Friday, 9 June 2017

A lesson for the Left

Would Sanders have beat Trump? We’ll never know for sure. The polls seemed to say he would, but then the polls also seemed to say that Clinton would, and for that matter they also said that the UK would stay in the EU. Actually, given the parallels between this election and the Brexit vote, we might have a test for that. The UK’s Labour Party is currently led by Jeremy Corbyn, who is very similar in both politics and temperament to Bernie Sanders. If the UK were to hold a general election next year and Corbyn won convincingly, that might be an indication that Sanders could have beaten Trump. Unfortunately the UK’s next general election is not until 2020, by which time things will have changed a lot and it won’t be much of an indication either way.

That’s what I said seven months ago after Donald Trump won the US presidential election. Well, a couple of days ago the UK did hold a general election. Corbyn can’t exactly be said to have “won convincingly” – the result was a hung Parliament (no party holding a majority). On the other hand, given that only weeks ago the polls had Labour riding towards the biggest trouncing in a century, I think this result does strengthen the case for Sanders’ beating Trump if only he had been nominated. Assuming of course, as before, that the US and UK are riding on broadly the same political currents.

What happens now for the UK? Too early to say. Clearly Prime Minister Theresa May’s hope of negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union with an improved mandate has gone to pot. Will her Conservatives and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party manage to form a stable enough government to hold a majority in the House? I wouldn’t bet money on it. The DUP’s beef with Labour is purely due to Corbyn having entered talks with Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army decades ago to end the chronic violence between Catholic separatists and Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland, apparently successfully as it turned out, rather than – well, rather than what? Wiping Irish Catholics from the face of the Earth? You’d have to ask the DUP.

I’m not as surprised as most commentators seem to be by Corbyn’s success; in a country ravaged by unending austerity and stale promises of improvement just around the corner, promising to stop austerity politics was always going to be popular. The biggest surprise to me is Scotland. What has the Conservative Party done for Scotland lately, and how has the Scottish National Party failed it, that so many votes swung from the latter to the former? Did Scots see the SNP’s renewed calls for independence after Brexit as cynical opportunism? I don’t know how to answer that question. If, as seems likely, May loses her position as Conservative leader and it all triggers yet another election in a few months’ time, Scotland would be the place to watch. In any case, my prediction that the United Kingdom will cease to be United within a decade so that Scotland can remain European appears presently to have been wrong.

You wouldn’t know it yet to look at our news media, but New Zealand has a general election of our own coming up in a few months. Should any Labour or Green politician happen to read this post, I would urge them to take the lessons of the UK to heart. For a generation, nominally Left parties throughout the English-speaking world have put all their energy into winning centrist voters away from the Right. This strategy is not going to work any more. Business as usual is over. You need to get young people voting again, and to do that you need to provide them with a bold and credible alternative to the status quo. You are competing with the seductive, poisonous notion that immigrants and brown people are the cause of our economic struggles and we need to kick them all out. You won’t counter that with “Everything is fine, let’s just keep on the way we’re going.” Hillary Clinton, David Cameron, and Theresa May all tried that, and look where it’s got them. Please don’t deliver us into the hands of racists and bigots like they did. Please be strong.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Debating bigots: the role of allies

This post was originally published on my Tumblr about a week ago.

I’m autistic. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome back when it was still called that, in 2005; I was 27.

I like to think I can discuss most topics dispassionately and let my opinions be guided by the facts and reason rather than letting my feelings about it cloud my judgement. But I can’t stay calm when debating with anti-vaxxers. Well, I can as long as the debate stays within the bounds of “Do vaccines cause autism? Do they cause other health problems? Why should the mandate to vaccinate over-ride a parent’s personal choices about their children?”

When it gets into the realms of “Supposing vaccines might cause autism, are the benefits worth the risks?” – that’s my danger zone, because so many anti-vaxxers so quickly start saying things that I can’t help hearing as “I’d rather my child died of measles than ended up like you.” And I can’t debate that calmly. That person just told me I ought to be dead.

