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Politics & Society

HFT Newsletter #4

Welcome to the fourth newsletter of Hummus For Thought, a monthly collection of thoughts and recommendations.

Welcome to the fourth newsletter of Hummus For Thought, a monthly collection of thoughts and recommendations, curated by Joey Ayoub (hello) from Geneva, Switzerland. It comes out on every first Sunday of the month, 8:00 am Central European Time/West Africa Time.

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Initial Reflections

Well, 2020 is over folks. Everything’s fixed now.

I shared with you A Special Christmas Post on the 25th of December 2020 so I’ll first refer you back to that one if you haven’t read it yet.

Two countries have been on my mind as of late. The UK and Lebanon.

It is difficult to see what’s happening in the UK and not be very troubled, from the social media-addicted conspiracy theorists breaking our shared understanding of reality to the delusional exuberance of Brexiters rejoicing in the fact that their kids and grand-kids won’t have the freedom of movement they did. It is clear that large parts of the population are still trapped in neo-imperialist nostalgia and/or have consumed so many ‘alternative facts’ that they’re willing to deny reality for as long as possible. In many ways, the EU occupies a relatively small position within the Brexit ‘debate’. In the Brexit imaginary, the EU’s more like the de-facto Other, the latest manifestation of the never-ending need of the nationalists and isolationists to find their purpose in life by bringing down other groups of people. This is why Brexiters couldn’t make up their minds as to whether they hate Europeans more than they hate non-Europeans.

They want their battle cry more than the well-being of their own children, and when you’ve reached that bottom, might as well keep digging. Maybe the answer is somewhere there, deep down. What’s the alternative? Acknowledging being wrong? After all this time? That they were duped? That they clearly didn’t even know what their country’s membership of the EU meant for them? That’s not very Engl – I mean, British, sorry. It’s the fault of Syrians and Poles. Or maybe the bloody Germans, who knows, but let’s just say that, after spending four of the past five years in the UK, I consider such shows as Years and Years and such books as Perfidious Albion to be pretty decent cultural analyses.

And what a waste of opportunity Brexiters have had. They could have just made common purpose with the EU and criminalized (non-European) migrants and refugees. They could have built a stronger union on the shared fear of that other Other, the always-terrifying [enter non-European nationality]. The EU would have welcomed that with open arms. But hey, it’s never too late to demonize asylum seekers together.

As for dear ol’ Lebanon, I suppose nothing summarizes the situation more than the fact that virtually every person I know is either out or trying to get out as quickly as possible. As everywhere, the pandemic has exposed underlying societal fault lines, which would have been difficult enough to deal with, but then Beirut had to also blow up last summer. We used to say ‘adding insult to injury’ to describe the Lebanese establishment’s crimes, but these expressions are no longer enough. Lebanese multilingualism is clearly not sufficient to describe the underlying pain of the absurdity that afflicts that country, and so many are trying to either activate diaspora links or desperately create new ones to just leave as a result.

The meaninglessness of Lebanon’s afflictions hurts as much as the actual challenges facing us. It is the fact that, deep down, we all know that we do not matter to the wider world, that the suffering in Lebanon can never be consequential enough on the world stage as to warrant any kind of ‘global conversation’. That’s what really does it, that’s the so-called insult to injury. This was true in November of 2015 when I wrote a piece that clearly resonated because it ‘went viral’ (an expression that’s quite awkward now) and it is even truer now.

My grandmother celebrated her 83rd birthday two days ago. Due to Covid-19, she did so on her own, in the family home in Lebanon. This was also her first birthday without my grandfather Joseph who passed away last March. Most of her family members are already in the diaspora, the most ‘Lebanese’ of experiences that this tiny nation of trauma has produced. Her experience influences how I view that country as a whole as the way elders who are no longer ‘useful’ to the job market are treated is highly revealing (for that reason, countries that tried to ‘herd immunity’ their way through a deadly virus that largely kills the elderly have some serious soul-searching to do). She’s doing relatively okay though. We often exchange cooking tips (it’s mainly a one-sided exchange).

With all of that said, it may surprise you that I do remain optimistic about the future, albeit with a fair dose of caution. These positive developments don’t change or diminish the bad – and I’ve gone through enough of the bad in the resilient: broken essay for Mangal Media – but merely puts things in perspective.

There are positive global trends related to our tackling of the climate emergency, although the pace of change isn’t fast enough. I’m really happy to see that cities are stepping up to tackle climate change in ways that nation states are failing at. (It’s almost like residency-based identities and concrete links have more potential than the imagined, militarized communities that form nation states, huh?). There are also too many exciting developments in the tech world to even list them here.

Still, the key word in “cautious optimism” is cautious. There’s no point downplaying the scale of the problems, but that’s all the more reason why we should acknowledge when humanity is stepping up to the challenge. That’s a better attitude than doomscrolling our way into an early grave I think. So I’ll try and dedicate more time in the coming months on exploring how cities are stepping up to compensate for or complement national policies. After all, the local is also global.

So folks, here’s to 2021. Wear that [add insult] mask, wash those hands, keep those distances and confront those making the job of healthcare workers even harder.

