beginning in the 1940s, Gamal Abdel Nasser helped Egypt be the birthplace of revolutionary movements. In 1945, he found oil fields; in 1952 he overthrew the Western-pliant king; in 1956 he bested Britain, France, and Israel in the Suez crisis and was seen as a hero. He advocated for Pan-Arab unity to end the domination by Westerners. By 1968, military officers were pro-Pan-Arab, and the ideology took over Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Western monarchs were tossed. Egypt has a strong national identity, but it's split into various political factions. Nasser was able to bridge them all through antipathy for the West.

In 1972, President Anwar Sadat wanted to recover the Sinai Peninsula seized by Israel in 1967. Nasser and Sadat could bring everyone together against an external foe, America. But then in 1978, Sadat signed the Camp David accords, the US peace treaty with Israel, and it was seen as a huge betrayal to his people. He was murdered in 1981. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, increased security and "inherited the taint of capitulation" from Sadat. People were now being tortured for any negative comments about the government.

In Libya, in 1969, Muammar al-Qaddafi overthrew the king. He emulated Nasser at first, then became more similar to Hussein in Iraq and al-Assad in Syria. In all three countries, they develop personality cults, putting their faces on posters everywhere. They all were aligned with anti-imperialists and deepened ties with the Soviet Union, built ambitious public works project, hospitals and schools, through money from oil or from the Soviet Union, and they created huge state payrolls hiring numerous extended family members. They made alliances with various tribes and forged ties across divides.

Libya is mainly Sunni, but sub-divided into Misuratans and Benghazians. Iraq, under Hussein, was run by a Sunni minority but ensured significant token Shiite and Kurds in government. Syria, under al-Assad was a Sunni majority, but ruled by an Alawite minority aligned with Christians.

In the Kurdish region of Iraq, in 1975, fighters known as the pesh merga fought the Iraqi Army. Kurds got weapons through the CIA and Iranian advisers, but they were cut off when Iran and Iraq signed a peace treaty. In 1985, a US ally in Iran was overthrown and replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The US partnered with Hussein to wage war against Khomeini, and gave Hussein weapons. Hussein was integral to the US at the time, so they looked away when they poison-gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988, going so far as to suggest that Iran did it.

In 1991, Iraq under Hussein invaded Kuwait, which upset the US. Bush implemented Operation Desert Storm, and encouraged Iraqi citizen to revolt with the American forces. The Shiites and Kurds did, but then the US stood down. The Iraqi Army counterattacked. The US established a buffer zone in Kurdistan to protect Kurds form Hussein, but they let the Shiites suffer. This move helped the Kurds develop a regional government (KRG) as a union of all Kurdish provinces in Iraq. It was the first dismantling of colonial borders, and many Kurds who had fled began to return to the area.

Syria is a religiously diverse country with 70% Sunni Arabs, 12% Alawites, 12% Sunni Kurds, and some Christians and smaller groups, but most were secular or loosely religious. President Hafez al-Assad was part of a religious minority, the Alawite, so he encourage secularism. This policy was carried on by his son, Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist who ended up in power by default. He wanted to recover Golan Heights, an area taken by Israel in 1967. He loosened his hold on Lebanon to be seen favourably by the West.

Meanwhile in the US, in 2002, Bush laid the groundwork for an invasion by accusing Hussein of pursuing WMDs. He linked Hussein to September 11th in the mind of Americans. Qaddafi was clear that an Iraq invasion by the US would benefit Bin Laden:
"Iraq could end up becoming the staging ground for Al Qaeda, because if the Saddam government collapses, it will be anarchy in Iraq. If that happens, actions against Americans will be considered jihad." 
In 2003, when the US Army pulled down a statue of Hussein it started the process of disintegration in the Middle East as they saw that a figure of that magnitude could be easily cast aside. It served to reawaken tribal ties.

PART 2 - 2003-2011

In Iraq, people's lives were interrupted by the invasion. Women were not allowed out of their homes. At first, to some, the US was seen as liberators in the area. But in other areas people were taken off the streets and tortured at Abu Ghraib. The invasion caused economic turmoil. Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi military, and dismissed any Baath Party members from government positions. Many in the party were from the same families and compelled to join the party by Hussein years before. Over 85,000 people were fired causing instant impoverishment. Hussein was found and later executed.

In 2004, a new constitution was signed. It guaranteed 25% of seats in parliament to women because of the work of Fern Holland, who was then murdered by the transitional Iraqi government (CPA). A radical Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, demanded the withdrawal of coalition forces and unleashed a militia, the Mahdi Army, to fight CPA installations. Sunni and Shia groups attacked the CPA coalition forces, but the CPA went ahead and ceded control to a new government. Christians left the area.

