Thursday, 2 February 2017

Importing Meaning via Meaninglessness

Paradoxes litter the History of Philosophy and, indeed, wider culture. Zeno's paradoxes of movement are some of the earliest. Achilles, like Usain Bolt but without the trademark pose, is - it is argued - shown to be unable to either finish (or indeed, even begin) the 100m. Because to finish the last 50m, he must first run 25m but to run 25m he must first run 12.5m and so on until he has a seemingly infinite (and impossible?) number of tasks to complete. Russell's set paradox popularised by asking whether the barber who shaves everyone who does not shave themselves, shaves himself is a more recent example. Paradoxes can force us to rethink our common assumptions (*obviously* we can move and run 100m. Some of us do it for a living), but ultimately, we might be tempted to say that it does not matter whether the statement 'this statement is false' is false.

But paradoxes go far beyond their use in Philosophy and Logic. In fact, humans seem to be slightly obsessed with them; we often seem to use them to give things more meaning. The most common example of this is when it comes to love. Notoriously hard to define or explain, we resort to self-contradictory definitions in an attempt to find meaning. We hold that, on the one hand, loving someone makes us happy. Consider Victor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning:

"Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire...the salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved."¹

This is probably a definition of love, and what it is to be in love, that we can relate to. Perhaps we think it is slightly too far, but are we not happiest - or at least should we not at least be happy - when we consider the person we love? Haruki Murakumi might not disagree, but he would at least add: 

"Anyone who falls in love is searching for the missing pieces of themselves. So anyone who's in love gets sad when they think of their lover. It's like stepping inside a room you have fond memories of, one you haven't seen in a long time."²

Already two definitions of love, two attempts to look at what love might be and two completely different contradictory answers. Love is both something that simultaneously makes us happy and sad. And it is not that sometimes love makes us happy and sometimes sad, but that specifically the same thing (thinking of those we are in love with) harbours these opposing emotions. Love is, as James Baldwin puts it, "...a battle, a war..."³  and, yet at the same time, Dostoyevsky argues that hell is, "...the suffering of being unable to love."⁴  

Yet somehow this makes sense. Somehow these contradictory definitions giving rise to an apparent paradox do not diminish our understanding of love but enhances it. Love, by its very nature, is paradoxical and cannot be explained. It both makes us happy and sad, at the same time for the same reason. Its presence is suffering in the form of war and its absence is suffering in then form of hell. Somehow this in itself explains love. Love is made more not less meaningful by its paradoxical nature. Paradoxically. It is not just that we have multiple definitions of love, contradictory as they might be, and the resulting contradictions give love meaning. It is that if we could define it; if all this paradoxical happy-sad pontificating was simply our overcomplicating of the matter, then we would lose and not gain meaning. We would be disappointed with this result. Somehow love's meaning depends upon its paradoxical definitional nature. All this time, we have been defining love or, at least, attempting to but Susan Sontag tells us, "Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love."⁵ So maybe love is not just difficult to define and therein lies its meaning, but love is actually undefinable and therein lies its meaning. 

It is more simple than that too. And it goes beyond love. We import paradoxes into our lives to increase, not decrease, meaning all the time. We like paradoxes. A deafening silence is a nice example. The idea that sometimes the loudest cries are those we cannot hear. The paradox is what gives the metaphor its meaning. This should be meaningless, you cannot hear silence (and it certainly cannot be loud), but the contradictory meaning is the source of its meaning. Frankl, again in Man's Search For Meaning, speaks of hope. He writes that the woman condemned to death will, in the moments leading up to her execution, suddenly have a powerful feeling that she will be rescued. In moments of extreme hopelessness, humans will have powerful feelings of hope. This is seemingly contradictory, there is no reason for hope in these situations but at the same time, having hope gains its meaning, somehow, in those situations where seemingly to have any would be absurd. 

