Categories
Thoughts

The Myth of the Artist

Originally posted on Christina Webber’s blog found here.

Articles were circulating during the height of the pandemic expressing concern for the future of the creative industries. Headlines warned that the cultural sector had been one of the hardest hit by Covid, and that going forward early career artists and entry-level freelancers would struggle to find work. I read those reports and thought: ‘what’s changed’? Of course, the world has changed – and I don’t wish to minimise the impact of Coronavirus both on a human level and economically – but it’s not like we were inundated with opportunities beforehand. I agree that we need to seriously consider how we remodel after the pandemic, and that many inequalities in existing systems have been brought to light by the restrictions faced by the population and the adaptations that were suddenly made possible because the majority of us were in lockdown. A greater focus on accessibility both on and offline should be born from this, allowing for improved flexibility and provision for previously overlooked audiences: those with access requirements, caring responsibilities, chronic health conditions, those unable to travel into city centres, or travel at all. The digitisation of the creative industries through virtual exhibitions, digital engagement activities, remote learning and accurate, immersive translation of ‘in-person’ experiences for those unable to physically take part – all these things were simply not seen as a priority before Covid and now we’re realising how much can be done when the issue of access is paramount. That stuff is hugely important, and great leaps have already been taken. The programme of activity now available for photographers online? The variety offered by institutions like Street Level Photoworks, who have excelled in offering material online? It’s amazing.

But what I want to focus on in this hopefully short-ish text is the need for further adjustments to be made, and to highlight the perpetuated infeasibility of ‘accessibility’ in an industry that at its foundation relies upon unpaid labour, voluntary contributions, and a system of network-based nepotism that biases those able to physically take part and take risks. There is an unwritten assumption that to be a serious photographer you need to be flexible and comfortable enough to put all your energies into something with no guarantee of pay-off. As we move forward into whatever comes next, we should be careful not to misremember a world where exhibitions were always busy, where opportunities for early-career artists (especially those without certain privileges) were bountiful and lucrative, where commissions were commonplace and where early creators felt a freedom to try and fail. The truth is, it’s tricky to be present in this industry.  It’s tricky to consistently turn up. The last 18 months should not eclipse the reality of photography in Scotland pre-2020, merely because a pandemic has seen the bigwigs struggling and the ‘art world celebrities’ are suddenly also without work.

In 2020 I launched a podcast called Finding Focus, recorded shortly before the pandemic hit the UK. As a co-founder of photography critique group Fresh Focus, I speak to a lot of early career artists. I realised talking to my peers that I was having the same kinds of conversations with multiple people and that behind the scenes most other photographers were struggling too. One of the main messages coming through was that we all felt we’d been under some illusion that to be ‘a photographer’ or ‘an artist’ you had to do this with your whole self, you had to make your sole income only from photography, and that to do otherwise or compromise your time and energy in way was a failure. We all felt a pressure to appear professional, active and engaged, and bowed to an unspoken stigma about any pursuit that wasn’t behind a camera, any part of your life that didn’t fit into a specific ‘artist’ aesthetic. Before leaving University I was told to quit my day job by a tutor who I’m sure was well-meaning, but who couldn’t see that that simply wasn’t an option for me. He believed I needed to put everything into photography to succeed. He believed I needed the freedom and flexibility of being unemployed to be able to make it taking pictures. I knew, over £1k overdrawn after paying off my degree show, that that simply wasn’t an option.

Somehow the ‘myth of the artist’ prevails today: someone comfortable, flexible, prodigious, aloof, able to take risks. That’s just not real. In a world of image-makers changing all the time – where zero hour contracts, funding applications, burnout, bloggers, baristas, residencies, pinterest and polaroids exist all at the same time – why does this fantasy survive? 

I think the ‘shiny’ side of social media fuels the fire; confirming for many that the photography industry is full of competent, successful, happy and commercially savvy individuals who are solely making pictures. Scrolling through my feed I see artists with elaborate exhibitions, carefully considered behind-the-scenes shots of studios and work-in-progress, frames in bubble wrap, and desks draped in sunlight. Is this why the myth of ‘the artist’ persists ? The photographers on my feed don’t sweat, or cry, or stand behind a till. I mean they do, of course, but we don’t see it. And when we don’t see it, we don’t feel like we can talk about it. Considering that social media is the primary way a lot of early photographers network, and for many this may be the only space available to interact with their peers, it can take years to learn that actually you’re not the only one working three jobs, or with kids, or caring for a relative, or battling with your health, or struggling. The merging of professional and personal in online avenues creates an auto-biographical grey area, perpetuating the idea that ‘real’ photographers are worry-less, don’t falter, and don’t compromise. We crave professionalism and so we edit. But what does that achieve, really? We need to reclaim this space.  What exists beneath the surface of Instagram feeds and exhibition catalogues is an art world full of multi-faceted individuals with a range of commitments, skills, priorities, backgrounds and careers. Artists that stack shelves, that campaign, that breast feed, that drive trucks, that answer phones, that regularly, repeatedly, get rejected. For some reason all these brilliant bits get blurred out. Both institutions and practitioners are complicit in this bizarre performance. And in ‘real life’ too – it’s easy to assume that the photographers speaking at events and giving masterclasses don’t also have part-time jobs or other commitments because even if they do it somehow still feels taboo to talk about that. We’re encouraged to discuss our successes and not to linger on the hard graft, or the lucky breaks, or the undeniable privilege that got us there. Only once in my life has someone asked at one of these talks ‘where did the money come from?’ and I was ecstatic.

