I feel like it’s all falling apart.

I mean this both as a diagnosis of the social moment, and as a description of my private life.

In my private life, which is to say in my personal relationships, multiple things have happened over the last year, the last month, the last few days, which have revealed to me two things: just how brittle any apparent community consensus really is, and to what extent the majority of folks’ political views are grounded more in antagonism and opposition to some big other (i.e. “US Imperialism”), rather than in a cross-contextual commitment to a set of values and principles. I’m amazed at just how many “left wing” folks are ready to equivocate between Trump and the existing American elite. I’m also amazed at how my Facebook wall remains full of posts about refugees that appear to be set in 2003 (meaning, they take the US invasion of Iraq as the contemporary crime to be opposed). I’m stunned at an old friend’s flirtation with the alt-right, to the point where she wouldn’t deny being a Trump supporter. I’m floored by my inability to have real conversations with people I disagree with, that don’t break down into metaphysical-like opposition, and I have to mobilize huge amounts of emphasis on human relations to avoid fracturing (I think this is what Victor Turner referred to as “anti-structure). Unfortunately, there isn’t always enough anti-structure to go around.

In my observation of the political environment, political issues in general appear more and more to have this fracturing character. The election, that goes without saying. But other things too – Syria, the Jordan Peterson controversy. It’s starting to seem like the normal paradigm for discursive politics is one of characterizing any substantial critique of your position as symptomatic of a person being subhuman. Peterson in theory is against this (and his lectures on authoritarianism I believe remain relevant and helpful), and yet in his public life he practices precisely what he denounces: standing as a sort of prophet of the apocalypse, he is unable to heed any criticism of himself, and dismisses those who oppose him with a logic eerily similar to anti semitism (this secret kabal of neo-marxists, as a subconscious collectivity are conspiring to take over the university and the country).

On the topic of Syria, the levels of abandonment are just appalling. This week has brought a series of major breakthroughs for the regime in Aleppo. This is, many are saying, really the end to the Revolution. And I don’t mean to say no one cares – there is tons of mainstream media coverage. But in terms of my Facebook feed, only the usual suspects continue to post about Syria. I haven’t seen a single person who doesn’t regularly post about Syria post anything this week about the increasingly genocidal situation in Aleppo. Actually that’s not true, one person did today, sharing a post I had made about the Canadian government’s attempt to get a UN General Assembly Resolution through to call for a stop to the slaughter and aid to the residents of East (Rebel-held) Aleppo. A topic which, by the way, I have not heard discussed by anyone, despite its obvious relevance for Canadians. For the most part, what I continue to see are a kind of de-contextualized leftist fetishism – posts about Castro, posts about how if white people didn’t want to deal with immigrants they shouldn’t have colonized the globe.

Some folks have argued that the concept of “virtue signalling” is itself virtue signalling, but I don’t think that’s true. Actually what this comes down to is the question: is it possible to act authentically, or is all action a priori a kind of performance constructed for an audience. Or, in other words, is it relevant whether one’s performance is self-consciously a performance, is there any difference between conscious and non-conscious forms of manipulation? I would say that there is, and anyone who says there isn’t is lying because you can’t deal with people in every day life without assuming they are being genuine with you – and when you realize someone is being manipulative, it totally changes the way you deal with them. This means Butler is wrong about performativity, and that people like Goffman and Turner have a much better understanding of it. Which is to say, an understanding of performativity that understands “performance” as one mode of human behaviour amongst others, rather than the character of human action as such.

Is there a link between the left’s adoption of Butler’s theory of performativity over the dramaturgical tradition and the current atmosphere of the acceleration of social fracture? Perhaps if we add to this its stepchild on the right – the post-truth. Or, “truthiness” – Colbert has argued that post-truth is a rip off of his earlier concept, and I think it’s pretty clear that he’s right. This is also a practical implementation of the post-structuralist insight that there is no limit to the number of ways you can interpret a text, although I think fewer on the right have actually read Derrida. Except, on the right, it isn’t that authenticity doesn’t matter (i.e. no distinction between performativity and genuine utterances), but rather that it’s all that matters, a kind of back to late 18th century France emphasis on the genuineness of aesthetic feeling (quick: someone tell the Trump supporters that their aesthetic epistemology set off the French Revolution). But it amounts to the same thing: instead of virtue signalling that depends on the absence of hypocricy, you have the direct appeal to gut feeling, which is allowed to be hypocritical (see: the election of Trump despite his constant exposure as a hypocrite). In both cases there is no room for third parties to critique the relationship between word and object: in the first case because the word links primarily to a holistic, non-contradictory system of articulated beliefs, and in the second because the word links primarily to an aesthetic capacity for judgement which, because it exists in a world of contradictions, can’t be held accountable for making mistakes.

Of course, all these fracturings, there is a social-science tendency in me to want to be able to read them as symptomatic of underlying processes, an example of which I have just put forward. But at the same time, the articulation of those processes in discourse re-inforces, more often than not, versions of those same fracturings. A vicious cycle between normativity and knowledge increases the difficulty of articulating the problems which need to be worked on. The caricaturizing of the description of problems as the problem turns solutions into problems, and poses as solutions remedies which themselves propagate problems.

I want to continue to believe in the power of language to comprehend complex processes taking place in social and political life. And, I want to continue to believe in the common humanity of my brethren as their ability to undertake such a comprehensive project together, both discursively and in practical engagement on levels like community building, collective discussion and political organizing. But it is become increasingly difficult to hold this belief. I’m feeling the need to restrict this level of activity to increasingly tight circles of friends – in essence, to people who stand on the same side as me on a whole set of these fragmented political issues, as well as on the same side as me in terms of the attitude towards fragmentation as such (which is itself a divisive position). This feels like a defensive step. A step in the direction of preservation rather than enhancement. A step on the trail of conservatism, rather than boldly pursuing social progress. A step to the right?

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Peter Singer is out to lunch on Gaza

Yesterday, Peter Singer published this article discussing the morality of Israel’s recent war with Palestinians in Gaza. Normally, I am a fan of Singer’s work which usually contains a high degree of moral seriousness. However, in this piece, his moral seriousness is undermined by his uncritical acceptance of Israeli talking points:

“Israel, blaming Hamas, arrested hundreds of its members in the West Bank, though it has never explained the basis of its accusation.”

