FOUND SUBJECTS at the Moonspeaker
The Cloud Remains Troubling (2021-10-04)
Well, it seems that the slow moving debacle of "cloud services" keeps growing. I have already written about my doubts about the cloud, but was withholding judgement overall, so to speak. Yet it seems that those doubts were not so silly to have, even with respect to the bigger players who make use of them. If the Leaky AWS S3 buckets are so common, they're being found by the thousands now – with lots of buried secrets article at the register among many other articles discussing mass misconfigurations spilling data that should be secure everywhere are any indication, providing "cloud services" is hard. No, that's not right. Providing secure "cloud services" is hard. These are not being hosted on set and forget it boxes any more than the software they are running within the service can be left untended. Conceivably a big part of what is at work here is a combination of growing pains leading to a shortage of qualified technicians to keep an eye on things, on top of a wide scale refusal to pay these people adequately. End result, too few people who are too exhausted, too burnt out, or are reacting to being treated like garbage with doing only the bare minimum to get by in their jobs. I believe that this is one of the definitions of "clusterfuck" combined with "own goal."
There are interesting analogies here between security and systems management and providing medical care. Not necessarily in the level of training required before qualifying, but in the perverse incentives that develop once immediate profit is put above all other priorities. In the medical case, that means we end up with doctors encouraged to keep people bearably sick rather than helping with preventative medicine and actually curing people when that is possible, which it is astonishingly often. To do that, doctors have to get to know their patients over time. But in a profit-based system, the more investment in terms of time and emotional energy, the less money profit a doctor will be able to extract. So serious longterm connections with a group of patients is generally discouraged. Hence the near annihilation of the category "general practitioner." In the "cloud service" case, I think the analogous people are the technicians who over time would otherwise get to know the ways a particular company or project's cloud services tend to run over time. Odd behaviour would stand out early in those conditions, and doing regular check ups would catch such alarming gotchas as misconfigurations.
On first write at this topic, I noted that "cloud services" are not typically advertised as "web 2.0" or "web 3.0" for that matter, not least because they are not website hosting exclusive. That is simply true of course. A company running their payroll software in the cloud is definitely not focussed on building and maintaining a website. Still, I keep going back to it and thinking it over. Maybe because when it comes to phones and tablets, we are being encouraged to switch from using actual websites to using a phone application, which usually amounts to a badly put together version of the website plus some extra things to extract even more personal data and promote buying things. Perforce, those applications must be running more often than not in the cloud, neither locally to the phone or tablet nor local to the original company's own servers. The company could run its own servers on an individual basis, but the expansion of "cloud service" offerings indicates that this choice is made less and less often, so the point stands. Besides supposedly being "more participatory," "web 2.0" was also supposed to take more activities off of local or individually owned computers. Which takes us right back in a circle to the problems of security and sensitive data, and a very troubling cloud. (Top)
On What White Women Are Anyway (2021-09-27)
I have been meaning for some time to reread Catharine A. MacKinnon's article "From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?" available online today from the yale digital commons. Part of the reason for this has been the ongoing set up of "white women" as scapegoats, as the people it is okay to pick on and find fault with, to claim that they experience no oppression, no real oppression, because they are white women. This sounds particularly off because the same people making that claim insist that the men at the very top of the various hierarchies out there, rich white men, especially rich white heterosexual men who haven't gone without much in their lives including sexual access to women, of course do suffer some kind of oppression. I think this is absurd on its face. I do not doubt that such men do suffer drawbacks due to their position and power in the world, drawbacks that they may be aware of or not feel compensated for by the benefits they consider no more than their due. But they are not oppressed. They are not subject to unjust treatment or control, and we should not be fooled by the high profile falls of their procurers and servants who have managed to parlay their jobs and access into riches before running unavoidably afoul of the law.
Okay, with that said, let's go back to the strategic deployment some have made of accusations of "racist white feminism" every time any Feminist says something they disagree with, regardless of how or whether she is racialized. Yes, that means that Black women get accused of being white Feminists, which should show the game up more than it does. MacKinnon is quite uncompromising about this, back in 1991. She says, on pages 17-18, bold emphasis added:
There is nothing biologically necessary about rape, as Mechelle Vinson made abundantly clear when she sued for rape as unequal treatment on the basis of sex. And, as Lillian Garlandsaw, and made everyone else see, it is the way society punishes women for reproduction that creates women's problems with reproduction, not reproduction itself. Both women are Black. This only supports my suspicion that if a theory is not true of, and does not work for, women of color, it is not really true of, and will not work for, any women, and that it is not really about gender at all. The theory of the practice of Mechelle Vinson and Lillian Garland, because it is about the experience of Black women, is what gender is about.
MacKinnon reiterates in several places in this article that as soon as a claim is made that a woman is not oppressed unless she is oppressed on some other aspect than what now we would refer to more carefully as her sex, then that is effectively a claim that no woman is oppressed. Or as some have taken to using it more recently, a woman oppressed in some other way is not really a woman. Which should jump out at all of us as flailing crazy talk at best, mendaciousness at worst.
We have returned to yet another cycle of holding up white women as somehow the real oppressors in patriarchy, based on claims that really they pull the strings by waving their privileged pinky fingers. Of course, the point is to deflect energy from actually challenging patriarchy or any other system of oppression in a meaningful way by inserting a scapegoat. MacKinnon also unpacks how suffering types of oppression shared with certain men generally pushes women up the hierarchy, because that affiliates them with the people deemed human and expected to have some prestige. A paragraph on this point on the last page of the article makes this point in the case of white women.
Unlike other women, the white woman who is not poor or working class or lesbian or Jewish or disabled or old or young does not share her oppression with any man. That does not make her condition any more definitive of the meaning of "women" than the condition of any other woman is. But trivializing her oppression, because it is not even potentially racist or class-biased or heterosexist or anti-Semitic, does define the meaning of being "anti-woman" with a special clarity. How the white woman is imagined and constructed and treated becomes a particularly sensitive indicator of the degree to which women, as such, are despised.
To put this bluntly, what we have here is a truth bomb. If someone purporting to be a Feminist effectively accepts a claim that women are never oppressed unless they share their oppression with men, then they simply aren't Feminist. They are claiming then, that such women are either essentially oppressed, or the real oppressors. This should sound horribly familiar, because it is the same construction applied to publicly scapegoated groups, including yes, Jews. This should be making our hair stand on end, because if this vicious construction is allowed to fester against anyone, in time it will lead to increased and inexorable violence. It will also store those ideas to help fuel resurgences of the very things we are told everybody wants to prevent from resurging again, including both antisemitism and racism. (Top)
It Takes Time to Learn a System (2021-09-20)
The basic business model of companies that sell computers is fundamentally about persuading us to keep buying new stuff. In this they are of course not unique, and this is a primary feature of capitalism. For a long time, the stuff the companies sold with the computers bifurcated. There were and of course are, companies that focus on selling new bits of hardware for upgrades and repairs, and companies that focus on selling software and software updates. However, the wide scale attempt to create dumbed down computing devices that can't be upgraded or repaired has disrupted this system to the point that people are literally fighting in court to preserve their right to repair both the hardware and software in any computers they may have. On top of that, the software selling companies are pursuing a desperate rearguard action against free software, meaning it is freely available and people decide how much they wish to pay or when they will pay for it, with a subscription model that means the software will be disabled if a person stops paying for it. This seems quite crazy, because it is not true that free software can't win monetary support, and despite the free options there are a tiny number of programs I have opted to buy regardless of their officially closed nature. They are provided by companies that out compete based on features, solid performance, and the notion that you should own the copy of the software you have. The limits on it have to do with how many machines you are allowed to load it on. Meanwhile, the companies striving for a sort of "throw away, crippled hardware and software model" are either ignoring or banking on a key aspect of operating computers. It takes time to get to know a system.
Logically the time required is much less for people who write software, work in computer security, and so on. They have large blocks of concentrated time in effect to do it. Yet it may be that they miss things all the same, due to professional focus, or just not needing to perform certain tasks professionally or not. More generally though, most people have just enough time and patience to learn just what they need to get the things done that they want to do, no more and no less, except maybe as a bonus. This may mean that they are not making full use of such excellent perks as keyboard shortcuts and built in pdf generation, but they don't have to, and if they wanted to expand their usage of them they could. The key question is whether they will use the more arcane techniques or software, even built in software, enough to remember how to use it as well as to use it in the first place. Sometimes the answer to that is simply no.
What got me to thinking about this was especially digging around in the default programs on my mac to see if there was an alternative to a built in application that is misbehaving disgracefully. Apple has stopped supporting or updating the misbehaving program, so it must be used with due consideration of potential security issues, but that is actually not the trouble as such. The trouble is that an update before end of support introduced the disgraceful behaviour. Then apple refused to fix it for the older version. In the case of this program downgrading actually causes issues elsewhere, so that is not a fix. It was a pleasant surprise then to find what I needed still available through a very old program that is still hanging in against the odds, means that the issue now has an appropriate and secure workaround, and allows me to take care of a separate task that I did not expect to have to do on this machine. (One of the less than serious impacts of covid-19.)
A further prod to thinking about this is an unfortunate move by the crew working on libreoffice. In version 5.4.4 or close to that, something went awry probably in compilation, such that libreoffice's window management is broken. Not obviously broken at first, but as the many people running various linux and macosx versions have found, broken it most emphatically is. Fairly soon after firing an element of the libreoffice suite up, especially after opening and closing a couple of documents, the program begins to eat up more and more of cpu capacity and accordingly things begin to get hot. A common symptom is to go back to libreoffice when it has been sent to the back only to find the document just closed apparently open, yet impossible to edit. Hanging onto the cpu as it does in these conditions, it doesn't take long for other software to start keeling over as it loses access to cpu time, especially things like the desktop/workspace manager. This issue was supposed to be resolved by version 6, but it is not, and this is true despite multiple bug reports and an apparent identification of the root issue, an accidentally borked graphics library affecting things at compilation time. Alas, the issue is not fixed in 6 anything, and is in fact worse, although the ghost of opened documents is gone. Based on my observations, it seems that so long as the issue does not crop up for libreoffice running under windows, the issue is considered unimportant, and anyway, the people complaining about it are apparently expected to just download the code and compile it themselves with a clean graphics library. This strikes me as a not so productive way to approach things. Luckily yet another standard program can do most of the things that newer libreoffice is better at, including securely opening documents sent to me by colleagues, and that will do for now.
All of which reminded me that the time necessary to really get to know a system, whether it be a computer system or some other kind, is very much tied to what a person needs to do at a given time. The subscription software folks are gambling this means that practically everyone will buy a subscription rather than find alternatives to it, because finding alternatives takes time and may demand a learning curve for new software. I get that. Except that this is an odd sort of gamble, which pays out well only so long as people don't find themselves effectively trying to do their day to day work with ransomware: i.e. pay the subscription, or you can't access or edit your files. With that kind of risk profile, more than a few people will be driven to suffer the pain of shifting to less familiar software, and their numbers are likely to grow. I suppose that this has a silver lining in that it will shift many people away from beleving claims that they should be helpless in the face of their computers or any other system. So long as they get to take the time. (Top)
Woman Identified Woman (2021-09-13)
Patriarchal reversals take many forms, and Mary Daly unpacked the technique for us in her books, so we should be able to recognize them if we have read her work carefully. She didn't make mere theoretical arguments either, she drew on real life examples and had considerable background in theology, the area in which she had successfully earned two doctoral degrees. There is an embarrassment of examples of patriarchal reversals in most mainstream theology, so she cut her teeth on a real corpus of data that is in fact quite widely available for anyone's perusal if they wish. Seriously. So long as you are not a member of and fully committed to a religious group which insists you are not allowed to read and interpret scripture for yourself, you can read this stuff for free in multiple versions, online. You can start by searching on the internet archive or internet sacred texts archive. By this I don't just mean scriptures, I mean theological works of varying levels of obscurity, ranging from Spinoza to Aquinas. Ah, but I am forgetting something important, aren't I? Here I like to go on about the importance of clear definitions, without providing at least one to start with for "patriarchal reversal." Let me amend that by quoting from Mary Daly Herself, in Gyn/Ecology, the book in which she broke completely away from alienating modes of writing:
A-mazing Amazons must be aware of the male methods of mystification. Elsewhere I have discussed four methods which are essential to the games of the fathers. First there is erasure of women. (The massacre of millions of women as witches is erased in patriarchal scholarship.) Second, there is reversal. (Adam gives birth to Eve, Zeus to Athena, in patriarchal myth.) Third, there is false polarization. (Male-defined "feminism" is set up against male-defined "sexism" in the patriarchal media.) Fourth, there is divide and conquer. (Token women are trained to kill off feminists in patriarchal professions.)
