Thursday, December 26, 2019

Ruminations 89(1) (Blasphemies): Looking Back on 2019 in Epigrams and Aphorisms

The year 2019 is ending with the great rifts--opened in 2016, exposed in 2017, and acquiring a greater urgency and revealing the power of its consequences in 2018--now exposed. More than exposed, 2019 marked their explosion, the aftermath of which, in 2020, will be marked by the start of a variety of end games in law, society, politics, culture and economics. Global divisions, more acute in 2018, finally reached moved toward climax in virtually all states, and with respect to all systems--law, compliance, religious, societal, cultural, and economic. While 2020 will likely be the year in which the climax events of 2019 will play themselves out, the year 2019 was in many ways the year of the "big bang" for the third decade of the 21st century.

Indeed, 2019 was rich with rupture-climax events.  But it might also be said that 2019 was as much the year of the anti-climax--that is, the year that events, long anticipated, finally burst fully ripened. That was, of course, the story of the impeachment of President Trump bu the US House of Representatives.  But it was also the case with the decoupling of the Chinese and US economies (and note, not their separation or segregation) marked by rupture at the beginning of the year and a first stage arrangement at its end. This was also the year of Brexit, but not just Brexit but of the metaphor of Brexit fro the great inversions of political affiliation that appeared to affect political communities worldwide.  In some sense, this was also the great year of Jew baiting--everyone, it seems, had something to say about the People of Israel, even as their actions usually belied their words.  It was also the year of explosions.  There were explosions in Hong Kong, in Bolivia, in the UK, and in that stew pot that is Syria-Lebanon.  This was also the year of the rise of the core of leadership--in Turkey, Russia, China, the United States, Germany, and France.  When one thinks about 2019 in the future, one will think--climax, explosion, rupture, and revelation.    

With no objective in particular, this post and a number that follow provides my summary of the slice of 2019 to which I paid attention through epigrams and aphorisms.  It follows an end of year  tradition I started in 2016 (for those see here), 2017 (for these see here), and 2018 (for those see here).  

This is Part 1 (Blasphemies) in which it is possible to consider the growing centrality of blasphemy in the ruptures that marked the fracturing global order. In a world grown rich on large markets for belief, and fearful of the threats to the integrity of each, the issue of impiety--of insulting the gods, however they may constructed or deployed--has moved to center stage.  Share your own!

Ruminations 89: 2019 in Epigrams and Aphorisms:
Ruminations 89(1) (Blasphemies).
Ruminations 89(2) (Cults and Cult Objects).
Ruminations 89(3) (Impeachments).
Ruminations 89(4)  (Data, Discretion, and Analytics in the State-Enterprise Complex).
Ruminations 89(5) (The "Jewish Question" as Global Social Ordering)
Ruminations 89(6) (Metamorphosis)

1. Every society has its discursive taboos (blasphemies), the importance of which is marked by the severity of the consequences for the breach of the taboo; at its core blasphemy is a political project about the protection of the narrative of the way society wants to see itself.
"Sex and politics have been banned in TV soaps in a new wave of censorship in Egypt. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has come down hard on entertainment and news industries over the past three years and a new regulatory agency is overseeing output and censoring content. Soap operas now must contain no sex scenes, no blasphemy and no politics. Police and other authority figures should be presented positively. . . . It is President Sisi's vision - one of heroism and patriotic virtue. And it is being pursued with innovative techniques. . . . The government has also created two WhatsApp groups that instruct news media what to report, and has placed censors at TV stations to oversee output. . . Since 2017, a new firm called United Group for Media Services has taken control of news outlets, TV production companies and channels - in all, at least 14 so far - giving it unrivalled influence over the TV schedule. United Group has enthusiastically enforced government censorship rules. . . . A dozen industry and government sources told Reuters that United Group for Media Services was set up by the state. Two of its four board members have links to Egyptian General Intelligence, and one of the company's units was previously headed by the intelligence chief, Reuters found."(Sex and politics are BANNED in TV soaps as Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi unleashes new wave of censorship with his government using WhatsApp to tell the news media what to report).

