Today is happiness day, but could greater happiness be a permanent reality?

David TrossThis post was contributed by David Tross, associate lecturer at Birkbeck. David is running a series of workshops on happiness and wellbeing as part of Birkbeck’s Pop-up University in Willesden Green, which is running until the end of May.

The 20 March is the UN International Day of Happiness, recognizing, it says, ‘the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives’. If you visit the UN’s observance day website, happy images include Ban Ki Moon dancing ‘gangnam style’ with puffy South Korean popster Psy, though paradoxically its text also recommends marking the occasion ‘in an appropriate manner, including through education and public awareness-raising activities.’ If this doesn’t sound particularly joyful, the UK organisation Action for happiness suggests a range of everyday activities to increase your happiness and those around you. If hugging strangers on the street sounds more dangerous than life-enhancing, then other ideas, including mindfulness meditation and keeping gratitude journals, are in keeping with older, eastern and western philosophical notions of how to live a good life.

What’s new is the shift in the claims made about the efficacy of these methods, with many contemporary scholars hailing happiness as a ‘new science’ on the basis of developments in measuring happiness that can be applied not just to individuals but to whole countries. The latest World Happiness Report, taking measures of self-reported life satisfaction and mood data from 156 countries, has proclaimed Denmark as the happiest country in the world, with fellow Scandinavian countries following close behind. (The UK is in 22nd place). Forget the bleakness and bad weather of popular scandi-noir TV shows, the research suggests. Denmark’s secret? Social equality, socialising across social classes, generous childcare policies, realistic personal expectations and a cozy spirit of togetherness the Danes call ‘hygge’ ( the closest translation might be the Irish ‘craic’). Although the scientific validity of these measures have been questioned, particularly  in terms  of cross-country comparisons, the findings are supported by claims brought to the public’s attention in 2008 with the publication of The Spirit Level, that the most unequal countries perform worst across a range of wellbeing indicators including trust, mental health, drug addiction, obesity and literacy.

This is the happiness paradox in action: after basic needs have been met, increased wealth has not produced greater happiness in rich countries, the gains made in life expectancy and income cancelled out by the personal and social stresses of a competitive, materialistic society. If happiness and wellbeing provides an alternative measure of social progress to economic growth then surely we should be encouraged by the enthusiasm of politicians, with David Cameron’s commissioning of an ONS-led UK happiness index the latest in a series of government-backed initiatives in France, Canada and the original happiness pioneers, the tiny nation of Bhutan. But some are suspicious. Government-backed happiness is the dystopian vision of Huxley’s Brave New World, where everybody feels good and nobody is free. And if the number of people relying on food banks to survive has tripled over the last year, why are we wasting our time on happiness when there are more pressing concerns? As the philosopher Julian Baggini has noted, ‘If you look at the countries that do best in surveys of wellbeing, they haven’t got there by having these indices. They’ve got there by agreeing what priorities should be”.

Such concerns are understandable in the context of recent ONS data suggesting the UK has become happier from 2012 to 2013; instead of an antidote, happiness measures could be used to legitimise austerity economics and increasing inequality.

The British economist Richard Layard declares that ‘happiness must be the business of government’. yet his policy recommendations, including spending to alleviate unemployment and poverty, sound almost socialist. Could it be that the happiness agenda could be a way of sneaking the politically taboo concepts of social justice and greater income equality in through the back door? Should you eliminate poverty because it makes people (including the rich) unhappy, or because it is the right thing to do? The answer might be to create the wider social and economic conditions conducive to individual fulfilment and not micro-manage the personal paths. But paradoxically, happiness is serious. Scroll along from the dancing UN secretary general on the UN website and you get a caption celebrating ten years of peace in Liberia. No disrespect to Psy, but that’s the kind of happiness many more would get behind.

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Putin needs to show more restraint than hero to avoid a new Crimean war

This post was written by Professor Orlando Figes of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. He is the author of Crimea: The Last Crusade (Penguin). This article originally appeared on The Guardian on 28 February 2014.

Crimea: The Last Crusade, by Orlando FigesThe signs are ominous: Crimea’s parliament has been stormed by pro-Russian gunmen; its airports seized by soldiers in Russian uniforms; and Russian military trucks and helicopters are on the move. It looks like we are heading for a new Crimean war.

Its course is predictable. Russia‘s forces, or – more likely – their Crimean proxies, would carry out a coup to defend the interests of the Russian-speaking majority in the peninsula and hold a referendum to secure autonomy from Ukraine.

Perhaps Crimea would rejoin Russia, despite the objections of the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians. The pro-Russian movement might then spread into south-east Ukraine, whose industries are heavily dependent on Russia. Ukraine loses, Russia wins.

Crimea was bound to be the focus of the Russian backlash against the Ukrainian revolution. The Black Sea peninsula is the only part of Ukraine with a clear Russian majority. For more than 20 years, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, its rule by Kiev has been a major source of Russian resentment – inside and outside Crimea – and a major thorn in Ukraine’s relations with Russia.

The Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation – by which Russia rents its naval base at Sevastopol from the Ukrainian government – is so far-reaching in the rights it gives the Russians to exercise their military powers that it is seen by many in Ukraine to undermine the country’s independence. In 2008 the Ukrainians said they would not renew the lease when it expired in 2017. But they buckled under the pressure of a gas-price hike and, in 2010, extended the Russian navy’s lease until 2042. What will happen to it now is anybody’s guess.

From the Russian point of view, it is all the more annoying that Crimea was part of Russia until 1954. Exactly 60 years ago, on 27 February 1954, it was casually gifted to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev (after only 15 minutes of discussion in the Supreme Soviet Presidium), supposedly to mark the 300th anniversary of the 1654 treaty unifying Ukraine with Russia.

In those days of the “fraternity of peoples” in the USSR there were no real borders between the Soviet republics, whose territories were drawn up by largely artificial and even arbitrary means.