We have a whole generation of artists putting their best faces forward online on the off chance someone might notice them, see their cultivated professionalism and productivity, and invite them to do paid work. Indignation is muted because everyone wants to make a good impression. Nobody wants to challenge anything for fear of  burning a bridge, digital or otherwise, and everyone remains friends. Facebook friends. Nobody wants to be the first person to point out it’s not really working, especially minority groups, for fear of being branded ungrateful or problematic. It’s uncomfortable and it self-perpetuates – we all believe we’re the only one that hasn’t ‘made it’ yet.

It’s not all about money and it shouldn’t be all about money and yet calling it an industry does assume someone is getting paid. I didn’t pay the contributors to my podcast, but I was very clear with them about that. I didn’t make a penny from this, I never expected to. It wasn’t a profit-making enterprise. But equally, this was only possible because at the time I’d lost all my work. I had nothing else to do so I seized something I wanted to exist and squeezed it into the world. And that’s what I mean about access – when nobody gets paid, we’re instead relying on time. It’s either or. You’ve either got money or you’ve got time. Being ‘an artist’ requires both. How can we talk about accessibility without pointing out what a barrier that is?

Who is making money here? Voluntary roles that are necessary for Festivals and Galleries to operate are advertised as exclusive positions or ‘invaluable opportunities’ for which you have to carefully apply. Invaluable opportunities. All this language is doing is  reinforcing the idea that being picked to work for free is a privilege. I’m not saying that these aren’t meaningful experiences but there seems to exist this idea that if you enjoy doing something and care about it you shouldn’t expect to be paid. Again, I didn’t pay my podcast participants. It’s not definitively exploitative to seek voluntary support. But it’s important these relationships are considered as such – as relationships with a give and take – as opposed to an essential part of a business surviving. If an industry doesn’t work without its volunteers it’s not really working. We have to consider the financial machine behind a lot of these institutions as businesses, and recognise where the money is going, because someone is getting paid. At some point a value judgement has been made which acknowledges the vast appetite in early-career artists and understands it’s not necessary to pay these positions because there will always be those able to do this for free. What’s accessible about that? Those with financial support, those with allowances, those who have been able to put the unpaid time aside – everyone with the flexibility and opportunity and privilege to do so will. And all those people that face barriers here: those with access requirements, with caring responsibilities, those who are unwell, those unable to travel – what about them? Accessibility isn’t just about allowing people to view work. It’s about participation too. There are still so many obstacles in place that make taking part, or taking part for very long, impossible. The system acknowledges that there’s an appetite, and takes advantage of it.

How is this going to change? How can practitioners and institutions engineer a different path for young photographers, for those who face barriers in whatever format between their pictures and a platform? I keep coming back to the idea of changing the perception of what an artist is. Proving that often interesting photographic work often comes from individuals with a diverse remit; with multiple priorities of which ‘making art’ is but one dimension. 

So I return to my initial point: to say that the creative industries are ‘in trouble’ seems to be stating the obvious. If we were looking at this as any other business or commercial entity that can’t afford to pay all its staff it would seem outrageous. It’s unfair to assume that making work is dependent on having the time, space and money to work for free and this shouldn’t be all we see. I’m a huge believer in advocacy, in making things happen, in doing things yourself and I don’t want to shovel all of the blame on the galleries, festivals and competitions that likely believe they are doing their best to support practitioners. We’re all complicit in perpetuating the myth of the artist, and it’s a wider issue of course when we start to thinka bout editing our personas online. But let’s talk about this stuff! We can change the way exhibiting photography works, and lockdown has already kickstarted some of that: more paid online commissions, more flexibility in blended on/offline events programming, transparency on where money is going, transparency too on how you get your work seen, or which publications pay contributors, on which galleries commission new work, shared storage for those without space to store materials, an accessibility officer in every institution, listening events with recent graduates and start-ups to see what support is needed in a fast-evolving climate, low-cost equipment hire, low-cost studio spaces, community-building, more paid reviewers, more paid opportunities in general, and fundamentally more space for failure. Not only can we shed the idea that artists are privileged prodigies who sit all day waiting for inspiration to strike but it also makes the work accessible and available to so many more contributors. Those who can only afford to dedicate a day or an hour at a time to making photographs. We are curating an idea of success that just isn’t realistic. Unless we start to acknowledge the problems we’ve always had, pre-Covid as well as now, we can’t enable real change going forward.

By Christina Webber

Categories
Thoughts

Manmade Nature

There has been a trend as of late to move toward the use of a concept known as “rewilding” to combat climate change and realise a more functional relationship with nature, namely, restarting the ecosystem that may have emerged through evolution and eventual stability in the past. To rewild, as defined by Oxford Languages, is to “restore (an area of land) to its natural uncultivated state (used especially with reference to the reintroduction of species of wild animal that have been driven out or exterminated)”.

Many major bestsellers have followed, advocating such practices such as Rebirding by Benedict Macdonald or Wilding by Isabella Tree (aptly named). In both cases, the authors lay out potential solution, in theoretical or practical/experiential fervour. The latter being a real world example of the rewilding of an estate shows the benefits, the return to nature and subsequent healing it quantifies.

Although beneficial, there is a hidden irony in all of this practice and purpose, the fact being that we humans have to (as the definition even states) introduce a species of wild animal that may have otherwise been driven out or exterminated. Now it is entirely agreeable that the introduction of an animal given its driving out or extermination due to human activities, for example, deforestation, would validate morally and practically a decision of re-introduction. However, as an example, there is talk of resurrection of species that are extinct and which are not extinct completely due to the existence of humans nor the industrial revolution that followed. One company (a privately funded organisation) intends to resurrect the woolly mammoth which they believe could be a tool to fight climate change through their landscape changing abilities. Yes, the woolly mammoth was very much like those rewilding animals being re-introduced today, but the difference being it has been dead for thousands of years. Does it deserve another opportunity? Are humans the one that should make that decision?