At this point, you might turn around and accuse me of romanticism. You would not be the first. "Of course," you might protest, "If one is a romantic, one believes this sort of nonsense. Love is love, we have a definition of it and let's just move on." Perhaps you have a point. Perhaps all of this is needless romanticism. But I am not sure. Either we are all, at heart, somewhat romantic without realising or, there is a romanticism to be found even in the absence of meaning. Tim Minchin exemplifies this quite nicely in his address to the University of Western Australia. He says, at the beginning of his speech, that there is no meaning, yet by the end insists that he is not a nihilist.⁶ This might seem paradoxical; nihilism is the rejection that life has meaning. What might seem paradoxical further is to argue that it is specifically life's lack of meaning that we need to embrace to gain meaning out of life. If life lacks meaning, we may as well fill it. This is the only option we have. We may as well embrace the lack of meaning and try and have a meaningful existence. What else can we do?


¹ Frankl, Victor [2004] Man's Search for Meaning. London: Rider
² https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/01/01/what-is-love/
³ Ibid
⁴ Ibid
⁵ Ibid
⁶ http://www.timminchin.com/2013/09/25/occasional-address/

Sunday, 29 January 2017

First, They Came For The Other

Jews will all have a personal Holocaust story to tell. Whether it is one of hope where relatives and/or friends escaped or one of tragedy where they did not; whether it is one of rebuilding in a new land or despair. We all have that story. For that reason, we lead the calls of never again. We all feel a personal connection to the Holocaust, it wiped out our people; it killed our Mothers, Sons, Husbands, Daughters, Sisters; it destroyed the hopes and dreams of so many. Who knows what they could have achieved, what they would have achieved. But never again must be an active remembrance. Jews, almost unique in their historic persecution, have a duty to speak louder than any in response to persecution. We know how it feels. We know what it is like to have everything taken away from us, our family, our belongings, our dreams, our dignity, even our names. Everything.

We know how it feels to be isolated and rejected. We know how it feels to see freedom but be betrayed by our sight. We learnt the hard way about humanity's capacity for utter inhumanity, whether at the hands of murderous regimes or the silence of everyone else. We should all, therefore, feel a personal connection, an empathy that perhaps no one else can feel, to every single person affected by Trump's immigration policy. And we have a responsibility to speak louder than everyone else, to fill the deafening silence with our voices. Never again is not just about Jews. It loses all meaning if it is about Jews. We may as well give up now. Never again is about everyone. It means never again will we stand by idly and allow entire nations to be destroyed by murderous dictators. It means never again will we be silent when hatred and fear of the Other allows those most in need to be turned away.

We have a chance to be on the right side of History. We have a chance to prove, unfortunately, it must be said, that when we, Jews, said never again, we meant it. That we appreciated what that meant. Our leaders lack moral courage and empathy but that does not mean we should. Our leaders disgrace the memory of never again, but we must uphold it. Recognising that what is happening in America right now has eerie similarities to Jews being turned away when we needed it most does not trivialise the Holocaust, it preserves its memory. The Holocaust demands that we act now. The Holocaust and the memory of all of its victims, not just Jews, demands that we give meaning to never again right now. Let us not betray their memory by standing by because it is not the Jews yet.

First, they came for 'the Other' and I spoke up because I remember being 'an Other'.

Friday, 13 January 2017

No, I will not get over it

Democracy is a wonderful thing. It allows us, by various mechanisms, to pick those individuals who will govern us and everything that entails. There is profound disagreement across the democratic world on how exactly to do that, but the salient point remains the same: some pre-defined section of society is given an opportunity to, in some manner, select the individual(s) to the various elected positions, whether they be national, local or somewhere in-between. People were sent to fight and ultimately die to ensure our right to vote so it is no surprise we all take our democracy seriously.