Why is Singer taking Israel’s word that the people it arrested are actually members of Hamas?

“The Israeli government may have seized on the outrageous murders as a pretext for provoking Hamas into a response…Hamas responded to the West Bank arrests with a barrage of rockets that reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem”

This goes from mischaracterization to flat out lie. Hamas was responding not only the arrests, but several days of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, which were a violation of the 2012 ceasefire it had signed with Israel.

“In firing rockets at Israel, Hamas invited a military response. A country subject to rocket attacks from across its border has a right to defend itself”

Unfortunately for Singer, this logic actually defends the Hamas rocket attacks, because its land was under attack by Israeli rockets.

“Hamas’s strategy of launching rockets from residential areas and storing them in schools”

While some rockets were found in schools, there is no evidence that this represents a “strategy”. The actions of the few, acting against the institutional norms and orders, don’t constitute an institutional strategy.

“Israel has legitimate military objectives in Gaza: to stop the rockets and destroy the tunnels.”

These are not legitimate military objectives. They are legitimate political objectives, which can legitimately be pursued militarily if there are no other means possible. However, Hamas has offered another means: stop the siege of Gaza. Which is, not incidentally, a crime.

Singer’s failure to overcome the media talking points on Gaza might tell us something fundamental about the gap between ethics and politics: perhaps ethics is asking difficult questions about right and wrong when the facts are not themselves up for question (or, when whether the facts are up for question is itself known, and becomes an ethical problem itself). Politics, on the other hand, is the world where ethically relevant facts are manipulated by public relations armies, which if they do their job right will result in otherwise good people affirming processes which are in fact unjust.

Singer is a decent philosopher, and he’s actually more politically engaged than average because he takes the uncontested but ignored facts about cruelty towards non-human animals and draws ethical implications from them. However, on political matters where it is already taken for granted by everyone that the lives at stake are valuable, he can not avoid the manipulative representations of power structures which results in blaming the victim, and representing the problem as the solution.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this article is, however, that he begins with a recognition of the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but then denies that it has any relevance to morally understanding the current conflict.

“Different answers to that question are possible. Some depend on answers to prior questions about the founding of the state of Israel, the circumstances that led to many Palestinians becoming refugees, and responsibility for the failure of earlier efforts to reach a peaceful solution. But let us put aside these questions – which have been explored in great depth – and focus on the moral issues raised by the latest outbreak of hostilities.”

Rather than ignoring context, and taking media talking points as a given, I would expect from Singer (and from any serious philosopher) an original interpretation of the situation on the basis of that context, and ideally one that uses thinking to break through media taboos which make our public discourse anemically ritualistic, and unable to hold power to account and stop the perpetual reproduction of injustice at which we sigh but fail to confront.

Towards a non-vacuous concept of “Just Peace”

All parties in conflict want peace. Oppressed groups want peace in the sense of the end of their oppression, which they interpret as a continuation of war, whereas oppressor groups want peace and quiet, in the sense of the absence of any rebellion against the oppression they instituted through mechanisms of pacification. Calls for “peace” without reference the context, or the terms of peace have, politically speaking, no content, and certainly cannot be assumed to contain anything like “justice”. At best they are context-poor expressions of a desire to see the end of the most extreme forms of human suffering, at worse, they are affirmations of mechanisms pacification towards oppressed people who refuse to let oppression be carried on in an atmosphere of peace and quiet. Worse, the concept of “justice” has no special relationship with “peace”, because a “just war” is only as far away as some example of rebellion you consider justified.

Generally, the problem with both these concepts, “peace” and “justice”, is that there is a tendency, we might even speak of an incentive to call for their implementation without specifying their content. The more we say what we mean by “justice”, the more we specify the terms for “peace”, the more we risk division, disagreement. In other words, there is an incentive, especially in online environments where the gladiatorial nature of the public space is more explicit than usual, to avoid saying what we mean by things, to avoid conflict by allowing each to interpret a value such that the appropriateness of that value obtains for them. Baudrillard talks about this in terms of his concept, (or his interpretation of Reagan’s concept) of the “silent majority”:

Microgroups and individuals, far from taking their cue from a uniform and imposed decoding, decode messages in their own way. They intercept them (through leaders) and transpose them…contrasting the dominant code with their own particular sub-codes, finally recycling everything passing into their own cycle…

We perhaps should see the incentive to speak in a way that avoids conflict as the object side of a coin to the tendency to re-interpret in terms of a particular sub code forms the subject side. And “flame wars” are perhaps just one kind of symptom that manifests when our normal agreement to sustain this two-sided mechanism of non-interaction, breaks down. No one wants flame wars, but also, none of us should want rhetorical exchanges based on false manifestations of agreement, from the perspective of the desire for the genuine interaction of interpretive perspectives, these are both disasters.

Instead, I would suggest, and I think is especially relevant for philosophers desiring to influence the public discourse, that when we assert the need for “just peace”, to be as explicit as possible concerning which prescriptions we believe must be implemented in order for a state of affairs to qualify as both just and peaceful, and also to be as thoughtful as possible concerning the mechanism for instituting of those prescriptions, including the contradictions and conflicts that can be predicted to arise from their implementation.

Beamish historical park: a living history of life and class realities in Northeast England

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I’ve always loved living-history museums. Growing up I was lucky enough to visit many in Canada – grand ones like Heritage Park in Calgary and Fort Steele in south eastern B.C., and smaller ones closer to home – Burnaby Village and Fort Langley (both in the greater Vancouver area) come to mind. When I was four I also visited Beamish, a living history museum in the Northeast of England, while on a family trip. Now back in England, visiting the same family, I’ve had the chance to make a second visit.

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I’m not sure if I can sum up in a sentence what museums are for, but in my view living history museums give you a sense of what they should be for – granting you a felt as well as cognitive sense of how people lived in difference places and times. Of course there are limitations – we know so little about ancient times that a living history museum of, for example, Ancient Greece, would really tell us a lot more about ourselves than about the Greeks. This perhaps explains why living history museums tend to be started by people who still have a lived connection to the history displaced, and why they tend to be started only a generation or two after the oldest time portrayed on the site.

