Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Foreign Interventions Part One

This article was published in Ceylon Today on January 19, 2022

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/foreign-interventions

Recent events in Kazakhstan have stimulated discussion about whether or how liberal democracies should deal with foreign tyrants.

Controlling Dictators

Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has described the recent deadly violence in his country as an attempted coup d’état.

Vladimir Putin said Kazakhstan had been targeted by international terrorism but provided no evidence. In Belarus, another tyrant, Aleksandr Lukashenko, brutally suppressed widespread protests against his disputed victory in the country’s 2020 presidential election. There are credible allegations of the torture and sexual abuse of opponents. Lukashenko has made several controversial statements during his presidency which have been regarded as antisemitic, homophobic and misogynistic. On 23 May 2021, Lukashenko personally ordered Ryanair Flight 4978 en route from Athens to Vilnius, carrying the opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, to land in Belarus. Lukashenko is not a nice man – better if he were not there.

Well-meaning liberals in western democracies are naturally horrified at such brutalities and feel that something ought to be done. Exactly what to do and by whom is hard to decide. Armed intervention has not gone well in Afghanistan and Iraq. Economic sanctions rarely cause dictators much discomfort as they have their riches safely stowed abroad. Economic sanctions usually cause more suffering to ordinary citizens, although previously accepted claims about child mortality in Iraq have been challenged. Surveys undertaken since 2003 find no evidence of unusually high levels of child mortality during 1991-2003.

US Interventions

There are still people who hope the US might do something about human rights abuses in other countries as the optimists still, in spite of all the evidence, have more trust in the US than they do in Russia or in China. They are more like our kind of people.

The US has gone through periods of isolationism but has done a lot of interfering over the years, starting with the Barbary Wars in the 19th Century, and later sticking its nose into Chile in 1811 as well as 1973. Also, in the 19th century, there were interventions in Mexico, Japan, China, Korea, Cuba. Spain ceded control over its colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. From 1898 to 1935, the US intervened in and had a military presence in Cuba, Honduras, Panama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.

Throughout the Cold War, the US frequently used the CIA against governments and groups considered unfriendly to US interests, especially in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. In Egypt, the US helped overthrow King Farouk in a military coup in 1952. In 1953, the CIA helped the Shah of Iran remove the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh.

In 1954, the US deposed the democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz and ended the Guatemalan Revolution.

The coup installed the military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas, the first in a series of US-backed dictators who ruled Guatemala. Guatemala subsequently plunged into a civil war that cost thousands of lives and ended all democratic expression for decades.

In 1961, the CIA attempted to depose Cuban president Fidel Castro through the Bay of Pigs Invasion and made many attempts to assassinate Castro. The CIA also considered assassinating Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba with poisoned toothpaste (although this plan was aborted). The Belgians got him instead. In 1961, the CIA sponsored the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, former dictator of the Dominican Republic.

US troops intervened in the Dominican Civil War in April 1965 to prevent a takeover by supporters of deposed left wing president Juan Bosch. At the end of the Eisenhower administration, a campaign was initiated to deny the democratically elected Cheddi Jagan power in an independent Guyana. This campaign was intensified and became something of an obsession of John F Kennedy.

The Ugly American

The Ugly American is a 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer that depicts the failures of the US diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia. The title of the novel is a play on Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American and was sometimes confused with it. The book describes the United States losing its struggle against Communism because of the ineptitude and the bungling of the US diplomatic corps stemming from innate arrogance and their failure to understand the local culture. The novel depicted a stereotype of the American abroad who was universally disliked. The novel also made clear that the few Americans who were knowledgeable about and interested in foreign countries were systematically weeded out of the foreign service.

Violent Pursuit of Happiness

I have been reading an interesting book by Elizabeth D Samet called Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness. Samet teaches English at the military academy at West Point. Long stretches of the book are devoted to film and book summaries. Some might find this bombardment of cultural references a drawback but it does demonstrate that Samet has no difficulty in finding validation for her argument everywhere.

I still have some battered old paperbacks from the early sixties of the novels of John Horne Burns (October 7, 1916 – August 11, 1953). Burns was the author of three novels. His first novel, The Gallery (1947), his best known work, was a best seller, very well received by critics when published, and has been reissued several times. It is currently in print from New York Review of Books Classics. In 2011, William Zinsser described it as “the proto-Vietnam novel, anticipating by a generation the hubris that ‘the ugly American’ would bring to another foreign land” by asking “who was more degraded: the Italians hustling to feed their families, or the GIs selling their cheaply bought PX goods at a huge profit?”

Samet quotes from The Gallery: “The gentle die in battle. Your crude extrovert comes out of his ordeal more brutal and crass and cocky than he went in. That’s the way civilizations die, gradually. A premium is put on physical courage in wartime which kills off the gentle, because they are too noble to admit of cowardice…Death to them is terrible.”

Samet quotes retired rear admiral Gene La Roque on the poisonous legacy of Vietnam. “…the twisted memory of it encourages the men of my generation to be willing, almost eager, to use military force anywhere in the world.” In his 1988 book, A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan referred to this mindset as “the disease of victory.” Sheehan expanded on this: “the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the American armed forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination, and moral and intellectual insensitivity.” Sheehan argued that this “institutional illness” had spread to civilian bureaucracies and to “the greater part of the political academic, and business leadership of the United States.” This meant that “American society had become a victim of its own achievement.”

More on this subject next week.

Foreign Interventions

Recent events in Kazakhstan have stimulated discussion about whether or how liberal democracies should deal with foreign tyrants.

Controlling Dictators

Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has described the recent deadly violence in his country as an attempted coup d’état. Vladimir Putin said Kazakhstan had been targeted by international terrorism but provided no evidence. In Belarus, another tyrant, Aleksandr Lukashenko, brutally suppressed widespread protests against his disputed victory in the country’s 2020 presidential election. There are credible allegations of the torture and sexual abuse of opponents. Lukashenko has made several controversial statements during his presidency which have been regarded as antisemitic, homophobic and misogynistic. On 23 May 2021, Lukashenko personally ordered Ryanair Flight 4978, en route from Athens to Vilnius, carrying the opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, to land in Belarus. Lukashenko is not a nice man – better if he were not there. How to get rid of him?

Well-meaning liberals in western democracies are naturally horrified at such brutalities and feel that something ought to be done. Exactly what to do and by whom is hard to decide. Armed intervention should be a last resort and has not gone well in Afghanistan and Iraq. Economic sanctions rarely cause dictators much discomfort as they have their riches safely stowed abroad. Economic sanctions usually cause more suffering to ordinary citizens, although previously accepted claims about child mortality in Iraq have been challenged. Surveys undertaken since 2003 find no evidence of unusually high levels of child mortality during the period of sanctions in 1991-2003.

US Interventions

There are still people who hope the US might do something about human rights abuses in other countries as the optimists still, in spite of all the evidence, have more trust in the US than they do in Russia or in China. Americans are more like our kind of people – remember that special relationship?

The US has gone through periods of isolationism but has done a lot of interfering over the years, starting with the Barbary Wars in the 19th Century, and later sticking its nose into Chile in 1811 as well as 1973. Also, in the 19th century, there were interventions in Mexico, Japan, China, Korea, Cuba. Spain ceded control over its colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. From 1898 to 1935, the US intervened in and had a military presence in Cuba, Honduras, Panama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.

Throughout the Cold War, the US frequently used the CIA against governments and groups considered hostile to US interests, in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. In Egypt, the US helped overthrow King Farouk in a military coup in 1952. In 1953, the CIA helped the Shah of Iran remove the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. In 1954, the US deposed the democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz and ended the Guatemalan Revolution. The coup installed the military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas, the first in a series of US-backed dictators who ruled Guatemala. Guatemala subsequently plunged into a civil war that cost thousands of lives and ended all democratic expression for decades.

In 1961, the CIA attempted to depose Cuban president Fidel Castro through the Bay of Pigs Invasion and made many attempts to assassinate Castro. The CIA also considered assassinating Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba with poisoned toothpaste (although this plan was aborted). The Belgians got him instead. In 1961, the CIA sponsored the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, former dictator of the Dominican Republic. US troops intervened in the Dominican Civil War in April 1965 to prevent a takeover by supporters of deposed left wing president Juan Bosch. At the end of the Eisenhower administration, a campaign was initiated to deny Cheddi Jagan power in an independent Guyana. This campaign was intensified and became something of an obsession with John F Kennedy.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foreign_interventions_by_the_United_States

The Ugly American

The Ugly American is a 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer that depicts the failures of the US diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia. The title of the novel is a play on Graham Greene’s 1955 novel (set in Saigon) The Quiet American, and was sometimes confused with it. Pico Iyer describes Greene’s novel thus: “An American comes into a foreign place full of ideas of democracy and how he will teach an ancient culture a better — in fact, an American — way of doing things.” It does not end well. The Ugly American describes the United States losing its struggle against Communism because of the ineptitude and the bungling of the US diplomatic corps stemming from innate arrogance and their failure to understand the local culture. The novel depicted a stereotype of the American abroad who was universally disliked. The novel also made clear that the few Americans who were knowledgeable about and interested in foreign countries were systematically weeded out of the foreign service.

Violent Pursuit of Happiness

I have been reading an interesting book by Elizabeth D Samet called Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness. Samet teaches English at the military academy at West Point. Long stretches of the book are devoted to film and book summaries. Some might find this bombardment of cultural references a drawback but it does demonstrate that Samet has no difficulty in finding validation for her argument everywhere.

I still have some battered old paperbacks from the early sixties of the novels of John Horne Burns (October 7, 1916 – August 11, 1953). Burns was the author of three novels. His first novel, The Gallery (1947), his best known work, sold well, was critically acclaimed on publication, and has been reissued several times. It is currently in print from New York Review of Books Classics. In 2011, William Zinsser described it as “the proto-Vietnam novel, anticipating by a generation the hubris that ‘the ugly American’ would bring to another foreign land” by asking “who was more degraded: the Italians hustling to feed their families, or the GIs selling their cheaply bought PX goods at a huge profit?”

