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Maria

Remembrance – Excerpt from The Law of Kindness

by Maria on November 11, 2020

I posted this a few days ago and took it down, but I’m giving it another go because it’s 11/11 and nonfiction doesn’t really get at my feelings about Remembrance and what it’s used for. Below is an excerpt from my novel in progress, The Law of Kindness.

It’s about an Irish woman who’s married a British army officer and can also write letters back through time to her younger selves. She’s probably a bit cattier than I am about the whole thing, and she’s writing this diary entry while ill and sometimes confused, but it gets at some of the complexity of feeling about Remembrance and its uses that people may feel when they have particular and very recent soldiers in mind who ‘shall not grow old’.

Wiltshire, November 2011

Robert’s back three weeks from Afghanistan and he can still hardly look at me. It’s all ‘babes’ and soft touches on the back of the hand, but will he look me in the eye or kiss me on the lips? He will not.

Christ, it’s all death around here all the time. Remembrance Sunday. I’d forgotten how brutal they are. Or is it like mercury. It builds up over time till you’re poisoned for life? We’d a nice few years of just hanging around, squashed into a pen within range of the Cenotaph and chatting to whoever was nearby, waiting for Robert to go past. When he’d find us afterwards, he’d be pink-cheeked with cold and glowing with this odd swirl of pride and the sweeter kinds of sorrow. He’d quickly squeeze the baby, give me one of those kisses that’s more like a question and peel off for an afternoon drinking with the boys. Back when we were in London, semi-detached from the army. And last year we were here, but pre- not post-tour, so I didn’t know any of this battalion’s injured or dead, and the bereaved parents only come for the first year or two, after. And with all my appointments and tests and all the rest of it, I barely paid attention, anyway.

But this one. Fuck me but it nearly did for us. Only a week after the post-tour medals parade. Whose idea was that? The wheelchair parade, more like. What a wretched, wretched tour. I’d kept up with the deaths, just a couple, thank God, but I’d no idea there’d been so many life-changing injuries. I don’t know why Robert barely mentioned them, or Angela. At least I had a chair and a blanket for the first parade, the medals one. Angela and me, sitting up like queens. And Camilla even came, so that made three. She sent her attendant off twice to refill my hot water bottle. God be with the days of having three nervous wees before meeting her and phoning Dad to tell him and tease his can’t-help-himself pride. Irish people and the royal family. Honest to God. Angela and me giggling as we go over the cleaning lady’s work in the CO’s downstairs loo, then seal it off three days before Camilla comes because royalty can’t possibly relieve themselves where we mortals have recently been. But she couldn’t do enough for the families during this tour and she was lovely to me at medals parade, commanding mugs of tea and asking was it the proper Irish one. Builder’s tea, she says, like it’s an ironic joke. I’d to tell her to stop being so nice or she’d make me cry.

And no one face-planted, no guardsman’s jaw. The usual only half-joking remarks there should be a wives’ medal. General on a mission to talk for five minutes to each of the injured. Two and a half hours. Six degrees Celsius. Children keening with boredom and cold, but the littlest ones in the warmth of the welfare at least, looked after by the 2 Fusiliers wives. Cake after, and fizz in the Mess, not that I could touch it. Robert wanted me to skip medals parade altogether. He was afraid I’d get pneumonia. Weird how ‘you’ll get pneumonia’ goes being a mad thing people say when it’s cold to something that could actually happen. ‘It’s an invitation, not a summons’. Sounds like something he read. But people will feel sorry for him in a not-good way if he doesn’t have a wife in a smart coat looking admiring then oblivious as the men mess up an overly complicated drill, never a strong point, forget about post-tour, a couple of stragglers losing the run of it, then a whole section gone the wrong way altogether, the RSM’s voice cracking into a strangled squeak as he sorts them out and us three queens in our big leather chairs brought out from the mess, trying to lighten the moment but not giggle too obviously. But I said that already. [click to continue…]

Sister Ben / Margaret MacCurtain / Peig

by Maria on October 7, 2020

“They always bring up the toilets as an impediment to women. It’s always the toilets.”

