Monday, 15 August 2016

How to pour money down the drain

Ever commit yourself to something and then regret it? I’m starting to feel that way about this blog post. I realized something, you see, for whatever that’s worth, and I thought I might share it. But in order to explain it I first have to go over basic economic theory. Only, some people who are close to me in their politics have a very different economic theory, which doesn’t yield the same insight. So I have to start by explaining the two theories and why I think the first one has more explanatory power, and then I have to show that, although politics like ours traditionally uses the second theory, it doesn’t need it. I would rather just skip ahead and tell you my idea, but it doesn’t make sense if you haven’t sat through a few economics lectures. So here goes.

Where does profit come from? Capitalist economists explain with the trade theory. Suppose your old car is getting elderly and taking up space in your garage. You reckon that if someone nicked it you’d only be down $2500 all told. At the same time, I need a car for my work, doesn’t have to be flash or new, but I figure even an old banger will easily net me $4000 with the use I can make of it. So I offer you $3000, which is $1000 less than what I’m expecting to gain. You take it, because that’s $500 more than the car is now worth to you. This is what’s called a “positive-sum interaction”. You gain $500 in cash, and I gain $1000 worth of car. A total of $1500 has appeared out of nowhere. This $1500 is “surplus value”.

Economists apply this theory to all kinds of transactions, including labouring for a wage. The labourer is the seller and the employer is the buyer, and obviously the wage must be worth more to the worker than their time or they’d quit, while the labour done in that time must be worth more to the employer or they’d lay the worker off. Karl Marx disagreed. Goods don’t appear out of nowhere. Goods are made from raw materials when labourers put labour into them. Therefore, the labour is the source of the surplus value (measured as the price of the product minus the cost of the materials), and the labourer is the rightful owner of that value. According to the labour theory, an employer who then takes away the goods, sells them, pockets the profit, and doles out a fraction of it back to the worker, is nothing but a thief.

Which theory works? Another parable. Mr Miggs runs a back-shed factory making plastic coat-hooks that you can stick on a door. He sells them at $5 for a packet of three, but his cost to make those three, including labour, is only 50c. According to the labour theory, he’s robbing his staff of $4.50 per unit. But one day Mr Miggs buys a 3D printer, an automatic packet-sealing machine, and some drones to carry things around the factory. He sets up an automatic e-mail system to alert his courier when there’s a shipment ready. In short, Mr Miggs automates his process totally, and lays off all his employees. He can now make his coat-hooks at a cost of 10c per unit. He drops his price from $5 to $4.80, which raises his sales by 2%. Not only is he selling more units, but his profit per unit has gone up from $4.50 to $4.70. The trade theory easily accommodates this scenario; the labour theory boggles. Whose labour is Mr Miggs exploiting? Where is that $4.70 coming from?

Score one for the trade theory. But I would have to query whether Mr Miggs’ staff, back when he was employing staff, were genuinely free agents. When your only choice is between two bad alternatives (such as: break your back working for peanuts, or watch your children starve), then technically you could count as a gain the advantage that the lesser evil holds over the greater, but that seems awfully sophistical. If someone mugs you for your wallet, they get your money and you get to stay alive – it’s a win-win! The higher the stakes are for you, the smaller your bargaining power. The outcome might well be positive-sum, but if you can’t realistically negotiate your share of the benefits, they’ll be massively skewed in the other party’s favour. That sounds like exploitation to me.

Actually, “the higher the stakes” is not a good way of putting it. A speculator might lose millions in a day in a derivatives clearinghouse, whereas a drain-layer begging for a raise is only dropping a few hundred a week if their employer decides to fire them instead. That doesn’t mean the speculator is in direr straits. What constrains your bargaining power is how much you’ll be left with if things go sour. Back when I was taking my first semester of economics lectures, I wrote a post about what I saw as the major problems with economic theory as it is taught to university students. If I were writing it now I might moderate my tone in places, but I would not make any substantive changes. And the main point of that post is the proportionality issue I’m talking about here: some people can better afford to lose millions than others can afford to lose hundreds.

Now my realization is about the destruction of value, which the labour theory also doesn’t account for. If value can come out of thin air, it can also vanish into thin air. A simple example might be if you were competing with yourself. If that sounds like nonsense, think of professional sports. Their revenue comes from two sources: stadium seats and television ratings. These two are in direct competition with each other. The more people watch from the sofa, the emptier the stands are. Some portion, at least, of the advertising for either one shifts revenue around instead of increasing it. The money spent on that portion of advertising might as well be dumped into a shredder.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Racism is crawling back out from under the rug

The world is changing. The last time the World News pages looked this unfamiliar was fifteen years ago, in September. Fortunately, this time the death toll has not been in the thousands. But Britain leaving the European Union is a much further-reaching geopolitical shift than the World Trade Centre attack – assuming it ends up happening. Since the referendum it’s become apparent that none of the people pushing the Leave campaign had a plan for what would happen if they won.

But there have already been very ugly consequences in Britain. Despite the denials coming from the Conservative section of the Leave campaign (less so from UKIP), it seems that at least a large minority of their supporters believed they were voting to expel immigrants and people of colour from the country. Content note: racism.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Donald Trump, Winston Peters, and Adolf Hitler

A month or so ago (“last week” when I started writing this post – sorry) the Greens and Labour agreed to work together to unseat the National Party at next year’s election; an announcement none the less welcome for being six years late. Unfortunately – and I very much hope this will change, as the new coalition presents credible joint policies to the public – their present combined polling numbers don’t yet surpass National’s. If the election were tomorrow instead of next year, they would probably have to hold out a hand to Winston Peters and his New Zealand First Party. That would be bad.

Those of you who aren’t from New Zealand won’t necessarily appreciate why; Peters is a big fish in a small pond. (As an aside, I have no idea how big a proportion of my readers that is, for two reasons. First, Blogger has a button on the control panel which promises to let you stop counting your own visits in your readership stats, but it doesn’t work, so I get a new hit every time I check in. I’ve given up trying to tell them about it a while ago now. And second, there’s someone using Firefox on a Windows machine somewhere in the United States who, whenever this blog gets a bit more traffic than usual, throws me about 100 pageviews in one hit. Both of these factors artificially inflate my apparent readership and I don’t know which one is winning. It’s very annoying and I wish they would stop.)

Sorry. Winston Peters. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but Winston Peters has basically four tricks which have never failed to get him re-elected. One, appeal to a demographic everyone else ignores (the elderly). Two, stick to the centre on economic issues. Three, talk big, when in Opposition, about the shady dealings of the Government; it’s been long enough now since Peters was anywhere near serious power that people are forgetting how shady his own dealings were. And four, blame foreigners for everything. Winston has been in Parliament for all but three of the last 32 years, and the missing three came after Prime Minister Helen Clark, in a stroke of genius, put him in the one position where he couldn’t play that fourth trick – she made him Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Peters attacks three kinds of foreigners. In recent years he’s been focusing most of his ire on (1) absentee landlords and (2) manufacturers of cheap imported goods. But, as everyone in New Zealand but the Government and their lap-dog journalists can see, we’re currently experiencing a housing crisis, with families living in cars and tents; that’s the primary issue on which the Greens and Labour agree that National has fallen short. And just right about when they announced their agreement, Peters came out with several public statements blaming (3) immigrants for the shortage. (And using women’s rights as a stick to beat Muslims with, which is the only kind of attention he’s ever paid to women’s rights that I’m aware of.) He’s threatening not to support the new partnership unless both parties commit to cutting back on immigration.

There are two major things wrong with Peters’ thesis here. One is that it’s not true. There isn’t a shortage of housing; there’s a shortage of affordable housing. Right now, right when families – some with small children – are heading into a New Zealand winter in cars and tents, tens of thousands of houses are standing empty in Auckland. (This is the sort of thing the free market was supposed to fix.) Those houses aren’t being snatched up by immigrants, they’re being used as poker chips by real-estate speculators. The second thing wrong is that Peters doesn’t believe it himself. He’s spent more time in Government than many MPs, thanks to his centrist poise; he was even Deputy Prime Minister a while back. In all that time he’s never lifted a finger, that I can recall, to actually implement any of the sweeping immigration policy changes he campaigns on.