Samet quotes from The Gallery: “The gentle die in battle. Your crude extrovert comes out of his ordeal more brutal and crass and cocky than he went in. That’s the way civilizations die, gradually. A premium is put on physical courage in wartime which kills off the gentle, because they are too noble to admit of cowardice…Death to them is terrible.”

Institutional Illness

Samet quotes retired rear admiral Gene La Roque on the poisonous legacy of Vietnam. “…the twisted memory of it encourages the men of my generation to be willing, almost eager, to use military force anywhere in the world.” In his 1988 book, A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan referred to this mindset as “the disease of victory.” Sheehan expanded on this: “the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the American armed forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination, and moral and intellectual insensitivity.” Sheehan argued that this “institutional illness” had spread to civilian bureaucracies and to “the greater part of the political academic, and business leadership of the United States.” This meant that “American society had become a victim of its own achievement.”

Poisoned Polity

Elaine Scarry wrote in The Body in Pain: “It has often been observed that war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’. This accurate observation acknowledges that the act of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’, is a deconstruction of the state as it ordinarily manifests itself in the body. That is, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation.”

Today we can see the poisonous effects on American society itself of the interventions in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The horrors vets endured in those hell holes caused an epidemic of PTSD; communities and families have to deal with the effects of mental illness, gun crime, alcoholism and drug addiction. Samet noted about war service records when looking at post WW2 culture, particularly film noir: “Routinely investigated by law-enforcement officials and others, these records are invoked as evidence of good character, competence, or trustworthiness, even as they raise concerns that the erstwhile serviceman has developed a dependence on violence to solve problems. By proving a veteran’s ability to kill, a service record makes him a likely suspect in violent crimes at home.” Samet continues:” War records provoke discomfort among civilians in these films not only because they might be fake but also because they show up the less heroic or imply that veterans are bringing war’s violence back home.”

Americans Abroad

David Vine is associate professor of sociology at American University. He is the author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World. The US maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries. Vine estimated that maintaining bases and troops overseas cost $85 to $100 billion in fiscal year 2014; the total with bases and troops in war zones is $160 to $200 billion. The data comes from the Pentagon’s annual Base Structure Report and additional government, news or academic sources. Hundreds of bases in Europe have closed since the 1990s, but the base and troop (11,500) presence in Italy has been relatively constant. Recently, the military has built new bases and expanded Africa-focused operations in Sicily. A “cooperative security location” in Ouagadougou reflects a new generation of small, clandestine “lily pad” bases appearing in countries with little previous US military presence. At least 11 such bases in Africa host special operations forces, drones and surveillance flights.

Since 1995, anti-base protests have escalated in Okinawa. There are 38 US military facilities on Okinawa. They account for up 30% of the land mass of the island. The US military bases on Okinawa also cover over 40% of the arable soil, once some of the best agricultural land in Japan. Figures up to 1998, show that since 1972, 4,905 crimes were committed against Japanese people by US military personnel, their dependents and US civilian contractors and employees. More than 10% of these were serious crimes – murder, robbery or rape. In most cases, the Japanese authorities were not allowed to arrest or question the alleged perpetrators.

Behind the SOFA

The Status of Forces Agreement which the US has been keen to force on Sri Lanka seems to many Sri Lankans to be a step too far in bending over and being submissive to the US. The main points of SOFA are:

  • All American personnel based in Sri Lanka will have the equivalent of diplomatic immunity. US troops and contractors will be able to enter and leave Sri Lanka without Passports or Visas.
  • US personnel can wear uniforms and carry arms while on duty in Sri Lanka.
  • Sri Lankan laws will not apply to them. The US Government will exercise criminal jurisdiction over US personnel in Sri Lanka.
  • The GOSL will protect US assets in Sri Lanka but the US government will not pay anything.
  • US vessels and vehicles may enter and leave Sri Lanka freely without payment of tolls or taxes, navigation, overflight, terminal or similar charges. Aircraft and vessels of the US Government will not be boarded or inspected.
  • US contractors will not be liable to pay any tax or similar charges and will be exempt from any license, or other restrictions, customs duties, taxes or any other charges.
  • The US will be allowed to operate its own telecommunication systems.
  • Claims relating to damage or loss shall be resolved by the US Government in accordance with US laws and regulations.

Intervention in Sri Lanka

As someone who has lived in Sri Lanka for twenty years. I am sensitive to the threat of foreign intervention. The Sri Lankan government was fighting the separatist forces of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) for nearly thirty with much economic disruption and great loss of life, both civilian and military. I will not here go into the reasons for the conflict or examine the rights and wrongs of both sides. Foreign intervention helped to start, sustain and prolong the conflict.

From August 1983 to May 1987, India, through its intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), provided arms, training and monetary support to six Sri Lankan Tamil separatist insurgent groups including the LTTE.

In spite of this, there was a possibility that the GOSL (Government of Sri Lanka) might have been on the verge of defeating the Tigers in 1987 when India ruined that by sending its army into Sri Lanka. They called it the IPKF (the Indian Peace Keeping Force). On 5 June 1987, the Indian Air Force air dropped food parcels on Jaffna while it was under siege by Sri Lankan forces. At a time when the Sri Lankan government stated they were close to defeating the LTTE, India dropped 25 tons of food and medicine by parachute into areas held by the LTTE in a direct move of support toward the rebels. GOSL alleged that weapons were also supplied to the LTTE by India.

The original intention was that the IPKF would not be involved in large scale military operations. However, after a few months, Indian troops engaged the Tigers in a series of battles which they continued to do during the two years in which the IPKF was deployed. There were allegations that Indian troops committed atrocities. The IPKF began withdrawing in 1989 and completed the withdrawal in 1990. Support for the LTTE in India dropped considerably in 1991, after the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a female suicide bomber named Thenmozhi Rajaratnam. India regretted its intervention in Sri Lanka.

Save that Tiger

In 2009, when the LTTE were once again close to defeat, foreign nations sought to intervene. David Miliband, who was then UK foreign secretary, put pressure on GOSL to agree a cease-fire. The foreign secretary visited Sri Lanka with his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner on 29 April. In the past, the LTTE had used ceasefires to regroup and rearm without actually ceasing fire themselves. GOSL were not prepared to make that mistake again, preferring definitively to defeat the Tigers while they had the chance. A leaked May 2009 cable Tim Waite, a UK Foreign Office team leader on Sri Lanka, explaining Miliband’s intense focus on the plight of the country’s Tamils in terms of UK electoral geography. “He said that with UK elections on the horizon and many Tamils living in Labour constituencies with slim majorities, the government is paying particular attention to Sri Lanka, with Miliband recently remarking to Waite that he was spending 60% of his time at the moment on Sri Lanka.”

The Disease of Victory

Thirteen years after the GOSL comprehensively defeated the LTTE, the winners are still not allowed to enjoy the fruits of victory. There is no demand from Tamils in Sri Lanka for a separate state and there have been no terrorist incidents in those 13 years. The Tamil diaspora still has the influence to ensure  the annual ritual of hauling Sri Lanka before the UNHRC, which currently includes such doughty champions of human rights as Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Angola, Kazakhstan, El Salvador, Venezuela.

Coda

I will leave the last word with Elizabeth D Samet.

“The countries the United States sought to liberate and subsequently occupied inevitably tired of it before we did. In this case, our ‘garrulous populism’ expressed itself, as the pocket guides warned, as a belief that the world should be grateful for American military might, which was exceptional because it was always applied in the name of freedom.”

Trans Wars Part Three

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on October 20, 2021.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/trans-wars-part-three

Many years ago, I laughed at veteran comic and scriptwriter Barry Cryer when he said, “I’m a lesbian trapped in a man’s body.” That is not funny anymore as hairy men with penises accuse women with vaginas of being bigots because they won’t have lesbian sex with them. A group of aggressive males who claim to be women but have not surrendered their appendages are attempting to create a hierarchy within the term “woman” and to push females lower in it.

Sexual Fetishism

What does it mean for a chap born with gonads to self-identify as a woman if he does not surrender his gonads? Many self-identifiers say they always felt uncomfortable being a man. Does that mean that they want to dress up as a woman? That’s no problem. A gang of people like that gather at the end of my street most evenings and I say good luck to them. There was in living memory a clear distinction between transvestites and transexuals. If a gonadal man wants to dress up as a girl, who cares? Except possibly his wife. A work colleague of mine was found hanging, dressed in stockings and suspenders, in the attic by his wife. An auto-erotic procedure that went fatally wrong. That trivial sensual pleasure must have been ruinous for the family.

Ray Blanchard is adjunct Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. He served on the American Psychiatric Association DSM-IV Subcommittee on Gender Identity Disorders. Blanchard coined the term Autogynephilia, derived from Greek for “love of oneself as a woman”. As Blanchard put it: “a male’s propensity to be sexually aroused by the thought of himself as a female.” Blanchard categorized trans women into two groups: homosexual transsexuals who are attracted exclusively to men, and who seek sex reassignment surgery because they are feminine in both behavior and appearance; and autogynephilic transsexuals who are sexually aroused at the idea of having a female body. Other terms for such cross-gender fantasies and behaviours include automonosexuality, eonism, and sexo-aesthetic inversion.

Women’s Spaces

Back in 1988, I was amused rather than alarmed when Prunella Scales (Sybil from Fawlty Towers) rushed into the Gents’ toilet at the Phoenix Theatre while I was relieving myself before going to see Dustin Hoffman in The Merchant of Venice. That’s the play with the pound of flesh; I’m not boasting. I understood that Ms Scales was too impatient to join the lengthy queue at the Ladies’. If I were a born lady with a uterus, I would imagine I would be very alarmed if I were going to relieve myself at the Labour Party conference and a huge creature dressed as a woman invaded the space of the Ladies’ toilet. Yet the person calling themself Patricia Josephine Hannah-Wood complained to the entire conference about being abused in the ladies’ toilet by ‘cis women’. Hannah-Wood had the gall to make comparisons between that experience and that of a young female teacher who had been brutally murdered by a man that week.