In a seminar room in University College Dublin, some time in the spring of 1994, the historian and campaigning Dominican nun lectured final year students on twentieth century women’s history. I don’t remember if the examples Margaret MacCurtain gave us were from her own research – she was a copious and generous supporter and sharer of other scholars’ work – but her quotes from Irish politicians from the 1920s through the 1940s were bizarre and hilarious. Several generations of men had dutifully conveyed the sad but apparently insurmountable fact that women could not participate fully in public life because sports facilities and the buildings of state did not have women’s toilets. Margaret MacCurtain would rock with laughter, letting the ignorant men’s words speak to their own ridiculousness, and then barrel straight into a detailed and sympathetic analysis of why so many post-Civil War Irish women politicians were radically discomfiting. (Short answer; many were the widows and sisters of men shot by first the British and then by the Free Staters.) That was her to a ‘t’ – pulling together the cultural, the structural, the individual and the contingent practicalities that make history thick, urgent and real.

Ireland’s bravest and most beloved historian died on Monday night. Margaret MacCurtain, known to UCD students of the nineteen-sixties as Sister Ben (short for her assigned religious name, Benvenuta), was a Dominican sister and social activist who pioneered feminist history in a country (and a university department) that insisted there was simply no such thing. With other scholars, Sister Ben painstakingly established both a new area of research and the importance of women in the long struggle for Irish independence both before and after the foundation of the state. Working with Maureen Murphy of Hofstra University, New York, she established a channel of exchange between Irish and Irish-American historians whose scholarship first challenged then supplanted many complacent narratives of power with an almost infinitely diverse flora of ‘up from below’ reclamation any annaliste would be proud of. [click to continue…]

Story ate the world. I’m biting back.

by Maria on September 23, 2020

A piece I wrote elsewhere in March is doing the rounds again. ‘The Prodigal Tech Bro’ is about the privileged place in professional interactions and public discourse given to men who used to work in senior positions for tech platforms and are now surprised and disturbed by what those companies do. It points out how the ex-tech executives’ “I’m was lost, now I’m found; please come to my TED talk” redemption arc misses out a key part of the narrative groove they use to slide back into our good graces. It’s the bit in the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son where he hits rock bottom in a pigsty and decides to go home and beg to be taken on as one of his father’s servants. Ultimately, he’s forgiven, much to the chagrin of the brother who stayed home and did the work, but the original Prodigal Son understands where he went wrong, and more importantly who he has wronged, and believes all the long walk home that he will never regain his former status and comfort.

A new documentary on Netflix, The Social Dilemma, is about the harms of social media. It centres the wide-eyed gradualism of a former tech executive named in my piece, amongst others whose careers have followed a similar trajectory from poacher to … someone who thinks we should maybe sometime think about hiring some more gamekeepers, if that’s ok, though obviously not the radical gamekeepers, and definitely not gamekeepers who think their job is something more than game-keeping the herd so ‘we’ can conveniently shoot or farm it.

The film repeats the same failing of the former tech execs – it assumes that the privileged people who made the mess we’re all in should be at the centre of the conversation on how to clean their shit up, crowding out once again those who have suffered because of their shit, or who’ve wrecked their careers by speaking loudly about the existence of this shit, and – crucially – limiting our thinking about what we do now to the homeopathic solutionism of the slurry-drenched insider who is already defined by his insistence that what looks, smells and acts like shit is not, in fact, shit. [click to continue…]

Fatherland

by Maria on May 26, 2020

What grinds my gears the most about the Dominic Cummings affair (Cumgate, oh how we laughed) is his insistence that a routine childcare problem was a circumstance so exceptional it required him to decide, as the Man of the Household, to flout the rules everyone else has endured. But this piece is not about childcare. It is not about the extreme lengths to which elite men will go to avoid looking after their own goddamn kids. It is about male violence.

The exceptional circumstance which Cummings claimed as his excuse to flee London while contagious with a deadly virus was a hard-won exception, fought for by activists and experts in the face of initial government indifference and then belated, patronising acquiescence. But let me put into words the bit about the “exceptional circumstance” we assume doesn’t need saying because it’s as obvious as air; this exception is to deal with men’s violence against the women and children of their household.