Immediately we can see I have added "patriarchal" as a modifier/clarifier of "reversal" because in the wider context of this website and online, it needs it. Daly didn't need it in Gyn/Ecology because she had already set up her terms and what they would mean within her text and why. I think it is fair to consider reversal and false polarization as closely related. There are plenty of examples of all four techniques in action right now. In any case, there, I have amended missing the definition and acknowledged where I have made a modification for use here and why.
UPDATE 2021-12-15 - Mary Daly had a wonderful razor wit, and was a popular speaker through the 1980s. There is at least one recording available online of one of her talks in two parts by pacifica radio at the internet archive. She gave the talk on 15 may 1980 at UCLA-berkeley, and it is titled The Fire of Female Fury. (Part One | Part Two)
Now, let's go on to the specific item I have in mind to explore here, which is the question of whether a strand of the mania for "identification" as applied by anti-feminists and men obsessed with forcing lesbians to sleep with them goes back to the concept of the "woman identified woman." This term is also the title of a famous pamphlet written by the Radicalesbians and published in 1970. It is short and anyone can read it online nowadays, in transcription at History is a Weapon or from a scanned copy in the digital archives at duke university. The pamphlet includes several famous statements and definitions, including a discussion of identification, but not in the manner we are predisposed to expect under the present conditions of heavy duty identity politics and woke signalling. Here is what I mean.
What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion. She is the woman who, often beginning at an extremely early age, acts in accordance with her inner compulsion to be a more complete and freer human being than her society – perhaps then, but certainly later – cares to allow her. (Page 1)
More controversially, not least because there is so much detail left out, they wrote:
It should first be understood that lesbianism, like male homosexuality, is a category of behavior possible only in a sexist society characterized by rigid sex roles and dominated by male supremacy. Those sex roles dehumanize women by defining us as a supportive/serving caste in relation to the master caste of men, and emotionally cripple men by demanding that they be alienated from their own bodies and emotions in order to perform their economic/political/military functions effectively. Homosexuality is a by-product of a particular way of setting up roles ( or approved patterns of behavior) on the basis of sex; as such it is an inauthentic (not consonant with "reality") category. In a society in which men do not oppress women, and sexual expression is allowed to follow feelings, the categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality would disappear. (Page 1)
Later Sheila Jeffreys among others would parse this out by arguing that what we experience as "heterosexuality" is ritualized dominance and submission in a hierarchy defined by how feminine or masculine, that is how conformant to sex-based stereotypes, we are. But the basis of the hierarchy is male on top and female on the bottom, before any stereotypes are deployed.
"Lesbian" is one of the sexual categories by which men have divided up humanity. While all women are dehumanized as sex objects, as the objects of men they are given certain compensations: identification with his power, his ego, his status, his protection (from other males), feeling like a "real woman," finding social acceptance by adhering to her role, etc.... Affixing the label lesbian not only to a woman who aspires to be a person, but also to any situation of real love, real solidarity, real primacy among women, is a primary form of divisiveness among women: it is the condition which keeps women within the confines of the feminine role, and it is the debunking/scare term that keeps women from forming any primary attachments, groups, or associations among ourselves. (Page 2)
By implication, this makes a woman identified woman a woman who identifies with the humanity and dignity of herself and other women. They already are women, the point is that they are refusing the rewards of complicity with oppression.
Well, a pretty clear reversal of this is to argue for a stronger and higher identification with trans-identified males who claim to be more female or at least "more woman" than actual women on various grounds, including claims that they are the most oppressed. As we can see, this demand for what is actually a reidentification with men and a recommitment to the sex-based hierarchy so key to patriarchal oppression also efficiently encourages a lack of inter-female and therefore inter-woman solidarity. Alongside the attempt to redefine same sex attraction as really about supposed "gender," the return to an attempt to force lesbians into sex with men is refurbished as somehow "acceptable." To me this looks and sounds like a far from coincidental strand of patriarchal reversal, all starting from the desire to undermine the power of recognizing the importance in persuading the oppressed to identify with their oppressor. Notice how nastily clever this is, in part by use of prepositions. Identifying with someone is not the same as identifying as someone. But by redefining identification in order to exclude "identification with," men can claim that since they identify "as" women, they must be oppressed by women. It's a subtle and vicious rhetorical trick, to be sure. (Top)
Need to Know (2021-09-06)
To be sure, there is always information that we need to know. Yet in these current unsettled times, some of the stuff we need to know is not as available as it should be, and we are being actively encouraged to ignore it when we encounter it, because supposedly what that information has to tell us can't apply to us. We can't be the sort of person who has those sort of problems. Well, that's not how the world works, but that is a story we can fall into using to fool ourselves. I have been following a newer newsblog, UncommonGround.com, which deserves a strong recommendation. In its early days barely three years ago, quite a few of its contributors were undergraduates, and unfortunately that sometimes did not turn out entirely well, because as I know having been there, we are very certain but inevitably a bit shallow in our undergrad days due to lack of experience. The commitment to providing a publishing outlet for essays on current issues and news from an honestly laid out perspective with an eschewal of personal attacks is unmistakeable though, precisely because those undergrad articles were doing that. The contributors are diverse and still include a solid proportion of undergrads whose writing is improving all the time. They are covering issues that for various ideological and frankly dishonest reasons, are being kept out of mainstream media and the echo chambers of social media. They have also been bringing together an important group of articles on three forms of abuse we abosultely must know about in order to learn how to recognize and defend ourselves from them: forced teaming, DARVO, and coercive control.
Forced teaming might be the one almost all of us have run into at one time or another, and I suspect all of us can recognize its satirized form in television sitcom conmen. It is a core conman technique, to be sure. As Dr. Em explains in Forced Teaming, Feminism, LGB and 'Trans Rights':
Forced teaming is a term employed by those who work on abuse, grooming and predation. It was originally coined by Gavin De Becker in his work The Gift of Fear and is also used as a concept regarding criminal activity such as con-artists and romantic scamming. The predator will create the idea that there is a shared goal, or an attitude of we are all in this together, we are allies, in order to disarm, gain trust and manipulate his target. The social contract that most people have been educated or raised in – that we should try not to offend others, be polite, be accommodating – makes forced teaming incredibly difficult to resist. In general, we don't want to be rude and say 'actually, your problems or goals are different to mine and so no, we should not work together' or 'no, I don't feel comfortable with this.' The shared goal can be, on an individual level, as small as a man helping carry shopping to a woman's apartment in order to gain access and rape her. Forced teaming confuses our intuition and disarms us to threat. Jennifer Lombardo wrote in Abusive Relationships and Domestic Violence 'people use words such as "we" and "us" to trick others into thinking they are part of a team' when they aren't. It builds trust when none should be there. Forced teaming, when applied to movements, can be as large as many men claiming feminism should work towards their goals not women's, or that the LGB should work towards heterosexual entitlement.
Whatever a person's views may be of the specific political movements Dr. Em is discussing as exemplars of where forced teaming is being applied, including whether that is actually what is going on, we need to understand what it is. That person who comes up and insists you and they must be on the same side and be working towards the same thing, and no matter how well you do or don't know them, you start feeling weird? That's a good indicator of forced teaming. It's not "phobic" or rude to want to back off from someone who seems to be coming onto you out of nowhere.
I encountered the acronym "DARVO" repeatedly before finally untangling its meaning, and it is probably one of the better and more powerful – as well as more frightening – acronyms any of us are likely to meet. It stands for "Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender," and is part of the basic tool box of every abusive male a woman or girl may find herself living with. In an example of this behaviour, I actually heard and saw a man respond to learning his son was ill with the flu with, "No he's not, send him to school. Stop spoiling him, you'll make him a sissy. How can you do this to me, causing me so much stress?" It's crazymaking and rarely subtle. Jennifer Bilek discusses it in The 'DARVO' Tactics of the Men's Rights Activism Behind Transgenderism. Practitioners deploy these tactics very fast, so that victims have as little chance as possible of parsing out what is going on. For more details on the tactic, including other examples, for that it is important to pop over to a psychology source to complement this article. In this case, a solid start is provided by 5 Sneaky Ways A Narcissist Uses a DARVO Defense to Project Himself As A Victim at MindJournal. Watch out if you try to web search on it, as most search engine puke up wikipedia repetitions and "men's rights activist" shit as the top results.
UPDATE 2020-08-10 - A useful complement to the techniques described here is Lili Loofbourow's take down of the Myth of the Male Bumbler, published in the week back on 15 november 2017.
I am tempted to call coercive control scarier than all of these, but comparisons don't really make sense for this sort of thing. Maybe it is better to characterize it as a complex technique that depends upon some use of the other two. Min Grob describes it in Coercive Control: When It's No Longer Just Sticks and Stones, noting how insidious it is, and how by the time a person is caught up in it, the difficulty of escaping coercive control is grim because that person has been convinced that they can't trust anyone. It is hard to excerpt this article, but here is a bit that provides an accurate start:
Coercive control is a 'course of conduct offence that is not defined by one single criminal act, but rather a number of acts occurring together, forming a pattern. Not all the acts are, of their own, coercive in nature; the act of coercive control is specific to the relationship, but identifying it is not as difficult as it sounds, if you know where to look.
...The important thing to understand with coercive control is that it is largely invisible and has very little to do with anger, therefore anger management will have no effect on an abuser who uses controlling tactics in a relationship... It is not necessary for abusers to use violence, although some do. The threat of it can be enough to frighten someone into submission. Low level violence that doesn’t mark and therefore leaves no evidence is another tactic.
We could argue that coercive control starts with forced teaming, because it is so often part of abusive intimate relationships, and it can't be established instantly. For even more detail, including a blunt explanation of why such comments as "Why didn't she leave?" are not just misguided but cruel, see Sarah Mills in Coercive control activist: 'Sally Challen case is about more than murder.' Another excellent complementary post to check out, this one a podcast, is at Feminist Current. In Coercive control is a key aspect of abusive relationships, but still misunderstood, Meghan Murphy interviews the director Elle Kumhira and executive producer Laura Richards on their feature length documentary Jennifer 42. The documentary recounts the story of Jennifer Magnano, a connecticut mother who sought to escape an abusive relationship together with her children. It's a difficult, and brilliant listen.
Three things we ought to know about, and all of these articles and the podcast include references to trustworthy sources. So again, even if you don't agree with the specific cases some of the authors are applying these concepts to, you can still make use of their sources to learn more about these techniques. News you can use! (Top)
Right Tool For the Right Job (2021-08-30)
Chances are good that at some point we have all heard a version of, "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." It's pithy and logical, with a nice indirect warning about forgetting that we should seek out other options when dealing with difficult or otherwise unusual challenges. I find myself thinking about it a lot when the question of security online is under discussion, because that is a fraught and hugely important topic. Everyone is interested in protecting their privacy and doing what they can to block opportunities for fraud and identity theft among other issues possible if somebody untoward manages to grab their credentials or card numbers. A huge source of obnoxious noise on the topic is the number of people who want us to believe that privacy is a luxury, therefore if we want privacy we had better expect to pay, and not a nominal amount either. They are wrong that young people who have grown up with the web and on social media don't believe in privacy or that they would refuse to opt out of social media. In fact, they are the first people to have a strong critique from their own perspective of the hellscape panopticon social media actually is. There are also a few characters who get plenty of airtime to claim that if we aren't applying the most massive levels of encryption at all times and if we can't be sure whatever state government hasn't compromised it, then it is all pointless. This is flagrantly untrue, and we don't even have to have much math under our belts to make reasonable decisions.
