Final public voting is now underway in the 111 Emergency Words competition for the overall prize. It includes my story Smoke and Dust, which was the Editor’s Pick in the Fire category.
You can vote here.
Final public voting is now underway in the 111 Emergency Words competition for the overall prize. It includes my story Smoke and Dust, which was the Editor’s Pick in the Fire category.
You can vote here.
My story Smoke and Dust has been chosen as the Editor’s Pick in the Fire category in the 111 Emergency Words flash fiction competition.
The shortlisted stories in the Police category are now open for public vote here, and include my piece In the Line of Duty. Voting closes on 2nd July.
28th June 2016
In January, in Immigration: Those Closing the Doors Behind Themselves, I wrote about attitudes towards immigration, citizenship and nationhood, prompted by Trump’s insistence that Canadian-born Ted Cruz was not a ‘genuine’ US citizen. Trump has continued onwards with his rhetoric of exclusion: he has questioned a federal judge’s impartiality due to his heritage, calling him “Mexican” because of his parents’ place of birth despite the fact that he himself was born in Indiana; he has repeatedly called for bans on Muslims entering the US while advocating the monitoring and profiling of Muslims already in the country, US citizens; and only secondary to his “Make America Great Again” slogan, is one associated with ultra-nationalism, “America First”.
Such blatant xenophobia is closely echoed in the UK where a toxic pall of ugly nationalism hangs over the upcoming Brexit referendum. Thomas Mair, who killed Labour MP Jo Cox on the streets of her constituency last week, reportedly yelled “Britain First” as he committed the act and gave his name in court as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. Many of those in the Leave campaign and the public on the streets of the UK, when asked why they support the move to leave the EU, state that they “want the country back”. As James O’Brien asks in his much-viewed response to Jo Cox’s murder, “back from whom?”. What is it that people feel has been taken from them by the rest of Europe in the years since the country became part of the EU? And what do they think will be returned to them if the UK leave again?
People seem to be feeling a nostalgia for a pre-Globalisation world where the citizens of countries all held common values, borders were closed and each nation was self-sufficient, i.e.a world that has never existed. The ship has already sailed on isolationism and we live in a globally connected world where trade and business are conducted worldwide, borders are porous, migration commonplace and actions have international consequences. This has been the reality of our world for several hundred years now and it is a world more easily navigated through cooperation with other nations. However, in times of economic hardship it is easier to whip people into a flurry of fear and paranoia that what they have is going to be taken from them by ‘outsiders’, be they EU bureaucrats or Syrian refugees, and the media and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have done a very efficient job of this since the Global Economic Crisis.
The results of the upcoming Brexit referendum and US Presidential election will tell us whether the fear-mongering of Nigel Farage’s UKIP and Donald Trump has succeeded or whether we want a society in which we use acceptance, openness and cooperation to solve our problems rather than a world of exclusion, restriction and fear of others.
20th June 2016
New Zealand Flash Fiction Day 22nd June
I will be reading my story Black as Coal at the New Zealand Flash Fiction event in Auckland Central Library on Wednesday 22nd June, the shortest day. Event begins at 5.30pm, all welcome. Details here.
111 Emergency Words Flash Fiction – Public Vote
Three of my 111-word stories on the theme of Fire are online and available for public vote here between 12th and 18th June. They are called Snatched From the Jaws of Death, Smoke and Dust and Clock Watching, I also have a shortlisted story, called In the Line of Duty, in the Police caregory and voting is open from 26th June to 2nd July.
Much discussion has been generated in the last week or so by the footage of a 4-year-old boy in the gorilla enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo and the subsequent killing of Harambe, a 17-year old Western Gorilla silverback. Besides the recriminations against the zoo and the boy’s mother, and questions over whether such animals should even be kept in zoos, many commentators have been weighing up the value of the life of a magnificent beast, which is a member of a group of around 100 000 remaining of his endangered species, against that of a child, representative of his more than 7 billion fellow humans.
