Category Archives: Comment

2016 – A disastrous year? 

First Brexit, now Trump! It seems that we haven’t yet recovered from the first shock and now we’re experiencing another political hammer-blow!

Disappointed people across the world blame the alleged stupidity and ignorance of Trump supporters. Terms like racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia and any other descriptions of discrimination appear repeatedly in articles, opinions, comments.

But is it true? Is ignorance and discrimination to blame for the political decisions in 2016? Or is it rather a deep disappointment and anger about the arrogance and failure of the establishment, of the media and of leaders like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. Was it a vote for Trump, or against Clinton?

According to a study by the Pew Research Centre, President Obama has hit the lowest level of trust of the US populace towards the federal government for around fifty years. Levels are higher among Democrat party members than Republicans, but still the number never exceeds 40%. When it comes to socioeconomic issues and immigration, Americans seem to be very unhappy about their government’s performance. 61% say that the government has failed to address the matter of fighting poverty. The highest levels of mistrust (68%) are felt regarding handling of immigration. However, the immigration itself does not seem to be the main problem. It is rather illegal immigration and the consequences it is believed to create, namely unemployment and social inequality, which points back to the government’s failure to address poverty.

Obama made his original bid for presidency on the back of the slogan ‘Yes, we can’. He represented hope for change, and even received a Nobel Prize, “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”.

His flagship ‘Obamacare’ health policy has been highly praised in Europe but criticised in the US, perceived as financially burdening the middle class. Ideological division is more severe than ever, generating hostility between different groups.

Obama’s foreign policy has also been criticised for allowing Syria to escalate into a civil war, and also for the continuing deployment of drones in Pakistan which caused many civilian casualties and a destabilization of the political situation in the country.

Another issue which might have contributed to Trump’s election is the disappointment felt by Bernie Sander’s supporters. When Clinton won the nomination to be the Democrat’s presidential candidate, some  were not able to hide their regret and back Hillary.

Clinton may not be as controversial a figure as Donald Trump, but still many subjects affect her reputation: Whitewater, support of the Iraq War, the private email server controversy, Benghazi, accusations of corruption and a perceived lack of empathy. In contrast to the grandfatherly Sanders, Clinton makes a cold, sometimes arrogant impression.

This impression has been reinforced during a campaign which was often focused more on attacking her opponent than on tackling the issues that exercise people. As Sanders’ staff tweeted, many Trump supporters are not sexist and racist, but are “worried about their kids; they’re working longer hours for lower wages”. Sanders emphasised the need to reach out to these people and to create an economy that would allow everyone to make a living. Social equality could erase discrimination. America has to unite against both – inequality and discrimination.

Though he ultimately endorsed Hillary, many of Sanders’ supporters announced they would not vote for her but rather for third party candidates like the Green Party’s Jill Stein. It appears the Democrats made a mistake when they chose Hillary as their candidate, a politician seen as representative of the unpopular establishment, and of the government in Washington.

So what happens next? Is Trump going to the next World War? He has been described as ‘Putin’s puppet’ and as unpredictable, after stating he would support Russia’s actions in Syria and combat ISIS together with Putin. Besides this, Trump does not seem to have a clear plan or strategy on foreign policy. He has put forward ideas of isolationism and non-interventionism, in order to focus on domestic issues and ‘making America great again’.

However, Clinton’s harsh tone towards Russia was also dangerous. Her plan to establish a no-fly zone over Syria was considered by President Obama as risking initiating a conflict with Russia. Indeed, the USA needs to be careful towards Russia. Russia does not intend waging a war, but direct clashes with the USA might escalate into a full-scale conflict.

On the other hand, Trump’s idea of a cooperation with Russia and his questioning of article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty could lead to the USA taking a submissive role, with a weakened position in the international arena. The USA might then lose their lead over emerging powers like Russia or China, who could take over the role of ‘world policeman’ and abuse this power in an unpredictable ways for their own benefit.

A war or armed conflict with Trump as president does not seem so likely. His populist rhetoric appears to be a strategy to gain attention and voters. We can only hope he did not actually mean all he said, and that as president he will adopt a diplomatic persona. Otherwise, we could face dark times similar to 1930s Europe. Nevertheless, the impact on society might still be severe, similar to the post-Brexit-Referendum atmosphere in Great Britain, which has seen a wave of racist attacks across the country.