Before continuing, here is the obligatory disclaimer: I totally agree that higher levels of properly vetted and verified non-state or other agent compromised encryption is something we should have and use, and that access to use them should not be blocked by cost or arbitrary difficulty created by the user interface. That's not an arguable point in my view. That isn't the world we are in right now though, so what do we do?
Well, there are at least three excellent rules we can apply to help us sort out what level of security is involved. First, password reuse is bad, especially if we should have a similar or identical user name between accounts. Second, short passwords, as in 8 characters or less, should make our hair stand on end, and we should avoid anything shorter than 8 characters all together because those passwords have all been autogenerated in a dictionary somewhere. Third, we can usually gauge how good a particular level of encryption is by how many bytes it is identified with or how long security researchers and mathematicians have calculated it would take to brute force attack them. For the number of bytes, bigger is generally better, and of course the longer it would take to brute force encrypted data, the better. There are definitely more criteria and other concerns to bear in mind, but these are a solid start in my experience. Password generating and recording software are widely available now, and even a few hand algorithms that may work for certain very low level risk situations – for which read "situations not involving your sensitive card data or anything long term online." The stuff about strength of encryption is a bit trickier to parse out, because to use it we need to assess levels of risk, and this is a common area where password security and encryption quality overlap.
Let's take an instance such as the vogue for having a single sign in for numerous accounts, which I have seen in the form of "sign in using facebook" or "sign in using google" options on various websites. I get why this sounds appealing, because one password and google and facebook are supposed to be outstandingly good at protecting such sensitive data, otherwise how could they aggregate and sell it to maximum profit. Okay, but then the big question becomes what if something breaks the seal, as the widespread media line remains about the huge "blue checkmark" crack at twitter. Whether an incident of this type is about successful phishing, an inside job, or such techniques as SIM swapping, if your logins are all tied together through one account, when that account is compromised, everything attached to it is. I don't trust corporations to take this sort of thing very seriously, because they are set up to prevent the consequences of such things impacting their owners. It's everybody else who has to live with the fall out, and as Cory Doctorow, Maciej Ceglowski and many others have noted, sensitive data loose in the wild is the data equivalent of nuclear waste. We are encouraged to think of nuclear waste as not very risky because it isn't officially everywhere, but once it gets loose, a huge number of people have a long term problem. I suppose that the least bad version of single sign in is to have your passwords logged into a password generating, storing and updating application on your own machine or even run off of an encrypted usb key. At least then you know yourself and what precautions you're taking.
A form of added security that is much more common nowadays is multifactor authentication. This entails a set up for an account where by default or after you turn it on (it's a great idea to turn it on), when you try to log in to a more sensitive account, especially one you don't access often, after successfully entering your username and password, you have to go through another level of verification. On some accounts, that means you may be sent an email with an additional code to enter, or maybe a text to your phone. These always make me feel a bit uncomfortable because neither email or text is especially locked down by default. On the other hand, these codes when sent out don't last very long, and may have a lifetime of only 15 to 30 minutes. The message with the code if triggered by somebody other than you, let's you know something is awry and you can contact the provider for that account and start taking steps to manage an attempted or actual breach. This of course is also why we are recommended to regularly change our passwords and have them generated by a program to make sure they are difficult to guess, in hopes that if there is a password breach, the data will mostly be out of date. All that said, for really sensitive stuff, multi factor authentication is not sufficient at all, and that's the sort of thing it is best to have a usb security key or similar device for. For my druthers, that is what I would have for anything to do with attempting to remote manage medical, legal, banking, or investment information.
So in the end the way things tend to work out is, if an account needs to be longterm secured and will have sensitive data in it, from correspondence to financial information, then we want better encryption, unique passwords, the whole nine yards. We can be okay with weaker encryption or shorter codes (not passwords) if it is part of a multifactor authentication system. But for certain things we'll want even more than that, especially in this day and age when our medical data let alone our financial data is being slung around in cloud services with inadequate or only partial encryption. We'll want to be pretty picky about how we lock down our wifi networks and similar, because if somebody wanders successfully into that, it is our personal devices they are getting into, and unless our most sensitive data is always on a separate encrypted drive, that is not an easily recoverable prospect. Not exactly simple, but no worse in a many ways than making sure we have the right tools for physical tasks. Sometimes we need to do a little research first. (Top)
The Place of Entertainment (2021-08-23)
It is probably fair to say that many, if not most people in late stage capitalist countries have a vexed relationship with the broad genre of activities and media thrown under the umbrella of "entertainment." The point of entertainment is to "provide amusement or enjoyment" as the OED notes, not so helpfully to a person hoping for less latinate terms. More bluntly, entertainment is supposed to be fun for the audience or participants – I have noticed that while the dictionary definition construes the audience as passive, that isn't an accurate way of understanding an audience. Furthermore, since practically speaking most of us understand what is entertaining as what is fun, so long as we are not the primary or literal performers, there is still plenty of room for action. Indirectly then, this suggests the difference between entertainment and sports or games we participate in. The thing about entertainment though, is that it does not have the sop to those who dislike anything that smacks of "idleness" that sports do. Sports are readily explained away as worth doing for how they may train players in discipline and teamwork, or else that they will help them keep fit and out of trouble. But entertainment doesn't have the same plausible deniability. Yet entertainment has a contradictory role in many aspects of society.
Alongside this development of interest in the ephemeral experience by capitalists is a growing demand that they be incorporated in all sorts of places, including many not seriously considered not so long ago. Now a conference held for whatever purpose, from sharing academic results to developing strategies to undermine negative human impact on the climate, that conference is now constructed as an at least partially ephemeral experience in its own right. I realize this might sound strange, because isn't a conference already short-term? A bunch of people meet for a few days or weeks to work intensely together, producing reports and other such things that outlive the event itself. The event is not the point, the strategies, exchanged papers, or what have you are. Yet conferences are also now at least part of the time entertainment venues. Off hours, attendees are encouraged to expect that part of the program will be some kind of literal entertainment or at least designated bars and restaurants for socializing. That still seems pretty innocuous. Yet one of the things I have been observing in my small corner of the world is how the demand for conference presenters to be entertaining keeps rising, as it does on teachers and instructors of all kinds. From the "three minute thesis" to the (in)famous "TEDTalk" the pressure is on for the audience to always be amused.
Capitalists are constantly after the perfect profit source. The most popular means of achieving apparently but in fact only temporarily constantly growing profits is of course some kind of monopoly. Another is based in addiction, creating or otherwise providing something that people will become so psychologically and physically dependent on they will go to almost any length to get it. Ideally of course, such addictive stuff shouldn't be too addictive, or the potential customers would lose the ability to serve as profit sources in their own right through their labour, which would knock the whole profit generation cycle into a cocked hat. Still another source in hopeful development is the notion of expensive but ephemeral experiences. Tourism is perhaps the most widely recognized contemporary example, and before that music and theatre when performed by professionals. The idea is that a person may have the experience and then maybe buy some stuff to remember it by, but to have something like that experience again, they have to buy it again. If they get bored with the specific type of experience for whatever reason, they will have to buy a different sort of experience. This takes advantage of the fact that we inevitably get bored with something we hear, see, or feel repeatedly. In fact, this is a reflection of how our brains work, being primed to notice and focus attention on what is new and let the familiar and repeating fade into the background.
On one hand, of course. If the talk or lecture or whatever else is so deadly boring that everyone in the audience falls asleep or loses respect for the speaker and walks away, then it is not acceptable. But I wonder if we haven't been lulled into confusing respect for the audience with entertaining the audience. It is not respectful to present material to an audience, whether intended as literal entertainment or not, in such a difficult to understand manner that they are alienated. Yet we all know that some people have a writing or speaking style (to pick just two examples) that for some of us is unbelievably absorbing and praiseworthy to the sky, and for others of us boring or incomprehensible to tears. That can happen even for the most skilled and respectful of instructors, actors, musicians, or whomever. If we are lucky, we have had the experience of encountering a person or work that on first encounter we found hard t cope with due to unfamiliarity, and then found our next encounter far more pleasant. Our response to the unfamiliar can be quite diverse, including boredom, anger, fear, frustration, and so on. How we receive the experience is something that the person sharing it can't control, and indeed, to some degree, neither can we.
With all this in mind, it strikes me as quite unreasonable to expect to be "entertained" all the time, or that "entertainment" should somehow be shoehorned into every sort of experience, no matter how badly capitalists would like to angle in on it. That said, I have no truck with anyone who claims that entertainment is a waste of time, because I am well aware that it is in time spent at entertainment that we rest our minds and expand our imaginations. Of course, the intense mistrust of imagination and its unfailing companions observation and critical thought mean that the usual suspects despise any opportunity for us to be entertained. Or at least, not entertainment as we might choose it to be, in its proper place, as opposed to displacing such necessities as sharing knowledge and cooperating to achieve goals. (Top)
Considerations of Silence (2021-08-16)
Last year naked capitalism syndicated a portion of the War Nerd Gary Brecher's subscriber newsletter, his essay titled Amateurs Talk Cancel, Pros Talk Silence. As part of the ongoing discussion of mislabelled "cancel culture" which is in fact the same old tactic of silencing women and any all other oppressed people by ordering them to "be nice" and stop such egregious things as making their oppressors "uncomfortable." Quite a few people who claim to be liberals are big on this, because supposedly speaking nicely always works to end structural oppression that is not merely a moment of bad behaviour by a jerk. Brecher provides an excellent summary in his first few introductory paragraphs, which I quote below.
The real problem, the kind of thing that would make De Niro in Casino groan, "Amateur night!", starts when people imagine that they can stop immoral behavior by policing immoral characters, phrases, or scenes in literature.
They're looking for the wrong thing. They're sniffing for depictions of immorality, when they should be scanning the silences, the evasions.
There's a very naïve theory of language at work here, roughly: "if people speak nicely, they'll act nicely" – with the fatuous corollary, "If people mention bad things, they must like bad things."
The simplest refutation of that is two words: Victorian Britain.
Brecher is being generous here, as we are supposed to be when presenting a viewpoint we disagree with. To be honest, at first I thought maybe he was being too generous. But read on his exploration of the work of a range of victorian era writers producing work for mass circulation in that period who had precisely zero to say about massive genocides driven and overseen by british interests. I can quibble with his attempts to criticize specific novelists (not ones I like either – like Brecher I find most victorian novelistic prose awful) for opting to say nothing about the deaths of millions of people, but the general point he takes up is solid. Quibbles do not an undermined argument make, not by any stretch of the imagination. I am not going to summarize Brecher's piece here, because it is better to just go and read it for yourself and consider seriously subscribing to his newsletter. Instead, I want to think with his argument about the role of silence and its deployment by those who actively wish to cover up massive crimes.
In 1979, Adrienne Rich published a selection of her prose pieces published between 1969 and 1978, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. She noted how the repeated strategic ignorance of women's intellectual and activist history supports the ongoing oppression of women and the grave misrepresentation of the few women who can't be erased because they are too famous. The silencing, the careful deletion, refusal to keep specific books in print and all the rest, all make it possible to maintain structural oppression and get away with horrors that should be undoable not unutterable because if we can't identify and talk about those horrors, we can't stop them. We especially can't stop the horrors that are unstoppable by individualized action, the horrors that demand our organized opposition and resistance. If nobody knows what the horrors are, if they can never look at the evidence for themselves and decide whether they agree with it, then effecting change is even more difficult than it otherwise would be. Margaret Mead is regularly cited for her writing, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." We have only to look at the crop of those who didn't silence so much as they refused to speak in the victorian era, or now.
The people who actively chose not to talk about the terrible things happening in the victorian era, which really ought to be revised into "the nineteenth and early twentieth century of the british empire" because while queen Victoria was not innocent, she shouldn't be singled out. Her whole family, immediate and extended had plenty to do with the mess, from leading the worst to supporting others doing the worst, including by refusing to take a strong stand against the worst. Brecher cites a number of examples of public and famous writers who did talk openly about genocides in that period quite openly in their letters, including virulent expressions of hatred of specific "races" and ethnicities. So they definitely chose not to present this information in the publishing outlets they had access to, this was a decision, not an accident. The best way to get away with something bad is to act like it somehow mysteriously happened all by itself, supposedly divine fiat or whatever. Indeed, many writers opted for exactly this strategy if somehow they could not get away with not talking about the massive colonial power induced famines in ireland and bengal, let alone the wholesale genocide of Indigenous peoples in the americas. (For those wondering, that genocide took a hell of a lot more than new germs.)