The point of all of this is that it could be argued that fundamentally nothing is natural anymore. Humans dictate the boundaries of national parks, forests, nature reserves, local parks, gardens, and any other plot of land deemed non-residential, commercial and/or agricultural. Humans also decide and/or determine what species should be in a given habitat, what species are to be expected in a given habitat, and subsequently what should be re-introduced and therefore exist in a given place. Nature, as we call it, is now manmade and there is no turning back from this. Take our gardens as an example where we’re encouraged to invigorate nature by buying a bird feeder or plant wild flower for bees and butterflies. That in itself is unnatural, the closing off of an area of space, deeming it a garden and artificially subsidising “nature” with something that may otherwise be found if the garden was left ungardenlike without boundary and “care”.

We need to reconsider what is natural and what is not, the use of terms and/or labelling can at times seem pedantic and anal, but it lends understanding in what it is we are trying to achieve with this planet. Currently we are a parasite draining our host of all resource and energy, but soon we need to create a truly natural symbiosis without artificial decision making and subsidisation, instead bringing a balance to things that allows true nature to thrive.

By Anonymous

Categories
Discussions

The Problem of Political Obligation: Benefit Theory as Solution

The question of political obligation asks, why, if at all people are obligated to obey the state? One of many philosophical theories used to answer this question is benefit theory, which operates under the assumption that the state offers special benefits to citizens, and they are therefore morally responsible to obey the state. However, critics of benefit theory suggest that this only justifies the existence of a minimal state, therefore not offering up an explanation for the political obligation that deals with the modern state. So how can one justify the existence of the modern state using benefit theory?

The merit of benefit theory is expressed through those benefits that are provided to the people that promote state obligation. Philosopher Robert Nozick offered a thought experiment in which someone would toss books onto the properties of people in a neighborhood and then demand payment for these books even though none of the neighbors had requested them. Many would suggest that this is not fair, for even though he had provided the books he had no grounds to ask for payment. Nozick offers another thought experiment outlined by George Klosko in his essay “Presumptive Benefit, Fairness, and Political Obligation,” in which a group of neighbors had decided to create a collective entertainment and broadcasting network. These neighbors take turns operating the broadcast, but one of the neighbors, “A,” does not want to give up a day to operate the broadcast even though they still benefit from the entertainment and broadcast. Is this person obligated to operate the broadcast? Many would still argue no. If benefit theory does not hold up against any of these examples, then how can it explain political obligation? The answer lies in the types of benefits that the state provides.

The state provides what are known as presumptive benefits: benefits that are necessary for living a quality life. This includes infrastructure, law, and clean air, as opposed to the benefits that appear in Nozick’s thought experiments. The classification of benefits can be described by two categories: excludability and rivalrousness. If a good is non-excludable this means that the benefit cannot be provided to one without being provided to all. The use of a non-rivalrous good does not impact the ability for others to access the good. An example of a non-excludable, non-rivalrous good would be streetlights. Benefit theory states that obligation is generated when the state provides these kinds of public goods. Excludable, rivalrous, goods such as cars and electronics do not generate obligation to the state. This explains why Nozick’s thought experiments do not generate political obligation, whereas the state providing law enforcement and clean drinking water do.

When benefit theory only applies to what is merely necessary for survival, or what is classified as a presumptive good, many of the actions of the state do not fall into this category and do not generate political obligation. However, the line of what is or is not a presumptive good is controversial. Klosko offers three examples of varying levels of severity that still generate political obligation. The first example is of a person that lives in a territory, X, that is surrounded by hostile territories, Y, that intends on killing the X-ites. The X-ites band together to protect themselves. Here, each person in X has an obligation to fight for the protection of all the X-ites. A less extreme example is that of the people in an arid area that depend on water usage for their agriculture. Therefore, the state imposes restrictions on water usage in daily life (gardening, showering, etc.) in order to conserve water for agriculture. Although the example is less extreme, the benefit of having an agricultural business that feeds and employs the community generates an obligation for the people to obey the state. This benefit, although less extreme, is still presumptive, non-excludable, and non-rivalrous, hence anything that extends beyond these requirements would not generate political obligation. Therefore, the argument for benefit theory can only justify minimal states.

Critics argue that by only justifying a minimal state benefit theory is flawed. However, in modern society, having excludable and rivalrous goods that do not generate political obligation allow for people to consent to whether they will receive these goods. Klosko offers an example of a drinking well being built in a community. Members A, B, C, and D want the well to be built, therefore they cooperate to build the well. After the well is built, they are able to drink from it. Community member E does not specifically want the well, although its existence does not hinder his quality of life at all, and therefore he does not cooperate in the building of the well. After the well’s construction he is unable to drink from the well. E has not consented to the well and therefore did not have to labor for its construction, but he also had no obligation to do so as he will not receive its benefits. Having these private goods that one can both consent to having and to not having allows people to have freedom over whether they must pay, in any respect, to have them or receive their benefit. Therefore, the existence of the private sector can help explain how benefit theory does justify political obligation in a capitalist state.

By understanding the concept of benefit theory and how the types of goods that the state can provide are classified it can be concluded that benefit theory justifies political obligation to a minimal state. Understanding political obligation and why it is that people do obey the state that they live in can better help legislators, and political thinkers, understand what their obligation is as a leader. This also highlights some political discourse about what is and is not beyond the rights of someone that lives under a state’s laws. Do these laws infringe on someone’s rights? Do these infringements benefit the greater good of the community? Are these laws or benefits excludable and non-rivalrous? By understanding these questions, we can have a better understanding of what people are and are not obligated to follow.