So I’ve learned to avoid those debates. But here’s the thing. I know perfectly well that just because I don’t get into those discussions, doesn’t mean they don’t happen. I know that there are people who think a child’s autism is a mitigating factor if that child’s parents murder them. I know there are people who think my neurological condition is a scourge on the Earth and humanity would be better off if people like me were eradicated.

I can’t engage those people in debate. So, allistic allies, I need you to do that for me.

Not necessarily to convince the bigots themselves; it’s extremely rare for someone to change their ethical or political belief for being confronted, no matter how rational the argument. Sometimes they go away and think about it and change their minds later and come back when they’ve figured out a way to save face. But far more importantly, the bigot isn’t the only one listening. I need you to demonstrate to people who haven’t made up their minds on the question, why the bigots are wrong. I need you to keep the bigots from expanding their numbers by converting impressionable outsiders.

I should not have to debate whether I have the right to exist. But because that debate is happening whether I join in or not, I need you, allies, to pitch in and take my side. Please don’t refuse to engage on the basis that there shouldn’t even be an argument. There shouldn’t, but that’s not how you stop bigotry.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Nudity: ethics and etiquette

In March I went with a local naturist group on an overnight retreat to Quarantine Island, in the middle of Otago Harbour. True to Dunedin’s weather – or maybe my life, I’m not sure – it was cloudy and cold all weekend and it was only comfortable to get naked in the lodge in the evening with the fire going. After we’d come home it was sunny every day for a week, of course.

I am a naturist, or nudist to use the more common word. I have two main reasons for this, both of them about equally important in my own life. One is purely personal. Presumably because I’m on the autistic spectrum, I suffer from a mild hyperaesthesia which makes clothes slightly but permanently uncomfortable. I’m told other people stop feeling their clothes after wearing them for a while; I don’t. Shoes in particular – conditions underfoot have to be very unpleasant indeed before it’s worse than squelching around in my own sweat, so I don’t wear shoes much. But there are no such things as comfortable clothes, not for me.

The other reason is ethical. A human body is a human being and vice versa. Everyone has one; indeed, everyone is one. It isn’t good for people to revile themselves as obscenities, and it’s worse to enforce that revulsion with the power of the state. And it’s dehumanizing to treat another person as an object for the purpose of sexual gratification. Human beings have the moral right to be treated as human beings regardless of what they wear, including if it’s nothing at all – which means not being arrested, fined, locked up, or subjected to any other legal penalty, if they’re not hurting anyone. In short, public nudity morally ought to be both legal and acceptable.

The word “naturism” obviously implies that the value of nudity lies in its naturalness, which is problematic in several different ways. Not all natural things are good, so being natural doesn’t automatically make nudity good. Also, it is arguably natural for humans to adorn themselves, since every culture does it. Naturists shave, style their hair, and wear jewellery, tattoos and piercings just like clothed people. But “naturism” is the name of the movement now, and there’s no point complaining about it. “Nudism” is a broader word; anyone who chooses not to wear clothes can call themselves a “nudist”, whereas to be a “naturist” implies alignment with the naturist ethos. Back in the early 2000s an Altavista search for naturis* would mostly filter out the voyeur sites that nudis* tended to dredge up, and that may have helped the spread of the term. Unfortunately the porn peddlers have gotten wise to this now.

Naturism is one of the more marginalized alternative lifestyles out there. Unlike those “lifestyles” which consist of opting out of various public health measures (like vaccines or water fluoridation), it doesn’t cause actual harm; yet it’s illegal to practise it in public almost everywhere in the world. I suppose we can at least be naturists in our own homes without police harassment, which makes us more fortunate than pot-smokers. On the other hand, there’s less restrictions on sharing pictures of pot-smoking than on sharing pictures of nudity. And ours is surely, bar none, the one lifestyle that is most sexualized by outsiders.