The discussions are reminiscent of another common hypothetical ‘moral dilemma’: there is a fire in a building which contains an anonymous person and the final remaining copy of the complete works of Shakespeare. You can save only one, which do you choose? A single human life balanced against something which adds value to humanity as a whole.
In both of these circumstances, those who chose the animal or work of art over a human life are generally criticised as lacking empathy, verging on the sociopathic. Those expressing the view that a critically endangered animal has more worth to the planet as a whole than one human were met with a barrage of criticism for their lack of humanity. David Bray in The Guardian expressed horror last week that as humans we don’t automatically empathise with the fellow human in these equations. However, the anthropocentric worldview that any human life has more value that any other species or organism within this planet’s ecosystem is what has contributed to our abuse of the Earth’s resources for our own gain, creating a rationalisation of deforestation, overfishing and the continued burning of fossil fuels. As a result of a disregard of humans’ place within a complex web of lifeforms, our overpopulated, warming planet is sliding towards a manmade mass extinction.
While the concept of empathy and solidarity with others of our species is indeed ideally how we shouls coexist, it is all very good in theory but generally doesn’t happen in practice. Society makes calls on the differing value of human lives every day. Collateral damage in war and drone attacks, the trade in dangerous products, such as tobacco, for corporate profit and legal systems which sanction the taking of human life in punishment are widely accepted without question as they are seen as protecting our own economic interests and standard of living. Even when it comes to the endangerment of children we find it surprisingly easy to turn a blind eye: there have been an estimated 14 000 child deaths in the Syrian conflict and another 1000 in the past year in Yemen. Last September, the photo of dead 3-year old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach momentarily pricked our collective conscience but since then over 340 more babies and toddlers have drowned in the Mediterranean. In addition to these examples, many thousands more children are facing malnutrition or being forced into soldiering in conflicts around the world. And that’s only the children. Countless deaths occur as a result of the knowing actions of other humans.
Our reaction to these circumstances, and those to the child imperilled at Cincinnati Zoo, highlights the fact that our level of empathy for other humans is inextricably connected to proximity and familiarity. We value more highly the lives of the members of our family, our town and nation and any other groups we belong to or identify with, be they based on ethnicity, sexuality or the sports team we support. In terms of global events our awareness can be heightened by the media (video of the zoo incident or graphic photos of drowned refugees) but very few people can genuinely claim to view all human lives equally and our genocidal, imperialistic, slave-trading, militaristic past (and present) testifies to that.
In his piece exhorting the need to value human life over other species, David Bray cites Orwell’s Animal Farm to support the argument that humans are “more equal” than other animals. But Orwell’s original intention was to question humankind’s treatment of its own; that we fool ourselves into believing that we treat all humans equally when this cannot be further from the truth. We tell ourselves that we have, and believe in, universal human rights. However, we clearly don’t value all humans equally so why should it be surprising if we can find more value in animals on the cusp of extinction or works of art that transcend time?
9th June 2016
Yet again, the spectre of terrorism is being used to advance political agendas (See Hysteria & Hypocrisy: The Post-Paris World). The FBI are currently engaged in a legal battle with Apple, attempting to compel them to produce software which would enable them to access an iPhone owned by the San Bernardino shooter. In a statement by FBI director James Comey , he stated:
“The San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice. Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined. We owe them a thorough and professional investigation under law. …… So I hope folks will remember what terrorists did to innocent Americans at a San Bernardino office gathering and why the FBI simply must do all we can under law to investigate that.”
Comey uses emotive language and sympathy for the victims to gain public support for the FBI’s stance in what is a very complicated matter with potentially huge ramifications for all citizens.
Much of the media has also assisted in the oversimplification of this matter, pitching it as a corporation’s callous indifference to the victims of terrorism by refusing a simple request to unlock one individual phone, by giving the impression that all that is required is the cracking of a single passcode. In the abc news interview with Tim Cook this week, the interviewer David Muir repeatedly returned to rephrased versions of the question “How can you sleep at night?” in an attempt to make Cook take responsibility for any potential future terror attacks connected to the San Bernardino shooters.