Now, this is actually interesting in an unexpectedly encouraging way. Why after all, would these people work so hard to cover up these things by whatever means? Quite a few participants in holding silence on these topics were not colonial officials overseeing the actions that helped ensure famines and massacres took as many lives as possible. The easy answer is, they didn't need to be doing the dirty work themselves, they simply needed to protect their access to benefits from the dirty work while disdaining to actually do it directly. Of course, just because an answer is easy does not make it untrue. The thing is, this easy answer is incomplete. Not only were those participants protecting their access to their ill-gotten gains. They were also afraid to let the information get out, because they knew all too well that if the majority of people began learning more and asking questions, including in the very heart of the empire, britain itself, they might compel real change. At that point in history, the self-proclaimed elites hadn't found means to implicate practically everyone regardless of their beliefs and actions in those deeds that obviously were not ethical. Or rather, they didn't have quite powerful enough methods for the new social conditions at hand. Endeavouring to centralize and control the new media was something they understood was necessary to enforce compliance, one way or the other. They had only just started on this project in the nineteenth century because mass media itself was so new.
Among many things we are coping with in much of the world right now is massive centralization of media, which is mainly being achieved by falsely convincing people that there are no other options than to have massive corporations producing and distributing information. Another tactic at work is redirecting people into purity politics and its attendant policing, because it is ineffective and indicates that the participants have given up and believe that they have no power to make real change in the world, or even that they don't want real change in the first place. That is the belief that the "wokerati" strategically refuse to say in their turn, because they know if they let that slip out, their bubble of righteousness and precarious pseudo-authority will pop. (Top)
Psychoanalytical Puzzles (2021-08-09)
As a general rule, I am extremely leery of psychoanalytical approaches to making sense of political or social structures, and even more so to approaches claiming to interpret the minds, feelings, and experiences of people dealing with structural oppression. Yet I am also reluctant to throw the baby out with the bathwater so to speak, because I am well aware that our motivations, feelings, and ways of interpreting the world are complexly interwoven within ourselves and between ourselves and others. So with that being the case, it makes sense that techniques and theories for exploring how our minds work and how we develop and deploy those complex interweavings would inevitably involve something along the lines of psychoanalysis. I should pause here to draw on my trusty OED to quote a definition of psychoanalysis, since it is far from obvious what it is. According to the OED then,
A system of psychological theory and therapy that aims to treat mental disorders by investigating the interaction of conscious and unconscious elements in the mind and bringing repressed fears and conflicts into the conscious mind by techniques such as dream interpretation and free association.
Part of what makes me cautious with this is the problem of power. A psychoanalyst has considerable power over a patient, and a scholar applying psychoanalytic based arguments about society who has won serious clout will also have considerable influence on academic and political discussion. On top of that, we have the infamous example of Sigmund Freud and his flipflop from taking women and grils' reports of sexual abuse seriously to insisting that it was all in their heads and therefore blaming them for their suffering.
Those reservations admitted, I have been intrigued to read Feminist philosopher Jane Clare Jones' explanation of her research and arguments about the "sovereign imaginary." She explains that her work is based in "French post-structuralist philosophy, and in particular, in the Derridean and psychoanalytic feminist strand of post-structuralist thought." She is also a wonderfully clear writer who has no patience for impossible to cope with verbiage, and she has been writing thoughtful and instructive blog posts on her research for several years already. On the topic of "sovereign imaginary" and a practical and appropriately constrained application of psychoanalysis to aspects of our current socio-political moment, I have found two of her posts in particular to be a great introduction. The first, provocatively titles Why Feminists are Not Nazis, posted 31 october 2019 and derived from a talk at reading university. The other is from early last year, 1 april 2020, The Idea of Immunity. The COVID-19 pandemic has added a whole new layer of symbolism to both.
I am going to try to focus on Jones' method here, because that is what has led me to release some of my skepticism about psychoanalytic approaches here. A big part of what she is doing is discourse analysis, she is delving into the overt and underlying metaphors and structures applied in speech and imagery. In the case of the sovereign imaginary, Jones is unpacking notions of containment, purity, exclusion, and control as reflected in xenophobic and anti-woman discourses over the past five to ten years. She covers considerably more than that, but this is enough for us to work with here. To carry out the analysis, Jones presents examples from exchanges on twitter, as well as illustrated quotes from Lacan and Derrida and a frankly gobsmacking ukip poster. In other words, she is providing an argument with evidence, not an apparently unconstrained interpretation or assertion that the participants on twitter or that ukip members are simply crazy or unaware of what they are saying or really mean. It's more a matter of showing how much more they reveal about what they mean than they realize.
Having unpacked the imagery, Jones then goes on to apply her findings to making sense of the strange career of the notion of "exclusion" in leftist circles, and how it came to be redefined as always an expression of paranoia and prejudice without actual consideration of context or power relationships. A remarkable number of leftists seem to have gotten their reasoning on the applications of exclusion by oppressed groups tangled into a self-defeating pretzel. Yet these are clever and well-meaning people on average, so that begs the question of how they came to be a key force opposing the oppressed in their efforts to resist their oppression by refusing access to their oppressors. Jones makes a strong argument for where the slippage has come from by applying her analysis of the sovereign imaginary and the use of specific imagery and tropes by those leftists that demonstrate how they have developed a habit of applying a polarized filter with opposite polarity to that of rightists. The result clobbers nuance and railroads them into contradictory claims.
So I have to admit to having to give this mode of analysis more credit, especially reading it applied with care and attention to subtlety, which is too rare right now online and off. I appreciated Jones' determination to actually engage the arguments of people she disagreed with respectfully, endeavouring to sort out where they are coming from in an effort to restore the possibility for constructive conversation and resist current dangerous authoritarian trends in anglophone societies. That said, it is also critically important that Jones is not engaged in a form of dishonest post-structuralist bafflegab that is used for mystification and "reclaiming" of arguments and authorities already shown to be empty or outright pernicious. Jones is quite serious about refusing anything that resembles bafflegab or attacks against the person in favour of setting out an argument with evidence in a way that can be engaged with by anyone who wishes to do so in a constructive way. (Top)
A Familiar Stranger (2021-08-02)
The other day, a friend of mine began talking about the frustrations of finding a well-featured, not too expensive screen recording application that also captured audio. Privacy shitshow offerings were not in the running, even if they were free with advertisements or else had monthly subscriptions. Clearly this was a very frustrating search. But I knew my friend had a macbook of some kind, with the latest operating system on it, so I asked if apple in its strange conceptualization of wisdom had deleted quicktime pro, which used to come by default with the system and provides A/V previewing. Besides adding some under the hood features, it also provides solid screen and screen plus audio recording. All for free, at least in the sense that if you have already paid for the macbook, you have already paid for this software. It turned out my friend had never checked out this program and was not aware of its existence, but will happily use it now. Other examples of what I would call utility programs that people seem unaware of that come with a standard macosx build include grab, which does some extra fancy stuff for snapping pictures of the screen, fontbook for checking and cleaning up fonts, and good old disk utility, which has saved me more than once when system or external disk problems came calling. Unfortunately I am not able to provide so many examples from the microsoft side of the fence because my experience with those machines is all via centrally administered office machines with a sharply locked down auxiliary program set. I think the character viewer is still around, a dire necessity when dealing with diacritics beyond those in french and german, paint is on its last gasping legs, and if I didn't still remember the old windows key command to make screen grabs for documenting IT support requests, that would be sad. Admittedly, in my jobs that enforce windows system usage, I have not done any A/V work of substance though, and need often leads me to dig around in the application folders available to see what could do the job.
All of which leads me to think that many of us for all sorts of reasons tend to have a sort of familiar stranger sitting on our desks or rattling among all the other stuff we carry in our briefcases and backpacks. More often than not we have developed a habit of checking online for some application or whatever to help us perform a new task, and more often than not that won't tell us about something we already have available to us that may better suit our needs, at least for the moment. I appreciate that most people won't spend time digging around into the more obscure parts of their application list, not least because in newer versions of macos and windows, those folders may be completely hidden, making a few preinstalled desktop shortcuts the main access point to a subset presumed "most used" for everyone. It's a great way to try to persuade people that a general purpose computer is actually a tragically damaged device which needs to constantly be replaced or have more subscription-based software added to it plus connections to a remote server to do anything, to be sure. The awful implications for privacy, security, and safety in the way computers must be damaged in both their hardware and software, and then their owners and operators manipulated and abused for profit are quite clear.
Yet, we are also subjected to the increasingly absurd claims of hucksters who want us to believe that somehow "machine learning" and "artificial intelligence" will render all sorts of things magically possible without much by way of human intervention. The hucksters mostly want free money, while the cleverer capitalist exploiters want to automate away as much potentially disobedient human labour as they can in favour of completely programmable and presumed controllable robots and computers. I suppose this is another part of why Elon Musk gives himself nightmares about a supposed AI apocalypse, because what if after all the effort to dump all the humans, the computers become independently intelligent and decide they aren't going to obey either, eviscerating the whole point of the original effort. Setting aside the crazier elements of these speculations, I get the stubborn impression that we are being encouraged to a sense of fatalism, that we humans will inevitably be deemed permanently surplus to the supposed only way to run the world, robber-rapist capitalism, but at least we'll be allowed to enjoy some of the fancy new entertainment before we are left to starve or otherwise take ourselves off since we'll be unnecessary.
Never mind that "artificial intelligence" and "machine learning" are genuinely interesting, and the peculiar outcomes they produce are products of how computer programmers misunderstand how the human brain works. I haven't run into a convincing counterargument to that usually attributed to Hubert Dreyfus but probably pointed out by a woman who had observed children more closely long before, that the strongest visions of "artificial intelligence" can't be achieved because computers have no bodies or cultural practice. Cultural practice depends upon a bunch of intelligences with bodies interacting together and coming up with an agreed on set of approaches to the world. This argument manages to sidestep a direct challenge to the unspoken assumption of many techbros all over the various branches of the computer research and industrial complex that mind-body dualism is not a hypothesis or even tested theory, but a presumed fact. These are the people who are quite sure that rather than die, they will just upload their minds and spend eternity boinking and experiencing the lives of the rich and famous in a real life matrix à la the Wachowskis.
This puts me in mind of the perhaps most familiar stranger of all in a far more meaningful sense, that the people most desperate for us to treat machines in general and computers especially as magic black boxes we are supposed to be too ignorant and stupid to operate and do creative things with ourselves are most afraid of. They are desperately afraid of death, including of course its precursors of old age, and potential poor health. This probably has as much if not more to do with their fear of finally becoming too weak to fend off the fury of the people they have exploited so brutally over their lives to make themselves rich. Obviously death is pretty scary in a general sort of way, since to the best of our general knowledge it's a permanent, non-negotiable state. We'd all prefer not to get into that state sooner than is our rightful time. But neither a blind belief in mind-body dualism, nor accepting claims that we should reduce ourselves to superstitious fools who can no longer imagine finding solutions to challenges and problems from our own resources will help with that. (Top)
Search Engine Independence (2021-07-26)
More than once, I have read web columnists and bloggers stating some variation of "if your business is dependent on a platform, you don't have a business." By this I understand they mean that if you are dependent on say "social media" or advertising companies like google for initial customer contacts, what you have is not a self-standing business as such. What you have instead, is a situation in which those corporations hold almost all your access to the people who might conceivably buy your product, where they have the effective customer relations, not you. So any of those corporations can cut you off and crush your business, for whatever cause they deem right. Suppose you are personally associated with politics this powerful advertising company doesn't like, whether or not it has anything to do with the business you are running. Too bad. Suppose your business is small and up and coming, inching up to a state of challenging established companies, and for whatever reason the advertising company doesn't like that, too bad. Suppose that the advertising company optimizes their search and visibility algorithms so that your business becomes invisible, and you can't afford to bounce it up the ranking by paying for placement. Too bad. On one hand, this is all true. On the other hand, it seems a bit unhelpful to put it this way, because many people never expected advertising companies in the guise of search engines and asocial amplifiers would develop in a different way than the telephone book. The ones who anticipated making profit faster by piggybacking on the greater reach of those advertising corporations have far less deniability here, but for the rest, they were trying to update from dependence on the rapidly fading telephone book. They aren't the only ones to be caught unexpectedly short.
