Sunday, 19 February 2017

The question of punching Nazis

This blog tends to straggle a fortnight or so behind the news, but people haven’t stopped talking about this yet:

You know, if there were two propositions I’d always have thought were established beyond doubt, it’s that the world is round and that the Nazis were bad. But in the last year there have arisen fad movements questioning both. I imagine, though I admit I don’t have any data here, that there’s quite a large membership overlap between the two movements. I don’t intend to defend either proposition here. My question instead is whether it’s morally defensible to do what that guy in the GIF is doing, i.e., punching Richard Spencer in the face.

This is an interesting test case for the ethics around free speech; it’s so extreme, in two different ways. On the one hand, the usual defences for limiting speech do not apply. Spencer in that clip is not being argued with angrily, blocked from an internet forum, disinvited from a speaking engagement, or having a newspaper refuse to publish his letters – he’s getting punched in the face while trying to speak to a camera. We can’t say that he’s merely being “shown the door” or that the attacker is exercising his right to free speech. This was a violent act, an act of physical force. On that basis many people have condemned it, including Jerry Coyne:

If the Left is to keep the moral high ground, we simply can’t go around physically attacking those whose views we don’t like. In fact it’s ironic, because when progressives do this, they’re implicitly denying someone a REAL safe space: a space to be free to express your opinions and remain physically safe. “Safety” refers to freedom from physical attack or illegal harassment, not to freedom from hearing views you don’t like.
As a conscientious objector, I’ve always adhered to the nonviolent philosophies of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, for if you start violence, you lose credibility.

But Coyne is misrepresenting the situation when he lumps Spencer under “those whose views we don’t like”. Elsewhere he has disputed the characterization of Spencer as a “Nazi”, since Spencer is not a formal member of a National Socialist party. Given that Spencer is on record as questioning whether Jews are people and proposing that Africans be exterminated, I’d call that hair-splitting. Coyne is Jewish; if he wants to forgive a man who denies his humanity, that’s his prerogative. But I think other Jewish and African people might want a say in the matter as well.

Spencer’s racist views constitute the second way in which this is an extreme case. The usual arguments for protecting offensive speech also do not apply here. Spencer is not speaking truth to power. He is not proposing a crackpot idea that just might be true, or even one whose falsehood offers us teaching opportunities in the effort of rebuttal. We already know what happens when the assumptions he is challenging cease to hold; that’s what the 1930s and 40s were all about. And the punch doesn’t set a precedent for violent state intervention against dissidents, because it wasn’t delivered by an agent of the state.

What about the moral high ground, as per Coyne’s objection? The moral high ground isn’t just a place to keep your own self-image squeaky-clean; it’s a critical strategic position which any resistance movement abandons at its peril. At some point, you must gain the support of the public or abandon your cause. To do that, you must inspire them either with sympathy or with fear. Fear has short-term advantages that make it tempting – not least that you control the media’s attention. But it is fatal in the long run. If the citizens sympathize, some of them may help you stay off the state’s radar; if they’re afraid, they’ll hold the state’s coat while it swats you like a fly. India is no longer a British colony because Gandhi didn’t terrorize people. Northern Ireland is still a British colony because the IRA did terrorize people.

(Worse still, you might buck the odds and win. The English Civil War, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution are examples. It’s no coincidence that these were followed by the tyrannies of, respectively, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Joseph Stalin. Power gained by fear can only be held by fear.)

But America is in an even sorrier state than I thought if one sucker-punch is all it’s going to take to divert the sympathy of the public to “alt-right” Nazis. Not many resistance movements can survive without being prepared to occasionally defend themselves, either. Martin Luther King didn’t riot, but he openly sympathized with those who did. The gay rights movement in the US began when the patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back – yes, fought back – against police harassment. The boundary between sympathy and terror is not the same as the boundary between using force and not using force. Most people are not complete fools; they can tell the difference between hitting people to make them do what you say and hitting people to stop them kicking you around.

All in all, I can’t see that the person who punched Richard Spencer in the face did anything wrong. What does bother me is the idea some people seem to have that more punching is the way we’re going to win this thing. It’s not. This is one of the deep cognitive flaws in the human psyche: “Find out whose fault the problem is and hurt them until it goes away.” That very flaw is the core of Nazism and fascism, and for that reason Nazis and fascists are always going to be better at hurting people than we who oppose them. Force may sometimes be necessary, but if the decisive contest is our force against theirs, they will win.

What we’re better at doing than they are is telling the truth. (The Trump White House has already, in its first month, invented three non-existent terrorist attacks to justify Trump’s anti-Muslim measures.) The Nazis themselves are obviously not going to be listening, but other people are. They need to see that we have answers to every one of the fascists’ lies. I salute the brave scientists, reporters, judges, and bloggers who are standing up for the truth. We need more of you. Kia kaha.