Looking from our small pond to a much bigger one, Winston Peters is the nearest thing New Zealand has to Donald Trump. (Our current Prime Minister John Key is more of a George W. Bush kind of guy.) Oh, there are differences, of course. Trump is a businessman, Peters is a career politician. Trump is white, Peters is Māori – so the “Your grandparents were immigrants too” rejoinder doesn’t apply to him. But both men are egotists. Both men have a talent for blustering their way out of answering questions; both men do it by parrying criticisms back at the questioner instead of retreating into weasel words, and thus both have acquired an entirely unearned reputation as straight talkers. And incidentally, both, while I was writing this, publicly blamed the recent Orlando massacre on Muslim immigration despite the fact that it occurred in the killer’s country of birth.

Why do people vote for men like Trump and Peters? What is the appeal of groups like Britain First and ISIS? Very often the answer we, their opponents, reach for is “Gosh, there are a lot of idiots in the world.” This is a failure on multiple levels. It’s a tactical failure because calling people idiots closes rather than opens their minds. It’s a strategic failure because it’s guaranteed to make us underestimate them. It’s a political failure because if everyone’s an idiot then that makes democracy a bad idea. It’s a moral failure because it dehumanizes people, the very thing we’re supposed to be standing against. And it’s an intellectual failure because people are not, in fact, idiots.

I take it as an axiom that people are not stupid, or rather (quite a different proposition) that they are no more stupid than I am. Those of us who call ourselves progressives or social democrats are kidding ourselves if we think we’re immune to the ugliest side of human nature – the penchant for lumping together whole groups of people, who happen to be rivals or enemies of our own group, under stereotypes which allow us to dismiss their humanity. It’s just that our stereotypes are of “jocks” or “rednecks” or “suits” rather than Muslims or Mexicans or LGBT people. This is something we need to be careful of when engaging in radical politics. Anger and mockery are useful weapons against power, but if we turn them into deadly hatred – as I’ve seen in my Facebook feed – against (say) people who work in management or law enforcement, we perpetuate the very attitudes we are trying to fight.

This human failing makes the story seductively persuasive: “The orcs are upon us. Our woes are due to them.” For bypassing the border-checks of reason, it’s rivalled only by “We have displeased the god(s) and are being punished.” And of course those two stories are easily combined. “In order to win back the divine favour, we must expel the orcs.” The real ecological and economic causes of social ills just don’t make such a satisfying narrative. Add to that a commercial media whose success depends on market appeal rather than truth; put the mixture into the hands of a political establishment who are naïve or cynical enough to leave social cohesion to the market, and whose power and status is best served by deflecting public scrutiny from their own sins. The results are not hard to predict.

With both the US and the UK seeing a resurgence of the politics of hate, it’s time to remember that not everybody peddling that politics is a cynic like Winston Peters. Donald Trump is probably just another one. But considering what’s at stake, “probably” isn’t good enough. There are some alarming parallels between Trump’s rise to power and Adolf Hitler’s. No, I’m not saying that Trump is exactly like Hitler. But that’s not because Hitler was some kind of demon god and no human being could ever be as evil as him ever, which is sometimes the impression I get when people laugh off Hitler comparisons as hyperbole. Hitler was a human being who happened to combine the calculatedly outrageous showmanship of a Donald Trump with the gibbering bigotry of a Fred Phelps and the methodical murderousness of an Anders Breivik. We may very well see his like again.

I wish I could make confident predictions about outcome of the US election, I really do. Apart from anything else it might get me a few blog hits. Hillary Clinton is playing the strategy that’s won elections in the English-speaking world for the last twenty years: kiss up to the rich so they can fund your campaign, then camp in the centre so as to capture the swing vote. I’m not betting on this continuing to work. In effect it means that the two major parties in each country (the Democrats and the Republicans in the US; Labour and the Conservatives in the UK; Labor and the Liberals in Australia; Labour and National here) offer barely-distinguishable versions of the same policies. I’m pretty sure it’s this lack of real alternatives that’s been steadily growing the non-vote in all of those countries, and given that non-voters tend to be young and poor, it’s a good bet their lost votes will be felt first on the Left.

I don’t know whether Clinton’s business-as-usual politics will beat Trump’s it’s-all-brown-people’s-fault politics. When I began writing this it still looked like there was a third possibility, and I have a feeling there are going to be a lot of ballots with “Bernie Sanders” written on them come November. Another thing I don’t know is whether Sanders would have appealed to enough non-voters to beat the swing voters whom Clinton is betting on. But I do know that the non-vote is growing. And unless some of the Green or Labour leadership get a lot bolder, I also know that New Zealand has no Bernie Sanders.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

“Innate” ≠ “inevitable”

I’m old enough, and Left enough, to remember when science was merely a tool of the patriarchal Western capitalist military-industrial hegemony. If you tried to argue a scientific point that seemed to be in conflict with leftist politics – even to demonstrate that it wasn’t, in fact, in conflict with leftist politics – people would refer you to Thomas Kuhn, assure you that a “paradigm shift” was on its way, and change the subject. I never could see why Kuhn was supposed to be so liberatory. If science is constrained by “paradigms” which are themselves determined by politics, then politics dictates what’s a fact and what’s not. This would imply that power controls the truth as it controls everything else, and therefore there can be no such thing as an inconvenient truth wherewith one might challenge power.

Thankfully science is much more accepted among people of my political persuasion now than it was fifteen years ago. Contrary to the dire warnings we Humanities students used to congratulate ourselves – sometimes for hours at a time – on grasping, we now seem as a result to be more critical, not less, of scientific concepts served up in the media. But this is an overall trend, not (hah) a paradigm shift. There are still plenty of people about who will criticize science on the basis that it doesn’t suit the Left and think they’re being helpful. And last week I came across one such criticism, in the form of this address by John Horgan to the Northeast Conference on Science and Scepticism.

I’m not going to pull apart the whole thing. That’s already been done by others, such as David Gorski and Steve Novella. Horgan has a bee in his bonnet about something he calls the “deep roots theory of war”, most famously promulgated by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Broadly, this means the idea that human societies have always known war, going back to our common ancestor with chimpanzees. It’s hard to determine exactly what Horgan thinks is wrong with this idea; the goalposts in his discussions of it are stricken with chronic wanderlust. He’ll flag up particular archaeological sites where relatively few of the skeletons show signs of violence and go “Well, these people didn’t have deep roots of war in their nature!” He’ll flag up sites where there are a lot of signs of violence and say “This was murder, not war – yet another mark against the deep-roots theory!”

For the record, I disagree with Steven Pinker’s position on a lot of political questions. I don’t think warning women to dress conservatively reduces rape or sexual harassment. I’m broadly in favour of trigger warnings and safe spaces (without denying the possibility of excesses in their application). If crime rises when the police lose the public trust, then I think it is the police’s responsibility to win back that trust. I consider nuclear power at best a stop-gap measure against climate change, since uranium is unrenewable, and I fear that long-term accumulation of radioactive waste may seed a different, but equally acute, global environmental problem. I think disinvesting in fossil fuels is a good idea while we’re waiting for the world’s governments to divorce Big Oil and bring in a universal carbon tax. But I’m not going to dismiss Pinker’s contributions to the science of humanity just because politics would be easier if some of them weren’t true, and I’m especially not going to castigate him for two opposite and mutually incompatible faults, as Horgan does on the deep-roots-of-war issue.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Please argue with me about reality

I have been remiss. I’ve been writing this blog for three and a half years now, and I think I’ve mentioned twice, in passing, the guy who’s guided my thinking more than any single other person on the internet. That would be Mark Rosenfelder, or Zompist as he calls himself online. He has a blog, which you’ll see on my sidebar, but that’s mostly about computer games. The essays on his website Zompist.com are much more interesting. A large part of it is devoted to a fantasy world he’s created, which may or may not be your thing – it’s more detailed by now than Middle-Earth. But Rosenfelder is also a sophisticated political thinker, and that’s where this blog post starts.

Recently Rosenfelder posted a piece called The Morality of Liberalism. It’s a follow-up to one from four years ago, simply titled Liberalism – which goes to show that Rosenfelder writes like me. (I will finish the Imponderable series some day...) Liberalism was mainly about why the political philosophy of Franklin Roosevelt and his successors was pragmatically better than the one which has prevailed since Ronald Reagan’s presidency; the recent essay is about why it’s also morally better. I can find very little to disagree with, and hence write about, in either one. I’m just about reduced to nitpicking side details like this:

Some researchers claim that liberals aren’t motivated by feelings of moral disgust, but I disagree. Liberals think incidents like these are disgusting. Racism is viscerally wrong, it’s unacceptable, and it needs to stop.