By Cora Fagan

Categories
Policy

Changing Electoral Systems in Singapore

Democracies are easily identified by the existence of electoral systems; however, there are distinctions between liberal democracies and illiberal democracies. According to John D Lewis, despite the presence of elections, “decisions simply imposed by a majority,  unaffected by the impact of minorities, cannot be considered genuinely democratic decisions” (Lewis 1940). Modern-day Russia is a traditional example of an illiberal democracy, as Vladimir Putin maintains control of the presidency by manipulating public opinion and elections for his support (Fish 2018). Nevertheless, there are governments capable of maintaining power without this overt undermining of democratic values. One example of this is found in Singapore where the current ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), has amended their electoral system to remain in power. By understanding the types of electoral systems, recommendations can be made to reform the Singaporean system to better represent the wishes of the people.

One distinction between different electoral systems is how many people from a district are represented in the national government. Some countries use single member districts and others use multi-member districts. In a single member district system the state is divided evenly into constituencies that are  represented by one person in the federal government. In a multi-member district system the constituencies are given varying levels of representation determined by the size and population of the constituency (Heywood pg. 409, 2019). Typically, multi-member districts are used in systems wherein the number of representatives from each party is proportional to the percentage of votes that the party received.  Singapore has a unique combination in which they have multi-member districts, but all of the representatives from a district are from one party that received the plurality of votes. The existence of this system is one of the reasons that the PAP has maintained power. In order to understand how this came to be, it is important to examine Singapore’s history.

Singapore is a former British colony, and, similar to other former British colonies, they originally adopted the Westminster system with single member districts (Tan 2013). PAP was originally formed as a radical left-wing party in the early days of Singaporean government. However, it wasn’t until 1968, when Barisian Socialis, a faction of the PAP, staged a mass boycott. This boycott led to the PAP’s clean victory and established their hegemony; the PAP has maintained a supermajority in every election since (Tan 2013). In 1988 PAP ensured their future hold on government by establishing Group Representative Constituencies (GRC) (Ganesean 1998). GRCs are multi-member districts where a party submits a list of four to six people, including at least one ethnic minority, and the constituency votes for their preferred party (Ganesan 1998).

Mandating minority candidates within GRCs means that ethnically homogenous smaller parties can no longer run, and it prevents potential parties from forming on ethnic lines and overtaking the PAP’s seats (Ganesan 1998). Although the GRCs were formed under the guise of increasing minority representation, there is little evidence that suggests the legislature was unequal before the GRCs were formed (Ganesan 1998). The GRC system also means that for a party to gain any representation, they have to win more of the votes than any other party in a large, diverse, district. If they were to win seats in a small district this would be quickly overshadowed by victories of the PAP in large GRCs.

With no other significant opposition party, and severe gerrymandering under the GRC system, voters are either left with no electable alternative to the PAP or no alternative at all (Tan 2013). In 2001 the PAP was running unopposed for 66.9% of voters (Tan 2013 pg. 640). The plurality system in conjunction with the multi-member districts led to a 22.3% electoral disproportionality based on vote and seat shares (Tan 2013 pg. 638). Therefore, in order for Singapore’s democracy to accurately reflect the wishes of the people, this must be reformed.

In order to decrease this disparity Singapore should introduce a single-member district system where the districts are approximately equal in size and population. This way there will not be an overrepresentation of one party that wins in districts with more seats. Reducing a large GRC to a few, smaller, districts will allow some of the areas to elect opposition candidates instead of sending up to six representatives for the entire district from one party. If these smaller parties were able to gain seats in the legislature, they would be able to form coalition governments, or even gain enough seats to act as a check on the ruling party. This is important because as of now, even controversial legislation passes through the House because the PAP has almost all of the seats.

By Cora Fagan

References

Fish, M., 2018. What Has Russia Become?. Comparative Politics, [online] 50(3), pp.327-346. Available at: <Lewis, J., 1940. The Elements of Democracy. American Political Science Review, [online] 34(3), pp.467-480. Available at: <https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1949351.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A8412e28dd8d8068ec51d3f7fac25737d&gt; [Accessed 12 March 2021].> [Accessed 12 March 2021].

Ganesan, N., 1998. Singapore: Entrenching a City‑State´s Dominant Party System. Southeast Asian Affairs 1998, [online] 1998(1), pp.229-243. Available at: <https://www-jstor-org.elib.tcd.ie/stable/pdf/27912206.pdf?ab_segments=0%252Fbasic_search_gsv2%252Fcontrol&refreqid=excelsior%3A4a2ec1b4f08af9711fe806148373df53&gt; [Accessed 12 March 2021].

Heywood, A., 2019. POLITICS. 5th ed. London: Red Globe Press.

Lewis, J., 1940. The Elements of Democracy. American Political Science Review, [online] 34(3), pp.467-480. Available at: <https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1949351.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A8412e28dd8d8068ec51d3f7fac25737d&gt; [Accessed 12 March 2021].

Tan, N., 2013. Manipulating electoral laws in Singapore. Electoral Studies, [online] 32(4), pp.632-643. Available at: <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0261379413001145&gt; [Accessed 12 March 2021].

Categories
Thoughts

Singing birds in sickness, Sing the same blues songs

The title is poignant, a lyric from the band Song: Ohia in a song called Blue Chicago Moon. Fronted by the late Jason Molina who passed prematurely due to alcoholism, the song like many of those sung by him, is deeply seeded with pain and anguish. It’s a seeming pain of a man who maybe could not fit into the world coming up against its increasing modernity, individualism, free marketisms or ill gotten ways. That in itself is a speculation as to know exactly what went through Molina’s head is impossible.