But the Soviet collapse brought real national feelings back. Russians in Ukraine felt they had been orphaned by the breaking of their ties to Moscow; they latched on to Crimea as a symbol of their nationalist resentments.

Crimea is vitally important to the Russians. According to medieval chronicles, it was in Khersonesos – the ancient Greek colonial city on the south-western coast of Crimea, just outside Sevastopol – that Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, was baptised in 988, thereby bringing Christianity to Kievan Rus’, the kingdom from which Russia derives its religious and national identity.

Ruled by the Turks and Tatar tribes for five hundred years, Crimea was annexed by the Russians in 1783. It was the fault line separating Russia from the Muslim world, the religious division on which the Russian empire grew.

Catherine the Great liked to call the peninsula by its Greek name, Taurida, in preference to Crimea (Krym), its Tatar name. She thought that it connected Russia to the Hellenic civilisation of Byzantium. She gave land to Russia’s nobles to build magnificent palaces along the mountainous southern coast, a coastline to rival the Amalfi in beauty; their classical buildings, Mediterranean gardens and vineyards were supposed to be the bearers of a new Christian civilisation in this previously heathen land.

The Tatar population was gradually forced out and replaced by Russian settlers and other Eastern Christians: Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians.

Ancient Tatar towns such as Bakhchiserai were downgraded, while new towns like Sevastopol were built entirely in the neoclassical style. Russian churches replaced mosques. And there was an intense focus on the discovery of ancient Christian archaeological remains, Byzantine ruins, ascetic cave-churches and monasteries, to make a claims for Crimea as a sacred site, the cradle of Russian Christianity.

In the 19th century, the Black Sea fleet was the key to Russia’s imperial might. From Sevastopol it bullied the Ottomans into submission to Russia – a policy that led to the Crimean war after Tsar Nicholas I overplayed his hand in defence of the sultan’s Orthodox subjects and the British and their French allies sent their troops to Crimea to destroy his naval base.

For 11 months, the Russian sailors held out in the siege of Sevastopol – a struggle immortalised by Leo Tolstoy’s Sebastopol Sketches – before finally abandoning the town to the vastly superior allied forces. Their heroic sacrifice became a powerful emotive symbol of Russian defiance in the nationalist imagination.

The Russian character of Sevastopol is still defined by this siege mentality.

Memories of the Crimean war continue to stir profound feelings of Russian pride and resentment towards the west. Although it ended in defeat, the war has always been presented by the Russians as a moral victory. Nicholas I is one of Putin’s heroes because he fought for Russia’s interests against all the Great Powers. His portrait hangs in the antechamber of the presidential office in the Kremlin.

If a new Crimean war is to be avoided, Putin must show more restraint than his Tsarist hero. Nationalist emotions must be calmed. There are political remedies for the deep divisions in Ukraine. If peace can hold until the elections on 25 May, a new Ukrainian government might do well to consider options for the country’s federalisation to grant Crimea more autonomy.

But with deposed president Viktor Yanukovych now saying that the elections are “unlawful” there is much uncertainty and, if he speaks with Russia’s backing, little hope that those divisions can be peacefully resolved.

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After the flood: finding ways to insure the uninsurable without breaking the bank

This post was contributed by Dr Diane Horn of Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. It originally appeared on The Conversation.

More wet and windy weather arrives week after week, with the inundated areas of the south and southwest of Britain still at the mercy of the elements. Even while politicians begin the blame game, we should look further ahead to when the floodwaters recede, the clean-up begins – and talk turns to who will pay.

In most countries, the government plays a role in covering flood losses. The UK is unusual because the government does not award compensation directly to individuals. Money is provided to local authorities through the Bellwin Scheme to reimburse the costs of emergency measures taken to safeguard life or property. But this is only intended to cover uninsurable risk.

Damage to private property is considered insurable and is not covered, which means compensation is drawn from the insurance industry, or charitable aid. The Prince’s Countryside Fund and the Duke of Westminster were among the first to make donations to help the flood victims, donating £50,000 each. As the floods continue, other businesses have pledged support. The government has also announced new measures, including a£5,000 grant to households and businesses to pay for repairs which improve a property’s ability to withstand future flooding. But most of those with property underwater will have to rely on insurance.

Unchartered waters

Big changes have swept through Britain’s flood insurance landscape. Until last July, flood insurance cover was available to households and small businesses as a standard feature of buildings and contents insurance under the Statement of Principles. Under this agreement, members of the Association of British Insurers (ABI) agreed to cover properties at risk of flooding in return for government commitment to manage flood risk.

Following extensive negotiations a new flood insurance scheme,Flood Re, was announced last June. This establishes a stand-alone, industry-run, not-for-profit insurance fund due to begin in 2015. Flood Re will provide cover for about 500,000 properties deemed at risk by the Environment Agency that might otherwise be uninsurable, or whose premiums are unaffordable. But the limitations of the Flood Re scheme need to be recognised.

While ABI members will continue to meet their commitments to existing customers, there’s no guarantee prices won’t rise between now and the implementation of Flood Re. In fact stories are already emerging about dramatic premium hikes, and the expectation is that these will rise further.

Policy recommendations

The government needs to take responsibility in the event of a catastrophic flood, but Flood Re’s liability will be capped at an expected limit of about £2.5 billion per year, equivalent to a 1:200 year flood loss scenario. As to who will bear the costs beyond this, the government has made no commitment. But this is a question that needs an answer. PricewaterhouseCoopers have estimated the insurance losses for December and January at £630 million, and while it’s too early to count the costs of the current floods, insurance industry forecasts suggest losses could reach £1 billion if the rains continue.

What is also needed from the government and insurers are incentives to reduce flood risk. Planning controls need to restrict development in flood risk areas, set higher standards for buildings on floodplains, and require that the best techniques to improve resilience against flooding are used when rebuilding and refitting after flood damage. As we argued in a paper published inNature Climate Change, using the flood insurance market to drive better adaptation to flood risk and the effects of climate change needs to be part of a wider strategy that includes land-use planning, building regulations and water management.