I take this to be a reference to Jonathan Haidt, who doesn’t actually say that liberals, as people, aren’t motivated by disgust. The moral instinct is cross-wired with the disgust response; that’s a feature of most human brains, liberal or conservative. What Haidt says is that liberal moral philosophy doesn’t begin with disgust. Things like racism are disgusting because they are immoral, but nothing is immoral because it is disgusting.

Haidt contrasts this with the conservative stance (which Rosenfelder himself attributes to a fear of modernity) that most sexual practices are immoral not because they harm anybody but because they somehow contaminate some undefinable thing called “purity”. For reasons I do not understand, human sexuality, like morality, is cross-wired with disgust. Likewise, many conservatives oppose immigration and ethnic diversity not because there is anything objectively wrong with Them Over There but because, I don’t know, cultures are like wet paint and if you mix the colours up you lose them, or something.

But, like I said, side detail. The real reason I sat down to write this was because of a political-studies lecture I take notes for on Thursdays. The course is titled “Global Political Economy”, and the lecturer substantially agrees with what Rosenfelder says in the two Liberalism essays. The third quarter of the twentieth century was an era of increasing equality and rapid economic growth, with the market held in check by regulation, and tax-funded social benefits keeping things safe for humans. And then from the Reagan era onward we saw the return of market utopianism and the dismantlement of the welfare state, with a consequent ballooning of inequality and poverty.

The main difference between them? Rosenfelder uses the word “liberal” for the Rooseveltian welfare state. Our lecturer uses it for the Reaganite market-utopians.

I read a lot of internet political commentary in one form or another. Most of it these days is from my general region of the political spectrum, so that I don’t lie awake all night coming up with counter-arguments. I can cope with the heat that political debates generate – when they’re about substantive issues. What gets my goat is when people get into capslock-matches over nothing but words. Rosenfelder and this lecturer are both thoughtful people, who wouldn’t be taken in by that. But I can just see two people, one a POLS student at Otago and one a Rosenfelder fan, getting into a rancorous quarrel over “liberalism” without ever noticing that they’re on the same side.

Like more of my philosophy than I care to admit, I learned this principle from Rosenfelder himself:

A correspondent tried to define libertarianism at me the other day. Naturally, I didn’t stand for that nonsense.
People love to work out definitions, as if this told them something about the world. In Understanding Comics, to use a neutral example, Scott McCloud defines comics as juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence blah blah blah. It’s nice to say what you’re going to talk about, but it would have been simpler and no less accurate just to enumerate: “I’m going to talk about comics, but I won’t be talking about single images or animated cartoons.”
He borrows this method from academics, who love to begin by defining their subject. Generally you’d might as well skip to Chapter Two, where they’ll forget about their own definition and start to actually talk about things.
When it comes to political terms, definitions are little more than propaganda. Libertarians like to talk about “freedom” – with a very idiosyncratic definition of “freedom” such that if you can’t leave your house because the roads are privatized and you can’t get a job because the employers don’t care to offer a living wage, you are enjoying absolute “freedom”. If you accept this, they can then paint their opponents as enemies of “freedom”.
Anyone can play this game; for instance, I can define liberals as people who are for prosperity, liberty, and justice. Naturally, then, anyone who’s not a liberal is for poverty, slavery, and oppression.
Mark Rosenfelder, “Never define”

Our perceptions are not determined by our language (contrary to postmodernist claims), but we do use language to decide how to categorize the world, sometimes even when it clashes with reality. An example: apparently, wherever in the world a Medical School and a Dental School share a building, the corridor joining them is colloquially known as “the Time-Tunnel” – the dental students are about a century behind. Dentists just don’t get the respect, nor the funding, that doctors do. Now, by any rational standard, if an optometrist is an “eye doctor” then a dentist is a “mouth doctor”. But we don’t call dentists doctors; we speak of “doctors and dentists”. That contentless verbal distinction has consigned at least four generations to needless lifelong oral health problems.

So when Rosenfelder heads a section of his essay “Capitalism is . . . OK I guess”, that’s when I have to write a response instead of simply posting a link to him on Facebook. Because I know I have a mild allergy to the word “capitalism”, which I share with my sociopolitical tribe. I have to be very careful, when arguing about “capitalism”, to be sure I’m responding to the substance and not merely to a label. Under this heading Rosenfelder goes on to say

Corporations will put filth in your food, defraud you, poison the environment, and avoid paying a living wage if they can get away with it. Capitalism needs activist consumers, workers willing to organize, a nosy media, and a strong government to make it work for the population as a whole...
If you have some radical ideas besides “throw out everything” . . . I’m not necessarily against them, and I might even be convinced. My personal bugbear is the CEO system: I think we’ve kept monarchical rule in corporations long after realizing that it’s a terrible system for governments.

If you’re wondering how someone could put all that under the heading “Capitalism is OK”, Rosenfelder points out that

Other folks, of course, think that capitalism is evil. But you know, working alternatives are hard to come by. Premodern societies were miserable for everyone except the elite. Fascism and communism were disasters... Anarchism is at best untried, and at worst seems completely unprepared to handle human violence and oppression.

The system Rosenfelder favours would run on private property and open markets, and thus meets the minimum diagnostic criteria for capitalism as used by our POLS lecturer. But if we ditch “monarchical rule in corporations” we’re looking at an arrangement where the working class controls the means of production, which is the diagnostic criterion for socialism. (Obviously you can’t have working-class control applied via the state and also private property and open markets, but not everyone who identifies as “socialist” favours the state as the instrument of working-class control.) What if firms trading in the open market were privately owned and democratically run by worker-shareholders? Is that capitalist or socialist? Or both?

Sunday, 1 May 2016

How should men respond to #freethenipple?

The #freethenipple movement is morally correct. Nipples harm no-one; therefore, it is censorious to ban them from public view, and unjust to discriminate by gender while doing so. I frankly don’t see much room for controversy here. Nevertheless, the issue is controversial. Many Western states have laws against toplessness. New Zealand is one that doesn’t, but we do have vaguely-worded offences like “breach of peace” and “offensive behaviour” to allow the police to enforce conservative norms without having to admit that that’s what they’re doing. I believe there is legal precedent here for topless protests being protected self-expression under the Bill of Rights Act, but I’m not a lawyer and you shouldn’t rely on my vague recollections in court.

So why haven’t I said anything about it before? It’s a feminist issue, and I have a lot to say about feminist issues. And it’s a body freedom issue and I have strong views on body freedom. Why have I kept all quiet about it? Well, because of the feminist thing. I’m male, and attracted (mainly but not exclusively) to women. There is a sarcastic hashtag #malefeminists for guys who try to dominate feminist spaces, and especially for guys who are enthusiastic about liberating women from their clothes and sexual inhibitions. It is not my business in the first place to tell women how to emancipate themselves, and on the specific topic of sexual liberation I have a conflict of interest. What I can do, what men who align with feminism need to do, is try and communicate feminist values to other men.

The basic principle here is: women are human beings and deserve the respect and consideration due to human beings, regardless of what they’re wearing. I don’t see that there are any limits on this principle in either direction. A naked woman is a human being, and a woman in a burqa is a human being, and if you meet either one in the street you should treat her exactly the same as if she were wearing jogging gear, smart casual attire, or a work uniform. Male responses to topless demonstrations tend to fall short of this ideal in one of two ways, both seen in the video above. One is to perve; the other is to try and make the women cover up. Let’s go through the justificatory arguments in turn.

With perving, of course, the argument we have to deal with is generally a post hoc rationalization. “If she didn’t want to be perved at,” men say, “she wouldn’t draw attention to herself like that.” If you see a woman in a clown suit, it’s OK to laugh at her, right? That’s what the clown suit is for, isn’t it? And if you see a woman in a ballet tutu, it’s OK to watch her dance, isn’t it? In each case the costume is intended to draw that reaction. On that basis, can’t we consider toplessness to be a costume intended to draw sexual attention?

Think again. Suppose the clown or ballerina is not performing on a stage, but waiting in front of you in the queue at the convenience store. Then it’s not polite to laugh or stare – the wise presumption is that she’s grabbing a bite to eat between performances and hasn’t had time to change. It’s not the costume that counts, it’s the performance. A woman dancing topless in a burlesque show can be presumed to be presenting her body for visual appreciation; a woman relaxing topless in a public park cannot.

