IN 2002 THE SPRING issue of the magazine Ms came an article with title “Coalition of Hope written by journalist Janelle Brown. This article celebrated the fall of the Taliban-regime in Afghanistan as a victory for feminism. Brown described the regime’s brutal oppression of women in heart-breaking details.
AND THEN, THE HORROR was over. The future seemed bright, in the eyes of the Ms’ reporter. The transition government, led by the Northern Alliance, was “the coalition of hope” to Afghan women. Finally they could take of their burkas, finally saved by the USA and their allies.
THE INVASION of Afghanistan was humanitarian, a victory to the global solidarity among women. On this they agreed, the feminist Brown and the US President wife Laura Bush. The first lady received the news about Taliban’s fall with strong emotions in front of the TV cameras broadcasted all over the world. Something glittered on her jacket, a burka pin. Later she spoke emotionally on the 8 th of March, the women’s day. Now they were free, our Afghan sisters.
THEN SOMETHING HAPPENED that does not happen often. The native struck back. This time it was not a book salesman from Kabul that took the initiative, but the Afghan feminist organisation RAWA. On the 20 th of April 2002 RAWA’s spokeswomen answered to Brown’s hit reportage in Ms and of course they did not defend the Taliban.
RAWA ACTIVISTS fought against women’s oppression and violations of human rights for 25 years. They bitterly fought the Taliban – risking their lives and health. “But also against those who ruled Afghanistan before the Taliban”, the RAWA-women point out to the Ms. They fought against “assaults” from Soviet invasion forces and their local supporters. But also against the “jehadine”, later called the Northern Alliance, and their “criminal” Islamist regime. Because this regime also violated “women’s rights”, and “destroyed their lives” – “armed and supported by USA”. At that time we did not hear a single voice from the feminist majority in the West, reports RAWA spokeswomen. Now the same majority speaks a lot and very loudly about these “violators” as “rescuers”.
THE AFGHAN FEMINISTS are obviously disturbed with Western feminists’ unreasonableness and hypocrisy; with how easily Western feminists adopt their struggles to “big powers’ national security strategies”, with their light-heartedness in relation to war horrors. Nobody knows how many died during the USA-led war in Afghanistan.
PEOPLE SEE the airplanes in the sky and they do not know if they will receive help-packages or if they will be bombed. With which right do we forget their anxiety? writes Drucilla Cornell, philosopher of law and literature in her book DefendingIdeals, War, Democracy and Political Struggles. A lot can go wrong when we “defend ideals”, she concludes. The traps connected to idealism are many, but Cornell is idealist just like many of us others. “Despite all our mistakes we continue to defend ideals, freedom, equality and peace”, while “we contest their meaning”. What else should we do?
THOUGHTS ABOUT A “complex and nuanced idealism” Cornell finds in the philosophy of Marx and Adorno, Kant and Rawls, the Indian Gayatri Spivak, and the Italian Giorgio Agamben. She finds inspiration in literature, in daily life.
CORNELL DWELLS a lot on Ms. vs. RAWA. The controversy can teach us something about how difficult it is to be idealist without getting lost. A lot of Western feminists, possibly the “majority” went from one trap of idealism into another during the Afghanistan conflict. What happened? When did she go wrong, the feminist from the West?
SHE MADE A MISTAKE when she believed that everyone who spoke her language shared her cause – when she believed that all those who spoke about women’s rights were feminists. She made a mistake when she assumed that freedom, peace and feminism were Western ideals, exclusively – that the civilisation had to be introduced from the outside while Afghan feminists for years have fought and sacrificed themselves for freedom and peace – amongst others even against a regime supported by the West.
SHE MADE A MISTAKE when she idealised herself, rather than her ideals; the Western life form rather than the universal morality. And she failed when she said that the war promoted the highest of goals – human rights, women’s liberation, but did not care enough to check whether this was really the case.
ANYWAY, we have to try again, the art of the impossible, to fight for ideals without stepping on them, for freedom that does not cost someone else their freedom, for a peace that does not cost someone else their peace.
IF WE GIVE UP on idealism, we give in to the “right of the strongest” Cornell writes. We let might become right. Someone profits from that, and they are not the powerless ones.
DURING THE LAST COUPLE OF YEARS the task of tabloids changed. The shocking stories are no longer ridiculous. Today tabloids are intensifying the farce of our daily lives by systematically reducing the seriousness of the tragic events by placing them on their front pages.
THE RISENGA REPORT is a story of Solveig Skinnarland, an ex-nurse, who wrote a diary about her suffering while she was lying in a nursing home. Solveig died without getting absolutely necessary care that should be provided to all patients admitted to such institutions. After she died the content of her diary was made public.
IN THE "TRAM KILLING" due to negligence, a psychiatric patient was released from the local hospital without having a place to go to. After only one day of being by himself, in a psychosis, he killed a person on one of the central trams in Oslo.
LATELY WE HAVE LOST COUNT of how many people had died because doctors at the emergency care refused to treat patients because they could not get in contact with their local GPs.
ONE THING all these cases have in common is that after every single event we read in newspapers and saw on TV the “potential responsibility taker’s” giving endless excuses for what had happened. Their statements ranged from that “they could not know” to that “somebody else had responsibility and they will find out who it was, and make sure that it does not happen ever again”. It was also said at one point how “publicly it is not possible to go into details about the particular case because of (our good old friend) ‘confidentiality obligation’. In a case of Solveig’s diary (not to talk about the painful pictures of bruises that demonstrated amounts of pain the lady tolerated daily) the potential responsibility taker went as far as stating how Solveig’s story should not be taken so seriously since she was after all a very old and care-needy person.
How is this possible???
WHAT THESE EVENTS REALLY DEMONSTRATE is just how impossible it is to pin down responsibility for what happened to a single person. The answer to the question of how this is possible, Zygmunt Bauman pinpointed some years ago in his book “Modernity and the Holocaust”. He writes that what we are confronted with here is a modern phenomenon, namely the “endless free-floating of responsibility”. What he means is that when such situations occur and someone shall be made responsible, we are not able to pin down responsibility to a single agent, and the result is exactly the opposite: Instead of taking the responsibility for what had happened, on oneself, the system is actively used by single individuals for systematic avoidance of responsibility.
Bauman’s “free-floating of responsibility” is a phenomenon we have difficulties avoiding in our daily lives, due to enormous bureaucratising of our society. Without thinking about it in our daily life, the extreme administration of human relations allows us not to feel responsibility for our own actions that effect others.
OUR RESPONSIBILITY for our own acts is assumed, and since we do not feel powerful enough to do something with this completely lacking feeling of responsibility, very quickly we give in to our survival strategies: We suppress the unpleasant in order to make life more liveable for ourselves. We end up in something Bauman calls “the/an agentic state” where we see ourselves as executives of other’s, in this case as the system’s wishes. This state is a condition for execution of immoral or illegitimate behaviour by persons who under ordinary, normal circumstances would not think of doing anything immoral. An answer to the question of how this is possible, that we do not even feel ashamed once we are confronted with catastrophic results of our action, according to Bauman, is very simple. We are trained by the system to feel shame or pride, dependent of how well or how effective we complete the task given, according to ask by the superior’s authoritative scale for obedience.
DUE TO THE SYSTEM’S IDEOLOGY, we are daily convinced that our own happiness and our own valuable existence, in the future as well as today, lies safely in the hands of the system. But seen from the reflections over these particular events, we can only hope as individuals, each for ourselves, that we never end up on the front page of tabloids as either covered with bruises, as psychotic tram killers, or simply dead resulting from negligence at emergency care, as an indication of how valuable and quality determined our existence is as modern individuals.