Trump’s lack of experience and unclear strategy might not lead into outright disaster, but instead to a stagnation of the US, economically, politically and socially. It is important at this point to accept Trump as president and simultaneously observe him carefully. Discrimination remains an issue which has to be dealt with, still we cannot say that this is the only motivation of Trump supporters.

The true losers in these elections are not just Democrats, but all the people of the USA who went through an exhausting and embarrassing campaign, seemingly without any moral or ethical limits, that was ultimately more about political power games than actual reform and progress. At the end of this tiring road, citizens arrived at the ballot-box to choose between two candidates who at the end have nothing to offer and do not care about them, the nation.

The disastrous outcomes of the US elections or the Brexit Referendum do not necessarily prove the continuing strength of racism, sexism or any other kind of discrimination. Rather, they reflect the failure of politicians and governments! The US and the UK are only two of many examples in the modern world. If political leaders do not wake up and face the reality, soon we will see more examples of people choosing a life in misery over the arrogance of the political establishment.

Birkbeck German Society

f82f20de-7499-49cd-80f6-20cffd879129

The German society is one of the most vibrant societies of Birkbeck, and  has recently celebrated its fifteenth year in Malet Street. Under the current President, Ryan Gray, and Secretary, Geraldine MacMahon, there are twenty seven active Birkbeck students affiliated with the society, alongside eighteen associate members.

International trips have included excursions to Dresden, where members visited the Semperoper (Dresden’s Opera House), the Frauenkirche, and the Zwinger Palace.  The society also travelled to Meissen, situated North-West of Dresden, the home of Albrechtsburg Castle and Gothic Meissen Cathedral.

Ryan and Geraldine will be arranging events at The Goethe Institute in South Kensington, and The Austrian Cultural Forum in Knightsbridge. Admission is generally free of charge for events, but occasionally trips may cost a couple of pounds.London trips have included an excursion to Wigmore Hall for a liederabend, where students enjoyed an evening listening to the songs of Franz Schubert. The society also took in a performance of Berholt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Three Penny Opera at The National Theatre in June. Ryan and Geraldine hope to plan a trip to Munich in March 2017.

The society regularly meet up at Bierschenke, an authentic Munich beer hall in the City, and  The George Birkbeck Bar.  Ryan and Geraldine intend to arrange at least one film screening at the beginning of next term, and arrange guest speakers to give a talk on current affairs including Germany’s future in the EU post-Brexit.

From the beginning of the next academic term (2016/17), the membership fee will be £10 for current students, and £12 for associates to join. There will be opportunities to run for a variety of prominent positions within the society including President, Treasurer and Secretary.

For more information, follow the Student Union website at:

http://www.birkbeckunion.org/groups/german-society–4

german@socs.birkbeckunion.org

Lebt wohl, liebe leser!

 

 

Global Goals: Take Action

On the 28th of April 2016 the London International Development Centre and the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity will host the Global Goals: Take Action conference.

The event will take place in the Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, on behalf of UCL, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), SOAS, the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), and Birkbeck. The conference will address the challenges presented by the post-2015 development agenda.

The Global Goals for Sustainable Development (also known as the SDGs) build on the Millennium Development Goals, which focused on meeting the needs of the world’s poorest in low and middle income countries.

The new Global Goals are universal, so will be applicable to developed, as well as developing countries.

The conference aims to challenge students to think about the impact of the goals and how that might be relevant to them in the future, and guide them towards training and careers.

The event is aimed at undergraduate and postgraduate students from all disciplines from UCL, LSHTM, SOAS, RVC, and Birkbeck.

The Global Goals are set to run from 2015 to 2030, a time scale which will coincide with a sizable proportion of current students’ careers. The conference will be targeted at students from across all subject areas – to include medicine, public health, engineering, politics, law, pharmacy, veterinary science, anthropology, geography, environmental sciences and development studies, among others.

The day will kick off with a panel debate, then everyone will have the opportunity to get involved in more focused discussions with leading experts in international development around clusters of goals on six desks.

The themes for the desks will be:

 

The conference will end with a high profile guest who will bring together the day’s ideas towards action for 2030.

The conference is free for all undergraduate and postgraduate students from Birkbeck, UCL, SOAS, LSHTM, and RVC.

You can book a place here.

How much do you know about the goals? Please take our survey.