To be sure, the Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society are there to send a message as well as to enjoy the spring air. The shock value and clickbait appeal of breasts can draw the attention of passers-by, media, and the internet to one’s cause. If a protester lifts up her T-shirt for the news cameras to reveal the words No to the TPPA (as it might be) painted across her torso, it’s reasonable to assume that’s her intention. The obvious response – obvious unless you’re just waiting for the first excuse to ogle or grope – is to attend to the message she’s trying to convey. Especially if that message is Still Not “Asking For It”.

Such protests help falsify what’s often the first objection raised by those who want to make women cover up, namely that women are actually perfectly fine with having to cover up and #freethenipple is all a fantasy of a bunch of #malefeminists. I once overheard a woman remark very loudly to her companion (it was a windy day and they were walking right behind me) that she welcomed the prospect of a Hooters outlet in Dunedin because “then I could go topless and people wouldn’t judge me”. I have to say I doubt that that would be the outcome of having a Hooters here, but conversations I’ve seen online confirm that she was far from alone in wanting that freedom.

Monday, 18 April 2016

The social justice case for a sugar tax

There is currently a proposal before the New Zealand Government to put a tax on sugar as a public health measure. I’m afraid it’s unlikely to fly. Not only is it both a tax and a public health measure, neither of which will endear it to the National Party, but sugar and sugary products are imported goods, which means (since we’ve signed the TPPA) that if we do implement the tax we will be sued, most likely by Coca-Cola, to make us un-implement it again. Anything can be a “disguised restriction on trade” if you have good enough lawyers.

I’ve recently discovered Stephanie Rodgers’ blog Boots Theory. I put it on my reading list because I mostly find her perspective on New Zealand politics illuminating. However, as my regular readers both know, when I write it’s almost always because I’ve found something I disagree with. And I disagree with Rodgers on the sugar tax. Unfortunately, Boots Theory is a Wordpress blog, and as I’ve had occasion to mention before, I can’t comment on Wordpress blogs for some reason.

In a recent post, Rodgers did what I just did a couple of paragraphs ago and inserted a snarky little aside on one issue into her argument on another:

When we’re against slut-shaming but say Kim Kardashian should cover up; when we’re against government policing poor people’s choices but think a sugar tax will force them to “make better choices”; when we’re totally pro-choice but think three abortions is way too many...

I do understand how a sugar tax might be seen as “policing poor people’s choices”. I get what Rodgers is saying. Thing is, though, poor people don’t have many choices to start with; that’s what being poor means. They buy junk food and fizzy drinks because that’s all they can afford, not because they don’t know what’s good for them. When I was getting sent to “get a job you lazy bludger” workshops at WINZ, this was a point raised by other attendees who, unlike me at the time, had had jobs before and then lost them. They could feel their health deteriorating from the cheaper food they were having to settle for. I’ve noticed the same myself since, whenever I’ve had to cut back temporarily for one reason or another.

This is exactly the sort of thing that Rodgers is otherwise strong on. Her own blog’s title, Boots Theory, is derived from a Terry Pratchett quote that sums it up:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
This was the Captain Samuel Vimes “Boots” theory of socio-economic unfairness.
Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

The Vimes Theory answers another question that’s been raised lately – whether we should introduce a Universal Basic Income to replace welfare benefits. The answer is yes, because it would help get people out of the shoddy-goods poverty trap. Well, I contend that it also applies to the sugar-tax proposal. Poor people stay poor partly because they’re spending money mitigating the impact of illnesses such as Type II diabetes, coronary heart disease, and runaway dental caries, all caused at least in part by cheap, unhealthy food. We need to undercut the unfair advantage that sugar (and saturated fats, but one thing at a time) have at the checkout.

The idea goes like this. If you put a tax on sugar, businesses that sell sugary foods and drinks will have to put their prices up on those products. Then people will buy less of them. That means less money for the business, and businesses like money, so to bring their customers back they will drop the prices of other foods that aren’t subject to the tax. Hopefully these foods will, at least on average, be healthier.

Now, granted, it’s unlikely the prices on those healthier foods will drop all the way down to the present price of junk food. But this is where the health benefits come in. I’ve argued before that we should implement a rating scheme for rental housing, because what people will pay extra in rent they’ll make back in lower rates of childhood asthma and rheumatic fever – just as, when toilets were made compulsory a couple of centuries ago, the poor made back their increased rent costs in not dying of cholera.

Cholera is caused by faecal contamination of drinking water; asthma and rheumatic fever are caused by cold, damp, overcrowded housing. What diseases are caused by sugar? Well, dental caries to start with, which is painful, disfiguring, severely harms your chances in a job interview, and has never been adequately covered by public health funding for no better reason than that many people (including politicians) don’t like dentists. Untreated caries can spread into the bone, and these infections are sometimes known to trigger cancers or get into the airway or the blood-sinuses of the brain and kill.

Sugar is connected to atherosclerosis, hypertension, and Type II diabetes. This may be where Rodgers’ sore point with the sugar tax arises, because these conditions also correlate with body fat (especially the diabetes), and Rodgers rightly takes a firm stand against shaming people for their body fat. Fat-shaming, quite apart from being a nasty thing to do, emphatically does not “motivate people to do better”. In fact it discourages them – who’s going to want to jog or go to the gym if everyone’s giving them grossed-out looks? People in the real world have gotten fatter as people in advertising photos have gotten thinner.

Human nutrition is one of the less firmly-established health sciences, because it’s hard to do randomized controlled trials with your participants’ entire diet. Nevertheless, such indications as we do have all point in a consistent direction. We can’t say that obesity causes all these illnesses, but it definitely looks like what causes obesity also causes the illnesses, and one of the causes is nutrition. (No links because I got this from health science lectures, not websites – many separate health science lectures.) That’s one major reason why it’s the poor who suffer first, the other probably being that a work-week on the minimum wage doesn’t typically offer many opportunities for exercise. So no, I don’t accept the formulation that the sugar tax is about “forcing the poor to make better choices”. It’s about making better choices available.

But the point about the financial burden is well made; it will take time for retailers to adjust their pricing of other foods, and their first response will likely be to cheapen fatty ones like butter or chips. Therefore, rather than bring in a new sugar tax, I have an alternative suggestion. What say we remove, from foods made without sugar (and with a low saturated fat content), the 15% Goods and Services Tax (GST) that New Zealand currently levies on all retail products? Then we would have a sugar tax and we would have made things easier for people, not harder.

Oh, right. I forgot. We have a National government. Making things harder for poor people (to “motivate” them) is the point.

Friday, 8 April 2016

What really happened to Jesus?

Easter came early this year, which is my excuse for why this blog post about it is late. In accordance with tradition, I made hot cross buns on the Friday and waited until Sunday before consuming any Easter eggs. You might think that I wouldn’t have much time for a tradition based on something I no longer believe, but somehow the buns and eggs both taste more meaningful this way. Also, this semester I’m taking notes for a New Testament Greek class, who are reading their way through the Book of Revelation. So I can’t help speculating, from time to time, on what may have really happened one Passover in Roman Jerusalem to inspire the world’s most popular faith.

Thanks to my personal history, I know a lot of people whose sense of self-worth and identity hangs on the answer to that question. Indeed, they themselves would go further – their eternal destiny hangs on it. That being the case, my putting forward an alternative answer might be seen as something of a red rag to a bull. What do I hope to achieve by doing this, except to make those people angry? Well, for one thing, I don’t think I should have to shut up about my own opinions just because they differ from other people’s. Like I said, personal history. I researched this for over a year in my early twenties, not to annoy people but because I needed to know the truth. I wrote it up rather hurriedly and incoherently and put it on my first website, which may or may not still be knocking around somewhere. It’s important to me too.

I no longer believe in either God or miracles. This necessarily implies that I think people who do believe in God and miracles are wrong. It does not imply, and I want to be very clear about this, that I think those people are fools, or dishonest, or cowards. There is a school of thought among atheists that religious people will sooner acknowledge the wrongness of their beliefs if we just mock, belittle, and insult them enough – the beliefs, not the people, but that distinction blurs all too easily, especially on the internet. I think those atheists are also wrong.

However, that doesn’t mean I hold with the opposing school of atheist thought either – that we should never criticize religious beliefs because they are so important to the people who believe them. Speaking as a former believer, that’s a deeply patronizing attitude. “Oh, of course we who are mature rational adults can handle the world without gods, miracles, or an afterlife, but these poor little lambs couldn’t cope with the nasty truth. We must be gentle with them.” That might apply to anyone in limited circumstances, such as bereavement; as a classifier, it’s insulting.