In Egypt, people opposed the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship. His strategy allowed political dissent among small educated groups, but crushed influences from Islamists. This changed after the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000. Most people thought Egypt sold out the Palestinians in 1979, and Mubarak couldn't stop all the pro-Palestinian demonstrations. People could suddenly organize openly. There were huge anti-American invasion demonstrations in Cairo.

In Libya, in 2005, Qaddafi started taking down posters of himself to appear to appease the West. He thought he might be next, so he made amends with the US. offered a settlement for a 1988 bombing of a Pan Am Flight 103, and shared dossiers with the US on suspected Al Qaeda operatives. In 2006, the US restored diplomatic relations with Libya, and Qaddafi abandoned his reform drive.

In Syria, Assad wasn't afraid of the US, and his spying apparatus made citizens fearful. Nobody dared to speak about the government.

PART 3 - The Arab Spring - 2011-2014

The US invasion of Iraq laid the groundwork for the Arab Spring revolts. It all officially started in Tunisia when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, protested constant government harassment through self-immolation on January 4, 2011. People called for the resignation of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali who had been president for 23 years. Once it was possible in one country, it seemed plausible elsewhere. By the end of January, there were protests in Algeria, Egypt, Oman, and Jordan. By November, four dictatorships had been toppled, and six others promised reforms.

In Iraq protests lasted for days, until soldiers dispersed them with tear gas, but they stayed and kept fighting. Soldier traded tear gas for ammunition. On February 1, 2003, Mubarak said he'd never leave, and, as protest increased, he resigned on February 11. The military served as an interim government, which worried citizens.

In Libya, cadets were called to arms in February due to protests. Qaddafi blamed the unrest on foreigners, and he vowed to purify Libya person by person. In March, people were told that criminal groups of foreigners were fighting Qaddafi, to persuade more militance in the citizenry. In October, there was a fierce firefight, and Qaddafi's men surrendered. The Transitional National Council paid a stipend to anyone who fought against Qaddafi, and the number of revolutionaries grew tenfold. The cash created an incentive for armed groups to remain independent of central command. By December 2012, Libyan militias had carved the country into rival fiefs unwittingly bankrolled by the transitional government.

In Syria, in March, people were protesting over the torture of a group of high-school students. Secret police were everywhere. Assad accused protesters of helping Israel, and people became fearful to protest. Then in April, 40 demonstrators took to the streets, and the police shot 25 of them at point-blank range. Then thousands came out to demonstrate, and police took to the roofs to shoot them. Funerals became rallying point. By May, the Syrian Army had shut down the cities. Everyone liked the soldiers as they stopped the killings by police, but the regime withdrew, and there was more bloodshed. By November of 2011, people were being taken and murdered for no clear reason. By the fall of 2012, a popular militia arose, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They were taken over by an Islamic group. People who joined liked to carry guns and scare people, but were easily frightened off by other groups. In May 2013, the Free Syrian Army moved into neighbourhoods, and people began to flee the country. Poverty was rampant and some were surviving on leaves and weeds. New militias were competing with existing ones, and ISIS stood out for its daring and cruelty.
"Amid the chaos, the remnants of Osama bin Laden's old outfit, Al Qaeda, gained a new lease on life, resurrected the war in Iraq and then spawned an even more severe and murderous offshoot: the Islamic State." 
In Egypt, in May 2012, it was announced that only two of the 13 possible candidates for election were actually eligible, but they were the two worst choices: Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (who had a hand in killing Fern Holland), or Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's Prime Minister. Morsi won by a hair. The military junta that ruled Egypt since the overthrow transferred all the powers to the military and dissolved the sitting parliament. Morsi ordered parliament reinstated and dismissed the senior military. He promoting his own Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run the military. The state blocked Morsi's actions and fed the public fears about him, which was easy because the Muslim Brotherhood did have some ties to terrorist. In July 2013, al-Sisi, now the Defence Minister, told Morsi to meet people's demands or the army will step in. Morsi ignored him, and Sisi overthrew him. Sisi was much more brutal with dissenters, particularly working-class Muslim Brotherhood followers who were ruthlessly hunted down.

PART 4 - 2014-2015

Iraq citizens saw ISIS recruitment videos on social media. They were presented as warriors and knights in smart uniforms. In June 2014, ISIS entered Iraq, and a small group of 1,500 fighters scared away thousands of Iraqi Army forces. The army fled leaving the locals defenceless. Under the Prime Minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, Iraq's Shiite majority dominated the government. The Sunnis developed contempt for the government and army, and the army distrusted the Sunnis, so they left when a few vowed vengeance. ISIS had money from control of the oil fields in Syria, and it offered cash for new recruits. When they came across Cadets in Iraq, they separated them in to Sunni and Shia, then murdered hundreds of young Shiite men.

In some villages, people were saved by painting "Arab family" on the outside of their homes. In Kurdish areas, some Kurds would destroy these homes for fear that Arabs would come back to live in them in years to come.