When lockdown started and required everyone who wasn’t a key-worker to stay at home, women’s shelters around the UK pointed out at first calmly – assuming it was just an oversight by the Prime Minister’s all-male inner team – and then increasingly loudly, the obvious truth our society thinks too normal to plan for or even mention; that violent men routinely injure, rape and kill the women and children locked into their households. Lockdown meant lock-in for the women and children shut in with angry, confined and – as consumption patterns quickly showed – drunk men.

Do you remember the half news cycle back at the start of lockdown, the violent deaths of a whole family for which the police were not seeking a suspect? Probably not. Two women a week, dead. It’s just normal. The operation and ultimate outcome of male authority and rage in the confines of the family home is so normal it’s not news, it’s not exceptional, it’s not even worrying or problematic. It’s just a one-off tragedy, every single time. Twice a week. Every week. So you see, after a while, don’t you, that it is effectively government policy.

Which is why activists had to strain every muscle and shout as loud as they could to get the exception introduced into lockdown that women and children may still flee violent men. Even if the government had long since shut most of the shelters they could flee to.

So for the architect of lockdown, the “brains” behind the policy that didn’t for a moment consider it significant or worrying that more women and children would be murdered, to use this hard-won, life-saving exception as the justification for fleeing London because he couldn’t find a babysitter, is disgusting. I write for my living and I don’t have a better way to describe how grotesque that is. [click to continue…]

Indefinitely Ill – Post-Covid Fatigue

by Maria on May 18, 2020

What to do when your body forgets how to be well

OK well this is going to be tricky to write because I’m not a doctor and it’s not medical advice, and the more I read around in the displacement activity I often do ahead of a difficult task, the more it becomes plain that striking the balance between speaking anecdotally from, in fairness, somewhat bitter experience, paying due heed to current but still unbelievably partial and fragmentary research, and employing the observational/confessional mode in an attempt to paint myself as a useful cautionary tale suddenly seems so much more complicated than it really needs to be.

Because I really only want to say one thing; if you have had Covid-19 (tested or not), and are getting to a month or two on and still feel like you’ve been hit by a bus, please, for the love of God, rest.

CONVALESCE.

Stop what you are trying to do and listen to your body as it tells you it needs to be quiet now. You will not ‘fight’ your way out of this. It is not a test of your character or your will. You need to stop and listen to the only body you will ever have.

Print out a fact-sheet from the Internet and press it into the hands of your loved ones whose patience with your infirmity is beginning to ebb – perhaps they are beginning to talk about it being ‘just stress’ or how ‘we’re all TIRED’ – and withdraw in whatever ways you can to slowly, vitally heal.

If you can remotely afford it, and even if you can’t really, take the time off work and school, church or party or volunteering of all kinds, withdraw indefinitely from every not-essential-to-life activity and commit an uncapped amount of time to your recovery. Maybe you can’t quite afford to, or maybe you really, really don’t want to ask for whatever financial help and longer timelines you need, but try and take the fatigue, brain-fog, sore throat, ringing in the ears, swollen glands, weird headaches, all-over body-ache and all manner of covid symptoms still lingering long after the blood-work says your body has cleared it and – and I’m sorry this is scary, but it may help – try to imagine still feeling like this a year from now, or five years or even twenty, and think about the finances of that.

Now calmly regard that fear and ask what it demands. See how this re-orders your priorities. Now thank your fear and put it away.

Think of post-viral fatigue as climate change for the human body. It’s here but not here; you acknowledge the immediate effects but haven’t really got your head around their implications. You need to invest heavily up-front and in the face of widespread disbelief to avoid medium and long-term catastrophe. Understand the threat is both insidious and in your face. Some symptoms are obvious and acute, but others you’re too mired in to even fully see. As you’re dealing with the thing itself, you’re also enmeshed in a struggle of knowing, trying to figure out what is real. Understand that recognising and dealing with this illness with the urgency and seriousness it demands may give you the best chance of coming out strong and whole. Understand that whether this happens is not entirely in your hands. [click to continue…]

Choctaw-Ireland solidarity

by Maria on May 4, 2020

A couple of years ago I wrote in a series for Medium about how the solidarity between the Choctaw Nation and the Irish people two hundred years ago is how we can resist the power vertical today. In 1847, Choctaw survivors of the Trail of Tears sent a couple of hundred dollars, a fortune to them, to Irish Famine relief. Those with the least gave proportionately the most. To this day, there is a friendship that goes deeper than the official sculptures and exchange visits that mark it. I’ve long planned to include this story in a longer project about how we can use stories to imagine better futures (partly) by finding unlikely common cause and building movements.

