Reflections on Somalia and Modern Statehood

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the history of Somalia today, in preparation for a presentation on it next week. It’s been really interesting, so expect a few posts on it soon. For now just a few throwaway ideas.

It’s a truism that statist political systems rely on a mix of force and consent (whereas anarchic ones rely purely on consent). But you get a much stronger sense of the meaning of that truism when you look at how African societies, and to a lesser extent other non-european societies, have tried to establish working political systems.

The traditional systems (tribal affiliations, customary law, religious courts, etc.) may not be great, but they did for a long time have widespread legitimacy, and as a result they worked. But, to various extents, colonialism destroyed or suppressed them.

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T-shirts: Defining the Pale

The 19th-century diplomat Prince Metternich once said that while he might feel some sympathy for Adolphe Thiers, the utter bastard who massacred a few thousand people in order to crush the glorious Paris Commune, he would not wear a T-shirt showing his face. He said the same about Augusto Pinochet, who led a bloody military coup against the elected but left-wing government of Chile.

More interesting than the sartorial decisions of a German-Austrian politician, however, is the suggestion that the same attitude should be taken by those on the sensible side of politics about that much T-shirted figure, Ernesto Guevara.

Now I thought this was interesting. What it seems to me to be about is something along the following lines: there is in some sense a range of divergent political opinions on which people can differ while remaining civil. But some political opinions are ‘beyond the pale’ and should not be respected or accepted on T-shirts.

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The recent release of a film about the life of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara has prompted plenty of the usual ‘would you wear a T-shirt with a picture of Hitler on it?’ commentary: that Guevara is a thug and a murderer and should be shunned by all right-thinking people.

I’m not going to offer a conclusive position on Guevara, nor have I seen the film, which doesn’t sound very entertaining from what I’ve read. I certainly don’t have a T-shirt with his hairy face on it. But I do have a few thoughts.

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Cross-Species Relationships and the Minds of Animals

Human ideas about animals other than humans have a long history of being very wrong. So I think it’s perhaps an important part of advocating for animals to talk a bit about how they understand ‘what it’s like to be’ various animals. So that’s what this is an attempt to do. Of course ‘animals’ are not at all a homogenous group, so I’m mainly going to focus on the more intelligent social mammals and birds.

The particular phenomenon I want to focus on is cross-species friendships. There are broadly speaking two sorts of cross-species friendship. One is a friendship between an animal and a human – most obviously, the pet-owner relationship. This typically involves some degree of parent-child dynamic: the human keeps the pet in a sort of extended childhood, relating to its owner as a permanent parent. The other is friendships between two non-human animals of different species: a cat and a dog, a tiger and a dog, a cat and a crow, an elephant and a dog, a gorilla and a cat, even a hamster and a snake. All of the preceding can be seen on youtube, and I imagine pretty much any combination is possible. Here there’s likely to be a mixture of parent-child relationships, with a (usually female) animal raising an infant of another species, and peer relationships, analogous to those that would obtain between two animals of the same age.

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Two Concepts of Beauty

Sometimes the following things are true:

1) Person X is beautiful;

2) Feature A of person X is not irrelevant to 1.;

3) If person X had feature B instead of feature A, they would be no more or less beautiful – or equivalently,

3a) Feature A is not beautiful considered in isolation from any particular person.

As examples of ‘feature A’ I’m thinking of ‘the particular pattern of freckles on person X’s right arm’ or ‘the way person X smiles’. These are not things which are simply unimportant (i.e. that satisfy 3. but not 2.) – they are integral parts of person X’s beauty.

On the other hand, sometimes the following things are true:

1) Person X is beautiful;

2) Feature A of person X is not irrelevant to 1.;

3) If person X had feature B instead of feature A, they would no longer be beautiful – or equivalently,

3a) Feature A is beautiful considered in isolation from any particular person.

Obviously ‘feature A’ might be a whole group of features taken together. I’m thinking of things like rock-hard abs, pouty lips, large breasts, a well-groomed moustache, etc.

The conclusion follows that there are two concepts of beauty in people. The first (beauty1) works by the initial judgement that person X is beautiful being used to directly imply the beautiful character of their particular features: their features and their body and their movements, are beautiful precisely insofar as they are theirs.

The second (beauty2) works by the initial judgement that feature A is beautiful being used to evaluate the beauty of the people who either have or do not have that feature: a person is beautiful insofar as their features and their body and their movements are beautiful independently.

The two concepts, one might suspect, can only be distinct because people are more than the sum of their parts: the beauty of a collection of pre-packaged body parts and mannerisms is not the same as the beauty of an individual person. This fact is, indeed, also the requirement for there to be individuals at all.

Obviously these two sorts of beauty are mixed up to various degrees in practice – it is easier to “love someone insofar as they are the person they are”, when the person they are is not the elephant man. Nevertheless they are distinct and ultimately, I think independent – the beauty of the elephant man is not impossible.

Neither can really be praised or condemned: people’s feelings are what they are. But beauty2 is, of course, a vector through which racism, classism*, and endless gendered body-hatred can be propagated. So a society that strengthens and reinforces it, for example by the presence of a vast ‘beauty industry’, is likely to not be fantastic.

*NB: classism is the analogue to racism – prejudice and discrimination against individuals based on their accent, mannerism, wealth, and general ‘cultural class’. The real issue with class of course is not classism, but the very presence of (antagonistic) classes at all – in a way that differs from racism.

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The Patriarchy Gets Everywhere

So fairly recently, I cast the bones and they told me, I think, to go to a blood donation session. So I went along, got vampirised a little, and sat down at the tea table to eat crisps and replenish my fluids.