Atheists of the first school are often referred to these days as “atheist fundamentalists”. Mostly, I don’t think this is helpful. Often it seems “fundamentalist” means nothing more than “anyone who thinks it’s a matter of fact whether God exists or not” (or any other religious proposition), which tars an awful lot of moderate religious people with the “fundamentalist” brush.

That being said, there is a cast of mind I remember from my Christian past and recognise in some atheist discourse now. It’s related to what has recently been dubbed “virtue-signalling”. Basically, you take a question that your group takes a firm stance on, and you take a slightly further-out version of that stance, and you proclaim it loudly so that if your fellow group-members disagree they look like a bunch of compromisers. Then someone else steps still further out, and of course you have to agree or you look like a compromiser. And so on.

Humans are human regardless of our beliefs, and this behaviour is common to us all. From the outside it looks either competitive – “I’m more Christian / atheistic than you!” – or fawning – “I really do belong in the Christian / atheist club with you guys!” But from inside it’s often prompted by sincere enthusiasm, with a wash of pity for those unlucky enough not to have seen the light. I see it just as often in groups that I happen to agree with as groups that I don’t. I presume I indulge in it myself more often than my own (equally humanly common) self-serving cognitive biases allow me to recognise.

Among atheists (this is where all this becomes relevant to the Easter question) this insidership-signalling sometimes takes the form of a conspiracy theory. Not only was Jesus of Nazareth not the Messiah, the Son of God, the Saviour of Mankind, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, or any of the rest of it – he didn’t even exist! He was made up out of whole cloth by the early Church, or St Paul, or the Council of Nicaea, or some such. Take that, Christians!

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Flags

New Zealanders are currently voting in a referendum on the national flag. A lot of us are not happy about it. Last year some of us voted (I didn’t) to pick one of five replacement flags, and now we’re voting on whether we want to go with the replacement flag or stick with the old one. After much thought, I have decided not to vote. I hate them both. I think there is one clear best choice, with more apt symbolism and a greater weight of tradition behind it than either, but it was never on the ballot. I’ll show you what I’m talking about at the end of this post.

The story of the flag begins with St Andrew, one of the Twelve Apostles, who tradition has it was crucified on an X-shaped cross at his own request because he didn’t want to upstage Jesus. A similar story is told of St Peter, who to this day enjoys heart-warming loyalty in the Goth crowd – he was crucified upside down. Given what we know of the mechanics of crucifixion, both stories were probably made up in the Middle Ages to sell hagiographic icons. But anyway, that’s the tradition.

Fast forward to 9th-century Scotland, when the Picts and Scots were trying out the idea of merging their kingdoms for mutual defence against nasties like the Vikings and the English. The Pictish King Óengus II prayed to St Andrew for victory on the battlefield. Why St Andrew in particular instead of any other saint I’m not sure. A cloud in the shape of a diagonal cross appeared in the sky and Óengus’s forces were duly victorious. From then on the Cross of St Andrew became the national symbol of Scotland. It looks like this:

The “blazon” or heraldic description for this is Azure a saltire argent – that is to say “Blue, with a white diagonal cross.” Heraldry is a much-overlooked chapter in the history of Western art and graphic design. If you’re unfamiliar with it, think of the House sigils on Game of Thrones and you’ve got the general idea. I remember finding a comprehensive book on heraldry in the library at my high school and being captivated by all the archaic words and images. Here was a system, centuries old, for capturing complex images in a verbal formula which could be repeated exactly and used to reproduce them.

England also has a cross emblem belonging to a saint from the opposite end of the Roman Empire. St George is of course best known for saving a maiden from a dragon, a story likely derived from the Greek legend of Perseus and Andromeda. The detail of the dragon’s demand for sacrifices in return for access to the town’s only well was almost certainly added to the story during the Crusades to stand for the Saracen tax on Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The red cross on white was the prime symbol of the Crusades, and it’s not surprising it became associated with St George, though exactly when and how or what either one has to do with England isn’t clear. The Cross of St George’s blazon is Argent a cross gules.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

My submission on the TPPA

New Zealanders have one day left, as I write, to enter submissions on the TPPA to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is mine. As you’ll see, I have been very, very polite about some of the crazy ideas the TPPA contains. And I certainly haven’t covered everything. Go on, make a submission. Speak now or forever hold your peace.

I submit that the Government of New Zealand should reject the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, hereinafter referred to as the TPPA.

I believe in international cooperation. I believe that all people have the same fundamental rights. I firmly oppose any suggestion that the rights or freedoms a person enjoys, including economic freedoms, should depend on that person’s nationality. I acknowledge that trade and international agreements have been major contributors to the historic decline of interstate war since 1945. The TPPA’s own Preamble affirms several laudable goals of just governance which I gladly endorse, as when the Parties resolve to

strengthen the bonds of friendship and cooperation between them and their peoples;
recognise their inherent right to regulate and resolve to preserve the flexibility of the Parties to set legislative and regulatory priorities, safeguard public welfare, and protect legitimate public welfare objectives, such as public health, safety, the environment, the conservation of... natural resources, [and] the integrity and stability of the financial system...;
recognise further their inherent right to adopt, maintain or modify health care systems;
affirm that state-owned enterprises can play a legitimate role in the diverse economies of the Parties;
promote high levels of environmental protection, including through effective enforcement of environmental laws, and further the aims of sustainable development, including through mutually supportive trade and environmental policies and practices;
protect and enforce labour rights, improve working conditions and living standards, strengthen cooperation and the Parties’ capacity on labour issues;
promote transparency, good governance and the rule of law, and eliminate bribery and corruption in trade and investment;

and

recognise the importance of cultural identity and diversity among and within the Parties.

I reject the TPPA as a whole because I believe its provisions undermine these goals.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Whoever the “naked judge” is, I support him

I’m a nudist. It’s not something I’ve made much of on this blog, though I do mention it from time to time. But I am. If you see me with clothes on, it means I’ve made a compromise with either you or the weather today. I have very little liberty, most of the time, to live the way I would prefer. Even in my own house I have to hang net curtains in the windows if I don’t want complaints from the neighbours.

At least one other person in this country who shares my preference in this matter is a District Court judge. All I know about him beyond that is that he’s male and that he frequents the Pineglades Naturist Club near Christchurch, because those are the only personal details given in this Herald article.

Someone took a photo of this judge at Pineglades. Someone uploaded the photo to Pineglades’ website, apparently without his knowledge although he had given them written consent to use the photo – I’m not sure how that works but it isn’t the point. Someone else saw the photo and laid a complaint against the judge.

The Herald is keeping quiet about the identity of both the judge and the complainant, but the wording they report is suspiciously close to Rodney Hide’s opinion piece on the matter. Hide used to be the Parliamentary leader of the Act Party, who present themselves as champions of personal liberty. Of course in practice what they champion is personal liberty for rich white men, but judges tend to be those, so Hide’s hypocrisy demands further explanation.

Hide opens with the concession that nudists ought to be free to do as we wish as long as we do so in private on our own private property. But if you’re a judge, he says, you mustn’t appear in photos practising nudism. If you do that, you can’t do your job any more.

How... does he sit in judgement on sex cases, public indecency charges, or rule on the acceptability of pornography to minors?
To make a concrete example: how can he preside in judgement over a man accused of exposing himself to children?
Isn’t that exactly what he has done?

Um... no. No it isn’t. But this is a typical New Zealand attitude. We like to think we’re easy-going, tolerant, unprejudiced folks who accept people’s differences, who live and let live. We’re not.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Bring back free education

Recently, for the first time in my life, I considered voting for the New Zealand Labour Party. Oh, they’ll have to smarten up a long way if they want me to do more than consider. The Greens are still far and away the best option on the table. But after a thirty-two-year love affair with neoliberalism, Labour are finally returning to the sort of policies that a Labour party ought to be built around. They’re offering free tertiary education.

Well, to a very small and limited degree compared to what everyone in this country had until 1989. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Labour were the ones who first charged students fees for their education. The National Party were elected in 1990 on a promise to remove those fees, which they did – and then cut funding to universities and polytechs so that they were forced to charge much higher amounts to stay afloat.