Friday, 27 January 2017

What price progress?

Several of the blogs I follow, I follow because they frequently say things I disagree with, but say them reasonably enough that I don’t end up lying awake all night thinking of things to snap back at them. This is a delicate balance; I read things I disagree with because that’s what inspires me to write, but lying awake thinking of things to snap back at people on the internet vacuumed up a lot of valuable sleep hours in my 20s. Two of the blogs I’m talking about are David Brin’s Contrary Brin and the one which inspired this post, John Michael Greer’s Archdruid Report.

Brin and Greer are both further right, politically, than I am, but neither one is so far right as to think that people on welfare just need to grow a work ethic, that being the point at which I stop listening for insights and start listening for gotcha points. Which just goes to prove that there’s more than one dimension to politics, because on today’s topic they are polar opposites, and I’m somewhere in the middle. Today, with Greer’s recent post “The Embarrassments of Chronocentrism” as my launch-pad, I’m going to be talking about progress.

Yes, “chronocentrism” is a word Greer coined to make his point. It’s modelled on “ethnocentrism”, which is when someone thinks that every other culture is to be judged by their own. (Usually, in fact, what they think is that there is a Right Way to do things and a whole lot of Wrong Ways, and they’ve never thought about it enough to realize that the only thing Right about the Right Way is that it’s how their own culture happens to do things.) Greer replaces the ethno- element, meaning “culture”, with chrono-, “time”, to criticize the attitude that every other period in history is to be judged by our own.

Now I would be tempted to use this word mostly when my generation do the exact same tutting and sighing over Kids These Days that we used to roll our eyes at when we were Kids These Days. Did you know that when some teenager has their head bent over a smart-phone, they’re almost always using it either to gain knowledge or to communicate with another person somewhere? Mind-boggling, I know, but true. The way some people go on about Kids And Their Phones reminds me of nothing so much as William James’ (I think it was) speculation on what dogs think about their masters’ reading: what strange compulsion could drive you to stare at bits of paper for hours on end, when you could be doing something worthwhile like playing fetch? But I’d better get back on track before this tangent gets any longer.

What Greer takes issue with is the idea that society has some kind of natural drive to get better and better; and, correspondingly, that past societies should be considered inferior because they don’t live up to the standards that we have achieved. Which, when you think about it, is a paradox in itself. If society naturally gets better and better, shouldn’t we be especially forgiving of the faults of past societies? They couldn’t help being bad, could they, since they didn’t have the good fortune to be born in our time? We don’t blame children for being childish, do we?

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Why 2017 will probably be no better than 2016

Yes, I know, downer of a title. Let’s start with the good news: 2016 wasn’t actually as uniformly bad as some of us made it out to be. The last remaining war in the Americas finally ended. Renewable energy overtook coal. The world tiger population rose. Giant pandas are officially no longer endangered; nor are humpback whales or green sea turtles. Ebola was eradicated from West Africa. World hunger reached a 25-year low. Equally good things may happen in 2017 – or they may not.

The whole “2016 hates us” meme got started on 10 January, when David Bowie died aged 69. Actually, no, make that 14 January, when Alan Rickman died, also aged 69, and people found the coincidence eerie. After that, whenever somebody famous died, the word was “2016 strikes again.” 69 is far too young to die nowadays, of course; a few of 2016’s victims were even younger, like Prince (57) or George Michael (53) or, when people had already started to say “Thank God 2016’s over”, Carrie Fisher (60). But far more of them were in their 80s and 90s: Gene Wilder was 83; Leonard Cohen was 82; John Glenn was 95; Zsa Zsa Gabor was an incredible 99. I’m sure every one will be dearly missed by those who loved them. But there’s nothing inexplicable about dying at that age. Nor did it suddenly begin in 2016. Have we all so soon forgotten Terry Pratchett, Leonard Nimoy, and Christopher Lee?

So what happened, then? I can think of a couple of entirely non-sinister possibilities. One is that there’s been no increase in the frequency of celebrity deaths at all, that they just happen to have fallen into a cluster as random events do. It’ll be harder to quantify than you might think, because how famous do you have to be to count as a “celebrity”? Who decides? I would certainly want to include the great New Zealand singer-songwriter and television presenter Marcus Turner, a man whose wide circle of friends and acquaintances I was proud and a little overawed to inhabit, who died on 2 February a couple of weeks shy of his 60th birthday. But I didn’t see him on the lists of 2016 casualties I pulled up from Google to write the previous paragraph.

