Why Terror? – and the Heroism of Slogans

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A couple of weeks have passed since the Paris Charlie Hebdo shootings, and we can perhaps now begin to reflect on the events in more deliberate fashion.

I am grateful to a couple of authors, notably Teju Cole and Adam Gopnik, both writing for The New Yorker, for pointing to some problematic aspects of the ‘Je suis Charlie’ mobilization that match my own reflections, therefore, I will start by summarizing their comments prior to adding my own. My own comments will be structured in two parts: from the perspective of critical theory and that of psychoanalysis.

The moral argument – on its head

Teju Cole, writing on January 9, 2015, notes that even though “it is not always easy to see the difference between a certain witty dissent from religion and a bullying racist agenda, it is necessary to try”. Charlie Hebdo was perhaps eager to offend everyone, yet “in recent years the magazine has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations, and its numerous anti-Islam images have been inventively perverse, featuring hook-nosed Arabs, bullet-ridden Korans, variations on the theme of sodomy, and mockery of the victims of a massacre.”

This does not mean we should not condemn the killings and mourn the victims. Yet, “just because one condemns their brutal murders, doesn’t mean one must condone their ideology”.

Perhaps more significantly:

“The scale, intensity, and manner of the solidarity that we are seeing for the victims of the Paris killings, encouraging as it may be, indicates how easy it is in Western societies to focus on radical Islamism as the real, or the only, enemy. This focus is part of the consensus about mournable bodies, and it often keeps us from paying proper attention to other, ongoing, instances of horrific carnage around the world … We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others”

Adam Gopnik, writing January 12, 2015 points to the absurdity of “turning its murdered cartoonists into pawns in a game of another kind of public piety”. Turning them into martyrs risks to betray their memory because:

“Wolinski, Cabu, Honoré: like soccer players in Brazil, each was known in France by a single name. A small irreverent smile comes to the lips at the thought of the flag being lowered, as it was throughout France last week, for these anarchist mischief-makers, and they would surely have roared at the irony of being solemnly mourned and marched for by former President Nicolas Sarkozy and the current President, François Hollande. The cartoonists didn’t just mock those men’s politics; they regularly amplified their sexual appetites and diminished their sexual appurtenances.”

The critical theoretical argument

The speed with which the ‘Je suis Charlie’ movement formed was remarkable. Within days it was possible to organize a huge demonstration attracting more than 50 high-level government representatives from around the world and three million marchers – and that despite the highest terror warning!

Officially, the march was constructed as an act of defiance in the face of terrorism and a proclamation of the intention to uphold liberal democratic values such as freedom (of opinion), secularism and multiculturalism. At a deeper level, the event was characterized by Islamo-phobia, also among Muslims, hence also the readiness of the extreme right-wing to join its ranks. The exclusion from the march of Marie Le Pen of the Front National was a rather pathetic attempt to hide the affinities between the two discourses.

In brief: within days …

  • a journal that excels in being politically incorrect becomes a brand for political correctness;
  • a demonstration organized in the name of freedom of opinion is embarrassed by the endorsements it attracts and ends up issuing bans;
  • a series of anti-terror measures with serious implications for civil rights are back on the agenda and legitimized.

These oddities should at least make us pause and think. In like manner, the one blatant similarity between terrorists and anti-terrorists: namely, their passion for media sensationalism.

This, I contend, is at the core of contemporary socio-political conflict. Terror is the modern war and this because of two reasons: first, the conflict is asymmetric; second, it is about social representations, hence identity, whereby the fixation on sensationalism in media (rather than, say, differentiated reporting and in-depth analysis) points to the workings of rather essential identification processes employing basic conceptions of good and bad.

From this perspective, the swift homogeneous alignment of the majority of the ‘free media’ around the world with the ‘Je suis Charlie’ movement, and their willingness to adopt a one-dimensional dramatic depiction of events is the real reason why we should be concerned about our freedom of opinion. Once our critical reasoning is impaired, we won’t even know when we stop being free – and long before that we would have stopped having an opinion!

The psychoanalytic argument

Those familiar with psychoanalytic theories will recognize a number of psychoanalytically-informed ideas in the above exposition: paying attention to both the conscious and unconscious sides of any particular narrative; looking for strange reversals that suggest the operation of so-called reaction-formations; exploring commonalities and differences between victims and perpetrators in order to clarify the mechanisms of aggression; attending to the construction of essential categories of good and bad; not least, focusing on the dynamics of group interactions and what these imply for individual strivings for knowing.