I never imagined there would be another chapter to the story. In the last day or so, the call went out amongst Irish for donations to support the Navajo and Hopi nations in Utah who have lost many elders to covid-19 and were already living in a food desert. Their GoFundMe page has message after message of gratitude and solidarity from Irish people (amongst many other generous donors), honouring our debt. It really is something beautiful.

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His Dark Materials Trans-Atlantic Book Club

by Maria on April 17, 2020

So, I (presumably) got the thing but of course there is no testing in the UK for people who need it, let alone assorted members of the general public like myself who’d just like to know if they’re through the worst. Then I was great for a couple of days, then really, really not so great, and that not-so-greatness has lingered. Net result; cancelling and foregoing various paid work things, letting people down, and not doing my central ‘life’s work’ things. Which is trying, but I am nonetheless going boing boing boing on middle class lockdown bingo. Growing tomatoes. Returning to piano-playing. Complaining about joggers. Starting and not finishing a potential longread about Parfit, past and future selves and why we ignored the letters from our future that China and Italy were kind enough to despatch. Also, tweeting too goddamn much. Eating too goddamn much. (now the food shortages have eased and I can also leave the house to buy some – I quarantined for 2 weeks, but the UK guidance seems to be only 7 days after first symptoms. In something that lasts a lot longer, that seems wrong?) Also comfort-reading.

I was 1/3 through Anna Burns’ Milkman when we went into lockdown about a week before the UK’s official lockdown. Found almost immediately I couldn’t manage it any more. Then tried Tim Maugham’s near-future post-apocalyptic Infinite Detail. Ha! past self who thought you could still read something like that for general interest! you were so so wrong. I don’t remember why exactly, but my thoughts turned to Northern Lights; specifically the Everyman edition of the His Dark Materials trilogy I bought for Ed to bring on his last tour and which he left at home. (His interest piqued to see me reading ‘his’ book, and read the dedication to him, he then said it was just the book he should have brought but only not having done so does he now understand his former self and how he has changed and really should have?)

Then, out on a neighbourhood walk a couple of weeks ago, I knocked on the door of a friend and retreated back to the footpath. Grey area activity, this, but the conversation was short and no sunbathing took place. My friend and her two children came out and Milo whinnied through the gate to be let in to raid their cat bowl. We ignored him and got quickly to book-chat, HDM, and made a plan for a HDM book club online the following night. Invitations went out. (I am that person who’s refused to use whatsapp since the day facebook bought it, but for work reasons have used zoom for years. there is no security or privacy logic to this.) 7pm the next night, those two kids, my two Washington nephews, two of my sisters, Ed and me all got on zoom for a proper conversation that was Not Work and also not ‘well, nothing much happened today, let me tell you about our new composting methodology’. Best online conversation I have ever, no really ever, been part of.

The kids are alright. They are so incredibly, togetherly alright it’s almost funny. We did it again this week, though connectivity problems meant two of my sisters couldn’t join. But I learnt so much from these people who were born when I was already in my thirties – about gender, race, class, story structure, you name it. It is just such a joy and in a moment where I can’t work, can’t read, can’t write, can just about cook and put up a pea-frame thing in the garden with bamboo and string let’s see if it lasts, this hour a week is an oasis of an almost lost sense of being through not very taxing but nonetheless incredibly nourishing doing. [click to continue…]

The Prodigal Tech Bro

by Maria on March 6, 2020

FYI I have a new piece up on The Conversationalist about that second most fungible resource; privilege.

“The Prodigal Tech Bro is a story about tech executives who experience a sort of religious awakening. They suddenly see their former employers as toxic, and reinvent themselves as experts on taming the tech giants. They were lost and are now found. They are warmly welcomed home to the center of our discourse with invitations to write opeds for major newspapers, for think tank funding, book deals and TED talks. These guys – and yes, they are all guys – are generally thoughtful and well-meaning, and I wish them well. But I question why they seize so much attention and are awarded scarce resources, and why they’re given not just a second chance, but also the mantle of moral and expert authority.”