The KRG wanted to create a true Kurdish nation, which meant not just defeating ISIS, but getting rid of all Arabs in the area. Some Kurds trusted Daesh more than Arabs because they were more honest about their intentions. Some Kurds naively felt safe from ISIS because they shared a common enemy, but ISIS wanted to attack all groups outside of Sunni Muslims. By August they were killing thousands of Kurds and rounding up girls for sex slaves. Kurds took up arms to fight them back and were successful. The KRG was good at fighting them back, but only in Kurdish areas. They didn't risk their men in Arab villages.

But, the KRG had some infighting between the tribal groups within, the Barzani and the Talabani. They blamed fighting issues on the Iraqi Army, but a big factor was the two rival groups within. ISIS took advantage of that. They used sexual slavery as a weapon of war. When women returned, they didn't speak of what happened, but the fortunate were able to claim ill and get reconstruction surgery on the sly to come back to town as virgins. It's the only way they could be accepted or ever married. They can never speak about what was done to them.

PART 5 - 2015-2016

Almost a million Syrians and Iraqis flooded into Europe to escape. After the terrorists attacks in European cities, anti-immigration sentiments were the norm with mass demonstrations against them. Some hope to return to Syria, but expect at least ten years before there will be peace as "blood brings blood." Once ISIS is defeated, there will be further revenge against Sunnis.

Some walked for weeks to leave. Others paid for travel on a raft meant for 8, but overfilled with 30. Some turned to the government for help, but found help wanting and dangerous.


Anderson suggests a "trifurcated nation" in Iraq might be the answer, which might work for Libya as well, except everywhere there are schisms inside of schisms. Things look worse today. Sisi's repression of Egypt has deepened, the war in Syria has taken more lives, and Libya is becoming insolvent. The only bright spot is the international coalition working towards destroying ISIS, but "ISIS isn't just an organization, it's an idea." The conditions that created ISIS continue: disaffected and futureless young men who only find purpose and prosperity through holding a gun. Solutions are complicated:
"This journey has served to remind me again of how terribly delicate is the fabric of civilization, of the vigilance required to protect it and of the slow and painstaking work of mending it once it has been torn. This is hardly an original thought; it is a lesson we were supposed to have learned after Nazi Germany, after Bosnia and Rwanda. Perhaps it is a lesson we need to constantly relearn.
So it goes.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Century of the Self - A Brief History of Psychoanalysis and Corporate Control

I just watched this four-hour doc on propaganda and social change and how we're swimming in Freudian concepts like it or not. It's older (2002), but it's compelling viewing useful to weed out the ideas of Freud from those of his followers. My notes are paraphrased (and editorialized) below:

1917 - the Emotional Root of our Desires

Edward Bernays (1891-1994), the father of public relations, is the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the son of Freud's sister and Freud's wife's brother. At just 26, he was asked to join Woodrow Wilson in creating a "Public Relations Council" to promote the war effort. He used conversations with his uncle Freud, whose ideas were soon after published in General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, to understand how people make decisions. Freud's writing was just about understanding why we act. Bernays used that framework of the psyche to develop a means to influence the collective behaviour of the masses.

As much as we like to think our reasoning abilities make us markedly different from other animals, we can be easily persuaded to act if someone plays on our irrational emotions. Bernays' first experiment to test the idea involved marketing cigarettes to women, which involved breaking a strong social taboo at the time. He convinced some suffragettes to march in the Easter parade, smoking, and called the cigarettes "torches of freedom." He spun the taboo into an oppressive restriction to be overcome, which made smoking immediately a symbol of power and independence. This was a brand new way of marketing products.

There was a growing concern with industrial overproduction, so Bernays helped the US shift from a culture focused on satisfying needs to one obsessed with fulfilling desires. He promoted the idea of regular citizens buying shares in companies, and he got film stars to come to parties at the White House, forever after linking politics with celebrity right up to today when Americans are choosing between Meryl Streep and Scott Baio.

1920s - Consumerism Will Save Us from Ourselves

Bernays arranged for Freud's works to be published in the U.S. and gain a widespread audience. He was his unofficial agent in the U.S. Freud wrote about how easily unconscious aggressive drives can be activated in crowds, concluding that man is a sadistic species. Bernays decided that if people are driven by irrational forces, then they need to be guided. If he could stimulate the inner desires of people and satiate them with things, then they wouldn't act on their aggressive impulses. Consumerism was a means to pacify the people as well as to make profits. He developed a system some called "enlightened despotism," or, as Walter Lippmann called it, "the manufacturing of consent, " a term made popular by Chomsky. Bernays saw how ads could create desire which could be easily satisfied and thus transform people into happiness machines.

Herbert Hoover agreed, and democracy became palliative. Democracy was no longer about challenging the relations of power, but about sustaining them.