But I will focus on one specific aspect of the Paris events, namely, Islamo-phobia. Already the choice of the term ‘phobia’ to refer to this collective form of discrimination shows that it is felt to relate to basic instincts active in the human psyche.

When dealing with phobias, psychoanalytic technique recommends taking a closer look at the object of anxiety. In his seminal analysis of ‘Little Hans’, Sigmund Freud (1909) warned against taking the apparent or named object of fear as its real cause. This is because our mental apparatus likes to work with displacement, especially under the influence of violent affects.

What then is the real object of fear behind Islamo-phobia?

The Paris attacks, motivated by caricatures that were experienced as offensive, provide a clue. Caricatures often work by way of devaluation of authority, whereby the objects targeted will usually represent mainstream authority figures within a society. This, however, does not apply to the Prophet caricatures of Charlie Hebdo considering that the latter’s audience was mainly secular Christian or secular Jewish.

In other words, the satire of Charlie Hebdo was based on the devaluation of Another’s religion. This raises the question as to why ‘we’, secular Christians and Jews, should find pleasure in making fun of our neighbor’s (or cousin’s) Gods (or wives). Indeed, this is the question many Muslims around the world are presently asking.

A possible answer is that ‘we’ actually regret not having any own authority figures to devalue, for instance by making fun of them, which, in reverse, is equivalent to saying we lament having no authority figures to value. According to Freud (1939 in Moses and Monotheism) a similar logic underpinned anti-Semitism.

It is thus perhaps no surprise that the ‘Je suis Charlie’ movement ended up uniting left and right, the middle as well as the extremes. Apparently the yearning for authority in our societies – and not only in Muslim countries – is currently quite widespread.

About that we ought to reflect.

Psychoanalytic Contributions to the ‘Science of Suffering’

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In a recent article published in The New Republic and entitled ‘The Science of Suffering’, Judith Shulevitz reviews contemporary findings from psychiatry and psychology about trauma, in particular post traumatic stress disorder PTSD, and its trans-generational inheritance. Research carried out with families of Holocaust and Cambodian survivors, as well as with African and Native Americans, suggests that children of survivors “may be born less able to metabolize stress,” with the “propensity for PTSD after trauma … about 30 to 35 percent heritable”.

Family dynamics, socialization, exaggerated or one-sided forms of commemoration as well as an unconscious tendency to place oneself in dangerous or difficult situations (what neuro-psychologists refer to as ‘high-risk hypothesis’) delineate pathways of (re-)traumatization. Various cultures have elaborated own names and symbolic representations for this type of distress. In recognition of this, DSM-V now includes “nine culturally specific presentations of mental disorders; one is Cambodian, others are Latino, Japanese, and Chinese.” For example, Cambodians associate such trauma with an attack of a malevolent wind known as ‘khyal’ and with being dominated by a ghost that pushes one down.

Trauma is also a core concept of psychoanalytic theory – and not without reason the TNR article makes reference to psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan (even if as psychiatrist and psychohistorian rather than as psychoanalyst).

Sigmund Freud was among the first to note and study the compulsive tendency among patients exhibiting neurotic symptoms as a result of war to re-live their traumatic experiences in dreams. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) he construed this as evidence that libidinal forces are not the only ones driving our instinct for self-preservation, whereby the nightmares of traumatized patients are concurrently an attempt to relive the traumatic event under ‘normal’ conditions of alertness thus finally overcoming the terror once experienced.

Freud was, however, also careful to point out the similarities between traumatic and non-traumatic neuroses with regard to affect, symptoms and subjective perception. In other words, neurotic patients in general behave as if traumatized, albeit to a varying degree, and mainly in relation to childhood experiences. Even if this presents a certain complication for treatment, it is an indication of how our mental apparatus is constructed, namely elementally along single dimensions but complicated in their interaction. This also applies to the interplay of biological, cultural and psychological factors in the original experience and subsequent repetition of traumatic experiences. For this reason we should also not expect to be able to do away with PTSD alone through the application of drugs that tackle, say, a traumatized patient’s ability to metabolize stress.

A German version of this blog can be read at Wunderblog.