To the healthcare workers reading this, and to everyone who has volunteered or done their bit to navigate and help others navigate this pandemic, thank you.


The James Baldwin Corner

We start the Hummus For Thought newsletter with our monthly James Baldwin corner. Here’s a little-known interview Baldwin gave in the Netherlands in 1981. In it, he makes interesting comparisons between racism in the US and racism in the Netherlands which clearly makes the interviewer uncomfortable. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m still baffled that he was as good a speaker as he was a writer. Some quotes from the interview:

“You discovered us, now you got us” and “You wrecked our neighborhoods, before we were compelled to wreck yours.”


What I’ve Written

  • I have this old essay on Hezbollah that will now be published. It will be on Discontent in early January and you can check it out here. My essay is called Hezbollah’s Resistance™ against resistance.

    (An alternative title is ‘joey the westernized Lebanese Zio-Wahhabi agent of empire attacks the holy resistance out of self-hatred’, or something like that.)

Miscellaneous

I’m now on Medium.com in addition to the existing sites. I’m trying to expand my reach and it was an obvious step to take.

You can follow me there at https://medium.com/@joey-ayoub


Documentary of the Month

A scene from The Gleaners and I, featuring Varda herself.

Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse), 2000, France, is a wonderful meditation on what is left behind. In it, Varda, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 90, meets gleaners (harvesters) in the French countryside and various artists who create art from recycled material.

I will also recommend her documentary short Black Panthers, 1968, USA, is shot in Oakland, California around the meetings and protests by the Black Panthers Party to free Huey Newton.


Book of the Month

my recommendation does not include Flip

The book of the month is by Jaron Lanier. It is called Who Owns The Future?

I will also cheat and recommend his other works: You Are Not a Gadget, Dawn of the New Everything and his most recent one Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. I honestly think all four are required to get a good grasp of his thinking, but I’d argue that the last one is not necessary if you read the first three. It’s more of a book to be consumed quickly for a general audience and some of the arguments are diluted as a result. But still, good book overall.

Anyway, Who Owns The Future? is an impressive book and I actually struggle to summarize it. One funny reviewer on Goodreads (I’m on Goodreads by the way) wrote: “This book is like being stuck in an elevator with your most brilliant friend, and a bottle of wine. Some of the conversation will be interesting, and some of it may seem brilliant, but you won’t be able to remember half of it later. His musings range from mild to extreme, and much of it I did not feel like I had the brain power to understand its implications. I would have to read it a second time, just to get a real grasp.” So yes, it is not easy to read. I would describe myself as fairly educated when it comes to digital literacy but I struggled with some of the more technical aspects.

In Who Owns The Future? Lanier warns against the disenfranchisement of the middle class in our increasingly-digital economies by those he calls ‘Siren Servers’ (as in the Sirens of Ulysses, as in those dangerous creatures that lured sailors with music and led to shipwrecks – you know, not good). So these are your Facebooks and Googles, various financial companies, and also various government agencies. Basically, they use powerful computing (aided by Moore’s law) to, well, get powerful. The resulting manipulative algorithms and data harvesting that they’re managing to pull off on a massive scale are changing how we think about ourselves and how we interact with one another. The consequences are severe and require our attention. Although the book is technically US-focused, the implications are global and we’re all more or less dealing with the same challenges of the internet. It’s why solving these challenges can be exciting too, as that can affect the entire world.

Whatever you think of the arguments, and especially some of the solutions presented, I don’t think we can deny the scale of the problem anymore, and Lanier has arguably done more than most to be a resourceful critic of Silicon Valley (from within, as he always emphasizes) and the world being created by its technology. He is very humanistic in his approach, attempting to persuade the reader of the importance of placing technology below human needs. Technology can be complementary to human experiences, even enrich them in ways that our ancestors would have never dreamed of. Again, even if you end up disagreeing – I don’t know that I agree with some of the conclusions he makes, but I’m still thinking it through – you’ll still view this is as a labor of love. He truly believes in technology’s potential but is as painfully aware of its risks. This attitude is in stark contrast to the ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ philosophy of Silicon Valley giants. That slogan, by the way, was Facebook’s actual slogan until 2014, in case anyone’s confused as to Mark Zuckerberg’s motivation.

And speaking of, the first episode of season 2 of The Fire These Times will be with Katy Cook, author of ‘the psychology of silicon valley‘, which is available online. We touched upon similar topics. Episode will be out on January 17th (Patreon supporters) and 18th (general public) to give me some time to record a few more episodes before properly ‘starting’ this year.


December 2020’s Recommended Webinars

Usual disclaimer: recommending webinars does not mean endorsing everything etc etc etc. I am just sharing what was interesting to watch.


Miscellaneous

I discovered this channel, Like Stories of Old, after this video was recommended by Jonathan McIntosh (of Pop Culture Detective), who was a previous guest on the podcast. I loved this video so much that I shortly became a Patreon of that page. Check it out.


The Fire These Times episodes of December 2020 + upcoming ones

There are at least fifteen confirmed guests for the first few months of 2021. Here are some of them.