Many politicians, on both sides of the political spectrum, have also reinforced this idea of an obstructive, unpatriotic company refusing a simple request. All the current GOP candidates have called for Apple to be forced to comply with Trump calling for a boycott of the company until they do. It is concerning how many people in positions of power either fail to understand the intricacies of this issue, or choose to oversimplify them in order to gain public support.
Amidst this terrorism-filled rhetoric and hysteria, Cook and Apple have worked hard to explain the implications of what is being asked of them and the vulnerabilities that would be created. They have described the software they would have to produce as a master key that could be used not just by the FBI, but also by hackers, calling it “a cancer”. They have also expressed concern that this could be the start of a slippery slope of tech firms being asked by government agencies to create software which could infringe on people’s civil liberties. Their stance has been publicly supported by other tech giants such as Google and Microsoft.
As for the FBI’s assertions that this is a single case which will not set precedents, since their initial statement it has become public that Apple had already provided the FBI with support in trying to access information on the San Bernardino phone, while currently fighting several requests from other law enforcement departments to create ‘backdoors’ for devices involved in 12 other cases. More recently Comey has moved away from his assertion that this case will not be precedent- setting but has stated that it may “be instructive for other courts” when interpreting how far companies can be compelled to assist the government.
The Apple case is just another in a list of many stretching over the past 15 years in which the fear of terrorism is being used to gain public support for a political agenda; in this case that of the weakening of encryption to allow intelligence agencies easier access to personal information universally. Since the Snowden revelations, the public have been made more aware of the vulnerabilities of their digital data and companies such as Apple have been developing protections against this within their systems in order to regain customers’ trust. In an attempt to weaken those systems again, the politicians and government agencies now have evoked the ugly head of terrorism again in order to employ pity for the victims to induce guilt from us all that it is our protected information that enables terrorism and encourage us to give up that security. It should not only be Apple who is fighting this battle on our behalf; we should all be standing up against the disrespectful use of terrorism’s victims in leading us passively into giving up our rights to privacy.
26th February 2016
History presents us with myriad examples of non-violent resistance contributing to societal change. Many countries have won their independence from colonial powers with the assistance of peaceful protest, including Samoa and, perhaps most famously, India under the guidance of Mohandas Gandhi. Soviet control of Eastern Europe was loosened by advocates of peaceful resistance like Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Lech Walesa in Poland, while the power of the people eventually helped topple the Berlin Wall. Suffragettes chained themselves to fences and Martin Luther King marched with the people of Selma in order to gain votes for women and black Americans. 1968 saw people around the world raise their voices for civil rights, women’s rights and in dissent against the war in Vietnam and nuclear proliferation. New Zealand has a long history of non-violent resistance from Te Whiti O Rongomai in Parihaka in 1879 to conscientious objection during WWI and the 1975 Māori hīkoi (land march) to the protests in the 1980s against the Apartheid-era South African rugby tour and nuclear testing in the Pacific.
Regardless of whether such protests are successful or not in affecting change, the ability to challenge the decisions of those in power and to openly express opinions, is enshrined in the documents of democratic societies. The Human Rights Act guarantees the freedom of assembly and association along with the freedom of speech, while New Zealand’s 1990 Bill of Rights Act promises the ‘right to public protest’. The New Zealand Encyclopaedia Te Ara describes public protest as a “democratic tool” and “an important aspect of New Zealand’s participatory democracy. It is a way for people to have their voices heard by politicians and, conversely, for politicians to keep abreast of community concerns. This encourages stable government“.