The Flood Re scheme needs to be clear whose insurance it will subsidise, and the effects on those not insured under the scheme. In fact many properties at risk will be excluded from the scheme. When Flood Re was first proposed, three categories of property owners were excluded from participation: small businesses, properties built after 1 January 2009, and properties in the highest council tax band.

It has since emerged that Flood Re will exclude many more properties than originally thought, with any policy classed as “non-domestic” unable to participate in the scheme, regardless of the risk. This will include housing association and council properties, many leasehold or private rented sector properties where homes are not insured individually, and properties which are both a residence and a business.

As it is, Flood Re does not reduce flood loss, but only spreads the risk, and therefore the costs, by protecting some policyholders at the expense of others. High-risk properties will be subsidised for decades by payments from low-risk households, with the financial risk still covered by the insurance industry, and government carrying no liability. Policyholders are unlikely to accept this situation without protest, and here the US experience may prove instructive.

Lessons from the US

In the US, flood coverage is excluded from property policies provided by private insurers, and is only available through theNational Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), with the federal government acting as insurer of last resort. Following massive payments for flood claims related to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the NFIP is approximately US$26 billion in debt. This led to legislation to reform the program, phasing out subsidies over five years, and increasing the annual rate until premiums reflect the true risk.

But as rates rose and homeowners faced huge bills, sometimeshikes of 600-1000%, they pressured congress to delay these rate hikes. Republicans and Democrats found common cause for once, with the proposal sailing through the normally divided senate in a matter of weeks. Less than two years after the flood insurance reform legislation was passed, the senate voted to delay premium increases for up to four years while the Federal Emergency Management Agency drafts a plan to make flood insurance premiums more affordable and re-evaluates the accuracy of its Flood Insurance Rate Maps.

Flood insurance reform efforts in the US have shown the political implications of angry voters. With flooding in some parts of Britain about to enter a third month and costs spiralling, it is something the UK government is also learning the hard way, with Flood Re facing its first test before it even has come into operation.

The Conversation

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Teaching American History in Michael Gove’s Britain

This post was contributed by Dr Adam Shapiro, Lecturer in Intellectual and Cultural History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. Dr Shapiro also has his own blog: Trying Biology.

The controversy started by Education Secretary Michael Gove about how to teach history is likely to be a reference point among British historians (or historians based in Britain) for quite some time.

As a lecturer of American history in the UK, I asked my class for their reaction to Gove’s column, which focused mainly on the historical causes of the First World War and the large number of events commemorating its centenary this year. Several points came up:

Moralized Histories

With my current cohort we haven’t yet reached the First World War from an American perspective, but it is clear that the US perspective on the War would look very different to the British one. While William Jennings Bryan, the US Secretary of State from 1913-15, would have had no problem agreeing that at the outbreak of World War One Germany had “the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order,” (as Gove describes them) he nonetheless disagreed sharply that these elements “all made resistance more than justified.” Indeed, Bryan placed the blame for war not solely on the German governing elite, but in governments that were too supportive of promoting the industries that found war to be profitable. Decades before we saw Eisenhower’s warning of a military-industrial complex, its precursors can be seen in the conjunction of Bryan’s pacifism and economic populism. But perhaps for Gove, Bryan is another leftist who simply refused to acknowledge the existence of evil.

In class, this led to a discussion of what I might call a Manichean approach to diplomatic and military history.  People don’t tend to call their enemies by names such as “the Evil Empire” with the caveat that their own force is only slightly less evil. That kind of rhetoric is designed to make a clear moral distinction. In our discussion of the US civil war, we discussed whether the victory of the North could be expressed in moral terms: that the North won because its cause (against slavery) was morally superior to that of the South. We considered whether this explanation served better than a claim that the North had military or economic superiority, or whether the South was beset by subversion within its ranks.

We turned to the account of the war written by Confederate General Jubal Early. Early ridiculed the claims that the cause of the war was slavery, pointing out that the North had profited by it almost as much as the South. Slavery was “used as a catch-word to arouse the passions of a fanatical mob,” Early wrote in his memoir.

Early’s narrative shows the Southern fight for independence as just and moral, and that the Northern leaders invoked slavery to distract from their own desire for economic exploitation of the South through conquest. The North won not through moral right, nor through military skill, but through sheer force of numbers. The story Early gives is one in which the South suffers a defeat, a punishment, almost in religious terms as a test of faith.

As an experiment, I asked several friends and colleagues about a passage from Early, while withholding its context

“the people of the United States will find that, under the pretense of ‘saving the life of the nation, and upholding the old flag,’ they have surrendered their own liberties into the hands of that worst of all tyrants, a body of senseless fanatics.”

Out of context, people thought that it was a liberal critique of the Patriot Act or the NSA. This led to the question as to whether or not ‘fanatic’ was simply a term that anyone could invoke at any time, to demonize their opponents. At which point, referring to opponents as fanatics says more about the person using that rhetoric than it does about the opponents themselves.

Morality and Individual Agency

So did it matter whether Jubal Early, or a soldier killed in Pickett’s Charge thought that their actions were morally just and in opposition to unjust tyrants? Did it matter for the British Soldier going over the top in the Somme? It matters in a personal sense—it matters to them, and to the people who knew them. We can recognize the moral behaviours of individuals, where the evidence permits, but does doing so explain anything about the outcomes of the war? The importance of the moral character of soldiers in the outcome of war is a question as old as Thucydides, but it does tend to suggest that history is a composition of individuals acting as personal moral agents and that there are no social facts that constrain, influence, or reward individual behaviours. It might be that the soldier in the Somme was conscious of the moral virtue of his action, or he may have felt trapped in a situation he could not control. A lack of emphasis by historians of the heroism of these individuals does not diminish their sacrifice or their heroism; it recognizes that there were other causes at work than simply individual moral actions. That despite the moral virtue of some individuals, they lost battles, or despite the moral depravity of their opponents, they won. At such a point, we need something else to explain historical cause and effect.