Another Labour councillor, Lindsay Broadwell, who identifies as a ‘cis lesbian’ but is in fact male, also played the victim, claiming that he had been aggressively challenged in the women’s toilets simply for being a butch woman. Broadwell is muscular and 6’2”.

Another (former) Labour official, Lily Madigan, in 2019 tweeted stories of sexual harassment and assaults. Soon afterwards several young women came forward to accuse him/her/them/it of inappropriate sexual behaviour

Helen Joyce writes: “The overwhelming majority of violence, sexual assault and harassment suffered by female people has been perpetrated by male ones. Single-sex spaces exist for these reasons, not to prop up privilege or pander to prejudice.”

I find the terminology imposed by the self-identifying bullies quite obnoxious. The sneering use of the term “cis-woman” makes it clear that they do not really like proper women let alone want to be one. Real women seem to be the enemy and those who claim to protect and advocate for real women are betraying them by supporting promiscuous equality.

Women’s Sports

A few years ago, the presence of a male-to-female (MTF) transgender athlete in women’s competitions would have alarmed athletes, coaches and fans, but they might have been consoled by the extreme rarity of such cases. That is no longer the case. The transgender issue is showing up at every level of every sport more and more often.

Olympic swimmer, Sharron Davies argued that transgender athletes who were born male had a physical advantage over cisgendered women. “Michael Phelps has size 15 feet; your average female swimmer has size six,” she said. “If someone is a good swimmer and they decide they want to transition to being a female, none of our girls would stand a chance.”

While in his teens, New Zealander Gavin Hubbard, set national records in junior weightlifting competitions.  He transitioned to female in 2012 and underwent hormone therapy and took the name Laurel Hubbard. Hubbard won two gold medals and a silver medal in the 2019 Pacific Games. Hubbard is 6-foot-1 and weighs 287 pounds.

Men who have gone through puberty before transitioning have an unfair physical advantage over women who were born women and remained women. In contact sports like boxing and rugby, the physical advantage could prove lethal. The male skull is designed to take more impact but nonetheless head injuries in male American footballers and in rugby players worldwide have become a major cause of concern. In 2020, World Rugby’s transgender working group produced a 38-page draft document in which it was calculated that increased injury risk for typical players with female characteristics when tackled by a typical player with male characteristics was between 20% and 30%.

Transgender cyclist Rachel McKinnon told BBC Sport she estimated she has received more than 100,000 hate messages on Twitter since she won her UCI Masters Track World Championship title in October. Fellow cyclist Jen Wagner-Assali, who finished third, called it “unfair” and called on cycling’s international governing body to change its rules. Rachel McKinnon said Sharron Davies was a “transphobe” and was “sharing hate speech”.

Feminist and Gay Revolutions

Helen Joyce raises the issue that some parents who are keen to change by surgery or drugs the gender of their children might be motivated by a fear of homosexuality. In days gone by a boy who liked to play girly games might later discover that he was gay all along and come out of the closet with all his male gadgets intact and have a fulfilling life. Joyce observes that a “generation ago, progressives campaigned for schools to crack down on taunts about gay boys being girls; now, the bullies are presented as right.” In 2019, some staff at the Tavistock Clinic raised concerns that some parents were trying to fast-track children’s transition for this reason. Two clinicians said that “there was a dark joke among staff that soon ‘there would be no gay people left.’”

Joyce describes the case of Kimberly Shappley, a conservative Christian in Texas who was disturbed by her son Joseph’s effeminate behaviour. The parents tried prayer and when that failed they tried physical violence but Joseph continued to insist, “I’m a girl’. Eventually, Shappley allowed her child to transition at the age of four. “I now have a happy, healthy, outgoing, loving, beautiful, sweet little girl who loves Jesus and loves her brothers.”

A really disturbing aspect is that organisations that one would expect to defend the rights of gays and women are actually protecting the bullies and painting them as the victims. Pink News, an organ ostensibly in the business of protecting gay rights, praised the government of Pakistan for funding sex-change surgery for gay males. Radical Islamists believe that homosexuality is an indication of a female brain. Out with the knives! There is plenty of evidence that gay men in Pakistan and Iran are tortured, beaten and executed and many unwillingly have the surgery rather than risk other penalties.

Is Change Coming?

Louise Perry discussed in the New Statesman the books by Helen Joyce and Kathleen Stock that I wrote about in my previous articles. She senses that there is a shift in public opinion and media attitudes to the bullying by transactivists. “What was once taboo has become mainstream, with each person and publication in the respectability chain emboldened by the outspokenness of the one before them.” JK Rowling has been roundly abused for speaking the truth but she has also attracted support. Graham Linehan was the co-author of the two funniest shows ever on TV. These days he is mainly known as a hate figure to transactivists because he disseminates good sense on his blog, The Glinner Update. He is spreading the message. Linehan has likened the use of puberty blockers to Nazi Eugenics programmes. In 2020, he was suspended from Twitter for “repeated violations” of the rules. Linehan said his views had lost him work and disrupted his marriage. He has not let all this and testicular cancer stop his fight for justice and common sense.

There are a number of channels, particularly Triggernomatry, on YouTube which provide opportunities for open discussion without the threat of fascistic cancelling.

Comedian Dave Chappelle has been called a transphobe. Chappelle told a story about striking up a friendship with a transgender woman who he claimed was “laughing the hardest” at his jokes about transgender people. That woman was Daphne Dorman. When Chappelle was lambasted as a transphobe, Dorman tweeted that he was nothing of the kind and was her friend. She was hounded in turn; then jumped to her death off a tower block. Chappelle’s views about self-identifying are far more in step with public opinion than his critics. As the Lexington column in the Economist remarked, “if the unpopularity of their views is rarely off-putting to the Twitterati, good luck to them taking on an African-American superstar. “

In her book, Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, Helen Joyce writes about the concept of gender self-identification, “The label is a misnomer. It is actually about requiring others to identify you as a member of the sex you proclaim.” Joyce notes that a judicial review in the UK in late 2020 addressed the issue of whether children can truly consent to puberty blockers. The answer was no. Joyce’s book has been sent to all UK MPs. Kathleen Stock has been bullied and her livelihood threatened but her book, Material Girls, has been sent all UK MPs. News just in: Kathleen Stock has been hounded from her job at Sussex University. Miriam Cates, Conservative MP for Penistone has published a very sensible article in the right-wing Daily Telegraph.

Can we hope that the madness can be contained? I leave the last word to Helen Joyce: “liberal, secular society can accommodate many subjective belief systems, even mutually contradictory ones. What it must never do is impose one group’s beliefs on everyone else.

There are many informative discussions on YouTube.There are a number of channels, particularly Triggernomatry, on YouTube which provide opportunities for open discussion without the threat of fascistic cancelling.

https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1438754/nhs-news-transgender-terf-feminist-doctor-woke-political-correctness-lgbtq

https://grahamlinehan.substack.com/p/doctor-do-much-harm

Trans Wars Part Two

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on October 14, 2021.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/trans-wars-1

Sri Lanka’s first president, JR Jayewardene, famously boasted that the executive presidency gave him the power “to do anything except make a man a woman, or a woman a man”. (This was first said by Jean-Louis de Lolme 1740 – 16 July 1806. De Lolme was a political theorist born in the then independent Republic of Geneva. He was referring to the British Parliament).

Today, there is much conflict about making a man a woman or a woman a man.

Casablanca

I spent a day in Casablanca in 1976, but luckily got out in one piece. George Jamieson went to Casablanca in 1960 and came back as April Ashley and achieved some success as a model, pictures appearing in Vogue. Jamieson/Ashley was 25 at the time of the operation. Wally Stott wrote music for radio shows such as Hancock’s Half Hour and the Goon Show. He also worked with Shirley Bassey, Noel Coward and Dusty Springfield. Scott Walker compared him to Delius. Stott married twice and had two children. Stott went to Casablanca and came back as Angela Morley at the age of 46. Walter Carlos had a hit record with his Moog synthesizer versions of Bach and wrote scores for two Kubrick movies. He went to Casablanca in 1972 and came back as Wendy Carlos. Carlos was 33 at the time. James Morris served in the British Army in World War II and was a member of the 1953 British Mount Everest expedition, which made the first ascent of the mountain and was the only journalist to accompany the expedition, climbing with the team to a camp at 22,000 feet. He was the father of five children. James went to Casablanca in 1972 and came back as Jan. Morris was 46 at the time of the surgery.

Casablanca was the destination because it was the base of French surgeon Georges Burou and his sex reassignment clinic, called “Clinique du Parc”. In 1973, he reported his experience with over 3000 individual cases. He is said to have worked at the clinic seven days a week, and frequently up to fifteen hours each day. Burou refused his services to minors even if they had parental consent, because he felt “the operation is definitive and irreversible and one . . . could not risk making a mistake.” His fees were said to be modest for the time and he was willing to make “enormous” financial concessions to his fees whenever a case “merited the operation.” An essential part of the procedure is orchiectomy – castration. Between 1956 and 1958 Burou independently developed the anteriorly pedicled penile skin flap inversion vaginoplasty in his clinic. You can see pictures of this on Wikipedia if you wish.

Dr Marci Bowers is a world-renowned vaginoplasty specialist who operated on reality-television star Jazz Jennings.