On the table, underneath the biscuits, was a charming mat-poster affair, showing a large cartoon blood donation session, filled with various stereotyped people donating blood and making jokes – a sort of Where’s-Wally style panorama, obviously designed to showcase the diversity of people who give blood.

Note that: the purpose as far as I could tell was to show an array of human diversity.

Yet something was a bit non-diverse. I noticed that of the medical staff, there were some in white coats, doctors, who seemed to be male, and others in blue outfits, nurses, who seemed to be female. I could only see one counter-example, a solitary female doctor. This perturbed me, but I was sure it must just be in the one area I was looking at. There had to be more variety present in the rest of the scene, surely?

Alas there was not, and don’t call me Shirley. Of the roughly 25 medical staff, 24 four of them obeyed the Iron Law: nurses are female, doctors are male.

At this point I shook my fist at the ceiling and shouted ‘Damn you, Patriarchy!’ As one does.

Human-itarian Concern for Gaza

Interesting comments by Obama on the Israel-Palestine situation:

“I was deeply concerned by the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days and by the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza. Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water and basic medical care, and who’ve faced suffocating poverty for far too long.”

What is noteworthy of course is that the Israeli occupation and blockade of Palestine isn’t mentioned, nor is the killing of palestinians by Israelis condemned.

The analogy is by no means perfect, but what sprang out at me was that I had seen this before: this sort of disconnected ‘concern’ for suffering, divorced from any issue of rights, this acceptance that suffering is bad and should be avoided, without any acceptance that the actions which produce it are actually wrong, impermissible, immoral. This idea that while Palestinians may have welfare, they do not have rights.

This is the dominant position on non-human animals. For example, it is, I recently learned, a legal requirement that at the end of any experiment carried out on animals, even a harmless behavioural one, they must, with a few exceptions, be euthanased – to prevent them suffering. To prevent even the risk of ‘unnecessary’ suffering, blanket, systematic killing is prescribed.

It would be alarmist and hyperbolic to say that the Palestinians are being treated like animals. But there is a noteworthy connection: in both cases, welfare concerns are accepted, but rights are not – with the result that while suffering may be regretted, it is out of the question for either humans or the Israeli state to be accused of doing something impermissible, something forbidden. I feel this needs to change in both cases.

This concern with welfare is, in a sense, the opposite of respecting someone’s rights. It means taking on the authority to evaluate and deal with how others are feeling, without recognising at any point the imperiousness of a prohibition – something that you simply may not do, regardless of whether you consider it a good idea.

If the Israeli assault on and occupation of Gaza and the West Bank are not condemned, the Palestinians are not being granted the level of respect we typically grant to humans, but rather that which we grant to animals.

A related discussion of double-standards is up at Lenin’s Tomb.

Depressing Similarities

Hundreds killed, thousands wounded?

Government in denial?

Aid organisations warn of an impending humanitarian crisis?

UN staff being shot at?

It’s almost like the Sri Lankan government have been taking notes from Operation Cast Lead.

Or alternatively these things are inevitable results of fighting in situations where the civilian population hate you.

This is Fantastic

Shapely Prose reports on two recent articles: one that finds that diets don’t make people less fat, and hence concludes that we should focus on exercising, and one that finds that exercise doesn’t make people less fat, and hence concludes that we should focus on diet.

At least amid all the complexities of hard-to-interpret science, we can be confident that as long as everybody keeps repeating ‘diet and exercise, diet and exercise’, it will be true. That’s comforting.

Crisis, What Crisis?

As hopefully everyone has now noticed, there is an economic crisis going on. Everyone is very worried about this. Plenty of people have already written about how capitalism caused the crisis. I’d just like to point out how little sense the way we’re responding to it makes.

We’re richer than ever before, in technological and resource terms. Certainly in, for example, the UK, we have enough food, enough housing, and enough of pretty much everything to ensure everyone a comfortable existence. So what if there’s a crisis – even if national GDP halves, all it means is that we don’t get so much of the fancy stuff we don’t really need. This is no big deal, surely?

But it is a big deal. And don’t call me Shirley.

To understand why, let’s compare what a rational society would do, and what our society does. A rational society would arrange differently the production and distribution of goods that have different levels of necessity. Really basic things would be guaranteed, whatever happens, whereas luxuries would be allowed to be produced at a more volatile level, in proportion as various contingent factors made doing so appear reasonable.

The result would be that any overall fall in output just produced a reduction in the luxuries available to all citizens, while those things that are in any sense ‘needed’ remain unaffected.

Now let’s consider what our society does. In our society, regardless of how rich we all get, any overall fall in output will 1) affect a section of people and make them severely impoverished, depriving them of their homes and jobs, and 2) affect a much larger section of people with stress and anxiety over the possibility that this might happen to them. If more stuff was the answer to poverty, then there would be no poverty: poverty is a structural inevitability because our economic system produces it at every opportunity.

There, that’s my anti-capitalist rant done. I’d just like to point out a couple of things:

-Firstly, the rational approach I described, arranging things so that important goods are guaranteed and only inessential ones volatile, mirrors the approach a sane individual would typically take to their finances: start by ensuring that the bases are covered, that you’ll have a sufficient income, a secure place to live, insurance in case of accidents, etc. and then take risks and accept uncertainty regarding less important but fun things.

-Secondly, in both cases, the effect of this rational approach is to displace the economy from the centre of society. That is, once the really important things are sorted out, the economy itself becomes less important. Imagine if there was no prospect of foreclosures or unemployment, if nobody anywhere was having to struggle to ‘make ends meet’. A drop in economic output would still be reported, but it wouldn’t be the main news story for months on end. Non-economic issues would displace it from being at the centre of political disputes. There might be a recession and nobody notices, being too busy doing more important things.