What does “sexualization” mean, and what’s wrong with it? I’m tempted to say “Ask any woman,” and leave it at that. I’ve seen confusion about this in other contexts as well. Does it make sense, for instance, to ask casual bloggers not to “sexualize” particular sexual orientations? Bisexuality is sexual, isn’t it? It’s right there in the name! How can you help “sexualizing” it if it’s already sexual? The answer is that “sexualizing” something doesn’t mean connecting it to sex as a topic; it means making it sexy (or trying to), which is not the same thing at all.

A medical lecture on the physiology of fertilization in humans will discuss sex in some detail, which makes it “sexual” in a reasonable, if technical, sense of the word. But it isn’t remotely sexy – trust me on this. That’s not sexualization. Conversely, I’m sure you’ve seen advertisements that associate all kinds of completely non-sexual things with revealingly-clad yet concealingly-posed women looking suggestively at the camera. I used to regularly walk past a local fish-shop van (I haven’t seen it in a few months now and I’m not inquiring after it) which was adorned with a head-and-shoulders photo of a young woman, apparently topless, caressing a dead fish whilst assuming what was admittedly a more successful attempt at a come-hither expression than I would have been able to muster in her position. That’s sexualization.

Now the foundation of the naturist platform is the proposition that nudity can, and should, be desexualized. I’ve seen a few blogs now – pretty much all on Tumblr, for some reason – claiming that naturist environments feature unrestrained public sex. If you find one of these, you should know it’s lying to you. It’s somebody’s sexual fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with having sexual fantasies, but there’s everything wrong with slandering a worldwide category of people in the course of expressing them. Again, ask any woman.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Syria: what I get and what I don’t get

So Donald Trump has fired missiles at Syria. So much for the theory that he was better than Hillary Clinton because he wasn’t a warmonger. I did tell you. If this isn’t the beginning of a war to dwarf Iraq and Afghanistan, I will publicly eat these words. I’m not betting either way on whether there will be a nuclear strike, but if there is it will be Trump’s doing.

At least some of the people who voted for Trump did so because they thought he wouldn’t do this. I get that. Clearly they were wrong, and frankly it should have been obvious that the reason he never voted for war was because he was never in politics. But I get why that would be your concern. What I don’t get is why some of his opponents are now suddenly calling him “presidential”. I mean, sure, yes, blowing people up in other countries without asking the people they’re pretending to try to help is something American presidents do, but that’s not supposed to be a good thing.

There’s so many conspiracy theories going around at the moment that it’s hard to get a handle on what’s true. I used to trust Wikileaks, but they’ve been so nakedly partisan for the last year or so that I’ve given up on them. The evidence for some kind of Russian interference with the American election continues to pile up, and denials from Wikileaks aren’t going to sweep it away. On the other hand, Putin is buddies with Assad, isn’t he? How is Trump’s attack on Syria supposed to advance a hidden Russian agenda? Or did Trump just get pissed off with everybody calling him Putin’s puppet? Is that what this is about?

The other thing I don’t get is why so many people who would proudly call themselves “radical” seem to support, or at least sympathize with, Putin and Assad. Putin is an aggressively homophobic dictator, and Assad is a lesser dictator with zero concern for human rights. I’ve seen a video of two journalists disagreeing over what’s happening in Syria, and the one who the viewer was supposed to agree with claimed that Assad was loved by his people because he got so many votes in Syria’s elections. How does an international journalist not know how elections work in dictatorships?

I think I do get why so many people think, “Well, the US has to do something.” I guess it’s like the recent trailer for Deadpool II, where the inept superhero title character tries to prevent a murder but can’t change into his superhero costume in time. The US with its giant military is the superhero, and superheroes are not supposed to sit around watching other people kill each other. Only, so far, the US’s record for solving problems with its powers is worse than Deadpool’s. Trump’s “rush in without a strategy” strategy will change that only for the worse.

I don’t know where the world goes from here. I don’t know how we solve this problem. I don’t know how we get rid of a dictator who kills lots of people without a war that kills lots of people and ends up installing a worse dictator who kills lots more people.