She was once Dr Mark Bowers, father of three. She has built or repaired more than 2,000 vaginas. Bowers says “I never use the colon. It’s the last resort. You can get colon cancer. If it’s used sexually, you can get this chronic colitis that has to be treated over time. And it’s just in the discharge and the nasty appearance and it doesn’t smell like vagina.” Bowers does not use the bowels. Bowers felt the need to say this because there is a shortage of suitable tissue. Dutch researchers noted back in 2008 that in natal males “the genital tissue available for vaginoplasty might be less than optimal.” This is because of the use of puberty blockers can lead to “non-normal pubertal phallic growth.” Many American gender surgeons augment the tissue for constructing neovaginas with borrowed stomach lining and bits of bowel. Intestinal vaginoplasty uses a section of the sigmoid colon to create the neovagina.

Gory details can be found here if you are not squeamish.

https://www.verywellhealth.com/different-types-of-vaginoplasty-4171503

Here is Jazz Jennings.

Jazz in good times

With current surgical procedures, trans women are unable to receive ovaries or a uterus. They may not be able to enjoy sexual pleasure. They are unable to bear children or menstruate, and they will need to remain on hormone therapy after surgery. As far as one can generalize, Joe or Josephine Public is rather bewildered by these things but is probably sympathetic to someone who feels the need to transition. That was until the self-identity bullies came along.

Genital Mutilation

Susie Green is the CEO of Mermaids, an NGO which supports “transgender, nonbinary and gender-diverse children and young people until their 20th birthday, as well as their families and professionals involved in their care. We also currently offer web chat support to students up to the age of 25. Transgender, nonbinary and gender-diverse children and teens need support and understanding, as well as the freedom to explore their gender identity. Whatever the outcome, Mermaids is committed to helping families navigate the challenges they may face.”

Ms Green’s child, Jackie, was taken to Thailand for surgery to reassign from male to female at the age of 16. Jackie says in a Daily Mail article, “I was prescribed ‘blockers’ by a doctor in Boston when was I was twelve.” Jackie seems to be happy about all this.

Surgical reassignment requires orchiectomy. Kellie-Jane Keen-Minshull, who self-identifies as a left-wing feminist, pointed out in a series of tweets that in the UK, gender reassignment cannot be performed until the patient is 18. She described what had been done to Jackie in a seven-hour operation as castration. Susie Green set the police on her. A policeman told her that if she tried to leave the country she would be arrested, that if she was pulled over whilst driving she would be arrested and that if the Yorkshire force had to come to her house to arrest her she would have to spend time in the cells. Ms Keen-Minshull was forced to take down a billboard which merely showed the dictionary definition of ‘woman’. Transactivists deemed this ‘provocative’.

Ms Keen-Minshull says, “I may remind everyone here that I am a stay-at-home mother to four children and that I am a wife!  I’m not Jihadi John, I am not part of a grooming gang or paedophile ring, I haven’t hurt anyone or abused anyone.  I am a woman with an opinion.” Ms Keen-Minshull was described as “vile” and “disgusting” on Twitter for expressing her views.

Ms Green also reported Caroline Farrow to the police.

Ms Farrow said: “I have pointed out to police that I am a Catholic journalist/commentator and it is my religious belief that a person cannot change sex.” She added that she would “happily do jail time” for her “right to say that people cannot change sex”. She was accused of using the wrong pronoun for a trans person which could constitute an offence under the Malicious Communications Act, which carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison.

Gender Dysphoria

Gender dysphoria is a term that describes a sense of unease that a person may have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity. This sense of unease or dissatisfaction may be so intense it can lead to depression and anxiety and have a harmful impact on daily life.

While one might sympathise with people in this situation, giving blocker drugs, hormones and irreversible surgery to children is a drastic response. It is indeed a reinforcement of gender stereotypes. Just because very small boys do girly things does not justify physically changing their sex. When I was about four years old, I was fascinated by the pomp and theatre of the Mass and played at being a priest. Thank God my parents did not pack me off to a seminary and force me into a life of celibacy.

There have always been lots of little boys who were very timid who grow up to be very masculine. Sometimes it’s because of the parents. Grace Hemingway so treasured the fantasy of her Ernest being a little girl that she sometimes referred to him as “Ernestine.” Lots of little girls who we used to call tomboys grew up to be very feminine and have children and be good mothers.

Ambiguity of gender at birth is very rare. Incorrect description and assignment on birth certificates is very rare. It is not wise to reorder society and suppress freedom of speech because of birth defects in an infinitesimal minority. It is even more foolish to reorder society and suppress freedom of speech at the behest of men who have decided they are women without going for the surgery. One should sympathise and protect the rights of minorities but not kowtow to bullies who want to act out outdated gender stereotypes.

We are all here clinging to this suffering planet because of sexual dimorphism. Each one of us had a male daddy and a female mummy. If the human race is to continue and if there are still to be people around to fund my pension, there will need to be mummies (with uteruses) and daddies (with penises) making babies.

More on these issues in my next column

Trans Wars Part One

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on October 5, 2021.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/trans-wars

The death of debate

For an elderly gentleman such as my good self, naïve in the ways of the world, current controversies about transgenderism are somewhat bewildering. Why does the topic arouse such viciousness today when we are supposed to be more tolerant? Transsexualism was discussed in the mass media as long ago as the 1930s. Time magazine in 1936 devoted an article to what it called “hermaphrodites”, treating the subject with sensitivity not sensationalism.

Today’s Wars

What is causing so much conflict today is not the small number of people who were wrongly described and classified at birth, but the much larger numbers who self-identify as a different gender from the one on their birth certificate. The number of trans people in the UK has rocketed and it is unlikely that the number of what Time called “hermaphrodites” has so dramatically increased. According to the LGBT charity Stonewall, their ‘best estimate’ of the number of trans people in the UK is ‘about 600,000’. Kathleen Stock writes in her book Material Girls: “something called ‘gender identity’ gripped public consciousness, strongly influencing UK and international institutions, and causing protests and even violence.”

According to Stock, “In 2004, it was estimated there were about 2,000–5,000 trans people in the UK. Back then, the popular image of a trans person was mainly of a ‘medically transitioned’ adult trans woman, or ‘male-to-female transsexual’: an adult person of the male sex who had taken hormones over a long period of time to change many aspects of appearance, and who had also had ‘sex reassignment’ surgery to refashion natal genitalia.” That is not the case today.

Trans Pioneers

I am old enough to remember the case of George Jorgenson who, in 1951, obtained special permission from the Danish Minister of Justice to undergo a series of operations in that country. On September 24, 1951, surgeons at Gentofte Hospital in Copenhagen performed an orchiectomy (remember that word) on Jorgensen, who took the name Christine. Jorgenson was 27. Glen or Glenda, a 1953 American exploitation film written by, directed by and starring Ed Wood, was based on the Jorgenson case. It is widely considered to be the worst film ever made. Johnny Depp played Wood in a biopic directed by Tim Burton.

This type of surgery had previously been performed by German doctors in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Artist Einar Wegener who, identifying as a woman called Lili Elbe, underwent a series of five experimental operations between 1930 and 1931 which led to her death soon after the final procedure.

There was a film, The Danish Girl, based on this case too, starring Eddie Redmayne as Lili. This too was considered a bit of a stinker.

Roger Moore with Christine Jorgenson

George Jamieson served in the merchant navy and claimed to have shared digs with John Prescott, who later became Tony Blair’s deputy. At the age of 25, George became April Ashley. Having saved £3,000, Ashley had a seven-hour-long sex reassignment operation on 12 May 1960, performed in Casablanca, Morocco, by Georges Burou. All her hair fell out, and she endured significant pain, but the operation was deemed successful.

Walter Carlos came to prominence with Switched-On Bach (1968), an album of music by Johann Sebastian Bach performed on a Moog synthesizer. Carlos composed the scores to two Stanley Kubrick films – A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980) – and Tron (1982) for Walt Disney Productions. Carlos discovered transgender studies in 1962. In 1967 Harry Benjamin’s book, The Transsexual Phenomenon, was published and Carlos went into counselling with Benjamin who provided hormone replacement treatment. In 1972, after reassignment surgery, Walter became Wendy. Carlos was 33 when the surgery took place.

Composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos at work in her New York City recording studio, 9th October 1979. (Photo by Leonard M. DeLessio/Corbis via Getty Images)

I remember Wally Stott as the musical director of radio shows such as The Goon Show and Hancock’s Half Hour. He worked with Noel Coward, Shirley Bassey and Dusty Springfield. He worked with Scott Walker on his masterpiece Scott 4. He also provided the music for the films The Looking Glass War and When Eight Bells Toll. He stepped back from music in 1970 to undergo gender transition. Wally Stott became Angela Morley at the age of 46 after gender reassignment surgery in Casablanca in June 1970. Before the reassignment there were two marriages and two children.

James Morris served in the British Army in World War II and was a member of the 1953 British Mount Everest expedition, which made the first ascent of the mountain and was the only journalist to accompany the expedition, climbing with the team to a camp at 22,000 feet. I have read some wonderful books by Morris – The Pax Britannica trilogy and a guide to Venice. In 1949, Morris married Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a tea planter and they had five children together. Morris began transitioning to life as a woman in 1964, at the age of 38. Morris travelled to Casablanca to undergo sex reassignment surgery, performed by surgeon Georges Burou and became Jan Morris.

Today’s War

These cases were generally regarded with tolerance and sympathy. How did we get to this state of war? Why have the number of cases increased so much? How did we get to this “psychic epidemic”? Sometimes, a new condition is born – and sometimes it gains sudden popularity. “The history of medicine is scattered with psychosomatic diseases that appeared, spread like wildfire and then disappeared”. In Creating Hysteria: Women and Multiple Personality Disorder, published in 1999, journalist Joan Acocella described how a disease so rare that most doctors never came across it turned into an epidemic. I had dealings with the Tavistock Clinic in the 1990s when they were promoting the idea of Satanic Child Abuse. Who believes in that now?

The real problem today is that transactivists are trying to close down the debate about self-identification – people who insist that they must have access to women’s facilities even though they have not undergone chemical or surgical procedures to transition from male to female.