Given the reputation 2016 now suffers, the temptation will be to count people as “celebrities” who happened to die in 2016, who we wouldn’t have considered “celebrities” if they were still alive or if they had died in some earlier year. So there may be nothing in it at all. If, on the other hand, there really have been more of them dying lately, the other possibility is that they’re all getting old. The Baby Boomers who embodied the radical cultural shift of the 1960s were in their teens; the rock- and pop-stars who led it were in their 20s. “Never trust anyone over thirty,” remember? The Boomers themselves in their turn contributed to the wave of new stars as the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, which must have further swelled the number of stars merely because there were so many Boomers.

It’s now the 2010s; the ’60s happened fifty years ago. Plausibly, what we’re now seeing is that cohort of stars approaching their average life expectancy. (Perhaps I’m over-fond of bitter irony, but I can’t help smiling just a little at the thought that the Boomer cult of youth might have given direct rise to society’s new-found consciousness of mortality.) If that’s the case, then the frequency of celebrity deaths will certainly continue to rise over the next few years before levelling off at a new, higher norm. Get used to it.

The other shock 2016 brought, in two goes – the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump – is far more ominous. The soupçon of schadenfreude I confess I feel to think of the complacency of the neoliberals immediately beforehand dissipates when I remember that the Left was also completely unprepared for what should have been our fight to win. We’re supposed to have the solutions to inequality, poverty, and corporate dominance, aren’t we? How did the fascists convince so many voters that bigotry was the answer? Important as these questions are, right now we need to contain the consequences. And whether or not my predictions turn out right in detail, it’s safe to say that those consequences are going to be negative.

If there’s a sliver of good news, current indications are that I overestimated Donald Trump’s intelligence considerably when I made those predictions. Impeachment might be an easy road after all. The cloud to that silver lining? Farewell, President Donald Trump – hello, President Mike Pence.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

The false meaning of Christmas

’Tis the season to be sappy. Twee cartoon reindeer and Santas, pointy trees and beribboned boxes, tinsel wreaths and spray-painted snow, and above all, inescapably, in every shop, that dreary treacly music that is the aural equivalent of sitting in a bath as it goes lukewarm. The fact that late December is midsummer in New Zealand gives all the doggedly wintry imagery an extra edge of falseness. You can tell that people are feeling it, because the other thing you get this time of year is movies and TV specials offering to reveal the true meaning of Christmas, which evidently is hard to find otherwise.

Well, if it’s hard to find, then the true meaning can’t be money worries and time pressure. Which is pretty much what Christmas is nowadays, if you’re an adult: a time to lavish gifts and food and hospitality on your friends and family or they’ll think you don’t love them. Even that wouldn’t be so bad, if only the gifts were things that were useful, beautiful, thought-provoking or informative. But no. As George Monbiot recently noted, businesses ravage the environment and sweat poor workers half to death so that we can present each other with

a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a “hilarious” inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle... a Scratch Off World wall map... An electronic drum-machine t-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped iPhone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog...

Monbiot’s right. These things amuse us for a day or two and then we compound the damage done in their manufacture by adding them to the world’s overflowing landfills. They end up in the ocean. Plastic doesn’t rot. Tools exist that we can use to clean it up, but not at the rate it keeps arriving. And once we’ve cleaned it up, what do we do with it? Burn it, and release the carbon to the atmosphere? Another bad idea. The best I can think of is to recycle it as building materials – say, underfloor insulation – since that’s at least something we would like to have last forever.

It’s become a kind of society-level addiction: better to buy cheap plastic crap than be that one guy who doesn’t give Christmas presents. And of course, the more people who behave like this, the more of a Scrooge you’ll look like if you don’t join in as well – ironically, considering Dickens’ original Scrooge was motivated by profit maximization just like the businesses foisting the cheap plastic crap on us. I don’t know how long the cycle of guilt and cheap plastic crap would go on if it weren’t regularly given a kick along by all the advertising.

This commercialism has even managed to infect the “true meaning” stories. Back in 1956, Ted Geisel (aka Dr Seuss) could write How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, in which the townsfolk of Whoville wake to find all their presents and decorations gone and still sing for joy that it’s Christmas. Contrast that with the 2011 movie Arthur Christmas, whose plot-driving problem is that a single present has fallen off the sleigh, destined for a child who already has lots of presents from her family but will apparently nevertheless be absolutely devastated if she doesn’t get something from Santa as well. Hear that, parents? Better nip out and buy one more just in case.

Monday, 5 December 2016

A big news day

Whoa. I should write to world leaders more often!

Yesterday there were two big, startling pieces of news, and for a change both of them were good news – if you happen to share my political views. The Dakota Access Pipeline has been stopped at Standing Rock. And John Key has resigned as Prime Minister of New Zealand.