And this is where the issue becomes practically important, because if it’s the case that individual moral virtue is insufficient to be universally rewarded, then that has an impact on political ideologies that emphasize purely individualistic approaches to the solving of problems in society. If crime must be addressed solely by punishing criminals and never looking at the social systems that perpetuate criminality. If poverty and unemployment are seen solely as referenda on the moral heroism of the poor and unemployed (or the wealthy and employed) then they cannot be treated by social interventions.

History and Ideology

If history explains how causes and effects work in human behaviour, then it offers us guidelines by which we can assess personal and political action. Students generally agreed that it was an error to see the point of history as validating ideology – the point of history is not to compel all facts to fit into a grand narrative of class struggle, or a battle between forces of good and evil waged by heroes and villains, it ought to be a discussion of the balance of causes pulling at different levels. While Gove may have a point that some historians are committed to an ideology, replacing it with a different ideology seemed a poor fix.

Ideology and School History

What struck me as odd was the fact that so many people regarded the politicization of the history curriculum as something new. And yet my students were aware that it had been a longstanding issue in American education. Perhaps this was because there’s no single unitary curriculum under national control in the United States, but my class had looked at examples of US and Canadian politicians citing interpretations of history to support differing interpretations of the same event. For some, it was easy to recognize differences in political ideology lurking behind Columbus Day proclamations issued by Presidents Bush and Obama.

We also raised a question for later: how can we remain historically detached when discussing the history of the history wars?

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E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class and the Future of History from Below

This post was contributed by Dr Brodie Waddell, Lecturer in Early Modern History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. A previous version was published in The Future of History from Below Online Symposium.

Half a century ago, E.P. Thompson published The Making of the English Working Class. Words like ‘pioneering’ and ‘pivotal’ are overused today, but this was truly a book with no equal in its field. In it, we see the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and struggle for political rights that defined the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Of course these stories had already been told many times before, but Thompson cut a new path by reconstructing these events from the perspective of the working people who experienced them first-hand.

He set out his agenda very clearly in the preface:

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.

This phrase, and the 900-page ‘biography of the English working class’ that followed it, inspired an exuberant outpouring of historical research and writing that has made us all richer. Hundreds of historians, both professional and amateur, have followed Thompson in seeking to tell the stories of the innumerable men and women who had long been ignored by traditional histories of kings and battles.

However, the anniversary of this publication also calls for reflection. Thompson’s book may have launched ‘history from below’, but is it still relevant today? And does it have future?

A group of almost fifty historians – both young scholars and eminent professions – gathered at a recent pair of workshops that Mark Hailwood and I organised to answer these questions. We published some of the contributions as an online public symposium and I think it is fair to say that level of interests that it sparked suggests that ‘history from below’ does indeed have a potentially bright future.

I will be talking about this in more detail at an upcoming event at the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities on January 24th, alongside two very esteemed scholars: Prof. Jane Humphries (Oxford) and Prof. Sander Gilman (Emory). However, here I’d like to briefly highlight the issues that I think are most important to those who aren’t professional historians.

If we want the practice of history from below to have a meaningful future, we need to continue to push for more a democratic history. For example, access to higher education in Britain and North America expanded dramatically through much of the twentieth century, but the recent spike in tuition fees in England and the long-term rise in the US has made university much less affordable for students from working-class families. Worse still, this has hit part-time students especially hard, leading to a 40% fall in part-time applications since 2010 in the UK. We must face this challenge head-on.

We need more people writing history, more people studying history, and more people reading history. We need, in other words, more people doing history. Fortunately, more democratic ways of doing history are not difficult to find. There are already vast numbers of people building histories ‘from below’, but most academics tend not to pay much attention to them.

One promising route forward is local history.  The field of local history is huge and healthy. Practically every town and village in the country has some sort of local history society, ranging from the unapologically antiquarian to the Bristol Radical History Group, which claims the support of ‘a much wider network of footballers, artists, techies, drunks, rioters, publicans, ranters, ravers, academics, Cancan dancers, anarchists, stoners and other ne’r do wells’. It is often these groups that fight to protect and promote important local historical sites which, because they aren’t pretty country houses, might otherwise be forgotten or destroyed. Local history, then, is an opportunity for academics, students and amateurs to work together to do history from below in a way that will be relevant far beyond the university.

Family history is another rapidly growing field. Lecturers may chuckle, but proponents of ‘history from below’ should embrace it. After all, most genealogists are unlikely to find many famous politicians or generals in their family trees. Instead, they will probably find themselves investigating the lives of factory workers, sailors, criminals, paupers, housewives and maybe even ‘poor stockingers’. So, family history, with its millions of practitioners, wealth of resources, and thoroughly democratic focus on the ‘common people’ of the past, will be another fruitful field to cultivate the future of history from below.

Finally, we need accessible education. The pioneers of ‘history from below’ spent much of their time teaching students who would have otherwise missed out on a traditional university education: E.P. Thompson wrote The Making of the English Working Class whilst working for the Workers’ Educational Association in Yorkshire’s industrial towns; Eric Hobsbawm spent his entire academic career teaching evening classes at Birkbeck; Raphael Samuel founded the History Workshop movement amongst the trade unionists of Ruskin College. Happily, these institutions are still carrying on this work. I feel privileged to work at a place like Birkbeck, founded in 1823 as the London Mechanics’ Institute, and still offering evening classes to students with other work or family commitments. Despite the dangerous impact of the fee increases mentioned above, I believe that these long-established institutions – alongside others such as the Open University – will be a key part of the future of this approach to history. Moreover, open-access publishing and the explosion in history blogging is dramatically expanding the reach of research, allowing practically anyone to benefit from the scholarly work that previously would have been available to only a tiny minority.

This suggests that the future of history from below is all around us. It is going on today in meetings of village historical societies, in family history workshops, and in the comments sections of amateur history blogs. What they have in common is their role in empowering people who wouldn’t normally have a voice in history to learn and think and speak about the past. In short, they are all part of a more democratic way of doing history, the very essence of history from below.