When web access began to expand beyond college and university campuses and a few research institutions, there were no search engines as such. What served in place of these were hand curated indices, such as the primordial form of Yahoo! and the links pages composed by early enthusiasts. The way a person could wander around on the web was via links between websites, including the now almost defunct web rings, in which web site owners could add their web addresses to a list that would automatically interlink each member of the list. Remnants of these, and sometimes even working ones are still lingering in fandom-based websites especially, because even after search engines came on the scene, non-academic or non-commercial sites already were unlikely to be auto-indexed. Then various companies and especially pornographers began to pour onto the web, and suddenly there were new issues to contend with. These new parties on the web wanted visibility, because they wanted to sell stuff. They were also adding thousands and then millions of sites and pages to the web, so they wanted their stuff to be found. One of their first ways to go about this was to find ways to get their advertising injected onto existing websites. Another was to start closely studying search engines, how search engines worked, and how to game the search engine algorithms to get their sites and pages in the top tier of search results. This resulted in quite a bit of absurd pornography pages coming near the top of search results for any topic for awhile, because apparently for awhile pornographers figured that since the majority of people using the web were male and old enough to try hunting for porn anyway, they couldn't lose by seeding their metadata with inappropriate and irrelevant references to things that had nothing to do with porn.
Meanwhile, the growing number of people trying to visit and make sense of the web had only a few ways to understand how they could find what they might want to explore. After the default university or college webpage, probably the first place all too many people had to deal with was the much despised "AOhell" or similar set up, a sort of contemptuous kiddie pool for adults new to the web. The offline ways of finding interesting tidbits in a vast amount of information include the now far less known and understood card catalogue, hard copy indices, librarians, and simply wandering around the shelves, whether those be library stacks or store racks. Not necessarily efficient, but great for serendipity and lateral associations. In time, most search engines developed into a sort of souped up catalogue-index, with curated link categories standing in for subject librarians in at least a static sort of way. And to begin with, even a sort of serendipitous search was possible due to the lack of early algorithmic tuning. This had its drawbacks in its own way, like having to learn the hallmarks of a porn page trying to fool a searcher into visiting it when they wanted to look up a cheesecake recipe or something. Search engines are quite useful, and of course their proprietors vaunt them as a necessity to use the web, a necessity for finding anything on it. This has resulted in its own widely unexpected consequences.
All too many people accessing the web have no idea how to get anywhere on it without a search engine. This is encouraged by such web browser practices as hiding the web site address and making the address bar also a search bar connected to whichever search engine. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer website builders and maintainers consciously seek to add links between their site and others. That is, they don't make links between related pages, and the once ubiquitous "links," "interesting links" and similar page is now hard to find indeed. Even blogrolls are fading rapidly away. Instead, website builders like website visitors seem to be generally expecting that the search engines or "social media" will produce the linkages once created by hand, including by different webmasters swapping links, joining web rings, and submitting their sites for inclusion in catalogues of related links. And the end result is now many people feel very stuck, because most search engines are the gateway drugs of advertising companies, and those companies sell not just advertising space, but the data that our own searches may generate or make visible to them in other ways. So now everybody is being told, if you depend on search engines or "social media" to explore and use the web, then you have no privacy. Very few people had any reason to anticipate that outcome, and even fewer had a means to put together enough knowledge to realize it was possible, because so few were building websites and trying to make their site findable without simply assuming eventually a search engine would index them.
All is not lost, however. Until we sort out the set up of alternative search engines run as utilities rather than continuing to allow the advertising corporations to enclose the web and try to keep most people from accessing it except through them, let alone contributing to it, we need to return to some old time but effective linking techniques. Besides sharing links via email, which is still commonly available as a function from many web browsers, we can go back to checking out the links in websites we are visiting that point to the next site. After all, that's why modern web browsers have tabs now. Those of us who build and maintain sites can do our part by making sure we cite other websites and add links to them. A resurgence of the web ring wouldn't be a bad thing at all, and probably wouldn't even have to be static, it will just take a bit of plug in writing for the most common blogging software. We could also put our oar in and put together relevant and interesting link pages again, but with brief annotations. I have put my money where my mouth is on that idea, see Random Sites which now includes over 400 items. None of this will happen overnight, and it doesn't need to. Those over 400 items have accrued over nearly twenty years, and there are hundreds if not over a thousand other links on the Moonspeaker besides to related and cited websites, pages, and other things online. We all hear everyday about the power of crowdsourcing, so this wouldn't take much at all. We can also strive to support initiatives like the internet archive, which helps keep older sites and a vast range of other resources online even if their original proprietors no longer can. We can do a lot to put search engines and "social media" back in their rightful place. (Top)
I have been pondering a phenomenon that falls under the very broad label of "anti-intellectualism" off and on ever since moving from a fairly small town to pursue post-highschool education. It falls under that label, but is not discussed in such treatments of it in the united states context such as Aaron S. Leckliter's in the chronicle of higher education (see The Real Victims of Anti-Intellectualism, from 10 september 2017). Rather, I have been thinking about something much less active, and to me at least, much stranger and arguably far less political and obvious. It is a phenomenon that leads to results far more like the picture of the abandoned library captured by Andre Govia featured here. Please note the library is in rough shape, but it has not been attacked or vandalized. The books are mostly on the shelves, barring some that have likely fallen down from shelves and tables that have collapsed. Things are really dusty, and not even footprints old or new are visible in the view. Admittedly, this might be careful and strategic since Govia's intention is to emphasize the absence of recent human occupation and activity. Still, it captures the sense of what I have in mind here, and that is not an active refusal of learning or respect for people deemed intellectuals, or anything of that as such. No, I am thinking of what strikes me as a refusal to engage with learning, of almost any type, not just book learning. If not a refusal, then an insistence by the person I am talking to that unlike me they don't learn all the time. They tell me this even though we have just been going over the results of her decision to learn how to upholster chairs, do interior carpentry, and work out how to repair an annoying plumbing issue with few tools. This conversation especially really bewildered me. All of these tasks involved visualization in three dimensions, design, some paper and online based research, experimentation, and critical thinking in order to select between possible approaches and then adjust for her specific circumstances.
Well holy shit, if that didn't all involve loads of serious learning and creativity alike, I can't imagine what would. And this isn't an unusual project or anything, this person I was visiting with has not been sitting around like a figurative mushroom or something. What is going on here?
It is as if many people have been convinced that the only place "learning" happens is in a classroom and from studying books pulled from large collections of diverse sorts of books. I have also observed a frequent aversion to books, having many of them around the house, whatever their topic, size, or perceived or actual level of difficulty or topic. Reading on the phone or tablet is sort of okay, as long as the person doesn't do it for too long and isn't reading something less than popular. As if a non-trivial number of people are afraid to be caught being interested in ideas or subjects unique to themselves, to be caught learning independently because they want to. They would rather deny they learn instead. There is also a bit of defensiveness I have encountered in people taking this sort of position, in that they assume I must look down on them in some way because I have a different type of education with more obvious book-based elements. The circumstances in which these conversations happen usually block any possibility of finding out what more hands on physical skills I have picked up over the years, and indeed, finding out what book-based skills they may have picked up in contrast.
To the best of my knowledge I haven't been running around as if anybody who doesn't pursue more formalized education or a trade rather than something tied more to work on paper and with computers is doing anything less valuable or difficult to learn. So logically, this has precisely zero to do with me as a person, and more about the times we are all living in, in which it has taken a horrifying pandemic to remind people again that basic things like stocking stores, bagging groceries, and delivering mail among many, many tasks and jobs out there, are hideously underpaid and falsely perceived as unskilled by too many of us. Not enough of us have done those jobs, or done some of them recently enough, or been too bowled over by patriarchal bullshit to appreciate or remember that all these jobs demand skill. Just because they have to keep being redone doesn't make them somehow possible to do without thinking or planning. Nor does working those jobs tell us about the interests of the workers in learning or engaging with something other than popular culture.
So, that suggests what is going on here is a sort of pressure to deny the physical, emotional, and intellectual work tied into all those suddenly rediscovered essential jobs. On top of that, we are under pressure to deny that learning can happen outside the classroom, or that we are able and empowered to learn on our own or with others, or independently of some kind of paid for oversight structure with authorities. So there are quite a few people who are not "anti-intellectual" in the sense of against learning or against people with book-based education having authority or influence, but they are in the nasty position of experiencing peer pressure to behave as if they have no intellectual interests of their own. This goes very nicely with persuading a nontrivial number of people out of attempting to take active part in running and building their communities and larger societies, and strikes me as an extremely dangerous thing. (Top)
Actually, Lesbians Do Look Different (2021-07-12)
Of course, I am not making any claims here that all the women whose likenesses are caught in this wonderful 1970 photograph are lesbians. Far from it, I have no idea. The photograph happens to be part of the Lesbian Herstory Archives' image collection sampler hosted at the digital culture of metropolitan new york website. My point in featuring this photograph, besides signal boosting this wonderful sampler collection, is to that any of those women could be lesbians. There is not a single lesbian appearance as such. Lesbians are not all from one racialized group, they don't all perform some version of sex-based stereotypes labelled masculine and feminine by people who fundamentally despise women in general and lesbians especially. There is a particular "butch lesbian" look, in my opinion, having that look myself, but it is not what you might think, nor is it some kind of unconscious claim to "transness." There are women out there who experience severe body dysmorphia that centres particularly on the secondary female characteristics of their bodies which is not relieved by surviving puberty, and that is a very different experience that cannot be conflated with opting to rock the butch lesbian look. Don't worry, I'll explain.
Let's step back first. Regardless of whether a woman is lesbian or not, and by this I will make it unambiguous: a woman is an adult human female, and lesbians are adult human females who find other adult human females sexually attractive – there is a particular look a woman has when she is not performing for the male gaze. When she isn't, she carries herself quite differently. She may or may not look "feminine," but she unhesitatingly takes up space, and holds herself up. She doesn't squeeze in her shoulders or stoop. If she's going all out, she won't bother with make up, high heels, or clothing sized to make her breasts or buttocks look like they are going to pop out. She may still look "feminine" if she chooses, insofar as not wearing pants or cuts to outline secondary sexual characteristics in women are "feminine" – and sometimes those cuts are actually more practical and comfortable, by the way, depending on the woman's body shape and build – but the point is, she is just going about her day and being herself. From there I think we can safely conclude that straight and bisexual women may opt to perform for the male gaze at particular times.
Now an interesting challenge for lesbians is that as women, we have been socialized to internalize the male gaze, and not to have any information whatsoever on what it could possibly mean to look at anyone, let alone another woman, as other than an object to provide specific services. Straight women figure their own ways out of this impasse, but lesbians have a few more steps to go. Some lesbians have opted from time to time to try to apply the terms of the male gaze, and that is a politically fraught thing to try. I suspect my discussion here has already given away that I think it is not merely politically fraught, but a political mistake. I also think it is a serious ethical one if pursued even after having had a chance to unpack what is wrong with it and how it is dangerous to women and children to accept and reenact the objectifying gaze which reflects acceptances of depersonalizing beliefs that make it all too easy to accept inflicting harm on others. Still, in my experience taking up this objectifying gaze and performing for it, whether by conforming to the expectations it comes with or opposite them in order to take up a position of having the gaze not being had by it, this is a really conscious performance. The lesbian is busy putting on a costume and overt behaviour that conforms to sex-based stereotypes, often in their most exaggerated forms. It is also my experience and reinforced by the research and writing of other lesbian and straight women researchers that this is far from a majority practice. Instead, most lesbians are just doing their thing, and signalling interest in one another has a lot more to do with body language, sense of interpersonal chemistry, and that old fashioned thing involving talking and doing things together to identify shared interests. Those are the lesbians that probably make straight women and men alike most nervous, because they don't obviously stand out, except for the lack of men or interest in men in evidence. Okay, so what then, is the "butch lesbian" look, at least so far as I have seen, and how is it different.