Singing birds in sickness, Sing the same blues song. This lyric stands out and could be applied to the many voices through the ages that cried out in need of help, in warning, or in pain, repeating the bringing to attention a problem at hand. Those that hear the shouts are very often more willing to suggest its a cry of “wolf” than a true warning. It seems particularly fitting in explaining for the recent unsettling existential dread that seems to hang over us. If the Covid-19 pandemic was a fire alarm regarding our changing world, the latest IPCC report on climate change is the fire in the front room. It is more or less around us, the sickness if you will, whilst those in the know continue to sing the same blues song. Are we to continue ignoring it?

I have struggled recently with this seeming existential dread as some have termed it climate anxiety. I think applying such a label is not helpful and narrows focus to climate change and inaction solely, when in reality it’s a combination of many things, at least in my own case.

For example, I seek out philosophy likely to negate my lack of spirituality, but my lack of spirituality feeds my seeking out nihilism and existentialism in philosophy. The political structures of neoliberalism enforcing a culture of individualism, reinforced particularly in the Anglosphere to the point of stressing ownership of property or a home, and the competitiveness of you against others, reduces the sense of community and belonging.

This combination of commonplace belief systems already weighs heavy on many, specifically a lack of spirituality and neoliberalism, which restricts support, economically, socially and therefore fundamentally mentally. It already places many individuals in a position of apparent futility, broken or unmotivated to begin with, existing and occupied by their black mirrors. Couple this with the inaction over climate change, therefore current and coming disasters (even with dramatic action tomorrow) and you have recipe for a generational anxiety or angst, not solely climate related anxiety.

The so called “climate anxiety” is much deeper, it has many structural causes within culture, society and the economy. But some of us continue to Sing the same blues song, whether about climate, politics, economics, society which seems to fall on increasingly deaf ears, with those around us becoming passive and uninterested. The use of general labels introduces categorisation and therefore grouping of individuals reducing scope for collective action for the totality of our problems. Our song should be loud and in every wording so that is understood by many and not reduced to a few.

By Anonymous

Categories
Thoughts

A Way Out of the “Black Hole” of News

I grew up on a tiny island. Driving from one end to the other took around an hour and a half if the traffic was good. It was extremely conservative, but it put up a liberal front for the tourists. “Guilt-free trip to the Middle East!” it seemed to say, “Arab culture without all that pesky oppression.” If I was fully American, I would have had the time of my life. Unfortunately, I was also Bahraini and the relaxed “Arab-lite” image that had been so carefully constructed began to fall apart.

Peaceful protests started popping up all over the country. It was like a huge party to 8-year-old me. Hopeful voices all around me, finally the government would listen to us. The king didn’t have to go! We could have a constitutional monarchy like Britain. There were huge community cook-outs, I banged drums, shouted chants, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. This lasted a month.

I wasn’t there for what came next, but I remember it in the first person. My mind must have pieced together memories from pictures, videos, things I heard later. My dad was there working as a journalist for the Associated Press. His memories are real. We were gathered at a huge statue that had become a symbol of the rebellion. The riot police attacked without warning. They fired tear gas into the crowd who panicked, trampling each other. They shot the stragglers. Years later, I saw the videos. Boys bleeding on the ground _ a man, wounded, staggering toward the police. They shot him twice more in the stomach from two meters away. My neighbor was the first person shot that day.

After that, things changed. You couldn’t talk anymore, my American life and Bahraini life became two separate worlds. Phones were bugged, houses were bugged. My parents sat up until dawn waiting for the riot police to raid our house. We were lucky. I got used to the smell of tear gas and burning rubber, I stopped noticing the sound of gunshots. My dad went to a lot of funerals. I have a memory of the body of a cousin who was so swollen and bruised you couldn’t see his face. I wonder if I would have recognized him anyway, I didn’t know him that well. Two meters in front of me, a young boy got shot. The canister sank into his stomach and heavy tear gas flowed from the wound. I buried that memory and kept living. My life was normal. I was happy and optimistic. I didn’t know any other way of living.

I once heard my mother describe Bahrain as a black hole for news. A tweet could land you a jail sentence. Image was very important to the Bahraini government. They maintained friendly relations with other world leaders, and aside from a few petitions no global action was taken against them. 

My dad was a photojournalist. The government tried to buy him and he refused. Eventually, he was banned from working. We lived for two years scraping by. We heard rumors that he would be arrested or killed. We moved to Cyprus.  

I had lived in fear since I was eight. Without that fear to support me I didn’t know how to function. I joined a school for musical theatre and started to dance for the first time. Slowly I learned that there were other motivations. I could suddenly breathe _ surrounded by bright lights, sweat, smiles, and people who shared my dreams and passions. I spoke to them freely, knowing they couldn’t turn me in even if they’d wanted to.

I had a voice. I immersed myself in politics, educated myself on LGBTQ+ rights, and accepted my sexuality. I talked and talked at anyone who would listen. Sharing opinions without fear of retribution is exhilarating. I marched for gay rights, against climate change, for the rights of migrant workers. Every time I march, that old fear comes back, but slowly my triggers are gaining new associations. Smoke can be fog as well as tear gas, you can march to Lady Gaga as well as desperate chants, and not all angry teenagers become martyrs.

By Safiya Jamali

Categories
Questions

What is Terrorism?