2. Blasphemy has again become the way in which the leadership core of societies police their taboos. While the old fashioned connection between blasphemy and religion remains strong among certain religious communities strong enough to use the police power of the state to leverage their power; that is, blasphemy derives its power from law and as the law of the boundaries of societal and political discourse; everything else is said or written to make those bound by its limits free free within them.

A Pakistani court on Saturday convicted a Muslim professor of blasphemy, sentencing him to death for allegedly spreading anti-Islamic ideas. Junaid Hafeez has been held for six years awaiting trial. He's spent most of that time in solitary confinement because he would likely be killed if kept with the general population, local media have reported. Due to security concerns, Saturday's trial was held inside the jail where Hafeez is being held. Defense attorney Shahbaz Gormani said his client was wrongly convicted and that the verdict would be appealed. Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law carries an automatic death penalty for anyone accused of insulting God, Islam or other religious figures.

3. In liberal democracies, blasphemy marks the spaces of social fracture and serves as the means of policing the proper expression of social coherence as directed by its leadership cores; this parallels the older religious practice of centering blasphemy around disrespect of its core cosmology expressed as narrative with critical words of credo and anathema.

Ricky Gervais has declared that “trans women are women”, despite continuing to compare them to predatory men, after calls for him to be sacked as host of the Golden Globes. . . As Twitter users called him out on his “transphobic” comments, Gervais kept digging a hole… for 31 hours. He continued to push the false anti-trans narrative that trans women pose a threat to cis women when allowed to access single sex spaces such as public restrooms. . . But finally, in a bizarre turnaround, asked to clarify if he thinks “trans women are men or that there is another group of people that are men and up to no good”, he said: “Sure. I think trans women are women. I wasn’t talking about trans people.” . . . Asked if he understood the “real harm” he was causing to trans kids with his “transphobia”, Gervais responded: “I do. I also make jokes about AIDS, Cancer, Famine and The Holocaust. Those things do a bit of harm too. But jokes don’t. Have a nice day.” (Ricky Gervais meekly declares ‘trans women are women’ after calls to be sacked from Golden Globes gig for ‘transphobia’ )

4. But in liberal democracies as well, blasphemy marks the political borders of societies at civil war and the acceptable borders of narratives through which those wars are fought; in the religion of the state, blasphemy represents the way in which heresy is identified and punished, and through which control of societal narrative is enforced.

"In July, a law professor penned a commentary piece in which he claimed that "MAGA," or "Make America Great Again," hats are an "undeniable symbol of white supremacy and hatred toward certain nonwhite groups" after a student wore one to his class. In response, a conservative third-year law student, who attended the professor's class, wrote that his interpretation of a MAGA hat is a 'grotesque attack on the politics of a student.'" (Law student defends wearing MAGA hat to class after professor calls it a ‘symbol of white supremacy’).

"A student involved in a viral confrontation with a Native American man is suing the Washington Post for $250m (£191m) over its coverage of the incident. The defamation lawsuit, filed by Covington Catholic High School pupil Nick Sandmann, claims the newspaper “wrongfully targeted and bullied” him due to its “biased agenda” against Donald Trump. The 16-year-old was wearing one of the president’s signature Make America Great Again hats when he attended an anti-abortion rally in Washington in January along with classmates from his Kentucky school. The group of teenagers had become involved in a filmed confrontation with Nathan Phillips, an elderly Native American activist. A viral photo from the incident, showing Mr Sandmann standing face-to-face with Mr Phillips and smirking as the protester sings and plays his drum, sparked outrage on social media. Mr Phillips would later state in interviews he felt the students had been mocking him during the standoff. However, a longer video of the incident emerged showing the teenagers had also been subject to racist abuse from another group of protesters identifying as Black Hebrew Israelites." (MAGA hat student sues Washington Post for $250m over coverage of confrontation with Native American man).  

POSTSCRIPT "But on Friday, the judge overseeing the case dismissed that suit, saying that stories about Sandmann needed to be “more than annoying, offensive or embarrassing” in order to rise to the level of defamation." (Judge Dismisses MAGA Hat-Wearing Teen's $250M Lawsuit).