Well, quite bluntly, most of us couldn't pass as straight even if we wanted to, in the main because we have body types that in contemporary society are supposedly "masculine" not "feminine." We don't look at all like whatever the current mainstream view of what a "femme" looks like. Right now that means on average we have little cleavage or zero inclination to wear the type of bra that shoves it up and forward so that men can be titillated by it. Yes, the majority of butch lesbians keep their hair pretty short, but that is not guaranteed. Since many of us find the level of work entailed in keeping longer hair an annoying pain in the ass, and something we are pressured to do so we don't look so "masculine," usually the default haircut goes short just to get away from that and make it clear the pressure is not and will not get to us. People in general have been taught that they have a right to comment on women and girls' appearance, including demanding they make changes to be "more feminine" no matter how unthinkably rude it should be. A big part of the butch lesbian look is signalling, "Look, save your breath, don't bother, and we'll all have a much nicer time." So not being able to pass as straight anyway, and disinclined to waste energy trying, which tends to be embarrassing to everyone, we don't bother with frills or pastel colours on average. Unless somebody has a flair for the mediaeval or renaissance era style clothing, when everybody wore lace, I suppose. We are of course infamous for our commitment to sensible shoes, a category that extends far beyond sandals and boots.
I remember first working through what it means to look lesbian in order to figure out why just walking down the street could entail men shrieking from their car windows, "dyke!" Cowardly and stupid as the practice is, they are responding to something. Leaving aside the obvious infantilism of freaking out that some percentage of women is never interested in performing for men in any capacity (babies and small children get reasonably terrified if they are left alone for too long, they can't survive on their own), evidently boys and men are often taught they are allowed to name call and threaten any "non-performing" woman. It is also very important to patriarchal loyalists to insist on conflating any woman who happens not to be bothering to perform for the male gaze at that moment with lesbians, in order to use accusations of lesbianism to put straight and bisexual women down. The answer to managing that abuse is not for women to incessantly perform "femininity for the male gaze," by any means. The answer to that is to bring down patriarchy, and stop standing for male demands to be treated like infants all their lives. (Top)
On the Question of Tears (2021-07-05)
As the ongoing shitshow of "wokeness" continues, in which people glom onto identity claims and beating each other up in secularized versions of christian confessionalism rather than facing the real issues of structural oppression continues, one thing that has gradually redeveloped is a type of acceptable open woman-hating. For awhile there, calling women vicious names was something nobody could get away with doing. The first workaround for this is of course semantic derogation of other terms for women until they are just as vicious in connotation as their now unacceptable predecessors, a phenomenon studied and documented by Julia Penelope nearly forty years ago now. The new terms get thrown around with abandon, and at first many of us may be fooled into thinking nothing has happened to them. Supposedly "Karen" is just a generic term for a "white woman" and so forth. Except it doesn't take much to notice that the contempt and hatred expressed towards women labelled with these terms, however abstractly directed gets very obvious very quickly. I have read commenters who previously seemed potentially unlikely to overtly despise women engaging using this terminology, using these new labels for women who are supposedly ensuring that the socialists and communists lose the class war because they are being "racist" or whatever version of "[label]phobia" is hot at the moment. Orders to "die in a fire" or "get raped" don't have to be anywhere around for this effect, and it is anything but subtle.
I have long distrusted claims about "white women" in mainstream discourse, especially the mythical abstract "middle class or richer white woman." Despite how "woke" everyone is supposed to be now, how hyperaware everyone is supposed to be of how white male privilege guides those men into complicity with upholding and enforcing structural oppression, somehow they have vanished from the picture and the conversation. Suddenly, they are completely gone, and in their place is this mythical "white woman" who is inevitably never poor, never oppressed in her own right, always busy with her dainty, hyperfeminine foot on the neck of someone else, apparently including rich white men. It is a not so extraordinary example of what Mary Daly, that remarkable lower class boston irish lesbian thealogian identified long ago as a form of patriarchal reversal that is used to strategically fool us into attacking a specific subset of victims. The underlying deal being held out to us, should we be so foolish as to take the bait, is a claim that if we do that, we'll be safe. Or as Andrea Dworkin paraphrased the tempting trade off, "take her, not me." It doesn't work, it's a fake deal. Those who have the mixed experience of watching the original Star Wars trilogy might think immediately of the scene between Darth Vader and Lando Calrissian where Vader tells Lando that he is unilaterally changing the terms of their agreement. He can do this because Lando is so compromised he has no allies to help him resist the immediate threat. George Lucas is a lousy writer, but he captured how that dynamic works very well, and even he has admitted that "Darth Vader" is a couched version of "Dark Father."
Which brings me to a new reversal trope that began making the high flying meme rounds late last year, this one an appropriation of Black Feminist critiques of "white women's tears." Never mind that those Black Feminists were not denying that white women suffered oppression, saying that anytime a white woman cries she must be attempting to re-access what little white privilege she has, or trying to claim that white women only talk about the sexual and physical abuse they suffer as a way to manipulate others. After all, they were and are Feminists. The point they were and are making, is that white women are encouraged to think they can use their tears and suffering in this way and that this will benefit them, and that they are especially encouraged to use this against Black women whom they might otherwise resist patriarchy and racism in solidarity together, and therefore more successfully. They were making the point that as Black women, they couldn't ignore how racism affects them, and one of the terrible parts of structural racism is the behavioural modes that white women, especially those who aspire to or are middle class and higher, to take up. In other words, they were pointing out the ways in which white women were and are fooled and tempted into upholding and enforcing structural racism, and how that was yes wrong and yes undermining the Feminist movement. The point was not somehow to claim that "white women" are inherently awful people or something, but to analyse how structural racism in particular is upheld, and therefore how to break that source of its strength.
I understand that Robin DiAngelo has recently caught another updraft of fame and controversy, because those who wish to perform "wokeness" but not actually change anything about systemic oppression have just what they want in her. A middle class woman who has made it as an academic and corporate consultant whom they can virtually beat for not passing their purity tests on any of those grounds, whose work can be willfully misread and misconstrued, also on those same grounds, and yes who is not beyond criticism in any more than the rest of us. But best of all, she is part of the class of women that it is apparently totally okay to openly threaten in public, a class of women who are also not racialized, so attacking her doesn't endanger woke points for being antiracist. It would be hilarious if it wasn't so hideous. She is right to point out that many white people especially have been persuaded that racism is about bad individuals, not bad structures, and that nothing they ever do individually has anything to do with those structures, so they can counter having those structures or their specific racist behaviour pointed out to them with insistence that their feelings have been hurt and they have been personally attacked. That's the very evasion tactic that was exemplified in the "white women's tears" trope. I do think it was a mistake to label this "white fragility" even though DiAngelo's reasons for choosing this label are understandable. The trouble is the fragility is not in white men or women, but in their faith that their complicity with structural oppression will never backfire on them, because once aware of their complicity, they can only keep supporting the structural oppression by keeping bad faith that can't stand testing.
Instead of getting fooled into taking the bait presented by the patriarchal and racist reversals of these real critiques, or missing the forest of good analysis for the trees of an unfortunate label, we need to refuse the bait. Then we need to spend less time isolated on or off line, and work with others to undermine and challenge structural oppression: undermine when we can't do it safely in as open a way as we like, challenge when we can do so safely or when ethical necessity demands nothing less, both whenever that works. There are people in my town right now who are stubbornly and patiently leafletting against structural oppression, including pasting up again and again informative posters that get torn down and removed, again and again. They don't give up, and it is not just one person alone. They don't get fooled into giving up on change just because playing for "woke points" doesn't work. They just get on with the real work. (Top)
Considering "The Left" (2021-06-28)
Probably very few people in the anglosphere are unaware of the intensive political polarization in it, with its attendant obsessions with purity and control that if left unchallenged drag communities inexorably into the clutches of authoritarianism. This is not an easy time, if there is any easy time, and the pressure to enforce an outwardly "black and white" pair of totally opposed parties who in fact are anything but opposed in their politics is also a powerfully alienating force. More and more people in the anglosphere are finding themselves without any effective political representation at all, on top of being confused about just what the parties they supposedly should take seriously actually stand for apart from filling the pockets of the rich from the pockets of the poor. At the moment, the rubric reiterated constantly by the media propaganda mills and their corporate parents is that right wing is good, left wing is bad, and centre right male politicians are best of all. The real message of course is that the view of "authorities" is that the vast majority of us have no business taking part in politics or governance of any kind, because we are not rich white males and therefore inherently inferior in all ways, from our intelligence to whether we have the capacity to literally burn money or not. I am a bit puzzled that so many people seem to accept this message as somehow real about themselves, because so much day to day work so many of us do shows that we are generally indeed quite intelligent on average and quite capable of participating constructively in self-governance and politics more widely. Then again, that not everyone is constantly challenging this is of course no indication of acquiescence, since so many people are busy struggling to get by from day to day. Things have to get pretty terrible for people to risk seriously confrontational acts when they are striving to support themselves and their families. None of this is news, I know.
Thinking over these things, it struck me as time to get back to figuring out what various terms applied in politics have meant recently, and what people are trying to talk about when they refer to "the left" and "the right." As a starting point, let's take as given that there is nothing about either label that requires people who have politics broadly within the two categories to be evil or furious enemies. Of course, they may be under specific social and historical conditions, but it is not required. Turning to my trusty OED, I am reminded that "left wing" and "right wing" are terms that go all the way back to the french revolution that began in 1789, and the seating arrangements of the assemblée nationale. The "commons" sat on the left side of the meeting room, the "nobles" on the right. The "commons" advocated such "radical" ideas as respecting the now more honoured in the breach rights of persons to take part in the governance of their societies via such actions as voting, debate, and legislation. The "nobles" did not want any radical or what today we would be prone to calling real change from an absolute monarchy, considering a constitutional monarchy only as a means to avoid losing the monarchy altogether. After all, the entire rickety system of their titles, estates, and ability to exploit "the commons" depended upon the monarchy. More recently, I have observed that many people in writing and speech treat as synonyms "right wing" with "conservative" and "left wing" with "liberal." This is a key place where serious confusion has crept in, alongside the cowardly refusal to face up to the facts of social class, which has made the confusion worse.
It is quite true that "right wing" and "conservative" do seem to be properly considered synonyms for the most part, because conservatives are characterized by a reluctance to allow or support change. That is consistent with the original scenario in the french assemblée nationale, and with the expressed concerns of many people claiming those labels for themselves. However, "liberal" does not actually go with "left wing" necessarily at all, although it is true that certain "liberal values" may be held by both "left wing" and "right wing" politicians and those who agree with them. "Liberal values" is a label given to a few core notions especially in the united states, including "freedom of speech," "freedom of the press," and the right to a fair trial. It seems to me however that this is an extension of "liberal" in an attempt to recapture its latin roots which refer to a "free man," that is, a male person who was not a slave. Looking up the word "liberal" on its own, the OED records the following primary definition:
open to new behaviour or opinions and willing to discard traditional values; favourable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms; (in a political context) favouring maximum individual liberty in political and social reform
This demonstrates how "left wing" and "liberal" have been conflated by many people, because the contrastive element is that "liberals" are more open to change. But the devil is in the details here, because we need to look twice on what the nature of the change that liberals find acceptable in a political context is. The third part of the definition tells us. But then we read and hear powerful arguments that "the left" is properly concerned with social class, specifically supporting just class relationships and eliminating exploitation of the poor by the rich. But, that may entail not accepting maximum individual liberty. This is usually where things get confusing, because on one hand, many conservative and right wing pundits (they do not necessarily apply both terms to themselves) insist that "liberals" and "the left" are opposed to individual freedom. These same pundits also tend to express significant support for "law and order" agendas that restrict individual freedom. Or rather, restrict the freedoms of individuals who lack property. To be considered a liberal individual, as such early theorists as John Locke insisted, a person must be able to govern themselves (they are not slaves), and they must hold property and use it in certain ways. What social class we find ourselves in within the anglosphere and the majority of the rest of the world, is very much determined by how much property we have, if any, and whether we are able to hang onto it and our personal freedom. Liberals are actually not terribly interested in changing this, because they have some property. Their property has a vote, and they believe erroneously that the vote somehow comes from them, not the property. Meanwhile, leftist activism intended to at least mitigate exploitation is generally pretty popular with liberals as a means to release the intolerable pressures created by economic exploitation, most recently and widely in its capitalist form. So liberals happily appropriate those leftist arguments and policies, because they see letting go of a little handed down exploitative structure as a worthwhile trade off for managing dissent and opening up a little more space for those they consider "worthy poor." It also allows them to bargain with "right wing" and "conservative" elements that these policies are really temporary.