 

On Evacuation Flyers, the War in Gaza and Erdogan’s Comments

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This is the text, as published in ‘Jerusalem Post’, of the flyer distributed this week by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) warning Gaza residents about tank shelling and urging them to evacuate:

“To the residents of Shuja’iya and Zeitoun: In spite of the ceasefire, Hamas and other terrorist organizations continue to fire rockets. Therefore it is the intention of the IDF to carry out aerial strikes against terror sites and operatives in Shuja’iya and Zeitoun. A high volume of rocket fire at Israel has originated in this area. For your own safety, you are requested to vacate your residence immediately and head towards Gaza City before 08:00 AM on Wednesday, July 16, 2014. The IDF does not want to harm you or your families. The evacuation is for your own safety. You should not return to the premises until further notice. Whoever disregards these instructions and fails to evacuate immediately endangers their own lives, as well as those of their families.”

According to the same source, many residents did not heed the warnings, following instead Hamas’ beckoning to stay put – hence also the high number of casualties following today’s offensive. By contrast, the UN speaks of around 50,000 displaced persons.

Disinformation and propaganda are elements of war – and Israel and the Hamas are no exception. Evacuation flyers regularly thrown at Gaza residents announcing air strikes are part of this machinery. It is doubtful whether they must read the text carefully in order to know they are in danger. Hence, it is valid to raise the question: to whom is the evacuation flyer really addressed? My guess: it is meant for Israeli citizens and the international community. Its real purpose: to appease us and deny blame for the bloodshed.

But bloodshed it remains.

The question as to who was the first to pull the trigger is not relevant. What is relevant is that people are dying on both sides of the border, many of them civilians, the majority Palestinians. The conflict’s flare-up only benefits the extremists of both sides who have been looking for an opportunity to side-track recent attempts to establish a unity transitional government on the Palestinian side, with the participation of Hamas, around the moderate Fatah political agenda. The move has been officially criticized by Israel and all international stakeholders – and yet, as we know from other community conflicts, notably the one in Northern Ireland, peace processes are not neat and tidy, and warring factions do not simply disappear or transform themselves over night. It takes painstaking political dialogue courageously sustained despite provocations.

In the middle of the havoc, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan came out yesterday to condemn Israel for its barbarity, which he compared to Hitler’s. The comparison is abstruse to even deserve response, one other manipulative move using anti-Semitism to serve domestic politics (given Turkey’s upcoming presidential elections). In fact, a more pertinent comparison would have been with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus 40 years ago to the day.

The Disinclined European Voter

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Last night, prior to going to bed, I placed the notice with information on my polling station for the European elections on the kitchen table — to remind myself to go and vote. Afterwards, I was surprised about my behavior.

Given that I am a politically informed and conscientious citizen, a regular consumer of news, and, besides, a political scientist – I was shocked by my assumption that I may forget to vote, which clearly was meant to disguise my disinclination to vote.

Obviously I am not alone with my ambivalence. The electoral turnout for the European elections remained low, below fifty per cent in most European Union countries. This is no novelty and the explanations are equally well known: Europeans do not care enough about Europe; Europe is too big and ‘far away’ for citizens to grasp; trust in political institutions is on the decline; and, the financial crisis may have tired us out and contributed to our disenchantment.

The above list of reasons is based on various surveys about political attitudes and is valid to a certain extent. However, it does not fully account for what is going on.

There are at least two other issues that require further reflection:

• The first is specific to European Union politics. The European Parliament (EP) as the legislative branch of EU government displays a weak link to the executive branch of government as represented by the European Council. Even though the influence of the European Parliament on policy decisions has progressively increased during the last decades, the fact that the electoral results do not directly affect the distribution of power works against voter mobilization.

(The decision this year to use the results to additionally determine who is elected President of the European Commission has only marginally changed matters. This is because formally the EP vote is not binding; and because the Commission has itself only partial executive powers)

• The second issue is more far-reaching than the first. The existing evidence suggests that the lower turnout in European elections is only symptomatic of a more general trend. In turn, this correlates with the declining capacity of political parties to mobilize their potential voters or attract new ones. Extremist parties have less of a problem than mainstream parties in this respect, albeit only occasionally.

What both issues highlight is the mismatch between electoral politics (and mobilization strategies), on the one hand, and real politics, on the other hand.

The problem faced at European level is how to ensure citizen input into a supra-national polity that is functioning according to a complex inter-governmental model of decision-making. It is not enough to behave as if this system was equivalent to a traditional parliamentary democratic system. Either we adjust the polity to better fit existing models, or, if this is not possible or desirable, we come up with new procedures of representation of political opinion.