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Women on screen aren’t allowed to grow old erotically

Professor Lynne SegalThis post was contributed by Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. It was originally published on The Guardian’s Comment is Free.

Diane Keaton recalled her mother’s advice – “don’t grow old” – as useless, however pertinent for Keaton’s chosen career as an actress. It’s a truism that interesting roles for older actresses are hard to come by. While signs of physical ageing are routinely played down in leading male actors, who regularly take roles as still vigorous and desirable characters (whether heroes or villains), the opposite applies to older actresses, if they are allowed to appear on screen at all.

Are things changing? It was Keaton herself who seemed to herald a shift when she played in the popular 2003 film about love in later life, Something’s Gotta Give. At the time she expressed astonishment at being offered the role of romantic heroine, at 58, despite being partnered by Jack Nicholson, already a decade older. Yet, in Hollywood, the films that portray older women as desirable remain sparse, with Meryl Streep one of the precious few still allowed to play a romantic lead. Meanwhile, when not excluded, one of the notable ways that older actresses make it on to the screen is playing a character with dementia: Judi Dench in Iris (2001), Julie Christie in Away From Her (2006), Streep in The Iron Lady (2011), Emmanuelle Riva in Amour (2012).

However, if cinema remains grim and forbidding territory for older actresses, television is finally starting to offer them more. To be sure, the majority of shows remain youth obsessed, and older women – with The Golden Girls a striking exception – remain perceived as beyond playfulness and sexual passion.

Still, with a third of our population over 50, and 10 million over 65 – and half of them women – the media has had to give a little. Now along comes the second series of the BBC’s Last Tango in Halifax, with its portrait of the late-life romance of two septuagenarians, Celia and Alan. The channel is planning something similar for next year with Grey Mates, involving a friendship network of pensioners, starring Alison Steadman, Stephanie Beacham and Russ Abbot – all in their mid-60s.

Noting the success of Last Tango, I have been pondering what it tells us about attitudes to bodies, old and young. Celia and Alan may be in the throes of romance, but we typically see them, particularly Celia, in her overcoat. The dynamics of their romance are mostly played out in the kitchen or the countryside, with warm smiles and hugs. There is no reference to their sexual concerns, and the bedroom stays off limits. This is all the more striking because their adult children’s affairs mean there is a continuous focus on sex.

Last Tango upholds one of the last taboos around sex, ageing and the body. Intentionally or not, it suggests that though in love, these oldies are past sexual concerns. Yet our culture has little problem presenting older men’s sexual desire. Nor do older men refrain from eagerly proclaiming this, whether in empirical surveys or in their own words. Much of the most esteemed writing by men mourns not the passing of sexual passion, but possible difficulties in its performance. Whether in the work of Ireland’s illustrious poet WB Yeats or America’s celebrated novelist Philip Roth, older men’s chief fear could be summed up as that of a creature sick with desire, but fastened to a dying animal – the threat of penile failure.

Older women’s erotic life, however, is barely registered, save in certain genres of pornography. In the wake of Germaine Greer or agony auntsIrma Kurtz and Virginia Ironside, the most influential women’s voices tackling old age tend to suggest they are contentedly post-sexual, “free at last” from erotic passion.

Given the complexities of desire, I am sceptical about this apparent gender contrast. I see the media’s endless production of eroticised, young female flesh as feeding a sense of shame attached to older women’s bodies. Any eroticisation of our aged female bodies remains taboo and this is one reason older women, in huge numbers (70% of us over-65s) live alone. Tackling our sexual yearnings, or registering our bodies with anything other than disgust, would indeed be radical. I wait to see it.

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Thoughts on the recent UN climate meeting in Poland

This post was contributed by Marit Marsh Stromberg,  a PhD student from Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. Her scholarship is funded by Good Energy – a renewable energy company.

One might have hoped for strong words and swift implementation from world leaders following the latest round of international climate change talks. The evidence and reality point towards the need for action. Firstly, the high likelihood that temperature rise has been caused by humans was emphasised in the Fifth Assessment Report on climate change, which was released recently by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Secondly, typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines earlier this month, has killed more than 5,000 people. Despite these facts, there was no new strongly-phrased climate agreement at the Warsaw Climate Change Conference from 11-22 November.

As usual, things move slowly and are more complex than that.

The gathering of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in the Polish capital, also known as Conference of the Parties (COP) 19, was part of a series of conferences to create a new Kyoto protocol ready to be signed in Paris in 2015. This time the hope is to get every country on board as the last treaty didn’t include major players like the US and China.

The host of the conference, Poland, has been criticised by environmental groups for hosting, at the same time, the Coal and Climate Summit (18-19 November) with the World Coal Association. While this choice to host climate change talks and a coal industry meeting simultaneously could be seen as hypocritical, I say it was a good choice. If it was not held in Poland, that coal conference would have taken place in some other country. The coincidence of the apparently mutually exclusive conferences taking place at the same time sheds lights on the current status of things: while governments all over the world may invest in renewable energies and energy efficiency measures, at the same time they allow business-as-usual in the fossil fuel sector; while the Arctic is melting, new fossil fuel extraction opportunities are revealed and explored. I am sure it is not only Poland that could be accused of hypocrisy and caught red-handed.

Now, how about the outcome of the UN climate conference? It has been reported as limited, but some small steps are still considered to have been made. As one-fifth of the CO2 emissions are related to deforestation the creation of a fund helping developing countries to keep their forests is considered as one of the more substantial outcomes. Another step forward have been the decisions taken regarding the compensation of loss and damage in relation to climate change for developing countries.

As regards the important question of assigning specific CO2 emission reduction targets, it was decided that countries should be able to present their proposed contributions (the exact word was a result of some longer negotiations and chosen instead of commitments) in early 2015 to allow time for the combined efforts to be evaluated before the final meeting later the same year.