 5. Blasphemy can quickly descend into strategies of control of narrative, of people, of social forces; in divided societies, blasphemy can quickly descend to farce.
"A black security guard who was fired from his job at a Wisconsin high school for saying the N-word as he told a student not to call him the racial slur has been reinstated after his situation garnered national attention.  His return to Madison West High School was confirmed by a district supervisor, Jane Belmore, who said in a statement Monday that she had “heard from our community” in the aftermath of his firing, NBC News reported." (Black security guard reinstated at Wisconsin school after being fired for saying N-word while telling student not to call him the slur).
"This sort of inflexible mentality exists in the corporate world as well. Last year Netflix fired an executive who was trying to explain the problem with a Netflix comedy special in which the starring comedian said he longed for the days when it was acceptable to use the word “retarded.” The executive believed that Netflix needed to be more sensitive to the feelings of parents of developmentally delayed children. During a meeting specifically about how to handle sensitive content, he said that for such parents, hearing the word “retarded” on Netflix would be a “gut punch as if an African American person heard [the n word].” During a subsequent meeting with human resources officials, he repeated the analogy in the course of explaining it and was fired."  (‘N-Word’ Firing Shows That Zero Tolerance Means Zero Common Sense).

6.  The focus on eliminating blasphemy law becomes less relevant as law becomes less central to governance; the focus on the West, then, on the project of combating blasphemy laws distracts from the rise of blasphemy as a societal mechanism beyond the frameworks of traditional law.
Launching today at the European Parliament in Brussels, The Freedom of Thought Report by Humanists International, now in its eighth annual edition, examines the legal and human rights situation for “humanists, atheists and the non-religious” around the world.The 2019 edition celebrates the fact that eight countries have actually abolished ‘blasphemy’ laws in the past five years. But it also warns of a growing divide on the issue globally. 69 countries still retain such laws, and their penalties and prosecution are hardening in a number of states. States such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are noted as “perennial” blasphemy prosecutors. Despite the well-publicised release of Christian farm-worker Asia Bibi, the ongoing imprisonment of several accused atheists and many others in Pakistan, as well as extrajudicial violence against both humanists and religious minorities related to blasphemy accusations is condemned. (Freedom of Thought Report 2019 warns of “growing divide” on blasphemy laws).

7. The severity of penalties for blasphemy and its character are shaped by social values; in advanced market economies deprivation of economic status substitutes for the traditional penalties of death and social exclusion in more traditional society; and as pressure on the core narrative discursive taboos increases, the severity of the penalties whatever their character, increases at a faster rate.
Both Brunei and Mauritania have actually increased the penalties for ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’ in the past two years. Brunei’s new 2019 penal code renders blasphemy and apostasy, as well as other hudud crimes such as adultery and homosexuality, punishable by death. Mauritania introduced a mandatory death sentence for blasphemy and apostasy in April 2018. High-profile ‘blasphemy’ prosecutions are cited as cause for concern in Indonesia, as is the backlash against demonstrators protesting forced hijab in Iran, and prosecutions and intercommunal violence related to Hindutva beliefs demonstrates a deteriorating situation in India. Europe does not entirely escape criticism, despite the overall positive trend in the region, with Italy and Spain singled out for prosecutions against artists and protesters in recent years. (Freedom of Thought Report 2019 warns of “growing divide” on blasphemy laws).

8. The RELIGIOUS character of blasphemy does not disappear even as blaspheming RELIGION ceases to retain the protection of law; the fundamental religious character of blasphemy--an offense against core values, ideas, self-construction, and the like-- remain unchanged even as the religion of society becomes society itself.
Scotland and Northern Ireland are now among the few democratic jurisdictions where blasphemy is still punishable. In those places, too, it seems likely that the law will eventually be changed, even though vocal lobbies may drag their feet. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose MPs prop up the British government, is resisting change. Yet despite this liberalising trend, people who monitor the freedom of religion-related speech in the West, especially Europe, see no reason to be complacent. Whether because of old habits that die hard, or because of new ideas about how to manage diverse societies, threats to the freedom of expression are still palpable and in some ways rising, they say. . . . More fundamentally, campaigners for free speech are worried by the rise in the seductive but dangerous notion that people have a right not to be offended. Kenan Malik, a British writer, has argued that in the Western world, secular notions of “offence” and the protection of different communities’ feelings are taking the place of blasphemy laws explicitly based on religion. In fact, Mr Malik maintains, there is no real contradiction between the formal abolition of blasphemy legislation and the secular world’s ambivalent interpretation of “hate speech” or extremism to encompass meanings that can easily shut down all vigorous religious debate. Blasphemy is not so much being decriminalised as redefined. (Blasphemy laws are quietly vanishing in liberal democracies).