Terrorism is without a doubt one of the most elusive and contentious terms in the political lexicon, and the question “what is terrorism?” is situated at the centre of most discourse on terrorism. The existence of multiple definitions of terrorism highlights the indefinite answer to this question and reveals the profound influence of power dynamics in the application of such labels. In many ways, the meaning and significance of terrorism is constructed and determined by the subjective viewpoint of whoever defines it at any given time, which fluctuates depending on the socio-political conditions in which they live, as well as their frame of reference.

Why does this matter?

Terrorism’s lack of comprehensive meaning has not only hindered the possibility for a more analytical and dispassionate approach, but its apparent malleability as a concept has created a vacuity for actors (state and non-state alike) to define what terrorism is according to their unique political and tactical involvements in both the international and internal arena. 

In this way, government bodies and associated terrorism academics are selective about what constitutes terrorism, producing terrorist activity and publicity in a way that functions to serve Western state interests. As Saul (2006) duly states, “the more confused a concept, the more it lends itself to opportunistic appropriation”.

The Global Terrorism Database (GTD), for example, defines terrorism as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by non-state actors to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation”. The GTD, which is maintained by the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, notably excludes the significant violence and terrorism that is committed by governments and state militaries, reflecting the selective processes, social biases and power-relations associated with specific interpretations of terrorism.

State-terrorism and the Contra War

Taking a more analytical approach highlights the bias and subjectivity rooted in mainstream perceptions of terrorism supported by Western states and exposes the harmful implications of such a narrow, restrictive conceptualisation of terrorism.

To use a historical example, the Contra War in Nicaragua under the Reagan administration (1981 -1989) is a prime example of U.S. control over the labelling of state-terrorism, which was alternatively defined as “internal defence” and “counter-insurgency” for the purpose of containing the spread of communism. The Contras were a U.S.-sponsored paramilitary group who were armed, trained, and financed by the U.S. to combat the revolutionary left-wing Frente Sandinista Liberación Nationale (FSLN) guerrillas, using tactics such as murder, rape, mutilation, kidnapping, and destruction. 

This supposed U.S. counterinsurgency was described euphemistically by the government as “coercive diplomacy”, yet if terrorism is indeed defined as “the threat or actual use of illegal force and violence”, then why are these acts not labelled as such when committed by the state? Accordingly, Richards states, “one danger is that if terrorism is not so clearly defined, the powers of the state may extend very far indeed”.

During this time, the Reagan administration was involved in a propaganda campaign in an attempt to portray the Contras in a positive light, while covertly funding and encouraging them to use terrorist tactics. This labelling (or non-labelling) of terrorism by the state functioned to align with state-endorsed definitions of terrorism, and these state-sponsored acts of terrorism are described by Chomsky as “a form of low-intensity conflict that states undertake when they find it convenient to engage in war without being held accountable for their actions”. This served to legitimise the actions of U.S. state-sponsored groups and undermine the civilian population and victims of terrorism in Latin America, as well as grant the U.S. acquiescence and detach the state from explicate acts of terrorism. 

What implications does this have for wider society?

Despite the West being the main source of terrorism in recent years, it has managed to deflect the terrorist indictment onto its victims, through construction of semantics that serve its ends, which is largely supported by opinion forming circles (namely the mass media). The Western model of terrorism views the West as an innocent target and victim of terrorism and maintains the view that it only responds to others’ use of violence.

It is clear that power dynamics and subjectivity are heavily entrenched in the usage of the term terrorism. It is frequently used as a pejorative epithet, and its subjective usage has become a notable impediment to achieving a universal definition of the term. The termsterrorism and terrorist hold intrinsically negative connotations and are laden with condemnation that is usually applied to one’s adversaries, seeking to delegitimise their political motives. Hence, the decision to label an organisation or individual as terrorist is an inherently partisan undertaking — definitions of terrorism are entirely dependent on who defines them, who controls these definitions, and why such definitions are used.

The realisation that self-interests and strategic objectives of the state are entangled in mainstream conceptions of terrorism is of paramount importance, and there are countless modern-day parallels to the above example of the Contra War. Most interpretations of what terrorism is are produced by and for the dominant, rendering both victims of state-terrorism and oppressed communities powerless in the construction of alternative discourses. 

The powerful (namely the state) are arguably the most responsible for actions of political violence, but if they maintain purchase on foreign policies and intellectual resources that shape and establish dominant discourses on terrorism, they will do so in their own favour, which affects wider society in both explicit and covert ways. 



References

  • Chomsky, N. (2003) Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
  • Global Terrorism Database (2018) Available at: https://www.start.umd.edu/research-projects/global-terrorism-database-gtd
  • Greene, A. (2017) “Defining Terrorism: One Size Fits All?” in International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 66 (2). pp. 411-440.
  • Richards, A. (2013) Conceptualising Terrorism. London: UEL Research Repository.

By Molly Wallace

Categories
Policy

Problems with the Paris Agreement

International climate change agreements formed under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have strived for decades for states to collectively commit to emissions reductions targets, which has proven to be an extremely onerous undertaking. 

Different national interests and disparities in states’ economic development resulted in the implementation of a “common but differentiated responsibilities” principle, which granted developing nations the flexibility to increase their emissions while more developed nations were expected to reduce theirs. The first legally-binding agreement on this was the Kyoto Protocol (1997), wherein member states committed to emissions reductions equivalent to 18 percent below the emission levels in 1990. Nations such as China and India, which, at this time were undergoing fast-paced development, were not included in these commitments, which resulted in the U.S. refusing to ratify in 2001.

After much negotiation, a new climate agreement which included all nations was formed under the UNFCCC in Paris in 2015. This was seen as a positive step for the climate, but the Paris Agreement’s structure and its ability to tackle climate change have proven to be inadequate at best, and calamitous to the environment in actuality.