Examples of peaceful protest being quashed, such as in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, are viewed as indicative of repressive, despotic regimes crushing the rights of their people. Democracy and protest are intrinsically connected, and yet there are many examples of governments in democracies lashing out with intimidation and violence when challenged by protest movements. The first attempt by activists in 1965 to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge between Selma and Montgomery made international news when photographs of police brutality were made public. Violent confrontations occurred between police and protesters during New Zealand’s Springbok actions. The French government arranged for secret agents to detonate an explosion on the Greenpeace protest ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour. Such violent responses to peaceful protests have often caused a backlash which ultimately benefited those protesting by gaining the movement more sympathy. As a result, governments and their attendant media now focus on another tactic for quelling dissent, that of discrediting or demonising the protesters.
The 2009 worldwide Occupy movement, against inequality and the bailing out of the banks in wake of the financial crisis, was regularly portrayed as a bunch of layabout, anti-capitalist, hippy socialists and this image of protesters is an enduring one. This week in New Zealand thousands of people took to the streets in protest against the TPPA trade deal being ceremonially signed in Auckland. Prime Minister John Key relied on his default description of the crowds as “rent a protest” saying, “you’re always going to get this, as a bit of a cause celebre for the left“. He also used another familiar tactic of belittling the protesters, questioning their intelligence and claiming they are all “misinformed“.
“If people have a serious beef to make they should actually have a look at the commentary out there, because the commentary defeats their arguments very strongly“.
This in spite of the fact that many academics, political figures and organisations, in New Zealand and around the world, including US Senator Elizabeth Warren, Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, Medicin Sans Frontiers and the World Medical Association, have all voiced serious concerns over the trade deal. There have also been protests in many of the other signatory countries, including the US, Japan, Chile and Malaysia. Key also relied on the argument that ultimately the protest, which stopped traffic in the city centre, was a public inconvenience and that that was more important to most people than the details of a trade deal that will impact on the future of the country, saying Aucklanders would be “pretty disappointed and a little bit confused” as to why people were protesting. Even worse than this belittling and patronising of protesters are the other examples of them being portrayed as unruly delinquents or violent troublemakers. Right-leaning radio presenter Paul Henry, while interviewing TPPA critic and law professor Jane Kelsey prior to yesterday’s protest, insisted the protest would end in violence. He employed the language of confrontation, describing, “the rabid mob outside the building” and stating, “there will be banshees turn up today and be violent“. He was gleefully willing a violent confrontation in order to discredit the whole protest movement, one which he openly disagrees with. In actual fact, not a single arrest was made.
Resistance to public protest is to be expected by those whose authority is being challenged and, to a lesser degree, by the mainstream media, who seem increasingly to be content with accepting the status quo. However, what is most disappointing is those members of the public who are accepting the politicians’ and media message and are content to see protest as an unnecessary waste of time or inconvenience. Some online comments yesterday expressed a combination of apathy and antagonism and included, “Did they achieve anything? Oh apart from annoying countless people that is?” and “Why even protest though? It’s already been signed.” Many were content to bolster the image of the protester layabout: “Why don’t these people have jobs to be at!! We will need that bloody agreement if people are just going to keep taking days off for this protesting crap!“, “get a job stop claiming wat ever benefit you are on [sic]” and “Maori bludgers“. Thankfully, countless more contributors were able to respond to these criticisms. Some explained that the agreement still has to be ratified by the signatory countries, including the US, and so is not yet a ‘done deal’. Doctors, lawyers and people of many other professions explained that they had attended the protests due to genuine concerns over issues such as Pharmac and drug licensing and the potential legal fallout from ISDS (Investor State Dispute Settlement) tribunals. Others pointed out that exercising their democratic rights to protest, about an issue over which there has been no public consultation and when we are still a long way away from the next general election, is important enough to take a day off work. One commentator, a company CEO who had given her employees the option to attend the march explained that, “sometimes not everything is about money but about following what you believe is best.”