1930s - Roosevelt Appealed to our Reason

Freud wrote Civilization and its Discontents and clarified that civilization is a necessary means to restrain our animal forces. Individual freedom is impossible and far too dangerous, so we must be controlled externally (to suppress our violent and sexual urges), and therefore we will always be somewhat discontented. It's necessary to be limited individually in order to survive collectively but that's not to say, as Bernays suggested, that we should be controlled en masse to pacify the masses or otherwise (increase profits). But Bernays was right that we can be.

After the market crashed, the U.S. faced angry mobs out to fight corporations. Government used the power of the state to control the market (Roosevelt's "New Deal"). Roosevelt worked with George Gallop to poll people's ideas. They rejected Bernays' ideas, instead believing that people could be trusted to make wise decisions. They were going to avoid any manipulation and appeal to citizens' rational faculties.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Hitler abolished the huge numbers of parties running, and the National Socialists were elected. They took control of business with a motto of "service not self." He aimed to channel desires towards a better society rather than satisfy the selfishness of individuals. Joseph Goebbels was in charge of promoting ideas to the people, and he admired the way Roosevelt was controlling markets. Goebbels went further to encourage aggressive forces in citizens as he believed officials could control them to serve their final ends. He was right.

In 1936, Roosevelt pressured more control over big business and was re-elected. Businesses fought back with help from Bernays, starting an ideological warfare against the New Deal. They created the National Association of Manufacturers, which launched campaigns to create emotional connections between brands and businesses. He filled papers with the messages that business, not government, created America, and he created a vision of a potential utopia for the masses that couldn't happen with government restrictions on the market. The government was worried about the affiliation between the press and corporations and started creating national newsreels to teach people how to check for bias in the news, but it was just a matter of time before controlling the markets in any way, even price controls to benefit the poorest in society, would be linked to fascism.

Bernays' methods were instrumental in persuading the public towards a pro-corporate stance, and he was called to help the CIA to reestablish government control over citizens. He appears to have had few allegiances except money and maybe the thrill of figuring out what persuasive measure would work in a given situation.

1940s - We Can Be Masters of Our Domain

After Freud's death, his daughter, Anna Freud, began writing and speaking more. She started with her dad's premise that people must be controlled for society to work, but she believed people could be taught to control themselves. Freud thought we need to understand our desires and the unfortunate necessity of external controls, but Anna believed we could train our desires internally by changing how children are raised. She started by experimenting on two depressive children, and became close with their mother. When she saw the results of the Nazis unleashing the instincts of their citizenry, she started working intensively with large groups of children in need. Primarily she thought children need to be trained to conform to rules of society as a way to strengthen their ego, which will in turn help them control their own unconscious. (She also established specific defence mechanisms well beyond her father's work, yet they're almost always credited to Sigmund.)

Almost half of the returning soldiers suffered mental breakdowns. Psychoanalyst Martin Bergmann was recruited by the U.S. government to interview returning soldiers, and it was the first time people started exploring and discussing feelings. Bergmann decided that stress and mental breakdown are not caused from conflict, but from soldiers' personal childhood desire for aggression. According to him, they weren't traumatized by the aggression itself, but by their eager participation in it, by their own letting go of their instincts to fight. He further surmised that chaos at the base of human personality can infect society, so people need to internalize democratic values. This led Truman to create the National Mental Health Act to deal with the number of unstable men returning from war.

Psychiatrist brothers, Karl and Will Menninger, wanted to use Anna Freud's ideas on a wide scale to control the unconscious desires of citizens, so they invented Guidance Counselling Centres everywhere and encouraged everyone to go. Their focus was on controlling the "fire of emotions" within.

1950s - Identifying with Brands is Promoted as Therapeutic 

Things shifted a bit as Harold Blum came on the scene and thought we could be "appropriately emotional," that we should be allowed to let go within limits since we can master our own passions. And Ernest Dichter, Freud's old neighbour, set up Motivational Research centres. This was the dawn of the focus group and the Mad Men style of marketing. Focus groups would have people free associate about products, encouraged to express their feelings and associations. A famous case is when they asked women why they didn't buy instant cakes, and realized just letting women add an egg to the mixture would increase sales dramatically. The underlying idea driving Dichter was similar to Bernays: that we can use the environment to strengthen and stabilize human personality; it's therapeutic and confidence-boosting for people to identify with specific brands. It was also hugely profitable, which likely didn't hurt. It's hard to say which was more important for the psychiatrists.

Bernays worked with Howard Hunt of the CIA to launch a "terror campaign" and stage a coup in Guatemala by making the conditions in the public and in the press more amenable to such a thing after a more socialist leader insisted on better working conditions (and thus lowered profits) in the American-owned United Fruit Company. The psychological warfare worked enough to provoke the army to stand down. They linked the former leader to communism, made the previous government seen as a threat to democracy, and made business interests seen as democracy incarnate. Bernays openly believed that most people are terribly stupid and can be manipulated to act like automatons.