Birkbeck welcomes Sir Keir Starmer MP for campus visit

Sir Keir Starmer, MP for Holborn and St Pancras, received a warm welcome at Birkbeck, University of London where he met staff and students from across the college community.

The Labour MP, elected in May 2015, visited the University on Friday, 23 October and had discussions with Professor David Latchman, Master of the college about a range of topics including Birkbeck’s advocacy for the societal and economic benefits of combining work and study.

Recent Birkbeck initiatives include a joint submission with the Open University to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, calling for policy changes to help stimulate part-time study, and Parliamentary briefings on the decline in part-time students and the opportunities apprenticeships present for expanding university study and widening participation.

Sir Keir also met a group of students who shared their stories of the difference studying at an institution dedicated to providing degree-level education in the evening has made to their lives.

One of these students, Michael Peltier, who has successfully completed Birkbeck’s three-year degree in BSc Accounting and is studying for a Master’s degree in Accounting and Finance at the college, said:

“I am already seeing the fantastic benefits of studying and working simultaneously – I’m now employed in a role which otherwise would have required me to have years of experience, so studying at Birkbeck has definitely given me the edge. I’ve already learnt that employers really value Birkbeck students because balancing work and study shows you can deal with the demands of a career.”

Also in attendance was Birkbeck student Alicia Caley, who earlier this year successfully completed a BA Global Politics and International Relations (full-time) at the college, and who has now commenced studies on the MSc Government, Policy and Politics (part-time).

Alicia said: “Having the opportunity to study in the evenings has really opened up opportunities for me over the past three years. I have been able to gain invaluable experience of full time work whilst being able to gain a degree in the evenings over three years. Now I am studying for a Masters at Birkbeck that compliments my career perfectly. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the flexibility that comes with the structure of evening learning at Birkbeck.”

Sir Keir also toured the Birkbeck’s Bloomsbury campus to find out more about our world-class facilities in the heart of London’s Knowledge Quarter.

Speaking after the meeting, Professor Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, said:

“It has been an honour to welcome Sir Keir onto campus and to introduce him to Birkbeck’s work and the key role we play in enabling Londoners to combine work with study to gain new skills and knowledge.”

Article written and originally published by the Birkbeck External Relations Team, reprinted with their permission

Is life today ‘absurd’?

Expanding on Friedrich Nietzsche’s work, Albert Camus asks what it means for man if God is dead. Firstly, we will be forced to deal with our own mortality. Secondly, if we conclude that there is a limit to life – a death with no afterlife – then we must question the meaning or purpose of life. Without the notions of immortality or a limitless life, is there any escape from absurdity?

Absurdity occurs when the need for individual understanding meets the unreasonable structure of the world. Once stripped of romanticism, the world is an unsuitable place for the individual. Human thought isn’t absurd, nor is society in itself. The problem arises from the conflict between society and individual; absurdity comes out of the confrontation between these two distinct forms.

From this conflict comes the idea of absurdist reasoning. There can be no place for true knowledge in the absurdity of reality, as every explanation leads to abstraction or metaphor. The concept of hope, the promise of an undefined number of “tomorrows”, is another precondition of the absurd. The eternality of “tomorrow” is a denial of the individual’s own death.

To this, Camus would respond, there is but one truly serious philosophical answer and that is suicide. He does not accept physical suicide, because that would bring the absurdity to an end (the absurd cannot exist without man). The suicide Camus refers to is a philosophical one; that is, making the leap from the absurd to a higher power, be that God (Kierkegaard) or reason (Husserl). Camus sees this as both a contradiction to the original premise of absurdism and an escape from the absurd itself.

In contrast, he suggests embracing the absurd. This requires an understanding of the contradiction in the human-society dichotomy; reason and its limits must be acknowledged. Passion and enjoyment of every part of the absurd life, together with revolt against the original precept, is necessary to achieve acceptance of one’s existence. Hope is also denied; metaphysical freedom can’t exist alongside hope.

Camus identifies a heroic type of absurd man in the legend of Sisyphus. Having defied the Gods, Sisyphus is condemned to an eternal punishment: pushing a rock up a mountain, only to see it roll back down, so he must start again. The moment of tragedy, as Camus points out, is when Sisyphus walks back down to start over again; he recognises the lack of hope in his life, yet the understanding of his impaired condition gives him the freedom of acceptance.