Beamish focuses on the Northeast of England during the height of industrialism. The large site, mostly farmland on rolling hills, is dotted with villages enacting different periods and different forms of live. Set in 1900 there is a town, railway station, a mining (“pit”) village, and a coal mine. In the 1820s there is a manor house, a farm, and a steam powered wagonway (early term for railway). There is also 1940’s (wartime) “home farm”. There are plans to add a Georgian area, as well as one set in the 1980s. Since the last time I visited Beamish was in the 1980s, I found that last one a bit of a shock, but really it shows the commitment of the place to be relevant in an ongoing way.

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Because it shows sites from different periods, it’s possible to make comparisons as to how people from different socio economic classes lived in different periods. I was absolutely floored to discover that an average mine worker from 1900 might live with 14 children, his wife, and grandparents in what basically amounts to one room and a loft – and yet, keep a parlor the same size again as the cooking/living area for use only on high days and holidays. Also, there was nothing meek about the way the mine workers house was decorated – if I wasn’t told it was a mine workers house, and I’d seen it only from the inside, I think I would have guessed it was a middle class house for a small family in the city. Decorated with quite ornate goods (both in the living area and the rarely used parlour), it felt aspirational, as if the whole place was laid out to convince (guests? themselves?) that the family was richer than they really were. And they really were not that rich: they did not own their home, and if for any reason no people in the house were any longer working in the mine (including if the workers were killed in a mining accident), they had to be out of the house in five days, so it could be ready for the replacement worker. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened in Britain if mine workers had put as much effort into organizing against capitalism as they did into pretending to be wealthier than they were. (This insight obviously applies equally, if not infinitely more so, to people today).

There is a standard way to talk about the lives we discover in historical museums: to say “oh dear, their lives were so hard, I can’t imagine living like that”. I used to repeat this kind of talk, and of course, it’s completely true: we are totally dependent on the most modern of privileges, we can’t imagine living without all the consciences of home. Cars, vacations, computers, appliances, these all cost huge amounts of our meager earnings, and yet we don’t want to go without. Living a washing machine, who could imagine? (Besides some hipsters in Brooklyn, who I’m sure have taken up hand washing as some kind of D.I.Y. craze).

Trying to think in a way that is a little more wordly, however, this “oh their lives were so hard” talk starts to feel deeply disingenuous. Why should I pity the life of a mine worker in 1900, a mine worker who could afford to have a parlour which he only used on Christmas and Easter, when the keyboard I’m typing on was made by someone who I’m basically certain is much materially poorer than he was? And as for working conditions, yes industrial age working conditions were bad – but there are still no global standards for industrial labor or resource jobs. Am I sure that the miners who worked to get all the specific metals required for my phone and computer had working conditions any better than miners in Britain in 1900? Or even 1800?

We look at the lives of people who lived earlier in our societies and see the hardship and struggle, and feel good about ourselves because things are so much better today. And they are, for us at least. But this can lead to a vulgar progressivism – to be honest we should think not only about how what is called “development” has made some people’s lives better, but also other’s lives worse. Who gets included or excluded when a new standard of living is achieved?

This hypocrisy in the way we perceive the living museum reveals problem of global capitalism from the perspective of labour is, in a nutshell, that trade and production is global but regulation is local. Coal is no longer mined in the U.K. in large quantities, not because the coal ran out, but because (and I know this isn’t the only reason) increased standards for workers safety and the high standard of living of workers makes U.K. coal production uncompetitive on the global market. The problem is, in essence, that British families have the right to buy coal from workers who work in conditions which would be illegal if their employer subjected them to. This is a real material form of benefitting from the national inclusion/exclusion barrier to legal guarantees of well being. 

Of course, Beamish helps answer this question as well – the presence of ideological content from the different periods helps explain how it was (and how it is) that British workers care more about status aspiration than about their own material oppression, and care little at all about workers elsewhere.

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It isn’t prominently displayed, in fact it feels like there might have been a purposeful downplaying of the Imperial narrative, but you can still find evidence of British Imperial propaganda around Beamish, and in working class contexts. The above banner is from the school house where the children of mine workers were educated (at least until they began to work in the mine). There were no maps of the world displaced anywhere in the school house, but if there had been I can be sure that every British colony would have been coloured red, and children would have been taught that the sun never sets on their empire. In the hallway there were paintings of British imperial battles, and the same in one of the mine workers houses. Some of those children might have gone off to fight in imperial wars. But those who didn’t, those who stayed home to work the mines, in a sense their efforts were equally important to Britain’s imperial-industrialist projects. And while I might be inclined to interpret the worker’s situation as one of being oppressed by the owners of the means of production, it’s also possible to see the British workers as lower status members of the British imperial “team”, members whose efforts were crucial to that “team” continuing to “win”, and members who have, in the long run, materially benefitted from those ongoing victories. After all, the very fact that we look back on those times as hard proves that today’s working conditions have, on balance, improved – and not only historically in relation to earlier British workers, but also geographically in relation to non-British workers. Maybe this is just what “winning” looks like, and the battle between nationalism and socialism is a conflict over which game we interpret ourselves as playing – are we playing the game where we want our country to do better than other countries, or are we playing the game where we want the production of the material needs of a society to be more or less a tool for reproducing the status privilege of wealthier families?

This perhaps helps us define very exactly what class aspirationalism actually is: the desire to improve the economic status of oneself or one’s family, without the desire to overcome the system of domination that allows those with higher economic status to extract wealth from those with lower economic status. And this same dynamic can be discerned on national (both Russian “socialism in one country” and British “socialism not communism” varieties are examples of this), and international (i.e. Trotskyist) levels. In all of these cases the defining characteristic appear to be a combination of seeing oneself as part of a larger group that shares common interests, caring about other members of that group, and distinguishing that group from another group or groups to which your group has either an antagonistic or neutral orientation, and about which you do not particularly care.

Perhaps the only example of socialism in action at Beamish is the presence of the co-op store in the 1900 town.

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The co-op movement started in Rochedale, also in the Northeast of England. Built and run by workers for workers, the co-op movement was a way of avoiding high prices. You had to be a member to shop there, and as a member you had the right to elect the board of directors which hired the workers and ran the shop. As such, everything was done in the interests of the co-op’s members. The co-op sold goods with a lower mark up than other stores, and they also dealt directly with manufacturers and sold goods under their own C.W.S. (co-op wholesale society) brand.