When I started university in 1996, paying for education was still a new and shocking thing. Many families had been blindsided, with no chance to save up for it, so we all had to borrow massive amounts of money to get through, and that became the norm. National set up the student loans scheme, which has become an ever bigger asset on the government books with each year since. We student activists fought back with marches and occupations and letter campaigns and various other tactics.

In 1999 we sent delegations to every political candidate meeting in town, not to disrupt them in any way but to make sure that education always got a mention at question time. That, along with the protests, helped push education from #6 to #2 in the “issues of concern” polls, and I think that had, well, more than a negligible effect on the election that year, when National was voted out and Labour in.

Issue #1 was taxes. National MPs went about that year with tears in their eyes for the skilled youth of New Zealand, who were apparently leaving in droves for other shores due to financial hardship induced by taxes. They called it the “brain drain”. I was one of quite a few people, I think, who pointed out to them that student loan repayments were a bit more oppressive, and a bit more specific to skilled youth, than taxes. I had the satisfaction of flummoxing Bill English with that one.

Apparently National did take heed, because now that they’re back in office they’ve introduced legislation – such is National’s compassion for skilled youth in financial hardship – to detain people who go overseas and skip payments. Obviously they can only do that when the people come back to visit, and a couple of weeks ago the law claimed its first victim.

As if to demonstrate what neoliberalism does to a culture’s soul, the first comment on my Facebook feed was “No sympathy for the dude who didn’t pay his student loan.” The general feeling of the conversation was that if we have to work so hard to pay for our education, then how is it fair that some people get it handed to them for free by swanning off overseas? There have been similar remarks about Labour’s proposal. I guess I can understand that. But I think the indignation is misdirected.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Can’t we just ban misogynist trolls?

Content note: misogyny, rape advocacy

The next post was going to be about who should pay for tertiary education in New Zealand, since that question has come up in the news in a couple of different ways. But then I heard that “Roosh” Valizadeh, of Return of Kings fame, is planning meet-ups of like-minded men in New Zealand, including here in Dunedin. To add insult to injury, they’re scheduled for 6 February, that is to say Waitangi Day, a day when New Zealanders remember that civilization is built on agreements and kept promises.

It’s hard to tell how much of Roosh’s platform he genuinely stands on, and how much is intended to make people angry so that he can feel important. The “Kings” have argued that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote and that men should be allowed to rape them, as long as it’s on private property for some reason. They value women by their bodies and men, Roosh claims, by their capabilities; I strongly suspect that the male value scales are weighted so as to make Roosh himself the world’s greatest man.

I don’t like Roosh or his ilk – perhaps you can tell. I must confess the thought of his pathetic followers turning up at their meeting point only to be marched off to the police station in handcuffs is amusing. But is the power of the state justified in this instance? It’s a rule too often forgotten on both sides of politics: before you grant the government a new power to interfere with people, imagine that power in the hands of your bitterest opponents.

Fine, let’s imagine it. I don’t want the police to be able to go around intimidating people for disagreeing with the government, something they have recently done. Of course, Roosh et al. don’t just disagree with government policy; they want to perform illegal activities. (Rape is still illegal here, despite ominous precedents.) But they’re not actually gathering to commit rape, they just want to change the law and make it legal. Well, I want certain illegal things to become legal too – cannabis and public nudity spring to mind – and I’d rather the police didn’t harass me or others who get together to push for those changes. Roosh’s political ideals call for major upheavals to society’s power structures, but again, so do some of mine.

Are there any kinds of speech that should not be tolerated? Of course there are. There’s fraudulent speech, where you make a false statement for money or other gain; that’s not relevant here. There’s slanderous speech, where you make a false statement that harms someone else’s reputation. There’s threatening speech, including incitement to violence. And then there’s hate speech, but that’s controversial. Many self-styled free speech advocates make a lot more noise about protecting hate speech than, say, political protest. But OK, I admit, there is an argument to be had.

“Hate speech” does not of course refer to statements like “I don’t like Roosh or his ilk”. Nor is it quite the same as offensive speech. As I use the term, “hate speech”, meaning the kind of speech I would be happy to see banned, is simply a form of the kinds of intolerable speech I’ve already mentioned: slander (of a group, such as women) and incitement to violence (against a group, such as women, where violence includes rape). Well, there you go. Roosh’s little cadre are outside the pale after all.

However, just because we would be within our rights to call the police on him doesn’t make it a good strategy. Roosh wants to make a splash and be noticed. We don’t want him bragging to his sympathizers “Look how important we are! We’re so threatening they felt the need to arrest us!” which is pretty much what he’s after to be holding these meet-ups in the first place. We don’t need to play his game.

New Zealand social justice activists have bigger fish to fry. The present government, with its usual attitude to democracy, are hosting the signing of the disastrous Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, also just in time for Waitangi Day. This weekend we need to make a big statement about who we are, what we aspire to, and how different that is from what’s being foisted on us. That could certainly include a few sidelong dismissals of Roosh’s little gatherings. We surely don’t need to dignify them with more of a response than that.

Because – Roosh, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this – you don’t deserve any more of a response than that. You’re a sad little man who thinks bringing other people down will make himself bigger. Your odious philosophy, were there any chance of it being put into practice, would ruin men’s lives as surely (though more subtly) as it would ruin women’s. I’m embarrassed to share a gender with you. You do not speak for me.

EDIT: About an hour after I posted this, Roosh cancelled the meet-ups.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

A better analogy

Content note: rape, victim-blaming

So we’ve had yet another terrible article, and surprise surprise it’s in the New Zealand Herald, telling women that when they get raped it’s their own fault for being fall-down drunk. Rather than link to the original and give them oxygen, here’s a DoNotLink. The only thing even slightly novel about it is the author, Liz Holsted: not only is she a woman, but she’s a member of the Sophie Elliott Foundation. Sophie Elliott was murdered in 2008 by a man she’d just broken up with; the Foundation’s stated aim is “to prevent violence against women by raising awareness about the signs of abuse in dating relationships.” Apparently Holsted thinks this goal is advanced by statements like the following:

Wise up, young women. You, and only you, have the ultimate responsibility to keep yourself safe, by behaving in a manner that signals that you are precious, special and deserve a man that is appreciative of you and your unique character. Please, you beautiful young women, do not downgrade yourself by behaving in a trashy manner – because you will attract trash.

You catch that? Not just “You have the ultimate responsibility to keep yourself safe” but “You, and only you”. Not the men to whom a few square inches of skin is a liability waiver and an unconscious woman is an opportunity. Not the men who think they’re owed something if they paid for the meal, not the men who think their own feelings of attraction give them usage rights over another person’s body. Not them. They’re not responsible, not according to Holsted. They may be “trash”, but they’re not responsible. That burden falls on “you and only you”.

Well, I guess it’s refreshing, in a way, that Holsted is being so direct. Most people making this kind of argument try and weasel their way out of being victim-blamers by using what’s now a rather tired analogy: “It’s just like advising someone to lock their car against thieves. Of course the thieves are doing a bad thing and of course it’s their fault, but locking your car is still sound advice.” The main problem with this analogy is that women are not cars. Women are people. And no, that isn’t missing the point of the analogy. Let me explain.

The reason why you lock your car boils down to this: it’s an inanimate object. If someone other than you opens it, it won’t know. It won’t make a fuss. Your belongings might be taken without you knowing anything about it. That’s why it’s an opportunity for theft. What’s more, an unlocked car looks the same as a locked one, unless you’re actively looking in the windows (and why would you be doing that, unless you’ve already decided to steal something?) It’s not putting out any kind of “signal” to “attract” thieves. The natural moral of the “Lock your car” analogy isn’t “Stay sober and dress modest”, it’s “Wear a chastity-belt”.

If you want to make the point Holsted intends to make – “Don’t put yourself on display or someone will take advantage of you” – then your analogy needs to be to something else that someone might display. Businesspeople, keep your goods safe from shoplifters: stop putting them on shelves where people might walk in and nick them! Well, it’s true. Sometimes people do that. And yet no-one, no-one, shakes their head and tut-tuts over the foolishness of the shopkeepers. Now that I think about it, that’s a much better analogy. Why do shopkeepers put things on display on shelves, despite the risk? Because they do actually want people to take them – with consent.

In retail, of course, the condition for consent is payment, but don’t get stuck on that. Lending libraries also display their goods on shelves so that people can take them consensually, but this time the condition for consent is that they’ll bring them back. Again, a few people don’t. Again, no-one calls the libraries foolish. Art galleries display goods and don’t consent to their being taken at all. No-one calls them foolish either. Consent is the critical point. Lack of consent is what makes theft theft. (Granted, some shops and galleries put physical barriers up to make theft difficult; but, as with the car analogy, that’s because their goods are inanimate and can’t object to being stolen.)