Protest is an integral part of our democratic process. In a system were we don’t have referenda on every issue, and the dichotomous nature of party politics means we may not agree with all of a party’s policies, peaceful resistance is a way of raising matters for discussion. To say we have the opportunity to vote every 3 (or 4 or 5) years is not enough, as we may not assent to every decision that is made in that time and we shouldn’t spend the years between elections apathetically accepting our collective fate. Nonviolent protest is part of the process of informing our elected government how we feel on individual issues and holding them accountable for their decisions. Rather than mock or belittle or criticise protests and those involved, every citizen should be as protective of this aspect of democracy as they are of the right to elect our officials. I’m sure that if one day a leader came to take away that right to vote, many more people would find themselves taking to the streets to exercise their remaining democratic right.
5th February 2016
Donald Trump is planning to build a wall around the USA. His claims that the majority of people crossing the border from Mexico are murderers and rapists, and his plans to stop all Muslims from entering the country until he ‘works out what’s going on’, have seen his poll numbers steadily rise. Proud of making headline-grabbing comments on controversial issues, his latest foray into patriotic defence of the nation has been his questioning of Ted Cruz’s eligibility for the position of Commander-in-Chief. Constitutionally, eligibility is described as a “natural-born citizen” which has been defined as anyone born to a US citizen. In Cruz’s case, he was born in Canada to a US American mother but Trump seems willing to question the citizenship of anyone not born on US soil. In January’s GOP debate in South Carolina, Cruz, in defending himself against the charges of ineligibility, raised Trump’s own heritage and his Scottish-born mother. Trump revealed his true feeling on the matter when he countered with, “but I was born here, big difference.” Of course this is not Trump’s first incidence of questioning a candidate’s right to the Presidency, with his prominent position in ‘the birther’ movement which demanded Obama make his birth certificate public in order to prove his citizenship. Obama was shown to fulfil Trump’s high standards of being “born here”, although conspiracy theories surrounding forged certificates still abound.
The concept of citizenship being linked solely to the geographical location of a person’s birth is a difficult one. In today’s globalised world with it’s long history of migration, many people can trace a heritage containing forebears of various origins and races. A person may have grandparents from four different nations, be born in a fifth and then choose to live their life in a sixth. How does one define citizenship in such cases? For some, rather than attempting to untangle such webs or revelling in the diversity that such instances bring to cultures, it is easier for them to hold onto the ‘born here’ definition of citizenship. A few years ago in New Zealand, t-shirts showing the country’s map and boldly emblazoned with “Born Here” had a summer of popularity, and although the t-shirts have now faded and been worn out, the attitude they exhibited is still very much apparent. In a recent discussion with a couple of middle-aged, white New Zealanders, they visibly bristled when I classed myself as a ‘Kiwi’. As someone who has lived in the country for 11 years and chosen citizenship of a place I love, in their eyes I could never be a ‘real’ New Zealander. This was by no means the first time I had encountered such an attitude from within the same demographic, themselves descended from migrants to the country sometime within the last 200 years. It points towards a desire to close the doors of immigration after themselves, just as Trump, who so highly values his own status of being born in the USA, is ready to deny citizenship to all US-born children of illegal immigrants.
Such negative attitudes towards immigration held by some in New Zealand was further evidenced last week when I broke my own rule and made the terrible mistake of reading the comments section on an internet news report. The story concerned the arrival to New Zealand of the first 80 Syrian refugees of the 750 the country has pledged to receive. Against the background of a 5-year conflict which has claimed 250 000 lives and made 11 million people homeless, there were examples of typical myopic parochialism with comments such as, “why help others if we can’t help ourselves first?”. Then came the examples of outright discrimination:
“Most of those Syrian’s are terrorist. get refugees from other countries, but not syria (sic)”,
“take the Christian refugees. They are genuine refugees and get killed by the Muslim Syrian refugees“,
” Escort them back home. Let them fight for their country” and
“We don’t need Muslims in New Zealand“.
Perhaps the comment which showed the greatest lack of empathy for the refugees’ suffering and eligibility for a life in New Zealand was one bemoaning the trifling inconveniences of their own migration to New Zealand. Again the ‘I’m here, now let’s not make it easy for anyone else’ attitude.