Co-ops are interesting. You can imagine a mine worker in 1900 who cares about his own well being and the well being of other workers, and sees his interests in common with them. He has the choice between joining the co-op society, or joining the union (working in the mine he has limited capacity for organizing). If he joins the co-op, he works for the interests of workers as consumers – improving the access to quality goods at lower prices. Imagine he has been elected to the board, and been enlisted with the task of finding a supplier for a new product which the co-op wishes to offer as C.W.S. (in-store) brand. He finds two suppliers that can offer the product at the same quality, but one supplier can offer the product more cheaply because of a combination of lower wages and less concern for workers safety. Which supplier should he choose? Because he is entrusted to work in the interest of the membership, who are workers but workers as consumers, he will most likely have to choose the supplier that can offer the product more cheaply, unless he can convince the board and membership to adopt some kind of “fair trade” standard for suppliers. This illustrates an interesting paradox: advocating for workers, but advocating for them as consumers, one can end up reproducing (or in some cases increasing) the exploitation of the very workers on whose behalf he is advocating.

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I want to finish this by writing about trains. This might seem like a strange departure from a post which has mostly focused on working conditions and worker’s consciousness, but bear with me. The steam locomotive was invented in the Northeast of England, and the importance of the locomotive to the history of industry in this area is obvious from the fact that there are no less than 3 different and separate steam railways at Beamish: a reproduction of the first railway locomotive ever (pictured above) from 1815, a typical mining railway from 1900, and a passenger railway from 1900. There is also an electric tramway that circles the park, bringing you between the different areas on vintage streetcars. In other words, trains are clearly very important for the history of this region.

But what does this mean for the lives of the people who lived here? The locomotive above only carried coal. It was a good deal better than horses at hauling coal – a horse could pull a half ton of coal along a wagonway, whereas this engine, named “steam elephant”, cold haul 90 tons of coal in a 15 wagon long train. It meant mines could be built farther from canals, which means more mines and more work. At a more general level, the steam engine (and this means primarily the stationary steam engine) was a source of work – work which elsewhere would have needed to be done by men or non human animals. Really what the steam locomotive is is a symbol of the transition to the fossilized carbon economy – where the key fuel transitions from food (from recently deceased plants), and the fact this transition happened here earlier than other places is not only a source of pride, but firstly one of material wealth. The actual mechanization of labour was slow – in 1913, which was the highest production year of the mine at the Beamish site, less than 10% of the coal was taken off the coal face by machine. But at the same time, if locomotives were the reason the mine could be there, and made it feasible to transport all that coal to market, then the workers benefitted deeply from the locomotive. Beamish has an incomplete mock up of a coal mine from the Georgian era. Basically a hope in the ground, topped by a wooden crane powered by oxen to lift the coal out of the mine. It was worked by a whole family, father and son underground, mother and daughter above working the animals. The transition to steam powered industrial mining meant that instead of the whole family needing to work mining, a family could buy their material needs from the labour of the men only. Another impact was the growth of new jobs in railroading. My mother’s grandfather worked for the Stockton and Darlington railway, a good step up from his previous job as Gardner. With that income he was able to buy a stately family home in Redcar, a stroll away from the seaside. And don’t forget the advent of the working class holiday- made possible by the railway as well.

So, perhaps the truth of this story is that what at first appears as false pretention (the aspirationalism of a mine workers parlour), is in the end a real material truth (opportunities arising from industrialism for class ascension). At least for some. And of course today the story is the opposite – young people leaving for want of jobs, pit villages are depressed, many houses deserted. The high street in Redcar, although nicely pedestrianized, does not show signs of economic prosperity. Perhaps this is not something that can be altogether separated from how good the museum is – places whose glories are in the past, it’s not wrong for them to celebrate them.

Samah Idriss speaks at Israeli Apartheid Week 2014

Samah Idriss spoke on a panel along with Carrie Lester and David from CAIA at Israeli Apartheid Week tonight. It was a historically significant event for two reasons. First because we don’t hear a lot of voices from the Arab world outside Palestine in relation to the boycott Israel movement, and second because of the analytical links he made between armed and civil struggle in the Lebanese context.

Lebanon is a very different environment in which to do organizing for the boycott of Israel than North America. The first reason is, boycotting Israel is already the law. This would seem to be a large advantage. However, Israeli and Israeli linked companies have found ways to circumvent the anti-Normalization legislation and penetrate the Lebanese market. The fact that so many apologists for normalization exist in Lebanon, especially among intellectuals, is according to Idriss evidence that the laws that prescribe the boycott of Israel are no replacement for consciousness-organizing. Another reason is Idriss campaign is not actually part of BDS – his “Campaign to boycott supporters of Israel” began before the BDS call, and was motivated from watching the Israeli massacre Palestinians in Jenin. Idriss’ campaign is not opposed to BDS, however, but rather that the specific context of Lebanon requires a different approach than is appropriate in countries where boycotting Israel is not already a state law.

Idriss is a key link between boycott organizing and the Arab League boycott of Israel. Despite the fact that Syria is in the grips of an uprising, the Arab League boycott of Israel committee is still meeting once or so per year, and the presence of his movement at these meetings has caused the Arab League Boycott to adopt this boycott of several new companies including cosmetics companies operating in Lebanon, as well as to re-instate Nestle to the boycott list, which seems to have only been removed because of some corruption inside the Syrian regime.

Idriss is a key figure also because he edits an important cultural magazine. Imagine if a major editor of a significant cultural magazine in North America was pro-BDS! This publication is a major opportunity to call out collaborators with Israel, including perhaps business people working in North America on projects which are subject to Boycott but who have personal ties to the Arab world such that it would be embarrassing for their business dealings with Israel to be widely known. This is my own speculation, however, Idriss did not address this in his talk, or speak about any of the implications of editing an important magazine.

Idriss affirmed that organizing to boycott Israel is not opposed to armed resistance, or even a way of avoiding armed resistance, but rather that boycotts as civil resistance, and armed resistance must work together to resist the Israeli entity. He affirmed that without the use of armed resistance, Lebanon would still be occupied partially by Israel, and Israel would have colonized Lebanese lands up to the Litani river. He also pointed out that the resistance was initially secular and leftist. Lebanon is a key example of resistance, and successful resistance, against the Israelis, however paradoxically the success of armed resistance is sometimes used to dismiss the importance of civil resistance such as boycotts. However precisely because Lebanon is seen as a beacon of the resistance, convincing Lebanese people that boycotting Israel could have knock-on effects throughout the Arab world. For example, Idriss’ movement campaigned to prevent the screening of a film made in Tel Aviv by a Lebanese director (entitled “The Attack”) was successful, and subsequently it was banned in many other Arab countries.

