66. Taboo at Davos

The elite of the worlds of high finance, corporations, politics, public relations, the media and economics are gathered in snow-bound Davos to attend packed talks, conferences, meetings, dinners and parties. But do these posturing experts really look at the world’s economic challenges? To counter-balance this trendy social event I am listing a dozen radical but vital topics which will NOT be addressed by this Forum:

Six issues:

  1. The fundamental incompatibility of the teachings of Muhammad and Capitalism
  2. Mafia infiltration of global corporations
  3. The rape of African resources by foreign investors
  4. The strengthening and enlargement of cooperatives
  5. The weakness of labor’s (such as ILO) representation and global effectiveness
  6. The uncontrolled chaos of global commodity markets

Six Questions:

  1. Could a global currency replace the Dollar, the Euro, or the Pound as the basis of transactions. What would follow the collapse of the Euro?
  2. Could a new monetary exchange, such as Bitcoin, be effectively introduced by governments?
  3. How could corporations be stopped from evading national taxation?
  4. What steps must be taken to provide jobs for billions of youngsters over the next decades? Are economic expectations of our children realistically headed downwards?
  5. Are we facing up to the economic challenges of strengthening education through the internet?
  6. Has capitalism enhanced the revolutionary goal of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” or downgraded it?

Perhaps one of the above will be discussed in Davos 2016 ?

65. Loneliness

Loneliness is a highly complex emotional response to isolation or the lack of companionship which human beings can feel intensely but find hard to define. Solitude, with which loneliness is often juxtaposed, refers to finding a state of wholeness or completeness with oneself while alone. Loneliness is related more to a pain in being alone, while solitude enables us to explore ourselves within our environment, often with a sense of enjoyment or pleasure. Solitude accepts the state of being alone; loneliness deplores it. Saints as well as artists have attained enlightenment through the use of solitude. In Zen meditation, for example, practitioners deprived of sensory input and social interaction can attain great calm as well as visionary insights. Loneliness, however, entails no such conscious efforts but also offers few rewards.

Loneliness has become something of a social and communicable disease in the advanced economies of the world. This is a remarkable phenomenon of increasing psychological concern, but it is not well understood. When one person in a group starts to feel lonely, this sense can spread to others, increasing the risk of “infection.” People can feel lonely even when they are in a crowd where there is usually almost no personal contact. Loneliness can therefore be considered as a subjective experience: If you think you are lonely, then you are lonely.

The number of books dealing with his affliction is staggering. This also reflects the far greater attention given to loneliness today than in previous times. A study in the UK by Independent Age revealed that 700,000 men and one million women aged over 50 were suffering from severe loneliness. In the United States 60 million people, or 20% of the total population, admit to pollsters that they feel lonely. Another survey found that the number of people with whom the average American discussed important personal matters had decreased from three to two in the previous twenty years. The number of Americans with no one to discuss personal matters has now tripled as national loneliness continues to rise.

How has this come about? Our socio-economic system, technological innovation, (such as television and the internet) and increased longevity each play an important role in nourishing loneliness. Capitalism, with its emphases on the individual, on competition, greed, money and profit, has overwhelmed previous cultural emphases on cooperation, religious communion, social concerns and responsibilities. The massive move away from agriculture and the land and into the anonymity of larger cities has also contributed to the growth of loneliness. The fact remains that we are social animals and need the company of others.1

One of the tragic outcomes of modern loneliness is that people turn to their televisions for consolation: two-fifths of older people report that the one-eyed monster is their principle companion. Television now keeps “the lonely” in their living rooms while their predecessors in previous generations had gone to the pub, to bars or to the public libraries. Television as a form of self-medication also tends to aggravate the social disease aspect of loneliness.

Similarly, the social media have failed to improve the blight of loneliness in our society. While we recognize the new opportunities to join others on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, the commercial atmosphere leads us to distrust the temptations and potentialities offered by possible new encounters. I have come into contact with no end of people who have joined Facebook but feel they are now even more removed from genuine contact. The new social media can occupy ever more of their time without giving them the opportunity of answering the question: “Why do I still feel so alone?” Twitter raises different kinds of pack reactions involving millions who pin up notices on a global bulletin board. Perhaps this can make them feel more social or tuned-in – but with only a few letters left at-a-go, how satisfactory could such tweeting be in making one more understood? Personally, I am “LinkedIn” but don’t really feel connected. This site is all about “contacts” and professional advancement — not friendship nor closer communion.