The phrasing can apparently now be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, from the perspective of some developed nations (e.g. the US) it is clear that all countries need to make some actual reduction commitments, resting on the the argument that it is necessary that we target those countries that will be emitting the most in the future. Secondly, from the perspective of some developing nations (e.g. China, India) it is clear that developed countries need to take more action since they have the historical responsibility for the current state of affairs. I appreciate both arguments: the current emission trends need to be addressed, but we can’t forget the socioeconomic divisions that exists between (and within) countries and how history brought us here in the first place.

While the world leaders and the UN now have the delicate task of trying to reach a far-reaching and shared platform by the end of 2015, I will continue my own journey in a field related to climate change. This autumn I have started a PhD in Geography at Birkbeck. I will be looking into the characteristics of spatial and temporal variability of intermittent renewable energies, such as wind and solar energy, in the UK and how these characteristics can be used for finding a suitable renewable energy mix for a future reliable and greener electric power system. My studies are funded by Good Energy – a renewable energy company.

I will update you on my progress via a termly blog on these pages. I can’t wait to contribute to research to help reduce CO2  emissions. After all, time is running out.

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Obituary: Post-Feminism

Professor Lynne SegalThis post was contributed by Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. This post was originally published by Feminist Times.

Writing an obituary for ‘post-feminism’ is difficult. I never loved, nor even accepted, the creature in the first place. In its different dis/guises, from Girl Power to Tory feminism, it was always a slippery, shape-shifting thing. In life, Mark Twain was declared dead twice over, quipping the first time that his death was exaggerated. In its ongoing life, feminism has been declared dead many times over, keeping its eager obituary writers always busy. Post-feminism should be easier to bury, though perhaps harder to keep safely interred.

Over sixty years ago, commencing the iconic text of second-wave feminismSimone de Beauvoir apologized for reviving a topic that was perhaps dead: ‘Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism, and perhaps we should say no more about it’. Within days, the ink she spilled sold 22,000 copies and The Second Sex has kept selling ever since. Twenty years later, second-wave feminism could hardly have emerged with more clamour, quickly spreading the message that women’s collective efforts would change the world. ‘Goodbye to All That’, Robyn Morgan declared in 1968, when a group of young women occupied the offices of a radical left publication in New York, joined together to protest the Miss America pageant and founded the radical feminist group W.I.T.C.H. That same year, her fellow American poet Adrienne Rich was similarly celebrating the awesome collectivity of women: ‘A woman in the shape of a monster/ a monster in the shape of a woman/ the skies are full of them’.

No wonder its critics waited impatiently to bury this new force, which did indeed usher in a decade of dramatic legislative, social and cultural change. Wherever it grew, it opened doors previously closed to women. It gave women more control than ever before over our bodies and sexuality, made us – when united – more assertive in the home, the workplace and the world at large, everywhere stressing women’s disadvantage and discrimination, including the frequency of men’s violence against and sexual abuse of women and girls. It was the successful spread of feminism that itself heightened recognition of and conflicts over the divisions between women, with newly emerging voices proclaiming their distinct forms of cultural and economic disadvantage and disparagement.

Finally, the era that would be labeled ‘post-feminism’ kicked off in the 1990s, after economic crises had brought the Right into power in Britain, the USA and beyond: rolling back welfare, attacking unions and other sites of resistance, increasing workplace insecurity, above all, ubiquitously popularizing notions of ‘free choice’ as beneficial for all; collectivity as tedious and constraining when not serving market forces. The speedy rise and fall of the Spice Girls in the late 1990s epitomized this putative ‘postfeminism’. Directly produced by the record-industry, these self-proclaimed ‘feminists’ crystallized the essence of ‘girl-power’, as their ostentatious quest for individual success and their return to conventional ‘feminine’ wiles dominated the airwaves: ‘Wannabe’; ‘Spice Up Your Life’; ‘Never Give Up on the Good Times’.

This lavishly layable Lady– ‘Get Down with Me’; ‘Let Love the Lead the Way’– suggested one form of female-empowerment (however fleeting); Margaret Thatcher personified another. Out the window went gritty resistance to the increasing disruptions and strains caused by shifting gender relations in a world in which, symbolically, and for the most part materially, men still held sway over women. At the very same time, the immense appeal of Bridget Jones Diary, depicting one woman’s search for her man, or the equally popular Carrie Bradshaw, busily recording the affluent, home-buying, successful lives of four female friends dining out in New York in the stylish sit-com Sex and the City, were instances of the same phenomena. Never mind the familiar sexual hazards facing adolescent girls, the resentful failures and uncertainties of many boys and men, the overwork of countless married women, the impoverishment of lone mothers and their children, the heightening global inequalities – these ‘new’ women (real and imagined) had financial independence, sexual freedom, immense consumer choice, while pursuing the affluent men of their dreams.

Some feminist writers, especially those prominent in the media, including Naomi Wolf and Natasha Walter, at first applauded what they saw as a new form of ‘power feminism’, hoping that some women’s growing professional success would increase their ability to empower others. Yet, both were aware of the multiple problems most women still faced, as Walter called for more change to enable all women to find a place ‘in the corridors of power’. Meanwhile, older feminists, myself included, mostly rejected both this ‘new feminism’, while criticizing the very idea of ‘post-feminism’.

Times change, and militant feminism is once more on the move. Young women especially are taking to the streets, writing blogs, organizing conferences, stressing above all the collective power of women, not just to change themselves and enter the corridors of power, but to beat back violence in all its forms, asserting the value of caring and interdependence in pursuit of social transformation. Deploying new forms of communication, activism and aesthetic expression, feminist horizons broaden and deepen. They encompass the economics of globalization, as some women are shuttled around the world to survive, but also include the future of the planet itself, even while attending closely to the immensely differing, often contradictory, details of women’s lives near and far.

As I bury post-feminism, and the absurdity of imagining that any feminism worthy of the name could begin simply from notions of individual ‘free-choice’, self-assertion or glamour (much as we may delight in these things), I am deepening the hole I have been frantically digging for over forty years. Goodbye post-feminism; hello feminism.