In the question period, Idriss affirmed that his organization is committed to protecting Palestinian refugees in Lebanon from racism and bad treatment. He in fact claimed that in Lebanon there is Apartheid against Palestinian refugees. He dismissed the claim that granting Palestinians normalized status, i.e. the rights to study and work, would somehow work against their right of return. He also spoke about the direct work his organization has been doing to protect the rights of a Palestinian worker who was recently fired for having a Palestinian accent.

 

Jenin, Syria.

Child, what will you remember

When you recall your sixteenth year

the horrid sound of helicopter gunships

the rumble of the tanks as they grew near

David Rovics

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about Jenin. I only visited there once, I met some people who ran the co-operative of olive oil farmers, and I bought a shirt. And I got lost, but that’s another story. I didn’t even see the camp, or really see anything, other than some IRA graffiti, that suggested this was a stronghold or that a massacre had taken place here. But Jenin is a legend, commemorated suh passionate songs as  Samih Shukair’s “Blood is falling down” and David Rovic’s “Jenin”. There are also myriad films made about Jenin. There are films for Western audiences such as Jenin Jenin, No Need to Cry, and Arna’s Children (of the three I recommend Arna’s Children). And there are films very much not cut for Western audiences, like Champions of Jenin Camp part 1, two and three. And this girl, who could surely defeat the entire Israeli army by herself. And there are even films cut for anti-Palestinian audiences, like Road to Jenin and the Virgin Sacrifice, which seek to demonize Palestinians to Western audiences, partially through deception and partially through showing them the things which pro-Palestinian directors know that Westerners don’t know how to interpret. It’s pretty easy to do that, because many mainstream Westerners idiots and can’t distinguish between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed. It’s so bad really that any decent Zionist could show an average Westerner this picture and manage to change the conversation from the destruction of so many people’s houses, to the presence of the Qassam Brigades logo on the tent built on the rubble caused by the Israeli destruction.

Jenin Camp, 2002

But my point isn’t to make a point about Jenin, to tell “the truth” about Jenin – I’m not interested in arguing with some Zionist who’s going to tell me that the destruction of Jenin was necessary because of the beliefs in the heads of the people who lived there. I’m not having that argument. I’m instead presuming that I’m talking to people who already understand that if there is a truth about Jenin it is certainly a moral truth that transcends ideology.  A truth about standing up against oppression, a truth about resistance to occupation, and a truth about the continued suffering of a people who refuse to be defeated. And if you see that truth in this place, in the legend, could you see it elsewhere? Could you see it in Yarmouk

Buildings destroyed by the Syrian Army's tanks and rockets

Or in Deraa?

Shelling in Deraa

Or Aleppo?

After the missiles hit Aleppo

I’m asking this because while in one place suffering and resistance is commemorated as a legend, elsewhere it is forgotten, not even noticed, or dismissed, or even actively trashed by those who claim to know better. I feel such a bitter similarity between the anti-Palestinian interpretation of Jenin, and so much discourse around Syria. As “Road to Jenin” pathologizes resistance, and focusses on Islamist ideology the left makes dismissive claims about how the opposition in Syria is infused by Islamist ideology. It’s not completely honest to simply dismiss the Zionist claim of Islamist motivations amongst the Palestinian resistance, but this does not justify Zionist violence and neither does its corollary justify the Syrian army’s violence against rebel-held areas.

On a broader scale, is it not similar to the Israeli hasbera move of justifying Israeli violence in the name of Israel’s “Western” values, when downplay Assad’s violence is downplayed in the name of his secularism? And his opposition to “Islamic fundamentalism”? The question of whether you agree with someone’s values is fundamentally a posteriori to the more basic question about self-determination and the right to live free from brutal repression. You don’t have a right to judge the oppressed to the point of withholding solidarity on the basis of an ideological disagreement. After all, didn’t the whole world stand behind Islamic Jihad activist Khader Adnan on his hunger strike? Was his case dismissed on the basis of his ideological affiliation? Trigger warning: you really might not have the stomach for this video.

But the point is – did this video spread like wildfire discrediting his cause? Or did solidarity not stand strong, not with his Islamist beliefs or support for objectionable tactics, but with what was true of his cause – opposition to colonization and oppression? And is it not possible to empathize with the oppressed beyond the point of support – can it not include an empathetic opposition to objectionable acts, an opposition which does not vilify, which does not become hatred and fascism? Again it feels relevant to cite Rovics:

And why should anybody wonder
As you stepped on board
The crowded bus across the Green Line
And you reached inside your jacket for the cord
Were you thinking of your neighbors buried bodies
As you made the stage for this scene
As you set off the explosives that were strapped around your waist
Were you thinking of the City of Jenin

Rovics point is not that we should literally support the kind of attack he describes in the song. The point is more subtle than that – that solidarity includes a moment of empathy and understanding, even with the unforgivable. This ability to make a distinction between the desire for justice, and a just means to bring about that desire, allows a person standing in solidarity to feel what is true and even good in the motivation of the suicide bomber, without in any way morally justifying the action. This ability to separate off, to bracket moral judgement, this is the point of the song – not to agree, but to try genuinely to feel why, from another perspective, something which to you is awful might seem right. To be more reflexive than knee-jerk moral judging allows, which is actually the only path to a genuine condemnation of suicide bombing – one which does not reduce the actors to pure pathological monsters as Israel’s supporters constantly try to do – and for the most part, succeed.

Why is all this relevant to Syria? Because if you’re Syrian and you are struggling against oppression there is a hand coming from every direction encouraging Syrians to do what from my comfortable seat in Canada I can easily call “a deal with the devil”. Whether that devil be American imperialists, or Qatari funded Jihadists, the neo-liberals in the opposition, everyone outstretching a hand to oppressed Syrians seems more reactionary than the last, more attempts to subvert any revolutionary potential, encourage religious sectarianism, and abandon the poor. And it’s easy, so easy to tell them what to do, to totally dismiss any Syrians who make the “wrong ideological decision”. But why do so many feel comfortable doing this here, who would never do that when talking about Jenin? Why do many of these same people resist the Israeli attempt to dismiss Palestinian nationalist aspirations as merely a means to bring Hamas to power? Certainly analytical resources that have been developed for the Palestinian solidarity movement could be employed to help interpret the role of Islam in the Syrian opposition. Why this is not being done, to me seems pure hypocricy.