World Book Day – January round-up

by Maria on March 5, 2020

OK it’s World Book Day and as it’s too depressing to work today because – freelance life – God knows when I’ll get paid for anything anyway, and it’s been raining for years, and I frankly have no idea what sort of blog-posts I’m supposed to or able to write these days (but word to the wise, all sarcastic, shitty, trolly or otherwise unpredictably dislikable comments that I won’t define but I know one when I see it will get zapped and their posters banned from here on in because I am DONE with this and I hope some of our lovely women commenters can come back but I completely understand if you, too, are DONE with this), I am going to do a round-up of books I read in January because that may be remotely of interest to some, and no, I will not be pressing the edit button, back button, etc. so this really, really just is what it is.

There are a lot of books because 1) post-Christmas reading days and 2) a holiday I took to beat the winter blues which clearly was worth every penny spent on it.

Rosewater, Tade Thompson, first of a trilogy
Aliens in near-future Nigeria, a new city and its politics built around them, psychic powers, traffic jams, necklacing, biological imperialism and a very good dog. Everyone in SF-world raved about this trilogy and I now see why. It’s fascinating, exciting, much of human life jammed in, funny, clear-eyed, terrific world-building and does so much with and to a well-worn premise that it is completely re-defined – kind of like the first time I heard Radiohead’s Pablo Honey I thrilled to each jewel in its treasure chest of influence, but the second time and ever after, all I heard was the band itself, almost sui generis. A sentence from Rosewater about the alien presence, Wormwood: “When Wormwood surges into awareness, we are unimpressed, even in our knowledge that it is the most significant event in Earth’s history. We’ve seen colonisers before, and they are similar, whether intercontinental or interplanetary.” Read it.
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My country (hard) right or wrong

by Maria on February 13, 2020

A united Ireland just got closer, but not in a good way. It looks like the only competent and respected SoS for Northern Ireland in I don’t know how long is being sacked by the PM today. Julian Smith, helped hugely by the NI electorate finally losing patience with Sinn Fein and the DUP, managed to get power-sharing and regional government functioning again. He put the effort in to understand his brief, and even managed to talk some sense to his peers in cabinet about why it’s a terrible idea for British soldiers to be impervious to criminal prosecution for ‘historic’ offences. (Conservatives who are usually so worried about moral hazard in other walks of life seem not to notice the huge incentive for the Ministry of Defence to stonewall investigations until prosecutions are difficult or impossible.)

So it was probably inevitable that in an era of ‘my country, right or wrong’, Johnson would sack the only NI SoS interested in or capable of ensuring a modicum of justice for civilian victims of the armed forces in NI. The main reason for sacking Smith seems to be to pander to the Sun/Mail newspapers, not the actual armed forces where discipline and consequences are sort of the point. Then again, the prime minister has lived his whole life without personal discipline, and ensuring that consequences are only for others.

The consequences for others this time are likely to be; power-sharing in Stormont falls apart again or staggers on so dysfunctionally it may as well not. The NI protocol, with its legal and quasi-constitutional consequences for Brexit, is probably breached. And the party whose central political strategy is based on the illegitimacy of the British state in NI will benefit perhaps even more than it just did in Ireland’s general election. And while I am viscerally, perhaps even genetically predisposed to shiver in disgust at everything Sinn Fein says and does, and to wish the left in Ireland had better to offer, I have to admit that, on this, they are not wrong.

This piece is a guest-post from Major Richard Streatfeild (retd)

Rifleman Jamie Davis served with A Company 4Rifles in Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan and 2009/10. In Afghanistan he lived for 5 months in a small patrol base with his platoon and members of the Afghan Army; initially under constant attack and thereafter never far from the threat of rockets, grenades or roadside bombs. He was, I think, the last Rifleman in A Company to be injured in Afghanistan, taking frag from a ricochet in the leg. Jamie was made for the front row of the scrum, and I suspect it was where he was most at home, both in stature and character. He was never the fastest mover, but he kept going, until now.