What Self-Identification Means

Initially I found it hilarious to see people on YouTube with stubbly chins, square jaws, big hands and feet and deep voices insisting aggressively that they be called girls. It is not so funny when the authorities give in to them. Ireland, long a bastion of puritanical Catholicism and sexual repression, delighted the world when it made same sex marriage legal and at last ended the ban on abortion. Ireland even had an openly gay mixed race prime minister. Unfortunately, the push to do what is supposedly the right thing has led to a terrible distortion.

At the recent Labour Party conference Patricia Hannah-Woods claimed they had endured transphobic abuse in a ladies toilet at the conference.

In Ireland, in 1997, a post-operative trans-sexual Lydia Foy took action against the Irish government for not allowing her to change her birth certificate. When Ireland adopted European human rights law they had to look at the issue again. The parliamentary committee only heard evidence from transactivist groups. Irish transactivists had directly lobbied individual politicians and tried to keep press coverage to a minimum. No mention was made of women’s safety or privacy at any point.

Men in Women’s Prisons

Helen Joyce, in her book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, writes that in her country, Ireland, “Until 2019, not a single woman had ever been imprisoned for a sex crime against an adult. Since then, Irish prisons have experienced a sudden influx of ‘female’ sex offenders… As you will have guessed, the perpetrators are in fact male.”

Helen Joyce gives a number of horrific examples of the consequences of allowing self-identification. The convicted sex offender and trans woman Karen White sexually assaulted fellow inmates after being transferred to a female prison. In 2020, a prisoner Joyce calls Kandi was charged on two counts of sexual assault and four counts of threatening to murder women. Aged seventeen, he attacked a woman, trying to gouge out her eyes, ripping her eyelids and pulling out clumps of her hair. When he reached the age of 18 the police advised his mother to go into hiding. He changed his name to a female one and used the provisions of self-ID to become legally female.

Joyce describes how a trans woman called “Tara Desousa (Adam Laboucan), whose crimes included the rape of a three-month old baby so brutal that the victim required reconstructive surgery… is now held in a prison with a mother-and-baby unit.”  Madeline (Matthew) Harks, who committed at least two hundred sexual crimes against at least sixty victims, including girls of four and five, was housed in a women’s prison and after that admitted to a women’s halfway house which also contained a mother-and-baby-unit – despite Harks being described by psychiatrists as having an “all-encompassing preoccupation in sexually abusing young girls.”

In England, a previously convicted pedophile, in jail on suspicion of having stabbed a neighbor, sexually assaulted several female inmates. Craig Hudson was sentenced in 2004 for murder. Over the two years of his marriage, he and several relatives tortured his wife, Rachel, to death. The autopsy found eleven fractured ribs, a detached lower lip and dozens of bruises, burns and scalds. She died of a blood clot on her brain. ‘I see a lot of people who have been beaten,’ the Home Office pathologist said. ‘I have to say, I have never seen anything like this before.’

The High Court ruled on July 2 that it is lawful for transgender women to be housed in female jails in England and Wales. A female prisoner, known as FDJ, had challenged the Ministry of Justice. She claimed she had been sexually assaulted in 2017 by a trans woman with a gender recognition certificate (GRC), who had convictions for serious sexual offences. The judge ruled (by email!) that barring all trans women from female prisons would ignore their right to live as their chosen gender. Women’s prisons can house inmates who were born male but identify as female, regardless of whether they have gone through any physical transformation or have obtained a gender recognition certificate.

Cancel Culture

Women have been censored for “saying that ‘only women get cervical cancer’; for saying that ‘we need to talk about male violence’; for placing the dictionary definition of ‘woman’ on a billboard; for quoting verbatim from the parliamentary debate in 2004 on the UK’s Gender Recognition Act; for stating the definition of rape in British law; and for saying, correctly, that the limited statistics available suggest that transwomen in the UK are more likely to commit murder than to be murdered. An Australian senator, Claire Chandler, faced a human-rights inquiry after a transactivist complained about a speech in which she argued for female-only spaces and sports. In 2019 Selina Todd, the Oxford historian of women, had to be escorted by security guards during lectures because of death threats. Meghan Murphy, who, as a feminist, opposed the establishment of transgender rights legislation, needs a police guard when she speaks publicly, and venues hosting her routinely receive bomb threats.

It is easy to agree with Helen Joyce’s assertion that “intimidation and harassment are carried out openly and proudly” by those who use the bully pulpit to propagate the notion of self-ID. JK Rowling has been subjected to horrific onslaughts because she voiced her support for a researcher who was sacked after tweeting that transgender people cannot change their biological sex. Rowling wrote, “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?” She said, “Hundreds of trans activists have threatened to beat, rape, assassinate and bomb me.” People like Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Eddie Redmayne who should be supporting her are, instead, agreeing with her critics.Rowling defended herself thus: “I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.” Joyce comments, “The idea that a children’s author known for her liberal politics and donating most of her vast fortune to charity had somehow morphed into a bigot was wildly implausible. And anyone who actually read what she said would have found only compassion and good sense.”

Kathleen Stock has been pilloried for her allegedly “trans exclusionary position.” Stock has argued that trans women who still have male genitalia should be excluded from women’s changing rooms. She has denied opposing trans rights, saying, “I gladly and vocally assert the rights of trans people to live their lives free from fear, violence, harassment or any discrimination” and “I think that discussing female rights is compatible with defending these trans rights.” In October 2021, Stock resigned from her post at Sussex University. “This has been an absolutely horrible time for me and my family. I’m putting it behind me now.”

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-59084446.

Germaine Greer sensibly points out that by expressing her own views she is exercising “opinion not prohibition.”

Helen Joyce writes: “Your opponents’ speech reinforces injustice, and silencing them is moral, even if that takes violence or the threat of it. Control the discourse, and you control reality.”

More on these issues in my next column.

Accentuate the Negative

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on September 24, 2021, with a different title.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/highlighting-the-negative

Negative Capability

While researching my articles on the books of Oliver Burkeman, I came across one called The Power of Negative Thinking. This sounded promisingly paradoxical, a case for the positivity of negativity?

I cast my mind back to my studies of English literature. John Keats, in a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, on 22 December 1817, described a conversation a few days previously with Charles Dilke. Keats had pondered about “what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Although Keats used the phrase only in passing in a letter, it has survived down the ages. It provided the title in 2018 for the 21st studio album by that great survivor Marianne Faithfull, which drew high praise from reviewers, one of whom wrote, it bristles with warmth and life, a 40-minute reason to stay positive.”

The term has been used by poets and philosophers to describe the ability to perceive and recognise truths beyond the reach of consecutive reasoning. Another way of expressing what Keats was getting at would be suspending judgment about something in order to learn more about it. That would be a useful thing in these days when social media allows everyone to shout their opinions without any knowledge or facts to back them up.

Paradox and Contrarianism

I clicked on the image of The Power of Negative Thinking by Oliver Burkeman and purchased it for my Kindle. Or so I thought. I was surprised to find that what I had actually bought was a book by Tony Humphreys, not Oliver Burkeman. I did not complain because I was intrigued. Tony Humphreys’s dog bit me on more than one occasion. More about that later.

I felt somewhat cheated by what seemed to be verbal sleight of hand. I was looking for some original paradoxical thoughts about the positivity of the negative. Unfortunately, Humphreys is no GK Chesterton.

Time after time, Humphreys simply replaces the word “negative” with the word “protective”. Much of this book is devoted to illustrating the very many “creative strategies that human beings adopt to protect themselves in the face of emotional perils”. He often asserts that “there is no such thing as negative thinking. “Rather I believe that people creatively develop protective patterns of thinking to reduce the possibility of further hurt, humiliation and rejection.” Later we will see what happened when he asserted that there was no such thing as autism.

Humphreys asserts: “By relabelling ‘negative’ thinking as ‘protective’ thinking, the person is no longer being criticised for the way she thinks but, on the contrary, is being given recognition for the need for protection.” Humphreys sees negative feelings as being creative. A reader who was minded to be negative about the book might say that the notion is unhealthy and might substitute ‘delusional’ for ‘creative’. “Thoughts, attitudes, behaviours, feelings and illnesses that are often labelled as ‘negative’ have, in reality, the creative function of protecting you from threats to your emotional and social wellbeing. Rather than suddenly trying to let go of those so-called ‘negative’ behaviours, you will be encouraged to hold on to them until sufficient safety has been created for you to become venturesome again.”

Sometimes it seems to me that Humphreys is saying that playing the victim is a valid ‘protective’ strategy. He argues that deep emotions that are usually repressed within oneself are the result of one’s upbringing and he is not shy about giving details of his own suffering. He was “constantly and unfavourably compared with his twin brother” and felt that he was not given credit for caring for his invalid mother. He left school at fifteen and joined a monastery at eighteen. He was in the monastery for seven years and a month before taking his vows, “having lost all belief in Catholicism”. His devoutly religious family rejected him. 

Autism Controversy

Humphreys has something of the status of a guru in Ireland. He often appears on TV and writes frequently in the popular press. He practices as a Consultant Clinical Psychologist.


In an article in the Irish Examiner in February 2012, Humphreys suggested that there was no such thing as autism. “When you use the word autism you’re suggesting it’s a fact. Autism is a theory. It is not a fact,” he said on TV3′s Ireland AM. He claimed that there is a link between what are diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorders and parents not expressing love and affection to their children. This, not surprisingly, was distressing for parents struggling to bring up autistic children. Dr Michael Drumm, the head of the PSI (the Psychological Society of Ireland) said that the views expressed by Humphreys were “not supported by the vast body of research”. Kevin Whelan, chief executive of Irish Autism, wrote that Humphreys was resurrecting a theory that was popular 70 years ago: “It was wrong and it was abandoned in the face of overwhelming evidence collected by psychologists, neurologists, epidemiologists and academic researchers.”