I don’t imagine, of course, that the e-mail I sent to President Obama and posted on this blog last week had anything to do with the first piece of news. (Well, that’s not technically true. I do imagine it, because it’s a nice little ego boost, but I don’t seriously imagine it.) The people who won this fight are the Water Protectors who stood their ground so long and so bravely. If you asked me to guess what changed the state’s mind, my best guess is the army veterans who pledged to stand with the protesters. Armies are held together by honouring loyalty and bravery, and you can’t honour loyalty and bravery and also point weapons at veterans from your own side.

The Standing Rock news is cause for celebration – for now. It’s not the end of the war. The Pipeline will be put somewhere else, not scrapped altogether, which is good news for the Lakota people and their water supply but not great for stopping climate change. And there will be more pipelines to come. This time, Donald Trump didn’t get his hands on the situation. Next time will be on his watch. It will be worse than this one. But for now, we can celebrate.

John Key’s resignation I’m not so positive about. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good news for my side. Not that Key is an unpleasant person as National leaders go; he’s always presented himself as a cheerful, friendly, down-to-earth Kiwi bloke. That’s why his resignation is good news, because that persona – I’m not committing myself to any hypothesis about how genuine it was – has been the cornerstone of the National Party’s election strategy for over a decade, and now they’re going to have to come up with a new one. One lecturer a couple of years ago pointed out that whenever the Government was getting criticized in the news it was always some other minister facing the cameras, but whenever they were getting praised it would be John Key we saw. The lecture in question was on Machiavelli. I’m just putting that out there.

No, what concerns me about John Key resigning is the why. All indications up till now, including Key’s own public statements, were that he intended to run for a fourth National term in Government and, if he got it, to lead it through. The only reason he gave yesterday was that he wanted to spend more time with his family, which if you’ve watched any political dramas you will recognise as Politician Blackmail Avoidance 101. But what kind of pending scandal would spook the man who, in 2014, won an election with a book about him titled Dirty Politics fresh off the press?

It surely can’t be coincidence that National just lost a by-election to Labour in Mt Roskill, by a landslide comparable to those we recently had in Canterbury – and that National apparently had no plan for winning it. But that just compounds the mystery. What happened in Mt Roskill? Why has the National Party suddenly lost its will to fight? There is something going on here that we haven’t seen yet. And, much as I want National out next year, it bugs me that my country’s government can be thrown off balance by things that the public don’t get to see.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

An open letter to President Obama regarding the Standing Rock crisis


Dear President Obama,

I am writing to express my deep and urgent concern regarding the crisis presently unfolding at Standing Rock.

I am not (and have never been) an American citizen. My concern is that of a citizen of the world, and it is fourfold. First, for the injustice the Dakota Access Pipeline represents to the indigenous people of Standing Rock, whose trust with the United States it will violate. Second, for the acceleration of global warming by the use of fossil fuels, which the Pipeline is designed to facilitate. Third, for the precious water supplies it endangers. And fourth, for the human rights abuses which have been perpetrated, contrary to the First Amendment of your Constitution, against those exercising their sovereign right to oppose it.

I have been given to understand that the State intends to bring military force to bear on the activists within four days of this writing. I ask you, Mr President, to exercise your power, as perhaps the final act for which your Presidency will be remembered, to bring about a resolution to the crisis that is favourable with respect to the fourfold concerns I have outlined.

As a private citizen who cannot vote in the United States I have no inducement to offer. I implore you, however, to consider what your successor is likely to make of the situation if it remains unresolved when he takes office; and what precedent it will provide for him if it is resolved by the use of military force against a legitimate, peaceful demonstration.

Yours with the greatest and most urgent of sincerity,

Daniel Copeland

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

We won’t defeat bigotry by ignoring it

“We really should just be completely ignoring Tamaki,” said a friend of mine (whose name is Andy) on Facebook last week. “I’m thoroughly sick of giving time and space to nonentities. Sign of the times unfortunately – lazy, sensationalistic journalism, and all that.”

Tamaki who? Well, my little country made international news a couple of days previously when we had a gigantic earthquake, which fortunately hit a rural area in the early hours of Tuesday morning with very few people in harm’s way, and I think the death toll stands at 2. Now Brian Tamaki, self-anointed Bishop of Destiny Church, had preached on Sunday that major earthquakes (such as those that devastated Christchurch, our second-largest city, back in 2011) are Nature crying out to God in grief at human sin – sin being murder, gay marriage, and Lloyd Geering. After Monday night’s events he put up a blog post claiming that the sermon had been a prophecy.