I’m not trying to say the Syrian and Palestinian situations are the same, but we are lying if we refuse to admit the similarities. As a Jewish minority rules over an Arab majority in Palestine (most of it displaced), an Alawite minority rules over a Sunni Majority in Syria. Both countries are plagued by sectarian identities strengthened both by colonialism and by the reactions against colonialism. And both countries probably need to pass through stages of nationalism on the way to more universal identifications, while at the same time conflict is sometimes pushing identity away from the national towards the local. What is needed in Palestine is not the absolute military victory of Palestinians over Israelis, but probably the restoration of dignity and a balance of power which would make a just and dignified peace possible. The second intifada was an attempt to foster this dignity through military means, and the BDS movement is an attempt to change the balance of power through peaceful means. What is needed in Syria is not the absolute military defeat of Assad, but a political solution which allows the majority to come to power without forcing the dominant minority into suicide. We know what military means are being used to force Assad to come to the table, but what peaceful means might the international community take to pressure Assad in this direction?

But this isn’t suppose to be a post about the pragmatics of activism, I’m more interested here in why so many people who talk about Syria and who claim to be progressive, simply aren’t motivated by the suffering in Syria. If one believes that suffering and oppression is irreducible, and that resistance against oppression is universal, then what is our justification for hallowing the righteous victims and fighters of Jenin, while abandoning any sense of solidarity towards the Syrian opposition on the basis of a disagreement over ideology? If the state sieges your city, are you only worthy of solidarity if your revolt is ideologically progressive?

How many Jenins are there in Syria? How many neighbourhoods have been destroyed by artillery and tank incursions? How many Syrian children are swearing their life to their country and their neighbourhood, and against the criminals who destroyed their town and killed their family and friends? And how many respond by gripping to objectionable ideologies which seem to give them strength in the face of oppression? And how quick are western “activists” to vilify them, to say “nothing special” is happening there. I don’t even have the patience to get into the question of how racist it is to say “nothing special” is happening in Syria. And I won’t quote the Zizek piece, you can search for it yourself.

Of course, if you talk to Syrians, it’s different. They speak names of villages where the revolution began, villages have been attacked but refused to surrender, in the same hush tones as Palestinians and Palestinian rights activists speak about Jenin. Deraa comes to mind, and certainly Yarmouk Camp, but honestly, I don’t even know where these places are. I’ve never been to Syria, I have little sense of Syrian geography.

I know there is something important missing from this post – a recognition of the wills of the many Syrians who oppose the opposition, and support the Syrian army. These people cannot be ignored – I know this is again a different situation, but ignoring grassroots support for the state army was a huge failing in interpretations of the Egyptian revolution. Reactionary wills can’t simply be dismissed – both on the side of the opposition and the government side. In fact, not dismissing reactionary wills has really been the point of this post – rather, I should try to see what is not merely reactionary in a reaction against oppression. All reactions to oppression have a seed of universality in them by virtue of the universal character of opposition to injustice. I should notice and support that seed regardless of where it appears. Now, for the most part, I don’t see that seed in statist opposition to rebellions or to Islamic groups – because fidelity to the state is loyalty to an institution rather than a principle. But just because I haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

So this post isn’t going to come to any clean summation; it’s written from the heart, and from the head, and from a heart and head that feel confused and find certainty only in opposition to the claims of certainty by others. As we continue to live in a world which does not for the most part (despite the many protests of academics) respond to injustice motivated on the basis of generalizable prescriptions, we will need heart as well as science to remain human in the face of the ongoing catastrophe of history.

EDIT: An initial draft’s profuse use of the term “we” has largely been edited out of this article.

EDIT: Read Boudour Hassan’s article, much clearer than this post and with strong connecting analysis to the “anti war” campaign.

A Visit to the Anti-Gentrification Protests in Vancouver

Yesterday evening I participated in the anti-Gentrification pickets in front of Pidgin restaurant at Hastings and Carrall, and Cuchillo restaurant at 261 Powell street. Due to conversations with friends, I’ve become increasingly interested in the issue of Gentrification in Vancouver, and I thought that participating would be the best way to get a sense of what the pickets are about, who are leading it, and how effective and sustainable this form of resistance can be.

At 6pm the picketers met in front of Pidgin restaurant, which is directly across from Pigeon Park. It’s an odd location for an upscale restaurant. The patrons arrive, usually in taxis, wearing fancy clothes and jewellery – while across the street the locals drink, cuss and play soccer in the street. Just across Hastings there is a man laid out on the sidewalk in an awkward position while police stand around an an ambulance arrives. Two men walk by, loudly calling us “a bunch of losers”, my friend tells me they are drug dealers and dislike our presence because the pickets draw the police.

The picket is a lively place, not like a union picket – because it only meets for an hour or two a day it also serves as a meeting time for the people involved. Stories are shared, analysis is given if asked for. I’m told that the picket has been staffed by as many as 60 people, but what impresses me is that they come every day – every single day, even if there are only two or three. And it really bothers people. Just to have a few people standing outside a restaurant, explaining the connection between the upscale restaurant in a lower class neighbourhood at street level to the evictions that are taking place upstairs. And the evictions are taking place – above both Pidgin and Cuchillo, and the connection between the upscale resto downstairs and the evictions of low income residents upstairs is undeniable. Still, apparently quite a few diners patronizing Pidgin actually do engage in dialogue with the picketers. I’m told they tend to have lived in Vancouver a long time (in upper class neighbourhoods) and have somewhat thought-out opinions on things. I didn’t experience this myself because I didn’t notice any diners going in at all. Mostly we got yelled at by people who weren’t eating there, quite possibly by people who couldn’t afford to eat there. I suppose this illustrates the extent to which people have bought into the trickle-down, neo-liberal view that richer people are better people, and that if the rich are coming into this area of town, this must be a good thing. It feels strange to be yelled at, called names. I suppose it’s a kind of emotional warfare – are we suppose to feel bad at being called “losers”, or “get a job” (ironically the 6pm pickets make it easy for people with 9-5 jobs to participate)? Is this high school? Why are they so angry that someone opposes evictions of precarious, low-income residents, and draws attention to the connection between that and fancy restaurants?