Psychologists, sociologists, teachers as well as parents around the world have become increasingly familiar with the deep loneliness of teenagers who want to be desired, to be part of something, to be loved, to be special and to be understood. Sylvia Plath brilliantly described the desperation of such youthful loneliness: “Life is, loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of ‘parties’ with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter — they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship — but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.”2

Neither friends nor parties could cure Sylvia’s loneliness. Her creative writing came with solitude far away from the literary crowd. There are clear distinctions between feeling lonely and being socially isolated, as Thoreau and so many more writers have demanded. Solitude is simply a lack of social interaction: being alone. Solitude can help writers as well as philosophers, those engaged in religious practices, and others exploring their innermost being. Psychologists have also observed that solitude can help to enhance one’s cognitive state and improve one’s mental concentration. Solitude consequently can enrich the self, just as loneliness can impoverish it.

“If you are lonely when you are alone, you are in bad company,” said Jean-Paul Sartre. His existentialist school of thought viewed solitude as essential to what it is to be human. Every person comes into the world alone and travels as a separate being throughout his or her lifetime, ultimately dying alone. Loneliness is thus basic to our human condition. The paradox of the meaning of life arises because it is ultimately in conflict with the emptiness and nothingness of our universe. “Why should I feel lonely” wondered H.D.Thoreau in Walden (1854) “Is not our planet in the Milky Way?” This writer of solitude saw his condition in greater perspective than the existentialists!

The writer Janet Fitch in White Oleander (2001) confidently declared that: “Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.”

Politicians have not done any better than philosophers in coming to terms with loneliness. An exceptional few have promoted a social contract, but few have sought to decrease the sense of loneliness of their electorate. John F. Kennedy sparked the optimism and sense of social engagement of many, while Richard Nixon worked to augment their isolation and insecurity. Initially millions felt inspired in a common cause by both Obama and Tony Blair. Those feelings have now vanished — making many feel more isolated and lonely.

The programs of Margaret Thatcher to deny the very concept of society reflected the sense in Britain that individualism would rule supreme. That is why she bashed the unions, promoted capitalist competitiveness and celebrated individual enterprise. Her efforts greatly increased the isolation and loneliness of the people. This Christmas, The Economist featured “The Loneliness of Tony Blair” on its cover. Inside, The Economist stated that “in his home country he is reviled. The ostentatious combination of money-spinning, globe trotting and commercial deals with some unappealing governments sit uneasily in austere, post-crisis Britain.” His political loneliness is matched by the sense of the voters that they are not being engaged or listened to by their elected leaders. Many feel abandoned, saddened and lonely.

Our increasingly longer and lonelier lives are becoming harder to transform. One specialist on the outer reaches of loneliness, John Cacioppo, has offered a number of tips in his many books on more positive prospects: First of all, your loneliness is an indication that something needs to be changed. It is vital to develop relationships with those who may share your interests and values. Then focus on your positive thoughts and attitudes with those contacts. Consider doing something for your community or other social activity that you enjoy. There you may encounter others who are also seeking similar engagement. There is no guarantee that such popularized advice will decrease the afflicted. Cacioppo fails to reach the inner core of loneliness.

For those who feel strongly that religious belief is one way out, consider Criss Jami’s observation that “A lonely day is God’s way of saying he wants to spend some quality time with you.”3

As opposed to being lonely, there are so many benefits to spending time alone. The shift from the sense of loneliness to one of solitude is not easy, but it can be immensely rewarding: Freedom is considered to be one of the benefits of solitude. A person’s creativity can be sparked when given such freedom. Another benefit may be the attendant exploration of the self. When one spends time in solitude away from others, changes to one’s self-conception and notions of identity may occur. Solitude provides the time for contemplation, for growth in personal spirituality, and for the self-examination involved in finding a sacred place in one’s inner being.