What does the Paris Agreement say?

As stated in Article 2, the Paris Agreement is aimed at “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”. However, the Agreement took a unique approach to achieving this – rather than setting legally-binding targets for emissions reductions, all states involved were required to set “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) and undertake “ambitious efforts” which would “represent progression over time” to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. 

Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement does not aim to achieve multilateral uniformity in all states’ emissions reductions but grants these decision-making powers to the states individually. Its NDC approach and “bottom up” structure is imperative to understanding the Paris Agreement’s acknowledgement of national sovereignty, as these allow states the flexibility to determine their own objectives for emissions reductions and climate-change measures based on their economic makeup and developmental stature. 

Why is the Paris Agreement problematic?

Article 4 (3, 9) and Article 14 of the Paris Agreement state that the “nationally determined contributions” of each state must be reviewed and increased every five years in regular “stock takes” and “each Party’s successive nationally determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution”. The volitional nature of the Paris Agreement relies on an Enhanced Transparency Framework, which allows it to function as a soft procedural agreement, meaning that parties must hold each other responsible instead of a legal compliance mechanism. The setting of targets by states themselves and reporting on their progress is mandated under the Paris Agreement, but the strictness and willingness to set and reach these targets is completely voluntary. This voluntary mechanism lacks cogency on both commitment and enforcement, and forgoes environmental integrity. These articles of the Paris Agreement promote a problematic incentive for states to act in their own national interests and to set their initial targets low in order to better facilitate an increase of these targets in five years’ time. 

Statistics indicate that there was an increase of 1.7 percent in global carbon emissions in 2017, and 2.7 percent in 2018 despite the implementation of the Paris Agreement. It is clear that many more economically developed states are failing to take adequate responsibility for their destructive influence on the changing climate, and set extremely weak NDCs to combating climate change. Some states (such as Singapore) also misrepresent their development status in order to continue to pollute. Analysis of the 184 pledges set for 2030 revealed that up to seventy-five percent of these are insufficient. Large emitters such as China and India are set to have even higher emissions by 2030, and the second largest emitter, the U.S. (although it withdrew from the Agreement under the Trump administration and rejoined under the Biden administration), also submitted a pledge which was too low. There are absolutely no consequences for those who fail to meet targets, misrepresent the state’s developmental status, or leave the Agreement (as seen in the case of the U.S.), which highlights not only the lacklustre nature of the Paris Agreement, but the unadulterated complacency and exploitation of the Agreement by member states.

What does this mean for the environment?

It is worth noting that even if all governments actually met their targets set in the Paris Agreement, it is calculated that the world would still experience 3°C of warming. However, this warming is likely to be even greater since most countries are not taking adequate action to achieve their targets. As such, the Paris Agreement’s NDC approach, which is aimed at respecting national sovereignty, encourages states to act in their own self-interests and disregard the Agreement, which is having an adverse effect on the climate.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in order to reach a trajectory which would limit the rise in the global average temperature to 1.5°C or 2°C, the global economy must reduce carbon emissions in order to achieve fifty percent less by 2030, and net-zero carbon by 2050, after which it must go carbon-negative. The changes required to meet these targets are sizeable, and require governments to act on a larger and more accelerated level than they currently are.

The changing climate is an issue which affects all of humanity, no matter their politics, nationality and beliefs. The Paris Agreement has already demonstrated itself to be an extremely inadequate mechanism for combatting climate change, and now, six years on, countries must face consequences for their lack of commitment and reciprocity, or the Agreement must be replaced.

What could be changed?

Creating international climate agreements with strong incentives for states to participate in is undeniably difficult. The central flaw of the Paris Agreement is its NDC approach to reducing emissions, which has been severely undermined by states’ self-interest, and has become detrimental to tackling climate change. A mechanism is needed to quicken the pace of climate action taken by governments, whilst also providing them with incentives to participate fully in the climate change prevention process.

Perhaps states can accomplish more collectively, rather than acting independently (as with the NDC approach of the Paris Agreement). Structural change is of paramount importance if an effective international climate change treaty is to be created, and a voluntary agreement should be discarded in favour of one that has visible incentives for countries to participate, reach targets, and to remain members of such a treaty. 

For future international climate change treaties, a “club” model would be beneficial, as nations that do not participate may be penalised or excluded at a low cost to club members. Reforming the Paris Agreement into a “climate club” may be a useful strategy to tackle the problems of climate change and to discourage states’ self-interested actions, whilst also promoting their shared responsibility in climate change action, which would be a welcome amelioration during this challenging period of extreme climate change.

References

by Molly Wallace

Categories
Discussions

The Exposure to Excess Information

The current environment socially, economically and politically is dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since its onset, the people of every country on Earth have had to adapt in one way or another, adhering to rules likely restricting their freedoms, adopt habits, take a hit mentally and economically, or begin a form of conspiracy mongering and resistance that, in many cases, was met with the breaking of relationships and societal shunning.

It is the latter aspects that is most contentious, that is the conspiracy mongering of and resistance to vaccination and compliance to rules. Some believe that that the virus is not real, or is a cover for the effects of 5G technology, is a means of control through the vaccination with government and corporation pulling the levers, with endless other variations. Others are resistant to the compliance of rules, particularly in the United States, due to the barriers to liberty that these apparently symbolise, and therefore resist otherwise through non-adherence. Both seem equally destructive especially in the harmful forms of protest many individuals in these beliefs utilise.