Trump doesn’t know either. But Trump will bring the whole world down around all our ears before he admits that.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Why abortion isn’t murder

A fertility clinic is on fire. In the storage area at the back of the building there’s a portable freezer unit containing 100 live human embryos. In the reception lounge at the front, trapped under a chair, there’s a screaming three-year-old child. You can save one, but as soon as you open the door and let in the oxygen the fire will take the building. Which one do you save?

You see where I’m going here, right? This sort of question is bread and butter for moral philosophers: think of a scenario where the answer is obvious, then extrapolate principles that can be applied to situations where the answer isn’t obvious. Most people choose to save the child. From this it must follow that they don’t value an embryo’s life the same as a child’s, or even at one-hundredth the price.

Try asking a pro-lifer this question and see how they respond. I’ll tell you how they don’t respond, or at least haven’t lately in my many arguments with them since joining Tumblr: they don’t answer “I would save the embryos, of course. It’s very sad about the one child in the reception lounge, but it would be immeasurably sadder to lose all the children in the freezer.” Instead the answer you repeatedly get is “I would probably save the one child, but that’s an emotional response and doesn’t have anything to do with right and wrong.” And you have to prod them to get even that much. Generally they evade the question until you’ve asked it three or four times.

First off, if morality isn’t about emotions, what is it about? Most moral philosophers will tell you that morality isn’t objective, because you can’t get from an “is” statement like (in this instance) “A child is in danger” to a “should” statement like “I should save the child” except by calling in another “should” statement like “One should always protect children”, and if you try and prove that second “should” statement you just go around the circle again, and so on forever. Without rational proofs or empirical backing, all you have to call on is your moral instincts. And here they’re pretty clear.

Pro-lifers, as a rule, seldom get their morality from philosophers, but they are disproportionately likely to pay at least lip service to a certain 1st-century populist rabbi who will be found to have said (following Rabbi Hillel) that morality is an expression of love and consists of doing for other people what you would want for yourself, and obviously love and empathy are both subjective emotional states. But religion doesn’t break the circle; “You should do what God says” is just another “should”.

Personally I think the philosophers are overly pessimistic. A “should” statement can, in fact, be objectively true if it rests on an “I want” statement; if I want functional teeth then I should cut back on sugar, if I want to sleep tonight then I should get off the internet. (To use more technical language, “should” statements may have no truth-value, but they do have utility-value.) Might there be some “should” statement that applies to any possible “I want”?

Well, if we’re really pedantic about what counts as “possible”, then no there won’t be, because for any “should”, someone can always say “I want to do the opposite of that.” But there are some “should”s that at least apply to any plausible “I want”, and one of them is “You should not destroy anything you might need”, and one thing you can count on always needing is other people’s trust. And it just so happens that our moral instincts evolved to allow us to trust one another. I have made a longer, but not necessarily clearer, case for trust-based morality here.

Now if you want to earn people’s trust, you can’t weigh every decision separately according to how much it’ll make them trust you, because then they have to worry that one day your calculations might tell you to harm them. You have to behave in a way that allows them to predict you won’t do that. Your actions must not only be benevolent, but clearly and consistently benevolent. For an individual, that means practising virtues – kindness, fairness, courtesy, charity, patience, and so on. For an institution or a society, it means treating people according to a consistent code of rights. And this is where we can start to buckle down to the abortion problem, because here it seems that one person’s right to life conflicts with another person’s right to bodily autonomy. It’s conflicts like this that send us looking for a deeper principle that can resolve them, and I say that principle is trust.

The pro-life position is that abortion is murder. Murder is the breach of the human right to life, and I do hope I don’t need to explain how that might erode trust between people. Two questions arise here. First, who or what has the right to life, and who or what does not? Where do you draw the boundary? And second, if you have to choose between one person’s right to life and another’s right to bodily autonomy, which one should win? Always life, always bodily autonomy, or sometimes one and sometimes the other?

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Jobs or wages: pick one

It’s getting to that time of year when the Government once again explains to the nation, with tears in their eyes, why they can’t raise the minimum wage to keep up with inflation. And it’s always the same excuse: employers can’t pay a cent more than they already do, so if the wage goes up there will be less jobs. Geez, you guys, you want steady jobs and livable wages? What rabbit do you want us to pull out of our hats next? Affordable education?