Jamie was at the point of the tip of the spear in Afghanistan in 2010; treating wounded children, witness and aid to his comrades rendered both limbless and lifeless, and in one case being on the casualty evacuation of his own section commander. I remember him as stalwart of his platoon, the Battalion Rugby team and the Naafi. Loyal, dogged, selfless, self-effacing, courageous, determined, hearty, reliable, brave, honest, and cheery, he served both in Iraq and Afghanistan at a time when those operations were at their most difficult and dangerous. He leaves behind a wife and two sons who are very much in our thoughts and we pray for some comfort in their grief.

On the weekend of 12 Jan 2020, Jamie took his own life. Ten years on I hope I can still just about speak for the company he served in. We still recognise and appreciate the fortitude and good humour with which Jamie faced the dangers of operations and the value of his service. We mourn his passing and remember that he was once amongst the bravest of the brave – once a true British Lion.

Jamie is now the fourth “Rifleman” from A Company from my two years in command ten years ago to have died at home, not abroad, in similar tragic circumstances. Almost as many as we lost there, a figure that is fast becoming a stain on post operational care. Our regiment, the army, the NHS, and our government; all seemingly at a loss to identify those at risk, treat them and ultimately to prevent these deaths. The limits of helplines; of instructions to ‘reach out’; of “ten tips to top mental health” have been cruelly exposed, once again. The system; and by that I mean the army – for those still serving – the department for Veterans affairs for those who have left, must dedicate time and manpower to find those who have been exposed to trauma, screen everyone on a routine basis and treat those who need it. Suicide has become when, not if. Not only could it happen to anyone, it will happen to someone. Jamie’s death is a tragedy amid a scandal.

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Redemption Arc

by Maria on November 30, 2019

In June last year I gave a talk at a prize launch in Cambridge. Afterwards, I talked to a young man called Jack Merritt. Clever, energetic, and idealistic in the best possible sense, he said he was involved in some kind of criminal justice project and would like to talk more about it. I didn’t quite catch what it was about but handed over my card. A week later, an invitation arrived to speak at an event he was running in the autumn. The topic was to be something about technology and justice. Jack mentioned a piece I’d written about the Internet of Things and wondered if I could do something similar, but for his audience, a mix of current and recently released prisoners taking part in an education scheme run by Cambridge University. The project was called Learning Together. It gets university students and prisoners to study criminology together, and it’s based on reciprocity and respect.

I’ve always believed in the principle of rehabilitation, of course. Sorrow, regret, forgiveness, redemption; if we don’t practice these things individually we can’t live collectively in safety and in hope. Looking at the website, it was just the sort of project we need to have and should hope people are there to run. But I had misgivings about my own moral position. Someone I love deeply had, not long before, been the victim of a serious criminal offence. The offender was now behind bars.

Some things cannot and must not be forgiven. They don’t ever go away. Trauma is outside of time. It is always now and it has always just happened, even as we learn to build more of ourselves around it to make it smaller. There is no tidy sequential way to process, resolve and forgive. It can never have not happened. We can never leave it behind. But nor can we live inside it daily and survive. I don’t know a way to wish wholeness to those who have done such wrongs and still be a person who willingly carries some of the pain of the person I love who was hurt. I carry that pain out of love and out of my own need, because it is what is given to me to do. I don’t have the right to forgive trespasses against others and nor do I want to.

And yet we cannot throw people away.

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A cage went in search of a bird

by Maria on November 18, 2019

Publishing here my afterword for “2030, A New Vision for Europe”, the manifesto for European Data Protection Supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, who died this summer. The manifesto was developed by Christian D’Cunha, who works in the EDPS office, based on his many conversations with Giovanni.

“A cage went in search of a bird”

Franz Kafka certainly knew how to write a story. The eight-word aphorism he jotted down in a notebook a century ago reveals so much about our world today. Surveillance goes in search of subjects. Use-cases go in search of profit. Walled gardens go in search of tame customers. Data-extractive monopolies go in search of whole countries, of democracy itself, to envelop and re-shape, to cage and control. The cage of surveillance technology stalks the world, looking for birds to trap and monetise. And it cannot stop itself. The surveillance cage is the original autonomous vehicle, driven by financial algorithms it doesn’t control. So when we describe our data-driven world as ‘Kafka-esque’, we are speaking a deeper truth than we even guess.