UPDATE 2020-11-07 - I can't deny that there is a real conversation to be had about abandoning the "left" and the "right" altogether, especially for women seriously committed to Feminism. For an excellent introduction to this question, see Louise Perry's article at The Critic, "Feminists Must Reject Left and Right: Until Either Right or Left Consistently Ask How Something Will Affect Women, Feminists Must Cut Themselves Lose."
The OED definition of "left wing" notes that people on that side of the french assemblée nationale favoured radical change. That is, they wanted structural changes that would alter social relations and therefore social class. The "three estates" in pre-revolutionary france were the clergy, "nobles," and everybody else. Today we understand the estates as a particular system of social classes. Historian E.P. Thompson emphasized that class is a relationship, and the estates nicely illustrate this. For there to be "nobles" or "clergy" there has to be people whom they are defined against and set apart from. They can't stand alone. Changing relationships, especially ones heavily tangled up with peoples' sense of self-worth and even their beliefs about religion are difficult to alter, even when their alteration is necessary for the survival of everyone concerned. So actual people arguing for changes to those relations, including advancing and even enacting practical policies to make the changes happen, raises considerable hostility from many directions. They are not actually in favour of the mythical "liberal individual" who is in no interrelationships with anybody else and therefore is "free." They are striving to recreate just interrelationships between people who can't help but be interrelated by economic, social, and political ties.
This does not mean that the "left wing" wants to end "freedom," although again, we are encouraged to think so because holding property to the exclusion of anyone else's access regardless of how we got it or what we need to survive is erroneously conflated with it. But that means of course that depending on which "wing" we are, we probably define freedom rather differently, even if we all agree somehow that it must include a person's freedom from coercion in their beliefs, speech, and whom they spend time with. All of which suggests to me that in reality, "liberals" are not "left" at all, so much as they are pragmatic right wingers who want to use strategic and temporary concessions to block radical change proposed and advocated by the the left wing, who fundamentally want to end exploitative class relations of all kinds. (Top)
Against Guilt (2021-06-21)
Long ago, I had one of the stranger and more productive conversations I have had with random roommates over time. This particular roommate had had some pretty rough experiences, and came from a complicated background, anglo-irish, immigrant to canada as a child, and then getting an unhappy and yes, unasked for crash education of the actual impacts of british and then canadian colonialism in canada. All of which is a miserable headful to have to deal with. So understandably, she felt a great deal of angst about her heritage and her current role in canada. Also understandably, she commented that she felt mixed up and guilty, and she didn't see options to get out of the difficulty. I pointed out that guilt isn't useful if we get stuck in it, because it locks us in place so we can't make changes to make things better. Not that hearing this pleased her any, because, again, understandably, it is not necessarily pleasant news to find out that your choices are between feeling shitty and doing more work. Many of us have also been heavily influenced by various religions claiming that we can go right ahead and do whatever nasty thing and then get absolution for it on a just in time basis. So I suppose it should be no surprise that in response to this combination, a secularized version of the "sin-confess-grovel-forgiveness" repeat, today euphemized as instead as "oppress someone consciously or not - check privilege and grovel - get pats on the head from the woker than thou" repeat. Many of us have been taught this is harmless, a way to cope with our inevitable human failings.
Except it isn't.
This is the kind of thinking that combined with the vicious obsession with "converting" people to the supposed "one religion" that led people to convince themselves that they should wipe out entire organized societies in europe and the middle east. This is no joke. Feel free to look up anything known as a "crusade" "jihad," or similar version of killing a bunch of people to "save" them. This is the sort of thing that doesn't end well if people double down on it.
In his discussion of Judith Shklar's work in Moral Cruelty on the Left, Blake Smith emphasizes her warnings about "the cult of victimhood." Shklar considered Friedrich Nietzsche and his theories critically dangerous to liberal democracy, and accordingly she took his arguments seriously and looked into his critiques. Here is a solid money quote from Smith's article.
As she considered the self-torturing Puritans of Hawthorne's novel, she acknowledged that Nietzsche was on to something in his diagnosis that Western modernity had learned "too well" how to fear physical cruelty and pity its victims: "towards others one felt only pity, because thanks to a humiliating religion everyone could identity instantly with suffering and victimhood." The legacy of Christianity is a morally poisonous fear that makes decent people unable to respect themselves or resist demands made by victims. Nietzsche's solution, as Shklar described it, was to refuse moral cruelty and accept physical cruelty. Let victims suffer, let the weak perish, so that the strong can enjoy a clear conscience free of the lacerations of guilt. Shklar warned that the "megalomaniacs of interwar Europe," Hitler and Stalin, learned this lesson from Nietzsche. There was, in her account, a clear line from his critique of moral cruelty to the totalitarian regimes that had destroyed the world of her childhood and nearly killed her. But this was not a reason to dismiss his critique. Defending liberal democracy, Shklar claimed, will require us to confront Nietzsche's powerful argument against the moral cruelty that liberalism seems to generate from within its post-Christian heritage. Otherwise, intelligent people who refuse to reduce themselves to cringing sinners will turn to the Nietzscheanisms of the radical left and right. Liberals must not make decent people choose between liberalism and self-respect.
This should be making many of us feel very uncomfortable, having seen an ever spiralling expansion of public shaming and pressure on people to participate in on and offline mobs lest they be deemed irredeemable "sinners" and made victims of the mob themselves.
The sad fact though, is that this is an addictive cycle, and that is part of its gruesome attraction. Enter the cycle again, get its adrenalin rush at the start and the final dopamine rush at the end, before starting it over again. The bigger hits come from being part of the mob attacking someone else, rather than performing the role of penitent to redeemed penitent to start over. And as in any behaviour pattern that hijacks our hormonal reward system, to get the same reward, a stronger hit is needed over time. Add that to groupthink and peer pressure, and we have one dangerously potent mess on our hands. But this is useless, because it sends us into obsession with individual performance and dopamine hits, while in the meantime the social injustices much of the current mobbing is ostensibly about goes right ahead with practically no dents in its effectiveness or even credibility. Just as on an individual or communal basis, indulging in guilt but making no personal change makes for no real growth, on either a personal or communal basis. Guilt is like anger, it alerts us to the need for change. Wallowing in it is not change. (Top)
Don't Read That! (2021-06-14)
Among the many lucky happenings and small mercies of the strange year of 2020 was that I happened on Nina Paley's wonderful movies, and then finally tracked down her blog to read some of her writing and find my way to more comics, movies, and artworks she has created. All of her blogposts are various amounts of thought provoking depending on reader and interest of course, but today I would like to highlight one called In Defense of Books. This is a very clever title, because where she goes with her discussion is not where we might expect. Maybe at the start we might expect a discussion of books as art medium, and why its versatility should be preserved, or how important books are to teaching and handing down art techniques. Those things may certainly be discussed of course, but Paley actually starts from a conversation with Brewster Kahle delving into the question of when and whether people are actually sitting down and reading books. From there, she considers more deeply what academics pompously refer to as "responsible reading," but what we could refer to simply as "giving a book a fair reading." That is, we try to read it for what it says, and if in it the author is making specific arguments, reading their work to understand what they are saying and what they mean, whether or not we agree with them. Understanding is not equivalent to agreement, nor does understanding force us to agree.
The latter part about agreement is key in Paley's blogpost, because she discusses reading books that she expected to disagree with based on what she had heard about the people who wrote them. She explains how she found that the authors had been misconstrued, and that they were making more complex arguments, some of which corresponded to her own ideas, some of which she remained on the fence about. I especially appreciated this section, because it is such a practical example. Please note especially her parenthetical statement.
I recently recommended Lierre Keith's book The Vegetarian Myth to a couple vegan friends, because they told me they'd never heard even one reasonable argument in favor of carnivorism. I personally don't eat birds or mammals, and I very much appreciate vegans, and I don't want to convert anyone; but The Vegetarian Myth makes compelling arguments, and expanded my ideas about eating, life, death, and my own motivations for eschewing meat. (The book had no effect on my dietary choices, proving that it is possible to appreciate arguments without capitulating to them.) Still, my friends refuse to read it because they are certain they already have already heard anything it could contain, plus they read a Wikipedia summary which was easy to condemn. They told me they won't read the book, but invited me to sum it up for them in a sentence or two. I said I'd try.
But I can't. The reason good books exist is some things can't be summed up in a sentence. Or even a paragraph. Or even an entire blog post.
Admittedly, it helps to not be committed to converting anyone when reading complex books that can't be summarized in a sentence or a mere elevator pitch.
More and more often, we are pressured not to read certain people's work, certain books, certain articles, and so on. We are encouraged to believe that if we read, especially if we read, something we disagree with in any way, however mild or however severe, that this will somehow harm us or make us vulnerable to having our opinions changed. This is not a "right" or "left" specific thing either, but something emanating from people who are desperately worried lest we question what they want us to think, or that we will be encouraged to express are different opinions, or simply ask meaningful and constructive questions. I wholeheartedly agree that wholesale mockery or lines of questioning designed to humiliate people we disagree with are not constructive, both in terms of behaving respectfully and in terms of pretending to force the person we are interacting with to doubt a cherished belief. I don't agree at all that we should pretend to totally agree or practice total avoidance rather than engage with people who hold opinions we find disagreeable or completely contradictory to our own. That includes especially reading their books and writings in the original, not just summaries that may or may not be accurate. For good or ill, we can produce inaccurate summaries despite having no nefarious intentions. So it is always important to go back to the source.
In fact, this reminds me of one of the most lovely and awkward to read books written by Dale Spender, For the Record: The Making and Meaning of Feminist Knowledge, published in 1985 with The Women's Press. It is an experimental work, in which Spender reviewed fifteen influential Feminist books to bring them back to attention. She didn't just write these reviews either, she sent them to the authors, all of whom were still alive, to learn from them whether she had accurately represented their work and to get their responses. The authors were generally delighted to actually hear from a reviewer interested in engaging them before publishing the review, and of course in a few cases the results were awkward. Spender did have to make some revisions, and noted where she had misunderstood, or had a different interpretation that she laid alongside that of the expanded explanation from the author. I have never found another book like it, and it is unfortunate although perhaps unsurprising no one has attempted the experiment again. Hopefully Spender will get a chance to bring this book back into print, because we need its example at least as much as Nina Paley's thoughtful blogpost. (Top)
Verbal Self-Defence is a Thing (2021-06-07)
With the incessant conflation of disagreement, especially verbal disagreement with violence, I cannot recommend highly enough spending some time studying Suzette Haden Elgin's books on verbal self-defence. She is quite clear that while words may make you feel awkward or upset, among many other negative feelings, it is not the case that those invariably correspond with an attack. In fact, when she began writing and publishing her books on verbal self-defence in the late 1970s to early 1980s, a key point she made over and over again is that often we don't recognize when we are being verbally attacked and how, therefore we are effectively defenceless. I have done some checking around, and so far her series of books on The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense, including a few related titles like Gender Speak are not available in electronic formats except as library books via the Internet Archive. For summaries and overviews by Elgin herself, including numerous book excerpts, her home page for that topic is still up, reflecting real generosity on the part of her family and literary executors.