A few have since been added so I’ll post an update on Patreon and Twitter.


Another Podcast Update

The Fire These Times is now on YouTube folks. In addition to the usual audio episodes, you will also get some that are filmed. I know you all already miss that video-conferencing action that defined 2020. I’m just here to satisfy those desires.

To subscribe, click here.


Miscellaneous

Ronnie Chatah, host of The Beirut Banyan, released a moving video on the 7th commemoration of the assassination of Mohammad Chatah, his father, in Beirut at the hands of Assad’s collaborators in Lebanon.

Ronnie was a previous guest of The Fire These Times and I’ve popped up on his podcast three times so far (1 and 2 and 3). I highly recommend the video. It has English subtitles.


Recommended films and series watched recently

scenes from Small Axe
  • Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, 2020-, UK, is a five-part film series for the BBC, about the Mangrove Nine case in 1970.
    Comment: This brilliant mini-series is a testament to both McQueen’s brilliance (and screenwriters Courttia Newland and Alastair Siddons’) and the BBC’s crucial role in fostering, when done well, a sense of common purpose in Britain.
scene from Tale of Cinema
  • Sang-soo Hong’s Tale of Cinema, 2005, South Korea, is actually two (or three) interrelated stories in one: a suicidal pact between two lost young adults, a troubled mother-son relationship and a struggling filmmaker who can’t quite come to terms with the fact that his friend used his trauma as the plot of a movie.
scene from Close-Up
  • Abbas Kiarostami’s docufiction Close-up, 1990, Iran, is based on the true story of Ali Sabzian who impersonated director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Sabzian plays himself, and Makhmalbaf also appears in movie.
    – Close-up by Criterion (watch after the movie): Hossein Sabzian on his Film Obsession
    Essay in Bidoun on Sabzian by Coco Ferguson
    Interview with Kiarostami on Close-up
    Comment: I don’t think I’ve felt this emotional after watching a film in a while. This is a movie to be cherished and watched more than once.
  • Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974, West Germany, a film on the romance that develops between Emmi, an elderly German woman, and Ali, a Moroccan migrant worker in post-World War II Germany.
scene from Pather Panchali
  • Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, 1955, West Bengal, India, depicts the childhood of the protagonist Apu and his elder sister Durga and the harsh village life of their poor family. It is the first part of the acclaimed Apu Trilogy.
    Comment: Pather Panchali is in some ways a classic poverty story, but its realism and raw poetic qualities left me extremely grateful that this work was actually preserved and restored. Its 2015 restoration is a fascinating story in itself by the way, look it up.
scene from The Good Lord Bird
  • Ethan Hawke’s The Good Lord Bird is a seven-parts mini-series on the abolitionist John Brown and a fictional enslaved boy who found himself part of Brown’s historic 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry.

Miscellaneous

In our Lebanese-Arab streets and patriarchal system, women are nicknamed “Baklava”.


Podcast episodes I’ve listened to recently

List of the podcast episodes that I’ve listened to recently. More specifically, the ones I’d recommend.

Although I’ve used their Spotify links to embed them, I actually use PocketCasts to listen to podcasts.


Miscellaneous

Rayhan Asat, president of the American Turkic International Lawyers Association, and former guest on The Fire These Times, is participating in Burst The Bubble UK to free her brother Ekpar Asat, one of the many Uyghurs forcibly disappeared in China. Ekpar was forcibly disappeared by the Chinese Communist Party in 2016.

Burst the Bubble UK is a group of teenagers aiming to raise awareness, encourage dialogue, overcome ignorance and encourage youth involvement about topics that need talking about such as: the Uyghur Genocide, Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism.

Check out Burst The Bubble UK and my episode with Rayhan Asat and Yonah Diamond entitled “The World’s Most Technologically Sophisticated Genocide is Happening in Xinjiang“.


Articles I’ve read recently

Repeated Quick Pro-tip: I use Pocket to save and archive articles – no, I’m not being sponsored by them (if you work at Pocket and want to sponsor me I am, ahem, available) – and I had the amusing honor of reaching their top 1% of readers in 2018.
Repeated Disclaimer: me sharing an article does not mean I agree with everything that is written. It just means I find it interesting.
Important Note: I am subscribed to Uneven Earth’s monthly readings and a number of the climate change/green politics-related pieces recommended below came from them.


Miscellaneous

If you’re wondering what’s happening in India and why so many farmers are protesting, here’s a quick summary by Vox.


Voila!

So this the fourth newsletter folks. The next one will be on the first Sunday of February 2021. If you want to get in touch please send me an email to j [dot] ayoub26 [at] gmail [dot] com.

Last point and this is the bit that no one really likes doing, but:

If you find any of my work useful, whether it be Hummus For Thought, The Fire These Times, my articles or even my archiving and commentary work on Twitter, please consider making a one-off or a recurring donation on Patreon, PayPal or BuyMeACoffee.

If you can’t afford it, you can still help by leaving a review of The Fire These Times wherever you listen to podcasts and/or share with your friends and family.

Happy New Year!

By Joey Ayoub

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