For all its strengths and positives, there is a reason why Plato was so opposed to democracy, and it was not just because democracy had Socrates put to death (frankly, if anyone has read any Plato and disagrees with that decision, they have not been paying attention). The problem is that in a democracy, the average voter is neither swayed by the best argument nor convinced by the individual most able to do the job (we can ignore that Plato thought Philosophers were best placed to rule) but instead by the best rhetoricians. In short, we vote for people who say what we want to hear and who say it best. Ultimately, the emphasis democracies placed on freedom would inevitably lead to tyranny, Nazi Germany style. It is difficult to disagree with Plato when Trump and Farage, both wealthy, sexist, racist men, spent 2016 somehow successfully convincing people they were not members of the establishment whilst simultaneously posing for infuriatingly smug photographs in front of gold elevators.

These are two men, spearheading two campaigns that were widely dismissed as dangerous, ending 2016 having succeeded at convincing enough people to vote for them. Democracy, you might say and you would, of course, be correct. Which is all very well until you realise that democracy is not about winning in the same way as sport is. When Sir Andy Murray plans for Wimbledon 2017, he only needs to focus on winning the tournament. Without being rude, it makes absolutely no difference in the grand scheme of things if he wins and what he does after he wins. Winning a tennis tournament is an end in itself. Winning an election, however, is not. Wimbledon 2017 ends when the final is played, but Britain did not finish on June 23rd and America did not finish on November 8th - contrary to popular belief. And the problem appears to be that neither Trump nor Brexiteers (or indeed, anyone in the UK) had any idea what to do once they won. Which would be fine if politics were a tennis match.

Having successfully proved Plato essentially correct for all the wrong reasons, you could be forgiven for thinking that Trump and Farage would be perfectly happy to carry on as if nothing had happened. As if winning the election and referendum were mere items on their respective bucket lists and now that they have created an almighty mess, they want nothing to do with it except for telling everyone else to calm down and get over it. Brexit won, get over it. Trump won, get over it. Except, it is not something to 'get over'. Because this is not a game of tennis. This is real life, where decisions actually have an impact. And it's alright for Trump to tell us to get over it when he lives in some castle made of gold and unicorn horns. And it's alright for Trump and Brexit supporters who, for the obvious reason of being Trump and Brexit supporters, are not terrified by what that entails to tell the rest of us to get over it. But it is not good enough.

We have to live with this now. The minorities who feel threatened have to live with this now. Every single member of the LGBT community in America who is petrified by the prospect of Mike 'conversion therapy' Pence being their vice-president has to live with this now. The Poles in the UK who have been the target of racist attacks have to live with this now. The list goes on. And on. And on. If your instinct is to dismiss this and shout loudly about democracy, you are missing the very point about democracy. Plato feared democracy for precisely the reason we value it so highly: freedom. Yes, the freedom to vote. But democracy, which leads to the insatiable desire for freedom (as Plato puts it), entails so many more freedoms. The freedom to love whomever you like. The freedom to be Muslim or Jewish or Christian or Hindu or any other religion or, indeed, Atheist without any fear from, for example, American neo-Nazis that 'heil' Trump. The freedom to protest. The freedom to speak your mind.

So next time you have the audacity to tell someone to get over a democratic vote, as if democracy does not defend their right to protest, stop and think for a minute. Maybe they are Polish and have been subjected to racism in the wake of Brexit. Maybe they are gay and have experienced the conversion therapy championed by their new vice-president. Maybe they are a woman afraid of having a president who boasts about sexual assualt. Maybe they are Jewish and slightly concerned by the rise of neo-Nazis. Maybe they are Mexican and object to being called a rapist. Maybe they have a Spanish grandmother being told it is not guaranteed she can stay in the country. Maybe they work for a company whose business depends on membership of the single market. Maybe they are Muslim and their kids have been coming home from school in tears, slightly confused because they were born in the UK but are now being told to go back to where they came from. Maybe they depended upon Obamacare. Maybe they are a single mum whose son has just asked her about grabbing girls by the pussy. Maybe, just maybe, they feel threatened by these events in a way that you cannot even begin to imagine.

