"It Didn't Go So"

"It didn't go so," she said under her breath. —Erna Brodber, Myal, p.84.

A non-state political theory - 27 Feb 2015 21:25

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Ibn Khaldūn

One of my favorite political theorists is the fourteenth century Arab scholar and juridical activist Ibn Khaldūn, because he theorized state politics without forgetting the politics of the steppes, desert, and wastelands.

Ibn Khaldūn was born to a family of Yemeni aristocrats and indigenous Berbers in Andalusia fifty years after the height of the Mongol Empire, which conquored a quarter of the world's population. He worked in northwest Africa during a time of intense political instability and worked in Cairo while the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur beseiged and sacked Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, and Ankara.

At 32 years old, Ibn Khaldūn was put in charge of a mission from Granada to Castile to ratify a treaty between the Christian King Pedro the Cruel and the Arabs. Near the end of his life he met many times with Timur during the 1401 seige of Damascus and amazingly negotiated the release of Mamluk prisoners, though after he left Damascus it was brutally sacked.1 He was a thinker well-aware the power of many forms of state and non-state politics.


Ibn Khaldūn's basic political concept was asabiyah, which is something like solidarity/consensus. The word comes from the roots ‘asab ("to bind") and `asabah ("union"). The concept owes something to Plato and something to pre-Islamic Arabic tradition, but Ibn Khaldūn’s use of it is very original. Asabiyah is strongest outside the state among nomads and rural people (such as fourteenth century bedouins, slavs, turkomans, and barbarians). It is strongest among the camel-herders who range the greatest distance from the state. It requires blood-relation (real or mythical), and is tested in the ability of nomads and rural people to decisively defend their group against any threat that has a weaker asabiyah. "The asabiyah that unites a group of people against strangers simultaneously reinforces the values and norms of the group."2

Among primitive communist non-state actors, royalty emerges only on the basis of asabiyah. A person only becomes royal through eagerness to cultivate good qualities: "generosity, the forgiveness of error, tolerance toward the weak, hospitality toward guests, the support of dependents, maintenance of the indigent, patience in adverse circumstances, faithful fulfillment of obligations, liberality with money for the preservation of honor, respect for the religious law and for the scholars who are learned in it,"3 and a dozen more.

Royal authority in a state (city, kingdom, or caliphate) can maintain power through force; not so in the desert or steppes. Sometimes a non-state actor becomes strong enough that it sacks the state and takes it over. Within four generations any royal lineage with state authority becomes decadent and is overthrown.

The city and the desert

Ibn Khaldūn's political philosophy, with its acceptance of non-state politics, contrasts with Greek and Roman traditions in political philosophy.

Greeks and Romans…invented two forms of political life that the world had never before seen, the polis and the republic, and two concepts of law. In both cases what stands outside the law, either as a boundary or as an organization of alliances, is a desert. The law makes possible the world contained within the polis and the greater world that for the first time arose between formerly hostile peoples incorporated into the republic.4

What Ibn Khaldūn knew was that the desert beyond Greek and Roman law was inhabited.

I think it is widely understood today that the state does not have a monopoly on politics. The political and governing power of investment banks, insurance companies, narcos, tech/surveillance/defense industries, terrorist networks, big faith-based organizations, and powerful humanitarian organizations is too naked to ignore.

Anarchist anthropologist James C. Scott theorized the politics of dominated people. Is there a common-sense political philosophy today that, like Ibn Khaldūn's, provides robust concepts for theorizing the domination of a state by non-state actors? - Comments: 0

Teaching mental health - 23 Feb 2015 07:37

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Disputing convention

I don't like how most street medic trainings teach mental health. There is generally something about recognizing "serious mental illness," screening for suicidality in distressed people, and referring the person into the psychiatric system by some route or another. Other "red flags" in some medic trainings include (as I've heard medics describe it), "someone who does not share your reality" or "someone who has gone off their meds."

These messages go against more than a century and a half of civil rights agitation by people who have been subject to mental health systems (and their allies who work in the system).1 The approach of medicalizing distress and preventatively calling 911 is counter to current national best practices of trauma-informed and recovery-focused care.

Training agenda

I teach "social health" when I train. If I framed that section as mental health, I would teach:

  • Recovery-affirming and trauma-informed attitudes
  • HALTS and wellness planning
  • Helping someone make a decision
  • Understanding and using warmlines, hotlines, and other crisis resources
  • Setting good boundaries, using your own support, consent and disclosure

I would briefly touch on basic harm reduction and recovery options for alcohol and other drug use, and highlight sexual assault crisis options. I might teach some basics about helping when someone is suicidal and about learning to be okay with self-inflicted violence.

Good resources

The National Empowerment Center is a great resource for trauma-informed, recovery-focused approaches. Their crisis alternatives page links to information about Emotional CPR (including a free archived webinar) and Intentional Peer Support trainings, and to warmlines and peer-run respites. The rest of their website is also a treasure trove. Check out the archived webinar on alternatives to suicide support groups and the video on Afiya house.

If you learn by reading, see the 36 page PACE manual for a good introduction to recovery. It's part of a curriculum (like Intentional Peer Support) for people to provide support based on their own recovery stories. I think all medics could benefit from a look at the diagram on page 16 to see mental illness as temporary and a civil rights issue.