Lynne Segal is a feminist writer and activist, and Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies at Birkbeck. Her forthcoming book Out Of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing is published by Verso on 7 September.

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UN General Assembly another venue for Obama’s inaction

This post was contributed by Professor Rob Singh of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It originally appeared on The Conversation on 24 September 2013.

And so the annual autumn ritual of American masochism begins again in New York. Like inviting your least likeable in-laws to detail your worst features to your nearest and dearest after an agreeable Christmas lunch, this week’s 68th UN General Assembly welcomes heads of state and government from its 193 member states. With its plenary session overshadowed by Syria, and issues from Iran’s nuclear programme and Israeli-Palestinian relations vying for competition on the agenda, the media expectancy is even greater than usual. “The stakes are very high,” according to PJ Crowley, a former assistant US secretary of state.

What fatuous nonsense.

While the invitees marvel at the size of the food portions in New York City, and media frenzies erupt at incipient photo opportunities in Turtle Bay, let’s recognise this week for what it is – a symbolic spectacle signifying minimal substance. Yes, an enticing opportunity for non-US leaders to grandstand on the biggest international stage for strictly domestic political benefit. And yes, a chance for mere politicians – democratic and authoritarian alike – to pose as statesmen and solemnly pledge their fealty to human rights, the rule of law, and international peace (how very controversial). But, ultimately, whether New York or Washington, DC is the more reliably dysfunctional venue for serious politicking is up for debate.

Even by the standards of US politics, watching an array of exotic guests use one of the nation’s great cities to excoriate America and hail the arrival of a new “post-American era” must represent one of the more depressing spectacles for the domestic public. Sadly for the scriptwriters, the drama is not quite as vivid as when Chavez, Ahmedinajad and Gaddafi enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame denouncing George W Bush. Through fair means and foul, these characters have moved on.

But already, new scripts have been written and the question is merely whether the actors play their roles accordingly. Above all, will the Iranian and American presidents finally break a taboo and meet in the Great Satan’s living room (not, like Gordon Brown, in the UN kitchen)? Will the recent conciliatory words and gestures of President Hassan Rouhani receive symbolic reward – a presidential handshake, a deliberately accidental encounter, even a “meet and greet”?

To which the appropriate response is: “So what if they do?”.

Prior US presidents viewed the annual UN debate with emotions ranging from resignation to despair. But for Barack Obama, it’s tailor made. Teleprompter to the ready, warm words to go and nothing of substance to slog through. Only if one still buys into “Obama-world” – where grand speeches substitute for hard bargaining – can one continue to regard this earnest symbolism and soaring rhetoric as remotely consequential.

As such, it’s tempting to view the NYC goings-on as emblematic of not just the weakening of the West but also the end of US leadership.

But this wisdom is far more conventional than wise. On most measures of national power, the US remains far beyond all other nation-states. Not only is it the only player capable of global power projection, but America’s energy revival promises a “power surge” of substantial and enduring economic and geo-political dividends. No other power, or combination of powers, is likely to rival the US for decades to come.

The strategic problems, rather, are two-fold.

First, the UN’s profound limitations remain. A Security Council that reflects the power distribution of 1945, not 2013. A veto system that effectively precludes collective action even when genocide, ethnic cleansing and civil war destroy tens of thousands of lives and displace millions. And a gaping legitimacy deficit in which prolific UN declarations about the “responsibility to protect” are consistently belied as hollow by its inability, unwillingness and incapacity to do so.

Second, it is not American weakness that is at issue, but the irresolution, confusion and dwindling credibility of this particular White House. Like a poker player who believes that decent chaps don’t bluff, Obama is neither trusted by his allies nor feared by his adversaries. On the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, one has to go back to Kennedy’s besting by Nikita Khruschev at the 1961 Vienna summit to recall a US president so powerfully outplayed by his Russian rival. But that was in Kennedy’s first year as president. Less than a year after his re-election, Obama appears adrift, ineffectual and preoccupied by domestic, not international, politics.

Whether or not Obama meets Iran’s president, few will mention the recent appointment of hardliner Ali Shamkhani as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, a clear signal that Rouhani intends to preserve Iranian nuclear “rights”. Whatever the Russian delegation declares on Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, few will focus on the 100,000 plus dead through conventional means of warfare – and counting. Festering issues from North Korea to a reconfigured and reinvigorated al Qaeda will receive minimal attention. And why should they? This week was never intended for serious diplomacy or meaningful negotiations. As for the Middle East, even now – never mind the rest of the world – Obama’s default disposition recalls Ernest Hemmingway’s in 1935: “Of the hell broth that is brewing in Europe, we have no need to drink.”

Mostly, the coming days represent theatre, and not especially impressive theatre at that. In the days of mobile phones, email and the internet, the notion that such international conflabs are necessary for genuine communication is redundant. It seems difficult, in that light, to entertain anything more than a minimal hope of substantive progress on Syria, Egypt, North Korea or any of the functional issues – from nuclear proliferation to climate change – that supposedly preoccupy our leaders.

Let’s hope I’m wrong. But ask yourself – when was the last time you either listened to, or took seriously, an Obama speech? Now imagine the response the average Syrian, Iranian, Israeli or Russian would have to that question. Ignore the theatrics and atmospherics. Lie back and take in the warm words. And watch the inaction.

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Slow-thinking the Revolution: Sound Diary from Brazil

This post was contributed by Raluca Soreanu, a Marie Curie Research Fellow in the Department of Psychosocial Studies, currently researching peace activism in Brazil.

[Homepage image of Brazilian protests: Agência Brasil.]