“Absolutely agree [we should not accept Syrian refugees].. When I applied visa for my holidays, they asked tons of questions n juz issued 1 month special visa.. And also when I made enquiry about my relocation n migration there, many many forms have to b filled up.. 😒😖. I love NZ n wish to spend rest of my life here .. But they are funny.. They have so many bars to the person who love their country n wish to contribute knowledge..(sic)”
The ultimate hypocrisy of the ‘birthers’ movement and ‘born here’ proponents can be seen in their attitude to the indigenous peoples of their countries. The same European-descended New Zealanders who questioned my right to citizenship in a proud display of their own ‘born here’ status were unwilling to extend bonds of national fraternity to Maori, who can date their presence in the country back more than 500 years before the Europeans. They openly espoused a desire for Maori to “get over the past” and “stop relying on handouts” while expressing concern that new Maori residents in the area were “disrupting the neighbourhood”. Such disregard for the indigenous people of the country, while viewing themselves as more Kiwi than those who come after them is a clear example of white nationalism. In the US, Trump is currently being endorsed by some in the white supremacist movement, who see his hard stance on immigration as a possible way to avoid the white population becoming a minority. Trump also has a terrible record when it comes to Native American issues spanning the last 25 years. Recently he has supported the Keystone XL pipeline, which is being challenged by Native groups fearing its potential damage to their sacred sites and water supplies. He has also pledged, if he becomes President, to reverse Obama’s renaming of Mount McKinley in Alaska to Denali, calling it, “a great insult to Ohio” (President McKinley’s home state). When asked his opinion on the rebranding of Washington’s NFL team to remove the logo and the Redskins name, Trump stated, “Honestly, I don’t think they should change the name, unless the owner wanted to…. I know Indians that are extremely proud of that name.”
Countries such as the US and New Zealand were built on the foundations of colonial land grabs, subjugation and, in some cases, slaughter of the lands’ earliest residents. Now, the majority of the population of these nations are immigrants or descended from immigrants, many of whom were escaping atrocities elsewhere in the world, others who made the move in search of a better way of life or economic gain. It would seem that some of those are content with the idea that the “huddled masses” are no longer wanted and now is the time to draw in the welcome mat and securely bar the doors to prevent any new interlopers from sharing in the benefits they themselves have enjoyed.
25th January 2016
One thread which runs through many of the articles published here is an attempt to highlight hypocrisies and inconsistencies within society and politics. My recent silence has not been due to a lack of relevant examples but rather to being overwhelmed by possible illustrations, as well as being rendered speechless for a while by the volume of divisive rhetoric and dangerous invective in the media, social and mainstream, ‘post-Paris’.
It should go without saying that the November 13th terror attacks in Paris were an horrific event resulting in the tragic loss of many innocent lives. However, the ‘Eurocentric’ reaction to such loss of life should not be ignored. The media and individuals across Europe and the US, as well as in far-flung places like Australia and New Zealand, dedicated hours of coverage and endless threads of social media posts to reporting and commenting on the events in Paris in minute detail. Facebook enabled users to emblazon their profile picture with the tricolour in a show of solidarity with the French. After the initial uptake, some began to point out that Facebook had never offered the Nigerian, Lebanese or Malian flags in such a manner as a result of terrorist attacks there, questioning why Paris was different. And in that lies the problem, as the media and politicians actively fan the flames of fear that Europeans and Americans are the number one target and (most important) victims of terrorism. However, a look at the statistics shows a different picture. In the 6 months from July to December 2015, the Paris attacks and the shootings in Chattanooga and San Bernardino, as well as the downing of the Russian plane in Sinai, took the lives of around 370 people. During that same time, ISIL and affiliates were responsible for deaths in Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Tunisia and Lebanon numbering over 900. Meanwhile, Boko Haram also killed over 900 people in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon, while Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda were between them responsible for another 50 deaths in Kenya, Somalia and Mali. In comparison to the European and US incidents, most of these received very little, or in some cases, no media attention or outpourings of collective grief. Our sympathy for victims of terrorism is selective and it is very apparent from this which lives we in the ‘West’ believe matter.