Maybe Andy is right in the specific case of Brian Tamaki. He gets media space because his Destiny Party was the second-latest in the ongoing series of attempts to forge authoritarian Christianity here in New Zealand into the kind of political force that it is in the US. The pattern is: rebuke sin, claim endorsement from God, announce a nationwide revival, fail to cross the 5% vote threshold required to get your party into Parliament, fall off the radar, surface a year or two later in a sex scandal. Except in Tamaki’s case it was a money scandal, and it didn’t sully his standing within the small group of devout followers who are his season-pass on the gravy train.

I can’t fault Andy’s opinion of current standards of journalism either. Objectionable behaviour from public figures gets clicks, and clicks get advertising dollars. But in the light of the recent US election, it’s now clear that the Left has catching up to do; and one thing we need to catch up on is convincing people that we have answers worth listening to. During my time in student political activism there was a general practice – nothing ever so concrete as a policy – of avoiding engaging with our opponents’ arguments directly so as not to give the impression we thought them worth bothering with. In effect we assumed that our target audience’s default position was to agree with us as long as they didn’t encounter opposing views. I believe a similar assumption was a big part of Hillary Clinton’s failure.

So if certain people blame earthquakes on deviant sexual activity, does that mean we need to go out and hold educational community seminars on plate tectonics? Not what I have in mind. Apart from anything else, we don’t know why earthquakes strike at one point on a fault rather than another, and for people who think like Tamaki, that sort of gap in our knowledge means there’s still room for God (or aggrieved Nature) as an explanatory factor. Anyway, the earthquakes per se aren’t the point. The point is whether being LGBT, or tolerating LGBT partnerships, is the sort of thing that makes a country deserve earthquakes. We progressives say “No.” Many people still say “Yes.” We have not worked hard enough at convincing them otherwise.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Are you awake yet?

Politics as usual is over.

There are two questions on everyone’s mind, I’m sure. What the hell just happened? And what the hell’s going to happen now?

I’ll start with the second one. If the UK after the Brexit vote is any guide, before the new President is even sworn in there’ll be a groundswell of criminal violence against people of colour – Latin Americans and Muslims in particular, but I don’t imagine they’ll be too picky. The word will be “We just voted to kick you lot out.” That was, after all, Trump’s main platform.

(Just so you know: I wrote that paragraph before I read the innumerable news reports confirming it.)

You needn’t bother arguing with me on this part, by the way. You may have a different view of Trump’s character than I do; but I’m not going to drag you through a whole bunch of news items and political analyses you can Google for yourself and a discussion you won’t read, just to provide back-up evidence of who he is. Instead I’m going to make predictions, and the next few years will prove me right or wrong.

Trump will begin his Presidential career with an aggressive and vindictive purge of every high-ranking Republican who walked out on him. (“You’re fired.”) He will then issue an executive order to deport undocumented immigrants. Existing law enforcement and military will not be up to the job, so he will create a special taskforce and recruit the kind of people who were chanting his name at rallies to staff it – i.e. men who relish the chance to point guns at brown people with the government’s blessing. There will be deaths.

Work will begin on the Mexico border wall fairly early on. It will have to be financed. Even the President of the United States doesn’t have the power to make Mexico pay for it, as he promised. He will demand payment, and Mexico will say “No.” Most likely he’ll stump up the cash in the meantime by gutting some public service he doesn’t think important, like the unemployment benefit – hey, with all the lazy illegals gone who needs it, right? But he’ll also threaten Mexico with military action if they don’t pay up. He will eventually carry out that threat.

Yes, I know Trump has promised not to send more soldiers to war. Of all the promises he’s made, that’s the one I’m most sure he’ll break. He may only rattle sabres at Mexico, but there will definitely be another Middle East bloodbath. Trump is an over-confident man, and that’s the biggest risk factor there is both for starting wars and for escalating wars. The decision-makers on both sides in World War I were certain they’d be holding victory parades before Christmas 1914. That’s why there was a World War I.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Americans, please vote for Hillary Clinton

It’s a week till the big day. Much as I like to surprise readers with new perspectives on things, I don’t have one this time. I don’t know how far this will go, it’s not like this blog has a big readership. But this is perhaps the most urgent thing I’ve ever blogged about. So, small as my part must be, I’m doing what I can do. Maybe this will reach a few people who are wavering and tip them the right way. In 2000 the election was lost on a whisker-thin count in Florida, and this election is more consequential than that one.

I can’t vote for anyone, I’m not an American. But this election will reverberate around the world. I suspect it’ll have more impact on our lives here in New Zealand than our own election next year will. I have no rewards or threats to offer. All I can do is beg, and American readers, I’m begging you: please vote for Hillary Clinton this week.