Holsted makes a distinction between nice men, who appreciate women’s character, and “trash”. The implication is that nice men are more particular than “trash” as to what kind of woman they’ll want to hook up with. As a man myself, I don’t think this is true. My sexual feelings quite frequently prompt me to do “trashy” things like stare at women’s bodies or make suggestive remarks. I don’t act on these promptings, not because I’m fussy about who I might wake up next to – I have an exclusive partner, I’m not in the market at all – but because I have learned that women are human beings and don’t deserve to be treated like that. And what’s more I know this is true regardless of how said women are dressed.

If men who commit sexual assault do so because they feel strong physical attraction towards people whose humanity they have no regard for, then they probably won’t be very picky, at the time, about their victims’ attire and comportment. Strong desires do that. But that has the opposite implication to what Holsted thinks. It means that no amount of “modesty” is going to dissuade them. You know who it will dissuade? People who take care to read other people’s signals, that’s who. People who respect other people’s boundaries. People who care about consent.

Not very long ago, the societal standard for sex was not “Is it consensual?” but “Are you married?” While the wedding ceremony as such no longer has quite this significance for most of us, there’s still a widespread attitude that a woman going out looking for casual sex is doing something disreputable. Maybe that’s what these supposed anti-rape warnings are really about; that would make more sense. Modesty won’t curb rape, but it will put a damper on casual consensual sex. But if that’s your ideal, then please have the honesty to say so.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Is there such a thing as “timeless” music?

Every New Year I go out to the Whare Flat Festival of Music and Dance, I think its current official name is, just outside of Dunedin. I think most attendees still call it the “Whare Flat Folk Festival”. It’s held at a Scout campsite and, though there are a few cabins, nearly everybody sleeps in tents. Which reminds me, I must see if I can find the receipt for the tent I bought a year ago and see if I can get the broken pole replaced.

I’m also in a small classical choir called the Southern Consort of Voices. We perform four or five concerts each year, the next one being with the New Zealand International Early Music Festival. We sing pieces from a wide range of periods, but I think if you were to tally them up over a couple of years you’d find that modern settings of sacred texts predominate. Last year we did a children’s concert, which was a surprise hit, so I’m guessing we’re going to do more, but no promises.

Once upon a time, all music was either folk or classical. Classical pieces were written in a single canonical version by a known composer, and were learned and played from printed scores; folk tunes existed in multiple related versions, their origins usually forgotten, and they were passed on from musician to musician by ear. Then sound-recording was invented, and a third division of music arose: contemporary music, in which the canonical version is the original recording.

An aside, because this is one of those little ironies that fascinate me. Photography has taken the creation of realistic visual images out of the hands of highly-trained professionals and made it something anybody can do. Sound-recording has had exactly the opposite effect on music. Once upon a time, if you wanted music you had to make it yourself, and so everybody learned to sing and whistle, if not to a high standard then at least enough to carry a tune. Nowadays most people think they “can’t sing” because they don’t sound like professionals – though of course many genuinely haven’t learned to carry a tune, because they’ve always had the radio.

Folk music does routinely get written down now, and there are a lot of well-recognised songwriters, but the basic difference in attitude persists. In classical music you’re expected to obey the composer’s instructions to the letter when playing their music. You’re allowed to deviate if you want to, but then you’re playing an “interpretation” of the piece rather than the piece itself. You so much as suggest any such pedantry among folkies, and you’ll have people muttering about “the folk police”. And of course in contemporary music, if you play another artist’s song at all then it’s not their song but your “cover” of it.

I’m a confirmed pedant myself, but I’m also a folkie, and I wondered for some time why classical musicians feel it’s so important to stick to the original composer’s instructions. Eventually, I came up with a metaphor. A classical piece is a time-portal that allows you to have a conversation (one-way, alas) with an identifiable person in another century. If you muck about with it, you’re snarling up that miraculous connection and talking over the person you should be listening to.

A folk-song, by the same analogy, is a time-tunnel, a long chain of singers and listeners stretching back into the mists of the past. That’s not something I’m making up – there are actual songs about the singers gone before us who’ll be singing once again when we sing the songs they sang. Each link in the chain is supposed to embellish the music a bit, to leave their own little mark in that long rich history.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Why eugenics wouldn’t work

Further to my previous post, my friend Wolfboy wrote this in the comments:

I also detect a leftover whiff of eugenics in this line of thought – the idea that people who are “bad” represent a taint we need to clear from the gene pool. That seems to be in conflict with modern understanding of how genes work. I may be wrong here, but my understanding was that modern research showed that genes get turned on and off by environmental stimuli. If that’s the case then any genetic predisposition to be an awful person is better handled by stopping it from being triggered (by looking after people better in general) than by trying to breed it out.

Eugenics. That is presumably why the original inquiry was about the prevalence of sterilize-bad-parents views specifically “in the atheist / rationalist community”. Eugenics, the idea of breeding humans for qualities like intelligence or athletic performance, was proposed by Francis Galton as a practical application of the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin. Darwin himself went along with the idea, although never enthusiastically, and with reservations about the social justice implications. The support it enjoyed for the next seventy-odd years came from places all along the left-right political spectrum, but almost entirely from the atheist-materialist side of the religious divide. That is quite possibly the basis for the (otherwise absurd) notion that the Nazis were a scientific and rationalistic bunch.

The Nazis showed the world what it would take to actually implement a eugenics programme, and since then the idea has been anathema among people of conscience. And rightly so, but when a problematic idea or practice becomes unthinkable within a culture, it doesn’t get cut out cleanly. “Not only will we not do this any more,” people decide, “we won’t even go near it.” The classic example (see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, and yes, I know I cite that book a lot) is the odd little superstitions that have grown up around knives in European culture, such as not eating with them. Europeans used to use big sharp knives for all sorts of things, notably settling arguments. In Māori culture there are several prohibitions, like “never sit on a table”, which put together underline the point that people are not food. And in modern political discourse, ever since World War II people have been unduly chary of applying genetic science to Homo sapiens.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The state has no business sterilizing people

Recently someone asked this in a rationalist Facebook group I follow, and I thought I might have enough to say about it to fill a blog post:

I’ve come across some rather scary views on how to deal with child abuse and want to test how widespread these policy views are in the atheist / rationalist community. So please tell me what your thoughts are on the idea that the state should sterilize people who have been shown to be bad parents. I think that we need to come up with less extreme ways to combat child abuse such as having a social worker come into the home every month for the first 10 years of a child’s life to check up on the home environment and to make sure there is no abuse going on.

For starters, it gets scarier than that. Sterilizing people who have been “shown to be bad parents” is, in fact, a toned-down version of the idea you often hear, which is that every woman should be sterilized who is on a government benefit. Or – and this has been suggested by certain Members of Parliament – that the benefit should be made contingent on the woman’s use of contraceptives. (Why yes, these remarks are always directed at women.)

My instinctive response to this is a mental wail of despair at the inhumanity of humankind. What kind of person looks at a suffering child and says “You’re costing me money, your mother needs to get her tubes tied”? Apparently, an alarming proportion of New Zealanders. It may be relevant that the “bad parents” who get thrown into the media and spark these kinds of conversations are almost always Māori or Pacific Islanders – way out of proportion to their actual presence in the child abuse statistics. When right-wing columnists, cartoonists, or bloggers pour scorn on “ferals”, that’s who they’re referring to.

At the root of this attitude is a thoughtless misdiagnosis of the motivations of people at the bottom of the social heap. No, women on benefits are not indiscriminate sex maniacs, nor do they have babies so as to get more money from the government. Childbirth statistics around the world paint a very clear picture. People choose to have fewer children when (a) women are empowered, (b) contraceptives are widely available, and (c) the few children they do have are certain to survive. Women pump out baby after baby when they have no choice, when their only hope of gaining respect is in the role of a mother, or (especially) when they know their children are going to be the only support network available in their old age.

Ironically, that point about family as support network may also account for the higher rate of child abuse among the poor. I admit I’m speculating here, but most kinds of violence are reduced when people see each other as fellow human beings with their own feelings and rights. If you are depending on your children to support you when you are old, on the other hand, then their independence is a threat to your future well-being. What if they find a job and a partner in another city and you are left all alone? Better to instil habits of obedience and dependence on you from an early age.