The Irish Examiner removed the article from its website. The Press Ombudsman of Ireland adjudicated that “the offence was not only widespread but grave, could have been interpreted as gratuitously provocative, and might have been avoided or at least minimized if the topic had been presented in a different manner”. Indeed, Humphreys did not do himself any favours.

According to Wikipedia: “He believes that these ‘labelled disorders’ [oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD), attention-deficit disorder (ADD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia and dyslexia]are avoidant behavioural adjustments that enable a threatened child “to survive in a painful world of conditionality” and are curable through “unconditionally valuing and caring” relationships. He has made similar claims for emotionally challenging environments causing the onset of asthma. Both professional and advocate groups have decried his theory of the aetiology of schizophrenia.”

Writing this article made me think about wider issues which will require a separate article to address. The wider issues are the scientific basis of psychiatry and psychoanalysis and the expertise and qualifications of gurus and counsellors. Freud was a fraud, a quack not a scientist. He made stuff up. Here are a few thoughts sketched out in advance of that.

Qualifications

My last job in the real and sordid world of paid employment had the grand title “Ministerial advisor on child protection”. The reality was that I was a lowly civil servant at the Department of Health in London. One of my “betters” actually called me “good and faithful servant” to my face expecting me to be pleased. My job was to churn out words for my betters and to write speeches for ministers, generally guide them as to what was the best thing to say. In the twilight of my career I clinked glasses with the High Primate of All Ireland (that was Archbishop Robin Eames, not a monkey) in the bar of the House of Lords. Baroness Cumberlege had provided me with a large gin and tonic for writing a speech for her. My superior officers were responsible for drafting the groundbreaking Children Act of 1989 which gave every child the right to protection from abuse and exploitation and the right to inquiries to safeguard their welfare. Its central tenet was that children are usually best looked after within their family. Not one person involved in the drafting of Children Act of 1989 had children. Most of the people working on my section did not have children.

Tony and his wife Helen Ruddle do not have children but they feel confidently qualified to give counselling to parents who are failing to cope on the rockface of parenthood.

What are their qualifications? Tony tells us about his troubled childhood but is a troubled childhood sufficient qualification to help others? He does not have a “normal” childhood to use as a base or a comparison.

You can read many of Tony Humphreys’s articles on his blog  but I have not been able to find any peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journals.

http://www.tonyhumphreys.ie/

In academic circles in the west, it is considered poor form to call oneself “doctor” unless one is a medical practitioner. I have noted that many writers in Sri Lanka proudly call themselves “doctor” even though their field of expertise is somewhat suspect and they would have no clue how to deal with a verruca. An Irish blogger wrote back in 2012: “The title Doctor is widely employed. Even the bishops use it, and while they’ll certainly treat you with disdain, they won’t attempt to treat you for any medical condition. Context is all-important, and it seems to me that the juxtaposition of the words Doctor and Clinical create a powerful alignment of expectations in a person’s mind. Therefore, the question needs to be asked, if somebody uses the title Doctor, while at the same time describing himself as a clinical psychologist, is he creating the impression that he is a medical practitioner?”

Tony Humphreys claims to be Ireland’s most influential psychologist but his peers take issue with that claim. According to his Wikipedia entry, he “left school at 15, put himself through night school to obtain a degree and higher diploma in Physical Education, followed by an MA in 1977 and PhD in 1983 in Psychology. (1983), His thesis was an experimental investigation of hypnosis as an adjunct to the behavioural treatment of phobias.” Humphreys also studied theology, a subject which is not big on scientific fact. The world was created in seven days, allegedly.

A couple of bloggers have made trenchant analyses of Humphreys writings and cast doubt on his qualifications to be a guru about child-rearing or autism or about anything. One draws attention to the anecdotal approach which is often used in this particular book. “This is anecdotal, and irrelevant to autism. Humphreys produces no figures or research to support his assertion. He relies on his status as a TV guru.” And this : “The sorry bit is that someone who was given a PhD by an Irish institution seems so detached from the basic principles of clear thinking, and even sorrier is the fact that this man has written many self-help books relied on by vulnerable people to try and fix their lives.” His PhD was about hypnosis. PE and theology?

Autism Spectrum — Tony Humphreys, Clinical Psychologist, Blames the Parents

thesciencebit.net/2012/02/08/how-to-argue-illogically-tonys-ten-top-tips/

Community

In this book Humphreys writes: “What I like about my neighbourhood is that people seem to respect and value differences between one another and there is no strong push towards conformity, not even towards religious conformity, although the latter has been a strong feature of local community life. There is also a friendliness between people. As in all communities, you have the ‘rogue’, the ‘sharp operator’ and the over inquisitive person, but you learn, sometimes after some personal cost, to guard against the exploitative behaviours of these people.”

I was also a member of that community. Other members referred to Tony and his wife Helen reverentially as “the doctors”.  Tony Humphreys was, in a sense, my next door neighbour on the left hand side of the lane even though his house was a couple of miles away. We were rivals in the sense that we were in competition for the one copy of the London Observer that Woods’s store had available every Sunday. I asked Donal Woods if he could save a copy for me. Every Sunday morning, I made the ten-minute trek into Lisgoold village to buy my papers. Most Sundays the Observer was not available because, according to the girl in the shop, “the Doctor” had got there first. I tried going earlier, but the papers had not arrived.

I used to pass the Humphreys’ house regularly as I did a brisk and lengthy walk up the steeper lanes. I and my wife sometimes had desultory but reasonably friendly conversations with Tony and Helen. On more than one occasion, when I was walking on my own, their Alsatian dog chased and harried me and barked aggressively at me. On two separate occasions it bit me on the legs. When I mentioned this to Tony and Helen a froideur set in. The kind of response you get from Sri Lankan customer service people when you point out a defiency: Well, no one else has complained”. The Wikipedia article on Humphreys states: “Tony Humphreys promotes the Refrigerator mother theory of the aetiology of autistic behaviours”. The incident of the dog that bit in the day exposed me to the chill draught of the fridge door opening.

Fully Present

On the positive side in the book under consideration, Humphreys does reiterate the Buddhist teaching that we get in so many self-help books these days. ‘’When we are insecure, we have difficulty living in the present: we tend to protect ourselves by either projecting into the future or living in the past. However, present-moment living is an essential aspect of healing ourselves. When we focus on the ‘now’, it means all our energies and resources are available to us and can be effectively applied to the activity in hand.” I am not quite sure how this fits in with: “Thoughts, attitudes, behaviours, feelings and illnesses that are often labelled as ‘negative’ have, in reality, the creative function of protecting you from threats to your emotional and social wellbeing. Rather than suddenly trying to let go of those so-called ‘negative’ behaviours, you will be encouraged to hold on to them until sufficient safety has been created for you to become venturesome again.”

Time Is Tight Part Two

A version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on September 17, 2021.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/time-is-tight-1

I am returning in this week’s column to Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It, which I discussed in my previous column.

Haruki Murakami wrote: “Time expands, then contracts, and in tune with the stirrings of the heart”. Lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic have played tricks with people’s perceptions of time. Many people reported feeling that time was disintegrating completely. Time is notoriously tricky and elastic. I used to be able to remember what happened to me and the rest of the world in a particular year, sometimes a particular day. On November 22, 1963, John F Kennedy was assassinated and I went to see Tony Hancock at the ABC Regal in the film The Punch and Judy Man. In June 1958, I saw Tony Hancock perform live on the stage of the same venue. 

1983 was Peru; 1987 was Turkey (bears coming to the beach and an armed soldier eating an ice-cream cone) and back in England, the great hurricane. 1976 was punk and a long London drought. 1953 was the coronation and Everest. 1966 was Pet Sounds and England winning the World Cup.  The years are now blurred. As I get older it is difficult to distinguish one year from another. In Solomon Gursky Was Here, Mordecai Richler wrote something like: “the minutes go so slowly, the years go by so fast.” Most of my days are consumed with routine tasks done on automatic pilot so it is hard to remember what one did on a specific day. I am trying to keep a diary to see if that helps. William James wrote: “As each passing year converts … experience into automatic routine, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse”.

Heidegger

German philosopher Martin Heidegger gets a bad press these days. As well as being beastly to his lover, Hannah Arendt, he was an enthusiastic member of the Nazi Party. Burkeman finds something in Heidegger’s philosophy to stimulate thoughts about time. Burkeman writes,” Heidegger wants to slide his fingernails under the most basic elements of existence – the things we barely notice because they’re so familiar…”

Heidegger published his magnum opus, Being and Time, in 1927. He introduced the concept of Dasein, which has been translated as “being there” or “being in the world”.

Being a human is being totally bound up with our finite time, knowing that our end will come but not knowing when. Burkeman writes, “every moment of a human existence is completely shot through with the fact of what Heidegger calls our ‘finitude’. We tend to speak about our having a limited amount of time. But it might make more sense, from Heidegger’s strange perspective, to say that we are a limited amount of time. That’s how completely our limited time defines us.”

Accepting One’s Finitude

From an early age I was aware of death. When I was ten years old, Sister Theresa intoned doomily to her hapless pupils nearly every day, “the only thing certain in this life is that you are going to die”. It has only just struck me that when I had my photograph taken while in her class, the backdrop was a graveyard.

The general culture tries to hide this unavoidable truth. Death happens to other people. There is something rather pornographic about death in modern western culture. Burkeman quotes sociologist Hartmut Rosa who says modernity changes the way people think about life. People who believe in progress feel more acutely the pain of their own limited lifespan. They try to quell their anxieties by cramming their lives with experience, whether it be work or pleasure.

This brings Dukkha, suffering, pain, anxiety. It is a vital element of Buddhism that one understand and accept that suffering exists. We are caught in samsara, the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma. Buddhists must also strive to end suffering by understanding why people suffer. Suffering comes from craving things and also from events in a person’s life, such as birth, old age and death. Burkeman writes: “Indeed, like William James, Buddha was a profound psychologist and philosopher whose insights grew out of a dark personal epiphany: no matter who you are, you and everyone you love must endure pain, sickness, aging, and death.”