It’s not the Trump voters I’m trying to reach, or not mainly. The people we see at those scary-looking rallies on the news wouldn’t listen to me if I did have anything to say to them. I mean, I could yell insults at them if I thought that would be helpful, but it wouldn’t change any minds. They might listen to this guy from GQ, perhaps. He seems at least to be in their world – I’m not.

There does exist at least one Trump supporter who is not a hateful bigot, because I’ve seen him on YouTube: his name’s Peter Thiel. [EDIT: I’m informed that this is not actually true, that Thiel doesn’t, for instance, see anything wrong with apartheid. But he’s not a thoughtless hateful bigot; he produces arguments that are worth answering.] But the arguments he uses are the same ones that other people use, the ones who I am trying to reach, so I’ll address them in a minute. No, the people I’m trying to reach are those who aren’t voting, or (equivalently) are voting Jill Stein or Gary Johnson or writing some other name in on the ballot. People who claim that yes, Trump is bad, but Clinton is just as bad. Because it’s them I fear. If everyone who understands what Trump is votes for Clinton, the election is a shoo-in. If enough people sit it out or vote third parties in protest, it’s not. Again, 2000 stands as a warning.

Yes, you guys, your grievances with the American electoral system are absolutely legitimate. Yes, it’s ridiculous that the self-proclaimed inventors of democracy are still using non-proportional voting. Yes, it is a serious problem that only two points of view get a go at the Presidency. You need to amend your Constitution. But you can’t do that at a presidential election. I understand why that’s when these problems get attention. Plebiscites are like magazine covers; they sell better with a human face on them. But you can’t fix a whole system by bringing in one new person. You need to run a referendum to change your electoral system, like New Zealand did in 1993. You can’t do that this week. You’ll have to wait, and plan.

No, Hillary Clinton is not guaranteed to get in no matter what happens. The Presidency goes to the candidate who gets the single highest number of Electoral College votes. Remember 2000 – that’s going to be the refrain for this post. Suppose that next week, as then, the Presidency depends on a single swing state. Suppose, in that swing state, Trump gets 48% of the vote and Clinton gets 47% and Jill Stein and Gary Johnson between them get 5%. If that happens, who’s President? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not a Clinton-Stein-Johnson co-presidency. That’s not how America works.

No, Hillary Clinton is not guaranteed to get in no matter what happens. If 2000 is too distant, remember Brexit. We all thought that was bound to lose. None of the politicians pushing it had a plan for what to do if they won. Yes, that is indeed due to the failures of neoliberalism, but xenophobia and racism are not better than neoliberalism. They are worse. And right now they are rallying.

No, Clinton is not just as bad as Trump. Consider the e-mail scandal going on around her right now. Clearly the FBI, or at least some very influential people in the FBI, are trying to stop her from becoming President – and those e-mails are the worst thing they’ve found on her, or they would be trumpeting whatever they’d found that was worse. Trump, by contrast, has among other things been indicted on child sex charges.

No, Clinton is not just as bad as Trump. Yes, she’s called for more American military engagement in the Middle East – America is currently involved in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, if I recall correctly. Her stance is that American intervention will prevent more deaths than it causes. I think she’s wrong about this and if I were in a position to argue with her directly I would take a very strong line. Trump, on the other hand, favours pulling the troops out. That was Peter Thiel’s big argument for supporting Trump. And I’d agree – except that “pulling the troops out” might mean either of two utterly different things.

  1. Send all the soldiers and military trainers home. Send diplomats to the governments of the various countries with this message (worded diplomatically): “We’re not going to kill for you any more. If you need a hand rebuilding civil institutions, we can talk. But no more bullets, no more drones, no more weapons.”
  2. Send all the soldiers, military trainers, and every other American home. Fire nuclear missiles at Damascus, Baghdad, Aden, Tripoli, and Mogadishu. Declare victory.

Which of these options do you think will be favoured by a man who has publicly said that all Muslims are potential terrorists and that he doesn’t know why America can’t use its nuclear weapons?

No, Clinton is really not just as bad as Trump. We on the Left have a bad habit of overusing the word “fascism”, with much the same effect as the boy who cried “wolf!” in Aesop’s fable. It’s not a lie, exactly, but it’s a worn-out hyperbole, and the trouble with wearing out a word with hyperbolic use is that you’ve then lost the impact of the word when it literally applies. Donald Trump really is a fascist. No scare-quotes, no “almost” or “virtually” or “practically” or any other hedge-word, he’s a fascist.