I’d better wrap this up before I go off on a tangent in areas where I really don’t know what I’m talking about. One of those areas is how you can take an abusive parent or partner and turn them into someone who is not an abusive parent or partner. But in this era when everyone has a different theory of what’s good or bad parenting, giving the state the power to perform non-consensual surgery on people deemed to be bad parents is surely one of the worse ideas around.

Funnily enough, the same people recommending sterilization for “ferals” are often the ones most angry at the Government for clamping down on the use of force in parental discipline. Do they realize that a government with the powers they want to give it would use those powers first on the same “strict but loving parents” they champion?

Monday, 23 November 2015

Reason is not the property of the West

The University of Otago’s second semester ends in October. I knew there were Summer School classes in January and February, because I’ve taken notes in them. I never knew there were also classes in November and December. But here I am. Turns out there’s a five-week course on titled “Introduction to the Māori World”, and one of the students taking it wants notes. My first class was last Tuesday. The lecture was about fundamental concepts in Māori culture, such as tapu and mana, and the polytheistic cosmology which underpins them.

A quick summary of that class. Tapu is of course the origin of the English word taboo, but it’s pronounced differently – both syllables are short and the stress is on the first one. Tapu is the presence or influence of an atua, a god. The gods are present everywhere, and one must treat them with deference and caution. But sometimes it is necessary to lift the tapu so that we humans can go about our ordinary lives without having to worry about it. Then, it becomes noa, which is simply the converse of tapu.

Which gods? On Tuesday we were introduced to four: Papa-tū-ā-nuku, Mother Earth; Tāne-mahuta, god of light and life and the forest; Tangaroa, god of all water, including the water in people’s bodies; and Ranginui, the Sky, Papa-tū-ā-nuku’s lover, who was separated from her by Tāne-mahuta to create the world of light. The gods are the ancestors of all life, including human beings. Most iwi (chiefdom-nations, though the word is usually translated “tribe”) trace their genealogy back to Tāne-mahuta. The chiefs belong to the elder line in each case.

Tangaroa’s dominion over water seems to be responsible for the tapu of blood, which in turn explains why women have a special power over tapu. A man can lift tapu by saying an incantation (a karakia) or using water, but a woman can lift it simply by virtue of being a woman, because women handle blood every month. When you enter or leave a marae – the space built at the hub of every Māori community to house formal gatherings – you pass through a gateway that symbolizes a woman’s legs, so that you don’t bring in any tapu you may have picked up on the outside.

Having just come back from Japan, I can’t help noticing the parallels with Shintō. There again, the kami are immanent in water, earth, and forests. Again, the kami are ancestors rather than creators of the human race, and the Imperial Family is the elder line of descent. And again you have that detail of the symbolic gateway, the torī in front of the shrine, through which you enter or leave the presence of divine power.

But there’s also a big difference. Japan is much more centralized than traditional Māori society, and you might expect to see that reflected in their religions – that Māoritanga would have lots of local spirits and Shintō would have a few big, important gods, like the pre-Christian Greek or Norse pantheons. In fact it’s the other way around. Each mountain, lake, river, and ancient tree in Japan has its own personal kami, but in tikanga Māori it is Tāne-mahuta in every patch of bush and Tangaroa in every body of water.

Mana is the other Māori word, besides tapu / taboo, that has been borrowed into English outside of New Zealand. Both syllables are short, so that to a New Zealand English speaker it sounds like “munna” – “monna” to an American. It’s been appropriated in crap fantasy books and games to denote a limiting resource for magic-users, like pixie-dust but slightly more badass. In fact mana is prestige, charisma, honour, dignity, authority; social power, not magical power. It’s about one’s standing with the gods. Duties and privileges in Māori culture are doled out entirely according to who has what kind of mana.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

What are we escaping?

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard from me in a while, it’s not the usual reason (i.e. procrastination plus Nearly Finished Syndrome) this time. It’s because I’m in Japan on the last day of my first ever overseas holiday, and I didn’t spend much of it sitting in hotel rooms typing. I have picked up enough of the language to compose a few simple sentences and say them, but I still need a lot of help understanding what other people are saying to me. So far I have not experienced anything like what people call “culture shock”. Maybe this is because, with my social disability, I have never found that my own culture makes all that much sense either.

I guess it’s the same principle as learning to pronounce other languages. People have commented with favourable surprise on how quickly I master the pronunciation of Norwegian and Finnish – my choir had a Scandinavian-themed concert recently. The secret is quite simple: English is not the centre. The sound of the Norwegian word meg (“me”), for instance, is halfway between the sound of the English words may and my. It is quite comfortable there. It is not trying to be one or the other, as if English vowels were the underlying structure and Norwegian vowels had to be propped up between them.

I’ve been here two weeks now, which obviously isn’t enough time to have gained any deep ethnographic insight into Japanese culture. Still, superficial as they are, I have found the cultural differences I’ve observed quite easy to adapt to, simply because I wasn’t assuming that the way things are done in New Zealand is the most sensible or obvious way to do them. For example, in Japan, aesthetic and artistic sensibilities aren’t felt to be unmanly. Why should they be? In New Zealand, a real man drinks crappy beer, watches rugby avidly, and is disgusted by any form of entertainment that requires more than a kindergarten education to understand. This is presented as a “low-key” or “easy-going” or, of course, “un-PC” way to live; in fact it’s aggressively policed with homophobic ridicule.

But it’s not a difference between Japanese and New Zealand culture that’s really grabbed my attention this last couple of weeks – it’s a similarity. New Zealand and Japan are both modern countries, with advertising and traffic lights and shopping malls and, in Japan’s case, public transport. And both have that quintessentially modern phenomenon: abundant fantasies about not being modern. In amongst its narrow high-rise boxes, Japan has magnificent temples and shrines and old market areas, all clearly preserved with close attention. In New Zealand, of course, an “old” building is at most Victorian, but we made the Lord of the Rings movies, and we like to go out into what little remains of our wilderness areas and pretend we’re conquering undiscovered territory.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Cut the crap and give me my country back

(Shout-out to my friend Steve King, who wrote the protest song I’ve nicked the post title from.)

So last week, our beloved leaders signed up to the TPPA (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement). They were always going to, of course. Since this National Government was first elected in 2008 there have been three clear, consistent patterns to their behaviour. One is dismissing objections to their decisions, as with child poverty, charter school outcomes, river pollution from intensive dairy farming, and the revelations that the GCSB has spied on New Zealanders. Another is favouring business in any way they can, as in asset sales, tax cuts, 90-day “trial period” no-fault firings, and the various formerly protected parcels of land and seabed now opened to mining. And the third is undermining democracy, as with Environment Canterbury, students’ associations, tertiary education governing bodies, and the number of times they’ve used Parliamentary urgency – i.e. skipping the pesky “public submission” part of the legislative process – for controversial but non-urgent Bills.

All three of these patterns are perfectly embodied in the TPPA. Dismissing objections: the text of the TPPA has been kept strictly secret, which means nobody can object to anything specific (but Trade Minister Tim Groser gets to call us all “ignorant” and “fools” for not knowing what we have been expressly prevented from knowing). Favouring business: what we do know about the TPPA is that it’s about removing tariffs and price controls imposed by governments, while extending intellectual property rights. Undermining democracy: the TPPA will allow corporations to sue governments for imposing laws or regulations that hurt their profits.

It turns out that, despite all Groser’s prior reassurances, New Zealand actually gets a pretty crap deal out of the TPPA. The best we get is a small tariff reduction on dairy – dairy being the one great super-product that two successive governments have bet New Zealand’s future on, the thing we’re destroying our rivers and lying to the world about it for. All the rest is what Idiot/Savant over at No Right Turn calls “margin of error stuff”. Danyl McLauchlan at The DimPost notes that “the TPP will deliver the equivalent of a couple of months of growth in ten years time.” And yet we went ahead and signed it anyway, because it’s better than not being in a secretive trade partnership that could sue the crap out of us, right guys? Right, guys? What this tells me is that the cynical view of National’s motives is wrong. They’re not amoral manipulators just out to score cash for their CEO cronies; if they were, they would have turned this down. It’s much worse than that. They’re true believers with an ideology. No matter the evidence, no matter what actually happens, the way forward is always to boost business and remove impediments to it. No other option is on the table.