And then I found out that the resistance against the picketing can go beyond name-calling. At an information meeting, right there on the sidewalk, I learned that the day previous several organizers had been assaulted by the building manager from one of the buildings that is picketed. Four women organizers were eating lunch in a cafe when the assailant stormed in, shoved one of them out of the way, grabbed their picketing sign and ripped it to pieces.  The police were called, but were dismissive of the organizers desire for justice and refused to press charges. This is clearly political, because in a previous incident where a picketer was alleged to have shoved someone, the police were more than happy to move forward with charges, with no more evidence than statements by the parties involved.

Because of the alleged assault, the picketers decided to move to the Cuchillo site, as this is the building where the building manager who intimidated organizers is employed. The picketers have for the most part stopped picketing at Cuchillo because, for a variety of reasons, the picket is more effective at Pidgin. Whereas Pidgin restaurant is located in an area with a lot of foot traffic, and Pigeon park across the street being community gathering space, Cuchillo is on a stretch of Powell which is quite desolate (perhaps in part due to the eviction of all the tenants in the building). Also whereas Pidgin is not a very busy or successful restaurant, Cuchillo was started by restauranteurs who already have a loyal following in Vancouver.

The management at Cuchillo seem a lot more antagonistic than at Pidgin. For one theres the assault, although that involves the building owners not the restauranteurs, who are renting the space from them. We did get a message from the restaurant, however, a few minutes after arriving:

Apparently if you know “shit about living here”, you know that evicting the entire building and keeping it vacant is good for business and good for the neighbourhood. Again this “get a real job” rhetoric – especially ironic because Nick (pictured here) does have a real job, he works in a kitchen. At least, I think working in a kitchen is a real job. Maybe we should ask their kitchen staff?

The diners are Cuchillo are also quite different form those at Pidgin. The prices are affordable, at least middle-class affordable (from 8$ for a pulled-duck taqaria to 24 for diver-caught scallops). The crowd was neither urban hipster nor working class nor upper class chic, in fact the only word I can use to describe the crowd is…suburban. I don’t like to yell much at protests, but when people yelled out “get a job”, I felt like answering “tuck in your shirt” or “get some decent shoes!”. There are few positive interactions with diners, some feigned concern, but mostly bro-ish antagonism. Every fifteen minutes or so a car drives by honking its horn, the driver holding out a middle finger at us. I can see why the picketers have mostly stopped demonstrating here.

But they will persevere at Pidgin. There is for the most part support of the pickets by the area’s not-yet-evicted residents. I’m told that many have said they would participate in the pickets, and they support them fully, but they are afraid of being targeted by police. They live down there, and because basically everyone is involved in illegal activity from jaywalking to public drinking to drugs, the police can quickly make life difficult for any singled out individual. There is also a sense they are winning – at least Pidgin restaurant is not doing well, and the police are no longer religiously observing the protests. Mostly I’m just impressed at how a relatively small group of people have kept a daily protest going for many months, and had a real impact on the political discourse in the city.

Over an 8$ pint at a restaurant two subway stops away from the picketing, I asked my friend if he felt like there was any contradiction between going down to the DTES and speaking against gentrification and then whizzing over to commercial to enjoy a meal in the absolute same class-bracket as those diners crossing the picket line. He responded: sure, but this is the way it has to be. It isn’t going to happen any other way. And he’s right – the pickets aren’t against people eating at bougie restaurants, they are against the opening of bougie restaurants in locations which displace people. Displacement is wrong because it isn’t a solution – it looks at the problems in the DTES and then prescribes moving them over a few blocks in this or that direction. And while it’s unfortunate that the very people being evicted can’t always stand on the front line of their own resistance, this is just a paradox that we have to live with if we want to stand against dishonest social policy, and struggle against the exclusion of the most oppressed from any benefits of living in one of the richest cities in the world.

Injustice is Not a Beautiful Colour

I sometimes look at a sunset and see so much pollution, but it makes the sunset look so much more beautiful.

As I write this, I’m riding on a bus from Montreal to Toronto, observing a sunset. It is deeply beautiful, with purples and yellows, and clouds lit up with bands of crimson. And yet, at the same time I feel uneasy – are not the colours of this sunset to some extent the product of man made pollution? A quick internet search reveals that to get deeply red sunsets, “you need aerosols”, and

In an atmosphere with no junk at anytime, you’ll never get a sunset that would make someone with normal color vision say, ‘Wow that’s red!'” says Craig Bohren, professor emeritus of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University. “It is certainly true that the ‘pollution’ results in redder sunsets. (Scientific American

So if we’re looking at a red sunset, we’re looking at the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. However, just because we know this, doesn’t mean all of a sudden sunsets will stop feeling beautiful. We might feel a tinge guilty about enjoying a sunset, but basically we will still appreciate the beauty.

 Now think of another example. Imagine if you are standing on a rooftop in occupied Palestine, and looking out at lights in the distance. The lights are beautiful to you, and you say so out loud. Oops, those lights belong to the Israeli settlement next door, perhaps the settlement that stole land belonging to your friend’s village, or even your friend’s family. Imagine you are told a story of crimes carried out by people of that settlement against your friends village, or against his or her friends, or even against them. 

 What just happened? Your experience of beauty was interrupted in a jarring, unexpected manner. What at first you saw as pretty twinkly lights, you now see as signs of oppression. And not signs in the symbolic sense, but literal pieces of the infrastructure of occupation that dispossess the land’s native people and installs a foreign group as privileged and dominant status residents. Do those things appear beautiful any longer? Probably not, because your emotional reaction towards them is mediated by your solidarity with your friend. You feel resentment churning in your gut, you break your silence by exclaiming “fuck the occupation”, you imagine a new ideal of beauty for the foreground – one of a darkness under the moon punctuated by the lights of farm houses. You turn and take the stairs back down again, head buzzing with ideas of how to fight the occupation, how to delegitimize Israel’s ongoing colonial actions in the eyes of the citizens of empires who support them. 