Fascism (unlike communism or neoliberalism) lacks any single definable credo, because it doesn’t seek international cooperation. It has, nevertheless, certain characteristic diagnostic features, and Trump displays them all. He preaches a lost era of national greatness; he proposes to restore it by purifying the nation of undesirable nationalities, religions, and races; he idolizes ruthless businessmen, or at least one ruthless businessman. These things he inherits from the Republican party he has commandeered. But he also has the other, still more sinister symptoms of fascism. He threatens his political opponents with the police; he chafes at the democratic restraints on his power; he encourages his followers to promote the cause through violence. Even George W. Bush didn’t do that.

This is not a drill. This is not a joke. This is not politics as usual. This is how democracies are overthrown. Just because you’re the United States of America doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you. Don’t let it. Vote Hillary Clinton on 8 November. I’m begging you.

And then, on 9 November, go and protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. Tell the President-Elect that you think it’s wrong. Tell her loudly, tell her angrily. Anger is appropriate. But remember, as you do, what the other potential President-Elect does to protesters.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Oh, the humanities

My employers’ employer, the University of Otago, has decided to cut staff positions in the humanities. Music is going to be hit the worst. As usual, the justification is money. It’s been suggested that maybe the University should ease off on its endless construction drive if it needs to free up some cash. (In twenty years I’ve never known the campus be without a big hole in the ground somewhere. Face it, Otago, the Richardson Building is a plug-ugly wodge of concrete and no amount of landscaping around it is going to change that.)

However, this wouldn’t fix the bigger problem, which is the government’s attitude. Statements from the Ministry make it clear – education is for fitting young people for the workforce; anything else is an indulgence. Here’s the official position in their Tertiary Education Strategy.

Skilled, knowledgeable individuals are essential to the success of businesses and other organizations. Access to skilled workers allows businesses to increase the value of their products and services and to pay higher wages. In turn, people are better off, healthier and happier, and New Zealand is a more attractive place to live and work.
For most young people, achieving a tertiary qualification is a crucial milestone towards a successful working career. Whether they study at a university, polytechnic, wānanga, private training establishment, or through an apprenticeship, a qualification gives them a concrete record of knowledge learned and skills gained that they can use to move up the employment ladder.

And in the Minister of Education’s own words, prefacing that document:

The new Tertiary Education Strategy 2014–19 has been developed to... contribute to the Government’s focus on improving New Zealand’s economic outcomes. The “Building Skilled and Safe Workplaces” programme of the Government’s Business Growth Agenda aims to materially lift New Zealand’s long-run productivity growth rate while maintaining our high rate of labour force participation. This requires tertiary education to better equip individuals with the skills and qualifications needed to participate effectively in the labour market and in an innovative and successful New Zealand.

Sure enough, Priority 1 in the Strategy is “delivering skills for industry”. There is nothing anywhere about developing insight or critical thinking. Public education, to this government, is solely a means of polishing up new cogs to slot into the commercial-industrial machine.

My instinctive response to this is a string of expletives, but that’s not the way to build a counter-argument. If you want rational debate, start by taking your opponent’s concerns seriously. Education costs society money; don’t we then have a responsibility to pay that money back? Granted that some people derive personal value from knowing all about, say, the anti-imperial politics encoded in the Book of Revelation or the practice of cannibalism in indigenous South American funerary rites, shouldn’t they stump up their own cash for it?

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Why women are better than men

Once upon a time, people say, you could tell the plain truth about things and be admired for it. Now they make you shut up and call you, as it might be, racist, sexist, or homophobic. I’ve had my quarrels with these people before and I expect I will again. But today I share their experience. I have a truth to tell which will offend people because it upsets the illusion that we are all equal. Here it is:

Women are better than men.

This is not hyperbole, rhetorical or otherwise. Nor is it a joke, though I confess myself slightly amused to imagine the offended huffing and puffing it will cause among some who pride themselves on being immune to offended huffing and puffing. It is, I admit, a generalization; but it is, I insist, a valid generalization.

Consider, as a parallel, the statement “Women are shorter than men.” That’s a generalization, but a valid one. It doesn’t mean that women can walk upright under toilet stall doors while men frequently get their hair tangled in power lines. It doesn’t even mean that the tallest woman is shorter than the shortest man. You can’t falsify it by picking Gwendoline Christie as your exemplar of women and Peter Dinklage as your exemplar of men. No-one denies that the distributions overlap – that many men are shorter than many women. But you still know perfectly well that women, in general, are shorter than men, in general.

Likewise, I’m not claiming that all women are saints and all men are serial killers. I’m not claiming that the worst woman in the world is better than the best man. I am claiming that women, in general, are of better moral character than men, in general. This claim being a generalization, you can’t falsify it by picking, say, Ann Coulter as your woman versus William Kamkwamba as your man. And in case you didn’t believe me the first time, this is neither a hyperbole nor a joke. So you’re going to want some evidence, aren’t you?