Giovanni knew this. He knew that data is power and that the radical concentration of power in a tiny number of companies is not a technocratic concern for specialists but an existential issue for our species. Giovanni’s manifesto, Privacy 2030: A Vision for Europe, goes far beyond data protection. It connects the dots to show how data-maximisation exploits power asymmetries to drive global inequality. It spells out how relentless data-processing actually drives climate change. Giovanni’s manifesto calls for us to connect the dots in how we respond, to start from the understanding that sociopathic data-extraction and mindless computation are the acts of a machine that needs to be radically reprogrammed.

Running through the manifesto is the insistence that we focus not on Big Tech’s shiny promises to re-make the social contract that states seem so keen to slither out of, but on the child refugee whose iris-scan cages her in a camp for life. It insists we look away from flashy productivity Powerpoints and focus on the low-wage workers trapped in bullying drudgery by revenue-maximising algorithms. The manifesto’s underlying ethics insist on the dignity of people, the idea that we have inherent worth, that we live for ourselves and for those we love, and to do good; and not as data-sources to be monitored, monetised and manipulated.
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Oops

by Maria on November 9, 2019

Historic apologies get a lot of pushback, both from those who point out that saying sorry only happens when everyone who did it is dead, and nothing is ever learned, and from the fundamentally unapologetic amongst history’s apparent winners. Apologising for something you’ve just done or are about to do takes a lot more guts. But I’ve been wondering over the past couple of weeks whether Brexit negotiations with Ireland especially, and with the rest of the EU would have gone differently if at the beginning of major speeches, press conferences and working meetings the UK interlocutors had had a policy of starting with something like’

“We’re sorry. We know you didn’t ask for Brexit and that it harms you and costs you. We’re still doing it, but we acknowledge and are sorry about its unasked for consequences for others.”

And then getting on with the business of the meeting. Of course, to even conceive of acknowledging the harm and cost of brexit to others would require fundamentally different people to have been in charge. But even the act of saying this might have changed the understanding of those imposing their harms on the rest of us, and would certainly have done a lot to make other countries and institutions want to play nice. We’re emotional creatures, at the end of the day, and it’s more than just manners to acknowledge the harm we cause to others. The life you save just might be your own, etc. etc.

George Monbiot writes movingly about how the habit of Britain’s (well, mostly England’s) upper middle and upper classes of sending their children to boarding school from the age of seven onward causes profound emotional damage and has created a damaged ruling class. He’s not the first to notice this. Virginia Woolf drew a very clear line between the brutalisation of little boys in a loveless environment and their assumption as adults into the brutal institutions of colonialism. It’s long been clear to many that the UK is ruled by many people who think their damage is a strength, and who seek to perpetuate it.

I was at a talk last week about psychoanalysis and The Lord of the Flies. The speaker convincingly argued that much of what happens in that story happens because most of the boys have been wrenched from solid daily love before they were old enough to recreate it. It’s a pretty compelling lens to see that novel through and it reminded me of a teaching experience from a couple of years ago.

I was teaching a post-grad course on politics and cybersecurity and did a lecture on the Leviathan and how its conception of the conditions that give rise to order embed some pretty strong assumptions about the necessity of coercion. Basically how if you’re the state and in your mind you’re fighting against the return of a persistent warre of all against all, your conception of human behaviour can lead you to over-react. Also some stuff about English history around the time of Hobbes. I may have included some stills from Game of Thrones. During the class discussion, one person from, uh, a certain agency, said that yes, he could see the downside, but that Hobbes was essentially how he viewed the world.

Listening again to the tale of sensible centrist Ralph, poor, benighted (but actually very much loved by his Aunty and from a solid emotional background) Piggy, the little uns, and the utter depravity of it all – and also having forgotten the chilling final scene where the naval officer basically tells Ralph he’s let himself down – something occurred to me.

Lord of the Flies is many people’s touchstone for what would happen if order goes away, even though we have some good social science and other studies about how, at least in the short to medium term, people are generally quite altruistic and reciprocally helpful in the aftermath of disaster. Lord of the Flies is assumed by many to be a cautionary tale about order and the state of nature, when in reality it’s the agonised working out of the unbearable fears of a group of systematically traumatised and loveless children.

Lord of the Flies isn’t an origin story about the human condition and the need for ‘strong’ states, though we treat it as such, but rather is a horror story about the specific, brutalised pathology of the English ruling class.