 So what about those aerosols, why didn’t the same thing happen to your experience of sunsets when you found they were largely coloured by man made pollution? For starters, you don’t really understand what aerosols are (particles of liquids or solids suspended in a gas), what causes them (burning things, mostly), or, and most importantly, what their effects are (too broad to summarize, includes increasing cloud cover and increasing reflectivity of clouds, also can contribute to lung diseases in mammals). There is no simple story to tell about aerosols, no simple way to understand how to get rid of them, or even if we would want to get rid of them.  Your aunt wasn’t murdered by aerosols, they didn’t steal your cousins car or put your best friend from kindergarten in jail. So why shouldn’t you find the sunset beautiful? 

I’ll give a reason. Your tendency to have strong emotional reactions to morally abhorrent ills which harm you or your friends directly makes it very difficult to act on dangers which threaten us all. If people were highly motivated by the changes to the physical world which were the visible signs of manmade interference which threatens to upset precarious environmental balances, balances on which our habitat depends, then it wouldn’t be so impossible to act on climate change. Climate change is perhaps the purest example of the motivational gap between abstraction and narrative – climate change will harm far more people, and with equal or not worse intensity than the zionists, but because it isn’t possible to tell a compelling story about it, and because we can’t vilify climate change as an actor needing to comply to some moral standard, we focus instead most of our efforts elsewhere. I often explain the problem of liberal reformism with the phrase “no one dies on a barricade for incremental progress”, meaning people will struggle and sacrifice for redemptive stories, for dreams of the last revolution, but not (or at least not to the same degree) for incremental improvements to their well being. 

 I’m not saying any of this to put down people with commitments to Palestinian liberation. I feel able to write in this way about that national liberation struggle precisely because I am so committed to it myself, and by “committed” I mean not only arguing with people on the internet about it, but more importantly belonging to two anti-apartheid organizations, and making ongoing visits to Palestine to see my friends there and stay engaged with the ongoing and constantly transforming situation there. 

Rather than put down the Palestinian struggle, rather than put down the role of narrative and solidarity in political engagement, I instead advocate the need for stories in all social justice struggles. The Palestinians are not too focusses on narrative, and they are absolutely not lacking in sober rationality. It’s the other way around – to confront climate change (and also aerosol pollution) we need a compelling narrative that explains what is going on in terms of winners and losers, criminals and martyrs, defeats and victories, and – and this is really important – any visual manifestation of climate change needs to fit into the story just like those lights on settlement houses. 

Because man made threats to the stability of the environment, to the perdurance of our human habitat, is nothing other than a Nakba brewing all over the world. And the guilty are all those who fail to see it and make it seen. 

Syria: The Sovereignty of the Revolution Lives in the Bodies of the People in Struggle

Syria. Uttered in Arabic, we hear Sou-ree-ah. What is the meaning of this word today? Its utterance produces shivers, sighs, perhaps sparks of hope along with the horror. And of course fights. There is alive in the 2.0 world of print/blog media a war of words concerning Syria – is it a revolution? is it still a revolution? what about the islamists? what about Assad’s nominal anti-imperialist stances? What about resistance against American hegemony? What about American funding of the rebellion? It might be said that it does not matter so much what is said on blogs in the West about Syria, that the revolution or rebellion continues regardless of what we think about it. But there is a universal human obligation to try to understand those things to which one is connected. And a still more universal obligation to pay witness to suffering, and to those who stand up against oppression. There is something to be learned from every rebellion, every revolution, because there is a truth in the physical manifestation of standing up against injustice. Not because this standing necessarily leads to justice, but because it opens a door, a way towards justice. Because without sacrifice, there is no justice.

Continue reading “Syria: The Sovereignty of the Revolution Lives in the Bodies of the People in Struggle”

Why I won’t fill out any more “doodles”

Doodle is an “easy scheduling” web tool that fits the needs of modern, busy, internet-connected types who don’t share schedules but need to find times to meet up for a work or social activity. Any person can create a poll that gives a group options as to when an event can take place in the future.  Then, by disclosing their availability, it becomes clear what times the most people are available, so the event can be scheduled.

Doodle achieves a certain ideal in the world of today – it fits perfectly with our busy yet flexible schedules, it gathers exactly the information we need and nothing more, it’s a kind of parato-optimal market solution for your time.

However, doodle has a pernicious effect on the meaning of the events that it helps schedule. By making it on-the-fly, which means non-repetitive scheduling, so easy, we no longer need to commit to weekly repetitive patterns. Instead of a weekly group meeting, say on Wednesday at 8pm, the meeting can be planned weekly to fit at the ideal time for everyone in the group, even if such a meeting happens every week. This is the casualization of events which otherwise would have gained a weight, a gravity that comes from repeating a practice in a cycle of time. Monday choir practice, thursday PTA meeting, can you imagine the way the meanings of such events would change if they were re-scheduled every week?

Our weeks, our cycles of time take on significance by, among other things, the things we do in them repetitively. This is why a Thursday afternoon has a certain feeling to it, why we might feel obligated to socialize or “have fun” on a Friday or Saturday night, and why Monday is the unofficial start to the week – despite the fact calendars tend to imply that the week starts on Sunday. By hunting for those empty spaces, and being so good at it, doodle moves us towards a world where our schedules have less and less repetition, where we can less so count on the familiarity of our own lives.

If we need to schedule important events that occur most every week by a Doodle poll, because we can’t find time in our schedules to give the event a repetitive, weekly time, we might ask ourselves if we are too busy? Which means, are we committed to too many projects, are we involved in too many involvements? Our involvements take time, but they should also give us time, in the sense of give us meaningful time, time activity which satisfies us, which grounds us, and which gives the time around it an aura of meaning too. If our involvements are becoming schizophrenic, if we are mere task-oriented, focussed on the completion of imagined goals and therefore lose track of time as not merely a resource but also the time of our lives, who has time become? Or rather, who have we become, such that time governs us, rather than we give meaning to time.

So, when I say I won’t fill out a doodle poll, I don’t literally mean that I won’t fill out a single doodle poll for the rest of my life. But what I do mean is that I will resist the causalization of events, the last-minute-ification of what ought to be planned carefully out in advance. It may be the case that this resistance will result in losing-track of some otherwise completable tasks, but this is better than losing track of ourselves, of not taking care of our own time, of being attentive to the meaning of our time. And when we take care of our time, we take care of ourselves.