For as long as Trump and Brexit challenge the very basic democratic freedoms I hold so dear, I will not get over it. Nor should I - or anyone else for that matter.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

2016: The Tiring Year

I'm so tired. Of so many things.

I'm tired of people calling racists and anti-Semites the 'alt-right' when they are neo-Nazis. I'm tired of hearing that Trump won't be as bad as his campaign as if that makes it okay. I'm tired of Brexit and being told to get over it. I'm tired of Nigel Farage's fucking smug face appearing everywhere. I'm tired of the fact it gets dark at 4pm. I'm tired of our apathy towards Syria. I'm tired of our society's rejection of refugees. I'm tired of Labour's anti-Semitism problem. I'm tired of Ken Livingstone mentioning Hitler. I'm tired of the fact my cables take any opportunity to become hopelessly tangled. I'm tired of the UK government tip-toeing around Saudi Arabia's war crimes in Yemen. I'm tired of reading about terrorist attacks in European cities. I'm tired of reading about the seemingly unabetted march of fascism. I'm tired of fighting social battles over feminism, racism, homophobia and the like that we should have won years ago.

I think, like many, I am tired of 2016. All the people whose lives it has claimed, whether they be Syrians we have knowingly and callously abandoned or much-loved celebrities whose talents we never thought we would be without. All the political tragedies. (Yes tragedies, Brexit still upsets me, go away.) Life might not be one damned thing after another as Elbert Hubbard quipped, but 2016 at least has certainly seemed like one damned thing after another.

So when a friend sent me something on Stevie Wonder from slate.com I was excited. They describe 2016 as a year of almost unbearable loss, rather than one of unbearable tiredness, but the sentiment is the same. The opportunity, therefore, to celebrate, rather than mourn, a true great was one I was delighted to take. I have not been disappointed. If you, like me, have much love for Stevie; if he makes you smile like few others can, then head over to Slate. You are in for a treat. If you have not yet been exposed to his genius then your 2016 is about to improve immeasurably when you click this link to your Stevie starter kit. And for some gentle humour and Stevie Wonder actually calling someone to sing I Just Called To Say I Love You, you want to go here.

It is difficult to pick my favourite Stevie songs; his songs are so varied, his talent for so many different styles of music so vast. Here is a list of just five.

1. Ribbon in the Sky

This was my Dad's favourite when I was growing up, so I suppose there is some sentimental value to this choice. For a long time, it was also the only one of his songs that I actually knew was by him. The tune is beautiful, the lyrics majestic and the imagery superb. I will just leave it here for you to enjoy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zO2-kIqsGL4

2. As

I was initially torn on the part of this song where Stevie, as my Dad puts it, shouts. (Slate have the far better description of fozzie bear voice) I have grown to love it along with the rest of the song. There are plenty of rip-offs of this song, which is the basis of many declarations of love I have made. My favourite moment is towards the end when Stevie squeezes in four 'eights' when singing that he'll love you as long as 8x8x8x8 is four. The back-up singers only manage three. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYQfWJNWe3I

3. Superstition

Is any list of Stevie songs complete without this one? No words necessary. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CFuCYNx-1g

4. Evil

It is impossible to write about Stevie without mentioning at least one of his many political songs. A passionate campaigner for a plethora of worthwhile causes, not least the one to have Martin Luther King Jr's birthday recognised as a national holiday in the United States, Evil is a stark reminder of this side of Stevie's work. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZi4iruQcv4

5. My Cherie Amour

The second song of his that I ever heard, it is just a wonderfully simple, beautifully happy song. I have left off a huge number of songs of his that I love to include this in this list of five, which should give an indication of just how happy it makes me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Gu-CyE-NQ

2016 has been a trying, tiring year. Stevie Wonder does not make it all better, but it is perhaps the best we have on cold, dark December evenings. And he even has a Christmas album, which is a perfect snapshot into Stevie with a festive twist. One Little Christmas Tree and Someday at Christmas are my favourites of another brilliantly put together album.