As to the more general decline of the capacity of political parties to mobilize (their) voters, this has a lot to do with their insistence to continue packaging their messages according to ideological narratives (on the left-right spectrum) that are no longer relevant other than in normative and symbolic terms. Single-issue mobilization, which for some years served as an alternative, is also beginning to display fault lines.

There is, of course, no clear answer to this complex set of problems. But maybe it is not so much about finding solutions, but rather about improving political communication.

The Ukrainian Stage for Bungee Jumping

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Conflicts like the one presently raging in Ukraine and the dismal reactions to it are a sad confirmation of how international relations continue to operate re-actively rather than pro-actively, driven by tactical considerations rather than strategic thinking, and operating with a remarkable short-term memory, hence lack of historical consciousness (and conscience).

Ukraine displays all the elements for an explosive community conflict – of which there are more than several around the global, all of them ugly and sadly pedestrian despite resort to grand ideologies:

• It is a country that is linguistically and ethnically divided according to relatively clear territorial lines.
• It has a clearly delineated contested area, i.e. Crimea, with a history of ancient hatred.
• It borders two regional powers with conflicting economic and geopolitical interests.
• It is a transit to crucial gas pipelines and adjacent to key transport corridors.
• Its recent past, since independence, has been characterized by factional interests, political corruption and weak social institutions.
• Its political elites – across the spectrum – have repeatedly displayed little concern about exploiting citizens’ anxieties and wishes for their own interests and agendas.

One further characteristic of such conflicts, once they enter an escalation phase, is their denial of time and process.

Both the call for a referendum on the status of Crimea and that for new parliamentary elections across the country are legitimate. However, from the perspective of conflict resolution, what is counter-productive is that they should happen at such short notice.

The Crimea referendum is now scheduled for next week whereas the parliamentary elections are due to take place in May contrary to an agreement, arrived at with the help of the European Union last week, that they should take place at the end of the year following a much needed restraint phase, under the auspices of a transitional government, during which political parties prepare, and international assistance helps set up procedures for democratic oversight.

Once in a phase of escalation, it is very difficult to arrest the chain reaction of thinking (and acting out) according to partial perceptions and categorical definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. It is, therefore, important to contain this conflict before it erupts further to then gradually seek its peaceful resolution.

Containment may represent a burdened policy term dating back to the Cold War era. Nonetheless, it is now necessary if we are to avoid returning to times past and no longer desired.

On Philosophy’s Modern-Day Relevance: Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

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The following review appeared first in New York Journal of Books, March 4, 2014

The idea behind this book is both elegant and knowing. Imagine the old Greek philosopher Plato being in possession of a time machine and using it to travel to the twenty-first century to check out what has become of his Academy and human endeavor more generally. Imagine further the first place he lands on is Googleplex, the corporate headquarters of Google Inc. and home to some of the most inquisitive minds engaged in the construction of complex algorithms in search of information.

What would Plato think? And would that what he thinks be relevant?

These are the two questions that Rebecca Newberger Goldstein sets out to answer thus hoping to elucidate the relevance of philosophy for contemporary life, both individual and collective. At the same time, and parallel to Plato’s journey through our world, she takes us on a trip to Antiquity in order to familiarize us with the context of emergence of ancient Greek philosophy and how that influenced its contents.

True to Plato’s method, his journey is told in the form of dialogues, mostly open-ended, as there never can be a definite yes or no when it comes to truth. By contrast, the chapters on the Antiquity are told in scientific prose with extensive excursions in Plato’s famous dialogues such as The Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus, Timaeus, Meno, Sophist, and Statesman, and other works like Letters and Laws.

Each historical chapter is followed by a fictional dialogue, the interchange serving to exemplify the commonalities between our times and those of Plato despite the many and varied differences with respect to technology, politics and social relations. In the background, always there, both past and present: the figure of Socrates and his relationship to Plato.

Ms. Goldstein thus draws attention to that what is essential about philosophy, namely exchange, which, by definition, requires a counterpart. Doing philosophy, even more so living philosophy, requires relating to another (person, thought, argument, point of view, perspective etc.), and ultimately this is why philosophy should not or will not go away.

Plato first visits Googleplex in California, where he engages in discussion with a female media escort and a male computer scientist, about the relationship between knowledge and information and the question whether it will ever be possible, and/or desirable, to rely on an algorithm for reaching ethical decisions. He then travels to New York, 92nd street, to debate with two women scientists and mothers about child rearing and the question what is an ideal form of education and how far a parent is justified in steering his or her children’s ambitions.