This discrepancy is in itself disturbing, but what is equally worrying is how politicians and the media use the fear of attacks on the ‘homeland’ to drive political agendas, despite ‘death by terrorism’ being far down the list of statistically likely ways to die. The post-Paris political world echoes strongly of the post-9/11 world and the attacks in France are being used to bolster and enliven the idea (fearing it may have been fading after 14 years) that the West is in a necessary war with Islam and extremism. Paris is being used to justify the continuation of the War on Terror. It’s open season again for government surveillance of their populations, sweeping aside any post-Snowden concerns over the Patriot Act and mass collection of data; the UK’s ‘snooper charter’ is back on the table and in the US the Paris attacks are being cited as a reason to challenge civilians’ right to use encryption. Meanwhile, just as governments were finally beginning to take responsibility for the growing refugee crisis, partially created by the war in Syria, the attacks in Paris are now being used as a reason to backtrack on the commitments some nations made to accept refugees from the war-torn region. And just as 9/11 was used to justify the invasion of Iraq, following Paris the UK government voted to increase its military involvement in Syria. Even that parliamentary debate had echoes of George Bush’s War on Terror declaration of, “you’re either with us or with the terrorists”, when Prime Minister David Cameron accused opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of being a, “terrorist sympathiser” for arguing against increased military intervention.
Such oversimplified, polar views of the world are also what have led to the rise of Islamaphobic attacks in the US and Europe, with protests outside mosques, including the depositing of dead pigs and bacon, apparently under the assumption that all muslims are potential terrorists. This view is only reinforced when leading Presidential candidate Donald Trump states his aim of blocking all muslims from gaining entry visas and then sees his poll results increase as a result. Painting the picture of the threat of terrorism coming solely from Islamic extremists also allows nations in the West to continue to downplay the actions of extremists of other ilks, such as the far-right or Christian and Jewish fundamentalists. In the US there is a great deal of resistance to classifying as terrorism the threats of violence, arson attacks and shootings against women’s health clinics which perform abortions, including the killing of 3 people on Nov 27th at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. At the moment, there is much debate on social media over whether the armed militiamen holed up in a federal building in Oregon to protest government ownership of land, should be classified as terrorists but the authorities and media have so far resisted doing so. It seems that when such actions involve white Christians, the word terrorism is rarely employed. It is Islam and Islamic extremism which continues to be represented as the main source of terrorist activity. However, selective outrage and political hypocrisy exists within the UK and US’s stance against the extremes of Islam, as evidenced in their dealings with Saudi Arabia. While claiming their general criticism of Islam comes from a desire to protect human rights such as freedom of speech and gender and sexual equality, they maintain close ties with Saudi Arabia, one of the strictest adherents to Sharia law. The country’s legal system sees the death penalty applied in cases of homosexuality and protesting against the government and requires women to have permission from a man before engaging in work, study or travel. After beheading almost 50 people last week, including teenage protesters and a Shia cleric, the condemnation from their Western allies was tepid, showing that whatever ideologies fuel the ongoing War on Terror, they remain secondary to lucrative oil and arms deals.
7th January 2016
Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes was the recipient of this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction writing and the first winner classified as a science book to do so. However, do not be misled by this categorisation into thinking of this work as a technical, scientific text. Neurotribes covers an array of issues including the history and politics of scientific research and a tender exposure of the impact that these have on the people affected. It is a fascinating and comprehensive look into the history of and attitudes towards autism. Silberman’s far-reaching and in-depth research traces examples of historical figures who showed signs of autism, the genesis and development of its diagnosis and the often opposing beliefs regarding what can best be done to help those who are autistic. From the loss of Hanz Asperger’s research amidst the eugenics-fuelled Nazi purge of the ‘intellectually inferior’ to the discredited research of Andrew Wakefield linking the MMR vaccine to autism, Silbermen weaves almost 100 years of scientific research with tales of individuals and families struggling to understand the challenges facing them.