Camus compares this meaningless task to the experience of his contemporaries: “The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” Camus thinks of Sisyphus as a happy man.

Does this absurdist reasoning stand up in today’s world?

Technology has become an essential part of our lives. It is embedded in the everyday. The world wide web has become an open door to the human culture through which anything can be found; knowledge can be accessed with a tap on a smartphone. This easy availability of knowledge poses an epistemological query: we perceive it as “attainable” without considering the actual limit of our intellect.

A study from Yale University demonstrated that internet-based knowledge and book-based learning are completely different, with the latter performing better under testing. The same study found that those who base their knowledge solely on internet sources will boast of knowledge that they don’t actually have. As an evolved society, we shouldn’t be blind to the fact that the constant abuse of technological devices is changing the way we perceive reality.

Back in the 1980s, Baudrillard recognised how human societies were transitioning into an extended reality: signs and symbols replacing our experience of reality with a construct, tailored to the human being. With this extended reality now closely aligned to advertising and stereotyped mass culture, it becomes clear that technology has become widely misused. Instead of functioning as a resource to help us compensate for our lack, it has become a vehicle for media to bombard users with messages designed to create false needs. And how could we engage in a meaningful analysis of our lives (a requirement in Camus’ absurdity of life) when the mass cultural messages that pervade our reality are telling you the exact opposite?

One could conclude that these multiple media assaults might help us to recognise the absurd. But understanding the absurd is intrinsically related to solitude. We are social mammals. We nurture relationships.  Fear of loneliness is hardwired in our brains, as if we wouldn’t exist without being part of a group. Through technology, the media machine has modified our perception of solitude. Fear of missing out has become a key theme of our time. This constant engagement with others denies us precious time for thinking, about our lives, our society. Without time and space to think, we can not confront the unreasonableness of society. A dilute thought is already available, just a click away.

Our awareness of society has become merged with technology. There is no collision anymore, as in Camus’ conditions for the absurd to arise. Instead, the two elements collude together, forming a blend of needs and easy access that leave thinking out of the equation and makes questioning our lives feel unnecessary.

Camus’ Sisyphus is a happy man, while our society is facing epidemic depression. Any thoughts why?

My Place in the World: A short meditation on identity and happiness

Preface

The main purpose of this article is to explore an individual’s identity and role within their society. Birkbeck students continue to define and redefine their role in society. We often define ourselves against or in accordance to our ancestry. Some students may say something like, “Although my ancestors were ethnically Russian and Catholic, I am a British atheist because I choose to be, regardless of my ethnicity and ancestry.”

Does ethnicity determine our characters or are there other contributing factors? Ethnicity, the environment we live in and the choices we make are all factors that form our character and personality.

On this topic, I spoke to a woman who lives in Turkey when she visited London this April to attend the Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race. She is the daughter of a family friend.

Narrative

The people I refer to as “My parents” are the people that have raised me since the time of my infancy.

Of whom I was before my adoption, I remain in the dark, exempting that I am ethnically of Egyptian origin.

The identity of the people who created my entry into this world remains unknown to me to this day. If I ever had memories of them, they have long gone from my mind.

It is immaterial to me that my adopted parents were born into practising Catholic families. They consider themselves Turkish secularists, and I consider myself Turkish secularist. Why should it matter to me if my ancestors were taught to say Happy Christmas, or Diwali, or Hanukkah, but my parents were not?

I have always believed that culture is an adjustable feature. We are who we choose to be regardless of our lineage.

Do I feel that an unfilled void exists within my heart due to the absence of my biological family in my life? No. I do not. Still, I have often thought about them and wondered how life would have turned out for me if I had grown up with them.

Do I have just cause to regret the way life turned out for me? No. I am aware that I have never wanted for anything and that is nothing to regret.

The parents I know and love best in this world watched me develop from infancy to adulthood, held and I hushed me as I have wept, and shared in my triumphs. Their love for me has been and continues to be unrestrained and constant. Additionally, I am privileged to have had so many friends with outstanding qualities like loyalty and Bravery. The love and respect I have for these individuals is what gives me the courage to persevere in my quest to achieve happiness and success.

If I searched the whole world, I know I would never be able to find a better life than the one I have now.

Someday I hope to have the opportunity to give a child the love and stability I was given. And I hope they have the freedom to identify as they wish, regardless of my beliefs, our culture, or ethnicity.