There follow a series of consultations with a woman columnist advising other women on matters of the heart; an appearance on cable news to discuss the good life; and finally, a visit at a neuroscience lab to have a brain picture taken whilst contemplating the mind-brain question with a female cognitive scientist and a male neuroscientist.

The historical chapters provide likewise opportunity to reflect about subjects that were relevant in the past and remain so today: the links between science and humanities; the construction and implications of virtue in public and private life; the role and limitations of (democratic) politics; the variations and significance of love; and the meaning of life and death.

To write a book that is scholarly and accessible, and at the same time entertaining, is a tremendous achievement. As demonstrated by this book, there is indeed a role for philosophy today, therefore it is all the more unfortunate that fewer lay persons, but also students, go back to the original texts – an issue not only for philosophy. Books like Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex are of the rare type that contributes to the popularization of knowledge and makes appetite for more. After reading this book you will want to read Plato’s Dialogues – but might also question your views and knowledge about politics, psychology, science, history and ethics. Socrates would be amused, Plato content – mission accomplished.

Should the Humanities Fear Science?

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In August / September of this year The New Republic published a debate between the experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and its own literary editor, the writer and critic Leon Wieseltier, on the relationship between science and the humanities.

The debate was launched with an article by Steven Pinker published August 6, 2013 entitled ‘Science is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea to Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors and Tenure-Less Historians’. This was followed a month later by an article by Leon Wieseltier entitled ‘Crimes Against Humanities: Now Science Wants to Invade the Liberal Arts – Don’t Let it Happen’. The third round appeared September 26, 2013 under the more dry but no less attention-catching heading ‘Science vs. The Humanities: Round III’.

The debate is worth reading – both for its contents and passionate comportment. A brief summary and my comments below:

Steven Pinker’s essay starts by pointing out that the great thinkers of Enlightenment were philosophers and scientists. They were not against science unlike contemporary representatives of the humanities, who are concerned about the presumed reductionist and positivist logic of science and think this will lead, via abuse, to genocide or war and, for sure, to the loss of moral and spiritual health. From there, Pinker goes on to defend ‘scientism’ (and not just science), intentionally “appropriating the pejorative” to make his case.

Scientism, argues Pinker, is committed to two ideals: the idea that the world is intelligible and the idea that the acquisition of knowledge is hard work. Intelligibility is about seeking to explain a phenomenon or complex happenings according to principles, which is not equivalent to reductionism. ‘Hard’ he uses in the sense of following a robust method of research and analysis:

“The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies and superstitions … To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity … nurturing opportunities for falsification of … own beliefs.”

The contempt cultivated vis-à-vis science from within the humanities is based on misconceptions that are similar to those professed by religious institutions.

And yet, in actual fact, both science and humanities stand to gain from closer collaboration.

“The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences would challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.”

Leon Wieseltier does not agree. Science he writes “confers no special authority.” Insofar as the fields of morality, politics and the arts are concerned – “these are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy.” What is more, “the errors of religious fundamentalism must not be mistaken for the errors of religion.”

Wieseltier fears that science is not genuinely interested in collaborating with the humanities; rather it wants “the humanities to submit to the sciences and be subsumed by them.” Pinker’s ideal or principle of intelligibility, argues Wieseltier, is shorthand for ‘scientific intelligibility’ and this is equivalent to conflating scientific knowledge with knowledge as such.

“The translation of non-scientific discourse into scientific discourse is the objective of scientism … The scientizers do not respect the borders between the realms; they transgress the borders so as to absorb all the realms into a single realm, into their realm. They are not pluralists.”

And:

“In literature and the arts, there are ideas, intellectually respectable ideas, about the world, but they are not demonstrated, they are illustrated. They are not argued, they are imagined, and the imagination has vigors of its own.”

Philosophers of science and sociologists of knowledge will recognize in this debate old cleavages that have hampered the collaboration between science and humanities for years – and likewise the fruitful blend of empirical and theoretical research or quantitative and qualitative approaches.

This is a difficult subject and more so because the debate confounds different levels of analysis:

At one level this is about competition over resources. In this respect the humanities have reasons to fear the rapid ascendancy of science. Science already now gets the lion’s share of research and institutional funding and, therefore, the fear is legitimate that closer collaboration will aggravate this trend, leading among else, to the complete marginalization of those subfields within humanities that have little to offer to science.