1George Monbiot, Life in the age of loneliness, The Guardian, October 15, 2014, p.31

2Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, (1982)

3Criss Jami, Killosophy (2015)

64. Opposition to Human Rights

I have long been puzzled as to why individuals as well as entire nation states have such troubles accepting Human Rights which are moral principles based on standards of human behavior and which demand the protection of national and international laws.

Don’t all human beings have genuine rights by birth? If so, why did 103 countries in December refuse to support a UN text expressing “deep concern” about violations in Iran which included torture, the execution of minors, violence against women, as well as abuses against religious and ethnic minorities? Why was the International Criminal Court in the Hague unable to engage in hearings for justice and human rights against the Presidents of Kenya and Sudan (thus seriously lowering the credibility of “human rights law” as well as the standing of the court?) And why was there such concerted opposition to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s long delayed release of her intelligence committee’s report in which she condemned the tortures exercised by the US intelligence agencies as standing “in stark contrast to our values as a nation.”

Is all of this because human beings and their representative institutions are reluctant to confront their misdeeds? Professor Diane Orentlicher of Washington’s American University wrote that, as a teacher of international law, she was surprised “that Americans would find it so hard to acknowledge the full extent of torture committed by agents of our government and, harder still, to condemn their acts without equivocation.”1 Many public officials, and even speakers on Fox News, were so embarrassed by the word “torture” that they resorted to euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT) and “rectal rehydration” for anal abuse. Some apologists excused the torture on the ground that other governments ignored International Human Rights Law and showed little regard or its enforcement. Inevitably, those who may have been responsible for violating human rights are fearful that their exposure might lead to their being brought to justice and rightly punished.

Such concerns partly explain the lack of transparency in the UK regarding any possible collaboration with the US in the notorious rendition “programs” or other illegal activities. Before the publication of Senator Feinstein’s 528 page Congressional report, it was “sanitized” by British intelligence officials to avoid any embarrassment to their government. In the UK accountability is such that no one in the intelligence services nor in politics has been held publicly responsible for breaches in human rights. Officially commissioned reports by the government such as the Chilcot or the Gibson inquiries into possible involvement in the torture of terrorists or the rendition of suspects have simply not been made public. Rather than exposure, successive governments prefer the cover-up as a way to protect individual participants and those who commissioned them.

A recent study commissioned by ITV’s “Tonight” program revealed that just over half of the 2,000 people questioned in the poll thought the Human Rights Act interfered with British Justice. This is an astonishing result for a land which prides itself on the Magna Carta! A debate regarding Britain’s membership in Europe’s Human Rights Commission is currently simmering as the national elections in May approach. The UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, who wants Britain out of Europe, has been gaining popular support by suggesting that those who break the law are being protected by an inept Human Rights Commission in Strasbourg which is also telling Britons that those being held in prison should have voting rights. The ruling Conservative Party has responded by shifting away from the center in its stance on human rights issues.

As it currently stands, the ECHR has little legal power and Britain’s international Human Rights treaties are hard to enforce. Should the UK break international Human Rights law there is no way the judges in Strasbourg could demand accountability. Nevertheless, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to scrap the Human Rights Act passed by the Labour government some 15 years ago if he wins the May elections. Cameron specifically expressed his right to deport suspected terrorists, his opposition to protecting prisoners of war and he saw no place for human rights when it came to protecting British servicemen involved in combating Isis in Iraq or Syria.

Britain’s Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, joined in at the Party Conference by declaring: “We cannot go on with a situation where crucial decisions about how this country is run and how we protect our citizens are taken by the ECHR and not by our parliament and our own courts. We also have to be much clearer about when human rights laws should be used and that rights have to be balanced with responsibilities.” He concluded that it was important to “make sure that we put Britain first and restore common sense to human rights in this country.”2 A spokesperson for the Council of Europe responded that the plans unveiled by Cameron and Grayling were inconsistent with remaining a member, citing article 46 of the convention which states that the signatories “undertake to abide by the judgment of the ECHR in any case to which they are parties.”

Moral rights are generally understood as fundamental givens to which every human being is entitled at birth regardless of their gender, ethnicity, religion or national status and impose an obligation on all to respect the human rights of others. Historically, human rights can be traced to the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) and the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution (1791). The peoples of early civilizations did not have our contemporary conception of universal human rights. Indeed there was no word for “right” in any language before the 15th Century. John Locke examined “natural rights” from the philosophic perspective in the 17th Century, identifying them as “Life, liberty and estate” (or property). He contended that such fundamental rights could not be surrendered to the state. The term “human rights” only came into popular use after Thomas Paine’s book, The Rights of Man, in the early 19th Century.