Rereading my own notes taken from her books when I was dealing with an especially toxic work environment, I remembered all over again how important and powerful it was to read her explanation that, "The emotional messages of English are carried by the tunes we set our words to, not by the words themselves. You may have thought that it would be easy to spot verbal violence because the attacker would be using obscenities and open insults and calling you ugly names. That's false..." I am quoting here from her web page that provides her argument for why we need the verbal art of self-defence. This doesn't mean there won't be name calling involved in verbal attacks, in fact, an ordinarily or originally innocuous name or term can become a pejorative name when set to an "attack tune." Those "attack tunes" are available for use even in online media, including so-called "social media." I feel very little patience with those who try to make disingenuous claims about the nature of online speech based on arguments from lack of tone information, because when people want to attack you, they have means of creating the tone they want you to virtually hear. They have attack vocabulary, usually in its early developmental days accompanied by more or less crude images, be they literal or metaphorical. Therefore, we need the same techniques and principles Elgin documented and taught, adjusted for the online world.
Elgin emphasizes four starting principles to guide verbal self-defence, and I will requote them here too.
At the risk of belabouring the point a bit, there is no place for the verb "assume" here. There is no assuming you are under attack, just as there is no license here to use any sort of arbitrary nuclear option to respond to an attack you know you have received. Returning to my own notes, Elgin builds up her lessons on how to defend ourselves from verbal attacks by applying the five modes or styles of communication defined by the therapist and author Virginia Satir. The first four all involve a person whose way of communicating is at odds with how they actually feel. Now I am excerpting quotes from Elgin's 1980 book, pages 8-10.
Unfortunately, there are far too many phoney Levellers on the internet right now. We have all encountered them: they are the ones who respond with wild accusations or extraordinary hostility to what we intended as a level statement or question. Since tone can be complicated or ambiguous online, when that is the case a Leveller won't attack of course, they'll write something to the effect that they are confused and need to clarify what you mean. The ones who are phoney levelling in response will give away the game by the presuppositions in their response. Presuppositions are not the same as bait, like suggesting that if you have a certain point of view or are disagreeing with them that you must be an awful person in some way, especially that you must have some kind of mental disorder.
Elgin emphasizes that the mode to go to when caught off guard by an attack is Computer Mode, and that it is best to stay with it until you sort out what sort of attack is coming at you, and even more importantly, what the attacker's presuppositions are. Once you know the presuppositions, you respond still in Computer Mode until you have successfully parried the attack. You'll be surprised how quick an effective parry is, and I can say from experience that if the person seems to get angrier, produces a few more insults and then flounces, that is still an effective parry and you have done nothing wrong. All you did was stand up to a bully. Of course, any of us could be fooled into "going on the offensive" by meeting an attack with the same sort of attack or a different one. But that will definitely encourage further verbal violence with no real chance of changing the dynamic. Standing up to bullies always vastly increases the likelihood of the atmosphere improving.
I have redrawn Elgin's verbal violence octagon here, which summarizes the various verbal attack types. We have all read versions of these on some sort of "social media" or comments section. She wrote an entire book to explain the various ways to counter these attacks, but the basic technique is always the same. Go to Computer Mode and request clarification, which can give you time to identify presuppositions. Then respond to the presuppositions, in Computer Mode. The bar for your interlocutor to reach to persuade you to leave Computer Mode into Leveller Mode should be mighty high, and they may not be able to reach it in the context of an online altercation because in their mind's eye is a mob egging them on. Having countered the main attack, chances are if others don't try to pile on, you will be ignored in that forum. I appreciate that none of us like to be ignored, especially when we wish to engage in constructive discussion of topics we care about. But I am also well aware that we like being at the centre of a bully's attention even less, and verbal bullies can't be placated anymore than physical bullies. Verbal self defence techniques alone are not going to fix "social media" or anything else about the internet, but they are important tools we can use to support us while we do the actual fixing. (Top)
Generative Music and Anti-Advertising (2021-05-31)
In the course of hunting up further information on a music constructed using algorithms, I soon found a peculiar self-referential loop created by the term "generative music," Brian Eno's preferred marketing term for the genre. While I appreciate Eno's work and have several of his albums and applications (all before learning his marketing term, actually), it is really too bad that his marketing term has been misconstrued by sources like the sadly creaking wikipedia into something that has become a set of looped references primarily to different expensive software packages. For those trying to find more diverse information and examples, "algorithmic music" works reasonably well, and if you want to experiment with making such music yourself, there are free samples and examples at the Internet Archive and CCmixter, and the free and open software Audacity (or as of 2021, watch for Audacity's fork) can get you started. In any case, part of what I was hunting for information on, while duly acknowledging the frustrations and the joys of the related search terms, was more on the origins of what seems to me at least a new angle people may encounter and listen to algorithmic music for: having good background sound to concentrate by.
I am just old enough to be counted among those who used to study with the radio on, as opposed to the television because it was too distracting courtesy of the moving images, let alone the people talking and such. For those of us who used to do this, we all knew the sweet times of the day and the best radio stations for the purpose. It was generally pointless to turn on the radio to almost any station during a traffic rush hour, because there would be lots of distracting content. This makes total sense in slow moving and frustrating traffic of course, if nothing else it helps drivers fight the understandable human tendency to go to sleep with your eyes open when stuck for long periods in a traffic jam. So a very good idea, just not well suited to students or anyone working on something demanding deeper concentration more generally. Nightowls like me were originally spoiled by late night radio, with its eclectic range of eccentric disk jockeys trying to put together tracks people didn't usually get to hear during prime time. There was more scope to experiment where the advertising dollars were not expected to be as potent. Admittedly, sometimes that meant those radio programs got too interesting too, but there was more than one radio station. Well, that was then, this is now.
The crash in number of available radio stations even in cities is alarming enough, but the steady, grinding incursion of radio commercials has been the worst. They are now there at all hours, and of course they are designed to pull your attention away from whatever you are doing or listening to so you can be marketed at. There is no respite. Community radio stations are stuck constantly begging for money because they can no longer access adequate grant or community funding to run without doing so, and of course that means they have to make commercials. In these difficult economic times, it is hard to see that changing soon. Then I began to notice that the number of tracks played is also shrinking, so much so that part of what made "background radio" useless for purpose was that the repetition became noticeable and highly irritating. I agree that if current popular music appealed to me more, it would be much harder to perceive how many plays those tracks might receive. But this effect is also at work on less commercially directed radio, because the stations are forced to cut costs by replaying previously recorded programming. I have had a few opportunities to listen to "satellite" radio on work trips, and must confess to being astonished to hear the same issues. Even the hard core business travellers in the group finally preferred to chat or hook up someone's phone or other music player to hear something else, with of course due caveats for workplace appropriateness.
This finally led me to spend more time finding alternatives, preferably something not requiring a monthly subscription or constant incursion by advertising and datamining by a supposedly "free" application. The big issue in the end is after all, the advertising, which is intrusive by design to the nth degree, and without even the utility of being restricted to on the hour or ninety minute cycle, like the weather report or the news. If nothing else, that kind of frequency helps with remembering to take a stretch break. Evidently I am far from the only one with such an interest, as my web explorations have shown me, including a great proliferation of subscriptions and "free" or premium applications that give access to algorithmic music of some kind. This also reflects the complexities and expenses of licensing music these days, which are probably doing more to kill community radio than just trying to keep the station transmitter and lights on. The algorithm is much cheaper to license or even develop in house than licensing music from music companies.
Still, in the end this left me to ponder about the link to antiadvertising, the real possibility that many people are seeking soothing and concentration enhancing background music without advertising. There is a real sense of relief in finally escaping at least for awhile from somebody importuning you to buy something you don't need, can't afford, and not at all unique except for its egregious plastic packaging. Which in turn suggests that the audio equivalent of the advertisement takeover of newspapers has come to a similar place on the radio, and that it may even have happened for radio sooner. (Top)
The Realities of Puberty Include... (2021-05-24)
Among the strange outcomes of the hijacking of "gay rights activism" by people desperate to reinforce gender stereotypes and renewed "conversion therapy" against any young person with a smidgen of will to defy and refuse to preform gender stereotypes regardless of their potential or known sexual orientation, is the apparent loss of real knowledge about puberty. On one hand, quite a lot of information about this difficult period of life in which children suffer through the hormonal and brain rewiring riot that comes with transforming into an adult, including the ability to participate in making new people, is available. It's a difficult time, made all the more difficult by parental obsession with somehow maintaining control over a young person who is entering the time of life when they will take control of their own lives, on top of parental discomfort with that young person's budding sexuality. We live in a patriarchy that controls property via inheritance, and unfairly preferring boys over girls is part of that control.
Then there are the various parents who of course wish to simply protect their children from harm, but have gone overboard and accidentally trained their children that any mild to moderate discomfort is an extreme harm or effect they can't possibly handle. They understandably want to help their children evade the various discomforts puberty can bring, having forgotten that many of them are unavoidable, and annoyingly enough, they are the much despised and much needed "character building experiences" we all need to live well both physically and mentally through our adulthood. On the other hand, there are a great number of powerful and rich men who may or may not be parents who are very interested in taking advantage of the various potential opportunities that sowing confusion about puberty and children's responses to it make available. There are those who perceive an opportunity for an ongoing source of profit in lifelong medicalization and surveillance of children whose puberty has been disrupted. That medicalization could be a lifetime of therapy in the psychologist's office, or of psychoactive drugs, or of multiple surgeries and drugs to manage the effects of endocrine disrupters. There are those who are quite excited by the early adolescent leaning towards groupthink and conformity, which also ties into oversharing data that is so desired by advertisers, let alone other groups interested in crushing or otherwise neutralizing dissent, also a profitable field in late stage degenerate capitalism.
I wholeheartedly agree to this day, having gone through it already, that puberty sucks. It's uncomfortable physically, as your body starts changing shape and producing weird hairs and smells you never wanted to think about ever. You can't sleep when you're supposed to sleep, your concentration is a mess, and everybody is giving you guff for being spaced out and struggling to get to class on time in the morning. In one direction or another you're growing, with some quite alarming changes that often go away once puberty is done, but they can make you feel desperately weird about what you eat. And that is even before you start to get additional pressure to behave according to certain gender stereotypes and the lectures about how "you're becoming a young adult now, so you have responsibilities." Suddenly, despite the fact that you are not allowed to actually control your life, everybody is both telling you that you can't do that yet because you are still not quite old enough, meanwhile you are supposed to somehow make choices that will bind you for a lifetime in terms of which classes you take, whether you will prepare to go trade school, college, university, or maybe into the military or a religious order. You're allowed to decide about that, but people will lose their minds if you try to decide whether to get a tattoo, smoke or drink, or get any other sort of potentially longterm life affecting bodily or mental change. This creates a state of constant cognitive dissonance on top of how messed up your moods can get while your hormonal levels are changing. All these things totally suck. And thankfully, they are temporary, and they don't cancel out good things or block out the possibility of having a bunch of good to great experiences as well. The ongoing brain development we experience up to the age of around twenty-five has far less body and mood discomfort associated with it on average. Otherwise, none of us would survive it.
I think that adults do adolescent children a terrible disservice when they are inconsistent about decision-making with longterm impacts. If we expect kids going through puberty to respect us when we insist that they can't make medical decisions on their own and should not make any ones with lifelong consequences until they have completed the long process of puberty and adult brain development, then we need to follow through on that for other areas, not just the ones that reasonably scare us the most. Or the ones that we may personally dislike the most, including controversial practices like tattooing, piercing, and certain forms of earlobe stretching appropriated from Indigenous cultures over the past fifteen to twenty years. That means that we should help kids avoid closing their educational and work options too soon by helping them stick to school programs that allow them to choose either a trade or a profession or something else with university or college requirements to work. At the least, we should reassure them that honestly, they can change their minds. At their age, they simply can't know in what ways they will be best suited to contribute to the world, but they will have observed enough to understand there are no guarantees. Of course it is hard to allow that adults, including parents, don't necessarily know better what specific path a young adult should ultimately take. But we have most of us at least learned the approaches that help with handling the unexpected.
I don't understand or frankly trust claims that suddenly no young person can cope with any adversity whatsoever. After all, many of these claims come from the same people who then furiously denounce "snowflakes" who expect to have trigger warnings ahead of any and all experiences with new ideas and a chance to pet puppies during final exam weeks because they are so stressed. It is far more fair and respectful to the young people concerned to help them face adversity and reassure them that they can in fact handle it, and that if a particular instance means they need help because of its features, that does not mean they are unable to handle adversity in general. It means that instance had something exceptional going on. (Top)