Dukkha has afflicted humankind forever but the current economic system is designed to exacerbate it. ‘Pleonexia’ means pathological greed that can cause stress, addictions and compulsions, ‘affluenza’ and loss of moral grounding. Artificial needs are created. Zygmunt Bauman wrote that capitalism has made consumers immune to satisfaction. Desire no longer desires satisfaction. ‘Desire desires desire’, which is the basis for our new ‘constant greed’.

Capitalism has always operated like this but in its contemporary iteration it is designed to sap your will and steal your attention.

What To Do

We sense that there are important and fulfilling ways we could be spending our time, yet we systematically spend our days doing other things instead that actually make us feel bad. What practical steps can we take to exist in time in such a way as to be less anxious, to suffer less and to manage our suffering? How do we work constructively with “the outrageous brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks?”

Here are some things I have picked up from my own experience and some things that Burkeman suggests in his book. The book has a useful Appendix entitled “Ten Tools for Embracing Your Finitude”.

Proust wrote: “Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have of them.” It is more likely that people have totally forgotten your image after a very brief period of time. An overarching principle for a less anxious life should be an awareness that no one really cares what we’re doing with our life. In this age of social media, we are striving to present an image of ourselves to strangers who really don’t care. Stop living for other people except in the sense of living your life in an empathetic, altruistic, ethical and compassionate way.

There seems to be a consensus that multitasking is “a bad thing”. Remember the strategy of Alcoholics Anonymous. One step at a time. You may have to write a to do list or your day might lack structure. However, be careful what you put on it or you might end up feeling guilty for avoiding doing something that did not need doing anyway. “We plan compulsively because the alternative is to confront how little control we have over the future”.

Doing nothing is not easy. Bill Watterson, creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, said, “There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.” Don’t be afraid of doing nothing. Carl Jung’s advice was: “Quietly do the next and most necessary thing”.  The next and most necessary might actually be nothing. Sit down in a chair; and then stop trying to do anything. “Every time you notice you’re doing something – including thinking, or focusing on your breathing, or anything else – stop doing it. (If you notice you’re criticising yourself inwardly for doing things, well, that’s a thought, too, so stop doing that.)”

“Nothing is harder to do than nothing,” remarks the author and artist Jenny Odell. But to get better at it is to begin to regain your autonomy – to stop being motivated by the attempt to evade how reality feels here and now, to calm down, and to make better choices with your brief allotment of life.

Do you have to check in to social media every day? Try to abstain for a while or set times when you can engage. I don’t do social media on my phone. If you can’t avoid checking in every day, work on your most important project for the first hour of each day. Fix a strict upper limit on the projects you allow yourself to work on at any given time. Don’t feel guilty about failures and acknowledge what you have accomplished and reward yourself.

Anxiety is the repetitious experience of a mind attempting to generate a feeling of security about the future, failing, then trying again and again and again – as if the very effort of worrying might somehow help forestall disaster. Beckett: “try again, fail again, fail better.”

Burkeman writes: “because in reality your time is finite, doing anything requires sacrifice – the sacrifice of all the other things you could have been doing with that stretch of time. If you never stop to ask yourself if the sacrifice is worth it.”

Stay calm. Live in the present. Live with empathy but live for yourself rather than worrying what others think of you. Do not be overwhelmed by how much there is to do in such a short time Do one thing at a time, mindfully. Congratulate yourself for what you have completed rather than punishing for what is left undone.

I will end with this advice from Burkeman: “Cultivate instantaneous generosity.” Everyone is suffering.

Time Is Tight Part One

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on September 3, 2021.

In my previous column, which was on the subject of attention, I quoted from a book by Oliver Burkeman called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. On 10 August 2021, Burkeman published a new book called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.

I preordered the book and read it on the day it was published. No time to waste. As it says on the cover, it is about time management. I am reviewing it here so that you can manage your time better by not having to read it.

 I have done the heavy lifting for you. Burkeman tries for a new approach to time management. “Yet the modern discipline known as time management – like its hipper cousin, productivity – is a depressingly narrow-minded affair, focused on how to crank through as many work tasks as possible, or on devising the perfect morning routine, or on cooking all your dinners for the week in one big batch on Sundays.”

 Or writing several months’ worth of weekly columns in one day.

He starts from the premise that life is short and we had better not waste it. “The outrageous brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks”. That is all the time we are likely to have on this earth. This is not about business efficiency but about living a less anxious life for the short spell we are here. 

Are we having fun yet? 

Procrastination has been called “the thief of time”. Burkeman does not believe procrastination is necessarily a bad thing – some procrastination could be seen as positive time-management. “The point isn’t to eradicate procrastination, but to choose more wisely what you’re going to procrastinate on, in order to focus on what matters most. … One can waste years this way, systematically postponing precisely the things one cares about the most.”

These words of wisdom are often attributed to John Lennon: “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans”. Lennon does sing something like that in his song ‘Beautiful Boy’. The actual provenance of those words of wisdom is less hip. It comes from a 1957 edition of Reader’s Digest

Fake busyness 

At some time in the 80s, round about the time that Yuppies were invented, busyness became an emblem of prestige. A long time before that, Nietzsche wrote, “We labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life, because to us it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. 

Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.” Burkeman notes that the definition of what needs doing expands to fill the time available. “The technologies we use to try to get on top of everything always fail us, in the end, because they increase the size of the ‘everything’ of which we’re trying to get on top.” 

Distraction 

In TS Eliot’s words, we are ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers have seen distraction as more a question of character than a matter of external interruptions. To be seduced by distractions was a systematic personal character failure. What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is.

 Is reality endless games of Candy Crush? As Burkeman puts it, “your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention … it hardly matters how committed you are to making the best use of your limited time if, day after day, your attention gets wrenched away by things on which you never wanted to focus.” There is a huge, profit-driven machine dedicated to commandeering your attention. 

Your puny will is no match for it. “There are ‘a thousand people on the other side of the screen’ paid to keep you there – and so it’s unrealistic to expect users to resist the assault on their time and attention by means of willpower alone.” There are people making a fortune out of stopping you doing what makes you feel good by drawing you into “the feuds and fake news and public shamings on social media”. 

This is an essential part of the business model. “Once the attention economy has rendered you sufficiently distracted, or annoyed, or on edge, it becomes easy to assume that this is just what life these days inevitably feels like.” The philosopher Harry Frankfurt says they sabotage our capacity to “want what we want to want”. 

It would take a heart of stone not to grieve at the current situation in Afghanistan. However, I also despair at the virtue signalling on social media. I do not lack compassion but I am not to blame for the situation and there is nothing I can do about it. 

I still have not solved Myanmar. Burkeman writes, “Worse than distraction, being constantly braced for confrontation or disaster, or harbouring a nebulous sense of foreboding” is not good for our mental health. “Each new scandal overwrites the last one in public awareness – and anyone who responds or retweets, even if their intention is to condemn the hatemongering, finds themselves rewarding it with attention, thereby helping it spread.” Burkeman does not solely blame the gadgets we willingly buy from Big Tech. 

The flaw is within us. “Something in us wants to be distracted, whether by our digital devices or anything else – to not spend our lives on what we thought we cared about the most. Why, exactly, are we rendered so uncomfortable by concentrating on things that matter – the things we thought we wanted to do with our lives – that we’d rather flee into distractions, which, by definition, are what we don’t want.” 

Now 

A great deal of advice these days focuses on mindfulness and meditation, on living in the now. Trying to live in the moment can cause its own anxieties. One psychiatrist describes the hell of being stuck in a Groundhog Day of ‘a new kind of everlasting present’. This is an inferno of social media scrolling in which one is too stifled to make plans or picture any kind of future. Jay Jennifer Matthews has written a short book called Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just as You Are. “We cannot get anything out of life. There is no outside where we could take this thing to. There is no little pocket, situated outside of life.”

Burkeman recounts a few anecdotes from people who had narrow escapes and savoured their current lives because they could easily have missed the joys (and sufferings) of now by departing yesterday. I can relate to this. In October 1983, I was in the Peruvian city of Huancavelica, struggling with the altitude of 3,676 metres. Soon afterwards, I read in a local newspaper that the Police station at which we had registered had been blown up by the Sendero Luminoso just after we had left. 

More recently, we had lunch at a five star Hotel on Sunday 14 April. One week later, suicide bombers attacked and the waiter who had served us was killed. We probably would have perished too if we had chosen a different date for our rendezvous. This links in with a major theme in Burkeman’s book – the importance for our mental health of accepting our finitude and embracing the miracle that we are here now.

 “Surely only somebody who’d failed to notice how remarkable it is that anything is, in the first place, would take their own being as such a given – as if it were something they had every right to have conferred upon them, and never to have taken away. So maybe it’s not that you’ve been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it’s almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all.” I seem to have run out of time to discuss time management. More cheerful musings on death and finitude next week.

Attention

This article was published in Ceylon Today on August 27, 2021

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/attention

Empty Time Tank

I used to buy books at a much faster pace than I could read them. I have been engaged on a campaign of giving lots of stuff away but I still get rather overwhelmed by the thought of the number of years in my tank rapidly diminishing never to be replenished. I am likely to die before I can read all those books that still sit on my shelves, let all alone all the stuff on my Kindle, such as Winifred Gallagher’s survey of research on the subject of attention, and the complete works of William James.

My father used to say, “the man who made time, made plenty of it”. Unfortunately, in his case that did not prove to be true. He died of cancer at the cruelly young age of 56. His motto could be seen as an excuse for procrastination even though he himself was always punctual and hard-working. As Oliver Burkeman notes in his book, “a fairly modest six-figure number of weeks—310,000—is the approximate duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia.” What chance do I have faced with all those emails and all that fascinating stuff on Facebook and YouTube?