Government money was given to psych departments in universities to do experiment on brainwashing. Ewing Cameron, of UCLA but working in at McGill in Montreal, used drugs and electroconvulsive therapy in an attempt to wipe and replace people's memories. It didn't work the way he hoped (with some horrific results); and he surmised that people are more affected by external persuasion than internal manipulation.

Anna Freud kept working on children conforming to social norms. She was friends with Ralph Greenson, Marilyn Monroe's therapist, who got Marilyn to move into his home as he decided that his family was the social model to follow.

1960s - Anti-Conformity Rebellions Led to Corporate Losses

After Monroe's suicide, Arthur Miller argued against this psychiatric method that suggests any suffering is a problem. Miller insisted we must let suffering inform our lives, not try to cure any and all tumults we feel. The method advocated by Greenson attempted to control people rather than free them.

Herbert Marcuse also criticized the method. He called it a childish application of psychoanalysis and explained that the planned obsolescence of our time, with a huge variety of things to have and do, leads to a schizoid existence. The destructiveness of the individual is due to "empty prosperity." He called out psychiatry for being used for corrupt purposes, and Anna Freud for increasing repression in her patients through forced conformity. Evil isn't from maladjusted inward conflict, but from society, and it must be challenged, not adapted to. Martin Luther King Jr. agreed with the words, "I am proud to be maladjusted" to a corrupt society. And then the two children that Anna Freud started her method on, both committed suicide. This provoked a new student left to attack this system of social control, sometimes violently.

Wilhelm Reich challenged Freud's premise that people are driven by animal instincts and society is a controlling force that keeps our raging inferno of emotions in check. He countered that our drives are positive and repression by society distorts them. Reich thought violence is a result of denying our libido full expression; neurosis is a result of ineffective orgasm. And then things got really weird with the Human Potential Movement and confrontational experiences and encounter workshops that involved violent and sexual release. Werner Erhard got on board with the EST movement, believing that we can create ourselves individually, only the individual matters, and we can largely ignore society. Students and young adults became less political as they became more self-obsessed.

The downside of all this self-exploration was a corporate loss, particularly to life insurance companies, which are built on the protestant ethic prompting us to sacrifice for the future. Too many people were living for today. The new enlightenment needed products to help people express their individuality, but, at the time, variety wasn't cost-effective for factory production.

1970s - We Can be Reduced to a Lifestyle

The Stanford Research Institute (SRI) was used to measure and test desire satiation. Abraham Maslow, a humanistic psychologist famous for his self-actualization test, also created a tool to measure people's values on a hierarchy of needs that rises as people liberate their feelings. This was the beginning of categorizing society for marketing purposes. He believed we can be defined by the choices we make, and he surveyed people to see how people fit a set of identifiable types he called: lifestyles. The Values and Lifestyles survey (VALS) categorized people into more specific purchasing types than could be determined by age or income: Mainstreamers have a need for security and belonging; aspirers have a need for status; succeeders have a need for control; and reformers have a need for self-esteem. If a product reflects their attitudes, people will buy it. Instead of focus groups discussing products already invented, they used market research to invent new products. This would soon help elect politicians as well.

1980s - We Can Buy our Identity

Self-actualization seminars from the likes of Wayne Dyer and inner self work became more popular (polls showed an increase in interest from 5% in 1970 to 80% in 1980).  Reagan ran on the new individualism model with his speech "Let the People Rule" (his We the People speech 8 years later has a similar flavour) knowing that people now embrace whatever gives the illusion of independence. It polled well and many former republicans voted conservative because of the PR spin, which allowed neo-liberalism to thrive. People feel entitled to have the best and to have power over their leaders, and they want their every whim satisfied.

New technology allowed short runs of consumer goods, so people were now able to buy their identities. They felt liberated, yet were more dependent on business than ever. Products were now necessary to their happiness and their very sense of self. Without things, people no longer have any identity. Scary.

Matthew Freud, of Freud Communications (great grandson of Sigmund, and son of an MP accused of pedophilia), helped manufacturers get control over how their corporation appeared in print. And Rupert Murdock's right in there too, of course.

Robert Reich laments that we no longer have a society, just a bunch of individuals focused on themselves. Bernays found a way to get people to see goods as a means to respond to deep emotional yearnings. Politicians used these business methods to find out what voters want and give it to them, and they stopped caring about having a clear and specific mandate. They summoned the greediest aspects of human nature by focusing on individual personal satisfaction. It was a triumph of the perspective that individuals are purely emotional beings easily led off a cliff.

According to Reich, the left used to persuade people we have common interests. Roosevelt persuaded people to join together in labour unions, which drove the democratic party. The worst thing Reagan did was to make denial of compassion a respectable trait.