9. What cannot be said produces what cannot be tolerated; what cannot be tolerated must be suppressed; what must be suppressed  then burdens those suppressed who conform, fight or flee; there is a small space between blasphemy and migration in a global order in which borders are not barriers.

The United Nations (UN) has renewed its call for more interventions to address the nagging humanitarian crisis caused by the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-east. . . . The UN quoted Vincent Houver of the International Organization for Migration (IMO) as saying that “the crisis in the Lake Chad Region is far from over. The humanitarian community cannot spare any effort at this time. “This week, we met women, children and men who were forced to flee multiple times and urgently need protection and assistance to survive and rebuild their lives. We cannot let them down.” According to the UN agency, more than 134,000 persons had been displaced since January due to an upsurge in violence and military counter-operations in the sub-region. It revealed that about 7.1 million people needed lifesaving assistance, including food, nutrition and healthcare interventions, while about three million others, including one million children, were vulnerable to food insecurity and malnutrition.

 10. Blasphemy reminds us that what cannot be suppressed will be expelled.
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has criticised the Indian government over its stance on granting Rohingya Muslims citizenship, saying the country had a different stance on non-Muslims fleeing religious persecution in its neighbouring countries. . . . “They are Muslims and they are our neighbours and they certainly deserve the same kind of sympathy as non-Muslims minorities who get into difficulties in the neighboring countries. So I think there is a systematic bias in governmental thinking,” he said. He made the remarks after around 1,300 Rohingyas left India for Bangladesh fearing deportation to Myanmar. Indian authorities deported seven Rohingyas to Myanmar in October. (Why different stance for Rohingyas? Amartya Sen questions Delhi's citizenship plan).

11. To flee because one has become the embodiment of blasphemy in one place can produce a hierarchy of toleration in another with respect to which both the toleration and the hierarchy themselves are abomination for those societies and religious communities deep in the act of suppression and control
"Police arrested dozens of people and enforced a curfew Thursday in several districts in India’s northeastern Assam state where thousands protested legislation that would grant citizenship to non-Muslims who migrated from neighboring countries. . . .  The protesters in Assam oppose the legislation out of concern that migrants will move to the border region and dilute the culture and political sway of those who already live there. The legislation was passed by Parliament on Wednesday and now needs to be signed by the country’s ceremonial president, a formality, before becoming law. Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for peace and in a tweet said: 'I want to assure them — no one can take away your rights, unique identity and beautiful culture. It will continue to flourish and grow.'”(Protesters in India take to the streets to protest citizenship bill for non-Muslim migrants). (Boko Haram: UN calls for more support to tackle worsening humanitarian crisis)

12. All societies and their leadership cores (however constituted) protect societal integrity (whether society is religious, political, ethnic or whatever) but quibble over the identification of the taboos against which blasphemy is deployed; but all societies also protect those fleeing blasphemy, as long in the fleeing and in the reception within the narrative taboos of the receiving communities

"May the Son of God, come down to earth from heaven, protect and sustain all those who, due to these and other injustices, are forced to emigrate in the hope of a secure life. It is injustice that makes them cross deserts and seas that become cemeteries. It is injustice that forces them to ensure unspeakable forms of abuse, enslavement of every kind and torture in inhumane detention camps. It is injustice that turns them away from places where they might have hope for a dignified life, but instead find themselves before walls of indifference." (Pope Francis’ Christmas Urbi et Orbi Message 2019).

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