What To Do

There are so many things that we feel we ought to do in our brief span; there are so many things that we would probably enjoy doing. Why do we then fritter away our precious time on pursuits that make us feel bad? Why do we allow ourselves to be so easily distracted? Why is that I cannot sit down and write a thoughtful and profound philosophical essay about attention and distraction without breaking off every few minutes to look at pictures of cute kittens or to pick a fight with a stranger on Facebook? Why cannot I sit down absorb a complicated but worthwhile piece of music without breaking off to get a drink?

Focalisation

There is a good deal of literature about the concept of attention. William James was more than Henry James’s smarter brother. William was a pioneer of psychological studies and was more interesting than some other psychologists because he came to the discipline through philosophy. An analysis in Review of General Psychology, published in 2002, ranked James as the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century. I think that is an underestimate, but what do I know?  In his monumental work The Principles of Psychology published in 1890 he defined attention thus: “taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness is of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

The Tragedy of Choice

There is a fundamental human tragedy at the core of the concept of attention. Isaiah Berlin recognised that humankind was blighted by the capacity for choice. Perhaps the Buddhist concept of Dukkha is related to this. Berlin saw that we are doomed to choose and that was not just debilitating because of the effort involved in opting for one thing rather than another. Choosing is not just positive; it is negative because we are rejecting some things rather than others. Every choice may entail an irreparable loss. You married one spouse and another was lost to you forever and may have plunged into a world of despair with a less worthy spouse than yourself.  Berlin’s world was one of constant unavoidable moral tragedy because of rejected possibilities, roads not taken. Robert Frost wrote a poem about this inspired by his friend Edward Thomas.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Negatives arise from positives. Choices are made and consequences occur. Effect follows cause.

Simone Weil

Simone Weil, in her work on attention, also looked at the negative aspects. According to Robert Paretsky, “for Weil, attention is a negative effort, one that requires that we stand still rather than lean in. The object of this kind of attention could be mathematical or textual, a matter of grasping a puzzle posed by Euclid or one posed by Racine.” Whether we do solve the problem, argues Weil, is secondary. The going is as important as the getting there, if not even more so. Every commitment we make to a person, place, or line of work rules out countless others that may fulfill us. Our 4,000 weeks are dribbling away as we may be committing our attention to entirely the wrong, mistaken thing.

Attention and Compassion

Weil’s take on attention leads to compassion. Pity is not to be recommended because “it consists in helping someone in misfortune so as not to be obliged to think about him anymore, or for the pleasure of feeling the distance between him and oneself.” Paying attention requires what Weil calls a “muscular effort”: we look into someone’s eyes, we arrange our facial expressions appropriately, our body language adjusts to the presence of the other person. Compassion comes from paying attention, identifying with a hungry person because I know what it feels like to be hungry. As Paretsky puts it “Paying attention to others means that I must acknowledge and respect their reality. As we belong to the same world and are equally vulnerable to the crushing reality of force, I reorient my attention to them and away from myself.” Focusing on altruism and forgiveness makes you feel better as well as helping others. Focusing on positive emotions expands your attentional range and your peace of mind.

The Rapt Dynamic

Winifred Gallagher: “Attention’s mechanics ensure that when you lock on your objective, you enhance that aspiration and suppress things that compete with it, which helps you to stay focused. That rapt dynamic works to your advantage if your goal is positive and productive but, as in addiction, can be deadly if it isn’t.”  Good luck if you can focus on writing a poem but bad luck if you become addicted to paying attention to Candy Crush or alcohol.

There seems to be a great deal of attention deficit in the modern world. It is particularly worrying that so many young people are afflicted with ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) People with ADHD can seem restless, may have trouble concentrating and may act on impulse, which can lead to other psychological and behaviour problems. ADHD affects as many as five percent of American children and three times more boys than girls. As Winifred Gallagher puts it, “your life is run not by the highly structured, unified Cranial Central Command that you like to imagine but by a group of bickering agents with different motives. Depending on whose voice captures your attention, you may find yourself engaging in mysterious or seemingly contradictory behavior, from gross overindulgence to acts of surprising heroism. Where sticking to a goal is concerned, you can reduce the conflict by focusing on the most supportive voice and suppressing the distracting, counterproductive ones.”

Mark Manson wrote in the Guardian: “This is life now: one constant, never-ending stream of non sequiturs and self-referential garbage that passes in through our eyes and out of our brains at the speed of a touchscreen.” Some writers downplay the bad effects of modern technology but Gallagher writes: “Inordinate amounts of time spent fixated on various screens and keyboards pose particular risks for young people who should be focused on learning and exact a cost in terms of real-life experience, particularly with other living, breathing people.” Big Tech is determined to stop us using our attention wisely. As Burkeman puts it, “The attention economy is designed to prioritize what’s most compelling, not what’s accurate or helpful.” Burkeman tries to be optimistic. While scaring us with the thought that the average human lifespan is absurdly short, he tries to persuade us that it is not a reason for despair. It can be the incentive “to become the optimized, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible person you’re supposed to be”.

Ugly Part Two

This article was published in Ceylon Today on August 12, 2021

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/part-two-ugly

Augmented and Virtual Reality

In his “Ugly” memo circulated on June 18, 2016, Andrew Bosworth (Boz), Facebook’s vice-president for augmented reality and virtual reality, argued that connecting people was a paramount goal for Facebook, and justified many of the company’s practices.

Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang write in their recent book An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination: “Boz had already defended his post on Facebook’s Workplace, arguing that he didn’t actually agree with aspects of his own memo and had written it to inspire debate. But employees wanted more. They wanted to know if he had actually considered the lives lost in countries where Facebook had grown at an astronomical pace. They asked if Facebook users from those countries had responded to his post directly, and if he felt bad about what he had written. Boz looked remorseful, but he repeated that he was simply making an intellectual argument and had intended the memo to spur debate.”

International Harm

Facebook has claimed credit for fostering struggles by citizens of citizens of oppressive regimes who have used social media sites for organising protests and creating networks. During the early days of the Arab Spring, many activists used Facebook to organise protests. To this day, numerous media outlets run the claim that “social media made the Arab Spring” and that it was a “Facebook revolution”. However, many academics concluded that there is no significant correlation between internet or social media use and popular unrest. Indeed, despite posing as a force for progress, Big Tech was collaborating with repressive governments in the Middle East and North Africa even before the Arab Spring started.

There has been much criticism of Facebook being an enabler for the spreading of hatred. Only a year ago the Stop Hate for Profit Coalition, a collection of civil rights groups that includes the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, Free Press, and Color of Change, were disappointed with their meetings with Facebook. The group denounced Zuckerberg’s “same old defense of white supremacist, anti-Semitic, islamaphobic, and other hateful groups” that it has “heard too many times before.”

Frenkel and Kang write: “As Facebook employees surveyed what appeared to be a global rise in hate speech, they found the name of their company surfacing repeatedly as a source of conspiracies, false news accounts, and organized campaigns of hate speech against minorities. Trump’s Muslim ban announcement was used by far-right leaders across the world to take more extreme positions on Muslim immigrants and refugees. In Myanmar, several of the country’s military figures pointed to Trump’s Facebook posting through their own Facebook pages and argued that if the US could ban Muslims, Myanmar should do the same. And indeed, human rights activists increasingly linked the platform to attacks against Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya minority and to the brutal crackdown on civilians by the recently elected president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte”

In Sri Lanka government ministers complained in 2018 that Facebook was too slow in dealing with incitement of violence against Muslims. The extremist leader Amith Weerasinghe, who was arrested after being accused of helping to instigate the violence, had amassed nearly 150,000 followers on his Facebook page before it was taken down. The chairman of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said Facebook played a “determining role” in the Rohingya genocide. Facebook has been criticized for enabling Islamophobic content targeting the Rohingya people to spread. In February 2021, a Press Gazette investigation found that Facebook had accepted promotional content from Chinese state media outlets such as China Daily and China Global Television Network that spread disinformation denying the Uyghur genocide.

Harm to Individuals

There have been many studies which indicate that for some users giving up social networking sites is comparable to giving up tobacco or alcohol. There was the “World Unplugged” study conducted in 2011, a 2012 study by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, a 2013 study in in the journal CyberPsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. In April 2015, the Pew Research Center published a survey of teenagers which showed 92 percent went online daily with 24 percent saying they went online “almost constantly.” In March 2016, Frontiers in Psychology published a survey showing that the severity of ADHD symptoms had a statistically significant positive correlation with Facebook usage while driving a motor vehicle. In June 2018, Children and Youth Services Review published a regression analysis in Northern Italy which showed adolescents who persistently using Facebook showed ADHD symptoms and negative attitudes about the past and the future. The researchers proposed a category of psychological dependence and gave it the name “problematic social media use.”

Ethan Zuckerman is an American media scholar, blogger, and Internet activist, author of the book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.  He is now an associate professor of public policy, communication and information at the University of Massachusetts. Zuckerman has led efforts to promote freedom of expression and fight censorship in online spaces. “For better or worse, Facebook is an incredibly important platform for civil life, but the company is not optimized for civil life,”

Frenkel and Kang write: “We may be concerned about Facebook, we may even be fatigued by the amount of anger-inducing information we’ve learned about Facebook, but we still use its products.”

That includes me. I am not getting on a high horse here and looking down on lesser mortals who are worse at coping with Facebook than I am. I have always hated cigarettes but many years ago I did sometimes smoke even though I knew it was futile, dangerous and gave little pleasure.  Now that I have achieved senility, I find that I do not have much taste for alcohol and not much capacity. That does not prevent me from irrational behaviour and consuming the poison when it seems pointless. I have tried to wean myself away from Facebook but I still get distracted. I have cut down my dose but I still allow myself to be diverted from more important or satisfying pursuits and feel unhappy afterwards.  Facebook was down for about 30 minutes one Friday morning in 2014 and Los Angeles officials said their lines were overwhelmed with emergency calls. This cannot be right.

Julie MacLusky

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