1990s - Fluctuating Desires Drive the New Democracy

To get re-elected, Clinton bowed to this pressure to satisfy individual voter concerns. (Tony Blair did the same thing in Britain.) It turned politics into a consumer business that can fulfill personal desires. They could learn what voters want and move themself there. Clinton conducted neuro-personality polls to find day-to-day concerns and ran on a platform of V-chips for TVs and mobile phones on busses rather than the typical foreign and domestic policies discussed in previous elections. This was spun as a means to end elitist politics in that the people are now being heard, but the practice suggests that democracy is nothing more than pandering to primitive desires. It's a politics of the self. It's a problem because people are contradictory: they want lower taxes and better public services. We're trapped in short-term, conflicting policies.

This isn't a better form of democracy, a "continuous democracy," it's just propaganda for corporations. Remember that Bernays didn't believe democracy could work and that the masses had to be led, that it's too dangerous to let people have control over their own lives. Consumerism is a way to give the illusion of control while allowing the responsible elite to continue managing society. This is the end result of that premise. We just feel like we have more say now. People's desires are in charge instead of their will. Democracy has been reduced from something that assumes an active citizenry to something which now is increasingly predicated on the idea of the public as passive consumers.

We have to appeal to the public to care for others more. We forgot that we can be more than our immediate desires. Reich summed up the two views of human nature: essentially emotional or rational. The Freudian view suggests we're just bundles of emotions, and businesses have honed their skills at responding to that. But politics must be more than that. Politics and leadership are about engaging the public in a rational discussion and deliberation about what is best for society. People need to be respected for their rational abilities to debate what is best.


2000s - Do We Know Enough to Change?

Now we know, or think we know, about neural pathways. The more we restrain ourselves, the easier it gets to avoid certain stimuli. If we have chocolate around, but stop ourselves from eating it, it will get easier to avoid it, and eventually we'll stop being so drawn to it. I practice this myself by actively avoiding social media at certain times of day, and it's something I don't have to actively work at quite so much anymore. The corollary is also true, that the more we do something, the easier it is to do and the more likely we are to do it. The more we allow ourselves to have public outbursts, the more likely we are to have them. We have to practice self-restraint.

This leans towards Anna Freud's work, but she went too far dictating what all needs to be controlled, and not far enough with other tactics to help alleviate profound depression. I think it's less a training that we need, but more of a constant reminder about our goals for ourselves as people so we're not led astray.

Today we also know about neuromarketing. They don't need market research or focus groups when they can look at our brains directly to find out which ads cause a dopamine spike. The masses can clearly be led towards consumerism or acts of genocide, so we need to be ever vigilantly thinking about why we feel like we need new clothes or why we feel a hatred for one group or another.

The fact that Bernays and others are able to manipulate society is testament to Freud's original theory hitting a nail on the head in determining how our drives affect us. But what some people do with that understanding is frightening. This clarifies a pivotal role for schools (complete with lessons on Freudian theory) to ensure we wake people up to their own decision-making as well as to their internal drives. We need to demand a democracy based on collective will for the benefit of society, not individual desires for the benefit of the self.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

On Indicators: Attention Must Be Paid

If it started to get cloudy out, and I told a friend, "You might want to bring an umbrella," I might hear, "Good idea, thanks!" for saving him the discomfort of walking unprotected in the pouring rain later that night.

But if it's starting to get all climate-changey out, and I tell friends, "We don't need to drive there; let's walk," or "Maybe a coastal island isn't the best place to buy a home anymore," or "I'm not sure we should ever take a plane anywhere," it's intended to help postpone the discomfort of living with significant food, water, and land insecurity in just a few decades.

The most popular response I get (twice just this week) to any offhanded comment like that is, "Oh, I'm not into all that doom and gloom talk."

A warning to grab an umbrella isn't seen as "doom and gloom talk" largely because it's so clear that there's a cause and effect that can be avoided with a simple act. The impending rain isn't a story some people tell because they enjoy being buzzkills or they lean towards depression. We can ignore the weather report all we want, but certain indicators, like dark clouds and leaves on the trees flipping upside down in the wind, tell even the most stubborn layman that it would be wise to take some precautions before the downpour hits.

Climate is one step removed. Most people gazing at the sky can't see the indicators that point to a difficult journey ahead if we don't act preventatively. We're loath to listen to experts, and we can dismiss the weather report each day with minimal longterm effect. But this is the difference between ignoring the doctor when she says you should get a flu shot, and ignoring her when she says you need a triple bypass. Sometimes experts actually need to be heard.