To move from Tahrir Square, to Syntagma Square, to Puerta del Sol, to Zucotti Park, to Gezi Park, to Brazil’s recent “20 centavos” movement, to capture their common rhythms as well as their distinctiveness, we might need a new vocabulary. To meet radical changes in the political imaginary, a new semiotics is called for. In Bracha L. Ettinger’s words, I wish we could slow-think, slow-feel and slow-paint these movements, in ways which overlay one form of understanding with another and with yet another. We could thus move beyond the hastiness of boxing one of the indeed unsettling semiotisations which the Brazilian movement has produced – “o gigante acordou” (“the giant has awoken”) as simply an instance of fascism. In the womb of the giant in the past week, I have encountered forms of social creativity and forms of sociability that invite me to slow-think. In the womb of the giant, people took care of one another, intervening to protect one another from being trampled. They met with strangers across their strangeness and across the colour codes of political parties. Surely, we will need to look closely at this alternative urban traffic of large manifestations, and see how it fits within the movement for the right to the city. There were also important forms of defence of patrimony, where the multiplicity of people surrounding a monument decided on the spot that the locus of memory that it carries is more important than the grievance of one individual who wishes to stand on its pedestal. Surely, this is not a movement toward the indiscriminate and confusion, but a collective spiral toward clarification on what matters and what needs to be preserved. And so, the chant “Vem vem vem pra rua vem!” (“Come come come to the street come!”) emanating from thousands of people on the same beat with one another is something quite localised when we shift to a new semiotics (perhaps a Deleuzian-Guattarian semiotics) where meaning is facialised and corporealised. What is the facialised consciousness and the rhythmic embodiment of the protester who does not aggress but protects, who does not provoke but contains, who does not destroy but creates political artefacts?

A multitude of voices

While many voices decry the lack of political organisation, I saw compelling organisation. How many times in our lifespan did we set a political rendezvous with 300.000 people and everyone showed up? With this new phenomenon of mobilisation we have temporarily lost our ability to count: there might have been 300.000 people out on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, or less, or more, nobody knows. This loss of the ability to count does not solely mark the scale of the protest, but its transcendence of the very context for counting and screening which the urban texture sustains. We couldn’t count the protesters because they circulated in a new way, constituting new flows of large gatherings: they were circular, oblique, spiralling, rather than just merely passing though obligatory points or grids. Zooming in, observations on robust forms of organisation continue. A community I follow closely, that of Horto Florestal, planned its presence thoroughly, walked for hours to the centre of the city, in defence of their right of dwelling, which is threatened by the redefinition of the boundaries of the Botanical Garden. There was an impressive anti-homophobia mobilisation nested within the protest. These are just instances of the plurivocality – for there were also the “negros” and the “sem-terra” embodying their long histories of struggle. There were militants of conventional party politics. And, surely, the extreme right performing its usual abuses and aggressions, but not in a position to engulf the whole vitality of the movement in its morbidities.

A temporary museum of grievances

There is plentiful organisation that we do not see for we might need a new semiotics; but there is also organisation that we do not see for there is a constant motion for opacity by an order that wishes to preserve itself unaltered. We here might need to think in terms of the lifespan of political artefacts surrounding the protest. The immense gathering in Rio de Janeiro produced thousands of banners carrying the messages of people and groups (in registers from tragic to ironic, to robustly humorous). These many hundreds of square metres of political expression were displayed on the fences of the Praça da República. People literally weaved their banners onto the fences, organising a museum of grievances. These compelling materialities, which would have helped us in the process of looking at ourselves and at one another, were no longer there ten hours later. They had been removed, cleaned away with the rubbish. I went back in the morning, anticipating the loss of this political object, and all that was preserved were the remains of broken glass panels of some bank headquarters, aiming to create an alternative museum of vandalism, underarticulation and indiscrimination. If anything, the fence of political grievances was discriminate, in its contents and weaved constitution. This too short and unaccomplished life of political artefacts speaks about capitalism’s capacity to consistently efface all traces of an emergent alternative political rationality.

The sound of war

On the scene, there is another force that disorganises. The simulation of the sound of war. On the day and night of the immense gathering, the streets sounded like war because of the constant background noise of explosions. What was exploding were the “bombas do efeito moral” (“bombs with moral effect”), as they are called here, in a perplexingly self-disclosing way. These bombs are used by the Military Police to intimidate and contain by sound a potentially or actually violent adversary. This is an ill-contained tool for containing violence, however: it does not act locally, it acts on the entire protest, even miles away; it does not clarify where actual violence might be taking place, so that protesters have a chance to synchronise away from it, or against it, but it multiplies it. But it is a fake bomb. It does not belong. Sly-bomb. Part-bomb. These tools of war institute a dangerous (and immense!) scene of constant re-traumatisation, where we indeed might lose all control we might want to be holding on to, and things might indeed drift anywhere. There are very recent traumas related to the Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (UPPs) entering the Rio de Janeiro favelas, starting in December 2008. Memories of violence here are overlaid on one another, and none of them are respected or creatively put to work by sinking 300.000 people in the sound of war. Why should we feel, because of sound, as if we were in war? What happens to the memories of the true deadliness and death-fulness of the bomb, within this simulated bombardment? Part of the right to the city is precisely that of not feeling as though we were in war times, if we are not.

“Solidarity with the wretched of the earth”

And finally, a question I constantly return to these days: how do academics live the morning after? How does the university organise itself in relation to the polity, despite all the structural constraints, the novelty of the phenomenon to be dealt with, and the uncertainties that come with it? It is perhaps the time to return to Adorno’s thought on “solidarity with the wretched of the earth” and work humbly from there on. The matter of organisation is for me first and foremost a matter of self-organisation and of organising the proximities of our lived life. This movement will not call for leaders. It will and does call for co-inhabitors within a historical transformation. Some of the lawyers of Rio de Janeiro, for instance, responded beautifully to the local challenges, by offering their expertise to those who were subject to police abuse. I think of it as lawyer kairós. I believe the university can fast-organise frames of utterance where we can slow-think what is happening on the streets of Brazil. The intervention that I see myself a part of is one that will struggle to ensure that the fabric of the collective process we are experiencing is not being constantly ruptured and traumatised by the simulation of the sound of war. Thus, people and groups that are already thoroughly organised can sit together and organise themselves further, instead of having more recent or more distant violent past times enforced upon them.

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