Monday, 12 September 2016

How to tell if you’re a racist

One evening a couple of years ago I was on the bus to go home, and this old guy got on at a stop in the middle of town, by an internet café. This was around the time that the Council updated the bus schedules, and the timetable at that particular stop had recently been taken off its post. According to the old guy, it was the café staff that had taken it down. Now you or I might see nothing sinister in that, but the old guy knew better. He knew what they were up to. They’d taken the timetable down so that people looking for parking spaces wouldn’t know it was a bus stop! Then they’d park there and use the internet café, and they wouldn’t realize their mistake until they got the traffic fine! Just as well there were sharp people around, like himself, who wouldn’t fall for tricks like that!

I was sitting several seats behind him, so I didn’t get a good look at the expression on the face of the younger guy he was talking to. From what I could see it looked very much like “From the sanity level of what you’ve just said I infer that any attempt to reason with you would be a waste of time, so I’m just going to smile and nod.” But I don’t actually know.

When I say “this old guy”, by the way, are you picturing someone wild-looking, unkempt, with teeth missing, muttering to himself and staring belligerently about? Don’t. This was a dignified-looking, affable elderly man; working-class accent and second-hand clothes, if I recall correctly, but if you were asked to spot a mentally ill person on that bus by their appearance you’d pick me over him. I don’t think his bizarre delusion arose from any kind of brain disorder. I think it had more to do with a small detail which he never felt the need to mention, and which I also haven’t said anything about so far. See if it makes it feel any more plausible to you. Are you ready?

The staff and management of the internet café are immigrants from East Asia.

If your answer was yes, that does make it more plausible, then you – like the old guy – are a racist.

Nowadays we all agree that it is very bad for someone to be a racist. Which of course is true, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a genuine moral advance since the days when newspapers printed editorial cartoons decrying the “Yellow Peril”. But the advance has been less than it might appear, because of one unfortunate side-effect of the new understanding. “Racists are bad,” people reason to themselves, “and I am not bad. Therefore, I am not a racist. Therefore, my belief that Muslims are terrorists and East Asians are amoral schemers and Polynesians are stupid lazy thieves is not racism.” Well, sorry, yes it is, and yes you are.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

On rugby and sex work

Someday, I will figure out a way to blog fast enough to respond to things in real time instead of commenting on news from a month ago. Until then, this is what you get. Content note: sexual assault, misogyny, racism, slut-shaming.

Back at the beginning of August, the Waikato provincial rugby team, the Chiefs, hired a stripper for a social event in a place called Matamata. They sexually assaulted her and blocked her way when she tried to leave the venue. She has since lost her job, apparently for agreeing to let them touch her for an extra $50 – under some duress, by the sound of it, and she didn’t get the $50. There followed the predictable faux-scandalized response in the media and the usual nonsense about rugby-players being “role models”. I mean, they’re role models in the de facto sense that New Zealand males do, in fact, follow their example. It’s nonsense to recommend that anyone should follow their example.

Yes. Yes, it is absolutely a rugby problem. That is exactly what I’m saying. (OK, one qualification: it is a men’s rugby problem. I’d bet good money no women’s rugby team would ever do this.) I would expand on this, but while I was busy on the previous post two other bloggers did it for me:

Which is why the “Come on guys, we’re better than this” tone of much of the mainstream media response to the Chiefs’ sexual assault scandal rings so hollow. Rugby is not better than this. Rugby is this. Rugby is where boys will be boys, and gay people will be abused, and women will be assaulted. And if you don’t like it, that is because you and your PC mates are destroying Our Country, where whacking your kids and then leaving them in your car while you get pissed with The Boys is the only way to stop us turning into a society of “Male Mothers”...
Because on a very basic level we all know... that This Is What They Are Like, the ruggers. We all walked the school hall in fear of their approach, or sided with them so as not to fear... We all worked that hospitality job where The Boys descending on your bar / hotel / restaurant was the occasion for the spilling of blood and beer and piss and puke and the boss said to grin and bear it because it’s The Boys, and Boys Will Be Boys.
The incidents arising out of the Chiefs rugby team’s “Mad Monday” celebrations in the Waikato town of Matamata have been presented to the public as the deeply regretted failure of a number of young sportsmen to live up to the ideals of their code.
Alternatively, the behaviour in question, far from being aberrant, could be seen as entirely consistent with the values of twenty-first century professional sport. These young men are paid to live in a “hard” culture where the slightest indication of “softness” will be taken as proof of either femininity, or queerness, or both... It wasn’t an aberration – it was the norm.

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 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.