For argument’s sake, however, could it be information that is the problem here? The access to the Internet, an endless stream on everything anyone could ever think of, is both humanity’s likely greatest achievement, but also in many cases its literal downfall. Look to the use of the Internet by major corporations – more or less, monopolies controlling whole portions of the UI and content presentation on the of the Internet (think Facebook and Google) – effectively handing tools to dictators, amongst other nefarious players, to do as they please turning the masses into followers. But for argument’s sake, is it the individuals fault or the corporation and its leadership? The human brain is not built for the extensiveness of information the Internet holds, and the human condition leads to the taking of the path of least resistance in many cases. If told X and X seems to fit into individual A’s perspective or understanding of reality, then A is going to take X as true, especially if the supplemental information suggests X is the reason why Y and Z occur or exist or what have you.

The point is the extent and breadth of information at users’ disposal allows the taking of a narrative, one that fits their world view, their reality. The overexposure to information through the media and Internet exasperates this as if, if there is something not fully understood, the individual can withdraw and retract in their niche corner of the informational realm in which they are reinforced and reassured by others as to whether or not their reality is true, which effectively acts as an echo chamber of anonymous agreement.

The reason this is being addressed is that in the case of vaccinations, not one but two (AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson) have been found to cause blood clots in some patients, to the extent that some medical regulators are now advising warnings on the vaccines. This is fuel to the fire of conspiracy. But it’s the current climate of continued coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought this to everyone’s attention. The counting of daily deaths, the progress of vaccination trials, everything is under a lens day-in, day-out. Many simple medications have had catastrophic impacts on individuals. Penicillin, an antibiotic, is often used to treat all sorts of illnesses, however, it is estimated that as much as 2% of the UK population are allergic and therefore could die on taking it. That’s a potential 1,333,000 people. However, there are no resistances (or at least if there are any they are not significant) to the use of antibiotics, penicillin in particular. There are no conspiracies surrounding them and someone visiting their doctor regarding an ailment will happily redeem their prescription and take their antibiotic with no questions asked.

These scenarios leave questions to be asked of what is the over-exposure of information doing to cause this apparent cognitive dissonance, in adherence and acceptance. Is it the sources of information, the reinforcement of one’s peers in world view, a true belief in liberty, fact in some cases, political leaning, a misunderstanding or incapability in understanding?

by Maurizio J Liberante

Categories
Discussions

Brexit: Political Sovereignty or Economic Prosperity

The United Kingdom left the European Union entering the year 2020. The country subsequently entered a transition period in which they would continue to have access to the Single Market, allowing unfettered trade access, and the other benefits of EU membership such as free movement of people for the duration of the period. A free trade deal was finally struck on the 24th December (the figurative 11th hour) when the UK would have crashed out of the temporary continued trading measures with no deal whatsoever.

However, this deal has come under a great deal of scrutiny, particularly by industries that were significant advocates of Brexit, specifically the taking back of control of rules and regulations governing practices in the United Kingdom. The taking back of sovereignty if you will. But it is ever clearer the trend over the past number of years toward nationalist sentiment, a degree of introversion, is working against what is likely of more importance moving forward.

It has been reported in the past week that the new customs checks that traders or hauliers must go through in order to trade with the EU has led to many companies refusing to either deliver or export to or from the EU. This is due to increases in costs caused by delays and the required documentation in order to successfully transport goods without the potential refusal of entry or in some cases destruction of some product. Of course these delays are detrimental to time constrained goods, such as fish and seafood. The longer left the more likely these goods in particular will expire. Even in the dead of winter as we are currently (at the time of writing).

Subsequently this led to protests amongst fishermen and demonstrations made against government to help due to £1000s worth of product having to be disposed of. Interestingly though fishing in itself was an industry that advocated Brexit for the reasoning of being able to take back control of British waters, of sovereignty over British waters allowing the upping of fishing quotas and therefore revenues generated. In the short term, however, since this change in quota is being implemented over a number of years, these fishermen are met with a new environment of not being able to compete effectively with their European counterparts due to the inevitable restrictions they called for in Brexit. Many fishermen may fall into financial ruin as a consequence even if these issues in trade can be ironed out in the medium term.

But what then does this have to do with political sovereignty and economic prosperity? It could be argued that the idea of a standalone political sovereignty, one tied to a sole nation state is non-existent in the 21st century. Over the course of the 20th century increasing globalisation has eroded nation states to the point of being second in power and reach to multilateral institutions such as the EU or NATO. Even if a nation state, such as the UK, was to remove jurisdiction of a higher governmental institution such as the EU, as it has, it still succumbs to the international order of things. In practice, the taking back of political sovereignty, of apparent self-determination sounds attractive, synonymous with freedom in individualistic and liberal democracies such as the UK and the US. Nonetheless, the reality is self-determination in today’s world requires bi-lateral and multi-lateral co-operation.

These fishermen may have the rights in the long term (if successful in weathering the current impacts being had on the UK industry as a whole) to fish more, but the reality is they need the multi-lateral cooperation of their government of which they believe instils their political sovereignty. Without the effective economic co-operation and therefore giving away of “sovereignty” to other nation states, the individual, the introverting nation state, must sacrifice economic prosperity. Obviously, this is if the individual or nation state is willing to do so then so be it.

Though it can be argued that the loss of economic prosperity is in itself a loss of political sovereignty. The loss of the trading relationship, the complete freedom of movement of goods, means these fishermen cannot do what they want because their product can be replaced, their trading relationship found elsewhere. Nation states move backwards in decisions like Brexit, the rights the British people have lost both economically and politically have proven true in the loss of ease of trade, business and competitive edge. The British are subject to less opportunity, less prosperity, and thus less executable rights with less wealth of which they could have used to insure their rights, better opportunity and sustain prosperity.

by Maurizio J Liberante