However, the doctrine of human rights itself continues to provoke skepticism and debate about its extent, nature, justification and applicability. Indeed the exact meaning of “right” continues to be debated by philosophers, politicians, and the legal profession. Do human rights include education? Free Speech? Right to a fair trial? Or basic living standards? There is little agreement as to which of these should be included into the more general framework of a social human rights contract. Even philosophers are divided into two camps: The human “interest” camp, which argues that the principal function of human rights should be to advance our essential human needs, and the “will” camp, which promotes the human rights based on the fundamental human demand for freedom.

When the United Nations was created, following the horrors of two World Wars, the international community was determined to complement the UN Charter with a plan to guarantee the rights of all people. The document they considered and which was to become The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was taken up at the first General Assembly in 1946. The Commission on Human Rights was established, made up of 18 members from various political and cultural backgrounds – with Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of the President, as the chairperson. She was painfully aware that the United States itself had serious short-comings in its exercise of basic human rights for African-Americans as well as for women. Senators from the former slave-states in the South would oppose any legally binding covenant or even a simple declaration of rights. A major point in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was endorsed by the General Assembly in Paris in December 1948, was the guarantee against discrimination because of race, creed or color which had been the particular concern of Eleanor Roosevelt.

The UDHR was a non-binding resolution urging member nations to promote not only Human Rights but also economic and social rights as part of the UN’s desire to lay “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” As such, it was the first international effort to limit the brutal behavior of states, but its charter did not contain specific legal rights nor did it mandate the essential enforcement procedures which would protect the vaguely defined human rights.

Torture was declared to be unacceptable by Article 5 of the UDHR and also by additional Protocols of June 1977 banning the torture of those captured in armed conflicts. Torture was also prohibited by the UN Convention Against Torture which was ratified by 156 nations. Despite such agreements the widespread use of torture was reported by Amnesty International (as well as other human rights monitors) with estimates that over 80 world governments still practiced torture. This is a global scandal.

Most significantly, before the attacks of 9/11 the US Congress had prohibited torture including such techniques as water-boarding and sleep deprivation. After 9/11, lawyers for the Bush administration issued dubious legal opinions arguing that such techniques did not constitute torture. This made a mockery of both human rights laws and the UN convention against torture. Towards the end of the Bush Administration these dubious legal interpretations were rescinded and repudiated and further denounced by President Obama when he took office. However, a dozen years after these violations of the law, not a single individual is being brought to justice for any aspect of the widespread use of torture by military personnel, the CIA nor its shady, outsourced corporations.

In a major editorial page judgment, The Observer stated that the United States was not justified in acting above and beyond the international and domestic laws regarding torture which accompanied President Bush’s “global war on terror.” The US government “circumvented congressional oversight, furtively recruited or suborned more or less willing overseas partners such as Britain, and embarked on a covert, worldwide campaign of illegal arrests, kidnap, rendition, torture, incarceration without trial and, in some cases, assassination.”3

So where are we now? How can Washington preach against human rights abuses or torture in the Middle East when it admits to abuse taking place in its own intelligence agencies? The new Republican-controlled Senate will not change America’s stance on Human Rights as it will continue its obstinate refusal to endorse
such treaties agreed upon by most western democracies. The US also has failed to ratify HR covenants on economic and social rights. Perhaps President Obama was justified in saying it was more important to look forward and not dwell on past errors and violations. However, it is irresponsible to simply pass over those who flagrantly violated Human Rights laws. Until Washington, or London for that matter, finally enforce a zero-tolerance policy against both torture and the abuse of Human Rights, it is unlikely that we shall see any reduction of these violations in the rest of the world. That is a conclusion which I do not see how humanity can accept.

1Diane Orentlicher “The damning truth: we breached the core values of humanity,” The Observer, December 14, 2014. p.36
3“Playing to the right”, The Economist, October 11, 2014. p.33
3“UK and torture: time for a judicial inquiry,” The Observer, December 14, 2014. p.38