There are thousands of scientists from around the world who are experts in the specific field of climate studies who have joined together under the umbrella of the IPCC to craft reports on important indicators of trouble ahead. We have no choice but to depend on them to give us the most accurate and unbiased information possible. By paying attention to indictors like the changes in the average temperature worldwide, they've made clear the evidence that we're going to be in dire straights if we don't dramatically reduce our GHG emissions immediately. Other groups looking at different indicators (like the EPA) have come to similar conclusions. And the more we learn, the worse it gets: in 2007, a one degree Celsius rise in global temperature was predicted by 2100; by 2013, a 2 degree rise has been predicted by 2017 and a 3.5 degree rise by 2035 if we don't change our energy and agriculture policies dramatically and immediately. A 3.5 degree rise could leave the planet uninhabitable. Others think we'll just cross a threshold of no return by 2036. Still...  According to NASA, last March we hit that 2 degrees rise briefly. How bad does it have to get before we brush it off as "doom and gloom" talk?

Refusing to listen because we don't like the news is akin to a child refusing the umbrella thrust at him in hopes of wrangling free of any concern for consequences in general. Eventually we grow up enough to take the bloody umbrella! Eventually we recognized that it sucks sitting in damp clothes all day more than it sucks accepting advice from experts, accepting that others might know more than we do, and accepting that we have to actually do something ourselves to ensure a better future.

The stakes are bigger now. We're staring at the triple-bypass warning. This isn't a scenario crafted to scare people; it's a highly educated prediction of what's to come. It would be wise to take some precautions. A stormy day and a stormy future can both be gloomy, but all the rationalizations and denial in the world won't help us stay dry.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Paying for It: On the Slow Death of Journalism

I watch Last Week Tonight pretty faithfully, but I do Monday mornings on YouTube rather than subscribe to HBO. Last night's show was all about the problem with people like me who don't pay for journalism:

If we don't pay for papers, we're not going to have any more real journalism with any semblance of integrity. And most people really do want to look at puppies over news. They won't seek out stories on bombing Libya, or Israel's control over water, or US support in Syria. It has to be the top headline of the day or the first thing they see when they turn on the news at night, or else they'll just never know. Remember when everyone watched the 11:00 news every single night, and parents were all prompted to check on their children?

Things are radically different now. I get most headlines from following people on facebook and twitter who share news intelligently, and from following fellow bloggers. It feels more like a civic duty these days to share the news personally instead of counting on the populous to follow well. I try to share an important quote or brief summary with the article because I know too many people who form opinions based entirely on the headline without ever reading the article. That's one issue that's hard to solve.

But I think we can save journalism - online at least.

I used to subscribe to my local paper, but they would just pile up for recycling, most of it unread because the stories are all online. I subscribe to Philosophy Now only because I know I'll read the whole thing. Most papers don't cater to my particular interests throughout, so I love that I can pick and choose articles about different topics from different sources. That's one delightful benefit of the internet. I have an on-line subscription to the NYT, and I sometimes donate to Truthdig, but then I read and watch a ton of news that I don't pay for at all.

But, here's the thing: I would pay for it if it were easy to do. I don't want to fill in a form and subscribe to the whole paper because there's just too much there I won't read. It feels like I'm being ripped off when a couple busy weeks go by and I haven't read anything. But I would happily pay for individual articles. I'd likely even pay more per month on individual articles than I would for the whole paper without even noticing.

It has to be easy though because I'm really lazy. Amazon's model is perfect. Whenever I look at a book cover, it prompts me with a "One-Click Payment" option. I set it up once, and now I'm screwed. My local bookstore should do the same thing!  If the paywall on an article asked for a dollar or two to keep reading, and I just have to click a button for the blocker to go away and money to come out of my Paypal account, I'd click that button! I'd even click to pay extra to have the article ad-free!

Louis CK figured this out for his concerts and his newest TV show. I get alerts when a new episode is ready, and I pay a couple bucks to watch it. I can download it and share it if I want to, but why bother? There's no point sharing it when everyone can get it so cheaply and easily.

But here's the important bit: I don't think twice about forking over a couple bucks for each episode, but I would never pay $31 for the season, even though it's cheaper. Nobody cares about dropping some change here and there, but a larger amount for a longer time is daunting. I'm not sure I can commit to watch the whole thing.

It's not that we're too poor or thieving to pay for shows or articles; we just don't want to pay for all that extra stuff, and we don't want to have to do anything too complicated to see what we want to see right this minute. I would only really work if it became adopted by all print media at once, though. And then I might even have more time in the day because I'm not about to check out clickbait that actually costs me.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

On Our Right to Choose

I understand gender identity and sexual orientation both as potentially fluid. It's not the case that they can be made to change, so we still need to ban straightenating camps and the like, but that they can sometimes evolve over time. Or, if they're rigid, then it might be the case that our self-awareness evolves over time. Either way...