Well, they’d better be sure they’re right. Of all the reasons I’ve seen for why so much of the American working class voted for Donald Trump, the most convincing is that they were sick of the established order and Trump was a handy sledgehammer to bash it with, and the reason they were sick of the established order was that it kept telling them they had to choose between wages and jobs. Which doesn’t explain why they turned to the Right instead of the Left, but that’s an issue for another time.

They are sure they’re right, of course. In fact, to the National Party’s way of thinking it’s dangerously over-generous to have a minimum wage at all. It’s basic economics (and middle-level economics as well, come to that). A minimum wage is what economists call a “price distortion”. Here’s the theory. If the government sets a minimum price for any product which is above the natural market price of that product, some buyers can no longer pay for it – that’s what the natural market price is – so people buy less of it, the sellers have to compete to attract customers, and everybody ends up worse than before. Actually, in an economics class, any time the government lifts a finger you can pretty much jump straight to “everybody ends up worse than before”. And of course to economists labour is just another product, sold by the worker and bought by the employer.

There are several questionable assumptions here, but I’m going to focus on one key one, because without it the entire argument collapses. That’s the assumption that the employers are paying as much as they possibly can. This only follows if the workers have just as much power to turn down work as the employers have to set wages. If that’s not true, then the market will shift in the employers’ favour. By economic logic that would be a price distortion, which would reduce the wage below its natural market value.

So how good is that assumption? What indications might we look for? Here’s one. I’ve never gambled on the stock exchange or anywhere else, but you can’t sit through three semesters of finance lectures and not become familiar with the phrase “close of trading”. That basically means 5pm every weekday, local time, after which the stockbrokers all go home and do whatever stockbrokers do when they’re not broking stocks (I wouldn’t know). On Saturdays and Sundays they do no broking at all. Same as everybody else, right?

No, not everybody else. Before the National Government’s bold, exciting new job-creating economic policies forced it to close, the railway-carriage factory near my house was always busy. And I mean always. Didn’t matter what time of night you walked past it, you’d hear motors humming and sparks spitting, and there’d be lights in the windows. Factory workers work nights and weekends if they’re told to. Stockbrokers, despite the quadruple profit they’d get by trading all 168 hours of the week instead of just 40, don’t.

There are several possible explanations for this discrepancy. The one any economist will think of first is that factory work pays much better than stockbroking, with better bonuses and holidays, to encourage people to work nights and weekends. Or perhaps factory work attracts a demographic of people who love darkness and cold and closed shops during their free time, and sunlight and traffic noise when they’re trying to sleep. Or just possibly, and I really think this hypothesis might deserve some consideration, it’s that stockbrokers have more power than factory workers to determine their pay and conditions.

Now if some people have more power to influence the labour market than others, it necessarily follows that the less powerful people will end up getting less benefits than the more powerful people. If that’s the case, then the economic objection to raising the minimum wage is false. There is some slack in the rope. Employers could pay more than they do and still employ just as many people. They don’t because they don’t want to. The workers put up with it or lose their jobs.

In such a case the government would be well-advised to iron out the distortion, because not paying people enough is bad for the economy. Henry Ford (no friend to anything smelling of unions or socialism) paid his employees well and gave them the whole weekend off because he understood that they were also his customers. People who haven’t got much money can’t buy your stuff. Pretty basic principle, I’d have thought. Unlike the free-market apologetics above, I have yet to hear about it in an economics lecture.

The trouble with this is of course the free-rider problem. In an economy with lots of employers, each one can bet that nearly all their customers are other people’s employees, and pay their own ones less than anybody else. The first employer to do this will get big savings in labour costs and minimal loss of revenue. As more and more pile on, the whole system will go down the drain. But no matter how bad it gets, it will always be cheaper for any one person to pay just that little bit less. Rational self-interest won’t save us here.

Government intervention might – if we had a government that could be bothered to stand up to the employers. National obviously can’t, but there’s an election coming up in September. Just putting that out there.

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.