The 96-page Engaging Women in Trauma-Informed Peer Support manual goes way beyond what we would teach in a medic training, but it is really useful for evaluating whether your attitudes and approaches are trauma-informed, and answering your questions about taboo subjects like self-inflicted violence.2

Moving Toward Healing: A Nunavut Case Study is a sensitive and practical 37-page examination of a very low-cost, trauma-informed, peer-run program that is the de-facto mental health, sexual assault, and domestic violence program for an Inuit community in Northern Canada. I think it digs the deepest of all the resources on this page into fundamental questions about healing without professional help.3

Finally, many people (including me) have found wellness planning to be an essential part of their recovery process. My favorite guide, despite its medicalizing language, is the 13-page Action Planning for Prevention and Recovery. To do wellness planning with someone (or yourself) in crisis, start out with a post crisis plan.


I don't expect medics to be professional mental health workers, or even to get training beyond a 20-hour; I'm just thinking about how we organize the 2-4 hours in the training devoted to these topics to be less diagnostic/stigmatizing/ineffective. I think many medics are excellent with people in sometimes overwhelming distress; our trainings should reflect our best practices, not our worst. - Comments: 0

Chicago at night - 05 Feb 2015 19:13

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This is a letter I wrote to my mom in April 2012. I had moved to Chicago and was staying Uptown in a house with my old friend Mo. Mom thought I should share it.

Hi Mom,

I want to tell you a story about the context of my life here in Chicago. Not the actions, conferences, trainings, consulting, or mentees, but the world around and over it all, vivid enough that you can fly out your office window and be here with me for a moment.

I live in a beautiful house in a beautiful city with my beautiful mentor, Mo. Beauty is about looking, but it is also about knowing something deeper.

When I look and know, I am looking and knowing from someplace, from a particular position, from a place and experiences, full of blind spots and full of my own truth. My vision and knowledge is partial and incomplete, but it is mine.

In this neighborhood, rabbits hop and wait in the grassy strips beside roads and the grassy lots where houses used to be. everywhere someone seems to be standing determined with defiant dignity. The wind blows my skirt around while I wait on the elevated platform for the train or walk a long way at night or try to get warm by the fire in the half-barrel barbecue pit across the street from the Woodlawn Clinic.

The lake is always to the east, and so are you and dad and Caleb, further east, and then the ocean. That is my geography, how I stay anchored, like awareness of the location of the river in New Orleans. But the lake is broad, a whale, an enormous creature, while the river was a slithering and deadly snake, unsettled and moving against its confinement in artificial levees. I like the silent bulk of the lake, especially at night, and the sleeping breath of it on the wind.

Mom, this city is like when you stretch out and yawn before you get up. It is a spreading pool of slow but living blood. I love its embrace.

Broadway at night

About 5 L stops north of the Loop on the red line, you exit the train onto the crumbling 150 year old platform. The track workers lay straight lines onto disintegrating piers, and later in the year they will tear up that deformed, settled track and lay straight lines again. The woman in the station booth is always there at this time of night, friendly but preoccupied.

On the street, under the nighttime sky, closed businesses hold their ground behind plate glass, not crowding in, just waiting patiently for the morning. Tank Noodle. Trang Viet. Hairdressers and barbershops, corner stores and groceries, Vietnamese restaurants and an asian medicine shop.

Across the wide expanse of Broadway is my neighborhood, quieter and more residential behind the library, with lillies of the valley and trilliums and violets planted at the bases of the trees, and bunnies under the street lights. One of the houses is mine and Mo's, and up a few steps you could find me typing this from my place on the sofa in the first floor apartment. The window behind the radiator is open a little to let in the cool night breeze, and Tiny the fish has pushed himself between an artificial frond and the glass of his tank to rest.


An hour ago, Mo got home from a long day of meetings. I made myself a salad with green leaf lettuce, Italian peppers in olive oil, cherry tomatoes, carrots, and asaigo cheese. I covered a chunk of crusty bread from the oven with butter. I ate my salad and bread while she stepped outside to smoke a hand-rolled cigarette and we talked through the open door.

She told me about the people she stayed with at past actions. The woman in the Cleveland ghetto on 13th street in 2000 who worked from her home doing phone sex. The woman in Quebec who did internet sex. The horribly hot garage in Miami where she slept with bugs crawling on her after a 4 day train ride from Montana and waiting 5 hours in the rain for Mackel to pick her up from the train station in West Palm Beach.

She also told me about her beautiful first husband who she met in Baltimore when she was 20 and he was 28. How much love they had, and how they had to split up after seven years because of the violence a racist society throws at interracial couples, no matter how deep their love.

A lot of what I like about living with Mo here in Chicago is being with her when she is at a time in her life when she is reflecting back over her 57 years. I can listen to her for hours, and I laugh, and my heart breaks, and I wonder about things.

She is in bed now in her room, watching her "trashy British mysteries" on her laptop in her nightshirt until she falls asleep under her wool blanket with the galloping Montana wild horses printed huge and brown on it.

I'm on the sofa, about to roll out my bed and crawl under my old quilts, where I will hug a pillow and sleep.

Love, Grace - Comments: 0

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