If 2016 has been difficult then let Stevie try and help; he is helping me.


Sunday, 30 October 2016

We Need to Talk About Anti-Semitism

It's almost impossible to talk about anti-Semitism nowadays. Or rather, it is almost impossible to suggest that it exists or, whisper it quietly, that it remains a problem, a serious problem and, whisper it even quieter, is, in fact, on the rise. The instinct when accusations of anti-Semitism are made is to dismiss them. It's to try and explain them away. Reference Israel. Sweep it under the carpet. Condemn anti-Semitism, but deny that it could possibly have occurred in this case. If all else fails, suggest that Jews devalue a very real and serious problem in anti-Semitism when we make such accusations too easily. As if the problem is not anti-Semitism but actually Jews watering down the definition. As if you are so unbelievably concerned by anti-Semitism that you just wish Jews would stop crying wolf because eventually, no one will believe us when actual anti-Semitism happens. As if somehow if only Jews stopped complaining about anti-Semitism, people would not need to be anti-Semitic and claim Jews complain about anti-Semitism too much. That's the sort of perverse logic that fills debates on anti-Semitism. It's our fault. You'll tell me next that if only the damn Jews did not exist. Then no one would have to be anti-Semitic.

On the contrary, it's incredibly easy to be an anti-Semite these days. Anti-Semites are, for some reason, absolved of any moral agency when it comes to their actions. So long as you pin the blame on Israel, it's a free pass. So long as you can plausibly claim to be just an anti-Zionist or, even better, just critical of the Israeli policy of being a bunch of Nazis. Extra points if you can mention that there are Jews that agree with you. Yes, Jew-hatred is perfectly understandable in the context of Israeli policy. Heck, Jew-hatred is perfectly legitimate in the context of being merely critical of Israeli policy. I'm not an anti-Semite, I just think Israel is worse than Hitler and the Israelis really ought to know better than to keep Gazans in a concentration camp worse than Auschwitz. And if you call me an anti-Semite, you're actually completely misunderstanding anti-Semitism, which is this terrible terrible thing that never ever happens but if it did, believe me, it would be terrible. Suddenly, so long as you're just anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, anti-Israeli policy, you could not possibly be an anti-Semite.

The latest in not-anti-Semitism-but-anti-Israel incidents are the events at the UCL event attended by Hen Mazzig. Maybe this isn't anti-Semitism at all. Maybe it is just anti-Israel. As if that makes it any better. As if hating a country is any better than hating a people. Forgive the cliché, but as if hate of any kind is okay. This is a university society filled with such unbelievable hatred that they are willing to storm a room filled with Jews who want to listen to another Jew talk about his humanitarian work in the West Bank. Imagine being so filled with hate that you feel the need to violently assault reporters. Imagine being so afraid of a differing opinion that you feel the need to shout down anyone you disagree with. Imagine being the sort of people that leave fellow students in a position where they are told their safety cannot be guaranteed without police protection. Just imagine for a moment being that person, so driven by blind, irrational hatred and then tell me that it matters whether we define this as anti-Semitism or not.

Whether or not they are anti-Semites must be considered irrelevant. Since when was the bar for being a decent person being able to provide an intellectual argument against you being an anti-Semite? So maybe they aren't anti-Semites. Maybe a lot of what Jews call anti-Semitism is not anti-Semitism but a different hatred. Maybe. But it makes little difference. The anti-Semites of the past were driven to violence against Jews. They may be able to self-identify as a more accepted hatred now, but they are still driven to violence against Jews. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Labour does not care about anti-Semitism anymore

It's official. As of 24th September 2016, 62% of those eligible to vote in the Labour Party's leadership election do not care about anti-Semitism. Approximately 50% of those will read that sentence and, ironically, accuse me of a smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn. They will not ask me why I feel this way. Instead, they will tell me Jeremy Corbyn is a thoroughly decent man. They will probably tell me that he is just pro-Palestinian, even though I have not mentioned Israel. And finally, they will tell me that there is no anti-Semitism problem in Labour. Because, apparently, I am just an embittered Blairite or a right-wing conspiracy theorist out to cause trouble and lie about Corbyn.