In the 1940s it was Leo Kanner in the US who became the leading voice in autism research. He believed that it was a rare disorder and his ambiguity over whether it was inborn or externally-caused spurred many, from psychotherapists to gastroenterologists, into a search for a cause and a ‘cure’. This has resulted in psychotherapy for the parents of autistic children and the institutionalisation of many autistics, as well as a dazzling array of diets being sold as cures. At the same time as Kanner’s initial research, Hanz Asperger in Vienna was recognising that autism covered a far wider spectrum of behaviours than Kanner included in his diagnosis and that its destructive effects could be lessened through individualised education. Asperger also recognised the intellectual capabilities present in his research subjects, calling them his “little scientists”. Unfortunately, much of Asperger’s work was lost in the German occupation and people were keen to distance themselves from any perceived connection between his work and Nazi eugenics. As such, his published articles were not referenced by Kanner or translated into English until many years later. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that a much wider definition and range of behaviours, the autism spectrum, finally became the accepted diagnostic tool. Researchers, autism advocates and physicians like Lorna Wing in the UK fought for this extended classification in order to gain support and services, such as access to education, for the many people and families dealing with the day-to-day issues of living with autism. This, together with the first high-profile mainstream representation of an autistic person in the form of Raymond Babbitt in Rainman (1988), resulted in a greatly increased incidence of reporting of cases in the 1990s, leading some to claim that there was an “autism epidemic”. This coincided with Wakefield’s now debunked report into the MMR vaccine and, in a ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances, an erroneous connection was drawn by autism support groups, researchers and parents who still thought of autism as an illness rather than a genetic anomaly, grasping at any possibility of discovery of a cause and a cure. The resulting panic led to a drop-off in numbers of children being given the MMR vaccination and an increase in cases of potentially-fatal measles. Unfortunately, the fraudulent claims of Wakefield’s report are still dangerously perpetuated today by high-profile figures, including Donald Trump. Lorna Wing had stressed the importance of classification, saying “nothing exists until it has a name”, but this has also had unintentional and potentially devastating consequences.
Society’s compulsive drive to classify can be traced back to the origins of empirical science, with the likes of Newton and Bacon in the 17th century, then fully coming into its own in the 18th century Enlightenment. Carl Von Linnaeus’ classification of plants (1735), Antoine Lavoisier’s classification of the chemical elements (1789) and Diderot’s Encyclopèdie (1751) are all examples from this period of the natural philosophers’ attempts to label and control all the elements of the world around them. Over 250 years later and the world we live in is still highly organised into categories, with books, movies, music, illnesses, beliefs and people all labelled and classified. Undoubtedly such labels can have their uses, whether it be to help us choose which movie to watch, to gain access to health care or to give power and legitimacy to a movement, such as LGBT. However, such categories oversimplify the complexities of the world around us and often organise us on unrepresentative binary lines: left-wing or right-wing, gay or straight, male or female, able or disabled, normal or abnormal. Autism has historically been classed as a mental illness, a psychological disorder, a handicap, a form of childhood schizophrenia and has been given the names Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism with the quantifiers high-functioning and low-functioning. With each of these labels comes a stigma and very clear boundaries as to who belongs and who doesn’t. However, Silberman’s book ends on an optimistic note which has much to do with the eventual acceptance of Asperger’s idea of autism as a spectrum of behaviours. Self-determining autistics have adopted the term “neurodiversity” to explain the differences between people as a limitless variety of behaviours, impulses, intellects and capabilities to which we all belong. This seems to be resulting in a new understanding and acceptance of what being autistic really means, with a focus on potential and inclusion. It is this concept of diversity, range and acceptance of infinite difference which needs to be applied not only to our neural variations but to all aspects of our identities and beliefs which defy classification.
Steven Silberman, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently, Allen & Unwin 2015
November 12th 2015