At a definitional level the debate has to do with the structural semantics of interdisciplinarity, namely whether the latter is to be conceptualized on equal terms (as Pinker envisages) or within a hierarchical framework (as Wieseltier fears).

Related to the above is the issue of vocabularies and metaphors that are used by different disciplines, in other words the mental and imaginative schemata available to each to guide exploration. Such schemata are mostly helpful devices that fulfill the function of signposting. But under specific circumstances, such as in inter-discipinary discourse, they often function as barriers to communication and understanding leading to cacophony. When this occurs there can be no way forward without translation – which implies the need for translators.

At a deeper level the debate is about meaning and different forms of experience. Here we are confronted with the fear that science will make the arts obsolete by explaining away beauty and aesthetics – treating then dismissing them as intermediary or derivative variables with no value of their own.

In other words: do we risk losing our feelings, emotions and all that we associate with the ‘human spirit’ once we have grounded them in material ‘scientist’ understandings? Does science take away our ability to write, paint, or make music? Worse still: will passion, pleasure and enjoyment then be gone – eventually replaced by some artificial intelligence?

These fears are unfounded yet real. Perhaps the more relevant question at this point is why they should arise in the first place. But this is the topic for another blog – some other time and place.

When Spies Turn into Whistleblowers …

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… there is usually a good reason

Last week Edward Snowden was finally granted temporary asylum in Russia. If he is the man he claims to be, namely a supporter of democracy and an advocate of human rights and, especially, of the right to privacy, then he is unlikely to feel happy about this turn of events. On matters of surveillance Russia is as bad, if not worse, than the United States. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, was a former official of the KGB, the most feared and hated security agency of the Cold War Period.

It should not come as a surprise that very few countries have been willing to consider granting asylum to Snowden. That just goes to show how widespread surveillance practices are. In order to run PRISM, the NSA is dependent on the collaboration of other national security agencies as well as that of corporate actors like Facebook and Google.

The global threat of terrorism has been employed to justify these massive incursions into the private sphere. The recent closing of several American Embassies around the world has been useful as an illustration of what it is presumably all about.

Others point to the declining value of privacy in modern societies: if people have no second thoughts when disclosing details of their private lives in talk shows, on Facebook or on YouTube, why should they mind—or anyone else for that matter—if their telephones and emails are tapped? (1)

There is a grain of truth in both of the above arguments. Besides, there is also no doubt that more (or new) intelligence can be gained from the fast processing of huge data sets. Let us not forget that this is what underpins advances in modern science and technology, including genetics and synthetic biology; the advertising success of the Internet; as well as the recent strategic turn of political campaigning. (2)

And yet, this does not legitimize surveillance programs like PRISM. The NSA, like other national security agencies, is a public institution and as such cannot be exempt from democratic controls. There is—unfortunately—a case to be made for surveillance. However, this is not a question of either/or; but a question of degree and, most significantly, of accountability.

Respect for privacy remains one of the pillars of democratic societies. That is so even at times when societies do not seem much concerned about it. Failure to regulate the use of private data information—whether for surveillance or other purposes—is characteristic of totalitarian regimes. An inquiry into NSA surveillance practices and a review of current regulation is, therefore, the minimum that can be expected of the Obama administration.

 

(1) On the changing role of publicity and a thoughtful reflection on surveillance politics, see Jill Lepore ‘The Prism: Privacy in an Age of Publicity’ in the June 2013 issue of The New Yorker

(2) On the use of big data by the Obama political campaign see Sascha Issenberg’s feature article in the December 2012 issue of MIT Technology Review entitled ‘A More Perfect Union’

Which Way for Egypt?

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Egypt is heading towards a military coup.

The terms used during the last twenty-four hours by Morsi and the military in defense of their respective positions suggest so much: Morsi has vowed to protect his presidency with his life; the military to “sacrifice even our blood” for Egypt and its people.

Both sides are going with the times and using Twitter and Facebook to broadcast their nationalist threats and propaganda – a reminder that new communication technologies are not a democratic accomplishment in and for themselves.

Those demonstrating against the Morsi government have good reasons to fear the slow Islamization of Egyptian society. The governing coalition led by the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to implement political and institutional reforms based on democratic, that is to say secular, principles.