Supporting Jeremy Corbyn does not automatically make one an anti-Semite. Dismissing his supporters as such is unhelpful and wrong. It is to misunderstand his considerable appeal completely. I have friends, ones that I know for a fact are not anti-Semitic, that support Corbyn and I think it is easy to see why. They, like me, have left university with thousands of pounds worth of debt they see saddled on them by this Tory government. They, like me, care about the environment. They, like me, think that spending billions on a nuclear deterrent that we will never use is madness when we have record numbers at food-banks. They, like me, are tired of the same old politics and politicians. Rightly or wrongly, Jeremy Corbyn is seen as the answer to many of the issues they care about. He is seen as the opposite of your normal politician. Principled and decent. Nevermind this is all nonsense. That's another article for another time. I get his appeal. Truly I do. But I could never support him or a Labour Party under his leadership.

Because I, unlike them, care about anti-Semitism. They can't care about anti-Semitism, because if they did, they'd be appalled by Jeremy Corbyn. They'd be appalled by Diane Abbott and John McDonnell. They'd be appalled by Ken Livingstone and the fact he remains in the party. They'd be appalled by the Chakrabarti report and her peerage. They'd be appalled by the video Corbyn released where his supporters make it clear they think anti-Semitism is not a problem and do not care even if it were because it was the Tories who were really anti-Semitic 70 years ago. They'd be appalled by any claims (from, for example, Len McCluksey and Diane Abbott) that anti-Semitism accusations are a slur against Labour. They'd be appalled that Corbyn himself dismisses the allegations, demonstrating a remarkable arrogance and an ignorance and apathy towards anti-Semitism. They'd be appalled that instead of rooting out and expelling members who express anti-Semitic views, Corbyn and McDonnell appear alongside them and endorse them. They'd be appalled by Corbyn's association with Holocaust deniers. They'd be appalled by the fact Jewish MPs now require protection. They'd be appalled by the abuse directed at Jewish MPs in Corbyn's name. They'd be appalled that Ruth Smeeth left the event launching the anti-Semitism report in tears, rather than dismissing her as a CIA agent.

But they aren't. Because they do not care about anti-Semitism. If that upsets you as a Corbyn supporter, then it should. You should be deeply upset that you have chosen to ignore the vast majority of the Jewish population in this country and tell us that you care about all forms of discrimination apart from discrimination against us. You should be deeply upset that you have decided to either ignore the crisis of anti-Semitism in Labour or, worse, dismiss it as a smear against the dear leader. You should be deeply upset that you have not asked Jews like me (and the 92% of the Jewish Labour Movement that endorsed Owen Smith) why we feel there is a problem in the Labour Party and with Jeremy Corbyn (see above and here). You should be deeply upset that the Labour Party Conference 2016 has been riddled with anti-Semitism. You should be deeply upset that Momentum calls for the expulsion of the Jewish Labour Movement, an affiliate since 1920. You should be deeply upset that instead, you have simply dismissed our concerns. And you should be deeply upset that your response to this article won't be to consider for the briefest of moments that you might be wrong. That maybe, just maybe, glorious, infallible Jeremy Corbyn might have a glaring, despicable flaw that you missed despite the thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish voices trying to point it out.

And personally, I do not know what upsets me more. The anti-Semitism in Labour or the fact so many people, both friends and people I do not know, care so little about anti-Semitism. But it's fine, you can just dismiss me as a member of the worldwide Zionist conspiracy. After all, the allegations are just invented. That's a lot easier than facing up to the fact that you, the self-confessed anti-racist and self-appointed moral authority, do not care about anti-Semitism. You do not care even a little bit.

This article was updated on 25th September to reflect the anti-Semitism that has occured at the Labour Party Conference 2016.