Sexual orientation isn't a choice. Absolutely. And once we feel safe enough that enough people acknowledge that, we can look at the fluidity of orientation. Sometimes it seems to shift. A person might strongly identify as gay and then meet that one person of the opposite sex that turns their head. It happens. It still doesn't make it a choice. But it is possible for things to move slightly over time. It's always a bit of a gamble to be dogmatic about who we are as stable, immutable beings. I don't think that's as contentious an idea as it once was. So, can we acknowledge that gender identity might also have the potential for fluidity?

I was recently introduced to the notion of gender identity being on a range from high to low intensity, which I find useful as a concept.

Mine is very low, but I understand the importance of identity being recognized by others. I'm an environmentalist, and that part of my identity has a much stronger intensity, which was revealed to me when someone questioned it, as in, "The fact that you don't own a car is meaningless since you've rented cars and have been a passenger in cars. You're obviously not a real environmentalist." That bothered me far more than someone questioning my gender or orientation.

So, it's vital for people to be able to present themselves as they see themselves, however that is. I could get into a whole can of worms about self-identifying as a writer or actor or expert of some field, but that's a story for another day. Being an environmentalist isn't a direct analogy, merely a means to develop empathy. It can be difficult to understand the importance of something we don't feel ourselves. It makes it no less important if we don't understand the experience; strong feelings around gender identity is not just a trend or a means to feel special. We find ways to elicit a similar emotion in ourselves in order to provoke our compassion when it's hard to understand experiences directly.

But. If gender identity is also potentially fluid over time (I don't mean gender fluid as an identity here), then there's a small chance that someone wanting surgery could have some regrets later on. In fact, it seems for some people that banking on surgery actually changing their lives for the better can lead to profound disappointment. Yet children with gender dysphoria can get hormone blockers at 11 or 12, and surgery at 16.

It feels like something we're not supposed to talk about. It's like talking about people who regret having had an abortion. If we acknowledge it, then it could make abortions harder to access, so we don't talk about it too openly even though it's a very real thing. Although it can be a difficult process, with no guarantees, I feel strongly that both should remain a legal, accessible option. For sexual reassignment surgery, regret seems relatively rare. (I can't find any numbers that I feel confident about - that aren't mired in hyperbolic language.) The few who might grieve their old self shouldn't affect the possibility of help for the many.

This is where I turn a corner into different territory. It's the case that people can get gender reassignment surgery at 16 after consistently indicating they have gender dysphoria. This surgery dramatically affects later childbearing possibilities: Although sperm and eggs can be frozen for later use, it's necessary to have further medical interventions to have children. And some people do regret the decision to have the surgery.

BUT. Young adults who feel strongly that they never want to have children can't get surgically sterilized. They too might regret the decision, and if they do, they too could freeze sperm or eggs for later use just in case. It would require further medical intervention later on, but we accept that risk with gender dysphoria. Or, as one young adult told me, "If I have the surgery now, and later on I want kids, then it forces me to adopt. And if it's difficult to adopt an infant here, I'll have to adopt an older child or a child from another country. If I really want a child, I can care for a child that already exists and doesn't have anyone else to care for it."

When children or teenagers say they identify as a different gender than indicated on their birth certificate, we don't question it. We're fully supportive. But when teenagers or young adults in their early 20s say they never want kids, we universally say, "You will when you're older." Is it the case that 16-year-olds are old enough to know who they are, or isn't it?

Or is this a false analogy? It could be the case that it's more likely for people to be sure about their gender than to be sure about their lifestyle. Yet there are teens who really want kids, and we don't warn them that hey might not when they're older, or that they'll be sorry if they have some (even though they certainly might). We want them to wait for financial and maturity reasons, not because we think they could change their minds. We all really lean in the one direction. Teenagers who fit our cultural and evolutionary norms of development are accepted as knowing their preferred future identity as a parent. Teens who don't fit, clearly don't know their own minds. Funny that.

It's hard for us breeders to understand, but we must accept that experience. It might shift over time; it is possible, but we can't make people live today planning their lives on the off-chance that they'll feel dramatically different decades from now.

Here's the thing. We have a serious population problem, as Suzuki explains here:

If we need to curb our population growth, and there are some teenagers and young adults who want to take permanent action to avoid having children, why in the world do we prevent them? Why make them wait until they're well into their 30s? They can get sexual reassignment surgery or an abortion at 16 (not that the two are in any way related), but have to wait two more decades to get a 20-minute, low risk procedure: a tubal ligation or vasectomy. If we care about the future of our species, then we should want to reduce our population. So, we should actually offer a cash incentive to teenagers willing to be sterilized!

This article details some stories of frustration, as does this one, and this one, and this one. We have the choice to get pregnant, to terminate a pregnancy, and to temporarily avoid a pregnancy, but doctors aren't comfortable with a simple permanent solution until we're almost unable to procreate. Get comfortable, already!

Also check out this Big Think article: "Do Humans have a Moral Duty to Stop Procreating."