Having the military take over state control is, however, not the solution to this problem, contrary to what some of the militant anti-Morsi demonstrators may think. This is equally dangerous and will not contribute to Egypt’s transition to democracy. The example of Turkey, still struggling to overcome the legacies of its political history in-between military coups and factional governments, is a warning and not a role-model.

The only way forward in the short-term is for Morsi to resign to make way for an expert-led transitional government representing moderates from all sides to work out constitutional reforms, as was originally the plan after the 2011 revolts, to  then pave the way to new parliamentary elections.

Let us hope this will be a ‘one step back, two steps forward’ type of game and not the other way around.

On the Medicalization of Normality: ‘Saving Normal’ by Allen Frances

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The following review first appeared in New York Journal of Books on May 16.

The medicalization of ordinary life has been a slow process in the making and the sad result of a combination of factors. Diagnostic manuals like the DSM have contributed to this process and so have the reimbursement procedures of health and social insurances. Careless science reporting, advertising excesses and the lowering of scientific standards in clinical and field trials are other contributing factors.

Having chaired the task force that prepared DSM-IV, Allen Frances knows what he is talking about. Some of the criticisms he fares against DSM-5 also apply to his own work and he is sincere enough to admit these. But DSM-5 displays several new and more serious problems, besides accentuating those of the past. This is the subject of the book Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life (William Morrow, 2013).

Diagnostic inflation is number one problem on the list. This occurs “when we confuse the typical perturbations that are part of everyone’s life with true psychiatric disorder.” Trouble is, this ‘confusion’ often takes place willfully in order to maximize profits: “The much fuzzier distinction between the mildly ill and the probably well is easily and frequently manipulated.”

The chapters that focus on the fads of the past, present and future are the strongest part of the book. Fads of the present include attention deficit disorder (ADD) and autism. Insofar as adults are concerned, depression is the big cash-cow. In actual fact, many of the diagnosed depressions would pass on their own given some time and attention. “Sadness should not be synonymous with sickness … Our capacity to feel emotional pain has great adaptive value equivalent in its purpose to physical pain – a signal that something has gone wrong. We can’t convert all emotional pain into mental disorder without radically changing who we are, dulling the palette of our experience.”

DSM-5 takes even a step further and proposes to consider tantrums as ‘disruptive mood dysregulation disorder; normal aging as ‘mild neurocognitive disorder’ and gluttony as ‘binge eating disorder’. According to Frances, this is pointing in the wrong direction. Tantrums may sometimes be difficult for parents to bear and cope with, but they are part of child development; forgetfulness in older age occurs without necessarily leading to Alzheimer’s; and excessive eating is unhealthy but not a mental disorder. Other problems with DSM-5 include the introduction of an ‘adult attention deficit disorder’ category and a loose definition of ‘somatic symptom disorder’ for tapping on psychosomatic medical problems.

Taming diagnostic inflation, thus “getting back to normal” will require a number of reforms in public policy (such as barring direct-to-consumer advertising) but also changes in the medical practices away from fast diagnoses based on few consultations towards “stepped diagnosis,” defined as follows: “Definite diagnosis should be made in the first session only in clear or urgent cases. For everyone else, the first several visits would be for fact finding, education and let nature take its course. Diagnosis would be made only after the dust has settled. This is the most direct and efficient way to stop diagnostic inflation in its tracks.”

Additionally, patients are advised to adopt a more self-critical approach: “The key to psychiatric diagnosis is self-report, and this is impossible without careful and persistent self-observation” – a useful piece of advice that does not always work in practice since it takes for granted that patients know what constitutes a symptom and how symptoms tend to cluster together. However, most patients do not have this knowledge and do not wish to obtain it, especially not when in a situation of psychical stress.

It is in this connection that Saving Normal—otherwise a good guide through the intricacies of psychiatric diagnosis—falls short of expectations. What goes missing in the book is what is missing in psychiatric diagnosis more generally, namely a deep understanding of mental disorder as a state of psychical strain resulting from inner conflicts. Such inner conflicts tend to be debilitating, often affecting precisely those cognitive and emotional skills that make a patient a “smart consumer.”

The core problem of all diagnostic manuals is that they operate with manifest symptoms. These are counted together and assessed in terms of their intensity and duration. Such an approach is inherently prone to unreliability besides confounding different analytical levels. More importantly, it completely ignores the hidden psychodynamics driving symptom formation. In the end, that we must today fear the medicalization of ordinary life has something to do with our having excessively medicalized mental disorder.

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